As promised in the last post, here are the pieces of the runners-up of the 2016 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. I hope you have a chance to sit and read them, cup of tea to hand, and to be able to savour the authors’ lovingly-crafted words.
Poetry Category (Adult)
After several months
in this bed ghetto
observing my stomach rise
above its vertical horizon
in a half curiosity, half horror
I have not felt for my body
since adolescence, the air
brash against my face,
the cut of the corduroy
beneath my skis
is a thrill that may last me
until I see you through
I need this, but
already I have failed
at being your mother
because not even the snake
of an unwieldy snowboarder
gives me pause
to hockey stop
so he can catapult
I’ve seen you,
little acrobat, somersault
inside of me, Ive marvelled
at your ability to clown around
in such confined quarters.
This seems the best place
for you and me, the only place –
into the unknown.
Remember the arc
of the midwife’s raised
eyebrow, the ski outfitter’s
tut-tutting; bury our wry smile
until his baritone ho là là
by the spray.
“The main point was to eliminate the difference between what is seen from
outside the window and what is seen from inside” — Rene Magritte
On one pane’s shard in the living room, the evening sun perfect as the evening sun
made artful in the window frame. In our short-tempered house, the windows
never broke or swelled. Flesh did.
Another shard shaped like a boat sails across the floor of my childhood.
A floor my father crossed to smack me and my sister when we rolled our eyes.
A floor television remotes, cd covers, and telephones flew over like airplanes
when he didn’t want to stand up to reach us. In addition to the summer scene,
Rene Magritte painted one of winter, too. Mountains outside the window
take the shapes of peaks fractured yet rising from the dining room floor.
Half a lifetime later, my father’s window still does not break. It is like love’s
instinctual attachment, which, if it must, will form scar tissue over crack and fissure,
stretch skin to keep intact. The bird smack-confused after flying into the hard
reflection of what it thought was the world, drops to our earth. Dad cupped
the fragile fledgling and didn’t toss it to the sky. He warmed it
while his dinner cooled, until the bird was ready, two hours later, to push
its feathered weight up from a palm that had finally learned patience, and fly again.
MICHELLE BONCZEK EVORY
A Thousand Shades
I stand in the garden and watch her wrestle the bike out of the shed, aware that something has changed. She has exploded into independent womanhood these last 12 weeks; no longer asking – ‘Mum, can I bike to the next town,’ but announcing – ‘Mum, I’m going to do a work exchange on a mountain in Spain.’In between, she has walked 180 miles over the Ridgeway and the South Downs with an assortment of variously in/appropriate and patched together equipment. She is eighteen. Just. The pace of change has sent me spinning into a whirlwind of pride and anxiety that leaves me breathless. Literally. Unable to breathe.
She hoists her tiny bag onto her back. It is TINY. She is going to the Peak District to bike in the hills. I can see no sign of a coat. She has planned and funded the trip herself; surely, she doesn’t need me to tell her to take a coat? And this, I realise, is part of the pain I’m feeling. I no longer know what it is to be a mother to her. Her energy bristles with independence.
Sometimes, she asks for advice.
She isn’t now.
In my worst moments I’m struck by the ease with which it’s possible to completely blow it in these teenage years. The realisation that somehow, in the briefest slice of a second, in a heavy-handed parenting moment, it might be possible to undo the good work and relationship building of the last two decades; because the energy is so raw and newly grown, so needing of respect in its impulsive courage, wild beauty and boldness of spirit.
Her aquamarine eyes flash at me and I am reminded of her strength, evident from the first moment we glimpsed her, a picture drawn in sound, practicing the mountain pose in my womb. I see her walking miles as a toddler; horse jumping, arms outstretched, at 10 years old; learning karate and archery. I see her crouched by fires, up trees, in rivers. A thousand shades of childhood.
‘Have you got a coat?’ It’s ridiculous. It’s November. I can’t let her go without a coat.
‘It’s not going to rain.’
‘It might be cold, though.’
‘I haven’t room for a coat.’
‘Then take a bigger bag.’
‘I haven’t one.’
Her eyes meet mine for a moment. I smile, encouragingly. ‘You might be glad of it.’
Rolling her eyes, she begins pulling things from her bag. She hasn’t got much time before her train, and I am slowing her down. With an irrational amount of relief I run to get her coat. Because, at the very least, I can do this for her: let her be warm and safe and protected. The Madonna Cloak, personified and literally present in this soft, waterproof garment.
As she shoulders the larger, bulkier bag I remember the countless times when my children were small, when shy neighbours, stern librarians, sweet strangers on windswept hills told me, ‘It doesn’t get any easier, you know. It gets harder.’
