Summer Conversational Series for Tuesday, July 14

Yesterday’s session for the 2015  Summer Conversational Series featured these three distinguished presenters:

L to R: Cathlin Davis, PhD, Cecilia Macheski and Lianne Kulik

L to R: Cathlin Davis, PhD, Cecilia Macheski and Lianne Kulik

Cathlin Davis, PhD

Dr. Davis spoke at length on “The Healing Power of Nature: Friendly Sunshine and Fresh Air,” drawing upon her extensive knowledge of Louisa’s canon. There is probably no one more knowledgeable about Louisa’s writing than Dr. Davis who has made it a mission to find every single short story ever written by Louisa (a tall order as many have never been republished.

Cecilia Macheski

Cecilia Macheski told the story of Clara Endicott Sears, the founder of the Fruitlands museum. Her presentation was titled “Towards a New Eden: Clara Endicott Sears’s Spiritual Landscapes.” Miss Sears purchased the Fruitlands house in 1910 at the age of 50 when her life took on a dramatic new direction. Ms. Macheski had wonderful photos of Sears and her home which sadly was bulldozed soon after her death. We all felt a deep sadness that her home was lost but the museum continues to thrive and grow, featuring not only the Fruitlands house, but a Shaker house with many artifacts, a Native American collection and the Hudson River paintings. Sears was a visionary which is demonstrated first in her acquiring the Fruitlands house which was in poor condition, and buying up the Hudson River paintings which in her time were considered worthless; the collection now is worth millions.

Lianne Kulik

Finally, a new presenter took the stage–Lianne Kulik spoke about Bronson Alcott’s educational reforms, linking them to the classroom today. Her talk was titled “‘A Place Which Speaks the Thoughts of Genius:’ The Role of Environment in Alcott’s Classroom.” Kulik admitted to an unabashed love of Bronson as she clearly mapped out his many reforms which often are not credited to him. Her passion for teaching was infectious; we all agreed her students are lucky to have her.

I ended with the with a lovely swim at Walden Pond with Wednesday’s presenter, Jeannine Atkins. We’ve known each for years online and met for the first time and it was delightful. Later, I kayaked on the Concord River (pictures coming soon) and mused on the presentations. I can truly attest to the healing qualities of Nature as I cruised up and down the bucolic river.

Concord River

Concord River

The day ended with a lovely dinner on the porch of the Colonial Inn with Jeannine and another favorite presenter, Gabrielle Donnelly.

jeannine, gabrielle and susan

L to R: Jeannine Atkins, Gabrielle Donnelly, Susan Bailey

Here are my notes from the day so that you too can enjoy the presentations: notes for tuesday 7-14-15

Can’t wait for today’s presentations! More tomorrow.

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On vacation with Louisa May Alcott: Last Day of the Summer Conversational Series – Being and Doing: Louisa explores herself and her beliefs through her writing (Part Two)

Cathlin Davis on Louisa’s philosophy of life

cathlin 560Continuing with Day 4 of the series, Professor Cathlin Davis from California State University presented on “Practice Philosophy: ‘I want something to do.’” Through passages from Hospital Sketches, Work, Little Men and some of the rarer short stories (“May Flowers” from A Garland for Girls and “What Becomes of the Pins” from Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, volume 5), Davis presented a thorough analysis of Louisa’s philosophy for life: work as salvation.

Christie’s personal search for salvation

Davis presented one of my favorite passages from Work where Christie is searching for religion. Work is seen by most as an autobiographical feminist manifesto but often the important spiritual element of the book is overlooked. Davis did a masterful job of tracing the story of Christie showing how she “got religion” by finding meaningful work in her life. Christie has led a hard life and is in need of healing; the protection of the home (and her baby, “Little Hearts-Ease”), something to do (purpose), her tasks in taking care of the greenhouse which generates the income (and surrounds her with nature) and good friends bring that healing.

