“I always plan trips to the nth degree,” a reader wrote me last week. “But we've decided that for our Greek Island trip next year, we're just going to follow your lead (plan ahead, but don't book anything in advance) — we're just going to hop on the ferry and go. This is a bit out of my comfort zone, but I'm equally excited and nervous about it.
“I've also loved reading about your approach to connecting with people while travelling, and it has really coloured my approach on this current trip. I'm a bit of an introvert, but I've been making more of an effort to reach out to people we meet along the way, and I've been amazed by how open and eager people are to connect with travellers circling in their orbit. … Thanks for inspiring me.”
I’m constantly astonished and deeply gratified by the number of people who write to tell me that my words somehow open up new possibilities for their travels and their lives. It always makes me stop and send up a prayer of gratitude for all the writers whose ideas were so startling that they made me lift my eyes from the page, stare blankly into the distance, and say, “Oh, my God. I could do that!”
I still have the first book that jolted me awake to big new possibilities: Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott. My mother gave me a copy for Christmas when I was ten, and having passed through the hands of my younger sisters as well, the book is now tattered, faded, and dog-eared, making it all the more precious. There’s no other quite like it.
Those who haven’t read Little Women may think of it as a charming children’s story, and it is. But for many of us, reading it was a coming-of-age experience. The romantic plotline doesn’t turn out at all the way you imagine. Someone you really care about dies. Girls are expected to work and contribute financially to the family. This was radical stuff when the book came out in the 1860s — and still packed a punch a century later when I first read it. But for me, the real "aha!" moment came when the character Jo March gets her book published; that's when it struck me that if a Victorian teenage girl could become a professional writer, maybe I could, too.
The author of Little Women grew up in a poor family, where food, clothing, and shelter were in short supply. Her father “was stupendously impractical, uncompromising in his principles, and too far ahead of his time to hold an ordinary job,” wrote biographer Harriet Reisen. “His career as an educator — and he was a brilliant one — was ruined because he admitted a young black girl to his school twenty-five years before the abolition of slavery . . . To rescue her family from poverty, Louisa worked from a young age at every job short of prostitution that was available to women, even appearing as an actress, and considering marriage to a man of means.”
Louisa never married, and rumors have circulated for years that she and Jo, her tomboyish alter ego in the book, were gay. Mainstream biographers claim the evidence isn’t conclusive; the LGBT press says, “Well, duh!”
Living among such literary icons as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Louisa expressed the hope that someday she would write a great book — not realizing, of course, that she already had. No writer can foresee how a book, an article, or even a single sentence, is going to resonate with readers. Last year, in a post about nomads Veronica and David James, I wrote, “When we set out in search of adventure what we really discover is ourselves.” They have been tweeting that line to their followers every single day since.
Delighted as I am by this unexpected tribute, I feel a line by the poet David Whyte says it better: “Inside of everyone is a great shout of joy waiting to be born.” Never be afraid to share your voice with the world. There’s no telling who might need to hear it.
What books or movies gave you an "aha!" moment?
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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