The pessimist, the optimist, and the pony

In his quest to develop a theory of everything, Ken Wilbur reads widely, wildly, even wantonly. He is known to say that there is a kernel of truth in every theory. Everyone gets something right, so it is never appropriate to completely dismiss someone completely out of hand. (Of course the trick in this is discerning the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, the right/helpful from the wrong/the unhelpful.)

In that spirit, here’s a story attributed to Ronald Regan. I am not a huge fan of Ronald Regan’s politics. But, there is something about this story and the implications that the folks in his administration drew from it. Sure there are dozens of other versions of the story on the internet, but this one just kind of makes me smile. So, in the spirit of Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna County District Forester, Manny Gordon, I hope that you will “Enjoy, Enjoy, Enjoy!!”

 

Once upon a time, in a place where families dearly loved their children there were twin girls whose appearance evoked the comment “two peas in a pod” and whose personalities stood as polar opposites! The girls’ parents were worried that the girls were developing extreme personalities — one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist — and so their parents took them to see a social worker. 

First the social worker opted to engage with the pessimist.  Trying to brighten her outlook, the social worker took her to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys.  But instead of yelping with delight, the little girl burst into tears.  “What’s the matter?” the social worker asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?”  “Yes,” the little girl cried, “but if I did I’d only break them.” 

Next the social worker reached out to the optimist.  Trying to dampen her outlook just a bit, the social worker took her to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure.  But instead of wrinkling her nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the social worker had been hoping to hear from her sister, the pessimist.  Then she climbed to the top of the pile, dropped to her knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop of poop with her bare hands.  “Would you share with me what you’re doing?” the social worker asked, just as baffled by the optimist as she had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little girl replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!” 

 

It is said that Ronald Regan told his version of this story so often, that whenever something went wrong one of his staff was sure to yell out, “There must be a pony in this somewhere.” That would break the tension, and the laughter would let them dig in with a fresh perspective and renewed energy. And sometimes that is just what our work for social justice and human rights needs – a respectful laugh break that enables us to come back with fresh energy and a different perspective.

So, keep looking for that pony, it’s got to be in there somewhere!!

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Fools or the Wisdom of the Innocent

The Sioux people tell the story of a woman and her husband who had one daughter. The mother and daughter were deeply attached to one another with the love that comes from shared work and stories and the open hearted love of innocence. When the daughter died the mother was inconsolable. She cut off her hair, cut gashes in her cheeks and sat before the corpse with her robe drawn over her head, mourning for her dead daughter in the traditional way. In the depth of her grief, the mother would let no one touch the body to take it to a burying scaffold. She had a knife in her hand, and if anyone offered to come near the body the mother would wail:

“I am weary of life. I do not care to live. I will stab myself with this knife and join my daughter in the land of spirits.”

Her husband and relatives tried to get the knife from her, but could not. They feared to use force lest she kill herself. They came together to see what they could do.

“We must get the knife away from her,” they said.

After a time, a young boy of the village came to the tent of the grieving woman. He was an orphan and very poor, and was regarded as a bit of a fool by others. His moccasins were out at the sole and he was dressed in wei-zi (coarse buffalo skin, smoked). He said to her close relatives, “I will go into the tent and get the knife away from her.”

The others did not believe that he could accomplish this, but they were at a loss and did not know what else to try, so they gave him their permission to enter the tent to see what he might do.

The boy went to the tent and sat down at the door as if waiting to be given something. The corpse lay in the place of honor where the dead girl had slept in life. The body was wrapped in a rich robe and wrapped about with ropes. Friends had covered it with rich offerings out of respect to the dead.

As the mother sat on the ground with her head covered she did not at first see the boy, who sat silent. But when his reserve had worn away a little he began at first lightly, then more heavily, to drum on the floor with his hands. After a while he began to sing a comic song. Louder and louder he sang until carried away with his own singing he sprang up and began to dance, at the same time gesturing and making all manner of contortions with his body, still singing the comic song. As he approached the corpse he waved his hands over it in blessing. The mother put her head out of the blanket and when she saw the poor simpleton with his strange grimaces trying to do honor to the corpse by his solemn waving, and at the same time keeping up his comic song, she watched for a while, and then after some time she burst out laughing. She laughed until she began to cry. Then she reached over and handed her knife to the simpleton.

“Take this knife,” she said. “You have taught me to forget my grief. If while I mourn for the dead I can still be mirthful, there is no reason for me to despair. I no longer care to die. I will live for my husband.”

The simpleton left the tepee and brought the knife to the astonished husband and relatives.

“How did you get it? Did you force it away from her, or did you steal it?” they said.

“She gave it to me. How could I force it from her or steal it when she held it in her hand, blade uppermost. I sang and danced for her and she burst out laughing. Then she gave it to me,” he answered.

When the old men of the village heard the orphan’s story they were very silent. It was a strange thing for a lad to dance in a tepee where there was mourning. It was stranger that a mother should laugh in a tepee before the corpse of her dead daughter. The old men gathered at last in a council. They sat a long time without saying anything, for they did not want to decide hastily. The pipe was filled and passed many times. At last an old man spoke.

