To Be Like a Ghost
I used to travel a lot on my own. Spring break would come around and I’d pick a destination, a place I’d never been or somewhere I’d seen a dozen times before. I would be like a ghost in that place, drifting past other people who scarcely noticed I was there.
I always wanted to see what was around the next corner, so I would walk a lot. I watched the people move, the squirrels play, the flowers turn their faces to the sun. I’d listen to the wind in the trees and feel the cold or the warmth or the fog; it didn’t particularly matter what the whether was. I was just collecting the experience. I’d come back with photos of trees and clouds, vistas and buildings, gardens and castles, but scarcely a person in any of them.
I might share a “Good morning” or “Good evening” with the odd passerby, or even sit down for an entire conversation with someone I only knew by their first name. At the end, I might know their greatest dreams and deepest fears, where they grew up and who they loved, but I never needed more than a first name. And I’d go back to where I’d stay the night, alone again and happy for it. Like one of the Buddha’s disciples, going forth into homelessness and forgoing all attachments.
I haven’t traveled like that in a while. There is a restful simplicity to it. Solace in being like a ghost. One can come and go as one pleases, eat and be and do as one wishes. No one ever expects anything of ghosts.
Life became busy. I left my home and came alone halfway across the continent, but it was different this time. I wasn’t a ghost. I was trying to build a new life, full of new classes and friends and teachers and coworkers. This change of location came with a host of new obligations, not fewer.
I have a relationship now. When I travel, he goes with me (and vice versa) as often as we can manage, and I love him for it. We’ve had great adventures together. But it’s different. I couldn’t even have explained how until a moment ago, when I realized I missed being like a ghost. Hard to be ghosts together, always worrying if the other ghost is okay.
For many months, I’ve had this aching desire for simplicity. It would sneak up on me, between worries about homework and housework and everything else. Between the mental clutter and visual clutter and insane schedule, I’d wish for the vital simplicity of a tiny cabin in the woods, bereft of possessions, and without neighbors for miles about. I’d long for hours of solitary walking, in city or mountains, it didn’t matter, just to be free of other people’s expectations.
But my life has never been like that, as much as I’ve occasionally wished it would be. I actually like the clutter of my little home, the jam packed bookshelves and familiar mementos. I like the friendly clutter of my social life, seeing my friends and classmates and coworkers everyday, feeling like I’m part of a community. I like coming home to my partner every night, spending Saturday afternoons out together on our little adventures to the zoo or backpacking or trying a new restaurant.
So why this new urge to radically simplify my life?
But it’s not new at all, I’ve realized. In fact, it’s something I’ve been doing for almost a decade. Every three to six months, I’d pack a bag and set off. I’d spend a week in San Francisco or Boston or Chicago, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado or Sandhills of Nebraska. Somewhere, anywhere, but no matter where, life would be simple for that briefest moment. Somehow I lost it without even noticing I’d ever had it.
I realize now, this habit started far earlier than my twenties. That’s only when I began to do it for myself. When I was a child, I remember spending a week or two on my aunt’s ranch in central Nebraska, running around in the trees with my cousins. It was a different way of raising kids, just tossing us out of the house in the morning to fend for ourselves, trusting we’d return tired and covered with dirt at meal times. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Then I’d go up to Valentine to stay with my retired grandparents. My dad grew up in this tiny town where a busy day involved a trip to the grocery store and the library. My grandparent’s place was on the edge of town, the last house on a two-lane highway heading west over the sprawling prairie. I remember pulling carrots out of my grandfather’s garden to feed to the horses that came to the barbed-wire fence separating their pasture from the house. I remember the wind that never stopped, the grass like an ocean, and the thunderstorms that roared through and dropped golf-ball sized hail on a ninety-degree summer day.
After that, I might go to church camp or 4-H camp or both. We’d tromp through the woods and canoe along the sandy-bottomed rivers. I never felt the slightest bit of loss at the friends I left behind at the end of each adventure, even though we’d spent the week practically glued to each other. It never occurred to me that goodbye was a sadness. The flashing moment of such friendships cut all the anxiety social strings entail.
It was the same for my older brother, except that we often went separately, the relatives swapping us out mid-summer. I realize now that this enabled my parents to spend several weeks together each year child-free. And we were happy, away from the city, spending almost all our time outdoors, no schools or teachers or even any chores to make demands on us, something new to discover behind every tree or in every mud puddle. I think that is when I learned to be a like a ghost, renouncing my life to go alone into unfamiliar places. This was a gift my parents gave me without even knowing it. A gift I accidentally lost.
I miss being like a ghost. I think I should like to leave my life behind and find again the simplicity of not worrying about what is around the next corner, the next bend in the trail. Sometime soon. But only for a little while.