A January 31st Good Guy You May Never Have Heard Of

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This gentle-eyed, mild-mannered man was born Giovanni Melchiorre Bosco, in a tiny hillside hamlet not far from Turin, Italy, in the summer of 1815. His parents were uneducated farm workers. Today, he’s known all over the world as St. John Bosco, a man who looked into his heart at an early age, and by the shine of his own personal light, saw his purpose in life. As a little boy, he once greeted a passing priest and was ignored. He promptly announced to his astonished mother, “I’m going to be a priest when I grow up, and I’ll talk to children all the time.” It was impossible, of course, for his father had died when he was 2 years old, which effectively locked him into a future as a penniless farmhand. And at the time, entry to the priesthood in Italy was, by and large, limited to the upper classes.

But here was a boy who wouldn’t let “No” stop him. John quietly set out to lift up the neglected poor children around him. He turned a keen eye on itinerant street performers, and by the age of 10 was performing himself as a magician, juggler, and acrobat. Admission was 2 prayers–1 before the show and 1 after. As uneducated as the children who came to see him, John taught himself to read, and became even more determined to follow his heart after he had a dream about a rabble of poor children. In the dream, an elegantly dressed man turned to him, extended his hand toward the children and told him to help them through reason, love, and kindness. At 12, John Bosco left home alone and made his way to Turin, where after many trials and setbacks, he finally met a retired priest who helped him learn what he needed to know to gain entrance to the seminary.

Once ordained, John continued to help and educate poor children wherever he found them–on the streets, among the homeless, and in the prisons. He took them into his home, where, as you might guess, they acted like the ungrateful little wretches they were and stole from him time and time again. But he was relentless. Starting where he was with what he had, John developed his own system of education and his own school, using praise and kindness instead of punishment. By this time a familiar radical presence about Turin, Don Bosco, as he was popularly known, was routed out of one neighborhood after another–who wants to live near a bunch of dirty, rowdy kids?

But he persisted–even in the face of persecution by people who hated him just because he was a priest. You wouldn’t think there would be such people in Italy then, but there were. Attempts were even made on his life–one time he was shot, on another occasion stabbed, and on a third, bludgeoned. But as you probably know by now, Don Bosco was no quitter. He started his own order of priests, based on the humble spirituality and gentle philosophy of St. Francis de Sales, and soon these Salesian priests were traveling to countries all over the world to aid and teach children of the poor–and, in true Don Bosco fashion, Salesian priests and volunteers are still working there now.

You’ve probably heard that print journalism is in its death throes these days. Well, not quite. To let interested folk know what his priests were up to, Don Bosco started the Salesian Bulletin in 1875 and it has proved to be as persistent as he was. It has been in continuous circulation ever since, and today–yes, in 2015– is published in 50 different editions in 30 languages. Even if you’re a cynic, you have to give the man credit for working up some serious steam for aiding the poor.

Don Bosco died 127 years ago, on January 31, 1888 and was canonized St. John Bosco in 1934. He is widely revered as a role model by teachers and there is probably a Catholic church or school not far from you that is named for him. They may even be celebrating the advent of his 200th year this weekend. More recently his childhood talents have received recognition by the Vatican, too. This tireless champion of disadvantaged kids is also the Patron of Stage Magicians. What a guy!

When asked for advice on the best way to live your life, he replied, “Do your ordinary duties extraordinarily well.” And so I ask myself again this January 31, “Why do we always make everything so complicated?”

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Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Trying to keep my eyes on the road ahead…but thanks to him, celebrating today how  much has already been accomplished. Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Friends!

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When the Road to Joy Grows Dark and Trackless

These past few months and the beginning of the New Year have been full of tragedy for so many people in so many places around the world. Fear stalks the streets of Paris, where horrible violence has left innocent families shattered. And the guilty are gunned down and gone now, but to what avail? The murdered beloved will not come back, no more than the guilty slain. And Fear remains.

