THE PATH OF LIFE…understanding it

It is six years since the completion of my memoir: GRANDPA JUNG’S LESSONS, for a slow reader. I am still a slow reader, but life continues to balance this negative by giving me creative ideas into my eightieth year! I give thanks for this time to continue to explore the path of life; I will make use of this time to reflect and try to share my understanding of the common life we share together.

There have been two major events along my path of life in these past six years. First, my wife, Nancy Wicklund Gray, was diagnosed to have esophageal cancer three plus years ago. She lived just over a year with the disease. During the last month of her life I cared for her in our home on Clemens Road in Doylestown. She died on September 2, 2019 in her study with her art on the walls, books on the shelves and desk where she did her writing. The other major event on my path of life is that I was married to Susan Scott on October 16 of 2021! Now Susan works in the same study of our home on Clemens Road…and she has her own art, books and desk to do her writing! So again I will suggest that life has balanced the loss of a wife I deeply loved by giving me a new mate to share my last years on the path of life.

Hold up there old man! You seem to have stumbled on to an important understanding about the path of life. Our lives are always filled with both positive and negative events; the gift is to find a way to balance the negative and positive in it. I recognize that this balance of negative and positive is not always possible–some live and die in times of great conflict such as war. Nevertheless, when we are given time after a negative event in our lives, there is always a way to return, to shift back to the positive path of life if we are open to change.

This positive change is not always easy to find after a time of negative experiences. This was true for me when my first marriage, that created my two children, ended in divorce. There was a period of three to four years when I lived alone and struggled financially. This type of experience is shared in one of my stories called, Monkeyshines and Miracles. The story is found in my memoir both in written form and the video recording of a live performance. This story depicts the pain that a man feels when his wife dies–my wife did not die, but for me, it felt like a death when the marriage ended.

Recently I watched the video of this story with Susan and I felt the tears welling up in me. So many of the feelings shared in the story came to actually be when Nancy died. I will suggest now that the negative experience of my divorce turned out to be a positive support for facing the death of Nancy later in my life. This brings to front and center the subject of “death” in our lives: Can we balance the experience, the energy, of death in our lives?  Let’s talk first about death as it relates to loved ones in our lives; and then I will offer observations about my own death.

Before I share these experiences of death, I want to speak briefly about the concept of “presence” in our lives. For me, presence is a gift from the eternal to live both the positive and negative in our lives and find a balance that helps us to move forward on the path of life. Sometimes this balance, this presence, is consciously pursued, but often we pursue it unconsciously and it is only later that we reflect back and see the decisions made to move forward on the path of life.

Let me share my gift of presence in dealing with the grief of losing my wife, Nancy. Because Nancy was under hospice home care when she died, I was invited to join a group of grieving spouses run by the hospice organization that supported me in caring for Nancy. I attended only two meetings of this therapy group. I could not find solace in listening to the negative experience of others living with grief. I had to find my own way of being present to my grief over her death.

When I went through Nancy’s work files at that time, I found she had gathered a series of journals kept from the age of ten until near the time when she died. They were nicely collected together for me to find. I imagined these journals as a positive stimulus created by Nancy to help her husband deal with his grief. Immediately I started to think about a remembrance that would be either a documentary film or a book.  After considering the sources provide for me, I decided that the book was a better creative project than a film.

The book, THE MUSIC OF LIFE, A Remembrance of Nancy Wicklund Gray, took five months to create. During this time I focused most of my energy on this creative process. The book is only fifty-one pages and it is illustrated with many visuals from Nancy’s time of this earth. For me, the creator, there were many times of tears shed in the process, but the book was my form of positive grieving…my best way to be present to the pain of loss. I will share just a bit of the writing:

Beginning:

The creative idea for this remembrance grew out of a dream Ray had shortly after Nancy’s death. In the dream he found himself listening to a musical performance with Nancy. Afterwards, she said to him, “Turn this music into a story.” When Ray woke up, he immediately thought of either a documentary film or a written remembrance–with the title: THE MUSIC OF LIFE. The resources for this creative work were mostly journals and photos, not video, so the written remembrance was created.

Ending:

“This remembrance is part of a husband’s grieving process for the loss of his mate in life. It has served this purpose well. I have learned many things about my Nancy that either I did not know or did not take the time to think about when we were sharing our lives.

I have tried to tell Nancy’s story as honestly as I can. For me it is the story of a strong, clear thinking woman who was capable of great love. She faced much adversity in her life, but this adversity did not deter her passion to love and to be loved in the time she was given on this earth. She has taught me much about the gift of love–how to love and be loved.

 I will close this by sharing one of the last conscious communications between the two of us. Nancy said: “I want you to be happy.” I understand that to mean that she wants me to go on with my life and not live in a perpetual state of grief and loss. She wants me to explore new relationships and be open to finding a new mate; or find happiness in being alone through my last years of life. I say a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to share a part of my time on this earth with this beautiful and wise woman“

This remembrance is available on Amazon:

Through my eighty years of life I have had one other intimate experience of a loved one’s death. This experience came about because of a family decision to have my mother, Ruby Bessie Fink Gray live to the end of life with Nancy and myself. The end of this experience, Ruby’s death, is described in my journal and shared in my memoir:

October 31, 2011 (Halloween)

            Ruby died this evening.

