Why write?

I rise in darkness and greet my husband and children who are still asleep. The R21-highway’s lights are a shiny yellow-dotted snake that spreads out in front of me as I drive to the airport. I take a flight to Cape Town, a dove on a mission of peace. From the air I see the day breaking in the east. Mercies are new this morning. The day beckons. I am excited about today’s adventure. My final destination is the Adam Small Theatre in Stellenbosch.

Professor Lizette Rabe is presenting a workshop on writing therapy. She recently released her new book on the subject in Afrikaans called ‘Om tot verhaal te kom’, translated, in my mind, as ‘To come to your story’. I am going to learn about writing, my passion. I am thankful for so many things. For my husband who has made this day possible for me. Thankful also that I am able to learn again as if I am a child, maybe even for the first time. Thankful for the clean slate I’m able to work from.

She tells us how she lost one of her three sons to suicide. “I lost a third of my body weight, literally one of my three sons.” The tears of many people in the packed room tell the story of a deep sense of knowing what she is talking about… In her book’s first chapter she writes about herself, “She would now have to get to know the stranger in the mirror, the women with the faraway eyes, that one that has been mercilessly thrown into a new life together with those closest to her. She would do it with dazed words, or words written in a daze.” Another woman asks, “I hear you when you say we must just start writing. But I am scared. I am scared that when I start, it would be like a doctor’s scalpel that cuts me open. I’m scared that I will never stop bleeding. How do I start?” Her voice is desperate.

The ‘Black dog’-products, an initiative by Dana Snyman and Moses, make their debut. The black dog, a metaphor for depression, that follows us everywhere… “But,” Professor Rabe’s voice is firm, “the black dog listens to our demands, not the other way around.”

I am on a peace mission indeed. To write, I’ve learned, brings me to oases of peace. Peace that in turn makes me an oasis for my husband and children. The vent that is my mouth often fails me miserably. I fall over words, the stutter that I’ve developed as a child has not left me. I repeat myself. I become confused. I feel completely inadequate in the presence of the other person for who talking is nature. Talking exhausts me completely.

Writing brings me to truth. I pour everything that is in my being out on paper or screen. I see it before my very eyes. I can work with it, even touch it. And then the wonderful revelation: I can organize my being. I can literally put one word in front of another here, there I can delete a sentence, and here again I can add a comma so that I can breathe. Everything makes more sense.  Life slows down.

I think about my two young children who are currently discovering the wonder of writing. The first words they learn to write are their names. In doing so they literally tell the world, “Look, here I am.” My son writes his with painful precision. The concentration he does it with tells the story of the most important work he’ll ever do. My daughter writes hers in dramatic sweeps. The ‘z’ and ‘e’ are each written in three segments. Both according to their characters. They write their names so many times that the letters come to life. I think of my husband who admits that he wishes he appreciated language studies more at school. For today, writing is a major part of his job. I think of how I learned to write at school. How we were given marks for neatness. How today, my thoughts are too fast for my hand and as a result, I write illegibly most times, utterly untidy. I am definitely not the same person now as I was at school.

The universe consists of stories, not atoms,” writes Muriel Rukeyser. I think about my mother’s thoughts written down after her son died. I think of the letters my grandparents wrote to each other that is now in a box underneath my stairs. I think of my father in law who keeps his diary diligently. There are so many stories to tell that give meaning to our oftentimes difficult lives here on earth. So many stories that give a voice to those who can’t write or speak anymore. So many stories that just fade away as we do not have the courage to tell them.

I fly back home as the sun sets in the west. “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Maya Angelou’s words haunt me. It really is the truth, I can testify from experience. You ask me why I write? The answer is simple: It is the only thing that makes sense, in the true sense of the word.

And that is all I need to know now.

 

The most powerful women in the world

“What characterizes holiness is this limitless readiness to serve others.” Alice von Hildebrand, ‘The Privilege of Being a Woman’.

 

Today is International Women’s Day. As I write this, countless panel discussions are being held across the world that includes powerful women.  They discuss matters concerning women.  What does it mean to be a woman?  How can we advance our rights and take care of the equality issue once and for all?  Organizations that promote feminism are having a field day today.  It is, after all, all about women and our desire to take over the world.  It is oftentimes about becoming the absolute masters of our own dreams and achieving these dreams at the cost of our maternal nature.  Many people listen to these powerful women’s opinions and admire them.  After all, what is not to admire?  They are indeed powerful, having achieved much to attain their reputation and esteem in the worldly realm.

This story is about two women. The first woman was born in 1953 in rural northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.  Her father was a labourer on my children’s great grandparents’ farm.  Her mother worked in the main house on the farm, doing the cleaning and washing.  I’ve heard many things about her as her family has worked for my mother in law’s family for longer than they can remember.

“My sister is still working on the farm.” There is pride in her voice when she says this.  Her name is Gertrude Kunune, or ‘Gertie’ as she is affectionately known.  Does her name sound familiar to you?  Probably not.

The second lady in this story is named Lindiwe Twala. She was born in 1973, also in rural northern Kwazulu Natal.  Her grandmother raised her as her own parents abandoned her.  When she was old enough, she came to the city to find work as a domestic worker.  She has four children and three grandchildren and she takes care of all of them.  She has been working in our house for the past seven years.  Have you heard her name before?  I would not be surprised if you didn’t.

