Saying Thanks To My Ghosts Novelist Amy Tan hasn't always believed in ghosts, but as a writer she's had too many inspirations that she can't fully explain. Now, Tan embraces her belief in ghosts and the messages of joy, love and peace they bring her.
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Saying Thanks To My Ghosts

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Saying Thanks To My Ghosts

Saying Thanks To My Ghosts

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: I believe in adaptation.

Unidentified Woman #1: I believe in a silver lining.

Unidentified Child: I believe that being flexible keeps me going.

Unidentified Man #2: I believe every single person deserves to be acknowledged.

Unidentified Man #3: This I believe.

NEARY: For four years that music and a collage of voices have opened This I Believe, our series featuring statements of belief from people from all walks of life. After more than 200 segments, This I Believe concludes today. Later we'll hear the final essay from novelist Amy Tan and talk to Jay Allison, the series curator.

Our invitation to all of you has been a simple one: Tell us a story about the fundamental belief that guides your life. It's become a popular exercise for individuals and groups. People have written essays in book clubs, church meetings, corporate board rooms, coffee shops, and especially schools. About a third of the 65,000 statements submitted to the project have come from students.

Brighton Earley was a senior at Immaculate Heart High School in Los Angeles when she wrote her essay for This I Believe. It aired on NPR last summer.

Ms. BRIGHTON EARLEY: One day my mother suddenly realized that she had maxed out almost every credit card, and we needed groceries for the week. The only credit card she hadn't maxed out was the Chevron card, and the station on Eagle Rock Boulevard has a pretty big mart attached to it.

Since our first visit there, I've learned to believe in flexibility. In my life it has become necessary to bend the idea of grocery shopping. My mother and I can no longer shop at real grocery stores, but we still get the necessities.

Grocery shopping at Chevron has its drawbacks. I'm embarrassed to shop there. And I'm deathly afraid of running into someone I know. And that is why I hold onto the idea of flexibility so tightly. I believe that being flexible keeps me from being ashamed of the way my family is different from other families. My belief in flexibility helps me get through the difficult times because I know that no matter what happens, my mother and I will always figure out a way to survive.

NEARY: Brighton Earley is now a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley. She joins me from member station KQED in San Francisco. Hi, Brighton.

Ms. EARLEY: Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: Why, Brighton, what made you write this essay, This I Believe essay, to begin with?

Ms. EARLEY: Well, I wrote the essay during the summer before 12th grade. It was a difficult summer. I was home worrying about a lot of financial things and it was definitely a low point. And for a long time I was depressed because I wanted to be out traveling and taking classes like a lot of my friends. But then I realized that just because I wasn't out seeing the world or learning amazing things didn't mean that I had nothing to say. So instead of feeling sorry for myself, I wrote about what I was going through.

NEARY: So did you find it hard to put what you believe into words? Did you know what you were going to say as you began it? Did you have the belief? Or as you wrote it, did you really formulate the belief?

Ms. EARLEY: Well, as one of my 12th grade English teachers would say, hardly anything worth doing is easy. But it was difficult to get started. What I wrote about was very personal and I didn't want to appear weak and I didn't want pity. I just wanted to make my teachers at Immaculate Heart proud, to show them that I had been listening and that I had learned to use writing as a way of dealing with a difficult situation.

NEARY: And what kind of response did you get from NPR listeners? Did you hear from anyone?

Ms. EARLEY: Oh, yeah. From listeners, I received everything from grocery store gift cards to a good book to read and many letters. A lot of people wrote to me about their own financial difficulties. And while it was sad to read about so many other people's struggles, it made me feel like I wasn't alone. And it made me feel special that people felt comfortable opening up to me about what they were going through.

NEARY: Well, I want to bring someone else into the conversation now. Kyle Dickson is an associate professor of English at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. And he joins us from the studios of NPR member station KACU in Abilene, Texas. Hi, Kyle.

Professor KYLE DICKSON (Abilene Christian University): Hello, Lynn.

