Complete NaNoWriMo and Emerge (relatively) Sane

It was November 2017, the days were darkening, in more ways than one, so I embarked on a novel-writing mission: 30 days, 50,000 words, a complete novel.  NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month was the brain-child of Chris Baty; launched in America it is now a global phenomenon with people logging on from all over the world to upload their manuscripts and “win” at the end of the month.

The idea is you write your first word on the 1st of the month and then finish a novel in 50,000 words by the 30th, uploading it onto the site’s word counter.  There is no monetary prize, but something far greater: the satisfaction of knowing that you did it; you climbed the Everest of novel writing, conquered the wave of self-doubt and planted your 50,000 word flag atop the mountain of procrastination.  And you have a printable certificate to prove it.  And a victory dance – just make sure you film it so you never forget.

I first signed up 8 years ago; newly engaged and waiting to be wed, I thought it would be a great way to while away the winter months until our January wedding.  But given the insurmountable obstacles, I never really got it off the ground: I was working fulltime as a secondary English teacher, planning a wedding and getting ready to move to a new city.  Also, I just did not have the stamina and the discipline – surprising considering I was living with my parents with no husband and children.  Fast-forward 8 years and 2 children later, and I finally found my inner-NaNo and channelled it.  I channelled it so hard that I powered through sleep deprivation, various child ailments and finished fairly sane with only a few minor, pre-scheduled mental breakdowns before the end of the month.

Many marvelled at how I did it, but I will admit, it was easier than I thought, not because of anything I did, but because of my circumstances: I am currently not working, but looking after the children fulltime; my eldest has some hours in a private nursery and I have a husband who has some flexibility in his working pattern.  Despite all this, it still required some effort and dedication so here’s how I did it:

  1. Plan and Prepare

Before you embark on the NaNoWriMo of your writing career, you need to embark on the NaNo of your mind.  Deep.

Prepare yourself.  Plan as much as you can.  Use anything and everything at your disposal to ensure you can make that word count in November.  “Preptober”, as the founders of NaNo call it, is very important.  Some buy some books to help them on their journey, others write in journals or create complex plot maps; some even decide the story is in their heads and they are going to fly by the seat of their pants the following month.  Whatever your method, mentally prepare yourself.

I bought both books written by the founders of NaNo as I like to feel like I’m doing something tangible towards my goal; one was a series of exercises designed to help you plan your novel and other a guide to getting 50,000 words done in 30 days.   So during October, I read them and completed as many of the exercises in the book as I could.  Then I saved the chapters of No Plot, No Problem to read at the start of each week during November.  Often, I deviated from my plans, but they were always there, in the background, like a security blanket: something to fall back on and look through when the words had dried up.  It was comforting to have most of my story arc already planned out, whatever happened during November, the story was already written in my mind.

Prepare your house and workspace.  This is just as important as planning your story.  Knowing where and when you are going to work will help keep you from dithering.  The books help too as they teach you to schedule time.  But ultimately, as a mother, time, space and mental energy after a day of mothering needs to be planned for.  Psychologically, you need to be prepared that when the children are sleeping, or when the eldest is upstairs listening to her stories, you are going to throw yourself at your laptop and type like the wind – no matter what.  This means easy access to everything; if that means the laptop is going to sit on the dining table for a month, that’s what needs to happen.

Make sure everyone has enough clean underwear and clothes to last at least a couple of weeks, if not longer, just in case you don’t get chance to do the washing.  Freeze meals if you need to.  Do whatever you need to do to free up writing time.  Like I said, NaNo starts in the mind, before you even touch a pen or a keyboard.

I found I had very little time for batch cooking, but when I did make a bigger meal, I froze some of it, even if it was just a few curry bases.  It took the pressure off in November when I had to focus my mental energy on writing.

