7 Women, 100 Ghosts

When I read the email asking if I wanted to take a weekend road trip to the historic Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum—one of the most haunted asylums in the country, the TV show Ghost Hunters’ favorite client, place of murder, suicide, full-bodied apparitions, and, well, 150 years of bedlam—my immediate response was:

“Hell, yes!”

I wanted to go for several reasons: A fun group of friends. A fascinating learning experience. The adrenaline rush that comes with stepping out of my comfort zone and facing fear. And I’m not sure how to interpret this, but my husband thought a weekend away at the lunatic asylum would be good for me.

Seven of us signed up for the adventure. Reservations were made, along with instructions for the husbands left behind: Don’t forget to feed the kids. The day started dreary and wet, I suppose to set the mood. We packed two cars with overnight bags and the appropriate amount of snacks and “beverages.” A few blown kisses and we were on our way.

So the first thing women talk about when they have a weekend away from their husbands and children is their husbands and children. Sports, ear infections, good or bad teachers. The usual mommy talk. With that and a few other conversations out of the way, we talked about the asylum. Specifically, the numerous “Reasons for Admission 1864–1889.” Here’s a sampling:

Bad habits & political excitement
Deranged Masturbation (in addition to “suppressed masturbation”)
Disappointed affection (as opposed to “seduction & disappointment”)
Egotism
Exposure & quackery
Feebleness of intellect
Imaginary female trouble (not to be confused with “female disease” and “women trouble”)
Indigestion (also asthma, cold, fever, gastritis, and sunstroke)
Jealousy
Kicked in the head by a horse
Menstrual deranged
Novel reading
Parents were cousins
Rumor of husband’s murder or desertion (yes, a rumor was sufficient reason)

We agreed that all of us in the car and most people we know would qualify for a room at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. (Fact: Built between 1858 and 1881, the hospital was designed for 250 patients. In the 1950s it housed over 2,500.)

Somewhere along the 3 ½-hour drive the sun came out. After a majestic drive through mountains about to burst with fall color, we rolled into Weston, West Virginia, and checked in to the hotel. In the spirit of the season, we accessorized with plastic spider rings and named ourselves the Black Widow Brigade. After dinner (with more conversation about husbands and children), it was on to the asylum.

The Black Widow Brigade ready to take on the ghosts.

The Black Widow Brigade ready to take on the ghosts.

Our first stop was Hysteria, the asylum’s October haunted house. (This production takes place in the former tuberculosis building, the basement of which once housed convicts from the Moundsville Prison. Two great reasons to go inside!) Logically, there was no reason to be afraid here. The “ghosts” were college kids with grease paint and wigs, lurking around smoke machines and strobe lights. A well-choreographed scare fest. Not knowing when they were going to jump out—the anticipation—that was the source of terror and adrenaline.

The Weston welcoming committee.

The Weston welcoming committee.

The tallest and bravest of our group, let’s call her Other Cathy, took the lead. I immediately grabbed her purse strap and held on with rigor mortis grip. The other women formed a single-file line behind me and we moved like a human Slinky, expanding and contracting, but never parting. We followed Other Cathy through narrow passageways with blackened walls, around blind corners, up and down creepy stairwells, jumping and screeching at every costumed kid that tried to spook us.

Perhaps because it takes an effort every day not to scream—at the kids, the spouses, the idiot other driver who just cut me off—it was great to have an outlet for some pent-up frustrations.

Here is a translation of my screams:

Ghoul: “I can smell your soul.”
Me: “Dirty dishes go IN THE DISHWASHER!”
Ghoul: “I’ve been waiting for you….”
Me: “HANG UP YOUR WET TOWEL!”
Ghoul: “Your soul belongs to me….”
Me: “Why do I EVEN BOTHER MAKING DINNER?!”
Two ghouls directly in my ears: “Caaaaathy…. CaaaAAAthy…”
Me: “STAY IN YOUR OWN FUCKING LANE!”

The bipolar altering between screams and laughter surely would have had us all committed in 1890. Take your pick of reasons: “dissipation of nerves,” “mental excitement,” or “periodical fits.” After 30 minutes our 7-woman Slinky made it out alive, in one piece. Thankfully, I only peed a little.

Now it was time to face the “real” ghosts. We lined up for a 30-minute flashlight tour of the asylum. Flashlight tour. Meaning: no lights except for the EXIT lights casting a red glow at the end of long, dark corridors. Actual flashlights (or, in 2015, cell phone flashlights) were allowed, but had to be pointed at the floor at all times.

