“Look at me, I do everything myself. I work from morning to night: I do all the grafting myself, the pruning myself, the planting myself. The whole secret lies in loving it–that is, in the sharp eye of the master; yes, and in the master’s hands, and in the feeling that makes one, when one goes anywhere for an hour’s visit, sit ill at ease, with one’s heart far away, afraid that something may have happened in the garden.”
–Yegor Pesotsky, the horticulturalist in Chekhov’s 1894 short story “The Black Monk”
The cancellation of the WTA (Women’s Tennis Assoc) season, I’m realizing, has had a deeply deleterious effect on my mental health. I used to chastise myself for being so immersed in the rankings, scores, tour schedule, tournaments, personal vendettas etc.
But lately I’m finding the phenomenon of lockdown unrelenting in a way I didn’t for the first couple of months. I feel I should always be reading, cleaning, writing, thinking, planning, walking, doing exercises, et cetera et cetera. I see now that tennis provided a much-needed release from my fevered brain.
Here’s the other thing: age. No-one tells you but after you’ve been around for six decades or so a whole thing starts to go on in your psyche, heart, brain and bones where you are constantly but constantly aware of your impending death. It’s not a sad thing exactly, though moments of sorrow come that are well-nigh overwhelming. Or rather the sadness isn’t at the thought of your own death but of how much remains undone. Of how you weren’t able to alleviate the suffering of others. Weren’t able to spread the Gospels to the ends of the earth, at least not remotely, not one zillionth, to the extent that you longed to.
Also you are tired. Man, take a look at those 85-year-old ladies with the styled hair and the manicure. Do you have any idea the strength of will, the character, required for a person to keep herself up like that? I’m not there yet, so I don’t know–but I’m beginning to be able to imagine. To haul your aching body and your weary heart out of bed, out the door, to be civil, cheerful and hopeful? Especially when the world barely even makes sense any more!
Okay then–courage! Self-pity not allowed! I’ve been on a Chekhov short story kick. As you may know, Anton did not tie things up neatly. He laid out a situation, usually filled with terrible sorrow, loss, suffering, nostalgia, poverty, injustice and/or heartbreak. He often gave the protagonist(s), or maybe a seemingly tangential character, a “moment” when the veil parts and they glimpse something of beauty or the eternal or the transcendent.
And then the tire falls off the wagon, the money-hungry relative pours boiling water over the newborn presumptive-heir baby (“In the Ravine”), the fortune is squandered, the would-be husband lacks the courage to propose, everyone gets old or dies, or not, and the story ends with everything uncertain and undone.
Just like life.
“The girls had set out to meet the icon in the morning in their bright, trim dresses and brought it back toward evening, in procession, and at that moment the chimes rang across the river. A huge crowd of locals and strangers choked the street; noise, dust, mob…The old man and Granny and Kiryak–all stretched their hands toward the icon, looked at it greedily and said crying: ‘Intercede for us, Little Mother, intercede!’
Everyone seemed to suddenly perceive that there is no void between heaven and earth, that the rich and strong have not seized everything yet, that there is still protection against injury, against bondage, against oppressive, unbearable want, against the frightful vodka.
‘Intercede, Little Mother!’ sobbed Marya. ‘Little Mother!’
But when they finished the Te Deum and took away the icon, everything was as before, and coarse, drunken voices rang out again from the inn.”
–Anton Chekhov, from the short story “Peasants,” trans. Barbara Makanowitzky
During Mass this morning, Father announced that LA County is again closing down the churches and that as soon as we left the doors would be locked “for the foreseeable future.”