Written by our first guest blogger: Andrea Garfinkel-Castro
When my children were little we used to read Miss Rumphius by Barbara Clooney. It is a short story about a little girl named Alice Rumphius who wants to do the things her grandfather has done—to travel the world and, afterwards, to live by the sea. She tells him this and he, in turn, tells her there is a third thing she must do. ““What is that?” asked Alice. “You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.”
I have quoted Alice and her grandfather many times, and, as you can see, I continue to find inspiration in their words. My hope is that everyone become inspired to do something make the world more beautiful—even if you don’t yet know what that ‘something;’ might be. You see, Alice also didn’t know how she could make the world more beautiful for a long time, even though she carried within her the desire to do so.
Alice, Miss Rumphius, came upon her way to make the world more beautiful quite by accident and through personal adversity. The story takes us through some of Alice’s adventures around the world to exotic places and to the place by the sea where she finally settles in her old age, just as she had hoped. One year, with her hope to make the world a better place still unfulfilled, Alice becomes bed-bound. Looking out from her bedroom window she sees the beautiful blossoms of the lupine she had planted earlier and laments that she is too ill to plant more. The next spring, now able to walk about, she is delighted to come across lupines that had been sown by the wind—and she discovers how she can make the world ‘more beautiful’ and begins to sow lupine seeds wherever she walks.
My take -ways from this delightful story are that we find our path, the things we must do, sometimes by accident or through hardships. Also, and perhaps more importantly, that it isn’t necessary to change the world in a big way to really make a difference. All Alice did was to sow seeds of lupine, the plants grew themselves. Sometimes, all we need to do is to sow the seeds for change, for beauty. We won’t always see the long term results of our work but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get things started.
I’ve carried this task, to do something to make the world more ‘beautiful,’ within me now for over twenty years. I like this approach to making the world a better place because it allows me to focus on something manageable, something doable. During a family road trip to Mexico, I saw poverty for the first time. I saw tin and cardboard shacks and hungry-eyed children vending and begging in the streets and they burned unforgettable images in my young mind. More than four decades later, this childhood experience remains a primary driver of my work in environmental and social justice.
Last spring I graduated from a master’s program in urban and environmental planning. The night we graduated I felt philosophical. I told some classmates that I believed in my heart that as long as there is poverty and injustice in the world, we would all remain impoverished and impacted, that distance is no escape because we are all ‘inextricably intertwined.’ I know, sadly, that I’ll never see some of these classmates again, but I feel optimistic, knowing that our work will keep us connected at some level.
I feel this same connection with all environmental and social activists. I know that all of us, in our own way, have asked what we can do to make this world better. I know that we all struggle with wondering if our work will make a difference, if it will have lasting value. By reshaping our focus into making the world more beautiful, perhaps we will ease the pressure we feel to ‘fix’ everything all at once. If we can find a way to nurture beauty, within and without, for ourselves and with others, perhaps this is just enough to feel we’ve done good work, day by day.
Connecting with like-minded activists is a thing of beauty, at least for me. It connects me to a community of unique individuals working towards making the world a better place—not just for themselves but for others for generations to come. Being part of a community is harder and harder, and it’s worth nurturing and cherishing it wherever we find it. John McKnight and Peter Block write about this in their 2010 book, The Abundant Community. Knowing that I’m a part of ‘this’ is enough to make my day brighter. Knowing that it’s not static, that it will grow and evolve and become us, from and of us, is what being human is all about—a family of interconnected, caring, sharing people.
I know that my work in this lifetime is not done. I’ve had two rounds with cancer and I’m still going strong—more determined than ever to make this world more beautiful. I have three beautiful children who, in turn, are doing things to make the world more beautiful, too. It doesn’t take very much, either, to make the world more beautiful. We can comfort a sick or scared child, ease the burdens of growing old, help a stranger build a house or plant a garden. In the end, it is not only the big things we do but also the little things along the way; it is not so much the destination but the journey. If we look more closely, we’ll discover the things we must do—to create and nurture beauty. So, even if you don’t yet know what you will do to make the world more beautiful, be patient; you’ll know soon enough—the answer is right before us.