Friday, May 02, 2008

Ghosts in the house

Last weekend was the one-year anniversary of the last time my ex and I saw each other. I mentioned this in passing to several friends when I was in New York, and each one in turn sucked in her breath and said, "Oooh. How're you feeling about that?"

I guess such an announcement merits such a response, but I wasn't feeling anything in particular; I just think, always, in units of time. I'm continually counting up hours and days, looking forward or back, and calculating anniversaries. It's normal for me to stop suddenly and say, "a month ago I was having drinks with Sara in St. Louis!" or, "just 48 hours from now I'll have returned those papers!" I must feel that such measures are meaningful, but they aren't emotional occasions; I've never been a big one for celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, either--I just take pleasure in knowing when they are and ticking them off as they pass.

Still, I've been thinking lately about the ghosts in our lives: all the people who are no longer actually there, and yet who seem to have unfinished business with us or we with them. They flutter on the edges of our peripheral vision, disappearing just as soon as we turn--but that overturned glass and the door that drifts open and sometimes slams suddenly shut? They're there alright.

After my breakup, I was surprised by the number of friends--people who have been married or partnered for years--who told me matter-of-factly that they still had dreams about their exes or found themselves holding long, imaginary conversations with them. I mentioned this to my shrink and said something about how oddly comforting that was to hear--to know that such things meant something. She smiled and said, "or maybe it's that they don't mean anything."

What she was trying to say, I think, is that it's natural for anyone from one's past occasionally to float through one's consciousness, and that it shouldn't be taken as a major cosmic sign. But what I meant was that it's reassuring to find that the people who mattered to us don't disappear entirely; they lived with us and loved us and helped to shape us, and as such they'll always be present somehow, even if their presence isn't wholly welcome.

Not all the people who once mattered to us and are no longer in our lives qualify as ghosts; some just drift away, and although we may not be in touch with them, there's no sense of unfinished business: when we think of them we smile, and readily tell other people their stories or appropriate their jokes. We may think, "Gee! I wonder what so-and-so is up to?" but we don't bother to find out. They're safely dead, which is to say, still alive in some fixed and unchanging way as a part of our past.

The ghosts are the ones with whom something went wrong. I have a high school friend whom I adored--admired--idolized--but from whom I became gradually estranged. And I have a college boyfriend who will always be, in my mind, That Boyfriend: the bad one. Each played an enormous role in shaping who I was and how I saw myself, and I still think of them when I read certain books or go certain places. For a long time, thinking of either made me wistful or angry--but then, years later, I had the opportunity to revive friendships with both, and in both cases the friendships just didn't take: I didn't really like either one. Talking to them didn't interest me. Eventually I stopped returning their phone calls. And now when I think of them I feel sad for different reasons: they're gone, and maybe they weren't worth the importance I placed on them in the first place.

Some of the ghosts are those we feel have wronged us, but those we feel we've wronged are even more tenacious: there are several people I did fairly minor wrongs to, five or ten years ago--coworkers, guys I briefly dated, no one of any lasting importance--who still show up and rattle the windowpanes occasionally.

Other people's ghosts can affect us, too. For the past few months, I've been dating someone who's been divorced only a bit longer than I've been broken up. We knew this about each other from the beginning, and each sketched out our respective narratives, decided that the other's didn't raise any red flags, and proceeded from there. But when you're just starting to date someone you don't want to ask about his or her ex and you don't want to talk about yours--if only for fear of not seeming sufficiently Over It. And yet the presence of the other person's ex, that ghost, is as palpable as your own.

I don't particularly want the ghosts I have--I'd prefer for my memories to be untinged by a sense of loss or anger or regret--but I don't think I'd drive them away if I could; they're a reminder that people matter, and that they leave a mark. And if others exist in our lives as ghosts, surely we do, too, in theirs.


phd me said...

Thoughtful post, Flavia, especially as I'm trying to put to rest some ghosts of my own lately. I wonder if I wouldn't choose to drive them away if I could... Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Unknown said...

all I can say here is, Amen. The biggest breakups of my life were not even romantic ones, but I am still haunted by a sense of loss, of thinking how different things were just five years ago... Looking forward to some late-night discussions on this and all topics in just a few weeks!

What Now? said...

I've never been able to pinpoint exactly the pattern of who becomes a ghost and who just fades away. The romantic relationships of the past seem to have, by now, faded altogether, but I can't put to rest the ghost of my college roommate, even though there were no major hurts in the latter relationship as there were in the former.

