When We Were Young

I was convinced I would grow stronger and invincible as an adult. I believed the little things would not hurt me so much, not any more. I thought I would learn to separate the big battles from the small ones and the small battles from the ‘not-battles’. I thought fear would fade like a sketchy nightmare – strong and unpleasant and then grey and wispy and then just a memory.

And yet when Miss A announced her intentions to run for house captain at school, I was a child again. Eager and trusting and full of impudent hope. Oscillating between those wretched twins of victory and failure. Not knowing and at once knowing. Sure and unsure. Proud and scared.

I helped her with the speech. I got a teeny bit carried away when I asked her to stress on some of the words. I talked strategies (like how the Year 3s were too little and probably would not understand nor care about her plans for house meetings, how the Year 5s would vote honestly, how all good speeches needed humour) and I talked dreams with her, her the little child that once said “Tupsember” instead of September.

When she said in her speech that everyone had something to contribute, I nodded. When she said that a house needed athletic people and painters and singers and maths wizards and good friends and great listeners, I cheered.

“I was Captain of the Blue House too,” I said to her. A million times over. Another country and another time but it felt like I was passing the baton on. That like recipes and family stories, this was yet another thing we could share.

And then at night, a sleepy face turned to me and said “Mum, I have butterflies in my tummy and I may not even win.”

“You will,” I said. And that all-knowing adult inside of me, said “Umm, actually there is a chance she won’t.”

“What if no one votes for me?” she asked.

“They will,” I said. And the adult laughed and whispered that children can be cruel and children can be whimsical and that children do not follow norms when it comes to choices.

“What if I don’t get even a single vote?” she asked again.

“Of course, you will,” I said. Glad for the dark in the room because adults become children too when there is no light around.

And that voice inside me, cold and clever, reminded me that children fail. Oh yes, they do. Because everyone does. That is how life works. That is how we grow and fall and walk and stumble and eventually get somewhere.

“If you lose,” I said, the words bitter and sharp in my mouth, “you just congratulate the people who do.  And get on with the hurt because nothing hurts forever. And you will win so many other things. Sometimes it is okay to just try because only ridiculously, brave people try even when they know there is failure involved.”

I believed myself then, I really did. You have to be a grown-up to understand some things. I wouldn’t have said these words as a child because I knew words like forever then. Now, I know how transient everything is and it makes things easier, as sad as that is.

“You will dream a million dreams,” I told her after she had fallen asleep. “And so many of them will come true and so many of them won’t. But it won’t matter Miss A. Because you will dream a million dreams.”

I did the dishes then and I went through her speech again. And this song  came on and my bubble burst and I sobbed for the little person who had a speech ready and a house chant and who did not think to ask anyone to vote for her because “that would be like forcing them, Mum.”

You do not see your children growing, you miss the way their limbs grow and their faces change, the way their baby lisp disappears overnight. You get to see their horizons change though, you see the scraped knees and the broken hearts and their stash of hopes and you know that they will open the door soon and go chasing things in the clouds, that growing up and adulthood is here and that there are lessons around the corner.

I kissed her and told her that she was wonderful and brave and awesome the next day when we arrived at school. I told her she would do so well, oh so well and that I was so, so proud of her. And then, I tried not to tear up as I waited in the car while she walked to her classroom, her speech cue cards in her hand.

I had butterflies in my stomach when I went to pick her up at 4:00 PM. I only looked at the clock a few thousand times throughout the day. I practiced my “Well done, I bet you were great” and “I love you and it does not matter” in a daisy chain all the way in the car.

And then when she shrieked and said “I got it Mum, I won,” I forgot to hold my breath and I started to breathe again.

I did not cry this time though there was a knot in my throat. I wiped my eyes when she said she had walked over to the others and given them hugs and said they had done a great job too.

And later that night, still in the dark, just before falling asleep, she said “I was not afraid, Mum. I saw the big girls with their Head of the School speeches and I realised that this was just one milestone out of many. I knew that if I lost today, I could win other things.”

That is when my voice gave away. There was no use pretending anymore. Her childhood and mine were both getting wispy, there was so much to do and so many bends in the road and so many horizons ahead.

