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Me in 1983 creating my own little library

When I was a kid, I anxiously awaited summer – not just for the break from school – but for the chance to read whatever I wanted to my heart’s content. It was the decade before smart phones, DVRs and the distraction of technology. I feel so lucky that I was able to enjoy a childhood unobstructed by screens. TV was really the only technology that beckoned, and I can still hear the familiar chime of the “Reading Rainbow” theme song and LaVar Burton encouraging us to “take a look, it’s in a book…” as we ran off to the Oakland Library for our latest stash. There was a reading chart in the kids’ section where we monitored our progress with yellow star stickers; it was one of the few things that brought out my competitive side.

I guarded my books carefully and created my own personal library – to this day if I look through my childhood books that were saved, I find hand-made lending tickets inside dated for return in the mid-1980s.

Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden, Grant Park in Portland, OR

Beverly Cleary Sculpture Garden, Grant Park in Portland, OR

About six months ago, I moved to Portland, Oregon, and found myself renting an apartment in the same neighborhood as the childhood home of one of my beloved childhood authors, Beverly Cleary. The local school is named after her and a sculpture garden in Grant park depicts her most famous characters. To get reacquainted with her stories, I took the old-fashioned route and got a library card to check-out my favorite Ramona books. Just stepping into my neighborhood branch brought back a multitude of memories. The kids running around, the “Summer Reading” posters and the stacks of cellophane-covered books made me anxious for one of those yellow star stickers.

IMG_8481Cleary’s Ramona books were pivotal stories of my youth. They depicted the typical west coast childhood of a mischievous girl and her sister. She dealt with school bullies, challenging teachers, sibling scuffles and the realities of moments like losing a pet. I always related to Ramona and feel quite honored now to live in the neighborhood of her literary spirit.

I drove past Beverly’s former home and visited the Sculpture Garden at Grant Park a few weeks ago. I’m glad to see such respect given to a woman enriched so many children with her characters and imagination. With all the distractions of technology, her’s is an important literary legacy to preserve.

IMG_3148 Robert Frost was my first favorite poet. I remember being assigned to recite by memory Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, when I was in middle school. I practiced incessantly for weeks and I can still recite most of it by heart. The words echoed through my mind as I wandered through Frost’s homestead in Derry, NH last summer.

From those early school days, I’ve identified with Frost, as many have. His words are accessible and easily applicable to life. Who hasn’t stood at a fork in the road and thought: ” I took the road less traveled…” That sentiment rings true in so many of life’s situations, literally and figuratively – it often does make all the difference.

IMG_3156While providing a glimpse into the poet’s life and inspiration, walking through Frost’s home and the surrounding woods offers a sense of solace and reflection. It’s said that he wrote most of his noteworthy work at this home during the nine years that he lived on the property with his wife and young children (1900-1909). In a letter written later in life, he said: “The only thing we had was time and seclusion”.* Even now, more than 100 years later, walking through the same woods provides a blissful detachment from modern distractions. Nature’s nuances come into sharp focus among the willowy trees, graceful fields and welcoming ponds. Along the trail is a low, stone wall, which was the inspiration for Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, and the spot where it was said he sat when he returned to the homestead following the death of his wife, and decided the place was too changed for him to follow her wishes and spread her ashes on site.

IMG_3160After selling the property in 1911, the Derry homestead had gone into disrepair and was eventually sold to an automobile salvage company, turning Frost’s beloved fields into a vehicle graveyard. At the end of his life, Frost pushed for the property to be returned to its original pastoral state. The Robert Frost Farm website has a detailed history of the property, and credits Frost’s friend and colleague, John Pillsbury, for ultimately orchestrating the final purchase of the homestead and converting it to the historic site we are able to enjoy today.

Robert would be pleased at the restoration and preservation of his former home. Though he only lived on the site for a relatively short time, it was clearly instrumental to his poetic development and central to his career. Despite a century of change, the site continues to inspire, and Frost’s ghost rustles the leaves.

Though it was a hot summer day when I visited, I could imagine a light snow falling. I let the woods envelop me in their simplicity.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sounds the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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*From: Selected Letters of Robert Frost, Lawrence Thompson, ed. New York: Holt, 1964. Sourced from http://robertfrostfarm.org/historyproperty.html

Whispers of Walden Pond

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Walden Pond

“Simplify, simplify.”

