I respect you and you believe in spirits

I wrote this reflection while doing fieldwork for my MA thesis in Landscape Archaeology at the National University of Ireland-Galway. It was originally posted on my Tumblr in July of 2016. 

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One thing I have struggled with over the last year is setting aside my disbelief to respect the beliefs of others. One of my constant anxieties has been the gap in my understanding of why people I respect hold worldviews so drastically different from my own. Shouldn’t people smarter and wiser and older than me know better than me? Yet, they believe in silly things like ghosts, spirits, and dare I say, God. And shouldn’t I, as an anthropologist, fully accept that other people have unique ways of knowing things about their subjectively constructed world around them?

I do not want to be malicious—I want to be respectful and support diverse human knowledge. At the same time, I want to assert my own knowledge of the world as truth; I want to do away with ambiguous beliefs that have caused such harm in the past by creating social structures that ostracize entire groups of people and suppress the potential of individuals. I want people to fully appreciate the real life we have here and now, rather than suffering and believing (or “knowing”) that in the end, there will be justice.

Reconciling the two has been an ongoing and difficult task. I am sure my position will evolve in the future and maybe one day, all this will sound silly. But as of right now, I feel I am only beginning to understand how difficult it is to live in a world that is both social and scientific.

I would like to illustrate some progress I have made by describing an encounter I had in the small graveyard behind my house in Galway, Ireland. One July evening, I was recording gravestones that pre-date 1920. It was absolutely beautiful outside: the space was open, the sun was shining at a low angle, and all of the visible magpies were in pairs. I was in the infrequent condition of being perfectly dressed for the weather: a comfy jacket for the autumn wind that seems to prevail in Irish July, and my boots were perfectly tied.

I was also doing something very inappropriate for a graveyard visit: I was listening to music (Punch Brothers, Movement and Location, to be exact). I was content, as opposed to the ill-at-ease I typically feel in the emotionally public spaces of graveyards. Further, I was proud for once of the progress I was making. At the moment, I was completely into it.

I felt my phone vibrate, which caused me to look up. A man had just entered the small graveyard and went to the north end to lean against a stone. Whoever sent me a message had just saved me the blatant rudeness that I was clearly exhibiting with my bright white headphones running against my black leather jacket. I hastily stuffed them into my pocket (so long Punch Brothers) and hoped that I looked professional and respectful enough. I looked at my notes—child’s scribbles in a green marker because I was foolish enough to forget a real pen.

During my work in cemeteries in Wisconsin the two previous summers, a community member would always arrive on scene within 20 minutes of us arriving. They never went to one stone, but meandered the rows without approaching us, secretly trying to gauge who we were in their cemetery. When we were sufficiently judged as not a threat, they would leave, without a word. I wondered if this man in Galway was here to keep an eye on me, or if he came here often. I had never seen anyone in the graveyard before, even though I walked past it multiple times a day, but I didn’t want to bother him with questions if he was visiting someone. I went about my business, and he left without saying anything.

Ten minutes later, I heard a gentle cough and turned to see another man leaning over the wall, pointedly not looking at me. I imagined I sighed and twitched my nose at the anxiety of a social encounter. I was on my last stone and rushed to finish transcribing the work of a P. Fahy headstone. If the coughs were hints, he was throwing a lot of them. When I finished, I marched over to my backpack, so conveniently placed directly in front of the man on the wall.

Without looking at me, he says “Funny place for a graveyard, isn’t it?”

I must have snorted in response. I had spent an hour earlier that day considering the placement of this particular graveyard.

“It is, isn’t it?” I am picking up the Irish way of ending a statement with a question.

“Makes you wonder if there was a church here at some point.”

I was about to ruin the wonder. I knew the answer. This particular graveyard wasn’t old by Irish standards. The oldest stone was from the 1880s and there was no evidence in place or on maps that suggested there was anything here beforehand.

“Could you hear the spirits?”

So this is where the conversation was going to go. Am I meant to say “Yes” or “No” or give a long winded ambiguous answer? Instead, I do what I like to think any of us would have done and tried to relate the topic to the weather. “Oh, you know, I was just thinking… its absolutely gorgeous out. Perfect weather for visiting a graveyard.”

“But have you come at night and heard the spirits?” He wasn’t going to let it go.

“No. Do you think I should?”

“If you be careful. Some people are particularly lucky; they can communicate with the spirit world better than others. I thought you might be one of them.”

I don’t think I am. Although I lose my American edge when talking to older men from Mayo, I don’t think I lose it enough to speak to the otherworld.

“Have you been out to Inis Oírr? No? Well there is graveyard nearly covered in the sand dunes. And a church, much like the one in Kerry, St. Kevin’s. And there is a woman there, who can speak to both the dead and the living.”

We stood for a moment and stared out at the stones, the grass responding to the wind. Were we listening?

“All right then. Best of luck” And he left.

I gathered my things and wondered if I had heard the spirits. For what does that mean? Some sort of aural resonance? Would they speak in Irish or in English or in some otherworldly language? Would they appear in this sunlight or must I to wait until it was dark? Did the spirits tell me the other man had walked in earlier to get me to take my headphones off? Were they the reason I had no pen? (I found three in backpack when I got home–so they were there!)

Regardless of whether there was something to hear or see of the otherworld, I could feel the emotional density of the graveyard—it was certainly a place to people. I may be awkward and stubborn and self-centred and somewhat of an iconoclast, but I am not unaware of people’s emotions and the meaning of things. The graveyard is patched by obvious undulations of the ground, where people are buried with no marker. The stones themselves speak: a husband who first lost his young wife, and then young daughter, and lived for years after; a brother and sister who died on the same day, years apart. People had to have noted it when the sister passed—did it mean anything or was it the winning 1-in-365 chance?  These are real stories on the stones, and in that way, I did hear the spirits.

I turned to look back at the graveyard from up the hill, just before it would disappear and I would descend the few blocks to my house. There was no sign of the man from Mayo who had stumbled upon a graveyard, and stumbled upon me, the archaeologist. Was that itself a sign? And then I thought about the stir-fry I was going to make for dinner.

-Erin J. Hastings

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