Lessons from Miss Rumphius

Regular readers know one of my favorite activities to do alone or with my kids is reading. I’ve decided to start sharing some reflections on favorite books around here – the ones that we read over and over again. First up is: Miss Rumphius, an all-time favorite of mine and one the kids love as well. You never stop learning from Miss Rumphius. I actually wrote the below review several years ago for a magazine. Enjoy!

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Our beloved GG (great-grandmother Jean) loves many things – cooking, books, dogs, playing in the dirt, and Maine. We’re very fortunate that she’s eager to share all the loves of her life with our family. We treasure our summer visits to Maine where we can eat Fiddleheads (handpicked by GG) dipped in melted butter and sink our teeth into her famous Snickerdoodles while watching a loon dip under the glassy surface of a pristine lake surrounded by Hemlocks.

Yet, even when we’re far from GG and back Down South, we have her books and her love for a good story within our reach.

GG is a self-proclaimed bibliophile and book club devotee. Not surprisingly, she keeps our children’s bookshelves well-stocked. She frequently drops a book in the mail for the girls. The books are often autographed by their author and/or illustrator and always inscribed with the date and a personal note from GG. Best of all, she doesn’t send run-of-the-mill children’s books – the ones you read and think, “I could write that” or unoriginal tales that fail to capture your child’s attention. No, GG passes along classics like Blueberries for Sal and Harry the Dirty Dog, books that end up with creased bindings and careworn pages.

One of our all-time favorites from GG is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. The National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature (1983) covers the span of Miss Alice Rumphius’s life and showcases Cooney’s lovely prose and her beautiful illustrations of distant places and lupine-covered landscapes.

The story opens with little Alice who helps “put in the skies” on her grandfather’s paintings in his shop by the sea.

As a child, Miss Rumphius listens to stories of her adventurous grandfather who once traveled all over the world. Her seafaring relative inspires her to do several things with her own life.

“When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live beside the sea,” Alice tells him while sitting on his knee and listening to his accounts of faraway places.

“That is all very well, little Alice,” her grandfather tells her, “but there is a third thing you must do…You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

But Alice doesn’t know “what that might be.”

As she journeys down her life’s path, Alice, who is known as Miss Rumphius once she grows older, travels to many exotic destinations. First she only reads about them while working in a library. Then she sets out to see them. She meets the Bapa Raja, a king of a fishing village on a tropical isle “where people kept cockatoos and monkeys as pets.” She scales towering mountains. She wanders through jungles and deserts. Finally, she arrives at the Land of the Lotus-Eaters where she hurts her back during a clumsy dismount off of a camel.

Her injury leads her to check off the second item on her life’s “to-do” list. She settles down by the sea. Here, “Miss Rumphius is almost perfectly happy.”

But not quite. For she hasn’t yet made the world a more beautiful place.

This proves to be the most difficult task of all. Gazing out at the ocean from her home, Miss Rumphius thinks, “The world already is pretty nice.”

During a difficult spring where she remains in bed suffering with back pain, she notices the lupines, her favorite flowers blooming “in spite of the stony ground.” She longs to plant more of the “blue and purple and rose-colored lupines” in the coming summer, but her injury keeps her bedridden.

Nevertheless, after another hard winter, when she is able to walk the hills again, Miss Rumphius discovers an exquisite cluster of lupines and realizes that the wind and birds must have scattered the seeds. This provides our heroine the genesis for her last and most important mission. Miss Rumphius transforms into “That Crazy Old Lady” and then the “Lupine Lady” as she “wanders over fields and headlands, sowing lupines.”

When the next spring arrives, Miss Rumphius’s corner of the world is now blanketed with colorful lupine spires for all of her neighbors to see.

The story ends with the very old (and wise) Miss Rumphius patting the head of her niece, who is also named Alice and has served as the narrator of the story. She reminds her niece that traveling to faraway places and coming home to live by the sea is all very well, but that she must also follow in her great-aunt’s footsteps and do something to make the world more beautiful.

“All right,” little Alice says. Then adds, “But I do not know yet what that can be.”

Neither does Madeline, my 4-year-old [wow! I wrote this a long time ago, and we still read this book all the time!]. But like Miss Rumphius and her niece, she’s thinking about it.

After a recent reading of Miss Rumphius, I asked her, “So what do you think you’re going to do to make the world more beautiful?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “But sumpting.”

I can’t wait to see what that sumpting is.

