On the Calm app, Matthew McConaughey reads a sleep story titled Wonder. In the earliest days of my cancer diagnosis and treatment, in the middle of the pandemic before vaccines when death tolls were skyrocketing, I waited for biopsy results and surgery. I would lie in bed praying for sleep, knowing cancer was in my body. I’d often wake up in the middle of the night—alone, afraid, and lost.
I would turn on Wonder, and Matthew McConaughey’s voice would help me escape from my panicked and fearful mind. I needed to build my own anchor, and that story one was of my tools. It features a 7-year-old girl named Zoe who loves dinosaurs, art, and the cosmos. Her stargazing grandfather is wise and kind, and lives on a lake. When Zoe can’t sleep because of her worries about the world and her future, he reassures her of the beauty and comfort we can find in the darkness if only we are willing to step into it with curiosity and courage.
In those nights of drifting liminal space, caught in the sea of time between no longer and not yet, between living and dying, between this world and what’s next, Zoe, her grandfather, and Matthew helped me became limitless, fearless, and amazed. They kept the tiny light within me burning bright. Awe became my salvation.
I was Zoe, and her grandfather and Matthew were my guides. They reminded me again and again that in this moment, I was alive. “What might happen in the future can’t happen now,” they assured me. That truth was my North Star and I clung to it like the life raft that it was. I listened to this story so many times that I could recite it from memory.
Now, over two years cancer-free, I’m in the midst of re-imagining my future home and career. Recently I woke up in the middle of the night, concerned about what’s ahead. I listened to Wonder again for the first time in a long time. Again, as then, Matthew, Zoe, and her grandfather soothed my worried mind. They reminded me of how far I’ve come, how far we’ve all come, since those terrifying nights when, in the wise and timeless words of Ani DiFranco, self-preservation was a full-time occupation (and then some.)
That’s the thing about stories. They give us hope and joy. They help us rest and recharge. They give us an escape so we can re-enter our lives with new perspective and renewed strength. Stories have saved my life more than once. They continue to be that solid core of my being every time I’m afraid “the centre cannot hold,” as Yeats speaks of so poignantly in his poem “The Second Coming”. He talks of revelation and rebirth in the middle of chaos, darkness, and doubt—exactly the same spirit of Wonder.
When we are most unsure, we can be certain of this: if we can find something, anything, to help us hang on, there is so much beauty and wisdom to be gained in the struggle. Someday, our struggle and triumph will be the inspiration that helps someone else survive their own long night. That is reason enough to keep going—to have the honor of paying it forward.