Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Guest Post: Ghosts

Guest Post: Ghosts

By: Tatiana - March 09, 2009

Tatiana is a well known commenter around the Bloggernacle. In real life, she lives in Alabama and is an engineer working in the nuclear power industry. In her words, “after meeting lots of awesome Latter-day Saints online and asking them questions for a year or two,” she called her local elders in 2001 and left a message on their machine: “I’m ready to take the lessons and be baptized.” They told her that they played her message at a Zone Conference (if that had happened to me as a missionary, I might have bought time on a radio station to broadcast it).

Tatiana says she is “getting a crash course in motherhood” after adopting a teenage son last year, whose chronic medical conditions are improving now that Tatiana is able to provide him the medical care he needs. She mentions some of her activities in the following post, and says that her interests range “from astronomy and cosmology to quantum physics to evolutionary biology to epidemiology and public health, disaster relief, poverty in the developing world, and averting human extinction.” She didn’t tell me what she does in the time left over from all that.

My friend Juki (as nicknamed by my cat Mouse who frequently types messages to him) was born in the U.S. to Sikh parents who raised him in material comfort and with a strong work ethic. As is Sikh tradition, Juki never had his hair cut growing up. He wore a turban with his knee-length hair wrapped up inside. Some time during his freshman year in college, though, he realized he wasn’t religious, and that hair was a bother to keep long, and also that it was only hair after all, and so he cut it off.

It’s interesting to me to think about the importance people place on hair. Despite the fact that many of his cousins in the U.S. and even his older brother kept theirs short, Juki’s parents and extended family were apparently pretty shocked and saddened by the loss of his hair.

Why does hair seem so important to people? My mother was after me my whole life to cut my hair shorter, though I preferred it long. She used to tell me I looked like Yoko Ono, or Charles Manson, or Cousin It from the Addams family in an effort to convince me to wear it shorter. Having long hair was good if it was extremely straight, I gathered, but if it was wavy it was anathema, and invited maternal putdowns. Another friend of ours was nicknamed Antonio Banderas by his parents for his shoulder-length wavy locks. They were always trying to get him to cut his short.

The Taliban, of course, made it against the law in Afghanistan for men to shave their faces. In the Mormon church, as we all know, it’s considered rather racy to wear facial hair of any sort now, despite the fact that our prophets of old sported weird and bushy fashions of various types.

Long, short, shaven, grown out, it’s strange to me that how someone wears their hair is anything but a personal choice. Why is it so important to our various societies how we wear our hair? Why do people feel like they read important messages in it?

Juki’s grandmother, who grew up in India, and whom he sees about once a year, looked at him with his newly shorn locks and said, “You’re a ghost now.” That pronouncement has puzzled me for a while. Why a ghost? Did she mean he looked like a white person, and she thinks of Caucasians as ghosts? It was eerie that she said that. I asked Juki what she was saying and he apparently didn’t know either (or maybe just didn‘t want to discuss it).

Just now, though, I read one of the kiva fellows’ blog posts that used that same word “ghost” to describe a widow in Uganda named Specioza who was cast out from her husband’s family and had all her property taken away. For those who haven‘t heard yet, kiva is a microfinance organization that lets us lend directly to the working poor in developing countries. The kiva fellows blog is a place where kiva fellows post, people who spend a year or two traveling to kiva’s field partners to help set up systems and train microfinance agents in the use of kiva‘s tools. The posts are nearly all glimpses into other cultures and other ways of human life on the planet.

The blog is something like a communal mission journal. I’m totally addicted to it now. It’s so fascinating and amazing. It’s doing more to make me into a citizen of the planet than anything else I’ve found. (The church should set up something similar for missionaries, I think, but that’s the subject for another post.) (If you’re interested in loaning through kiva, by the way, please consider joining the fMh kiva team. Bloggernacle, represent!)

Apparently it’s the custom in Specioza’s culture in Uganda that when a husband dies, his widow becomes a nonexistent person as far as the family’s concerned, and loses her place and property, and even her children if she doesn’t run away in time. It seems a cruel and ugly custom to me. Now I wonder if Juki’s grandmother could have meant that about him as well, that he was not recognized as part of the family anymore, that he was a non-person, or would have been in her time and place. Juki’s family certainly didn’t cast him out. But how horrifying to think that may have been what she meant, our dear kind and thoughtful Juki, by whom any family would be graced?

Thinking about how cruel and ugly such a custom seems set me thinking and praying about what customs in my own society are cruel and ugly that I can’t see. Our own cultures and customs always seem to us humans to be natural law, as normal and right as breathing. It’s only from the outside looking in that they can possibly be recognized as appalling.

So that’s the topic of this post, though it took me a while getting around to it. What features of our own cultures could be honored more in the breach than the observance? What customs and traditions do we need to take a hard look at and give up forever?

