pull up a chair

where wisdom gathers, poetry unfolds and divine light is sparked…

Tag: miss rumphius

a little bit Miss Rumphius, a little bit madwoman with spade…

someone i love is dying, and someone else i love is stationed at her bedside, has been so for weeks now, navigating the shoals and sharp rocks of slowly, surely dying. 

someone wise once said that dying is hard, hard work. so too is being the one who keeps the bedside vigil, who is there when the breathing comes hard, who is there in the rare in-between moments when the stories from long, long ago come tiptoeing into the light, seeping out of tucked-away places in the black-box mystery that is the human mind. 

because we live in a world with ethernet connection, and because rhythm and routine etches something of a lifeline in even the most uncharted landscapes, i know each day how the hospice day is more or less unfolding, 720 miles away on the fabled jersey shore. i am living some shadow of those faraway days right here in this old house. holding my breath, holding down the fort on this end, so the ones i love can do what needs to be done in these anointed hours, with no mind to what’s unfolding here. 

somehow, in a summer that’s breathing hot and hard, i’ve drifted toward the tool rack in my cobwebby garage. i’ve taken on tasks long overdue — and back-achy. weeded like a madwoman. envisioned something beautiful where before there’d been bald and desiccated earth. set out to make it so.

as endless chore has morphed into life-breathing vision, as prairie weeds came out, and carpet roses, false indigo, and myrtle were laid into newly-dug holes, i found myself fueled by Miss Rumphius, she of Barbara Cooney’s eponymous classic picture book, she who set out to scatter lupine seeds wherever she traipsed and turned. for Miss Rumphius held faithful to her creed: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful,” her grandfather had once told her, as she perched upon his knee. “all right,” she promised, not knowing just what that promise might be.

when she grew up, the little girl with the promise, Miss Alice Rumphius worked in a library, where she read books about faraway places, which made her want to travel the world just like her seafaring grandfather. and so she did, trekking from tropical island to tall mountains where the snow never melted, through jungles and across deserts. when at last she came home to a place by the sea, she remembered her instruction and her promise to her grandfather: to make the world more beautiful.

in the arithmetic of my little brain, i too took on that creed; subtraction counterpointed by addition. as the someone i love lay gasping, lay whispering her goodbyes, i set out to sow pre-emptive beauty into this thirsty, blessed earth. it seemed a necessary exertion. it seemed to breathe a little oxygen into this airless stretch of days.

of course i know i’m not really balancing anything. no forever blooming white rose could supplant the weekly phone calls, or the undying knowledge that once upon a time the one who’s dying was the one who emphatically and open-heartedly endorsed the marriage between the lifelong observant jew and the lifelong devoted catholic. and besides, long before that, she was the one who taught the one i love how to engage deeply in conversation, never letting pass a cursory question or response. long before i met him, deep conversation had become my lifeline. and, in the long list of things the reading teacher taught, she’s the one who made me love the color red. because a world in red just might stop you in your tracks, or charm you trying. and it’s a color now that will forever make me see her standing in her red kitchen with her red plaid apron, the one i once sewed for her, the one she wore for decades ever after, and she’ll be waving a big red spoon as if conducting some orchestra, though really she’d be making some essential point because that’s the most certain thing she ever did with a spoon. cooking, you see, was not her thing. and she was more than proud to say so.

there is no tally, in the end or all along, for the countless ways someone weaves her way — indelibly — into the fibers of your heart. all i know is that she melted me — and half the jersey shore — endlessly, unforgettably. 

every once in a while in these mad garden-reshaping days, salty tears have fallen on the clods of dirt i’m heaving with my shovel. but at day’s end, when i rinse my muddy toes under the faucet, when i finally pause to eat, i look out at the white roses, and the false indigo shifting in the summer breeze, and i think hard about the hard work of living and dying and making the world more beautiful. 

in whatever holy blessed form the beautiful comes. 

and it’s a promise i will never break. 

fully admitting that a good bit of my binge gardening was merely putting my worries to work, and keeping me from idly staring at the clock, awaiting word from the jersey shore, praying fiercely all along the hours, here’s the question: where do you find balm for the deepest aches in your heart? and how do you follow Miss Rumphius’ instruction to make this world more beautiful? (latter question is one for your own heart, no need to divulge your secrets here….)

