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Sweetshop from Book of Life Marshall Cavendish (Tanya Shadrick’s collection)

Welcome to the fourth 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 month’s invitation to write concerns choosing: readers were asked to share a life-altering moment of choice. All responses are curated here.

I choose this…


I’ve been thinking a lot about choosing lately. Years ago, I did a management course. I can’t remember much about it, except that whatever we were grumbling about, the course leader would say:

“Do you choose this?”

“No” we would reply. “I have to do this or I would lose my job. I have to do this or I would upset a client…”

“Do you choose this?”

It took me a long time to get it. But over the last few weeks, that’s been my mantra.

“I choose this”.

Next week I restart intravenous chemotherapy. I have chosen this. I have chosen a flurry of blood tests and covid tests. I’ve chosen to have a semi-permanent line inserted into my body. I’ve chosen a hodge-podge of potential side effects.

“I choose this”.

I find it bizarrely comforting. I didn’t choose to have metastatic breast cancer, but I am choosing this. I didn’t choose a limited life expectancy, but I’m choosing this. I choose this path through the forest. I choose to climb this glass mountain. I choose to bite this apple.

I think the comfort lies in the fact that within those words “I choose this” lie the alternative. “I don’t choose this”. I don’t have much agency here, but I have the power to say stop. It’s the third wish. I’m holding on to it, knowing that I can use it, if I choose to.

Sarah Connor

A Powerful Itch


“Just think about it. You don’t have to decide now.”

Think? I didn’t need to think. I wanted it. It felt more right and fitting and aha, yes! than anything had in a good long time. And I reminded myself that I didn’t go back to school to gain one more skill or get ahead at yet another job: as I sat with my professor in the crowded lobby, I chose to repair my soul. I chose to mend all the holes life had torn in it. I took up the needle and thread in my mind’s eye and told myself: you are going to stitch up all those holes and see what might flourish again. Yes. You. Are.

No more scratched and dented steel desk in a basement office.

No more boring meetings that travel in circles.

No more bosses intimidated by my independent mind.

No more. No more. No more.

Professor Kreiger liked my essay. She asked if I thought about joining the Creative Writing track. This was the sign I had been waiting for. For years. I sat on that couch mind whirling and twirling, giddy as she held my words in her hands, and right then and there…

I chose fountain pens and weekly book deliveries and reading into the night.

I chose journals and handmade paper and lines and no lines.

I chose reading aloud to my cats and to myself; to wandering in libraries and chasing print with my index fingers.

I made a home inside of me for that little girl in black pigtails who once stretched out on the floor beneath her grandmother’s large bookcase, whose little brown hands shook with anticipation as she turned the pages of Mother West Wind’s Children, Mr Rabbit and The Lovely Present…because what she explored in that bookcase gave her a powerful itch for words that only a pencil and notebook could scratch.

I chose magic and imagination over practicality.

I chose what the world of adults had tried its best to beat out of me.

I chose to be a writer.


Choosing Then & Choosing Now


Glossy brown, smooth in the hand, I eagerly housed the conker on my childhood shelf. But oh, the disappointment to see it shrink and shrivel and grow dull. I learned you cannot keep the shine of the horse chestnut.

Two decades later, now a mother a continent away, I sat beneath the chestnut that spreads its shade in the Arsenal picnic grounds in Watertown, Massachusetts. My two toddlers played on the blanket. Conkers lay all around. Holding one warm in my palm, I remembered the childhood lesson and saw a choice.

Keep the seed but lose it, or let it be buried and fulfill its promise. Beneath the surface, in the secret soil, a seed splits open, one shoot and one root push aside the earth. Give it time and time and more time, it rises and deepens, fruits and shelters, an exponential generosity. Which to choose? Hold tight to my life, my time, my now, or sink down beneath the daily deaths of motherhood. Yet grow and fruit and put out hundreds of hopeful seeds, a rooted life?

For twenty-nine years I have made this choice. Tall around me are the saplings of six young adults: a new college grad, a newlywed, a young mother, and still two teens. Also, one a recovering addict and free from anorexia, an excruciating decade of believing in someone, holding them by the roots, tangled in your heart. Things I did not know I was burying myself beneath or would be called on to do.

