New Year’s resolutions, beginning with a sacred space

Just the other day I read a post on an excellent blog that I follow regularly by Jeff Goins – the title of the post was Your Clutter Is Killing Your Creativity (And What to Do About It). It was ironic that that post came along when it did because I had just done what the post recommended – clean up my workspace and create an area conducive to creativity and work.

The value of sacred spaces

I’m a big believer in sacred spaces – those places where you can get into the zone instantaneously and do what you set out to do. My car is a sacred space for prayer as I spend so much time in it due to my commute, and I’ve placed special icons in my car to help create the proper atmosphere. The minute I enter this “sacred space,” I am in the mood for prayer.

Creating a sacred space for writing and reading

I needed to do the same when it comes to reading and writing. I had all the pieces – comfortable rocking chair, a small desk for my laptop, a bookcase for my books, and a large window looking out onto the deck and the bird feeders.

However, the pieces were not assembled in an orderly and pleasing manner. So as part of my New Year’s resolution, I organized a sacred space for writing and reading.

#1 – Collecting and displaying my library

I can’t tell you how nice it is to sit at my laptop and see my library in front of me. It’s small, but has plenty of room for growth.

I’ve just started collecting antique books and now I can display my favorites:

This miniature of Moods (original version) is one of my favorite collectibles.

I just acquired Under the Lilacs (along with A Garland for Girls) the other day, with beautiful color plates just like in An Old-Fashined Girl.

#2 – A comfortable place with pictures to inspire

My writing and reading area is comfortable and contains pictures to inspire me . . .

#3 – A way to organize my reading

. . . and a place to organize my reading (4 new books from the library yesterday!):

#4 – Making the resolutions

The sacred place is set, ready for my New Year’s resolutions:

  • To write for a minimum of 10 minutes every day
  • To expand my reading to include authors that inspired Louisa May Alcott, including these basics:
    Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
    Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
    The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
    Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
    (I know this is a tiny list for a whole year but I’m a painfully slow reader, and this is in addition to my Louisa reading. Guess I will have to add getting to the gym at least twice a week a resolution so I can get more reading time in!).
  • To complete my research and finish a first draft of an essay regarding a member of Louisa’s family
  • To find out more about writing for older children

Creating the sacred space was the easy part, now it’s on to the hard work! Wish me luck. 🙂

Do you have any special resolutions for 2012?

Happy New Year to all of you!

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Finding an ally and a lifelong partner: Bronson Alcott, part 4 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

Part 4 of a series on Bronson Alcott: his rise, fall and redemption, based on reflections from John Matteson’s biography Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

If you want to refresh your memory on previous posts in this series, here are the links:

Read Part One here
Read Part Two here
Read discussion question here
Read Part Three there

An important connection is made

Bronson Alcott’s first school in Cheshire, CT began to fail and yet, the door was opening to greater opportunities. Thanks to the efforts of Bronson’s cousin William (see Part Two for details on William and his influence on Bronson), Samuel May received a report of Bronson’s accomplishments (page 29).

Samuel May

Samuel May, son of Colonel Joseph May and brother to Abba (Bronson’s future wife), led the Unitarian church in Brooklyn, CT. The Mays were a prominent Boston family descended from the Sewalls and Quincys (his great-aunt Dorothy had been married to John Hancock).

Bronson wins over the reformer . . .

May had the heart of a true reformer and was an important and influential man: a great connection for Bronson which William helped to forge. May was impressed by William’s report and wanted to meet  Bronson.

Bronson could be very charming and coupled with his passion for education, impressed May deeply when they met. Samuel wrote of Bronson, “I have never . . . been so taken possession of by any man I ever met. He seemed to me like a born sage and saint.”  Bronson had found his ally.

 . . . and the reformer’s sister

Abigail May

Abba also found Bronson’s charms irresistible: “his upright carriage; his gracious, almost overly elaborate manners; the quick, playful uplift of his head; and his profound earnestness.” (page 31)

Beyond the attraction, Abba, a well-read woman of strong intellect, was inspired by Bronson’s mind, his love of learning and reading, and his passion for educational reform.

