Majority consensus* marks one day as a 24 hour cycle. Sleep, eat, work, eat, work, eat, rest, play, rest, sleep. Something like that.
My days are different. I live with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (also known as M.E.), which means that I live much of my life in small parcels. The rhythm of the majority consensus day is not my terrain. I don’t keep to the clock. Days and nights are fragmented, composed of many more beats than that of the dominant norm. They break down into more numerous parts, a fact my specialist nurse encouraged me to record on sheets of grid paper. First it was hourly slots of activity, then thirty minutes, followed by fifteen, then ten...
The story of my day became a story of stops, of stuttered activity, long stretches of silence and stillness between. The short story, often framed as little sister to the novel and other longer literary forms, became my uneasy ally over recent years as I wrote a collection of short fiction.
With my physical life defined in small packages and sometimes ruthless decisions to cut out anything that wouldn’t easily fit, I heard echoes in the writing of short fiction - in particular the editing, the paring down, and the (perhaps unique) tendency of short stories to not lean towards resolution in the way that novels and scripts sometimes do. While there may be symbiosis between the structural form of short stories and the embodied form of life with CFS, on a practical level it does makes it hard to complete a large project like a collection.
In a capitalist system that allots value to the ability to complete commercially tenable work, I have very little value. I am close to worthless, from this economic perspective. Likewise, short fiction does not value highly in a world where money attaches more readily to screenplays, TV scripts and novels. The short story is a quaint artefact.
From that position, I wonder if there is great potential – perhaps outside of the world of commerce there are fewer expectations, fewer rules to be followed. Perhaps life can be written differently.
A short story can be held in one hand. It can be read in one sitting and it is whole in its own incompleteness – that is to say incomplete only when held against the long form. The ‘incompleteness’ is an illusion because really the short story is moment to moment, it is present, and not one word can be extraneous.
There is no room for long, indulgent description, for diversion, no room for anything that is not absolutely necessary. Every word, every letter counts, as with my life with CFS; I have shed so many luxuries and digressions, have had to whittle my days down to the core of what is first necessary and second important.
First: I must eat, I must drink, I must breathe. I must secure shelter and tend to my body’s demands – pain, exhaustion. Lie down, block out lights and sound.
Second: on good days come the important things, the bedrock of my soul, the pieces that hold me together when my body fragments in pain and numbness – books, music, friends, paint, my family and the crunch of snow that’s melted and then frozen again. These mark the survival of my core self, the me that is more than cells and chemical messages and burning tendons. These are the crucial words that make up myself as story, the pieces that write me.
Before disability, before CFS, there was a sense of continuity, of expectation. My life was lived in long form, much anticipation of future, of plans, and an unbroken thread that stretched through from then to now to what would be.
CFS was the dismantling of that. It was the disruption of that long form through inconsistent hours, days, months, all dancing to a stop/start jerk, and the thread became tangled.
I no longer see in lines. I cannot. It’s too painful. I trick myself into forgetting, again and again, by seeing myself through the eyes of others, those who don’t or can’t see the illness. The ones who still flinch with surprise when I call myself disabled, who ask if I’ve tried exercising more, eating better, taking supplements. The ones who tell me they really know how I feel because they didn’t sleep great last night and are sooooo tired today.
The invisibility is a sneaky trick that plays me again and again. As much as I sometimes rage against the ignorance of others, of what they don’t see, I do it myself. I look away. I trim the corners of my life, bit by bit, until it fits within confines that fool me into believing it is choice, because fuck no, I don’t want to live wanting. I want to live now, to live in my present. The pull of the distant future and past is what hurts, and so when I am at my best and most able, I do live presently. No string. No thread. No straight line.
Here is where my story sits. It is between rests, on the uproad of my energy, or maybe on the down. It is a light switched on in the dim of an evening room and then, suddenly, it is off. The breaker flips, a power outage. Small parcels.
CFS time can be held in one hand. It is an overheard conversation on a bus. It is the wait from the end of the queue to the counter. It is that short space of time that is easily overlooked, the time it takes for a cup of tea to cool to room temperature, the space between lying down and sleeping.
A short story, on the days I can read and write, demands presence. It demands now. Just now. I finish reading, finish writing, and it travels with me into rest and sleep and pain. It stays there, in the gaps in my active life, and it settles.
*Thanks to Manda Scott for this apt phrase