THE THREADS OF A LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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TIME TO REFLECT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE LAST THIRD OF LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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PLAYING WITH THE NORMS OF LIFE

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

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

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

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

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BEING AND BECOMING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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STAGES OF LIFE

How can I experience the feelings of childhood at the age of seventy-seven? For many the answer is to spend time with your grandchildren–and I did that–but mine are now high school and college age and they are striving to become adults. That is not bad if you do not forget the lessons of childhood in your rush to grow up. I think life works best when we advance through the stages while retaining the lessons from each time in our lives. This might be one way to define the idea of human consciousness. My point is that, as an old man, I feel the need for a refresher course, a re-connection with the consciousness of a child!

Oral storytelling has been at the center of my adult life. For the twenty years that Nancy and I have lived in Doylestown we have welcomed friends and neighbors to join us in the summer for stories in our backyard. For many years the group that gathered was predominantly adult; then two years ago, we had ten to twelve young children show up in the front row. Several young families had moved into the neighborhood. Luckily, several of our tellers were able to change their stories for that night to appeal to our young audience members. After that evening of storytelling, I became more aware of the sounds of neighborhood children playing outside in the warm seasons of the year.

The gift of play is one of the things we can learn from children. I wrote about this in a previous essay called “The Master’s Pay”. One night last fall, as Nancy and I were enjoying a meal on the patio, we heard the sounds of the neighborhood children still playing as night arrived. This experience led me to the idea of engaging these children in a form of creative play. I have many stories that were told in school assembly programs over the years. These stories all have a written text, and some have audio and video recordings, but they have not been published as books with illustrations.

The idea is to engage the neighborhood children in creating the pictures to illustrate a fable called “Ice Cream Mud”, a story that was created with my own children more than forty years ago! A professional illustrator of children’s books, who lives here in Doylestown, has agreed to help with the project. When we have the finished children’s art works, she will compose the illustrations that will appear in the book.

We have eleven neighborhood children, ages eight to twelve, signed up for our community arts project! The evening of June 17 we will gather in our backyard again. I will tell Ice Cream Mud and talk briefly about fables as a story form. Pat Achilles, our professional illustrator, will talk about materials and guidelines for the pictures the children will create. We will both be available through the summer to interact with the children and their parents as they work on the drawings. Hopefully, by the first week in August, we will meet again to gather the art work and share stories about the process. If all goes well, we will have a completed book for the holiday season in December.

So do I think that I can reengage with the child in me through this community art project? Honestly, I do not know the answer to this question. It has been more than ten years since I regularly engaged children with my stories. Lately, I have been thinking more about growing old and dying as discussed in my last essay, “The Uninvited Guest”. The aches and pains of my seventy-seven year old body stifle my interest to physically engage in much play these days. On the other hand, my intellectual and emotional interests have not diminished with aging. I still have a curious mind and soul. I want to better understand what it means to be a kid today and, if possible, to encounter something of that ten year old boy, Raymond Lowell Gray, who was kicking about in 1952!

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The Uninvited Guest

When Nancy and I first walked through the front door of 68 Clemens Road, we both recognized that this was a place where we could host gatherings of friends and family–and we have done this for the past twenty years. Our wedding reception saw more than thirty people dancing around the May pole in our backyard. For many years we hosted Christmas parties for friends and family to gather for food, talk, singing and listening to stories. Smaller groups have gathered to share a meal under the magnolia tree in the spring and others have joined us for a cup of coffee by the big, picture window in winter. In short, we have enjoyed years of sharing our home with many guests.

Last spring, about this time, we had an uninvited guest show up at our door. Maybe better said, this guest slipped in the door when we were not expecting a guest. How do I describe the reality of having Death become a part of your life? Both Nancy and I remember thinking about the idea of death as a child. She tested positive for a rare illness and people speculated about this life threatening illness. I remember thinking at the age of six: ‘I better get started doing what I want to do in life because my time on earth will not last forever–someday I will die!’ I have always felt urgency about life and that may be the source of the anxiety that I have lived with much of my life.

Death is always part of our lives, especially if you come from a large family like mine. As a young child, I experienced the deaths of my grandparents, great uncles and aunts. I remember open caskets surrounded by flowers at a funeral home and family members saying things like: “I can’t believe he’s passed, but he’s gone to a better place.” Everyone seemed shocked that a seventy year old man had died. I never was. He looked old to me. We paid our respects and then gathered with family to eat and visit. I remember funerals as being a good time to play with your cousins at the old family farm.

