SAILING AGAINST THE WIND

We are about to be finished with the month of February here in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. It has been a month of snow, snow and more snow–my home on Clemens Road still has piles three feet high around the driveway! Between the labors of shoveling I’ve been working on a set of stories that explore the Jungian idea of archetype. I will not venture a professional definition of an archetype, but I will offer my own understanding. An archetype is an influence, an energy that directs our lives in unconscious ways. The influence is not generated through personal experiences; it wells up from the collective unconscious without our always being aware of the ways it influences us. It is only when we pause to reflect on our lives that we can begin to identify the energy and understand its influence. I’ve been reflecting on the archetypes that have influenced my life and trying to share them through the medium of story.

We all have many archetypal influences on our lives. I will share just one of my influences, one of my sources of energy in this writing. Jungian analysts call this archetype variously: “the rebel”, “the contrarian”, and “the outlaw”. I will suggest several ways that this energy has influenced my life both positively and negatively.

First positive: I started my school education in a one-room country school. From this first grade beginning I discovered that I had problems with reading books–particularly when I was called upon to read aloud. As a six year old child, I was made to feel inferior to those who could read well. It would be nearly thirty years before I understood my problems with dyslexia–but it was my contrarian energy that refused to accept the opinions of others about my intelligence; and in particular, I developed an antagonism toward teachers. Eventually I earned two college degrees–Bachelors in Anthropology and Masters of Divinity–but I never had a favorite teacher. It was always a struggle, but my rebel, contrarian energy supported me.

Second positive: When I graduated from the seminary, it seemed proper and right that I should be ordained and work in the Church. I know this would have made my parents happy. Instead of going to work as a minister, I took a job working in a steel mill! My contrarian self reasoned that I could earn a living working eight hours a day, five days a week, and the rest of my time I would be free to begin creating stories!

Negative: The bad thing about being the contrarian, the rebel, is that you find it difficult to deal with authority and bureaucracy–somewhere in my writing I’ve called myself the “Cut and Run Kid”. During the thirty-five years that I earned a living as an oral storyteller, I was a contract performer, do the job and go home. I was never offered work with benefits for an institution or a company. Multiple times I started a working relationship with an organization, but for a variety of reasons these relationships ended. Often it was my contrarian nature that caused the ending.

I have no regrets about the way that my life has played out–what Jung would calls your “individuation”. I have tried to direct my life by listening to the wisdom shared by the unconscious. Just last night I had a dream where I was trying to explain how you could sail across America–in my family there were many stories about members traveling from Pennsylvania to California to start a new life. In my dream, a man called out, “YOU CAN’T SAIL AGAINST THE WIND!”

When I woke up and remembered the dream, I thought: ‘What was that all about?’ After a short time of contemplation I recognize that my unconscious was commented on, reminding me of my archetypal nature, to be the contrarian, the rebel, the outlaw who is always trying to sail against the wind….thank you Grandpa Jung for this understanding!

 Now I better check to see if more snow has fallen while I’ve been sailing against the wind!

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Creating Home…a place to be

In this Christmas season of 2020 I am thinking of my home that I shared happily with my wife Nancy who died last year. I am also thinking about sharing my home with Susan Scott, the woman who I hope will marry me in the next year. Is it a good idea to start a new life together with Susan in the house that I shared with Nancy? Many advise against it.

Here is my problem: I love my home that I have created on Clemens Road. I will admit I am a homebody. My life’s work as a creator of stories has dictated that I spent many hours in a quiet place where my imagination is free to be…to explore the world of ideas! This means a room where I spend hours reading and writing. It means an outdoor environment where I can go when my ideas need some time to percolate. This house and property on Clemens Road has been my support for a creative life for more than twenty-three years.

This place was not a home when Nancy and I found it. Yes, there were several things I liked when we made a first visit. The house does not face the road and it is surrounded with trees and bushes that provide a sense of privacy. Because the garage is closest to the road, the house does not present its best face to those passing by….it is an understated presentation and that appeals to me.

When Nancy and I bought the house, it had not been loved by the previous owner…that was my feeling when I first saw it…but there was great potential. The living room had a big window that looked out to a private backyard. The window was floor to ceiling and twelve feet wide. The room was large enough to host a large gathering of people for storytelling and music. The backyard had a terrace area with a tree near the house. I imagine the lower lawn as a place for outdoor performances with the storytellers and musicians standing on the upper terrace to perform. Because Nancy was a musician and I am a storyteller, we both imagined our home as a place where people could gather for enjoyment of these arts.

Like the inside of the house, the outside did not feel like a place that was loved by the previous owner. One spring day, shortly after we bought the place, I found myself looking at the tree outside the big window. It was a magnolia tree and it was in full bloom with a covering of reddish blossoms. Suddenly I remembered a passage from the memoir (Memories, Dreams, Reflections) of my spiritual mentor, Carl Jung. He describes in his memoir a dream that formed his concept of individuation. In the dream he sees a magnolia tree that displays a “shower of reddish blossoms”–the center of the self, the place where we discover our sense of who we truly are and what we must become in this world!

This synchronicity between the world of my spiritual mentor and my own world was the beginning of making the house on Clemens Road into my home. My magnolia tree needed much tender care and more than a little repair to equal the Jung dream tree. The tree had scars where large limbs had been roughly trimmed, one branch still rested on the roof of the house. The ground around the tree was bare and muddy. No one had paid much attention to the wellbeing of this magnolia tree.

I decided that summer to honor the Jung magnolia. I built a low, brick retainer wall around the tree–my representation of a Jungian mandala. Inside the wall I planted flowers with the tree at the center. Under the rest of the tree’s canopy I laid a brick and stone patio where we could eat meals in the warm months of the year. On the side away from the eating patio I made a smaller mandala of stone and concrete with these words in it: Vocatus Atque, Non Vocatus Deus Aderit (bidden or unbidden, God is here). Jung had these words carved in the wood over the door of his own home. From that first year the magnolia tree has shaded many happy summer meals on Clemens Road. It is lighted in the winter Christmas Season and has a feeder for birds year around. This tree has become part of my life and I believe it shares with me a similar feeling.

This home on Clemens Road has hosted many, many gatherings over the past twenty-three years. In the winter there were Christmas parties with twenty to thirty people gathered in the big living room to listen to stories and music by the fireplace. In the summer Nancy and I hosted every year over fifty people for a summer backyard storytelling festival…and every summer night we enjoyed a meal under the protection of the Jung magnolia tree….even nights when a rain shower came up suddenly, we continued to eat under our protector!

So am I wrong in hoping that Susan might want to come share my home on Clemens Road? I know that she, like Nancy, loves to host gatherings of friends and family. Like Nancy, she is musically talented and enjoys sharing her music with others. I think she would enjoy continuing the Clemens Road tradition of hosting gathering as long as we are both physically able…we both recognized that age will eventually limit our ability to continue this tradition.

My hope to share my home with a new partner does come with a few cautions. I say to Raymond Lowell: You need to allow Susan the freedom to make the changes in your home that she needs to make it her home. Raymond, you don’t have to forget your love of Nancy, but you do have to learn how to see that love as a model for the new love you will create and share with Susan. Growing old and living a long and happy life requires the ability to change while still honoring the past.

The decision to make the house on Clemens Road into the home of Susan and Raymond has not been made. This reflection is simple part of the process for two people to make a decision about their future together. I pray to God that that we are given time to enjoy wherever we decide to live.


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A Time Between Times

 Stories, for me, grow out of the life that I am living. A couple of weeks ago, I met with my community of men who are all storytellers. I shared with them my process of discernment about my new relationship with Susan Scott. I talked about my feelings of love for this woman, but I questioned whether a man my age should be in love. One of the men laughed heartily as he said: “Man, stop thinkin’ and listen to your heart…you love the woman!” Afterwards, I thought about the relationship between “heart” and “mind” and how they both have an influence on our lives. This led me to begin working on the story I would like to share, “A Time Between Times”.

This story theme is not new for me. I wrote another version of the story thirty years ago. This version focuses on a single main character–Arrd, a pubescent boy–who struggles with the influence of mind and heart. Also in the story, is the idea of a “liminal state” that helps us to explore the relationship between dreams of the night and the reality of the day. This liminal state is necessary for Arrd to explore his relationship with a dragon!

My interest in the place of dragons in the human story is related to my interest in death that was explored in the last blog. As I said in that blog, the death of my wife, Nancy, led me to search for the positive that balances the negatives that come to us in life. Dragons are another subject that our western culture has tended to see in a negative light. This story is my attempt to present a different perspective–to balance the negative and positive in life. I hope you enjoy the story

                                                          A TIME BETWEEN TIMES

There once lived a boy in a time between times. His name was Arrd and his world held strong beliefs in the power of good and evil spirits, curses and cures that were common in every village. Even a lock of hair could be used to call down an evil spirit by a savvy practitioner, so people were careful not to leave one about. Likewise, a word spoken in prayer to the good spirits was believed to have power to heal the body. Yet in Arrd’s time few people still believed in the reality of dragons, as they had in the past. These compelling spirits had been reduced to imaginary characters in stories shared to frighten young children into proper behavior. The path to the Blue Mountains, where the dragons lived, was choked with the growth of new ideas. Soon this path would be lost forever.

