THE CUT AND RUN KID…still on my mind

As I begin my seventy-seventh year on this earth I am thinking about how I spend my days. I am an early riser. There is a good reason for this habit of life. Early morning is the hour when negative thoughts are most likely to appear for me. This morning my thoughts were again focused (blog for August 4, 2015) on my tendency to “cut and run” when events in life do not go as I want them.

Recently I severed my relationship with the National Museum of Industrial History because they did not show interest in my focus on the stories of workers in addition to the machines in the museum. Casting about for my next project I went back to the stacks of stories that live in the spare room. Some of these stories once had a life in performance, but many have never escaped the boundaries of paper, pen and one man’s imagination. One of those musings was entitled, “Tracing Shadows and Dreams into Stories”. This story purports to be in the form of a memoir, but as the title suggests it includes a bit of imagination. Despite these fanciful additions, I think there is truth in the tale. The story was written about fifteen years ago, but it tells a personal story from nearly fifty years ago. I have continued to explore its meaning in this new version.

January in western Pennsylvania can be Minnesota cold, but it is just as likely to be a mix of freezing rain, snow and back to rain. It was one of those nights that I drove into Zelienople. This Pennsylvania town was founded in the early nineteenth century by a wealthy German. He bought ten thousand acres in the Pennsylvania wilderness and founded a town that he named after his daughter, Zelie. We are left to surmise from the name of the town that he had visions of creating a new world Constantinople, a crossroads of world cultures in the new world. Zelienople had not reached this ideal by 1970; nevertheless, it was a prosperous, small town with a main street lined with red brick buildings. One end was anchored by the Presbyterian Church and at the other end by the First National Bank of Zelienople. I was headed to the bank, a gray granite structure with Doric columns across the front of its portico.

The Presbyterian Church in 1970 educated its future ministers in seminaries across America, but left the decision to ordain them as ministers in the hands of the churches that spawned them. I was raised in a church in the Beaver-Butler Presbytery in western Pennsylvania–the presbytery is the political institution of the Presbyterian Church above the local church. I was finishing my last semester at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and looking forward to graduation and being ordained the following summer. I had one more meeting with the presbytery’s committee that guided candidates along the three year path to ordination. The meeting was being held in the bank.

The meeting room was on the second floor. You did not enter through the front of the building; there was a private entrance at the back. I remember the sound of the marble steps. The wet cold of the January night was matched by this place of cold stone steps, brass railings and gray-green walls. As I climbed the steps to the second floor I could hear the sound of voices; it was not the sound of good friends gathered to commune, more like bankers talking business.

The door to the boardroom was partly open. I announced my arrival with a knock and pushed the oak door open. The room was warmer and more inviting than the steps and hallway. Though the walls were the same color and the floor the same cold marble, the warmth was achieved by the yellow light of the living room style lamps in place of the florescent lighting in the hallway. The lamps were scattered on small side tables around the periphery of the room. There was one large rectangular, oak table with twelve chairs in the center of the room. The walls were decorated with oil paintings. Four paintings on one wall depicted the Pennsylvania countryside in the different seasons of the year. Another wall was dominated by a large painting of the main street of Zelienople with the First National Bank well positioned for appreciation. Behind the head of the table there were two portraits of distinguished men in dark, business suits. The art work was original and I took this as a hopeful sign.

I had done my homework. As I waited to be recognized, I surveyed the room. The head of the candidates-care committee of the Beaver-Butler Presbytery sat in a solid oak chair beneath the portraits at the far end of the table. Malcolm Fiennes was his name. Mr. Fiennes was a man who looked uncomfortable in a business suit. His weathered face and callused hands identified his profession. He was a farmer who was old enough to have sons who ran the everyday business of the family farm. He still worked every day, but Malcolm had time to serve as an elder in the Zelienople Presbyterian Church and head this committee of the presbytery. He was also on the board of the bank where we were meeting. The other six members of the committee appeared to be more comfortable in their suits. They were an assortment of ordained ministers and other professions. Finally the business of the moment was completed and Mr. Fiennes looked toward the door: “Come in, come in Mr. Gray, find yourself a seat”, said the head of the candidates-care committee.

I surveyed the options for my seating as I took off my coat. The six committee members were gathered at the far end of the table near Mr. Fiennes. I might have chosen a seat at the side of the table next to one of the committee members; instead I chose the seat alone at the opposite end of the table from the head of the committee.

“I hope you did not have a difficult time with the weather tonight”, said Mr. Fiennes.

“No sir”, I responded as I draped my coat over the seat and sat down, “my grandparents all live in Kittanning. We always pass through Zelienople when we go for a visit. I’ve made many snowy trips through your town.”

“Good, good Raymond, let’s get to our business with you. This is I believe your third meeting with the committee?”

“Yes sir.”

“You are finishing your third year at Princeton”, said Mr. Fiennes as he read from his notes. “You are a member of the Four Mile Church. Good, we want to take a little of your time for some questions. I see that your grades are good, not great, but you have passed the course in Hebrew that was causing you problems.”

“Yes sir.”

“You have taken your exams for ordination. You passed the difficult one in Bible, but you failed theology?”

“Yes, I did, but I have rescheduled that exam. You see I finish class work this month, but I won’t graduate until spring. I took a job working in a steel mill, but I can still find time to study for a retake of the theology.”

“You took a job in the mill? That seems a little strange”, said Mr. Fiennes.