  1. Lower your standards

This one may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but do you really need to shower every single day?  Do you really need to change yours and the kids’ clothes every day?  Do you need to clean the kitchen thoroughly, or vacuum?  The answer is no.  Yes, it might be less hygienic, but no one is going to die if you don’t keep on top of everything.  Typically, women have a tendency to take on more than they can handle, to prove they can do everything, but it does not have to be this way: you don’t have to have everything together, all of the time.  Give yourself a month off from house chores or, like I did, do the bare minimum to keep yourself and the house ticking over.  (Before I’m attacked by feminists, foaming at the mouth, yes, I know men can do chores too, and mine does, but ultimately, it’s generally the person who is in house most who does the housework – this is a post for another day.  Please don’t send me pro-feminist hate mail).

Sometimes, you will have to order takeaway for dinner.  This does not make you a bad person or a bad mother.  It is only temporary.  And it is fine.

Lower your standards for your writing too.  When reading No Plot, No Problem, a sticking point for me was the promotion of what I like to call “fluff” writing.  The premise was that high-fluted, literary prose was overrated and it was always better to write simply.  This goes against everything I feel as a writer; it goes against the very essence of my own personal craft, but for NaNo, it works.

Here’s how: instead of sitting in front of the keyboard, trying to write deep, meaningful prose, I sat down and bashed out and average of 1,667 words a day of simple, easy-to-read, easy-to-write sentences.  That’s not to say I ignored who I was as a writer, but because my focus was on finishing rather than it being a work of literary genius, I picked a plot that I knew I could finish. I knew I would finish because it was plot-driven and always moving forward, propelling my word count quite organically without me trying very much.

I haven’t given up my goals of writing the way I want to write; I just shelved them for 4 weeks so I could complete this project, to prove to myself I could; for the experience and the thrill.  It really did not matter if the finished novel was a masterpiece (it isn’t), but it’s finished.  And for NaNo, that’s what matters.

  1. Kill Your Inner Editor

Although this is part of lowering your standards, it deserved a separate spot.  I can’t stress this enough: DO NOT EDIT.

You are wasting time, precious time that you do not have.  The baby might wake up any second, demanding a go on one of your mammaries; the oldest might come bounding down the stairs needing a poo in the middle of a 40-minute CD – you thought you had 40 minutes, right?  Wrong.  With kids, you never have the time you thought you had.  Don’t waste the time you do have by editing.  Editing is for later, or never if you don’t want to use your NaNo novel for anything.

I dealt with my inner perfectionist by scrolling up as quickly as possible after I had written a section and just putting one word in front of the other.  I resisted the urge to read things back at the start of every writing session by quickly scrolling to the blank space at the end of my document and diving in as quickly as possible.  Initially this was painful: it was not how I trained myself to write, but it worked.  And even now, writing this post, I am using the same technique.  The baby is asleep and I have a limited window so I need to get everything down as quickly as possible and edit it later.

That’s your key word: LATER.  When you hear that inner editor saying, “Just have a look,” in that sexy, sultry voice of hers, tell her, “Later.”  When she nudges you because all those wiggly red lines are spelling mistakes so you might as well read the last section through, gag her and say, “Later.”  When she flashes her sexy bare thigh at you for that cheesy last sentence, that cliché and that eye-roll moment between two characters, drag her to the cupboard by her hair, lock her in there and scream, “Later!”

Because you won’t finish if you spend your writing time editing.  WRITING time, not editing time.

  1. Find your writing time

Ideally, you would find yourself two hours of every day to write your 1,667 words, but it does not always work that way.  Work with what you have.  When the kids are sleeping/in nursery/distracted with some toys, make sure you’re writing, even if you write 10 words in that time.  We’re relatively screen-free, so finding writing time when the children were about was difficult, but there were 10 minutes here and there when they were busy and paying no attention to me, so I took advantage and pummelled out some words.

I found that, apart from nursery times, the evening was the best time for me to write: the three-year old was sleeping and my husband was around to keep the baby entertained for the hour I needed to make up my word count.  It was the most productive and satisfying hour of the day and it made me feel great.  I would bash away at the keyboard, sometimes chuckling away, knowing that the baby had just been fed and would be fine on the sofa for an hour: she was fed, she was changed and she was loved.  Make use of your loved ones to find yourself the time to write.

