Before I begin, I want to share a few notes on ghosts. I’ve written them, each of them, down on scrap pieces of paper, stray blank pages in cluttered notebooks, penmanship a messy sprawl. Rarely does inspiration come in the moments I’m searching for it, and lessons have never arrived in the packaging I asked for.
Ghosts are, first and foremost, indifferent to your thoughts on their existence. They interact with us all, the open radicals and stalwart rationalists alike, haunt our hallways, watch us study our faces in the mirror.
They bear minimal resemblance to the ways in which we’ve imagined them. They are not ethereal slivers of phantasmic light, nor howling and hollow-faced entities in the dark. We are right when we claim that they are born from what has died, left us behind, but they do not seek to finish any business. Humans, not ghosts, are the ones deeply preoccupied with notions of closure.
Finally, I’ll say this: I’ve not kept the company of a single ghost I didn’t welcome into my living room, talk to in the hollow silences, cling to despite my claims of feeling haunted. We are, I will tell you, the inventors of our ghosts, their shapers and keepers.
Because, more often than not, we are happier feeling haunted than feeling alone.
The first ghost arrived at the dawn of my first unraveling. I was 25, and everything I’d believed about myself was in splayed ribbons across the floorboards. After work each day, the couch cradled me, and I sunk into it gladly. It was an age of constant sinking, of retreating into a self I didn’t recognize.
In those days, I looked into the mirror to find the ghost there, distorting my face mockingly. You did an ugly thing, it insisted, and so you are ugly. I didn’t weep, didn’t argue, only nodding knowingly.
The ghost stayed a good long while, tucked itself stubbornly in my dresser drawers even when I drew the curtains apart. On some of my brightest days, after laughing with friends and wrapping myself in sunlight throughout the day, I came home to find the ghost waiting.
Slowly, painstakingly, I came to understand it as the ghost of never showing my face because I’m convinced nobody will love me in the light, and I’ve mostly learned to let it go. Even now, years and miles apart from its arrival, I still have to tangle it free, usher it out of the open window.
As ghosts are wont to do, the second nestled itself around me in the midst of my grief. I’d loved somebody, built a life around him and showing up for him, only to watch him go. Where did he go, the ghost stretched itself across my heaving shoulders, and why, and is he coming back, and what did you miss, and what did you do wrong.
For months, the ghost sat with me on the living room floor, stretching my life out and studying every inch of it to figure out where I went wrong. Surely I wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be here, if I’d done everything right, if I’d been brave, if I’d done enough, been enough.
One day, exhausted by the act of combing over my story with a fine-toothed comb, I looked up to see it in the light, the ghost of believing bravery earns us a happy ending.
He left, I told it, because he didn’t know how to stay. It roared its protest, assured me that wasn’t it, but I said it again, certainty rippling its way into my limbs. He left because he didn’t know how to stay.
And it vanished, the ghost, without so much as a goodbye.
Before I tell you about the third ghost, I want you to understand something: I haven’t fully figured out how to wrestle it loose. I know its face, I understand the way it’s haunted almost every chapter of my story, and still I haven’t decided I can truly let it go.
I discovered it recently, actually, sitting at a coffee shop and writing about the hard lessons I’ve learned. I’m tired, I wrote, of mining pearls from the wounds on my sternum. I wasn’t healing, due in large part to the habit of opening wounds just as they’ve begun to close.
I’ve done this my whole life, I whispered to myself, and realized I’ve held onto every heartbreak: the loss of my childhood dog, my brother abandoning me to hang out with his friend at the park, the girl who laughed and asked me if I was gay at thirteen years old, the hard turns of coming out, all of it. I’ve kept them all, bundled them on a shelf, combed over the pages again and again.
It’s the ghost, I think, of the insistent aftermath, of finding a silver lining to the hard passages. Certainly there must be a lesson in every falling apart, the ghost whispers, calming me in my quaking. If you insist it hard enough, maybe it will be true, maybe everything has to happen for a reason.
At its beckoning, I go, story the ugly passages, arrange them into meaning. This is the bargain we’ve reached, the ghost free to linger and I comforted by the notion that I have never been broken without gaining something irreplaceable in return.