Today is Peter’s inside-out birthday. He is 39 weeks old and he spent 39 weeks in my womb. That day poised on the cusp of Scorpio and Sagittarius, when we journeyed quiet with excitement to the hospital, stands as the mirror between these two stretches of time. That morning, soft clouds touched the earth around our home. The sun was still bundled in the warmth of the trees on the eastern horizon when we rose, and carried our daughter to the car. My husband and I whispered to each other as we drove and our four-year-old slept in the back. My son slept sweetly too, in his home beneath my heart. Mere hours later, he was tugged out and placed on my collarbone, so that our first meeting was cheek-to-cheek. My arms were hooked up to needles, so I let my lips welcome him to my life, kissing his warm sticky face and whispering his name.
Ten years ago, as newly-weds my husband and I moved into a little outbuilding on a strip of farmland in far-flung rural Kwazulu-Natal. Our new home was a little rectangle of bag-washed blocks and a tin roof. We had electricity but no kitchen, bathroom, or water. The farm manager and his wife and two kids lived nearby. Civilization, in the form of cellphone reception and shops, were an hour’s drive away. A river encircled us, and a mountain stood at our backs, so in summer’s flood, we were often corralled onto our bit of land for days at a time. We were blissfully happy. Through our little aluminum windows, we looked on a village of mud huts on the other side of the river, thorn trees scattered across the horizon. Framing this bucolic view were the boughs of a scraggly bark-bare orange tree, just outside our little home.
One by one, the children shuffled to the front of the line, side-stepping black jacks and wag-a-bitjies, for their turn beside the earth-brown hole. It was freshly dug, and freshly wet with river water, which caused its secrets to whisper up towards us. Each one in the group held a connection to the departed. His seven grandchildren (two babes in arms), his niece, his nephew, his five children, his brother, his daughter-in-law, his son-in-law, his brother, his sister-in-law, and his widow, all took turns to hold the dust that had become his body, and scatter it into the earth. A white stinkwood sapling was placed on top, and dirt filled in around. Only the river spoke as the soil rose up above the roots, and the few birds not made drowsy by the noontime sun. The trees of the bushveld made a dappled canopy above us all, throwing down sweet shadows tossed in with patches of light. The atmosphere was subdued but not heavy. The act was an untethering of a soul. It was a ritual made of memories but rooted in the present. Because traveling forward means leaving some things behind.
The candlelight flickers against the wall. The shadow-wings of the orchid dance like a moth in the halo of the flame. Steam rises from the bath and suspends in beads. I move my toes one by one against the enamel. My feet are pressed side by side beneath the taps. I marvel at their shape and dream lazily of all the places they have been. My eyes trace the muscles in my legs, the soft hills in my belly. The line of the scar above my pubic bone is still pink and raised. It glistens. The house is still, as is the night outside. The call of an owl carries across the veld. I had put my family to sleep, slowly and with care, and then crept downstairs to lay myself in this hot scented water beside a tiny lick of fire. I sink deeper, my knees part and my head tips back. My heart opens, and as I pour love on each arriving sense, I receive a little more…
We are each the hero of our own stories, and in this sense, we travel alone. Yet we are all part of something bigger than ourselves. Our stories weave and intersect in beautiful and unexpected ways. This is the dance of living, and we each have our roles.
On a Friday afternoon I sat in the shade of a thatched umbrella in the bright sunshine beside the highway. My baby son rested in my lap, while my husband and daughter chatted about a new game app across the table. In front of me the waitress had placed a sparkling glass of water. It was shaped like an oversized tulip balancing on a too-thin stem. Traffic rumbled past. A light breeze flirted along my arms. My family was happy and occupied, and in this moment of calm I noticed the tiny scene reflected in the bulbous bottom of the water glass. I inhaled deeply. The scent of summer (cut grass, truck fumes, sun-creamed skin, frying onions) simmered in the air. Slowly I let go of the tension generated by grocery shopping, deadlines, business management, and weekend plans, and let myself see the little captured world. I made out the slide and swings and trees. I saw the minuscule cloud puffs floating across a teaspoon of sky. I stilled my thoughts and busyness and urge to control, and allowed myself to dip in to this parallel universe of butterflies and magic things. It whispered a secret into my heart, reminding me that if I was lucky enough to have understanding alight upon my palm, to treat it with lightness and care. To slow my breath and drink in its beauty. Because in the next moment, sure as day, it would take flight, and be lost in a kaleidoscope of color and noise.