Grief came upon so many in Indonesia and Singapore, where loved ones will never return home from their journeys. In Africa, the Ebola virus overwhelmed thousands, and so many died from lack of resources available an ocean away to save them. And in our own country, over a dozen children have slipped away quietly from the flu. It seems a deeper tragedy when children die of something so common, with no outrage made about it. For we will never know what we have lost when little ones leave us.

Perhaps that is our saving grace, to be able to comprehend so little, in such a limited way, and then to be able to forget even that. Recently, in my own city, a man was sentenced to death for the murder of a baby, and the baby’s mother will be sentenced later for doing nothing to stop him during the months he abused her baby. It’s over now, and the newspaper reported that in the courtroom at the sentencing, “No one spoke for the baby.” What a tragedy in just six words: “No one spoke for the baby.” And somehow, we are all made less.

What are we to make of these tragedies, both great and small, if the death of an unknown person far away, or the death of a baby can be called “small”? I do not know. What remains is the heaviness of sorrow, the fleeting nature of joy, the great rush of life, a mystery many have expressed far better than I. Pindar wrote in 5 B.C., “We are things of a day. What are we? What are we not? The shadow of a dream is man, no more.” That’s true. Yet still, a poet I revered in my early 20’s, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, observed, “Not people die, but worlds die in them.”

Each of us is everything. Just one of us alone is everything. Then how do we keep from despair, when tragedy falls on us like a blindness? I do not know. Perhaps our recourse is to accept that we are human, and though imperfect, our finest gift is the power to adapt as life carries us and our emotions along with it.

Perhaps, too, we can find refuge in the Present Moment, for it is always with us. The Present Moment anchors us. All living things share it, yet still, it is ours alone. Perhaps somewhere in our small Right Now is the place where Joy abides.

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Christmas Has the Best Stories…Bring on The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Every Christmas story has its seed in the very first one, told by Luke, a Gentile and Evangelist, who gives the most detailed account of the birth of an ordinary Jewish baby who grew up to be extraordinary indeed. It is found in the Bible, Luke 2:1-20. No matter what your beliefs, you can hardly escape knowing this story, which begins with a conqueror’s or-else demand: “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world should be taken…” I first read these astounding words in the third grade, when I narrated my class’s Christmas play. It astounded me that a Roman emperor thought he had conquered the world. Christmas aside, it was my first lesson in political perspective.

I hope you’ll be reading a Christmas story or two during the holidays. Here are three of my favorites. I love them because their main characters run the gamut of personalities that can show us the way; lead us back; push us gently to think on the mystery that came to Earth in that little stable of Luke’s first Christmas story so long ago; a mystery we have yet to fathom, even after 2000 years of its retelling.

The first story is “Annabelle’s Wish,” a Little Golden Book, published in 1997, that is based on a story by Don Henderson. It was made into an animated film by Ralph Edwards Productions, and I envy you if you’ve seen it. I’m sure it’s a treat.

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I won’t spoil the ending by telling you the story of this little calf, her friend Billy, and Santa Claus, but I was surprised to find in this rather obscure and humble Little Golden Book three profound truths that you may enjoy reflecting upon with a child at Christmastime:

First: When you’re afraid, doing a good deed for another may help you master your fear.

Second: Loving someone can make you forget your own desires, or at least send them to the back of your heart until a more proper time.

Third: If you have the patience to wait for it, a good deed from your past may come back to reward you with unexpected joy.

Annabelle the calf is good through and through from the start, unlike my second favorite:

Scrooge    www.telegraph.co.uk

Here he is, possibly the baddest, grumpiest, tightfisted meanie in classic English literature, Ebenezer Scrooge. Mean, yes, and it’s Christmas! So why can’t I wait for him to get into action in the book, on the stage, or on the screen? Why is this old story still popular with so many people? Well, I think it’s because if he can be redeemed, so can I. So can you. So can the meanest bully of a baddie in your life make a turn-around and bring out the good that is buried in his heart. Here are a few more truths I find in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens:

First: No one is beyond redemption and forgiveness, no matter how awful, and the sooner we all behave as if we believe it, the happier, more merciful, and more just the world will be. Notice how quickly and warmly Scrooge’s nephew welcomes him on Christmas Day.

