As snow, sleet and icy rain falls here and across much of the country, the term “stir crazy” comes to mind.
We’ve had a lot of snow at the farm. Unwilling to let this keep us from the woods, Elizabeth and I have punched a two mile loop on our favorite trail. This loop has helped to keep us from going stir crazy. We awoke at dawn today, examined the new precipitation and resolved to punch a path again once it stops snowing at the end of the work day.
With the phrase “stir crazy” ringing in my head, I decided to research where this phrase comes from. As best I can gather, “stir” comes from the Romani word for prison “sturiben”. Beginning in the 19th century, “stir” became a slang word for Newgate prison, a notorious horror of a London prison with “stir crazy” being a state of succumbing to prison-induced insanity.
By the mid 1850’s the English referred to being “in stir“ or “out of stir” to indicate being in or out of jail with additional terms like “stir crazy” and “stir hustler” ( one who has mastered the art of incarceration). Eventually these terms spread to North America while “stir crazy” morphed into a term indicating a general feeling of confinement.
This definition brought me up short, reminding me of how many people have faced and continue to face much more confining situations than what I face right now.
I have always read a lot of books but never more so than during this time of covid. In between tracking down new reads, I have dipped back into many of my childhood favorites. I just reread Witch of Blackbird Pond, This is the story of a young woman, Kit, who was born and raised in Barbados but must take shelter with her aunt and uncle in rigidly puritanical Wethersfield, CT in the 1680’s when her grandfather guardian dies.
Adjusting to life in puritan New England would drive anyone stir crazy. Everything Kit says, does or wears is sinful according to her uncle and the prevailing culture. By necessity, she succumbs to a life of sitting silently by the hearth, sewing with her cousins night and day. The one break in routine is the weekly trip to church, an outing in which a shivering congregation is verbally abused for eight hours by the local minister. The grim humorlessness of her life is broken only when, taking a break from weeding her uncle’s onions, she discovers a shunned and branded Quaker woman living in isolation near Blackbird Pond. Her friendship with this woman eventually gets Kit tried as a witch. Since its YA fiction, she and the magnificent “witch” manage to avoid death and Kit also miraculously succeeds in escaping the drudgery of her life at her uncle’s house by marrying a young Saybrook, CT sea captain whom she met onboard ship on her way to Wethersfield.
Another YA fiction I reread was by this same enlightened author, Elizabeth George Speare. Calico Captive opens in nearby Charlestown, NH. The book is based on the true story of settlers taken captive by Abenaki Native Americans in 1754 and marched to Montreal where they were sold into slavery. One of the things I love about this book is that Speare takes her readers on a journey from the prevailing culture of 1957 when the book was written to a much deeper understanding, empathy and respect for Native Americans. Her heroine, Miriam, has many of the prejudices of her day (ones that lingered into 1957 and beyond). Kit’s eyes are opened in fits and starts to another world view and so too the reader’s eyes.
And that is exactly why I am so grateful for books right now. Most evenings find me with hot tea laced with Flower Essences and a book cracked open on my lap. Books are helping me feel expansive in a contracted situation. We all need that, so I hope books are there for you too! And if you have suggestions for what I should read next, send an email. I am all ears (with eyes wide open to new world views).