The cool water runs over my naked body as sweet as a kiss. The river chatters like an old friend. The morning light washes the air clean, leaving no trace of yesterday. I sink down and inhale the silty summery smell of the water. I have a few minutes alone. Two. Four. Maybe eight. I don’t know when I will be needed again, when my name will be called. But I take the time to move slow. To look at the bush stretching up the hillside above. I drink in the play of sunlight over the acacia trees, see how it seeps into the terra-cotta of protruding cliffs. I find a spot by the reeds, in a quiet eddy, with a rock that curves round my hips. I reach for the soap tucked among the plants, dip it into the flow, then bring it close to my face and breathe in its scent of ylang-ylang, cardamom, and cloves. I slip it down my neck, around my breasts, under and over my arms. Now its exotic perfume whispers off my own skin. I am of the river, of the land beneath its waters, of ancient stories and time eternal. I am here, now.
‘Mama!’ Four minutes.
I rinse off quickly and stand up to see my four-year-old daughter picking her way through the thorn trees.
‘Here I am!’ I call. I wave to her dad watching from the top of the path with our six-week-old baby in his arms. When Emma reaches me she stops, momentarily surprised by my nakedness knee-deep in the river.
‘Do you want to come in too?’
‘Yes please.’ She lifts her arms for me to pull off her shirt, then pushes down her shorts and panties. I help her in, and she leads the way across the rocks scattered in the river’s breadth. She is an explorer, an adventurer, and I try to keep up. I show her how to splash water on the burning stones; she shows me what it is to be fearless and in love with the world. I was blessed by my moment alone with the river, and I am blessed by my journey across it with her…
It is white outside. Not the soft veil of mist, nor the rolling waves of fog. Just thick white clouds without relief of blue. It is as if the world has been packed away in cotton wool. From my bed all I can see is this vast nothing. It aches inside me, because I too have been packed away from life. My soul, my essence, my very self. A fresh new reality is settling into my bones, trickling through my veins, seeping from my flesh. My limbs are hollow and my heart stuffed with space. I have been washed away by my new role. Mama of two. Mother to a son. This reality smells soft and feels sweet, but it is also heavy and enveloping. The wide windows of my house wrap around my bed. Only three weeks post-surgery, post-birth, my child and I are nestled deep in our duvet cocoon spotted with sour milk. The large swaths of endless cloud reflect to me my blank-white soul.
The car bumped slowly down a track only just visible through the lengthening grass. My eyes stung. Just before we left home, carrying my daughter to the car had caused the ache in my pelvis to intensify. I was as slow-moving as this vehicle picking its way down the hillside. Everyday tasks were as heavy as my swollen belly, and tugged at my shoulders as much as my knees. Who would I be in just a few weeks? How would I manage with two small children? And where does patience and generosity and good cheer go when fatigue and aches bind your life like the thick mat of grey clouds brooding above me? This is what weighed on me the most: I wanted to mother and partner the best I could, to be present with kindness and joy. But in this place of vulnerability I also wanted desperately to coat myself in a brittle shell of crankiness, to wield grumpy as the armor that could hold all my pieces together.
In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, the character Horatio exclaims, ‘O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!’
And Hamlet replies, ‘And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
[Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, Line 185]
Hello and welcome:) I am a South African mama who believes in unschooling, mindfulness. and living on purpose. I love traveling, reading, yoga, leading our family business, and eating delicious food in beautiful places. And tea. I love tea. Pour yourself a cup and settle in for a read.