“We have a hard question. A mother has laughed before the corpse of her daughter, and many think she has done foolishly, but I think the woman did wisely. The lad was simple and of no training, and we cannot expect him to know how to do as well as one with good home and parents to teach him. Besides, he did the best that he knew. He danced to make the mother forget her grief, and he tried to honor the corpse by waving over it his hands.”

“The mother did right to laugh, for when one does try to do us good, even if what he does causes us discomfort, we should always remember the motive rather than the deed. And besides, the boy’s dancing saved the woman’s life, for she gave up her knife. In this, too, she did well, for it is always better to live for the living than to die for the dead. It is good to honor the dead, it is necessary to live on for the living.”

 

From McLaughlin, Marie L. (1916) who shared this story in honor of her mother Mary Graham Buisson from whom she first heard this story.

 

I like this story for so many reasons:

When I first read it through, inevitably I find myself smiling. And then as I breathe I find myself remembering the lesson to remember to see the good wishes that are so often nestled within the actions of others.

And then I remember the teaching that everyone is our teacher, and when the student is ready the teacher will be there which reminds me that even if the other person might not have had the friendliest of motives, there is still a good lesson in all of life’s encounters – if only I will pause long enough to find it and learn.

And then I remember the importance of honoring the dead and of living for the living – Ah, remember the Mother Jones quote, “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” And so in love and laughter, let’s all go forward to live our lives like there will be no tomorrow, like there is eternity in the joy of now.

Efficacy, equanimity and bay gulls

If you ever find yourself feeling a bit bored with life, throw some clean underwear in a bag, grab your ATM card, get in the car and drive to Cape Cod. That is one of the places in the world where you have to work the hardest to find boredom; particularly in the summer you must work very hard to be bored. Alternatively it is very easy to tumble across lots and lots of engaging, entertaining, and even educational things to do.

A little bit ago, we took a boat trip with the Audubon Society to Monomoy Island. It was a fabulous opportunity to see some birds and to see some of the grey seals that have begun to take over Cape Cod. While the boat was making its way to Monomoy, the naturalist on board was giving us an introduction to the more common birds that we were likely to see. She started off by telling us that there is no such thing as a seagull. Rather there are different species of gulls, in fact, there are fifty different species of gulls around the world. She told us that eleven different species of gulls have been sighted around Cape Cod, but five species are the most common. Three of the very most common species are “white-headed” gulls: the Herring Gull (Larus argenttatus), the Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), and the Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis). The other two common species are “hooded” gulls: the Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla) and and Bonaparte’s Gull (Larus philadelphia). She told us that the white headed gulls are the ones we are most likely to see when we are out on the beach and around the Cape in general. At the moment when she said that, I was overcome with … well, I don’t know quite what possessed me, but I raised my hand, and said “excuse me,” before I realized what I was doing. As the naturalist looked in my direction, I asked, “Well, if the sea gulls fly over the sea, what flies over the bay?”

The naturalist looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, and started to say “I just explained that sea gull is a euphemism for a variety of species of gulls. And really all of the species can fly over both the sea and the …” When again, I was possessed by a force that compelled me to cut her off one more time as I uttered, “If sea gulls fly over the sea I thought that over the bay, it would be bay gulls.” And of course I said this as I was eating a bagel.

At that very moment, six very serious birders set down their 24 inch spotting scopes, rushed over and threw me off the boat!

As I flew through the air, I remembered the words of Daniel Berrigan, “These many beautiful days cannot be lived again. But they are compounded in my own flesh and spirit, and I take them in full measure toward whatever lives ahead.”

And I burst out laughing as I righted myself and walked to the shore.

 

Laughter is indeed the best medicine. Sometimes you just have to find the humor wherever you can find it. Most times it can only help to take your self very lightly. It is said that angels can fly because they take themselves so lightly. I can’t help but think that our work for justice and rights would be more efficacious and equanimous if we could but remember to take ourselves more lightly. So, go have a bagel, have a laugh and enjoy your work.

Have you found Jesus?

Cape Cod is blessed with an abundance of folks from England and Ireland. And, with an abundance of Irish pubs to quench the mighty thirsts of those who cherish fond memories of the local pubs back home. Patrick O’Shea’s is a wonderful place that greets you like family when you walk in the door. One night just as we were leaving there a few fellows came tumbling out behind us. They were having a rollicking grand time of it, to the point where I was not so sure I wanted to be driving on the same roads that they were, so, I was relieved to see them walking off somewhere.

Now the Cape is a strolling place – in places. But, O’Shea’s sits right on route 28, one of the three major road on the Cape, and there is not a lot of strolling done along it. But, our fellows set off in the general direction of the Bass River, and my curiosity was peaked, so we followed along a bit behind them.

Indeed, they were headed to the river, stumbling and laughing as they walked. As we got closer to the river, I could see the Reverend from the local Baptist Church holding some kind of prayer meeting by the river. Now, for sure I was going to follow and check this all out.

