Facing The Ghost of Who I Could Have Been

I believe in ghosts. Not in the usual way, not the ones who haunt the places they lived trying to resolve issues left behind (though, actually, okay – I believe in those, too). No, what I believe in are the ghosts of the lives we would have led, of choices we could have made.

Like the other ghosts, though, I think the only people who believe in these are the ones who have faced them head on. Those of us who are haunted.

What’s strangest, maybe, is that unlike any other haunting, you’re doing it to yourself. The presence you feel beside you is not your long-dead so-and-so or some vengeful spirit trapped between worlds. No, it’s simply the you that was or may have been or, perhaps, should have been.

Even now I’m not sure which. Our lives always feel inevitable – that’s not to say they are, but that we structure our own narratives that way. A leads to B because it had to, we think, but we only think it had to be that way because it happened that way. Had something entirely different taken place, we’d tell ourselves that was inevitable.

Months ago (or was it a lifetime?) I was on a bus in a familiar town, positive I saw the ghost of myself wandering the streets in a caffeine-deprived haze, about to run into a Welsh boy who couldn’t seem to find his way out of a coffee shop. Looking out the window, I debated with myself if, were I able to, I should have stopped myself. If I should have wished myself away, if I should have wished the life I’ve lived since I met that boy in that town away. I’d accepted that it wasn’t inevitable, and since it wasn’t, I was free to wonder if I would have wanted it any other way.

No, I decided. I got too much good out of it to regret it.

What a cruel way to look at things. What does it mean to look at two years of my life – of love, investment, and commitment – and turn it into something completely transactional as if I could comfortably reduce the time we spent together into just what I got out of it? But I wanted to, so it was easy to tell myself that’s all that it was to me. That what I needed out of that relationship is what I got: Edinburgh.

It’s comfortable that way. Easy. But what happens when that doesn’t stand up? When suddenly the story I’ve been telling myself feels wrong?

Because what I hadn’t realised was that other ghosts were waiting for me. Really, I should have known they were there. I should have remembered.

When things ended with my Welsh boy, too much was going on for me to really process what it would mean for me. I didn’t give myself enough time to process and mourn and so when I suddenly had all the time in the world I’d given myself too much else to work through to notice.

But she was always there, the ghost of who I’d wanted to be. She was always alongside me, looking at housewares and rugs and planning Christmas parties, picking out decorations and a trying to figure out how many strings of lights she can get away with buying before being accused of trying to outshine the sun. (17, I think. 17 is often the answer to these things.)

She was beside me in pubs and coffee shops and a tiny deli 4 doors down from my flat with cake and crepes and free wifi. But I didn’t just feel her, you know? I felt him, too. Anywhere he’d been, his ghost lingered. The ghost of who he could have been. Should have been? But who he isn’t.

(Leave it to me to be haunted by the ghost of the subjunctive. Ebenezer Scrooge only had to deal with simple tenses – past, present, future – but me? No, I get stuck with the freaking subjunctive.)

Everything is inevitable, except when it’s not. We talked about it a bit when I was there last week, we asked ourselves the big question – is this what had to happen? Fault lies on both sides, but our issues were the same. And for that, I’m haunted. Things could have gone a different way, and because I wanted them so badly for so long, they linger. Because my deep, dark secret is this: I’m not convinced there will ever be a life I want more than I wanted that one. 2.5 years on and I still think back to the life I wish I’d had and wonder if everything will always be slightly greyer than that.

But then, everything else has one thing that life doesn’t have: everything else is still possible because ghosts belong in shadows and we cannot change the past.

How do you measure time?

I was talking to my mom today and I was telling her that I’m trying to get out there and date again. After having my heart broken and nursing the wounds for almost a year, it’s time to think that maybe, possibly, somewhere out there a guy exists who is better than the one who left me. The one who will tell me he still loves me but can’t be with me, as if that will somehow make this easier instead of pouring an ocean’s worth of salt on the wound.

And at some point in our conversation, she told me I measure time in relationships. That my dad measures it in music – he will remember a time in part based on what songs were popular, as if his life has a playlist only he and the top 40 charts can remember – but I measure mine in men.

This is frighteningly true.

In a lot of ways, I’m fiercely independent. I will do what I want, when I want to – unless there is a guy in my life to take into consideration. And, spoiler alert: there is almost always a guy in my life. I remember some better than others, and some weave their way in and out of my life at different times, but there is almost always some guy at least in the background.

And that’s a weird thing to acknowledge. I want to say that I don’t need a guy, that I can live a perfectly happy life without one, and I am determined to make at least the latter half of that true. But I think I’m the kind of person that does need somebody – I think I’m better in a relationship. I’m more considerate, definitely. I have to squash the petty annoyances and selfish habits that I am prone to when I’m on my own, and I think that’s a good thing.