While Miss Rumphius certainly touches upon many important themes – the importance of friendships, how the roads we travel shape our lives – it is this: Searching for something that is beyond ourselves and our own personal desires, perhaps an act, a gesture, a sharing of gifts that will help make the world better and more beautiful that makes this story unforgettable and one worthy of many reads.

Too often when faced with one of life’s biggest questions: “Why am I here?” society tells us, “To get what you want.”

The character Miss Rumphius, like our faith, tells us something different. She wasn’t completely happy until she was doing something for others. It’s worth considering that she really started thinking about her grandfather’s sage advice when she was suffering from back pain.

Maybe this is why we love to read this story over and over. Of course, children love the adventures, the pictures of snowy-capped mountains and sandy beaches, and the idea that people keep monkeys as pets. However, the book also provides fodder for a lively discussion on how all of us can do little things (or bigger things) to make the world more beautiful.

In the Gospel of Mark, we are told to reproduce what we’ve been taught for others. “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:20)

Miss Rumphius does this for her niece; I try to do it for my children. I try to teach my children to hear our Father’s Word and to embrace it as well as to use their God-given talents to spread the Good News and to brighten the world. I remind them that we, too, can scatter lupine seeds wherever we walk.

Madeline, for instance, is a budding artist, so we encourage her to draw pictures for people who might need some cheering up like an older woman we know who lives alone and is often lonely.

Madeline is also noticing that how we make the world more beautiful may vary from person to person. She once commented out of the blue how mommies make the world “nicer” by having babies. I couldn’t help but think of Mother Teresa’s quote: “How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.”

There can never be too many flowers or too many children – or, I must add, too many timeless books like Miss Rumphius.

Our family has never been to the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, but we do visit GG in Maine. We stay in a rustic, unassuming cabin (referred to as a camp by Mainers) nestled in the woods overlooking a lake. The camp has been in my husband’s family since the turn of the century and what it lacks in modern amenities, it makes up for in souvenirs of the past. There’s a family log with entries dating back to the 1940s that sits on the cabin’s bookshelf. My husband’s infant foot is traced in it and now so are both of our daughters’ tiny feet.

The smells of summers past – smoldering embers, Coppertone, tattered army blankets gathering dust, toasted marshmallows and fresh-picked flowers – linger, as do all the memories made here. Now that I’ve become a part of my husband’s family tradition, I’ve discovered there’s something comforting about a place to which our children and their children can always return to and know that, long after the summer has passed, the memories live on.

Good children’s literature, GG seems to understand, is no different. Even after the story is read, the plot is understood, you’re left with memories and oftentimes eternal lessons that whittle their way into your conscience. I think of the words painted in a mother-of-pearl shell, a gift Miss Rumphius receives from the Bapa Raja, “You will always remain in my heart.”

So, too, will this storybook remain in ours.

And the living is {very} easy…

What’s not to like about life when you’re reading The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun on the beach while your husband sits beside you keeping his eye on happy kids frolicking in the waves?

Not much, I tell you.

I finished The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (my book club’s current selection) while at the beach and really enjoyed it. Rubin actually reminded me a lot of myself, especially when she candidly shared some of her weaknesses like being too critical and getting snappy at messes and the like. She is a self-proclaimed Type Aer. She had struggled with contentment despite living a happy life, so she sets out to develop her own happiness project, and over the course of one year she makes various monthly resolutions such as “lighten up” and “pay attention.” Each month includes concrete actions to help achieve these resolutions. For example, during her “lighten up” month, she resolves to sing in the morning and to “be a treasure house of happy memories.” She partly achieves the latter by creating file boxes for each of her daughters and filling them with myriad memorabilia like birthday invitations and class photos.

I really got a lot out of the book and even though it’s secular in nature, I felt like it made for good Lenten reading. In fact, something that really intrigued me is that while Rubin considers herself “a reverent agnostic,” she advocates that everyone finds a spiritual master to imitate. After much research and delving into various religions and religious leaders, Rubin chooses St. Thérèse of Lisieux as her own spiritual master. Reading St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul profoundly impacts Rubin, as it did me when I read it several years ago. (I’d say it’s time to reread the book because it will certainly help me to feel less invisible and to recognize that all the little things I do each day are sanctifying.) Rubin talks about St. Thérèse’s “little way” and describes it as such: “Her ‘Little Way’ [was] holiness achieved in a little way by little souls rather than by great deeds performed by great souls” and then she directly quotes St. Thérèse:

“Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden [for] me. The only way I can prove my love is by…every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”

Rubin also explains why St. Thérèse has such an appeal to her and her own happiness project. Rubin writes,

“I’d started my happiness project to test my hypothesis that I could become happier by making small changes in my ordinary day. I didn’t want to reject the natural order of my life – by moving to Walden Pond or Antarctica, say, or taking a sabbatical from my husband. I wasn’t going to give up toilet paper or shopping or experiment with hallucinogens. I’d already switched careers. Surely, I’d hoped, I could change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen.”