I keep a photograph of a late fall sunflower husk, a horse chestnut seed, a dry grass head, in my room next to where I dress. Spare, rich beauty. And now, in the fall of life, near spent, I yet hope to polish seeds of words that shine.

MIchelle Geffken

Come In


Bill can only move one finger now. Someone else has to push his wheelchair. With my hands on his shoulders, though, I can feel there’s a lot going on inside him. I sense subterranean rivers and hot geysers, bubbling springs. I can pick up the inadvertent movement of his fluids, little flickers. the twitches of autonomic nervous connections and the energetic coursing and pumping, through my palms.

You can’t see it from the outside.

Volunteering as a complementary therapist at the hospice made sense after dad died. Anyay, it’s a needy sort of a place, always pleading for more. Everytime I went past, it called to me: ‘Come in,’ it said. ‘please, come and help’. In those days I didn’t have a clue what to do with myself, wading through clinic life with heavy legs, marooned on the sofa in the evenings, children grown and gone. It seemed as if the louder it begged, the more the choice was made for me.

Faced with such paralysis, I was initially bewildered; how to know what to do when he couldn’t tell me how he was, what he wanted? There was no protocol to follow; I had no guidelines for that situation. So I drew the curtains around the logical part of me, like I’ve taught myself to do, and I waited in the dark. Warmth was radiating from his back, faint smell of soap and toothpaste, tightness in my chest. I paid attention to where my feet met the ground; the parquet was polished smooth. Before long, I noticed my thumbs had found somewhere that felt right, that my spine was flexing, and as my instinct took over, the border between us started to open. What I remember next is that we both, simultaneously, inhaled. And then we breathed out a long sigh.

Tamsin Grainger

Choose Life


My wife tells a tale of her Irish childhood.

It is a tale of a sweet shop. And choosing.

I adore the way the story rolls off the tongue between stifled giggles. A tale that feels like a first-hand memory. But it is the recollection of a comedy skit; a deliciously subversive observation on the cravings that drive all our childhoods; carefree days for learning that we need to cut our coat according to our cloth.

Back to the sketch. Comedy duo Pat Shortt and Jon Kenny – the D’Unbelievables – weave lyrical magic around the pennies available and the rich over-abundant selection of sweets on show. Can I have “one of dem and two of dem”?

Choosing. Choices. The temptations of more. We all have ‘dem’ but we want ‘dem’ too.

Last year, we made a fresh choice.

We choose to have less. Less stuff.

Sell the house; no debt. Reduce our belongings; travel lighter. Buy less; but buy better.

None of ‘dem’. Less of ‘dem’.

Reduced responsibilities. More freedoms. Choosing a different path; increasing our agility. Fewer belongings; fewer longings.

Now, this has become our tale.

People respond as if it is a comedy skit. You sold your house? Life in a van? Where are your things? Surely you need a few of ‘dem’ and a couple of ‘dem’?

No, it turns out that you don’t.

The less you have, the less you need. Less is a choice.

And you wonder why you didn’t make it earlier.

Barrie thomson

The Mermaid


I have a daughter who is a mermaid. She tells me that life is a swirl of overwhelm and confusing messages, that humans do not make sense with their side glances and streams of chatter. If you saw her you might not realise she felt this way, as you watched long hair swinging at her newly-curved hip and poetry pouring from her mouth. She is a mistress of disguise, painting her lips bright red and striding boldly into icy waves, kicking up spray and dancing in the surf.

But when the mask drops, left bloodied and trampled on the front door step, she falls into my arms, drenched in the nuance and subtext that has broken her. Her precious Selkie body trembles and the pain is terrible to see. In these moments she asks me if I would choose another daughter if I had my time again, and each time the question is a jellyfish sting to my heart. It is as if she is reaching out and checking that I am still there. It reminds me of the way my babies thought I had left them forever when they couldn’t see me, even when I was just behind the high chair picking up food from the floor.

The mermaid’s thoughts must come from the bottom of the very darkest ocean, where marine snow falls like confetti in a world with no natural light. The choice at this depth is only up, if indeed there is a choice at all.