“Well sir, I am married. I need the money to support my family until I find a job in the Church. Besides, I come from a family of steelworkers. I want to know what it is like to work with my hands not my head.”

“I can see the merit in that,” said Fiennes as he put his papers aside and looked directly at me for the first time. “Since you are having trouble with theology, Mr. Gray, let’s talk about it. The Bible, Mr. Gray, what is the role of the Bible in our Christian life?”

“I believe the New Testament, Sir, is the writing of the early followers of Jesus. The story is in part the biography of Jesus and the history of the early Church; all is told with a sense of myth and poetry. The Old Testament is the story of the Hebrew people, the ancestors of Jesus. Again, there is variety of writing styles: history, poetry and myth.”

I paused for a moment to think how I wanted to continue my answer. Mr. Fiennes took the opportunity to rephrase his question, “Then the Bible is literature, a book, a good book for everyone to read?

“Yes”, I said, “it is a good book, perhaps the greatest ever written. Its role in the Church has differed from time to time, from Christian Church to Christian Church. Our Reformed tradition has placed great importance on members of the community reading the Bible and not relying on the authority of the clergy. This is why the Presbyterian Church has always strongly supported education. Everyone should be able to read…”

Mr. Fiennes interrupted me, “Is it divinely inspired, Mr. Gray?”

“Well sir, I believe it is, in so much as any human writing is undertaken in a respectful, honest way. I don’t believe it was mystically presented on a holy mountain. These are stories humanly created to convey a divine, spiritual message.”

Like a pack of hound dogs picking up the scent of prey, I noticed the other members of the committee starting to shift about in their chairs uneasily. Only one man, about my age, was sitting perfectly still and staring at the floor.

The farmer, Mr. Fiennes, kept a steady position in his chair of authority; his eyes focused on me the candidate for ordination. “Raymond, then let us imagine that you are a pastor preaching the Word, a sermon on the virgin birth at Christmas time. How would you communicate the divine, spiritual message of our Savior’s birth?”

“Sir”, I said with equal authority, “I would not focus on the conception of the baby Jesus. For myself, I do not need to believe that Mary was impregnated divinely in order to believe in Jesus as my Savior. I would preach a sermon that focused on the human experience of Jesus. I would tell the story of a poor family forced by political necessity to be on the road at a difficult time. I would talk about how God chose to become human and to suffer as we all suffer…”

“Excuse me, Raymond, excuse me once more, then how would you approach a sermon on Christ’s rising from the grave on Easter morning?”

“The resurrection”, I paused as I considered how to express my understanding of another central element in the Christian story. I also paused because I knew I was building a wall between myself and the candidates-care committee of the Beaver-Butler Presbytery. Maybe I was enjoying the confrontation. I have never been able to resist an opportunity to express my ideas in a good conversation. I looked into the eyes of every member of committee and finally settled on Mr. Fiennes: “The resurrection is another part of the Christian myth, like the virgin birth, their truth is not measured in terms of historical facts; rather, their truth is measured in the words of a story. The divine, in the person of Jesus, came to earth, lived, suffered death and was brought back to life again. Through this story we have modeled for us the gift of grace; we can make mistakes, even do bad things and still be forgiven. This is the good news I will preach. This is the story, the gift of grace that I will tell from the Bible.”

Like the hangman handing the noose to the convicted to hang himself, Mr. Fiennes smiled and said, “And what do you have to say about heaven?”

I did not turn back: “What happens when we die? I truly do not know. I am young and still in wonder at the idea of grace. As St Paul says in the book of Acts something like, ‘I do not account my life of value nor as precious to myself… as long as I testify to the gospel of the grace of God.’ So like Paul I hold to the idea that I will preach the grace of God, the forgiveness of sins, the chance to be wrong, to do wrong and to be forgiven and start over again. That is the miracle of the Christian faith for me.” There was silence in the room. Mr. Fiennes had no more questions.

“Tell us about your involvement in the seminary, Mr. Gray”, the speaker was another member of the committee. I guessed that he was a pastor, but I did not know his name.

“Well sir, I am married and I have a small son. I am kept busy with class work and childcare. My wife works as a nurse several evenings a week, so I spend a lot of my time with my son when I am not in class or studying.”

“Have you participated in any anti-war protests?” asked the man.

Now I felt a different form of challenge. I looked directly at him and said, “I am against the war in Vietnam. I am not a pacifist. There are times when war is the only alternative, but I do not believe this is one of those wars. I have participated in marches on Washington organized by a group called, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. I marched behind Martin Luther King one time.

“Have you participated in those southern boycotts?”

“No sir, my civil rights involvements have been more related to causes outside of the United States. Before starting seminary I spent two years in Latin America with the Peace Corps. Over the past few years I have spent time as an observer of elections in the Dominican Republic, part of group called, ‘Derechos Humanos’. I also spent a summer in Mexico participating in a workshop with others concerned with the human rights of poor people in Third World countries.”

“Excuse me one more time, Mr. Gray”, it was Mr. Fiennes again, “are you really interested in being ordained?”

This time I did not look him in the eyes. With my head down, I said, “I do want to serve the Church, but I don’t know how best to do it.”

There were no more questions. I was asked to step outside the room while the committee discussed my request to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church. Outside in the cold hallway I waited. I was still heated from my performance before the candidates-care committee. I walked back and forth as I thought of ways I might have better expressed myself. To tell the truth today, nearly fifty years later, I am still not sure that I did not go into that meeting with an unconscious intention to cut my ties to the Church.