The day started with a visit to the funeral home that now holds her remains. I went to make the arrangements for her death, but I had no idea that they would be needed on this day. After the funeral home, I went to the bank to look for an insurance policy that I thought might be in our safe deposit box. While I was rummaging through savings bonds, jewelry, wills and old coins I had a call from Neshaminy Manor where Ruby lived. It was the afternoon shift nurse. He wanted to know if I had been updated on Ruby’s condition. I said, “Yes, I talked with the hospice nurse this morning. I will come tomorrow to visit with Ruby.” He suggested: “You might want to consider coming today.” It was then about four in the afternoon. I decided to go home and eat before I went to visit with her, thinking that it might be my only chance to get a meal. I went home and ate leftover wonton soup and a scrap of good sourdough bread with butter. On the drive to the nursing home I put on a CD, a Bach cello suite, sensing I needed to collect myself for my work ahead.

When I arrived on the floor where Ruby lived, I looked up Ralph, the nurse who had called me. He said he was concerned because Ruby was under hospice care, but there were no orders to keep her at Neshaminy Manor. A nurse could decide that she needed more care than they could provide and therefore call for an ambulance. I said that I did not want her taken to the hospital. He said that was fine, but if I went home and another nurse came on duty, that nurse might decide to send her. I said I would call hospice to make sure that my wishes were followed.

I put in a call to Donna, the hospice nurse. Meanwhile, a supervising nurse came to the room and checked Ruby. She said she was going to order morphine to slow Ruby’s breathing, which by this time was like a runner’s after a ten mile-run. I wondered at her ninety-seven year old heart. How long could it work so hard? The morphine was given and I noticed a slight relaxing of her breathing. Sitting beside her, I started to get sleepy myself. I was looking at the family pictures on the wall. I looked at a young and beautiful Ruby in one picture. I guessed that it was a picture from her brother Raymond’s wedding.

By this time it was nearly five-thirty. I started to think about my brother, Cecil, who was scheduled to leave the next day for a family vacation in Hawaii. Should I call and warn him that Mother might be dying? I decided that I would; I could let him decide if he wanted to change his plans before getting on the plane to the islands. When I finally talked with Cecil, he said he would think about changing his plans overnight and call me in the morning. We left it there and I went back to Ruby.

When I looked at her in bed, she seemed a little more settled. The hospice nurse returned my call and confirmed Ralph’s observation. There was no order to keep Ruby at the nursing home; the family was expected to make the decision. This was the very thing I hoped hospice would help me to do, to allow Ruby to die without medical intervention. I decided I would stay there as long as I could–overnight if necessary. I asked Ralph if it was all right for me to sleep in the chair. He said that it was no problem.

It was now close to seven in the evening. One of the aides came in to check on Ruby, to see if she needed her diaper changed. We talked about turning Ruby on her side to help her breathe easier. While the aide worked to make Ruby more comfortable, I went out to call my sister, Gloria. We talked briefly. I suggested that, if she wanted to see her mother alive, she might want to come to Philadelphia. We agreed to talk again in the morning. I still did not suspect that Ruby’s end was so near.

I went back to the room. The aide was gone. Ruby was propped up higher in the bed. Her eyes were open. Her breathing was quieter. I thought she was looking at me. I started to talk, saying that I was her son, Ray, come to visit her. There was no expression on her face. I started to watch her chest to see if she was breathing. For the first time I thought she might be dying. No, she was still breathing; each breath was shallow and taken after a long interval. I started to sing to her. I do not know what I sang, but most likely they were hymns. After singing for a while, I started to talk to her. I was direct. I encouraged her to go, to leave this life–it was almost like a chant. I sang out, “Go, go, it is all right to go; go, go, it is all right to leave this world.”           

Now I knew she was going. She was dying. At one point I thought she was dead, and then there came another breath, and another. I do not know how long this went on. I stroked her head. I sang to her. I encouraged her to go, to find her way. Finally, I was fairly certain she was gone. I put my hand on her chest to see if I could feel a heartbeat. I thought about a story I was working on. In the story a man, in his human vanity, tries to bring another man back to life by breathing into his mouth. I thought about breathing into Ruby’s mouth to bring her back to life.  I did once try to resuscitate a young man who was injured and dying. I did not try it with Ruby. It was her time to leave this world. I went back to encouraging her to find her way to the next world. I sang more hymns. I said several prayers for her release; then I witnessed the last function of her body. As she expired, a tear was formed in her right eye. We both shed a tear as we said our silent goodbye.

At that moment, the phone rang and it was my wife, Nancy; I told her that Ruby had died. She said she was coming to be with me. I said that was fine and hung up. I sang and prayed for a while longer, and then I went out to find a nurse to declare Ruby officially dead. When I approached one and told her that I thought that my mother was dead, she looked shocked. She called for Ralph and they both came into the room with me. The female nurse used her stethoscope to listen for Ruby’s heartbeat, and then shook her head to agree with my assessment that Ruby was indeed dead.

When the nurses left the room, I continued to sing for some time, until the supervising nurse for the evening shift came into the room. She smiled and told me that I was so fortunate to be here when Ruby died, that most people deal with death without experiencing it. She shared that her cat had died today and that she was so happy to be there when it did. I agreed that I was happy to be part of Ruby’s end. I said, “She helped me to come into this world and I was here to help her to leave this world.” We both cried.

The floor nurse came back into the room and asked about Ruby’s clothes. I said, “Give them to whoever needs them.” She suggested that I call the funeral home to come for the body. I called and a woman answered the telephone; she said the funeral director would call me back. For a while I was again alone with Ruby until Nancy came into the room. We hugged and talked. The funeral director called and said that he would be there within half an hour. It was time for our last goodbye. Nancy and I both kissed Ruby one last time and left the hospital.

We drove home silently. I had a big piece of apple cake with vanilla ice cream, followed by two glasses of Irish Mist. I tried to go to bed at about ten-thirty, but I could not sleep. I have been writing for an hour and a half.  Maybe I can sleep now.”

