It was probably a little bit of this: heart pain.
It was a big shift to move from believing I was about to turn everything around for everyone – mother and child – to accepting what we were providing were rich resources for each child to learn and handle pain.
It’s Monday morning and 11 o’clock means snack time. Plastic plates with sliced apple and peanut butter-smothered crackers are being passed around. The rain is pouring down in sheets, the sky is white-grey. Jamal and Faith can’t eat their crackers, their teeth are sore, brown and rotting, and so they sit while the others eat. Leslee is much too quiet, again. Teron’s legs can’t fit under the table because they are so bruised and nobody knows why. And Fabian can’t sit still – he’s been like this all morning, like a slippery fish, unable to sit or stand or do anything. The weekend is catching up on his body. I take him aside, give him a metal spoon and a blank surface, and he bangs. Again and again, bang, bang, bang, for the whole snack time, until he can’t anymore, and his body rests.
Most days at Skatties are joyful, silly, noisy, wonderful. You might miss the loads on their little backs. But there are days when the rain pours and their suffering starts to seep out everywhere, and I can only hold up a piece of bandage to the bleeding, and it looks like a metal spoon and a blank surface.
The pain of almost everyone in Manenberg is at a searing level, but nothing can prepare you for staring into the abyss of child abuse. When I welcomed a few hurting children into our daily lives I was prepared for meltdowns and defiance – what I didn’t expect was how it would feel to hold the warm lump of a toddler in your arms, and then watch them run home to abuse. So instead of feeling that, I worked instead – extremely hard to wrangle their outcome into a positive one. Once the preschool was running, I dreamt of a mothers’ house and I set my eyes on child sponsorship, so our children could flow seamlessly through school to a better life. We raised the money for one of our graduates, sweet little Kia, and when the plans failed – which is another, longer story – I finally started to rub up against the pain of it all. Kia was, after years of being treasured at preschool, going to attend a poorly resourced school and go home to a chaotic mother – a woman who, in three years, I had failed to reach. Months since her Skatties graduation, I would drop by Kia’s mother’s shack, hoping she’d be at school, to find her lying in bed next to her mother, the shack dirty and cramped, a bucket of human excrement on the floor. And so began the rub – though I believe with every fibre of my being that we are reshaping souls and brains forever at Skatties, though I know we are providing them a way out, this remains: we cannot protect them from trauma. It was a big shift to move from believing I was about to turn everything around for everyone – mother and child – to accepting what we were providing were rich resources for each child to learn and handle pain. That wasn’t my dream. And though it might change their lives, it wasn’t in the way I wanted. I didn’t want a metal spoon.
It was probably this too: a lack of boundaries.
My mornings start like this: an alarm singing into the dark. And then a flurry of rushing and pushing. I help the girls throw on their clothes – where is your other shoe? Oh, there – and pour milk into bottomless bowls of cereal. Apples thrown into lunchboxes, hair brushed and tied. Did you do your reading homework? Oh, it’s library today, where are your books? And I’ve put your ballet shoes in the front part of your bag. Now come, Daddy’s waiting in the car. You need the toilet, okay go quick.
And once the girls are out into the car, there is Leo, nappy soiled and smiling. So I change him, cuddle him, make the bed, empty the dishwasher, wipe the milk-speckled table. The dog bursts in, all affection and panting, tears up the dirty nappy into pieces before I can get to it. Pyjamas and scribbled-on papers and dirty bowls are strewn through the house. I put Leo in front of the TV while I make tea and pray. I inhale this moment like it’s oxygen, because I know that it is.
And before I know it, before I even checked the time, someone is calling at the gate – one of the teachers asking me to open for her. There’s ten minutes – to shower, to wash and dry my hair. And then there’s devotions – I’ve forgotten again to get someone to lead, so I look at the passage quickly and churn it over in my mind as I wash. And out of the kitchen I stumble, with wet hair and instant coffee in hand, ready to conjure up some insight to feed our team. Leo is crying because the TV is over, and he’ll continue to disturb the rest of our devotions, in and out, moaning every so often.
But I want to keep positive, and hold the space for these wonderful women who are ready to serve the kids today. And I know how to do this – how to preach with a moment’s warning, how to make sure each women feels seen, how to entertain my toddler at my feet at the same time. It’s very normal for one of our women to cry in this space, and for the rest of us to hold her. And I love it, that we can be what she needs that morning, but God knows I have no idea what I need that morning. No clue.
By the time it’s 9.30am, there are about fifteen people in our home, and that – really – is a normal day. Our Skatties kids are outside at the white table having breakfast, the teachers are preparing for the day. The Skatties gardener is working today, brushing the sand out of the astro grass. The builders are working on the Manenberg Films studio, dust strewn through the house. And this is what happens: a teacher is crying because something very hard is happening at home, the gardener needs advance payment because he’s under threat, the builders are owed coffee. There are distant gun shots from round the corner, the stench of drugs drifting over the wall. Someone needs me to photocopy something, the Skatties kids are chanting my name to come play, Leo is hanging on my leg crying for snacks, a beggar shouts at the gate. I forgot to eat breakfast, again.
