The Reason To Circumnavigate

Due to wine, I ran a 5k in Concord, Massachussetts. Notice I did not say “5k Race”. Other participants were racing. Being neither a natural athlete or a proficient runner, I do not 5k with any designs on competition. My 5k career simply confirms that after two glasses of wine I think I’m capable of anything and am likely to say really dumb stuff like “I’ll sign up for a 5K!” or “I’m starting a blog!” Two glasses of wine is confidence. Three glasses of wine is me demanding hash browns, which goes to prove the old saying “It’s a short distance between confidence and hash browns.”

Concord is a notable location because in the middle of the 19th century, if you were an American writer destined to write Important American Literature, you probably lived here. Or wanted to live here. Or knew people who lived here. I haven’t interviewed all the dead American writers to verify this non-fact but apparently there was a very lovely swim/tennis community with reasonable HOA fees, and that was all it took to get Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott to accept attractive relocation packages and settle in Concord. The result, as everyone knows, is a comprehensive catalog of successful screen adaptations (with the exception of Ralph Waldo Emerson because apparently nobody will greenlight a buddy-cop action version of “Self-Reliance”). Concord is also closely associated with the philosophical movement American transcendentalism, which emphasized spiritual awareness through personal focus on intuition. It’s the third most popular kind of transcendentalism, behind Canadian transcendentalism and Sylvester Stallone movies. For a literary nerdfan, Concord isn’t just a mandatory juice ingredient. It’s a pilgrimage.

The 5k run I found myself “running” is an annual event that benefits The Orchard House, the home where Bronson Alcott settled his family and where his daughter Louisa resided when she wrote her classic of classics, Little Women. Inspired by her own experience, Alcott’s novel chronicles a family’s sacrifices, faith, and devotion to each other as four daughters come of age during the Civil War. It’s charming, moving, and a sweet picture of domestic life. Louisa May Alcott was already a published, prolific author who didn’t really want to write Little Women, but in the way of all things, she is known for Little Women because people are unpredictable jerks who don’t remember you for the stuff you want them to remember you for. The March sisters are beloved by generations of American readers (is there a Buzzfeed “Which March Sister Are You?” quiz? There should be) and Little Women is somewhat of a trancendentalist handbook, stressing self-improvement through good works and self-sacrifice. All that was lost on me, though, because I’ll always know this book (NSFW) as my introduction to house porn. Let’s call it gateway real estate.

Little Women makes a strong case for family relying on each other to grow, change, and survive in trying circumstances. Whatever! I first read this book when I was in fourth grade and was completely intoxicated by the descriptions of the houses that made up the Little Women world. I sped through the boring “people talking to each other-plot-exposition blah blah” passages and constantly flipped pages to get to the X-rated parts. You know, where Alcott describes in lurid and explicit detail the layout of a garden. Or a comfortable sofa in front of the fireplace. There was a roomy kitchen from which pies emerged regularly, everpresent kittens, and long, long staircases. Alcott’s New England practically glowed with quaint awesomeness and I wanted to roll around in that glow and get alllll dirty.
Book: I have morals you know
Me: tell the part about Laurie’s foyer again
Book: you are really missing the point here

The March sisters did not have a boring, plain old attic. They had a GARRET. The girls and their friends, in various configurations, frequently retreated to the garret to sulk, cry, analyze the works of Charles Dickens, and engage in other puberty-inspired behaviors. As a child of the suburbs, I felt keenly my drab, non-Federalist-style dwelling. The suburbs didn’t hold geographical inspiration, at least not until John Hughes got ahold of them. I grieved for my lack of opportunity to retreat to a garret to contemplate life’s larger questions. If I wanted to retreat somewhere, the best I could do was close both doors on the Jack-and-Jill bathroom. How was I supposed to suffer life’s larger questions in a Jack-and-Jill bathroom?

Like all beautiful houses, the March house only hung out with beautiful other houses. It was part of the infamous Concord Block Posse, and it included the sprawling mansions of both Aunt March and Laurie Laurence. They rolled like posses do: buying designer sunglasses in bulk, spa days, apple picking parties. The March sisters’ New England country life, with its poverty, chores, and day-to-day routines, was grounded and concrete, but with a slightly surreal, idealized edge. Handy wealthy neighbors, for example, who conveniently cover pesky financial needs whenever emergencies arise. Much like a fairy tale, where everything looks just like the real world – until the mirrors start talking.
Mirror: loved your book
Louisa: thanks
Mirror: when those kids go through the wardrobe to Narnia-wow
Louisa: looks like i’m about to have seven years of bad luck

That pristine, model Little Women domicile lived in my imagination for a long time and became my idea of The Perfect House. I gave unsolicited advice to ranch houses: “You’d be so pretty if you just converted the crawlspace over your garage. I know a guy who does great work, looks totally natural. You’ll never be able to tell you got anything done”. I considered subscribing to House Beautiful (just for the articles).  Going to Concord in person for the first time, I was struck by how much the town resembled my imaginary Little Women world. The route for the run winds through beautiful residential sections and people stood in their yards, cheering on the runners and handing out water. The run begins and ends at Alcott Elementary School and goes past The Orchard House. Louisa May Alcott started her story with her view from her window. She took her intimate sphere and threw it wide, making a universe where her readers could dwell too. It made me appreciate how personal geography shapes what anyone ultimately offers the world, whether it’s a book or a philosophical movement. The March sisters inhabit all of the Alcott sisters’ favorite spaces. New England nurtured transcendentalists. (Trancendentalism would never have begun in Florida, because you can’t make a hard left turn there without hitting an alligator and sinking into a swamp. There are zombie roaches there. It’s difficult to embrace the divinity of the individual when the roach you just thought you killed with a rock is now holding the rock and coming back at you.)
Roach: shit just got real
Me: can’t we hug this out
Roach: you want to hug a roach? ick

Running (OKAY, TRUDGING, I GET IT I’M A BAD RUNNER WHY ARE YOU SO STUCK ON THIS) past Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, I paused to take a quick break. Looking over the solid squareness of the house, I realized: this is probably exactly where Louisa May Alcott stood to take a break when SHE ran 5ks. It gave me goosebumps. I felt positively transcendental.

Action items: Run a 5k at Orchard House

2 thoughts on “The Reason To Circumnavigate

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