My Last Frances Willard Post

Yes, I have finished A Wheel within a Wheel and am now very sad that there is no more left. But surely I can find other things Frances Willard has written, such as Writing Out my Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard. There is also a biography of her available.

I’ve valued Willard’s ability to tell some incident or story about cycling and then turn the story into some larger philosophical or moral point; in one of my favorite instances of this technique, she starts off by describing how difficult it is for a person to teach another person to ride a bike because it’s so hard to understand what the other is experiencing, and then she says this:

For one of these [people] perfectly to comprehend the other’s relation to the vehicle is practically impossible; the degree to which he may attain this depends upon the amount of imagination to the square inch with which he has been fitted out. The opacity of the mind, its inability to project itself into the realm of another’s personality, goes a long way to explain the friction of life. If we would set down other people’s errors to this rather than to malice prepense we should not only get more good out of life and feel more kindly toward our fellows, but doubtless the rectitude of our intellects would increase, and the justice of our judgments.

I’ve often thought something along these lines — that when we misunderstand each other or when conflict crops up, it’s so often caused by a failure of imagination. We don’t see what the other person is experiencing and can’t grasp what emotions they are going through. We are quick to think they have offended us on purpose, when they really had no such intention or were simply caught up in their own thoughts and feelings to pay attention to ours.

I also appreciate Willard’s witty turns of phrase. I love her line “the amount of imagination to the square inch with which he has been fitted out” — I wonder how much imagination I’ve been granted for each of my square inches! And then there’s this clever analogy she uses to describe learning how to mount a bicycle:

As has been stated, my last epoch consisted of learning to mount; that is the pons asinorum of the whole mathematical understanding, for mathematical it is to a nicety. You have to balance your system more carefully than you ever did your accounts; not the smallest fraction can be out of the way, or away you go, the treacherous steed [she loves to call the bicycle a steed] forming one half of an equation and yourself with a bruised knee forming the other. You must add a stroke at just the right angle to mount, subtract one to descend, divide them equally to hold your seat, and multiply all these movements in definite ratio and true proportion by the swiftest of all roots, or you will become the most minus of quantities.

And, finally, one more quotation that is not witty but is fascinatingly open-minded. She has just told the story of falling off her bicycle and breaking her arm. Before the doctors treat her, they give her some ether to dull the pain. Under the influence of ether, she has fabulous dreams, and then the most profound feeling of peace and love she has ever experienced settles over her. She is convinced that “there is no terror in the universe, for God is always at the center of everything.” And as she comes out of the ether-induced visionary state, she concludes:

Little by little, freeing my mind of all sorts of queer notions, I came back out of the only experience of the kind that I have ever known; but I must say that had I not learned the great evils that result from using anesthetics I should have wished to try ether again, just for the ethical and spiritual help that came to me. It led me out into a new world, great, more mellow, more godlike, and it did me no harm at all.

She advocates the mind-opening, consciousness-changing recreational use of drugs! Well, sort of. She includes a caution about the danger of such use. But still!


Filed under Books, Cycling, Nonfiction

6 responses to “My Last Frances Willard Post

  1. Edd

    I have been under ether as a small child for a broken elbow. A childish stunt of several others and mine found us playing with a dryer – drying all different colored towels at the time. In those days, there were no safety methods to ensure that the dryer would cut off when the door was opened. We could stick our finger in the middle of the towels rolling around and immediately a beautiful new kaleidoscope of colors would appear. I did this little trick one too many times until the towels grabbed my arm and twisted it but good breaking my elbow. Oh yes, back to the ether, all ether ever did to me was one put me to sleep in a feeling of a whirlpool as if I were caught in a vortex and two coming out of it found me sick as a dog!

    I know Dorothy I am not talking about the wisdom of the world here and Jane always accuses me of TMI (Too Much Information), sorry…


  2. She’s a kick! Why do I get the feeling that it didn’t take long (or too many falls) for her to learn how to get on and how to ride properly? For all her appearances as a proper society lady, she certainly had an open mind!


  3. Cam

    I am fascinated by Francis Willard. I find the bit on the ether interesting especially because of her role as President (for life) of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I just did a quick search for her on the internet & found she was a feminist, a suffragette, and a prolific public speaker — about 400 lectures a year for 10 years. As a child, every summer when visiting my cousins, would run races at the Willard School, surely named for her as it was in her hometown, Evanston, IL. I wonder what she would think about the WCTU’s very conservative position today on things like gay marriage. Considering that she was such a progressive, and later, a socialist, I doubt that she would concur.


  4. What fun! She certainly turned out to be a wise woman. Odd that she isn’t really known. Will you be reading her biography and the journal selections? I’ll bet her journal is quite interesting.


  5. I know just what you mean about being sorry to finish a book that you’ve so enjoyed and Frances Willard sounds such a fascinating person. I hope to get round to reading something by her sometime.

    Edd’s story about ether reminded me of when I was very young and had my tonsils removed. They put a mask over my face to knock me out so I suppose it was ether – I didn’t like it at all and struggled to resist the mask, until I was overwhelmed and knew nothing until after the operation. Maybe that’s why I have such a horror of being enclosed in a small place and being unable to breathe. I never thought of that until now.


  6. Edd — what a great story! I don’t think that’s TMI! Too bad you didn’t have any mystical visions while taking ether, right?

    Danielle — she says she fell only once — and that no one should fall more than that. Once you know how to ride, there’s no reason to fall, she says. Well, she certainly never raced, I can tell you that!

    Cam — how interesting! I do need to read the bio of her. And you’re right that her sentence about ether is interesting in light of her other views — I think it shows just how open-minded she is not to make snap judgments about all controlled substances.

    Stefanie — she used to be quite famous, but has fallen out of renown, I’m not sure why. And yes, I think I’d like to read more of her stuff!

    BooksPlease — oh, traumatizing! That’s too bad it happened that way to set up a life-long phobia.


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