Yet, both of them are two of the most powerful women in the world. And both of them were in my house this past week.  Indeed, I am blessed because of it.  Yesterday, Gertie, with her tiny frame, went about my house in the meekest manner conceivable.  So meek was her movements that I had to remind myself from time to time that I wasn’t alone in my house.  But in her meekness she managed to do what is in my mind one of the most profound tasks that can be done for my family…  She cooked for us, one hearty dish after the other.  Food that we could enjoy over supper last night.  Food that I could put in the freezer for those days when supper is an impossible goal to accomplish.  Food that reminds me that I am not the only caretaker of my family.  I need help.  I need community.  I need Gertie.  Yesterday, she took care of one of our most basic needs.  And while she did this, she took care of my heart.  Yesterday, she came to serve us as she and those before her have served my children’s ancestors for many decades.

“Gertie, you are such a gentle person,” I tell her, “I have heard so many things about you, all of them just good!” It is indeed true, her reputation precedes her.  It’s not difficult to see this gentle quality in her.  It is fact the first thing you observe.  Her whole demeanour exudes pure humbleness and softheartedness.  She clasps her hands together every time I hand her something or give her a compliment.  Her sentences often include the word ‘beautiful’ when I tell her about my family and children and other everyday things.  Her joy is as hopeful as the most glorious of dawns.  She bends down when she greats my children and looks them in the eye.  She shows genuine concern for my crying daughter, even though she just met her.  Her ability to see an opportunity to do more work in my house speaks of an attitude of service.

“Ah, nonna’tjie, I have too many faults,” she says as she looks up from the floor where she is busy rearranging one of my kitchen cupboards.  “I can only trust on God to help me.  Every time I struggle, I know He is with me.  Otherwise, how would I live?”  ‘Nonna’tjie’ is an affectionate term Zulu people use to address their bosses’ children.

It’s very easy to spot insincerity when people say these types of things. You can see it in their eyes.  They know they are supposed to say it as it proves them humble.  With Gertie, you just know this testimony comes from a place deep inside her beautiful heart.  Her eyes speak of humble receptivity and the knowledge that to serve is to love.  It is what she has known all her life.  Yesterday, in just a few hours in my home, she has set a standard of humility and service that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  Not because of what she has done, but because of who she is.

Now, Lindiwe first came to my house two weeks after my son’s birth seven years ago. She has come three days a week ever since.  She was an angel sent on my path during a time when I had little to no help with my son and in my house.

“Eish, Lindiwe, I’m really sorry for the state of the house,” I say to her almost every time she comes to work.

“It is no problem,” she always says with a laugh. Not once in the past seven years has she complained about the chaos that meets her most times she comes into our house.  She just goes about her work, knowing from experience that chaos is part of the joy of having children.  She loves my children like they are her own.  She teaches them Zulu and plays with them.  Often, she finds more joy in them than I do.  She has a wonderful reverence for them.

“They are busy, busy, busy,” she often laughs when they make a mess that increases her workload. She never shows irritation or fatigue, even though she has to get up at three o’clock three times a week to take the long haul to get to work on time.

“Mam, my children are hurting me so bad,” she often says with tears streaming down her face, motioning to her heart. “I just don’t know what to do.”

“Lindiwe, I hear you. I’m sorry.  It’s not easy,” I say as I stand next to her against the sink.  Together, we talk about what it means to be mothers and we laugh at the comic side of it.  Many times, we cry together and shake our heads in complete disillusionment.  But more than anything, we pray.  We know that if we were to go at motherhood alone, we would not make it.  I need her help.  I need her infinitely more than she needs me.  I need her servant heart in order to show my children an example of serving.  I need her sincerity that graces my house with the most pleasant of aromas.  For woven into every intricate detail of her whole being is one trait that is incredibly hard to find these days…  Humbleness.

Gertie and Lindiwe don’t know that today is International Women’s Day. They just went about their day like any other, working hard, serving and loving.  They do not claim to be more than they are nor do they try to prove themselves.  They have never claimed for themselves any rights or privileges, nor do they live with an attitude of entitlement. They live with authentic, profound strength every single day by just being humble, by the laying down of themselves for the benefit of others and by serving, serving and more serving.  This sets them on a place much higher than the world.  A place that the world is not able to understand or appreciate.  A place that gives meaning to Matthew 5:5: “What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you!  For you wil inherit the earth.”

Here is to all the humble women that I have the privilege of knowing. You don’t know that you are.  That is the beauty of it.  Yet, you are the most powerful women in the world.  Two of these women were in my house this past week.  Indeed, I am blessed because of it.  And I love them for it.

And this is all I need to know now.

“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Why are you critical of this woman? She has done a beautiful act of kindness for me…  I promise you that as this wonderful gospel spreads all over the world, the story of her lavish devotion to me will also be mentioned in memory of her.’ ”  Matthew 26:10-13

A tale of three houses

It’s Sunday afternoon at my grandparents’ house.  Our hearts are overflowing.  Family gatherings like these are the source of most of the fondest memories of my childhood.  Between my mother, her three siblings and their respective spouses, twelve cousins were born.  All of us are more or less the same age.  We are partners in almost everything in life.  There really is no family like my own.