She and Bronson would eventually marry after a very long courtship. Abba stood by his side literally through thick and thin, defending his right to live by his principles despite the detrimental effect they would have on their family life. There is no doubt that behind this man was a great woman.

Read more about Abba here.

One more attempt in CT

But before that union, Bronson would continue to explore his options as an educator. Bolstered by Samuel May’s approval, Bronson attempted another school, this time in Bristol, CT (page 30). Parents in Bristol were even less tolerant of Bronson’s educational practices and the school quickly failed.

William Ellery Channing

On to Boston, and opportunity

It was then that Bronson knew he had to go to Boston, a center of intellectual activity and enlightenment. During this period (and perhaps for the last time in our country’s history), the intellectual leaders were found in the pulpit (page 33). Bronson pursued his enlightenment by listening to the great ministers of the day, most especially William Ellery Channing of the Unitarian Church.

Affirmation from Unitarianism

The Unitarian faith seemed to fit right in with Bronson’s educational ideas. Matteson writes, “Channing routinely emphasized the paternal nature of God and implied that the world was a school for the spirit in which human beings were the pupils . . . Channing saw God as both father and teacher, a view that dovetailed precisely with Alcott’s ideas of education.”

Bronson believed himself to be a type of spiritual father, encouraging the divine in the child through his words and example.

A new school with a benefactor

Finding affirmation for his thinking, Bronson began a school on Common Street in Boston in 1828 with Channing as benefactor (page 34). In an attempt to best approach Pestalozzi’s domestic model of school being like family, Bronson hired a female assistant.

In that same year, Bronson was to meet another Unitarian minister, one who would become his benefactor for life. I will continue on this topic in Part 5.

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Birth of a visionary educator: Bronson Alcott, part 3 (reflections on Eden’s Outcasts)

Part 3 of a series on Bronson Alcott: his rise, fall and redemption, based on reflections from John Matteson’s biography Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

If you want to refresh your memory on previous posts in this series, here are the links:

Read Part One here
Read Part Two here
Read discussion question here

The beginning

Bronson Alcott’s life as a teacher began quite modestly in 1823 as a schoolmaster in Cheshire, CT (page 26).

Teaching was not regarded very highly as a professional field and thus it was not required for teachers to have any formal training.

This made it easy for Bronson to take up the profession after he realized that peddling was not going to lead him closer to God (coincidentally his peddling was falling on hard times).

Birth of a lifelong passion

Teaching immediately resonated with Bronson and he came to believe there was no more important work to be done than educating the young. Surpassing even that of preaching  Alcott commented that “Early education was the enduring power.” (pg. 26).

This passion for teaching would stay with him throughout his life, shaping his professional, philosophical and child-rearing ideals (pg. 26). Education would lead him down the road to his glory, his downfall, and his inevitable redemption.

Bronson’s educational influence

Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

It was during this period that Bronson became familiar with educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi.

Pestalozzi, a native of Zurich who was inspired by Jean-Jacques Rousseau,  believed that people were innately intelligent. This belief shaped the idea that it was more fruitful to coax that intelligence out of a person rather than cram that person with information. (page 26)

The domestic nature of education

Pestalozzi’s writings not being in English, Bronson relied on English pamphlets based upon Pestalozzi’s writings known as Hints to Parents. These pamphlets were key to Bronson’s development of the gentle conversational style used to draw out his students. Hints to Parents also maintained the importance of a domestic atmosphere in the schoolroom, not unlike that of a well-run home.

Pilgrim’s Progress fits right in

Hints to Parents paralleled the moral teachings of Bronson’s beloved Pilgrim’s Progress, exhorting parents to “deafen themselves to the judgments of a corrupt and vanity-ridden world.” (page 27). Hints urged a religious-type zeal in parents with regards to educating their children, stressing the equal importance of imparting virtues and academic knowledge.

Pestalozzi in the classroom

Implementing Pestalozzi

Inspired by what he read,  Bronson sought to implement Pestalozzi’s principles in the Cheshire, CT school.

