I’m knocking out these ghosts one right after the other so they can get out of my way for the changes to come. I’ve got a year of watching and listening and evaluating and experimenting under my belt, and now the time has come for moving on.
But first the ghosts have to go. Like everything I’ve done on this blog since I began it nearly a year ago, these ghost posts are experiments. I figure if I’m going to be a writer/creative, I won’t get very far without taking some risks and experimenting. Consider that a done deal.
Part One of these ghost tales was a test of my growing taste for essays, journalism, and memoir. I also like telling stories with an open end to them. Years ago I saw T.C. Boyle in an interview where he was asked what his latest book was about, and he said, “I don’t know. That’s up to the reader. I just write the things.” That stuck with me because no matter how hard we try as writers, readers will take away what they need from out best intentions (or hammers over the head). In Part One I told a story about discovering my most precious values remain in place, regardless of external pressures. It was also about a Big Something out there that always steps in and makes sure we get what we need most. In that story, it was the ability to give something of value to someone else, even if I was feeling cranky towards that person and had nothing of my own to give. No matter how empty our pockets or hearts may be, we’ve still got something to offer. All of us. We have value we can share.
As a writer, that’s an important lesson. Despite the doubts and fears and late starts and lack of skill, we still have something to offer. We have to trust that. We have to lean into it and let it be our cradle. We can’t create out of desperation and fear. Readers have a nose for that, and they’ll sniff us out every single time.
I probably didn’t pull off what I wanted with Part One, but them’s the breaks. I’ll keep trying. I don’t mind making mistakes, so long as there was some risks taken to get there. I hope you feel the same way, too.
In this second part, I’m not going to attempt an essay or story, just go about the business of sweeping out the ghosts.
If last Christmas was one of the best we’d ever had, this year’s Christmas was even better. Still no presents or family or friends or decorations, but we had one heck of a good time. All those rigid goals I had in place of paying down debt were met (insert happy dance here), and as tempting as it was to buy a second car with our freed-up income, we got a grip and passed. We’d just unloaded one foul heap of debt, no sense jumping into another one, no matter how glorious the benefits of the new debt promised to be.
That’s called freedom, and I like it.
Nothing is created from the depths of the gut without freedom.
There were two other big steps I took this year, and both of them helped make this Christmas one of my favorites and gave me back the freedom to write. Both involved walking away from people I loved.
I walked away from toxic love. I know, big groan over beating that old hag called “toxic people” with a wet noodle that does no good. But I see the issue a little different than most. Toxic people aren’t horrible people, they’re just not the right kind of people for me, or you, and that’s OK. I’m a toxic person to others, and that’s OK, too, so long as people have the good sense and stability to walk away. It’s not a statement about the inherent value of anybody, it’s an inescapable truth–not everybody is a good match for everybody else.
Like most people, I’ve been relying on FB feel-good posters about coping with people who don’t like me, finding comfort in wise words that told me they were jealous of me, wanted to be me, or were intimidated by me.
Sometimes I’m not liked for the scientific reason of Just Because. And sometimes I can feel oppressed by others for the same fancy scientific reason.
It’s co-incidence, not suppression of the feminine, that caused me to walk away from two men. I had no problem with their penises.
The first was a friend I’ve known for over 30 years. We met up in Manhattan once and strolled the streets arm-in-arm like an old married couple, sharing a long and lazy day cruising Tiffanys and playing with toys at Abercrombie & Finch, finishing the day with drinks at The View as the city slowly spun around us. Mostly we talked about the difficulties of our long-term relationships. We shared stuff. We were comfortable enough with each other to share our fears as they came up and be silly with giant stuffed giraffes when the opportunity arose. It was a good day.
Since that day, we’ve both changed dramatically. We’ve both gone through explosive times, good and bad, and we no longer fit arm-in-arm. I don’t even fit in his world, and he’d shrivel up and die in my new one. This change was thrown into high relief when I traveled 900 miles to attend his wedding. The particulars aren’t important, just the realization that we were play-acting an affection that was no longer there. It’s a sickening feeling when it first sinks in.
He and his newly-legal partner sent us a Christmas present and card, which I left on the kitchen table for weeks before throwing it away unopened. There was a touch of curiosity about what was in the card, but even that wasn’t as important as letting go and walking away. It was OK that we’d changed. It was OK that what was once precious had become toxic. We were still both dynamic, kick-ass people, but we’d lost the electricity in our relationship. It happens.
Nothing hurt as I emptied that day’s garbage. Nothing broke my heart as I let go. I didn’t have to hate him to leave him. If anything, I love him more.