You don’t cry because your child is growing up. You cry on days like this because you realise that once your child grows up, the last links to your own childhood become obsolete too. You cry because you realise time does rush by. That it changes, all of it, life and age and everything you knew. And there is not a damned thing you can do.And yet, there is much wonder in the years ahead.

So many milestones.

Some which we will meet, some which we will miss.

A million dreams. Missed and not missed. But most importantly, a million dreams.The things time cannot steal from us.

Only 11…

Here is what you need to know about Miss A. She remembers. She remembers how the sun was warm and ticklish on that day at the beach, four years ago. She remembers how her grilled corn at the fair last month had too much salt on it and too little butter but was still delicious. She remembers which one of her friends jumped into the freezing pool first to get the party started on her birthday. She remembers the little girl selling flowers by the roadside in India and wonders what the little girl does in summer when the ground is dry and cracked and the trees are droopy and poor. She remembers the old woman with sad eyes, sitting three seats away from us, on the bus last week and she wonders if the woman was just having a sad day or whether she is still travelling across some suburb in town, with a downcast face. She remembers, like I said. She is not partial to her memories. The good, the bad, the dark and the light – everything is welcome in her world. She stares every emotion in the face, she meets its unflinching gaze.

She remembers the movie trailer long after I have forgotten about it. When she says she wants to talk about the movie, I presume that she has comments on ‘The Sapphires’ which we went to see the other week. 

“The little boy,” she says, drawing invisible loops on the pillows, the way she does when she is thinking furiously. “From the trailer of that movie ‘Bully’. What happened to him Mum?”

I had thought that she would remember the movie, the songs and the laughs, instead she remembers the two minute movie clip at the start.

He killed himself, that little boy, he couldn’t take the jeers and the taunts of his classmates anymore and he came home from school one day and he hung himself in his barn.  He was an 11 year old boy and then he was dead, just like that. Miss A, with her strawberry shampooed hair, her panda PJs and her stuffed toy, my safe and warm child under the quilts is 10.

“He died,” I say.

“How?” she says. “I gathered that but what did they mean by ‘taking his own life’?”

She knows about things like gravity and she can tell you all about Harry Potter’s horocruxes . She is reading about Cyclone Tracy in Darwin, she loves history. She knows how to tie her shoelaces and she can set the table and when I am busy, she can do odd jobs in the kitchen. She can play “Ode to Joy” on her viola and she sings like an angel. She knows so many things. And she doesn’t know so many others.

“He killed himself,” I say. Slowly, ever so slowly, every word weighed in iron. Because the truth is heavy like that and yet, sometimes the truth is the only thing that will give you a corner to hide. 

“He was 11,” she says. Her eyes glint.  “How does a 11 year old know how to kill themselves Mum?”

“He was sad, so sad,” I say. “And he probably believed he couldn’t go on, that was his only choice. Fear makes us figure out impossible things.”  It sounds feeble and flimsy but the saddest of things sometimes come with weak preludes.

“How did he  do it?”

“He hung himself,” I say.  “With a rope.” The truth needs to be a like a band-aid at times. Painful in short bursts.

She reaches for my hand beneath the sheets and we lie there like that, silent and sad, her warm palm in my clammy one.

“11,” she says again. “I will be 11 soon.”

“All the things he never got to be,” I say.

She snuggles closer and soon I cannot see her face anymore. This is thing, you can stay there and watch the dusk fall in thick slices or you can turn towards the light.

“I need you to promise me,” I say, my voice breaking up even though I am trying really hard, “that you won’t stand by if you ever see anyone being mistreated.”  Because, there are so many 11 year olds everywhere and children can be so cruel.  I think of the boy and his goofy grin and the way his parents have red eyes. I wonder if their eyes will ever dry up.

“I willl, ” she says. “Because no child should have to feel that way, Mum.”

“Not just for now, for all your life, ” I say. “At school. At university. At work. When you have your own children. Speak up, don’t walk away. ”

I know she won’t because she is fair and loyal and because she speaks up. She needs to know that she has a special gift, that I am proud of my daughter because she is never a fence sitter,  she is never afraid to stand up and say what needs to be said.

Then, this.

 “That little boy isn’t coming back,” she says. “Ever.”

“I know,” I say. “But I also want you to know that you can come to us with anything. Like, anything at all.  We will find a fix.  It is okay to ask for help if you ever need it.”