  • He worked to make the physical environment comfortable, decorating the classroom with flowers and greens, and affording each child his or her own desk (versus the long tables with hard benches).
  • He scrounged together a library of over 100 books.
  • He used art, music and games to liven up the learning environment, making the classroom a welcoming place.
  • Corporal punishment was rarely used. (page 27)

Failure leads to opportunity

Cheshire was in a very rural part of  Connecticut and parents were not quite up to all these changes. The school inevitably failed but not before it attracted the attention of  Samuel May of Boston, brother of Abba (Bronson’s future wife).  May was very taken with Bronson and his ideas and would end up supporting him in future efforts.

We know, of course, what came of Bronson’s meeting Abba.

In part 4, I will explore Bronson’s relationship with Samuel May and the winding path it led him on.

Point of Trivia: Did you know Bronson instituted the idea of recess? I just learned this yesterday on my umpteenth tour of Orchard House. 🙂

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Christmas Greetings to you. Thank you for a wonderful year!

Direct connection between Jo March and J. K. Rowling

It’s interesting how often Louisa May Alcott has been compared to J. K. Rowling in terms of the sensation she created with Little Women. Louisa was a huge celebrity in her time, just as photographs and mass marketing were both coming of age. It’s appropriate to compare them.

So it’s no surprise that J. K. Rowling lists Little Women as a major influence in her life. She found herself in Jo March.

You can read the article about it here: Little Women and Harry Potter: Jo Rowling is Jo March

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Rewriting “A Christmas Carol” for children: “A Christmas Dream and How It Came True”

I came across an article on about why we so often associate Charles Dickens with Christmas  (see The father of Christmas: What the festive season owes to Charles Dickens) and it really opened my eyes.

The influence of Charles Dickens

Despite that fact that I have read so little of Dickens, I could still feel his influence on Louisa’s Christmas stories (although hers are shorter and sweeter than his – I understand he got paid by the word :-)). Among other things, it made me realize that I must expand my reading horizons so as to understand where Louisa’s influences came from.

Learning to appreciate Dickens

I actually read (or heard through an audio book) A Christmas Carol for the first time yesterday. At first I was put off by the endless description as it seemed I could have said in five words what he said in fifty (and I am certainly not pithy!). I felt myself getting impatient, wanting him to stop beating around the bush and get to the point!

But by the time the third ghost appeared, I was among the initiated. I began to love the way everyone except Scrooge knew the obvious fact that he was the dead man. The suspense kept building along with Scrooge’s horror so that when he repented of his sins, it was heartfelt and authentic.

I’ve started listening to The Chimes and will also take on The Cricket in the Hearth. I love Google Books!

Rewriting Dickens for children

The article I eluded to at the beginning of this post mentioned that Louisa’s “A Christmas Dream and How It  Came True” was A Christmas Carol rewritten for children.

But rather than a misery and miserable old man, we have a very spoiled and miserable little girl, Effie. She had everything and was bored with it all.

She announced to her mother that she was “tired of Christmas”:

” . . . it [Christmas] is always the same, and there isn’t any more surprise about it. I always find heaps of goodies in my stocking. Don’t like some of them, and soon get tired of those I do like. We always have a great dinner, and I eat too much, and feel ill next day. Then there is a Christmas tree somewhere, with a doll on top, or a stupid old Santa Claus, and children dancing and screaming over bonbons and toys that break, and shiny things that are of no use. Really, mamma, I’ve had so many Christmases all alike that I don’t think I can bear another one.”

Effie wished she could be instead a beggar-girl. It made me cringe.

Scrooge’s story spawns a dream

At her mother’s suggestion, Effie found a copy of A Christmas Carol and read it before bedtime. In a way she couldn’t articulate, it made her feel better. And it fueled a long dream that “she never quite forgot.”

She realized a wish in her dream, that of becoming a beggar-girl: cold, hungry, wet, and feeling quite desperate.