The village called Nestore was home to Arrd. It was a gathering of earth-colored cottages huddled on the south bank of the rushing, dark water called Allegewa. This river traveled west from the Blue Mountains, past the village and on to a world unknown by the people of Nestore. Few villagers tested the strong currents. Most were happy to farm the bottom land along the river and live their lives in peace and quiet. Still, the potential to travel on the river was there. Young people walking along its banks in the evening often talked of riding the waters into a new land of adventure. Many dream-talked by the yellow light of evening, but few were willing to risk the unknown by the hard, white light of day. Life in Nestore was good; it was normal and there was no reason to take risks–indeed, this reason, was one of those new ideas choking the path into the world of dragons.

Rising up from the river bottom land there was a hill that opened the path that led to the Blue Mountains. The people of Nestore called it simply the river hill. Half way up the river hill stood a dead tree. The older children of the village liked to play a favorite game with this tree. They pretended it was a dragon that threatened the people of Nestore. Gathering near the tree with bow and a quiver of arrows, a scar on the bark of the tree became their target–the imagined heart of the dragon creature. The youth who shot the first arrow to hit the heart of the dragon was declared the winner of the game for that day. As the dragon was an imagined evil, the winner of the game was declared a brave warrior for killing the monster.

Past the dragon tree on the river hill there lived a real test of young courage. In a small clearing near the top of the hill stood an old, one-room shack; there lived a man the villagers called Noface. He was so named after a terrible accident. As a boy Noface lived in the village of Nestore. One night a fire destroyed the cottage where he lived with his family. The entire family died except for Noface who was terribly disfigured by the flames. Unkind villagers named him Noface, which forever linked the boy with his family’s tragedy. Noface, ashamed and angry, eventually withdrew from the village and chose to live in isolation on the river hill.

Older children in the village sometimes proved their bravery by climbing the river hill, past the dragon tree and to the clearing where Noface lived. One’s metal was measured by how close you dared to come to the shack where Noface lived. Most stopped at the edge of the clearing and called insults. Some hurled rocks from a distance. A few ventured too close to the shack, causing Noface to emerge and chase them from the clearing.

Over the years of anger and insults Noface’s appearance grew more hideous. His shoulders hunched over; his face became a shapeless mass of gray scar tissue with two holes for a nose and a lipless mouth through which he made a hissing voice. In the heart of what had been an innocent child there grew a will for revenge; this revenge festered like a puss–filled sore, and then grew hard, rubbery and senseless like the scars on his face. Noface bided his time; he waited for fortune to provide the means for a reckoning against the people of Nestore.

Arrd was the only villager who regularly traveled past the shack of Noface and over the top of the river hill. His reason for these daily trips had nothing to do with a wish to prove his bravery or to torment Noface. No, Arrd made his daily climb of the river hill to fetch milk from an old woman who herded milk cows. She lived on the far side of the river hill with her animals, and she paid Arrd to carry fresh milk back to the village.

One morning Arrd hurried down the narrow steps from the room he and his mother shared over the village bakery where she worked. A cuckoo bird greeted the morning from a plane tree. Resting against the tree’s trunk were the yoke and buckets Arrd used to carry the milk. The yoke was carved from oak wood to fit the contour of his shoulders. The attached iron hooks clanged against the buckets as Arrd slipped the empty load on to his shoulders and started up the cobblestone path to the river hill.  As the grade grew steep, Arrd leaned forward and his muscles flexed. Already, his body showed the developing form of young manhood, but the strength of his childlike courage and resolve was still untried. He did not know that this day the spirits of the land would begin testing the metal of his heart and mind.

The switchback path led steep up the river hill and past the dragon tree. The path leveled a bit near the shack of Noface and a small clearing appeared in the woods. Once there had been a cottage for a woodcutter and his family; now the clearing was overgrown with sumac and briars.  Only a single, old apple tree stood near the one-room shack where Noface lived.

Arrd stopped suddenly as he entered the clearing and saw Noface was outside, bent over something under the apple tree. The clanging of the empty milk buckets on their hooks alerted Noface to young boy’s presence. He whirled about and called out an angry greeting: “You boy, what are you doing here so early?”

“I’m, ah, I’m on my way to get the milk”, answered Arrd, “before the heat of the day.” Arrd’s eyes now focused on the body of an old man lying on the ground under the apple tree–his face covered with blood from a blow to the head.

Arrd looked back at Noface and saw a distorted grin and laughing eyes that sent a chill through him. “Come here boy”, hissed Noface, “I won’t hurt you.”

Arrd grabbed his yoke and buckets; and he bolted back down the river hill to Nestore. Over the clanging of his milk buckets he could hear the hissing laughter of the hermit who lived on the river hill.

Back in the village, winded and still wild-eyed, Arrd climbed the steps to the room over the bakery and found his mother eating her morning meal. “Mother, Mother, I was on my way to get the milk when….”

Arrd’s mother listened to the terrifying report of her son, and then they both ran to the village center to find an authority. One of the village elders, aware of Noface’s anger, saw a reason to confirm the boy’s story.  So Arrd, his mother and the elder climbed the river hill back to the clearing where Noface lived: but when they came to the apple tree, there was no dead body beneath it.

The elder, exhausted from the hike up the hill, looked angrily at Arrd, “Boy, I see nothing. Where’s this dead body?”

Arrd looked around the tree and then turned and pointed to the shack: “Ask Noface, he knows. He was standing over the body when I came this morning. He knows who killed the man!”

The village elder shook his head and went to the door of the shack and called loudly, “Noface come out! I know you’re in there! Come out!” No answer. The elder now climbed the steps to the door of the shack and knocked loudly on it. Finally there was a stirring inside the shack and the door slowly opened.

Noface appeared in the doorway yawning–as if just awakening from a night’s sleep–and said, “Master, what brings you to my door this early morning?”

“Noface, this boy says he saw you standing out here over a dead body this early morning!” said the elder, pointing to the apple tree.  

“Dead body”, repeated Noface as he looked to the tree. “I know nothing about a dead body.” Now he looked to Arrd, “This boy is making up a story to stir the hatred between us.”

The elder looked hard at Noface and then gave Arrd and his mother a look of disgust. He said nothing, but turned on his heel and headed back toward the village. Arrd and his mother followed slowly behind.  As his mother put an arm around him, Arrd looked back to the shack. Noface let out a quiet, hissing laugh as he went back inside his shack. That day there was no fresh milk in the village and no money for Arrd and his mother to buy food for the table.

Next morning, earlier than the day before, Arrd lifted his yoke and buckets to his shoulders and started up the cobblestones to the river hill. Anxious to get past the shack before Noface was up and about, Arrd moved steadily up the hill to the clearing where Noface lived. As he neared the shack he slowed and looked around. Holding the buckets so they would make no sound, he slipped past the shack. When he was safely in the woods again, Arrd increased his pace over the river hill to the open pasture beyond.

Milk cows grazed on the lush, green grasses that reached down to the barn of the old woman who cared for them. Each animal had a collar with a bell dangling from it. As the cows grazed on the grass their bells made music that filled the valley. Arrd loved the sound and he relaxed as he approached the house-barn where the old woman lived with her animals.      

Mereth was the name of the old woman who herded the cows and provided milk for Arrd to carry to the village. Though she was old–gray hair and sun-wrinkled skin–she moved without the usual signs of age.  Mereth lived alone with her animals and seldom went down to the village. She had no house, her single room was part of the barn where the cows were milked and housed through the winter months. These animals provided her with warmth in winter, income from their milk to provide the few things she needed from the village, and most important, life-sustaining companionship. Mereth believed that her cows were as intelligent as humans and kinder by far. Arrd found no disagreement with the herder’s way of life, or her notions about her cows.

With no tone of criticism, Mereth called out: “Boy, you did not come yesterday.”  She motioned for him to put his buckets down under an ash tree near the barn door. There was a water spring in the shade of the tree and a wooden bench to rest. The old woman sat down on the bench as Arrd dropped his load and dipped into the cool water.  After satisfying his thirst, Arrd shared the story of his encounter with Noface and the dead man.

When he finished, Mereth shook her head, “Old Dragon’s Breath is about his ways again. Stay clear of him. The world has created a monster in that one.”

“Why do you call him that”, asked Arrd.

The old woman laughed and said, “Have you not heard the hissing voice and smelled his evil breath? He is one who sends a chill through the heart and mind, better be safe than sorry”

After resting a short time Arrd filled the buckets with milk from the spring house. He thanked Mereth for her advice, slipped the yoke on his shoulders and started back to the village. On the way, Arrd tried to quietly pass by Noface’s old shack. He was unsuccessful.

“You boy, come here!” Hearing the hissing voice, Arrd froze in his footsteps. The door to the shack was open and Noface was standing in the open doorway.

Arrd’s first thought turned to words of caution: “Run, better to be safe than sorry”. Yet some unspoken force, some spirit of the heart–good or evil– drew him toward the shack. Under the apple tree he dropped his yoke and buckets of milk and turned to the door to the shack.

