Loneliness & Despair. Search for meaningful life – “Work” by Louisa May Alcott (Jan. 2009)

January 22, 2009 Susan’s Newsletter
Work by Louisa May Alcott
   Desiring meaningful life
   Love of books
   Loneliness and Despair
   Aging as a Woman

Good morning & we can say – Good WARM (all is relative, right?!??!) morning this time!!!  Should we all just pretend spring is next week and deal with the reality later!??!?!?  After writing to you the phrase from Louisa May Alcott last week, “She is too fond of books & it has turned her brain,”  I decided to read another book by Alcott, Work.  I wasn’t familiar with this title, mainly aware of her famous book, Little Women.  This book is on a young woman, Christie, who lives with her aunt and uncle since she is an orphan.  This book is on her dissatisfaction, her dreams as a young woman, her hard life (not turning out as she dreamed) and her becoming a woman of character at the end of the book as she looks back, with grief upon a husband’s death in war, and the renewal of life with a new infant daughter’s birth.

On being stifled by an environment – desire for a meaningful life:  “You and I are very different, ma’am. (in speaking to her aunt)…There was more yeast put into my composition, I guess; and, after standing quiet in a warm corner so long, I begin to ferment, and ought to be kneaded up in time, so that I may turn out a wholesome loaf.  You can’t do this; so let me go where it can be done, else I shall turn sour and good for nothing.  Does that make the matter any clearer?  Her aunt asked, “What do you want, child?”  Christie answered…”Do you see those two logs?  Well that one smoldering dismally away in the corner is what my life is now; the other blazing and singing is what I want my life to be.”  “Bless, me, what an idee!  They are both a-burning’ where they are put, and both will be ashes to-morrow; so what difference does it make?”  “I know the end is the same; but it does make a difference how they turn to ashes, and how I spend my life.  That log, with its one dull spot of fire, gives neither light nor warmth, but lies sizzling despondently among the cinders.  But the other glows from end to end with cheerful little flames that go singing up the chimney with a pleasant sound.  Its light fills the room and shines out into the dark; its warmth draws us nearer, making the hearth the coziest place in the house, and we shall all miss the friendly blaze when it dies.  Yes, I hope my life may be like that, so that, whether it be long or short, it will be useful and cheerful while it lasts, will be missed when it ends, and leave something behind besides ashes.”

On leaving home…what she takes: Twenty-one tomorrow, and her inheritance a head, a heart, a pair of hands; intelligence, courage, and common sense…much romance & enthusiasm, a spirit… She was one endowed with talents, earnest and true-hearted, driven by necessity, temperament, or principle out into the world to find support, happiness, and homes for themselves.  (1) Many turn back discouraged.  (2) More accept shadow for substance, and discover their mistake too late.  (3) The weakest lose their purpose and themselves.  (4) but the strongest struggle on, and, after danger and defeat, earn at last the best success this world can give us, the possession of a brave and cheerful spirit, rich in self-knowledge, self-control, self-help.

First job alone as a servant – her love for books in her solitude & loneliness: Christie loved books; and the attic next her own was full of them.  To this store she found her way by a sort of instinct as sure as that which leads a fly to a honeypot, and, finding many novels, she read her fill.  This amusement lightened many heavy hours, peopled the silent house with troops of friends (I love that last line – our friends in books!), and, for a time, was the joy of her life.  (It was in this home that her candle fell after she fell asleep reading & her curtains caught on fire.  The mistress of the home yelled angrily the phrase we now know in her anger, “She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain!”  She lost her job from that incident!

Christie then took odd jobs as an actress (two years of losing her dreams, ideals, and integrity), then a governess to young children, then a companion to a sick young girl who committed suicide, on to a menial job as a seamstress.  Christie soon tired of the innumerable changes rung upon those themes (three topics of others at her work: dress, gossip, wages), and took refuge in her own thoughts, soon learning to enjoy them undisturbed by the clack of many tongues about her.  Her evenings at home were devoted to books, for she had the desire for education, and read or studied for the love of it.  Thus she had much to think of as her needle flew….

On loneliness and despair and the desire to find God:  The year that followed was the saddest Christie had ever known, for she suffered a sort of poverty which is more difficult to bear than actual want, since money cannot lighten it, and the rarest charity alone can minister to it.  Her heart was empty and she could not fill it; her soul was hungry and she could not feed it; life was cold and dark and she could not warm and brighten it, for she knew not where to go.  “How shall I know God?  Who will tell me where to find Him, and help me to love and lean upon Him as I ought?  In all sincerity she asked these questions, in all sincerity she began her search, and with pathetic patience waited for an answer.  She read many books, some wise, some vague, some full of superstition, all unsatisfactory to one who wanted a living God.  She went to many churches, studied many creeds, and watched their fruits as well as she could; but still remained unsatisfied.  Some were cold and narrow, some seemed theatrical and superficial, some stern and terrible, none simple, sweet, and strong enough for humanity’s many needs.  Too much fear, too little love;…Too little knowledge of the religion whose faith is as the tender trust of little children in their mother’s love.  Nowhere did Christie find this all-sustaining power, this paternal friend, and comforter, and after months of searching, she gave up her quest, saying, “I want a Father to whom I can go with all my sins and sorrows, all my hopes and joys, as freely and fearlessly as I used to go to my human father, sure of help and sympathy and love.  Shall I ever find him?”  Alas, poor Christie!  She was going through the sorrowful perplexity that comes to so many before they learn that religion cannot be given or bought, but must grow as trees grow, needing frost and snow, rain and wind to strengthen it before it is deep-rooted in the soul; that God is in the hearts of all, and they that seek shall surely find Him when they need Him most.  Her mind preyed on itself…her heart could not endure isolation from its kind without losing the cheerful courage which hitherto had been her staunchest friend.  Inexpressibly wretched were the dreary days, the restless nights, with only pain and labor for companions.  The world looked very dark to her, life seemed an utter failure, God a delusion, and the long lonely years before her too hard to be endured.