Regardless of my unconscious intentions, I was not prepared for the results of the meeting. I started to feel the chill in the cold hallway and to become uncomfortable with the length of time the committee members needed to make their decision. I was looking at my watch–half an hour had passed–when the door opened. I was called back into the board room of the bank. Now I felt a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I returned to my seat at the opposite end of the table from the farmer from Zelienople, Pennsylvania.

“Raymond, this committee has given serious consideration to your fitness for ordination”, said Mr. Fiennes. I felt the heavy feeling in my belly turn to real pain. I tried to look Mr. Fiennes in the eyes, but my head kept turning down to the floor. I imagine I looked like a boxer being pummeled with blows to the belly, his head bobbing up and down, trying to gain some balance. “Raymond this committee has decided that you are not prepared to take a position of leadership in the Presbyterian Church. At this time we will not recommend you for ordination. However, we want to offer to you the opportunity to think about your beliefs and your role as an ordained minister in the Church. We will be happy to meet with you again in one year, after you have had time to reconsider your ideas on Christian theology and the role the minister in the Church.

The cold rain on the car windshield made it difficult to see the road leading away from Zelienople, Pennsylvania. Tears rolled down my cheeks; I understand the pain I was carrying home to my mother and father’s house; they had so looked forward to talking about their son, Rev. Raymond Gray. I cried for my wife who was six months pregnant with our second child. She wanted a husband who would earn a steady income and provide a home for his family. For me, the tears were an ablution, a cleansing, a clearing of the path to find a new way to serve in this world. By the grace of God, I found Mr. Fiennes from Zelienople, Pennsylvania and he helped me change directions and become what I was meant to be, not what others wanted me to be!

So maybe it is not always a bad idea to “cut and run”. Maybe better said, “sometimes yes, sometimes no”. Life is full of decision and sometimes we get them right and sometimes we get them wrong. But here is the beauty of the idea of grace: we are allowed to make mistakes, be forgiven and begin over and over again. For me, I am sure of one thing, I was not meant to be a Presbyterian minister, I was meant to be a storyteller who searches the world over for stories that help us to make sense of the world we live in!

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MY FATHER, THE MACHINIST…and more

Fall is quickly passing and signs of winter are in the flower gardens. Nancy and I returned in late October from two weeks in New England. I told stories at the Power of Words Conference in Vermont; and after that, we spent eight days on the Maine coast. This latter quiet time gave me an opportunity to reflect on my past two years of work on the mouse story–an animal fantasy that is set at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America–and volunteering at the National Museum of Industrial History. Do I want to continue my focus on promoting the book and creating other stories related to our industrial past?

I have decided to cut back on my volunteer work at NMIH as a gallery guide. I spent a year trying to generate an interest in talking about a big room full of machines. I could not convince myself to spent time learning about the machines and talking intelligently about what they did in a steel mill. I gave visitors a general introduction to the four exhibits in the museum and then left it to them to read and understand the purpose and task of each machine. And, there were many visitors who applied themselves to learning about the machines. There were also many visitors who lost interest like me and left the museum after a half-hour of looking at machines. I think they need more stories about the people who ran the machines and less about the machines.

Along that line of thinking, I want to share –perhaps just the beginning–a biographical sketch of my own father WHO WAS A MACHINIST! Yes, my father spent forty years of his life working in a steel mill. After an apprenticeship, he worked mostly on a lathe crafting replacement part for machines that had broken down in different parts of the mill. This required him to take measurement and sketch plans for crafting the replacement part.I still have the micrometer he used to measure objects to within one ten-thousands of an inch. He loved to show me as a boy how he could measure the thickness of the evening newspaper. He was proud to be a man who not only ran a machine; he made the parts that facilitated the function of the machine. But the story I want to tell is not about the machinist, I want to tell about the young man who became a machinist.

My father, Cecil Warren Gray, was born into a family of simple country people who lived in the hills of western Pennsylvania. His mother was the daughter of farmers who had emigrated from Germany in the late 19th century. His father was a son of English blood. The family came to America in the early 17th century, but somehow they managed to remain poor for three hundred years. Cecil’s father was a coal miner who died at the age of forty-one after a mysterious incident in the mine. Cecil was seventeen at the time and already trying to find his place as an adult. He had finished his education after the eighth grade and started to work at a variety manual labor jobs.

There was one strong influence that I think directed young Cecil’s future. His uncle, on his mother’s side of the family, was involved in the discovery of oil in western Pennsylvania and eventually followed the oil industry to Oklahoma in the early part of the 20th century. This spawned in young Cecil a drive to go west. Two time in the early 1930’s Cecil set out from Pennsylvania to go west. One trip ended in Oklahoma where he lived in the home of his rich, oilman uncle for a short time. For some reason he did not stay with his uncle and find work in the oil fields. This was never explained. Maybe he was not ready to settle down in one place. Another time he headed west, only this time he was headed to California. He made it to the west coast, but again he could not, or did not want to settle down to find work and make a new life.

