Ghost

When Sorrow Gets Stuck, and Unstuck

Janna Sobel
Human Parts

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All images by Martha Sue Coursey

The part of this story that might sound the spookiest is the dream. Or, the fact that I had a sleeping dream that came true in my waking life a couple years later. But that part isn’t spooky to me, because this happens sometimes. Maybe five or six times in my life I’ve had vivid, intense dreams that I’ve awakened from feeling like a stewed monkey; damp and disoriented and a little bit stunned. And with sense a that what I just experienced was more of a memory than a sleep-time adventure. Then, a few months or years down the road, that dream will come to pass.

Maybe it’s a bit unusual, but I’m not the only person this happens to. We likely all have a friend or family member who’s dreamed or known something before it happened; whether they tell us or not. Precognitive dreams are a beautiful mystery, but it can be weird to talk about them in a country that has an actual history of hanging women who knew anything intuitively. And in a culture which, on the whole, still struggles talk about anything related to awe, wonder, or synchronicity without quickly slapping on a label of Religious, Medical, or Esoteric. So it can be easier to keep quiet.

But, I do want to tell you a spooky story. And to tell it, I have to mention one of these dreams.

Two years ago I moved apartments. It was early Covid, and I was feeling a little lost. I’m a teacher, artist, and a theater-maker in my 40’s, and I’d spent a lot of time up to that point bringing people together from all parts of town and walks of life to be delighted by each other as often as possible. When sharing meals and microphones and laughs and hugs with big groups during a pandemic became a bad idea, all of that stopped for a while. And in the absence of it, I blinked and looked around to find myself living alone in freezing city without a partner, kids, a house, or family close by. It wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted those things before… I had, very much. But I noticed the absence of them more acutely when the magic that filled all those theaters and classrooms and rehearsal spaces, was suddenly gone.

Maybe that’s why I moved. Just to fill some space. Or maybe because there was this one apartment in my neighborhood that I’d always eyeball a little dreamily whenever I walked by. It was a corner unit on the top floor of a 4-story walk-up, and whenever I’d pass I’d crane my neck back to try and catch a glimpse of… something? Maybe I just liked it because it was at the intersection of two favorite Chicago streets, both lined with big trees and boasting bike paths. I don’t know. I think it always just felt sort of familiar, like maybe I’d live there someday.

So when a For Rent sign popped up on that building two Octobers ago, I called the landlord and it turned out that it was that corner apartment! I went to see it and it was lovely: a large one-bedroom that was long and quiet and full of light, with big windows at tree-top level, high ceilings and smooth hardwood floors, and good bones that’d be beautiful even without any furniture adorning them. It was the type of place I had wanted for such a long time that I’d gotten tired of wanting it (on a teaching artist’s income in an expensive city, a one-bedroom apartment can be a stretch). But suddenly, maybe a decade too-late and a few hundred dollars under market because of kind-hearted owners, here it was.

So, I signed the lease.

And I felt… weird about it. I was happy. But also sort of angry that it had taken so long to have something that felt like any small part of the adulthood I’d imagined for myself. While the high-achieving friends I grew up with were buying first (and second) homes, getting advanced degrees and publishing books and directing films and building art museums and performing liver surgery and raising tweens and running companies, I had… a nicer apartment. And to me, it felt like a big deal, which was a little embarrassing.

The day before I moved in, something strange happened. Taking a break from packing, I sat on the floor of my old place in an ocean of half-filled boxes, to catch my breath and scroll Facebook. At the top of my newsfeed, that feature called “Time- Hop” or “On this Day” or “Your Memories” or whatever-it-is-now, showed a post that I had written two years ago to the day. It went like this:

“I’m messing with the idea of giving dreams a platform on social media. Wondering if it could be fun to invite that liminal resource into a public space. Maybe this is a dumb idea. I’m trying it anyway! This morning I dreamed this:

I find a home I love. It’s an apartment in a city I assume is Chicago, and it’s big and full of sunlight with hardwood floors. It is on the top floor, and near some industrial construction, which can’t be heard from inside. It’s an old, antiquey building with high ceilings, made with care and craft. It’s in the treetops. Sometimes, the apartment is empty and all mine, and sometimes there are 3 people living in it. They are sort of shadowy, and they are sometimes real and sometimes not. When they are there, the apartment is darker, and the windows are covered with lace curtains in the shape of cartoon ghosts. One of these ‘housemates’ tells me the story of the place.

She says the apartment used to be a whole free-standing Victorian house, set apart from others, surrounded by magnolia trees and willows. She shows me an ink drawing of the original house, which hangs framed on the wall. The drawing is blue ink on old white paper, like the soft colors of antique china, and the house is set back from the street with a river behind it.