Purpose and acceptance

Davis continues with Little Men, demonstrating through Demi, Dan and Nan how each found their salvation through their purpose. Demi, the contemplative, surprisingly takes on a practical occupation as a journalist to support his family but still maintains that harmony of body and soul. Dan, a troubled street boy, finds acceptance at Plumfield after traveling a rocky, winding road. Demi’s acceptance of him was most important:

“No honor that [Dan] might earn hereafter would ever by half so precious as the right to teach his few virtues and his small store of learning to the child whom he most respected; and no more powerful restraint could have been imposed upon him than the innocent companion confided to his care …” (Little Men, from Davis’ handout)

Teaching the children

Louisa used her rich imagination in short stories “May Flowers” and “What Becomes of the Pins” to drive home the same point – that purposeful work is the means to salvation. In essence, Louisa was an active contemplative, one who blended being and doing into perfect harmony.

John Matteson on Louisa and Emerson

DAY 4 john 560The series ended with Orchard House favorite John Matteson from John Jay College in New York; he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Eden’s Outcasts. His presentation was titled “Innocence and Experience: Alcott, Moods, and the Emersonian Prism.” Using what Louisa considered to be her most personal book, Matteson demonstrated how Louisa sough to live out the teachings of Ralph Waldo Emerson in her own life.

How does Emerson deal with artistic genius?

Matteson raised several important questions centered on artistic genius:

  • Can Emerson’s masculine philosophy be applied to feminine thinking?
  • Can the philosophy apply to minds in distress?
  • What about self-denial versus self-expression, and self-governance/service to others versus self-exploration of artistic genius?

Fear of genius

Suggesting that Louisa might have battled privately with a bipolar disorder, Matteson traced the life of Sylvia Yule and her mercurial nature as evidenced by her moods. He asserted that Louisa was fearful of the power and mania of her vortexes; Sylvia’s fear of the intensity of Adam Warwick plays out this concern. She sought to “tame” Sylvia as a means of achieving more of a balance as seen in the conventional ending of the 1882 revised edition of Moods where Sylvia resolves to remain with Geoffrey Moore, her husband (in the 1864 version, a younger Louisa felt she had no choice but to kill Sylvia off to consumption). Matteson believes Moods lost its power as Sylvia drew closer to that balance and maturity.


Emerson’s contradicting thinking on the nature of the mind had to have caused confusion for Louisa. Because Emerson did not believe in neat and tidy endings (since everything to him was fluid and open-ended), he could simultaneously hold the belief that all men were part of one universal mind and yet each man is a unique individual. The universal mind connotes community (something Louisa experienced much of in her early life due to Bronson’s views on consociate families); Louisa challenges Emerson as to whether genius can live in community since it does not lead to commonality. Sylvia is an early depiction of Louisa: full of contractions, longing for harmony due to the inner turmoil of her genius.

On the outside looking in

It is sad to consider how rigid Victorian society was at the time of Louisa’s life, it was vital it was to “fit in” to narrow expectations (which were even more narrow for women) and yet Louisa by nature was far outside of convention. Sylvia was a frustrated intellect who suffered from an overactive and overwrought mind and a heart that never rested.

Violent nature

Mattteson brought up the fascinating point about nature. Emerson promotes nature as healing and stimulating but what happens when nature becomes turbulent and dangerous? Matteson noted three occasions in Moods where Sylvia encounters this part of nature: the thunderstorm that threatened her company’s boat journey, the brush fire that nearly consumed her and the high tide that nearly swept her out to sea. She is challenging Emerson: what happens when the inner life becomes turbulent and dangerous?

Cleaning it up

In the end, Louisa gives Moods the tidy ending, perhaps not having the courage to explore the more open-ended thinking of Emerson.

Final thoughts

The Summer Conversational Series is a wonderful experience of intellectual stimulation and discussion with like-minded people. It’s not just that we discuss Louisa but more on how we discuss life. I have increasingly found it difficult to think like the rest of the world as I read more and more. I was surprised at how much of a Transcendentalist I actually am. Like Louisa, I don’t understand all the thinking of people such as Emerson and Bronson Alcott, but intuitively, I know what they were promoting. To me it is a joy to overlay the Transcendentalist way of thinking onto my Roman Catholic faith; it is helping me to embrace the mystic in me, something I once feared.