This was one of the most important things for me.  I could not have made it work without the support of my husband who pushed me to get the laptop out.  We had some horrendous days and nights with the children being ill, and there were a few days I was behind with my word count, but I made use of him and of the Saturday sessions at my in-laws and always got caught up.  Every Saturday, we would sit side by side, clacking away on our keyboards, me working on my novel, him working on earning the money and I would break off to feed the baby and then hand her back to my mother-in-law and continue clacking away.

Wherever you can find the writing time, do it.  You have more time than you think you do, you just have to find it.

  1. Visualise your goal

Thinking you are going to finish, visualising the end point will help, especially in the middle when it becomes a slog.  I found having a wall of post-it notes with the word count for each day really helpful.  Being a visual person, it helped immensely that I could use a marker and strike through each word count goal and see progress right before my eyes.  The first 1,667 words very quickly turned into the first 10,000 this way.

“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it.” Muhammad Ali.   Imagine yourself finishing, and you will.  InshaAllah. (God-willing)

 

 

 

I also cheated a little and bought myself an early victory present (which my husband ended up paying for) as it meant I HAD to finish.  I couldn’t NOT finish; after all, I had bought myself a present.  (This was actually not intentional; what I wanted as a prize was a limited-edition yarn pack – see this post on Instagram –  and I was worried they would sell out so I bought it prematurely.  Even so, it served its motivational purpose).

 

  1. Be inventive

Use every tool at your disposal to help you finish.  Binge-watching a TV show?  Steal ideas from it: character names, locations, visuals – just don’t plagarise.  Bizarre conversations with your toddler while you’re typing?  Use her words in dialogue and tell her she “helped” Mama with her novel.

Sometimes, even staring out of the window or at a particular colour can generate ideas.  The room you are writing in is full of ideas and when you’re stuck for a description, just pick something random and describe it.  Eventually you’ll work it into your story.  Remember: the goal is not to write a masterpiece (yet); the goal is to write 50,000, no matter what.

Need inventive ways to increase your word count?  No problem.  This is where those long Arab names are useful.  Give your characters names that are two or three words long: Abdul Rahman, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Umm Habiba.  You get the idea.  Just remember not to hyphenate as they will only count as one word.  Genius.

Be inventive in where you write too.  Technology has moved on so much in recent years.  With the beauty of the Cloud or One Drive, you can access your files across multiple platforms.  Download software on your phone so you can write one handed on your phone and access your manuscript.  I found having One Drive on my phone meant I had no excuse when it came to writing during night time feeds, however, I found it easier to just use the laptop so I waited and made up my word count every chance I could jump on.

 

Everyone’s situation is different therefore you may need to tweak my advice to suit you, however, I do believe that a 50,000 word novel in 30 days is definitely achievable with two young children – mine were 3 and 6 months old.  I found it easier and more motivating to complete it in November, when the rest of the world was doing it – it meant social media was full of NaNoWriMo posts every time I logged on to procrastinate!  However, there is nothing stopping you from picking a different month for your novel sprint.   Novemeber or not, I would definitely recommend it.

NaNoWriMo has developed my writing stamina, given me an insight into the research process involved in novel-writing and above all, shown me that my goals are definitely more achievable than I once thought.

 

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A Rucksack and Spider-man Sandals

“She’s lost weight.”