[Editor’s note: I cannot confirm nor deny that there was any alcohol consumption on this night, including the rumor of 3 shots of tequila to recover from the haunted house and prepare for the asylum. There was no evidence of “intemperance.”]

It is difficult to describe the immediate feeling I had upon entering the un-restored mental wards of the Weston Hospital. Even in the dark, the deteriorating interior conjured an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. When I ran my fingers lightly along the bare walls I could almost feel a current—the energy of decades of confinement and suffering. I heard no bumps in the night, saw no unearthly shadows hurtling about, but I definitely felt the weight of those anguished souls.

The violent women's ward at night.

The violent women’s ward at night.

We joked throughout the day and evening that we had to remember to back out of the building—the superstitious way to leave any “attachments” behind. Of course, in all of the excitement most of us forgot to do it. Hopefully, if any unwanted poltergeist came with us, they found the Holiday Inn Express a suitable place for relocation.

The next morning we returned to the asylum for a 90-minute paranormal tour. Driving up the main entrance under a brilliant, clear sky felt more like a visit to a Gothic castle than a mental institute. The building’s stunning architecture—hand-cut sandstone, coped gables, turrets, leaded glass transoms, 200-foot clock tower—disguised the structure’s grim purpose. To me it was beautiful. But what did the committed (or often abandoned) person feel upon seeing the imposing structure for the first time?

The former Weston Hospital is the largest hand-cut stone building in the Western Hemisphere. The only hand-cut stone building larger than it in the world is the Kremlin.

The former Weston Hospital is the largest hand-cut stone building in the Western Hemisphere. The only hand-cut stone building larger than it in the world is the Kremlin.

Inside, a young, less-than-energetic guide led us to specific areas, briefly described the area’s use (arts and crafts wing, lobotomy room, elderly ward, etc.), told a haunted tale or two (here is where so-and-so was pushed from behind, here an EMF meter picked up a strong signal, etc.), and then we were free to explore on our own.

In daylight, the interior of the former hospital is no less bleak than at night. In fact, daylight amplifies the somber history. Curls of paint curls peel off the walls. Frayed curtains hang limp in front of barred windows. Plaster crumbles. Wires dangle from the ceiling. Rusted exposed pipes line 2 ½ miles of empty corridors. Spidery veins spread from cracked windowpanes that at least allow the spirits a draft of fresh air.

The building was designed to let in as much therapeutic sunlight as possible

The building was designed to let in as much therapeutic sunlight as possible.

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As a mother, I found the most sobering section of the hospital to be the infant ward. I didn’t smell the traces of baby powder as others did, but my heart ached for the innocent souls born and raised in this dismal place. If a committed woman was pregnant (or became pregnant—I hate to imagine under what circumstances) her baby was usually deemed ill-suited for society as well. If no family member claimed the baby, and they rarely did, the child grew up in the asylum. They lived in the children’s ward until age 12, then were placed with the adults. I couldn’t begin to imagine a life growing up inside these walls.

Toward the end of the tour, a friend and I were in one of the abandoned storage rooms. Cabinet doors hung open, some off their hinges, as if they’d been ransacked for some apocalypse. Peeling masking tape still labeled the cabinets’ former supplies: gauze eye pads, butterfly closures, tongue depressors. I stood reading the labels with my iPhone in my left hand, my arm relaxed at my side. We heard a voice.

“I’m sorry, I missed that.”

My friend and I looked at each other, our eyes asking the same question: Did you just hear that?

I looked at my phone. The voice was Siri’s. Since I never use Siri, I checked my phone’s settings. “Allow Siri” was definitely turned off, meaning the home button has to be held down to activate it. My fingers were nowhere near the home button.

We remembered to back out of that ward.

A column of light sheds a bit of hope in an otherwise dismal environment. We left Weston already making plans to come back in 2016 for the overnight lock-in.

A column of light sheds a bit of hope in an otherwise dismal environment. We left Weston already making plans to come back in 2016 for the overnight lock-in.

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What are you gonna do?

I’m not usually in a mood. Well, maybe once a month when my husband predictably asks, “Are you mad at me or something?” Other than that I am generally an even-keeled person. My highs aren’t too high, my lows dip slightly below the graph line. Boring, some people might say. That’s okay with me. I take no meds and have outstanding blood pressure—the benefits of a drama-free life.

