Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Wisdom of a Child's Book

Here’s a familiar scenario. You’re about to practice your piano, put the final changes on a scrapbook project, work on that story you began so long ago, or complete the half-painted portrait in the basement, the one you promised yourself would be done by spring. You’re about to start any of these or some other creative project for which you never have time, when you remember that the garage is messy or the laundry’s unfolded or the crisper in your fridge hasn’t been scrubbed in weeks. You do the ‘responsible’ thing, of course, and sacrifice art to practicality.

          It’s sad and disconcerting when any of us, upon hearing his or her muse, turns a deaf ear and marches to the drum of duty. But it’s tragic to abandon her for the mundane, the banal, and the ridiculous. I’ve struggled with these choices myself, through the years. Opting at times to clean a closet, alphabetize my CDs, or organize my sock drawer rather than write. I’ve read and listened to many learned people and motivational speakers on this topic, who offered interesting and helpful advice. But sometimes inspiration comes from an unexpected source.

          Many years ago, when my daughter, Amanda, was a little girl, I received a surprising revelation from a book we read together, Norton Juster’s  The Phantom Tollbooth, The protagonist, Milo, in Juster’s classic, finds everything boring and seems to have lost his zest for life at the ripe old age of ten.  However, all that changes when he discovers adventure and excitement, after entering through a mysterious portal to another world—the eponymous Tollbooth. There, Tock, the time obsessed dog, and Humbug, a life-sized but harmless insect, join him. They always find the cloud behind the silver lining. The trio set out to rescue the twin princess, Rhyme and Reason, who are imprisoned in The Castle in the Air.

          We read this short but powerful book once through, just for the story, and then discussed several key points in it, as was our practice, and we both had an Aha moment . We discussed the value of puns and considered a question from the book: which is of greater value, words, or numbers? (It turns out they’re equally important, something we had suspected all along.)

 The most enlightening lesson for me came at the next to last chapter when Milo and his companions must overcome the final obstacle of their quest.

          To find The Castle in the Air and save Rhyme and Reason, they must climb the treacherous Mountain of Ignorance. Along their ascent, they encounter a host of demons, each with his own particularly nasty talent and an equally nasty trick up his sleeve. Offering to assist our faithful trio in navigating a difficult mountain pass, the demon, Trivium, convinces them to perform several useless tasks; Milo, to move a huge pile of dirt, one teaspoonful at a time; Humbug, to carve a hole through a stone wall with a needle.

          After three days, Milo realizes how little progress he and his friends have made, calculating that, at the rate Humbug was tunneling through the stone wall, he would eventually breakthrough in a little over 8,000 years! With the revelation that they had been hoodwinked, they immediately abandon their useless efforts. But before resuming their mission to rescue Rhyme and Reason, they have a talk with their nemesis.

          “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit,” he declared. When Milo asks Trivium why he tried to persuade him and his friends to complete the tedious tasks, the ogre replied, “Think of all the trouble it saves. If you do only the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about facing the important ones which are so difficult.” (Like climbing mountains and rescuing princesses.)

          Finally, the demon discovers and is angered by Milo’s secret weapon, the source of his common sense. After he had reached a point of incredible boredom and frustration, Milo used the pencil given to him by the Mathemagician--a Wiseman who uses math to cast useful spells-- to calculate the combined progress and hours worked, disappointing the ogre.

           “If you hadn’t used that dreadful wand to count how much time had passed,” he said to Milo, “you’d never know how much you’d wasted.” 

          Here’s some sound advice for Milo, Tock, Humbug, and the rest of us, for all who are engaged in important work, missions, or quests:  Keep using magic instrument. We all have one. It’s called a clock. Of course, we all must clean the garage, scrub the crisper, and even organize the sock drawer sometimes. But it’s so easy to lose track of time, to become lost in the trivial and separated from our dreams. Before we spend eight thousand years tunneling through a stone canyon with a needle, we need to check the time and measure how much we’ve lost.

          Milo, Tock, and Humbug eventually rescued Rhyme and Reason, left the Mountains of Ignorance, and finally made their way to the Kingdom of Wisdom, a place towards which we should continually strive, often stopping for sustenance and inspiration at our own castles in the Air.