Inwardly, I sighed.  Outwardly I nodded, affirming her untruth, not wanting to be difficult.  In reality, the Small One hadn’t lost any weight, she was just looking a little slender, possibly because she was taller, but I agreed anyway.  I agreed because it was easier than disagreeing; I agreed because disagreeing would have meant I’d have had to enter into a conversation about it, a conversation I didn’t really want to have.  It was easier to agree and shut down the possibility of any debate.  Looking back, perhaps it was not the best example for the Small One: if she sees me backing down, placidly, will she always do the same?  Continue reading

You Will Need To Fight 

You’ll never be accepted, dear daughter. Your name, the name we were so proud of; the name we bestowed on you because we wanted you to be gentle, merciful and a beautiful soul, your name will always betray you. It’ll rise up against you every time you utter it. We named you Rahma because you were a mercy to us; we named you Rahma because we wanted you to be a Rahma to everyone around you in name and character, but your name, though you can never have another, is not suited to this world. People will mispronounce it, but you won’t mind, but when they say it, sneering, nose turned up at the foreignness of it, you will mind. It’ll hurt you. It will cut you deeply because you’ll be abnormal and abhorrent. That peaceful name we gave you? You may come to loathe it. It makes you too different. Continue reading

Busy Being Mediocre

When waiting for inspiration to strike, the best thing to do is just write.  Even if it’s mediocre.  Just write.  Write now.  That’s been your mantra for a while now, but it’s getting old and worn.  Like tired old boots.  You just dragged out another cliché, while your pen bled from the pain of doing what it hates so much: being mediocre. Continue reading

Daddy’s Girl

In the wake of the decision taken in parliament to bomb Syria, this was written by my talented husband for Rahma.  Originally published as a Facebook post, I felt it deserved more publicity. Why? Read it and you’ll understand.

Daddy’s Girl

Daddy loves to hug his girl and cuddle her each night
And Daddy loves to know that she is safe and hold her tight Continue reading

I Haven’t Done Anything Wrong

You feel responsible for what happened.  When you watched the news you thought, please God, don’t let them be Muslims. But they were. And they did it.  A night of murder. And before that a day of bombing in a land that was forgotten; not white enough, not European enough, not secular enough to be remembered.  And before that, somewhere else too foreign to care about; it always happens there anyway, it’s not worth reporting every death from there anyway.  They’re not white enough anyway.  

You didn’t go out the day after you had heard.  Was it your fault? No, but you felt like it was. And you were scared.  Hearing about all the backlash your kind faced in the aftermath frightened you.  You knew it wasn’t your fault but paradoxically you felt responsible. Fear gripped you as you ate your toast and had to watch your husband go out to work, travelling on the bus as he usually does.   Would someone attack him? Clearing away the breakfast dishes, you thought about the day ahead and how you had to go and buy groceries.  You were not prepared.  You were nervous.  

In the end, you decided to make a change.  It wasn’t a choice really, you had to; a necessary evil to protect yourself, to protect your children when you took them with you.  Taking the pink scarf out of your closet, you thought for one minute if it was the right thing to do.  It was.  There was no doubt in your mind as you closed the door to the closet, the door to your doubts.  Pins, a mirror and a hair band, while the children waited.  They were patient with you; somehow, they knew you needed the extra time, when usually you just wrapped the scarf, pinned it and off you went.  Not this time; this time it couldn’t look like it used to.  Not if you wanted to keep them safe, keep yourself safe.  This time, you would wear it differently.  

******

I saw the news on social media since we didn’t turn on the television when our little one was awake.  My husband and I had discussed it and exchanged mutual disgust.  It was a day like any other, because the world had already changed, over ten years ago.  This just meant there was more pain and it was getting closer to home yet again.  We did wonder about the day before and the day before that in lands too foreign to care about; but deep down we knew, white, Western lives were what mattered and they always would.  

Breakfast taken care of and bag packed, my husband headed out, on the bus, as he always did, and I didn’t give it a second thought.  I knew I would go out later that day, so I readied the slow cooker and prepared the Little One.  I threw on my grey headscarf, wrapped as I always did, taking care to cover my hair, neck and chest as I always did.  This wasn’t some sacred, oriental ritual, it was just part of what I wore, everyday.  

On the street, I passed her.   I had seen her before and before she had greeted me, but this time her gaze was deliberately averted, busying herself with her children.  I wondered  why she didn’t stop to say salaam like she had done before.  I didn’t know her well, but we had met a few times in the grocery store, where we were both headed. She didn’t want to talk, that much clear, so she gave me a wide berth, crossing the road though she didn’t have to.  

