Theo: ‘Technology only came out, like, 20 years ago’.
When I was 17, my mother went to our favourite bookstore and handed the owner my list of birthday requests. I only remember Tender Buttons and a very dry Susan Sontag essay collection being on there, and that they didn’t have either, but the staff we’re impressed. Later, I’d kiss a boy who worked there; once or twice, but meaningfully, and he used to bring me Italian Vogues with the covers ripped off, which I enjoyed the high/low glamour of a great deal the summer I was 19.
There’s this Gertrude Stein quote; “It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
I’ve lived that quote in different ways as its meaning has evolved for me. What I see in it now is that it takes time; allowing your head, or your heart, or your soul – which ever is the loudest in you, to make itself heard. It takes time to know yourself. Whenever you get there, there is no there.
There’s so much push to bring what you want to spend your life on into focus. But remember what you want to waste it on too. The internet sucks your creativity. We’re all on the internet looking for ideas instead of giving ourselves space to have them. Waste your time on something that restores you. Sometimes you just have to sit in the sun in as much luxury as you can muster and read things you don’t understand. One day you will.
Look at people that you love; a lot of success comes from being who you are, from that thing you love in your own quiet. What it draws out of you. It helps to only do things you believe in. That you believe that there’s a future for. And to slow down. Slowing down allows for perspective, in real time. Put trust in the things that you love; that they’ll love you back. And let them when they do.
Theo. I live in the love I have for you. You took who I was, at one time, and where I was going, which was nowhere, and drew the map. Some days you are an island, and I am the ocean. Trying to stay calm; to be still enough that you can see your own reflection in me, immovable and at the center of something I can only look into though I surround you. I would walk out of this water to be with you. I’d be the fish that wished for legs and willed them true. Sometimes you cast your line out for me only to draw it in at the first sign of struggle. Sometimes you catch me just to burn me before I can nourish you. Sometimes we swim together. We are happiest then. When everything is cool and clear.
Some days you are the ocean and I am the island. Trying to defend myself from your relentlessness. Knowing only that the tide will rise and fall. Standing in the shallows, where we are equal. All the days spent trying to find where you stop and I begin. Staring out at your changeable beauty. Needing to build my own fires, away from you, to keep something in me alight. So that I can remember all of my elements. Not only the one that makes up who I am for you.
Mabel. I am holding life open for you, my feet on the earth and my hands in the stars. Making space so you can take shape; become whoever you decide you want to be, once you are ready. Until then, and after, casting a protective circle around you. Some truths brought into existence must find further ways to be true; a once literal thing now delivered some other way. Your mother the force field. Holding the world up. Holding it back. Making better what I can, bringing it to you, explaining its parts and how they can work. I am trying to help the world work for you. I am trying to help you work the world.
There’s this Kendrick Lamar track where the fade out is, “You ain’t gotta tell me I’m the one”. Repeated, repeated, repeated. I’m the one, standing in the full gale of you. I always have been. I have grown roots here. A Winter in between Stein and Vogue came my grandfathers funeral, which was a whole and living thing, a celebration. My mother can do that. You always need someone who can throw a hooley. Who can push the boat out. Who knows the words to the songs that need singing. Who can build a fire and dance in the flames. A man rose and filled the room, and when he spoke our hearts stood at attention. He told us how my grandfather was a mighty Totara. How he had the heart of a chief. I come from the forest. I know what it is to be cut down to be made into something useful.
My love is the acorn that will grow you an oak,
Mabel: “Mama, when I have a bad dream and I wake up scared I think about you and that makes me feel better.”
It often goes like this, for example: gets Rubik’s cube for Christmas; immediately solves 2 sides of the Rubik’s cube; fascinated, dismantles the Rubik’s cube; is then unable to reassemble the bloody Rubik’s cube, because, I’m not sure if you knew this dear readers, but they’re not actually supposed to be taken apart (see also: vcr’s; cell phones; torches.)
Your genius will then be inconsolable at the loss and no amount of rational discussion or empty threats/promises (which ever you have more energy for) will rectify this. Prepare to be emotionally exhausted for the rest of your life. For this I have no advice besides that which is applicable to all parents, and should be the only things written in all those bloody parenting books: try not to lose your shit.
