On Christmas Eve day, the wild hectic energy of the city fell into calm, swallowed up by the snow-lined boulevards. Jack Frost added an extra nip in the air, and families settled into their homes for a quiet evening before the flood of friends and relatives. The sapphire skies of the past several days disappeared under the veil of puffy white clouds filled with the possibility of another snowfall.
I went out in the morning for last-minute shopping and revelled in the unfamiliar peace. I could hear the trill of tiny birds, the hum of electricity running through the wires, even the faint whisper of a distant wind. There was no impertinent honking of horns or fender benders from impatient shoppers. The only irritation was a reawakening of the stiffness of RA from the winter chill. I reflected on the past year. It’s been a busy one – my brother got married, my nephew turned one, I contributed to a book on Living with Rheumatic Disease with a group of fantastic advocates and writers, I did another show, attended writing festivals, travelled, worked and battled RA. I looked forward to an extended break before the rush of holidays – and then came an opportunity I could not refuse.
My partner signed on to direct a pantomime, the triple threat of shows. I’ve worked with him on stage acting opposite one another, and under his direction as a director, but now I had the opportunity to work with him side by side as a choreographer. A pantomime is a complex beast – filled with satirical gags, musical numbers, inside jokes, dance, and character work, it takes many hands and focus to pull it all together. Pantomimes are based on familiar stories. Ours was called the Dr. of Oz: A Self-Help Panto, based on the Wizard of Oz. I was determined to take a break from theatre and recharge my batteries until I learned that partial proceeds from the show would be donated to Cassie and Friends Society for children living with JIA and other Rheumatic disease. I couldn’t refuse. It was an opportunity for me to revive my previous dance life before RA, and support a local organization fighting for kids with JIA and other Rheumatic disease to make their lives better.
The rehearsal process was a lot more challenging than previous shows. This was the first time I was behind the scenes, and not on the stage. This time instead of taking direction, I was giving it. It was a bit daunting at first – for three weeks before rehearsal started, I listened to the music, wrote down impressions of characters, and envisioned how they would move. To make sure my choreography worked, I had to perform the very same moves I was going to teach. The body never fails to surprise me with its resilience, even in the face of disease. My muscle memory was still alive even if my joints objected. It was both gratifying and challenging.
(You can read about my experience working on the show here in my latest post for Creaky Joints.)
One of the best gifts I ever received was a donation in my name to Arthritis Research. I was given that same gift again this year. Nothing on a store shelf is half as satisfying as a gift of hope, and I was thrilled to be able to reciprocate by giving my time and energy to a cause close to my heart, and for a very special group that is often overlooked. It was my gift to Cassie and Friends; it was my gift to children with JIA; it was my gift to myself, proving once again that RA could not stop me from pursuing my passions and living a full productive life.
I wish everyone a very Happy Christmas, Yule, Winter Solstice, or anything you choose to celebrate, even if it’s just the joy of being alive. May you all have a season of wellness, happiness, gratitude and love. Celebrate your victories, no matter how small. Revel in your courage, because to live with chronic illness is the bravest thing you can do.
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J.G. Chayko is a writer, actress, and international arthritis advocate who’s been involved in theatre for more than 30 years and has published poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.