Many nights as a boy, I listened to my father’s stories of his adventures going west. When he had money he traveled by bus and by train. When the money was exhausted, he hitch-hiked and rode freight trains as a hobo. I remember one story of him hitch-hiking somewhere in the Midwest and being pick-up by a Chicago gangster–as my father described the man. Another story told of riding a freight train somewhere in Texas and being kicked off the train at a water stop somewhere in the vast plains of west Texas. He was chased by local hooligans and saved his life by running faster than they could run. Another story told of sleeping under a bridge on a stormy night. The river flooded and washed away his only pair of shoes.

As a boy my imagination was stimulated by my father’s stories of adventure. Of course, his stories–if I think about it– were contradicted by the man that I knew all of the time that I was growing up. My father was the machinist. He got up every morning at six-thirty and went to the mill to work. He punched the time clock, worked eight hours over a machine, punched the time clock again and came home for evening supper. Maybe I had the best of both worlds. I had the stability his boring machines provided and periodically I heard his wonderful stories of adventure. Now I see that my father, Cecil Warren Gray, was both a machinist and a storyteller. Maybe I should not be too hard on people who love machines. Even they have stories. Maybe I am convincing myself to begin interviewing retired steel workers to bring to life their stories?

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A STORYTELLER MINING FOR GOLD

August is a good time to interact with your grandchildren before they begin activities for the coming school year. Earlier this month I shared a meal with my grandson and wrote about it. This past week I visited with my granddaughter who was preparing to go off to college for her first adventure alone in the greater world.

When my granddaughter was born eighteen years ago, I decided to keep a journal describing our relationship–we had a regular play day every week. The journal adventure lasted for eight years. Recently I found it among my own journals that go back more than fifty years. The question occurred to me: Should I give the work to her now or save it until she is older? I decided now was the right time. I wanted her to consider the idea of starting her own journal record.

While reading the entries about our relationship fourteen years ago–when my granddaughter was four years old–I discovered one sentence that suggested the beginning of a new story.

Journal entry, October 10, 2003
Pap, are you going to Heaven to be with Reggie? (I am Pap and Reggie was a family dog who had died)

This entry sparked my imagination and I started to write……

Granddaughter: “Pap, when you die, will you be with Reggie in Heaven?”
“I don’t know”, I responded. “Where’s Heaven?”
She paused a moment; then pointed up and said, “Up in the sky with God.”
I pondered another moment and then responded, “What’s it like up in the sky?”
“You’re high above the clouds”, she responded.
“Oh”, I said, “that sounds cool. I could look over the edge of a cloud and see where you live.”
She laughed and said, “Oh Pap, you’re kidding me.”
Seeing the beginning of a good story, I continued to play: “Yes, and maybe you could come to visit with me, Reggie and God! You could ride on Pegasus up to the clouds!”
“Who is Pegasus?”, she asked.
“You don’t know Pegasus”, I responded.” Good, then I will tell you a story of the winged horse.”

Long ago in the ancient land of Greece there lived a beautiful girl of ten years. Her hair was as black as the midnight sky and her eyes were as blue as a cloudless summer sky. Her name was Sofia, which meant in ancient Greece, one of great wisdom and a lover of story. This name was given to her by her grandmother, not by the parents who brought her into the world. You see the day she was born, a great earthquake struck the village where her family lived. Her father, mother and only sister were all killed. Miraculously the girl was found alive in the rubble of the family home and she was given to the grandmother to be raised to adulthood.

The girl’s name was well chosen. From an early age she showed a preference for listening to stories told by the old people who gathered near the spring called Hippocrene. One cool winter’s night Sofia sat near the spring as the sky shifted through shades of red growing progressively darker. An old man worked over a gathering of twigs to build a fire and extend the fading light on the hillside of Mt. Helicon. Then an old woman stood up to catch the light from the fire and propose a question:
“Do you know the story of Pegasus, the flying horse?”
“Yes, yes, yes” cried several voices. One called out, “Tell the story of the hero who rides the beast!”
Sofia watched the old storyteller position herself to advantage in the firelight. Bending forward, she extended her hand from a multi-colored shawl wrapped around her shoulders and began a tale of a terrifying monster that was mounted by the hero, Bellerophon.
“It was like harnessing a summer thunderstorm that sweeps down from Mt Helicon”, said the old woman. “Only the bravest dare try such a feat.”
And when the old storyteller came to the description of Bellerophon’s attempt to ride Pegasus up to Mt Olympus, all eyes looked up to the heavens. But they all knew the tragic end to the story, how Zeus stings the mighty horse and the hero falls back to earth and suffers a crippling injury.
When the storyteller paused, an old man called out, “It was the fault of the horse, Pegasus. He feared the great god, Zeus.” The other listeners shook their heads in agreement. And one called out, “And the hero suffered because of the cowardly beast.”
Sofia, who was seated on a rock outside the ring of firelight, called out to the story listeners. “Why do you blame the horse for the hero’s misfortune? Blame the hero for his arrogance.”
One of the listeners turned to Sofia and called out, “Quiet girl, you ruin the story.”
“But it is true,” she responded.
Now all heads turned from the fire to the child crouched like a wild creature on the rock outside the ring of light. The storyteller called to Sofia and said, “My child the old love stories of mercy and forgiveness, while the young love stories of truth and justice. If you wish one day be a teller of tales, know your audience.”

