Wisdom of E.B. White is timeless

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“The barn is a community of rugged individualists, everybody mildly suspicious of everybody else, including me. Friendships sometimes develop, as between a goat and a horse, but there is no sense of true community or cooperation. Heaven forfend! Joy of life, yes. Tolerance of other cultures, yes. Community, no.”

— E.B. White, in a letter to Charlotte’s Web film director Gene Deitch

Four school desks, all slightly battered but painted anew, lined up in our playroom when I was a preschool child. My oldest sister was the teacher on the days that we played school, which we did endlessly on the most bitterly cold winter days.

From the time I could remember, I wanted to know how to read. I would carry a book to one of my big sisters in search of story time. No matter how many times we read my favorite books, I was sort of salty that they could read those pages and I could not.

It became a great bargaining chip for my bossy big sisters.

“You won’t learn to read until you quit carrying that stuffed bunny every place you go,” I remember being told.

While putting Elmer’s glue on my thumb, then rolling it in pepper, my sister told me there was no way a teacher would let me go to school if I didn’t break my thumb-sucking habit. That dang near broke my heart.

When I finally advanced to a real classroom, I was headstrong ready to read. I loved books, and couldn’t get enough of them. When the teacher passed out a folder giving us choices of books we could buy as part of a fundraiser, I circled the ones I wanted.

“I believe this would cost us half the milk check,” my Dad said as I showed him which ones I wanted.

“It would have been easier if you had marked off the three or four you didn’t want,” he said with a grin.

When I read Charlotte’s Web for the first time, it seemed a book that was written just for my sisters and me. It told about our world, and it was filled with things we understood, in a setting that was real in every way.

I read my bookmobile copy so many times I surely wore the pages down a bit. I was so sad the day I had to give it back. I asked bookmobile driver, Mr. Stackhouse, if I could keep it just a little big longer.

“No, dear, I’m sorry. We have to let someone else have a turn.”

I have studied the life of E.B. White, the kindly man who gave us Charlotte’s Web, and wish I could have sat down on a bale of hay and talked to him.

“A good farmer is nothing more nor less than a handyman with a sense of humus,” he once said.

He was so shy that he would climb out the fire escape in his New York office to avoid visitors who wished to shake his hand. I love that story. He had grudgingly become famous but did not wish to be recognized in public.

He despised his office, but he loved his barn.

“The world is full of people who have never, since childhood, met an open doorway with an open mind,” he once said.

He believed in holding on to the thrill of new discoveries.

“We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry,” he wrote.

Live and let live was his unspoken way of living.

“One of the most time-consuming things is to have an enemy,” he once said.

And, “Prejudice is a great time-saver,” which is a brief quote that says so much.

We are snowbound as I write this, with surely a foot of snow on the ground, with strong northern wind gusts blowing drifts waist-high. It seems a perfect excuse for some good reading time about a pig named Wilbur.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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