Read. Again, of course. This time the inspiration comes from a children’s book. I find some of the genre, especially the classic ones, both soothing and uplifting. I’m going to take this detour, and leave you waiting until next week for Consequential Strangers, Part 2.
Here are some reasons I like to read or listen to children’s stories: often there are beautiful sentiments of what is possible, before we start listen to all the no’s, narrowing our focus to only the material facts of survival. The best children’s books highlight possibility, and beauty, and being one’s best self. And they don’t focus on all the things you “can’t” do.
A stellar case in point is Barbara Cooney’s “Miss Rumphius,” also known as “the Lupine Lady.”
The story is simple, as our plans for our future often are when we are young. The young girl, Alice, who lives in a city by the sea, listens to her immigrant Grandfather’s stories of travel and adventure, and decides that she too will do these two things, as he has: travel the world and see faraway places, and later, when she is old, settle in her own house by the sea.
“That is all very well, little Alice,” says, her grandfather, who is now an artist, “but there is a third thing you must do. You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”
Alice agrees, but she isn’t quite sure what she can do.
But she builds her life around these three goals:
- Travel to faraway places.
- Retire later in her life to her own home by the sea.
- Do something to make the world more beautiful.
In the meantime she grows up, moves to a city away from the sea, and works as a librarian. But her frequent visits to a nearby ‘conservatory’ remind her of tropical islands and the pull of far away places.
She begins her travels around the world, visits islands, climbs mountains, and makes friends she will never forget. Goal one accomplished.
When she injures her back getting down from a camel, she thinks it is time to find her own home by the sea. “And it was, and she did.” Goal two is accomplished.
She is happy in her seaside home, watching the sunrise and sunset. She plants a beautiful garden with the flowers she loves – especially lupines. And although she is “almost perfectly happy” in her seaside home, she knows one thing is missing, one goal – a promise even — still has to be fulfilled.
She has to think of what to do to make the world more beautiful. And she still doesn’t know what that will be.
For awhile she can’t do anything because her bad back keeps her in bed all winter.
But in the springtime she feels better. She is able to go for a walk, and she sees lupines all around her, far from her own little garden. Though she had not been able to sow more seed, the wind and the birds have done the job for her.
Now she knows how to accomplish her third goal: Do something to make the world more beautiful, in her own special way.
She orders many lupine seeds from the best seed catalog. Then she spends time sowing seeds whenever and wherever she can, spreading her own version of “blue, purple, and rose-colored” beauty, in her own little world and as far beyond as she is able.
People begin to call her “that crazy old lady.” Of course some people will respond to anything different, even to efforts for the sake of beauty, with ugly names. But if you get called crazy for doing something good, something different or better, then you may be on the right track. No one did anything extraordinary by striving to be like everyone else.
Anyway, her fame begins to spread like the lupine seeds and their colorful flowers. People, especially children, begin to appreciate her endeavors. Then she gets the more fitting name, “the lupine lady.”
The story, told in retrospect by her great-niece, ends with a tale of when the lupine lady is very old. Her niece and her young friends gather by the gate of the little house by the sea. Her great-aunt lets them in, and delights them with her stories of faraway places.
Her great-niece, also called Alice, like the young Alice who became the Lupine Lady, also wants to go out and see faraway places, then come back to her own house by the sea. Her aunt tells her the same thing her grandfather had told her long ago: “That is all very well, little Alice,”she says, “but there is a third thing you must do. You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”
Her young niece agrees. But she too wonders what she will be able to do, just as her aunt had done as a young girl. The story ends this way, with the great-niece’s potential contribution yet to be discovered.
There is a lesson in this that we can all apply. You don’t have to know at first what you will do to add some beauty or value to the world around you. You just have to make it part of who you intend to be, and you will find, or stumble upon, the specifics as you go. Though we can’t change the world at large or solve its problems, we can make the little world around us a bit nicer and more beautiful for the people near us, and perhaps a little beyond.
The Lupine Lady set out to do three things with her life, and she accomplished all three. The first two led to an interesting and fulfilling life, but the third went further. It helped her to have the more profound joy of giving to others. It made her memorable, remembered, and loved.
What about you? What will your “lupines” be – poems, songs, paintings, home-cooked meals for a neighbor in need, acts of kindness and compassion, taking the time to really listen? The list is as endless as your imagination and the particular type of beauty that is unique to you. You may not even know what it is, but if the goal is there, you will find something to do, and your “garden” will go far beyond the boundaries of your own life, and make you happy too.