A full moon rising over the ridge of Mt Helicon now reminded the teller of stories that the evening was spent and it was time to rest. She found a satisfactory ending to the gathering as the fire burned down to a bed of red coals. One by one the listeners got up and faded into the dark shadows that now surrounded the fire. When only Sofia remained, the old storyteller went to her and sat down on the rock beside her. For some time, they both looked at the last embers of the fire; but neither spoke a word.
Finally Sofia looked to the old woman and asked a question: “Are your stories true? Is there a real horse with wings that allow it to fly through the air?”
The woman looked up to the night sky, which now displayed a full moon over the spring of Hippocrene. She reached out and touched Sofia’s arm and said: “The story tells us that it is only on nights when the moon is full that Pegasus comes down to earth. He comes to our spring of Hippocrene to drink from the sacred waters. Now the old woman stood up, loosened the multi-colored shawl from her shoulders and wrapped it around the young girl, then she silently disappeared in the dark shadows.

Sofia stood up and looked after the old woman, but did not follow her back to the village. Instead she went to the spring and stood by the water’s edge. She looked into the dark water and saw there the reflection of a full moon overhead. For a long time, she stared into the water and allowed her imagination freedom to create. She imagined Pegasus coming down from Mt Helicon to drink at the spring of Hippocrene.

And so it was true. By the light of the full moon, the mythical horse came down to touch the world of humans. By the reflection in the spring’s dark waters Sofia followed the path as Pegasus came near, hovering in the air above the water. She was amazed by the creature. It was much smaller than the beast described by the storyteller. Its diaphanous wings were better suited for carrying a small child than a grown man.

Sofia wondered about the truth of her Pegasus. Was this a dream? Then she heard the sound of hooves striking hard rock as Pegasus landed; followed by the slurping of water as the winged horse drank the waters of the sacred spring, and finally the exhaling of air as an expression of joy and refreshment. Momentarily Sofia considered an attempt to leap on to the back of Pegasus, to ride the wild horse into the heavens like the hero, Bellerophon. Her thought complete she reflected, ‘maybe some time, maybe some night when I am older and wiser.’ With that thought, Sofia pulled the multi-colored shawl tight around her shoulders and dropped down to the ground by the spring to dream of riding the wild and wonderful horse.

It was there her grandmother found her sleeping, the shawl still around her shoulders. “My child, here I find you. Half the night I have been looking for you. Why are you sleeping here by the spring?”
“Grandmother”, said Sofia, “I wanted to see the flying horse, Pegasus. The old storyteller said the creature comes to the spring on nights when the moon is full. And it is true. Grandmother I saw the winged horse, but she is not as the storyteller tells. Pegasus is smaller, more delicate and gentle as a spring rain, not at all like a summer thunderstorm.”
Grandmother took Sofia into her arms and squeezed her tight to her breast: “My child the night is cold. Come, a warm bed awaits us.”
“But Grandmother, do you believe it is true? Do you believe that I saw Pegasus, the flying horse?”
“Sofia”, said the grandmother, “long, long ago, when I was a child like you, I heard the story of Pegasus. Like you I came to the spring when the moon was full. I too wanted to catch a glimpse of the magical creature, but…..”the woman’s words fell silent.
“And?”, asked Sofia gently of her old grandmother.
“And I saw nothing of the beautiful winged horse.” Now the old woman looked into Sofia’s eyes and said, “But that does not mean that I do not believe the truth of your story. We can honor truth that we do not share.”
Sofia hugged her grandmother and said, “Let’s go home to our warm bed.”

…..”So there you have a story of Pegasus the flying horse. Did you enjoy it?”, I asked my granddaughter.
“Pretty good story, Pap, but I wonder if Sofia ever did ride Pegasus.”
“Well, I guess we could make up a story about her riding the winged horse”, I said.
“But then it wouldn’t be true”, she responded with assurance.
I paused a moment. “I think it would be as true as your story of Reggie being in heaven with God.”
“But that is true”, she assured me. “My mom said it is true.”
“Well”, I said, “I agree with the grandmother in the story. I honor the truth of others even when it is not my truth. So if you want to think that I will someday be up in heaven with God and Reggie that is fine with me.”
“OK Pap,but I want you to stay with me as long as you can.

……..So ended the imagined conversation with my four year old granddaughter and the story I created from it.

As a storyteller I liked to think that every conversation holds the potential for discovering a new story. I am like a miner in the California Gold Rush of 1848–the next shovel of dirt will expose a treasure. So I continue to talk and to engage with everyone who crosses my path in life!

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Would I Rather Be Fourteen?

Last week my daughter told me that my grandson, fourteen years old, expressed an interest in having lunch with me. Because the family lives only a few miles away, I had a regular play day routine with my grandson when he was younger. When he started school and the wider world beckoned–sports and friends–we lost our regular time together. Here I must admit, I have never been good at playing the traditional grandfather role and show up for my grandson’s sports games. As a result, we have not seen each other much in the past five to seven years. I was happily surprised at the invitation to lunch.

The next day I texted the young man–preferred form of communication–with dates that worked for me. We settled on a date and time, but not the place to eat. I pondered if I should decide on the place to eat. I decided to first give him the choice, but be ready if he did not have a favorite restaurant. I picked out five. One was Japanese. I remembered that his mother shared that he loved to eat sushi. When we met and he did not show a preference, I suggested my ideas, saving the Japanese restaurant for my last possibility. I said that if we chose the Japanese I would need his help because I know nothing about sushi–and that was in fact true. He seemed to like the idea of being his grandfather’s teacher!