In one way my experience of Ruby’s death was more intimate than my experience of Nancy’s death. I feel that Nancy chose to die when I was not in the room with her. She literally died when I went out to the kitchen to fix a meal for myself. As the above description shares I was there to see Ruby’s last breath of air; nevertheless both experiences were intimately connected with the death of a loved one…and in both experiences I felt very honored to accompany a loved one to threshold of death.

So yes, I have been present for an intimate experience of death– I will share that I found both experiences very positive–what many might find a negative experience in life, I found for myself, a balance, a positive that grows out of being willing to be present for a difficult time in life. Many talk about dealing with death as a battle–“she fought bravely her battle against cancer”. You might have said that about Nancy, but she did not choose those words for her experience. It was simply a negative in life that she had to deal with, to be present for the experience and find the positive where you can in it. After Nancy’s death I have felt her presence several times in my life.

This brings me to a couple of thoughts about my own death: How will I be present for this last act of a long life? First, I will say I don’t agree with a storytelling friend who said: “Just keep on keeping on!” She suggested that you continue to live your life as always and ignore that your time on this earth is nearing its end. I want to think about my end and prepare myself to be as present to the event as I have tried to be in living my life.

You could argue that Raymond talks out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to presence about the subject of death. It was about three months after Nancy’s death that I received a sympathy letter from Susan Carol Scott. She shared that we had met at one of my storytelling performances and talked about the fact that were are both graduates of Princeton Theological Seminary. Like me, her mate had died in the past year–so we were both foot-loose and fancy free! At that time I was working on the remembrance of Nancy: and as I have shared here, Nancy said to me just before she died: “I want you to be happy.”

 I wrote in the remembrance: “I understand that to mean that she wants me to go on with my life and not live in a perpetual state of grief and loss. She wants me to explore new relationships and be open to finding a new mate or happiness in being alone through my last years of life.

I will share that I did think about living alone for the rest of my life–and I could have managed it–but I soon decided that I missed having a mate sleeping beside me in bed at 68 Clemens Road! It was soon after I published Nancy’s remembrance that Susan and I agreed with one of Nancy’s boyfriends who said: “I think our bodies like each other!” I had found that quote in one of Nancy journals and published it in her remembrance. So in some sense I agree with my storytelling friend who suggested that “you just keep on keepin’ on” in your life: I also think at the age of eighty you cannot ignore the closeness of death and I want to think about being present in the time I have left on this earth and how I will be present for my end of life.

It was in the spring 2020 that I created a story– A Conversation with Death. I shared the story with Susan and we talked about it. Susan has worked as a hospice chaplain, so she is not uncomfortable talking about the subject of death. She even made some comments that helped me to refine the story and finally she agreed to help me to create a video recording of my telling the story. I will share this little story and our recording of me telling it–Susan was the camera person!

A CONVERSATION WITH DEATH

I often talk to myself, Raymond Lowell Gray—don’t we all to a more or lesser degree? I may be a little different in that I earned a modest living as an oral storyteller; that involved creating characters and inhabiting them to share a story.

Most recently I’ve been imagining the character–Death. I am interested in the subject of death because I will soon be seventy-nine years old. When I read the morning paper and come to the obituary page, I see a lot of names of people younger than me. The immediacy of death then became particular real last summer when I cared for my wife, Nancy, as she faced death and died. Since her death, I’ve been imagining a conversation with Death that explores the positive in this end of life process.

If you will, come with me to the home where Raymond Lowell Gray lives alone; it is a cool summer night. We find Raymond sitting on the couch in front of the big picture window in his living room. Outside a lite mist partially obscures the branches of a magnolia tree–creating visons of the real and imagined for Raymond to contemplate.

Raymond closes his eyes to encourage his creative process. For a period of time he lingers between the states of sleep and wakefulness, conscious and unconscious, like the misty world outside his living room window.

It is a sense of presence that encourages Raymond to open his eyes again. Slowly he turns– though not hard and fast of flesh and sinew, he sees a night visitor sitting next to him on the couch. This visitor is not devoid of humanity–indeed he is dressed in jeans and flannel shirt much like Raymond often wears. As he turns to face Raymond, there is warmth in his wrinkled smile.

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 Bergmann movie, you know hooded, carrying a scythe, full of endings, not beginnings….what should I call you?”

Death stands up, his face toward the darkened window, “I would like to be called, Teacher, maybe even, Friend.”

Now Raymond stands up next to Death and they both stare out the window for a quiet time. Then Raymond responds: “Since childhood I think I have unconsciously wanted to think of death as a positive. I mean kinda like a kick in the butt to remind me that life is not eternal. We should have a purpose, things we want to do in life. So, I guess in a way I have…unconsciously…thought of you as my teacher.”

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

Raymond Lowell does not answer immediately. He stands with his new friend and teacher–like two travelers on the bow of ship at sea–they both stare into the misty night outside the big window. Finally 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, but I have found purpose in my creative work.”

“Your world of story”, says Death.

“Yes”, says Raymond, “and in old age, I have developed a fascination for spiritual stories. The Greek write, Nikos Kazantzakis, put this way: “God made us as grubs, by our effort we become butterflies.”

“Ah, God”–Death sighs–“the bane of my existence. The source of all positive and I am left to shepherd the poor soul who face the negative in life. So tell me Raymond Lowell Gray, how have you found in old age a purpose, a way to turn into a butterfly?”