Today I am in a mood.

It started last night when it felt like a rhinoceros was standing on my head. (I don’t usually get headaches either.) This morning it felt like the weight of the world was on my head.

Why now?

Is it the change in seasons? The images of Syrian refugees? News of another road rage shooting? The lukewarm review some random stranger gave my recent book project? My mother’s health? My daughter’s high school angst? All of the above?

Maybe that’s it. Maybe some days it’s just too much—even for the even-keeled.

Mood or not, I had to go to work. There I got on the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park’s shuttle bus and said hello to my bus driver and friend, Liz.

“How are you today?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said with a frown. “I’m in a strange Wednesday funk.”

I love it when friends don’t lie and say, “I’m fine.” Though sympathetic to Liz’s mood, I was happy to know that maybe it wasn’t just me. We went on to discuss this shared, uncommon mood we were both in, how we both wanted to crawl under a rock and hide from the world. Park visitors got on and off the bus and she asked me to hang back before exiting myself. When we were alone, Liz asked, “Are you going to see the pope?”

What a random, strange question, I thought. But I smiled.

“No. But I love the pope.”

Our conversation took me right back to the day in 2013 when I was at a conference in Portland and got my husband’s text: The new pope chose the name Francis! After your dad!

My dad had just been put under hospice care and my family entered It Won’t Be Long Now world. Indeed, Dad’s name was Francis, named after St. Francis of Assisi—the same inspiration for the new pope. However, my dad hated to be called Francis, so to me he was Pope Frank.

Liz and I talked a bit about Pope Frank, how he seems like such a regular, humble, even-keeled guy—much like my father. Dad didn’t have very high highs or low lows either. Sure, he griped and complained at times, but then he always sighed, said, “What are you gonna do?” and went on his way with a whistle. He helped everyone and treated everyone equally. His funeral was attended by many “regular” people—waitresses, diner owners, proprietors of tire shops, lawnmower repairmen. They all said the same thing: “Frank was a great guy.”

Today I hear his voice clearly: “What are you gonna do?”

What are we going to do? When it’s just too much? When the refugees won’t stop coming? When the violence has no end? When we have to sometimes stand aside and let our children find their own way?

Well, like Pope Francis, we can pray. Pray as hard as we can. Like Liz and I, we can just be there for each other. Have a simple chat. Smile. Remind each other that we’re all in this together and it’s going to be okay.

And then go on our way with a whistle.

dory just keep swimming

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The Shared Lunacy of Writing

The cold depths of winter? Rain-soaked days of summer? On social media these extreme weather days elicit nothing but frowny faces and gloom. Facebook complaints rise tenfold. Whiners rejoice.

For writers, these days are gold.

At least for me they are. I can huddle inside with no guilt, without sun deprivation, cozy with my laptop and the myriad of characters holed up in my brain. “At last,” they say, “we have you all to ourselves.”

They can direct me, persuade me, do things I never before conceived they would do. They tell me about their pasts, share their secrets. They twist plots. Sometimes, they even kill each other off.

Of course, if I give these characters too much time, they can become the Company That Won’t Leave. They get too comfortable, come out of their world and nose around in mine. This past winter one of them followed me every time I got distracted and clicked over to Facebook.

“You’re wasting time,” he would warn. (Or she—I can’t tell.)

“You don’t NEED to watch ANOTHER cat video!”

“Who cares which Friends character you are?”

“The clock is ticking, sweetheart. The kids will be up soon.”

“GET OUT OF THIS TIME-SUCKING PLACE AND COME BACK TO US!”

But then something—someone, actually—caught his attention: Ginny Fite, a woman I had only met in person once, but who lived in my neighborhood and was a Facebook friend. Did I mention she is an author? Every time a post of hers appeared on my feed, the voice perked up.

“Ginny Fite? You should talk to her.”

“Hmm…maybe you should have her over for coffee.”

“She’s a writer. You can discuss writerly things.”

“FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, TALK TO THIS WOMAN!”

So, I did. On a snowy February day I had Ginny over for coffee. We did discuss writerly things. Turned out she’s just as smart, witty and interesting as her Facebook posts led me to believe. And she’s a WRITER. We share the same disease.

On her way out that day, Ginny stopped and turned to me.

“Are you in a writer’s group?” she asked.

My heart skipped. “No.”