The smell and smoke of meat on barbecue fill the air outside on the veranda. From the kitchen comes endless conversation mixed with the sounds of delicious dishes in the making.  My grandmother’s love is in every single thing she makes for us to eat.  All of us have a chore of some sort to help set up lunch.  Then, we all take our seats around the round table that seems as endless as my grandparents’ mentality of abundance.  As always, I am blown away by the conversation.  The jokes flow like the soda stream in the kitchen that is working overtime, pouring cool drinks into round glasses that look like tennis balls.  Amazing, how we can each choose the flavour of our liking.  We are all so different, yet the same.  We love the same people.  I take pride in the fact that my grandparents, uncles and aunts are the most clever and funniest persons on the face of the earth.  Our bodies are filled with food that is love.  After lunch and desert, most of the adults mysteriously disappear as us children do the dishes.  Songs fill the air…  Songs with words such as, “to work is to feel glad, it fills our hearts with joy as long as we do it together.”  These are special times.

Fast forward almost ten years later and I drive past the very house that was my grandparents’.  I am shocked to see the state that it’s in.  It seems desolated, as if a giant void surrounds the house, hiding in its midst all signs of life.  The plants and grass are overgrown, the paving covered with weed.  I remember how well my grandfather took care of the garden.  I think of the roses that he found so much pride in and that he often picked for my grandmother.  I see the sharp corner that our cars had to pass by to get to the back of the house.  I smile when I think how often my grandfather misjudged that very corner and drove straight into it.  The very song we used to sing in the kitchen plays in my mind like a tired turntable with a scratchy point.  My grandparents have passed on from this life and all of us are scattered across the country, and now the world…  Their old house has an air of mourning around it, as do I.

I visit the house of safety where little Poppedais used to live. It’s the first time I go there after her little body left this house and her soul the earth.  Again, I am shocked to see the state that it’s in.  To make sure that any viruses that may have been hidden between these walls were destroyed, certain precautionary measures had to be taken.

“The Department of Health said we should get rid of all soft things,” the   tells me.

The house have been uprooted.  All of the many soft toys are gone, toys that brought comfort to little children.  All the mattresses and bedding had to be thrown away.  All loose carpets and the one that covered the entire floor in the playroom have been thrown out.  Softness and with it warmth have left the house.  Bare and cold tiles look at me in despair.  The house has been fumigated and carries a distinct, sterile smell.  Again, I feel the void of life gone.  The little children seem confused by the transition.  Up until two months ago, this very place buzzed with life and colour and textures.  I drive from there and think that this is what mourning looks like, it cries out through the earth and the things on it.  Cold, bare, lifeless, colourless, confused.  It’s as if everything and everyone at the house literally wear the reality of a breath that breathed with them that is now gone.

This week, I visit my dear friend.  I enter their beautiful house and think of evenings spent there in sheer joy.  I think of music that fills the air.  I walk around the corner and think of her husband standing behind the counter, laughing and filling our glasses with wine.  I think of her in the kitchen preparing wholesome, delicious food in her unique and loving way.  I think of the conversations outside under the stars that lasts well into the night and the wee hours of the morning.  I think of the long table that groans under the weight of all the food and privileged friends sitting around it.  I think of endless wonderful memories made here in their midst.

Today, though, the house is silent.  Silent as a grave.  Curtains and blinds are drawn, doors are shut.  Our voices echo somewhat into the high ceilings.  She is alone in this beautiful house that they built not too long ago.  The house that contained their personalities and beautiful sense of style, the house that they dreamed about and made their own.  The house that they worked very hard towards completing.  The reality of her and her husband’s impending divorce hits me like a bucket of ice-cold water.  Indeed, the house is silent as a grave.  For someone left, a breath that used to fill these rooms is gone.

All three places are sources of profound joy for me.  All three places at some stage or another carried with them the intense hope that some things in life will never change.  Somehow, I always thought that the people I love that dwelled in these places would always be there.  Up until a few years ago when my grandfather died, I still carried this hope like a little girl looking with a heart untainted by life.  And so I mourn.  I mourn because I love.  I mourn because these places and these people are also the source of my joy.

To love is to mourn and to mourn is to love. For when I love someone, their passing will cause me to mourn them for the rest of my life.  But also, when I mourn, I learn what love truly is.  My love will never be the same again.  It now looks with softer eyes and a broken heart.  My love now reaches the heavens.  It is deeper, wider, stronger, ever expanding.  It leaves me ever vulnerable, yet with absolute reverence in the wake of what love truly is.

For now, this is where I am.  I dwell in these places of mourning.  I miss the people I love.  It is where I should be for now.  I think of all the others who are also there with me.  In mourning, in places that once carried the hope that everything will be as it always was.  And I can only take to my broken heart the promise given to us:

You have turned my mourning into dancing for me;

You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,

That my soul may sing praise to You and not be silent.”  Psalm 30:11-12

I can’t, not for a single moment, go through this life without my Father who gives me this promise and delivers it to me in His time.

And this is all I need to know now.

Be careful what you… pray for?

