“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
This is the quote I had taped to my night stand as a young girl. I would read it each night before I went to sleep. The Romantics and the American Transcendentalists have played such a great role in my life and shaped who I am today. The day I first learned of Whitman and Emerson, at age thirteen, my life changed forever.
I had a wonderful teacher. She was so excited and passionate about what she taught, and she had a painting of the Lady of Shallot on her wall that looked just like her. She had long, wavy auburn hair and was so fae-like, like a maiden from another time. She stood up on chairs and recited poetry with a passion. Sometimes it was as if she danced as she taught. On Robert Burns day, she arranged a large parade of just our class. We marched through the halls chanting and singing, and I was the barer of the haggis, holding the decorated plate high above my head. I think it was this time and her influence, watching my peers march, laughing and reciting Robert Burns’s works, that made me realize that being different was okay. It was fun, exciting!
I went home that night and read through Burns’s work, beaming and smiling all the while. A fire had been lit! I finally felt like I was starting to know myself and what my true interests were instead of what I thought they should be. I stopped at a page and gasped:
How pleasant thy banks and green vallies below,
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild ev’ning leaps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades my Mary and me.
The words gave me goosebumps. I hadn’t realized that my favorite song, “Sweet Afton” by Nickelcreek, a song I’d played over and over again, used words from Burns’s work. Pieces kept connecting and I felt full of life. I’d lie by the stream reciting the song in my mind with visions of Anne of Green Gables maidens floating down the water. The world was suddenly brimming with new beauty to be discovered.
Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Byron, Poe! I ate their words, swallowed them up! To read their poetry, to listen to their philosophy—it felt like I was learning about what had been in my heart all along. I sat in awe at my screen watching Little Women for the first time, admiring their courage and zest for art, writing, and female empowerment! How they chased their dreams, just how much courage they instilled in me too.
I remember being so awakened by it all that after class one day, walking with the hundreds in my school from one building to the next all in a straight line, I broke off to the meadow and watched as my classmates marched inside. For the first time, I was thinking of who I was and who I’m meant to and want to be. I saw myself finally as an individual, separate from the pack I’d grown up with my whole life. I remember sitting there in the grass as they went by and feeling as if I were truly seeing it for the first time. I sat with my legs crossed, taking the florets of grass in my hands, brushing my palms across the tops as they swayed in the wind and tickled my fingers. I watched my peers march past on the concrete. There’s no turning back from here, I thought.
My eyes were opened to the world as it is in nature. I grew up in a place awash with consumerism. Through the Romantics I was able to break out from these conformities and see the world in a different way: to behold a willow tree, a rose, a tiny little fern frond, and know its significance over the things I’d been raised to find important. I replaced my magazines with novels and sport hobbies with music and poetry. I traded heels and choppy hair for dresses and a wild mane. How freeing it was to see—and inhabit—the world this way. “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours,” Thoreau wrote. With these words I drew up courage and moved from suburban Ohio to the Appalachian mountains in hopes to live in a way inspired by the Romantics.
And it’s there I was able to cultivate the life I’m living now. Asheville at the time was a town full of fairies and magicians, witches and performers. Every corner revealed a new busker and street performer. Music poured from every nook. Food I’d never seen before, festivals … it was a constant celebration of all things weird and magical. I was able to grow there and find my own there, with no judgement or expectations. There you could be exactly who you wanted to be, and the community embraced and celebrated it.
I met my husband there, but that is a great love story for another day. I would later find myself moving with him up along the mountains to some of the same spots the American Romantics lived in and wrote about. I stayed in Virginia and worked in a little flower shop, and the trolley I took to work passed Edgar Allen Poe’s old dorm room every morning. The doors were glass, and you could see the shape of the raven at the windowsill from my trolley seat. I imagined the city as he saw it and loved its dark gloomy days with rain-washed cobblestones and taverns. I’d imagine his stories, his words—“for the moon never beams without bringing me dreams”—as my heels clacked on the road and leaves rustled nearby. I loved the dark mood they evoked and, under his influence, started drawing and painting for the first time.
Still, I longed to be closer to the nature Emerson and Thoreau wrote of: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” Thoreau wrote, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I enrolled in classes as an herbalist and was able to dive deeper into the relationship between humans and plants.
A few years later I’d make the move to New England: land of the Transcendentalists! I was just a short ride away from Walden Pond, Emerson’s home, and Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Orchard house. I live here now, a young Jo for so long but now finding myself as my own Marmee, raising my children in nature. I wonder what I would have thought then, sitting in that meadow watching my world change, the grass tickling my hands, to learn that the Romantics’ biggest influence on my life would come later, when I was a mother?
What would little me have thought on seeing me now, remembering that tickling grass and haggis as I sit in my New England home with a baby at my ankles, my daughter sticking flowers in my hair, my poet husband scribbling away upstairs?
Guinevere von Sneeden who works in her New England home studio, where she’s inspired by ghosts, folklore, and the Victorian era. Follow her on Instagram @guinevere.von.sneeden.