On November 2, 2002 around 5 am, in Cachoeira, Brazil, I woke up startled as I saw a man kneeling on the floor by my bed and watching me intently. For reasons that I could not explain at the time, I didn’t scream. Instead, I said very quietly, “Leave, please.” The man got up and started stepping backwards and out of the room with his hands in the air, as if he was gesturing me to remain calm. I was convinced he was a voyeur, but all of my Brazilian friends, from all backgrounds and religions, think I saw a ghost; and several have identified him as an “egun.”
Other mystical circumstances surround this experience. I was staying at a magnificent Afro-Brazilian religious site. I slept in a large room with 9 or 10 other girls, but only one of them saw the man’s shadow as he stepped out of our room’s doorway. Some think I dreamt him up, but I didn’t. I saw him within inches of me, I saw him walk away and step out, and I actually saw him peek in again, standing at the threshold of our room. At that point I repeated the words “Leave, please” more loudly, and woke up the person in the bed next to mine, who said, “Alex, you are talking in your sleep in Bulgarian.”
Apparently, every time I spoke a language that was not English, my travel companions thought it was my native language, Bulgarian. They could not tell the difference between Bulgarian and Portuguese, or chose not to try. In much the same way, the difference between reality and make belief, ghosts and scary living people, memory and feeling, for some people, remains permanently blurred. I felt that sharply in the dark hours of the morning on November 2nd, and I feel it every time people celebrate or honor death by speaking of how the spirits of their loved ones will never desert them. I feel it sharply when people consider sickness to be a "punishment from God" or speak of rewards they achieve in life as blessings that came from a divine power. I would never dare to insist that they define the world in someone else's terms, not even my own. So I will grant everyone who wishes to believe that I have seen a ghost my most respectful acquiescence: sure, I have.
One day, you can see a ghost, too.
Yes, in about 24 hours, I learned a lot about what people choose to believe. For most of my friends, the scary man who watched me sleep will remain a ghost forever. Apparently, you never see the backs of ghosts. They always approach you face forward and then back away. They wear navy blue pants and gray shirts because that is how many people are buried. Also, the "egun" in particular are ghosts of healthy men who died young and under particularly tragic circumstances. They were not ready to part with the sensations of life, so they are given a gift in death: they preserve the ability to feel physical things. They have all the experiences in life that the living have except one: the fear of death. In that sense, on the foggy November 2nd morning of my personal horror, I had met, by definition, "the pure force of life": a being who could feel pain and pleasure and never, not for one second, be afraid.
But I was afraid. And sometimes when I try to fall asleep, I am still afraid. Most of us never break away from the necessary sanity of fear. Not completely anyway. I accept what this means, even if my fear is just more evidence that humans fail to fully absorb life's entire hurtful and delightful turmoil, a satisfying agony. Maybe the people who feel the world differently from the rest of us really are the closest we have to "life's purest force. " The ones who lurk in the corners and watch others sleep. Or stand naked in the middle of a public park with the hope of being watched. Whether we prefer to fear and revere them as ghosts and saints, or to lament and mock how they are living and real, but detached and different, remains a choice. Which begs the question: Why? Why did this being, ghostly or not, decide to stand by my bed and watch me sleep at the small hours of night on November 2, 2002, in Cachoeira, Brazil?
"He chose you, " say all of my friends, of all religious and moral persuasions. This answer is filled with so much powerful innocence that it doesn't comfort me. In fact, it has shaken more than one of my values and dreams. Believe it, because there is no other choice. They have all chosen us. The other creatures who want to touch us. Those who put obstacles in our way. The shy ones who look at our shoes in the elevator. Our secret and not so secret admirers. The cranky ladies waiting in line at the post office. They choose every minute of every day to inflict their desires. On us.
Without a shadow of doubt, whenever I try to explain why human beings behave the way they do towards each other, I always go to this answer "We choose to." Even in the direst moments of calamity and disaster, we choose consciously, and to the best that we can. Do our choices even matter when laid out against the vastness of the universe? Should we care if they do? What else have we got, anyway? We can lose some of the sensations of being alive, and, according to some, we can even lose the fear of death. But it's so damn hard to dispense with the ability to keep choosing.
Stranger from Cachoeira, for 13 years I have slept with my lights on. In these 13 years, I never really resented you. I think I know now why I didn’t scream. I think it was because I feel how each of us carries his or her own share of dearly chosen ghosts, in all shades of crazy and scary. On a different November 2nd, I could have very well become the person who watches someone secretly in the dark. So I hope you have found what you consider pure and powerful life, and, within peaceful limits, love.