Tuesday, 2 October 2018

We Can Build A Fire

(Written with Malakhiy's mother's permission)

It was an average day at Skatties, kids playing outside. One of our Skatties mommies was staying with us for a couple of weeks to have a rest for the relentless exhaustion of addiction and darkness. Her three children joined my three in cycling up and down the driveway, and in eating all the food and drawing on all the things. It was busy. And in the midst of all the mess and tears and scattered cups, this mommy forgot herself and her own journey, and she said to me, you need to help my friend.
She came. We drank tea and sat on my sofa, her sinking a little deeper than me, nine months pregnant. Life had been excruciating up until this point, with her traditional cycles of escapism only adding darkness to dark. She was just out of hospital recovering from a trauma only those at the end of their rope know about, when you can't go on and you give up, but God had stepped in and preserved her and her tiny baby. She was beautiful and strong, and I liked her immediately. We stood in the garden, and she said, I feel love so deep here, that I can't go back to the old ways. And since then, she hasn't.

Her sweet baby boy Malakhiy Storm Varrie was born into the world on a clear, sunny winter morning, at home. His mommy was taken to the local hospital, and that's where we met him. His skin was soft and golden, his eyes were deep, dark chocolate, sparkling at the centre. His warm naked body was wrapped in blankets, and he was unbelievably beautiful.

It was a fight to get him home – social workers, nurses, everybody seemed to halt the process. Days passed and Malakhiy would stay in the hospital nursery, sleeping and waking, sleeping and waking. They were worried he wouldn't be safe at home. His mommy tirelessly visited him, sometimes shooed away by nurses who said she was “interfering with their routine”. One day she couldn't find a taxi home, and she walked the entire way – for hours, as the rain thrashed down on her body that had given birth days before. And then one lovely day they all agreed he was ready and she bundled him up into blankets and brought him home.

Soon after, Malakhiy's mommy, Malakhiy and his brother moved in with my friend Clare down the road. She rested from the trauma of the last few months, the toddler brother played, Malakhiy fed, cried and slept. One afternoon I went round there with my three kids, and all Malakhiy's brothers and sisters were there, and it was busy. I was so tired that day, and as I saw little Malakhiy sitting in his chair my heart sighed. I'm so tired, but this little one is here, and he deserves all the cuddles in the world. And so I reached down, and picked him up, tiny precious boy, and rocked him in my arms. And slowly, rhythmically, he relaxed. He closed his eyes, and he fell asleep. I laid him down, slowly, slowly, on the sofa, but moments later he was awake and being passed around. “Mummy!” Lily cried. “He's putting his fingers around my pinkie!” And there he was, and we were all so touched that someone so beautiful, someone so fresh from heaven, would reach out and touch us.

A few days later, I was standing by the sink, it was early in the morning. My mum was in the kitchen too, chatting with the kids as they flitted around, in and out. My phone rang, and it was Clare. “Morning!” I said, surprised my friend was calling so early. And I heard her words, shaking on the end of the line. It's bad news. Someone's just called me to say Malakhiy's died. I don't know any more, her sister just called me. Everything slowed down to a blur. I'm driving there now, do you want to come? I'll be there in five minutes. And soon we were driving through Manenberg, praying with every piece of love we had. When we arrived at the house his mother was heaving and gasping on the floor. People passed in and out the house, a crowd was gathering. And there on the bed, this tiny boy lay completely still, eyes closed, face up.

By the time we reached the clinic he had been dead for forty five minutes. The nurses busied around his body, but quickly walked away. It was too late, it seemed like cot death and there was nothing they could do. And we were left, just like that. Instantly I saw a picture in my mind of a tiny fragment of metal, like a jewel, like a star, embedded in the Father's great heart. But I didn't want to see that, I wanted to see him raised so we prayed under our breath, fiercely. As we prayed we waited for the line of people to come - people who never feel like they have the right to come - police, ambulances and then two men to take him away in their car. What should have happened quickly didn't, and we waited in that tiny room for five hours. We wept and wept until we sat in silence, the electric heater pumping hot air on our feet, and then a wave of weeping began again. Malakhiy's mommy rocked him, sang over his warm body, just like she was singing him to sleep. I held his body longer than I thought possible, I wanted him to be held if God blew breath into his lungs, and even if He didn't, I wanted Malakhiy to somehow know we loved him, even now. The hours passed, his fontanelle dipped inwards. And at one point his mother screamed into the air he's getting cold, he's getting cold, he's getting cold, and we broke.
They arrived, brought out the a little navy blue carry cot, placed his body in it and placed him in the boot of the car. And they drove off, just like that, and of course his mother collapsed on the road. I wouldn't blame her if she ran through the streets after that car like a mad woman - they were driving off with her baby.
I got home and hugged my children, and felt like I had cried all of my insides out. As we shuffled the kids into into bed, Lily ran out into the garden. “Look!” she shouted into the night. “Look at the star!” And I looked. A tiny, strong, searing star cutting into the night. A tiny fragment of metal embedded into the Father's heart. “I see it, it's beautiful,” I said. “Now come inside.” It was beautiful, but a star in the sky wasn't enough when a mother bled for her baby, when we all cried out for his life.
The weeks passed and though we prayed for resurrection, it didn't come. It is true that God is inside us, and all around us. He was with us. He showed himself in a vision to Malakhiy's mother. He met us every morning. Malakhiy's brother Tithon has joined our Skatties family, beginning his weekdays with us, surrounded by toys and cuddles and healing. Malakhiy's family have moved back in with Clare, and his mother constantly astounds me as one of the strongest, most beautiful mothers I have ever met. She is quite simply a miracle herself, and I wish I could gather the world around her feet to listen to her.