Once upon a time a mother thought it a good idea to write a letter to her little daughter. The letter’s purpose was to share some of her heart for her little girl, as well as to tell her that she quite recently learned that one should be careful what you pray for.  It’s one thing to wish for something, the mother thought, but to pray for it…  Well, let’s just say that she believed with all her heart that a prayer transcended a wish in all regards.  And so she started.

My daughter…

I quite honestly do not know where to start. It’s tricky to describe the enigma that is you.  Sometimes adequate words do not exist here on earth, I guess.  It’s always a good idea to start at the beginning, so that is what I’ll do.  It all started on a bright January afternoon about a week before your due date five years ago.  I decided against my wish to have a normal delivery and opted for a caesarean instead.  Too many uncertainties swirled around at the time with your daddy going overseas and the fear that he might miss your birth.  And, admittedly, I welcomed the control the caesarean brought along.  The date was set and that was that.  No mess, no fuss…  Only, I woke up during the night two days before your scheduled due date with a strange pain in my back.  The timer on my phone confirmed that I was having contractions.  No hospital bags packed; no plans in place…  A little more than twelve hours later you made your presence known with your first scream while I lifted the roof with my own in the midst of the pain of a normal delivery.  (A little note to myself here:  Be careful what you wish for…)  Lots of mess, lots of fuss, lots of blood…  You decided that no one would decide how and when you entered this world.  It would be on your terms and yours alone.  My education in laying down control had only just begun…

Even though you do life on your terms and by your unique rhythm, you do so in complete awe of your Creator and creation. Just the other day, as you were playing with dough, you took the cover of a Tupperware container and pressed it into the dough.  The stripes on the cover of the container transmitted to the dough in what looked like the rays of the sun.  In between the stripes you put a bird and a butterfly.

“Wow, look,” I said, “It looks like the rays of the sun!”

“Of course it is! It’s the beloved bird and the beloved butterfly!” The look of confusion on my face prompted you to run to your room and bring back the Children’s Bible.  You opened it at the scene of Jesus’ baptism.  The illustration of Jesus in the water between the rays of the sun shining down sure is beautiful.

“Remember?” you asked. “Here where God says, ‘This is my beloved son’?  Well, this is the beloved bird and the beloved butterfly!”

“Wow! That is amazing!  And do you know that you are His beloved too?”

With a beaming smile, you confidently replied, “Of course I know that! I am beeeaaaaauuuuutiful!”

You sure do not fit into my carefully decorated boxes. What is most riveting about this is that you also have no desire to.  That counts for everybody’s boxes.  It was evident from a very young age that you absolutely delighted in this symphony called life.  So many times I can only look on in complete bewilderment and ask, “Where on earth do you come from?”  The photo that captures this best was of you at about three months, sitting in the middle of a sea of colourful plastic balls, arms outstretched and hands wide open, symbolically receiving and loving life with all its might.  No fear and no holding back.  Your smile was bubbling over as your laugh always does and your eyes sparkled like the most radiant of dawns.   Another photo is the one at the top of this letter of when you discovered the incredible bliss of chocolate cake batter at one year old.  I never thought that something like batter could be one’s best friend but, hey, you sure have shown me that basically anything on this earth has the potential to be!

Your thick, curly hair often falls like that of a lioness around your face. You are fearless, uncompromising and bold in your love for people.  Yet, you have the softest heart that makes me think of infinite marshmallow clouds.  Clouds that make people feel completely safe in this world as they lie on their backs with their arms behind their heads, surrounded and covered by it.  People are your fundamental passion in life, your greatest gift.  You see the hidden beauty in them, which means that you do not see the things that this world often tells us are ugly.  When you sat next to your great-grandmother in the final, agonising days of her life, you told me while holding her hand, “Mommy, grandma-great is so pretty.”  You carry your little friend Annie, whose little body is rigged with disabilities, around like she is your most precious possession.  Just the other day, as so many times before, I watched your passion for people play out in front of me.

“Guess who is coming to visit you the day after tomorrow?” I relayed the news to you that two of your friends were coming to visit.  I’ll try my best to capture in words the scenes that usually occur after you receive such life-changing news.  It’s like a fountain that has been lying under the surface of the earth for thousands of years, building and building energy and desperately longing for escape.  The build-up to that moment of sheer eruption is more profound than the eruption itself.  In those moments after you hear the news, a million switches turn on in your brain.  Then…

“What? What?  What?  Mommy!  Oh, mommy!  Thank you so much!  Thank you!  Thank you for my gift!  Thank you!  It’s the BEST GIFT!”  After you do your victory lap with screams that echo far beyond human capabilities, you usually approach me like a rocket with arms wide open.  You tackle me by the legs with such force that I lose by balance and fall backwards.  The impact of your astounding joy and excitement leaves me breathless and off-balance.  Come to think of it, this is the best way to describe my general state of being during the past five years.

You are able to pinpoint another person’s silent desires. About a week ago, with almost steely determination, you abruptly got up and said, “Mommy, I’m going to visit my friend next door so you will be able to have a bit of peace and quiet in our house.”  When I received the devastating news of a loved one’s death a month ago, you stayed by my side the entire day.  You stroked my hand and hair, looked me in the eye and said, “Mommy, you can cry.  I’m here…”  You refused to leave my side.

