Back to the Reader Stories landing page
Image from author’s collection: Book of Life – The Marshall Cavendish Encyclopaedia
Welcome to the eleventh – and last – issue in Season One of
The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book which you can read in full over on my free Substack. This is the last issue before publication of my book in January. Season Two will begin in March 2022. This month’s invitation to write concerns rebirth: coming back from loss, shame or failure. Readers were invited to respond as follows: When – and how – have you chosen (or been forced) to begin your life anew? All responses are curated below.
It was summer,
but a chill settled
in my bones,
my spirit froze
at its loss.
I tried to move
with the world
but every step
sloths in my shoes
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
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
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
This, then, was grief:
a cold companion
come to stay;
a world blunted
a winter that began
many seasons more,
as the other.
Until one day
I stood by a waterfall
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
All losses group together as you get older,
all merge into that place of letting go the surrender to it, if you’re lucky or work hard enough for it.
We fight to hold on and we fight to let go it is said,
and I found this to be true of parents , of lovers , of pets and the idea of ourselves born of yesterdays
too many influences, not enough just stopping
and listening to who we really are if we just stop.
We carry these ideas like identities, passes to move through
this life with the hope of less fuss, less uncertainty.
Ideas of who we though we would be
and images we curate of ourselves for others to see and for us to know our place and not feel any kind of loss
any kind of unsettlement
Until it happens
And they are not there anymore to hold on to.
Life. Little deaths and big ones and all that’s in-between
But grouped all together for us to mourn
To lay flowers for
And move on.
Rebirth. Simple enough prompt… and yet I don’t know what it means for me to ‘come back’. Come back where? What if the feeling of loss, shame and failure was part of me from the very first time I was conscious of myself? That feeling of not knowing where you belong and who you really are. What if your whole life is just an attempt to mask that feeling? A generational trauma? Maybe. Don’t cry and never show your fear. Trust nobody but yourself, my grandmother used to say. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t trust myself because I didn’t know the meaning of trust. I trusted my grandmother and I trusted my parents, but they never agreed on anything. I was stuck in a triangle of hurt, resentment and secrets. People-watching…all the time…learning the lines from their conversations. Trying to piece together a life script. Keeping a simple survival kit under my bed that a small child might need to live in the woods. Feeling how weak and small and helpless you are…
And then I came across a book that I didn’t even need to read. Just the title of it changed everything.
TO HAVE OR TO BE – a light bulb moment. I wanted TO BE so badly but everything that I HAD was so fragile and damaged and sticky.
When I moved away from my birth country, leaving everything that I HAD, for the first time the feeling of being out of place and lost was justified so I could move on and build on that. I don’t need to ‘come back’ to anything now. All that loss and shame and failure turned into water…flowing…and no bridges back…not anymore.
She was right when she said ‘You are at the start of your recovery and going feel like a pool of sea water all shaken up. Eventually the murky stuff will settle and things will become clearer.’
Subtle yet profound shifts are occurring inside of me and I notice them and I smile and a glow from within warms me, if but for a moment. I swim again, but differently this time, authentically, as if all the times before I had jumped in the pool simply to out swim my big feelings, to keep them down and hidden to ignore my own shame and claim the high seat above all. I remember forcing myself with the might of a bully to get on the yoga mat whilst coyly googling ‘yoga for hangovers’, where now my body tells me when it wants to stretch. It has been 2.5 years since I drank alcohol and I am a year into a recovery programme and they were right when they said ‘pain is the touch stone of growth’, because I have felt pain. The pain of facing something I would have usually have drank on is like pulling a plaster off quickly. The growing pains full of humility and watering eyes when seeing and accepting the segments of myself that are undeveloped and immature and the deep emotional pain that sends you into the darkest parts of yourself when old wounds are scratched that were never properly faced and dealt with until now. Stretching, arching, letting go, a beautiful and natural dance… the ‘whole ‘ of my being is gently turning around, recalibrating… forming new and healthy coordinates Charlotte Dawson
It happened over time, the fading, and the faltering. The falling followed, inevitably. Burdens crushed me. Body let me down. Everyone an enemy. Demons neutered joy, desensitised my fifty-something soul. Blinkered. Burned out. Beaten. Somehow, I kept the mask on. And then… someone saw past it. Someone who wanted to save someone who wanted to be saved. But not like this. Surely not like this? I had a paramedic for my feelings, but that only bought time: I knew I had to perform the operation myself. Understanding this was just the start. Loss, shame and failure were my tumorous trinity. I was becoming made of them, needed to excise them. Or else succumb. I had one advantage: the mask. It had grown with me over the years and stayed in place, visor firmly down: you won’t see anything in my eyes. The mask allowed the fight to stay internal. And what a fight it was. But at least it was fought in private, with pride the least thing at stake. What about the operation? Dealing with the hostile trinity meant moving on – people, places and positions cut out with a metaphorical scalpel. Surgical precision. The good bits kept, and the memories accepted. Priorities set, choices made, decisions enacted. Now for the rebirth… I’ve read about rebirths. Been shown that a falling into disrepair and a false attachment need not prove calamitous. So, here’s what I did: I practised optimism, looked after myself, watched plants grow, observed the movement of creatures; I forgot about time by recapturing time, and gave to kind others as they gave to me; I shut out the time-thieves and the energy-drainers, sought out the like-minded. Above all, I walked – away from the crippling past and into a future where every day is called rebirth. Paul Gamble
I’m sitting on a bench in front of the white clapboard hut of the bowling club. It’s a warm day in mid April, my first time out of the house since major surgery two weeks ago. I’ve walked here slowly, carefully. To my left, Hebden Water clatters over rocks on its way to join the River Calder in the centre of town. To my right, the hillside rises steeply towards Heptonstall. The pristine square of green in front of me feels like an anomaly.