We sat on the floor yesterday at Skatties, we were playing doctors. Zuraida brought over a baby to me. “Oh hi!” I smiled. “What's your baby's name?” “Malakhiy,” she replied. And as soon as she said his name, Tithon reached out his three-year-old arms for the plastic baby. He took this little doll, and held him. He stroked his fingers over his tummy, over his face, gently over his eyelashes. I didn't want him to see me cry, but of course he did. Yes, God is inside us, and He is all around us. 
It was a hard few months. We are coming out of it now - we are feeling the warmth of rest and provision and it feels wonderful. But when I look back, I'm aware that we walked through a rocky few months. Sicknesses in our family - pneumonia, laryngitis. A friend relapsed, and another, and another. Robberies, breakages, a dear friend lost another baby. But in the days after Malakhiy died, partly for therapy, and partly as warfare, I threw myself into the preschool. I moved the furniture, I bought stuff, I rearranged our routine, and it's all bearing so much fruit now. The kids are loving it, they are coming alive. Zeeha's writing her name, Zuraida is looking so well, Omie is shooting ahead, and Tithon is stroking a doll, healing under the shadow of free play and God Himself. And many nights I still look up at that star, that white ball of flames, and it teaches me that even in the darkness, we can build a fire. A roaring one, a lasting one. And we all know how fire spreads.

Thursday, 29 March 2018


(names changed)

Each morning starts the same. First the quiet, dark hour, as Lily is driven to school and the younger two toddle around the house by lamplight, and I sip tea. Then yellow light falls through the blinds, the traffic picks up outside and the morning finds momentum. I change nappies, wipe spills, fill bowls, kiss foreheads, throw in laundry, pile dishes high on the countertop. And then the red car beeps at the gate and five more children flood the garden and fill my arms, and they are a blessing – everybody can see that. I pick up Jamiz. He's three but the size of a one-year-old. The doctors are trying to work out why – malnutrition? disease? – and his baby teeth are dark, rotting away. But his eyes are shining brown and endless, and his self-forgetful smile lifts me up every day. It's hard to put into words what a blessing it is to be gifted a cuddle by Jamiz. I hold him tight, this warm lump of a boy, melting into my arms. He doesn't want to be put down.

In ten years he will be in a very dangerous position. Raised in the centre of Manenberg's gang activity by a mum who's trying her best, he's one of five young kids, and he's already slipping through the cracks. Every single gangster on the street corner, every single addict lurking around the bins was a little boy, just like this. Eyes shining brown and endless. A warm lump of a boy, melting in a woman's arms. Not wanting to be put down.


“No hopeful kid has ever joined a gang. Never in the history of gangs, and never in the history of kids,” writes Gregory Boyle. “Gang involvement is about a lethal absence of hope. No kid is seeking anything when he joins a gang, he's always fleeing something.”
I don't know much about gangs, or addiction, but I am watching these children in the morning and their mothers in the afternoon and there is nobody on earth that could convince me they are disconnected. Already tiny Zinnia is hitting and swearing, partly because her mother Bilquis is hitting and swearing, but more so because her mother Bilquis has broken Zinnia's heart. Zinnia came into the world with black newborn eyes searching for her mother's. She rooted at her mother's breast for safety. Her body cried out to be rocked to sleep. As she learned to lift her head and crawl on all fours she would fix her little eyes on on her mother's face. She looked for her, every single day of her life. Her mother couldn't come. Bilquis was carried by another force, an evil force that swung her around from hyperactivity to anxiety to violence to deep, frightening sleep. Zinnia longed for this woman to be her source, her warmth, her world. But Bilquis was gripped by something else. When Zinnia looked to her mommy, she was beaten, laughed at, neglected. Now Zinnia is three and she is hitting, because her inner world is in turmoil. It's very confusing and dark in there. And if Zinnia was ever to reach 13 years old and use a drug to escape her insides, somebody stand up to cast the first stone.


