edited to add the mp3 of John Doe #24; please let me know if it doesn’t work, as this is the first time I’ve tried to embed an audio link.

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m agnostic, and that I prefer science to religion when it comes to trying to sort out the big mysteries. Also, it’s probably clear that I don’t pray to any god or gods, and that I don’t believe in life after death. Now, the idea of life after death is appealing, but I can’t find a way to make myself believe in it. I love the whole world view that goes along with reincarnation, but in the same way I love the idea of Oz. A wonderful story, but no more than that.

On the other hand, I am cautious enough and maybe intellectually curious enough to admit that many things in the universe are beyond human understanding. Which is akin to saying: maybe there is some kind of greater intelligence out there, steering things. But if so, it’s happening in a way that’s completely beyond the confines of my brain.

And on the topic of the brain: it’s a big mystery. So much we don’t understand. So I’d have to say that I am open to the possibility of extra sensory perception, but to be really convinced I’d need some hard data.

What’s all this about, you’re wondering. I do have a point.

I don’t believe in life after death, which means, logically, that I don’t believe in ghosts. And I don’t. Not in the sense of the spirits of the dead hanging around on earth, sometimes making themselves known. Waiting to move off to another level of being. Nope, none of that works for me. It strikes me as both sad and fitting that a human being lives out a life, gathering information and sensation and experience, and then all that dies with him or her and soaks back into the earth. I don’t believe my father’s ghost is still on this earth, though I would like it if it were. If he were nearby watching, and commenting, that would make me feel protected in the same way a small child feels safe, lying in bed at night hearing adults talking in the other room.

So I don’t believe in ghosts, but here’s the thing: my characters often do. Ghosts pop into my stories on a fairly regular basis. They are as talkative dead as they were alive. Hannah has experienced this. In Homestead there was one particularly stubborn ghost, he just couldn’t stay out of things. He was absolutely real, in that story, for those characters and within that context, he was and is real to me too. He surprised me and made me oddly happy. As if a wild animal approached without warning to offer a paw in friendship.

The point is, in telling stories characters take on life, and the things they believe and know take on a kind of life as well. It’s vaguely schizophrenic, believing/not believing self/other all in one, but that’s part of the draw of writing. That ability to experience things through your characters that are less available to you in the mundane day-to-day.

Write this whole odd post off to (1) weariness; (2) general worries; (3) way too much Mary Chapin Carpenter. John Doe No. 24 always puts me in one of these moods. I think about him often. From the book about his life, this summary:

Police found John Doe No. 24 in the early morning hours of October 11, 1945, in Jacksonville, Illinois. Unable to communicate, the deaf and mute teenager was labeled “feeble minded” and sentenced by a judge to the nightmarish jumble of the Lincoln State School and Colony in Jacksonville. He remained in the Illinois mental health care system for over thirty years and died at the Sharon Oaks Nursing Home in Peoria on November 28, 1993.

Deaf, mute, and later blind, the young black man survived institutionalized hell: beatings, hunger, overcrowding, and the dehumanizing treatment that characterized state institutions through the 1950s. In spite of his environment, he made friends, took on responsibilities, and developed a sense of humor. People who knew him found him remarkable.

Award-winning journalist Dave Bakke reconstructs the life of John Doe No. 24 through research into a half-century of the state mental health system, personal interviews with people who knew him at various points during his life, and sixteen black-and-white illustrations. After reading a story about John Doe in the New York Times, acclaimed singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote and recorded “John Doe No. 24”
and purchased a headstone for his unmarked grave. She contributes a foreword to this book.

As death approached for the man known only as John Doe No. 24, his one-time nurse Donna Romine reflected sadly on his mystery. “Ah, well,” she said, “God knows his name.”