Again, Arrd’s mind told him to run, but his heart gathered courage to confront this evil nemesis. Noface withdrew into the dark shack as he called out again, “Yes, yes, come inside. I have something to show you….a treasure!”

At the door Arrd paused to allow his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside the shack. It was like hole in the ground, an animal’s burrow where no light of day can penetrate. Again, Arrd’s mind reasoned a warning: “Better safe than sorry.” Yet his heart cautiously pushed his body across the threshold and into the world of Noface.

Slowly Arrd’s eyes adjust to the darkness: he saw a hearth and fire burning on it. By the glow of the flames he could make out the shadowy figure of Noface moving toward the fireplace. From the timber mantel above the hearth, he picked up an object. It shimmered and flashed a crimson red color as it caught the light from the fire. Arrd moved toward it.

“Yes, yes, ha, ha, haaa”, hissed the voice, “come see what I have here….a treasure, yes, yes a treasure to be sure. The old thief you saw under the apple tree will have no further use for it, ha, haa, haaa!”

Arrd could now smell Noface’s foul breath. He reached out to touch the treasure.

“Careful boy, careful!” said Noface, “it is a dragonstone. Touch it and the dragon’s curse will be upon you…..Death comes to all who touch it!”

Now Noface reached out his scarred hand to touch Arrd, but the boy whirled around and ran out of the shack. At the apple tree he clumsily gathered his yoke and buckets. Spilling milk as he went, Arrd made his way down the path and away from Noface’s shack. From behind him, he could hear the hissing voice: “Cursed, I am cursed. The whole village will soon be cursed!”

                                        ……………………………………………………………………..

So Noface’s threat of a curse on the village of Nestore hung over the river hill through the seasons until the coming of a new year. In the early spring, one morning the apple tree near Noface’s shack opened its first green leaves, Noface took the dragonstone to the tree. As the rising sun cast first light over the branches, Noface circled the tree, touching its branches on each side, north, south, east and west. As he touched a green leaf with the dragonstone, he spoke these words: “May the curse of the dragon be upon the fruit of this tree and those who taste it.”

The apple tree came into blossom the next day, but the tree was not covered with the usual white blossoms tinged with pink; rather, the blossoms were red, red as the dragonstone’s color. When Noface saw them he cried out: “I am cursed, the tree is cursed and all who eat its fruit will die!”  

Soon after, Arrd came past the tree on his way to fetch the milk of Mereth’s cows. He admired the color of the blossoms and imagined how delicious the fruit would taste when it came ripe in the fall of the year. So the seasons passed and fall came to the village of Nestore.

                                       …………………………………………………………………….

It was the custom of Nestore to celebrate the Harvest Home every fall. The villagers who farmed along the Allegewa River thanked the good spirits for the bountiful harvest and shared part with their harvest with the less fortunate of the village. For Arrd, the Harvest Home was always a time of embarrassment. He and his mother had no land to farm, so they always received from others and never had fruits to share with their fellow villagers.

The morning of the Harvest Home celebration, Arrd hurried up the hill to fetch the milk for the day. His thoughts were of the festivities to come that night: music, dancing in the village center, feasting, storytelling and finally the time when thanks would be given and the bountiful harvest shared with others less fortunate. Thoughts of sharing the fruits of the harvest happened just as Arrd approached Noface’s shack and the apple tree. The tree’s limbs were now bowed by the weight of many, luscious, red apples, perfectly ripe for the picking.

Arrd stopped by the tree and dropped his milk buckets to the ground. He looked at the apples and again his thoughts turned to words as he imagined sharing this fruit at Harvest Home: “All will admire my gift. Yes, it will be stolen, but I’ll only take a few….there are so many…Noface will not miss them.”  With a quick look to the shack, Arrd ran to the tree and filled his pockets until they bulged with apples; then he gathered his buckets and hurried on his way.

Arrd thought his theft was unseen, but Noface saw all and called after him: “The stone is cursed. I am cursed. The apples are cursed and death to those who eat them!”

Crossing over the river hill and down to the barn of the cow herder, Arrd found the old woman in the barn still milking the last of her cows for the day. Mereth called a greeting, “Arrd, I see you’ve come for the milk on this special day, Happy Harvest to you.”

Arrd dropped his buckets to the ground and returned the greeting: “Happy Harvest to you, Mereth!”

The old woman looked at the young man standing before her and saw his bulging pockets full of apples. She pointed to Arrd’s pockets and said, “What have there, a gift for the Harvest Home?”

Arrd looked down to his pocket and said, “Yes”, he lied, “I have apples. I bought them in the village. Would you like one?”

Mereth stood up from the stool where she was milking one of her cows and reached out a hand. Arrd took an apple from his pocket and handed it to her. Mereth accepted the apple and held it in her hand. She could feel the energy in it. For a moment she paused, and then she went to a bench, picked up a sharp knife and cut the apple open. The meat of the apple was blood red and the juices the same. Mereth turned to Arrd and said, “This apple did not come from the village. Where did you find it?”

Arrd was silent for a moment and then said, “I’m sorry Mereth, the apple came from Noface’s tree! I didn’t think when I picked it……he has the dragonstone.”

“All of the apples have the power of the dragonstone”, said Mereth with authority, “anyone who tastes one will die…we must return the stone to the dragon….that is the only way to negate the power of the curse on this apple and all the apples from the tree.”

Arrd looked fearful as he responded to Mereth, “Noface will never give up the stone. He would sooner die than give up its power to seek revenge against the people of Nestore for the wrongs they have done against him.”

The old woman nodded her head in agreement, “And he has reason for revenge–two wrongs do not make a right. But I can neutralize the power of the lethal dragonstone with a bit of my own magic. A dried birth sac of my animals will protect us from the curse. Come, we will act before the coming of Harvest Home.” So that day Arrd and the old woman with a birth sac hurried back over the river hill to the shack of Noface, the hermit. They had one purpose–take the dragonstone from Noface and return it to the dragon.

The sun was high in the afternoon sky as the two souls, young and old together, approached the clearing where Noface lived. Before the door they both stopped and Mereth called out: “Noface, are you in there?” No answer. Again she called out: “Noface, come out and bring the dragonstone with you!” No answer.

Mereth stepped forward toward the door, but Arrd touched her arm and said, “I started this adventure and I will see it to the end.” He motioned for the old woman to give him the dry birth sac to carry the dragonstone. Without hesitation Arrd stepped up to the door of the shack and opened it.

That day the sun was shining as it was just past midday, but when Arrd opened the door , he found the inside of the shack to be as dark as night. Pausing, he let his eyes adjust to the darkness. Again, it was like a hole in the ground, an animal’s burrow where no light of day can penetrate. And again, Arrd’s mind reasoned caution “better safe than sorry”, but his heart boldly pushed his mind and body across the threshold and into the world of Noface.

The flickering light of a single candle on the mantel over the fireplace was the only light in the shack.  As Arrd’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw Noface sitting on a chair facing the cold fireplace.

“Noface, are you sleeping”, called Arrd.

No answer.

Arrd stepped around the slumped figure on the chair and looked directly into the eyes of the old hermit. What he saw was the blank stare of a dead man and in his hands was the dragonstone. Arrd felt the energy of the stone, but he did not touch it. Instead he first admired it: the shape was like that of a teardrop, the surface smooth and the color a rich, dark red. Again he felt the urge to hold it, but Arrd did not touch it.  Instead he reached into his pocket and took out the dried birth sac given to him by the old woman. Carefully he slipped the sac around the stone, secured it with a binding and carried the precious and powerful omen of the dragon’s world out of the shack.

Mereth saw the sac and knew what it held. She said nothing of Noface and his destiny; instead she turned and pointed to the path that led from the clearing and back to the pasture where she cared for her animals. Silently, they walked with Arrd carrying the wrapped dragonstone in his hands.

It was evening and the sun was setting when Arrd and Mereth came to the barn. While she tended the animals, Arrd sat down with the wrapped dragonstone on the bench near the spring.  His thoughts were of the stone and its power to bring death into the world of humans–already two had died–and he feared for his own life if he tried to return the stone to the dragon.

In his mind Arrd heard the words of caution: “Better safe than sorry.” He recognized the reality of the dragon and its power to bring death to those who touched the stone or ate the apples from the tree. At the same time, Arrd’s heart urged him to explore a new reality–an unspoken thought between thoughts – a thought that the dragon might bring good into his life and the lives of all who lived in the village of Nestore. This balanced Arrd’s mind and heart. Mereth understood these unexpressed thoughts and she was prepared to support Arrd’s destiny.

At the first morning light the old woman said simply, “Follow the sun to the dragon’s lair.” So Arrd set his path to the west, to the Blue Mountains and the home of the mythical creature. For a day he followed upstream a branch of the Allegewa River. The way was easy, but by afternoon he saw the stream was turning north and away from the direction of the setting sun. To the west, Arrd saw the rising mountains, but no path to show the way to them. Without hesitation he turned from the well-worn path along the stream and set his purpose to reach the mountains by the next day.

