The Children’s Book That Made Me Realize It’s Okay to Be Alone
‘Miss Rumphius’ is a rare jewel: a book whose solitary protagonist finds wonder but never love
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I am the uncle who gives books to my nephews and one niece. I do this out of love for them and the books, but also out of the need to recover things I may have lost. Most often, the books I give are those iconic lodestones masquerading under simple turns-of-phrase: The Giving Tree, The Little Engine That Could, etc. Each one I love in the way we love the books we are supposed to love; and I love to pass them on to the next generation, like bestowing a stash of especially effective pathfinding breadcrumbs upon worthy heirs. I liked to believe that these books will help them find their way, but a few Decembers ago while shopping for my niece’s birthday gift, among others, I struggled to keep this faith. I’d been trying to give my niece and nephews books that would be maps to show them the way—but I hadn’t yet found my own way, and it suddenly seemed disingenuous to give yet another map that had thus far proven itself unreliable.
So, that December evening in the bookstore, I decided it would be better to give my niece a compass rather than a map. The one book that came to mind was “Mrs. Rumphius” — a book that I had told myself was “my favorite,” the one that “really influenced” me. Both of those things were true, and I did truly cherish the book’s influence on me. But seeing the title on the cover of the new copy I held in my hands, I realized that I had for years been woefully calling it by something that was not its name.
Miss Rumphius — not Mrs. — is perhaps Barbara Cooney’s most beloved work, and certainly her most well known. The 1982 book tells the life story of Alice Rumphius, an equestrian-elegant, red-haired girl born sometime before the ascendancy of the steamship, somewhere in northeastern America. Something of the young nation’s aloof confidence, charged with untested potential, energizes Alice’s tale of self-reliance — a quality she exhibits from the very beginning. As a child, she adores her immigrant grandfather’s wide-ranging stories of “faraway places,” shared with her in the firelight of his home “in a city by the sea.” She promises that she will travel the world too, one day, and that when she’s finished, she will come home to a house beside the sea. Her grandfather blesses her intentions, but on the condition that she fulfill one request: “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”
She accomplishes all three in the course of long, enviable life of global adventure that comes to its end on the rocky Maine coast. Here, she fulfills her final promise to make the world more beautiful by scattering lupine seeds “along highways and down the country lanes….around the schoolhouse and the back of the church.” Year after year, the lupines multiply thanks to wind and birds and curious children, imperially redecorating the rugged Maine landscape. All said, Alice succeeded in making the world more beautiful, but what is important to remember, and what seemed unimportant to me until recently, is that she planted the flowers herself. There was never any great love for Alice, nor was she ever a “Mrs.”
I had forgotten that part, perhaps because for a very long time I considered it the fulfillment of every person’s destiny to find true love in this life, and to fuse with that person until the very end. In doing so, I had also forgotten the unspoken message of Miss Rumphius: true love is not the only wonder in the world, and not necessarily the greatest.
To a certain extent, Alice’s entire life is a kind of anti-Odyssey — a journey not toward closure, not toward home and birthright, but to ever-wider openings. Three years ago when I found the copy of this book that I would purchase for my niece, I was doing the exact opposite. I was headed toward closure, to an end to the precarity that had dominated my life since I graduated high school. Strange, then, that this book spoke to me. If there was anything I wanted not to be, it was the free, solitary, singularly time-agnostic Alice Rumphius.
Our differences aside, I found Alice’s charge “to make the world more beautiful” a useful directive for myself and others, even so many years after reading it for the first time. The message was vaguely optimistic, yet clearly actionable; open to interpretation, yet specific. And Alice’s declaration that she did not know what she could do to make the world more beautiful seemed to me important to share with children. After my own adolescence of calculated careerism, a clear reminder to the next generation that life’s mysteries need not be solved by age 18 was a necessary and vital one.
But beyond my appreciation for its developmental nuance, I felt deeply connected to Miss Rumphius, and it wasn’t clear to me why this should be the case. The book wasn’t emblematic of my childhood. I was a kid who loved magic and wanted my own, and while there is a witchy haze about red-haired and strong-willed Alice, there is no sorcery in this book. There was, however, some power at work in those pages that I had not realized until that night in the bookshop, thumbing through the copy I would give my niece. Perhaps I had forgotten it, or perhaps I had just to wait until that moment to remember, but I saw as if for the first time something wonderful on the book’s dedication page.