CAro fentiman

To Be


I have been thinking about choices, wondering how many I have made in a lifetime. How, if I set a stylus above a large piece of paper, with access to coloured ink, what kind of map or pattern it might make over the contours of my days. Would it wear through the paper, as I went back and forth to school, to work? Would it make similar patterns in Yorkshire, Fife, Essex, Wearside, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and now back to the North? Would it create ragged circles of my lockdown walks from home? What might it look like from above – my many journeys?

Were my choices always binary? Are choices always decisions about actions? To work here not there, study this not that, to marry one person but not another? To have children? Is there really that much control? Is there ‘a road less travelled’ that has made all the difference?

I spent a weekend one year, with my sister and her friends in a youth hostel in the Lake District. It was a 40th birthday celebration for which we had booked the whole hostel. One morning a group of us walked into the village for breakfast. We chatted about journaling and planning our days. Bill showed us his journal. It was bright with lots of colour like a multi mind-map and it was his plan for the day. His intended choices. I have often thought about it since. It was not a version of a to-do list, but a map of his purposed choices; to be loving, to be gentle, to be kind, about being helpful. It was about being and not about doing. It was about the minutiae choices he would make that day that would have practical applications but mostly it was about building his character, living intentionally and creating the kind of person he wanted to be.

I am living one of those kinds of choices now, to be there for someone else. I am not being a doormat but I am setting aside a large portion of time to be present. There is an element of self-sacrifice but mostly there is immense joy. There are tough days but there are equally lovely moments. I am spending time, a more precious commodity as the expected amount that I have ahead inevitably lessens. How will the stylus move over my life now I wonder as I am mapping Bill’s kind of choices. And when the allotted amount of ink has run dry, what kinds of patterns and pictures will I have made?


The bald spot on the back of my head…

is the size of a 20 cent coin when I first become aware of it. ‘Caused by stress,’ my hairdresser says. The period of extreme pressure is well behind me so I forget about it.

Four weeks later it has the diameter of a teacup. ‘Looks like Alopecia Areata,’ the doctor says. ‘It may progress to losing all your hair, but there’s no way of knowing. Go off now and enjoy the summer.’

Impossible. There are hairs on the pillows, matted in my hairbrush with each stroke, glistening across the shoulders of my black shirt. My red hair took me decades to learn to love and I don’t want to lose it now. I research injections, essential oils, pills, onion juice, scalp pigmentation, microblading. I consult a reflexologist, an acupuncturist, a herbalist. I visit a holy well known for curing skin conditions.

But the hairless circle continues to grow. Shiny pink, it is the size of a saucer and hard to hide. And the summer is passing as fast, with its abundant spirit which fuels us all for the darker days ahead and there is a choice to be made.

A choice that could make itself should I allow it.

I drive south to the coast where I surrender to time. Clearing moss, inch by inch, from cobbled pathways; gathering driftwood on the beach; swimming sidestroke while the sun streels through sea mists. Evening comes and as the fire crackles, sheep settle and divers and waders quieten on the shore, the dusk turns, once again, to night. And the moon, once again, rises above the sea.

When it’s time to return to the city, the possibility of total baldness sits easily alongside the wealth of stuff that makes a life.

Sheila de Courcy

Do we make choices or do choices make us?

I think I got into the habit of feeling that if I drifted through the days, if I let things be, choices would present themselves. Maybe I was scared of the responsibility of making decisions. Maybe letting stuff happen was just how things were now.

It was Tuesday. Dad had gone. Just like that. Mum said so. On Monday he was wandering round the house in his too-short towelling dressing gown from 1978; Tuesday: ‘Your Dad’s died’

In my teenage mind, he’d made choices – the wrong ones – that had left me to make mine by myself. So he didn’t love me then? I decided not if he could be so selfish and just piss off so easily like that.

It didn’t really add up though. I could feel his love surely and deeply in my bones; in all those memories that tumbled over each other. I had to rethink. Yes, he’d chosen to live life to the full: to laugh, to drink (quite a lot), to cook and eat (even more), to entertain and to charm.