If things don’t work out the way I want them to – if I don’t get to stay here, if I can’t make Scotland see me the way I see it – I have a back up plan. And this is the first plan in 10 years that isn’t dictated by a guy. When I moved over here (partly for the guy I was seeing at the time), I said to anybody who would listen that New Zealand was my back up plan. If I couldn’t find a way to stay here, I’d go there.

“New Zealand is our back up plan,” my then-boyfriend once corrected me.

“Oh, yeah. Our back up plan. Sure.”

(You could say that’s proof that I *don’t* actually squash the selfish part of me when I’m in a relationship. I say it’s proof that I was already starting to understand that the relationship I was in wasn’t a good one.)

I still hope it doesn’t have to happen. I still want to stay here. But it’s nice to think that I could make a decision for myself for once. Because when I think about this year, there are two things that define it for me. Writing is the first – it was the primary goal when I came here: to give myself time to write and time to be around other writers. But the second? The second is an Irish guy with bright blue eyes who always remembered the things I told him (but let me tell him the same stories over and over anyways) and made me laugh even when I didn’t want to.

If I have to get over him, if I have to give up the place that I love most and move past the person I still want the most – well, I’m going to do it from someplace breathtakingly beautiful.

Daydreams and Nightmares

I’ve been indulging in some major self-pity lately. The problem with having a concrete goal is that you might fail to achieve it, and that’s a terrifying concept when you’re used to making the world do what you want it to. So instead I’ve been avoiding thinking about it, which turns it into the elephant in the room and elephants take up a lot of space and can accidentally crush your foot if you’re not careful.

I’ve been letting myself daydream. I think about the jobs I could get or the PhD proposals I could write or the mystery man that might see me and fall in love and ask me to marry him on the spot. I daydream of a job – not *a* job, but THE job. The job that combines everything I’ve done and everything I’m passionate about and wraps them up in a knot. I dream of it so often I can taste it. The job tastes like vanilla, like the tiny trace of a smell deposited on your tongue when you walk into an old bookshop. It tastes like the last drip of ice cream on a warm day when you have to rush to catch it and you shove the rest of the polystyrene-tasting cone in your mouth because there is no real point in eating the cone without the ice cream, is there?

I’ve been having nightmares lately. I wake up crying, panicked, barely able to breathe. What am I scared of? Leaving Edinburgh. Each morning when I wake up, chest heavy with the fear my subconscious is holding onto, I remind myself that I’m still here.

Still here. I’m still here.

These things are connected, I know it. I know that the fear and the longing and the job and the anxiety and the love – they’re all part of some big thing I have to do.

And the truth is, I know what I’m here to do. I’m here for books, I’m here for stories, I’m here to bring them into the world and give them to people. Not wrapped up like Christmas gifts, patiently waiting for bows to be unwrapped and paper to be torn. No. That’s not what books are. Books are the medicine you get in A&E when you’re so full of pain and fear nothing but the steady drip of relief the IV brings you will let you sleep. Books are vital. They are my love and my world.

And of course there’s that hope in me, buried somewhere down deep, that this city that I love might love me back. That it might want me as much as I want it, that it might see that what we have is special and undeniable and impossible to imitate. That this place that values books and words and the art of a good story might see that our hearts speak the same language and it might wrap its arms around me and whisper in my ear.

“Don’t let go,” I want it to say. “I won’t.”

Insert Interesting Title Here

I can’t believe this weekend happened. I just can’t.

A year ago, my life was so different. So different. The people I hung out with were incredible, but the city I was in was not for me. The job I was doing was no longer for me. I was only just starting to think about the reality of changing my life, of moving to Scotland, of focusing on my writing.

And here I am, a year later. I have a dissertation that will eventually turn into a novel, a short story project that I’m having a blast with, and the kind of nerdy, passionate friends any writer would be lucky to have. I live in a city that I’ve fallen in love with with teenage intensity.

And I read at the Book Festival.

I was so nervous, y’all. I knew maybe 1/3 – 1/2 of the crowd, I knew they were there because they were excited for me and proud of me and wanted to support me, and I was still terrified. I was wearing a dress I felt confident in, my red lipstick of power and glory, and shoes  probably wouldn’t fall in. And I was shaking like mad. I was recovering from a sore throat, my voice sounded strange in my own ears, and I thought for sure my hands would be shaking so much I’d drop my notebook on the way to the podium.

But I didn’t. I walked over like I knew what I was doing (in my head I was Meryl Streep playing the part of a woman comfortable speaking in front of crowds) and I introduced myself and I read my stories. And I only screwed up once! Well, maybe twice. But still! I call that success.

