Being haunted is, relatively speaking, easy. When you are old enough – and sometimes, more tragically, before you should be – you have interacted sufficiently with the darker side of human nature to have been hurt profoundly. People hurt other people. It is one of the inescapable legacies we leave. No matter how much we may love those people, we always end up scarring them. Being haunted by those spectres from our past is easy. And we spend a significant part of our lives trying to exorcise those ghosts, or attempting to find a way to coexist with them. Haunting just happens.
Being the ghost, on the other hand, is harder to accept. Especially if you are a reasonably sensitive or intense person. I am both. One of my struggles is facing the impact that my careless (and by that I do not mean undeliberate, but performed without sufficient care) and reckless words and actions have had on others.
I have spent most of my life as a teacher. Like many who go into education, I used to buy into the dream of “making an impact”. I’m not sure I believe in that anymore, but that is a story for another day. Like many good teachers – and I am good – I am certain that there are lives I have touched positively. I have assisted many young people to know themselves better, inspired many to find hope and to chase dreams. I am always grateful for those opportunities and proud of myself for taking them.
But I am intense and passionate, and often do not think before speaking or acting. While I have never willingly hurt any child in my care, I am certain I have done it. I know that out there in the world there are people who are haunted by careless words I spoke or wrote , by some reckless action of mine. That knowledge is terrible. Being a ghost is not easy.
And absolution is a myth. One can never undo actions or unspeak words. No good deeds or noble intentions can reverse the damage caused by carelessness. One of my favourite books, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, addresses the issue masterfully. The novel’s chief protagonist, Briony, a young girl whose careless actions have devastating consequences for the lives of others close to her, eventually steps outside of herself enough to realise that “A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.” No matter how much Briony strives to make amends, through service or through writing, she cannot. Some things, once broken, cannot be mended. And because efforts at atonement always fall short, her “guilt refine[s] the methods of self-torture, threading the beads of detail into an eternal loop, a rosary to be fingered for a lifetime”.
That’s the thought behind the poem I want to share today. It is a hypothetical situation where one sees a face in a crowd that reminds one of somebody from the past. What if I am that somebody for someone else? How do they think of me?
something in a careless gesture
summons you from across the years.
mesmerised by shadows of your smile in hers,
i sink into a shame-tainted haze of yesterdays.
thus lost in echoes,
i quite forget the crowded beach, and blurt your name.
she frowns – suspicious eyes – i apologise
my dreamspent gaze goes seaward
and i wonder if you, sometimes, too,
in the dying of the day,
on some lonely northern shore,
trace the solitary vigil of a gull
across a broad and bleeding sky
and, unbidden, glimpse some ghost of me.
as the phantom fades in the failing light,
do you smile?
here, on the edge of forever,
kissed by emptiness,
stand in the naked moonlight,
casting stones at the receding tide.