I invite friends over. And everyone who comes “loves me as much as I love them”. This heals a part of me that feels or imagines an imbalance with this in real life, and I cry tears of joy. In the front living room, the people who mean the most to me come over and sit on my couch and hold my face, and promise that they will never leave me again. My brother is there, and my best friend from childhood, two people I loved most when we were little, and who I used to laugh the hardest with, but who I haven’t seen in a long time and who haven’t seemed much interested in being friends in adulthood. We sing Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds, hitting every vocal swoop in precise unison, and laughing hard because of how detailed our memories are, saying that it was our favorite song as kids (which it was definitely not. I didn’t even realize I knew all those lyrics).

I feel a giddy swirl of joy and peace, and also surrounded by a new love that I’ve never known before; one that makes my heart slow down and beat really easy. There’s a flower in a pot on a window-sill that matches this brand new joy, and it’s the best one I’ve seen. So many different sizes and types of blossoms in rich bright gem tones. Emerald and violet, goldenrod and rose, sky-blue. Tiny bluebells and big soft flowers that turn from purple to pink to glittering gold.

After a lot of laughing I walk downstairs and outside. Two powdery pale, ghostly white, happy babies being carried on their parents’ shoulders turn around to look at me as they pass with beaming smiles. They speak important words that I don’t understand. I look down at the curb, and see the potted flowers that were just sitting up in my window, fallen and cracked. All the blossoms and leaves are gone, and there is just a thin, twisted, crispy stem… unrecognizable. The dirt has been knocked out of the pot, and the plant is dead. Seeing this, I feel a wave of loss that is indescribable, and it ripples across time. I sink to my knees, and touch the pot. It feels like everything I’ve ever wanted, and ever longed for, and finally found, has died. To have so much joy and love and then lose it all, takes my breath away.

I stand the pot up, angle the crispy, dead stem upright, and fill the pot back up with soil, whispering to myself, “I hope the flower will grow again. Maybe all it needs is dirt.”

That was the post. Written two years ago to-the-day that I was packing to move. And as soon as I read it, I recognized the apartment. It was the very same. It’s impossible to prove or capture that here, but it was: down to the floor plan. I hadn’t remembered this dream when I visited the place a few weeks prior, except for maybe a vague sense of deja vu. I might never have remembered it if I hadn’t written it on Facebook (?!), and then seen it pop up the day I was packing.

It gave me serious pause. In the dream, this apartment was the location of such terrible contrast: of finally-found, deep love, and then the total loss of it, which I really did not want to experience in real life. But, I also didn’t feel like there was much choice. I could have backed out of the lease. But it didn’t feel like that would protect me. These premonitive dreams almost never feel like warnings anyway, as much as they feel like preparation. They feel like some love from the future reaching back through time to say, “Hey, this is about to happen. But it’s going to be okay… I know because I’m on the other side of it.”

So, I moved. And all of it happened. That deep love and joy, the heartbreak, even the very specific and unexpected gift of a pot of sky-blue and purple and rose-colored flowers (they were given to me as seeds in a pot, so I hadn’t thought about the dream. The first day they bloomed, sitting on that same window sill, it stunned me; it was so specific to the dream). My childhood friend called one day while I sat in the very same place on my couch that we’d sat in my dream, and out of the blue, she said those words about loving me as much as I loved her. My brother reached out to reconnect too. And my first year in the place, I fell in love with a man who I thought I would spend the rest of my life with.

He and I talked about making a family and a home together, and we made art and music together, and plans to travel to see the magnolias bloom in New Orleans. I could tell you a million joys of loving him but I won’t, except to say that I’ve never been so happy with a person. And then, my childhood friend tried to take her own life, my aunt succeeded at doing the same, I was hit by a car on my bike, I had to have a couple surgeries, and the man I loved left me while those flowers he gave me bloomed. The plant started to die soon after. I buried it in the yard below the apartment, remembering the words from the dream, “Maybe all it needs is dirt.”

All of that happened during the two years that I’ve lived here. All of it, and, I met the ghost.

I’ve never lived with a ghost before. And I don’t like ghost stories and I don’t believe in ghosts and I don’t even want to think about them. If a movie about haunting or possession pops up in some streaming cue, I quickly hit thumbs-down/no-thank-you/do-not-ever-show-me-this. Unlike some friends who are a little more earth-spirity and enchanted by the prospect of communing with the spirits of ancestors (or even local etherial squatters) I cherish my right to say a firm ‘No’ to interacting with disembodied whisps. I think what we give attention to is more likely to find purchase in our psyches, and I’m aware of my own suggestibility. So I’m absolute about this. Straight-edge, bright lines: no ghosts.

It started with the lights in the kitchen. But only when I was having some big, sad, heartbroken feeling after the breakup. At the height of a feeling like that, the kitchen lights would flicker. A lot, and for a long time, until I’d settle down a little, and then they’d return to normal. I hated it and it spooked me. It never happened when I was bored or listening to a podcast while making dinner.

