My son, Porter, uses phrases like “My boy Shakespeare,” and his favorite play is Hamlet, so I have spent zero minutes worrying he might join a gang. Whenever he gets distressing news, such as notice he must clean up the carpet of clothes in his room, he makes his Porter face and says, “Alas, poor Yorick.” No one knows what he suffers, except me, so sometimes I invoke poor Yorick before he can.
In Hamlet, Yorick debuts in Act 5, the graveyard scene in which the gravedigger is digging Ophelia’s grave, unearthing various skulls in the process. It’s a wonderful, darkly comic scene in which Hamlet is barely phased by the macabre cache of bones before him, right up until he finds himself face to skull with Yorick, a man of “infinite jest” who had carried him piggyback as a child, and kissed him with lips long since decayed away. Hamlet is a grown man; it is not as though he didn’t know the stark realities of life and death. Yet in holding Yorick’s skull, sweet childhood memories and ugly truth clash in a terrible emotional crescendo that sets the stage for his reaction a short time later when he realizes the grave is being dug for his dear friend Ophelia, who may possibly have been a suicide. Today a suicide is deeply tragic, but in Elizabethan England it was a religious and criminal offense so serious that a proven suicide was not allowed burial in consecrated ground. The deceased could even be tried posthumously for murder, and, if convicted, have all their money and goods confiscated by the state, impoverishing the family.
Holding Yorick’s skull and confronted with Ophelia’s murky death, Hamlet must come to grips with realities he had always known without knowing, officially acknowledging the complex undercurrents of truth that had not previously figured in the neat equations of his days. For Hamlet the accumulation of painful truths from Acts 1-5 are so powerful that we have spent the last four hundred years arguing whether his madness was real or feigned.
We should have guessed what was coming from the start of the play. In Act 1 Hamlet says to Horatio, who will later be with him in the graveyard, “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet wasn’t crazy, he was right, the trouble came as he gradually discovered just how tremendously right he was.
I talked to a skull once, I think, but truthfully, I don’t remember if I was able to get the words past my lips. I was volunteering in an orphanage in China and went into the sick room to visit a dying toddler. I couldn’t take him out of his crib, so I just stood there looking at that small face, skin stretched taught. I could see the detail of his skull, and listened to his breath as it caught and shuddered, knowing each one could be his last. I knew the facts. Because of birth defects he’d been thrown away by his parents; in the orphanage he’d lived his life with just the edges of love; he was ill; there was nothing more the doctors could do; he was dying. We all die, it’s unavoidable. I stood at the side of the crib making the effort to look calm and pleasant, though inwardly shocked and silently raging, my heart crying out a great and guttural WHY?!
There was another child at this orphanage, a little girl I used to hold. She was completely nonverbal, her shrunken body curled in on itself, her fists tightly knotted until gentle massage teased them open. Yet this little girl would suddenly get the giggles and nothing could stop her laughing. I was holding her, so I could see she was looking at something, but I couldn’t see what it might be. Years earlier my southern grandmother looked at the smiling face of my newborn daughter, Abby, and said, “Somebody done told her a joke.” I have no scrap of proof, of course, but in my heart I want to believe that angels patrol the halls of the orphanage, angels who knew my little friend well enough to understand her sense of humor.
I hate ghost movies with a blinding passion because they give me nightmares for weeks, but oddly enough I love hearing people’s personal ghost stories. In fact, I can’t get enough. I think some people are lying, but with anecdotes in the hundreds of thousands, it seems that even if fully 50% are charlatans, that’s still an enormous number of people who genuinely believe what they are saying is true. I just don’t really know how it all fits into my paradigm. Some people talk about angels, others say ghosts are spirits who don’t know they are dead, or who have been trapped by trauma, or unable to break free from a cycle of torment. Still others claim it’s all nothing, hallucinations or mass hysteria. I’m not equipped to give much of an answer. I only know that somebody is clearly experiencing something, and it appears far too varied and complicated to be confined in a single definition.
Actually, I have a ghost story of my own, and could care less whether anyone believes me or not. I was about twenty-four, and visiting my Grandma Porter who had a car with a tight, quirky clutch which I had to take into town. I was alone in the car and nervously backing into the street in front of her house, struggling with the clutch as I switched from reverse to first. I killed it, and was extremely anxious I was going to do the same at a busy intersection and cause an accident. I started it again, and out of nowhere heard my Grandpa Porter’s distinctive, gravelly voice, “Let it out slowly.” Grandpa Porter had been dead for a year.