“I know,” she says.

There is a swirl of tears in my throat. I know her favourite colours, her favourite foods, the people she plays with at school. I know the names of the pets of her friends, I know about the schoolyard arguments and of the friendship groups in her class. I ask so many questions every day, I have re-created her world in my mind so that I know how to find my way around her landscape. 

And yet, I worry on some days that I have missed warning signs, hidden roads, whirlpools that I should have treated with more caution. Because she is only 10 and there are so many things she does not know yet. And as parents, a lot of our walks are stumbles in the dark as we wait for patches of momentary lighting.

“Speak up for yourself too, promise? Don’t stand by and let other treat you unfairly. No one can make you feel bad without your permission.”

She nods and falls asleep in a while, her face relaxing into a sleepy haze, her hair spread out over her garish pink pillow.

I hug her for a bit longer the next day when I drop her off at school. I stay in the car and watch her walk across the schoolyard, with her oversized blazer and her lopsided hat, her viola case.

As I watch her walk past the junior school classroom, a little person who can be no more than five years old flings herself at A and squeals in delight. I watch as A puts down her viola case and scoops her little friend up and is promptly bathed in hugs and giggles. I leave them like that, Miss A and the little one who looks safe and snug and warm in her arms.

The other thing about being a parent is that no one tells you when to expect brilliant light in your world.  No one tells you that sunlight arrives without warning or annoucements after nights full of monsters under the beds.

And yet, it is the sad stories that teach you to look for happy beginnings.  That is all we need to know.

We are so resilient that way, all we need to do is remember.

Sharing the stage

‘Mum, I went door-knocking with Cathy today,’ she says as I am driving her home from Cathy’s.

‘Door knocking? Why?’

‘Because Cathy and I had to distribute flyers for our play,’ she says.

You never know what lurks behind closed doors, your child dealing with unknowns is never a happy thought.

‘Sweetheart,’ I begin, ‘Was Cathy’s mum okay with this?’

‘Yeah, of course.’ she says. ‘They know all their neighbours. Except…’

My heart starts to trudge.

‘Except what?’

‘Except all of Cathy’s neighbours are getting so old, they are house-bound now, Mum.’

Her face falls. Remember the unknowns? It is not just monsters that hide behind closed doors. Old age and disease and sorrow lurk in sealed off spaces too, who knows what you will find in a discarded chest.

‘We went to Miss Gloria’s house. Miss Gloria is from Italy. She has the cutest accent.’

‘How old is Miss Gloria?’

‘She cannot remember anymore, she says 90, then she says she could easily be a 100,’ she pauses for a minute. ‘She could not hear the doorbell so Cathy and I walked around to the back of the house and knocked on her bedroom window.’

I think of Miss Gloria, alone in her little flat, not waiting for any visitors, her doorbell rusty and defunct over time because no one walks her way anymore.

‘And she was so delighted that she said she would be at the door in a minute.’ Miss A smiles a little. ‘Mum, we had to stand on tiptoe so that she could see our faces, she is so old now that she kind of curls up in bed. She is very small.’

It is a grand circle. First we see, then we do not, then no one sees us. Except on the days that some comes a-knocking.

‘Then we raced to the front door and rang the door bell again. But no one answered. So we went around to the bedroom again and she laughed and said, ‘Dear me, I am so forgetful. I will open the door now.’ We waited till she got into her wheelchair and then we got to the front door before she did.’

My heart, it does somersaults.

‘Then she opened the door and she asked us to come in and we told her all about the play. She looked like a different person when she smiled, Mum.’

The original Miss Gloria, I want to say. The one that came over from Italy on a liner ship many decades ago. The one that did not forget.

‘Honey, I am so glad you visited her, did she like hearing about the play?’

‘Uh-huh. But then she became sad again and said that she did not go to the theatre anymore.’

She looks out of the window and I catch her crumpled reflection in the mirrors.

‘Cathy and I said we were sorry to hear that. Miss Gloria said that perhaps we should not leave any flyers with her because it was not like she was going to be coming to see the play or anything.’

‘And?’

‘We said she could keep the flyers. Even if she was not coming to the play. Then Miss Gloria smiled again. She asked us to sit down and she pushed her wheelchair towards the kitchen. She gave us biscotti Mum, she said she had made it at home.’