 Eyes down, on her children, anywhere but me, she looked different and I didn’t realise what it was until after I had paid for my shopping.  It was her hijaab.  Wrapped like a Sikh’s turban, it only covered her hair, and barely that.  Wisps had escaped out of the back and sides and they betrayed her.  They betrayed her fear; I could smell it on her as it rolled off her in waves.  She didn’t want to be outside and she darted suspicious glances at anyone who walked too close, pulling her children closer, not allowing her toddler to leave her side.  

I couldn’t imagine what had made her behave like this. Surely not the recent news? The only explanation was that her husband was probably beating her.  I resolved to speak her the next time I saw her, give her an outlet and a confidante.  Yes, I would help her. 

******

So above are two partially-fictional accounts inspired by something I read on social media recently.  Two different reactions to the same thing that I was compelled to write after realising that so many of the Muslim women I knew were anxious, apprehensive and sometimes, totally terrified when faced with the prospect of going out in the wake of the Paris attacks.  It surprised me that so many were so concerned about their safety and initially I put it down to scaremongering and the culture of victimhood that is plaguing the world recently: our fear of you is greater than your fear of us.  

I dug deeper and saw there had been random assaults, verbal and physical on Muslims across the nation before and after the attacks. So it had happened and the fear wasn’t unfounded.  Did this mean I needed to be worried? Was I arrogant in supposing that I was safe from abuse given that I looked quite openly Muslim in my headscarf? 

If I can be entirely honest, it hadn’t even occurred to me to be worried about retaliation in the wake of the Paris attacks.  It wasn’t arrogance, it wasn’t the belief that I was untouchable or my North-Eastern roots of being hard-as-nails; it just hadn’t occurred to me that it could happen.  And here is why: I didn’t believe I had done anything wrong.  Let me just say that again: I didn’t believe I had done anything wrong.  Why would someone attack me for something a bunch of psychopaths had done? I hadn’t harmed anyone, I wasn’t there, I didn’t pull any triggers.  Was I still supposed to feel guilty?  Why? Because I was Muslim? 

I’m not judging anyone for being concerned or worried about their safety when going out; after all, there have been attacks on random Muslims, and Sikhs too for that matter. Therefore, the genuine fear felt by many Muslims isn’t unfounded.   And this is where I have a problem; this is where I feel the real devisive power of these actions lie; not in murder and carnage, but in something much more powerful: fear and distrust. Fear and distrust are key: if we can make you fear us, you will distrust everyone, look at everyone with suspicion, so that they in turn fear you too.  And thus, the circle is complete.  I have a real problem with accepting this, because not only is it a powerful aim of attacks like the one that occurred recently, but it’s also in the reporting of such attacks.  Choosing to ignore similar atrocities, just days before, in lands far too foreign to care about perpetuates the notion that white, Western lives matter more, that we are more important than them.  We need to fear them because they are coming for us.  

It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me to be worried about going out as a Muslim after these attacks; why would I be worried? I hadn’t done anything wrong.  However, looking at the number of random verbal and physical assaults, motivated by hatred of Muslims has made me realise: people I know are genuinely scared and worried about their families.  They think twice before getting on public transport, they check over their shoulder when buckling their toddlers into their car seats, they change their appearance, making their hijaab look less “Muslim”, as if reducing the aura of “Muslimness” that surrounds them will make them less of a desirable target.  They haven’t done anything wrong, but  I understand now.  

I now know all of this and I’m still not going to be apprehensive about going out and living my life with my Small Person.  Why?  Why am I not looking for ways to look less Muslim? Why am I not going over scenarios in my head of what could potentially happen when I go to the supermarket? Why? Because I don’t believe I have done anything wrong.  I’m not arrogant.  I’m not untouchable.  I’m not hard-as-nails.  I just don’t believe I have done anything wrong.  

