By Abbie Goldberg
Names have been changed to protect identities.
“And who remembers what comes after orange?” Mr. Jamie asks.
“Yellowgreenblueindigoviolet!” Shouts Hannah, bouncing up and down slightly on bended knees. Mr. Jamie gently shakes his head “I’m looking for quiet hands please.”
I’m assistant teaching at “Rainbow Camp,” a week-long session of a theater program, but since it’s with four and five-year-olds the “theater” mostly consists of making silly faces and running around pretending to be different iterations of unicorns (kittycorns, doggycorns, elephantacorns…). We’ve also gone over the colors of the rainbow, learned a dance to a verified banger from Pinkalicious: The Musical, and made a myriad of rainbow-related art projects, but a lot of the kids have something more pressing on their minds. I sit next to Carla, a wary girl who’s blonde bangs fall over wide-eyes and who has so far refused to take off her puffy pink winter jacket. She taps me on the shoulder and whispers in my ear with solemn urgency,
“Can we talk about the ghosts now?”
The ghost thing started because on the first day of camp a kid tried to go into a room they weren’t supposed to and Mr. Jamie said offhandedly, “We can’t go in, a ghost lives there.” And thus the floodgates of spooky were opened. “Where else do ghosts live? Are there more ghosts in here? Where is the ghost’s family?” Each morning we struggled 1to get through the rainbow curriculum, over-exaggerating our voices and movements in a desperate attempt to pull the wandering eyes away from the supposedly ghost-filled room. I decorated one child with a special (invisible) ghost protection amulet, armed another with non-toxic (invisible) ghost-repellent spray. But the group wasn’t afraid exactly, they just needed to know about the ghosts.
“Why do the ghosts eat leaves?” Carla asks me later that morning, eyes wide and solemn. I shrug, “I guess they’re vegetarian.” I never told her ghosts eat leaves so I’m not sure how she has come to this conclusion in the first place nor how I am to now explain it. “We can talk about it more at lunch, let’s focus on the story.” She reluctantly turns to the front of the room where Mr. Jamie is reading How The Crayons Saved The Rainbow. She stays quiet for the rest of the story but periodically makes furtive sideways glances toward the ghost room. She is utterly apathetic to the fate of the rainbow. Let it go unsaved, she wants to hear about the ghosts.
When I was young I was desperately afraid of death. Some of my earliest memories are of lying in bed trying to imagine nothingness. Waves of uneasy heat would run through my body as I struggled to reconcile my beingness with the thought of one day no longer being. In retrospect, these were probably panic attacks. I don’t think the kids at Rainbow Camp were necessarily associating ghosts as having anything to do with death at all. My own conception of death as a child was also somewhat muddled. I would shake and cry at night in bed, but I also wrote a letter to my Dad’s uncle when he passed. “Dear Uncle Arthur,” it read, “Sorry you died.”
More likely, the ghosts infiltrating Rainbow Camp were just another creature for the kids to world build around, the spooky side version of a unicorn, or kittycorn. Nonetheless, the fixation fascinated me. Perhaps this is a dark way to put it, but children are uniquely close to being not alive. That is to say, while old people and terminally ill folks may be close to death, children are close to the time before life. Maybe they can’t necessarily wrap their head around such an existential idea, but still, I wonder if they know things about life and not life that I’ve now forgotten.
After lunch, we walk to the playground. Each of the 12 kids holds a rainbow-colored loop on a neon green rope like they’re in an adorable child chain gang. Carla trips up the line by turning around towards me and sighing longingly, “I wish I were a skeleton.”
“Incredible news!” I tell her. “You are!”
“I am?” She’s incredulous.
“Yes, underneath all the skin and muscles and organs.” I’m never sure when to go for accuracy and when for simplicity, but after a second too long I catch myself. “But we’ll talk about this later, eyes forward when we’re walking, please.”
Once we arrive at the playground, Rainbow Camp is officially over and Spooky Camp is open for business. Almost in unison, Hannah, Carla, and Marlo yell, “The ghosts are this way!” and begin pulling me in three separate directions. “Let’s spread out,” I counter. “You all go check around then come back here and tell me if you’ve seen anything!” I collapse on the park bench. Balancing Rainbow Camp with Spooky Camp is exhausting.
The truth is I never really grew out of my fear of death. I mean, it’s not a hot take, death is terrifying. But spooky camp has followed me through the spring, and summer to now– the funereal fall, when flowers wilt, and leaves wither and death haunts me the majority of days and the vast majority of nights. There’s no easily nameable, surface-level reason why. No one close to me has died. I don’t really have any traumatic experiences with death. I’ve known people who have died, but they’ve mostly been old, or expected, or not people I’m close enough to to justify my response. That in itself terrifies me— if I can’t get through a day now without spiraling about oblivion, how much worse will it be when I have to contend with death for real? And how indulgent and ridiculous is this fear when there are so many people who have real tragedies to deal with? How much time and energy will I waste mourning people who are still here? How much life will I waste fearing death?
