There were three constants in my teenage life: home, church and the library.
I so very well knew the basement of the Wasilla library. I actually lapped the young adult section, reading books I forgot I had already read.
There was a much larger adult section on the first floor. That section scared me. ADULTS read those books. I had to be a grownup to understand THOSE books. Also, adult probably meant R rated. Sinful. My well-catechized conscience warned me against falling into sin by choosing a book in that section unguided. One day I would be old enough.
For now, I told myself, for now I would stick to my section. There were plenty of good books in the basement.
Most people know of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Some people know of the sequels to Little Women–Jo’s Boys and Little Men.
She wrote a lot of books. I read ALL of her books our library had. Little Women has a semi-convincing romance in it. I loved Laurie, and had nothing but disappointment in the German professor Jo chose in the end.
My favorite romance of Alcott’s was Rose in Bloom. Sequel to Eight Cousins.
The boy cousin who captures Rose’s heart (how weird is it that she is allowed to love and marry her cousin? did that to the tension of their romance? the story did not think it taboo), that boy cousin is found at a pivotal moment reading Emerson.
Rose is impressed with him, calling the author Grandfather Emerson. She heaps praise not only on Emerson’s writing but also on her cousin for being so wise as to read it.
Aha! Here it is!
My navigation of the library had to be done by dead reckoning and reading the stars. Since I had no one to suggest to me what to read next I had learned to look for book suggestions inside of the books I was already reading.
Does anyone else remember that one of the sisters in Little Women was reading Ivanhoe in the first chapter?
I read Ivanhoe after that. It was a steep climb. Nonetheless, I wanted more.
So when Rose says Emerson is worth reading, I went UPSTAIRS. I had a new book to read!
He was hard to find. My selections in the children’s basement didn’t need the Dewey decimal system. I’d heard of it, but now in the ADULT section, I had to use it.
Then I opened Emerson’s essays. And where do I begin? What topic should my 14-year-old self start with?
My friends are very important to me: Friendship
It starts with a poem. Skip that. Get to the point. And here is the opening paragraph of Emerson’s essay on Friendship:
We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Maugre all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.
The words each had a meaning I could recognize–most of them anyway. It’s just, in that order, and in the way he used them, I couldn’t recognize them anymore. It was familiar that he said we should rejoice to be in church. The rest was incomprehensible
Every fear that I was not old enough to read things from the adult section was realized.
Emerson. He wrote essays on topics. Essays? Who writes an essay? And on these topics? Why?
I returned the book after the three weeks. I was chastened and knew my attempt as hubris. I did not belong in the adult section.
Then last week, a former high school English teacher (angelic tribe! How I have loved every literature teacher I have studied under. My time at university at last acquainted me with such beings) brought up Emerson–specifically the essay Self-Reliance.
Finding the free Kindle version, I now read this essay so simply and quickly. I see these words:
Insist on yourself; never imitate. …That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him… Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? … Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare. Do that which is assigned you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.
At the time I first found Emerson, all hope and daring was out of reach. As Emerson says, it was too much to dare and to hope of find greater books that the shelves in the basement.
I’ve learned a few things since then. One of them is to trust myself to find the right books for me. Now I am a grown up and I read his words like Deja Vu.
Which is sort of the point of Self Reliance. I could quote him, but then again I won’t. I can use my own words.
Each person needs to trust his or her own self. We do know, or we will know, what is true and beautiful in the way that only we-each individual- can know it. Our lives and our art is such that only each individual can express.
So it’s best to get to it and not give too much respect to other people’s opinions.
I have a relationship with Emerson that is exactly what I would expect of my life. It started out very constrained. And my life isn’t over. He and I need to spend a little more time in conversation now that I’m better able to appreciate him and my self.