A Parable

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton was my absolute favorite book as a kid. I think I’ve read it thousands of times. I could spend all day staring at those pictures.

For a long time, I’ve simply enjoyed it as a charming tale. Until today.

It started out innocently enough. I picked it up to read to my younger guy in the morning. Sometimes it’s easier to wake the boys if I do it by reading them a book. They’ll get interested in what I’m saying and sit up without me having to nag them. But I digress.

There was Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne, the great team that they were. Mike, the operator, loved Mary Anne, his steam shovel, and together they worked to build and modernize the world.

Until something better came along. The gasoline and diesel shovels came in, and our heroes were out of business. Rather than go with a newer machine, Mike stuck with Mary Anne. Mike Mulligan – he’s a pretty good guy, I guess. For the story, though, I’m thinking that it’s his loyalty to MA that held him back.

Then along came Popperville, the village that needed the cellar of their new town hall dug. Enter Mike Mulligan, who claimed that he and Mary Anne can dig the cellar in just one day. Just one day!? How can that be? It would take a hundred men at least a week to accomplish that. (What’s that Mike Mulligan doing, making claims for such rapid change? He’s making it sound so easy. Ever work for somebody like that?)

The next morning, the two set to work. Of course, they work faster and better the more people come and watch. (Everyone likes an audience.) And even though some folks – especially Henry B. Swap – were rooting against the two, Mike and Mary Anne enjoyed the attention.

Faster and faster they worked, digging and digging until the last rays of the sun disappeared along with the puffs of smoke from Mary Anne’s engine.

The good news: They’ve dug the hole for the town cellar.

The bad news: They’ve done it too fast; they forgot to dig themselves a way out.

Mike and Mary Anne worked fast and furious. They knew they had to, or they’d be sent home knowing they didn’t have what it took. And you know what? They thought they were helping. They thought they were making progress. So did I, for the first three thousand times I read this book. Today, though, I saw that all they did was dig a big old hole that they couldn’t get out of. And all the rest of them could do was sit around and watch. Ya read me?

Here’s the thing. All these years, I’ve been rooting for Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne. But once I start to think about the Mikes and Mary Annes in my own life, I start to get irritated.

C’mon. Admit. How many of you have Mike and Mary Annes in your life?

In politics?

In the workplace?

So everybody watched as Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne sat stuck in their hole. Everybody had a plan, and everybody argued. Isn’t that the way it happens when we’re trying to get unstuck?

Really, when you think about it, Mary Anne was the one with the problem. She was obsolete, and she knew it. All Mike had to do was call for a ladder and leave MA behind – a mess for somebody else to take care of. She was lucky he was the type of guy with a fierce sense of loyalty.

Thank heavens for the little boy, who proposed simply building the new town hall around Mary Anne, and making her into the furnace. It worked for Mike, it worked for Mary Anne, and it worked for everybody involved.

It started me wondering. What on earth could get my Mikes and Mary Annes out of the holes they’ve dug around me? What idea could possibly help solve the problems and give purpose? I wanted to be that little boy, piping up amidst the chaos with a clear way out.

But maybe it’s not a single idea that saves anybody. Maybe what we need is not one thought that wraps everything up in a little bow. After all, it was one brief idea that got everyone into their mess.

Maybe what I’m looking for is simply what the little boy had: common sense, creativity and a new vision for the way things should be.

THAT’S what gets us out of the holes we’ve dug.

3 Responses to “A Parable”

  1. Sue Says:

    and in your love for the tale, your boys see your admiration for the little boy who is not afraid to speak up, for Mike who will not leave Mary Ann behind, for Mary Ann who will not go quietly into that place for the obsolete.
    they hear in your voice, as you read aloud, your passion for what is right. you shine a light on their path. such good men they will be.
    thanks to you, the mom who sits quietly at their bedside in the mornings and wakes them with story.

  2. Pat Says:

    You got me thinkin’ with this one once again Lainie! It’s also a parable of the I Can’ts and I Won’ts who refuse to move forward with new ideas. They also keep digging a deeper hole for themselves that will be difficult to get out of. Although not always a good idea to jump on the bandwagon of every new concept, when you’re the last man standing in aversion, you’re doomed.

  3. Carolyn Stearns Says:

    Could we have that little fellow go stand by the Gulf and tell the Oil people how to stop the flow and clean up the mess they’ve made. Could a voice of common sense and creativity is certainly needed there. Could it be that deep sea drilling is outdated and the answer to many of our problems is glaring in our eyes. Hmmm 2010 Mike Mulligan and the Solar Powered CIty Hall

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