Sitting Till Bedtime

The Cultivation of Common Life
Photo by Matt Whitacre on Unsplash

In his essay “The Work of Local Culture,” Wendell Berry recounts the old rural ritual of “sitting till bedtime,” in which a couple would trudge over to their neighbor’s house after a day’s work, sit up telling and retelling stories by the fire until late, eat popcorn and apples, and then light their lanterns and stumble back home in the dark. He describes how this practice preserved a community’s memory of itself, reinforcing the bonds that tethered people to each other and their land. This practice of accumulating memories and local lore is akin to the natural process by which the earth transforms decaying matter into new soil, creating the preconditions for renewed life.

The pandemic has imposed a variant of “sitting till bedtime” upon each of us, and those we are quarantining alongside. We can only watch so much Netflix or stare at so many screens; at some point, we share bottles of wine, or tell stories over cards, look through old photos, or call someone we had once thought ourselves too busy to catch up with. Temporarily unable to entertain ourselves, we turn to each other. We’re coming to realize that practicing the art of talking about nothing is like flexing a rarely used muscle—awkward until it’s not. In reenacting this seemingly unproductive ritual of sitting till bedtime, we are weaving and reweaving our lives together.

For some of us, sitting till bedtime has taken the place of school. Our educations have shifted away from universities hamstrung by clunky online learning platforms and turned inward upon our nuclear families. Stories about the places where our friends and family grew up are told while baking, working on home-improvement projects, and gardening together—practices that have replaced career-oriented training. And with so many unemployed or financially precarious, we’ve had to turn to those stories and activities as new sites of fulfillment and comfort: shared sources of delight, signs of growth in a world that otherwise feels like it’s contracting.

We’ve had to turn to those stories and activities as new sites of fulfillment and comfort

Here in North Carolina, my fiancée’s father has rediscovered his Brinkmann smoker. On days when the weather is clear and on a few when it’s not, he sits out beside it for nearly eight hours trying to make a better rack of ribs than he used to order at his favorite barbecue joint. In the last couple of hours before the ribs are ready, I’ve started sitting out with him. Sometimes we sneak cigars and a couple nips of whisky. Otherwise, we just sit out staring at the temperature gauge on the smoker. He talks about his uncle who left home to join the Navy and how he ended up marrying a wealthy Yankee who wouldn’t ever let him move back down South. I tell him about my Papaw who grew up a sharecropper in rural Arkansas and ended up carrying the Olympic torch. We weigh the merits of different approaches for getting rid of the beaver dams that recently appeared on his pond back in Mississippi, ebenezers reminding us that the natural world continues on, unaffected by our sudden economic recession. We talk about my upcoming marriage to his daughter, and, when I finally mumble aloud the late-night worries I have about how we’ll make ends meet, he reassures me that we’ll be alright.

Then, we wake up the next day and do something similar. My fiancée stands outside with her dad as he rewires a light fixture, telling him the same stories she’s told him fifty times about the summers she spent back in Kentucky doing home repair for folks in Appalachia. She comes inside and tells me and her mom about telling him those stories—a papier mache layering of our recollected lives. I expect I’ll repackage those same stories and tell them to our children when they’re standing outside rewiring the light fixture with me one day.

The earth is remaking rotten produce, animal waste, and our own bones into fresh soil. During this nightmare season, when so many of those we love are having to die alone, sitting till bedtime seems an act of renewal, a way of cultivating common life in a lonely world.

Blake Mayes is a student at Stanford Law School.

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