Anyway, I'm glad that this one-year anniversary has passed with no sharp pang for you (and I'll admit that I churlishly think it would be nice if the same were NOT true for your ex).

Flavia said...

Thanks, all! And WN: I'll accept those churlish wishes.

For an interesting take on a similar subject--focused on the ways we sometimes have to manage the ghosts of our partners--check out this post by AWB.

RLB said...

You are touching a nerve, Flavia... :) I do the same thing -- notice the dates of things, the anniversaries -- and the ones that I might expect a flood of negative feelings around, don't actually seem to bring said flood -- I'm just *aware* of the date, the milestone, perhaps in a vaguely wistful way. And let me echo J-Fav, in that I too can't wait to discuss this stuff (among other things of course!) really soon. Thanks very much for this post.

Oh, and: "And if others exist in our lives as ghosts, surely we do, too, in theirs." Amen!

Acre said...

What a beautiful post. And rather comforting to someone (uh, right, that would be me) who is feeling particularly haunted lately. Thanks.

Margo, darling said...

Beautiful post. I am so, so, so haunted by ghosts. My exes end up in my waking thoughts a lot, but rarely show up in my dreams. But their families do, about once a year per family. The next day afterwards is always haunted and weird.

I just had a huge, weird blowout fight this week (who has fights anymore? who yells at pregnant women?) with someone who used to be a ghost and then found me a couple of years ago. I'm ready for him to drift away to non-ghost, out-of-my-life status.

Anonymous said...

Your post, especially referencing ex-lovers as ghosts, reminded me of William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude (which I must admit I was introduced to through Harry Potter): "Death is but crossing the world, as firends do the seas; they live in one another still... This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal."

Pantagruelle said...

This is a great post, Flavia. Very thoughtful, and right on the mark.

I know what you mean about anniversaries. It was the five year anniversary of my spouse's death last week, which I'd been dreading in anticipation of it being emotional, but it wasn't; it was simply a date to remember and see pass.

And I also know what you mean about the dreams of ghosts too. I occasionally have dreams about my dead spouse, and it somewhat freaks me out, but I'm inclined to agree with your shrink that it doesn't mean that much except that a ghost who is part of one's subconsciousness happens to weave his/her way into one's subconscious dreams. No more than that. I had a dream last night about friends from high school I haven't seen in well over a decade, but that's no more meaningful than my dead spouse, and I think confirms how ghosts in dreams are simply the subconscious drawing on a cast of characters it has to work with. It's as if one's subsconscious is saying, "Gee, X hasn't been on stage for quite a few acts now, but he would work well in this scene with Y, so let's pop him on stage and see what happens", if I may invoke a somewhat early modern playwrighting metaphor.

Doctor Cleveland said...

This is an eloquent and thoughtful post, Flavia. Bravissima.

But the end got me thinking: if I do exist in someone else's life as a ghost, I want to say for the record that said ghost is not me. I have no idea who I might or might not be haunting (and surely if forced to guess I would get it wrong, surprised by both who forgot me and who remembered).

And whatever that "ghost" does or says or symbolizes, I have nothing to do with it. I was going about my business! I was getting a burrito! I haven't thought of you since the nineties! I don't expect that the "ghost" would accurately reflect my feelings toward the imaginer, or what I would want to say to that person if I were actually asked. That ghost is made from memories and perceptions of me, but also from the maker's misconceptions, and from projection of fantasies or anxieties or expectations onto a space where I happened to be standing. The last time someone was haunted by a ghost of "my" anger or kindness or longing, I'm sure I was sitting happily in my car, humming a tune that the hauntee would never imagine I enjoyed.

So I should be fair to the real people who've lent their faces to my own private ghosts, people who have no idea what they symbolize to me, or why, or even that they've become a symbol in my head. Because wherever they are and whatever they're thinking or feeling, it's unlikely to fit the lines I've scripted for them in my closet drama. And the truth is that they aren't symbols; the living are always more complicated and surprising, more real, than ghosts.

My own ghosts aren't really bits of other people; they're just bits of me, dressed up for Halloween.

Flavia said...

Dr. C., that comment is right-on--and in fact, I was going to say something along those lines in my post, but you did so much more insightfully than I could have.