I’m missing my ovaries, my Fallopian tubes, and a tumour that was benign but may not have stayed that way. I feel this as a lack, not a loss, although I am aware this may change. There is a book face-down on the bench next to me: Four Noble Truths for Writers. A sudden movement, and a heron is beating its wings as it rises from the river and disappears over the ridge. The stateliness of its flight. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves in the sycamore trees. Then everything is still. Time stops. I feel that I am occupying my body in a different way. There is no distinction between my breath, the rushing of the river, or the fluttering of the leaves. We are all living things, taking up our space in the world. How can I describe this? I feel at peace. I feel a knowing, a settling, which is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I feel a rush of love, of gratitude, and a dissolving of boundaries. I am alive, as the river is alive, as the trees and the heron are alive. In a few weeks, or months, or however long it takes, I will be single again after thirty years. A new life is beckoning. It has just started. Here. Now. And my heart is beating, faster. Kerry Whitley
There is a map on my body, like one of those prized ones, in all great storytelling.
It is not for the faint of heart, for the journey it represents is never for the uninitiated. I can follow silver trails across my torso that trace the journey of my life. These trails once stitched my muscles back together after they’d been sliced open to take out both my babies and all of the cancer which would have killed me. My nerve endings were destroyed but they knit themselves new pathways, so I could feel radiation butterflies rising under the skin on that knife edge sensation between agony and ecstasy, as they fluttered over the tattoos which mark the borders of radiation country. Like all powerful medicine, in all the best stories, it has to be contained, as it heals, or harms, in equal measure. In my cleavage, one radiation tattoo nestles like a secret symbol of a society to which no one would choose to belong. Those who notice and understood where I have been and, what I have lived through, never explicitly say, but I know, that they know, as a softness seeps into the conversation and wraps me in their love. But my story is not just mapped across my body, it is steeped in my soul grief and loss, joy and laughter, and all the wonders of this world. No map needed, no x marks the spot, the treasure is all mine, a lifetime lived and the privilege of being me. [ listen to spoken version here] ruth
This rebirth was not a big rebirth in terms of any type of trauma or illness, but just something that came together quickly one morning two weeks ago.
I suppose it is a tiny rebirth, a resetting of the day, a day I could have clung to the dislike of doing any type of work with numbers. It will make no sense at all to anyone who is not familiar with the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack….but I’m just going to let go of fear and share…. A morning finishing up tax stuff for Jeff, a tight grip of my stomach, but I am stayin’ alive, leave for work and play songs from Saturday Night Fever and smile wide, let my body feel less than 54 and more than a woman in a green cardigan, khakis and sensible shoes, see a crow in a bare tree, beak open and swear that it is moving its head to the beat of my music and I should be dancing but I am laughing out loud, so hard, alone in my sensible car and this crow, right there with me, both of us early morning jive talkin’. I pass a school van and the lady driver is wearing a cowboy hat and I consider leaving my job to take that job, think of how the kids would smile as I greeted them with a “Howdy” and a tip of the hat each morning, even the kids who wouldn’t want to like me would learn to like me, try hard not to smile, then I’d show them my boogie shoes and they would have to laugh, the goal of my life: to get people to smile. A hawk circles over a Leechburg street, I wonder what it knows, John L waiting outside the Happy Day Cafe for them to open the door and pour him a fresh cuppa joe, 57 degrees in February and the world is burning, disco inferno still playing in my head, burn baby burn, been singing these songs since the 1970s and still don’t know all the words. Think of my new favorite quote: But life is not always beautiful, unless by beautiful you mean raw.* SheiLa Knell [*Quote from Caro Giles’ Twelve Moons) Like this: Like Loading...