June 19, 2011

"There is something else you must do..."

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
A while back, I shared what I thought were the most important books for my children to read as they grow up.  I have recently realized that I made one glaring, unforgivable omission.

Perhaps the book I read as a child, over and over again, that had the most profound effect on how I have developed as an individual was Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney.

Miss Rumphius shared all of my passions in life.  Art, literature, and adventure were the driving forces in her story.  She embodied for me all of the virtues of adulthood that I coveted.  She was a world traveler, she helped people, and most importantly- she was entirely happy with who she was.

She was the only adult woman in my stories that never seemed somehow lessened by being single, there was never any hint that she might be lonely.  And that seemed very important to me.  Here was a girl growing into a woman, and then an old woman, without romance.

As an adult, I wonder what her private romantic life must have been like, but as a child I began to build my fantasies of my own adulthood on her model.  I always knew that I wanted to have children, but to be honest I envisioned myself living, like Miss Rumphius, in a cottage by the water, probably raising a horde of adopted children with a few like minded friends.  I saw myself as being too independent, too self governed, to tie myself into a traditional marriage.

Of course, then M came along.  He occasionally tells me that he feels guilty for somehow changing me, making more boring.  I don't think he did at all.  He just turned out to be another thing that I, in my independent and self governed soul, decided that I wanted.

So as a child I would whisper to her book, "Someday, Miss Rumphius, I too will live the life I want to lead without regrets.  I too will see distant lands, and hide away in libraries, and cultivate my love of nature, adventure, and art.  I will have adventures and, I will collect stories to share about faraway and strange people.  And I will someday go to live by the water." (I've always preferred lakes and rivers to the ocean, Miss Rumphius's choice.)

And I could hear her voice in my ear.  "That's all well and good, little girl, but there is something else you must do.  You must do something to make the world a more beautiful place."

This is, of course, the moral of Miss Rumphius.  That living for yourself is vital to living a happy life, but that it is a life without meaning if you do not use it to somehow improve the world that you will leave behind.  It is a story that on every page expresses a cognizance that we only get to live on this earth for a short time.  And the thing that we do to make the world more beautiful is the most important part of the lives that we lead.

Miss Rumphius' grandfather, who taught her the things that she would grow up to teach me, was an artist who painted landscapes based on his own adventures, contributing to the world of subjective beauty.  Miss Rumphius made her corner of the world more beautiful in a literal way.  The lesson hidden in this was that there are many kinds of beauty.  There are types of beauty that you can't even see.

So when I was in art school, I found myself dissatisfied with the beauty I was creating.  It wasn't that I didn't like my art, which I thought was improving rapidly, it was that I didn't see it having the kind of impact I had hoped.  My paintings were insignificant in the world of creative expression.  I might make pretty pictures, but I was losing a sense that I was contributing something of real value to the world.  Of real beauty.

When I applied for AmeriCorps, I wrote them an essay about Miss Rumphius.  About how I wanted to make the world a more beautiful place by helping people be more beautiful to each other.  That I was applying for a program based partially around providing recycling services didn't hurt either.

I'd been on a bit of a writing hiatus since getting accepted to art school.  But while I was a VISTA, I wrote CONSTANTLY.  I wrote about all the horrific things that I saw, doing a job that was essentially mopping the deck on the Titanic.  The entire Chicago Housing Authority was being restructured, all of the people I was trying to help were being evicted from their homes, and the mood was helpless and miserable.  And then it was winter, and nobody in the CHA bureaucracy seemed bothered in the slightest that there were families living in high rise buildings in the blizzards of January with no glass in their windows.  That the plastic playgrounds in front of those buildings were warped from fire, and were riddled with bullet holes.

I wrote about all of that.  I woke up before dawn and wrote on the train ride all the way across the city.  I got off work at dusk and wrote all the way back to my tiny studio apartment.  And then I would go to anywhere that had an open mic, and I would read my poems.  Slam style poems, about children who don't know how to speak but know how to be silent, about hiding inside the truck when the guns came out, about how desperate the look in somebody's eyes when they have seven children and their only income is from collecting other people's trash to sell for scrap.  Or to recycle for grocery vouchers, as the case might have been.

I was having my own kind of adventures.  The sort of adventures that inform.

And then I fell in love, and got married, and had children.  And I am still writing, although not about scenes of human tragedy.

And I had somehow, in these last few years, forgotten all about Miss Rumphius.  About her last lesson.

I have lived my life with almost no regrets.
I have seen some distant lands, but I have many years ahead of me to visit more.
I have made my home a library, and I have cultivated my love of nature, adventure, and art.
I have had some adventures, and collected many stories.
And someday I will live in a little house on the water.

But I don't know if I've done something to make the world a more beautiful place.  And I know I must.  And I do not know what that thing might be.


  1. I adore this children's book. I'm inspired all over again every time I read it to the kids I work with. I, too, always wonder about Miss Rumphius' private life - if she was lonely, if she had any significant others, who were simply omitted in the story. But the book is beautiful, and always seems to leave me with a sense of purpose, and a strong longing to leave my own positive mark on this earth before I go. Lovely post!

  2. One of my absolutely favorite books! It's one of the ones I keep a close eye on as Peter is pulling everything off the shelves. Free Cheerios book? Go for it. Miss Rumphius? Nope, be gentle. :-)
    I even tried to grow lupines one year after we bought seeds in Maine, but none of them ever came up. I may try again, now that I have a garden of my own.

  3. For what age do you recommend this book? It looks like it's for a very young reader, but the description makes me think it's for an older child.

  4. @Holly@A Life-Size Catholic Blog I would recommend this book for children starting at about five or six years old. It's written very simply, with a great deal implied in the telling. But at the same time it's filled with illustrations that tug at the imagination of even very small children. So long as your child is old enough to sit through a few paragraphs per page, to understand that there are faraway and different places, and to know what a library is, I would say they're old enough for Miss Rumphius. :)

  5. Thank you so much for linking up with my Fairy Tale Theater blog hop! The Firebird tattoo is so powerful, thank you for sharing!


  6. Another book I love for little girls is "The Balloon Tree" By Phoebe Gilman. Actually, all of her books are fantastic, and I had most of them as a child, but The Balloon Tree always sticks out in my head because it had a beautiful lyrical poem that was repeated a few times throughout the story that I remember to this day. Oh, and it was about a princess who was not only the farthest thing from helpless, she saves her whole kingdom from her evil uncle while her father the king is away!



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