(100 Books) 1 – Wise Child by Monica Furlong
This first in my series of books that have shaped my life is a children’s novel I first encountered in the fourth grade. Twenty years later, it is still one of my favorites. Monica Furlong’s Wise Child tells the story of a little girl growing up in a remote Scottish village. Nicknamed “Wise Child” for her big eyes and penchant for using big words, the protagonist is sent to live with the village witch, Juniper, when her grandmother dies. At Juniper’s house, Wise Child learns a bit about magic and a lot about love.
Although I initially loved the book for Wise Child’s initiation into Juniper’s magical world, one idea from Wise Child has remained with me as I’ve grown older — mindful domesticity.
Until I read Wise Child, I had no concept of the ways that outer space can mirror inner space. The book initiated me into the grounded mental space that results from caring for our homes and ourselves. Here is the excerpt that always comes to my mind:
“I don’t like cleaning or dusting or cooking or doing dishes, or any of those things,” I explained to her. “And I don’t usually do it. I find it boring, you see.”
“Everyone has to do those things,” she said.
“Rich people don’t,” I pointed out.
Juniper laughed, as she often did at things I said in those early days, but at once became quite serious.
“They miss a lot of fun,” she said. “But quite apart from that — keeping yourself clean, preparing the food you are going to eat, clearing it away afterward — that’s what life’s about, Wise Child. When people forget that, or lose touch with it, then they lose touch with other important things as well . . . Also, as you clean the house up, it gives you time to tidy yourself up inside — you’ll see.”
What a shot of wisdom to a ten-year-old! Although it would be several years before I even thought about applying the Juniper principle to my own life (and though I have quite a way to go before mastering it, as anyone who’s seen my perpetually messy house can attest!), I absolutely believe that Furlong was right. Learning how to cook helped me to navigate my struggles through a major depressive episode in college. Baking bread helped me to recover from an eating disorder in my mid-twenties. And in the daily stress of teaching, taking a few minutes to organize the surface of my desk can help me to gather up my scattered threads of my attention and re-focus on my work. Just teaching myself to view housework as an invitation to spirituality instead of drudgery has been a huge step.
Wise Child walks through loving descriptions of life in medieval Scotland, from preparing meals, to tending herbs, to gathering bog myrtle for beer. I always suspected that Juniper’s cheerful, pleasant demeanor was a side effect from the devotion she gave to each necessary task she stumbled across, be it tending a fever or taking in a homeless child. I’ll count myself blessed if I can learn to approach my life with half as much grace as Juniper.