Well, as the boys got closer to the bank, one of them took a tumble, and rolled right into the Bass River. And there was the Reverend knee deep in the river baptizing folks from his congregation. And our fellow from O’Shea’s splashed and splattered and wound up at the Reverend’s feet. The good Reverend somehow was taking all of this extra splashing in stride. In fact as our fellow came up for air, the Reverend grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, dunked him back into the river, pulled him up and asked him, “My son, have you found Jesus?” And the fellow said, “No, sir, I have not.”

The Reverend kept his hold on him, dunked him back into the water, and it seemed to me he held him there a tad longer, then pulled him up and asked, “Son, have you found Jesus?” Our fellow was now sputtering a bit, but got out, “No, sir, I have not.”

The Reverend tightened his grip on our fellow, dunked him back in the water, and gave him a bit of a shake while he had the guy underwater, pulled him back up and asked again, “Son, Have you found Jesus yet?” By now, our good fellow was sputtering and gasping for air as he replied, “Sir I have not. Are you sure this is the spot where he went under?”

 

Ah, yes.

 

And that reminded me of another time when we were coming out from the Stop and Shop grocery store. It was a bit foggy and dark, and there was a woman looking for something under one of the (far too few) street lights. We could see she was distressed, so we went over and asked if we could help. She thanked us profusely and said yes, she had dropped her car keys, and had been looking for them for fifteen or twenty minutes and just couldn’t find them. She had looked all around under the light, and asked if we wouldn’t mind looking with her. So we scoured the area, but found nothing.

After a bit, I had this flash of insight, and remembered that when I lost something, my mother would have me retrace my steps as I searched for it. So, I asked the woman if she could remember when she last had the keys. She brightened, and said, “Oh, yes, I had them in my had and was getting ready to open my car door, when I dropped them.”

I must have gotten a quizzical look on my face, because I did not see a car under the light. With my last remaining shred of social work skill, I repeated, “Your car?”

And she replied, “yes, it’s parked right over there” as she pointed to a car parked a few yards away off in the shadows outside the halo of brightness from the lights.

“But, if you dropped the keys over there, why are you looking for them here?” I asked her.

She looked at me as if I was some kind of dolt, and said, “Why, silly, it’s so dark over there no one could ever find anything! I just came over here by the light were it is easier to see.”

 

Hmmm…these stories kind of make me think (once I stop laughing). Words. Of course we know what they mean. Well, at least I know what they mean to me. But when you hear them, I suspect they could mean a whole other set of meanings. “Have you found Jesus?” Have you found the meaning in your life? Who knew he was lost!

Just how often do we find ourselves searching for love in all the wrong places? Searching for something when it is right there in our hearts and homes – if only we would open our hearts and eyes and really see.

The Three Sisters and Their Husbands, Three Brothers

Since time before mind women have had to survive by wit and will. This is a fun story that I found in the book “Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales” edited by Kathleen Ragan. Ragan credits Jeremiah Curtin the author of “Tales of Fairies and the Ghost World.” Clearly it is an old Irish tale – a bit longer than most that I post here, but worth the read for sure. If you don’t have time for the full five pages, jump to the end for the last few paragraphs! They are my favorite part for sure.

 As the story goes, in the county Cork, a mile and a half from Fermoy, there lived three brothers. The three lived in one house for some years and never thought of marrying. On a certain day theywent to a fair in the town of Fermoy. There was a platform on the fair ground for dancing and a fiddler on the platform to give music to the dancers. Three sisters from the neighbourhood, handsome girls, lively and full of jokes, made over to the three brothers and asked would they dance. The youngest and middle brother wouldn’t think of dancing, but the eldest said, “We mustn’t refuse; it wouldn’t be good manners.” The three brothers danced with the girls, and after the dance took them to a public-house for refreshments.

After a white the second brother spoke up and said, “Here are three sisters, good wives for three brothers; why shouldn’t we marry? Let the eldest brother of us take the eldest sister; I will take the second; the youngest brother can have the youngest sister.”

It was settled then and there that the three couples were satisfied if the girls’ parents were. Next day the brothers went to the girls’ parents and got their consent. In a week’s time they were married.

Each of the three brothers had a good farm, and each went now to live on his own place. They lived well and happily for about ten years, when one market-day the eldest sister came to the second and asked her to go to Fermoy with her.

In those days women used to carry baskets made of willow twigs, in which they took eggs and butter to market. The second sister said she hadn’t thought of going, but she would go, and they would ask the youngest sister for her company.

All three started off, each with a basket of eggs. After they had their eggs sold in the market they lingered about for some time looking at people, as is usual with farmers’ wives. In the evening, when thinking of home, they dropped into a public-house to have a drop of drink before going. The public-house was full of people, chatting, talking, and drinking. The three sisters did not like to be seen at the bar, so they went to a room up stairs, and the eldest called for three pints of porter, which was brought without delay.

It is common for a farmer or his wife who has a ten-shilling piece or a pound, and does not wish to break it, to say, “I will pay the next time I come to town”; so the eldest sister said now. The second sister called for three pints, and then the third followed her example.

‘Tis said that women are very noisy when they’ve taken a glass or two, but whether that is true or not, these three were noisy, and their talk was so loud that Lord Fermoy, who was above in a room finishing some business with the keeper of the public-house, could not hear a thing for their chat, so he sent the landlord to tell the women to leave the room. The landlord went, and finding that they had not paid their reckoning yet, told them it was time they were paying their reckoning and moving towards home.