I made several new friends this week, friends that I will get together with outside of the Conversational series. To be in the company of such thoughtful and caring people, to find that kind of fellowship gave me the kind of vacation I truly enjoy.

DAY 4 audience laughing 560

DAY 4 jan3 560My heartfelt thanks to Jan Turnquist, Lis Adams, all the presenters and all the Orchard House volunteers for a week I will never forget.

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Thoreau and mysticism – Nature as a highway to the Divine

I’ve just started reading a thick volume on contemplative prayer (Fire Within by Thomas Dubay, SM), based upon the writings of two giants in this area, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Both were Carmelites,  and both hailed from Spain.

Many Spanish scholars believe that St. John is the greatest poet and writer of prose in the Spanish language (Fire Within, Thomas Dubay, SM, pg. 34). When I started reading about this saint and his intense interest in nature, I immediately thought about Henry David Thoreau.

I had mentioned in a previous post that Thoreau seemed like a contemplative. In reading about St. John of the Cross, I saw a lot of similarities, at least on the surface, between Thoreau and St. John:

St. John:

“He loved going outdoors and praying immediately from the book of creation lying before his eyes. It is said of him that he would be found in his cell with elbows on the windowsill, gazing, in absorbed prayer, upon the flowers during the day or the stars at night. ” (Fire Within, page. 33)

” ‘Oh woods and thickets,
Planted by the hand of my Beloved!
O green meadow
Coated, bright, with flowers,
Tell me, has He pass by you?’
[poetry by St. John]
Because creation shouts the Creator to the attentive heart, the man of woman who sets out on a serious pursuit of God uses the finite order as a stepping-stone to the infinite.” (Ibid, pg. 50)

Thoreau (from “Walking”):

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absoutely free from all wordly engagements. ”

“We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world . . .”

“For I believe that climate does thus react on man — as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually as well as physically under these influences? Or is it unimportant how many foggy days there are in his life? I trust that we shall be more imaginative; that our thoughts will be clearer, fresher and more ethereal, as our sky — our understanding more comprehensive and broader, like our plains — our intellect generally on a grander scale, like our thunder and lightning, our rivers and mountains and forests, — and our hearts shall even correspond in breadth and depth and grandeur to our inland seas.”

I wonder, did Thoreau ever read anything by St. John of the Cross? Is there any record of him reading such things? And if anyone can recommend an essay or portion of a book where Thoreau talks about the interior revelations he received from spending time in Nature, I’d love to know.

Continuing “Walking” with Henry David Thoreau

Listening to “Walking” while I walked (see previous post) only whetted my appetite to dig deeper into this amazing essay. The more I read, the more the text opened up like a flower early in the morning, each truth displaying itself in the light of a new understanding. I feel akin to Thoreau and I attribute it to my recent exploration into the contemplative life. I daresay that Thoreau thinks much like religious contemplatives and monks that I’ve read about, but without the overt mention of religion. Still, to me anyway, the suggestion is very much there. What makes Thoreau so amazing is that he lays out the map of where you should go but allows you to choose how you will get there. It makes his thinking universal, applicable to anyone who wants it, in any time and place.

Learning to understand Thoreau:

Ken Kifer wrote that “Thoreau based his philosophy on ageless truths from the past and looked into the future.” In describing Walden, he wrote that “its logic is based on a different understanding of life, quite contrary to what most people would call common sense.” I felt like he was describing my life. I have always walked to the beat of a different drummer.

So I already knew that “Walking” was far more than a description and appreciation of nature. There is no doubt that Thoreau had a deep connection with the out-of-doors and contributed greatly to the study of the natural world with his observations and insights. I think specifically of a section near the end of “Walking” where he describes climbing a pine tree only to discover “on the ends of the topmost branches only, a few minute and delicate red cone-like blossoms, the fertile flower of the white pine looking heavenward.” He was so taken with this discovery that he actually cut off the top of the tree and took it into town to show anyone who would look at it!

