The Spirits in the Walls

Several years ago, I lived in a nice house, on a nice block, in an old streetcar neighborhood of the Mile High City. The house had been built in 1900. I found it picturesque and appealing, for the same reasons so many other people like one-hundred year old houses: decorative wood trim; leaded glass windows on each side of a wood-burning fireplace; eccentric door hardware; windows with wavy glass and lead counter-weights. I was about to get married for the second time, and thought we would be happy there. We weren’t, but that had to do mostly with us, not the house.

Even so, the house didn’t help.

The exterior walls were solid brick, resting on a stone foundation. In the dining room, the foundation wall had shifted, bulging outwards a couple of inches. It must’ve happened several decades earlier, as someone had pieced in new strips of pine flooring, cut to match exactly the new curve of the wall. This was odd, but the house was 95 years old, after all, so it didn’t seem like an ill omen. Perhaps it should have, but it didn’t.

There was another odd thing about the house. While the furnace was quite new, it proved almost impossible to get the place warm in the winter. I would turn up the thermostat, but the house almost always had a chill to it.

And then there was the back yard. Near the fence along the alley were a number of holes in the ground, some large, some small, with piles of earth here and there. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Maybe the previous owner had been an inexperienced, or indecisive, gardener. Like the shifted foundation, and the perpetual chill, it didn’t seem to be a warning or a precursor of something unfortunate.

Like the house, my second marriage had a poor and shifting foundation, and it became cold, and resistant to amelioration. The marriage came to an end, but the house is still standing. Six years after I bought it, I decided to sell it and move on.

At first, I tried to sell it myself. (Here’s a helpful suggestion: don’t ever try to sell your own home, unless you’re a real estate agent.) One weekend I held an open house. Much to my surprise, the previous owner, Mr. F., and his two sons dropped in. In the course of chatting about the changes I’d made – skylights, new kitchen cabinets – I asked Mr. F. about the holes in the back yard, which I had since filled in.

“Oh, that,” he said.

When I bought the house, I’d been informed that the seller was a widower. What I did not know, of course, was that his wife had died a year earlier, after a protracted and traumatic struggle against cancer. He didn’t say whether or not she had died in the house, and I didn’t ask. He did say, though, that after their mother’s death, the two boys spent a lot of time, over a period of several months, digging holes in the back yard, filling them in, digging more holes, then filling some in, while leaving others empty. When they stopped digging and filling, he decided it was time to sell the house and move, as though his son’s therapy was complete.

The last summer I lived there, there was an infestation of bats in the chimney. Some of them got inside. I was bitten by one, and had to get a series of rabies immunizations. I was not sorry to leave that house.

But this isn’t a sad tale of houses and marriages. Rather, it’s about how our homes are affected by the energies and feelings of the people who inhabit them. Houses are, after all, vessels for the lives that are played out there. Just as a bowl has a residue in it after it’s been used, so do houses accumulate residues over the years. Experiences, dreams, emotions; whatever manifests itself in that house, some little element of it remains, long after the events have taken place. If there are ghosts among us, haunting certain houses or other buildings, I think this lingering aftereffect of joys and losses and revelations is the reason why.

Most homes do not experience the clanking of chains or apparitions on the staircase, or cabinets flying open for no apparent reason. They do, however, contain memories of love and anger, fulfillment and resentment. Those memories tint the air inside the rooms, sometimes with grays and browns, sometimes with vivid greens or startling reds. The lingering energies have permeated the walls and the floors, left a haze on the windows, and melted into the pipes, the electrical outlets, and the baseboards. They may make the air smell of dust and mold, or leave behind the fragrance of roses, or fresh limes.

The house I’ve lived in for the last eight years is a 1950’s era home in an old suburban area. It too has been marked by its history. Tainted is a more accurate word. Besides being indifferently treated by previous inhabitants, a Christmas tree caught fire in the living room some twenty years ago and caused a considerable amount of damage. Talk about an ill omen: Peace and Joy, up in flames.

That, in fact, is what happened to me, living here. Peace and joy went up in flames. Not actual, living flames, but metaphorically my life, my heart, and my spirit were badly burnt. A great deal of sadness and anxiety and pure anger was expressed in this house during seven of the years I’ve lived here. They were released into the atmosphere, but were trapped by the walls and the ceiling, with nowhere to go but deep within. All that sadness and criticism, all the fury and regret, the coldness and the distance and the alienation, infiltrated the house. They linger around me, in every room. They color my view of the house, and they color my life. The memories that were generated within these rooms are too strong, too unpleasant, to ignore.

I could try having an exorcism performed, or a smudging ceremony, going from room to room, holding aloft the smoldering bundle of sage, beseeching the spirits or the Universe, or Jesus Christ Almighty, to cast out the demons that were born and flourish here. They’re not dead, those demons, they’ve just faded into the woodwork and the light fixtures and the furniture, their ugly whispered messages muffled, but not strangled.

But they can’t be strangled or exorcised. This is their home, and they share it with the memories of a blazing Christmas tree, and sixty years of birthday parties and barbeques, arguments and slammed doors, ecstatic sex and monsters under the bed.

I can’t change that any more than I can change my own memories, and those memories, the echoes of my tenure, are too raw, too fresh, too everything, for me to live with here. I have to move on – find a new home, where new memories can be generated, and added to the residue within that new vessel.

I need new rooms to inhabit, new windows through which to see the world; a new beginning, once again. There’s hope and excitement in that … and liberation. It’s time. I’m ready. I just hope the lives lived in my new home were happy ones.

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