JANUARY ISSUE: On Rebirth

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

Welcome to the last advance extract from The Cure for Sleep. This month’s theme concerns rebirth: coming back from loss, shame or failure.

Readers were invited to respond as follows: When – and how – have you choosen (or been forced) to begin your life anew?

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.


January extract

HOW TO LIVE. HOW TO DIE. How to reach back with understanding, even as we are going beyond the ones we love.

What I wanted to learn, fast, in what I believed was my last minute of living, in that moment before I was laid awake on the operating table – these are the questions I will pursue now to my end of days. What started with an emergency having become my passion and my purpose.

In my first life, I placed my faith in rigid routines, believing I could put to sleep my wilder desires.

In my second, I went without rest, searching always for ways to escape my self and the pain of living. To slip my skin and merge, forever, with something beyond me. I tried mothering, unpaid acts of service, immersion in cold water, the making of art, and then – lastly, disastrously – I hoped to get lost in love.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
Think neither fear nor courage saves us.
I would meet you upon this honestly.

Fragments from Eliot. So many lines by him and other poets that I’ve committed to heart over the years, through fear, for courage. As if by stitching enough fine minds together, I could make of them a mantle to wrap around me. My own self, for too long, felt only as an old donkey skin I wanted to throw off, however many photographs and films were made of me, shining bright at my late-made outsider’s art.

We live in only one time and place.

What a counsellor said to me at a first and only session booked too soon after the birth and its aftermath.

We live in only one time and place.

He was trying, I think, to return me briskly to reason, as if my soul was a bone to be reset. He meant it to be healing, I’m sure, but it felt, when he said it, like an excommunication. As if I was, as I feared, cast out on a lonely planet, without hope of escape or redemption. The life I woke to after that surgery was so white and cold and difficult – I needed to believe I could get free of it, somehow.

And yes, we do only have one life, so far as science and our registers of births and deaths go. It is lived in places, to clock time or the sun and its seasons. And we live in bodies, with economic and political forces bearing down on us, always. No amount of self-sacrifice or selfishness lifts us completely clear.

We are not, in this world, ever really free spirits.

But to keep living in it? Sometimes we have to see our worst hurts as little deaths, and believe in our ability to be reborn by them

The Cure for Sleep

Reader responses

Winter

It was summer,

but a chill settled

in my bones,

my spirit froze

in fright

at its loss.

I tried to move

with the world

but every step

was stilted,

my feet

sloths in my shoes

In Tourmakeady

we trudged the hill

behind Mary Anne’s

in the slanting rain,

up to the pool

where we’d swam naked

the year before,

pretending to be

fearless,

the sheep looking on

then as now

in stolid rumination.

We drove to Westport

and ate seafood in O’Malley’s.

I heard my laughter

and wondered

if it would ever

again ring true.

At a session in Paddy’s

a girl played an air

on the low flute,

but not even those

mellow notes could

warm me.

This, then, was grief:

a cold companion

come to stay;

a world blunted

to lead;

a winter that began

that summer

and lasted

many seasons more,

making one

as indistinct

as the other.

Until one day

in Spring

I stood by a waterfall

in Edenvale

not long after snow,

and heard the last of the ice

crack and yield,

bursting like afterbirth

into the Sow,

and knew at last

that the thaw

had begun.

RUTH PETHERICK

I’m naked in the bedroom, doing a mad-woman, thigh-slapping dance. My husband grins from the bed.

‘You’re feeling better, then?’

And I am. I am feeling better. The cloud of not-me has lifted, and this is me, right here, right now. I can feel life bubbling up in me, the sheer joy of not feeling like that, but feeling like this.

I think C S Lewis described this feeling you get when you emerge after a long illness, or the first day of the long school summer holidays. That sense of things being right, of having things to anticipate. That’s how I feel.

I didn’t feel like this yesterday, or the day before. I’ve learned to accept that chemo takes away that feeling for a week or so. In that trough, I have no future, I can’t plan, I have no goals. I hate feeling like that. I have carefully recorded how I feel over the chemo cycle, so I know that feeling will end. That’s what I tell myself – ‘Hang on in there. This will be over soon’ – but I don’t really believe it, so that feeling, that waking up, that rebirth? I surprises and amazes every time. Despite everything, I’m me again.