A Christmas Spirit

While Scrooge had a vision of the 3 Spirits of Christmas; Effie was visited by one of many:

“A child’s voice sang, a child’s hand carried the little candle; and in the circle of soft light it shed, Effie saw a pretty child coming to her through the night and snow. A rosy, smiling creature, wrapped in white fur, with a wreath of green and scarlet holly on its shining hair, the magic candle in one hand, and the other outstretched as if to shower gifts and warmly press all other hands.”

The world of Christmas

The Spirit gave comfort to Effie and showed her the world of Christmas – many Spirits, old and young, working hard to create Christmas magic for the poor in the world. Louisa’s ever-fruitful imagination spun a world of wonder – she never lost sight of the child within herself despite all the hardship she lived through.

Effie even saw 4 Santa Clauses! (Were these the “Santa’s helpers” that I was always told about when I was a child? After all, how could Santa be at the North Pole and in my favorite department store at the same time? :-))

But that was only part of the story – the best was yet to come.

The Spirit then showed Effie how the all the wondrous things made in the world of Christmas was distributed throughout the world to deserving children everywhere. She saw how the poor children especially responded to such kindness and longed to give as the Christmas Spirits gave.

Becoming the Spirit of Christmas

Upon awakening, she told her mother all about her dream, and her mother made it come true. Effie became that Spirit of Christmas, dressed just like the Spirit in her dream, distributing Christmas magic to poor girls in a nearby orphanage.

Never again would Effie declare that she was “tired of Christmas!”

I loved the sweet and imaginative way that Louisa borrowed from the Dickens classic to create a story that would charm children into taking care of those less fortunate than themselves.

And I love the way that each story I read wraps me in the comfort of Christmases past while gently pricking my conscience here in the present to care more for those around me who are less fortunate.

I’ve never spent a Christmas before with Louisa May Alcott; it’s a Christmas I won’t soon forget.

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Susan’s ebook, “Game Changer” is now available From the Garret – download for free!

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“What the Bells Saw and Said” – Louisa May Alcott’s State of the Union Address

If Louisa May Alcott were to deliver a State of the Union address (minus the politics), what would it be like?

You can find out by reading “What the Bells Saw and Said,” in Christmas Tales and Stories, edited by Laura Ciolkowski.

Portrayed through the reports of six spirits living in the bells of the local church steeple, Louisa’s State of the Union address is at times preachy, heavy-handed, starkly realistic and yet tinged with that hope that never seemed to die within her no matter the circumstances.

While I haven’t read a lot of Charles Dickens (just A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations), I certainly felt his influence in this story.

The bells report on the past year

The scene opens with 6 bells in a church steeple: “No one saw the spirits of the bells up there in the old steeple at midnight on Christmas Eve. Six quaint figures, each wrapped in a shadowy cloak and wearing a bell-shaped cap. All were gray-headed, for they were among the oldest bell-spirits of the city, and ‘the light of other days’ shone in their thoughtful eyes.”

Each bell was to give his report on how the now-ending year had played out.

The ways of commerce – nothing ever changes . . .

The first bell-spirit reported on the ways of commerce. In many ways the characterizations echoed what is being said today about the business world. Louisa paints with a broad brush but at least admits that this portrait doesn’t apply to all businesspeople:

“There’s a deal too much dishonesty in the world, and business seems to have become a game of hazard in which luck, not labor, wins the prize. When I was young, men were years making moderate fortunes, and were satisfied with them . . .  Now it’s anything for money; health, happiness, honor, life itself, are flung down on that great gaming-table, and they forget everything else in the excitement of success or the desperation of defeat. Nobody seems satisfied either, for those who win have little time or taste to enjoy their prosperity . . . now-a-days after all manner of dishonorable shifts there comes a grand crash; many suffer, but by some hocus-pocus the merchant saves enough to retire upon and live comfortably here or abroad. It’s very evident that honor and honesty don’t mean now what they used to mean  . . .”

Extravagance and poverty

There is lamentation about the “show” of religion and how little of the message of Christianity actually sinks into the average mindset. Through the second bell-spirit Louisa turns to a familiar theme, that of extravagant living and the lack of care of the poor (think An Old-Fashioned Girl). Still, the second bell-spirit ends his report on an upbeat note, lavishing praise on the minority who do take their faith to heart and live it well.