A lump in my throat. A glimmer of tears in hers.

‘We said it was delicious. Then she asked us if we wanted some more and we said ‘No, thank you so much Miss Gloria. We should get going now.’

‘Miss Gloria’s face fell again but she gave us a dollar each. Because you are nice little girls, she said.’

‘We cannot take the money Miss Gloria,  we said. She looked sad now, real sad like when she was sitting alone in the bedroom.’

‘Give it to your drama school, she said. A little donation from me since I cannot come to see the play. Because I do not go to the theatre any more. And thank you for the flyer, girls.’

I wipe my eyes. Miss A is still not looking at me.

‘Some days, ‘ I say, my voice a tremor, ‘I bet Miss Gloria does not forget everything. Like today, she is going to remember everything about today.’

‘Yeah,’ says Miss A, smiling a little bit.

‘We asked her to shut the door behind us and she chuckled and said she would remember to do that.’

‘Hey,’ I say a few minutes later, ‘I am so glad you got to do this play.’

‘Me too, Mum,’ she says. ‘Otherwise I would never have met Miss Gloria.’

It is not so much that the curtain falls on all of us. It is that we share the stage with wondrous actors and sincere extras, with graceful dancers and acrobats that waltz across a spotlight, hands akimbo and feet keeping perfect rhythm, even if it is for the tiniest of moments. And sometimes, we learn our parts from the people who do not have the most lines. Age is a great leveller like that.

From Within

“I want more sauce” Miss A declares. That, by the way, is her general philosophy in life. More sauce. More gravy. More trimmings. More bells and whistles. Yes, she would like fries with that, thank you. But I digress.

We are having a yum-cha night in front of the TV, watching “Arthur and the Invisibles” for the hundredth time. Actually, she insists it is only the second time ever, but we do a mean job of exaggeration around here. Makes cold and sullen evenings bearable and all that.

The sauce has a mind of its own. It clings steadfastly to the insides of the bottle and no amount of cajoling makes it edge any closer.

“It is the cold”, I tell her. “Maybe the sauce is too cold to move.” Outside, on cue, a banshee storm wails and hisses.

“Try again”, she says. So we do. Because there is the urgency of a half eaten spring-roll.

No dice. This way and that, we twist and turn and shake and roll the bottle, our efforts a glorious zilch, there is no sauce through the nozzle.

She goes back to the couch and I am left with an adamant bottle and a crest-fallen child. There are no simple problems on somedays.

I think of substitutes and excuses. Of why things are not the the way they should be. Of why we write paens on failing and yet success makes do with punch-lines and imposed brevities. 

I open the bottle top to see if anything is wrong with the nozzle. And then I notice that the cardboad air seal of the bottle is still intact, still holding back everything that should now be free. The sauce moved but could only get so far.

The seal is ripped off, the bottle top is re-instated and the sauce comes out in plump drips and gives the spring-rolls a new lease of life.

 “This is good” Miss A says. 

“Very good”  I add. See note above for success having to do with meagre descriptions.

“So what was wrong with the bottle?” she asks. Nothing really, now that you think of it.  So I tell her the story of how I couldn’t even see what was stopping the flow. From inside.

  We carry obstacles inside us, every one of us.  The world is just an excuse.

Because the things that stop us – they almost always come from within.

The Road Map

She lets go of my hand and breaks into a run as we reach the theatre.

“Bye Mum”.

I do not take the hint. I hang around the entrance and watch as she picks up her scripts and makes her way towards her seat. A group of “big girls” troops in after me.  Miss A has changed classes this term, she is now in their drama group.

They settle down a few seats away from her and start reading from their script.  She looks at them, then at her script and tries to find the right page. Alone in the second row, by herself. Dressed in a pink blazer, her hair pushed by a giant hairband. A bottle of water next to her.

I wave and ask her to join me outside for a second.

“Mummm, please go. I am fine.”

“A, do you know anyone here at all? Should I hang around?”

“Noooo. You can go. I need to get back.”

“Bubs, are you going to be okay sitting by yourself?”

“Yeah, of course. Because we are all in the play together. And I am new here – so, of course I do not know anyone yet.”

“Maybe Mummy could sit with you for a  bit.”