Is it worth it? Almost. I’d rather do a mad, naked dance every morning. But then again, maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I need to feel reborn to do that.

Sarah Connor

I nearly drowned in medication. Self-prescribed, self-administered, side-effected, eventually, self-loathing.

Loss started early in my life, but real grief came late. To lose a parent young is to have half of you ripped away at a time when character is forming.

It started with Valium for shock — administered by those that had license. I then knew something could take away the pain. Then came cough mixture, and around 17, I discovered the soothing balm of alcohol, a regrettable part and parcel of the rite of passage – and passage is how I survived for a long time. I travelled and briefly escaped myself. As with life there came deaths and always a sense of failure, a sense of being lost in what became a red mist.

Others progressed on their journeys bearing fruit. I stumbled along bearing shackles.

But I came to a clearing where something quietly took the reins thus giving me pause to look inward, and then I awoke. I grieved my losses and started to live life on its terms. No softening the edges.

Very quickly, I felt, breathed, heard, smelt, touched laughed and cried in real time and not through a maze of mess. My path appeared and I started walking, sometimes skipping. What had been a mystery took shape and what had seemed impossible became like breathing. I came to see there is no such thing as failure. I released myself from the ropes I had curled up in and threw off the fear! The fear of living.

Louise Newman

Readjustment

When I began my fourth round of physical therapy and my physical therapist, Samuel, asked me what I wanted to get out of it.

I said: ‘I want to be able to complete a hike when I’m in Wales in 6 months. An easy one, but a hike nonetheless, where I’m outside and walking without pain and loving being alive.’

‘We can get you there,’ he said.

And for six months, right up until the day I flew across the ocean, I stretched and exercised, had heat and ice treatments to knees, lower back, hips, and shoulders.

Then the big day came. It was sunny, clear blue sky. Those Welsh hills were so green! It wasn’t a mountain that I was going to scale, but a river walk just under three miles along paved and dirt path and through field and trees. My knees encased in neoprene sleeves provided stability, and the trekking poles took the pressure off my hips. I discovered tiny white fairy mushrooms, patted deeply fissured tree trunks, chatted with a group of river ducks.

At the end of the trail I ordered a pint from the pub on main street and silently toasted myself. It wasn’t a rebirth but a readjustment: how can I do the things my formerly active body once did with ease, with the body I have now?

There is always a way.

It took six years for my thinking to get to this point, which isn’t surprising because chronic illness takes away so much. It takes time to begin with to simply come to some sort of acceptance that one is sick and it’s not going away. With the hiking aids suggested by PT, and setting a reasonable goal for the kind of hike to undertake, I got my wish and a general way forward.

amy Millios

This is a loss that began before I was born. I learned about it as a child: a name on the calendar, the briefest of facts: ‘Mummy had a baby before you. She was called K and she only lived a few hours.’

Aside from this, she wasn’t discussed. There were no pictures of my parents from this time, nothing in the photo albums.

I looked for her everywhere. An older sister – I imagined her taller than me, more solid, less erratic. Women of a certain height were put on the shortlist; I’d gauge their age and suitability, and drunkenly ask if they could take her place. Flattered – or caught on the hop – they’d say yes, but these friendships drifted.

In my forties, I felt the loss of her again, keenly, as well as the silence with my parents, and talked to a group of women that I ran, read and mothered with.

They listened, this group of sisters, and heard me.

The pandemic made time short and family even more precious. I took a deep breath and asked for K’s story. My mother described an idyllic first pregnancy. She swam, and sewed summer dresses. And then K was born, one Saturday night in September, and no doctors were on duty when things went wrong. My dad had been sent home to sleep; a policeman had to wake him with the news. I listened, and cried for them, so young, and K, so brief. ‘That’s why you have your name, Amelia. We hoped you’d make everything better.’

What can I do? Live is the glib answer. Tell stories, ask questions. Be a sister. I have learned how to talk about the loss of K, how to take a deep breath and have difficult conversations.

But I will always be looking.

amelia H
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