I wasn’t scared, his voice was just as natural as it had always been. I wish he’d stayed to chat a little longer, but that wasn’t his way. The day the Teton Dam broke, destroying Rexburg, the town my family lived in, he didn’t say a word to anyone. He just put on his hat and drove straight to Idaho to pick us up. He responded so fast that when he arrived no one could get in or out, but I’ve never forgotten he was there, even though I didn’t get to see him. That day in front of my grandmother’s house, I know he was in the car with me. I have zero proof, but I don’t need any. That message was specifically for me.
I’ve seen a UFO too, and I mean that literally, Unidentified Flying Object. I have no idea what it was. One night late we were driving on a lonely stretch between Boise, ID and Utah, and I saw a light coming up very fast behind us. Not a big deal, headlights I figured. I only kept an eye on it because of its crazy speed. It stayed exactly in the left lane, perfectly smooth and straight. It wasn’t until it got closer I realized it wasn’t touching the ground. We were probably doing 80 mph, and it flew past like we were standing still, a huge blue-white orb about ten or twelve feet off the ground, bigger than our car, but smaller than a dump truck, directed movement, and utterly silent. There wasn’t even any blowback as it passed.
Now, don’t run around telling everyone that Paula Hiatt is all about little green men, because that’s not what I said. I know all the details of what I saw, but there is a great gulf between aliens and that orb in Idaho, and not one iota of evidence to build a bridge. I know what I saw, but I don’t even pretend to know what it meant. Fortunately, I’m in good company; Shakespeare made the same point in 1599. Remember Act 1: “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet had just been talking to his own father’s ghost. Sometimes I wonder if Shakespeare had a ghost story of his own, or if there were simply so many stories floating around that it wasn’t too far-fetched to put a ghost in a play or two. He did handle ghosts quite differently than his contemporary playwrights, but that is perhaps a discussion for another day.
I suppose what I’m really thinking about is faith. We all have it in some form or another, in fact, we can’t escape it. Have you realized that? Take the afterlife, for instance. Some believe in a binary Heaven and Hell with nothing in-between. Others believe in reincarnation, and still others believe that life ends at death with nothing left over, just to name a few. Personally, I believe in God and the afterlife. One day we will be resurrected and sorted into one of three kingdoms, the one where our actions have demonstrated we will be most comfortable. I can’t prove it, but I have such clear faith in my understanding of the afterlife that it informs all my decisions on earth.
It’s easy to spot the Christian perception of faith, or the Hindu’s or the Muslim’s, etc. We’re accustomed to using faith and religion in the same sentence, but what about all the Atheists out there? They absolutely have faith too, believing with all their hearts in the ever-evolving theories of what might have jumpstarted the universe and life on earth. Their faith must be particularly strong, because unlike religious faith, science has not fully written their story, so they must hang their hats on electrical currents, magic crystals, or ancient aliens or some other unknown catalyst which may or may not have seeded life on this planet. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, everyone believes in something we cannot see. That means faith lies at the heart of even the most scientific of methods, though it may be well camouflaged.
What do faith, Hamlet, ghosts, and UFOs have to do with that sweet dying toddler in China, or the nonverbal little girl who got the giggles as I held her in my arms? Shakespeare already told us. “There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio.” “More things,” he said, that’s a heavily loaded term which creates a wealth of “What If.”
As I stood by the crib of that little toddler, angry and impotent, What If there were others in the room, surrounding us both and making up for my lack, easing his way and waiting to take him home to those who love him? What If there is an angel with a great sense of humor making my little friend laugh and laugh? What If our struggles matter to many more people than we realize, and we are not left to fight alone? What would that mean?
Life is exquisitely unfair, all of us know that, but What If there were unseen forces quietly balancing the scales in ways we cannot yet detect? I do not have the answers any more than I can explain my UFO, but I know I heard my grandfather’s voice, and I know with great certainty that I would not have survived the last few years without generous help, both seen and unseen, much of it too tender to share. I cannot prove any of it, but neither can anyone disprove it.
I can’t answer any of the What If questions I have posed, so I won’t even try. But I have had to humble myself to accept and acknowledge that “There are more things in heaven and Earth” than I could have dreamt of myself. If you are still pretending you cannot yet see it, my heart goes out to you. Alas, poor Yorick