Communicating with the Spirits of the City

Let’s get a few things out of the way immediately. These are my beliefs and practices, your mileage may vary.I live in a rich and also rotting city, and it colors my practice pretty directly.

The city streets are littered with garbage, people, birds, leavings, and spirits. It takes some time to notice the spirits around you, but once you see them, they are everywhere. Once you notice them, you can try to talk to them.

“Portland” by Dale Cruse via Flickr

Portland Oregon is beautiful and flawed and crowned with the twin jewels of bigotry and elitism. It is in the whitest state in the United States. It has an unfortunate (and often overlooked/hidden) long racist past.  The history of this city is all around from the striking architecture of downtown to the sprawling suburban areas around the city. It sprawls and winds and has some beautiful and eerie spaces. It has risen in popularity as a gathering place for the young and middle class. Hipsters and punks who have non-traditional careers. It is full of people living their lives. It does not have enough homes for its residents, and it does not have enough secret places for all of its spirits.

I don’t know how I became aware of them initially. I know that sometimes in the dark of night or the slow haze of foggy morning I see them in the corners of my eyes and in the reflections of pop-up hipster boutiques. Men in suits, human shapes, and figures that are not there. Pigeons that have no eyes and the dead stare of a dog that when I turn my head is gone. It’s possible this is all in my mind.

I know that when I meditate at a bus stop listening to the quiet ambiance of the morning rush of downtown sometimes I hear a young boy trying to sell a newspaper. He is spouting headlines that make no sense to modern day. I’ve heard someone talk about recent violence in the Vanport slums like they were around the corner, using outdated vernacular and pausing to drag on a cigarette I can smell but not see the smoke of when I look around.

It’s in these liminal moments of commute and travel that I know that this city is holding onto those that went before. That I realize that people have walked these roads and sat on these stoops for decades. I know they are all around us, likely they are no more aware of us than we are of them.

There are so many spirits who don’t have the shape of a person or at least are shaped differently enough that they have lost their semblance altogether. Perhaps one eyelash row but the lack of an eye, or one crooked smile set just too far off in their face gives them away. I spy them in alleys and around corners, standing on second story fire escapes with no way up from the street.

I have started seeking them out more. I want to know where they came from, how they lost their shape, or if they started off altogether not person-shaped and have slowly copied us. I have found these things work well for me to engage them. I have had short conversations and some small interactions. I am trying to be safe and not invite too much attention or notice.

Leave a gift

City of Portland - Skyline by night with lights reflecting in the river.
2011-01-16 01-23 Portland, Oregon by Allie_Caulfield via Flickr
  • Like all creatures spirits in the city like treats. I find that sometimes the gift can be hello, but often I leave a full cigarette on the wall near where I smell the unseen smoke or leave a peanut out for the crows where I spied the corvid with no eyes. I leave heels of bread at crossroads and bottles of water where they will do good to humans. I collect rain water in my back yard and dump it into the tree planters near my bus stop. I just move my resources out into the world.
  • Give a quarter to the homeless man you’ve never seen. Spare the bread from your sandwich to the birds in the courtyard. Give some of your chicken to the cat that is sometimes around.

Be Polite

  • Greet them appropriately. Never gender the shapes that appear in the corners of your eyes. “Hello, Friend” and “Good Day there” work well. Be quiet when you say it, do not draw the attention of the people waiting to cross the street.
  • Do not ask for their name, they know it’s power. Ask them what they are called, use that no matter how strange it appears to you.
  • Use your nickname or your first name alone. Never give them a way to find you easily. If you do not have a nickname, create one.
  • Thank them if they speak to you, or look your way.
  • Never take their offered hand, ask the price of the gift they offer you. Decline politely if it is too high.
  • Spirits are like the fair folk, you do not want to be in their debt.

Be Cautious

  • Never approach something that looks like it wants to be left alone. Always be prepared to leave.
  • Do not ask too much. Ask about the weather and the day, never mention that they may have died, or are “not real” or are a “spirit”. Do not call them a creature. That is like pointing out that someone is wrong, it is rude to be direct. Ask about their history or their past, never be too specific.
  • You do not want them to follow you home. Don’t go directly there. Take four lefts to throw them off your path, never take the shortest path. Be prepared with enough time. Never be in a rush or a hurry. Time works differently for them.
  • Make a charm of protection, wear it near your skin. Keep a penny in each pocket. Never leave a seat in your car empty.
  • Put sigils on the bottom of your shoes to not be followed.

(Images under a Creative Commons Liscence Attribution 2.0 Generic)

[Poem] Spirit of the City

Spirit of the City.png

It’s like a tall person in a dirty suit.
It’s hat askew bit not jaunty. It leans preposterously in a doorframe just off the street.
It smells of stale beer, urine, cigarettes, weed, and rain. It has an imposing stare but it does not feel threatening, just uninvolved.
It’s pockets are full of transit transfers, loose change, gloves missing pairs, and half filled moleskins
It’s watching the people come and go, one long-fingered hand cradling it’s jaw, one holding a stack of Street Roots.
Did you notice it there, in the corner of your vision as you passed the space between two buildings?
It noticed you, it’s eyes moving as you passed, impassable face unmoving.
It always notices from rooftops tracing the routes of birds.
The paths of skateboarders.
Watching the street sleepers and rush hour commuters.
Watching, uninvolved, aware, awake, silent.

(Originally posted over on twitter as a series of tweets starting with this one. Above post includes a few spelling corrections.)