The Stroke Of A Pen Across A Page

You looked at me like you wished I was dead.  I saw your eyes.  Cold, hard, steely brown eyes, peeping out from beneath the hood of your scarf.  You couldn’t smile, you couldn’t return my salaam as doing so would be act of friendship, an act of humanity. And I’m not deserving of your humanity.  So you looked right through me, wishing me dead with those pudgy eyes, drilling holes into my soul.  

At first I didn’t realise why.  I questioned myself.  The slow tide of anxiety crept up from the pit of my stomach, ambling towards my chest, meandering upwards.  Then I realised.  Months ago, I asked you politely not to give my daughter your mobile phone as we were screen-free and you took offence.  Your boiling rage burnt me then as it still does.  It spilled over onto my hands, my face and chest; the hatred on your face made it ugly and twisted.  And still, those eyes: set back in your face, not round and large like eyes should be, but small, hard little marbles, recessed, unnatural, unpretty.

I tried to ignore it, but your passive aggression ate up everything in the room.  You spoke to others but your physical distance stifled me, bearing down like a weight on my chest.  Your silence filled up the room with hatred.  A hatred that your hijaab could not cover.  And I felt it again, like I felt it before:  the creeping, crawling anxiety, touching every organ as it moved its way up my body, into my chest, wrapping its fingers around my throat, squeezing, pressing.  I breathed hard.  I tried to push it down but it continued to gnaw at my insides while you were close by.  

I tried to leave the room.  I tried to get away from you.  But your rage followed me.  It clawed its way to my chest, sitting there, reminding me: you wanted me dead. Did you want me shrouded in that casket instead of the body that was actually there? The body we were all there to mourn? I always see it in those eyes, recessed into your face: you knew your nephew didn’t made the right choice; I was a choice you’d never approve of, no matter what.  I can’t help but wonder, if I left him tomorrow, would you be happy? Would you gloat? Would you try to find him another straight away? Would you offer to give my daughter to a more worthy woman? 

A million ‘what ifs’ float around my brain as I try to quash the juddering in my chest with the pathetic power of my breath.  My hands tingle as I realise I’m clenching them, even now, willing your rage to leave me alone.  My biggest fear isn’t you.  My biggest fear is I will be like this forever and pass it onto my tiny bundle of joy.  My biggest fear is she will turn out like you.  My biggest fear is I won’t be the woman I need to be for her to become the woman I want her to be.  My biggest fear is she will turn out like me.  My biggest fear is you.  

You look at me like I’m weak.  Like I’m a pathetic no thing.  And I am.  Because I can’t control the juddering in my chest when your passive aggression touches me with its cold steely fingers.  But at least you don’t know about it.  At least you can’t see how much you get under my skin and my soul. I save it for behind a closed bathroom door where I can hide with my shame.  Even my shame judges me; it looks down at me from the bathroom ceiling, mocking, sneering, shaking its head at my inability to cope without falling apart.  

You completed your Hajj, the most holy pilgrimage, a few years ago, and the scarf cemented itself to your head, but it could never cover your hatred.  Your hijaab didn’t change you, it just changed how much fabric the package came in.  If I was a nicer person myself, a better Muslim version of me, I could let you go, I could cover your faults with another hijaab.  That would be the right thing to do: speak good or remain silent. But I can’t do the right thing.  I found myself voiceless in front if you; that passive aggression silenced me.  There’s an unspoken rule amongst Pakistani Muslims: never, ever draw attention to the bullying aggression of an elder, it won’t be received kindly and you’ll get burned.  So I didn’t.  I left.  I left voiceless.  

But in writing, that’s where I will never remain voiceless, no matter what you do to me.  Write and be damned.  Write and deal with the consequences.  Write it down and send it away.  I know I said I wouldn’t, but now I will. From now on, that’s how I’ll fight back.  Mighty words that I never have the courage to say to your hate-filled tiny eyes.  Mighty word will become my allies and my armour.  That juddering you caused when you, sneering, refused to pick up my daughter’s hat that fell on the floor? That rage of yours that bore holes into my soul, filling me up with an uncontrollable anxiety? That pain? Be careful with that.  Because that pain you caused may just take you down with the stroke of a pen across a page.  