Second: No one is all good or all bad, and the sooner the goodies get down from their high horses, and the baddies stop reveling in the belief that they can never change, the better off we will all be.

Third: You can’t tell a book by its cover. Most frowns mask a pain of some kind. I always fall apart when Scrooge sees Fan, his long-dead sister.

And YES I KNOW! PLEASE don’t repeat for me the latest theory–that Scrooge was suffering from food poisoning or dementia–Bah! Humbug!

My third favorite Christmas story stars a protagonist whose mug is as ugly as the character he presents to the outside world:

How-The-Grinch-Stole-Christmas-Animated-Rebootfrom the animated movie “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”

I have loved this story ever since I first read it, soon after Dr. Seuss published it back in the 1950s. Who would dare consider such a dastardly deed? Who would ever forgive it? Well, the Who’s would. They’re better than we are. Here are a few truths I find in this story:

First: People’s behavior in the face of loss can bring out the best in others. Notice what the Who’s did that made the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes that day.

Second: Nothing is gained by holding a grudge. You may even get your stolen goods back.

Third: Forgiveness makes Peace and Good Will go viral.

Whatever you’re reading this season, MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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White Sands National Monument, The World’s Permanent “Snow”

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My parents-in-law, Pauline and Bob, are in the foreground; I’m the speck on the dune.

If you are suffering from the frigid weather and heavy snow in the eastern U.S. and Canada, here’s something to take your mind off your cold feet. This is White Sands National Monument. Untold years ago, these dunes of gypsum sand engulfed 275 square miles of desert, creating the world’s largest dunefield. The National Monument was established in 1936 and is located about 16 miles southwest of Alamogordo, New Mexico, at an elevation of just over 4200 ft. The Monument preserves a portion of the dunefield, along with its plants and animals.

We were too awestruck with wonder to notice any animals or plants when we were there in 1994–White Sands has that kind of effect. The staff are kept busy plowing roads through the dunes, as the constant wind keeps shifting them around. The packed sand looks just like the translucent ice on a winter road, and we crept warily along until we got used to the idea that it wasn’t the least bit slippery. The gypsum sand was once transparent, but the grains continually collide and scratch each other in the blowing winds. It’s the light reflecting off the scratched grains that makes the sand appear white–and it was a hot, windy, glaring, “snowy” scene on that sunny spring day when we visited. The National Monument is surrounded by a missile range, so there are safety rules in force when something is going on there, but it’s a wondrous place where you can’t help smiling, even with the marked absence of expensive rides and cartoon characters. People laugh and climb the dunes, kids play and shout with glee, even though they can’t throw snowballs, and the rangers host a variety of nature programs just as they do at the other National Monuments. If you’re ever in New Mexico, be sure not to miss it. There now, don’t you feel warmer already?

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Burma, The Witch’s Familiar? Not!

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Burma and His Halloween Pal, 1984

Almost time for Halloween again! Since we’ll soon be off visiting friends and family, I thought I’d share another cat from our past before October flies away on a broom. This is Burma, 30 years ago. At the time, we lived in a one-storey fourplex apartment building. She came prowling straight across the church parking lot in back of us one day, looking for all the world like a miniature panther, and decided to hang with us. We liked cats, but since I was allergic, she was going to stay outside. Also, we thought we knew what we were doing.

Notice I referred to Burma as “she”? Yes, when we first saw poor Burma strolling toward our little abode, we thought he was a girl. Where is that wide, thick neck and muscular torso? we asked. Our neighbors were no help on that score. The cat went over to eye Sugar, the indoor cat next door and promptly sprayed on the patio door. Sugar’s owner, a big band station disc jockey, therefore swore (not literally, he was a religious man) “she” was a boy. The lovely disabled woman on the other side of us didn’t take a stand, but said the cat looked like a Burmese she had once. So finally, we figured he was a neutered male, though I didn’t think they sprayed. (Duh, what did I know?)

