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Guest Writer


The four questions
by James Gill

never was much for Christmas.

When I was five, I was told Santa used the chimney to deliver presents. When I pointed out we didn't have a chimney, my mom, always a quick thinker, said Santa just used the front door. When I then pointed out that
our door had three locks and we had two German shepherds, she just shrugged and said, "he's got a key."

That's when I knew Santa wasn't real because, in our house in the inner city of Cleveland, you didn't give anybody keys to your house, especially a stranger who was going to come in at night and mess with stuff. I left him cookies and milk that year anyway.

When I found them the next morning, I knew that "Santa" hadn't been able to get past the two deadbolts and lock. He'd passed me by, but somehow still got the presents under the tree. I knew I was being tricked.

When I was nine, we lived in a big, rambling old house in West Virginia with a fireplace, a wood-burning kitchen stove, a barn and an outhouse out back, right at the edge of a hill that dropped steeply down to a creek. I loved it, except at night when it would get dark, that country-dark where there are no street or city lights and you can't see your hand in front of your face.

For our only Christmas there we had almost no money and all I could think of to give my mom was a flashlight, because she complained about going to the outhouse at night. So, I went to Woolworth's in Spencer and got a big, orange flashlight and a painted plaster picture of Jesus that cost 50 cents, spending all but 25 cents of my four-dollar budget.

Mom told me she loved the flashlight and I was so excited about it that I made her open it on Christmas Eve. Soon I had to visit the outhouse and, of course, wanted to use the new flashlight. I pointed it all over as I walked the hundred feet or so, watching out for the ghosts that were known to inhabit the area, particularly around holidays.

I left the light on while I went about my business. As I was pulling up my pants, I saw the light suddenly flip toward the ceiling, then disappear. Looking down, I saw a glow coming from the one place in an outhouse you don't want to see a glow coming from.

Sure enough, I'd knocked it in. Way in.

I don't know what I was more afraid of: having to walk back to the house in the pitch black, or having to tell mom that her new orange flashlight was going to be illuminating our two-seater from the inside for a while. As I jogged back to the house I reminded myself – at least she still had the painted plaster Jesus.

I've thought about that flashlight many times over the years. But mostly, I remember what it was like to have almost nothing at all and not feel poor. I made toys out of what I found, climbed trees, fought wars, found wild strawberries and learned about the facts of life from a patient girl in a hayloft. Christmas was not a big deal, because I didn't expect much; the tree and decorations were pretty amazing by themselves.

I heard the other day the average kid these days has about 1,000 toys, if you count up all the parts. I think when I was nine I had three – a pocketknife, a Lincoln Log set and a BB gun that never really worked. It always seemed best to be able to carry all your toys so you could use them wherever you were. Having too many meant you had to leave some behind and it was too hard to choose what to take. You had to be able to take them all.

The past few years, as I go through this strange mid-life crisis of simplifying life and getting rid of all the things I've accumulated – the toys, the excess clothes, computer junk, gadgets, unused furniture, unread books, old magazines – I realize that all I really want is a pocketknife. And my Lincoln Log set. And in place of the BB gun maybe, well ... my guitar. This other stuff never meant much anyway and only distracted me from what I needed to be doing.

But one final Christmas thought:

I saw a movie last week. Maybe you've heard of it – "Don Juan de Marco." The plot isn't important, or even the ending. Don Juan, the self-styled "greatest lover in the world," grows tired of the questions his interviewer keeps asking, and so sums things up for him.

There are only four questions of value in life, Don Octavio:

What is Sacred?
Of what is the Spirit made?
What is worth Living for? and
What is worth Dying for?

The answer to each is the same: only Love!

As simple as it sounds, I think he got it right.


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