On last words sitting with her husband as he died from a war wound (she is expecting a new little baby)…”Such a beautiful world!”  he whispered…”and so much good work to do in it, I wish I could stay and help a little longer…You will do my part, and do it better than I could.  Don’t mourn, dear heart, but work; and by and by you will be comforted.”  They then faced the sunrise for his last few minutes…two faces lay upon the pillow; one full of the despairing grief for which there seems no balm; the other with lips and eyes of solemn peace, and that mysterious expression, lovelier than any smile, which death leaves as a tender token that all is well with the newborn soul.  To Christie that was the darkest hour of the dawn, but for David sunrise had already come.

On healing and coping in grief, and finding God:  (Words of mother-in-law): “Don’t you be troubled.  Nater (Father God) knows what’s good for us, and works in his own way.  Hearts like this don’t break, only sorrer (sorrow) only makes ’em stronger.  You mark my words:  the blessed baby that’s a comin’ in the summer will work a merrycle, and you’ll see this poor dear a happy woman yet.”  Three women (mother-in-law, Christie, sister-in-law) little garments sewed with such tender interest, consecrated with such tender tears….Then, when no help seemed possible, she found it where she least expected it, in herself.  Searching for religion, she had found love: now seeking to follow love she found religion.  The desire for it had never left her, and while serving others, she was earning this reward; for when her life seemed to lie in ashes, from their midst, this slender spire of flame, purifying while it burned, rose trembling toward heaven; showing her how great sacrifices turn to greater compensations; giving her light, warmth, and consolation, and teaching her the lesson all must learn.  God was very patient with her, sending much help, and letting her climb up to Him by all the tender ways in which aspiring souls can lead unhappy hearts. 

Reflections at the end of the book, “At forty“:  What she said she hardly knew: words came faster than she could utter them, thoughts pressed upon her, and all the lessons of her life rose vividly before her to give weight to her arguments, value to her counsel, and the force of truth to every sentence that she uttered.  She had known so many of the same trials, troubles, and temptations that she could speak understandingly of them; and better still, she had conquered or outlived so many of them, that she could not only pity but help others to do as she had done.  Having found in labor her best teacher, comforter, and friend…  The speaker (our Christie with war victims)…this speaker was one of them; for the same lines were on her face that they saw on their own, her hands were no fine lady’s hands…her speech simple enough for all to understand; cheerful, comforting, and full of practical suggestion, illustrations out of their own experience, and a spirit of companionship that uplifted their despondent hearts.  Yet more impressive than anything she said was the subtle magnetism of character, for that has a universal language which all can understand.  They saw and felt that a genuine woman stood down there among them like a sister, ready with head, heart, and hand to help them help themselves; not offering pity as an alms, but justice as a right.  Hardship and sorrow, long effort and late-won reward had been hers they knew; wifehood, motherhood, and widowhood brought her very near to them; and behind her was the background of an earnest life, against which this figure with health on the cheeks, hope in the eyes, courage on the lips, and the ardor of a wide benevolence warming the whole countenance stood out full of unconscious dignity and beauty; and example to comfort, touch, and inspire them.

I love the hope in this book.  The twenty years of dreams, goals, life bringing incredible loneliness and pain, then joy, hope, courage.  On the different perspective of those at the scene of death.  The one dying and entering God’s presence vs. the one left behind.  “You mark my words: the blessed baby that’s a comin’ in the summer will work a merrycle, and you’ll see this poor dear a happy woman yet.”  Three women (mother-in-law, Christie, sister-in-law) little garments sewed with such tender interest, consecrated with such tender tears… I have gone back & forth with writing this, but on Monday eight years ago I said good-bye for the last time to my mom before she died during the night.  I was pregnant with Camden and had already told my father good-bye that previous summer.  Now, eight years later, on the same anniversary, Stu, Camden, and I found out that we are going to have a new little baby in our home next fall.  We will sew garments with tender interest, consecrated with tender tears.  The blessed baby will work another “merrycle”.  God is present.  He “continues to be very patient, letting me climb up to him with my aspiring soul”.  I ask you to pray for the health of this little one, and for us all to see that there are continuous chapters to all of our lives.

Our goal must continue to be to strive for “hope in our eyes, courage on our lips…” “I know the end is the same; but it does make a difference how they turn to ashes, and how I spend my life.  That log, with its one dull spot of fire, gives neither light nor warmth, but lies sizzling despondently among the cinders.  But the other glows from end to end with cheerful little flames that go singing up the chimney with a pleasant sound.  Its light fills the room and shines out into the dark; its warmth draws us nearer, making the hearth the coziest place in the house, and we shall all miss the friendly blaze when it dies.  Yes, I hope my life may be like that, so that, whether it be long or short, it will be useful and cheerful while it lasts, will be missed when it ends, and leave something behind besides ashes.”  Let us keep this our goal.  No matter how long we have.

Oh, goodness, I promise I cut out paragraphs!!!  How I want what I try to find for us words worth your reading.  Thank you for your encouragement, business, and prayers now for this little life.  Thank you for letting me enter your world again on this Thursday.  Go make yourself proud with decisions only you know you made today.  I hope I’m working when you come in the store, but again, if not – know I thank you!  Susan 


Latin for this week:
Dum vita est spes est – While life is, hope is.

Works Cited:

Alcott, Louisa May.  Work.  1994.  Penguin Putnam.  New York.



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