If only it were so easy. I’ve long been enamored by Henry David Thoreau and his idealistic philosophies, urging humanity to slow down, embrace nature and “live deliberately.” While I can admire his intentions, I’m not one to give up the comforts of home to take up residence in the woods. But, spending one afternoon hiking around Walden Pond provided ample inspiration.

Emerson House

Emerson House

We had started our tour of Transcendental Concord earlier that day at Orchard House, home of the Alcotts. We then made our way down the street to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, where we were provided a thorough and personal tour and anecdotes about Thoreau’s connection to the family.

Interestingly enough, as we sat in the dimly lit dining room where it was said many of the Transcendental Club meetings had occurred, my husband asked the tour guide for a definition of “Transcendentalism.” She refused to provide it, sheepishly looking around the room and informing us that she’s not allowed to talk about the philosophy in the house because people come and attempt to perform seances and other ceremonies. It was odd. and a little creepy… kind of like the definition of Transcendentalism, which I’ve always admired yet have found it hard to wrap my mind around. The Transcendentalists were all about self reliance in every aspect of life. They shunned institutional politics and organized religion, instead favoring a genuine commune with nature and self. They focused on creating ideal versions of themselves and fine tuning their mental expression. I find it an admirable venture and a philosophy I’d like to embody myself in a sense, but I have always had a feeling there was more behind it that I haven’t yet grasped, which this tour guide confirmed.

Henry David Thoreau (from walden.org)

Henry David Thoreau (from walden.org)

When we exited the dining room, the air lifted considerably and I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Thoreau’s playful nature. He and Emerson started hanging out in 1837, when Thoreau was 20 and Emerson was 34. The two shared a thoughtful and poetic sensibility, Emerson urging Thoreau to write down his thoughts in a journal. Seven years later, Thoreau began building his cabin in the woods on Emerson’s property. The cabin was just about a mile’s walk from the Emerson home, and Thoreau returned regularly for meals and conversation. It wasn’t as solitary an existence as the reader is led to believe. Emerson’s children would stop by the cabin for visits and he’d venture out for companionship. He stayed at the cabin gathering inspiration for his Walden for two years before returning to civilization.

IMG_2161I couldn’t imagine visiting Concord without seeing Walden Pond and was happy that we had enough time to walk around it completely. Visiting the former site of Thoreau’s cabin is a necessary pilgrimage for any literary historian. Only remnants of the cabin’s foundations remain along with a large sign carved with the quote most identifiable to the man:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

IMG_2183As I stood looking at the towering trees that frame Walden Pond, I couldn’t help but listen for the whisper of the Transcendentalists who walked those paths more than a century before. To stand in their well-worn footprints  instills a sense of wonder and yearning.

With the multitude of modern distractions in our midst every day, it’s a challenge to “live deliberately,” but a walk through Walden Pond serves as a good reminder of why its important. When life gets overwhelming, my mind will return to that quiet and serene spot in the woods where the whispers of a thousand philosophers float through the leaves.

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Emerson Grave

Emerson Grave

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery - Transcendentalist graves

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – Transcendentalist graves

 

IMG_2128Exactly 154 years ago to the day, a grand celebration was being held within those very walls. As I stood looking over the wedding gown that Anna Alcott wore on May 23, 1860, in this modest yet iconic little home, a familiar sense of historic intimacy washed over me. Remove a century and a half and a roomful of tourists, and it was as if Louisa could traipse into the room at any time, anxious to share this momentous day with her sister. Only time prevented us from being right there to experience it with her.

The Parlor (foreground) and Dining Room (background) of Orchard House (Photographer:  Herb Barnett). Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

The Parlor (foreground) and Dining Room (background) of Orchard House (Photographer: Herb Barnett). Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

I could hear the din of guests in the living room below – Emerson and Thoreau would have been there along with numerous other Concord residents and family. At the time, Louisa was a precocious 28-year old budding author, gathering inspiration for her novels. Anna’s wedding scene that day would serve as prime material for Little Women, which would be written in that very room eight years later.  The memory was soft and lovely, captured perfectly by Louisa – a family preparing for its next chapter and a simple ceremony that intertwined the lives of two individuals.

