AUGUST ISSUE: Size & Shape

Image from author’s collection: Book of Life – The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia

This month’s extract from The Cure For Sleep for subscribers on Substack looked at size & shape: what it takes to arrive at a sense of right fit in our skin, our circumstances. How it feels to be without that. Readers were then invited to share short true tales of their own on this theme. Here is where those responses are showcased.

August extract

The shadow of the wild woman dying back in the West Country, too ill to edit her swim diaries: this cast my own late and very public attempt at storytelling into even sharper relief, so that I became still more ambitious for it. The poolside mile of writing was my single best chance to create a lasting life as an artist, one that might begin to pay enough through grants or commissions to keep me outdoors for good.

And so I needed to amplify my quiet presence beside the water of my small town’s lido. Just as O’Keeffe came to prominence as a painter when her lover Stieglitz exhibited her canvases alongside exquisite nudes he’d made of her, so I must create an iconography for my work: images that could travel beyond the brick and flint walls of the pool and make strangers stop their online scrolling to look, then read.

But to seek and brief a photographer was a terribly shy exercise for an ignored daughter grown old. To have a man pay me close attention had always been my dearest wish, but to ask for it? As difficult to voice as the wild woman had found her end-of-life regrets.

There was just one person I felt able to approach: a father who’d had children in the same nursery as my own, whose family photographs shared on social media were lit so that the everyday seemed infused with a sacred aspect. A loving husband and a proud parent of daughters, I admired his manner too – the kind of man I’d have liked to be raised by, if such choice were ever given.

Like the sculptor, he understood within moments everything I was trying to achieve, saying yes to me as swiftly as I had to the wild woman. There was a condition, though: he wouldn’t charge for his time, but I did need to hand him my whole trust, setting aside any received ideas of my best angle, a pleasing smile. Yes?

Yes, I said, it being my season of agreeing to strange bargains for the hopeful feeling, light as thistledown, that came from making them.

How at ease he made me feel, so that I felt able to say what even Nye didn’t know: that each time my father drove past me, unheeding, in the small town where I’d lived, I felt myself a stray dog or a piece of litter. That I fell into compensatory dreams of being an object of use or beauty – a jug of hedgerow flowers on a tablecloth, a willow-pattern plate. And so these scrolls and my kneeling to them was not only a response to my near-death and wish to live more vividly ever since, but also – at a far deeper level – a chance to remake myself. To assume my right size and shape at last. To claim authority. To be seen. Did he understand?

He did, entrusting to me stories of his own childhood as we began work, so I could laugh and feel natural despite our unusual business. Conversation, my comfort zone.

But then, with our hours of filming almost at their end, he asked me simply to stand still, and straight, against a white wall. To look unsmiling into the lens, naked of make-up.

I’d already floated, face to the sky, and swum laps while he filmed me from underwater. Had knelt at my scrolls, pen in hand, before shaking out a length of the paper like laundry. Bizarre things, all in view of pool-goers. This should have been the work of minutes, and yet it triggered in me a backwash of old miseries: all the many times I’d hated my face in a mirror or my body in clothes.

How much I wanted to end the session then, breaking my promise.

(Oh these brief but decisive moments when we step from shame into whatever lies on the other side. Each one never easier than the last.)

‘Give me a moment, I can feel tears coming. This is horribly hard. Look away, will you?’ I had to close my eyes then, bending over to ready myself. Diver on a high board.

‘OK. Let’s go.’

It was only a camera, a man, and me in middle age. But the sensation was one of freefall, release. A corset torn off and thrown aside.

The writing continued steadily after this as before but the woman doing it parted ways with doubt, deference, disguise. No more being modest, playing small.

I had learned, so late, to stand unadorned and look the world in the eye. To see and be seen in an equal exchange of gazes.

How wild I felt, how free.

The Cure For Sleep

Reader responses

I started out feeling OK about my body…

*

I had the usual questions about my appearance, the usual insecurities, but in retrospect I approached the world as attractive people do, with the understanding that with a little effort, people could be charmed.

When I was 42 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next year, my body was transformed. Before that, I was looking good – I was happy with my body shape, I was happy with my face. I had thick dark hair, I had heavy eyebrows, long eyelashes. I had a cleavage.

I am now almost unrecognisable. It’s 14 years on, and some of those changes would have happened anyway, I guess – but it all happened so quickly. Over the next year I aged – what? 10 years? 20? – I had my oestrogen stripped away. I lost my hair, my eyelashes, my eyebrows. I lost a breast. I gained weight (yeah, steroids). Over the next few years I had a reconstruction, then lost my other breast. The hair came back – thinner, grey. The eyebrows never came back. Even my hands are different. The veins have gone. One is puffier than the other.

I’m now a woman with thin, white hair, with no eyebrows, with stumpy little eyelashes. I’m, frankly, chubby. I’m back on chemo. I have new scars. I have old scars. There are patches of my body with no sensation whatsoever. I don’t look at myself in mirrors any more – a quick glance at the start of the day to make sure I’m respectable – but other than that? No, not really. I have become invisible.

These days, I think of my body in terms of verbs. If I can walk up that hill, that’s great. If I can enjoy the sun on my face, that’s wonderful. If I can eat that peach and really relish it, that’s fantastic. If I can walk into that cold, cold water and be cleansed by it, that’s a miracle.

Sarah Connor

My skin

*

For the first time I recognised myself. There was relief, pleasure, excitement. A sense of being comfortable in my own skin. This is who I am. Contemplator. I think about things and sometimes I write my thinking down. I am interested in many things. I’m interested in, well, everything.

Unchecked, this led to unfinished crafts, hobbies, and a myriad of lines of pursuit, until the next interesting thing came along. I was a prime candidate for PNF (projects not finished).

Unchecked, I rarely finished anything well. I started, started well. I didn’t lose interest but there was always something a bit more interesting.

But this is the nature of the Contemplator. Life fascinates them. People fascinate them. And that was OK. A relief. A positive not a negative.

Now I am learning to add a little discipline. To recognise myself.

Before: ‘You never finish anything.’ Now? ‘Yes, that looks fun – but I’m just going to enjoy someone else pursuing it.’ Because I am not pursuing ‘several lines of enquiry’ but living more intentionally. Choosing more deliberately. There is not time to do everything. There is time to do some things well.

jean wilson

To thine own self

*

The unstable balance which existed in my tiny world and my growing sense of self was cruelly upended in 1973 when I was fourteen. The loss of a loving parent was also the loss of my internal compass and the beginning of decades of trying to fill that void with people, places and things, which became like trying to put two magnets together, the repulsion being me. I constantly looked for myself in the eyes of others. I tried to please the unpleasable, to attract the unavailable and travelled to far flung places to try and leave myself behind. I lived with a sense of being less, of being stupid, and later this morphed into the imposter syndrome. I could not own my true self.

When I had my children in my thirties, the blurry barrier started to lift and I glimpsed myself in their eyes: the purity of real love, mine and theirs. Being a mother was the first true expression and unconditional state of being since before the loss of a father.

The other path to reclaiming myself was my creative expression. As a mature student one of my tutors nurtured that shoot she saw in me – something I could not – and a belief in my abilities and expression started to bear fruit. Slowly a wholeness was forming, flaws and all. Over time I worked on those, throwing one stick away at a time until now I walk unaided, I limp and fall but get back up and stay on my own path which is rich and lush. I look to nature and the sea to nurture my soul and the company of like minded people. My children and grandchildren are my sun the land I inhabit.

louise newman

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