The experience of death became more real and immediate for me when my father and mother died. Particularly, the death of my mother was most potent because I was with her when she died. But even then, I was a healthy sixty-six years old. I sang and talked to her through the process that lasted maybe five hours. After she died, I came home, talked, cried and drank several glasses of Irish Mist with Nancy. After her burial, I spent several weeks editing and sharing the journal I kept for the last years of my mother’s life…but my life went on.

So how is this present guest’s arrival at my front door different from past visits from the idea of death? After all, I did not get the diagnosis of cancer. It is Nancy who is dealing with the physical struggle to eat and monitor her bodily functions. Death has not come for me; again, it is someone else feeling the call. This sounds like I believe that I am going to live forever! No, I am fully aware that I could have a heart attack and die before Nancy. This writing is an attempt to live consciously the life I have been given to live; and for me, death is part of the life I have been given to live in the present.

When you grow old with one you love, you become more connected because you spend more time together. Nancy and I do not talk much during the day, but I am always aware of where she is in the house. I look forward– and often plan subjects for conversation– to the evening time when we share a meal–though this also has been changed by Nancy’s difficulty with eating. And, we always savor our time after the meal with a drink and conversation for an hour or more–and this too has been shortened some nights by Nancy not having a voice to carry on the conversation. Finally, every night we retire to the bedroom to read before falling asleep. We always sleep touching–if ever so lightly–and this has not been disturbed by the cancer. So, if Nancy does die before me, I will have to face a brutal reality of being left to face my death alone.

Can I talk about this reality and consciously accept that death is now a part of my life? It is not easy to grow old and die. Some have suggested that it is best to ignore death: exercise, continue with your work, travel, share life with your friends and family–as one storyteller friend, Charlotte Blake Alston, expresses it in a story, “just keep on, keepin’ on”. I do not think this approach to life will work for me. In my family of origin, that I described earlier, family members have tried to ignore death. As Christians, many believe in a life after death: “Oh death, where is thy victory? Oh death, where is thy sting?” (I Corinthians: 15:55) I do not want to disagree with this approach to dealing with death, but neither do I find solace in it. Instead, I find myself trying to muster the courage to invite death, as a reality, into my home, to invite death to sit by the big picture window with me, that we might talk and get to know each other.

How do I begin to engage death? Where did this idea of death originate? Some have suggested that it all starts with human consciousness, when humans became aware of themselves and the ego was born. Actually, you can argue that god was recognized about the same time–the Hebrew and Christian book of Genesis tell this story in the first two chapters. One of the most difficult lessons to learn in life is that there is a world that will go on without me. How can I accept that I am not eternal? Maybe I need to revisit the six year old me, the one who was encouraging himself to get started with life because he was not going to be here forever. Well I did that, I have lived a long life and I feel that I did what I was meant to do, to become who I was meant to be, not who others wanted me to be–thank you Grandpa Jung for this insight–but now my life is nearing an end. I want to find a way to welcome death into my life.

My life has been…I pause… I am not sure that what I am going to say is what I think and feel, but I will say it anyway…I have no need for truth and the right in my life. Understanding the process of living, and doing it, is more important than establishing a set of rules about it. I have enjoyed living on the shifting sands of life, not the solid rock of a theological or philosophical system. Life is being in the moment and interacting with the world around you. For me, this world is both practical/rational and intuitive/spiritual. An example of this approach to life is found in my journals as a young man:

Journal kept during my service in the Peace Corps, March 17, 1964, age 21, working in Dominican Republic with a rural community to build a two room school..”I am having the same problem with the school, no one wants to do the work….it doesn’t bother me anymore. I work when they are willing to work.” This is followed by a quote from Ernest Dimnet book, ‘The Art of Thinking’: “Mankind might be divided between the multitude who hate to be kept waiting because they get bored and the happy few who rather like it because it gives them time for thought.” Continuing on: “We cannot love God through fear and guilt: we must love God because there is a need for fulfillment and to become whole. God must help us find the wholeness that is lacking in us.” I might add that God must give us more than a promise of life after death. I have always enjoyed living on the boundaries between the practical and rational and the intuitive and spiritual. Life, for me, is always more about being than becoming!

This view of life has not always benefited or made life easy for me. In my twenties, I identified my interest in the spiritual with a career path in the Christian Church. What I did not understand was the need of most Christians to find answers, to find the truth and the right in life. These answers are provided in the ritual and dogma of a belief system, or the theology that explains the relationship between the human and the divine. My journey in life has focused on the joy and pain of asking questions and finding answers that never quite satisfy my curiosity. So I never come to answers that fit into a system of beliefs.