The patience you harbour for yourself is something I am baffled by.  The other day, I watched you load a bunch of stuff in the pram for your pony.  The pile was getting higher and higher, but you kept loading.  When you pushed the pram, most of the stuff fell out.  You stopped and loaded everything back again.  Once again most of it fell out.  Once again you stopped and loaded everything in.  By the fourth or fifth time, you told your pony in a soothing voice, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”  By the seventh or eighth time, no jokes, you were laughing in what I could only interpret as sheer delight.  You kept going until you found a way to get everything on board without any of it falling off.

I remember when you were obsessed with being a butterfly. Once, when you had your face painted like one, I tried to fasten your seatbelt.

“Please sit on your bum! I have to fasten you!” I asked, exasperated.

“No! I am a butterfly!  Butterflies have long bodies, no bum.  So I can’t sit!”

Once again, breathless and off-balance. Your ability to think on your tiny feet makes it impossible for me and your father to be a step ahead.  Since becoming your mother, I ask myself the question often, ‘But are we really supposed to be ahead of you?’  You have an old and gentle spirit in the way you perceive life.  You weren’t even three years old when you noticed the discrepancy between the front and second pages of a Sunday newspaper.  The front page showed the devastating aftermath of forest fires in Knysna with houses burnt to the ground and people in incredible pain.  The next page was almost cruelly spread with an interview with an arrogant lawyer and one of the pictures showed his blood-red Ferrari.

“Mommy, maybe he should give his car and money to the people on this page,” you pointed with you tiny fingers to the front page.

Being in your presence, whether it is to walk or sit or eat or do pretty much anything, is to be in the midst of a gentle tornado. I never thought one could use ‘gentle’ and ‘tornado’ in the same breath, but, yes, that is how it is.  While you make your presence vividly known with your inability to contain your energy, you still stop and smell the flowers.  You will still make time to great everybody along the way and look at them in awe.  I find myself in the middle of the fractal that is you.  It’s exhilarating, mesmerizing, however tiring at times.

These are but a few things that bring me to the core of my letter to you today. Why do I say all this?  Is it to brag about the wonder that is you?  Maybe a little bit, I mean, I am your mother after all and bragging is part of my job description.  The real point of it all is to tell you that I often ask out loud and in silence, “Where do you come from?”  For you are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life thus far.  You shatter my perspectives completely, you bring life in abundance that I sometimes don’t know how to live.  I feel completely incapable of matching your energy and joy for life.  And I feel inadequate to raise the wonder that is you.  I can’t comprehend how God could give me the daughter that is you given the abilities and joy that I lack.

Until the other night… I slumped down on my bed, exhausted, and asked you for what felt like the millionth time to go to bed.  You just wanted to tell me one last thing.  I picked up some old diaries and browsed through them.  I read many things that completely left my mind.  I almost missed the entry that contained God’s direct answer…  There, in my own handwriting, red on white paper, the following:

“23 May 2013… Five and a half weeks pregnant!  This week your heart begins to beat, little one.  Your organs begin to develop. God, please give this little one a unique, blessed and precious rhythm for You, your people and for this life.”

Yes, I prayed for exactly that. I prayed for the very things that I write about in this letter.  And now I know that God is indeed involved in every little detail of your life.  ‘Be careful what you pray for’, I tell myself.  No…

Instead I pray, ‘I thank you, God, for answering my prayer in ways that leave me breathless and off-balance. And thank you that you will never give me what I can’t handle.  Thank you for the wonder that is my little girl.’

With all my love,

Your Mommy

And that is all she needs to know now.

 

 

 

 

In the midst of it all

“Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.  And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”  Kahlil Gibran

 

You stand in the midst of it all. Your heart is in your hand.  The world is gaping at it, poking it, examining it and ridiculing it.  Blood is dripping from muddy hands, hands that dug deep in the midst of it all.  You are vulnerable, exposed to the point where heartbreak is inevitable.  Of course you can choose to put your heart back in your chest underneath your ribcage, safely where it belongs.  Away from exposure.  Because holding your heart in your hand sucks the life out of you, the very life that is muddy.  The life that is excruciating and unfair.  The life that, many times, leave you in utter disillusionment.  But, at the same time, the beauty and realness of it take your breath away.  Two sides of the same coin.

Tuesday morning finds us at the Botanical Gardens. My daughter and I walk through the gardens with my friend who is the chairperson of the Pretoria Stroke Support Group.  She got involved in the group after her husband passed away from several strokes almost a year and a half ago.  Her little son attends school with my son and we became friends.  The gardens are infused with many elderly people.  As part of the ‘Help Seniors’-initiative, many groups come together for a corporate event such as this morning’s.

“What does ‘senior’ mean?” my daughter asks.

“Well, that is how we sometimes refer to people who are older than us,” I try to explain.

“Oh, like you, Mommy? You are older than me so you must be a senior.”

I laugh. “Yes, indeed, you are right.  Mommy definitely feels like I’ve become a bit older in these past few weeks.”  Tears have a way of creating wrinkles that wasn’t there before.