and while we’re at it, may this first-ever national holiday of a juneteenth be a blessed one….

finding miss rumphius

miss rumphius

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

so instructs miss rumphius, the protagonist of the children’s book that vies for most-blessed on my shelf. close as a children’s book comes to gospel, far as i’m concerned.

miss R title pagemiss rumphius, the great aunt of barbara cooney, the great children’s book writer and illustrator, is little and old when we meet her on the very first page of the very fine book. she lives in a little house overlooking the sea, on an island in maine. but she hadn’t always been old, we are told. she had been young, and she dreamed, and she longed to travel the world. when she was young, she spent her days by her grandpapa’s side in his wood-carving shop, where he chiseled away at great chunks of trees, making them into curly-cues and cherubs and figureheads for the prows of great sailing ships, ships that would criss-cross the seas. and, sometimes, when her grandpapa got too busy to finish his paintings of sailing ships and faraway places, he would let little alice (for that was her name before she was called miss rumphius) pick up his paint brush and “put in the skies” of his paintings. and in the evenings, when she sat on her grandpapa’s lap, curled up for the great and nearly lost art of unspooling stories, she told him she too wanted to sail the world like those ships, and, someday, live beside the sea. her grandpapa said that was all well and good, but there was a third thing she must do: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”IMG_7814

i’ll let you read for yourself just what miss rumphius stumbles upon. but i’ll give you a clue: it’s tall and it’s blue (or purple or lilac or pink, the color of sunsets) and it blows in the wind. and it carpets the hillsides. indeed, and no doubt, miss rumphius did just what she was told, she found a way to make the world more beautiful.

and she passed along her instruction to anyone who would listen, and anyone who happens to turn the pages of miss rumphius, the book: “you must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

it’s an instruction that’s ancient and timeless, and new every day.

miss rumphius sprung to mind this week — again and again and again — because i seem to keep stumbling upon her disciples here and there and everywhere. first, my own beloved uncle died, an uncle who, like miss rumphius, circumnavigated the globe, searching always for the beautiful and the rare and the breathtaking. he stitched his life with beauty — and stories — that left us oohing and ahhing, his flock of nieces and nephews. he instructed in short sweet pronouncements: “good things last,” or “when the cookies are passed, take one.” he instructed, most lastingly, in the way he lived: gently, devotedly, with rarest refinement.

miss rumphius sprung to mind again when my summer porch was filled one very fine morning with pewter-haired souls — a poet, a painter, a sculptor, a potter, a writer or two — and we all read words from the page, and it was beautiful, all of it. the poet, in fact, wrote later to say that the “gathering remains fixed in memory like a latter-morning Breughel.” (can you hear me sighing so deeply?)

and miss rumphius sprung to mind when a treasured soul i am blessed to know told me how she has a particular habit of filling her satchel with books, and scattering them to whomever she meets in the criss-crossing trails of her day. she calls them her rose petals, and she strews with abandon: to her seat mates on city buses; to the someones who happen to ride in her very same elevator; to whomever sits by her side in the children’s hospital cafeteria, where she works as a nurse. i told her she’s my miss rumphius, sprung from the pages. she didn’t know who i meant. so i wrote this just now so she — and you — might discover, and might, too, be enchanted.

and you, too, might set out to follow miss rumphius’ most lasting prescription: “do something to make the world more beautiful.”

what will be your beautiful?


of a pig and a spider and bearing the unbearable….

charlottes web

maybe it was all the hours curled up on my patchwork quilt, pretending i had a fever so i could stay home to read instead of going to church. maybe it was the time travel. or the slipping quietly into someone else’s heart, someone’s secret hideaway. but the hold that children’s books had on me, has never lifted.

i tiptoe my fingers across the bookshelves, and feel the quickening in my heart. there’s miss rumphius, and her lupine seeds. there’s the secret garden, and orphaned mary lennox slipping into the secret locked garden of her uncle’s great house on the yorkshire moors. there’s the little house in the big woods, where laura ingalls wilder made me feel the icy morning cold and hunger for the prairie porridge. there’s tasha tudor, she who launched a thousand dreams and made me see the magic in a single tulip’s petal.

and then there’s charlotte and her web. and wilbur who ever breaks my heart and fills it up again.

so no wonder when the call went out from my sweet boy’s reading teacher for grownups to come to class, to bring along a book that they read and re-read in days gone by, i turned rather swiftly to a spider and a pig and a girl named fern whose cry for justice never has died down.