Now it is Raymond’s turn to sigh…”I think it has something to do with the balance of opposites, the god positives and the death negatives maybe…but I am old and my time to die is coming near. I fear the loss of control, control of my life! Every night I close the blinds of this window, I lock the doors. I try to control my life, but I am isolated, alone and …and I can’t imagine a world without me, me, me…I’m exaggerating a bit to make my point.”

Death interrupts, “Yes, this human ‘me’ thing is a point to make, but if we think of your idea of opposites: then the opposite of ‘me’ is ‘you’ and I suggest that the balance between them is ‘love’. Raymond I think you, Old Man, need to find someone to love…love listens to all and endures all!”

These last words from Death seem to soften and float away. Outside the mist has disappeared and a full moon now illuminates the shape of the magnolia tree. Raymond senses a moment of clear-light understanding and turns to thank Death for sharing this time with him…but his teacher and friend has disappeared like the mist on the night air.

Dropbox Link to Recording: https://www.dropbox.com/s/aymzjbghvddsfs1/Death5.mp4?dl=0

So what do I have to say about my own death?

First, I do not have any understandings that come from theology or philosophy about the experience of death. The only thoughts I have to share come from living with death, not experiencing it. As I have shared here, my thoughts and experiences of death have all found a way to balance the negative with a positive response by doing my best to be present for the life experience. As for my own death, I do fear the unknown about it. The best I can do is to be open to being present, being like the new born babe I was eighty years ago when I came into this world!

This presents a question about being: Are we more than the physical body that came out of our mother’s body? Here the intuitive, creative part of me–I will call it the “Self”–declares its existence separate from the body. I think and feel that I know this Self through the creative experiences I have been given in my life. It is not something that I read about in a book, it is part of my life experience discovered in the creative life I have lived. So yes, I believe that I am more than the physical body that came out of my mother’s body…and my Self will live on after my physical body turns to dust.

Like the creative life that I have lived, I do not expect to control my experience of death. I simply have to be open to the experience–to be present– and do the best I can to imagine how it will happen. Here I will use another metaphor to describe the experience. I have often imagined my creative works as the seeds of a plant that are scattered on the wind and land where they will. I do try to spread them, but I do not control where they take hold and come to life again in a new human body. So something of my Self will live on in new life and add to the growth of a new Self…no longer my Self, nevertheless supported by my creative energy!

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I KNOW SOMETHING, I DON’T KNOW, I KNOW

Do you have a friend who repeats the same personal story over and over? You say to yourself, ‘All right, I’ve heard that before’. Sometimes we need to forgive them because growing old often leads to repeating ourselves. It can also be appropriate if there is someone in your company that does not know your friend’s stories. You know them because you are…well, good friends, you enjoy each other’s company and spend a lot of time together! 

My friend, Edward, is one of those old ones that I forgive for repeating his story about human consciousness. What can I tell you about my friend, Edward R Jones…to get to know him? First, I will share that I am writing this because he died last week and I am trying to come to terms with the loss.

Edward was one of those humans who never quite fit into a standard mold created by society for us all to follow. First, he was dyslexic and started his education before this disability was identified. Teachers underestimated his intelligence and he resisted their evaluations…developing a strong characteristic of the contrarian in his personality.

This negative part of Edward’s personality was balanced with many positive abilities. He had a strong sense of curiosity about the world around him–everything from the mechanics of his bicycle as a boy to an interest in nature and the creatures that inhabit it…including the humans throughout his life. Edward was good at asking questions that made his friends feel his interest in them and the lives they were living. This curiosity about the world around him often led to observations that other found thoughtful and worth consideration…some even called them wise…Edward’s contrarian nature seldom found the worth in being identified as wise, but he loved the engagement with the minds and hearts of others.

Edward’s connection to the natural world was shown clearly in his first ever creative project. As a young man he wanted to explore the human expression of spirituality. After graduating from college he contemplated a degree in theology and a career in the Christian Church of his family of origin. This traditional career path was soon rejected and he began to explore his spiritual energy in a non-traditional–contrarian you might say–interest. He developed an interest in research being done to understand the ways of wolves. He traveled to the Canadian north woods to participate in a study of their pack habits.

Scientists from a Canadian university were engaged in learning the habits of wolf packs. This was a time before the development of technology for tracking animals. They followed the movement of their subjects across the wilderness by going out at night, howling, and the wolves would answer the human calls….and so the scientist could determine the nightly movements of the wolves through the woods.

Edward found this communication with another species elemental for his being; indeed, he would later describe the experience as spiritual–communion with the divine. When he returned from his summer’s adventure, he created a program called “Way of the Wolf” and sold it to a museum.

Later Edward jokingly declared to many of his friends that he felt that he was a “wolf”…there was an elemental energy in him that he first consciously identified on those nights of howling and hearing the wolves responding back to him.

This elemental energy founded in the natural world became the basis for a career for Edward. For more than thirty years he created multi-media programs that he sold to museums, schools and community groups….canoeing the Yukon River to create a program about the Alaskan Gold Rush…and paddling a sea kayak across the Aegean Sea to understand the adventure stories in Greek mythology….to name just a few of his programs. For Edward these programs were a way to explore, grow in understanding and share with others your adventures in the natural world!   

The performing career of Edward R lasted for thirty plus years. It was at the age of sixty-four years that he experienced a metanoia, a change of focus for his curiosity. At that time his mother, Thelma, was living with Edward and his wife. One day Thelma saw Edward reading Carl Jung’s memoir–Memories, Dreams, Reflections. She asked her son an innocent question: “How long does it take to read that book?”

Edward thought a long moment and then responded: “Forty years!”

Thelma laughed and said: “You must be a slow reader.”