Louisa May Alcott’s Bedchamber (Photographer:  Herb Barnett). Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Louisa May Alcott’s Bedchamber (Photographer: Herb Barnett). Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

The Alcott sisters’ spirit remains vibrant and alive at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Beth had died shortly before the family moved to the house in 1858, yet her presence is noted by her piano and portrait in the dining room. Paintings by May (“Amy” in Little Women) hang throughout the house and her room is filled with charming sketches she made on the wall. A visit to Emerson’s house, just down the street, reveals the source of some of her inspiration, as he often loaned her paintings from his own collection to use as sketch patterns. Louisa’s room remains notably unchanged from her time

Louisa May Alcott’s shelf desk in her bedchamber at Orchard House; calla lilies and other artwork on the wall above the desk painted by her sister, May. Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

Louisa May Alcott’s shelf desk in her bedchamber at Orchard House; calla lilies and other artwork on the wall above the desk painted by her sister, May. Images used by permission of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House

there and any literary pilgrim can’t help but stand in awe of the small, half-moon desk created by her father and illustrated by her sister, on which she penned Little Women in a matter of just a few weeks. Anna (“Beth” in the novel) is memorialized by the display of her wedding gown, as illustrated by Louisa (herself, “Jo” in the novel): “she made her wedding gown herself, sewing into it the tender hopes and innocent romances of a girlish heart. Her sisters braided up her pretty hair, and the only ornaments she wore were the lilies of the valley, which ‘her John’ liked best of all the flowers that grew.”

I visited Orchard House with my husband of two weeks, on our East Coast wedding celebration trip to visit family. It just so happened that it was the anniversary date of Anna and John’s wedding. Standing there, with the memory of my own wedding fresh in my mind, it struck me how little has changed in the way such monumental occasions bring family together and ceremoniously mark moments in our genealogical history. Such moments echo through time. If proper attention continues to be provided to historic sites such as Orchard House, future generations will be lucky enough to experience the inspiration that witnessing seemingly simple details of the past can offer. The Alcott girls could have had no inkling that their story would continue to be told or that Anna’s simple wedding gown would inspire such insight so far in the future.

One woman, inspired by three sisters and two very eclectic parents, managed to keep her family’s story alive. One house, backed by passionate preservationists and ardent supporters, allows a new audience a glimpse into a world centuries past yet warmly familiar. Walking through Orchard House evokes the spirit of lives lived with a resilient and deliberate connection to their surroundings. The Alcott family had opened its doors to a new world of thinking and philosophy thereby impressing its younger generation with an appreciation of arts, culture and the written world. We are the beneficiaries of that legacy.

 

The June roses over the porch were awake bright and early on that morning, rejoicing with all their hearts in the cloudless sunshine, like friendly little neighbors, as they were. Quite flushed with excitement were their ruddy faces, as they swung in the wind, whispering to one another what they had seen, for some peeped in at the dining room windows where the feast was spread, some climbed up to nod and smile at the sisters as they dressed the bride, others waved a welcome to those who came and went on various errands in garden, porch, and hall, and all, from the rosiest full-blown flower to the palest baby bud, offered their tribute of beauty and fragrance to the gentle mistress who had loved and tended them so long.

Meg looked very like a rose herself, for all that was best and sweetest in heart and soul seemed to bloom into her face that day, making it fair and tender, with a charm more beautiful than beauty. Neither silk, lace, nor orange flowers would she have. “I don’t want a fashionable wedding, but only those about me whom I love, and to them I wish to look and be my familiar self.”

So she made her wedding gown herself, sewing into it the tender hopes and innocent romances of a girlish heart. Her sisters braided up her pretty hair, and the only ornaments she wore were the lilies of the valley, which ‘her John’ liked best of all the flowers that grew.

“You do look just like our own dear Meg, only so very sweet and lovely that I should hug you if it wouldn’t crumple your dress,” cried Amy, surveying her with delight when all was done.

“Then I am satisfied. But please hug and kiss me, everyone, and don’t mind my dress. I want a great many crumples of this sort put into it today,” and Meg opened her arms to her sisters, who clung about her with April faces for a minute, feeling that the new love had not changed the old.

Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

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UCDavis_article_2014From Where I Sit: In the Vineyards of Napa Valley
> Published in the UCDavis College of Letters & Science Alumni Magazine, Spring 2014
> PDF Article

The beauty here in Napa Valley astounds me. As I drive down Highway 29 through Napa, making my way through lush vineyards, I feel lucky to call this place home. While a student at UC Davis, I used to take jaunts over to Napa occasionally to shop the outlet malls and make my first clumsy attempts at wine tasting. I’d always felt compelled to visit, and was happy when my path eventually led to a job opportunity
in Napa five years ago. Now, I put my English degree and years of experience as a student writer for the California Aggie newspaper to work in my role as director of communications and marketing at the Napa Chamber of Commerce. I make use of my history degree on the board of the Napa County Historical Society. Often, the hauntingly beautiful vineyards trigger memories of adventures inspired by books read and deciphered in those UC Davis classrooms.

In 1998, during the summer following graduation, I embarked upon a two-week adventure through London and the British countryside, chasing the ghosts of literary legends. My path ultimately led to the fabled inspiration for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights in the misty Yorkshire moors deep in Northern England. The sky there felt like an extension of the earth, almost as if I had to duck down to avoid hitting my head on the clouds. With the abandoned stone farmhouse in view, I was sure I could hear Heathcliff’s tortured pleas on the wind. Words first read during late-night study sessions came alive, as if I was now the one directing the characters to act out their roles. (read more about that adventure…)

That summer, I soaked up the atmosphere and inhaled their legacy. Ever since then, I have been determined to follow in the footsteps of great writers, many of whom formed the basis of my UC Davis English degree. Four years of dedicated guidance and instruction from professors like Jack Hicks sparked a life-long interest in the stories behind the words. His “Literature of California” course brought my love for literary history home. At the time, I was a bright-eyed Aggie reporter. I remember distinctly the April 1997 memorial that Professor Hicks held for poet Allen Ginsberg. Aware of my interest in the Beat genre, he invited me to meet writer Gary Snyder following the memorial. Both intimidating and inspiring, it was a moment that cemented my desire to build upon introductions made in the classroom and shake
hands with the great figures of literature.

Eleven years after graduating from UC Davis, I found myself back in the Bay Area, embarking upon a masters’ thesis project focused on California writers. I often thought back to Professor Hicks’ classroom, where we delved into the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, the tales of Jack London, and the words of John Muir, John Steinbeck, and Mark Twain. Studying the life stories of the writers—exploring that intersection of literature and history—often interested me as much as the words themselves. These explorations have formed the basis of my “Literary Legacies” blog, a growing collection of stories about my literary ghost hunts.

The tattered, college-issued novels remain on my bookshelf. These books serve as reminders of long nights spent devouring language and days in the classroom searching for the meaning behind it. These books have inspired journeys. Isn’t that what education is all about?

ImageWhile many of the historic literary sites I’ve visited easily evoke the writer’s inspiration, others require a little more imagination. This past summer I happened upon Eugene O’Neill’s childhood home in New London, Connecticut. I was visiting my fiancee’s family over the fourth of July in Westerly, Rhode Island and we took a drive down the coast one day so I could see the sights. Several road signs referring to O’Neill sparked my memory of his connection to the area from my thesis-writing days – O’Neill was one of the subjects of my four-part masters thesis (he was in good company with Steinbeck, Stevenson and Muir).

We had just a short time to visit his home – the Monte Cristo Cottage – where he had spent summers as a boy in the late 1800s. The home is beautiful, set back from the street on a large expanse of lawn. A sweeping porch wraps around the facade, and it has more a feeling of wistful airiness than solemn foreboding, as one might expect after reading his Long Day’s Journey into Night, which was based on his family’s time at the home.

ImageO’Neill is a troubling character himself. He’s the writer I had the hardest time wrapping my mind and words around in my thesis. I still feel as if I should keep him at an arm’s length, and not pretend to have a full understanding of his genius. And yet, I feel a fondness and familiarity for him, as I have spent a good amount of time working with the good people at the Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House, in Danville, CA.