They Went To The Beach Too

I look at you lying there and my heart swells like my belly was once swollen. I hover between relief and love: relief that you’re finally asleep, relief that now we can both finally rest. Your arms splayed out carelessly tell me you’re comfortable, that you’re safe.  Splashed across the sandy cushion, dark brown locks float to the surface around you, a halo of protection, supporting your head.  I see your mouth is slightly open, like a fish’s mouth and your lips paler and your rose-tinted cheeks whiter than usual.  I watch your belly, exposed since your red rainbow T-shirt has ridden up under your arms in the battle to put you down, but your stomach is still protected and warm under your chalky white vest, creased and worn.  Since you left my swell and became your own, the baby-swell has not left your belly and it rises and falls, rhythmic and reassuring.  Feet together, legs slightly apart, one dashed carelessly against the sofa, one standing erect, ready to spring up.  Your socks, where you’ve pulled them, make your feet look distended, longer, almost reaching for me, like fingers clawing desperately for a shore.  

I look at your feet and I’m taken back to when we had a day of firsts: we took you to the beach with your cousins so you could experience sand and the sea; so you could see how close I lived to the feeling of freedom.  I splashed in the sea with you on my back and you loved it, kicking up the waves as they lapped at me, at us, we were one and the same.  We wanted you to experience everything so took off your shoes but you couldn’t put your feet in the sand so you drew your legs up into yourself: it was too new, too much, too cold, too sand for you.  

As you stretch out to touch me with your distended feet, turning your head to the left, sighing in your sleep, I see her.  She went to the beach too.  Her spotty dress and grey leggings are peppered with a light sandy blanket and her head is turned in relief, relief that she can now rest. She is about your age.  Her eyes, like yours, half-open, look brown and shiny. Her mother knew she might be cold at the beach: she’s wearing a full-sleeved vest under that blue and white polka-dot dress, leggings to keep her legs warm.  There’s a wet sandy pillow beneath her head, turned to the side.  Ocean-blue lips, open and enquiring tell me about her day at the beach: splashing, so much splashing. It was too much, too cold, too wet. 

Further along the same stretch, an older girl went to the beach too.  Her red shirt ridden-up under her armpits, exposes her smooth chalky white skin, her vest-less belly swollen and distended, not a baby-swell.  She lies face down in her crumpled foamy pillow, arms strewn carelessly under her head, eyes closed, face turned slightly to one side, mouth covering the relief that she can now rest.  Her dark hair forms a halo, billowing to the surface; her hands, burrowing into her gritty pillow, hold on.  Wet pink jeans sit atop a camel-coloured mattress, clinging soapily to her legs, desperate to stay on as the waves lap at them both.  The foamy sheets and her wet clothes tell me about her day at the beach: splashing, so much splashing.  It was too much, too cold, too wet.  

When you’re all grown up, I’ll tell you the story of how you went to the beach.  You went to the beach. Just like them, they went to the beach too.  

Please, if anyone feels compelled to share this, do not attach pictures. 

A Letter from One Mother to Another

Dear Irresponsible Migrant Mother,

What exactly were you thinking when you woke your children in the dead of the  night, picking up the baby still asleep?  Don’t you know how important it is for children to get enough sleep? They’ll be cranky during the day if they don’t sleep enough.  They won’t develop properly if you keep doing this.  Children need routine.  That baby you’re holding needs to be warm and comfortable, cocooned and safe, like a tiny bud, waiting to bloom in the morning. Those toddlers won’t be able to walk the miles you want them to in the black night in worn out shoes without a good night’s sleep.

What’s that? Speak up.  You had to travel at night? It was safer? It was quieter? There was less chance of being discovered? Less chance of being caught if it was dark and the threat that hung over you was asleep.  I don’t know about that; I slept in my own bed last night, with my baby and my husband.

