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Ghosts vs. Angels

AbneyPark2Even though these days I spend all my time thinking about and writing about ghosts, and my novel Apparition is a ghost story, my first obsession wasn’t with ghosts but with angels.

My mother was born in rural Prince Edward Island, the second youngest child and only girl in a large family. Her mother died when she was only eight years old, and her father sent her off to a residential convent school for the remainder of her education. For years during the 1940s she lived in a residential convent school, raised and educated by nuns. That’s a heavy dose of old-fashioned Catholic religion. And she passed it on to her children – just as heavy.

My childhood world was supernatural – religious statues and pictures, rosaries and holy water fonts, prayer books and blessed medals. The atmosphere was thick with invisible characters – angels and martyrs and saints, the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary.  But my favourite invisible beings were always the angels – angels in general and guardian angels in particular.

Who can resist the idea of an angel watching over you? Keeping an eye on you? When I was really young I used to worry that I might accidentally crowd my guardian angel when I got into bed or sat in a chair. I imagined her so close by, she had to dodge me a bit when I made a fast move.

I imagined angels to be pale white and translucent, and beautiful and loving, but also tough enough to protect me from harm. But I was never really drawn to the religious images of angels in artwork – white fluffy clouds, harps, flowing robes and wings. Those angels in medieval paintings always looked bored to me.

Something about growing up made me lose interest in angels. Life got more complicated, and it seemed to me that angels didn’t. Except for the last angel I ever remember seeing. She was a very old lady on the bus. I don’t know why she struck me as an angel, but the impression was overwhelming. She was hunched and wrinkled and frail, moving slowly to the back doors to exit. But something about her face was radiant, as only an angel’s can be. I was so struck by her that I wrote a poem about angels as soon as I got home.

I gradually became more interested in ghosts than angels. Angels are so virtuous and pure and well-intentioned, and ghosts, well – not always. Ghosts are more like us. Where I’d always looked to angels for protection, ghosts remind me of loss. In the end, the older I get, the more I think I can relate to ghosts. Ghosts speak to me in a way that angels never could. And that’s why I write about ghosts. They make a strange kind of sense.

But does that mean a ghost can’t also be a bit of a guardian angel too? That’s where Matthew Sorenson in Apparition comes in. Could he become Amelia’s ‘guardian ghost’? It’s taking him a while to get used to being a ghost, but who knows what will happen when he does?

Finally, for the record, here’s the poem I wrote after seeing the old lady/angel on the bus.


Angels by Gail B. Gallant

angels live and die and live

and die and live again

even the purest spirits

find they flicker now and then

forever is a broken line

that breaks and joins again

like music that arises, fades

and then is heard again

and angels can be old and dry

and still be full of light

and spirits have been seen to fly

after their final flight

between two deaths come many births

that make the living bright

like flashing light that’s off and on

continuous to sight

though true the speed can vary

like the fluttering of a wing

angels come to life again

with all the force of spring

and life is off and on

just like the blessings angels bring

when angels die they truly die

and push the limits of pain

and birth hurts just like dying

pushing limits just the same

true when angels die

they leave an awful empty space

but angels come alive again

and temperatures rise again

and souls are open-eyed again

leaving death without a trace

so immortality is a lie

because the soul can live and die

before their last eternal rest

angels live a thousand lives

undo a thousand deaths


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