While I was pondering and praying about that just now, my beloved cat Grace walked into the room. I realized that I see her as an honored individual and family member. I’m happy to spend time with her, and I’m pleased that she’s healthy with glossy fur, and that she’s contented and at peace in our home. I feel a mother’s pride in those things, that all is right with Grace’s world, that she‘s thriving. Then it jumped into my mind that there was my answer (one potential answer). Though I love Grace and treat her with respect and honor, nevertheless her (our) cousins the cows and pigs I treat as ghosts, nonbeings, whose pain or terror means nothing to me, and whom I relegate to slaughter in order to fill our table. For me, that’s the cruel and ugly custom I want most to change. As hard as it can be to stop, I don’t really want to eat mammals anymore. That’s one step I can take to reincarnate some of my ghosts.

Who are our other ghosts? Please enlarge my soul by helping me see their reality.



  1. In a less global, more Mormon-centric view, perhaps the most ghost-like are those we used to interact with in an official way, but no longer do —

    — the inactive, especially those who drift away so gradually that we don’t notice when they are finally, completely gone

    — friends who ended up on the “wrong” side of the line in a ward division

    — ward members we used to have a responsibility toward, but no longer do after assignments change. I remember the relief I felt when a couple I hadn’t known well started inviting me to Sunday dinner, or to sit with them in church. Up to that point, the only ward members whose shells I’d been able to crack through were a couple who had been assigned as a sort of pseudo-visiting/home teaching pair. I’d finally been able to make friends out of them, rather than just being their assignment, and now I had a second couple to be friends with. Only after a few weeks I noticed that the first couple were no longer speaking to me, coming to the back fence to chat, or waving when they saw me out walking. Nobody told me about the change, but I finally figured out that my new “friends” had been assigned as visiting/home teachers and my old “friends” released. I certainly felt like a ghost with THAT realization!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 9, 2009 @ 7:05 am

  2. Arlene: I will never forget or forgive. You owe me $10.

    Comment by annegb — March 9, 2009 @ 8:08 am

  3. Tatiana: I think you really bring up some important issues we face as LDS. In the ideal world we are all brothers and sisters regarless of our backgrounds. I do think that for the most part we try to approach others like that as well. But to be honest, I do think there is room for improvement. I think there are things that cause us to treat some like “ghosts.” I think one’s socio-economic circumstances is one consideration. In a small unit I lived in there were two large families moving in. One family was “rough around the edges” (they were poor, a bit dirty, etc.) while the other was “well-off.” As much as I hate to say it, and I reacted the same way, we welcomed the “well-off” family with open arms. We didn’t the “rough” family. Yet, the “rough” family was at church every week and participated in every activity. All the children were there. The “well-off” didn’t even move in as a family. Several of the children remained behind to finish school in their old place of residence. Just about all of the children were inactive or went inactive. The parents had a back-biting problem. I could go on but I won’t. The “rough” family moved after a few months. The “well-off” family stayed but really didn’t contribute much at all.

    And to be honest, I home teach a fellow who prides himself in being uneducated and a hick. I have to force myself to HT him. I have the tendency to treat him as a ghost. I have to remind myself that he is a son of God. It’s a struggle I have.

    I think we look at things such as profession, income, etc. and make people ghosts based on some of these (but not exclusively) on these considerations.

    Sorry if I’ve gone on too long. Just some of the thoughts this post raised with my. Thanks again, Tatiana.

    Comment by Steve C. — March 9, 2009 @ 8:28 am

  4. You know what struck me most about this post? It was the way the Sikh grandmother responded to the grandson’s haircut. It was a very matter-of-fact “You’re a ghost now.” The anecdote gives no sense that the grandmother nagged him, or even got angry. No, it was as if she was simply relating a fact that had occured. The boy cut his hair, and because of that he was now dead in a sense.

    And this brings me to the question you raise, Tatiana. The corrolary in our culture that came to mind was the occasion when a son/daughter chooses not to marry in the Temple. And I think we’ve probably all seen parents respond “badly” to this situation. I think some of the bad responses may be able to be explained in terms similar to the Sikh grandmother, and in terms that you use in your post: When a person’s sense of self, and religious identity is tied up in a particular practice, the rejection of that practice becomes difficult to understand. This inability (or sometimes refusal) to understand another world view/viewpoint, for me, is at the bottom of it. And the irony is that the one who pronounces the other “dead” is actually the one who is doing the rejecting.

    Ghosts, indeed, but made so quite literally by the one who pronounces the verdict.

    Comment by Hunter — March 9, 2009 @ 9:34 am

  5. Ardis: Ohhhhhhh, that is awful. I would hate that.

    Comment by Hunter — March 9, 2009 @ 9:35 am

  6. 1. Ardis, I’ve felt the same way in wards in which I can’t seem to cross the invisible threshold between assignment and friend.