We walk with and past many ‘grandpa’s and grandma’s’, as my daughter puts it. The ladies are dressed to the nines, the men walk upright; those who had strokes have a little shuffle in their steps.  Some walk alone, others in groups, here and there is a couple who asks for a selfie to be taken of them.  The couples are in the minority, I observe with a heaviness in my heart.  Otherwise, it seems as though these people have no care in the world.  For this morning, the vast gardens are their playground, their haven.

Afterwards we all sit together in an enclosure. The jaffels we are given to eat are tasty and fresh and we drink tea and coffee from proper glass mugs.  No polystyrene, thank you.  Only the best for these people, AVBOB must reckon.  As the organiser of this event and one of the biggest funeral companies in the country, they are probably hoping for a new policy or two or three.  Speaking of which, I can’t help but overhear many a conversation between these elderly people that revolves around death and funerals.  It’s the most normal thing in the world to talk about this, apparently.  No fear, no cowardice.  Instead, a healthy expectation about this is evident, amazement, even.

“I still have two grandmothers and two grandfathers,” my daughter proudly tells the woman sitting next to her.

“My, but how lucky you are!” the lady says.

“AND, I still have one great-grandmother. She lives at the sea and she is veeeeeeeeery old.  But all the others are in heaven already.  When I go there I will get to see them.”  Little children and elderly people definitely have in common the fact that they talk openly about things such as death and heaven.

Then comes the music.

“Golden oldies that will definitely give your age away,” the singer remarks. The songs bring along ecstasy and nostalgia.  Some dance, some sing along, others sway from side to side.  As my daughter happily dances along, I notice many of the people looking at her with longing in their eyes.  I wish I could put myself in their minds for a little while.  Are they thinking of days long gone by, maybe missing a grandchild who is overseas or elsewhere?  Who knows?

Then it is time for a game. The first person who recognises the song and puts a hand up gets a prize.

“You, the lady with the glasses on!” the singer exclaims when a lady’s hand shots up.

“But we all wear glasses!” the lady next to me bellows and many others join in the laughter. Their fearless sense of humour is refreshing.

Many ladies take out their crochet and knitting work. One is making little flowers for an artwork she is working on; another is making a blanket for the Stroke Support Group’s winter fundraiser.  The man sitting behind me talks about his children in Canada and another lady is making it her duty to entertain my daughter.

Does all of this mean anything in the end? I don’t know.  Is it for me to decide?  No.  But is it beautiful, being in the midst of it all?  Most definitely.  This is life.  This is people with their hearts in their hands, exposed and vulnerable and dependant on the love and care of others.  I’ve come to learn that this is the most beautiful thing in life to be a part of.

I involuntarily think about a precious little girl who is now in heaven, but whose body is buried under the ground. I think back to the end of last year when I was basically told by the people who decided about the little girl’s life that I became too involved and overstepped too many boundaries.  I think back to my dying grandmother and my little daughter who climbed fearlessly onto the bed next to her while it happened and touched her.  I think of the lady who covered my brother with a blanket and stroked his back as he slowly but surely took his last breaths.  I think of my friend who decided to make it her calling to take care of rejected, abandoned and abused children.  I think of how I have come to learn that the emergency rooms in our hospitals are bursting with children who are abused by their parents and the doctors and nurses who struggle to keep them alive.

Maybe the secret to living fearlessly is to realize that we are completely dependent on the love that God shows on earth through others, how big or small it may seem to us. Maybe the secret to living abundantly is to position ourselves in the midst of it all and to never, ever look back and say, “Maybe I should have loved more…”  To get our hands dirty while holding our hearts in them.  For it is only there where we learn what love is.  It is only there where we can truly see the heart of another person.  It is only there where we can fully understand what life is all about.  I believe that it is worth every heart-breaking minute.

You stand in the midst of it all. Your heart is in your hand.  The world is gaping at it, poking it, examining it and ridiculing it.  Blood is dripping from muddy hands, hands that dug deep in the midst of it all.  You are vulnerable, exposed to the point where heartbreak is inevitable.  Of course you can choose to put your heart back in your chest underneath your ribcage, safely where it belongs.  Away from exposure.  Because holding your heart in your hand sucks the life out of you, the very life that is muddy.  The life that is excruciating and unfair.  The life that, many times, leave you in utter disillusionment.  But, at the same time, the beauty and realness of it take your breath away.  Two sides of the same coin.

May this be where we are found, in the midst of it all.

And that is all I need to know now.

 

 

 

“Ring the bells that still can ring…’’- My hope for 2019

A few events in the past month are worth recording for my children. I’m not sure how they all tie together, but let’s see how it all plays out.

Sleep just about catches up with me when my mom walks into the room while we are on holiday together.

“Listen to this,” she says, before she continues. “Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter?  Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of the earth and sky and sea?  Why am I afraid to love, I who love love?”  From the play ‘The Great God Brown’ by Eugene O’Neill.

It got me thinking, about how the word used most in this quote is ‘afraid’. Somewhere along the road of life we become afraid to love.  And there are a million valid reasons as to why.  But inside of us is the breath of a loving God, breath that is love and life.  Every breath is a gift, a blessing, a privilege.  Inside of us is the love of the God of love, endless and unconditional.