“Mummmm, please. That would be so embarassing”.  That is the thing about love, baby. It can be embarassing.

So. I bend down and kiss her. And allow her to push me gently as she goes back. To sit by herself in the second row. Alone, did I say alone? I drive back home and stare at the clock. All this while my heart is doing somersaults and sinking lower.

She troops out behind the other kids when I go for the pick-up. Outside the winds are howling, the night is cold and the sky is sullen and inky. I help her with a thick coat and hold her hand as we walk back to the car.

“Was it okay?”

“It was great.”

“Umm, did you talk to anyone?”

“Yeah, Mary talked to me. She said I had a nice hairband.”

“Was it bad sitting alone?”

“Nah, I forgot about it after a while.”

“Are the big girls nice?”

“Very nice Mummy. They let me read the big parts.”

She seems eager to go back the next week. Next friday,we go through the motions of kissing and reminders about water bottles. She sits alone by herself like the week before. I smile and wave. Why didn’t Mary (and which one is Mary) sit next to her? When she will have friends to giggle with? But she seems to be lost in her script and the doors are closing and Mr D, the drama teacher is already up on the stage. So I leave her to do her part.

And bit by bit, I learn to gather the pieces of my heart and take them with me when I leave. Bit by bit, I walk back a step and then another and yet another. Bit by bit, I learn to trust that she will take care of herself.

She is a child with a stuffed toy named Piggy. She hates runny eggs. She plays the viola. She doesn’t have a sweet tooth. Her best friend has just moved across the country. She smiles in her sleep. But. And yet. She sits by herself and reads her lines. She blends in a group of strangers and falls into place. She takes cues and share the stage with people she has not met before. Somedays, she is more than the sum of her parts. Somedays there is so much more to her that I do not know about.

Somedays my daughter surprises me because I forget to see her spirit, her heart, her art – all I see is a little smiley face, her warm hand in mine, a pair of footsteps following mine through streets lined with the produce of autumn.

“My turn to come up with an act next week”, she tells me as I pick her up. “Mary and Jessica are hoping they get a part”. New names and such old ease. The circle has widened. It always does, but you have to wait sometimes.

And just like that I know that if she is to act the best scenes, write the stories that will shape her, find the characters that will mould her – I have to let her go. And let her grow. I have to let her sit alone on some days. I have to wait on the outer while she find her way into new friendships. I have to wait till she fails because I cannot be the substitute to her experiences. Some things, she will learn on her own. Some things, she will only learn when I trust her and let her read the map.

“I am going to give you the road map. But find your own road”, my father always tells me. Somedays you got to hand those lessons forward.

My heart does somersaults again. But this time, it does not sink. I think they call this floating.

Peace

The “My best friend hurt my feelings” saga has (temporarily) ended in A world. The best friend wrote Miss A a letter that said this. I reproduce it here for you, word by word.

To A.

We are still friends. I am sorry. I guess I was very sad and hurt when you said I am mean. I am the type of person who needs time to get over things. Lets think positive then we will always be happy. Our friendship can never break. I truly didn’t step on your toe if I really Accidently did step on your toe I will apologise.  If you don’t want to play that’s ok. On E’s party we should Give her a surprise somehow. I hope we become Friends Again.

Happy Easter.

Love from your friend C.

The letter also had a picture of three puffles (you know what puffles are, I know you do) saying “We are proud for a reason”. Who are we to question such staunch declarations of pride!

Needless to say,  Miss A and Miss C hugged and made up.  When I picked Miss A up from school yesterday, she ignored me and walked past holding C’s hand.

“See that?”, the teacher said to me. “Things seem to be alright again, thank goodness”.

“It is all good now”, Miss A said to me. “Little girls have fights. Then they forget them.”

“Ahaa” I said. Mostly because I wasnt capable of a saner response.

“That is why we are proud for a reason”, Miss A added.

“How?” I asked. Again, see above note about not being capable of a saner response.

“Because, we are”, she said.

I am proud for a reason too. Words like forgivness, friendship, effort and reaching out come to mind. But I am not a green puffle (there are those that would say otherwise, of course) and hence I only smile instead of making such a declaration.

And my heart sings a little when I see two little girls who sit next to each other, in a corner at a birthday party, and giggle over their easter egg hunt.

