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.