“This is so therapeutic,” my daughter said from the kitchen table where she was bent, paintbrush in hand, over a small canvas. I looked over her shoulder. She was creating a dreamy skyscape with the faint outline of an aeroplane passing across lavender clouds. When she’d gone to bed, I found another canvas and tried to do my own therapeutic work of art. I’m in a perpetual bad mood lately. Discovering, paintbrush in hand, that I was not in fact Van Gogh in a coffee-stained leopard print nightdress made me more irritated.
I’ve not had a good January, all told. Has anybody? Maybe there’s no such thing as a good January. It’s not so much a month as a 31-day-long kick up the arse.
The good news is it’s nearly over. Just a couple more days until payday, if you’re lucky. Just a week until spring starts tentatively creeping over the windowsill and the goddess Brigid, ancient deity of beer and fertility, will be cheerfully waiting with her brand new Bank Holiday. Only a few more days until people stop boring on about Dry January – I’ve had an unapologetically damp one thanks for asking – and trying to get you to join gyms or do Zumba classes.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. Some good things have happened. I spent three days in Roundwood House, deep in the Co Laois countryside in early January playing scrabble, eating beautiful food and making a jigsaw. I say “countryside” but I saw it out of the window, dodging as I did the annual Big Walk up the mountains to sit in front of the fire and read. It was like a mini lockdown with better wine and without the difficult-to-shake feeling that the world was ending.
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The jigsaw was a Christmas present from my 83-year-old mother Ann. I don’t know many people who could give a present of a jigsaw of themselves and get away with it but she can and she very much did. I spread the jigsaw out on an antique table, fibbing to my friends that I’d lost the box so we’d have to figure out what picture we were making as we went along. I hid the pieces that featured my mother’s face to prolong the surprise.
It was, as my daughter might have said, quite therapeutic putting my mother together piece by piece. She was supposed to come on the mini-break but got sick. I sent her a picture of the finished jigsaw, a radiant picture of her sitting in her bedroom smiling, surrounded by family photographs. “You are with us in spirit anyway,” I wrote.
I cried so hard watching An Cailín Ciúin on a plane to San Francisco last year that the stranger sitting next to me took their headphones out to ask if I needed assistance from one of the stewards
Every month is dry for my mother, incidentally. She gave up drinking a couple of years ago, as always in advance of the curve. There is a real trend at the moment with people who are not alcoholics giving up drinking. My mother’s excuse was deeply practical: she didn’t want to lose any more of the brain cells that she had left. For her even the, hardly perilous, few white wine spritzers she’d occasionally have over dinner with drinkers like me was a risk too far.
Admittedly some good things happened in January: My funniest friend brought me to dinner in a fancy steak place where the tablecloths are starched and the sides are the main event. Naturally we had all the sides. Creamed corn. Spinach with bacon. A Matterhorn of onion rings. “You have to have the dauphinoise,” said somebody, so we did. And the mash. The company was equally side-splitting.
In other good January news Madonna announced that she’s going to tour her greatest hits. That Oscar nominations for Martin McDonagh’s brilliant I-won’t-have-a-bad-word-said-about-it The Banshees of Inisherin has made a good sized dent in the late January blues. Not to mention all the accolades for Colm Bairéad’s An Cailín Ciúin. I cried so hard watching that film on a plane to San Francisco last year that the stranger sitting next to me took their headphones out to ask if I needed assistance from one of the stewards.
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Miriam Margolyes is just the tonic we need at the fag end of January
Also making January less depressing was President Michael D Higgins who said homework time should be used “for other creative things”. It’s several decades too late for many of us but this feels like a big moment for generations to come. If the President is saying Down With This Sort of Thing about homework then it can’t be much longer before we become like sensible Finland where children are encouraged to do hobbies instead of wasting time on after-school assignments.
And right at the end of this pain in the neck of a month, something else good is happening. After years of admiring her from afar myself and my mother are going to get to meet the actor, writer and activist Miriam Margolyes at a screening of her TV show Lady Gregory: Ireland’s First Social Influencer in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire this weekend. Harry Potter star Margolyes is 81 and calls herself “a mouthy old bag with a heart of gold”. She is just the tonic we need at the fag end of January.
In a world where it can feel like we’re being encouraged to stay positive about everything at all times Margolyes is a breath of pragmatic fresh air: “Staying joyful and seizing the day is bloody hard when you are old, in pain and feel depressed,” she said recently. “It’s difficult to face the future when you know there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t really have any words of wisdom: you just have to get on with it. Everybody’s going to die. If you’ve still got your marbles and you’re not incontinent, you’re fucking lucky.”
Now that’s what I call therapeutic.