Edward smiled in return as he started to consciously reflect on this unexpected truth: Why had he turned these stories of Jung’s life, his individuation, into his own personal bible, his holy scripture?

For the first time in Edward’s life his curiosity turned consciously inward and he started to think rationally about stories he might create from Jung’s exploration of the human experience.

One of the concepts that peaked Edward’s interest was the idea of “archetype”. Jung’s idea of archetype is described as an innate, unspecific energy, derived from the sum total of human history, which prefigures and directs conscious behavior. Edward immediately thought about the energy that had driven his choices for subjects to explore and create programs for others to enjoy and learn about life. He recognized his energy was connected to the natural world and he started to think about how this energy had directed his life.  

This led to a time for Edward when being was more important than doing in his life. He stopped advertising his programs, his money making and ego engaging activities. Over a period of several years his work slowly disappeared. He became accustomed to spending most days alone–reflecting on the way he wanted to spend the last third of life…however long that might be.

Slowly a philosophy of life became conscious and Edward explored feelings and thoughts about it. He thought about life as being meaningful when we find a balance between the opposites in our world. This led him to describe himself as “wishy-washy…..always seeing the positives and negatives in life, but not trying to direct his path, or the path of anyone’s life. This attitude about life brought more of a sense of wholeness where you accept opposites, you do not try to change them; instead you accommodate them, to balance them.

This will to accept rather change the world opened the door for introspection and reflection. When Edward’s wife became ill, and a year later died, he struggled to maintain his balance with Death on the other side of the seesaw we call life. Luckily, his wife Mary had left her journals for him to read and learn many things about a remarkable life that she had lived. He learned many things about Mary that he would not have known if he had died before her. For six months he worked on a remembrance of Mary’s life…many days crying as he worked to create it. When the book was published he felt a new balance…but now Death was part his balance of life and he needed to understand this new relationship, this new relationship with his natural world.

These are a few of Edward’s thoughts about death that he shared with me: We live in a world where many prefer euphemisms when they talk about Death– Our friend “has passed away”; or, “she’s gone on to better place”. We have trouble talking about Death as a reality in our lives. These euphemisms are a way to ward off this reality of life, the balance of positive and negative…that is, our lives all end in death. This is the negative, but there must be a balance, a positive present in the reality of death. Edward started to think about ways to confront the reality of death–to seek a balance of mind and heart, or reason and spirit as we engaged this end of life. So one day he sat down to write a story about a conversation with Death.

                                                            ***********************

Come….Let’s join Edward as he sits on the couch in front of the big window in the living room of his home. There is the dark of night outside the big window. Edward closes his eyes in a meditative state and imagines a conversation with Death. The shadows of the night meld together, and after a time of quiet reflection, Edward opens his eyes to see 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 Edward–gray hair, dressed in blue jeans and sport shirt that fits tight around his belly. Slowly he turns to face Edward; there is warmth to his wrinkled smile that Edward 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”, stumbles Edward. “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 do 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 Edward 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. I need a purpose for life, things I want to do before I 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, Edward 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 old age….the negatives seem to outweigh the positives: my physical body doesn’t work like it used to, there is the threat of dementia, being alone without a partner since my wife’s death 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 his head, Death responds, “Yes, me has its place in your human life; 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 Edward, you have had a great loss with Mary dying, 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 Edward now sees a full moon illuminating the shape of the Magnolia tree in the back lawn. He 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 mind and heart, the rational with the creative, the human with the eternal in us all.

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This brings me to the purpose– you might say the heart of this story–during the last years of Edward R’s life he became fascinated (curious) about the ideas of Gnosticism. Gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge”. Edward wanted to explore the idea that: “We know something that we don’t know that we know. “ I will not say that he ever declared a belief, a certainty, about his exploration of this idea, but he did try to understand it. Edward often shared his idea that this knowledge is hidden from us because our physical bodies prevent us from being wholly in touch with our spiritual selves. It is only at death that we are freed to discover this knowledge that we don’t know that we know!

So you see my friend Edward found another way to balance the negative inherent in the process of dying. He felt that Death is a friend and we find wholeness in death that we cannot find in our physical bodies

I will share one more detail about my friend, Edward R Jones. Death was right in suggesting that Edward should be open to finding new love after the death of his wife, Mary. Whether it was God’s spiritual blessing or Death’s good reasoning, Edward did find new love with a mate. Edward was happily married to Sarah for six years before his death!

And I will end this contemplation by sharing that I want to thank Edward for helping me to understand and reflect on my own end of life experience through telling his story!

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A God In My Pocket

I am preparing a performance that grows out of Carl Jung’s, The Red Book. The performance begins with the telling of Jung’s story about the giant (demi-god) called, Izdubar, in Mesopotamian mythology. My hope is that the performance will engage the audience in several ways. First, I hope to distinguish our human gifts for exploring the world through both our powers of reason and creative soul. As Jung suggests in his story, we in the west do sometimes depend on our powers of reason as the only gift to understand and engage our world. We need to explore more our creative and intuitive powers that open access to the energy of the unconscious. Jung used the concept called “active imagination” to describe the way we open ourselves to communication with the unconscious. Jung exercises a form of active imagination when giving voice to his unconscious by describing a conversation between himself and his soul. I will share my interpretation of this conversation that occurs early in The Red Book.

                                                A Conversation with My Soul

My Soul: Dear Gramundos, it is time, time to turn inward and consider the questions that have long haunted you.

Gramundos: I don’t understand. Of what do you speak?