My problem with boundaries is this: I think I have good ones, but I don’t. I think I am someone who can say no, and of course I can, but I assume Jesus would want me to say yes. Yes to everyone, because everyone around me is low-functioning, and I am high-functioning right? So I find myself like a trigger response button, and the moment I sit down on my sofa and the door knocks, I jump up like a robot, ready for another trauma to fix. Down come my walls to my time and any personal space, and down come my walls to my heart and my mind. My job now, is to survey some of that wreckage and start to build them up, piece by piece. It feels hard and slow, but steady and healthy.
And it was probably this too: trauma. When I sat with my colleague – a girl who has taken on gangsters and was raised on one of the most notorious streets in Cape Town – and she said I don’t want to ever be alone in your house, because she was scared, it hit me that our house has not been the haven I wanted it to be, despite my best attempts with wicker baskets and Le Creuset mugs. I’ve lost count, but I’d guess we’ve had about twenty break-ins since we moved in three years ago. Everything from kids bikes to bed sheets to computers have been taken, some in the night and some audaciously – I won’t forget chatting to Nick in the bedroom and turning around to find a man staring at us through the window. Rocks through the windows where my baby sleeps, bread thrown over the wall to distract the dog, hands through the bars to take our shampoo. I mean, our property has felt like anyone’s game a lot of the time.
On one side of our wall we have had some difficult things to work through, and on the other side there is a wasteland. Every day groups of desperate people huddle to get high. When I lie down in the bed for a rest, I see the smoke rise up into the sky. People fall asleep. There is so much mental illness – a woman smashing glass bottles again and again, a man with his trousers down staring into space for hours. A metal staircase leads hundreds of people up and down every day into the Shoprite mall across the road – a mall one Sunday men with AK47’s locked down, and the shooting was so relentless my toddler asked what is that noise mummy? I don’t know my sweetheart, it sounds a bit like balloons, I replied, stroking her hair in the dark. The ground is filthy and when the wind blows we find the debris in our garden: shoes, crisp packets, a condom. Gangsters control the group of taxis that park there, and when gang fight stirs up, young men high on drugs shoot bullets up and down. Men have shot into our wall to test their weapons, bullets have flown over our garden. The father of one of our Skatties students was murdered just there. Twice I’ve seen men pull knives on our dog this year. One night recently the floodgates opened and I wept with Nick about how hard I was finding everything, and that night both of us jumped upright, hearts racing, to the loudest shots we’ve ever heard, da-da-da, outside our window. And, as usual, we rolled over and went back to sleep, but the body doesn’t forget.
And lastly it was probably a lot of this: defying my limits. Put bluntly, I could have been smarter. I’ve never been one to value taking care of myself – some of that I put down to enjoying the rush of living a busy, generous life full of people, meals and redemption, and a lot of it is my broken heart for humanity. And some of it I put down to theology. I mean, Paul said I beat my body and make it my slave. Jesus said lay down your life. Although I knew self-care had to be important somewhere, I clocked it down to drinking green juice and running sometimes, performed with a bit of an inner eye-roll. I mean, isn’t pilates and kale for the kid-free privileged? I wanted to be found leaving it all on the field, not wasting a minute, and so that looked like nearly 15 hour days, every day. The community would have my best in the morning, and my children – who were never going to be sacrificed on the altar of ministry – would have my best, afternoon and night. But, in the end I found my limits. I think limits might be soft and stretchy – you can override them – but they are elastic and will eventually ping you back with a strength that will leave you breathless and sore.
And so a bit of defying my limits, added to some heart pain, combined with a lack of boundaries and some trauma all added up to where I found myself recently: a depleted little mama. I started this year not feeling as strong as I had for the last few years. I was more inexplicably anxious, more unsettled. I felt the need to pull back from work, so I did. When someone started unloading on me, I wanted to back away. The more space I got, the more I unravelled a little, and I had a few weeks of being flat, highly anxious, all over the place, obsessing about things, weeping easily. It was time for a break, so I took it. I was hard and a little scary. I wrote things down in my journal – the people in the community I was carrying (I am embarrassed to tell you the number was forty), the traumas we had experienced. I stopped all my work, and took a long hard look at this machine that was my body. And I thought okay. My limits are pinging me back. And it’s sore.
We’ve been staying at my in-law’s empty flat by the sea, and it has been a tonic, thank goodness. It’s not a quick fix – that work is going to take a while, and part of this process is working out what needs to be on my plate and what needs to come off. It’s painful, and healthy. It’s frustrating, and liberating. I find it scary. I find it the closest I’ve come to being friends with my heart for a long time.
You know, I assumed that if I was doing God’s work, God’s Spirit would fill me up, and to be totally honest, a part of me still doesn’t understand why that hasn’t worked. I mean, what’s not to love about women being delivered and children being nurtured – why wouldn’t He give me a hundred times my natural strength for that, especially since few want the job? But I got to the point where I was so tired I couldn’t keep doing any of it, so my theology is a little undone. God, it turns out, does not want me to be God, but his child instead. And if that’s the case, if that is the route to healing, then I am willing to be reborn.