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