My Soul: You know well of what I speak. Since your youth you have struggled with the eternal questions…..questions that have confounded the human race from the beginning of consciousness. WHERE DO I COME FROM? WHY WAS I PUT ON THIS EARTH? AND, WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO ME WHEN I DIE?

Gramundos: Soul Dearest, I feel I must be direct. I am exhausted from the day’s labor. Why will you not allow me to rest, to enjoy my night’s sleep?

My Soul: Beloved Gramundos now is not the time for sleep. Night is the time for the struggle that awaits you.

Gramundos: Soul Dearest, I find there are no answers to these questions. At best, we speculate and tell stories that point to a truth, but there are no answers that satisfy the rational mind.

My Soul: Precisely and to the point, you are one who has some understanding of the non-rational, the symbolic truth, and you can help others to explore the divine and share it.

Gramundos: I can’t see why I should do this: Is it not a fool’s errand to speak of a subject that has no popularity in the world today? You ask me to risk my mental and physical health, not to mention my place in society, to speak about a subject that no one knows they are missing.

My Soul: You know, and you have known from birth that you are called to this task. Your time of worldly success has passed. Your time to explore the unconscious, the life of the soul is present.

Gramundos: Why should I listen to you now, at this late time in my life?

My Soul: Yes, you have ignored my voice for many years, but it is not too late to renew our relationship and move forward with the foreordained task set at your birth. You have arrived at the time in life when all humans are asked to loosen the bonds of reason and engage the soul.

                                                        ************************

So this imagined conversation between my Soul/Self (Unconscious) and my ego-self leads to a second way I hope to engage my audience through my performance. Times, stages in our lives, ask us to focus on different ways to engage life. As Gramundos’ Soul suggest, he has ignored her voice for many years, but now “your time for worldly success is past” and it time to engage the work of the soul. I would argue that it is in the last third of life that we need to find time to consciously communicate with our Soul.

I will share a bit of my own story of how I began to focus on communicating with my soul in the last third of life. When I was about sixty-four–fifteen years ago–I was confronted by a reality that my storytelling business in schools was diminishing….I was feeling depressed and wondering if I needed to make some changes in my life. One day, my Mother, Ruby (who was living with my wife and I at the time) saw me reading Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams, Reflections” (MDR) and she asked a simple question:

“How long does it take to read that book?”

I thought a moment and responded with a smile: “Forty years.”

She laughed and said: “You must be a slow reader.”

It was that prod, innocent on her part, which led me to realize that I had been reading Jung’s MDR over and over for most of my adult life–it had become my Scripture! This realization kindled my desire to better understand this spiritual focus in my life….and, my way to explore and understand is to create a story!

For several years after Ruby’s prodding I followed a transitional path from being Ray Gray, the presenter of storytelling for school children, to Gramundos (name created by one of my storytelling friends) the explorer of the human soul! I stopped promoting my storytelling programs for children in schools and over a period of two-three years the work disappeared. In the place of the children’s storytelling, I started to work on adult stories that I loosely imagined as stories for the last third of life. First, I created two performance from MDR titled, “Imagining the World of Carl Jung” where I performed Jung in the first person–these performances had the widest presentation from England to Canada and several cities in the US. A third performance, “The Red Book Stories” had only a couple of local performances and never found an audience.

It was three years into my transition that I decided to expand my exploration by writing about my life. I started to work on a multi-media memoir with audio and video recordings that augment the writing. The memoir was published as a kindle book, “Grandpa Jung’s Lessons, for a slow reader”. Work on the memoir led to the decision to self-publish two of my children’s stories as paperback books with illustrations. These stories had been shared as oral stories in school programs for many years, but now they were important for understanding the path I had chosen in life.

It was just over three years ago, at the beginning of the project to publish one of my children’s books, “Ice Cream Mud”, that my wife, Nancy, was diagnosed with stage-four esophageal cancer. It was during the year that we worked on the book that she struggled with her illness and finally died just weeks before the book was published. Nancy’s death lead to the last book project I have created since starting to work on stories for the last third of life. This is a remembrance of Nancy Wicklund Gray, “The Music of Life”. It was my way of understanding and dealing with the grief of losing a mate that I deeply loved.

I share these personal experiences to illustrate the third way I hope to engage my audience through telling Jung’s Izdubar myth. I believe that life is a creative process. We either act as the creator or receiver of the benefits from the creative process– the interaction that moves past the rational to understand life and engage the soul through an experience of active imagination. I know that I benefited by creating Nancy’s remembrance. And, in a different way, I benefited from reading Jung’s story because it introduced an idea that invigorated my creative process, my engagement with my soul. Jung introduces in the Izdubar story, the idea of a god my pocket! This idea has suggested to me that much of my adult life; I kept my god in my pocket. Only now, in my late seventies am I now taking that god out of my pocket to explore and understand how I may benefit from my relationship with the Collective Unconscious or God! So if you’re up for it, let me share my version of Jung’s Izdubar story…how in old age I am trying to open a conversation with My Soul.

                                                            Izdubar, the Giant    

So it was through imagination and the power of story I set out on a journey to the east to discover the birthplace of my Soul…..and my imagination transports me to a place of bare-rock mountains intertwined with narrow, dry valleys…..stifling hot by day and freezing cold by night. Then an experience is given to me: I hear a rumble of thunder; I look up, not a cloud in the sky, only the sun dissolving all moisture in the air.

I am quiet….I listen, look and feel: Then through a pass in the mountains there appears an enormous man. He has two bull horns protruding from his great head. His head is covered with thick, curly, black hair……He has a broad chest shielded by chain mail armor the color of midnight blue….a double-bladed ax in hand.