The formula for peace follows us around.  All you need to do is walk slower and allow it to catch up with you.

Landmines..

There are landmines in your heart, you sidestep them all the time. You just do not know this.

Her face is crumpled, her hair is a mess.  There are tell-tale signs of sticky tears on her cheeks. Her lunch is uneaten and she doesn’t remember where she put her Maths books.

She doesn’t say much when you pick her up.  No sparkle in her eyes, no hug when you ruffle her hair. No excited chatter about school happenings, no giggles of lunch time memories. Just a sad silence. A little-girl-sad silence. The kind of silence that leaves icy fingerstains on your heart.

You leave her to change into her pyjamas and step out to get something from the car. When you come back, she has put the pyjamas on but she hasn’t changed out of her school uniform.  She cuts a forlorn picture in her mismatched attire, she is neither here nor there. Half dressed, half ready. Half girl, half child. Half sad, all lost.

Between giant sobs, the story comes out. Of fights with the best friends. Of things said that she didn’t mean. Of learning that when you allow someone in your world, they have every chance of hurting you.  And yet, the only sane option is to open the doors and throw out the keys and welcome a parade of love and friendship and hurt and trust into the streets of our heart. Because that is how we grow. And live. And find our way around.

She climbs on your lap and cries, all the while telling you how sad she is. And then something inside you churns and crushes and whooshes. A primal wave of love, a raw force so fierce that you are momentarily astounded at this depth of feeling.  You try to heal her aching hurt but she is still crying over the best friend who said she was best friends no more. In another time and another place, you have been there. With scraped knees, muddied school uniform, pig-tails askew. With hot burning tears hidden around the corner of your eyes. And so you know how much it hurts. And that primal wave drenches you again.

So you hold her tight and  you almost tell her she doesn’t need friends who dare hurt her. But instead you end of talking of how friends share secrets and make you laugh and hold your hand on the way to school library.  How friends are someone who will wait for you when you have not finished packing up and go with you when you need to go to big locker room. Someone who writes “hAppY birthyDAY” with sincere flourish on your  birthday cards and remember that you like pink diaries the best. Someone who will save you a place next to them at the concert and offer you a half eaten lolly. That is kind of the deal with this gig.

“Friends sometimes hurt each other”, you say. She sniffles.

“Friends don’t always do everything you like. That is kind of the deal too”, you say.  She says nothing.

And then you talk of the things that _really_ matter. Like hugs and secret giggles and the friends that save you seats and ask to share your sandwich and offer you a candy in return. 

“It is like a package deal”, you say. She looks at you.

“Sometimes you just got to forgive them”, you say. And in your mind you are saying “I am not forgiving anyone that dare makes my child cry. Ever.”

“Sometimes you just have to think of the nice things your friends did for you. It helps you forgive them the bad.” And in your mind you are repeating this mostly for yourself, because you need to remember that the best friend is a child too. And you do not feel like being an adult at the moment.

She smiles a little. One ray of sunshine on a frosty window-sill. So you call the best friend and let her talk. They talk for an hour. And then they hang up a bit happier. The next day at school, you notice that the best friend is still not “as best as before”. And those landmines in your heart pulsate with life and ask to be noticed.

You bend down and kiss her goodbye. And tell her to have a fabulous day. You watch while she runs to catch up with the best friend, who has forgotten to wait for her again. You tell yourself that life, at its best, is fair or unfair on a whim.  That she will be fine because you are going to see her through this. That friendships flourish and the heart will know and the heart will heal.

You drive off feeling like the child you once were. Your knees hurt, your shoes have dirt on them and you have burning tears behind your eyes. But when you catch her looking at you, you wave and smile.

So you walk off, one step at a time, looking upwards and then in that one moment, you realise that those landmines won’t hurt you if you refuse to acknowledge them.  Perhaps the only way ahead is by not looking down….

The barrier

In her blue bathers, with her hair done up in tight plaits, she looks tiny. Fragile almost.  The swimming lanes are bustling with activity, the school houses are working themselves up into a feverish mania.  So much sound, so much clapping. Splashes of water, clocks and sirens. She has a pink swimming bag. It holds her water goggles. Her towel, a set of spare clothes. One sandwich (cut into half, please). A handful of lollies (green and red, thank you). A bottle of water. Small, everyday things.  Even though today is bigger than everyday. Somedays are like that.

