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.

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