Then in a moment, with three giant strides, he is standing before me: I freeze in the shadow of this fearsome creature….slowly I look up at his face expecting to see belligerence…. Instead I see a look of expectation.

Hesitantly, cautiously I say: “Most Honored One please spare my life and forgive me for lying like a worn in your path.”

“I do not want your life”, responds the Bull-man, “Where do you come from?”

Raising my head more, I call to him, “Please forgive me Most Honored One, I come from the west.”

“You come from the western lands.” I hear a sound of anticipation in his voice. “Do you know the place where the Sun goes to be renewed after its daily labors?”

“Most Honored One”, I respond, “I fear I am the bearer of unsatisfying truth–what we humans call science–there is no place where the Sun goes to rest each day after its labors. The Sun stands a great distance from you and me. You see, you and I, we live on a planet called Earth. Our Earth spins on its axis as it circles the Sun creating the illusion that the Sun sets in the west each day.”

Now the Bull-man looks puzzled: “You tell me there is no immortal land where the Sun goes each night to be reborn for the coming of the new day?”

“Most Honored One, again forgive me for speaking my human truth.”

The Bull-Man drops his ax to the ground and calls out again: “Damn your truth…you tell me there is no western land where I can go to attain immortality, to be born anew as the Sun is born anew each day!”

I point up to sky and say: “Please forgive me Most Honored One, can you understand, the Sun is a celestial body out there, far out in unending space.”

Now I see a look of fear on the Bull-man’s face: “Unending you say, I cannot go there if I keep walking to the west?”

I reach out to him in sympathy: “Insofar as part of you is mortal, you cannot reach the Sun.”

Now the Bull-man drops to the ground and says in despair: “I am mortal, I will never be immortal as the Sun. I cannot do battle against endless space. There is nothing left for me to conquer.”

So time passes and the sun slowly disappears over the western mountains. Then the Bull-man raises his eyes and looks to the heavens, “Go damned father of the gods, wrap yourself in immortality. Your faithful son is left without hope for eternity.”

The chill of the coming night finally stirs me from the side of my fallen hero god. I gather wood and light a fire. Slowly the heat begins to warm the two of us, most unlikely companions.

Then, for the first time, the Bull-man looks directly into my eyes and says: “This truth, this science, you speak of, is it a god to replace my Father, the immortal Sun?”

“Oh no”, I say with a little sarcastic laugh, “It is no more than words, just an idea about the truth.”

The Bull-man looks trouble, “Then you have nothing to believe in?”

“You speak the truth”, I say with a nod of recognition, “Science has taken from me the capacity for belief and it is because of this that I have come to the east to the land of the rising sun to seek a new way to understand my world.”

The Bull-man says nothing in return; so we both rest before the coming of a new day and hopefully a new beginning.

When first morning light shines, I rise up and kindle the fire again. The Bull-man does not rise up to sit by the fire. The experience of the past day has left him in a weakened state and he cannot lift his heavy body from the ground.

Recognizing this new reality, I feel the Bull-man’s loss: “Most Honored One”, I call across the fire, “I know that I am greatly responsible for your loss of power.”

“This poison you call science has cut me down”, says the Bull-man, “let me be, death must come to us all if your science speaks the truth.”

 “But I cannot just leave you to die”, I say. “I feel a great sense of responsibility for your plight my friend….and added to that I will share that I have never felt as alive as I did when first we met. I did not want to harm you by sharing my truth. I said what I was taught in school, not what I know from living. We are both wanderers on this Earth……. We both seek the truth that will fulfill the lives that we have been given to live.”

“I do not blame you”, says the Bull-man.

Now I start to think about our predicament–the Bull-man is too big for me to move him–I stand up from the fire and walk a short distance, stop and call back to him: “I have an idea!”

The Bull-man looks incredulous: “Why should I find hope in your human idea: Was it not your idea of science that condemned me in the first place!”

I come back to the Bull-man and say: “Please forgive me Most Honored One, but we in the west believe that ideas can both help and harm us. We have to be rational in our thinking process, but also open to the energy of the heart. I believe this idea will help us.”

“Then speak your idea”, says the Bull-man.                       

“Thank you”, I say, “In the west we have what are called myths. A myth tells a story that is true in the inner world of the imagination…it speaks to our heart and soul. Please understand me Most Honored One, I do not wish to offend you, but you are not real in the western, scientific sense of reality. You are the imaginative creation of an ancient storyteller. If I remember Mesopotamian mythology correctly, you are Izdubar a demigod or superhuman in these ancient stories. If you can accept this new reality, I may be able to carry you back to the west where you can find your immortality through the telling of your story!

The Bull-man, demi-god, Izdubar, sighs, “Damn your science, your new reality, your story……but I have no other choice. Life changes and new realities appear whether we choose them or not. I accept the truth of your reality.”

Then, in a magical moment, for both me and the Bull-man, we are metamorphosed into the reality of an ancient story! We find ourselves standing before a great tree with roots that reach into the earth and branches that disappear into the heavens. I understand that this tree is the Tree of Life and it provides an avenue for journeying from the world of humans and our powers of reason, to the world of the gods–the powers of the heart and soul. I understand that the branches closer to the earth provide support for those humans most bound to human reason. As you climb higher into the Tree of Life, the powers of reason and science are of less use as you create stories of the relationship between the human and the divine.

The understanding of this reality is as a clear light for me. I look to my god-man, Izdubar and see that he has become lite as air. So I reached out and take hold of him. Now Izdubar’s body is soft and pliable: I begin to work his shape, squeezing and folding, I work this godly reality into a size that I can manage in the world of human reason….a god that I can carry in my pocket!