She sits with her friends, hugging the bag.  When I look at her and wave from the stands, she waves back.  

“Ten more minutes and you are in the pool”, the teacher tells her group.

I can’t swim like the rest Mummy. I am tinier than all of them. I don’t want to come in last. In front of the whole school.

You won’t come last. You have to know you are really good.

But the others are so much stronger. They don’t even need to try as hard.

They call out her name. I rush to my feet and push through the crowds. I want to watch this from ground level, not from the stands.

You know what, A?  There are things we are all naturally good at. And there are things we have to struggle to achieve. Doesn’t mean you cannot win, eh?

Do you think I have a chance?

As much as any other little girl.

There are 8 little girls. Standing poised at the foot of 8 deep lanes. They are taller than her, they have done this before. All around her are gladiatorial crowds.

She gets inside the pool and positions herself for the backstroke (because I am good at backstroke, Mummy).

A part of my heart wants to look away. A part of my heart plans dinner and the drive home and the things I will say to her. Because, the other girls are bigger, the deep end looks stern and I want to get a band-aid ready for her hurt even before she falls down.

The siren goes off and she swims. Arms, legs, silver arcs of blue water. The crowds, the claps, the house cheers, time soon becomes a smudge. The finish line, the finality of the last seconds. I race towards her as she finishes.

“How did I go?”, she asks.

“You were so marvellous”, I say and I hug her tight.

“Did I win?”

“I don’t know baby.” She is not the last though, because some girls are still getting out of the pool.

“It doesn’t matter, Mummy. I had thought it did, but it doesn’t. It was just so much fun”

So many things do not matter anymore. Such imposters these are, these fears we claim as our own.

She goes off to ask the teacher how she did. And a minute later, throws herself into my arms with a war cry. 

“I came second. I won the second prize ribbon”.

 A part of my heart expands to accomodate those old mates of happiness and pride.

“Do you know what, Mummy? At the end, I just knew I was doing well. It all seemed so right.”

The thing about victory is this. Victory is in attendance at every game ever played, every chance ever taken, every arrow ever aimed.  Victory lurks at the edge of the playground and mingles with the spectators, it beckons to you from across the boundaries, it runs with you as you sprint, it stands behind you when you aim. In disguise, barely there, yet omnipresent.

When you know what you are playing for, when you take a minute to look around the crowds and the cheers and the faces that ask you to keep going, when you know that the finish line is always nearer than you dreamt, victory shows its face to you. Your reward for spotting the elusive spirit on the courts, the battlefield, the playground.

“I am here”, it says. “I can stay if you want me to.” And a silver arm reaches across those fluid boundaries that define success and failure, triumph and failure and suddenly you have crossed the barriers that once stopped you.

She holds my hand and we walk out into the obscenely cheerful day, swimming ribbon intact.  Behind us, a frenzied chant goes off as Victory pulls more people across into the promised land, revealing its face to those that dared to look at the finish line and conquer the distances that our fears scale for us.

And then it all seems so right.

2010 – Lessons learnt.

There is something about the end of the year that makes stock-taking a necessity. It is 43C here today, the day is balmy and impossibly hot. As with all impossibly hot days, the day is also quiet.  In this quietitude, the year that was stands silent as a hazy blur but yet some moments are so clear. It was a good year, this 2010 business. I am not going to say it was ‘great’ – but then again I use the word ‘great’ very, very, very sparingly.

So back to 2010. There were lessons learnt. Rewards gained. More lessons learnt. Some rewards went missing. Did you think I was going to repeat the pattern with the whole “lessons learnt, rewards gained” chain by the way? I am nothing if not predictably unpredictable.

Without further ado, here are reminders that the year handed to me. In no particular order.

1) You can go on long after you think you are ready to give up.  The decision to give up always comes from within. As does the decision to keep on walking.

If you do not trust me, you should see the number of rejection slips I gathered this year. I am still writing. Still editing. Like I said, the decision to write is mine alone. No rejection slip is going to decide this for me. Wish me luck. The more I write, the more I set myself up for possible failure. You think I would have given up by now, no? Not on the cards at the moment.

