The other day I spent a couple of hours with Jean Rukkila, who is one of my personal superheroes. We sit at the bar at the Monte Vista, looking across Aspen Street to West of the Moon. She confesses, “I used to fantasize having my little press in one window and massage table in the other window and a little sign, like those private eyes have, written on the door:”
I can picture it.
I first got to know Jean when I owned a gallery in that same building. She brought me matchbox books that she’d made. I was charmed by them and delighted by her.
An online profile describes her as “expert at being Jean.” I ask, “How did you get so good at being Jean?”
“There might have been some fuel because I was an identical twin,” she says. “All people want to individuate, but it can seem vitally important when you’re being confused with someone else a lot. I was writing in journals at an early age, [saying to myself] … ‘That’s me and my life.’
“I filled a lot of journals and didn’t think to put drawings in them until I met Margie [Erhart, whom she met while working fire crew]. She left a journal with me one weekend while she was off to Prescott. I sat in that bunk in that crew trailer, marveling at what a more complete picture this was of a human than just words. I changed right then and started drawing in my journals all the time.”
Did she study to become a writer and a poet? In college, she started out with a major in elementary education, but eventually felt that wasn’t her calling.
“I’d go from the teaching college at ASU over to see my friend in the art school. In between was the journalism school. I’d walk through there, and look at all the people writing on typewriters, and I thought, ‘I could do that. I like that.’ So I changed to journalism.
“I never believed in the deadline thing. Breaking news was not what I cared about. So I wrote feature stories and was good at it. But I was still going over to the art college. That muse was calling.”
Some years later, Jean studied writing at the University of Arizona.
“Margie was in the MFA writing program at University of Iowa. She was supposed to have someone ride back there with her, and the other rider didn’t show. So I jumped in and went to Iowa City.”
Jean came back to Arizona and applied to the very competitive writing program at the U of A. She quizzed the director about how she could improve her chances for admission, and was told that a letter from someone who taught there would be helpful. Ed Abbey turned out to be that person.
“When I was at the lookout my first season, Ed was on lookout at Aztec,” Jean says. “They gave me a Tonto radio along with my Prescott one because they were having fires all over there on the plateau, so I’d hear him sometimes. I sent him a smart aleck letter about fires or something and he wrote back.”
By the time Jean was applying to U of A, Abbey was teaching spring semesters there.
“So I wrote Ed a funny letter. I said, ‘Here’s why lookouts would be great for graduate school.’ He wrote back, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right. I’ll tell Mary you should be in.’”
Since those days, her path has involved more lookout time, more essays, poetry and artists’ books, and a massage practice. She’s carved out a deliberately modest living, acknowledging that an acquisitive lifestyle has its costs in fewer personal connections and less time for reflection. I admire her honesty and her meditative ponderings, and often wish I could conjure up as much compassion.
“There’s so much beauty in humans,” she says. “Yes, we get fearful, and yes, we act out, and yes, we have reasons for it all; we’re damaged and dented. But let’s start with tenderness and kindness, and just feast on the best bits of each other. Let’s see what’s in our pockets and show each other.”
I imagine her in a cape, swooping down over unsuspecting readers, dousing us with kindness and poetry, telling us all: “Your life has prepared you. Have no fears.”