Visiting Ghosts: Writing about the Past

One of my current writing projects is an essay (or longer something… book? eep.) about faith and identity.  I can’t write about becoming a Christ follower without writing about an ex-boyfriend I dated for almost two years during college, a guy I expected to marry someday.

It’s hard to go back to journals and memories about this time of my life.  Things with E were never really bad.  He didn’t abuse me or cheat on me.  We fell in love fast and hard and made each other the centers of our worlds.  It wasn’t a horrible relationship, but it was an incredibly formative relationship.  In fact, as cooky as it sounds, I think if God hadn’t intervened in his mysterious way, I could have married him, and I could have made it work.  I loved him so much  that he held the place of god in my life, for a long time.  But as my faith in God grew and expanded into the rest of my life, his lack of belief became an increasing source of conflict for us, among other differences that surfaced during the time we were together.  Eventually I had two worlds: There was my life when I was with him, and there was my life when I was not with him.  Things gradually unraveled for us until we finally split up.

It is easy to demonize people who have loved us–and hurt us–deeply.  We are quick to remember the times of conflict, the tragic and the painful, because to revisit the memory of when it was good is risky.  It’s uncomfortable.  Remembering when you were happy with this person who is no longer a part of your life feels dirty.  It feels like you are cheating on your spouse, the person you’ve chosen to love for over a decade now, the person with whom you have built a real and true love story, a story of living through many trials already, and survived.

But in order to write the whole story, to give that person on the page three dimensions instead of the one dimension you remember best, I have to remember how deeply I loved.  Without remembering and writing out how great I felt when I was with him, why I loved him so much, the impact of that loss and the brokenness that trailed me afterward sounds artificial, sappy, melodramatic.  I want to be fair to E and in doing so, I will be telling a true story, not just a wounded half-truth.

E is a person who has never left my conscious.  People who have that deep of an influence on your formation as a whole human being leave deep indents, like the meteor that just cracked into Earth.  That impact might be traumatic, impossible to refill or repair.  But over time, that crater will be transformed and healed, never erased, just redeemed.  One of my best friends calls these seasons of life our “grace-bearers”– a reminder of the grace and mercy extended by the Lion that never leaves our side.

And that’s the story I want to tell.

Published by Sarah M. Wells

Sarah M. Wells is the author of The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Gospels to Help Kids and Parents Love God and Love Others (2022), American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation (2021), Between the Heron and the Moss (2020), The Family Bible Devotional: Stories from the Bible to Help Kids and Parents Engage and Love Scripture (2018), Pruning Burning Bushes (2012), and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce, winner of the 2008 Starting Gate Award through Finishing Line Press (2009). Sarah's work has been honored with four Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essays have appeared in the notable essays list in the Best American Essays 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2018. Sarah is the recipient of a 2018 Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. She resides in Ashland, Ohio with her husband and three children.

3 thoughts on “Visiting Ghosts: Writing about the Past

  1. Beautiful, Sarah. And something that is an encouraging lesson in being courageous and careful to look at all the people we write about carefully. I'm working on an essay (book? Me too, eep!!) that has to do with family and the formation of faith and am finding that it is difficult, careful work, so I appreciate this post.


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