While life happens, the invisible thrives


While life happens, the invisible thrives

DEBORAH STEINMAIR says she can't be an atheist because she believes in everything under the sun. Unlike the White Queen in Alice in Wonderland, she never had to practise believing in the impossible. And she has experienced miracles.


THERE are words I will remember forever, because they resonate. Like Hamlet's “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Or Wordsworth: “The child is the father of the man". According to Wikipedia, this means a person's actions and experiences as a child shape his adult personality. I understood it differently: that children possess innate wisdom, more than grown-ups, and lose it with time as they are taught to be rational.

And when Alice in Wonderland tells the White Queen, “One can't believe impossible things," and queen responds that she thanks to discipline and practice she sometimes believes  “as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. Quite. But it's never been necessary for me to practise.

I can't be an atheist because I believe in everything under the sun. I can accommodate everything. In my youth, I was a so-called charismatic Christian who spoke in tongues. A language with a distinctive cadence and accent bubbled forth from my mouth in moments of ecstasy. I saw visions and received prophecies. Later, I let it go because I realised I was derailing, losing my marbles. But I will never stop believing. In God and everything else.

I was introduced to one of my favourite writers in my early 20s: Isaac Bashevis Singer, son of a rabbi. His hypnotic stories teem with the supernatural: dybbuks, ghosts and spirits. He said: “Ghosts and all these things which people call today superstition are the very sparks which we are ignoring in our day." Read Gimpel the Fool.

Hello and respect

As a child, I made a plea bargain with the invisible: I don't want to see you, please. Hello and respect, but I don't want to see you guys. I'm already so afraid of the dark. And I didn't see them ever again. Since then, I have felt presences that raise every hair on my body, and I have experienced  a chill or happiness for no reason, but I don't see ghosts. I walk into an unfamiliar house and feel troubled, sensing pain and anger in the walls and plaster. Sometimes it's so strong that I feel sick.

My children saw ghosts when they were small and described them in the minutest detail. My youngest vomited in the garden of the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda, then fainted. I also never want to set foot in that house again, even though I am particularly attracted to coloured glass. A sadness and a rage that take my breath away linger there.

I'm going to tell you something: My friend Eloise's mother died when Eloise was still little. One day, in a yoga class, she saw a woman who reminded her of her mother, even though there was no phsyical resemblance. Later, she found out that the woman was living in the house where they lived when her mother passed away. She asked to see the house again. The woman was on a call, and her slightly disabled daughter chatted to Eloise in the meantime. She told her a woman sometimes came into the kitchen at night, asking her to make rooibos tea. It was Eloise's mother's favourite drink. What do you do then, Eloise wanted to know. I say make it yourself, the child said. The woman wore a nightgown and did not scare the child; there was a nice feeling around her. She was unlike the boy who sometimes came, who was very angry. Eloise talked to her yoga teacher, who said the woman was her mother; she couldn't be at peace because she was worried about her children who were small when she died. They performed a ceremony, and since then the woman has not come to ask for rooibos tea again.


I thought about all this recently when someone I know, a psychiatrist and medical doctor, decided her girlfriend was demon-possessed and asked an Anglican priest to perform an exorcism. I snorted in disbelief at first, because I'm a reasonable person, but the more I think about the few times I've seen the girlfriend, about the lost, confused, manipulative, hurtful look in her eyes, the more I wonder. Look, I'm opposed to exorcisms. If you're going to look for demons behind every bush, you're going to lose it. But I have a hard time disbelieving it. Maybe I should train harder; unlike the White Queen, I have to practise not believing impossible things.

When I was young, I worked for an American psychologist and philosopher, a Dr Cook. We offered courses at mines to motivate unskilled workers towards greater productivity. He attributed Africa's unproductivity to the people's life and world view; to their animistic beliefs. I looked it up: the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena. Goodness, I'm definitely leaning that way. Also: the belief in a supernatural power that organises and animates the material universe.

It's not that the doctor dismissed it as rubbish. But he believed that if you think you are helpless and controlled by various forces, it will lead to  the opposite of productivity, individualism, entrepreneurship, accountability and rational thinking. “You are an agent of change," he told the young people. You can set goals and change your life through your decisions and behaviour. Cause and effect, he emphasised. And if you have enough information, you can explain everything. By the way: productivity increased drastically.

Miracles are rare occurences

He drew a circle: here is everything that exists. Then he drew a horizontal line through the circle: the lower part is the natural realm. Here, the law of gravity and other logical rules apply. The upper half is the supernatural realm. It also exists. God and angels reside here, and the laws of the natural world do not apply. Sometimes God or angels intervene in the natural realm. We call these interventions miracles, and they are extremely rare. Don't rely on them. Take control of your life.

I have experienced miracles. It was a dark night in Potchefstroom. I was a student and hyper-religious. A friend and I prayed together. On our knees, we intervened for the world. Suddenly, I remembered I had to take something to someone. It was before the time of cellphones. We didn't own cars. I climbed onto my bicycle without a headlight and took off. When I reached the beginning of a concealed driveway in the dark, a car was reversing towards me at high speed. I realised I could not get out of the way in time and my legs became paralysed. Suddenly, I felt something forcefully pushing my bike from behind, whoosh, and in the nick of time I was clear of the driveway. But that was not all. When I returned to my praying friend, he said, wide-eyed: “You had a close shave with death. I sensed that you were in danger and intervened for you."

I believe in everything and live my life as if the world is logical and rational, setting goals and working diligently towards where I want to be. What else can I do? Meanwhile, life happens and the invisible thrives. Stories are born. It's magical.

♦ VWB ♦

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