I have a big question though. How was he chosen? He was adopted and this fact has come to absorb me more and more. I watch Long Lost Families and wonder about his birth mother and about my grandpa and grandma Stead who chose him. They would never share what they knew. Why not? Shame? Fear? Or just because they wanted him to be only theirs?

What made him choose to make our family with mum and to write stories about us when he was a journalist for The South Wales Echo?

Those choices created a childhood for me. One of days at the beach, shepherd’s pie and amazing fishcakes, camping and a holiday in California, of house moves including one to The Solomon Islands and of treasured letters at boarding school and water fights and get out of that grips in his arms.

So, he can’t have chosen to leave us. He loved us too much.

Louise Stead

I desperately needed a break…

…from my increasingly stressful work life in a senior public service role. I chose to go on a ten-day camel trek in the Sinai desert with a small group, led by Bedouins. We rode on the camels during the cool of early morning and early evening, resting in shade through the heat of midday. We were spending the last day and night in a hotel on the shores of the Red Sea. I stood in the sea watching tiny jewelled fish swimming around my feet and, looking up, marvelling at the far shores where something – dolphins or big fish? – were leaping.

A sudden determination gripped me and I said to myself: ‘If I want to feel anything like this again, I must leave my job.’

On my return home, I handed in my resignation, took a year’s sabbatical and – via stints stacking supermarket shelves to avoid bankruptcy – set myself up as a self-employed deaf, disability and diversity equality consultant and trainer, supplementing the inevitable troughs and peaks of income with a couple of public service roles.

A life changing and life enhancing choice.

Sarah Playforth

Sociologist Susie Scott writes of ‘myriad lost, forgotten, unreal selves that never came to be’. She argues that beyond the storied looking glass, the unlived life unfolds in parallel.

Growing up, I devoured the Famous Five books. I didn’t identify with George because I wasn’t a tomboy. Nor with Ann because she was wet. The ‘best’ character was obviously Julian. He knew stuff, solved problems, took charge. I didn’t identify with him, though, because he was a boy. A prototypical male.

Georgette Heyer arrived. Julian morphed into suave heroes who met their match in feisty young women or rescued quiet ones from bullying families, the ‘resolution’ always the woman bagging the man. Aping the former hadn’t worked for me, so I sought further guidance on how to ‘fulfil my destiny’ from other sources: the coming-out-as-a-debutante novel Coronet Among the Weeds (which allowed me the fantasy that I was rejecting various ‘Chinless Wonders’ rather than being rejected by blokes with and without chins); and the guide-book In Search of Charm which imparted essentials like how to walk, sit, stand, get in and out of cars; which gloves to wear with evening dresses and how to remove them before eating (‘Take a firm but feminine grip’).

A working-class girl whose gender identity formation was shaped not only along the class lines promoted by her Wykehamist headteacher, but by a femininity that led her to fall in love with traditionally ‘masculine’ boys/men in literature and life. I’m not sure when that ghostly girl became a vanishing wraith but what was lost along paths not taken…? Certainly opportunities to allow dinner companions to guide my menu choices; and getting out of sports cars elegantly. But also the realisation that the Julians of this world are not the font of all knowledge. So not all bad.

jackie goode

There he was, for just that moment. The back of his head, lit by the stage lighting. Then gone. Again.

Twenty years before, he had asked me for a date. He was coy, and seemed genuine, but I had been the subject of gossip before. If I were to say yes, I would be the talk of this small town, as I had been of the last small town. I was tired of the watching eyes, and the bitchy tongues, and in any case, I was still in love with someone else. Someone who no longer wanted me, but had warned me off this other man with kinder eyes. It was easier to say no, as hard as I found it to reject anyone who looked at me that way and was brave enough to pay me a compliment.

I regretted it, days later and through the years. My past love had married the next woman he met. Twenty years on, I was nine years into a relationship that I couldn’t imagine leaving, nor committing to for life.

Life was comfortable and settled, but there was little joy in it and it was heavy with guilt. Having been open to ‘true love’ for ten years with no success, I had persuaded myself that my expectations were too high, after all. This, in spite of the evidence against, provided in the form of failed flings with drop-outs, alcoholics and older divorcees. It was time to accept my losses. I’d never find him.

