The Diary of a Spinster Woman: On the Subject of Love

An Essay By Sarah Bethany // 8/18/2011

I found this old journal at the bottom of one of my grandmother's many cardboard boxes in her basement, where she keeps books she doesn't read anymore and dolls she got for Christmases back in the wartime. I had never seen the journal before in my life; it was a simple blue-and-pink ruled notebook, much as they look today, but the colors were faded and the pages yellowed. The ink, however, was dark and strong. I silently shouted "Hooray!" for old-fashioned ink, though the notebook could have held an ancient housewife's shopping list for all I knew. It was only when I cracked open the musty pages and read a few lines that I was heard to be crashing up the stairs all over the house, shouting at the top of my lungs, "LookwhatIfound, lookwhatIfound, lookwhatIfound! - What is this?!" My grandmother was as startled as I was; the box had been her deceased husband's, my grandfather's, and she hadn't gone through that one yet. Long story short, and a few phone calls to obscure relatives later, I found out that it was the journal of Elinor Elwell, one of my great-great-aunts, who was a young schoolteacher in desolate lumberjack country in Nothernwestern Maine, at a time when very few women risked the harsh weather, isolation, and male-dominated atmosphere. It spans her second year in Churchill, in her twenty-second year of life.

For fun, I selected the piece that was her musings on romance, thinking that would please readers the most.



Churchill Lake, the headwaters of the Allagash River, Northwestern Maine.

June 24th, 1925.

Today is a dreadful day, because it is my birthday, and I am officially an old maid, as runs the ancient definition: "one year older than thy mother wast when she wast wed."

June 26th, 1925.

I think I am a forager in many aspects of my personality. Rather than a farmer who settles down to his dinner of mashed potatoes and fried chicken, I am spare in build and can survive on a handful of nuts. In the forest, there is less to eat, in quantity and dependability. One is not apt to walk into a row of perfect turnips lined up behind a birch tree, oh, no. So I could survive on the hunger-gatherer's stringent fare.

I also don't like to stay in one place for long. I am terrified of becoming "staid and matronly," thick-faced and dull in my brain and vision. I would get fat and soft and limited if I penned myself in with a white fence. Therefore I stay rolling like a stone that gathers no moss. I am like a nomadic native. In this way I stay fresh "and wild as an uncut rosebush," to quote a phrase I used in my nineteen-year old diary.

But part of it is nature and not necessity...a big part of me is just restless and wants adventure. My roots get itchy if they're put down for what feels like too long. In this case, too, I could adapt to the forager's life of roaming from place to place, seeking the next grassy knoll, the next rolling valley, fat with glossy deer. Onward, onward, deeper, deeper - and also my brain works like this, too. My heart always wants to journey, to learn something new, to go higher. Let the light of my soul never get boxed in a complacent New England farmhouse. I may live in one, one day, but on a spiritual level, let me rove the piney dells.

Finally, I am a hunter-gatherer when it comes to men.

Oh, yes. Lastly, I am doomed to be a Diana of the forest, forever as "queegsquaw" as an aspen (as the natives say), as tangy as a hemlock, as cold as a spruce - forever running on and rambling and ranging and rampant as a curse of fiery-red and fearsome poison ivy, as angrily standoffish as it is unloved, because I cannot chose a boy to love...will not deem one worthy of me, or compatible with my independent, preciously-guarded, wild, ecstatic life of hunter-gathering - have never laid eyes on such a boy - and will not settle.

But at the base of it, at the very deepest base, I do not believe that my forest, vast though it is, is large enough for two to roam in. I cannot share my life, hand over the keys of my hills to another warden. I would feel crowded, suffocated, to have my land naturalized and absorbed by him... to see my hills domesticated and cleared for the space of the agriculture of conjugal life. I want my freedom, my autonomy. It's so valuable to me, I've never seen a boy worth giving it to.