On one level, I'm pleased that some part of me lingers in the lives of others, and that certain things aren't erasable--that I *will* pop up in someone's mind as a result of certain triggers that I know I can't help but be associated with. But I hate not being in control of the way I'm being read, and knowing that other people probably have narratives, of which I'm a part, that are (not to put too fine a point on it) totally fucking wrong.

And even more than the ghosts in one's own life, it's rather creepy to think that one could just be going about one's business, living one's life, unaware that one is somehow simultaneously bi- or tri-located as a ghost in the lives of others.

Jack said...

Well, Flavia, as usual you have fulfilled and exceeded my expectations.

Re: Dr. C's last comment. First, YES! My ex has told me that he has conversations in his head with me and my first response is, "No you're fucking not! You’re having a conversation with yourself, buddy." However, I do think that in some way others' ghosts of us *are* pieces of ourselves. And that the ghosts we carry with are evidence of things others have left us with. What I'm thinking is that if we are, to a great extent, an amalgam of the images we have of ourselves constructed by the mirrors through which we choose to see ourselves, then losing one of those mirrors is in fact to lose of part of oneself. So, no there is no direct connection between the ghosts we construct and the real people out there in the world. But those real people wouldn't be those real people without having used our interpretations of them to get there. I wouldn't be who I am if not for the imaginary version of me that my ex constructed for me and to which I responded when we were together. It just also happens that, for a long time afterward, he carried it around in the absence of my actual presence. When we have those conversations with ghosts I think we are trying to reconstruct a context that provided a coherent understanding of ourselves, which was at one time given us in part by another person. So I guess part of what's haunting me when the glass is overturned and the door swings open is that I've turned around expecting to see a familiar image of myself in another and instead there's just the lines of my face reflected in the mirror on the back of the door or the water puddled on the counter.

I know this is already ridiculously long but feel compelled to add that I am teaching Giovanni's Room on Monday and just recently underlined (thereby proving that I am, in addition to a brilliant critical reader, also a big fat sap) the following: "Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare."

Doctor Cleveland said...

You know, I hate not being in control of how I'm being read, too, even when I'm being read in yellowed back issues. But when are we ever really in control of that? (And in this case, it's not so much how we're read as how we're written: the ghosts of exes are the ill-conceived sequels and the fanfic written after the genuine article stops being available.)

Don't we all have students? They imagine us in all kinds of odd ways, no matter how much control of our teaching personae we have. The teaching persona gets transformed by the student's imagination into yet another figure, and they're having a whole relationship that is really none of your business (and which I don't want to know about) with someone who isn't you at all.

I once found a student glaring at me in wounded fury at the end of a lecture, because I had warmly presented some poems that critiqued some earlier poems from the syllabus, which I had also presented warmly. I had laid out Renaissance Poet A's aesthetic and philosophical concerns, and taken him seriously as an artist. The student, much taken with Poet A, conflated me with him, and presumably with the speaker of the poems. Then, two weeks later, Renaissance Poet B comes along to take Poet A's inventory, and I am down with Poet B as well. Betrayal! Inconstancy! How could I turn on Poet A, whose faithful disciple the student imagined me to be? How could I mislead her into identifying myself with Poet A, and then act like I was someone else entirely? I was not the boy she thought I was! (And indeed I was not.)

I'm rather grateful that the students don't get me right. (I don't want to be imagined as Poet A, but still less would I want to be him.) As for exes: I think it's fair to say that many exes would not be exes if they didn't get you wrong, somehow.

And as much as part of me would like to think that some of my former intimates learned to appreciate and understand me later on, most of me would *hate* to think that. If those people were ever going to get me, I'd prefer that they got me while they actually had me, and while I could enjoy it. To be misunderstood during a relationship but appreciated after it ends sounds like a terrible deal. I will gladly let certain people grossly misinterpret me from afar in exchange for not being misinterpreted to my face. It's a terrific bargain, when you think about it.

Flavia said...

Jack: well, I aim to please!

I think you're exactly right that our ghosts--whether or not they're precisely accurate reflections of the other person--are important because they represent our attempt to reconstruct, or hold onto, a part of ourselves that we feel was brought into existence or made meaningful by that person, once upon a time.

I also like your description of the people in our lives as mirrors: the hardest thing for me, in the immediate aftermath of my breakup, was my sense of loss not so much of *him* (though of course there are some specific things about him that I did and do miss), but of a way of experiencing and understanding my life that came from seeing it and myself through his eyes.

With the passage of time, I've realized that although that perspective was wonderfully productive and enabling in many ways, it was limiting in others--there are aspects of myself that I value but had somehow forgotten about, or wasn't expressing or understanding properly, simply because they didn't fit the narrative of our relationship.

And Dr. C: yes, of course you're right. I don't particularly care what imagined Flavias live in the minds of my students, but in other circumstances I clearly have a strong need continually to re-articulate and assert control of my persona. (This blog is one example of that, for sure. . . but if you know me in real life, you won't want for others.)

jackie said...

I think this is the first time I have ever commented on your blog, after many moons of lurking, but this post hit at such the right moment for me that I had to comment!

I recently reconnected with an ex that I never expected I'd be able to be friends with, but here we are, emailing each other frequently, trading pictures of our kids, and it feels just right. We had such a searing, drawn-out period of breaking up and apart, I would never have believed we could be friends. But the boyfriend before him, who was truly sweet and tender to me and whom I left cold-heartedly and with rarely a second thought? I can't think of one thing I'd have left to say to him, and haven't spoken to him in almost a decade.

Also, it was incredibly pleasing in a shameful sort of way to know that I had been haunting the ex I'm now friends with all these years, and I hoped my other ex, the sweet one, is also still haunted by me.

Great post!

Oso Raro said...

Nicely done here. I have nothing to add to this rich vein of commentary, other than to say, perhaps overly romantically, that we fall in love with people for reasons that do not cease when the relationship does, and the mental imprint of the interlocutor remains strong, perhaps even wistfully desired, and our unconscious responds to these desires, even if in a conscious state we reject them or consider them trivial. I have not dreamt yet of Mr. Gordo, yet I have no doubt he will remain on the edge of my consciousness for my entire life, even if our relationship is now over.

dhawhee said...

wow. a really cool post, f. i think springtime stirs up my ghosts for some reason.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Flavia and Jack-

Thanks. I am having a lot of fun posting on this thread. (And catching my typos -sorry!)

I agree that those memorial ghosts are powerful things, and that the sense of connection after parting is not only persistent, but sometimes comforting. I'm a lit person, too: narratives have an enormous hold on my mind. But there's also something liberating, for someone as governed by imagination as I've always been, in reversing the terms of the proposition. "They are gone, but their ghosts remain with me," is one way of seeing it. "I have these ghosts, but they're only ghosts," is another. I've taken to adopting whichever perspective makes me more cheerful at the moment. Need to bridge that imaginative distance? I have these ghosts! Happier preserving the emotional distance? Casper's not real!

Believe me, Flavia, I understand the frustration of knowing I'm a character in narratives that are totally wrong, *especially* when the narrator once knew me so well (and so Biblically!). But I've started to learn, after great effort and despite all of my hard-earned English-major reflexes, not to assign those narratives meaning. Worrying about whether those stories are right or wrong assumes that the teller has some power to decide what the story meant. But if you give up on the idea that the story is about anything but the storyteller, that it's essentially *literature*, it's easier to give up the urge to fact-check. My exes are free, within appropriate limits, to tell their story however they like. They're free to think what they like of me, too, as long as they don't expect me to assent. Everyone is in their own place with their own ghosts, but it's pretty liberating when you reach the turn when you realize that you don't have any obligations to their stories about you.

Flavia said...

Thanks to you, too, Dr. C. I can speak for Jack (my real-life conversations with whom led indirectly to this post) in saying that this has been fun for both of us as well.

But as much as one might know that someone else's narrative is incorrect, or more about the teller than about oneself. . . that reading still has life and substance, and can't help but sometimes challenge our own narratives. Sometimes it's a useful and productive challenge, and other times more infuriating--but it can't help but affect us and the way we read and understand our own stories. Our readers make our meanings, too, as much as I hate to admit it.

(And speaking of misreadings, and the discomfort of finding oneself in someone else's narrative--I'm, uh, sorry about that thing. You know what I'm referring to.)

medieval woman said...

just a quick chirp to say that I loved this post - and I immediately started thinking about what poltergeist things my exes (friends and lovers) do in my life. My ex-boyfriend still leave sthe seat up on occasion, I'm convinced...

Renaissance Girl said...

So my ex-spouse has just purchased a new house, which means he'll be very soon vacating our formerly-shared house, which I recently bought him out of. (Poor, poor grammar. Whatever.) I'm SO ECSTATIC about moving back into this home that I love, but at the same time, I find myself wondering how noisy all those ghosts will be....