“I have to clear it with the other writers first—we like to keep the group small—but maybe you can join us…”

That little voice gloated. “I told you so.”

The rest, I’m optimistically saying, is history. Once a week for the past five months, I’ve met with Ginny, Katherine, Tara, and Karen. Through winter’s slow thaw, the bright green spring, and now this wet, wet summer. Every week we sit, take turns reading aloud, critique, and most importantly, support. This group has taken away some of the loneliness of writing. They offer what no queried agent ever has: actual constructive feedback. I feel like I’ve met kindred spirits. We understand each other—the insecurities, the inexplicable compulsion to write and face rejection, the dogged search for one perfect word—in ways only fellow writers could. It’s almost as if in another life we were inmates in the same asylum. The best part of all: they’re making me a better writer.

My husband eloquently put it in football terms: “You got the ball to the ten yard line…they’re helping you get it in the end zone.”

In June this group of women (with a couple more who are on hiatus) held a joint book signing. The event garnered some press in our local media, including this article in the Frederick News-Post. The article perfectly defines the work we do and the benefits of belonging to the group. I am so proud to be the “she” in the last paragraph.

In addition to the inspiration, discipline (once a week means a deadline—not much time to waste on Facebook), the camaraderie and friendships, one other great thing came from listening to that voice in my head. One day Ginny asked if I would be interested in writing for Fluent Magazine, a gorgeous online magazine “covering the arts and culture in West Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley and neighboring regions.” Long story short, this happened:

My first article for Fluent appears in their Summer 2015 issue! (See page 10)

The moral of the story? Trust your instincts. Listen (discriminately) to the voices in your head. I did, and wonderful things have been happening ever since.

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Yes, You Can Live Like A Crawley

Another season of Downton Abbey is about to end, and I’m already suffering withdrawal. How I will miss that slow, hypnotic camera pan around the estate or up the grand staircase…the exquisite costumes and intoxicating music…Mary’s bitchy remarks…

So I’ve been trying to find a way to keep the Crawley’s around for more than just a couple of months out of the year. A way to bring a little of the Downton lifestyle into my own life. The more I thought about it, I realized I don’t need a Yorkshire County estate with a staff of servants to live like a Crawley. Here are just a few ways anyone can live that way…no corsets necessary.

Get Fancy: Those “good dishes” you got for your wedding? Why make them wait for a special occasion? Dinnertime is a special occasion for the Crawleys. Every day you’re alive on God’s great earth should be a special occasion. Pull out the good stuff—even if you’re serving meatloaf—and enjoy a little opulence. No fancy china? No worries. Use whatever you have, light some candles, add some fresh flowers or hand-drawn place cards. Make it as special as you can. The important thing is to gather your loved ones for a family dinner. Remember those? And once you’ve captured your busy family’s attention, engage in conversation. Linger. Laugh. Reconnect. Just remember to avoid tinderbox topics such as the Anglo-Irish War or the Russian Revolution.

meatloaf

Keep Good Posture: Crawleys never slouch. NEVER. Yes, good posture helps to avoid health complications such as back pain, slipped discs, and poor blood circulation, but it also facilitates breathing, which leads to more oxygen to the brain, which means more energy, creativity, and concentration. That air of Crawley confidence doesn’t just come from their good name and inventory of priceless artwork. People with good posture—no matter what their social hierarchy—exude assuredness and strength and self-esteem. So stand tall and keep your head up. You ARE royalty!

edithslouching

Polish Those Shoes: Okay, so we can’t all afford luxurious clothes that require a lady’s maid to get in and out of, but like good posture, how we dress affects our confidence and our moods. Watch one episode of What Not to Wear and you’ll see proof that outward appearance affects inner well-being. I’m not saying you should eschew pajama pants and fuzzy socks. They are an important source of comfort. But worn too often they just encourage sluggish, sleepy, and slouchy behavior. A nice, well-fitting outfit can do wonders for our self-esteem. And it doesn’t have to be expensive or haute couture. Just throw on a nice scarf. Accessorize. Polish those shoes. Take a shower! Sometimes looking good really does equal feeling good. Oh, and don’t wear polyester. Just don’t.

