hen I was six years old, I bit off half my nail. I panicked. I didn’t want to die. I prayed, then nothing was wrong. A miracle. What if everyone alive only gets one miracle?
I once read about a Monk who fell from Tynemouth Priory three times and survived twice. I bet he wished he’d saved a miracle for that third time he hit the ground. You can imagine how much I wished I hadn’t wasted my miracle on a fingernail when I was diagnosed with an incurable illness.
I grew up Catholic. I’m still figuring out what that means to me as an adult. In 1997 it meant I went to Mass on Wednesday’s with school and sat wondering why the Corinthians never wrote back to Saint Paul.
I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2012 after I lost feeling in my left leg for a week. I only rang NHS Direct to appease my mother. They said “Can you make your own way to the hospital? We can send an ambulance”, I said “I’ll just ring a taxi.” I was 20, and not really taking anything seriously yet. When I was admitted and my friend had to leave me, I asked her to look up the patron saint of legs. I didn’t have a smart phone then. I knew the patron saint of eyes was Lucy, a martyr who had her eyes plucked out, but I didn’t have any idea about the patron saint of legs. She said, “You don’t really believe in all that though, you don’t think it will make a difference?”. I paused and then said “Probably not but, look anyway”. It’s Saint Servatius if you ever need to know.
I’ve got a stone on my windowsill, with three perfect holes clean through it. When you hold it on its side it looks like a cartoon ghost. I call it Ghost Rock. I picked it up on the stoney beach at Lindisfarne when I was a teenager. It would have been Easter. Or maybe September. Either way the wind was blowing in a direction that carried the mournful cries of the seal colonies across from Outer Farne. I was telling myself a story about selkies. I was trying to remember something someone once told me about seals being the re-incarnated souls of sailors lost at sea. That’s when I found Ghost Rock, it was half-comic and half-profound, exactly how I like things. So I kept it. Half as a talisman, half as a joke.
You see what’s happening here. I’m explaining myself. This is the rational case. A woman, brought up on a diet of Catholicism and family holidays to the northeast coast is shut in a room for three weeks and conjures an image stitched together from things that have brought her comfort in the past.
I do not believe I had a vision in April 2020. I do not believe I accessed a profound truth.
I went in to a darkened room and I came out with what I took in, didn’t I?
Part of me still yearns for that kind of faith. I’ve always wanted the kind of faith that Indiana Jones has in The Last Crusade at the leap from the lions head. That Joyce Butterfield had when she wrote a letter to be read aloud at her funeral and ended it with the words ‘I’ll see you all soon’.
Having MS made me believe in souls. It made me doubt my body, made me feel like this fleshy spacesuit is a Judas; unreliable, betrayer, nothing to do with who I am. I feel certain I have a soul, or a mind, an essential me-ness that’s who I really am. I am to my body what a driver is to a car, a jockey to a horse. The way I feel certain that my body isn’t me, I wish I could feel that certain about anything else. A religion. A lottery ticket. Anything at all.
We still live in a society that runs off faith, in ways we’ve learnt not to see. As a 17-year-old with no understanding of economics, the 2008 crash felt like a crisis of faith. From my perspective one day people believed in the market and everything was fine, the next day people lost their faith and everything tumbled down. The anti-vax crisis can be viewed as a crisis of faith in medical science. So many things in our world only work because we believe in them together: train timetables, the rules of a football game, traffic safety. I was in a car crash a few weeks ago, the roads are terrifying right now. I’ve lost my faith that other cars can pass mine with out calamity.
Consider time. Not real time, the tide, the pull of the moon, the earth spinning round the sun. Clock time, calendar time, made up time. In ancient Greece the nights had four hours and days had 12. In Britain the new year was in April until we changed our minds. In 1752 as the British Isles moved from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar we skipped 11 days, so people went to bed on the 2nd of September and woke up on the 14th.
Creativity runs on faith. Writing and making art is a kind of magic trick, just like flying in Neverland, Wile E. Coyote running past the edge of a cartoon cliff, the second you start to doubt you start to fall. I can suffer with horrible creative block, and it’s all rooted in doubt. I spend weeks deleting every word I write, unpicking every stitch. It’s not that I can’t make anything, it’s that I don’t believe what I’m making is any good.
From Letty McHugh's Book of Hours: An Almanac for the Seasons of the Soul, winner of the Barbellion Prize 2022.
Letty McHugh is an artist and writer based in West Yorkshire. Her work explores the universality of personal experience, which is basically the intellectual way of saying she is interested in people, their stories and the things that connect us all. At the moment, she is researching ways of making work to bring connection and solace to people experiencing isolation, drawing inspiration from my own experiences of living with a chronic illness.