Greta Gerwig's Little Women opens with the line: "I (have) had lots of troubles; so I write jolly tales."
Art is often used as a medium to explore the darker aspects of life. It is a safe space in which to probe our existential fears, or for some their inky realities. I believe in the function of art in challenging the status quo; disrupting and provoking thought.
However, I recently read a popular memoir; it was nihilistic, hedonistic, fatalistic. And while at some points, I would have enjoyed this with voyeuristic glee, after a tough few months, I only felt exasperated. Enough darkness, I wanted jolly tales.
At the moment, we sure have lots of troubles. Coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, is sweeping the globe, a globe feeling feverish itself with the effects of the climate catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people are facing unemployment and the economy is falling into recession. At the same time, personal trauma continues without the same support systems so readily accessible. It becomes difficult to engage with confronting works of art when the media we consume reads like dystopian fantasy.
So, I want to tell you jolly tales. Because I am conscious that I too examine less palatable subjects in my articles. It’s hard to make my column a happy column. I don’t necessarily believe I should; my migraines don’t make me very happy. But happiness and light slip into the articles despite the pain, as they do into the writer’s life (in fact, here they appear on a much a more frequent basis). There are times, however, that not only does joy appear despite the pain, but that illness itself is a reminder of the good in this world.
Let me begin with a taxi driver. After a week of enjoying myself in Italian trattorias, I was struck with an almighty migraine. I passed out in the back of a taxi in the height of Naples’s honking rush hour traffic. With my accommodation unavailable until later that evening, the driver took me to friend’s hotel to rest. Then on to the local hospital, where an elderly patient offered me her blanket when she saw me shiver. On his tea break, the driver popped in for a visit.
At the end of the day, once more he forged his way through the grizzly chaos to deliver me safely home. All free of charge. With linguistic comprehension limited, we devised a lingua franca of animated smiles and fanciful hand movements, that came perhaps more naturally to my Italian amico. As the driver bid my adieu with a kiss of the hand, I was almost rushed back into the emergency department with a case of weak knees.
During another bad migraine attack, on a flight between Lilongwe and Addis Ababa, a woman silently stroked my head on her lap for the duration of the flight. In India, the landlady who lived below made black chai each time I was unwell. A hostel owner, in Spain, called a friend to cover his shift so he could run home to pick up some "magic painkillers" to cure my thumping head and get me back on the sandy shores (I didn't take them – don't @ me!!!).
The reason I tell these tales, is because what often strikes me in the face of illness, is how kindness prevails. People with whom we have no, or little connection, going out of their way, to make things just a little bit better. This is of course not to mention those with whom we are bonded who will go to the ends of the earth to ease our burdens.
Recently, when I was particularly unwell, a friend texted to say “I wish I could make you feel better”, and the truth is, while many cannot cure us, they can, in fact, make us feel better. A simple text, a cup of tea, an extension of goodwill makes the hurt lighter. What greater antidote to pain is there than kindness? Why do we live through the moments of pain if not for the moments of love and shared joy?
Having chronic migraine, I have to be especially cognisant of managing my emotions. Stress and upset can manifest as a worsening of migraineous symptoms. On the flip side, kindness and feelings of joy are equally felt as a bodily sensation, a thorough corporal warmth. Like my pain, you may not always be able to see this, but this feeling too, like the pain, is immense.
There are many experiencing tough times right now, and while we do not have the power to rewrite their tales, we can do our best to add a jolly sentence to a dark chapter.