I got my first migraine while I was staring at Geoffrey Chaucer’s grave.
I was twenty years old, living away at college in a different country, away from my parents for the first time in my life. It was a full-blown migraine too, not just the headache, but nausea, difficulty with lights, and visual disruption too. One moment I was staring at old Geoff’s grave, and the next moment, there was a strange ropy thing blocking my sight.
I took a step back and looked around Westminster Cathedral at night, looked at the other people, but I couldn’t see anyone’s face, just this strange hallucination, so I made the most obvious sort of deduction that I could.
Clearly, the ghost of Geoffrey Chaucer had reached into my head and fiddled around with the wiring.
I smiled despite the pain and confusion.
It seemed to me that the ghost of Geoffrey Chaucer had found fit to bless me, and this hallucination was the physical manifestation of that moment.
This isn’t as ridiculous a conclusion as it might seem. For me, right then, there was all kinds of magic, and this felt like just another moment of that magic.
I had moved to London, a city that I’d always wanted to go to, and it was better than I’d ever thought it could be. I had fallen in love (with the woman I’m married to now), studied, partied, drank too much, ate too much, saw bands, met authors, toured the city, hitchhiked in Wales, eaten Indian food, met people from the Soviet Union who’d escaped, met people who’d decided to hitchhike in Vietnam before I’d known going there was possible.
One rainy morning, I’d gone into the British Library’s reading room and had the whole place to myself. There were manuscripts lying about: “Ozymandias” lying next to the original handwritten copy of “Yesterday” next to an original print by William Blake next to one of Shakespeare’s folios. There didn’t seem to be any logic to the way they were arranged except that these were all the great works of British literature, and I realized halfway through that I was familiar with every single title.
And I realized that I wasn’t the stupid kid with no future and no hope that I thought I was.
And I realized that I was part of an intellectual community, not just someone on the outside looking in.
And I realized that I had something of value that I could give to the rest of the world.
And I realized that I wanted to write. I was going to be a poet, I decided, right there in that hall looking at those manuscripts.
For me, those days were magic. And it didn’t seem so outrageous to think that Chaucer might be reaching out from the grave and blessing me and my choice to be a part of his world. It seemed right, and I was glad he had done it.
I stood there in the middle of Westminster Cathedral on a cold night in February nauseated, dizzy, headachy, and nearly blind, but mostly what I felt was hope. Writing, traveling, poetry, and Chaucer had all worked together to make even a migraine an event for joy.