I had chosen an early lunch time, about 11:30 A.M. I did that because I have difficulty hearing in crowded, noisy restaurants. It worked perfectly; we were the first guests of the day. The music was a little too loud, but I could manage over it. My grandson was indeed a capable guide to select a meal from the Japanese menu–though I admit some Japanese sushi rolls were named after American sports teams. It was not like being in Tokyo. But he handled the process with aplomb and in a short time we were eating and conversing just as I imagined it.

The night before our lunch I told my wife, Nancy, that I wanted to be careful in conversation with my grandson. I wanted to remember to not talk too much about the past, rather focus on the future. As an old man, my tendency is to review the past; as a young man of fourteen years, my grandson’s life is mostly in the future. Along this line of thinking, I also knew that he sees his future tied to sports–his father is a high school teacher and football coach. Since his father played college sports, I imagined that he looked forward to a similar future.

My grandson surprised me when he shared that he is not interested in playing sports or being a coach. He is more interested in sports management or broadcasting.  Then he went on to describe his Instagram page where he evaluates professional basketball players. He said that he has about three hundred followers of the page!

We talked about digital media and how you tell a good story with a combination of pictures, written and spoken words. Here I could not keep quiet about my past. I had to share how I conceived my multi-media storytelling programs for schools. I am not sure how much he understood about my work. He did not ask any questions.

Somewhere in our conversation we started to talk about video games. He shared how kids today communicate and play games without being together in person. I ask if he could demonstrate this when we went back to his house.  He agreed and we went on to converse about family and school classes for the upcoming year. In total, we talked for about an hour over our Japanese Sushi. I enjoyed the meal, but treasured most the opportunity for conversation with a fourteen year old.

When we arrived back at his family’s house, we went to the basement to the game room. He immediately found the controller for his favorite video game. The game has one purpose: you try to kill people and they try to kill you. After five minutes of mayhem, I asked if he had ever shot a real gun. He said no. I shared that I had been taught to shoot and kill animals as a young boy.  I said that I did not like hunting and shooting guns as a boy; and, I never did kill an animal. This was as close as I came to being critical of this game that he seems to enjoy very much. Finally, I was able to convince him to change video games and show me one built around the sport of basketball. For ten minutes he demonstrated how to play this game; and actually while he was playing, a friend came online and joined the game for a few minutes.

So did I come away from this visit with my grandson wishing I could be fourteen again and have my life before me? I think the important word here is “be”: and, its meaning is very different for the two ages. For the fourteen year old, it is connected to becoming, discovering your potential and fulfilling it. Carl Jung called this the process of individuation, becoming what you are meant to be, not what others want you to be. For me at seventy-six years, being is more complex. As I have described it before, you live with one eye on the road ahead and the other eye on the rear-view mirror. If you have lived your process of individuation, there is pleasure in looking back at your life. This looking back is even more attractive when you look ahead and realize that death is just down the road. Maybe this is the time to start practicing “mindfulness”, to be in the present and ignore the past and the future? I think I prefer, for myself, trying to be involved in all three: reflecting on my past, aware of my end of life before me and all the while remaining engaged with the world around me!

 

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A RETRO STORYTELLER

In 1973 I was hired by the New Jersey State Museum to create programs for school children coming to the museum. For two years I experimented with a form of communication I called “storytelling”. It was different from the storytelling presented in libraries where the storyteller held up a book, both reading and showing the pictures to children. It was different from “folk” storytellers who shared stories from different oral traditions without aids. My storytelling programs incorporated a variety of media: recorded music and sound effects, visuals (sometimes film) on rear-projection screens and my own spoken stories and narrative. It was an early form of multi-media storytelling.

Recently the New York Times had an article on the number of writers who publish their works first as audio-books, not paper-books. I, in contradiction to the trend, have chosen to publish my most recent story as a paperback book. When I pointed this out to my wife, she said “you have always been a contrarian, going against the grain.”

There is a reason for my contrarian nature. As I have shared in the past, my dyslexia put a “chip on my shoulder” at an early age. I learned early in life to not accept direction just because it came from someone in authority. I had to judge for myself and follow my own instincts. This has had both positive and negative results for me. On the positive side, I have forged a creative and unique path in life with my work as an oral storyteller. On the negative side, I have not been good at working in institutions where there are people in authority.

So how do I make sense of my decision to put forward Of Mice And Mills as a paper book and not as podcast or an audio book? My decision is based on preservation and not on financial reward. This does not mean that I will not record this story in the future if people find it efficacious; but for the present, I am intent on preserving my creative work for others to discover after I am dead.

I want say a word about Amazon’s software– Createspace.com–that I used to publish my book. With limited computer skills, but with energy to explore and determination to succeed, I was able to publish my book and have fifty paperback copies for under $200.00!

The creative life is not about fame and money–though I believe you have to pay attention to the details of money to be successful–it is about following your passion to create wherever it leads you. In fact success, I believe, often leads to repetition and limits your opportunities to try new things. Creating the mouse storybook has taken me back to other scripts for stories that I have performed orally for many years. I ask myself: Is there another story I want to publish as a paper book?

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A Spiritual Adventure

On a cold, snowy day last January, I received a message from the alumni office of Princeton Theological Seminary. They were promoting a gathering on PTS’s campus for the second weekend in May. I remembered the beauty of springtime in Princeton. In particular, my imagination conjured up the image on the seminary campus of a paulownia tree in bloom with beautiful, purple flowers. As a graduate of that institution in 1970, I decided it was time to go back and see if the tree was still there.

