A lot of the lessons we learn in life are obvious ones. They are reminders of simple principles, echoed in sentiments we’ve read before. There is no novelty in the words “with every ending comes a new beginning,” because they have been unfortunately and permanently damned into the world of clichés. Instead, the novelty is in how we arrive at these words. It is the promising beginnings, the uncertain middles, and the nearly heartbreaking endings that remind us of lessons we swore we learned already. It isn’t until we are carrying out our own unique stories do we truly appreciate the inevitability of painful endings dissolving into beautiful beginnings. Even though I can write these words so eloquently, I’m having trouble accepting them in the same fashion. The days in November climb higher and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to face the remainder of my time here with a positive attitude.
The most popular topic of conversation in Penrose right now, other than updating each other on the all consuming traumas and victories of our social lives, is how quickly everything is passing by and how soon we will be returning home. I’m in denial every time someone brings it up, often wanting to shove my fingers in my ears like a child and yell “I’m not listening” until the harsh pains of reality are numbed into a manageable murmur. Yes, I’m being very dramatic about leaving because yes, I am very dramatic about endings.
In spite of my denial facade and mostly failed attempts to look unfazed, I’ve secretly been thinking very critically about conclusions. Based on the house’s fixation with the certainty of leaving, it’s safe to say that everyone else has been too. I know it’s only natural to get emotional about goodbyes, especially one this big. But for me, considering the end of the semester has been more than just an acknowledgment of reality and a period of sadness. Instead, visions of me as an angsty teenager riding the school bus come crashing back into the forefront of my memory and I see myself writing the words “there is no good in goodbye” haphazardly into a notebook. It goes without saying that immediately following these flashbacks, I’m wondering why these memories resurface and what they say about my ability (or lack thereof) to let go.
If it isn’t obvious from the tone of the above paragraphs or from my previous work, I’ve never been very fond of leaving the people and places I love behind. As kids, my best friend and I would try to convince our dads to “have another beer” so we were guaranteed at least another hour together. We saw the time we had as never being enough and we attempted to stall them for as long as we could just to stay in each other’s company. Charming and clever little kids we were.
As I grew, I continued to face my own definition of “catastrophic” endings. The saddest days in my high school career were ones where I had to say goodbye to a period in my life. Retired theatre kids will remember the last night of a show, when somber feelings accompanied literally everyone’s awareness of an entire world coming to an end. During a production, I would become completely absorbed into this exhilarating false world so far removed from reality that I could be whoever I wanted without it affecting me in the long term. I would sit on the floor backstage and eat pizza with my friends, gossiping about relationships happening or, to someone’s dismay, not happening amongst the cast members. The entire world, or what mattered of it anyway, felt as if was contained within that theatre and the corridors surrounding it. We ran through them barefoot if we wanted to and broke rules when it benefitted the success of our production. In the 15 minutes leading up to rehearsals everyday, we would walk to Starbucks or Wawa and spend the little money that we had on whatever our favorite drink was at the time. Some of my most loved memories live in that theatre. All around, we couldn’t have been happier with the simplicity of our lives.
As the semester is ending and my flight home approaching, I feel very similar to how I did during those fleeting moments right before our final shows. We all knew it was almost over but there wasn’t anything we could do to stop it from continuing and eventually concluding. We were prisoners to the progression of time, our desires for continuity disregarded by the necessity to move forward.
In this moment, it does feel like an entire world is coming to an end. Although I have lived in Cape Town for nearly five months now, it seems like I have only scratched the surface of what it means to live as a South African. I feel fortunate that I am not poised to leave this country still thinking like tourist but I’m also sad that just as I am getting used to my life here and making new friends, I have to go home.
My life in Cape Town does not, nor ever has, represented the everyday life of a Capetonian. Throughout our experience, the general justification for any of our less than responsible decisions has been “f*$k it, we’re in Africa.” Meanwhile, my South African friends are trying to make money, pay bills, and go about their daily lives unscathed. I’m truly grateful for everything they have managed to do for me even in the midst of their myriad commitments. To those of you who have given me a moment of your time in your busy schedule to send a text, meet for a drink, or get to know me just the slightest bit, thank you. You have made Cape Town feel less like a movie and more like home. I wish there was someone, somewhere I could try to convince to have another beer just so I could stay in your company for a little while longer.