One of the sisters looked up and said, “The man above* will pay all. He is good for the reckoning.”

The man of the house, thinking that it was Lord Fermoy she was speaking of, was satisfied, and went up stairs.

“Have they gone?” asked Lord Fermoy.

“They have not, and they say that you will pay the reckoning.”

“Why should I pay when I don’t know them? We’ll go down and see who they are and what they mean.”

The two went down, and Lord Fermoy saw that they were tenants of his; he knew them quite well, for they lived near his own castle. He liked the sisters, they were so sharp-witted.

“I’ll pay the reckoning, and do you bring each of these women a glass of punch,” said he to the man of the house.

The punch was brought without delay.

“Here is a half sovereign for each of you,” said Lord Fermoy. “Now go home, and meet me in this place a week from to-day. Whichever one of you during that time makes the biggest fool of her husband will get ten pounds in gold and ten years rent free.”

“We’ll do our best,” said the sisters.

Each woman of them was anxious, of course, to do the best she could. They parted at the door of the public-house, each going her own way, and each thinking of what could be done to win the ten pounds and ten years’ rent.

It had happened that the eldest sister’s husband became very phthisicky and sickly a couple of years after his marriage and fell into a decline. On the way home the wife made up her mind what to do. She bought pipes, tobacco, candles, and other articles needed at a wake. She was in no hurry home, so ’twas late enough when she came to the house. When she looked in at the window she saw her husband sitting by the fire with his hand on his chin and the children asleep around him. A pot of potatoes, boiled and strained, was waiting for her.

She opened the door. The husband looked at her and asked, “Why are you so late?”

“Why are you off the table, and where are the sheets that were over you?” asked she as if in a fright; “or the shirt that I put on you? I left you laid out on the table.”

“Sure I am not dead at all. I know very well when you started to go to the market, I wasn’t dead then, and I didn’t die since you left the house.”

Then she began to abuse him, and said that all his friends were coming to the wake, and he had no right to be off the table tormenting and abusing herself and the children, and went on in such a way that at last he believed himself dead and asked her in God’s name to give him a smoke and he would go up again on the table and never come down till he was carried from it.

She gave him the pipe, but didn’t let him smoke long. Then she made him ready, put him on the table, and spread a sheet over him. Now two poles were stretched overhead above the body and sheets hung over and down on the sides, as is customary. She put beads between his two thumbs and a Prayer-book in his hands. “You are not to open your eyes,” said she, “no matter what comes or happens.” She unlocked the door then and raised a terrible wailing over the corpse. A woman living opposite heard the wailing, and said to her husband:

“Oh, it is Jack that is dead, and it is a shame for you not to go to him.”

“I was with him this evening,” said the husband, “and what could kill him since?”

The wife hurried over to Jack’s house, found the corpse in it, and began to cry. Soon there was a crowd gathered, and all crying.

The second sister going past to her own home by a short cut, heard the keening and lamenting. “This is my sister’s trick to get the £10 and ten years’ rent,” thought she, and began to wail also. When inside she pinched the dead man, and pulled at him to know would he stir; but it was no use, he never stirred.

The second sister went home then, and she was very late. Her husband was a strong, able-bodied man, and when she wasn’t there to milk the cows he walked up and down the path watching for her, and he very angry. At last he milked the cows himself, drove them out, and then sat down in the house. When the wife came he jumped up and asked, “What kept you out till this hour? ‘Twas fitter for you to be at home long ago than to be strolling about, and the Lord knows where you were.”

“How could I be here, when I stopped at the wake where you ought to be?”

“What wake?”

“Your brother’s wake. Jack is dead, poor man.”

“What the devil was to kill Jack? Sure I saw him this evening, and he’s not dead.”

He wouldn’t believe, and to convince him she said, “Come to the field and you’ll see the lights, and maybe you’ll hear the keening.”

She took him over the ditch into the field, and seeing the lights he said, “Sure my poor brother is dead!” and began to cry.

“Didn’t I tell you, you stump of a fool, that your brother was dead, and why don’t you go to his wake and go in morning? A respectable person goes in mourning for a relative and gets credit for it ever after.”

“What is mourning?” asked the husband.

“Tis well I know,” said she, “what mourning is, for didn’t my mother teach me, and I will show you.”

She brought him to the house and told him to throw off all his clothes and put on a pair of tight-fitting black knee breeches. He did so; she took a wet brush then, and reaching it up in the chimney, got plenty of soot and blacked him all over from head to foot, and he naked except the black breeches. When she had him well blackened she put a black stick in his hand. “Now,” said she, “go to the wake, and what you are doing will be a credit to the family for seven generations.”