That night Arrd found a place to rest on the brow of a hill that looked out to a high mountain in the distance. He built a fire to warm him and from his pack he took the bread, fruit and spring water that Mereth had prepared for him. When his hunger was satisfied, Arrd wrapped himself in a blanket and lay down to sleep.

Deep in the night, as Arrd lay sleeping, there came a shadow that blocked out the moonlight. Down from the mountains it came, hovering over the boy. In his sleep, Arrd sensed the dragon’s presences and drew the birth sac that held the dragonstone close to his body. The dragon paused overhead for a moment like a messenger who leaves a missive at the door and disappears into the night without a greeting. In his dream consciousness, Arrd recognized and understood the message.

Awakening, Arrd was greeted by the first light of a new day. He had one clear thought in mind–there was a field of yellow flowers on a mountainside and this was the place of the dragon’s lair. Once more, Arrd’s heart ignored reason:  “Better safe than sorry” and he pursued instead, his unconscious thought that came to him in the night. Without taking time to eat or drink, Arrd set out for the mountain with the coveted package in his hand.

Stories of the dragon’s lair are filled with chilling descriptions of dark caves, monstrous creatures and threats of death. They speak of fear, not the joy and the promise of new life that Arrd felt in his heart as he climbed the mountain. The sun was bright and the sky clear. After an hour of arduous climbing, Arrd stopped to seek further assurance that he was doing the right thing. He lifted the dragonstone high into the air and he felt an even stronger energy. This sensation was followed by the thought of the yellow flowers that had come to him as he’d greeted the morning light. For the first time in his life, Arrd felt good about this dragon that he was hoping to confront.

After hiking for still another hour, he came to a cave on the mountainside. At the entrance there was a patch of yellow flowers as he had imagined; from the cave, he saw a glow of light that harmonized with the color of the flowers.  Arrd called out: “Most Honored One, I come bearing not a gift, but that which was stolen from you by one of the humans from my world. Please forgive our mortal understanding of good and evil and accept us despite our shortcomings.”

There was no sound and no response to his greeting. Arrd stood for a time before the cave. His mind said, “Do you really believe that this creature exists? And, if it does, should you not fear it? Better safe than sorry, turn and run!”  A moment later he heard another voice speaking words of encouragement: “Patience and strength. Have faith that your dragon exists and will come forth to speak with you.” Standing uncertain before the cave entrance, Arrd listened to both voices and did not run away. ….and time passed until in a time between times came to be for Arrd. Then it was that the great dragon emerged from the cave and towered over Arrd. Its body was the color of well-aged copper. Slowly the dragon’s mouth opened and Arrd saw its great red tongue moving about. Arrd feared a rain of fire might fall upon him, but instead he saw that the dragon’s eyes shone with a look of human understanding; and the dragon’s tongue formed words that Arrd could understand, “You have brought the stone.”

Arrd was astonished to hear the dragon speak. For a moment he was tongue-tied, but then he found the words to respond: “I….I have and I ask that you release the curse of death on my village.”

“It is done”, said the dragon, “and for your courage and love for all, I give you the gift of common understanding.” Bowing low before the dragon, Arrd laid the stone on the ground before the cave entrance and turned from the lair.

 As Arrd descended the path from the mountain, he felt a sense of wholeness, a feeling of oneness with the earth and all creatures that call it home. He sensed that his mind and heart were now one….a new balance that bore its first fruits as Arrd passed a plane tree. Sitting on a branch of the tree were two, shiny black crows. One crow looked at the boy and said, “There goes the one who understands all on earth and heaven above.” And the milk boy from Nestore wondered at the meaning of these words for the life that lay before him.

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A NEW PATH IN LIFE

It has been over three months since my last blog; during this time my life has largely been focused on discernment about a new relationship with Susan Scott. Because of the pandemic related to the Corona-virus we have been limited in the activities we can share together. This week we were supposed to be in North Carolina for a workshop related to Susan’s book, “Still Praying, After All These Years”. Afterwards we had planned to spend a week on the Outer Banks for a vacation. Like much in our lives, these plans have been put on hold until a time when groups of people can gather safely.

Our time has not been wasted. Over the past seven months we have enjoyed many insightful conversations and for the past month we have worked on the video telling of a story: “A Conversation with Death”. The stimulus for this story grows out of my care for my wife Nancy during the last year of her life. It also reflects on my time of mourning and the somewhat serendipitous way that Susan and I met. There actually are three version of the story created over an eight month period, but they all explore the positive results of a conversation with Death and looking past the loss of a deeply loved partner in life.

This was the first time that Susan and I have worked together on a creative project. We filmed the story multiple times using different sets; then we shot accents to help amplify the telling past the simple recording of the storyteller performing. It was Susan’s first experience of the technical side of creating a video. She provided a second set of eyes to help me evaluate the presentation. And I should not fail to mention that she was the connection to a “Death Cafe” in Phoenix, Arizona where the work will be shown in public this summer!

The path of life is continuously changing and our prescience about its direction helps us to follow it. We never get it right; there is always a need for grace and forgiveness of our mistakes along the way. One of the ways I have found to do discernment about the process is to create a story out of my experiences along the path of life. When Nancy was diagnosed with stage four, esophageal cancer we both felt the need to create a positive project to balance the negative coming with this illness. We decided to involve a group of neighborhood children in a project to illustrate one of my stories for children–this happened over the last year of Nancy’s life and was published just before she died.

The same time that we were working on the book project, I started writing a series of stories about a conversation with Death. For me–not the one dealing with the end of my life–death was an imposition, stirring up questions that I had not considered to that point in my life. I imagine Death as a character in a story, one that I could confront about the new direction in my path of life. This One– who lurks about the shadows of my life–I wanted to confront and engage in conversation!

The first conversation with Death story, written five months before Nancy’s death, dealt mostly with my own fear of dying–imagining a world without me, me, me! The third story, the one that I will share now, introduces the idea of a new direction on my path of life. This story was written six months after Nancy’s death. My suggestion is that our stories can help us to see the way forward after a painful loss in our lives.

I will offer a word of caution in sharing this story: it is mean to be shared in spoken form, not on the page, so imagine it as a spoken story.

A CONVERSATION WITH DEATH

Hello, my name is Raymond Lowell Gray and I am seventy-eight years old. For the past few years I’ve been thinking, more and more, about the subject of death. It started one day when I read the obituaries in the newspaper and discovered that a whole lot of people, younger than me, were dead!

For some time I continued to follow the advice of a fellow storyteller who says about death in a story: “Just keep on, keepin’ on–work, exercise, keep your body in shape, travel, enjoy life and don’t think about death”. This attitude about death changed for me two years ago when my wife, Nancy, was diagnosed with stage-four, esophageal cancer and she died last September. Since then, death has been on my mind….but what does it mean for me? I’ve decided to confront my growing fear of death by imagining a conversation with a character called Death. I’ve imagined sitting in my living room by the big picture window that looks out to a Magnolia tree in the backyard. I’ve imagined inviting Death to come sit on the couch in front of the widow with me. I’ve imagined a conversation with the unconscious about this subject of death on a dark night.

Come, let’s join Raymond Lowell as he imagines such a conversation with Death. The boundaries between the conscious and unconscious, like the dark shadows of the night meld together and after a time of meditation, Raymond opens his eyes and he sees a figure beside him on the couch. Though not hard and fast of flesh and sinew, the visitor is not devoid of humanity. Indeed he looks much like Raymond: gray hair, dressed in blue jeans and sport shirt that fits tight around his belly. Slowly he turns to face Raymond; there is warmth to his wrinkled smile that Raymond finds welcoming.

The visitor speaks softly, “Thank you for inviting me into your home this night.”

“I, I, I don’t know what to say”, responds Raymond. “I mean, I imagined something else….like in a Bergman movie, hooded, carrying a scythe, you know full of endings, not beginnings….I can’t think how to begin. What should I call you?”

Death stands up, his face toward the darkened window and says, “I would like to be called teacher; maybe even, friend.”

Now Raymond stands up and looks out the window as he gathers himself to converse with Death. “Now that you say that, I think unconsciously I have thought of death as a kick in the pants to remind me that life is not forever. You need a purpose for life, things you want to do before you die. So I guess, in one way, I do think of you as my teacher.”

“And have you found that purpose?” inquires Death.

Again, without assurance, Raymond responds, “Yes, I think I have. I mean I have not found great material success in life, no fame or wealth, but I have found purpose in my creative work.”

“Your world of story”, says Death.

“Yes, my creative work has been a positive in my life, a balance to the negatives in my life….but I’m growing old and I fear the loss of control in my life….the negatives seem to outweigh the positives: my physical body doesn’t work like it used to, there is the threat of dementia, and being alone without a partner is big also…but maybe most, I find it difficult to imagine a world without me, me, me! I’m exaggerating a bit to make my point.”

With a meaningful nod of head, Death responds, “Yes, me has its place in your human psyche; but the opposite of me is you… and the balance between them is love…I think it says somewhere that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all thing and endures all things. I know Raymond, you have had a great loss in your life, but a new love can help balance that loss…perhaps you may even find a new partner to share a new love with you.”