ImageTao House and the Monte Cristo Cottage could not be more different in style and feel. While Monte Cristo has a classic, New England stateliness and formality about it, Tao House reflects a more modern, stylized sensibility. Tao House, where O’Neill and his wife lived from 1937-1943, represents just how far O’Neill had come since his childhood days. He and his wife designed the West Coast home themselves, to provide privacy and seclusion for his writing. It’s features are meant for optimum feng shui, and follow Taoist philosophies – including winding pathways to the front door, intending to confuse evil spirits.

ImageThe O’Neill of Tao House was easier for me to grasp than the O’Neill of Monte Cristo Cottage. The thick walls, cold stone and mountain-top solitude of Tao House encapsulate the darkness that pervades so much of his writing. Monte Cristo’s grandeur and dimly lit interior does evoke a sense of drama and constraint, but it is difficult to imagine the tortured scenes of Long Day’s Journey playing out in such stately walls. Monte Cristo Cottage puts on a welcoming facade, while Tao House, with its winding paths, elusive doors and hidden inner chambers, makes no pretense of its solemnity.

During our visit to Monte Cristo Cottage, we were only able to walk around the main floor of the home, as it was technically closed to the public at the time. It’s beautifully preserved and contains many interesting artifacts from O’Neill’s life. For me, it was a fascinating glimpse into the early life of a writer whom I had previously only known tangibly through my connection with his later dwelling. Decades of life experience span between the two homes – each book ending a life lived to the fullest. My gratitude goes out to the organizations that have kept these homes alive with the legacy of such an important figure in American literature.

> Check out my (amateur) video about my thesis, produced in 2009

Image taken from the pamphlet at the Shelley grave site in Bournemouth.

Image taken from the pamphlet at the Shelley grave site in Bournemouth.

This Halloween eve, I was reminded of one of the greatest ghost stories never written. Back in the early 1800s, a young and precocious Mary Shelley traveled with her family around Europe, traipsing through forests and exploring abandoned castles (or so my imagination assumes). During a stay in Scotland, she took up with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the prince of the Romantic poets (I bestow upon Keats the title of “King”). Percy would become her husband while both were still teenagers and the two were known for their adventurous jaunts through France, Switzerland and England.

They were also known for their desire to tell the most compelling of horror stories. It was during one summer in Geneva that fellow literary great Lord Byron joined the couple, along with other friends. Mary wrote in her journals that the weather was particularly dreary, and the group was inspired to converse about modern-day experiments in corpse revival and other such topics of interest. These stories eventually led to Mary’s creation of Frankenstein (though the book was initially published anonymously, and she acknowledged extensive input from Percy). Little did any of them know that they had conjured one of the greatest figures in literary history… and a Halloween icon that endures nearly 200 years later.

photo 2Mary’s own life took a ghastly turn itself when her husband died in a legendary “accident” at sea in Italy when he was just 29 years old. There was much speculation over the cause of his death and it’s said that he was found with a book of Keats’ poetry in his pocket (whether true or not, that’s one of my favorite stories ever). Also highly speculated upon is the state of Percy’s body, particularly one organ. As was the custom at the time following a death at sea, his body was burned on shore. Legend has it that the ashes of his heart were saved by a grieving friend, or even more gruesome, it’s possible that his heart was cut from the body before cremation.

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St Peter’s Church, Bournemouth with Shelley vault in foreground

Flash forward 29 years and Mary lay on her own deathbed. At 54 years old, she had led a solid life and continued writing throughout.  She was buried in Bournemouth, England, a rugged coastal town where she had moved with her son and his wife. One year after her death, the family opened a trunk of personal items and found, among other keepsakes, an envelope containing the ashes of Percy’s heart. The ashes were supposedly buried in the same vault as his wife, and the two now peacefully overlook the sleepy sea-side town, along with Mary’s parents, son and daughter-in-law.

I visited Bournemouth during my post-college literary tour of England back in 1998. The cemetery is suitably spooky for holding the remains of two such lives of tumult. Before visiting, I wasn’t aware of the story of the buried heart, but I think of it often. What a story. What a fitting tribute for such a free-spirited, creatively driven couple. It’s a story of romance perfectly fitting for Halloween.

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