The biggest gift of all of this is, of course, the confidence boost. The feeling that the voice that says Yes, I’m good at this. Yes, I can do this, is right and that I’ll make it work. Because this can’t be where I end. I won’t let it be. Story Shop was an honour, but it can’t be the biggest one I ever get. I want it to be a jumping off point.

So I’ll make it happen. I don’t know how, or what I’ll have to do, but I’m going to make it happen.

Two more weeks to the end and the beginning of everything

So there is this thing coming up called a dissertation deadline and it’s really putting a cramp in my style. It’s also making me panic in a million different ways.

You’ve heard me talk about how much I love Scotland, right? The dissertation deadline is the thing that says, “Hey, that reason you’re here? Doesn’t exist anymore. Figure something else out, stat.” Which freaks me out, because to be honest, I love it here. I almost kinda sorta never want to leave. I mean, for trips and stuff, sure. But man oh man do I love it here.

But two weeks from now could be the beginning of something, too. Well, actually, a little less than two weeks. You see, I don’t know if I said this before, but I’m reading at the Book Festival. As far as these things go, this is a big deal. This is the largest book festival in the world. I’m reading on opening day. Am I scared? Yes. Am I going to do it anyways? Heck to the yes.

In truth, I have no idea what my life is going to turn into in the next few months. I have an ideal scenario, and it’s surprisingly modest. I want a job that will enable me to stay here. I want to keep writing and become a known face in writer-type events around town. I want to keep making good friends and meeting cool people. I want to publish a book in the next few years. I’d like a serious relationship.

I think there is space in the world for big dreams, for people who want to change everything and have everything. But the more I think about it, the more I want a life that has all the things I care about (family, friends, writing, travel), without too much craziness. Maybe because I’m on the edge of a change I don’t know that I want, I’m craving stability. It’s weird for me, I know. Maybe the wanderlust will come back if I get a job and I can stay here for a while. Maybe the ache to go away and explore for a while will rise up and overwhelm me and I will choke on all the places I could have gone and didn’t.

But maybe not.

Scotland, I like you best in the rain

Dear Scotland,

I loved you from the moment I met you. The sky was late-winter grey and it was a kind of cold I’d never felt before – the kind that settles in your bones and makes every joint in your body move just a little slower than it should. But I walked out of Waverley and thought, “This. This is my place.”

I’m glad it didn’t rain on that trip. I’m glad that it was just overcast, because if I’d seen you in the rain I never would have left.

You’re best in the rain. You’re best when it’s sprinkling or drizzling or pouring or just plain dreich. You’re best when I’ve spent 45 minutes getting my hair just right and you start to rain five minutes into my half hour walk. You’re best when my world narrows to just the space under my umbrella and everything draws close.

Sunshine is nice, don’t get me wrong, and I miss it often – but sunshine here is different. It’s exhausting, if I’m being honest. Feeling like I have to be outside, like I should be soaking up all of the Vitamin D I need…well, it’s tough. It’s tough because I want to stay in, get work done, read, and you tempt me outside. And so I follow your lead, but I forget sunscreen. Or a blanket. Or anything else that I might need. I don’t know how to function in your sunshine.

But when it’s wet, we understand each other. It’s a grim understanding, sure. I am happier when it’s sunny, it’s true. But it’s the put-your-head-down-and-get-though-it-ness of things that I love. It’s what makes a pot of tea such a relief, or a bookstore such a safe place. This is a country to be inside and dream, or to be outside and toughen up. To realize that nothing could possibly stop you from doing what needs to be done, and to accept a haven wherever you find it.

So, it’s true, Scotland. I like you best in the rain.

It is actually possible to get sunburned in Scotland

Image

Yesterday was a glorious day.

The sun was out, the air was warm, and my portfolio had been turned in. I am officially in dissertation period, the point at which my life becomes solely about one story. One thought. One project.

Yeah, that’s gonna drive me crazy. I’ve got a few things in the works because otherwise I’ll go bonkers.

But yesterday I ignored all of that and sat out in the sun for a few hours with my friends and no sunscreen. Because I’m a moron. I am naturally super pale, and when you add the long Scottish winter to that mix, it’s not pretty. Not pretty at all. So now my arms are a combination of white, pink, and paaaaaaaaale brown and my skin feels just slightly too tight.

It’s funny how much happier I am in the sun, though. I smile more – a lot more – and the chaos of life seems manageable. I am a tropical girl, raised on sunshine and warmth, and I need days like yesterday. I soaked it up like a camel and I’m ready for the gloomy week to come. Because sunshine in Scotland is like calm in my life – a rare gift, and one to be thankful for.

The travel bug is biting again

Instead of writing my essay – the last academic essay I ever plan on writing – I am mentally flitting off to various countries on tiny little holidays meant just for me. I’m dreaming of Spanish beaches and Parisian flats and wandering the streets of Belfast. (Okay, those are the holidays I’m actually planning, and possibly none of them would be on my own.) I’m dreaming of Kilimanjaro and Angkor Wat and the Himalayas.