Outside the big window Raymond now sees a full moon illuminating the shape of the Magnolia tree. Raymond turns to thank Death for sharing these thoughts with him…..but his teacher is gone.

So ends this lesson for one human soul who seeks to balance the conscious and the unconscious, the dark and the light, the human and the divine in us all.

Our path in life is full of twists and turns, the good and bad that presents at every new vista and it is our task to find the balance of opposites as we move forward. The loss of Nancy in my life has been balanced by discovering a potential new partner in Susan. I say potential because we have agreed that we will give ourselves time to discern if we both want to share the same path in life….more about this at a later date.

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Wrestling with Angels

It has been over five months since my last blog. During this time I decided that I did not have enough video to create a documentary film based on Nancy’s life. Instead, I created a written remembrance, THE MUSIC OF LIFE, A Remembrance of Nancy Wicklund Gray, and it is available at Amazon Books. During the time I was writing the remembrance, I received a note of condolence from a woman, Susan Scott, who I had met through my world of oral storytelling. Her husband had died in the past year and she was suggesting a book to read that might help me better understand the experience of grief.

Susan reminded me that we were both graduates of the M.Div. program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Out of curiosity, I did a Google search and discovered that she had recently published (Upper Room Books) a book on her work as a chaplain for elderly people in nursing homes–STILL PRAYING, After All These Years. I also found recordings on-line of her sermons at a variety of churches in the area where she lives south of the city of Philadelphia. These resources gave me a way of engaging her by letters and emails to discuss a variety of spiritual subjects. The result was that I found myself feeling a strong attraction to Susan while I was still writing a remembrance of Nancy who had died just six months ago!

How do you rationalize a possible new love so soon after losing someone you deeply loved? Well, if you are a storyteller, you try to write a story about the experience. The following story attempts an exploration of this subject.

WRESTLING WITH ANGELS

Jerrold Winston Davis was his God-given name, but he was known as Jerry Davis. Jerry loved to tell the story that his first name came from his uncle and his middle name from Winston Churchill because he was born in the middle of the Second World War–this was the idea of a mother who had high expectations for her son. Jerry himself preferred the name–Jerry Davis– because it sounded less pretentious. He never felt the need to fulfill the expectations of others for his life.

We all have to decide how we want to respond to the expectations of others. For most of us this response is unconscious. When we are young and full of potential, we respond to the talents that the world identifies in us. Jerry was good looking, verbally gifted and attracted to religious expressions. His family was deeply committed to the Presbyterian Church and he grew up imbued with the teachings of the Church. It seemed natural–according to his mother–he should become a Presbyterian minister.

This bright and shinning prediction for Jerrold Winston Davis was tarnished–and one might say balanced–by another of God’s gifts to him. He was dyslexic and from an early age he developed skepticism in regards to the estimations and expectations of other for him. Because of his difficulty reading, teachers underestimated his intelligence; he learned at an early age to not accept their expectations for him. Jerry decided that he had to find his own path in life. After a brush with the ministry by receiving a degree in theology, he finally made the decision to become a teacher in a private school. He taught creative writing and led the school’s theatre department. This academic setting afforded him the freedom to explore his own artistic talents; but more important, it allowed him to encourage his student to discover their own talents free of adult expectations.

But this story is not about Jerry’s teaching career–no, our story is about Jerry as an old man. Ah, I know what you are thinking: ‘I’m not interested in stories of old people! Their lives are over. Who cares about them? What can they teach me about the life I am living?’ I will say that you are right and you are wrong. Yes, you are right that old people have either succeeded or failed at fulfilling their expectations in life–the path in life has been traveled most of the way, no exciting discoveries are still to be made. And yes, life has lost the excitement of the “hero quest”, that journey of discovery that we all need to make in our lives. On the other hand, if that old person has truly made the journey, they may have some worthwhile advice as you search out your path in life. They may share some experiences you will eventually have to face. Let’s see what we find when we slip in and do a little eavesdropping on the world of Jerrold Winston Davis–maybe he has some advice for your journey through life.

Death is part of our journey through life. Most of us brush against it more than once as we grow up. Jerry had had his share of brushes–grandparents, uncles, aunts and even his father–though he was not present when his father died. Jerry had a closer experience of his mother’s death. He sat with her and sang to her as she departed her path in life. None of these experiences prepared him for his wife’s death. Mary received the diagnosis of esophageal cancer, stage four, at the age of seventy-four. For more than a year she struggled with the disease. Mary did not like the warrior metaphor for one who lives with a disease. She did not talk about her illness and she continued to plan for the future until her body could not muster the strength for independent living. Finally, one day, Jerry had to rush Mary to the hospital where they stabilized her and she came back home to die.

Jerry and Mary–as a friend liked to say: “sounds like a marriage made in heaven”– and they were a well matched couple who met in middle age. For twenty-two years they lived a happy and uneventful life together. Mary’s cancer diagnosis was the first and only bump in the path of life they shared together.

It was Mary decision to spend her last days in her study with the books she loved and the pictures that reflected the academic life she had enjoyed for over forty years. Her first day back home, she was able to exclaim, “Jerry, did you see the beautiful sunrise this morning!” In a few days this enjoyment of the natural world was taken away from Mary. Her level of pain required increased dosages of medicine. Soon her communications with Jerry became more and more intermittent. Jerry felt that Mary was withdrawing from the life they had so happily shared together.

The last day on the path of life for Mary was quiet and contemplative for Jerry. He sat for long periods by Mary’s bedside, holding her hand. There was no communication, but there was also no sign of suffering. Periodically Mary spoke words that Jerry could barely hear. He felt a strong sense that she was withdrawing, prepared for a journey, a new path that they could not share together.

It was early evening of a late summer day when Jerry decided to leave Mary’s side to fix something to eat. “Mary, I’m going out to the kitchen to find something to eat.” Jerry hesitated, waiting for a response. When Mary did not respond, he got up from the chair beside the hospital bed, paused a moment, and then went out to the kitchen to warm a bowl of soup.

Twenty minutes later Jerry returned to Mary’s bedside. He took hold of her hand again and bent down to kiss her cheek. A foot from her cheek, he sensed a change in his wife. He looked at her eyes; they were closed as if she was asleep. He waited for her to take a breath of air as she had labored to do for several days. There was no sign of breathing. Now Jerry felt with his other hand to find a pulse in Mary’s wrist. There was no sign of life. Mary was dead.

Jerry thought about calling an ambulance, but he did not do it. Instead, he turned and pulled the bedside chair up close to his wife. He took her hand again and spoke aloud an uncertain prayer for Mary’s soul to find a new path away from this human body. After a period of prayerful contemplation: Jerrold Winston Davis called hospice on the phone. He asked the nurse to come to the house and confirm Mary’s decision to leave this life.

For several weeks after Mary’s death, Jerry tended to the details of honoring the dead. He chose to attend the cremation of her body–a shocking industrial-like experience. He organized the memorial service accented with the music that Mary loved and the community that loved her. Finally, he carried her ashes to the cemetery and enterred her in the ground where one day they both would find their final resting place for the remains of the body.

After the honoring of his wife, the days turned to weeks and on to months. During this time Jerry Davis sought ways to deal with the grieving, the loss of his partner in life. Several nights he went to the room where Mary had died. He felt he might encounter her soul still lingering there. Jerry did not feel a connection to the ethereal Mary MacPherson-Davis. Finally, he set a pattern of going to her grave to say a prayer and share a report on his well-being.

Death is never far afield. The nightly newspaper has a section for death notices. Our family albums are full of pictures of those who”have gone before use” as the phrase is often repeated. Those who like to go for an evening walk often find the town cemetery a pleasant place for an evening stroll: and there is a whole industry built around disposing of the dead–the undertakers who own the funeral homes in every town. My point is that we live with death all around us, but we do our best to ignore it. Jerry Davis decided that he wanted to confront death; he was ready to wrestle with the Angel of Death and discover new expectations for an old man–or at least, a new perspective on the end of life.

How do you–or can you– create an encounter with the Unconscious? Jerry imagined that he might find a river bank and camp there until the Angel of God showed up to wrestle with him–as in the story of Jacob from the book of Genesis. Another time he imagined a journey to the Rocky Mountains where he might camp and wait–like Moses–for an encounter with the Divine. Never did he imagine the setting for his encounter with the Angel of Death.

That fall and winter, after Mary’s death, Jerry allowed for time to mourn the loss of his partner in life. One day he went to her study and there he found journals that Mary had created from the time she was ten years old until her death. Exploring these journals Jerry found drawings that Mary created at about the age of ten. These drawings illustrated her favorite poems.  He found essays from Mary’s high school years. One essay argued for a woman’s right to be herself and not allow society to dictate a path in life. This, and much more in Mary’s journals, informed Jerry about the woman he loved and helped him to create a remembrance of her time on this earth. This creative project in turn facilitated the mourning process and the beginning of Jerry’s contemplation of his own Death. He pondered; Might I confront my own fear of death and begin to search out a path after I leave this human body?

