Who Cares?

Someone recently told me that she considered my sister’s life to have no value.

My sister has severe autism and cerebral palsy, so she requires constant support from family, friends and paid carers. I stayed with Lou recently and, during this time, it was me who cut up her food into bite-size pieces, bathed and dressed her, held her hand to help her safely cross the road.

It would seem unthinkable now to dismiss Helen Keller’s life as valueless. And yet, many people must have written off this deaf-blind girl and pitied those who looked after this hot-tempered child.

In fact, Keller’s disabilities enabled her to look at our world from a distinctive vantage point – one that came to be valued by prestigious literary journals, world leaders and the general public alike.

As with many of the literary women we’ve featured on this site, it is difficult to prise apart Keller’s dazzling abilities from her apparent disabilities. Could Emily Dickinson have written such wildly challenging verse if she had conformed to the demands of the outside world? Could Jean Rhys have penned Wide Sargasso Sea without her own feelings of imprisonment? Could Virginia Woolf have rendered Septimus Smith’s shell shock had she not experienced the loosening grip of her own sanity?

The courage, determination and soaring talent of these writers were supported by the care and commitment of their family, friends and employees. Infamously reclusive, Dickinson underwent surgery on her eyes and a recent biographer claims that she may also have had epilepsy. Her writing life was facilitated by her siblings, and she received invaluable support from fellow writer Helen Hunt Jackson during a time when few others recognised the genius of her work – a subject we’ve written about for Shooter Literary Magazine.

Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles
Shooter Literary Magazine available from Foyles

During our interview with Diana Athill, she told us that Rhys relied in her youth on ‘helpful men’ to guide her through the trials of everyday life, while in later years ‘she was rescued by nice women like me’. Leonard Woolf – his wife’s most prized reader – helped to nurse her through dark times, never doubting her brilliance.

Throughout her long and dignified life, Keller relied on others night and day. Those who helped her were privileged to glean insights on how to value and be valued by a fellow human being. The support, of course, went both ways. Indeed, when Keller turned down offers from world-famous filmmakers in favour of the inexperienced Nancy Hamilton, she acted out of deep care for her friend.

During the past weeks, while I was helping my sister to bathe and dress and eat, she was looking after me in ways that were subtle but just as significant. Before travelling up to stay with her, I had been feeling uncharacteristically low. By welcoming me into her daily routine, Lou reminded me that joy can be found in all sorts of places: her face would light up when she selected an outfit from the clothes I’d laid out on her bed; in the cinema, she sang along to ‘Tomorrow’ with Annie, clapping her hands above her head; one evening, she dragged me around the marine lake at sunset, forcing me to run against the wind and laughing all the way.

Lou bringing a smile to my face
Lou bringing a smile to my face

Later that night we went to a gig and Lou shook hands with all and sundry, repeating her favourite phrases: ‘What’s your name? You’re a ratbag! I like college.’ In this way, we got chatting to a young man, who – full of despair – had just dropped out of university. Lou reached across me to take hold of the young man, and they sat hand in hand for a long time. I like to think that she was helping him that night just as she was helping me: that her zest for life was rubbing off on him; that he would value – as I did – her reminder that there can be dignity and kindness in seeking and accepting care.

The Ship has set sail

We are delighted to announce that yet another of our guest bloggers has a book out this month. What’s more, Antonia Honeywell’s The Ship asks wise and searching questions about the value of life and what it really means to care.


An Unexpected Gift

Unlike Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton, Emily and I have never been in the habit of swapping clothes. This is strange since aspects of our styles have become quite alike. Just recently, we unwittingly showed up at Maggie Gee’s book launch wearing outfits so similar that it prompted much comment.

One clothes-borrowing incident does spring to mind. We were co-writing a feature at Em’s place and, because it took far longer than expected, I ended up staying for days on end. I’d brought only one outfit, which I washed in the shower and hung out to dry overnight. It was still damp the next morning so I ended up going home in a tracksuit of Emily’s – which looked rather strange with my wedge heeled shoes.

This sort of thing would rarely happen to Em. She would have made sure to use the washing machine in good time so that her clothes would be dry for the journey home. She does her laundry on the same day each week; meticulously seams or darns anything that needs mending; hangs up all her clothes, even those waiting to be ironed.

I sometimes tease Em about her scrupulous attention to detail, but I secretly admire this quality in my friend. There is something soothing about the calm sense of order in her home, and her care extends from domestic and professional tasks to her sensitive treatment of all those she encounters.

And so, when I folded the outfit I’d chosen from Emily’s closet into a bag already overfilled with my laptop, notebook, washbag, and – I hate to admit it – pens, I immediately felt guilty. The last time I’d seen Em pack this item of clothing, she had carried it in a suit cover.

It’s the kind of top I associate with Em: loose-fitting, delicate material, subtle details, a pastel shade. I tend to wear more figure-hugging tops and bolder colours, fearing that floaty things might hide the fact I have a waist and that this palest of pinks might make me look pasty.

Emma Claire (right) with her book club friends.
Emma Claire (right) with her book club friends.

Some of you might half-recognise this top since Emily is sporting it in her author shot. I wondered whether I would become self-conscious, wearing it out and about, or feel less like myself.

After my packing mistake, I took the kind of care with Em’s top that I knew she would take herself: putting it in the wardrobe as soon as I got home, making sure there was an anti-moth cedar ring on the hanger. And this level of attention seemed to rub off onto my treatment of myself. I was less slapdash than usual getting ready on the night I wore Em’s top, even though I was just popping over to my neighbour’s for our book club.

I very quickly stopped noticing that I was wearing an outfit that didn’t belong to me. I wasn’t terrified that I would tear it or spill my wine. And I certainly didn’t become as measured as Emily when we were discussing Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

Rather than feeling like an imposter in Em’s outfit, the sensation was of being a slightly more careful version of me – a sensation that encapsulates, in so many ways, one of the gifts I most value in our friendship.