I have never liked personal stories. They have always seemed to me to be, well, too
personal. They belong more in the world of popular culture, to the world of
stand-up comics and country and western singers. As I have grown older my
attitude to personal stories has begun to change. As some of you know I have
been influenced by the ideas of Carl Jung. Jung suggests that we are healthier
in the first half of life if we can focus our energy outward, on doing things
in the world. In the world of story we think of these as the stories of the hero
and the heroine: but as we pass the apex of life, and begin the descent to the
end of our time on this earth, there comes a time to look inward. We call
these wisdom stories. Jung calls this the process of individuation, a discovery
of wholeness in our lives. I think of it as making sense of my life. So with an apology for any excesses of wisdom, I offer this personal story which I wrote twenty years ago in third person andI share now in first person.
The 1960’s was a time of turmoil and social change in our country. In 1962 I was a college sophomore who responded to President Kennedy’s challenge: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. I dropped out of college, joined the Peace Corps, and went to Latin America where the US was in competition with the Cuban Revolution to influence the political and social
process. When I returned from the Peace Corps, I came to Philadelphia to attend an inner-city university, Temple, where I could continue my work in a Spanish speaking community and complete my undergraduate degree. While attending Temple, I started a community center for youth at Temple Presbyterian Church. My tie to the Presbyterian Church grew stronger and I decided the Church was an institution that would better support my ideas about social change. The United States government at that time was deeply committed to a war in Vietnam.
After graduating from Temple, I moved on to Princeton Theological Seminary to pursue a Master’s of Divinity degree. While at Princeton I rekindled my international
involvement in Latin America by participating in a human rights project in the
Dominican Republic and by studying social justice in Mexico during the summer.
At home I was one of a group of students who closed down Princeton Seminary for
several days to hold workshops and discussions about the war in Vietnam. We also organized a march on Washington to protest our involvement in the war.
The social revolution in our own country and in Latin America was not the only revolution in my life at this time. Along the way I married and a baby boy was born. While I was a student, my wife worked to support our new family. Most days I attended classes in the morning; in the afternoon she went to work and I became a
stay-at-home dad. As I look back on that time, now more than forty years ago, I
was a serious young man who saw himself as part of the social revolution of the
60’s; still every afternoon I shifted gears and entered the world of my three
year old son, Matthew, who conducted his own workshop to instruct me about
life. This was the beginning of my own personal revolution.
When you have a three year old in your life, you are continually looking for ways
to spend his or her energy until it is time to go to bed. One of my favorite diversions was a visit to the graveyard. In a town as old and wealthy as Princeton, you can imagine there is a great variety of monuments in the graveyard, from simple stone markers to mausoleums the size of a small house. I enjoyed walking through the place and reading the historic dates and descriptions about the people buried there. I remember one day I was busy reading when I realized Matthew was not anywhere in sight.
I called out, “Matthew, where are you?”
His blond head popped up from behind a tombstone, “here I am”.
“What are you doing over there?” , I asked.
“Watching ants climb on this thing”, he responded.
Nonchalantly I called back to him, “well don’t get lost,” and I turned back to my own
For a few minutes I continued to read inscriptions and then I remembered again the child in my life. He was no where to be seen. Again I called out: “Matthew, where are you?” This time there was no answer. I walked over to the tombstone where I had seen his head pop up, but no Matthew. Then I heard a giggle and I caught a glint of blond hair as he ran to hide behind one of the big mausoleums. That day we started playing a game in the Princeton graveyard that we enjoyed many times afterwards. We called it, “lost and found”. This was the beginning of my course in learning to be a kid again.
They say all revolutions begin with a simple demonstration of truth. I was not an easy
convert to the wisdom of being a kid again. Matthew and I had many activities
for a warm afternoon. One of my favorites was a walk along the canal that ran
past the apartment where we lived. These walks gave him a chance to explore things along the canal path and me a chance to think about social theory and philosophy like: Che Guevara’s , “La Revolucion Agraria” or Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”, all books I was reading in my course of study at the Seminary. I was a hard nut to crack, but my teacher was persistent.
One day we were taking our walk. It was a sunny, autumn day just as the leaves were starting to turn. I was walking along thinking about something when I realized Matthew was again out of sight. I called out, “Matthew, where are you?” No answer. I
looked into the woods, down the canal, finally I turned frantically around and looked
back up the canal. I saw him kneeling down beside the water’s edge. I called out, “what are you doing Matthew, you could fall into the water and drown!” He did not look up or answer me.
I ran back to where he was and called again in anger, “what are you doing?”
He said in his calm, matter of fact way, “I’m sending Tubby the Tugboat on his way down the canal to the ocean.”
Now I could see what he was doing. He had a piece of bark from a Shagbark hickory tree that stood on the canal bank. He had constructed a crude model of the tugboat from his favorite children’s story. My annoyance with his play was not satiated. I said,
“you could kill that tree by taking bark from it.” He did not respond. He just
came back up the bank, went to the tree, broke off another piece of bark and
went back to the water to send another Tubby on it’s way.
It took me a little time observing a child playing in water to remember the fun of getting wet and muddy, but finally I joined Matthew in making more boats and sending them off to explore the great, wide world. I learned later that Shagbark hickories naturally shed their bark and it does not harm them if you do not take too much of their bark.
That year when Matthew turned four, we had many adventures. When we were reading “Charlotte’s Web”, we visited a pig farm to learn how pigs really live.
Interest in farm animals led to the creation of our own stories. We started to
tell stories about a donkey who was always getting into trouble. These stories
congealed into one of my most popular stories for young children called, “Ice Cream Mud”.
My young teacher’s magic was working slowly, and I was becoming aware of the changes in myself. My last semester at the Seminary I took a course called, “Anatomy of Revolution”. For the course paper the professor asked us to write about how we intended to be personally involved in the revolution. I thought about my time in the Peace Corps, my work for human rights groups in the Dominican Republic, my work in mission churches of the Presbyterian Church. I could have written about my engagement in the greater area of social revolution that dominated the political world of the United States. That would have made sense from the way I had lived my life: but deep, down inside of me I recognized that my revolution had more to do with my young son and what he had opened up to me about life. I did not write a paper for my
course in the anatomy of revolution; instead, I spent the semester creating a photographic essay about the relationship between Matthew and myself. As I remember the course result, the professor did not disagree with me. When I
went to his house to retrieve my project, his daughter answered the door. When
I told her my name, she responded: “so you’re the one!”
In the year of 1970 I did a lot of things that many people did not think were very sensible. I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a masters of
divinity degree, then I refused an opportunity to be ordained as a Presbyterian
minister. Instead, I took a job working in a steel mill to help support my family while I started to write and tell children’s stories. Forty-one years later, I am still writing and telling stories. From my vantage point today, I agree with the title for this story “who sez life has to make sense”, but for me, my life has made sense in the way it worked out. And, by the way, Matthew and I still play in the water, only now we paddle sea kayaks together instead of building imaginary tugboats!