November 14, 2012

A Salve for Difficult Times

I have some news. News which knowing, as you do, how I feel about Anne of Green Gables and Lark Rise to Candleford might come as a bit of a shock, or even seem like a fabrication. But it’s true, and it’s wonderful, I swear.

I am reading Little Women for the first time, and I am in love. It arrived in the mail last Wednesday just as our freak November snowstorm was hitting hard; the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I stood in the kitchen with it open on the counter reading Jane Smiley’s introduction while I waited for a pot of water to boil for pasta. Even in those preamble pages, I already felt my own creative ambition stirring and moved by what it means to be a girl whether in the 19th century or now.

The next night I sat with a friend in her living room by a fire with my news. “Do you love Jo? Beth?” she asked. I didn’t even know how to respond, I so love them all, even vain, wanting Meg and malaprop Amy. But what I love most of all so far (and I am savoring it, page by page, never wanting it to end) are the ideas woven through each chapter that feel like dear friends to me: of making do with what you have (and what’s more, feeling grateful for it), of finding the beauty in each day, no matter how humble. “That’s your thing,” my friend said, smiling at me in the firelight. And so it is.

“Once upon a time there were four girls, who had enough to eat, and drink and wear; a good many comforts and pleasures, kind friends and parents, who loved them dearly, and yet they were not contented…These girls were anxious to be good, and made many excellent resolutions, but somehow they did not keep them very well, and were constantly saying, ‘If we only had this,’ or ‘if we could only do that,’ quite forgetting how much they already had, and how many pleasant things they actually could do, so they asked an old woman what spell they could use to make them happy, and she said, ‘When you feel discontented, think over your blessings, and be grateful.’…

Being sensible girls, they decided to try her advice, and soon were surprised to see how well off they were. One discovered that money couldn’t keep shame and sorrow out of rich people’s houses; another that though she was poor, she was a great deal happier with her youth, health, and good spirits than a certain fretful, feeble old lady who couldn’t enjoy her comforts…So they agreed to stop complaining, to enjoy the blessings already possessed, and try to deserve them, lest they should be taken away entirely, instead of increased; and I believe they were never disappointed, or sorry that they took the old woman’s advice.”

How much more of a smack does any of us need, and delivered so sweetly by Mrs. March? My landlord does not seem to think that work-from-homers deserve heat, timing the radiators to rattle to life at six o’clock on the dot. But every time I’ve begun to complain, even grumbling in my own head, I catch myself and wince a little from the shame. So I get a blanket, and think of Jo up in the garret reading a novel on a three-legged couch with a quilt and a pet rat (!) chomping her way through six crisp apples (!!).

How can we make this our daily practice, in a way that doesn’t feel precious or Hallmarky? I write down what I’m grateful for when I remember, which is rarely, and try to call out beauties when I see them, if only to myself or in this space. Like last Thursday, after the snowfall, I stood in a neighborhood coffee shop and drank in the clear light that bounced off the snow into the long, small space. And again on the subway: the sky an oyster shell grey, and our car filled with that indirect but clear-eyed snow light that reminds me of Minnesota and mornings and all the potential in the world.

But a kind of open-armed receptivity is required to see those daily graces, and it’s not always easily mustered. Little Women is a good salve for difficult times, when we’re feeling both closed-tight and vulnerable at the same time. This past week, the adult world has felt a little too difficult for me. Not because the challenges have gotten any more vigorous––though they do feel abundant in number––but because my resilience seems to be waning. I can count on my wimpy self, as I call her, to rear her head every now and then. She wants life to be simpler, quiet, to have less stress, and to feel cocooned from the daily treadmill of making and spending money. My wimpy self is my closet Beth. But everyday life marches on whether we want to pull the covers over our heads or not, and we have no choice but to keep showing up for it. But there is wiggle room in terms of how. So I let my wimpy self wear a soft, cozy outfit, treat herself to an extra coffee, and though it is probably imperceptible to the world, dial back my energy just a smidge in order to conserve a little more for me. It means, also, carrying a novel in my tote bag that makes times harder and more impoverished than my own feel warm and welcoming.