He started off wailing and crying. Whenever a wake house is full, benches and seats are put outside, men and women sit on these benches till some of those inside go home, then those outside go in. It is common also for boys to go to wakes and get pipes and tobacco, for every one gets a pipe, from a child of three to old men and women. Some of the boys at Jack’s wake, after getting their pipes and tobacco, ran off to the field to smoke, where their parents couldn’t see them. Seeing the black man coming, the boys dropped their pipes and ran back to the wake house, screaming to the people who were sitting outside that the devil was coming to carry the corpse with him. One of the men who stood near was sharper-sighted than others, and looking in the direction pointed out, said:

“Sure the devil is coming! And people thought that Jack was a fine, decent man, but now it turns out that he was different. I’ll not be waiting here!” He took himself off as fast as his legs could carry him, and others after him.

Soon the report went into the wake house, and the corpse heard that the devil was coming to take him, but for all that he hadn’t courage to stir. A man put his head out of the house, and, seeing the black man, screamed, “I declare to God that the devil is coming!” With that he ran off, and his wife hurried after him.

That moment everybody crowded so much to get out of the house that they fell one over another, screeching and screaming. The woman of the house ran away with the others. The dead man was left alone. He opened one eye right away, and seeing the last woman hurrying off he said:

“I declare to the Lord I’ll not stay here and wait for the devil to take me!” With that he sprang from the table, and wrapped the sheet round his body, and away with him then as fast as ever his legs could carry him.

His brother, the black man, saw him springing through the door, and, thinking it was Death that had lifted his brother and was running away with him to deprive the corpse of wake and Christian burial, he ran after him to save him. When the corpse screamed the black man screamed, and so they ran, and the people in terror fell into holes and ditches, trying to escape from Death and the devil.

The third sister was later than the other two in coming home from Fermoy. She knew her husband was a great sleeper, and she could do anything with him when he was drowsy. She looked into the house through a window that opened on hinges. She saw him sitting by the fire asleep; the children were sleeping near him. A pot of potatoes was standing by the fire. She knew that she could get in at the window if she took off some of her clothes. She did so and crawled in. The husband had long hair. She cut the hair off close to his head, threw it in the fire and burned it; then she went out through the window, and, taking a large stone, pounded on the door and roused her husband at last. He opened the door, began to scold her for being out so late, and blamed her greatly.

“Tis a shame for you,” said he. “The children are sleeping on the floor, and the potatoes boiled for the last five hours.”

“Bad luck to you, you fool!” said the woman. “Who are you to be ordering me? Isn’t it enough for my own husband to be doing that?”

“Are you out of your mind or drunk that you don’t know me?” said the man. “Sure, I am your husband.”

“Indeed you are not,” said she.

“And why not?”

“Because you are not; you don’t look like him. My husband has fine long, curly hair. Not so with you; you look like a shorn wether.”

He put his hands to his head, and, finding no hair on it, cried out, “I declare to the Lord that I am your husband, but I must have lost my hair while shearing the sheep this evening. I’m your husband.”

“Be off out of this!” screamed the woman. “When my husband comes he’ll not leave you long in the house, if you are here before him.”

In those days the people used bog pine for torches and lighting fires. The man, having a bundle of bog pine cut in pieces, took some fire and went towards the field, where he’d been shearing sheep. He went out to know could he find his hair and convince the wife. When he reached the right place he set fire to a couple of pine sticks, and they made a fine blaze. He went on his knees and was searching for the hair. He searched the four corners of the field, crawling hither and over, but if he did not a lock of hair could he find. He went next to the middle of the field, dropped on his knees, and began to crawl around to know could he find his hair. While doing this he heard a terrible noise of men, and they running towards him, puffing and panting. Who were they but the dead man and the devil? The dead man was losing his breath and was making for the first light before him. He was in such terror that he didn’t see how near he was to the light, and tumbled over the man who was searching for his hair.

“Oh, God help me!” cried the corpse. “I’m done for now!”

Hearing his brother’s voice, the black man, who was there, recognised him. The man looking for the hair rose up, and seeing his brothers, knew them; then each told the others everything, and they saw right away that the whole affair was planned by their wives.

The husbands went home well fooled, shame-faced, and angry. On the following day the women went to get the prize. When the whole story was told it was a great question who was to have the money. Lord Fermoy could not settle it himself, and called a council of the gentry to decide, but they could not decide who was the cleverest woman. What the council agreed on was this: To make up a purse of sixty pounds, and give twenty pounds and twenty years’ rent to each of the three, if they all solved the problem that would be put to them. If two solved it they would get thirty pounds apiece and thirty years’ rent; if only one, she would get the whole purse of sixty pounds and rent free for sixty years.

“This is the riddle,” said the council to the sisters: “There are four rooms in a row here; this is the first one. We will put a pile of apples in the fourth room; there will be a man of us in the third, second, and first room. You are to go to the fourth room, take as many apples as you like, and when you come to the third room you are to give the man in it half of what apples you’ll bring, and half an apple without cuffing it. When you come to the second room you are to do the same with what apples you will have left. In the first room you will do the same as in the third and second. Now we will go to put the apples in the fourth room, and we’ll give each of you one hour to work out the problem.”

“It’s the devil to give half an apple without cutting it,” said the elder sister.