We had church in a field on Sunday, in this green stretch of farmland not far from home. It took us just 10 minutes in the car, all eleven of us squashed thigh to thigh, but it felt like a lifetime away. Surrounded by fields of green and mountains, we sang together. The joy of the Lord is our strength. The sun shone against the brilliant blue canvas and I breathed in the beauty. An hour before I'd been standing above Bilquis' bed. Wake up, I'd said. I'm sleeping, she'd replied. Finally she pulled on a mini skirt and sandals, as men walked in and out her shack, some the slippery kind. She pulled Zinnia on her knee and into the backseat of the car. Within minutes we were under the open sky, surrounded by grass.

There's not much to small talk about with somebody who seems like they're walking the edge of death. She has done this for years, tik'd through four pregnancies and births, lived outside under scraps of metal for years. Did your mom die? I ask. Yes, she nods. She was stabbed to death. By her boyfriend. Her eyes are fixed ahead at the blue mountains in the distance. I think of this, her mother stabbed to death, just like her own boyfriend who was murdered outside our house by the metal stairs. Three of her four children taken away to be raised by others. A breeze blows through the fields. She is lost somewhere for a moment, she is unable to hold it together and her eyes fill. And I think – see this woman on the streets of Manenberg, scavenging and screaming and smoking, and we might reach to cast a stone. Put her in a field and ask her about her mother, and she will start to cry. And the stones fall.

Shinita has been teaching at Skatties for two months. She's growing like a flower with her face in the sun. By day three she had asked for prayer and tears escaped. Instantly she left violence and drinking behind, breaking the cycle she'd be born into. She'd already astonished herself by spending her child welfare money on actual clothes for her kids, but last week really took her by surprise. She arrived at my kitchen flustered. “I need to talk to you,” she said. “I don't know what is going on. I need to talk to you.” I'm all ears. “So, tomorrow is a holiday. And... and I need you to know, I don't know what is happening. I need God to explain this to me… I want to take my children out.”
She did. She took them to one of the most beautiful beaches in Cape Town and pushed them on the swings and paddled in the water. This week her son turned two, and we gathered at her house and ate white cake and kissed his face. The happy chaos of children filled the room, and she shone. Weeks before she had sat on my couch, and I'd said to her it was amazing to me how ready to change she was. “I just needed someone to pick me up,” she said.
When our stones fall, we find our palms carrying love – something altogether more weighty and beautiful. “Judgement, after all,” writes Gregory Boyle, “takes up all the room you need for loving.” Yes, the weight of love is heavy. I'm convinced more than ever that God needs absolutely nothing from us to love us, but asks absolutely everything of us to love other people. I don't really need to know the ins and outs of that, except I'm signing up, wholeheartedly. And I find a secret there – it's the gateway to joy. That's the bit that surprises, I think, because it all seems so costly from a distance. But there I am in the field, with a woman discovering her belovedness. There I am, holding Jamiz with his endless brown eyes and we can all see he is the one holding me. There I am watching Shinita come in with her cake, and she is radiant, and we are singing.

And here we are, Easter Sunday morning. Gathering in the dark, babies bundled up, huddling by the fire. We sing and tell the story to each other as we know it - the one of our Saviour, Healer, Forgiver, Friend. The sky grows from indigo to yellow blue, and we toast buns on the fire. It's not lost on me that as I picture my palms releasing the stones that come between us, we recount the story of God who blew breath on the heavy stone of His own tomb, and He rose. A tender man, a new friend - clean after 20 years of abusing his system - sits to my right. "I used to think I had to do life alone," he says. "I can't believe I thought that." "I know what you mean," I said. The stones are gone, we belong to each other, we have all won the lottery, and the sun spills over the horizon, covering us in light.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Burning Children

She didn't come to school today, so we went to her house. Keandra (not her name) doesn't really have a house – she drifts between her grandma's brick home – where's she's washed and fed, and where people drink hard on the weekend – and the shack next door where her mother stays – this is the place her eyes fall shut at night, and the place people come and go, in and out, filling up their body on tik.

I don't know a single sober person that lives on that street, my friend from round the corner said. I don't like it. It feels impossible to me that such a cramped, busy road wouldn't hold a few functioning families, but it seems she's right. The police are permanently parked at the front, people weave in and out of shacks and houses. Everyone is thin and gaunt, something is controlling their days. Children are unattended, there is a giant pile of something, like furniture, like foam, in the street. People are laughing, and it's not a happy laugh. It is a street born of oppression, oppression from people who look like me, and this street continues to oppress itself relentlessly.