“This book is dedicated to Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors, and maidens,” reads the text beneath a very specific and very familiar rendering of my namesake saint. This was an eikona, a sacred image; and this Saint Nicholas was properly O Agios Nikolaos: his hand contorted into the blessing cipher IC XC, his body adorned in the full regalia of a Roman bishop, and his face haloed with to aktiston phos, the “uncreated light.” Here, on the first page of the book that I called my childhood favorite, was a message to me that I never knew was there: my name, my faith, my own moment of “wonder” — a concept with which St. Nicholas is richly interconnected.
In Greek Orthodox tradition, one of the beloved saint’s many honorifics is O Thaumatourgos, literally, “wonderworker.” Although imprecisely appropriated into English as “thaumaturge,” the Greek word’s etymology stretches from remote Hellenic antiquity up into the occult origins of modernity, science, and empirical knowledge. Touched thus by almost all of Western written history, the whole lineage of wonder is archived in the root word, thauma (pronounced in Modern Greek as “THAV-ma.”)
“In Archaic [Greek] and early Classical [Greek] literature, the characteristic reaction to a well-crafted image is thauma,” writes Richard T. Neer, an art historian and classicist at the University of Chicago, in his monograph theorizing the cultural genesis of Classical sculpture. Applied variously to crafts, feats, and, famously, to the dangerously deceptive allure of the first woman, Pandora, thauma describes any “figure of dazzling alterity” or “a moment of limitless present” in the finite world. Across all these instances, “wonder derives from the fact that a single thing can somehow be two things all at once.”
Originally an aesthetic term, thauma acquired new figurative meanings through its frequent use in Plato and Aristotle, the latter of whom contended, “[P]hilosophy begins in wonder.” For Aristotle, thauma inhered in the “apparent conjoining of chance and necessity” in otherwise unrelated events that “occur contrary to expectation yet on account of one another” so perfectly as to seem divinely designed. In the interstices, then, thauma sparks and illuminates, situating wonder itself between any “this” and any “that” fortuitously and randomly in communion.
Which is to say, for wonder to truly dazzle, the needful thing is always some kind of disparity, incompleteness, or capacity — a truth intuitively acknowledged in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phrase “capacity for wonder.” It’s the filling of that capacity that one could say eventually eliminates the last bit of enchantment from the world. For Alice Rumphius, the great work is to rage against the enervation of that enchantment, to re-excavate the capacity for wonder, to beat back against the currents that enclose the imagination. In this sense, above all else, hers is a story about wonder, about thauma. In Miss Rumphius, the portent of thauma for life today glimmers for any who have eyes to see — and whose hearts put their faith in the promise of another half.
Alice’s heart plays a strangely minor role in this story of a life well lived, offering comfort to anyone unrepresented in the glut of stories that culminate in happily ever afters. She does not follow her “heart’s desire,” and her journey around the world seems less of a passion project and much more of a baseline function. To be Alice is to be in motion, to approach every almost and then instantaneously tangent out to uncharted places with unknown people. For that reason, although she finds early on in the book a home that fulfills her requirements — far away from where she grew up, near the sea — Alice leaves. What’s more, she leaves behind the only man in whom she’d felt romantic interest, according to Barbara Cooney in a 1999 interview with The Los Angeles Times:
When I asked her why Miss Rumphius…never married, Cooney said, “She didn’t feel the need to. It was simpler just to go knocking around by herself.”
Didn’t she ever meet anyone who interested her? I prodded. There was a long pause.
“Well,” the author finally said with a little lilt in her voice, “she met Bapa Raja, but he was married.”
Here was a home, a point of closure; yet her journey had never pointed toward the polestar of a yearned-for homeland. Instead, it webbed out into sparkling dizziness, unceasingly in pursuit of the next vacuum. She knew wonder must of necessity be incomplete, and hearts are too easily convinced that they are sufficiently filled.
I learned that the hard way, almost two years after I rediscovered Miss Rumphius on that evening in the bookstore. I had either forgotten or never remembered Alice’s lesson that a full life is not necessarily predicated on occupying one’s heart with love for another person. If wonder emerges “between any ‘this’ and any ‘that’ fortuitously and randomly in communion,” then I thought wonder’s true form must be the rarely successful alchemy between two people in love.
And if not, it was still the case that every book and film and song I ever absorbed affirmed that love outranked any other wonder in the world. Without love, what should be wonderful would be one-dimensional, bereft of the combustible internal tension that generated thauma. I knew better than this, once, but had forgotten by the time it was too late. Perhaps this was why, for years, I referred to this book as “Mrs. Rumphius,” rather than by its proper name, appending a phantom husband to a woman who never needed one.