Wild woman falters here. Do I have an over-inflated sense of self, or is it natural and right to esteem and think highly-beautiful the woodlands of one's existence...and enjoy being sole mistress and queen of all one sees? My land is mine, I am mine. Someone else wants it? -that makes me as incredulous as if a perfect stranger came and asked for my grandpappy's hills that have been in the family for years, acres and acres, dear with significance, worth gold: for free.

But maybe that's just it. Maybe it's not that I shouldn't have such a view of myself as a prize, but that... I'm not realizing that this boy won't feel like a distant stranger. He'll come and it'll be like he was my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, my cousin...always existing on my family tree. In fact, maybe after meeting him I'll be wandering in my woods and come to the great tree in the epicenter of it all and see his name carved in unassailable letters in it, in my heart, painfully deep into the core - and not fresh newly peeling green letters, but old, ancient, scarred letters, dirty with time, like he's always been there...though fresh to my eyes.

And I'll say, "Have you always been there?" And he'll say, "Yes." And I'll say, "So that means you are actually co-heir of this land with me? You were always meant to be here and you can be - ought to be co-owner?" He'll say, "Yes." And I'll say, "So you equally have a right to my heart, as written in the contract, as scribed in the Grandpappy's will." "Yes, ma'am," he'll say. And I'll say, "So you are actually my belong to me, too, and it feels right to have you here, and not wrong? It does," I answer my own question. "And thus you aren't any stranger, but have my own blood in your veins, my own brain... I know you in these dirty written letters carved so irrevocably on my heart?" And he'll say, "Yes." So then I will see that I commit no handing-over of land, but acknowledge that he already owns it. And it will feel right, and not wrong, and I'll be glad to have so precious a co-heir, one that seems just in the eyes of my high mountain law. I'll be glad to have so precious of a possession to present and say, "It's yours," because then he will show me something I never expected in a million years...

Because it is true that maybe I never have seen a man to whom it is right to say, "Other half," and "My king," and give a flattering sweeping kneel to...and perhaps I never will... I own that there may be no initials in my wild wonderland but the Queen's seal on every tree... BUT, if there exists such a lad... he who can melt my ice-crusted mountain spring out of its frost and into dancing froth... who has the presence that makes the heart under the soil of the hills beat in low caves faster and faster... who can make my universe want to blossom into one warm, glorious, all-triumphant rose... and, oh, not so dramatic, into a daily riot of flowers running delicately along, tripping like music, in moments of happiness, through valleys of my body that have become springtimes... a man who has such power that my own powerful existence acknowledges his superiority (or if need be, equality... but he must pose challenge and a question) and to this power I am willing to give my flattering bow of acknowledgement and submission... whom I can meet, match for match, tension for tension, equal for equal, in a competition of energy where I am once in a lifetime bested but almost always able to push back - so that, in the end, we balance each other, as in a spin where two dancers grip each others' hands and leap back and rip around in a circle that by geometric force ought to lift the two off the ground like a propeller...

A man who, most incredibly, will show me that his soul harbors mountains I never even dreamed were possible of exploring, and though I go onward, I still will not be able to see the horizon, the end of his earth. That is the surprise in all this. You, Elinor, would expand your land rather than keeping stingy and small. If this is not done, your kingdom will shrink after a while... after a long, long time of exploring you may finally know every corner of your dusty self, and you may sit there and sigh, a bored woman. So take a lord, be king and queen, combine continents, write thy names on every trunk of every living slip of a tree. With so much acreage, with so much give and take, with such a right and just house-band, master, you may...may...just have room enough to breathe.

Later, night: 

But with all that about same blood, and same bones and all, is that just a creepy revelation that I could only fall in love with...myself...and want to fall in love with myself? Am I actually Narcissus staring at his face in the limpid pool? (Ack, this is too sticky of a nub for my fast brain. Changing.) I suppose it's more complicated than the simple, pat-down way I put it (it's eleven and I'm feverish and am going to write myself into nervous exhaustion and a frittered headache, but I don't care)...taking on a completely unique and independent human being, who will have worlds to explore within him but who won't feel as homey and familiar as what I am most at home and familiar with, which is myself. So I was comforting my heart with the thought that love wouldn't be uncharted territory, but that it would feel right at home, familiar... I want to understand love so I understand it by thinking "my" one will be like myself, and I obviously feel like I am loveable, so that's how he will be loveable. Everyone wants one of their kind, since the beginning of Eden. Even Adam said, "This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh..." Kind of echoing my "same blood" speech by the big tree with the initials carved into it.

