Earlier this week I had to fly down to KwaZulu-Natal to participate in the national standardisation of drama practicals. It was my first introduction to the Dramatic Arts examining panel, and they were – as can be expected – absolutely fabulous and thoroughly entertaining.
On Monday night for dinner they elected to eat at a local hotel’s restaurant, which has a decent reputation in the area. I held my composure when they made that decision, and I do not think that my face betrayed my sinking heart. It had been well over a decade since last I dined there, but that particular restaurant has a particularly traumatic history for me personally. The last time I was there was a night that in many ways altered the course of my life. I thought I had worked through a lot of that baggage, but suddenly I felt in my heart that I was going to be tested.
To complicate matters, both the schools we moderated were schools at which I had taught, and there was already a haze of nostalgia hanging over the trip. In truth, KZN has long had a hold on my heart. The rolling green hills touch something in me and evoke a sort of yearning that is very hard to explain. I don’t think you ever forget the places that break you. Nor, for that matter, the ones that help restore you. The Midlands represents both for me.
As I sat in my room at the guesthouse, overlooking the silent farmlands, softly lit by the early evening sun, I could not but help reflecting on what it means to be haunted. I reached two important conclusions.
The first is this: haunting is always about loss. The import of this is significant. You see, the loss of something or someone important is always devastating. The hole that is left behind can never be filled by anything else, no matter how hard we may try. And time may make the loss more bearable, but it never heals because it can never bring restoration. People are unique, as are relationships, or states of being – like innocence. The loss of these may be mitigated by time, but the loss is nonetheless permanent.
And so I was compelled to confront what it was that I had lost in the Midlands all those years ago. The answer is far from simple: a belief that life is basically good; a conception of myself as noble (I am glad I lost this – it made me arrogant); a multitude of dreams; wholeness. In many ways I am better for these losses, and in many ways not. Either way, I am unalterably different.
This led to my second revelation. There were no ghosts. At least, none external. It was not the landscape that was haunting me. The verdant plains were not groaning under the weight of my countless yesterdays. I was. True, the landscape had stirred them – awoken something long dormant – but I realised that even though I thought I had left many of them behind, I still carried them with me. I was haunting myself with unresolved feelings.
So how does one excorcise these sombre spectres of yesteryear? I think the key lies in recognising what they are: my losses. Maybe I don’t need to try get rid of them. After all, they are a link to a distant time when I was a different man, a man I lost along the way. They are a reminder of who I was, and can never be again.
And so I will choose not to mourn their parting. How can one mourn change, especially when the path those losses put me on has led me here, to a place where I am stronger, humbler, wiser, living more deliberately and meaningfully? I cannot regret the man I have become, and yet will be. On the journey I have come to a deep understanding of grace and purpose, of what it is to be loved by my God. I have met people who have transformed my ideas and shaped my opinions. I am richer in every way. So yes, I am haunted, and the emptiness of the losses will sometimes be starkly apparent, but I do not fear the ghosts anymore. I greet them like old friends, and they smile – somewhat sadly – and fade in the dying light.