Spring is the time when we clean up the detritus from last summer’s ending–or death if you choose to think about it that way. One day Jerry finally convinced himself to go out to the gardens that Mary had loved and cared for–working in the garden was not a spiritual exercise for Jerry as it was for Mary….at least he did not think it was. The sun was shining brightly and temperature was a perfect fifty degrees for working outside. As he raked the leaves from last fall, Jerry saw the peonies were just emerging from the ground while the snow drops were almost finished blooming.

Jerry stopped his work and knelt down to consider this cycle of life. We see life’s cycles come and go with the seasons of the year, but most of us tend to not think about our human connection to these cycles of life and death in nature. For just a minute, Jerry pondered how human life might be like the flowers and trees–they live, die and come back to life in the spring of the year. Might humans follow the same pattern–life, death and rebirth? This spiritual experience in the garden was a fleeting moment for Jerry. He paused and then returned to the task before him–supporting the rebirth of Mary’s beloved garden. He worked for three hours until he had expended the energy in his seventy-seven year old body–time to rest and enjoy a meal. When he stopped working, he sensed that he was leaving Mary’s spirit in the garden.

Diner time was the most difficult part of day for Jerry Davis. He so missed sharing a meal and a glass, or two, of wine with his partner in life. Many nights he assuaged his feelings of loss by watching television instead of eating alone at the dinner table. This night he felt a special connection to Mary after working in the garden. He took his meal to the living room where he and Mary always sat after dinner by the big picture window. There he ate slowly, sipped a little wine and looked out on the gardens where he had just been working. He thought how, for twenty plus years, his expectations had been fulfilled by a happy marriage.

Caught up in revelry of the spirit, Jerry ate and then enjoyed a second glass of wine by the big window until the shadows of the spring night started to obscure the scene before him. Whether it was the second glass of wine and the labors of the day, Jerry would never declare, but that night as he sat comfortably on the couch, he closed his eyes and a visitor appeared beside him. This apparition of the unconscious did not offer a Jacob-like combat; instead, they sat side by side and found commonality between them as they contemplated the coming night.

The Angel of the Unconscious (Aou, as Jerry called Him) spoke first: “You summon my presence?”                                                

Jerry responded: “I seek your command regarding my path to the end of life….and the strength to follow it.”                                                                                                                                                                

“Your words are received and a response will be given“ ,returned Aou, “but first you must share your heart’s passion. What do you expect from yourself in these days you have left on this earth?”                                                                                                                                                               

Jerry considered this request. He had spent much of his life reacting to the expectations of others. Had he considered his own expectations? Jerry Davis sat starring out the big window as Mary’s resurrected gardens disappeared into the dark of night.  

Finally, Jerry turned to confront his antagonist. He expected to see a young winged combatant like often depicted in paintings of the Jacob story; instead his apparition appeared as an old man–much like himself–graying hair, a generous mid-width and dressed casually in jeans and plaid shirt. This apparition bolstered Jerry’s self and he responded with heart-inspired words: “I am not sure what to expect. I know that I feel alone without Mary in my life. I think about staying alone, perhaps discovering something that will help me complete my life’s journey….but, but I also think about finding a new mate, someone who will share the days left to me in this life…wanting to share love is human…but maybe love ends when the human in us dies? I don’t know which of these expectations to pursue.”   

The dark of night now obscured the world outside the big picture window. For a long time
Jerrold Winston Davis stared into the void. Finally he turned to his Aou and spoke with a sense of conviction: “My heart’s passion is to find a new love, a woman I can love as I loved Mary. Some people may reach out to explore the divine; I was put on this earth to look inside to explore the divine in the human…and, for me, this exploration happens when the Divine couples male with female, sexually and spiritually, so that one supports and builds energy in the other!” 

Human expectations whether personal, familial or societal are sometimes hard to measure and describe in a story. This was not the case in this story about the life of Jerry Davis. The next day, after his visit with the Angel of the Unconscious, Jerry received a card in the mail. It was a condolence from a woman who said she had taught English in the same private school where he taught for many years. She offered words of sympathy and recommended a book that supported her when her husband died. She signed the card, Anne Marie Maldonado. Jerry vaguely remembered this name from his teaching days, so his curiosity was peaked. That night he did a Google search on the name of “Anne Marie Maldonado”. He found one who had recently published a book of poetry. When he read her curricula vitae, he was sure this was the woman who had sent the card of condolence. So he ordered her book that night and began to imagine how they might explore the possibility for love near the end of the path of life!

Wresting with expectations is something we all need to do in life. Others will try to influence actions in our life. And, we cannot always count on an Angel of the Unconscious to challenge us to take action at just the right times in life. We are not always as lucky as Jerry in our story to have an Aou that shows up at just the right moment in life.

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THE THREADS OF A LIFE

Yesterday, because I knew that I was having visitors to my house, I decided to do some house cleaning–actually I am fairly regular about this activity–but I had not visited Nancy’s bedside stand since her death. There I found two books and each had a page marker where she had stopped reading. The books were Loren Eiseley’s essays, “The Immense Journey”, and Italo Calvino’s novel, “The Baron in the Trees”. I said to myself–this is an opportunity to connect with Nancy’s imagination and thinking processes as she neared the end of her journey in this life!

I beg you to accept that I am a storyteller who sees all of life as a narrative waiting to be expressed. And, I can imagine Nancy rolling her eyes as she reads this particular narrative. I understand if you chose to stop right here……but, if you enjoy exploring rabbit holes–as Nancy did– please continue down this one with me.

Calvino’s novel is the story of a young Italian nobleman who finds himself in conflict with his family and chooses to express his independence from his family by living in a tree! I pick up where Nancy was reading–obviously I cannot say where on the two pages–but I will choose a small quote from the two pages to give a feel for what she was imagining:

“Cosimo (the hero of the story) despite that escapade of his, which had upset us all so much, lived almost as closely with us as he had before. He was a solitary, who did not avoid people. In a way, indeed he seemed to like them more than anything else. He would squat above places where peasants were digging, turning manure, and call out polite greetings…at first they were confused by his position in the tree….but then they got into the habit of chatting with him about their work or the weather, and seemed to find the game he was playing up there no better or worse than so many other games they had seen the gentry play.”

I can see the appeal of this story for Nancy. She was the young woman who at the age of nineteen left her home in Minnesota and came to Westminster Choir College to pursue her music career. Her ambition for what she wanted out of life set her apart from her world of birth. She had a strong sense of independence, yet she did not break her relationship with her family. In fact, her family felt such a strong tie to her that they drove all the way from Minnesota for the service that honored her life a couple of weeks ago!

Eiseley’s set of essays, “The Immense Journey”, is harder for me to find some connection. First, I have never enjoyed his style of writing and his scientific approach to the mysteries of our world has never appealed to me…nevertheless I will quote a concept from the page where Nancy was reading. This is a description of life coming from the ocean to live on the land–part of the process of evolution and the beginning of our great myth:

“Salt and sun and moisture were accessible without great mechanical elaboration. It was the reaching out that changed this pattern, the reaching out that forced the cells to bring the sea ashore with them, to elaborate in their own bodies the very miniature of that all-embracing sea from which they came.”

Loren Eiseley at one point in the essay suggests that he is creating the story of life in the mythic language of science as opposed to the mythic language of religion. I do not feel the need for this kind of myth, but I can understand that Nancy did find Eiseley’s way of telling the story attractive. I know when she got her diagnosis of stage-four esophageal cancer she approached this reality with a very practical plan to live as long as she could possibly live. She was capable of great emotion and spiritual expression in life, but rational evaluations were never far from the surface in her decision making process.

It was Nancy’s mix of strong rational intellect with emotional depth that I found very supportive for my own life. As I continue to think about a documentary film about her life I will try to bring to the surface the stories I want to tell about her.

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TIME TO REFLECT

Yesterday I took a walk through Doylestown. I happen to pass the home of one of the families whose children created drawings to illustrate my story, “Ice Cream Mud”. The mother was out raking leaves and the children were riding bicycles and playing with friends. I stopped to say hello and listen as she described her busy life with husband, children and work. We had a neighborly exchange and I continued on my way.

Walks are a good time for reflections. As I headed up the hill toward the heart of Doylestown, I started to reflect back to the time in my life when I had two young children, a wife and the beginning of my work as an oral storyteller. Life was filled with early morning risings, juggling childcare with work schedules and chores around the house.

As I topped the hill and headed into the center of Doylestown my reflection turned to thoughts about life when my children left home to start their own lives separate from their parents. It was during this time that my first marriage ended and I found myself living alone. It was a difficult experience, but I was still busy with my storytelling programs in schools.

This time lasted nearly four years until I met Nancy. We bought the house on Clemens Road and soon were married. Life with Nancy was not as hectic as my first marriage. There were no children in the house and, as the years passed, my life slowed down when I stopped presenting school assembly programs.