So is all love egotistical? Egomaniacle? Egocentric? Better said, is that all love is? I can't believe it. There must be more to it than looking into another's face as into a still pool and seeing one's own reflection in the beloved's face. People aren't mirrors. You might as well be having a romantic courtship with a cave wall that echoes your billing.

I guess that is the difference. God made people with scary wills. You might recognize him as one of your kind, but will he recognize you as one of his kind? If your observation is accurate will he realize it and echo back your call of his own volition, springing from his heart to his tongue...? That is the terror, the vulnerability, the unpredictability, of can be one-sided and unreciprocated.

But what if you two think the same thing, come to the same conclusion ("This is he!" "This is she!") at the same or nearly the same time? Then that is the magic, the near unfathomable magic of it all...the miracle that shocks you, knocks you off your feet...that makes lovers say, "This is unbelievable! I never thought it could happen! Why me? How does he love me back?" And hopefully she questions, "How does he love me back?" all her life. That will keep my heart captivated for sure, my breath held, to never quite know, to never quite fully see this wonderful man's heart (if I get a man at all... is it too jinxing to write "wonderful"?) never quite understand how in the world this amazing fellow loves me too... and never fully understand it so I can always keep the miracle of it all.

It will knock the breath out of my body to see a man who I think is over-the-top amazing, who I am filled with, who seeems like the entire world - actually turn around and say, "I think the same of you." This superior man! I think I would say, "No. You are kidding." Then laugh and blush with every intense feeling I ever felt and keep saying, "No - you are joking. You've got to be kidding me. You can't be serious."

I couldn't ever imagine liking someone that much... I mean, I can kind of imagine it... but the intensity of being in love seems like a distant dream world to me, a fairytale land that girls have access to that I never get to go in - only to toe the threshold sometimes, sip the water a bit and then abandon its sweetness for the astringent tang of my maiden-mountain streams in the land of singleness.

The girls who traverse this blessed realm across the challenging mountain range - a mountain range made of rocks of solid intellect, careful emotions, groundedness, awareness of reality, observation of love as a destructive force - they pass this, and while sailing in that sweet realm get headaches, nervous disorders, stomach queasiness, great head confusion, awkwardness, apprehensions of all sorts, doubts that rattle them to their delicate core, and intensities of good emotions that are so strong they are almost rough to take - all these unpleasantries that they would not wish on any fellow maiden (or human being for that matter)... but they have also felt what I so little feel in this cold world - the warming fire of sincere admiration for a god-like being of the opposite species. Our lords of creation.

I feel like that is a golden finger of humanization that touches a person whenever it happens... and for me, it's happened sometimes, and when it does, for a girl or boy (she names several friends and siblings) it is so exquisite, that my silent appreciation for some of their noticeable qualities (I was going to right out say "their beauty" but if they ever saw this they may think it too burdensome or ethereal a word) hurts me. So I am not all a blind Scrooge; not all a cascade of frozen ice (I guess "frozen ice" is redundant, haha).

But I know... I can tell you right now... that when one boy warms me right through, when I am fully aware and totally awake to all the good things in him, if he is really amazing in my own unique eye, it is going to hurt me so bad, like frozen fingers and noses burn with pain while thawing. Like Anne of Green Gables, beauty has always hurt me... has always been inseparable from pain. Thank God I do not always find lords of creation to intensely admire. I would waste away like a skeleton, thin as a wafer, Diary. As is, I hope love reciprocated will draw out some of the pain, like taking poison from a wound... but I'm actually not sure what remedy there is. All I know is that I feel deeply, and I assume I will love very deeply. (I'm not sure - I've never tested that ocean in myself to see how deep it is... I'm curious... I wonder if its volume and capacity is as great as others'? I'm human...right?) (Unsure "right", there.)