That spring forty-eight years ago was not a time of accomplishment and hopes for the future. During the winter of that year I came before an ordination committee of the Presbyterian Church and they refused to ordain me. Because I had a wife and young son, I needed to find employment. I decided to turn away from the ordination process and seek employment in the profession of my family. I applied and was accepted as a laborer at U S Steel’s plant in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. I calculated that I could earn more money in the mill than as a new minister; and, I would have time for the writing and photography I wanted to explore.

I worked at U S Steel for three years while I formed the ideas that would create a career as an oral storyteller. During this time I continued to attend a Presbyterian church as a layman. I was even ordained as a lay elder in the Church. As my career as a storyteller became more important in my life, I stopped attending the local church and eventually gave up my membership in the Presbyterian Church. For forty plus years I have had little relationship with the Christian Church in any of its denominational forms.

This brings me back to that decision on a wintry night last January. Why did I decide to attend a PTS alumni event––three days with one-hundred and seventy-five people who have given their lives to the Church? I know that it was not because I have regrets about the decision that I made when I left the Church. As Joseph Campbell put it, I did find my “bliss” in telling stories to children for thirty-five years and what has followed in adult storytelling for the past ten years. I think, for me, it is related to what I will call a lifelong search for the spiritual in me.

My last morning at the PTS alumni gathering, I attended a lecture by Miroslav Volf, a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School. His lecture was centered on the ideas of “Trust and Trustworthiness” as understood by the Christian tradition. His subject was supported by Biblical sources, history and what I will call psycho-socio statements about the human condition. What I found missing was any reference to the importance of myth in our spiritual lives.

After the lecture and brief questions from the audience, the alumni attending broke-up into four groups to continue discussion of the subject in smaller groups. I joined one of the groups hoping to stimulate discussion by introducing my concept of religious myth as a foundation for a spiritual life. I wanted to talk about Carl Jung’s concept of archetype. And, I admit, my ego wanted to tell the story of my rejection by the Presbyterian Church (about being trustworthy) and my journey to build a career and find my own form of spirituality.

The art of conversation involves both listening and sharing ideas. When I enter into conversation I try not to dominate with my own ideas. In a group of thirty people, as we had that morning, I like to get a feel for the group and wait for an opening where I can share a new idea that adds something to the conversation. I should have known with a group of extroverted Presbyterian ministers, talking about theological ideas, there were not likely to be any lulls in the conversation.

The leader of our group restated several of Dr. Volf’s main points in his lecture––one that trust between antagonistic groups comes when we build bridges between them–– and then asked for responses. An elderly woman immediately claimed the floor and told the story how she became the first Presbyterian woman to be ordained––building a bridge between females and males in the Church in her understanding. An African-American woman questioned the bridges that have been built between blacks and whites in this country. Another woman of color, who came from a Caribbean Island, questioned the bridges built by missionaries on her island. A white male questioned the value of bridges between antagonistic groups. He told the story of Jesus and the money changers in the temple. When we encounter evil we should destroy it, he argued, not build bridges to change it!

This was all good conversation in a community of Presbyterian ministers. I enjoyed their discussion, their different perspectives of the Church––but the more I listened, the more I came to feel like a New York Yankees fan at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. Their Christocentric metaphors for the spiritual experience are not shared by me. And yes, I know, they are Christians and now it is clearer in my heart and mind that I am not a Christian. I thank the PTS community for helping me to say these words: I am not a Christian.

I walked out of the discussion group without saying a word to anyone about my spiritual journey after graduating from seminary. As I headed to my car, I looked across the campus quadrangle and there I saw the paulownia tree. It was in full bloom with beautiful, purple flowers. I smiled: it had been a good two days in Princeton, New Jersey, but now it was time to shake the dust from my shoes and leave town!

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LESSONS TO LEARN OVER SEVENTY-FIVE

Time passes quickly when you are involved with an idea. For me the past five months have been spent thinking about stories of our nation’s industrial past. During this time I have written three stories that bring to life the experiences of the people who worked in the mills and factories of our nation. Also, I have visited the National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania eight times for tours and teaching sessions to gain an understanding of how they tell this story of our country. Since early January I have tried to offer to the museum staff suggestions of ways that they might incorporate oral storytelling in their presentation to the public. My ideas have been acknowledged, and even appreciated by some of the staff, but so far I have not been invited to discuss my ideas.

I ask myself: why is the NMIH staff reluctant to discuss my storytelling ideas? This is not the first time I have failed to sell an idea. Anyone who is creative, and presents new ideas, will fail more times than they succeed. But for this blog, I find myself thinking about my age and its influence on the reception of my creative ideas today. Do the young staff of NMIH look at me and see a man over seventy-five—which I am—and they say, “What does that old man know?” I reflect on something that Philip Roth said in an interview for the New York Times. Talking about the decision to stop writing novels at the age of seventy-eight, he said: “I had a strong suspicion that I’d done my best work and anything more would be inferior. I was by this time no longer in possession of the mental vitality or the verbal energy or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack…” I certainly do agree with Mr. Roth that I do not have the physical and mental energy that I had ten years ago.

