The days and nights all blur into one now, of course, since Noelle arrived. Rocking and soothing, feeding and changing – it doesn’t matter if it’s in the Cape winter night air or throughout the day, she needs tending. I’m soaking it up more than ever: I think I’m more at ease this time around, so I can breathe a little deeper and smell her soft hair and milk-stained mouth a little longer. I can rock her without as much frustration, I can use a dummy without fear of back-rods, I can be tired and know that this will pass. If it sounds idyllic, believe me it’s not always. Grumpiness and stretching and cartoons and average meals abound. But sometimes it is, quite idyllic.
Dinner is on par with quantum physics. At least it is for me and if it isn’t for you, share your secrets or stay quiet.
And in between all of the tending, the tornado hits – a storm of three boisterous kids pouring in the door from school. Bags flung, plastic boxes full of uneaten apples thrown into the sink. Thudding feet, fighting, whining, laughter. My job is mainly to pick up the pieces and show them they’re delighted in, long after that baby smell has evaporated out of their hair.
I haven’t written for ages, mainly because I wonder if there’s much to read. Life was challenging and exciting in Manenberg, and in Mozambique, and I was constantly forced to reckon with new ideas. It felt easy to scribble it all out. When you can read about redeeming gang culture or sitting under baobabs in a rural village, who wants life lessons gleaned from scraping off Weetabix from the old wooden table?
I sit outside in the sun. It’s already warmed the wicker chair before I sit down, and now it warms my face. Noelle is in her little bright green rocker, fast asleep in front of me. The light cascades through the green leaves in our garden, the sky is pale blue, Egyptian geese are soaring through the air up high, I can hear them. The girls’ little lettuces sit bold upright in the sun, the grass is muddy and damp. It’s a perfect winter morning, crisp and brittle enough now to break with the promise of warmth in the afternoon.
There’s a scene in The Chosen – a creative, televised account of Jesus – where Simon Peter is walking alongside Jesus, on their way to a new village. He can’t understand why Jesus won’t establish some sort of hierarchy, some authority structure. Things would work smoother, he explains, and faster. People slow us down, he says. Jesus stops and replies. “Maybe you need to slow down.”
One thing I love about watching Noelle is how she likes what she likes, and she doesn’t feel bad about it. Sometimes she loves the dummy, sometimes she spits it out like a lemon. Sometimes she’ll collapse asleep, sometimes she’ll resist. And when she wants milk, she’s doesn’t struggle to make it clear, without filter. And while of course we can’t live that way forever – there’s that difficult thing to master: loving others – there is something healing in me, watching her just be. When do we learn to pretend? Pretending our needs aren’t there, changing what we like to fit with the group, dancing around in an exhausting circle trying to make the externals work for everyone, while our internal desires grow quiet? And maybe they get so quiet that when we’re ready to turn and listen, their voice can’t be heard.
She cries in the night for the warmth of milk, today the dummy tastes like salt, and I try to take notes.
Every parent knows that preparing dinner is on par with quantum physics. At least it is for me and if it isn’t for you, share your secrets or stay quiet. Because it takes every ounce of my brain power and education my parents paid for to come up with some semblance of a meal that fits everybody’s needs. It has to be healthy of course, because your kids will not survive without kale hidden in some ridiculous meatball, and it has to be palatable, which is probably the biggest hurdle as my kids tend to like the same four meals on rotation. It has to be budget friendly, because hi, four kids. It has to be quick to prepare for the same reason. It has to be gluten free because gluten makes my husband sick, and dairy needs to be in small doses. This complicated web of conditions leaves precisely nothing to eat. Which is why I have no idea what’s for dinner tonight.
A few weeks ago I decided I would tick almost all of the boxes except one: budget. So I went to the shop, and bought some gorgeous frozen salmon, which comes with a sticky honey sauce. So healthy, I thought to myself, just think of all those omega 3s or whatever. And once upon a time my kids ate salmon and loved it, they’re going to be so thrilled! Salmon is so pricey, but supper is sorted, I thought, it’s a win.
That night it was just me and the kids, and so I got us all outside, lit a candle and served my lucky recipients their (expensive) dinner under the stars.
Then she said quietly: “I don’t really like it.” My heart melted into wax, in a bad way. While usually I like to think we’re pretty robust at dinnertime – that’s fine, we say cheerfully, you don’t have to eat it, but there’s nothing else – that night wasn’t my moment to shine.
I bowed my head. “I’m just so sad,” I said. “I’m so, so sad that you don’t want to eat the salmon. I bought it for you and I thought you’d like it, and it’s so expensive, and I’m so sad.” My two daughters instantly burst into tears. (My son didn’t care, incidentally.) Instead of comforting them I picked up the plates and took them inside.
A few minutes later my little girl – the 7-year-old fiesty one – had disappeared down the side of the house. Now the last time she did that she was smuggling chocolate, so you can imagine by this point I’m furious. “What are you doing down there?” I yell after her. She comes back to the garden. She’s not upset, just a little quiet. There’s no evidence of chocolate on her face. “I was singing Mummy,” she said. “About God. And about the trees. And about majesty.”
Disappearing off to wander under the stars, to sing to God Himself. Warm tears leaked out of the corner of my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said, and I held her.
My kids don’t like salmon. It is what it is. Just like Noelle didn’t want her dummy today, and I can’t really argue with what her tiny body wants. My body is what it is too – it could only handle so much pressure until it started stalling. How I longed to stretch it, but it had had enough, I can only do so much, she said. The Lord knows in the past couple of years banging my head against the wall as I’ve felt my ministry, my busted-to-the-brim busy days, my great juggling act being prised from underneath my fingertips. I’ve walked with Jesus, on a dusty dry road, telling Him He should be sorting it out. Asking Him for a bit more strength to run faster. Can you see how slow I’m walking?
The birds sing in the branches as I sit. The mountain in the distance has turned from crystal clear to hazy indigo as the sun rises in the sky. Noelle rests. I feel so full, like this wholesome goodness is being worked back into my bones. The voice on the air is so kind, and it says: “Maybe you need to slow down.” And I don’t argue back, not anymore, because nobody wants to argue with love.