The Three Questions

TheThreeQuestionsFront

The Three Questions, based on a 1903 short story written by the Russian moral philosopher, social reformer, and renowned novelist Count Leo Tolstoy, was written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth and published by Scholastic Press in 2002. It’s my favorite story, except for The Fourth Wise Man. 

Remember the story of The Fourth Wise Man? He sets out with the other three astrologer kings to follow the Star wherever it leads, to do homage to a newborn king they think is greater than any other, and will bring peace to humankind. However, the fourth wise man gets left behind because he keeps stopping to help first one person in crisis, then another in dire straits, and of course, then another with a serious problem. Meanwhile, he continues on his quest to find this wonderful king, whom he hears more and more about through the years. At last, old and ill, he laments that he didn’t hurry. Now he will die, and he’s given away all his money along the way, and he’s never met the wonderful king he set out to find. He learns, in the end, that he did meet the king, for Jesus Christ was there in the face and heart of every needy person he helped in his life.

The child in The Three Questions  reminds me of the fourth wise man: both set off on a quest for answers; both are interrupted by unimagined events requiring an immediate decision from them; and both realize in the end that they had their answers in hand all the time.

I won’t relate the story of the boy’s journey and the creatures and problems he meets along the way. However, I’ll put the answers to the Three Questions beneath this picture of them, in case you just can’t wait. Click on the picture, and you’ll be able to read the questions. Knowing the answers–they are very simple–won’t  spoil your experience of reading the story with your children, and I hope you will.

TheThreeQuestionsBack

1. When is the best time to do things?

           This answer never varies, as it’s the only time we have: Now.

2. Who is the most important one?

           The one you are with.

3. What is the right thing to do?

           Something good for the one who is standing at your side.

The second and third answers are an interesting lesson in relativity for children, who often have a hard time accepting any but the Absolute, All-time, One Hundred Percent Right Answer.

Kids can understand, though, that The Most Important One changes in their own lives, sometimes every other minute of the day.

The Right Thing To Do is both absolute and relative. The spirit of Goodness is absolute, but the way it plays out is relative to who you are, and depends upon who that person is, “standing by your side.” I hope you will enjoy this peaceful, calming story as much as I do. Please let me know what you think of it.

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On the Road to Summer Joy

WaterFunToExistIntheJoyofBecoming

To exist in the fleet joy of becoming,

to be a channel for life as it flashes by in its gaiety and courage,

cool water glittering in the sunlight–

in a world of sloth, anxiety, and aggression.

To exist for the future of others without being suffocated by their present.

—from Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld, 1951

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

JohnBosco

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!

MartinLutherKing

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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.

AnnabellesWish

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!

Christmas2013Hummelangel

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

WhiteSandsNM

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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