For many of us, love is the last real sacrament in a secular world that is nevertheless glutted with approximations of transcendence. We are encouraged — demanded, even — to find the sacred at yoga, in the “spiritual but not religious,” in various wellness practices, in cloudy crystals charged at midnight on roofs far away from the ground the made them; I’ve done similar things. Where the divine has been scaled into a compulsory (and, often, capitalistic) component of wellness, love is the last untamed and utterly incandescent wonder; it’s the cherub with its flaming sword.
And in such a world, the route of Alice Rumphius, which seeks out wonder instead of love, seems pointless. Why work so hard to find wonder outside of love, when wonder is so readily available within it? To be in love is to return to paradise, to enter into the last temple, to do in earnest the things you could previously only do ironically. In this sense, love in its form as the ultimate wonder is perhaps the one baptism we still universally acknowledge for the remission of sins. “Well, I met a boy…” does certainly have something of the sparkle of a preemptive exoneration.
But in exalting love as the epitome of all wonder, we transform it into its antithesis. This kind of romantic love tends toward closure, to completion; it tries to compact the poles that produce thauma into one solid whole. It tells us love can only be true if it lasts through successive rounds of hookups, through trauma, through fights — through a battery of tests, like a laboratory subject. It produces hookup culture as an erotic manifestation of empiricism — a series of adaptive assessments to optimize us, and others for us. This kind of love proceeds, unconsciously, with the intent to decommission the imagination, to fence it in, to atrophy it. Its aim is to avert that other kind of love, the kind that is not wonderful, but full of wondering. I’m sick of wondering. I’m sick of wondering if you really love me, I’m sick of wondering if you will be here.
We want a love so wonderful we need never wonder again.
The problem with such a love is that it is dead on arrival if it is to be the final and ultimate wonder in one’s life. The lesson of Miss Rumphius that I’ve encountered all these years later is that our capacity for wonder is not a cavity that can only be filled, or even best be filled, with love. Love need not be the sum of all wonders, and it is to our own disadvantage to consider a life lived without a great love, a soul mate, or a partner to be a regrettably unactualized one.
Similarly, it dishonors one’s own potential by pinning the hope of happiness on the life-long requited love of another person. Such hope is ultimately invested in certainty, in closure, in the quick algorithmic accomplishment of promises such as those Alice made to her grandfather and whose slow fulfillment spanned her whole life. It caulks the interstices of life — the uncertainties, the voids, the discontinuities across which only imagination can carry us, ultimately impoverishing the world now and in the future.
If love had been Alice’s only objective, her only form of wonder (and for many of us, I think that is the case; it was for me), it’s unlikely she would have ever left Bapa Raja, or that she would have ever climbed mountains or trekked through jungles. In the forfeiture of these experiences, it’s unlikely she would have ever imagined a way to make the world more beautiful.
By leaning into the ever opening horizon, she saw more than most will ever see, such that by the time she settled into her new home by the shore, at the margins of the world, she could look into the sunset and say, in earnest, that the world was “already pretty nice.” To fulfill her final promise to make the world more beautiful, she had to imagine a world that did not yet exist. Even after she had presumably seen the whole world and acquired the certainty of experience, she entered the chasm between what is known and not known, and imagined a more beautiful future. Her eyes were quite useless to help her see what had not yet been seen.
Accustomed to the nexus of “chance and necessity,” Alice answers the charge to make the world more beautiful by planting flowers in the stony ground around her home — far from optimal conditions for new growth. To her wonder, at least some of the seeds bloomed in the spring — only the lupines, the flower she “always loved best,” and that are also, incidentally, considered a symbol of imagination. When she finds a patch of lupines far away from her garden, she makes it clear: “I don’t believe my eyes!” To make the world more beautiful is to bring something into it that did not exist before, a task which demands a indefatigable return to the dark interstices where wonder wakes up.
In such places, the lupines grow year in and year out, “in between the rocks around her house,” as her great-niece tells us. The same little girl concludes the book, not with closure, but with new uncertainty, in an embrace of wonder that it’s this book’s prime directive to encourage. It’s in this wonder, of which love is only one of many optional, moving parts, that one approaches the thauma at the heart of life and becomes, in time, thauma idesthai: “a wonder to behold for itself and oneself.”
To make the world a more beautiful place, then — to make anyone else’s world a more beautiful place through love and partnership — Miss Rumphius teaches by example to first become a wonder to behold for yourself. The flowers will then find their own way to bloom.