I could argue with myself and say: well, you are not Philip Roth. You’ve had, at best, limited success in your work. Your standards are not as high as his. Besides, you are a dyslexic writer; you have always struggled to read and write. You have to work your stories over and over to make them intelligible for others. You write not because you are a good writer, you write because you think you have something to say and you want it recorded as your perspective on this life! You love what you do, why not continue until you drop dead!

So again, I ask myself: what are you going to do about this relationship with NMIH? Nancy advises: Be patient, you do not know the struggles they are going through to keep the museum running in only their second year of existence. I remind her that I have never been a patient man and quote Grandfather Jung: “I have had much trouble getting along with my ideas. There was a daimon in me, and in the end its presence proved decisive. It overpowered me, and if I was at times ruthless it was because I was in the grip of the daemon. I could never stop at anything once attained. I had to hasten on, to catch up with my vision. Since my contemporaries, understandably, could not perceive my vision, they saw only a fool rushing ahead.”

I will try to take the advice of my good wife and mentor. I will, for a while, continue my work on stories from our industrial past. One of the stories I have written is based on an idea from a novel, Out of This Furnace, by Thomas Bell, published in 1941. I call my story, The Price of a Smile.

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Stanislaw Duplaga was twenty-three when he came to America from Poland. His journey began when he received a letter from his brother in America. The letter contained $ 3.50 in American money. Included with the money were strict instructions: When you arrive in New York, take a ferry to New Jersey and buy a train ticket to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania with the money I have provided. If you need help show this paper in English to any policeman you meet. On a sheet of white paper was printed clearly: Please help me find my way to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The letter ended with a warning about men who might try to steal his money and possessions. Fortunately, his brother did not warn him about beautiful, blond haired women.

Stan first noticed the beautiful, blond haired woman standing alone on the pier in Bremen as they waited to board the ship to America. On a warm, early summer afternoon, she wore a light sweater over a simple dress that did not conceal the curves of her body. After they boarded the ship to America, time and again he found himself mesmerized by glimpses of the beautiful woman in the narrow passages of the ship; or, across the crowded steerage deck of the ship.

The steerage deck on a 19th century steam ship was normally below the main deck. On the journey to America, the steerage might accommodate up to one hundred of the poorest immigrants. On the journey back to Europe, it was used to carry cargo. The large open space in the steerage had bunk beds lining the walls and the center was filled with tables for eating and social activities. Single men slept at one end of the steerage and single women at the other end of the compartment. The bunks in-between were ideally reserved for married couples and their children.

The journey to America normally took just under two weeks. Stan was lucky. The seas were calm and he did not experience sea sickness. Nevertheless, he was lonely traveling without family or friends. Numerous times he looked across the large room and he saw the young woman he had first encountered on the pier in Bremen. He saw her numerous times in the passages going up to the main deck for the fresh sea air, but he could not gain the courage to engage her in conversation.

Two days before they were scheduled to arrive in New York, Stan finally found the perfect opportunity to speak to the young woman. She was seated at one of the eating tables, not alone, but there was room for him to sit down next to her. With his bowl of porridge he signaled his wish to seat himself beside her. She nodded a shy affirmation.
“My name is Stanislaw Duplaga.”
“I am Maryla Stankiewiez”, she responded.
“And where is your new home in America”, if I may ask?
“Ah, Pennsylvania, I believe it is called”, responded Maryla with hesitation.
“Ah, Pennsylvania, that is also my destination. Do you have family living there?”
“Yes, my older sister lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.”
“You are traveling to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania!” cried out Stan with great excitement. “I too am traveling to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to live with my older brother. Perhaps in two days we will travel on the same train in America!”
Stan looked to Maryla, expecting a happy response to their discovery. Instead, he saw a sad look on her face. “Are you not happy coming to this new land?”
Maryla responded with her eyes down, “I miss my family: my mother, my father, my younger brothers and sisters. Tomorrow is my father’s day of birth celebration. The family will be gathering: uncles, aunts, cousins…to share a meal, a glass of wine, the family together, to dance together…but… I am here alone in the world.”

Stan did not reply to Maryla. He understood the uncertainty of coming to a new land. Later, when he was alone, he thought of Maryla’s sad look and he wanted to change it, to bring a smile to her beautiful face. Stan felt in his pocket for the little purse where he carried the $3.50 in American money. He pondered: How can I bring a smile to Maryla’s face?

Next morning, Stan visited the third-class steward on the main deck. With his American money, he ordered a bottle of red wine for $2.00. And for $ 1.00 he was able to hire an accordion player from the ship’s crew. That evening, he managed to be eating with Maryla in the steerage cabin when the sailor showed up with the bottle of wine and his accordion. From the bowels of the steam ship that night the sound of music and singing filled the air as the steerage passengers celebrated the birthday of Maryla Stankiewiez’s father!

The following day the ship from Bremen, Germany docked near Castle Garden, the New York port of entry for immigrants in 1890. Stan had just enough money to buy a ticket for the ferry to travel from lower Manhattan to New Jersey. When Maryla hurried to find the train station to buy a ticket to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Stan lied and told her he had family to visit in New Jersey before traveling to Bethlehem. He did not share that he would be walking instead of riding the train. As they parted Maryla smiled and told him how wonderful the evening of music, wine and singing had been for her. She very much wanted to see him when he came to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

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So Raymond, as your anima, I encourage you to listen to your wife: find patience in your old age, do not cut and run from the museum relationship as you have so many times in your life. Maybe there are lessons to learn as you grow even older!

 

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