This is so simple yet resonates very much with me. I want to find happiness right here in my vocation, in my home, in this little life I’ve been blessed with and like St. Thérèse, great deeds aren’t likely to be in my mix. I can’t abandon my family, for instance, to become a missionary. My mission field is right here in my home, with my family.

I’ve been inspired to begin my own happiness project, and it’s been surprising to me how out of touch I’ve grown with what truly gives me great joy. The ocean surely does, but like Rubin, I have no plans to move to the coast. I told my husband after an early morning walk that getting up before the sun makes me happy. Since I am no longer running (and sadly, feeling more pain again and wondering if I’ll ever be a runner again), I’ve gotten out of the habit of waking up before everyone else. I miss that morning time stillness. I need to start waking up extra early again.

Watching dolphin play during my beach walk made me happy, too, but what can I do with that? Watch YouTube videos of dolphin surfing the waves?I have always enjoyed reading books about dolphin. Maybe I should research some new titles to add to my library.

The brisk walk itself made me happy as well. I truly enjoy physical activity. I relish in pushing myself and feeling the air circulate through my lungs. Feeling my heart pump in my chest makes me acutely aware that I am alive and well.

I always keep a travel journal on our trips where I recount the daily events. We were reading from past entries, and we all agreed that we were very thankful for this treasure trove of memories. Reading my past entries also made me aware of how much I miss writing. I do still write. I keep a Mom’s One Line a Day: A Five-Year Memory Book (keeping a one-line-a-day journal was recommended in The Happiness Project and is something I’ve been doing since January 1st of this year), write a health column and occasional blog posts, and draft speeches. But I don’t write nearly as much as I once did. And that novel is still in the embryonic stage. I said that when I cut back on blogging, I’d devote more time to my fiction, but it hasn’t really happened. Life is so full. There seems little time to do things for myself aside from exercise, something I do six days a week. But I’ve decided I am going to make writing more of a priority again.

I’m always feeling guilty about this sorely-neglected blog, but writing here, even if it is only sporadically, consumes a lot of my limited writing time so I have come up with a solution. I was perusing piles and piles of old writing clips. I have written hundreds – thousands I expect – of columns. I used to write a secular “Mommy Daze” column for a parenting magazine, and I’ve written essays for many other magazines. Some have been published on this blog in some form; others have not. But I thought why not re-publish some of my old work here, including some old blog posts? My readership has changed over the years, and the loyal friends who have stuck with me will put up with the repeats. So I’m going to comb my archives for content, and then I’m going to really work on that fiction. I am just going to write and not worry about my inner critic.

I am also going to cut out things that make me feel badly. Rubin writes about this as well – that sometimes it’s not what we’re not doing that leaves us feeling less than rosy but what we are doing. She, for example, decides to give up fake food because every time she would eat something processed and artificial, she’d feel pangs of guilt. But she kept doing it. When she finally stopped eating fake food, she felt much better. I often advocate not categorizing food as “bad” or “good.” It’s just food, but some of it is surely better fuel for your body. I have found myself snacking more lately, and that mindless eating doesn’t make me feel good. But mindfully eating real, delicious, and good food does. I’d rather have a chunk of real dark chocolate than randomly snack on some cheese-flavored crackers.

Another point Rubin repeatedly hammered in throughout the book really struck a chord with me. One of her Twelve Personal Commandments is to Be Gretchen. This means remembering that:

“’You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.’ I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.”

This really hit home with me. In the book, Rubin uses the example that she thought she didn’t like music but during happiness project, she realized that listening to tunes did, in fact, lift her mood. However, the type of music she liked had embarrassed her in the past since she enjoyed what some would see as banal Pop 40 Hits. She had wished she liked more sophisticated music like classical medleys, esoteric rock, or jazz. I, too, have often wished I liked something that others seem to derive so much pleasure and enjoyment from or that my tastes were more refined. Why do shoes make me happy? That seems so superficial. But the fact that I’ve spent a good chunk of my life pregnant helps explain my affinity for shoes. My feet stay the same size even when the rest of me doesn’t, and you don’t have to strip down in front of a highly-fluorescent mirror to try on a pair of shoes.

