Snake Skins and Butterflies – Transformations and the ghosts we leave behind

ghosts of us

A snake sheds its skin to leave a ghost of itself, translucent, other-worldly. Waste, if anything that becomes compost on the forest floor can be described as waste. A butterfly emerges from its protective cocoon. A girl becomes a woman with the first spot of blood in the heat and anxiety of puberty. A man re-learns himself in the constant shallow pain of bereavement on the death of a lifelong partner. An unhappy person unlocks their misery, light finds its way into their soul.

We leave parts of ourselves behind in so many ways, outgrowing even the most cherished, the most golden and happy of phases. We run, sometimes, from unhappy times, and in running, discover that leaving behind is not simply a matter of leaving. It can take painstaking effort to find the place where we are hooked, how we can peel away, reject, burn to hell what we no longer need. Sometimes we make the separation gently, keeping what we have removed because it is still cherished.

Sometimes we know exactly what is needed but the process is still painful, slow, even perilous. Recently I spoke to Sophie Cook, a transgender woman, radio broadcaster, politician and activist. She was interviewing me about Twice the Speed of Dark. In that book, I write about a process of inventing people to understand what was meant by their deaths. The central character Anna writes portraits of dead people in the news. She does this to find a way to care about their deaths, rather than dismissing them as a mere tally of acts of war; people too distant from her own life to notice. Sophie made a connection between these invented ghosts in my book and an article she wrote. In the article she said that when transgender people look at a photograph of themselves from before they transitioned, it is as though they are looking at ghosts. Not only does that person no longer exist, but in a way, they never did.

Sophie then spoke further, very movingly about Steve, her ghost. She said that when she is told that she is brave, she says that it is Steve who was the brave one. Steve was courageous enough, despite the difficulty, the pain of his life, to keep going long enough for Sophie to finally have the opportunity to become. She said that she feels such enormous gratitude to him because he kept going, because he made it possible for her to be.

It is a profoundly moving idea to me. Loving with gratitude a part of a life that could be called self, but does not need to be. Feeling gratitude to a story that could be me but does not need to be. Sophie and Steve are connected, they contain eternal reference to one another, without having to consider a linear narrative that makes them one. Another tender version of the boundless ways we connect, the ways we are. Our soul ghosts weave through and around us, sometimes biding time, load bearing, until we are ready for better things.



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