Sometimes I feel as though I’ve met a lot of real people, living in a very real place through incredibly false means. It wasn’t until recently did I truly see some of the less than obvious facets of my privilege to be here. Studying on a pass/fail basis and being able to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world without having to have an income is a very privileged way to live. I think about how busy I am at home with work, school, and just the daily grind of trying to get by and wonder if I could ever be as generous with my time as my South African friends have been with me.
The reality is, I’m not South African. Sometimes I still convert rand to dollars in the back of my head when I pay for things. I haven’t had many responsibilities in the last few months. My classes were never a big priority for me and I still get slightly irritated when the wifi is slow. But perhaps the worst of all these realities is that I have to leave. I’m just that little girl sitting in the back of the theatre eating buff chick pizza and carrying on like the rest of the world’s responsibilities don’t exist, dreading the moment the curtain closes for the last time. Only in this particular scenario, it’s harder to say goodbye since the people are not fictional characters, the places are not set pieces, and the friends that I made during the process do not live in the same town as me, conveniently in walking distance of Starbucks.
I think this kind of brings me back to my persistent difficulty with throwing caution to the wind and trekking recklessly into the unknown, since I really have no idea where my life will take me when I return to The States. This ambiguity has left me clutching on to Cape Town in fear of what I cannot foresee. I’m not the kind of person to forfeit control and just let things happen. I have a hard time letting go of the past, what I want, and what I expected. There are a lot of stories that have taken place in my life that have ended in ways I didn’t expect or want, even here and up until coming to Cape Town, this bothered me a lot.
Over the last few years, I have spent an excessive amount of time getting attached to the story I wanted to see and being disappointed when it didn’t come to pass. Had I not come to Cape Town and stepped so far out of my comfort zone, I would still be thinking this way. So much has happened here that I never saw coming. A year a go, Cape Town wasn’t even in my peripheral. In that sense, I think the most important thing I’ve learned from being here and having to say goodbye to some of the best people I have ever met is to let go of expectations, do what you want in life, and let the story unfold exactly how it is supposed to, even if that means letting go of something or someone for a little while or… maybe even forever. You can’t control everything that happens in life but you can control how you react to it (another simple yet seemingly revolutionary sentiment).
I’ve realized through my small losses, both here and at home, that when you hold on to anything for too long, it loses what makes it special and forces the focus away from new opportunities back onto something or someone from your past. I’m starting to think that adventures have endings and people have exits for a reason. Without them our experiences wouldn’t be quite as meaningful and we wouldn’t be as fascinated by our willingness to get lost in them even though most times we are fully aware that our time is limited. I firmly believe that our experiences and the characters who accompany us on them stay until we’ve learned what they’ve come to teach. In many ways, I’ve made peace with my favorite pastime of being overly nostalgic. Nostalgia, I’ve come to understand, isn’t all bad because I wouldn’t want to actually be the little girl with the pizza. That chapter of my life is sadly but fortunately over. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be in Cape Town.
In just a few short months, a new round of students will make their way to Penrose. I wonder what kind of beginnings they’ll have and what kind of stories their lives will tell. I think about the people they might meet and figure one day we’ll probably have mutual friends. I hope they’ll be kind to my friends I’m leaving behind but I can’t help feeling a tiny bit jealous that they will be here with them while I am miles away. Even still, I expect that their experiences will be as rich and meaningful as my own.
I don’t know where I’ll be come 2017. Although I’m already planning on visiting Cape Town in March, my life could take an unexpected turn into a new and exciting chapter, just as it did when I decided to apply for study abroad this past April. I’m a little scared, as I should be. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding my life for when I do return home. But it’s another cycle, another circle. I’ve been learning to embrace the ambiguity with open arms because as they say, “anything can happen.” I may be sad now but this is the start of a new adventure, curiously down another rabbit hole. Don’t worry Cape Town, I won’t venture too far away. I promise I’ll see you just now.
With love for everyone that has touched my life this term,
You can see more pictures of my adventures by following me on Instagram: @shawna_117.