Many people love Thoreau because he was a naturalist and he certainly lifted the experience to a higher plain. But Nature (note the capital N which he always used) was far more than what was seen. I believe he used it as an allegory to challenge people to think beyond their narrow, conventional lives of commerce and work. He felt it essential to move beyond conventional and shallow thought, and to dig much deeper into the meaning of life. No doubt his thinking was influenced by the dehumanizing influence of the new industrial age. It’s amazing that he could see it even then, with industrialization in its infancy. I can only imagine how he would see our world today..

Learning to understand Thoreau:

Thoreau valued walking greatly, making it a rather spiritual experience. He called it sauntering (“which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the middle ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la sainte terre” — to the holy land . . .) and declared that he couldn’t preserve his health and spirits unless he spent at least 4 hours per day sauntering through Nature, free from worldly entanglements. Someone who is able to spend that much time alone and walking obviously understood the value of silence. I have a feeling Thoreau was an expert at quieting himself, ridding himself of those useless thoughts that race through the mind, and allowing higher thought to rise to the surface. This is something I am learning how to do with contemplative prayer. It’s like entering the innermost chamber of yourself and meeting someone you love there. I’ve only succeeded once or twice to get there but once you’ve been there, you hunger to go back and stay. Thoreau knew how to enter that chamber and silence is the way. It wasn’t always easy for him (“I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit”) but he knew the way.

Digging deeper

Thoreau uses much of the essay to challenge us to dig deeper, broadening our horizon, and opening our hearts and minds to other realities. I feel like his writing is practically shouting at me because I see so much narrow-mindedness, such a lack of creativity in the way people think, and a general blindness to what makes life truly worth living. Although I feel I have a gift for insight, I also sense a barrier inside of me preventing me from digging deeper myself, and then learning how to express it in words. I think that with Thoreau’s help (and further time inside my chamber with my Beloved) I can break down this barrier, stone by stone.

There is so much more to say about “Walking”; I will continue in future posts.



Some people have studied for an
in order to fully understand Thoreau.
His words about nature are beautiful.


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“Walking” with Henry David Thoreau

I don’t care what anyone says: I believe that Henry David Thoreau was a romantic. True, he certainly preferred his solitude over the company of others (although he and his brother at one time loved a woman named Ellen, enough to want to marry her, and it’s rumored that Thoreau loved Lidian Emerson), but I believe he was a romantic in the way he felt about nature.

At least he swept me away yesterday (probably not unlike the way he swept away Louisa May Alcott). On the way to the gym for my workout, I listened to his essay entitled “Walking” which prompted me to skip the gym and take a walk over at the dog field at Tufts  Veterinary School. Thoreau made the outdoors sound so compelling that I couldn’t imagine shutting myself up in a gym when I could experience the glorious outdoors. After all, I prided myself on being a lover of nature, right?

Ah, you have to love audio books! I strapped on my iTouch and began listening to part 2 of “Walking” as I began my walk. Everything was lovely at first – tall green grass with birds diving to and fro, cool breezes, this was living! Until, I stumbled on the rough path and fell down, nearly spraining my ankle! The reading of “Walking” was blaring in my head as I massaged both feet (both of which give me pain most of the time anyway) and wondered if I would be able to continue, let alone get back to my car! Under my breath I found myself muttering, “Thanks a lot, Thoreau!”

I did manage to continue my walk, trying to get back in the spirit of what I was hearing. All went well until I got into the woodsy part of the trip and the mosquitoes had me in their cross hairs!  At one point there was a swarm around me and I wondered what  Thoreau must have used to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

I got back to the meadow and completed my walk just as the audio book finished. My little excellent adventure! 🙂

I must admit though, I enjoyed the walk and would like to do it again, feet permitting!

I’m reading through the printout of “Walking” now so I can take a closer look and will write more when I finish it.

I still think he’s a romantic and I’ll tell you why soon . . .