But you made them walk for miles before you reached the first border.  Those children will be shattered.  They will be hungry.  You gave them the last food you had when you got into the truck.  You should have been more careful with your food and drink, there was always a chance it would run out before you got where you needed to go.  Don’t you know, children need nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day if they are to be healthy and develop into healthy, intelligent adults? Those chocolate bars you saved are not going to be sufficiently nutritious as a meal in the morning.

What’s that you say? You saved them because you will need to keep the children quiet when you get into the next truck? You’ll need to stop them from crying from hunger pangs as you don’t want to be caught? You grabbed whatever you could when the last bomb went off on your street? What else were you supposed to do, there was no other food? They came for your husband? I wouldn’t know about that; we had chilli con carne with boiled rice last night.  We had lots leftover so I put them in the fridge for today for when my husband gets back from work.

You didn’t even pack any toys for them.  Your little boy has his teddy and the baby has her blanket, but don’t you think they will need more stimulation?  Children need a variety of stimuli to help them learn through play.  They don’t need expensive electronic toys, but they definitely need more than what you brought with you.  They need to be kept engaged and stimulated to help them to develop cognitively.  They need to have fun, after all they’re children. You’ll have to make do with talking to them lots instead and try to increase their vocabulary on the journey; perhaps make up some games and songs to make it more fun.

Sorry, speak up? It was more important to grab food and supplies than toys?  You forgot in your haste? You’re embarrassed to tell me these are all the toys that your children have since your family home was destroyed?  You can’t talk to them, you have to keep them quiet? The group you’re with says it’s safer to travel in silence, especially when the truck gets checked at the border? Especially when you board a precariously balanced boat in the middle of the night? Especially when you’re trying to sneak under a fence, through razor sharp wire? What are you supposed to do to keep your children happy? You want to turn it all into a game but you don’t know how?  I really can’t help you there I’m afraid; you see, my child has lots of toys, plenty of educational materials and cuddly animals, but she also plays with my things; often I sit and play with her and we make up songs and stories.  I’d like to believe she’s quite happy playing with me; I have lots of imagination sat on the floor of our living room.

Whatever were you thinking? That truck doesn’t seem very safe.  There seem to be an awful lot of people in there. It’ll be terribly dark with the doors closed. The blackness might engulf you all, opening up and swallowing your children in its toothless ebony mouth.  What were you thinking? That dinghy doesn’t look very stable, especially in the ocean.  And those life jackets on the children won’t stay inflated for long.  The water seems treacherous and icy, lapping greedily at the sides of your tiny vessel.  It’s biding its time, waiting for you, wanting you; you can see it licking its lips, licking the sides of your inflatable hotel, waiting for a taste. What exactly were you thinking? There is no shelter beyond that barbed wire; it’s just an open field.  It’s just more running, picking up the children, running, dragging them with you, running.  The border guards pushing you back with their riot shields won’t know about your children underfoot; they won’t know about the baby as she clings to you, screaming.  What were you thinking?

What are you saying? I can’t hear you, you’ll have to speak up.  You didn’t know what else to do? You were desperate? It wasn’t safe where you were? The threat of death clung to you all, threatening to snatch you, so you grabbed whatever was precious and ran? It wasn’t safe so you ran? It wasn’t safe on land so you took to a cramped truck, an open field, a tiny boat balanced precariously on a greedy ocean? I wouldn’t know about any of that; you see, my child is napping while I type this letter to you, on the sofa, next to me, perfectly safe.  I might even cover her with her blanket to make her more comfortable.

You really must speak up, I’m struggling to hear you.  I’m struggling to hear you through the blackness of that truck, through the gaping hole of that ebony mouth that seems to have swallowed you.  I can’t quite make out what you’re saying while you are pushed against that riot shield, the crowd surging like a tide behind you, forcing you forward though you don’t want it, squeezing your children.  I’m straining to hear you from the salivating lips of that greedy ocean, licking you up, like a gourmet meal, spitting you out.

There you are: washed up on the shore, wet and bloated. There are your children peacefully blue from the icy lips of the water.  I can’t hear you, but there you all are.