All the soft toys in your house will have elaborate names. And phone numbers. And interests. We have a hedgehog here who goes by Mr Prickle Wiggley-Pants. Or Max, for short. Max doesn’t want me to disclose his contact information on the internet, but doesn’t mind if I mention that he was a semi-professional soccer player in his homeland of Spain. He also enjoys sleeping under the couch, because it’s the only place in the house that’s quiet. I have some theories that he may be in political exile. The guy gets a lot of hushed phone calls, you know? Then there’s a lobster named Bubba who appears to have embodied the spirit of James Brown. I could go on.
You will be woken regularly with questions which you have no idea how to answer, but must, because this is your life now. And also, because if you do not answer, the question will just be repeated incessantly until you make something up. I do not advise this, however, on account that one question will invariably lead to 6000 questions and it’s only so long before you will find yourself trying to explain relativism with an orange or concepts of theology on a magnadoodle.
Raising a genius will make you smarter, out of sheer necessity. Nothing will make you regret not finishing your English degree like having to resort to google when in discussion of submerged similes. With a 4-year-old.
Everyone is asleep and I am making your lunch. Buttering wholemeal sandwiches and filling them with ham and cheese and lettuce. Wrapping them in baking paper.
You stumble in, pyjama’d. You’re still warm with sleep. You eat 3 Weetbix for breakfast and drink a glass of water and we sit together in the morning sun that has swallowed the kitchen.
You get dressed in the lounge, in clothes laid out for you the night before; last night’s tomato sauce sponged off your blue jeans. You’re ready to go. I’m only pretending I’m ready.
I hold you in my arms on the front step and we take a photo. I want to commemorate the moment some other way than this; some way that other people do; covering all my bases, preparing for whoever you may become. Trying, always, to plan for all futures. You look so big in my arms we both look like children.
You call back through the gate, ‘Mama! I need a kiss!’, though you’ve had an even hundred already this morning. I have tried not to tell you to have a great day. Tried to keep my adjectives from expecting too much. Wanting you to be able to identify your own experience without it growing from some sense of my expectation. ‘I hope you learn something cool, Bubba’, I say. My cheek to yours.
Your sister insists on waving you goodbye on the street. She calls it ‘waving out’, which, like so many things she does, has a certain sense of propriety, though she’s half in pyjamas. You’re both endlessly charming. The sky is so blue.
She stands by your door and waves a big wave. You roll down your window and she clambers across the gutter in ever-bare feet to high-five you. ‘See you later, Alligator!’ you yell at each other down the street, until you are out of sight.
One day you’ll be 14, or 24, or 84, or 40. These letters are for every when, though there’s no where so real as here and now.
Here. And now…
You take run ups to come and hug me. Starting further and further away each time. I sit on my bed and you run from the couch, the kitchen, screaming with laughter.
Here’s what I know; it’s not like in the movies, but it can be better, sometimes. And you should believe some things you read; when someone else’s story resonates within you. Listen to music that makes you want to lie in the floor. Let things floor you.
Smile at yourself in the mirror. Your loveliness is all-pervading. I know. I see it every day. You’re the kind of person they write stories about. You’re the reason there’s songs. You’re the heart of the piece.
Maybe have some goals. Maybe have a 5 year plan. Try not to be a nihilist – they’re so dull at parties. Ditto, communists. Though we all have our phases. Whatever you believe in, believe in the values at its heart. Believe in the values of your own heart most of all.
Spend much more time considering whether and why you want to invest in someone, than worrying about how they are feeling about you. I wish I’d done that. Extend yourself the generosity of kindness. Don’t worry all the time. It’ll all work out. It’s a process. You’ll get there.
You’re brilliant, darling. You’re in every smile I’ve ever had. When people say, ‘that’s the spirit!’ they’re talking about you.
You’re the sun on my back.
Happy Birthday, Mabel Poppy.
All my love,
Previous birthday letters: Three
Darling, you’re 5! A 5-year-old person. And what a fine job you’ve done. You, who from your very instance, have been an experience of impossible beauty. Especially for me.
Sometimes, life will really present you an opportunity to grow up. And I mean ‘grow up’ however you wish to see it. Whatever it was or will be for you. Whatever makes you wiser. Or stronger. More resilient. Whatever makes you hold true to what you really know for certain, no longer willing to be distracted by that which has no answer. Whatever pushes you closer to where you are meant to be. And to who. But see it in its metaphor too. To stretch toward to sun.
You were that great occurrence in my life. You are, every day.
My eyes opened with yours, Theo. And in that moment, I knew everything would be alright.
You’re all my best wishes,
(Last years letter: here.)