And yet, on a night out far away from any small town, I walked into a room just before he left it. Fuelled by drink, regret, hope and the knowledge that if another twenty years passed, it would be too late, I went to find him.


sat too still, for too long
missing the way that breath seems to expand more in my chest,
when its outside breath,
or puffed post swimming breath,
or dry lips, many words spiralling friend breath,
or hand cramp drawing breath,
oh, what about wet summer rain soaked inevitability breath,
and even more, the lifting forehead to beams and feeling skin blooming breath,
with the nose itching grassy blade breath –
keep those breaths.
gulping back enough to fill the wind pipe,
smack it with the good breath,
smother it with the nutrient breath,
the scraped back salt swim skin breath,
the content, settled in my shoulders, solo reading breath,
the silent kitchen group dance breath,
the oh, you feel that too breath,
the slump but feeling forearms lifting under your armpits breath -keep those breaths
remember what my lungs feel like,
when they’re filled up good and green,
pushing out with growth,
sliding through the alveoli, between the cauliflower gaps,
with buds and uncurling leaf fingers,
with the haze of that grey blue mist calm, that lands on my neck and lets me roll my head on a sigh.
that achey into white duvet cloud breath, that sand in socks on pebble shore breath, that burrowing of your spine downwards in knowing who you are breath,
that eyes slightly widening with words of praise breath –

keep those breaths.

I choose what keeps me going to be there always

I choose to feel turned inside out by connection to the big bigness of it all

and also the tiny little music moments that tinkle against my heart
more tending, less tackling
more asking for, less stamping panicked feet
more fruit, less packets,
more listening, less lonely,
more walking, less re treading
come on now fluttery butterfly light bulb inside,

lets feel silky comfortable in silky skin made silky from the silky sun
lets feel sliding comfort up and down our length from the knowledge of choosing ourself,

not a best version

just a good one, a kept breath one.

Holly Nicholls

‘You are so lucky with all the choices that are out there,’ I used to say to my children.

I only repeated what I was told as a child myself. How many other empty words did I choose to copy?

So much choice of stuff to repeat without pausing, questioning, and valuing. And so many choices we have now with words and labels.

How do you choose to understand the word freedom? Kindness? Self-love? Self-trust? How do you choose to see your role? Your path? Where is your left and where is your right?

How much choice do we all really have? Unimportant things – yes, far too many; but if you sift through it, are there more choices now than before?

When I’ve started consciously examining choices I’ve made, so many questions popped up. But here is the one that troubled me most: could I trust myself after years of putting trust in others, who I thought were better qualified?

Who do you trust when making choices? Could you truly trust others if you don’t trust yourself? And could we ever feel free to choose what we want?

One of my old university teachers used to sit in an art gallery by his favourite painting for hours on end before making decisions about his choices. A good friend of mine listens to Bach for guidance.

I’ve chosen to follow my primal instincts into the woods and meadows for answers. Only in nature do I find freedom and self-trust, when an invisible force guides me to what I need. My senses rest and dance at the same time and suddenly a whole new way of living opens to me.


I long for the days before perimenopause when my body did not feel every emotion as if stung by a jellyfish, as if it was bound in electric wire, both exhausted and thrumming with energy, a woodpecker inside, tapping on each nerve ending.

I am in this land of mixed metaphors, no certainties. Human skin sheds dead cell by dead cell, millions a day, but still, just a patchwork, change unseen, leaving one essentially the same. Mid-fifties and change must now come, snake-like.

Snake skin does not grow with the snake and the snake eventually cannot abide being contained. To allow this change the time it needs, it will hide away, days, weeks, vision impaired, alone. When ready, the snake will rub against something abrasive to shed, to crawl out anew, enlarged, old skin left there, intact but empty.

I was that, but now I am this, that old skin reminds.

Women, too, know the itch of wanting to crawl from one’s skin, past lives no longer fit. Snakes who do not do a complete shed risk infection, blindness, death. Women, the same. Women forced to shapeshift in public, if they dare.

sheila knell

Lying in my sister’s guest bed, watching my husband sleep beside me, my forehead aches with all the choices we have suddenly found ourselves facing.

