Monday, January 20, 2014

Moving On

Currently Reading: A Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic by Emily Croy Barker

For the past two years, I have enjoyed writing this blog- exploring the writing process and discussing great books with great people. But lately I have craved a different outlet for my writing; although I toyed with the idea of changing this blog, I instead decided to create an entirely new one. With the new blog, which I titled Pilgrim Soul, I have challenged myself to use it as a means of writing freely, about any topic, at least once a week. With this project, I hope to foster my writing skills and explore my perspectives on the world, on life, and on daily experiences. If you're interested, you can view Pilgrim Soul, at I hope you will follow me on this next stage of my writing! Thanks for following along, everyone!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

My Mind's Worktable

Currently Reading: Louisa May Alcott's Christmas Treasury and The Thinking Woman's Guide to Magic by Emily Croy Barker

The words in my head simmer and bubble and boil. I give them another quick stir and lean in to observe the ways they twist and reshape themselves. Ideas still sit on the counter, rising slowly under their tea towel. Hot with impatience, words start to jump from the pot. Why are they always ready before the ideas are?

The snow comes down and the world is white with inspiration. I stir and measure, knead and sift, filling the winter morning with carols and prayers and memories, content to be at my mind's worktable. I dip my hands in, ready to create something from nothing. As I grind and chop and peel, the pile of words grows taller and taller. Soul, mind, and hands work in happy unison. All is peace. All is joy.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving with the Alcotts

Currently Reading: Alcott in Her Own Time by Daniel Shealy and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

"November had come; the crops were in, and and barn, buttery, and bin were overflowing with the harvest  that rewarded the summer's hard work. The big kitchen was a jolly place just now..." 
~ An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving

Mine was an Alcott Thanksgiving. Yesterday, I spent some downtime reading the opening pages of An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving, between bits of the biography I started last week. Curled on the couch with my family tonight, we celebrated the holidays and Louisa's birthday with a viewing of Little Women (the 1994 version). The first bars of the opening music floated into the room and the tears were already in my eyes. After two days of feasting and thanking, decorating and Christmas caroling, the time was right to visit the March sisters.
A few months exploring books in North Carolina, Corca Duibhne, Ireland, Philadelphia, and Cambridge, I am now back in Concord, Massachusetts with the Alcott family. Just in time for Thanksgiving and Louisa's birthday. This new (to me) biography is a collection of memories, interviews, and memoirs from those who knew her and the Alcott family personally: colleagues, peers, friends, and family. The book is my place to sink into on these cold November evenings, like a mug of hot chocolate, a warm blanket, my cozy refuge from the wind and the chill. I listen with rapt attention to voices and memories that bring me to a Concord I can only imagine and a woman I'm getting to know even better.

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I have seen Louisa through the pen of the scholar, her own letters and journals, some of her literary works, and now through the descriptions of those around her. I enjoy viewing her through this alternate lens. New stories abound, new poses are struck, new words are said, forming images of her demeanor and character that didn't find their way into her works. In these memories, Louisa falls onto her bed with a dramatic flop; the barn rings with playful shouts and dramatic soliloquies; she whirls around and curtsies in the lane; she moves her hands to illustrate her words; she covers her pain with humor and "bright flashes of wit." I can finally see her as others did, and she is all sparkling eyes and droll comebacks and noble passion. She is no different from the woman I found in her letters and journals, but these memories serve to reinforce my image of who she was- the dutiful child, the passionate crusader, the witty storyteller, the sharp mind, the Jo-ian personality. Not a perfect person but perfectly herself.

Reading about her through the eyes of others holds both a danger and an advantage. Sometimes those we are close to know us better than we know ourselves. They see the good qualities that we overlook; they recognize the faults we do not see. Louisa was certainly hard on herself, with high expectations she felt she would never attain. (That sounds all too familiar to my ears.) She rarely wrote of her triumphs, except in the humblest of tones. So watching her laugh and clap her hands and keep a room of people in stitches with her witty observations is such a joy.

But even though they can observe us in ways we cannot, those around us often fail to know us fully, only seeing the part we present to them. They aren't privy to the struggles, the fears, the hopes that swirl around unseen in our minds and hearts. So much we keep hidden, even from our closest companions. No matter how close they were to her, most of her contemporaries couldn't know exactly who she was. And time changes our perspectives and our memories. I read these recollections, wondering how much of the writer's descriptions depend upon Louisa's fame and reputation, rather than their own opinions at the time.