By the time I had started back down the hill past the Mercer Museum, I had moved my reflection to thoughts about being alone again. I asked myself: Are there advantages to living alone at the age of seventy-seven? Three nights ago I woke up at 3:00 A.M. I turned on the bedroom light and read for half an hour without disturbing my mate’s sleep. I fix and eat my meals when I am hungry. I don’t have to consider the wishes of another. It would be easy to become very self-absorbed. I don’t know that is a good way to live.

I could now see the roof of my house on Clemens Road through the fall foliage along Green Street. My last reflection for my walk considered the subject of prayer. In particular, I reflected on the idea of “The Jesus Prayer”––that is a repetitive phrase, silently expressed throughout the day. My prayer is: “Lord Jesus have mercy on my soul, open my heart to others, and lift my soul to thee”. I think I learned about this practice by reading the Philokalia many years ago, but the practice is not unique to the Christian tradition. I have not always been disciplined in the practice of this prayer. Being old and less distracted by relationships, work and success, I can hope to further explore this practice. So ended a forty minute walk through Doylestown and the reflections that occurred along the way. What do you think about when you go for a walk?

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THE LAST THIRD OF LIFE

Thirteen years ago, at the age of sixty-four, I decided to stop promoting my stories for children and start to work on stories for the last third of life. Out of that decision grew the Jung performances, a memoir (E-book) and a long fantasy story (paperback book) about a family of mill mice. During those years I also supported my mother to the end of her life. An unpublished journal–shared only with friends and family–was the creative result from that life experience. It has been a busy time in my life, full of performances, travel, gatherings at the Clemens Road house and all shared with my mate for life.

Nancy and I did not meet until we were in our mid-fifties–old enough to rationally evaluate a mate, but young enough to be amazed by the sexual energy generated by our coming together. We both kept journals during that time, so it is possible for me to go back and find the backing for these declarations. But perhaps more than the rational or emotional common ground, we immediately identified a passion for good conversation and sharing our lives with others. So for twenty-two years we enjoyed and gave thanks for having found a mate for the last third of life!

This brings me back to the subject of stories from this time in life. For the past thirteen years I have created and told stories about the process of ageing and finding meaning in a time of life when my energy for innovation and bringing new projects to life is waning. It is more a time to reflect and preserve the work of the past. Much of the past thirteen years has been spent thinking, talking and writing about Grandpa Jung’s idea of individuation–that is, the idea that one’s life is about becoming who we are meant to be, not who others in our family or society want us to be. Here there is a strong sense that we all have gifts–I might say God-given- and life is about discovering these gifts and the path in life where they lead us. For me it was a life telling stories to children. With a fair amount of angst I found my way and followed my path in life.

There is another part of this journey through these last years of life. This is the eventual meeting with Death. We all have brief encounters with Death throughout our lives. For me it was the deaths of relatives, the most moving being the death of my mother, Ruby, that I mentioned above. I sat by her side and experience her last breath of life. But the sting of death then was ameliorated by having Nancy in my life. I could go home and talk with her about the experience.

Today I have no one to share my feelings about Nancy’s death, or maybe it is that I cannot talk with anyone about the experience I am having. For this reason, I will write about it and hope to find a measure of solace in the act of telling the story. This event in Nancy and my life began in June of 2018 when she received a diagnosis of stage four esophageal cancer. We immediately cancelled a planned trip to Scotland and a backyard storytelling performance set for that early summer. Nancy started a year of multiple chemotherapy treatments and one of radiation. Because of the growth in her esophagus Nancy struggled to find ways to swallow her food. Doctors talked about a feeding tube, but she preferred to be creative in finding ways to eat regularly–egg drop soup from the local Chinese restaurant was one of her eating solutions. Her doctors were amazed at her ability to keep herself strong and continue to live a fairly normal life. This struggle–Nancy did not like warrior language to describe her dealing with cancer–lasted for about fourteen months. It was during the first week in August of 2019 that she became dehydrated and weak from not being able drink or eat normally. Finally she made the decision to go to the hospital for care.

Nancy was in Doylestown Hospital for ten days. They began intravenous feeding and liquids to hydrate and nourish her body again. She gained some strength, but nothing like the normal Nancy. She was dizzy, had headaches and felt unsure on her feet. Finally, they decided to do an MRI of her brain and they discovered a tumor on it. Now there was talk about an operation, radiation and again the feeding tube. Nancy rejected the operation and radiation, but accepted the feeding tube and asked to go home.

During ten days in the hospital, I visited with Nancy three times a day. As the days passed, communication between us became more and more difficult. Nancy was agitated by the other patient in her room, an elderly woman who was hard of hearing. When her family came to visit, they talked loudly and long. I don’t think they were bad people, just a family like us trying to get through a difficult time in their lives. Nancy withdrew and seemed to not want to communicate with me. When she did talk, it was often something that I had forgotten to do or done wrong. This was so unlike Nancy, I knew I had to get her out of the hospital as soon as possible.

Finally the decision was made that she could go home under hospice care. Several hospice agencies would not accept her as a patient because of the feeding tube. Finally, Doylestown Hospital Hospice accepted her and I brought her home to 68 Clemens Road on August 15, 2019. The whole process took about six hours. It was a difficult day, but at the end Nancy was settled on a hospital bed in her study with her books and pictures all around her. Most important, it was quiet, with no roommate and family carrying on inane conversations.

So began two and a half weeks of caring for Nancy in our home. I could have hired extra nursing care to supplement the hospice people who came four to five times a week for half-hour visits. I chose to do the major part of Nancy’s care myself. Why did I make that decision? I felt that it was what Nancy wanted–though I do not think that we discussed it. Also, I do not like standing around and watching others do what I think I can do myself.

How can I describe the last two and a half weeks of Nancy Jo Anderson’s life? First, I will say that I can only describe it from the perspective of the one who loved and cared for her in this end time of life. Coming home did have a positive effect on Nancy’s disposition. For the first days she was more content. I remember her commenting on the beauty of the clear sky outside her window. I asked if she wanted to listen to any particular music or have visits from friends. Her response was not strongly negative, but she made it clear that she was content to be alone in a quiet environment. I limited the visits and started the practice of music on a player in the living room. This way I could enjoy the music and she could ignore my music as she often did during the twenty-two years that we lived together.

My challenge during this time was to learn some basic nursing skills on the fly. I thank the hospice nurses who were patient in teaching me. My first task was to learn how to measure the meds and get them into the feeding tube. This was a continuous process, every three to four hours around the clock. Because the feeding tube continuously pumped nutrients into Nancy, I had to learn how to control the pump to change from nutrients to meds and back again. The process was often complicated by the nutrients getting clogged in the tube and I had to flush the tube before and after the meds.

Two days into the hospice care we started to have problems with a leak at the point where the feeding tube interred Nancy’s body. This meant that we had to change the dressing around the portal several times a day. Here I will claim some credit for my own ingenuity. The dressings used by the nurses had limited ability to absorb the leaking fluids; I started to substitute a dressing created by cutting up a Depend disposable underwear. It was thicker and could absorb more of the leaking fluid. When one of the nurses saw what I had created, she said, “great idea!”

The nursing chore that I feared most was helping Nancy to go to the bathroom–particularly cleaning her after a bowel movement. Because Nancy had not eaten solid foods for more than two weeks when I brought her home, bowel movements were rare, but still important for the functioning of her body. For the first week of home care, Nancy was able to use a walker with my support to go to the bathroom and she did have one bowel movement. By the second week she was too weak to use the walker and we started to use a portable potty. Let us say that I was able to put aside my fears of helping Nancy to go to the bathroom. It was also during the second week that the decision was made to stop using the feeding tube and going to the bathroom was soon not an issue.

Nancy’s last days were made difficult for me the caregiver because she had a drive-the only way I can describe it–to sit up and get out of bed. One time I found her sitting at the side of the bed with her hands on the walker that I had place there. Eventually she did not have the strength to sit up, but she continued to reach out and try to sit up in the bed. The nurse described this as a form of anxiety and recommended an increase in medication for the behavior. For me, this behavior seemed an exhibit of Nancy’s will to live. It was about four days before she died, she whispered one of the last thoughts she shared with me: “I will die in two days.” The words were softly spoken and without an expression of fear or anxiety.

Nancy died on September 2, 2019 at about 5:30 P.M. That last day of body and soul as one, Nancy was calm though her breathing was labored. The nurse said that it was a collection of fluids in her chest and she recommended a pill that I could put under her tongue to help reduce the fluids in her upper respiratory tract. It was near supper time that I decided to try the nurse’s recommended medication. I tried to put the pill under Nancy’s tongue, but her tongue was not flat in her mouth. I tried spritzing a little water on the pill to melt it and then I went out to the kitchen to fix some food for supper. When I came back in fifteen minutes, I could still see the pill in her mouth but it had begun to dissolve; and more important, Nancy was breathing easier. So I went back to eat my supper.

It was fifteen to twenty minutes later that I came back to Nancy’s study. She was peaceful with her eyes closed, but her mouth was open. I looked into her mouth to see if the pill was dissolved. It was then that I realized that she was not breathing. I checked for a pulse in her wrist, but did not find one. For some time I sat quietly by Nancy’s side. You might say that I prayed, though I have no memory of particular words expressed at the time. You might say that I gave thanks for a peaceful beginning of her soul’s journey forward. After my quiet time, I called the hospice nurse and she recommended that I contact the funeral home I had pre-arranged to help care for Nancy’s body. Both the nurse and the funeral people soon came to the house and completed their duties.