In the past, I’ve also tried to really like sewing, elaborate crafting, and regularly playing complicated strategy board games (my husband loves these – the games, not the crafts and sewing). I felt like a lousy homemaker because I didn’t have any desire to learn to sew and wasn’t too good at it. I felt like a sub par mom because Pinterest boards made me feel like doo-doo and the thought of making something like this with my kids just seemed like a very messy endeavor that would likely result in me getting a bit snappy over the paint-covered hands. “Don’t touch anything!” I could hear myself shouting over and over. So much for happy memories, right? I prefer to arm my kids with some paints and an old sheet and tell them to go all Jackson Pollock on it out in the backyard. Then I will gladly hose off the rainbow children.

As for games, I do enjoy some of them and I don’t mind playing them once my husband has figured them out and read the novel-like list of rules, but I once felt like I was intellectually inferior because I didn’t get all fired up with the thought of strategizing against my opponent. Now I (occasionally) play for fun, but I’m okay with sitting nearby and reading a book while my oldest daughter and husband play together instead.

I just need to be okay with being me and pursuing my own interests, passions, and sources of happiness. Reading lots of storybooks aloud gives me more joy than doing a messy craft with the kids, and that’s just fine. Simple Family Draw Time makes me happy. (It makes the kids very happy, too.) I do love to create things – babies, milk for babies, simple scarves, healthy meals, new muscle definition in my arms, stories, dreams, homemade birthday treats for my kids like ballerina cupcakes and pirate treasure chest cakes, and scones. But what I like to create is different from what others want to create, and I need to learn to accept that.

It’s surprised me that one of the biggest challenges to launching my own happiness project is simply know what does make me happy. I’ve got lots of pondering to do.

What I do know is that spending a few days at the beach, after my wonderful husband decided to surprise us all with a spontaneous trip, most definitely makes happiness easier. It wasn’t the most penitential way to spend the first full week of Lent but as a friend reminded me after I sent her a photo of all four kids joyfully licking ice cream cones, God is surely smiling down on their happiness. I know I was smiling.

Here are a few photos from our trip:






On the one chilly day we had, we headed to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to “meet” Winter from Dolphin Tale.

This is Winter swimming with her pal Hope.


This is Nicholas. He was found on Christmas Eve along with his mother after they had beached themselves. They both suffered from third-degree sunburns. Nicholas’s mom unfortunately did not survive the trauma, but he has been at the aquarium now for several years. We were lucky enough to witness his training session, and it turns out that Nicholas is a mischevious fellow who is known for dousing people with water.


Madeline and Rachel were some of Nicholas’s victims. The unexpected shower did not seem to bother them too much.



Thomas, hanging out in the aquarium’s learning room.


Finding Nemo…


Back at the beach. I love it when my kids run to me like there’s no place they’d rather be than in my arms.



{Remember to enter to win a copy of Cravings: A Catholic Wrestles with Food, Self-Image, and God by leaving a comment after this post. Contest closes tonight 8 p.m. EST.}

I’ve obviously fallen off the blogging bandwagon. This dearth of posting has mostly been a fruitful experience. I was flipping through a magazine the other day that revealed survey results showing just how much time the women surveyed spent dabbling in social media each day. The results seemed shocking to me because I could not remember the last time I’d popped in on Facebook. I recently did post a few shots of my little man because who could resist sharing this bookish look with friends?


(Since a few people asked, those are just doll glasses my dad slipped on him. He loved wearing them though.)

I also caught up with a few friends and their growing and changing babies. I spent about 30 minutes perusing photos and status updates before logging off. It showed me the good that can be found in social media: how we can quickly spread prayer requests or disseminate photos of our children to loved ones near and far.

Yet, I also know that not so long ago I was spending too much time online – whether I was blogging, on Twitter, or engaged in some other social media outlet. When I talk about my need to cut back, I do not intend to make others feel guilty. We all have different sleep needs, temperaments, working arrangements, husbands, and children. All of this comes in to play when we’re discerning how much is too much. I have my own personal litmus test when it comes to gauging whether or not I should be logging in more or less time online. When I find myself getting twitchy or anxious or when I realized that I was, however innocuously, gently or absentmindedly, shooing a child away while I wrote something to encourage other moms to savor motherhood and their little ones (irony!), I knew it was time to take a step back. I’d also been experiencing some severe symptoms of burnout. I still am in many ways and sometimes wonder how I had ever time to write as much as I used to since I’m an effective time manager and still have trouble keeping up with laundry, controlling clutter, and homeschooling. I’m still trying to figure out what has to give or what I need to do to get through each day (more prayer, more peace, less stress!). Finally, as I continue to discern our homeschooling future, I knew I never would want to stop homeschooling so I could write or blog more. First things first.