With this tentative knowledge, my reason has always kept me back from plunging into a craze that is not right. Even with Oakley right now - oh, my. But with him, it's half a joke, half actual potential to fall into star-gazing because he is somewhat of a celebrity in these parts and I (probably like many people) love laying flower-wreaths and smoldering incense in front of a real idol's throne, the altar of the one who I see as a god. (I wonder if O will ever read - no, silly thought.)

ANYway, silly me... SO... I have proved that I am perhaps more flighty and winged with the same girlish feathers as other lowly maidens than I wished to really say... that I am not so the pure alabaster statue that I made myself out to be - sparkling and solitary in her resolve never, aye, never, to look at any lad with admiration of any fiery sort...

How snobbish, how untrue. I have those that I am half stuck-on... I get down off my quiet pedestal at night and pad through the blush shadows of the hall to find the temple corners whither burnest little velvety fires of half-hidden, half-funny adoration, and throw upon the coals a twig or two - or even a stick, or, gasp - a log of thought... of wonderings and dreams, and then look out the window at the smoky mountains, the purple sky, and the hills layered with shades of topaz and azure and think... a little dreamily... of our lords of creation, sometimes faceless, sometimes with quite a realistic face popping there - or a lad dragged in very purposely by the rope of my mind - to join in the dance along the sky... as is proper, as is human... as is I-won't -tell-anyone-of in my daytime scruples, my sunlight ideals of having no adoration, no thought of men. And that is often me, but the twilight is also me... and yet sadly, the nighttime Elinor creeping through the temple halls to seek out the alcoved altars of a certain dark-curly-headed fellow, or a sharp-shouldered dancer, or a plaid-shirted Cuchulain, and there, in the expanse of a hall by their thrones, lean her head on her slender wrist and think, just a little... "I wonder..." Just a little.

Wait, why did I say "yet sadly"? I don't remember.

So, who has been in my halls, you wonder? I will tell thee, though not mention how passing or how long their fires stayed banked: Jonathan Ingersol, John/Don (yes, I am not joking - at age six, I could not decide between the twain), Alexander Claflin (not really...he was just the handsome boy of the primary school and I only acknowledged it), Jack Sweede, Dexter Hughe, Joel Onthank, Timothy Eames, Gilbert Dench, Charlie Taft, Solomon Oakes, Charlie Painter, Lewis Parker (sort of)... Sylvan Girard... I also feel like I'm forgetting people... and I feel like I can't resist explaining how long or what was the nature of each.

But that is for another night, my love.



nota bene

This is fictional, sorry! I didn't mean to post it as an essay.

Sarah Bethany | Wed, 08/24/2011


Well... I really, really enjoyed this, but now I'm confused. If this was fictional... was the intro at the beginning fictional too?

I really did enjoy this--the descriptive imagery throughout was stunning. I wouldn't mind seeing more of it, and that's for sure! : )

Mary | Wed, 08/24/2011

Brother: Your character should drive a motorcycle.
Me: He can't. He's in the wilderness.
Brother: Then make it a four-wheel-drive motorcycle!


Oh, yeah, the intro was fictional, too.

There actually is no more of it... maybe I should see what else my "great-great-aunt" has to say. :D

You always post such kind comments; thank you!!

Sarah Bethany | Wed, 08/24/2011

 Ha! I was thinking the whole

 Ha! I was thinking the whole way through, "Wow, this great great aunt's style of writing is almost exactly like Sarah Bethnay's style. Maybe that's where she got it, and she didn't even know it."
This was good. It did sound rather like what someone might have written back then.

Laura Elizabeth | Thu, 09/01/2011

The best stories are those that are focused, unassuming, and self-confident enough to trust the reader to figure things out. --

Laura Elizabeth... are one perceptive gal. ;) 

Sarah Bethany | Thu, 09/01/2011


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