Later that night, I went back into Nancy’s study and sat alone where the bed had been standing. I thought about stories that the soul lingers near the place of death after the physical body has been taken away. I encouraged Nancy’s soul to communicate with me. For fifteen to twenty minutes I sat quietly and waited. I had no sense of her presence in the room and went to bed.

Two days later, on September 4th, they cremated Nancy’s physical body. I chose to be present for this act of cremation. I took with me a journal to write in and a CD player with a recording of monastic chant–Nancy had heard this chant many mornings when she was waking up because it was part of my morning ritual. I did not realize the industrial nature of the cremation process. It was difficult to hear the chant over the sound of the furnace. Nevertheless, I said a prayer over her body before it entered the furnace, and then I sat and wrote down a list of happy times in our marriage. Again, I wanted to be aware of the separation of the soul from the physical body. For this reason I have placed Nancy’s ashes next to our bed and they will stay there until I inter them at Doylestown Cemetery after the celebration of life service on October 5, 2019.

Dreams have always had a strong influence on the decisions I make in this world. On September 14th I had a dream where Nancy and I were listening to music. She said to me in the dream, “turn this music into a story”. When I woke up I immediately thought of creating a documentary film about Nancy’s life. I wrote down in my journal this title: “The Music of Life”.

As I ponder this idea for a film about Nancy’s life, I think how her creativity was very much tied to musical communities–most importantly to Westminster Choir College where she worked for over forty years. She also was a member of the Episcopal Church and worked as an organist for several churches over the years. She was a member the American Guild of Organist. She held an office in the Hymn Society for several years and she sang most recently with the Bucks County Choral Society–in addition she did research and provided access to music for these organizations. I am sure that I have not covered all the musical groups she was related to during her lifetime. Nancy was gifted at working in communities. I am sure I will find more about this life of music when I create a film about it. If you have a story about Nancy–which you think I might not know–please share it with me. I want this documentary film to tell the story of how Nancy discovered who she was meant to be in the time she was given on this earth!

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PLAYING WITH THE NORMS OF LIFE

Early this summer I shared plans to engage neighborhood children in an art project to draw pictures for one of my stories–Ice Cream Mud. It will be self-published as a picture book using Kindle Direct as I did the mouse story two years ago. Well, our young artists have been at it for more than a month and we are getting wonderful results. My partner for this project is Pat Achilles, a professional illustrator. She has helped the kids to establish a set of general characteristics–or norms– for the three animals in our story. It is a bit tricky to involve nine imaginations to tell one story. So far it seems to be working.

When I conceived this project I said that I wanted to reengage with that ten year old Raymond Lowell Gray by engaging with ten year olds today. I don’t know that it has happened yet, but I have appreciated being part of an experience where creative imaginations have been freed to express themselves as they please. For example: One line in the story says “The sun was high in a clear sky and it really was a hot, hot summer day!” One young artist drew a picture that shows the main character, Donkey, walking down the road and overhead is an orange-red star! I love that this child saw the sun–in truth a star–with five point instead of appearing as a round ball.

We all have imaginations, but sometimes living, growing up and being responsible adults stifles the expression of our imaginations. We are too careful about the norms of expression: the sun is round because the norm tells us this is so. I don’t know what physics has to say about this norm, but I know one ten year old who disagrees!

So have I run into that ten year old Raymond Lowell Gray in this past month? I don’t think so, but I am not sure I would recognize him if I did meet him–many norms of life have been shattered in sixty-seven years. One thing I will comment on is the relationship between play and work with a group of ten year olds. The first session, when we introduce the story to them, was full of play and enthusiasm for the project. The work of drawing the pictures has been more problematic–soccer games and dates at the swimming pool have distracted our young artist–but we have preserved, the work is being done and hopefully more norms will be shattered.

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BEING AND BECOMING

For everything there is a season,
and a time for every purpose under the heavens…..
Ecclesiastes 3:1

I don’t know about you, but I have always treasured stability–the normal in my life–knowing there is someone who loves me and wants to be with me. Also, I need a place to call home, a work that creatively engages my body and soul, and enough material wealth to provide the essentials of daily life. I don’t need the excesses of fame and riches, the abnormal of what I have described above. Some may think this is a recipe for living a boring life, but I think, and feel, that it has provided the base for me to become who I was meant to be in this world–Grandpa Jung’s idea of individuation.

Recently I had lunch with my two grandchildren, one fourteen and the other nineteen. The nineteen year old brought her reusable straw because she wanted to show her concern about plastic waste in our world. She will be a second year student at Temple University this fall and is thinking about a major in public health. She told a story about a woman who spent ten years working as a public health specialist in third world countries before she married and started her own family. My grandson, who will be fifteen in two weeks, has expanded his view of the future past the idea of being an athlete. He spoke about a college major in astronomy. These young people are full of becoming stories.

I like to think today that my interaction with life is a different form of being and becoming. To understand what I mean by “being”, let me first say what it is not. It is not a form of “mindfulness”, that awareness of breath, body and the immediate world around us. I don’t have a problem with that kind of being, but my understanding of being is broader. It has a social context where I explore a relationship to the other people in my world. For example, being is important when I am involved in a conversation with another person. I have to enter intently into listening to what the other says, not thinking about what I want to say. The same is true when I perform as an oral storyteller. I have to be in a relationship with my audience, whether it is five or five hundred. I have to feel their response to my performance and tailor my story to it. This sense of being is also present when I sit down to write a story: the chair where I sit, the keyboard and screen, the music I listen to as I write. These physical contexts, and many more I could describe, come into play when I interact with the world where I choose to be. So, in a real sense, I am no different from my grandchildren, I am still becoming, but in a more nuanced and less obvious way.

There is a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time pluck up what is planted. Ecclesiastes 3:2

This process of becoming and being is central to human life. The development of human consciousness has made us aware of the process. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, it has also made us aware that we will not live forever–at least not in this unique form of physical body and consciousness. We all must die. I appreciate that the Preacher in Ecclesiastes connects death with the idea of planting and harvesting. The creative life is the process of planting seeds, giving birth to something new. Sometimes you see in your lifetime the fruits of your labor, you “pluck up what is planted”. It can equally be true that you will not be the one to harvest the fruits of your labor; you will die before the time is full. When this is the reality, it is important to make sure you have planted well, tended the crop and allowed that it is another’s right to “pluck up what is planted”. This kind of life requires a stronger sense of being than becoming.

Men have no advantage over beasts; for everything is emptiness. All go to the same place: all came from dust, and to the dust all return……So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should enjoy his work, since that is his lot: who can bring him to see what will be after him?” Ecclesiastes 3:19-22

It was about thirteen years ago that I decided to stop promoting my storytelling programs for children and start to work on stories for the last third of life. I did not make this decision because I had lost my enjoyment of my work with children; I made the decision because I felt there was something special to be discovered about growing old and dying.–the becoming part of this stage of life. Arthur C. Brooks, in a recent Atlantic Magazine article, describes it: “What I need to do, in effect, is stop seeing my life as a canvas to fill, and start seeing it more as a block of marble to chip away at and shape something out of”. For me the chipping away work involved the development of my “Jung stories” and starting a blog where I reflect on these last years of my life. I have volunteered my storytelling skills to various museums and presently I am involved with a group of neighborhood children to create pictures for one of my children’s stories. None of this work has earned money or much notice, but I have enjoyed these years of reflection and sharing with others.

So getting back to my treasured “normal”–or as Nancy’s mother called it, “that happy medium”–I don’t know that the preacher in Ecclesiastes, or Mr. Brooks, would agree with me. Nevertheless, I have tried to live a life that is routine and normal: I get up every morning at 5:30 A.M. to work at my desk. By 11:00 A.M. I am ready for lunch and a short nap. By 5:00 P.M. I stop working, fix a meal, watch the world news on PBS and have my first glass of wine. Dinner is at 6:00 P.M. with my beautiful wife. Often we eat, converse and drink wine until past 8:00 P.M. By 9:30 P.M. I am ready for bed. This normal routine is interrupted by the variety of life, but we are happy and quick to return to our set pattern.

There are other forms this normal routine takes in my life. I like a regular day of the week set aside for house cleaning. As my Pennsylvania German ancestors would say: “Time to read up the place”. For me that means: clean the bathroom, change the bath towels and bed linen, sweep the floors throughout the house and dust the furniture. Special attention is given to the kitchen where I scrub the floor, clean the countertops and stove and get rid of those things in the refrigerator that have been left open too long. And, as I work, I enjoy music on the CD player–often one of Nancy’s recordings of a choir singing Christian hymns.

So, as a human being of seventy-seven years, I have discovered my “being and becoming” in these normal and routine activities of life. I understand that others may find my life boring and uninteresting–I do not–I wake up every day ready to engage the world I find before me and to become who I am meant to be down to the moment when I take my last breath of air!

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