And if there is no peace in declarations
they may become ornaments. After all, superstitions
did once, and aren’t they very like history,
even the same thing as?
—John Ashbery, “Spotlight on America”
Hi, my name is Peter, and I hate “About Me” things. I don’t know what my dream house looks like. I don’t know what my favorite color is. I don’t know what my favorite holiday is. And if I could only eat one meal for the rest of my life, I don’t know what it would be. I’m that kid who asks for unlimited wishes with his wish.
Growing up, I was scared of ghosts.
I was scared of ghosts coming into my room through my closet and my window. I was scared of the noises my air conditioner made. The ghosts are scheming, I thought. And my mattress, I was sure, was not really a mattress, but a ghost hideout that I was stupidly choosing to sleep on top of. If the ghosts let me sleep, I had dreams about them. These were the rules. When I closed my eyes and saw swirls of light, the ghosts I figured, were in my head. Physically. I never really thought about what made ghosts themselves scary. I never thought about what would happen if I saw one. Or even what they looked like. If somebody had said, You know, Peter, I saw this ghost with the strangest hair the other day, I think I would have said, That’s ridiculous. Ghosts don’t have hair. Without a shred of irony. Because I could tell you a ghost didn’t have hair, but I couldn’t tell you what it had instead. I didn’t think they would kill me, but I also thought Casper was dangerous propaganda. A smile on a ghost? Nah.
The following comes from a deposition during the witch inquisition in 16th century Italy: ‘Then she used to take that horseshoe and to cool it for a little while in a chamber pot with urine, saying these words, “I do not let sizzle you, horseshoe, but rather the mind, heart, vigor and feelings of Barbetta, until he comes to this house to do as I please.”‘ The witness describes how a woman, Barbetta, summoned the devil, partly by boiling a horseshoe in pee.
It didn’t matter what I thought a ghost looked like, because I would never see one. That was their whole schtick. They were there, but I couldn’t see them. They weren’t here. That was what made a ghost a ghost. And that was what made me scared of ghosts, the difference between there and here.
If a rocking chair rocks by itself, it is a ghost. If dry kindling wood won’t light, a ghost is blowing out the fire. If you smell a dead lover’s perfume, your lover’s ghost is paying you a visit.
On a fourth-grade class trip to Salem, Massachusetts, after a tour of a graveyard, I remember lying awake in bed with my friend Mike and thinking we’re doomed. We were there for history, a history that our tour guide, pointing to a window encasing a flickering light opposite the graveyard, had assured us was preserved. A woman who was condemned as a witch lived there, she said.
I can tell you with little shame that there are times in my life when, like Barbetta, I would have gladly boiled a horseshoe in pee if I trusted it would make everything OK.
Growing up, I had a magic 8-ball, one of the ones you could shake for an answer. No matter what I asked it, it would say “not today.” I thought it was broken. But maybe I was the broken one. Maybe the world was broken. Maybe how I thought about the world was broken. Maybe everything was just so.
I think a life is time-sensitive, has no obvious center, and as such resists our speaking about it in absolutes. Which is just to say we’re a bunch of fidgets: Buying flowers on our lunchbreaks, shuffling our playlists, swivel chairs. That kind of thing. Shake us for an answer and we’ll say why, but we don’t really know. That an event seems to own a little storefront along time is baffling, but that it does (seem to) makes all the difference.
Growing up, I remember watching baseball player Nomar Garciaparra, while he was in the batter’s box, quickly undo and redo his wrist guards and then tap his helmet for good luck. You almost felt bad for him when he struck out because of all the extra juju he was giving it. He was willing to look a little silly for an RBI, which I admired.
My mother was the only real protection against ghosts. If she slept in my bed, I was OK. I was OK because my mom didn’t believe in ghosts and ghosts didn’t exist for people who didn’t believe in them. They preyed on the weak-minded. And because I didn’t really imagine my mind getting any stronger, I thought, OK, this is a kind of bad way to live, but at least my mom can sleep in my bed forever. I thought, Not today, not today, not today.
Eating fish makes you smart. Toads cause warts. A cricket in the house brings good luck.
Superstitions give our mess a little causality. We pluck petals one by one: She loves me, she loves me not. Superstitions declare clearly. We say, I’m scared, because there are ghosts. They allow us to pronounce our fears with a certain violence, which works to dispel them for a time, but later those declarations can seem ridiculous, vestigial: I know you love me, but could you do the flower thing just in case?
I was wrong. My mom couldn’t sleep in my bed forever. My family and I went upstate to visit my cousin Wally and his partner Mark for Thanksgiving. Mark had put together a lovely menu, which he printed out and laminated. I remember there were puff pastries filled with cheese. I remember there was a nice frisée salad. The stuffing was good, had cranberries I think. The turkey was moist. There were wine-poached pears for dessert, which were a pretty, pale pink. I was full and happy.
