Interesting Times

Room With a View

By Susan Hand Shetterly

“May you live in interesting times” is purported to be a Chinese curse, but the expression’s origin has never actually been pinned down. It could be from anywhere. Or everywhere. As I write this, there’s no doubt that here, and across the world, we’ve tripped into a deep, dark shaft of interesting times. Perhaps when you read this, we will have crawled up and out and stand in full sun and lighthearted air. 

If you are not sick or tending others who are, staying home is hard. Most of us squander loose time, but if we let it, this self-imposed journey into stillness, this hermitage, can offer space to think and create, to wander imaginatively, and to rediscover some things that make us happy. But this comes with discipline. One needs to tamp down fears that flare like wildfires in the mind. 

Yesterday, I climbed the attic stairs and pulled vinyl records out of a stack I hadn’t touched for years, their covers delivering a whiff of dust and mold. I carried them down and played them on the phonograph, the volume loud. They had belonged to my mother. Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Bach. This music she loved drifted out the open windows of our house in summers a long time ago. 

In these most interesting times, we call children, we talk to grandchildren, we call sisters and friends. We call the people who are frail and who need our voices to tell them that we care. And they call us. Back and forth, it becomes a weave of familiar, beloved voices. But this is, in truth, a time of quiet and retreat. 

One needs to tamp down fears that flare like wildfires in the mind.

I’ve spent a good part of the days rereading Jane Austen’s Emma. I need Austen’s wit, her gimlet eye. I need her to remind me to be kind. Emma’s journey to kindness makes for a long book, and I, like so many others, wait for Mr. Knightley’s slap-down: “Poorly done, Emma!”

I’ve also been tramping into the yard, from the raised beds to the frog ponds and back, through the stands of red maples and white pines. There are invasives to uproot and cut down: the infuriating knotweeds, the grasping tangles of bittersweet, the dry persistent snags of Russian olive. And there are plants to be nurtured and tended: blue flags and pickerelweeds in the pond shallows, wild bergamots, violets, primroses, goldenrods. The virgin bower will leaf out. The dandelions will spread a carpet of early pollen across the grass for the bees. 

Back to the kitchen table, where I’ve taped together pieces of paper to map this place, I block in a milkweed bed and a new herb plot and scribble notes about the future of the yard as if this were the most urgent of all endeavors, as if my yard were the world.

Yesterday, at dusk, I was wrung out. I lay down by the lower frog pond and looked up at the sky as a cloud shaped like a baking potato scudded to the west. From back in the trees, a male robin delivered a blast of territorial singing and a wood frog piped up from the water. I lay within this song and the ebbing light, and the words to a Yeats poem I once learned by heart came back to me:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

Photograph: Francesco Paggiaro / Pexels