I sit on the beach and look at the waves. My breath is like the waves, I discover.  When I breathe in and my stomach expands, it’s a wave that swells and swells and swells even further.  Then, that incredible moment when the switch is made between breathing in and breathing out, the wave that has reaches the point of completeness and the moment it bursts open.  Finally, the breathing out, the wave that breaks and spills forth and cleans itself from the immense swelling.  How amazing, God’s breath that is love and life in me and how it is mirrored in the waves, endless and all-consuming.

A few nights ago, a heavy sleeper log falls on a boy outside our little holiday home. From afar, we only see the stillness of his legs as he lies on the ground.  People rush towards him, surround him.  We watch with breaths held.  A few minutes pass.  He stands up.  All is okay.  We walk to the beach and after a few minutes I realize that my parents are trailing behind.  As I turn around, I see my mother, slumped on my dad’s shoulder, her own shaking vigorously from breathless cries.  She looks up, eyes wild with pain unspoken, etched with sorrow and fear like a bottomless pit.  How far she must have gone back in that moment when she saw the stillness of the boy, back to another boy next to a road on the outskirts of Vryheid, breath that is love and life slowly seeping out of him.  Her own son.

And I think of her and my dad and ‘Oom’ Gerrie and ‘Tannie’ Merle, ‘Oom’ Piet and ‘Tannie’ Wilna, ‘Tannie’ Mariëtte and my friends Maritza and Anna-Mart, to name a few, who this past Christmas found themselves once again and for the first time with love in their hearts for loved ones that have passed on from this life. I think of how this love in their hearts cannot be given away.  It is reserved only for the special ones who are gone; it swells frustratingly upwards like the waves but can’t be spilled.  And so it stays there, in their hearts, painfully etched.  Maybe, dearest Mom, this is also a reason why you, who love love, are afraid to love.

I watch as my father and husband teach our son the game of chess and limit their capabilities in order for him to win a game or two. This is also love. Then again, when they use their capabilities and win, they also show the love that they hold in their hearts for their little son.  They are helping him walk on roads that lead to the discovery that some you win and some you lose and to finding that love in his little heart for himself and others to be okay with it.  Then I watch them play another game, and another, and another, their patience rising above and beyond like kites playing above a colorful beach, until our son has the skills and courage to play the game well.

I watch as my little daughter walks around everywhere with her little first aid kit and doctors all that is a little scrape and bite on our bodies.

“Mom,” she asks after putting a plaster on my husband’s toe, “do you have any sores?”

“Yes,” I tell her as I show her the blister underneath my foot from the hot sand.

“Mom, I think you should come with me upstairs and lie on the bed. Then I can have a proper look at it.”  She looks at me with worry in her eyes.

As we walk to the beach to greet the new year, I ask my mother what she would have done differently thirty years ago that would make her life easier today. If, for instance, she could have foreseen that she would spend two months in a hospital after a hip replacement last year, what would she have done differently back then?  I tell her of a beautiful friend of mine who decided a few years ago that she will not drink a drop of alcohol again.

“I told her how I admire her for it,” I say, “and then she told me that it’s all about staying as healthy as she can for as long as possible. She underwent tests by a genetics professor and it was established that she has the Alzheimer’s genes from both sides of her family.  Her grandmother has the illness and is currently in frail care.  She says that she must keep her head going, eat healthily, not drink alcohol and exercise regularly.  That way she, her husband and children can know that she did everything in her power to prevent it should it happen one day.”  Once again, I get goosebumps as I tell her this.

A while later, as we swim in the sea, my mother tells me that if she could do one thing differently, it would be to let my sister and I believe that we are beautiful enough.

“How do you do that?” I ask, well aware of the challenges we already face in letting my little daughter believe this truth and that outward beauty is but the tip of the iceberg.

“I don’t know,” she replies, “I guess the answer is in how I love myself and how I believe this about myself.”

I think of my friend who is showing her incredible love for herself and her family as she is doing everything she can to prevent Alzheimer’s.

This morning, as we visit my father’s brother, he climbs on a ladder with a rake into the lychee tree that is literally bursting with fruit.

“Pick up and take everything!” he says. The lychees are the most amazing that I’ve ever tasted, sweet flesh abounds around tiny pips.  His unique way of showing the love in his heart to us is litchees that come raining down in sheer abundance.

A few events in the past month are worth recording for my children. I’m not sure how they all tie together, but I see the magical thread of love in all of them.  I see people with endless love in their hearts, put there meticulously by a loving God.  I see people whose hearts have been broken countless times, people who love love, but are understandably afraid to love.  I see how they want to love, regardless, as the love in them transcends all else.  It’s stronger and wiser than anything else.

And so my hope for 2019 and beyond is that we will realize that the Breath that is within us, that makes us alive, is perfect love above all else. I believe that we can love one another with love that is devoid from fear.  I believe that each and every person that comes my way are beautiful beings that are able to love and want to love, but struggle to do so.  I believe that they still desperately want to love and even more desperately want to receive it.  I hope that we all will, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “ring the bells that still can ring…forget about your perfect offering…there is a crack in everything…that’s how the light gets in.”

And I believe that love is everywhere to be found, now, as the stories above tell.  It is everywhere to be found because it is in us.