After dinner, we all watched Funny Girl together, while my cousin rattled off trivia about the movie, things about Barbara Streisand’s hair and did you know she did that last number in one take? Then the worst thing that could have happened happened. He politely invited us to stay over. He might as well have said, We have a lot of ghosts here. Do you want to meet them? I looked at Barbara Streisand on the TV and thought I’m going to throw up all this wonderful food.
The problem for Barbetta was that people in power, i.e. church officials, thought that her panacea, likely a folkloric heirloom, was in fact a spiritually insidious poison. Of course, this was their own superstition, a magic thread of causality, which some would argue arose out of the religious uncertainty left by the Great Schism. If Barbetta had lived two centuries earlier, she probably never would have heard the word witch (or the Italian “strega”). But by the 15th and 16th centuries, the Church was scared. And it did what all scared people try to do, but which institutions evidently excel at: it located its fear and described it, so that it could be efficiently eliminated.
A history textbook, a memoir, is something like a Christmas tree in a forest, I imagine. Too much jewelry.
To find a horseshoe brings good luck. A sailor wearing an earring cannot drown. An acorn at the window keeps lightning out of the house.
Wally had three spare beds, the drive back was long, and it was already late. It made sense. My parents said yes, we can stay the night, thanks, how kind. Mark can make fresh pumpkin pancakes tomorrow morning, my cousin said. I looked at my mom in horror, wondering if this was some kind of stupid initiation, and my cousin noticed. We don’t have to make pancakes if you want. What about waffles? As if somehow changing the shape of my breakfast from circle to square would ward off evil spirits. As if the supernatural cared about fucking geometry. My sister is allergic to pumpkin, I said flatly.
But maybe the shape of my breakfast did matter. That was part of it. That was part of the fear of ghosts, the consequentiality of the seemingly arbitrary. And that was also the cure. I could put a dream catcher above my bed. I could rub rosemary on my body. I could wear an obsidian necklace (not that I had one). I could put mirrors everywhere, because ghosts, the books said, flee their own reflections. I could put a wind chime on my door. A mezuzah. Garlic. A plate of cookies. I could pray to god.
An itchy palm means money will come your way. A wedding veil protects the bride from the evil eye. It is bad luck to fall asleep at the table.
The next morning, over pumpkin pancakes, I would be lauded for my bravery, and from then on, slowly, my fear of ghosts transformed from a declaration into an ornament. But, by middle school, I realized I wasn’t really scared of ghosts. I was just scared. This time, specifically, it was people. People were the new ghosts. I didn’t like to look them in their eyes, or make small talk, or go to their bar mitzvahs. I had new superstitions. I could keep my head down, I could strategically cross the street, I could feign illness. In high school, when I was convinced everyone was staring at me all the time for no particular reason, I compulsively chewed gum because it relieved the tension from my face. I wouldn’t go anywhere without gum. The gulf between there and here, other people’s interior monologues and my own, was somehow tenuously reconciled by Trident.
The Church produced a best-seller, a kind of history book, Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum, which essentially invented the conception of the witch in its consolidated form. Chief among its declarations was that to be a witch was to be a woman: ‘by placing an unprecedented emphasis on the female sex’s evil nature as the factor that explained why witches were predominantly women, the Malleus Maleficarum made an invaluable contribution towards making witchcraft a decidedly “sex-related” crime: it is currently estimated that about seventy-five percent of all people prosecuted for this offence were women.’
And yet what I’m doing, patterning history as neatly as I am, is its own superstitious undertaking. One that comes with a gavel.
Uncertainty does that. It divvies out horseshoes and gavels in turn. The error is in thinking that your history book is the history book, that the forest is a Christmas tree. But that’s not to say there isn’t something therapeutic about a string of lights, some tinsel, in the wilderness. As long as you do what all good stories do, resist yourself along the way, redecorate. If it’s possible for history to be preserved, I believe it’s as a ghost at the window, fleeing its own reflection. Sometimes that ghost me.
What I’d really like is to meet Barbetta, somewhere halfway, somewhere in the 19th century maybe, in Italy or Brooklyn or in between, to see if she could offer the closest thing to a cure I know, not something as abstract as love or friendship—something closer to eye contact, which I’ve always struggled with. There we’d be, under the charm or curse of that fragile transaction of photons, or whatever, and we’d see things in each other without knowing, our fears and wishes, our disappointments, and we’d bond over those things without adjudicating, without naming. And into that gaze all the ailments of context would melt: we could boil horseshoes together, chew gum, laugh at our depositions.
Assuming, of course, that Barbetta wouldn’t immediately have me burned at the stake.
 Duni, Matteo. Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in Renaissance Italy. 95.
 This cluster of superstitions, and the ones that follow, come from a combination of the following sources:
 Duni, Matteo. Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in Renaissance Italy. 18-19.
 Duni, Matteo. Under the Devil’s Spell: Witches, Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in Renaissance Italy. 19.