Sunday, July 11, 2010

What Were We Born to Do?

I spent a fascinating afternoon at the Concord School of Philosophy on the grounds of Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House. The discussion, entitled "What Were We Born to Do? The New Women of the Transcendental Era" was part of the 2010 Summer Concersational Series entitled "In Heaven's Name, Give Her a Chance!" Defining the Sphere of Women in 19th Century America. As I said, fascinating.

The four presenters this afternoon were formidable scholars and authors. Phyllis Cole, from Penn State-Brandywine, spoke aboutMary Moody Emerson (aunt to Ralph Waldo Emerson). Megan Marshall, from Emerson College and the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, spoke about Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, one of three sisters who were movers and shakers in their time. [Marshall wrote a book about these sisters--The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism (2005)--which won the Francis Parkman Prize, awarded by the Society of American Historians; the Mark Lynton History Prize, awarded by the Anthony Lukas Prize Project jointly sponsored by the Columbia School of Journalism and Harvard's Nieman Foundation; the Massachusetts Book Award in nonfiction; and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography and memoir.] Helen Deese, of Tennessee Tech University and the Massachusetts Historical Society, spoke about Caroline Healy Dall. [Deese is the author of Daughter of Boston: The Extraordinary Diary of aNineteenth-century Woman, Caroline Healey Dall, and she is the Caroline Healey Dall editor for the Massachusetts Historical Society.] Finally, John Matteson, John Jay College, spoke about Margaret Fuller and Louisa May Alcott. [Matteson received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his book Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. He is currently working on a book tentatively titled The Lives of Margaret Fuller.]

To say it was a formidable group would be an understatement. We met in the actual School of Philosophy that Alcott built on his Orchard House property for the purpose of educating adults. Quoting from the welcome we received from Executive director Jan Turnquist, "Mr. Alcott's dream of an adult education facility--one of the first in the country--came to fruition in Orchard House on July 15, 1870, when The Concord Summer School of Philosophy and Literature welcomed adults from all walks of life, and women were embraced as full intellectual equals." Since we were in the original building, there was no a/c or fans (noise would have drowned out the speakers. It was sweltering, but most of us were able to get past the oppressive heat to enjoy the stories the four speakers had to share. I am about half-way through Matteson's book, but I now want to read the other books (of course)...

I'll have more to share tomorrow from the things I am learning, but I'll close here by asking the question these four challenged us with: What were you born to do? Matteson says that when you ask that question, you also have to ask "what are we born to show [others]?" And what are the risks involved? As I sat and listened to the stories of 5 key women who influenced the way I live my life now, I was asking myself what
I was born to do? And to what extent have I accomplished that purpose? And what am I doing about achieving it?

Jan Tourquist's parting words were about "simmering." Louisa May Alcott didn't have a lot of time to do the work she felt she was born to do. She had other responsibilities. She talks about her stories simmering in her brain while she was simmering things on the stove. That's the nature of creativity and work for women. Men will do one or the other. But women are charged with doing both if they want to do the creativity. It is rare to have the luxury to do just the one. Certainly it was in the 19th century. I left determined to refine my life's purpose and to find a way to accomplish it even more...and better.

1 comment:

Inkslinger said...

Wow. This sounds so fascinating!!

And such a good question, too.