Research Notes · 03/13/2020

What Shines from It

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Sara Rauch writes about What Shines From It from Alternating Current Press.

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My conclusion is that ghosts prefer to embody light. I know I am not alone in this suspicion. How else might energy that possesses no matter present itself to the unsuspecting?

The definition of “Light,” in my 1950s unabridged Second Edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (inherited from my Pep), takes up two full columns. The first entry reads: I. Stimulus to sight. 1. The essential condition of vision; the opposite of darkness… In special connections light denotes: a An emanation from a light-giving body, often regarded as an object of perception; as, flames give light; we see the sun’s light. b The sensation aroused by stimulation of the visual centers; primarily, sensation of visual form, brought out by more or less light in the different parts; as, white light. c That which produces such sensation.

I don’t believe in ghosts, any more than I believe in oxygen or gravity or humidity. What is there to believe in? There are forces we can’t see, at play in the world around us. These forces affect us differently, depending on our constitutions, our genetic makeup, our socio-cultural influences, our brain chemistry.

Once, after helping my best friend move apartments in New York City, I settled into the van for the long drive back to Northampton, where I’d relocated, with one of her cast-offs on my lap: a rose-tinted, two-tiered glass lamp. It is frilly and old-ladyish and not really my style, but it has accompanied me to nine different homes in the fifteen years since taking it on. I’m pretty sure it’s haunted.

4. Mental or spiritual illumination or enlightenment or its source; that which illumines or makes clear to the mind; as, to throw light on a subject; the light of conscience.

In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf writes of Prue, a young woman just on the verge of society, “The faintest light was on her face, as if the glow of Minta opposite, some excitement, some anticipation of happiness was reflected in her, as if the sun of the love of men and women rose over the rim of the table-cloth, and without knowing what it was she bent towards it and greeted it.” Prue later, after being given in marriage, dies from complications of childbirth.

When a strange ray wavers across your vision or a green orb appears in a photo, some spirit is binding itself to the physical world in the best way it knows how. It doesn’t really matter if you acknowledge its presence or not, but ghosts like to be recognized, just like anything else.

If you can sit very still, you can observe qualities of light as they shift, from dawn to dusk and back again, from clear to grainy, dry to damp, crystalline to muted, bright to moody. This practice is especially revealing on solstices, when the light is particularly infused, but any old day will do.

Sappho’s third fragment, in the Mary Barnard translation, reads: “Standing by my bed// In gold sandals/ Dawn that very/ moment awoke me.” Dawn is the product of a celestial body, the sun — two presences that were once personified and worshipped but are now rarified and considered commonplace.

Transitive law states that if a = b and b = c, then a = c. Thus: light is everywhere and everywhere is ghosts, then light is ghosts. Math was never my strong suit, unless we’re talking poetry.

While writing What Shines from It, I was often visited by a burr of light, a presence that hovered, almost pesky, until one day — and there’s no way to explain this without sounding woo-woo — it pierced between my ribs and welcomed itself inside. It comes and goes now, and I guess I’ve made peace with it. How do you fight something you can’t grasp?

“Comes this new day/ cruelly, unspeakably rich, as that drenched grisaille of morning/ came pouring then over blackened wicks, over all that crystal/ fired empty & clean.” What strikes me in Lynda Hull’s rich capture of poverty (“Frugal Repasts”) is that though the candle wicks of a long, feverish night have extinguished, a new light dawns through stolen crystal — it is empty, but it is clean.

On the first Sunday following Daylight Savings Time, I sit by a window to witness the new dusk. How casual humans are in our treatment of hours, in thinking that we can control something as wild as light.

Once, after a stressful all-nighter, I climbed into bed just before daybreak, pulling the sheets up over my nose as is my custom, and closed my eyes. I don’t remember what I wished for, only that when some strange desire popped my eyes open the room was pierced with thousands of pinpricks of light. My Pep had died a month prior and I knew in an instant it was him, though surely too it might have been dust catching an errant dawn ray.

What frustrates me most about photography is that the light never looks the same once the still is taken. Angles, shutter speed, exposure: none of it seems to matter. There remains, always, a disconnect between what is seen and what it captured.

This might be what frustrates me most about life as well.

Memory is its own sort of ghost, the light by which we perceive the present and the future.

What I love most about photography is that, when angled right, the camera lens allows the viewer a vision of light that was invisible before.

This might be what I love most about writing — that moment when the lens shifts and allows the reader access to the invisible.

II. A physical or figurative means of stimulating sight, of striking a fire, etc. 9. A particular or local illumination (the source of which is named or understood); a radiance; a brightness; a shining; a glowing.

Just because you can name something doesn’t mean you can understand it.

If light is the means by which the world is illuminated, then ghosts might intend to serve the same purpose. I didn’t set out to make this connection. I didn’t wake up one morning and draw the blinds with a thought to catalog and categorize the dawns. I didn’t mean to flip the switch. I didn’t mean to grow haunted.

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Sara Rauch (www.sararauch.com) is the author of What Shines from It: Stories. Her writing has appeared in Paper Darts, Split Lip, Hobart, So to Speak, Qu, and more. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.