But at the same time, I’m dreaming of a flat in Edinburgh with a flatmate or two and my pictures on the walls and Sunday breakfast.

I’m torn. My heart needs to wander, my heart needs to nest. I need to get on a plane, I need to watch the clouds below me, I need the sense of coming back down to earth. I need a clean flat, a good dinner on the stove, a bookcase overflowing with books. I need a home to come back to before I can leave.

TS Eliot once said, “Home is where one starts from.” Where did I start? Am I starting now? If I leave and come back, does that make this home? Is it that simple, can I claim it so easily?

The truth is, I’m as torn as I ever am. Travel is healing, but the familiar is comfortable. I’m taking a day and going out to Glasgow soon and, for the first time, I’m slightly intimidated about going somewhere by myself. It’s worrying me. I don’t stress about flying off to a country where I don’t speak a word of the language and wandering around, but taking the train out to a new city is scaring me now. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because I thought I would have somebody to explore with.

When I moved over here, there was a very clear plan. But, for a variety of reasons, that plan no longer exists. Can never exist again. I’m operating with no more than a vague sense of where I want to go, and that terrifies me. It’s not that I can’t find a new plan – I will. I always have. It’s more that, for the first time in a really, really long time, I’m letting myself hang in the nothingness. I’m embracing the fear and the nervousness and I’m just living.

My world is small right now, and the idea of opening it up is scary. Edinburgh is the best adventure I’ve ever had, Scotland owns my heart in a way I didn’t think any country ever could. But I’m starting to think I’m a little bit lonely.

Funny how this feels like home

I’ve never really had a home. Not in the way everybody else seems to think about it. Admit it, when you read the word “home” you thought of a physical location. Probably either the house you grew up in or the one you’re living in now.

When I read it, I’m puzzled. I understand the associations I’m supposed to have, but they’re not there. Not even a little bit.

Well, that’s not entirely true. They weren’t there.

In September I moved to Scotland absurdly optimistic about how things would go here. I thought I would move in, I’d be happy, I’d be comfortable. It’d be simple. I mean, let’s ignore the lifetime of experience I have with the extreme suckiness of moving. Let’s ignore culture shock, let’s ignore homesickness, let’s ignore leaving friends to move someplace where I knew exactly nobody. Ignore it all. This was going to work.

The weirdest thing is, it did.

Scotland is incredible. I know you think you know that, but you don’t, not really, not unless you live here. Edinburgh is incredible. Thanks to my terrible sense of direction, I get lost in this city constantly, but it’s always beautiful. It’s always worth it. I walk an hour a day to get anywhere, half of it uphill. I walk in rain, in fog – I’m sorry, haar – I’d walk in snow if it had actually snowed this winter.

I’ve never been excited about a place while I was actually living there. Never enjoyed the streets while walking along them. (Okay, this is a lie, I loved Copenhagen, but part of that was because I was only there for a summer and didn’t have to deal with a Danish winter.) But this place is something special.

I mean, take this picture for example. This was taken in February. FEBRUARY. Meanest of months. The month that I generally spend under the covers, refusing to leave bed. The month that hits me so hard every year that my ex told me that he’d just accepted that I’d go nuts in February. It’s just what happens. But here, this is February (photo stolen from my friend Jen):Oh hi there

I kind of think that says it all, actually.

 

The fog comes on little cat feet

Fog by Carl Sandburg

The fog comes

on little cat feet.

 

It sits looking

over harbor and city

on silent haunches

and then moves on.

The fog has been rolling in for the past few days, covering Edinburgh. It feels like we’re flying, like the city has been taken up into the cloud bank, like we should be able to look down and see all the little people. But of course that’s not what happened. The sky has fallen and the clouds have come crashing down and we can only see what is right in front of us.

Those are the things that are hardest to see sometimes. So often we’re focused on what’s far away, on where we hope to be, what we hope to be doing that we ignore our immediate surroundings. How often have I stared out of the library window at Arthur’s Seat and completely missed the way the cobblestones shine when they’re wet, or the way the still-bare branches stretch out like arteries?

There are buds on the branches and maybe the fog is bringing spring. The flowers are here already, pale purple crocuses and butter-yellow daffodils. The weather has not kept up, and short skirts and sleeveless dresses still seem months away. Spring is an awakening, but an internal one this year. A delayed one. An awakening that should have happened any other time, after any other winter, but this winter was different. Harsher than most I’ve faced, but still mellow.

Long and dark and cold, the fingers of the fog reach out to chill me, but they can do no worse to me than December did. December froze my bones. Compared to that, this is just an unexpected chill up my spine. A light shiver, forgotten as soon as it is over.