    2. annegb, Samuel Butler in The Way of All Flesh gave the recipe for getting rid forever of guests you don’t want to see anymore: lend them something. I have to say he’s right. Friends who owe me things tend to disappear at an alarming rate. I’m sure for them it’s a completely unconscious thing.

    3. Steve C, people in other socio-economic classes are definitely ghostlike to us, I think. Really it’s people who are different. It makes it harder for us to reach out and connect. I think part of becoming Christlike is noticing and reanimating our ghosts whoever they may be.

    4. Hunter, yes, Juki’s grandma wasn’t saying “I reject you”, she was just acknowledging something that Juki supposedly did to himself by cutting his hair. The bland matter-of-factness of it certainly adds to the horror, to me. Yet I know we must have many ghosts of our own. My ex-sister-in-law is one I’ve just been reminded of. For 20 years she was a beloved member of our family, and labored greatly to put on family events and produce fabulous baked goods for all she didn’t put on. She bought wonderful thoughtful presents for all of us. In every way she was part of the family for decades. We thought of her as a jewel and a saint. Now none of us ever see or speak to her, or even know how she’s doing, if she has food to put on the table or not. I wish her well.

    Comment by Tatiana — March 9, 2009 @ 10:31 am

  7. I apologize for the broken links — they’re working now. Try again, everybody.

    (Somehow, while being pasted into the editor, the straight quotes associated with the links turned themselves into curly quotes.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 9, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  8. Thanks for fixing them, Ardis.

    Comment by Tatiana — March 9, 2009 @ 11:18 am

  9. Ghosts, such an interesting concept, Tatiana. To some extent, most of my ancestors beyond my grandparents are ghosts, because I know them only from their names and dates in my genealogy. I’m trying to fix that by learning more about them.

    In the process, I’ve learned about my father’s father, who died before I was born, and served his mission in Galvestion, TX, during the hurricane of 1900. I’m now trying to learn about his wife’s parents, who served an early and failed colonizing mission to Arizona in the 1870’s. They, along with other members of the mission, were apparently badmouthed by Brigham Young and Dan Jones. My brother and I are trying to find more information about them and the mission, eager to find out more about the whole adventure. The story from my great-grandmother’s view is one of incredible hardship and sacrifice, and substantial personal loss. In reconciling the two, we hope to put some “flesh” on these ghosts. Then we’ll move on to some others in my ancestry we don’t really know.

    Comment by kevinf — March 9, 2009 @ 11:50 am

  10. I think my previous comment needs more explanation. In our current, more mobile world, we rarely have extended families living together as often happened in the past, and we move away from our hometowns more freely, thus severing ourselves from our roots. That’s why I think that my ancestors have been ghosts. We often don’t value them as much, and to some extent, only as names to do temple work for. I’m trying to learn more about them, so when I meet them in the afterlife, they won’t be complete strangers to me.

    Comment by kevinf — March 9, 2009 @ 11:59 am

  11. Kevinf, I’m assuming you’ve already consulted Take Up Your Mission (Charles S. Peterson, 1973) for the story of the failed 1873 mission and reference to additional sources. The book is easy to find on Amazon for about $15.

    It was a short mission (it was disposed of in one sentence in the book Colonization on the Little Colorado) and left just a few ghostly traces in the form of poems and some rock graffiti at House Rock Springs recording sentiments like “Joseph Adams From Kaysville To Arizona And Busted On June 6 A+D+1873.”

    What is the family name? Did they make it back to Arizona in 1876?

    Comment by Researcher — March 9, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

  12. Researcher,

    No, I haven’t seen that book. I’ll go take a look. The group was led by Horton D. Haight, and my ancestor’s name was King. Thanks for the pointer. From what my GGM wrote, there was no water, no feed for the livestock, and when they ran out of seed grain that they had been feeding the horses, they left to return home.

    My GGF and GGM lost everything on that trip that they started with, including their wagon and horses, and returned home to find that my great-great-grandfather’s business partner had lost the business that they both had invested in. They literally had the clothes on their back and a two year old daughter.

    Comment by kevinf — March 9, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

  13. kevinf, that’s a good thought. Our ancestors may as well be ghosts to us if we don’t know much about them. Does that also make you think of your descendants’ ability to know you after you’re gone? It sure makes me want to write in my journal more when I consider that.

    Comment by Tatiana — March 9, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

  14. Tatiana, I’m a terrible journal keeper, but have stacks and stacks of other stuff I’ve written, even some of it on disk. We haven’t taken enough pictures, though, and need to preserve the ones we have. I do think about what legacy I will be able to pass on after I’m gone for my grandkids and greatgrandkids.

    Comment by kevinf — March 10, 2009 @ 11:46 am

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