JUNE ISSUE: On Choosing

The only thing missing for Nye and I now in our mid-twenties (or so we told ourselves) was a home of our own, and this we found soon after marriage on a single day of searching in which we looked at just three terraced houses, the last of which had cupboards full of mouldering food left behind by its long-ago last renters.

Despite the stink, the disorder, we found ourselves checking every room, each feature, as if it were a newborn: See the old wood panelling under the stairs! The little lean-to beyond the living-room window – just like his Gran’s! The back door to it was locked, so we lifted the sash and climbed through to the porch.

That hot plastic smell of his childhood, mine!

We had to have it.

Whimsy. Fun. Instinct. Lightness. How some of the best – and worst – decisions of a life are made. Walking over a threshold and seeing a stranger, a set of rooms, and emptying one’s head, one’s pockets. Taking a hand, a key. Exchanging the milk cow for the magic beans. Thinking not of cost or profit. Refusing the call of future possibilities that will fall away when choosing this place, that person. The way it is done: from smell, sound, stomach; all the senses coming together to assay the moment.

The Cure for Sleep
Sweetshop from Book of Life Marshall Cavendish (Tanya Shadrick’s collection)

This month’s extract from The Cure For Sleep for subscribers on Substack looked at a life-altering moment of choice, and invited readers to share short true tales of their own on this theme. Here is where those responses are shared.

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.

AMy MILLIOS

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?

JEAN WILSON

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
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