The other lost love was a friend and neighbor. With him came the entire package of the town we now live in. He’s the one who helped us move here, installed blinds in all the rooms of our naked new house, planted azaleas in our front yard, scattered tens of pounds of grass seed and watered it as we packed for the move, and had comfy airbeds set up for us so we’d have a place to sleep in our new home once we got here. His mother died while we were on the road headed this way, but he made sure he was here to greet us when we arrived.
It didn’t take long for our relationship to deteriorate. My husband and I weren’t who he thought we were when we knew him back home, and once he was back in a small town setting like this one, he became someone we didn’t recognize. In Vegas he’d carefully hidden his small town roots and habits of the heart. But he was still the only person here we knew. He was our anchor and our only friend, yet we disappointed each other daily, me more than my husband.
Back home, this friend had called me his wife. He’d needed minor surgery a few times, and I was the one who took him to the hospital, stayed with him during recovery, helped him dress when he was ready to leave, then got him settled in his apartment and made sure there was food in his cupboards. The nurses gave me his post-op care instructions, calling Mrs. Him as they did so.
The time leading up to the move was exciting with lots of calls passing between us, filled with plans on the things we were going to do and promises made of good times we’d spend together, the projects we share the work doing.
None of it happened. All of it fell apart.
It took less than a month for me to start disliking him with an intensity that was shrill and obsessive. I had nothing good to say about the man, and I’m sure his small town tongue found its muscle and started wagging tales about me. Small towns run on gossip because there’s not much else happening. I developed a self-righteous disdain for gossip as a defense. But truth be told, the only thing I really hate about it is being left out of the loop on the really juicy bits.
Carrie Fisher had a wild and public breakdown, and about that spectacle she said that being crazy was easy, getting there was the tough part. Not fitting in somewhere is easy, it’s a kind of freedom that’s friendly and comforting. Getting to acceptance that you don’t fit in somewhere is the hard part, the part you kick against because it’s so scary and the consequences unknown. Once you get over that fear and realize you don’t fit here because there’s somewhere else you do fit, everything else is easy. You get over those parts of you so easily injured when you bounce from being dumped.
And you do bounce. You don’t break.
But, boy, is it ever hard believing we’re not that fragile.
Slowly I started seeing my exclusion from this new way of living with softer eyes. These people had a history from which I’d always be excluded. They were more welcoming than I’d been able to see when I was so busy watching my step and trying to fit in, trying not to let anybody know I was feeling hurt. They’ve been exceptionally warm in their welcome, but they just can’t help but close the circle once the stranger is acknowledged, then slip into their private language born of their shared history. Decades of history. This isn’t Vegas, baby, where everybody’s re-inventing themselves for a future without a past. This is a hometown. This is where ancestors are buried.
Both my husband and I were able to let go of the dear friend who brought us here when we began to appreciate him as he is, where he is, and stopped taking everything so personal. My husband has a great working relationship with him, but that’s where the relationship ends. For me, I was able to let go of him as an anchor and a friend when I started liking him.
I was able to walk away when I learned to love him–honestly, freely, and with no expectation. He’s quite the character, and the drama he stirs up around his life is a constant source of amusement as he bounces ever higher from each and every bout of melodrama. He’s generous and kind and has his faults just as we have ours. We’re alike in many ways, just different in a way that makes us incompatible.
And that’s why this Christmas was so much fun. We’ll see our family in February, so we didn’t bother with decorating the house and instead enjoyed baffling the neighbors when we left our Halloween wreath on the front door. We like to keep people guessing. We’ll shop for the kids later, when the stores are blowing things out at rock bottom prices just before they have to spend a small fortune taking year-end inventory and paying taxes on it. We relaxed and stayed clear of shopping centers where all the pushing and shoving takes place during this season of peace and goodwill, and had plenty of energy left over for traveling and enjoying all the decorations everybody else had gone broke putting up.
There was a lot of freedom of time, thought, spirit, and hope hanging around our holiday this year, and it all burst loose on Christmas morning with the phone ringing like crazy, lots of laughter and excitement while talking and texting friends all over the country, and feeling an absolute absence of pressure when the sky let loose with the first snow I’ve seen fall on Christmas day in my entire life. Snow, lots of snow. I’m talking real snow that got deeper and deeper as the day went on. Snow!Bright white snow that nearly blinded me to everything I’ve gained from facing down the ghosts of all those past Christmases that are lost and gone forever, making way for something new, if I’ve got the courage to accept what might be waiting. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for the solitude and focus I need to write and take risks with my life. For too long I’ve been holding on to the easy posters scribbled with the words of others telling me how a bold and fearless life is lived, but all they’ve ever been were words I celebrated but could not grasp.
I hadn’t yet found them for myself in the dark where the ghosts lay waiting.
It doesn’t take more than a puff of breath to blow away those ghosts, but first you’ve got to learn how to breathe.
Breathe deep and let go.