When the men had gone the youngest sister said, “I can do it and I can get the sixty pounds, but as we are three sisters I’ll be liberal and divide with you. I’ll go first, and let each come an hour after the other. Each will take fifteen apples, and when she comes to the man in the third room she will ask him how much is one-half of fifteen; he will say seven and a half. She will give him eight apples then and say: “This is half of what I have and half an apple uncut for you.” With the seven apples she will go to the second room and ask the man there what is one-half of seven; he wilt say three and a half. She will give him four apples and say, “Here are three apples and a half and the half of an uncut apple for you.” With three apples left she will go to the man in the first room and ask what is the half of three. He will answer, “One and a half.” “Here are two apples for you,” she will say then; “one apple and a half and the half of an uncut apple.”

The eldest and second sister did as the youngest told them. Each received twenty pounds and twenty years’ rent.

Getting to the Other Shore

Spring is coming to New Jersey and to the good sisters of the Cloister of Mother Magdalene. Well, at least the promise of spring seems to be on the horizon. The snow, the snow that perpetually blanketed the ground from December until April, has melted. The crocuses and snow drops are beginning to grace the landscape, and robins are once again dancing in the grass as they search out worms, berries and larvae. Life is re-emerging once again. Good is alive, hope is afoot. And so too is Sister Visentia afoot. She has been feeling a bit cramped in the cloister these long months, and the rolling hills of Hunterdon now beckon her to exploration.

So on a lovely spring day in early May, Sister Visentia set out for a bit of a walk and she found herself along the banks of the south branch of the Raritan River. Now, it’s true the Raritan is not a thundering water course. It is not so wide as to be un-fordable, but after the winter snow melt and the heavy spring rains, it can be formidable. As she strolled along the river, lost in the details of flora and fauna, the smells of spring, the softness of the earth covered in composing leaves, Sister Visentia looked up newly aware that she was unaware of quite where she was. To the right and the left, she saw no way across the river as it roiled past her. As she stared at the Raritan, it became an insurmountable obstacle in front of her. She could not fathom how she was going to get across it. Good Sister Visentia was just about to give up on the idea of fording the river, when she saw someone walking on the other side of the river. Sister Visentia called out to her, “hello there, can you tell me please how to get to the other side of the river?”

The stranger looked up, smiled, and said, “My daughter, you are already on the other shore.”

Sister Visentia heard this and started to smile, then she began to laugh, and soon the two strangers were laughing together so hard that they were weeping and their sides were aching.

As their laughter subsided, the stranger began to chant, “Gate (gah-tay) gate para gate parasamgate bodhi swaha!”

Sister Visentia looked across the water to the stranger, who began to laugh again, and said, “it is a Buddhist chant from the Heart Sutra, which can be translated ‘Gone, gone, gone to the Other Shore, attained the Other Shore having never left.’ Good Sister, you have gone out in search of spring and have stumbled upon enlightenment. Please accept my invitation to pause for a few moments and re-collect yourself. Now is a lovely moment to pause and ponder. Take care to wonder at the world through which you wander!”

At that moment Visentia realized that there was nowhere else to go but inside herself. There she would find comfort, insight, and the wealth of wisdom hard earned and gently nurtured. Visentia gave thanks for this moment of equanimity, for the time she had taken to wander the occasional detour and side road, for the time she had wasted on the roses in her life.

And as she sighed deeply, the stranger waved to her once more and said, “if you meet the Buddha on the road . . .” and the stranger disappeared, and Visentia laughed once more. Indeed, she had always already crossed to the other shore.

Blaming an Empty Boat

During the rumspringa that marked the transition moment after entering as a postulant and before being accepted as a novice, Sister Bridget was in a rowboat on Round Valley Reservoir.  It was a lovely late spring afternoon. The sky was emerald blue, with a few billowy clouds floating by, just enough to invite a bit of day dreaming to envision the clouds as castles and a dragon drifting above her.  Bridget was lost in her thoughts, contemplating the decisions that were just ahead of her in her progress towards becoming a full member of the cloister. The day was calm, water in the reservoir was crystal clear and smooth as a mirror. Bridget inhaled deeply basking in the peacefulness of the moment, of the day.

But then she looked up, and to her surprise saw another boat on the reservoir heading right toward her. She waved her arms and shouted, “Look out! Hey watch where you are going! Hey, hey, I’m here! Watch out!”  But the people in the other boat just ignored her. Her frustration growing, Bridget tried desperately to paddle out of the way. But the boat just kept coming at her. She kept shouting and paddling, but the boat just kept coming.  The other boat rammed right into her little row boat, and knocked Bridget into the water.

Now Bridget is cold and wet. Her borrowed row boat looked a bit damaged. The peace and serenity of her day is in ruins. As she flails in the water trying to drag herself back into the row boat without capsizing it, she continues to shout at the people in the other boat, “what’s the matter with you! What were you thinking!! Why don’t you watch were you are going?!? I just don’t understand how some people can be so inconsiderate.”

Finally Bridget gets herself back into her row boat, and is able to see that the other boat is empty. The person she has been so incensed with is no one at all.  And Bridget’s anger and frustration instantly turn to concern for the owner of the boat.  With a shift in her thoughts, anger dissolves into concern and compassion and Bridget begins to scan the waters for a body without a boat.  Off a short distance, Bridget sees someone splashing in the water waving an oar.  And she manages to stop the motor on the other boat, tie it to the stern of her row boat and to paddle over to collect the woman who is overboard.  Together they restore the other woman to her boat, and each of them finds her way back to her own maritime meanderings.

