Chiang Mai, 9th January 2018.
Olivia, my love, it’s me.
It’s early and you’re still asleep, snuffling quietly over there in your Paw Patrol pyjamas. I could be off in dreamland too, but for once, I didn’t wake up with your brother smacking me over the head or you wondering when we could have breakfast. So I’m taking advantage, catching up with the world, taking stock on the day before your fifth birthday. Writing you a letter.
It was the Golden Globes last night. You might not know what they are yet, and frankly you don’t need to, as unless we move to California, they’ll always happen waaay past your bedtime. What you do need to know is this. Every year, these awards grab the headlines because of who wore what. Which pretty woman was put in which pretty dress, usually by a man. This year, however, they were different. Everyone wore black. And women stood up for themselves. And I just watched the moment of the night, when a lady called Oprah Winfrey stood up and made one hell of a speech that was nothing to do with film and everything to do with the girls of the future. How strong they’ll be. And how strong we have to be to get you there. How we’re done being doormats and punchbags and accessories. How it’s time.
And it made me think of you. Because you’re the strongest girl I know. Yes, you’re beautiful, and yes, I am jealous of your eyelashes, but whatever. That’s irrelevant. Because you’ve always been smart and sharp and funny and sweet. You’ve always remembered books by heart and corrected your father’s grammar. You’ve always been kind.
But this year, you’ve dealt with a lot. We know that. We’re not stupid. Most people hear about someone going on a trip around the world for a year and think it sounds like a holiday. Technically, it is. But in reality, it’s tough. Especially when you’re four.
We find it difficult. And we’re big ugly grown-ups who don’t grab the attention that you do. We’ve seen strangers squeeze your cheeks and prod you and call you “baby”. We’ve tried to find a balance between explaining that it’s part of their culture and agreeing that sometimes, it’s just plain creepy. We’ve seen you survive a homestay in the Himalayas when you really don’t like curry. We’ve seen you shrink away from strangers, freak out at a buffalo and we’ve seen you go quiet. And that’s never a good sign.
But we’ve seen you change too. And in the most wonderful way. You had a shyness back home, a certain nervousness that knocked your confidence flat when it struck. But everything’s shifted, whether you realise it or not. You have a new edge to you now. A feral edge, a fierce edge, the wildness that you needed. You’re no longer afraid of a bit of mud, or a new person or a new food. Your eyes have a new twinkle and your belly has a new fire. You’ve got dirt under your nails, salt on your skin and sand between your toes. Rebel, rebel, your hair is a mess.
We know you’re excited about school. About having a uniform and a schoolbag and a classroom. But you’ve learned. My God, you’ve learned. You know how it feels to feed an elephant and that, unlike you, they’re partial to beet grass. You’ve met a living goddess in Kathmandu and seen a man possessed by Hanuman screaming through a village. You’ve learned to make yoghurt, throw roti, grind corn and take a salmon head apart. You know where your dinner’s come from. You’ve discovered the joys of tuk-tuks through cities and trains through the clouds. You could probably get through an airport on your own. You’ve eaten -whisper it- green things.
Your mind is wide open now. You know that people are different. That lives are different. That you’re lucky as hell. That some kids don’t get to complain about their lunch or their allocated iPad time. You’ve done living-room gymnastics with a Nepalese kid and caught crabs with a Sri Lankan girl on a windswept beach. You see potential friends everywhere. You know that you don’t need words. Because playing works in any language.
You’ve got to know your brother. Get your hair pulled and help him walk and teach him how to say “duck”. Spend proper time with him rather than weekends and a snatched hour after school. And River loves you more than anything. Even me, and I make the milk.
But I owe you an apology. Because we’re not perfect, not by any stretch of the imagination. So I’m sorry if we snap. If you get the short straw sometimes. If your brother grabs the limelight or steals your thunder. If we make the wrong call. If we can’t face another game of ‘I Spy’. If we get too busy to play or we forget to listen. Just make sure we do, promise us that. Tell us what you’re feeling, where you want to go, what you want to do. Because if it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be here. This trip is for you.
So keep us on our toes. Keep giving us cuddles, even if you’re a big girl now. Keep marching on, keep adventuring, keep exploring, even when we’re back home. Take everything you’ve learned on this journey and run like hell with it. Know that you can be anything you put your mind to. That we will fight for you every step of the way. That we couldn’t be prouder.
I’ll leave you now. We’ve got a long night of balloon blowing and present wrapping and surprise planning ahead.
So happy birthday little one.
It’s time we ate some cake.