And that is all I need to know now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Who’s fat?”

As we walk to the beach, my son urges, “Come on Mom, hurry up! I want to go and play! Why are you walking so slowly?” He runs ahead, cricket bat in one hand, boogie board in the other.

‘Well, my son,’ I think, ‘I could explain to you my inner thighs… You see, the fact that they are rubbing together as I take every single step frustrates me severely.  It is indeed not a pleasant feeling.  No…  But I guess I might as well speak Chinese or something because you wouldn’t understand a word I’m saying.  Nor would you really care.’  I think of the very painful extents I’ve put myself through these past couple of months to get rid of my cellulite in preparation of walking on the beach in a swimming costume.  As with many things in life, the end result falls exponentially short from the expectation.  Had I stuck to my resolution to not eat any sugar, the gap would have been much narrower.  But as so many times before, emotional eating won the battle.

Once on the beach, my daughter shouts from the water. “Mom, please, come and swim with me!  Mom, mom, please!  Mom!”

“Just give me a few minutes,” I reply, “I first need to scrape some courage together.” If only courage could miraculously replace cellulite and I could scrape if off my thighs…

‘Damn thighs,’ I think as I finally find my way to join her in the water. In my costume.  The dreaded moment has arrived and for the next two weeks of this holiday, this is how I will be found on a regular basis.  In a costume.  On the beach or in the water.  With my family.  Wait…  With my family.

In the water we play with joy. I hold her by the hands as she jumps as each wave hits her.  She screams in delight every time it happens.  People look our way; I guess it sounds to some as though the screams are coming from a terrified child.  But she is not terrified, she is abundantly happy.  This is her way of showing it to the world.  I could try my best to silence her, but truth be told, I don’t want to.  I am here with her and after a while, I find myself screaming in delight with her every time a wave hits.

A while later, I sit quietly and observe the people around me. The same thoughts go through my mind as a year before.  I remember thinking back then that I want to write about this.  Now a year has passed.  I absolutely love watching the women, mostly mothers.  In all their shapes, sizes and colours, they are indeed worthy of attention.  I watch them as they walk towards the water with their children and others as they play sports of some sort.  I watch as they build castles together in the sand and as they laugh and run after their children.  If I take my own experience into account and the conversations I have with my friends, I know that each of them has selected their swimming costume with the greatest care.  Flaws have to be hidden and assets accentuated.  But mostly, we have to feel comfortable in our skin.  Skin that has been stretched incredibly while pregnant and shrunk back again afterwards.  Bodies that went through the miracle of carrying babies.  But I also know that many of us afterwards forget this incredible miracle as we struggle to feel comfortable in our skin again.

The women that I watch are all incredibly beautiful. Each is a model in her own right, a person in her family that leads by example and is imitated by her children.  Each is so different from the next and each makes the world around them a more beautiful place.  All of them have this in common…  They are here, with their families, playing and participating in life.  I can imagine, knowing my own struggles, the doubts and struggles of many of them.  But the desire to get up and play is more than the urge to sit under an umbrella and hide.  And after a while of playing with our children and experiencing their innocent delight in life in general, we forget our own insecurities.  It really is the best medicine.  There are far more important things, now.  All I know is, I am proud to be part of this incredible species.

The men, well, honestly and with the most possible respect?   They are really not that striking.

I think back to about a week ago when my friend visited me. She has gained a considerate amount of weight in the past couple of years and now refers to herself unashamedly as ‘fat’.  She was recalling a conversation she had with a friend from overseas who observed how little grace my friend had with herself and how South African women in general judged each other ruthlessly.   She was standing outside on our veranda, inspecting a hammock-style swing that our kids love to play on.  I was making coffee in the kitchen and the children were drawing at the table nearby.

“Is this swing able to carry fat people?” she asked.

“Who’s fat?” my son asked matter-of-factly as he looked at her.

Another friend of mine tells me how her little son bragged to an older uncle the other day, “You know, my mommy has very big boobies!” And I know that it is the last thing she thinks she has!

Another time, I was dressing and my daughter was looking at me silently.  The next moment she pointed to my hips and said, “Mommy, I also want lines like that.”

“What lines?” I asked, confused.

“Those white lines!”  Still pointing at my hips.

I looked down and all I could see, was the stretch marks.  “You mean these ones?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yes!” she said.  “They are beautiful!”

These are such innocent moments, showing how our children, who will hopefully be our biggest fans for life, really don’t care about how we look. They will however tell their friends and family one day how their mothers and fathers participated in life with them everywhere they went and how their mothers didn’t hide in a corner somewhere, too ashamed to look the world in the eye.  A world, by the way, whose perception of ‘fat’ and ‘beautiful’ leaves much to be desired.

Hence, my decision. This holiday, I will pretend that I am a model as I walk the beach.  I hope that all mothers will do the same.  I hope that we will celebrate our bodies and life together with our husbands and children.  Mind over matter, literally.  For what we think, we become.  And all those lovely cliches.  And never has a truer word been spoken, we are indeed models, and supermodels at that.

So when my son again asks, “Who’s fat?” my answer will be without any doubt, “not me, my son! Definitely not me!” And I will be sure to walk faster as we make our way to the beach.

And that is all I need to know now.