Next, were the creepy dead tree limbs that thumped and squeaked against the front windows from a nearby tree, tracing smudgy, smeary lines where the “lace ghost curtains” in the dream had been. I hated those branches. They were dead and leafless even in spring and summer, tapping on the glass with the slightest breeze, and moaning as they pushed across it in stronger winds.

Finally, there was just a feeling of… well, a presence in the apartment. Again, I don’t really know how to describe it, other than to say that there were areas that felt like they were already occupied; where the energy or the electricity felt stagnant or stuck. Maybe angry or agitated. It didn’t feel mean or violent; just prickly and sensitive. There was a spot in the hallway that, whenever I walked past, made the hairs of my upper arm near my shoulder stand up without exception. And another place on the floor near the bedroom that felt like stepping over an open wound. Like, it… hurt the apartment?.. any time I walked near. I did my best to walk around.

Of course, I was probably feeling all those emotions myself that I sensed in the place. So, I’m keen to the likely projection. But I’m also pretty aware of my feelings as they happen, and don’t generally need to project them onto imaginal specters in order to face them. That sense of a presence in a building was something I’d never experienced before, and I didn’t like it. Occasionally, I’d remember the ghosts in that dream. And then I’d try to forget them.

For a few months, my way of dealing with the ghost was just denial; a flat refusal to give it any real-estate in my brain. It was enough to be dealing with the haunting of my own heart; the love for a man who’d left me, and so had no place to go. I felt fully occupied by that disconnected love, which soured into sorrow, and was coating my bones every day. I was trying really hard during that time to let that sorrow move through so that it didn’t get stuck in me: crying in the shower, dancing out grief in the living room at sunset, paying way too much for Zoom therapy. But the sorrow didn’t leave. And the longer it stayed, the older it felt; like it was my longing for every person I have ever loved and lost… maybe even for every person my family had ever loved and lost. I don’t know, but it was big. And if I couldn’t get my own self un-haunted, I certainly didn’t have the skills to help some distressed, disembodied Chicago neighbor move on to the other side.

I don’t really remember when things changed, but a day came when I realized my denial wasn’t working to disappear the ghost. I sensed it every day. My kitchen was like a disco. And the apartment was not feeling better as I settled in. And so, one night I just gave up, and sat down in the empty dining room at my empty dining table, and finally talked to a ghost.

Not with words. But somehow quietly, I just acknowledged its presence. Said something like, ‘I know that you’re here, and it’s okay with me if it’s okay with you.’ I said I wouldn’t be giving it any space in the domain of my body, but that I could share the apartment if it could share with me. I said I could tell that it was hurting, and if there was something I could do to help it feel better, it could let me know (within limits), though I reserved the right to decline. Mostly, I told it I accepted it, in any amount of pain it might be in. I told it I meant it no harm, and that I would be careful.

Again, I’m aware of the reflection. I know that the wish for acceptance is something I had myself then. When I felt broken, I wanted to be allowed to grieve, and just be accepted in my pain by people who loved me. I received that type of acceptance from some dear friends, thankfully. But for most of that year, I was alone with the pain an empty apartment, trying to learn to give that acceptance to myself. And to a ghost.

I’m not sure where my own pain stands now. I do feel like, despite my best efforts at trying to help it move through and not get stuck, a lot of the sorrow is still in my body. I wish that it wasn’t.

But the ghost? She seems a little better.

Slowly, over many months, her pain seemed to have settled down or dissipated. The light in the kitchen stopped flickering. Those parts of the house don’t wince with hurt anymore. And one morning last year, I woke up to find tree trimmers had removed the long, bony tree fingers that left those smeary ghost patterns on the front windows. Slowly, the energy of the whole apartment changed. And now when I come home, it feels really peaceful, full of light, clear and gentle, and even kind. There’s a neutrality that feels welcoming and accepting. I find it easy to write and create here, which I didn’t for a while, and I’m grateful for that.

My aunt who took her life last year, died alone in an apartment that she loved too much. Without a partner, or any family or loved ones near her, she felt that her apartment was all she had, and she shot herself when she learned that her building was being sold and she would have to move. That haunts me too. More than any ghost, or any loss of love.

I don’t think that my aunt and the ghost are the same. I moved and met the ghost several months before my aunt took her life. But, if I have a wish for my aunt, it is probably the same as my wish for the ghost. That she knows she is free: to be in her home, or to go wherever she may wish. To feel happy, or to hurt. To be the thing she has long been, or to completely transform and be something new. To be accepted somehow in her sorrow, so that she may have less of it. I suppose that’s my wish for myself, too. And for everyone.

Maybe the ghost will travel back to that ancient blue and white house by the river, with the willows and magnolia trees. Or maybe she has already been that story, and something else better, in time or outside of it, comes next.

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Janna Sobel
Human Parts

Janna writes and performs, teaches and coaches. She runs the show HereChicago.org and the game IntuitiveTreasureHunter.com. Find her at jannasobel.com.