As light faded, a century dissolved, and I heard ghosts. No ectoplasm or voices, just a powerful presence of the past, heightened by the potential consequences of my own folly in being there.
So, think about ghosts. If we visit the original place, or we hold the artifact in our hand, and, if we find the right frame of mind, then something happens. Combine knowledge of the past with the physical object, and we can get much more than the sum of two parts. If the circumstances are right, we share something with those who once touched — or who saw — what we now touch or see.
We find history transcending dates and facts. We join the past by sensing its unique texture. We hear what it’s telling us. The same thing happened to me when a Polish friend took me to see Auschwitz on a rainy weekday — a day when we, and the ghosts, were the only beings in that desolate place.
But, put aside slaughter and genocide. Happier ghosts dwell in, say, old books. Look at marginalia in books from other centuries — in books that’ve changed lives. As we read what readers have left in the margins, their ghosts reveal the transforming power of the written word in other ages. Or walk through old houses, for all houses are haunted in the sense that I offer the word.
And I leave you with this claim. It is, simply, that we never fully know any history until we quiet our minds, and listen to the people who once lived it.
From a John Lienhard blog post at the University of Houston