Middle-age – up to now – had brought a mixture of smugness (glad to have got the hectic part of life over), sorrow (the losses, the deaths, the disappointments) and loss of ambition (too late to be starting anything new now). I had chosen my adventures, created a life I loved and thought my future was set, but I hadn’t reckoned on this war that would sour the predictability of our lives, throwing new, unwanted choices in our faces. We could have done nothing of course, stayed, ignored, carried on…

It’s funny how other people’s actions, their choices, seem incomprehensible when you’re not in their shoes. Like imagining getting up at the crack of dawn on your day off from work. You know someone is doing it, and you know you will when it’s your turn, but from the cosy warmth of your quilt it seems unthinkable.

We chose to explore what those choices were. We left everything: jobs, school, friends, flat, even our car, and ran straight into a whirlwind of choosing: bus rides, flights, borders, job interviews, college courses, English exams, visa applications. The pressure of having to make all these decisions weighed heavily over our in-between lives alongside the knowledge that we didn’t know where we were heading, but, gradually, the choices we had been forced to make took on a new form. They became new opportunities, new adventures, an invitation to reshape our lives, choices that would have been ignored before.

I kissed my husband and he rolled over to hold me. Soon we would get up, leave the warm bed behind and face our new day.

Heidi Reinsch

In the high school bushland across the road is a dead blue tree. Only dead trees are painted this shade of blue in ‘The Blue Tree Project’. The project mission is ‘to help spark difficult conversations and encourage people to speak up when battling mental health concerns. By spreading the paint and spreading the message that it’s OK to not be OK, we can help break down the stigma that’s still largely attached to mental health.’

The project founder lost a brother to suicide then painted a tree as a beautiful memorial. In time she encouraged the gesture, then sold the idea and grew a business from her love. Blue trees puncture the landscape throughout my home state. This choice of blue love vibrates through the air and lands on me like a scream of death.

Nearly four decades ago I was slammed to the ground with loss from suicide and made my way through the undergrowth. I’d come to live with the stains and tears to my fabric, endured by all people from loss. Then was just like that: it wasn’t painted and then it was. Like his hanging, again.

I generally ignored the trees for years but then one day, as I drove home, I saw the freshly painted blue across the road. I see it from my kitchen window and from my hammock on the verandah. It’s a lovely shade of blue if it didn’t mean suicide.

I didn’t want this memory vortex everyday. I’d worked through it. That’s why we have cemeteries, you choose when you go. I wrote to the project. I wrote to the school. I wrote to the paper. I wrote to the board of psychology. My not-OK-ness with their project isn’t what they meant. Their choice of love became my pain.

Andrea Day

I was aware of the gamble of looking online but I had exhausted all other avenues. I was keen now that the time felt right, and I was hoping that I might get lucky.

His photo immediately caught my eye; such was the proud way that he held his head and looked directly into the camera. I felt he was looking right at me, but I guessed that I wasn’t the only one to feel the intensity of his look. His certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ spoke volumes through the screen.

The next thing I knew, we were meeting!

As the day arrived, I tried hard not to expect too much. I wanted to appear nonchalant, hoping it would disguise the bubbles of hope that bumped against each other in my tummy.

There he stood, looking every bit as imposing as his photo, with his intense stare and jaunty bandana, enough to make anyone look twice. He watched me as I walked towards him, and he certainly wasn’t playing it cool. His face lit up and softened as he continued to gaze at me. I was smiling hard and trying not to break into a grin.

His eyes were the sort one reads about in romantic novels, deep luminous pools that you could get lost in. Eyes flecked with every shade of autumn and large glossy pupils that would pull you under if you dared to look for too long.

As I crouched and stroked him, I let the grin break free because I knew the choice that I was going to make.

This beautiful (deaf) dog, Boof, is still with us today. He was badly abused for the first year of his life and has been left with scars on his head, however he could not be more loving and gentle. Along with our other rescue dog, Lu, Boof is an absolute blessing.

Tracey mayor
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