Dear soft stranger, standing where you have never been…

Before we leave the house, I slip the lanyard around his neck, marking him with sunflowers that beg for extra grace. The world is both kind and fierce. We have known both and mothers have been baptising their children with flowers since time was a seed, holding them out towards the others they share space with, ‘Here, I have somehow made a small human and I need all the eyes and ears to look out for him. Mother him with me, strangers that walk the skin of the earth with me. Will you mother my baby with me, please?’

And we are the ones who have sat down on supermarket floors, barely holding on whilst our small ship rocks through the storm inside my boy. I am always holding out my hands for more—more kindness, more space, a smile, anything really, that will ease our passage, whilst we spend our days living bigger than we probably should, living as wildly as anyone with sharpened senses could. All around us there is Noise. Noise. Noise. It takes audacious courage to keep going back to places that frighten us.

Still, we don’t give up on the things that we seek, and bold, brassy courage is what I teach.

…but also, because I know what it is to eat courage, I give.

Today, Grandmother Sky is shaking out her quilts in preparation for the season. Her clouds are pillowing high, higher, highest all across the horizon and on this Tuesday morning I am here to witness.

I belong nowhere else but here.

This is what I choose to do with my eyes.

I choose the sidewalk baptised in all the dead things that are falling from the trees. Here in the North, we have entered flame season, the oranges and the golds, the leaves, the hearths, and the open fires. They hold my attention wherever I go.

My right hand is no longer mine, hasn’t belonged to my body only, for thirteen years now. His gloved fingers wrap lightly around mine and this is how we walk to the shop to buy milk, to buy bread, and something sweet, something lovely to go with tea. Walking there is easy, pretty much all of it is downhill, but coming back, retracing our steps—coming home, we have to work a lot harder.

I have only one bag. When I have to carry things alone, I am so much more careful. I choose well. I know what I can do without. I know what to leave behind.

Just around the corner at the white church, there is a line of people. Mothers with their wings held close over their young. Fathers with faces that know how to hide everything that threatens to climb out through their eyes. They are caught in that tight, dry place that comes to some of us. In the shadow of this building, they have to learn how to accept help. A sharp new thing, they do this by folding themselves into a thousand small shapes as they try to remember where they have come from, holding onto crumbs that can be dropped in the darkness.

How to find your way back.

How to find your way.

Isn’t that the secret? The mystery? All the ways through it and not many maps about.

There are rows of warm coats, tables with hats and gloves, and knitted sweaters fuzzy from their previous life. A quick glance reveals pink to be the most popular colour, but the whole rainbow is present. This is good, I think to myself. A rainbow means there will be something for everyone and everyone wants something warm to hold onto.

I catch one woman’s eyes, or was I given them, it doesn’t matter, because I choose it to be so, and somewhere in the middle we each send a smile to meet the other. A gift.

Without using my words, I want her to know that I know. Words can be clumsy even if you mean them well, but a smile seldom goes wrong, if you really mean it.

Other mother standing there with your children playing in the sunshine, I know what you know right now. Other soft mammal tasked with keeping babies alive, I know. It is hard. It will claw at you—your days will seem to close in on you. You will go to bed with Fear. It will take a long time to kick him out, and always he will watch from the bottom of the garden, waiting for you to look up from where you are smiling, listening to the radio, washing the breakfast dishes. Some things stick like burrs. You have to pull them off with your own hands. You have to do this over, and over. But standing in the shadow of this mountain, walking the V of this valley? I know it too. How to keep your eyes from looking down, when all you want is a life free from shame and in this little moment, with my eyes and with my smile, I want to tell you this, there is no shame in needing help. Look at you, standing in the light, waiting to find something to cover your babies. Look at you not giving up.

It took a long while, but it passed for me, and even now, I am still careful with what I have. I give and I hold on. I teeter this way, and that way. I buy second-hand, pre-loved, gently used. I have no shame, although ‘help’ is still a word that doesn’t grow well inside my mouth. We are all left changed by our valleys.

Ask me about tinned beans, dry soup, and cheap tea. Ask me about windowed envelopes and fear. Ask me about days that stretch longer than the money in my purse. Ask me about words that have numbers less than ten, about months and then there might be none.

Ask me and I will tell you. I will show you where I have been.

Dear soft stranger standing where you have never been, it passed for me. May it pass for you. It is hard to ask for help. May you be given it with grace. May you hold onto every scrap of your dignity. May you learn how to plant beauty at your own feet and know that planting beauty is an act of war, and act of pure rebellion.

I do it every single day.

And your little girl with light in her feet—may she find the perfect coat. May it keep the cold from finding her. May neither of you know emptiness. You are held. You are held. You are held.

It passed for me.

Further down the road, where the daisies live in Spring, something stirs in the shade. Deep from within his glossy throat, a hooded crow calls a guttural greeting. At once my son shifts his presence, stops walking, plants himself sentinel on the path. Somewhere deep inside him something stirs. I do not know what he hears, or rather what he is listening to. What I mean to say is that I can hear the bird, but he hears more. He has let go of me here, for a moment he has no need for a rudder, a wombed anchor.

His left arm akimbo, his right arm held up, the hand facing upward. His small call to worship.

‘Listen!’

He has always done this—ripped off the bandage, shown me what is hidden, pointed me towards the light.

‘Listen, Mom! Look! There he is. Can you hear him?’

This is what I choose to do with my ears.

This is what I choose to do with my choice.

To tell of where I have been. To show what I have seen.

To say, ‘I see you, other soft mammal feeling lost in this world. I see you. There are things all around you calling your name. Know which ones to listen to, which ones to stop a journey for, and which ones to walk away from. Know what you can do without. Know what to leave behind. Listen! Your life is made up of small acts of courage. Look at you! Holding it all together somehow. Listen! You are held. You are held. You are held.’

© Liezel Graham 2021.

{Image by Isaac Mehegan on Unsplash}

My boy and I took a walk to the shop this morning. It was a beautiful Autumn day. I wanted to tell of it. I wanted to tell of so many things, and so this piece is probably a bit disjointed. I hope you find something inside my words to hold onto.

We passed people, other soft mammals just like us.

We smiled. We kicked leaves. We listened. We looked.

We chose what to do with our eyes and our ears.

We came home tired from walking up the hill and then we had tea and soft, squishy marshmallows.

And I remembered some of the places that I have been. Places that I never want to return to. Places that come to some of us. Places where we are folded over and bent low and where shame and fear want to eat into our bones. I know this.

They look different for all of us.

It passed for me. May it pass for you.

x