Last week as I visited France with my husband on an anniversary trip, I couldn’t help but think of my friends, the March sisters. When we arrived on the southern coast, I thought of Amy rebuking Laurie in Nice and her determination to see that she got her castle in the air by marrying the rich Fred Vaughn whether she loved him or not. I thought of Jo and her failures on her path to build her castle as a successful writer. I thought of Meg and Beth and Marmee and Hannah and the twins. They were on my mind with every site that took my breath away, with everything I got to experience.
I remember reading Little Women as a child and knowing what my castle in the air was. I’d have a successful gymnastics career, compete in college gymnastics, and then own a gym. It was all I thought about and dreamed of for much of my youth. When it was evident at sixteen that I would not get–and even no longer wanted–that castle in the air, I was devastated to have no plan or dream to work toward.
A little over a year later, I met a cute boy with a backward baseball cap and a face splashed with freckles that I thought would be part of my castle in the air. I loved being with him, and he made me laugh when everything else in the world still seemed to be falling apart around me. I boldly announced my new castle in the air to him: to go off to Paris together as soon as we could.
Recently when I was reading Little Women with my children, I wondered what their castles in the air might be. And as the March sisters walked towards their dreams during times of pain and loss, I wondered what hardships my children might go through along the way.
The Marches do not walk easy roads as they grow up. They make mistakes, their faults and bad habits make life harder, and they experience loss and heartache and deep grief. Each endures suffering as they try to move their dream castles to reality. And their Marmee, who seems to be almost all-knowing, lets them make their mistakes and face challenges–and even unhappiness–aware that her girls will never fully grow up without them.
Just like the March sisters, my kids are better off when they have permission to grow through their decisions and experiences. That means that I need to allow space–the same space that I’ve had–to make mistakes and fail, even though I may know what hard consequences await them. I want them to know that a key part of living is learning and growing, and sometimes that can hurt. I want them to know that what we do and experience changes us. Castles in the air don’t become real with ease, and people don’t grow with ease, either.
If we skipped to the end of the novel and only read the last chapter, we wouldn’t understand what the Marches had to overcome. I think that’s part of the greatest value of Little Women. The changes that the March sisters go through as they grow up would be lost on us if not for all of the chapters in the middle where we see their flaws. The March sisters are foolish and selfish and lazy and greedy and immature at different times. They’re real. We get to see them at their best and worst, as they grow and change over several years.
Reading stories gives us a full picture of all of the hardships and heartaches characters have to go through on their way to experience growth. We learn about the seemingly insignificant moments that shape characters into who they are and who they are becoming. Stories remind us that we don’t just wake up one day godly and wise and more like Christ. Characters in books don’t arrive at happily ever after without troubles first, and real life is the same. There’s a journey everyone has to go on to grow and mature. It takes a lot of heartache and hardship along the way there. Without the middle of a story–the hardships, the failures, the sins, the blunders, the victories–a happy ending, the arrival at a castle in the air, seems easy and cheap.
I didn’t understand that when I was a girl. It seemed like all I needed was a dream, a castle in the air to walk toward, and I’d be happy. I suppose some days I still forget that this life we live can be hard.
But in Paris, I remembered the hard times and the faithfulness of the Lord. That teenage boy was a man when we finally got to go to Paris many years later. The years of laughing and crying together, of forgiving and being forgiven, and the hard work of building a real home together made the trip even sweeter than when I first dreamed up that castle.
The Burkes lived overseas for three years and have been to almost 20 countries together, surviving some adventures they will never speak of to the grandparents.