“where’s papa going with that ax?” said fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“out to the hoghouse,” replied mrs. arable. “some pigs were born last night.”

“i don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued fern, who was only eight.

“well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. it’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. so your father has decided to do away with it.”

“do away with it?” shrieked fern. “you mean kill it? just because it’s smaller than the others?”

and so, with those four questions, fern leaped to the top of my hero’s heap.

and as kate diCamillo writes in the foreward to the 60th edition of e.b. white’s classic, “charlotte’s web,” the crux of its miracle is this: “within the confines of its pages , something terrible, something unbearable, happens. and yet, we bear this unbearable thing. and in the end, we even rejoice.”

later, diCamillo goes on: “it is also e.b. white’s promise to his reader: things will continue; life will go on. it will be beautiful, astonishing, heartbreaking. and as long as you keep your eyes and heart open to the wonder of it, as long as you love, it will be okay.”

talk about religion.

no wonder it is among the holiest acts to slide a charlotte’s web, a miss rumphius, a secret garden, into the hands of a child, one whose circles are just beginning to expand beyond the being fed, and tucked in at night, beyond the reminders to brush teeth, and the taping of bandages across skinned knees.

it is through the pages of a beautifully wrought, deeply inscribed book that a child slaps on her or his first explorer suit, and sets sail across rocky seas, and steps into tangled shadowed woods.

while that child might get lost in the depths of those pages, forget that he’s curled under the covers in his very own bedroom, with his very own baseball trophies lined across the sill, and his very own mama banging pots and pans down in the kitchen, the holy resurrection of reading is that the terrors and the unbearability and the broken hearts belong inside the pages. and in time, that child can shake it off, and tuck the whole heart-stretching exercise back between the covers. yet go forward, having held on tight through the tug and pull and breath-catching, and be just a squidge more ready to encounter the real-life bumps and hurricanes. or simply to understand those encountered by fellow travelers.

and isn’t that, in the end, the children’s gospel, and the scripture that carries them to mountain tops and certain shores?

because i’ve been enchanted all week with a particular spider and a pig, and scribbling madly in the margins, i thought i’d leave you with a few fine links for more reading. one, from the american museum of natural history, that tells the backstage tale of the curator in the museum’s department of insects and spiders on whom e.b. white heavily relied for scientific detail on the Aranea cavatica, the species of barn spider to which charlotte belonged.

the closing paragraph of that article is worth typing out here (bold-faced emphasis per moi):

The publisher, Harper & Brothers, had misgivings about the death of the heroine in what was essentially a children’s book but “on this point [White] refused to budge,” writes Sims in The Story of Charlotte’s Web. “Natural history could not be dodged: Charlotte’s species of spider dies after spinning its egg sac.” White’s choice stands the test of time. Charlotte’s Web is as popular and enduringly poignant as when Eudora Welty first described it in her 1952 review. “What the book is about,” Welty wrote, “is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.” 

here’s the link to that spidery web….

and if you’re in the mood for a bit more reading about e.b. white and pigs, here is a marvelous piece by my dear friend betsy o’donovan, on why white’s essay “death of a pig” — inspiration for “charlotte’s web” — is such a magnificent piece of story craft. and as an added dose of russian-doll magic, the betsy link will link you straight to a re-reading of white’s class — and heart-wrenching — “death of a pig.”

be gentle to spiders and runt piglets this week. and cheer little girls — and boys — who speak out against axes and injustice.

with my first load of edits and revisions, and a truly tight calendar to complete the final manuscript and send it off to the copy editors’ desk, i am writing night and day over here, and thinking madly when fingers aren’t touching the keyboard. the next month will be a blur. but then the heaviest load will be behind me once again……

savor your reading, and do tell: what children’s classics were etched into the blank slate of your heart?