Intuitively, not rationally, I think I understood this in my late twenties– when I broke from the Church and started my career as a creator of stories, oral, visual, and written–that my life would be a struggle to balance the mysteries of life, not solve them with answers. The process of creating stories has been my way to understand life’s journey.

So how will I tell the story of Raymond Lowell Gray sitting by the big window with Death–an imagined character in one of my stories– and talking about life and coming to the end of it? I think it is best to set the scene by describing Raymond at different stages of life. Raymond was not a good sleeper as a child. The dark of night opened the door to things that threatened life. Pale light of the night slipped through the bedroom window suggesting an intruder. A shadow on the half open closet door, or the creak of a floor board suggested the advance of the intruder into his world. Raymond could retreat under the covers, but when a hiding place did not suffice, an escape was necessary. He would quietly get out of bed and tip-toe from his bedroom to that of his mother. He was not allowed into the parental bed, but he could curl up on the rug beside the bed until his fear of the intruder subsided.

As Raymond Lowell matured into a young man, his fear of the night intruder was replaced by fantasies of a different sort. Sexual energies grew in his body and the dark of night became his setting for exploring imagined relationships with the females of his world: mother, sister, and neighborhood friend. Soon these explorations took on a physical reality and he found hardness between his legs and a wet, sticky substance ejected from his penis in the midst of a half-dream fantasy.

Marriage and the responsibilities of finding a way in the world for many years reduced the terrors of the night. Sharing his bed with another, Raymond could reach out to and touch his wife when fear of the dark appeared. Having a mate helped to push back the shadows of night and provided some sense that he was not vulnerable in this world. Through a failed marriage, and three years alone, he managed to stave off the intruder by focusing on creating stories and finding a partner to again share his life. His second wife, for many years, shared her intimacy and her intellect to again help to stave off Raymond’s fears of the night.

This period of grace lasted until Raymond Lowell Gray arrived at the time when most retire from their world of promotion and begin to contemplate a time of reflection. It was in his mid-sixties that Raymond found his fear of the dark night returning, when the dark shadows and creaking of the floorboards sent signals of alarm and he felt the need to combat the intruder again. It was then that Raymond discovered an antidote by shifting his mind set from the world of dreams to the world of rational thought. He discovered, when his fear appeared, he need only get up, go out to the couch in the living room, by the big picture window, lie down and read for a period of time–blinds were bought to block the dark of night and its imagined source of fear.

So how do we put aside this game of life, this struggle with the darkness and all of the harm it seems to present to us? Raymond decided to invite the source of his fear into his life. Choosing a name was the first step. He decided to call his fear, his intruder, “Death”. One night he went out to the room with the big window. He did not bring a book to engage his rational powers. Instead, he purposely set about to create an atmosphere to engage the unconscious, to create a story, one where Death might feel welcome. He lite a single candle and set it on the coffee table before the window. The blinds were opened so that the dark of night melded with the dark of the room where the shadows created by the candle light danced about the bookshelves and furniture. Raymond purposely lay down on the couch in front of the window. He wanted to be both part of the shadows and yet exposed and vulnerable. Then he closed his eyes and began a meditation, or invitation, to the unconscious. Raymond invited his imagination to create a character he called Death that they might talk together about life.

Come, let us join this exploration of the unknown in the dark of night. It is mid-winter, neither cold nor warm, but with a mist that softens the bare-bone reality of the magnolia tree outside Raymond’s window. The boundaries between his conscious and unconscious, like the mist of the night, meld together and Raymond opens his eyes after a period of quiet meditation. Before him, he sees a figure sitting upright at the other end of the couch from his prone position. After seventy and more years of fearing an unwanted intruder to his night world, Raymond is heartened that he feels no fear. Though not hard and fast of flesh and sinew, the visitor is not devoid of humanity. Indeed, he looks much like a man Raymond observed in a church service that very day. He is dressed in blue-jeans and a sport shirt that fits tight around his robust belly–his arms are folded and his legs crossed. As 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 without moving from his prone position. “I mean, I imagined something else, like in a Bergman movie, hooded, carrying the 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, his rounded body in profile, and says, “I would like to be called, Teacher; maybe even…Friend?”

Now Raymond slowly stands up and looks out of the window as he gathers himself to converse with Death. Without turning to his visitor, he begins to speak: “Since childhood, I have thought of death as a positive, not a negative influence in my life. I mean, I think of it as a kinda ‘kick in the pants’ to remind me that life is not eternal. We should have purpose, things we want to do in this life. So, I guess in some ways I do think of you as my teacher!”

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

An answer is not immediate, Raymond Lowell and his new friend stand like two travelers on the bow of a ship at sea and they stare into the misty night outside the big window.