NEARY: Kyle, I know you've been asking your students to write This I Believe essays for about four years now. And you even helped develop a curriculum for other college teachers to use. How have your students reacted to sharing these, sort of, intimate thoughts?

Prof. DICKSON: I think every year the essays I read from students like Brighton end up surprising me with a certain courage. For many of these essays are written at a kind of a threshold moment, maybe between high school and college or between a life within the family and kind of striking out on their own. And it's a pretty frank re-evaluation of the things that they've come to believe that have been kind of percolating in their heads maybe for years.

NEARY: Now, you've found ways to take this as a classroom and to share your students' essays with a wider audience. Tell us about that.

Prof. DICKSON: Well, I think our initial interest in the assignment was that it was welcoming students into a kind of a broad, national dialogue. And so we wanted to find a way to take the essays off the page, to take the essays out of just an interaction with an individual instructor. And so almost immediately we began podcasting the essays of students that chose to participate here locally.

And then about a year later, pretty naturally, it turned it into a partnership with a local public radio station here in Abilene, where not only the strongest essays from area colleges, but also kind of local listeners, would contribute to that ongoing dialogue here.

NEARY: Now, Kyle, have you written an essay?


(Sound bite of laughter)

Prof. DICKSON: I've actually been struggling with one. I've got four false starts that I've sat on for different summers. But it's a very difficult process. And I've got seven-eighths of one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Somehow that doesn't seem right, Kyle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DICKSON: No, I - my students often remind of the fact. And so I've offered, I think, to sit down and write the essay with them if they'd just let me off the hook of grading them.

NEARY: All right, Brighton, do you have any words of advice for Kyle, the teacher? You, the student, can help him out with this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EARLEY: Well, I think to be a really good example for your students, you've got to go through what they're going through. So I think you should just bite the bullet and write it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DICKSON: I think this is very helpful goading. The essay begins, I believe in punctuation. So I'll have to leave that to the next series.

NEARY: All right. And, Kyle, I believe that the teacher needs to write that essay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. DICKSON: I agree with you on it.

NEARY: The teach needs to complete the assignment, as they say.

This I Believe essay is Brighton Earley, is a freshman at the University of California at Berkeley and Kyle Dickson, co-author of the This I Believe college curriculum, teaches at Abilene Christian University in Texas. Thank you both.

Prof. DICKSON: Thank you.

Ms. EARLEY: Thank you.

NEARY: Jay Allison is our curator and producer of the This I Believe essays you've heard on WEEKEND EDITION and other NPR programs these past four years. And for our 210th and final statement of belief, he has selected an essay from novelist Amy Tan, well-known for books like "The Joy Luck Club" and "The Bonesetter's Daughter." Jay Allison joins us now from public radio station WCAI on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Good to have you with us, Jay, for this amazing moment.

JAY ALLISON: I know. It's the very end, Lynn.

NEARY: And I understand the series began in April of 2005 with an essay from another writer from San Francisco, Isabel Allende.

ALLISON: That's right. And so we're four years later, and we're ending the broadcast run now with an essay from the Chinese-American writer from San Francisco, Amy Tan. And coincidentally, Allende wrote about the belief that she acquired after the death of her daughter. And Tan writes of the belief she came to after the death of her mother. So here's Amy Tan with her essay for This I Believe.

Ms. AMY TAN (Author): I didn't used to believe in ghosts, but I was trained to talk to them. My mother reminded me many times that I had the gift. It all stemmed from a lie I told when I was four. The way my mother remembered it, I refused to get ready for bed one night, claiming there was a ghost in the bathroom. She was delighted to learn I was a spirit medium. Thereafter, she questioned anything unusual: a sudden gust of wind, a vase that fell and shattered. She would ask me, she here? She meant my grandmother.

When I was a child my mother told me that my grandmother died in great agony after she accidentally ate too much opium. My mother was nine years old when she watched this happen. When I was 14, my older brother was stricken with a brain tumor. My mother begged me to ask my grandmother to save him. When he died, she asked me to talk to him, as well. I don't know how, I protested.