She runs across to the car, this precious two-year-old. Her grandma comes outside. She wants the child to sleep at her house, she says, but the child longs for her mother. And the mother lets her sleep next to her, breathing in and out air thick with drugs, in a confusing place where people scream, shout, laugh and sleep far too long. After a while mommy comes out, wearing a pink dressing gown, frizzy hair and a little attitude. We talk a bit, about drugs and children and what social services can do. The last time I spoke to another Skatties mommy about social services she had sat in the car and wept silently. I will burn down my house if they take my children away, she'd said. But Keandra's mommy stares back. We talk about lost sheep and I picture them sweet, and mischievous and in need of a cuddle. This is what a lost sheep looks like – dull dark eyes, pink dressing gown, sleeping until noon and unreachable.

We're driving away and in the rearview mirror I see Keandra picking up a stone to throw at her mother. It's the first time she's probably seen her today and she's angry. Her anger erupts in my garden too, swearing and hitting. And of course, her sweetness shines. She loves making coffee from mud, and she is the first each morning to reach up for her cuddles. Her giggle is perfect. She is two, and she is angry, and we're driving away watching her mother laugh with her boyfriend, and I can't help but feel I am leaving a child in the middle of a fire, and she is going to burn.

People talk about false responsibility, over responsibility. People say remember you are not God, you are not the rescuer, remember if you don't go for that child then God has another plan. I picture a man holding a child by the ankles over a bridge. Would I listen to those voices? She's not your responsibility. You're not the rescuer – maybe this is a white saviour thing? Just make sure you're not too weighed down by this. God can rescue that child without you. Or would I run as fast as I could, body shaking, grab by her limbs and hold her close, and whisper in her ear this is never, ever going to happen to you again. The children are hanging over the bridge. By the hundreds. By the thousands. If it's not our responsibility, then God knows I don't know whose it will be.


I sat with Willow early this morning. Lily had been gently shuffled out of bed and into the car for school, by 6.30am. The house fell quiet. Leo pottered from room to room, and I longed to put the TV on so I could enjoy my morning tea in peace. But she wanted to draw, and I thought, as so many mothers do, let me just extend myself a little more. And I then asked her, why don't you draw what's in your heart?

She took the pens – pink, red, purple. She drew a big pink heart, with a thick red line around it. That's the blood, she said, all matter-of-fact. And that's the shooting stars, she said, pointing to the purple lines fizzing out from her heart. And she took the yellow and scribbled around it I love you God, and then God loves me. It was beautiful. I fell in love with that shabby piece of paper. That scrawled piece of evidence felt like it told me every minute of scraping Weetabix off the table, every minute of playing princesses, every minute of wiping tears is being stirred together into a pot of golden yellow and pink, and it's her heart. Her heart is covered in blood and is shooting stars outward and it sings I love you God, God loves me. The morning sun fell through the blinds, and I saw the worth of my work. I now I think of Keandra, and all the other little souls that build with blocks in my garden and I see the worth of our work. His blood, shooting stars and God loves me in golden pen. This is what we are building, and every minute counts.


God looked over the earth for somebody to carry His child. The child could have been delivered miraculously, of course, but He preferred the bloody, flawed womb of a woman. Despite an almost rock-solid theology on free will, if I was absolutely honest I still don't really know why He doesn't whisk all these suffering babies out of the fires they're birthed in. But I know He chose a bloody, flawed womb. Then and now. So if He's choosing my hands and my home – messy and raw and unfinished, weak and trembling and willing – then I will be ready in my bedroom like Mary, ready to say Let it be to me as you've said.

And maybe He's choosing her womb too – Keandra's mother. Maybe He's choosing all the mommies of all these babies who come into our classrooms reeling from the pain under their skin. Maybe He believes in them. I believe you can be a good mother, I said to the woman in the pink dressing gown outside her shack today. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but one day you can choose to be become one. I'm not sure how much I really meant that as the heat beat down on my head this afternoon, but if He does choose the bloody and flawed, if that's where His holiness is birthed, then scruffy hair and shacks and tik are just a dark womb, waiting for life. I'll be there when it comes, with my tea and my face in the sun, ready to wave a Skatties child out of my garden and back into the arms of her mother who is well. I'll be there.

Though we're driving off, fighting this feeling that we're leaving children to burn, I'm watching the clock. I absolutely believe it is a matter of time. Things will change, if people keep running towards the bridge with their everything – their last pieces of energy, their spare rooms, their savings, their beaten-up prayers and their vulnerable hearts. And while these treasures are walking through the blaze, there is a fourth man in there with them. That, I know for sure.