We couldn’t settle on a name–Midnight, Ashes, Sooty (a British dog puppet TV star from the 60s), Licorice, Blackie, Coal? All seemed too indicative of a certain personality type, and this cat wasn’t cool, suave, sophisticated, funny, cute, or playful. In fact, he had all the personality of a schoolroom blackboard, except you couldn’t write on him.

“Burma” made no sense at all, either, but since our neighbor said he might be part Burmese, and we had to call him something, “Burma” it was, and “Burma” it stayed, the name eventually evoking a sense of his particular outlook on life, which the English language has no simple word for.

Burma kept his own counsel and his minimal remarks were off the cuff. A “meow” was considered a State of the Feline speech. He viewed the world with an acceptance that wasn’t quite jaded, but slanted that way. He was fine with staying outside, so he took up residence on the patio, sleeping on or under a chair or the plant stand made of concrete blocks and eating cat food or table scraps, which he appeared to enjoy, though that’s a strong adjective for Burma where food or anything else was concerned.

We were thrilled when he decided to pose with the jack-o-lantern one year and snapped the above picture fast. That’s when it occurred to us how much he looked like a witch’s familiar, sitting there. Look at those slanty yellow eyes and that total lack of emotion. By the Middle Ages, black cats were already considered evil in Europe. People thought they were humans who had been turned into black cats to do a witch’s bidding, a non-scientific analysis that lives on in literature today. In real life, I’ve heard that black kittens and cats are the least likely kind to be adopted from animal shelters, which is just plain sad.

Anyway, witch’s familiar or not (I say not), Burma moved with us to a house a few years later, and though he was not happy about it at first, he settled in. Several years later, we moved around the corner, and he came with us there, too. He had grown thinner and frailer over the years, but didn’t seem to be in pain. If he didn’t feel well, he slept longer and moved less, and eventually, he slept nearly all the time and rarely moved from the back patio. One day, he crawled under the rose bushes in front, and when the water came on, I lifted him out, amazed at how light he had become. That was the last we saw of Burma. He apparently tucked himself under an obscure bush in a neighbor’s yard and passed on. We missed him a lot, since he’d been with us for at least twenty years.

For most of those twenty years, we’d had a parade of stray outdoor cats that we humanely trapped, took to the vet, and released in our yard. And always, there was Burma, giving everything and everyone that “Burma” look. It seemed he could to take or leave other cats, just as he had no particular preference in matters of sustenance or shelter. For a cat who had no attachments to speak of, he stayed with us longer than any other. We would love it if he’d show up here one day again, maybe in a younger guise. And not cute, or playful, or suave, or sophisticated, but just good old “Burma.” He was a cat in a million.

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A Tuesday Sunbeam on the Road to Joy: Victor Hugo on Growing Old

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“I feel myself in the future life. I am like a forest which has been more than once cut down. The new shoots are livelier than ever. I am rising toward the sky. The sunshine is on  my head. The earth gives me its generous sap, but heaven lights me with its unknown worlds.

You say the soul is nothing but the resultant of the bodily powers. Why, then, is my soul more luminous when my bodily powers begin to fail? Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart. I breathe at this hour the fragrance of the lilacs, the violets, and the roses, as at the age of twenty years. The nearer I approach the end, the plainer I hear around me the immortal symphonies of the world which are inviting me. It is marvelous, yet simple.”

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This outstanding French author lived and wrote at the same time as Charles Dickens in England. Both were unfailingly optimistic and believed in the eventual triumph of Good over Evil in human society. Both sought to explore the good in people and wrote about it over and over again. The translation of Hugo’s powerful and sweeping novel “Les Miserables” was a best seller in America during the Civil War, and was, after the Bible, the book most commonly read by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. At the time of his death, Hugo was the best known and most highly admired man in France. All of Paris turned out for his funeral, which was the largest in French history. So when people tell you that novels about good people are boring, tell them not to give up yet–go read something by Victor Hugo. Even beneath Evil’s dirty face, heinous acts, and chilling heart, Goodness endures.

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