No, it’s not Eat, Pray, Love or Under the Tuscan Sun. My favorite travel book is Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney.
Yes, I know. It’s a picture book. For kids. But children’s lit is the best! No must-be-an-English major-to-understand-my-cryptic-meaning kind of nonsense. And yet the good ones are still packed with enough subtle layers to give adults a sense of satisfaction as well.
The book wooed me at first with its story of travel. This adventurous woman takes off from her job as a librarian to climb mountains and traverse deserts and make friends with locals on exotic islands. What a perfect role model for my wanderlust!
But the deeper I read into the book, the more I love it for other reasons.
For one thing, it’s called Miss (emphasis on the Miss) Rumphius. And Miss Rumphius moves away from home, gets a job, and takes off exploring, all without any mention of a life partner. There is a clear implication that she never marries and no sign that she ever feels the need to marry. Following her dreams and fulfilling her purpose in life isn’t dependent on having a man by her side. It’s such a great message in a world where Disney princesses still need to be rescued and fall in love with a prince before they can live happily ever after.
As an idealist, I also love Miss Rumphius because the story doesn’t get down and dirty with petty concerns like money. Ha! Yes, she gets a job, but once she leaves her work at the library there is no explanation of how she can afford to travel the world and live in a house by the sea and buy bushels of lupine seeds even as she lies in bed with a back injury. Is it unrealistic? Sure. But I love how the story doesn’t marry money to the ability to live out your dreams.
Feminism and idealism aside, however, what really gives me the goosebumps and makes the book so inspiring is the lesson Miss Rumphius learns from her grandfather. As a child, she tells him she would like to travel the world and live in a house by the sea. He says that is all very fine, but there is one more thing she must do. She must make the world a more beautiful place.
As she reaches middle age, we find Miss Rumphius well traveled and settled in a house by the sea, but she has not yet done her part in making the world more beautiful. She can’t be satisfied with living out all of her dreams if it means she’s only taken from the world without giving anything back. And for Miss Rumphius, almost accidentally, she finds a way to do this by planting lupines.
Lupines. Just a bunch of flowers, you think. She didn’t stop starvation, end bloody civil wars, lead a nation, adopt orphans. She planted flowers. It’s usually lofty ideals and the eradication of evil that are seen as the most important pursuits. They do the greatest good. But does that mean we all have to become Mother Teresa or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. if we want to make the world a better place? I don’t think so. But can we all plant flowers? Or our own version of flowers? I think we can.
It’s such a powerful message, that we are all capable of doing something to make sure our influence turns the world into a better place and not a worse one. Even seemingly inconsequential things can have lasting and drastic effects. The power of compound interest tells us a penny doubled every day turns into $10 million in a month. And as Jeff Olson points out in his book The Slight Edge, the tiniest act of washing hands before delivering babies has saved countless lives. Maybe even yours.
As simple as it is, it takes Miss Rumphius a long time to do the third thing. She doesn’t start out knowing what it is, but she does eventually find it. And when she is old and gray, she passes down the same mission to her great-niece, telling her she must also do something to make the world more beautiful.
To which the little Alice replies, “All right,” and then wonders, “But I do not know yet what that can be.”
And here is where the story ends. It leaves me with the grandest sense of satisfaction and hope. It tells me I can become the ancient Miss Rumphius imparting wisdom from her rocking chair even though right now I feel much more like her niece. I haven’t finished traveling the world and I’m a long way from a house by the sea and I don’t yet know what I should do to make the world more beautiful, but I can’t wait to figure it out. Whatever it might be.