I remember how the smile would freeze on my face, partly from disbelief. What could be harder than the sleepless nights and tearful exhaustion; the fevers and the sickness; worries about over-parenting and under-parenting but ultimately, like people on a bear hunt, having to go through the parenting, relentlessly, one challenging decision after another? But mostly, the smile froze with the kind of intuitive terror that they were pretty much right. That it wouldn’t, in fact, be harder, but that it would continue to be as hard. Because there would come a point when the blazing love you feel for them burns just as bright and incandescent, but suddenly, that love can play no part in keeping them safe. In keeping them near you.
Unless you say ‘No’ to everything.
Now, my nights are sleepless as I wonder if she landed safely and found a taxi, or walked the mile to the hotel at 10 p.m. in an unfamiliar European City at 18 years old with no Spanish. Should I have said, ‘No’? Could I have? I don’t think so. The parenting part of me that isn’t purely fear knows that freedom and risk and a desire to explore are nurture for the soul and the spirit. The wonder of the babe, the curiosity of the toddler, the joy of the small child, all these shades of childhood are still intact and held sacred in the adventurous heart of the teenager and young woman.
She throws me a tiny tense smile, hugs me and walks away. I watch her walk away. For a second I reel: I experience the depression that is a craving for the simplicity of the past, the sunlit picnics where the summer afternoon was endless and enough. And also, unfairly, (shouldn’t it be impossible to try and pointlessly live in both the past and the future?) my gut twists with anxiety about a future where she no longer needs me and she drifts away, distant and detached…
Enough! I close my eyes and lift my face to the winter sky. I breathe once twice, three times and feel the present catch hold of me in gentle arms and hold me still.
I am so thankful, so intensely fortunate. My daughter is strong and healthy, bold and loving, wise and supportive, a champion of the weak. If she has been a daughter she might also be a friend; and friendships can last forever, timeless and tender and alive with unthought-of possibility. Around me and across time I feel the invisible presence of all the mothers who are and have been and will be. I feel the planet herself. I feel a thousand shades of motherhood: joy, grief, loss, laughter, love. But mostly love. Outpourings and outpourings of love.
It will be alright. It will all be alright. It will be alright.
I open my eyes and the sky is layered with cloud and lit with glory.
My heart unlocks.
Our family likes to get outside, and we, on some days, go quite a long way from home. Sometimes though, all we need is our own back garden, our patch of the earth we call home, an environment teeming with life and hidden treasures waiting to reveal themselves to us, just here and now.
So, we open the back door and go out into the blue morning air. My son races ahead to rediscover what he sees each day and I take a moment, to pause, to breathe and contemplate that which I could never have guessed before I was a mother, that this sense of being home in my own space was the kind of feeling that I was longing for. On his way, my son’s senses discover sage, rosemary and mint, the texture of the leaves, the feeling of chlorophyll in action – the sequence isn’t important; he just likes touching the herbs and smelling his fingers.
Down the garden path we go, with the fire of the sun above us. This is a lucky day and our washing dances in the breeze too. We have been known to walk out into the blue heart of a rain shower, but luckily not today.
Glancing across the garden fences I see my neighbour’s washing flying too and I am reminded that there are many of us walking out under the sun’s ancient flame; to hang our clothes to dry and to discover what our children can show us in the vicinity of our immediate landscape.
With my daughter riding on my back, I follow my son’s trail. Down we go, to the garden shed, where we need to discover some of the tools to help us today. We need to cut our grass as it resembles a meadow, although I am not always sure why this is a problem as the insects seem to like it. We take out the lawnmower and my child, desperate to have a go, but unable to, because he is small and the mower heavy, races back into the house and returns with a wheeled toy horse which will be his lawn mower.
Back and forth, back and forth we dance, moving the bird table, rediscovering some toys we thought we lost long ago, that have been lying in wait, lurking in our long grass. Muffin the horse makes light work of the job, and soon our noses are filled with the wonderfully green smell of summertime; freshly cut grass.
We pause before doing the edges and my son is attracted by something. He has found a snail. Marvelling in the wonder of seeing a being who carries his home around with him, the snail, small on a small hand is brought for inspection. We consider snails, where they might live if they can move their house wherever they go, and, where we think this one is going. It seems purposeful, so we decide to release it back to the ground and to monitor progress.
Our snail is on a mission, it slides with surprising speed up past the irises and the primroses I was given from a family garden, on to where the geraniums have gone wild in a way that has made bees fall in love with the space this year. Watching and following we find our place in the garden, our balance and sense of relationship to all the living beings; we are no longer visitors, we are a part of the landscape. At a snail’s pace we find that our snail’s wish is to leave our garden and climb the wooden mountains that are our neighbour’s fence; the boundaries that keep us separate in our own private parts of suburbia.
My son talks with excitement about what the snail might be doing and then, on his own trajectory wanders on to other things too.
My daughter and I have retraced our path to the back door, where our journey for the day takes us back inside the house. The wind is in her house of clouds and white banners above move with our clothes on the line below; there’s no hint of rain, somewhere in the garden my son plays and the snail moves on – all is well.