2) You are braver than you think. But at some stage, you need to stop thinking about bravery and start acting. Life has nimble toes, if you must know.

So sure, your car is a write off and you are inside a crumbling mass of metal that was actually your perfect car some thirty seconds ago.  You could have died. But you didn’t. You are alive and already victorious. Let us face it – for the rest of your life you will ask yourself what you could have done differently. You will kick yourself when you realise that you knew the answer all along. But after that, the real bravado comes in letting go. Of the mistakes and the horror. Leave the scene of the crash. Your lesson has been learnt. The debris has nothing more to teach you.

3) The world realigns itself every now and then. Go with the flow.

Life is always a multiple choice question. You cannot choose the answers, so just pick the best one.  People leave. People enter your life. You make mistakes. You let people down. There is only so much you can do. You cannot get everything right. Decide what you will beat yourself up for. Leave the rest. Because given half a chance, a willing world will do that for you.

4) Travel light. By which I mean, ditch the baggage. And stock up on the essentials. Life has these passages where you will be stranded. Believe you me. Be prepared to travel. And be prepared to wait. Like I said, stock up on the essentials.

5) Watch some good movies. Read the books everyone is talking about. Or read the books that you have always wanted to read. Always order dessert. Laugh more. Cry if you wish –  why spurn the heart of its colours! That is such a futile exercise.  Hug people more. Be the first to say “I Love You”.  Rekindle your belief in something, anything. You would be surprised by how wonderfully your heart thrives on passion.

6) There are no guarantees that Life runs a smooth course. So after you have done all, go back to the basics. Try again. Because the tides turn. The inky darkness gets tired of hanging around and takes off. Be around when the sun rises. You owe it to yourself.

Happy New 2011 to You and Yours. I hope the lessons you imbibed this year will see you through. I hope happiness awaits you around the corner, if it is not walking with you already. I will see you on the other side.

Thank you for reading me this year. I am deeply thankful for your friendship and your words.

Ciao 2010.

Scarlett

The 3 Hs

She runs ahead even as I call out, asking her to stop. The rain is coming down with a sullen intensity now and in the distance she sees some shelter.

“Hurry up, Mum”, the sing-song voice melds with the patter of dusty rain.

“Hang on A. Mum cannot walk that fast .”

“Is it your knee again?”

“Yeah”, I half run, half walk to her and hold her little hand tightly in mine.

“Did you know that you have had a bad knee for aaaaaaaages?”

“Um, yeah. Hard to forget stuff of that kind when I cannot take the stairs or run much, eh?”

“And it is still bad?”

“Yeah, it is still bad.”

“So when do you plan on getting it fixed?”

“I am not sure Missy. There are days when it hurts less than other days. And perhaps that is as good as it will ever get.”

The rain has reached a steady bellow. The parking lots stand deserted. And yet here we are, long lists in hand, ready to do our Christmas shopping. A few minutes pass in comfortable silence.

Then this. “Mum, everything that is broken heals some day.”

“Really? Everything?”

“Some things hurt for like 8 years. Or even 20. But they heal, you know. That is the way the world works”.  This being said as she waves a tiny hand around her and the rain drops slide off her finger-tips. Now here. Now gone.

The little voice continues. “Somethings hurt. Like a lot. But then they start getting better. ”

“I like the sound of that”

“So Mum, when the knee does not hurt on good days,it means you have already healed”.

“But A, I will still feel the pain other times, yeah?”

“Of course you will Mum. But you have to remember the 3 Hs”

Then without further ado, a warm hug on a cold day comes my way as she explains.

“The 3 Hs. Hurt, Healing and Healed. It is like a 1,2,3. That is how everrrrrything works.”

I am silent. And I am not even concentrating on my knee or the rain or the storm anymore.

“And Mum?”

“Yeah sweetums?”

“This applies to everything okay, I mean this. The 3 Hs. You better remember that, okay? Like your times tables or something!”

We reach the inside of the shopping centre and she lets go of my hand and promptly plasters her face against a window with a Christmas display, softly humming a carol to herself. I try to learn my new lesson.

Hurt. Healing. Healed. Life in an iteration. One known formula. Many variations. It can end well.  There is such a pattern here.

I better remember this tag line. Like my times tables or something.

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