And Bridget is left thinking about how easy it was to feel personally affronted and to cast blame, insult and injury on an empty boat. And she found herself wondering how often when she thought she was on terra firma finding fault she was actually a bit loose from her moorings casting blame where there was none to be had.

If we are going to be fair and just, before we shower blame on another, it might indeed be better to first be sure there is someone in the other boat, and even then to walk a mile or so in their shoes.

A Fable about Salt and Love

 

Once upon a time there was a land that was ruled by man who was both king and father. The king had three daughters and loved them each in turn. As he watched them moving through his castle and court yards, the king noticed that while he love each of his daughters, he loved each of his daughters somewhat differently. He began to wonder about this odd quality of love. Being a king as well as a father, the king had also recently begun to wonder about which of his daughters he would entrust with his kingdom. And so one day he summoned the three young women to him, and he asked each of them how they loved him.  

 

 “My dearest king and father,” replied Elizabeth Barrett, the oldest daughter, “I love you to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, I love you more than words can express.”  The king and father was filled with joy and was very pleased when he heard these words from his eldest daughter.

 

Bonny Anne, the middle daughter said, “I love you like the sun that gives us light and warmth and life. I love you more than my heart can hold.”  And now too the king and father was filled with joy and was very pleased when he heard these words from his Bonny Anne.  Then he turned to Salannia, his youngest daughter and asked her to tell him how much she loved him.

 

“Dear father, my king,” she answered, “I love you as much as salt . . .”

 

Before Salannia could continue the king, overcome with disappointment and dismay, interrupted her and shouted, “As salt! You say you love me like salt! The most common and simple spice in my kingdom! If only you might have said saffron, which is rare and precious, or honey, which is sweet, I would have been pleased! But salt! That is the same thing as saying that you do not love me at all!”

 

In his anger the king had Salannia ushered out the door and he banned her from ever appearing before him again. The king then proclaimed Elizabeth Barrett, his eldest daughter, would be heir to the throne.  When Bonny Anne, the middle daughter, learned of this, she was outraged that her father neglected to establish a role of power for her within the kingdom, and she set out to sea and became a pirate queen of the oceans.

 

And Salannia, the youngest daughter, left the kingdom in sadness. She walked for days and days, and eventually she came to another castle where she secured a job in the kitchen.  In a short time Salannia’s skill became known throughout the castle. Her reputation as a chef was recognized by the servants and by the Lord of the castle himself, and soon she became the head chef. 

 

And life went on in the kingdom with each of the daughters taking up her new life responsibilities and becoming ever more sure of herself in the world. After a time the Lord’s of the castle where Salannia was head chef announced that son was to be married. All the Lords and Ladies from the neighboring lands were invited to the feast, and of course Salannia’s father was to be among the guests. Salannia and her staff worked for days to prepare the feast. As they cooked, Salannia saw to it that only she prepared the foods that were to be served to her father – and she ensured that not a touch, not a hint, not one grain of salt came near the food that her father was to eat.

 

Course after course of sumptuous foods were served to the guests. All of the guests praised the excellence of the food, one after another proclaiming that they had never tasted food as delicious as that which they enjoyed that evening. All the guests, that is, except Salannia’s father. He alone could hardly swallow a bite of the food, while the food was beautiful to look at, it was very nearly inedible. When he heard the other guests reveling in the brilliance of the dishes, he could contain himself no longer and demanded to speak to the cook. “What have you done to my food? It looks wonderful, but it has no flavor or taste? I cannot even bear to swallow it.!

 

“My dearest king and father,” Salannia replied, “You exiled me from your home when I told you that I loved you as much as salt. And so today you have no salt in your food. Just as the food at this feast is dull and pointless without salt, so too my life is dull and meaningless without you.”

 

As he heard these words from his daughter, the king relented and repented. He begged his daughter to forgive him, and he welcomed her back home, where he established her as co-queen with his eldest daughter. And together they ruled happily ever after.

 

 

 

And what does all of this have to do with justice? If justice is fairness – and it may well be much more than that, but it is at least that – then fairness and respect require listening carefully to each other. Fairness and respect require hearing the full meaning of what each person means to say, and then pausing long enough to understand the meaning of what each person is saying from within their own context. At least that if we will be worth our own salt, if we mean to be the salt of the earth, otherwise we will just be rubbing salt in each other’s wounds 😉

 

Forest Gump, Saint Peter, Authenticity and Truth

Life and death are grave matters, but that does not mean that we should necessarily always and everywhere take them or ourselves too serious. And yet, all things quickly pass away, even our most beloved Forest Gump. And so it came to be that gentle Forest Gump, with box of chocolates and small suitcase in hand, following a drifting feather found himself at the Pearly Gates. And there, larger than life was Saint Peter waiting to greet him.

