I frequently walk with dead people. I don’t see them – like in the popular movie – but I do hear their voices, their words. I listen to their wisdom and insight and observations. And they typically fall into step with me when I’m walking alone with dog Quincy in the silence of the woods, or down muted dirt roads in the horse district, or along deserted early morning neighborhood streets.
My ghost companions are writers and poets, wise women and prophets. Their presence is carried on the wind and comes alive inside its whispers. They put snippets of essays behind my eyes and scraps of poetry and songs into my ears. And we talk about the meaning of their words. And I am astounded at the connections they offer me between their generations and my own. From their distant and so different lives, flow such familiar feelings.
One such conversation took place just the other day walking with the ghost of Guillaume Apollinaire. He lived more than a hundred years ago. He was a writer and critic. He was one of the most original thinkers and human beings I can ever remember reading. A singular mind and man (although sometimes just on the other side of propriety). He defined new styles of art and then defended the artists who practiced them. He made up new words and inserted them into global everyday language. He fought with France in WWI and was irreparably wounded, for which he was awarded a medal posthumously – because he died just at the end of the war, from the global pandemic in 1918.
I suspect it is because of the mirror image of our two devastating global illnesses, and the dual human toll of them, that Guillaume began walking with me that day. And it was a lesser-known phrase of his that came to challenge my heart for a long time afterward: “How slow life is, how violent hope is.”
This observation seems to be hauntingly applicable to our own current reality. Living anxiously, impatiently, fearfully – life slows to a daily creak; it limps along and drags its feet hour-to-hour, season-to-season. We see days lost, people gone, life experiences and expectations paused or shut away indefinitely. And then, at last, there is hope. Not just an anticipated end to the current pace and place in time, but a real hope for new and renewed beginnings – of renewed comforts, of new safety. And there is hope for genuine change. Hope for long-ached-for freedoms, with authentic equality and respect among us, with a new shared humanity between us. And the hope is so brilliant and so fearless and so desperately desired, that it can no longer just be anticipated. We can no longer just wait. And so we get in each others’ way grasping for it. And it gets messy. And it gets violent.
“How slow life is, how violent hope is,” he had observed.
Perhaps my ghost Guillaume experienced much the same heartbreaking reality a hundred years ago. And so he wrote the words down on paper to remember it. Perhaps he wrote them down in anticipation of us today. Perhaps he wrote them for our own comfort and insight, for us to consider, perhaps to learn.
In the end, Guillaume Apollinaire also left us with his most well known poem of encouragement, perhaps to give us a post-pandemic path to follow. I suspect we need it most right now, just as we are reaching the edge of the end, the edge of the beginning:
“Come to the edge,” he said. / “We can’t, we’re afraid!” they responded. / “Come to the edge,” he said. / “We can’t, we will fall!” they responded. / “Come to the edge,” he said. / And so they came. / And he pushed them. / And they flew.
Sometimes walking with ghosts can teach us to fly – on wings of hope.