My daughter and I are on a reconnaissance mission investigating prestigious women’s colleges in Massachusetts. In between college tours, we visit Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst and the stomping grounds and (eventual burial grounds) of Louisa May Alcott and the transcendentalists in Concord.
At both houses, our tours are comprised of well-read, retired women wrapped in autumnal scarves. My seventeen-year-old daughter stands out in the crowd, both for her youth and her knowledge of Dickinson’s life and poetry. Our tour guides exude the worshipful reverence of literary devotees, and lead us with quiet authority from room to room.
I picture Louisa May Alcott striding up the path to Orchard House after calling on Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson working the gardens surrounding the Dickinson’s Homestead. I imagine them both traipsing through hallways or flouncing on settees where tourists now file quietly by, pausing to admire the roses on Emily’s wallpaper or the pencil sketches on the Alcotts' windowsills.
Mostly, I am fascinated by the empty spaces that once contained these writers as they wrote. Their rooms are largely unadorned and their writing desks small, even by nineteenth century standards. I imagine the brilliant occupants of these simple rooms sitting at these tiny tables, gazing out these panes of glass. I hear the clinks of nibs on inkwells, the scritch-scratch of pens on paper. I see thoughts becoming visible on the page.
I linger behind the tour, which irritates the guide. I want to feel the emptiness. Like a visit to an abandoned zoo. The lions’ enclosure without the lions. These are barren rooms. There are no spirits here. Words don’t hover in the air above our heads. And it is precisely the absence of presence that intrigues. Nothing more than space that once contained something that is no more. Space as symbol. Container as reminder.
Back home in Colorado, I view my own space through the remove of tourists’ eyes. I feel new affection for my living room, where my writing partners and I gather weekly to put hands to keyboards. And my desk, where Emily Dickinson would need extra cushions to boost her high enough. No ropes restrict our movement through this house. Our zoo is filled with animals roaming wild.
Of course we know that emptiness waits just down the block. We know our writing lives are only briefly contained within this space. Our absence will one day replace our presence. Perhaps well-read women will gaze at these chairs and imagine us in them. Perhaps they won’t. The emptiness of spaces will remain.