At Home With Hungry Ghosts

Haunted and hunted by what ifs and if onlys.

They hide in the corners, scurry by in the dark, linger in doorframes at night.
They show themselves in the bright morning, as I drink creamy coffee from a pink-patterned cup.
Under the frail light of the half moon, they frolic until I glance their way.
They are without shame.
They creep along in the shadows, then reveal themselves in an imperfect patch of sunshine, lazy, stretching.

Ridding myself of them seems impossible.
They are embedded.
They are comfortable.
They are at home.
They are home.
They sneer and confront, they cling, they show up when least invited.
They taunt, beg, whisper, caterwaul until acknowledged.
They sit in inky blackness, sharing a laugh with one another.

In bed at night, they lie beside me, on top of me, all over me.
Just smother me already and get it over with, I suggest.
But they look hurt, troubled, as if I misunderstand, as if I’m the one calling them.
They protest without apology.

In the day, in the car, on the couch, in the yard
they wait.
I drink red wine, I meditate, I think, unsuccessfully, about other things.
They wait.
I sleep, I nap, I dream.
They wait.
I ruminate, the worst of all.
They wait.
Open my eyes, hope they are gone and yet still
they wait.

They saved me a spot
right here.
They’ve set the place, laid out the good china.
They’ve fixed me a plate.
Here, here, they say, pulling out a chair.

I’m never without them.
They’re right there,
on my heels, on my back, on my shoulders, behind my eyes,
staring back at me from the reflection.
Stalking me from inside, focused, relentless.

Can’t shake them.

If I could go back, I’d change it all.
I’d change everything.
Every. Last. Thing.

Maybe then, I’d be free.

Gospel

Get born.

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Die.

Seeing yourself in “Outline”

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Just finished reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline. What a beautiful, quiet, spare book. It reminded me, in ways, of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. They share a gift for highlighting truths about the human condition that sort of sneak up on you as you’re reading. They both, too, shun traditional plot development in favor of pulling stories out of carefully drawn characters.

In Outline, our narrator is a writing instructor who has traveled from England to Greece to teach a writing course over the summer. The book’s constructed as a series of conversations and experiences she has, with most of the information about her coming out in bits and pieces as these conversations are recounted. We meet an aging Greek man who has been married and divorced multiple times, who has been rich and then poor. We meet her writing students, people of all ages with an itch to express themselves. We meet a newly famous author, basking in the literary limelight but with lingering reservations about her place in the world. We meet people struggling to connect with their kids, their spouses, the purpose they’d originally set for themselves in life. In other words, we meet ourselves, one way or another.

The focus seems to be on the other people in the book, but what’s so brilliant here is the way she, the narrator, is reflected back to herself through her interactions with others. And the way they reflect off of her and off each other, too.

Aren’t we all in this same position? Who are we outside of our relationships? How are we shaped by the people we know or meet along the way? Casual encounters, lifelong friendships, marriages, parents, kids — we are shaped, formed, propped up by all of these things, setting up our identities in opposition to the people around us. Who are we, really, outside of this?

And how do we edit our own stories when we’re sharing them with people? What do we leave out? What do we emphasize? What outlines do we create from our own lives, our own experiences, that we hope make us matter, make us real? How does it shift over time? How does it change depending on who you’re talking to?

Rachel Cusk will make you consider these questions, as you also get swept away reading about summer in Greece, with its blinding heat, its white beaches and blue water, the boats and the cafes, the Greek food and wine. You feel as though you’re there, listening to a friend tell you about her summer and the people she met. You feel yourself, even, being reflected back as you read, feel yourself identifying with certain characters, suddenly sure you’re not so alone after all.