I’m writing this letter in a room in the hills of Corsica, the doors open to the small balcony overlooking the green hills and out to sea. You two are playing in the other room, chatting in your made-up languages, collecting fruit and flowers from the garden and placing them in patterns on the floor.
I’ve never known such peace and deep sense of wellbeing as in these past six years since you were born. I’ve been so joy-filled and full of gratitude. We all make choices in life, sometimes subconsciously, often nudged by fear to be safe or by convention; or, at times, driven by challenges, by curiosity. My choices were likely reflections of my childhood, a tree with so many branches of people and places that have inspired and nudged me on my journey. Now I look for clues as to what you might do with your lives.
I grew up in an unconventional family: four marriages produced eight children spanning two generations. My father was old enough to be my great-grandfather, and people often thought my mother was my grandmother. We are a tangle of generations, of aunts younger than their nieces, a family scattered across continents.
Being the youngest, I was quiet, watchful and shy, finding it safer to be invisible among the noise and tumble of a big family. I lived in a world inside my head, seeking the company of animals and the outdoors. I read voraciously and grew to understand the world through the animals I spent time with, the books I read, and complex family dynamics. But my strength came from nature, sitting in trees observing the natural world. There, I found peace and sense.
My father passed away when I was eight and my life stood still for a long time. Though he’d been distant, I was his favourite and the loss left me more shut off. I carried my grief in bracelets I made from his buttons and cufflinks. More loss was to follow – moves away from those I loved and felt safe with, moves of country. The stones I collected from beaches and riverbeds brought comfort and stability. I’d carry around pocketfuls of rocks, smooth pebbles and odd beads and gems from family members. I started turning them into jewellery, just to be able to carry them close and not lose them. The bracelets that adorned my wrists like a Masai’s were a tactile diary of my existence.
After my father died, my mother decided, at last, she could do the things she wanted. Travel was one of her dreams. With her three younger children, she took us to desert festivals in North Africa, palaces in India and ancient ruins in Turkey. A favourite memory is of her dancing with an old shepherd in the firelight, arms in the air and whirling to an accordion at a wedding in Anatolia.
We went to Tanzania, where the Masai fascinated me. I wanted to know how they lived, how they saw the world, what they believed in, how they lived off that beautiful land. In Morocco, I wanted to join a family of Berber farmers as they rode off on their donkeys after the weekly market, back to their hilltop villages in the Atlas Mountains.
This fascination for peoples who lived in faraway places – their way of life dictated by the landscape and their interdependence with the natural world – started to shape my life. I wanted to understand their traditions, the rules that dictated their lives, the gods they worshipped and the poetry they spoke.
At university, I found I loved learning. I studied anthropology and it entranced me, but I still carried a sense of what it is to be invisible, to be unheard, to have no voice. I gravitated towards human rights, in particular, the rights of indigenous peoples – tribal communities silenced by nation-states, their languages and the knowledge contained within banned – who were losing their land. I went to work in northern Borneo and felt, at last, a sense of purpose, an excitement at being alive.
From that time in my early 20s, as I started to travel the world on my own, living and working with remote communities in the rainforest in the highlands of the Philippines and Thailand, I knew I wanted to share these remarkable experiences with my children. I wanted them to celebrate the diversity of this beautiful world. To sit at the feet of wise elders and learn how to find balance, to live harmoniously in the world; to find a mentor as I did with Lui the Naga, a human rights activist and great humanitarian I worked with. I wanted them to understand the deeper meanings of our world, the ancientness, the beauty, the continuity, the respect for nature I felt in these traditional communities.
As working with NGOs turned to a more researched-based role, I could see a void in working with communities to generate income. I began working with the San bushmen in the Kalahari in Botswana, creating traditional craft but designed with a contemporary feel and style. I went on to work in many beautiful places and with inspiring people in Rwanda, Kenya, Panama, Chile, Bolivia, South Africa, Afghanistan and India.
In every place, I was so filled with excitement and awe at the places and people and life stories I was gathering. But my longing for a child grew. I wanted to feel a part of this greater humanity by sharing that journey of motherhood. My relationships, while wonderful and enriching, never seemed to be with someone who shared this desire. As the years passed, I tried hard to meditate and accept that I might never have a child.
But I couldn’t let go of this dream. I made up my mind at 38 that, while falling in love could happen with the right man at any age, a child was not something I could leave to fate. So I started the long, difficult journey of IVF as a single mother. I went to clinics, doctors, hospitals; endured endless needles, drugs, tests, hopes, fears. Five miscarriages, eight rounds of IVF and finally a successful pregnancy. When they told me I was carrying twins, I was overjoyed, and the fact that you were a girl and a boy could not have been more perfect.
Although my pregnancy was mostly angst-filled, I Ioved carrying you, loved growing larger and having you there with me at every moment. It felt like a miracle after so many years of longing, of consulting every witch and holy shrine and altar, of gathering every fertility amulet and praying every day.
“ I went to clinics, doctors, hospitals; endured endless needles, drugs, tests, hopes, fears. Five miscarriages, eight rounds of IVF and finally a successful pregnancy ”
During this time, a friend came to my rescue and became more. He came to doctors’ appointments, he helped me put on my shoes when I could no longer reach my feet, he stayed to be there at your birth and grew to love you, too. Suddenly, I was blessed with a family.
In those early months after your birth, my world became wonderfully small. I was at home with you, not in vast landscapes, but in the slow, tiny world of a baby’s. I had to learn to let go of needing to use every spare moment to research a new project, to be designing, to be studying, seeking, planning, running. To let go and just be, to let hours pass with nothing happening but watching my babies learn to roll, to smile, to start making sense of the world.
The way everyone told me that my life was going to completely change always felt like a dire warning. But I was a single mother running my own business. My life did change, but only for the better. I was no longer alone; there was suddenly purpose in everything I did.
When you were a few months old, I took you on our first trip with a cheerful nanny in tow. Now, we travel for my work, and I’ve watched you grow and become familiar with life in other cultures. I’ve also watched you learn to read, write, swim, climb, run; to find your sense of humour and your interests.
I have to travel alone at times. Then I struggle with the guilt of leaving you, knowing I am missing precious moments, and that you may be missing me at night. But this is who I am, how I survive and what I love. Among all this joy is fear, an anxiety as I read the news, as friends discuss worrying political trends, as I witness the damage inflicted by climate change, as I see rows of young heads bowed over their phones.
I’m naturally nostalgic for the past, for slower, different ways of being and relating to the world. As an older mother, I can remember a computer-less, mobile-phone-less world and I’m not sure I like the new one we are creating. I have to believe there will be a turnaround, an awakening. That the world will pass through this dark moment and your generation will find a way to restore harmony, a place in which everyone and the natural world can co-exist.
With love, Muma xx
Go to www.pippasmall.com
Extract from GRACE MOTHERS: Letters To Our Children