The gates behind Saint Peter were closed, but Peter warmly greeted Forest, “Welcome, Forest! It is good to see you. We’ve heard a lot about you, and have enjoyed following your adventures. But, I need to let you know that there have been some new administrative changes here, and we are now requiring everyone to pass an entrance exam before they can pass through the Pearly Gates. The test is short, but you have to pass it before you can get into heaven.

Forrest smiled offered Saint Peter a chocolate from his box, and said, “Well, Saint Peter, I am indeed happy to be here. I didn’t know nothin’ about an entrance exam. I certainly do hope it is not too hard. Life was kinda hard as it was, a good bit of a test right there is you ask me.”

Saint Peter thoughtfully chose a chocolate, bit into it, savored the flavor, and continued, “Forrest, thank you very much for the chocolate. We don’t get much of that here. It is a most pleasurable treat. And the test is a short one, only three questions. The first question is, what two days of the week begin with the letter T?”

Forrest sad down on his suitcase, thought for a moment, and then responded, “Why sir, I do believe that I know the answer to that one, it is Today and Tomorrow.”

Saint Peter chewed on his lower lip to hold back a smile, thought about it, started to say something, thought for a second more, and then said, “Well, Forest, you are not wrong. So, then you must be right. Good for you. And now the second question, how many seconds are there in a year?”

Forrest was a bit taken aback at this question. He furrowed his brow, sat deep in thought for a bit and then smiled and said, “Ah, Saint Peter, there are twelve seconds, of that I am certain.”

Saint Peter’s eyes fluttered, he involuntarily took half a step back, and asked, “Forest, how in Heaven did you come up with twelve seconds to fill a whole year?”

Forrest said, “Well, when you first asked me the question I was kind of scared by it ‘cause I’m not that good with numbers but then it just sort of came to me, there is January second, February second, March second, April second.”

Saint Peter interrupted Forrest and said, “OK, Forrest, I see where you are going. That is not quite what I had in mind. But your explanation is cogent and coherent, and so I will count that answer as correct also. Now, Forrest the third question is the most difficult, and the most important. So please take your time and think about it carefully before you answer.”

Forrest assured Saint Peter that he would indeed be thoughtful in his response. He suggested that maybe they should both have a chocolate to prepare themselves. Saint Peter gladly agreed, and when they each finished savoring the sweet, Saint Peter asked Forrest, “What is God’s first name?”

Forrest leapt up off his suitcase, set his box of chocolates on top of it, hugged Saint Peter, and said, “Well Saint Peter, that’s the easiest of all your questions! God’s first name is sure enough ‘Andy’ I just know it.”

Saint Peter looked ashen and positively startled, even as a half smile peeked out under his beard. “Forrest, how do you know that God’s first name is Andy?”

Forrest replied, “Well, Saint Peter that just is no secret at all. Every Sunday in Sunday school when I was young and now often enough on a Sunday in church we all sing the song with God’s name:

Andy walks with me,
Andy talks with me,
Andy tells me I’m his own.”

And Saint Peter threw open the Pearly Gates and said, “Run, Forest, run. Welcome home!”

 

A dear friend shared this story with me the other day. Her pastor used it as part of his sermon to highlight the importance and value of being true to ourselves – authenticity. And indeed, if we will build a world where justice prevails and human dignity is respected, then we first need to know and respect ourselves. We need to be comfortable enough with ourselves to simply be ourselves where ever we are, who ever we are with. I do believe that reciprocal warmth, authenticity and genuineness are core elements of respectful relationships.

And, as I thought about the story, I found myself peeling back another layer as well – a truthfulness layer. I found myself thinking about epistemology – how do we know what is true, what is truthful, what is an accurate representation of what we believe to be reality? Clearly Saint Peter knew the answers he was expecting to the three questions he posed. And, yet, he was open to recognizing the veracity of Forrest Gump’s responses within the context that Forrest presented. And for me that is the heart of the story – the delightful caution to take care to wonder at the world through which we wander; to never to too absolutely sure that we know the one and only truth. Let us all wander through this wonderful world with open and generous hearts, minds and hands.

Do you have a banana in your ear?

There is a saying: don’t try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it irritates the pig. Which I think is supposed to mean don’t try to make people happy (or different in most any other way, you will only get in trouble).

There was a social worker who went into a bar, she sits down and sees this woman with a banana in her ear – a banana in her ear of all things! So, the social worker wonders if she should mention it to her. She thinks to herself, I’m off work, it really is none of my business. But the thought nags at her. So, after a couple of glasses of wine, she says to the woman, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to intrude, but, I can’t help but notice you’ve got a banana in your ear.”

The woman responds, “what?”

And the social worker repeats, “You’ve got a banana in your ear.”

And again the woman responds, “what did you say?”

The social worker shouts, “You’ve got a banana in your ear!”

And the woman replies, “Talk louder, I’ve got a banana in my ear.”

And sometimes our efforts to build a world of social justice and human rights feel a whole lot like that conversation.  So, remember the injunction to remember that nothing human is alien to any of us. Well, applied here, that seems to me to suggest that we all may very well have a banana in our ears. So, before we take the splinter from our neighbor’s eye, maybe we should take the banana from our own ear. Maybe we need to pause and truly listen, to hear the needs of our neighbors in their own terms before we ‘fix’ their world?