When my father died of a brain tumor six months after my brother, she made me use a Ouija board. She wanted to know if they still loved her. I spelled out the answer I knew she wanted to hear, yes, always.

When I became a fiction writer in my 30s, I wrote a story about a woman who killed herself eating too much opium. After my mother read a draft of that story, she had tears in her eyes. Now she had proof: my grandmother had talked to me and told me her true story. How else could I have known my grandmother had not died by accident, but with the fury of suicide? She asked me, she here now? I answered honestly, I don't know.

Over the years I have included other details in my writing I could not possibly have known on my own: a place, a character, a song. I have come to feel differently about my ghostwriters. Sometimes their clues have come so plentifully they've made me laugh like a child who can't open birthday presents fast enough. I must say thanks, not to blind luck, but to my ghosts.

Ten years ago I clearly saw a ghost. And she talked to me. It was my mother. She had died just 24 hours before. Her face was ten times larger than life, in the form of a moving pulsing hologram of sparkling lights. My mother was laughing at my surprise. She drew closer. And when she reached me, I felt as if I had been physically punched in the chest. It took my breath away and filled me with something absolute - love, but also joy and peace — and with that, understanding that love and joy and peace are all the same thing. Joy comes from love. Peace comes from love. Now you know, my mother said.

I believe in ghosts. Whenever I want, they will always be there: my mother, my grandmother, my ghosts.

ALLISON: That was Amy Tan with her essay for This I Believe. Tan told us that she's a rational person - she even belongs to a science club, she said - but she's amazed at how many scientists she talks to who secretly believe in ghosts. She also noted that her father believed in a ghost - the Holy Ghost. He was a minister.

So, that's it, Lynn. After four years, our last essay on NPR.

NEARY: Jay, I love the fact that you've ended with an essay about someone who believes in ghosts of all things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALLISON: I know. You know, we've had a real array of beliefs over four years, I can tell you.

NEARY: Yeah. And what have you learned over these four years about Americans' beliefs? Do you think you have a better idea of the values that drive us and inspire us?

ALLISON: With some exceptions, more than being American values, they're really just human values. And I think people seem more tied in their beliefs than divided. I mean, they believe in the things that define us a species. They wonder at birth and death and they wonder at the mystery of life. And we all share suffering and the beliefs that arise from that and keep us going.

And I also think people are inspired by each other. You know, so many essayists write and they say, well, I'm going to write, but somebody else said something and it made me think. And so it becomes a kind of dialogue and back and forth. That's been really wonderful to see grow over the years.

NEARY: Interesting. Well, you know, it's interesting, too, because, you know, we're living in an era where people are blogging, sharing their thoughts instantly in Twitter or Facebook. What do you think it is about this idea of writing an essay about what I believe that has thrived, you know, in the midst of all this other stuff that passes for public discourse now?

ALLISON: It might be the premeditation. I mean, this isn't idle, it's not an improvisation, it's not a reaction, it's not a toss-off. People think about these things as something that may last. I mean, I always think working on the series, what if I had one of these essays from my grandparents? If they had taken the time to really sit down and distill that central thing about their lives.

And many people, when they do this, they're thinking at that level. And I think that separates it from Twitter and blogging and Facebook. It's not a chronicle of what's happening in that moment. It's something that's gathered over the course of an entire life.

NEARY: Jay Allison is co-editor with Dan Gediman, John Gregory and Viki Merrick of the books "This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women: Volumes 1 and 2." Jay, thanks so much for the series. Thanks so much for being with us.

ALLISON: Thanks a lot, Lynn.

NEARY: And although the NPR series is ending, This I Believe will continue. You can find out more about what's in store for the project, download the free educational curricula and add your own essay to the collection by visiting our Web site at While you're there, you can also browse a gallery of previous essays and share your thoughts about the NPR series.

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