May You Live in Interesting Times

My husband turned to me last night and said, “May you live in interesting times.” I’d never heard this famous quotation/curse before. The implication of the saying is that what sounds nice at face value is really quite awful. Think of some “interesting times” from history. What comes to mind? Wars and famine, right? To my mind, Trump’s election places us squarely in “interesting times.”

I suppose I’m not supposed to reveal my politics, but I can’t imagine any of my readers would think that I would be happy to find my country led by a man who has attacked and disparaged minorities, women, the disabled, immigrants . . . I don’t think I need to provide a full list here. The New York Times has already done that for us. I fear for so many people and things. I worry about healthcare. I worry about our very fragile environment. I worry about the global economy. I am frankly sad for the soul of my country.

I’ve seen many Trump supporters suggest that views like mine are laughable or ridiculous. I hope they’re right and that Trump will prove to be harmless, but his rhetoric suggests otherwise.

Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, 1936

My only solace today, aside from the company I have in my grief, is art. Through many an “interesting time” art has transcended all of the bullshit. Which is not to say that it necessarily made the bullshit go away. But it still had the power to speak and reach people and–perhaps–affect the way people thought. Consider, for example, Dorothea Lange‘s Depression-era photographs. “Migrant Mother” has become something of a symbol of the Depression and the suffering of migrant workers in the Dust Bowl. Lange described her interaction with the woman in the photograph, saying, “There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.” Lange sought to effect social change with her documentary works. Art can change the world. Or at least the thinking of the world, which is an important start.

Perhaps more powerfully, art is entirely personal and cannot be stripped away by any demagogue or hateful policy. I can call to mind the lines of Ode to a Nightingale, listen to the delightful melodies of Django Reinhardt, reread For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Bell Jar for the bazillionth time, and–of course–thumb through my favorite art books. I have always found Marc Chagall’s colorful, airy, dreamscapes especially appealing. My point is that these works of art are entirely mine as I consume them. Many of us have very personal relationships with our favorite works of art. They can comfort us and guide us. And they cannot be taken from us.

Art is so much more powerful and lasting than a four-year presidential term. I plan on spending the next four years consuming art that is meaningful to me. I will, however, pull my nose out of whichever book I’m reading if I see any opportunity to effect positive change of my own.

Until then, I’ll leave you with Keats’ very apt words:

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
         Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
         Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
         And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
                Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
                        But here there is no light,
         Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
                Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

3 thoughts on “May You Live in Interesting Times

  1. Ellen,

    Thank you! Your words have reminded us how fortunate we are to have this at our fingertips!
    As we wake with the doom and gloom of ” Interesting Times ” we can shift our thought to having a better day!
    We are bolstered by the sympathy of our Italian family and the reminder that they endured 10 years of Berlusconi.
    I’m sure sitting with your father would fill the room with many stories of “Interesting Times”.

    Buona giornata!




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