Ghost Stories

Afraid of going dark

Hello good people–

I’m back in the saddle after taking the past two weeks to get my house in order. And I mean that literally, of course. There was lots of location-shuffling between Paris and Amsterdam, including more than twelve hours of driving, too much heavy lifting without proper knee-bending, and the regrettable consumption of one wan chicken sandwich from a Burger King in Belgium. In short, yes, I have moved again. Back to the Netherlands. From Paris. Where I just made a big deal about moving at precisely this time last year. But I’m also still sort of living in Paris. Moving, I have come to accept, is just part of who I am. (It’s about damn time, you say!) There’s no use in fighting it, no use in lamenting a desire to settle down, no use in being compelled to pick just one place to call home. If it happens someday, great, but hitching my wagon to that ideal feels disingenuous. Mostly I’ll be hanging out in my quiet, sunny, slanty-gabled office on the top floor of our new house in Haarlem, or riding my omafiets over canals under vast, horizon-less skies. But sometimes I’ll be elbowing my way through the Métro to emerge as another anonymous flâneur rambling along the Seine, and feeling grateful for the privilege to live at least two of the lives I dream of living.

With love from your gypsy,

The last time I chatted with one of my besties for our regular Zoom catch-ups, we had both just been ghosted. She'd had a client who simply did not turn up for a scheduled meeting, nor sent any manner or excuse or apology. A classic ghosting. My ghost story was only somewhat more elaborate. I'd recently reached out to a writer I admired, with the hopes of conducting a short, casual interview about getting tattoos in midlife, a topic I was writing about and that she'd mentioned on her podcast. She replied (!!!) and graciously suggested we chat over email. Fine with me, I'm always a game penpal. So I responded with a few questions to start the conversation. And then...nothing. For weeks. I sent a quick follow-up, and still, now two months later, nothing.

I mean, I get it. We're all the worst. I've been the worst myself, although I've sincerely been working on being better. We're busy, we're distracted, we're overwhelmed, we're exhausted, we're lazy. We're doing the best we can, most of the time. So I don't know why I should expect anything more. I don't know why I feel so disappointed when my emails or texts or whatever overtures I make to connect with others are met with glaring silence. Being ghosted is the worst sort of rejection, the phantom why? lingering in the ether, haunting us.

How did we arrive at the conclusion that saying nothing was somehow better than saying no? Don't get me wrong, I'm a conflict-avoidant Libra whose unfortunate mantra is "peace at any price," and I'll let you guess how that's been working out for me. Hint: not great. In my follow-up note to the writer, I made a specific point of letting her know that if she didn't have time for me, no hard feelings. She is a busy person, caring for a family, producing a podcast, and now writing her second book. The last thing I want is to feel like a burden, another person making demands of her precious time. But even as I write these words, I feel myself cringing at their desperation. Would a reply of, "I'm sorry, I can't, don't hate me" actually make me feel any better when I already knew the answer? Honestly, yes.

What do we owe each other? This is one of the central questions at the heart of The Good Place, a show I should devote more time to given my interest in moral philosophy. The core concept of contractualism comes from Harvard professor Timothy Scanlon, which is, in short, "the idea is that to act morally is to abide by principles that no one could reasonably reject." It's not about being governed by any system of authority, but rather being guided by a sense of decency or, if you prefer, duty, to one another as human beings.

I suppose if I'm making a moral argument here, my position is that what we own to each other, at least – maybe even the very least – is acknowledgement. I like to think of this as the HUA principle: Heard, Understood, Acknowledged. This phrase is used in Air Force communications (aka Hooah!), and I have no idea where and when exactly I picked it up, but somehow it's always stuck with me. It doesn't imply any actions being taken, it doesn't even mean yes. It's meant to indicate an answer that can refer to or mean anything and everything except no. No, of course, always means no.

Acknowledgement is not the same as attention. "Attention," said writer Simone Weil, "is the rarest and purest form of generosity." The term "holding space" has gotten a lot of airtime outside of the therapist's office these past few years, appropriated as a time management tactic for the ostensibly emotionally intelligent. Our attention deficit has left us to measure out emotional capacity in coffee spoons, putting us into the position of having to give or withhold consent for asking for help from one another.

It occurs to me that I might not always hold a man to the same standards of responsiveness. As women, the expectation to be generous with our attention and attentiveness to other's needs is what led to a 'conceptual drift' of the term "emotional labor." No one wants to think of offering advice, listening to woes, and dispensing care as transactional, as Jess Zimmerman writes in The Toast. But like it or not, the value of our time is in a constant state of negotiation, and our attention is subject to economic fluctuations.

Does any of this make me feel less bad about being ghosted? Not really, but that's on me. I really don't have any hard feelings for the writer. In the triage of her inbox, I'm relegated to the eternal waiting room.

The other day, another girlfriend of mine told me that despite the fact I'd been hard to reach and hard to get to know at first, she was determined to keep up our nascent friendship. Even when I'd go dark for stretches of time, she'd persist, sending texts to check in. One day she just showed up on my doorstep with the most amazing homemade soup and a huge hunk of rainbow layer cake. And I was so grateful she did, because even ghosts get hungry.

Her nose is painted pepper-sunlight

Oh, oh, oh, summertime rolls.