Ghost Or Ancestor?

Playing the guitar, photo by Scott Gruber on Unsplash

Playing the guitar, photo by Scott Gruber on Unsplash

I’m not the HUGE fan that my husband, David, is when it comes to Bruce Springsteen, but I do love The Boss’s talent for wordcraft.

So, while David loves the music (which was the soundtrack to much of his youth), it is Springsteen’s dexterity with language that sends me to another place.

Be a superfan or basic fan of the Boss, the impact David and I both had from Springsteen’s recently-finished Broadway show was strangely similar. We both thoroughly enjoyed our “front row seats” to the Netflix release of “Springsteen on Broadway.”

The show was a quiet, introspective experience, melding together Springsteen’s music and stories complemented by many of his best songs while highlighting details and insights from the pages of his autobiography, “Born To Run.”

The intimate power of Springsteen’s acoustic guitar blended seamlessly with his spoken word as his deep-state stories unfolded. Riveting and gentle moments were thoughtful and invited introspection. I kept wondering why—given all the revelations putting on the show must have required—did Bruce sign up to perform this piece six nights a week? Because of its unmitigated success, six nights a week went on for two years.

I was surprised to learn that much of Springsteen’s storytelling—including in some of his most iconic songs—was not based on firsthand experience. Bruce wasn’t versed in automobiles—in fact, he hadn’t driven a car as a young man—and he never worked a blue-collar job.

Instead, Bruce conjured feelings and details of stories he witnessed and felt, weaving them into inspired poetry that touched cords in the lives of listeners. Rather than lacking authenticity, Springsteen’s music reveals the evidence of his artistry and the space where creativity transcends the limits of an individual who is so clearly tapping into something bigger.


Throughout the performance, we were in close quarters of much of Bruce’s experience, with home towns, lost love and growing pains, but then the tone becomes remarkably more personal. Bruce recalls the difficult relationship with his father, one he had acknowledged as being hard but whom he had long learned to accept.  I remember hearing his growing-up stories in the fall of 1984 with David, my newly minted husband, at an amazing concert in Ames, Iowa.  At my first BOSS concert, I remember telling David, “He loves to tell stories, doesn’t he?”

But what we perhaps most surprisingly learned in Springsteen on Broadway was that, right before Bruce was to become a father for the first time, his own father arrived and offered a token of hope. He admitted his failings, and thanked Bruce for his generosity as a successful artist. As a father who “didn’t do well,” he encouraged his son to do better. Bruce related the profound gift his father gave – the passing a torch of possibility rather than continuing a history of burden.

Springsteen said in his Broadway show that "We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children's lives. We either lay our mistakes, our burdens upon them, and we haunt them, or we assist them in laying those old burdens down and we free them from the chain of our own flawed behavior. And as ancestors, we walk alongside of them, and we assist them in finding their own way and some transcendence." After many years of considering his father a ghost, Springsteen later saw that quiet moment when his father "petitioned for a role" as an ancestor.

This powerful revelation was the most insightful moment for me in the two and a half hour show that left us considering life. I believe we all share Springsteen’s hope in that story. Sometimes there is resolution, which makes room for forgiveness and even transformation.


It was the distinction between the ghosts that haunt us and the ancestors that walk alongside us that left me pondering. Which do we aspire to be in the lives of those we love?

When David and I started out as a couple, young and naïve, we came together each carrying the baggage of difficult parent/child relationships. Our vow was to do better and be the opposite of our experiences. I suspect in our youthful bravado we thought it would be so easy to do better. We did avoid some of our parents’ mistakes, and then went on to make some of our own mistakes as well.

I know firsthand how it took me years to decide not to let my parents haunt me. I was never given the gift Springsteen’s father bestowed upon him, however (one of closure). There are wounds that just had to heal over, and we just had to move on. But I’m grateful now for the gift of maturity and wisdom, helping me know that I had to choose my feelings about the past.

Just like the lyrics from “Long Time Comin’” – “Tonight I’m gonna get birth naked and bury my old soul, and dance on its grave.” If we’re lucky we grow wise and realize that we each live in our heads, and there is where we must make our peace.


I have never been more flabbergasted by how indifferent much of humanity is to their responsibility to the next generation. I realize this is a broad statement that is hugely unfair to millions and billions of humans, but I’m speaking from a small and biased place.

To this phenomenon, I see how we seem more focused on fulfilling our personal needs and subsiding our fears rather than on our responsibilities to the future. We are faltering in our care for the land, our care for each other and care for our society.

But maybe it is always this way as humans, I’ve only been around for 50+ years of it.

I admit, it seems easier to fester on this big and uncontrollable thought rather than consider the question more closely in my own role as ghost or ancestor. Will I be the paranormal for my children and grandchildren, or the wise ancestor that supports my descendants? Truth is, I feel that I’ll be fortunate to be remembered at all, but I believe if I share honestly and relate my stories, I stand a better chance of passing hope forward.    

In telling the stories of our times we give the gift of legacy and provide ourselves the opportunity to be cherished ancestors.  The process of introspection is an adventure that supports those who walk the path for an enriched present and future.