Putting a face to that poverty

Hammershøi Portrait of a Young Girl 1885

The third bell-spirit echoes the lamentations of the second, augmenting them with a poignant story that does not end happily.

He tells the account of a poor young girl struggling to get by:

“Down yonder in the garret of one of the squalid houses at the foot of my tower, a little girl has lived for a year, fighting silently and single-handed a good fight against poverty and sin. I saw her when she first came, a hopeful, cheerful, brave-hearted little soul, alone, yet not afraid. She used to sit all day sewing at her window, and her lamp burnt far into the night, for she was very poor, and all she earned would barely give her food and shelter. I watched her feed the doves, who seemed to be her only friends; she never forgot them, and daily gave them the few crumbs that fell from her meagre table. But there was no kind hand to feed and foster the little human dove, and so she starved . . .”

I kept thinking that someone would step in and save this girl from her fate, but it was not to be. I had grown accustomed to Louisa’s sugar-coating in the other Christmas stories in this series; I was finding this one to be jarring.

Yet Louisa never gives in to despair. The bell-spirit ends his sobering tale with hope, believing that the girl was welcomed into paradise by her Father-God.

Other reports

Things began to lighten up after that. The fourth bell-spirit went on to report about the seaport in town and how the sailors were making out, guided by the earnest, hardworking captain who kept them in line.

Louisa gave a sense that the constant hard work mixed with the danger in seafaring kept the lives of these sailors authentic and true. There was certainly no opportunity for the wasting away of body, mind and heart that came from the extravagance and sloth she so disdained.

Back to religion

The report goes back to religion with an amusing summary of the various faiths through their various bells:

“The Baptist bell cried, briskly, ‘Come up and be dipped! come up and be dipped!’ The Episcopal bell slowly said, ‘Apos-tol-ic suc-cess-ion! apos-tol-ic suc-cess-ion!’ The Orthodox bell solemnly pronounced, ‘Eternal damnation! eternal damnation!’ and the Methodist shouted, invitingly, ‘Room for all! room for all!'”

The fifth bell-spirit devoted his time to a lengthy description of the growth of the congregation in the Catholic cathedral (and the decline in the neighboring Protestant churches). Louisa was at best ambivalent about Catholicism yet she gave a fair and favorable account.

Louisa’s powers of observation continue to amaze me; she described so well things she didn’t necessarily experienced first-hand.

The state of the young

The sixth bell-spirit turned his attention to the young regarding their education and specifically, the state of literature.. Though not as vigorous as he would like, the bell-spirit was generally pleased regarding the reform in literature noting that  “a sharp attack of mental and moral dyspepsia will soon teach our people that French confectionery and the bad pastry of Wood, Bracdon, Yates & Co. is not the best diet for the rising generation.” (Note: editor Laura Ciolkowski cited this comment as “disingenuous” considering the fact that such potboilers had been Louisa’s bread and butter!)

The dawning of Christmas Day

Dawn’s first light brings the report to a close with a hopeful note about the state of religion, its relevance and its revival. Through the sixth bell-spirit Louisa writes, “truth always triumphs in the end, and whoever sincerely believes, works and waits for it, by whatever name he calls it, will surely find his own faith blessed to him in proportion to his charity for the faith of others.”

I will think of this lyric and the image of these spirits the next time I hear the bells ringing:

” ‘Ring out the old, ring in the new,
  Ring out the false, ring in the true;
  Ring in the valiant man and free,
  Ring in the Christ that is to be.’

Then hand in hand the spirits of the bells floated away, singing in the hush of dawn the sweet song the stars sung over Bethlehem,–“Peace on earth, good will to men.”

The real intent?

“What the Bells Saw and Said” was commentary mixed with sometimes brutally honest observation – a window into the heart and mind of a reformer. It was sobering, making me think and pricking my conscience: what was I doing to make the world around me a better place?

I suspect that’s the reaction Louisa was looking for.

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