First off, thank you for the costume suggestions. They were all marvelous. I'm leaning towards the clever-yet-sexy Freudian slip. On the other hand, it'd be hilarious to be a large bowl of green Jell-o (one of the more accurate stereotypes about Mormons is that we know hundreds of Jell-o casserole recipes). So it's Freudian slip vs. green Jell-o, the eternal debate: for Halloween, should I dress sexy or funny?
Yaddo. When I arrived I felt very young and out of place, as though, at any moment, I'd mispronounce something and out myself as a non-literary genius unworthy of the slot. My fears were confirmed the first night at dinner. I turned to the writer sitting next to me and politely asked, "Where in New York City do you live at?"Since we're still on the topic of Halloween, for my second post I've decided to tell the closest thing I have to a ghost story. Here goes: I started writing my book at the artist colony
To which he replied, "In a sentence that doesn't end with a preposition."
I left the dining room with my tail between my legs. He later explained that he was trying to set me up for a joke and that I was supposed to have come back with, "Where in New York City do you live at, asshole?"
We obviously weren't reading from the same script because, instead of this sassy line, all I saw were the stage directions: Stand up. Clear your plate. Get the hell out of there before you say anything else stupid, asshole.
As luck would have it, writer Andrew Sean Greer arrived my third day at Yaddo. While Andrew's books (The Story of a Marriage, The Confessions of Max Tivoli) reflect a more serious thinker, the Andy I know and love is into throwing mash-up dance parties, exploring hidden rooms in the Yaddo mansion, and hiding 5 lb. dumbbells in my lunch box. We became fast friends.
One day, several weeks into my residency, one of the poets (a huge fan of Sylvia Plath) told Andy and me that the room Sylvia Plath had once occupied (where she'd completed her first volume of poetry, Colossus) was going to be vacant for a night. We decided to hold a Sylvia Plath séance.
At midnight, holding copies of Ariel, ceremonious candles and a ouija board, seven artists snuck into Sylvia's old room.
"We invite the spirit of Sylvia Plath to join us. Is there a spirit with us now?"
The indicator on the ouija board moved to YES. As a Mormon I was taught not to meddle with things like ouija boards, the game "light as a feather," or chanting "Bloody Mary" in a bathroom mirror. And so, instead of participating, I'd offered to be the group scribe.
"Identify yourself," a poet asked.
"S,Y,L,V,I,A, P,L,A,T,H," I wrote each letter down.
"Sylvia, tell us about your process?" one of the poets began.
"Is confessional poetry dead?" another poet piped in.
Perhaps it was the fact that six people were holding the indicator, or perhaps the last thing a dead person wants to talk about is their work; either way, the indicator went from letter to letter without ever spelling anything discernable. Until, all of a sudden, it stopped completely and then started again with newfound vigor.
"E,L,N,A, E,L,N,A, E,L,N,A," the indicator moved quickly from letter to letter.
"Guys, this isn't funny."
"We're not doing it."
"Then why is she spelling my name?"
"Do you have a question for Elna?"
"What is it?" I asked Sylvia.
The indicator spun in three full circles and then stopped for good. The poets tried calling Sylvia back, but it was pointless, she was already gone.
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Half an hour later, walking back to the mansion with Andy, I forgot all about my piety.
"Let's get the ouija board from the parlor, go back, and find out Sylvia's question."
"This sounds like the beginning to a horror film," Andy groaned.
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The indicator started to slink forward.
Andy, unsure of how to conduct, made a face. "Who's here?" he asked.
"Well isn't that nice. Sylvia, do you still have a question for Elna?"
"What is it?"
"A,M, I, A,M?"
A part of me was certain that Andy was putting me on, so when she asked this particular question, it startled me. Unbeknownst to Andy, I used to repeat a mantra to myself everyday: I am what I am.
"Are you asking me if I am who I say I am?"
"Yes," I answered. "Why?"
"I, A,M, Y,O,U."
"What does that mean?" I started to panic. "Do I have a mental illness?"
"R,E,L,A,X," the ouija board finished.
"Is she being sarcastic?"
"No," Andrew offered, "I think she means you need to relax into yourself." He turned to face the ouija board, "Are you saying Elna needs to relax into herself?"
"But what is it that I'm supposed to do?"
"Help? How? What am I going to be?"
"Nice?" I looked up at Andy, "That's all? I'm going to be nice?"
"Do you have any other advice for Elna?" he asked.
"L,O,V,E," as soon as she finished spelling this word, the indicator moved down to the "GOODBYE."
RELAX, HELP, NICE, LOVE. Sylvia, known for her intense metaphors and avid description, had become a little general in the afterlife.
Whether it was the real Sylvia Plath singling me out, or Andrew Sean Greer imparting ghostly wisdom, I keep a note card on the bulletin above my desk to remind me of this evening:
"R,E,L,A,X." — Sylvia Plath
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Elna Baker is a Mormon stand-up comedian and writer. She has performed in many of New York City's hottest venues, including Caroline's and the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre, as well as on NPR's This American Life, and received grants for her work from Yaddo and Breadloaf.
Books mentioned in this post
Elna Baker is the author of The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance