ghosts are everywhere
Each time I travel to Mobile, the place that raised me into adulthood, the place I loved in my twenties, where I was reckless and strange, silly, serious, and conflicted, I confront the ghosts. There is a brilliant line from A Band of Horses' "No One's Gonna Love You," that goes "We are the ever living ghost of what once was," and that is it exactly. I see the ghosts of what once was. I suppose this means I am, implicitly, haunted but I don't know that that's an entirely accurate way to describe what I feel. The ghosts, the pasts, just exists. They're just there. (That Faulkner line about the past not being dead, not even being past runs through my mind, here).
Driving familiar streets but in unfamiliar and distant ways: some restaurants, bars, the places I once hung out are no longer there. Something else is in their place. The stores where I first worked exist in different locations. Things seem out of place. And then there it is, the park or the bar or the pool hall or the restaurant or the building on campus I remember so well, where something happened. In a moment, I am 22 again, making plans and listening to music with the windows down, drinking Route 44's from Sonic and wondering what is next.
When you return, it's never just you. It's all you bring back with you, all those moments that helped to create your memories of a place, of a time, of a life you once had as well as all the people and places you have been since. Sometimes, there is a gap or a disconnect between what you see or recall from then (whenever then is) and now.
Yesterday morning, I was running at a park near an apartment complex where some of my friends once lived, a place that one summer was practically a second home. I never spent much time at the park, then and here I was running 3.5 miles around it. Each time, I rounded the sidewalk near the apartments, my mind went back to too many people crowded on the balcony, or in the stairwells, making the night feel even more humid. Conversations about where to find the best live tracks of a band we liked, making plans to road trip to a concert, talking about how annoying it was to have responsibilities, but at the same time, kind of glad for them. I remembered Taco Tuesday, a much smaller crowd, someone playing a guitar which always seemed to be how those nights ended, our voices drifting into the night.
I see photographs of younger selves, heavier selves, thinner selves, sillier selves, more innocent selves, frightened versions of myself, and strong versions, too. There is a sense of nothing and everything changing all at once. It's easy to get wrapped up in it, to fall down the rabbit hole, spend time in all the places and versions you've been and see all the pieces as separate, somehow. And while sometimes this is true for me, I am comfortable with the ghosts, the eyes staring back from photographs, the memory that becomes so strong, I feel as though I never left. But of course, I did. We do. We move on and the ghosts become fragments of things we recall. They become stories.
As I get older, I try to focus more energy on being present, on being aware of today and appreciative of each moment. I used to believe that to do so, I must be selective about how I come to terms with the past. Or perhaps reject it completely. And there are times I have done exactly that. What I'm learning now is that, I think, there is a way to do both. To be aware of now and how we got here.
I've often felt the pull between places and having my life this year split between Ohio and Illinois has made the in-between-ness more acute. Being back in Alabama, home but not home, the same but different brings to the surface feelings I described two years ago on another journey to visit my family:
I love having grown up along the Gulf Coast. I love the way I learned to pronounce words, that my language choices constantly show others "up north" that I'm "not from around here." I try not to let the lilt of my Southern accent fade as I incorporate new discourses into my arsenal of language and expression. I cling to the distinction of my Southern-ness and am often wounded by it at the same time. I would not be who I am without the red clay, summer nights where sweat-soaked backs of t-shirts didn't matter, the small talk on porches, the tiny hints of etiquette, going barefoot on fresh mowed grass, watching fireflies, all the things I miss. I know that I am rooted, deeply, in a complex history (not just my own but of the South, itself). I also know that I cannot have my life, the one I have worked so hard to build and continue to build, in Alabama. For me, Mobile is Wonderland, a place confusing and weird and rich with life and color and my past. It holds all the best memories and some of the more complicated ones. I fell in and out of love there; I made lifelong friends. It is a place I can travel to, and visit but not somewhere I can really belong, not anymore. Each time I am there, I feel at ease in this fact. Each time, I feel a bit further and further away and I also feel home, kind of... which, I suppose is as good of a description as any and perhaps the only way to manage the tension of living in-between. This is a tension I face often, the kind of reconciliation I don't know how to make because there may be no way to really make it. Accepting the in-between and embracing the tensions is better than being conflicted about all of it.
My great-grandmother believed in ghosts and told me about a place at the shipyards where she worked that was haunted. I was twelve, maybe, spending the summer in Mobile with fantastic storytellers.
"Were you frightened to be there?" I asked, impressed by Granny's bravery to face the supernatural face to face.
"Oh, no. I just talk to them. I think some ghosts just want to be acknowledged. Everyone wants to be noticed, especially ghosts." At the time, I did not completely understand what she meant but I nodded and listened as she talked about a time she swore she saw her father at the bus stop and how he'd called out to her but when she got there he was gone.
The ghosts I face, the ones built of what once was matter. They matter because they shaped who I am, the good and bad, the complex and silly, the selfish and the generous. And while I don't want to reminisce to the point of exhaustion, I don't want to forget who I am, nor the girl I've been. I've written about this a lot, recently, as I lose weight and feel oddly disconnected from some of the reflections I see in pictures from last year or a few years ago.
John Mayer's "War of My Life" comes to mind here,
Come out angels,
come out ghosts,
come out darkness,
bring everyone you know
I'm not running
I'm not scared
I am waiting and well prepared
I don't feel like I am in a war, in fact quite the opposite. I feel at ease with what was, moreso than I ever have before. The in-between feels a lot like home, and ghosts are everywhere. I see them. I say hello. I tell their stories.