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. I have a friend who says that success comes when your purpose matches the purpose of the larger society…I have always felt that I am out of step with the world around me. I am an outsider; nevertheless, I have found purpose in my creative work.”

“Your world of story”, says Death.

“Yes”, says Raymond, “creating stories gives me a way to discover my purpose in life. As I have grown older, this pursuit has taken on a spiritual element. The writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, describes it this way: “God made us as grubs, by our effort we become butterflies!”

“Ah God”, says Death, “interesting that you bring up Him or Her, however you choose your human metaphor. God has goaded me from the beginning of human consciousness.

“I can understand”, says Raymond, “you have represented the negative as opposed to the positive of the divine. But, as I said, I have always found a positive in the idea of death, the goad to find my purpose in life. Perhaps the way to contemplate existence is to not use terms like positive and negative; I like to think of it as a balance of opposites.

Death sighs, “Easier said than done, but I have not come this dark night to seek counsel. I am here to help you confront your fear of the unknown.”

Now it is Raymond Lowell’s turn to sigh as he contemplates a response. “I guess, maybe, I fear a loss of control. I mean, all of my life I have been careful about the details of the day as well as the night. Before going to bed, I close the window blinds. I check the locks on all of the doors. I prepare for the intruder…but I am growing old, no, I am old. I cannot keep you, Death, from coming into my life, to complete the negative part of your mission.”

Death smiles, “I agree that the problem is related to the idea of control, but control is not all bad–hence your idea of balancing opposites–the Christian idea of grace provides a balance. If control means that you always have to be right, then it is negative. It is a bad way to live your life. Grace offers the opportunity that you can be wrong and start over again. It makes control less arbitrary and therefore your life is free to explore and discovery new ways of living.”

“That is all fine and good for the young in life, but I am old. I am facing the end of my life”, says Raymond. “Like most humans I have no imagination to contemplate a world without me, me, me! I exaggerate a bit to make my point.”

With meaningful nod of his head, Death responds, “Yes, yes, ‘me’ has its place in your human psyche also. But using your idea of opposites, can we not say that the opposite of me” is “you”, and the balance between them is the idea of “love”. Your experience and understanding of your love for your wife, Nancy, softens and dilutes the “me” in you, if that makes any sense to you. The same is true of love for the divine, for your neighbor, even your enemy; and yes, even your love of death! Love helps balance the scale between you and me.” The last words soften and seem to float away on the night air as Death points to Raymond and looks directly at him.

Now, it is Raymond who turns and smiles as he looks into the eyes of Death, “I have one, last question for you. I am not sure how to say this…I have felt guilty much of my life because I cannot find meaning in the sacred stories of the Christian Church, the spiritual tradition of my ancestors. Can you help me understand my rebellion?”

Without a word of consolation, Death answers: “You live in a world of stories. Your Christian tradition tells the story of human consciousness coming into being through the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil–notice the opposites–and Eve first tasted this fruit. And, this act of Eve, also introduces to the story my role as Death. My point here is that humans have always created stories to explain the world in which they live. Today, in this world, another story is more popular. It is the story that science tells about the evolution of life on this planet. My suggestion, Raymond Lowell Gray, is that you are free to create and tell the story as it fits your time in life. This may cause pain and you may feel alone, but that is the right and duty of every creator of story. You are Eve. You have a right to reach up and take down a fruit from your own tree of knowledge of good and evil.”

“So is this the source of my fear of the night? And perhaps, the reason l try to control the world I inhabit?”, ponders Raymond.

“It is all story”, says Death. “All humans unconsciously know that they live in an imperfect state, outside the Garden of Eden, and they wish to return. Some ignore this reality and isolate themselves in their conscious state of human reason spiced by emotions. Others recognize the unconscious and their intuitive powers, but they look for answers to help them cope with this other reality. They find support and answers in a system of belief, a religion that allows them to be part of a community of believers. Then, my friend, there are those who strike out alone, who choose to create their own destiny. Often they end up with more questions than answers and this breeds insecurity, fear and anxiety–as you well know.”

“Hmmm”, ponders Raymond.

“Don’t quote me on that when you come before your Maker”, says Death. “As you well know, humans often need a mix of approaches to discover the balance that works for them.”

Outside Raymond sees that the mist has disappeared and a full moon now illuminates the shape of the magnolia tree. He senses a moment of clear-light understanding and turns to thank Death for sharing with him… but his teacher, like the mist of the dark night, has disappeared from the consciousness of Raymond Lowell Gray.

So ends the first lesson for one human soul who seeks to reconcile the conscious and the unconscious, the human and the divine in us all.

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