                                                        ***********************

 The idea of a “god in my pocket” is a new for me. I will allow it to ripen and mature a bit on Tree of Life before I try to create a story, my form of creative engagement with My Soul!

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STILL WALKING TO MY GRAVE

I find it energizing to see a tombstone with my name etched in it. Presently my name and birth year, 1942, are on the stone, followed by a line that awaits the date of my death. When I look at this marker for my life I imagine a time one hundred years from now. I imagine someone who has a connection to me coming for a visit. They will see that I have left a message, a communication for them to appreciate and wonder about the person who created it.

I could make an argument that all creative work is a form of the tombstone. We leave markers for others to read, to interpret and to understand how we have engaged the world. I think this is particularly true for older artist; we are past the need or desire to gain fame or fortune from our work, but we still feel the need to communicate how we have experienced this world! I like to think about it as my wish to leave my scats about for others to find after I am gone from this earth. I think of my blogs as a form of creative scat that I am leaving for people to discover long after I have died.

We should not forget to mention the idea that a stone, particularly the philosopher’s stone, was thought to have the power to give immortality to the person who knew how to mix different kinds of stone–a form of alchemy! So perhaps there is a bit of the alchemist in me when I visit my tombstone–just another way to become immortal!

One last thought about visiting my tombstone–a thought that contradicts or balances thoughts about immortality–this tombstone reminds me that my time on this Earth is limited. If I have things I want to accomplish, I best get started, motivated to get it done! I will not be here forever. I learned this lesson early in life because I came from a big family that lived in one area of western Pennsylvania. As a child I saw many old people laid out in a casket with flowers around them. I remember thinking: That will be you some day, Raymond Lowell, if you want to be and do in this world, get started!

So I will continue to climb the hill to Doylestown Cemetery to remind me of my mortality and at the same time appreciate my desire to be remembered for the life I have lived on this Earth!

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CAN ONE PLUS ONE EQUAL ONE? It can for two who were never good at math!

Susan Scott moved to Clemens Road yesterday. This was a bold gesture of trust in me–selling her house in Avondale. We are in the process with a lawyer preparing a prenuptial agreement that declares that Susan is the owner of my house when I die….nevertheless I see her moving to Doylestown as a bold gesture. I might even go one step further and say that it is a bold gesture for both of us to be willing to start a new relationship at the ages of seventy-five–for her–and seventy nine for me.

Susan and I are not novices when it comes to taking risks in our lives. My career as an oral storyteller required many decisions that tested your sanity if you want to be safe and secure in earning a living. Susan’s  decision in mid-life to end her first marriage and go to seminary with four children was about as bold as any life change that I have heard of anyone doing. So we both are risk takers to fulfill the imaginings of our heart and mind!

Individuals our ages often do not commit to becoming a couple. I suppose there are many reasons for this reluctance: Susan found her second husband, Bill, dead on their bed in the middle of the day. My second wife, Nancy, died after more than a years’ struggle with cancer. For both, Susan and I, the loss of a deeply loved mate was very difficult….and now we are signing up for one of us to again suffer the loss of one that you deeply love.

A common friend recently remembered seeing Susan and I talking on the first night that we met at a gathering of storytellers. She thought at the time–those two seem well matched–good energy between them! This observation is matched by the fact that we both made C’s in math! So….maybe….there is a good chance, for us, that one plus one can equal one!

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CREATIVE PRESENCE…a new “MeStory”

We all have stories to tell that trace the path we have followed through our lives. Some of these stories we tell to the world, but some we tell only to ourselves. As a professional storyteller I have spent much of my life telling stories to others.

It was only a few years ago that I started to think consciously about the “Me Stories” I have told myself through many years. I recognized several facts about these “private stories”: I am the only action character in the story; often a single action is repeated over and over; and the story is told in that time after I close my eyes and before I lose wakefulness.

The story changed as I passed through the stages of life. The first story I remember telling myself started at about the age of nine or ten: I am driving an Oldsmobile convertible with two Boxer dogs in the back seat. I drive past a girl standing beside the road, time after time. I don’t stop to engage the girl in conversation. About the age of sixteen the story becomes me as a football player. I have the ball and I am running through the opposing team. I break free and run toward the goal, but I never score the touchdown…I just run toward it over and over.  By twenty-something I am living in an apartment. There is a beautiful woman who lives down the hall. I go to her apartment and open the door. I walk toward her bedroom, over and over again, but never go through the bedroom door. The mid-forties find me climbing the stairs to a stage where I am to receive an award for my creative work. I climb the stairs over and over, but I never accept the award.

Wait! Hold on! I think I understand the point of these “Me Stories”: I enjoy imagining the moment of success–the story–more than living it!

Ah, I can see you shaking your head in pity for the old teller of stories….no wonder he’s not become famous and rich in his life-he’s just a dreamer. Again, hold on a minute and let me make a case for my understanding of life. I was born into a Christian world that encouraged me to find meaning in anticipation of a future life, not this life. Heaven is my home; I’m just passing through this world–this was the wisdom of the world that bore me.

Today, I do not call myself a Christian–at least not the kind that my family imagined when I was a child. I try to be centered on the moment I am living.  My goal is presences! I try to not dwell on past failures or future successes like sex, scoring touchdowns, fame and fortune….or even eternal life in heaven. My ambition is to engage in daily life creatively. I find meaning in life through the creative act…..writing or telling a story, or just fixing a clogged bathroom sink! (Blog, March, 2019).

 My “Me Stories” today explore the world through the creative act. I find my spiritual and worldly meaning in this engagement….my reward is the creative presence in my life!

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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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