Hope and Keep Busy

Orchard House

In the cold gray dawn the sisters lit their lamp and read their chapter with an earnestness never felt before. For now the shadow of a real trouble had come, the little books were full of help and comfort, and as they dressed, they agreed to say goodbye cheerfully and hopefully, and send their mother on her anxious journey unsaddened by tears or complaints from them. Everything seemed very strange when they went down, so dim and still outside, so full of light and bustle within. Breakfast at that early hour seemed odd, and even Hannah’s familiar face looked unnatural as she flew about her kitchen with her nightcap on. The big trunk stood ready in the hall, Mother’s cloak and bonnet lay on the sofa, and Mother herself sat trying to eat, but looking so pale and worn with sleeplessness and anxiety that the girls found it very hard to keep their resolution. Meg’s eyes kept filling in spite of herself, Jo was obliged to hide her face in the kitchen roller more than once, and the little girls wore a grave, troubled expression, as if sorrow was a new experience to them.

Little Women and its sequels have been more than mere fiction to me, but lifelong companions. When I was a gap-toothed seven-year-old my mother and I were reading the first book together at bedtime, a chapter a night, until I became impatient and started reading ahead.

It was the last book we ever read together in that way, although my teens and early twenties would find us going to the library together and fighting over which of us got to read the new releases first. Somehow, “but I’m the one who checked it out,” never holds water with your mother, even when you’re a legal adult.

While a lot of people believe Alcott wrote for kids, that’s not really true. She was a writer in a time when, except for books targeted for very young children, books were just… books. “Young adult” didn’t exist as a category. If it wasn’t a picture book, a piece of fiction was meant for everyone.

And Little Women has universal appeal. Sure, a lot of boys and men are turned off by the title, but once they really start to read it, there’s a realization that even though the four protagonists of Alcott’s most famous work were girls, she really understood boys.

It’s also a book that has come back to me, time and again, albeit with different perspectives. For example, when I was first reading it, the part that hit me the hardest was when Beth dies. But once I’d started dating, and especially once dating became “adult” relationships, the scene where Laurie proposes to Jo and she declines is what really affected me.

More recently, Alcott and Little Women returned to the forefront of my consciousness when, a couple of weeks ago, I caught a Facebook Live presentation from the executive director of Orchard House, once the Alcott family home, and now one of the many literary museums in New England. (If travel has opened up by mid-August, when I turn fifty, the plan is for my mother, my godmother, and I to go there together. My godmother was the “book aunt” for my generation of cousins, and she’s the one who gifted me with the book in the first place.

The presentation I watched was low tech, but heartfelt. Jan Turnquist sat in a chair and spoke about the way the Alcotts – in reality – and the March family – in the novel – faced times of trouble and tribulation. “Hope and keep busy.”

And isn’t that what all of us have been doing – or trying to do – since our various shelter in place orders began? We are crafting more, baking more, sharing our artistic talents more freely, and in more public – if virtual – venues.

We are holding onto the people and things that are dear to us, and rediscovering things like cooking from scratch, the joy of an evening walk, and the beauty of real mail.

Hope and keep busy.

It sounds so simplistic, so basic, so old-fashioned… but even when we have all this amazing technology at our fingers – when we can engage in video chats with virtual backdrops that put is at Hogwarts or on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, what we seek, what we have always sought, is human connection, and if that doesn’t embody hope, I don’t know what does.

My husband and I work from home all the time and have done for over a decade. On the surface, our daily life hasn’t changed much. Our dogs are not getting any more or less attention than thy ever have. We were never out of toilet paper, or desperate to find more  (although the lack of it in stores did hasten my decision to sign up for a subscription for delivered bamboo toilet paper) and we haven’t had the time to take on major DIY projects. Sure, we miss things like going out to restaurants or to the movies, and most of the shows in our theatre subscription were canceled, or postponed, but for the most part, we haven’t faced a lot of changes.

But psychologically, the knowledge that we can’t do certain things is still a heavy weight. And concern for our family and friends still affects us, not to mention almost every article in the local or national news. (Here in Texas, a side-effect of shelter-in-place is that with gyms closed, people are taking more walks and hikes at dusk, which means snakebites are on the rise – springtime in Texas is snake season after all. I know, because we have to keep fishing baby rat snakes out of our pool.)

But even we are finding ourselves in need of more distraction. My husband is an introvert, but I’ve had it confirmed in these past few weeks that while I can be reserved in large groups of people I don’t know, I’m really an extrovert. I’m also – for the most part – an only child, which means I’m accustomed to being independent and entertaining myself, which is why I thought I was an introvert until fairly recently.

And even we are finding ourselves a bit on edge. Sure, I’ve been seeing my chiropractor most weeks (it’s allowed because it’s for pain management) and having massages (my massage therapist is in my chiro’s office, and time with her is also for pain management), but our schedules don’t really allow us to hang out on video calls or join virtual games, except on rare occasions.

I’ve also been struggling to write. Partly this is a combination of hormone flux and my migraines being out of control. Partly it’s a reaction to the state of the world. I would not describe myself as depressed, because that’s a very specific chemical and neurological condition, but I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve been unable to find my spark.

So when Orchard House and Jan Turnquist reminded me of how the Alcotts – and the Marches – handled tough times, it resonated with me, the way Little Women has always resonated with me.

Hope and keep busy.

So I must. So must we all.

Nobody talked much, but as the time drew very near and they sat waiting for the carriage, Mrs. March said to the girls, who were all busied about her, one folding her shawl, another smoothing out the strings of her bonnet, a third putting on her overshoes, and a fourth fastening up her traveling bag…

“Children, I leave you to Hannah’s care and Mr. Laurence’s protection. Hannah is faithfulness itself, and our good neighbor will guard you as if you were his own. I have no fears for you, yet I am anxious that you should take this trouble rightly. Don’t grieve and fret when I am gone, or think that you can be idle and comfort yourselves by being idle and trying to forget. Go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace. Hope and keep busy, and whatever happens, remember that you never can be fatherless.” – Little Women, Chapter 16 (“Letters”) by Louisa May Alcott

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Hope and Keep Busy by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

2 thoughts on “Hope and Keep Busy

  1. Beautifully written. Sweet and touching. This book was important in my life, our lives.

  2. Nicely done. I like the way you are able to write about sincere emotion without schmaltz. And the “fun fact” about the rise in snakebites is ickily interesting.

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