Print by Emily McDowell Draws

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  • Lana: SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!!! This is not a joke: last week, I went to the library and was looking in the juvenile literature for “Little Women”, which I have never read either!! The librarian asked if he could help me with something, and I told him what I was looking for. They didn’t have it at our teeny-weeny library so he ordered it for me. It should be in soon and I CAN NOT WAIT! In the meantime, I have been reading The Little House series…again. LOL! So awesome. I love weird coincidences like this.5 years ago

  • little kitchie: beautiful! i still remember reading little women for the first time. now i’m a middle school teacher and read it in a book club with my girls every year! it NEVER gets old!5 years ago

  • Elizabeth: I just started reading Little Women to my husband. It’s one of my favorites, but he’s never read it before. I love how they manage to make their Christmas simple and charitable, but also festive and merry and creative. The whole reason we started reading it is that I want that to be our model for the holidays this year.5 years ago

  • Emily: I have had nearly the same experience Sarah – except I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables until a few months ago, at 19! I feel glib for saying this but they really changed my outlook on life. This particular quote stopped me in my tracks and cause me to furiously scribble five pages in my Moleskine;

    “I shall give life my best, and I believe it will give its best to me in return. When I left Queen’s my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. Now there is a bend in it. I don’t know what lies around the bend, but I’m going to believe that the best does.” -Anne of Green Gables

    I like Little Women too but until you’ve finished the novel, I can say no more about it!5 years ago

  • Kristen: Little Women is a novel I have read so many times, and know I will return to again and again. Each time I discover something new about the book or the characters and it always- always- makes me think differently about my life too 🙂5 years ago

  • Alyssa: Talk about finding a place where you belong! I put “Little Women (the complete collection)” on my wishlist on Amazon. The E-version was very cheap, but due to skuper-tight, squeeze-a-penny-’til-it-cries budget, I haven’t purchased it yet.
    I love the idea of having “Little Women” be the inspiration for Christmas and the idea of reading to one’s significant other. How intimate and special.
    Just last night, my mother, sister and I decided to do a daily gratitude text. One of us will text the other two what we’re greatful for that day and then the other two will respond with what they are grateful for.
    There is power (and comfort) in numbers.
    Thank you for this post and for sharing so beautifully with us.5 years ago

  • Brooke: Oh, Little Women. My grandmother gave me this book when I was in sixth grade, I think. She told me that Jo reminded her of me, which I didn’t think much of at the time but now I treasure as such an enormous compliment. (Spoken with a grandmother’s love, as I’m afraid I’m probably more of a bratty little Amy in real life.) You make me want to go back and reread, and I’m also bookmarking Lark Rise to Candleford for watching in these wearying winter months!5 years ago

  • cristina: Ahhh, Little Women. I have a very tattered and torn copy that I’ve read at least twenty times since I was a young girl. You must have felt such synchronicity when you picked it up in November and read the first line : ) I learned many things about life from that book that have stuck with me even through my more cynical and jaded “grown up” moments. Oh, Beth, she’s actually the strongest and wisest of them all!5 years ago

  • Katie @ cakes, tea and dreams: I LOVE Little Women, though I haven’t reread it for years. So much wisdom and hope and truth in it, and some truly wonderful family moments. I’m so glad you’re discovering it – now I think I need a reread!5 years ago

  • Arwen: Do read the full series. Also read “Rose In Bloom” by Alcott. Major fan here. 😀5 years ago

  • Jennifer: Sarah,

    What a beautiful post! I love your phrase “the adult world has felt a little too difficult for me” — that aptly describes my day today — but you’ve picked me up and reminded me of a book I love that I need to pick up and enjoy once again.

    I may be working late tonight (and I suspect it will be a late night) but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it with a yummy pumpkin latte in hand and the occasional glance outdoors to a cold and blustery day to remind me to take comfort in the fact that I’m cozy in my warm wool sweater and fuzzy socks.