These observations both hide and reveal the real Louisa, and I force myself to recognize that I too will never truly know her. But I never stop trying. In this book, once again, I find her, living and breathing, made alive through the words of her contemporaries, the world in which she inhabited and her relationships with neighbors, friends, and peers as real to me as any scene in my own world. When I look up, I am startled not to find her standing in front of me.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Coming of Age

Currently Reading: The Alcotts by Madelen Bedell and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I finished the book The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls under a full moon, in my car as I drove home. The two most terrible words- "The End"- echoed through the car and I reluctantly turned it off. The night was simply lovely, ringing with the fullness of life. The perfect end to a rich book. I turned over the ending in my mind- Thea at the train station, the young recognizing that she too will be old, watching the future fly by like a train pulling out from the station. Lighter than air, heavier than water, I felt so small under the large harvest moon, but also expansive. In that moment, I felt like I discovered a mystery of life, a mystery that brings with it a feeling of imbalance, like the dizziness of standing on the edge. It is aloneness and togetherness all at once, and it hurts with an ache of cold slipping under my clothes. I had the urge to open my arms and gather the night up, to sift through it and make sense of it all- of this living and this dying, of each terrible sweet moment, of actually feeling so intensely it hurts, and of not knowing how to find the words to accompany the understanding. Suddenly, I was giddy with the not knowing, with the no words, addicted to the feelings of bigness and openess, cradling the weight of feeling inside my body like an unborn child. Right then, I wanted to see it all, to be that transparent eyeball, to be nothing in order to be everything. There are books that make me feel the answers are out there, but I just don't have the right questions.
Last night, I closed the covers of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I leaned back on the pillows, the room quiet with sleep, and cried for the poignancy of childhood left behind. Evocative in its simplicity, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn took me through the emotional wringer this week. Twelve pages in, an uncanny feeling swept over me, like an out-of-body experience, that this book was a piece of me that I had never known about. My breath caught in my throat. Since then, I have found my own thoughts and musings and concerns reflected in the characters living in the book, and each time, I inwardly stagger. How, how could part of me exist in something else that I did not create, whose birth occurred decades before my own? Could it be that we are not as different and singular as I have always thought? After reading Brooklyn, I feel so connected to the world, connected to life, and to those around me, reassured that I am not alone in my thoughts but that we are more alike than we realize, all part of each other. That is undoubtedly why Brooklyn is still a favorite, more than sixty years later, for just as I see pieces of myself in Francie and Katie and Johnny, so has every other reader who has ever pulled it from the shelf. That is true magic- a book that speaks to everyone.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Autumn Lessons

Currently Reading: Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

I crack the door open just a bit and inhale. October has made her sweet, too-short presence known around here- in the cornstalks camouflaging from green to brown, in the apple-decorated signs pointing to orchards up the road, in the red and yellow paint-tipped treetops, and in the piles of pumpkins in every yard. My tomato plant waves farewell and I prep its box for a new planting of garlic. I cut my last crop of lemon verbena, dreaming of the tea I will make this winter. The air smells like nutmeg and cinnamon, even when there's nothing in the oven. Like sun on skin, I soak in the season, knowing all too well how desperately short it lasts. We are only one week in and I have already taken part in most of my autumn traditions: apple cider candle on the table, butternut squash soup and pumpkin muffins from the kitchen, visits to orchards and farmer's markets, decorating with leaves and gourds, reading to give myself a little chill up the spine. Cemetery visits and a Hocus Pocus night still await.

The earth is pulling back now, changing from a wild child of hot days and bare feet into a wiser, calmer woman. Each day begs me to stop and watch the transformation, even for several sweet moments. The death of leaves, floating down to nourish the ground for spring, force me to reflect on life, its hard questions and beautiful answers. I think of years past, of people with names and faces who are also now part of the ground, but also part of our collective conscience and our memories, part of our present and future in the choices they made and the lives they lived. The past and all of its lessons follow us as the sun follows its track across the sky, but I often look around and wonder if we have forgotten how to hear it and how to learn from it. It seems sometimes that we live in an age where we believe we already have all the answers, leaving no time or space for what the past might teach us, refusing to be open to the possibilities of truth. The truth pinches and stings, and asks us to take responsibility for ourselves as a society, and none of that is pretty, so we ignore it. We work hard to deny our own culpability, easily passing the buck onto our neighbors, or the government, or other religions.

In our haste to shed our responsibility, we forget that we are not alone in the human struggle. That ages of people have gone before us and we live every day with their long-ago decisions and mistakes. Those coming after us will hold our priorities and legacy up to the light someday, because our choices now will be their reality soon. Until we learn, we cannot hope to teach. When we deny our earth's changes and refuse to take steps to fix it, we ignore what people already knew 100 years ago and allow our futures to be threatened, just to maintain a standard of living we do not deserve. When we respond to terror with more violence and calls for retribution, we forget that generations have done so before, with only pain and anguish as the end result. When we erect barriers between each other, using our words and our prejudices to turn humans into statistics, we forget our own humanity. Scariest of all, when we act on self-righteousness and ignorance, we cease to hear the calls of the slave, the condemned, the internment camp, the Civil Rights marchers, and the lessons their ages told. Like weights, these lessons are heavy to hold, but we must lift them in order to gain strength as a society.

The leaves fall. The autumn, more than any other season, asks for my patience and my time, beseeching me to be still amid the rush, to think outside of myself. This is where the truth lies- in a prayer, in the silence, in the large, wide world, asking for my attention. This is the perfect time to answer.

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