I can rationalize these questions to myself, but death is still there. Death itself is the ghost that haunts me. It wakes me up in the night with seemingly innocuous dreams— endless lakes, and parties where everyone forgets their own names. They’re not exactly nightmares and I feel ridiculous being afraid of them, but still, I wake in a sweat. I don’t need a dream interpretation guide to know what these dreams mean. They mean I am here now, but one day I won’t be. They mean one day I, and everyone I love, will die.
Back on the playground, we race around investigating “ghost holes.” Ghost holes, according to this group of amateur parapsychologists, function as tunnels back to some sort of gloriously spooky ghost mansion and can take the form of grates, animal holes, or really any hole that we see. Carla’s hair falls onto her face as she peers into the mysterious watery depths of a storm drain. “Why do you like spooky things?” I ask her in a feeble attempt at ascribing meaning to the somewhat jarring turn the week has taken. “It’s like when someone tickles your foot,” she says.
Once, a therapist asked me why I thought I was so obsessed with death. “I’m not obsessed, I’m scared!” I protested. But maybe obsession is right, too. I wonder if there’s a part of me that relishes the fear, the drama of darkness. Maybe what feels like aversion is actually a deferred desire to dig deeper— to face my thoughts about death head-on. Maybe, when I wake up in the night, I could sit with my thoughts instead of immediately putting on an episode of This American Life and letting the comfortingly familiar whimper fry of Ira Glass or some other pretentious white man lull me back into distracted denial. Maybe. So far, I’m too scared to find out. I’m not as brave as Carla. I don’t like the feeling of my foot being tickled.
Marlo, a chubby-cheeked three-year-old who is really too young for the class but has been keeping up with precocious zeal, pulls me away from the storm drain ghost hole, babbling something incoherent “What did you say?” I ask him. I’m certain I’ve misheard so I make him repeat himself once more, but then he says again with the wisdom of a far older ghostbuster: “The ghost is in the stomach of the mystery.”
When the kids ask me if the ghosts are real, I don’t know what to tell them. A confident no to quell any fears and minimize parental worry? A mischievous yes to keep the magic alive? Maybe I should tell them, “Well personally I think probably not, at least not in the way we currently conceptualize them, but I do believe there are things about the world that are beyond our understanding, and maybe the language around ghosts and the paranormal is as good a way as any to try to wrap our heads around it all, enter ‘the stomach of the mystery,’ if you will. Cause ultimately we are all going to die someday, and if we can have some sort of relationship with death while we’re living, something that helps us engage with the idea, even if it’s not strictly speaking literally ‘true,’ then that’s probably a good thing, right?”
Who knows, it might work. Kids tend to have a somewhat sophisticated sense of internal logic when it comes to the real and the not-real. When Hannah asks for help gathering leaves to make a trail to her ghost trap underneath the slide (the ‘ghosts eat leaves’ intel having proliferated thoroughly throughout the class), she tells me, “The trap is not for the real ghosts, it’s just pretend.” Its relative realness doesn’t matter, she screams with full force of mixed terror and glee when the pretend trap catches pretend ghosts. For her, the real and the pretend, and the maybe real, and the fear, and the excitement, and the curiosity can exist together peacefully, contradictions and all.
I guess for many people part of the desire to have children in the first place is to avoid death by ensuring your family lives on. Being both queer and generally terrified about climate change/the all-around apocalypse vibe of the world today, having kids has never felt like a given, or even a likelihood to me. I want my family to live on, I want to have a legacy, but that’s a lot of pressure to put on another person. A lot of pressure to put on one little life.
I don’t know what it feels like to have a biological clock go off, but I wonder if it’s like a haunting from a different type of ghost, one from the future. Can there be ghosts in both directions? Those who have already been, and those who are yet to be?
I keep thinking the ghost mania will eventually fade, be replaced by something less spectral like playing house or Bluey. But every day, as soon as we get to the playground, we talk about the ghosts. The best and worst thing about the unknown is there’s just so much to know about it. “Are the ghosts bad guys?” asks Marlo. “Can the ghosts touch us?” wonders Hannah. “Why are the ghosts here?” Carla ponders. I admire the endless curiosity of children, their persistent, fearless willingness to dive ever deeper into the world’s mysteries. I have a lot to learn from that.
At the end of the week, the parents come in for a performance. We perform the dance to Colorific. The kids take turns playing the Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Dorothy as they reenact scenes from her trip over the rainbow. The parents smile behind their filming smartphones as Mr. Jamie expounds, “We had a great week! We learned about all the colors of the rainbow and how each of them makes the world more beautiful and special, and we learned about what makes us special! We learned about the sun and the rain and the word roygbiv and…” I lean down to Carla, sitting cross-legged next to me and whisper, “and ghosts!”
Abbie Goldberg is a writer, theater maker, and drag performer from the mountains of rural Maine. Amongst other places, their work has been seen in Autostraddle, The Niche, HowlRound, and Sinister Wisdom and heard at Lincoln Center, Rattlestick Theater, Rockwood Music Hall, and Salt Tree Arts Festival. They like making puppets out of trash.