But last night I realized I’d overlooked a benefit that blogging in particular offered me. I was enjoying my monthly book club soiree where there’s more wine-swilling and girl-talking than erudite book talk. This month’s selection, The Light Between Oceans, was beautifully-written and a definite tear-jerker. Read it, weep, and drown your sorrows and contemplations in that glass of vino.


I was yammering on about some of my latest insecurities, which, sadly, includes the size of my bum. (Curse my vain wretchedness now, o faithful remnant!) I’ve been back to running for months now and have been frequently logging in 20-plus miles a week while also keeping up with my strength training routine; yet, the scale has not budged. My weight has not fluctuated at all; it goes neither up or down. I have literally weighed the same amount with a .2 pounds attached to it for over a month now. I only weigh myself once a week, and I probably should ditch the scale altogether as I did in my eating disorder recovery days. However, I’ve been reluctant because I really am trying to focus on health. But that’s the thing. I am healthy. So what if my body is holding onto those last seven pounds? I counsel people over and over to stop thinking that losing those last [insert your own magical number] of pounds will somehow make you happier, better, or more in control. It’s a blasted mirage! I know this, so why am I having trouble getting over it? Why are these relics from my eating disordered past haunting me?

I feel great running again. My mood has definitely experienced a boost, although I still have my anxious, insecure moments that make me feel like a teenager again. Lately it’s been a battle against my bum and me. I had a fleeting moment of derrière security when one of husband’s female colleague complimented me. I shared this with my wonderful girlfriends, who don’t judge me, and immediately regretted sharing it and then joked, “Don’t tell my secret. I’ll never make peace with my body or anything.”

I don’t want to be one of those obnoxious girls that is blessed beyond measure who always has something to lament about or has to tell “glowing” stories to make her look better (or thinner or whatever). Nor do I want to be mired in hypocrisy. I feel called to help women reclaim the beauty of creation and to help moms ditch the attempts to be the perfect mom and just enjoy their children and motherhood. I need to try to live that way most of the time, then.

Although my “making peace” reference was meant to be funny and we laughed, later that night I considered that the image I portray online, while mostly authentic (no one is going to air all their dirty laundry, not even self-deprecating me), also holds me accountable. When I write about what I’m trying to do, it gives me the incentive to keep trying to do just that. My blog covers myriad topics but at its heart it’s about finding God in the trenches of motherhood as well as working through your spiritual doubts, being a “good enough” mom, seeking a perfect union with Him rather than trying to be perfect in everything you do, keeping a sense of humor, and, yes, making peace with my body and all of those parts of me I wish I could change or have not respected or accepted as I should.

We all need personal accountability. My blog “personality” offers me this. In a similar way, I recently felt sheepish after honking at someone who cut me off since he very well could have seen my “Choose Life” license plate before he whipped in front of me since he had been closely tailgating me. I should have turned the other cheek. That “Choose Life” license plate isn’t just about my pro-life views. It’s about the woman I am called to be.

The same is true about this blog. I’ve always wanted to be honest here – to admit I have tough, downright disastrous days. Yet, I’ve also always tried to use my words (and the lessons learned from my own stumbles and struggles) to encourage and edify. I’ve been dumping on friends a lot more lately. I’m so grateful to have finally found some real, treasured, genuine good friends here. But I need not overwhelm them with my impassioned speeches or melancholic leanings. Lately, I tell the same stories over and over. I expose myself and make myself vulnerable by sharing my own insecurities. This is sometimes a good thing, but they don’t need to be the depository for every whim and emotion I experience.

Writing is strong catharsis for me. It’s cheaper than therapy. It keeps things in perspective. And it holds me accountable, especially when it’s shared in the public forum rather than in the innermost pages of my journal. It reminds me I have to live up to this Catholic woman image who believes in the dignity of herself and everyone she meets. It means I ought not to incessantly complain or vent about my real or perceived imperfections. Likewise, it demands I don’t share unnecessary anecdotes or stories about myself or my children just to make it seem like I’m doing a “good enough” job. The words I weave together, the conversations that flow from my mouth cannot just be about me. First, I need to reciprocate, especially with those in-the-flesh conversations. Talk less, listen more. Don’t be afraid of silence. Don’t fill the air in an attempt to come off as the girl who knows it all. Second, I must strive to share about the life I’m called to live as well as live it. And if writing in this space about the person I want to be when I grow up helps keep me on track, then it’s worth carving out a bit more time for it.

Next Page »