At Home in a Mad Age

Reading the past for perspective

Photo by Jingda Chen on Unsplash

“A still, lovely summer’s evening; the grapes ripening, the oxen ploughing. Only man is mad.” Iris Origo

As a writer, I want to write. I long to fill pages with the tangle in my head. I want to write about food and memories, my body and my grandmother. I’d like to write about light or fire, worry or wine. But the world burns and the worst of men spoil the everyday. I want the unspoiled everyday back.

I want to write, but look at the news!

These last two years — these last two political years, to clarify — have been a nonstop circus, a festival of madness and bad reports. The political looms large. The noise outside the kitchen window has been so great and terrible, it’s impossible to ignore. It curdles the custard and sours the sweets. We can’t seem to look away from this increasingly rotten national moment, and it’s contributing to a sickness in the soul of the nation.

That’s how I feel. That’s how most of my friends and family feel, as well. As the voices on social media and at the ballot box imply, it’s how most of us feel. We’re exhausted, disgusted, incredulous at each new offense. From the trivial (umbrella mismanagement) to the alarming (too many to list in this space), we are every day bug-eyed with disbelief, rage, and fear. It feels new.

Is it new, however? Perhaps not totally. My husband argues (annoyingly) that none of this is new — it’s just more overt. He’s partially right. The staggering offenses pile up so fast, in the bright daylight, that we reel from each shock, unprepared for the next. It’s no secret to anyone paying attention that US politics have always been driven by greed, built on racism and misogyny, rife with corruption. That is not new. In the past, however, it seemed more cloak-and-dagger, more backroom cigar-and-handshake shenanigans. The public face of previous marauders was a little more hail-fellow-well-met, able to fool larger numbers of the busy sheep. And, usually, a few heroes and heroines rose up to check the madness. Today’s public faces, for better or worse, openly lie and spin and spit — they sneer and wag their fingers at us while their machine plunders away. We await our heroes and heroines.

In an effort at distraction, I’m currently reading two engaging journals: A Chill in the Air: An Italian War Diary, 1939–1940 by Iris Origo; and May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude, from 1973. Each in its way suggests that our current panic is not unusual. Each is instructive in ways of looking, and making sense of outside madness. Though seated in very different time and place, these women distill the reality of managing the personal in the light of the political.

Origo’s journal

It’s unnerving to identify with Origo’s journal of the Italian run-up to WWII, with its spectator’s analysis of Fascist sentiment, media complicity, and misplaced trust. In the summer of 1939, she writes: “It is curious — the unanimity with which everyone here refuses to believe in the possibility of war.” It can’t happen here. It can, of course, and it did. Some saw it coming, many didn’t. Origo reports the mood, she gleans partisan motives in the press, and she guesses at the concerns of the classes. She speaks with students, farmers, and officials. She watches, every day, with interest and rising alarm.

Just as we do.

Sarton’s journal

Sarton’s journal is a more interior affair, focused largely on her small corner of the world and her internal struggles. When she ventures out of her bubble, however, she writes, “The big question, I jotted down during the long wait at the airport, is how to hope and what to hope for. We are citizens of a corrupt country, of a corrupt vision.” This was her mood in the last grinding years of the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam as the American War), with Watergate as background.

Sarton returns to her writing, to her flowers and her friends, and tends the flimsy scaffolding of her sanity. She carries on, in spite of the noise beyond. Origo, too, does her best to write, and read, and visit with other hand-wringers amid the high panic of approaching war.

It’s instructive to read women at different moments in history, as they strive to balance the mundane with the madness du jour. I’m increasingly fascinated with the stories, in letters and diaries, of women fighting the tides of history as they keep the lights on and pick up the dropped stitches. Storms gather, but we still need to eat.

So we will watch, and we will write and talk. We will lament today our president’s abhorrent display at the border, and his rejection of all reason. The bile will rise as we watch the counts and the recounts. But we will also putter in the warm kitchen. I will make dumplings to go with the chicken stew, and watch the snow squall, and tend the woodstove. The fires outside will continue to burn, but the drafts in the windows need stopping. The compost needs to go out. Appointments must be kept.

I need to clear a path through the shrill panic and write it all down.

Pay attention. Read the news, write letters, march and yell and protest. But also: What’s for dinner? Is it time for the flannels? Have you noticed how the dusk light hits the stairs? Are you planting bulbs? Would you like a drink? Snow is coming, along with the news.

The sun will rise in the morning, no matter the madness of men.

So should we.

“And now is the time that I laid aside, at least for a few hours a day, the world that pours in here from the outside …” May Sarton

Write it down.

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