    What a lovely post!5 years ago

  • B: Yes!
    1) Little Women 🙂 Once you’ve finished reading it, check out the movie version with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon. I think it’s lovely 🙂 The actresses involved even studied Victorian etiquette books to help with their characters….
    2) Rose In Bloom *is* good. It has a predecessor: believe the title is “Eight Cousins”.
    3) Also take a look at “An Old-Fashioned Girl”.
    (Right there with you, Arwen 🙂5 years ago

  • Ruth: I grew up reading Little Women (and the rest of the series as well as Rose in Bloom and Eight Cousins). I think a little Jo, Beth, Meg & Amy may be what I need about now to help calm the “sea of stress” I’m currently sailing.

    Thanks for the reminder. 🙂5 years ago

  • Stephanie: I’ve had a copy of Little Women on my bookshelf since the summer. Your lovely, thoughtful post has inspired me to read it soon!5 years ago

  • Amy: Your writing is so beautiful, it takes my breath away. I cannot wait to read Little Women. Thank you for this.5 years ago

  • Yay for all the 19th century lit love, and I forgot it’s a series–what joy! And Cristina, you’re right, Beth is probably the wisest and strongest–I’m just jealous that she gets to stay home! 🙂5 years ago

  • Melissa @ Hilltop Hausfrau: (picking myself up off the floor…you have not read Little Women?!)

    See, I don’t think Beth is weak either…I think she has the clearest view…is most real. She knows that life can only be lived a day at a time. I think that’s what makes her the most settled, happy sister: she appreciates the little things happening around her each day.

    Thank you for reminding me about Little Women. The Winona Rider, Claire Danes version will warm your heart!

    Wishing you much peace and clarity…5 years ago

  • Lana: BTW, I decided I am so impatient that I couldn’t wait for the library to call me and tell me my book is in, that looked on Kindle instead. It’s one of their freebies! YAY!!5 years ago

  • Karen: That was so lovely to read this morning, while drinking my tea and pondering my day ahead – thank you!
    I read Little Woman long ago, and now need to reread and share with my 15 year old daughter.5 years ago

  • heather: Sarah
    i adore your energy/soul/philosophy/way of thinking. . you are a treasure and i completely “get” what you are feeling with the olden times reading Little Women.5 years ago

  • Keah: A wonderful book to follow up Little Women is March by Geraldine Brooks; it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 2006. It follows Mr. March’s story – beautifully conceived and written.5 years ago

  • Liz: Enjoy your time with the sweet (and not-so-sweet) Marches…and make sure you also track down the two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. They’re both great, but I love Little Men the best.5 years ago

  • Kamiah: Oh, how many wonderful things I can say about Little Women. When I’ve had a particularly Jonah day — to combine my love of / similarity to Jo and Anne — I often turn to Marmee, especially her advice to Jo about controlling her tongue. Now, that’s because my tongue and temper is my “bosom enemy,” as it’s called in Little Women, and it calms me down so much to hear Marmee admit her struggles, too. And I have to say: I’ve had so many Jonah days recently that I’ve kept Little Women on my bedside table. Happy reading!5 years ago

  • molly: Confession: I began Little Women in 6th grade, after changing schools for the first time in my life. I didn’t make it past page 108. I think it’s high time I try again.

    Also, I love your wimpy self. Though I think she deserves capitals. WS. Yes.

    M5 years ago

  • Kaitlyn: Little Men is just as charming as Little Women…but not necessarily because its boy-centric…because it is fun to see the woman Jo evolves into. Super profound and I highly recommend it. I love this post. 🙂5 years ago

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  • Elizabeth: I read LITTLE WOMEN multiple times growing up along with FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS AND HOW THEY GREW, all the LITTLE HOUSE books, and THE SECRET GARDEN and THE LITTLE PRINCESS. Such fun and female centered books with girls taking charge and solving problems. Same with NANCY DREW and JUDY BOLTON. I still occasionally reread. Now my daughters did not like LITTLE WOMEN out of all of these books. Oh, I used to make my own paper dolls of the characters from books and make the outfits I either saw in the illustrations or imagined in my mind for the dolls. I still have them.5 years ago

  • Akaleistar: Such a beautiful reminder of the good things in life!5 years ago

  • Lemony Sardine Pâté « Pink of Perfection: […] when she sits in front of our drafty window, and the right light to curl up with the last pages of Little Women. In my two weeks of ownership, I’ve reaped $36 worth of pleasure from the spare graphic […]5 years ago

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