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Chalice and socket

By Timothy Cocks Metaphor and language 24 May 2016

Our dear friend Blanaid Coveney, author of a number of wonderful posts on topics ranging from red-haired myths to musical improvisation, recently sent us a link to the latest edition of Granta online Granta 135: New Irish Writing. In particular, there was a piece by Sinéad Gleeson entitled Blue Hills and Chalk Bones. 

A beautiful, touching, powerful and deeply personal account, Blue Hills and Chalk Bones is a phenomenological study of Sinéad’s experience of severe adolescent arthritis, the healthcare system, hope, disappointment, and the fragility of faith.

The prose is sharp and intelligent. Every paragraph, every sentence, is quotable, and trying to pick just a few passages to share here is a task suited to Sisyphus – watching the boulder roll back down the hill as each selected extract is usurped by reading the next line. Only a full reading will do justice to the piece.

Blue Hills and Chalk Bones

The body is an afterthought…Unless it’s involved in pleasure or pain, we pay this moving mass of vessel, blood and bone no mind. 

For me, it happened in the months after turning thirteen: the synovial fluid in my left hip began to evaporate like rain. The bones ground together, literally turning to dust. 

Doctors tried everything to solve the mystery: firstly by applying ‘Slings and Springs’ – a jauntily named type of traction that sounded to me like a clown duo. Then surgery. Biopsies. An aspiration, which suggests hopefulness, but yielded no results.

Physiotherapy meant mandatory swims… Each week, I swam faster and got stronger. My body became an inverse: strong, taut arms, while the weak left leg refused to move, to build muscle. 

Ashamed of my bones and my scars and the clunking way I walked. On an early visit to the surgeon, to check my spine for scoliosis, I was asked to wear a swimsuit. Mortified, I cried all through the exam, and the doctor, growing impatient, threw a towel over my lower body.

‘THERE, is that better?’ It wasn’t. I was a self-conscious girl being humiliated for her sense of shame.

During my second pregnancy, my hip deteriorated irreparably and another surgeon explained the pain as ‘just baby blues’. Eventually I was given a total hip replacement, after convincing a doctor that it was the only solution to 24-hour pain. Granted as if this were a privilege, rather than something essential. The familiar need to plead and convince, to prove myself worthy of medical intervention.

My body is not a question mark, and pain is not a negotiation.

Part of me wants to go back to Lourdes, to walk the hills with my ceramic and titanium joint. To view it through the eyes of my lapsed faith, my non-belief.

Although I do believe.

Not in gods and grottos and relics. But in words and people and music. Our bodies propel us through life, with their own holiness.

Relic and bone.

Chalice and socket.

Grotto and womb.

Emerson wrote that

common to all works of the highest art (is) that they are universally intelligible; that they restore to us the simplest states of mind”

Literary art, such as Sinéad’s, shares this power and, in the face of ever increasing complexity in pain science and clinical practice (and the rest), serves to remind us of the foundational truth of an individual’s lived experience.

– Tim Cocks


  1. davidbutler0noi

    One of the most powerful pieces of health writing I have ever encountered
    Thanks and phew!


  2. Reading that before a long day in patient contact sets my compassion and interest at a level that will hopefully respect and tune in to the person, the pain experience and the priorities.


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