downton lady mary

Disconnect: Much like Lord Grantham can’t fathom the idea of a “wireless” radio at Downton in 1924, we 21st century beings can’t imagine a life without our gadgets. TVs, computers, tablets…our ever-present smart phones. Take a step out of the cyber world and into the real world and you might be amazed by what you find. There is beauty equal to that sweeping English countryside closer than you think. Find a park, a beach, a country lane. Go for a walk or a bike ride. Marvel at the clouds, the birdsong, the breeze that touches your cheek. Yes, we are fortunate to live in the Information Age, having the world at our fingertips, but too much of a good thing is never good. Try, just try, to pry that phone out of your palm, use a crowbar if necessary, and pay attention to your own world. Don’t just snap a photo of that glorious sunset and rush to Facebook to post it. Take a moment to enjoy it. BE with it. Nature is forgiving and restorative and waiting with God-like patience for your company.

carsonhughes

Open Your Home: Ever notice how Lord Grantham’s casa is everyone’s casa? Often it is by Cora’s gracious invitation, but there seems to be a revolving door of dinner or overnight guests at Downton. What better way to feel like the lord of the manor than by opening your home? This doesn’t mean you have to throw elaborate dinner parties or become a bed and breakfast. Host a potluck game night. Invite a friend over for coffee. Be a welcoming, warm, and hospitable host. Because sometimes the best way to help yourself feel better is by serving others.

howlongwillyoubestaying

Be True to Yourself: Upstairs and down, the happiest, strongest, most well-adjusted residents of Downton are the ones who know and accept who they are. Isobel Crawley, for instance. She has certain principles and she stands by them and bends to no one—not even the formidable Dowager Countess. AND she encourages others, like Branson, to speak their minds, and to stand up for what they believe in. Daisy knows deep down that she’s more than just a kitchen maid. She’s intelligent and ambitious and as she starts to spread her wings her happiness and confidence is rising. On the contrary, Thomas Barrow has been stomping around the corridors of Downton for years, miserable and seething, trapped in an era that won’t allow him to be himself. We have seen glimpses of his heart; we know he can be heroic. I think there is a little Barrow in all of us—afraid to be ourselves, afraid we will be judged or rejected. But if we believe in ourselves, be true to ourselves, and love ourselves first, we can all be heroes.

isobel

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Resolutions? What New Year’s Resolutions?

Sunday, February 01, 2015

January, or as I call it, Resolution Month, is over.

What resolutions have you stuck to? Which ones have not been so easy?

Congrats on what you’ve stuck to! An entire month is quite an accomplishment. And about those things where you’ve caved? Don’t sweat it. It’s a new month, a new day, a new chance to try again.

As for myself…

The no gluten, no dairy, no sugar resolution was a breeze the week I had the flu. After that, well, I gave it a serious go until the Parenthood finale did me in. I had to seriously eat some emotions away.

The blog more resolution? It’s February 1 and this is my first blog of the year. That’s all I have to say about that.

Read more? Check

Write more? Check (just not blogs)

Tweet more? Check

Less television? Check—although, Downton Abbey AND The Walking Dead will be on next Sunday. If zombies attacked Downton my dilemma would be solved.

There are a couple of things that were not on my resolution list that I’m happy to report on:

First, I’ve been doing more yoga. It’s helping my back and my stress levels. You should try it. Really.

Second, I’ve joined a book club at the yoga studio. The book is Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Melton. I saw the title and immediately thought: I want to be warrior! I NEED to be a warrior. You see, the flu, my aching back, and a month-and-a-half-long battle to fix the internet issues on my laptop have left me feeling rather helpless in 2015. Not to mention the fact that I handed off my manuscript—my baby—to a beta reader. As a writer, there is nothing like waiting to hear back from a beta reader to make you feel helpless, insecure, and generally bat-shit crazy.

But you can’t keep a good warrior down. I just keep reminding myself of one notable accomplishment I had in 2014: I wrote a book.

The Wexbury Trilogy, Book 2, draft one.

I repeat: I WROTE A BOOK

I AM a warrior.

Of course, finishing the first draft of a novel is like finishing the first leg of a triathlon. Celebrate, re-hydrate, and go go go! There is much work to be done. And I can’t wait to do it. As Glennon says:

“Reading is my inhale and writing is my exhale. If I am not reading and writing regularly, I begin to suffocate.”

So I’m not the only one! Yeah!

It’s February 1. Push the reset button everyone. Try, try again. Don’t give up on what you want to accomplish this year. I didn’t in 2014 and guess what? I wrote a freakin’ book!

If I can do it, so can you.

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