GIFTS OF GROWING OLD

Much of my life I have been a step in front of popular culture. I had a website to promote my oral storytelling programs twenty years ago when few were on the internet. Those programs offered school children multiple learning experiences before Howard Gardner popularized the idea. Nevertheless, at the age of seventy-four, I find myself resisting the present revolution in social media.

There are several reasons for my reluctance. I have a strong and immediate community that I see and work with regularly. My wife Nancy, on the other hand, has a more dispersed community and social media provides a good way to stay in touch with distant friends. Also, I prefer the messiness of face to face communication, where failures and successes in communication are more acutely felt. And when I do choose the written word to communicate, I dislike the idea of being limited to one-hundred and forty characters!

All of the above is superseded by a sense that my life’s purpose has shifted during these early years of the social media revolution from a world with others to spending more time alone, to have time for interior journeys. This shift began almost ten years ago when I decided to stop promoting my school programs and focus on the stories for the last third of life. That decision spawned two adult programs of Jung stories: “Imaging the World of Carl Jung” and “Dancing with Daemons”. One of the early entries to this series of reflections—December of 2010—provided the seminal story for this period of my life. This same, Elijah Story, was again shared here in January of 2014. And my turn inward has again manifested this past year in work on a memoir that proposes that your creative work tells the story of your life. And this in turn supports what Jung calls the “individuation” process.

“GRANDPA JUNG’S LESSONS, for a slow reader” is the title of the memoir. If we come to old age and we are given the gifts of good health and a modicum of financial security, we can turn inward to reflect on the “wholeness” of the life we have lived. For me, one of the reflections made clear from the memoir work, is the struggle I had with dyslexia as a child. I wrote a story thirty years ago for a program about life in a one-room school. The story, “The Cripple”, was never performed in the program, but it was part of the process I went through to create it. I had forgotten about this story until I went back to dig up stories for the memoir.

The walk to and from school was the best part of Jamie’s day. He preferred to walk alone, so he waited until the other kids passed by the house. The morning the sun was just coming above the treetops to the east as he started up the road to school. The birds were singing and there was a smell of fall in the air: the pungent golden rod was in full bloom along the roadside and from a distance he detected the smell of field corn nearly dried and ready for harvesting. It was the special time of the year for sumac, their leaves red and orange, and the fruit a rich, deep maroon color. As Jamie walked along the country road he spotted a milkweed pod that was bursting open. He stopped and bent over the pod, took in a breath, and blew an army of Santa Claus whiskers into the morning air.

Hamilton School housed twenty eight students in first to sixth grade with one teacher. Teachers did not stay a long time in this one-room school. It was hard work having twenty-eight kids for seven hours a day. You were teacher, janitor, nurse, playground supervisor and principal every day. This year the teacher was a pleasantly plump Miss Pfeiffer who was starting her first year in the profession. She was standing in the doorway greeting the kids this morning as Jamie came up the building.

Jamie joined a group of four boys who were hanging near the edge of the gravel driveway to the school. No one greeted him, so he stood off a ways and listened to the conversation.

“Bet you can’t hit that road sign?” challenged one as he picked up a piece of river gravel from the driveway.

“Shit, can too,” responded another to the challenge. The boy picked up a stone and hurled it at the speed limit sign on the side of the road and missed it by three feet.

The other boys laughed and the first turned to Jamie, “Bet you ain’t no better.” Jamie shook his head to say no and looked down to the ground. Now they all laughed at Jamie’s expense.

Suddenly Jamie heard the sound of a truck engine down shifting as it slowed to enter the school driveway. He moved to the side of the driveway and watched the green pick-up that brought Walter Chulzinski to school every morning. Walter had survived polio, but it had crippled his body. He walked with the help of crutches. His father had to drive him to school every day.

Jamie turned his attention to the truck. He watched it stop and Mr. Chulzinski got out of the driver’s side and came around to the passenger side of the truck. The man did not smile or greet the kids. He knew that the other kids called his son, “the cripple”.

Jamie watched the man with fascination. He could not articulate his interest, but every morning he wondered how such a big, strong man could be the father of such a weak and disabled son. There was a lesson inherent about the luck of the draw and the frailty of all human life. Jamie could not say that, but he knew it, and it fascinated him to see the man each and every school day.

The father opened the truck door and gently helped his son step down to the gravel driveway. He reached into the back bed of the pick-up and handed the crutches to his son. Then he stood by the truck and dared any kid to make a comment, to laugh or call his son, “the cripple”.

At that moment the teacher produced a hand bell from her pocket and started to ring it. Quickly the students moved toward the school door. Standing beside the door, Miss Pfeiffer cautioned them to slow down, “There’s no ice cream and cake waiting inside, slow down, just slow down!”

Life in a one-room school was more democratic than a larger consolidated school. In the latter, the teacher could rule like a dictator who controlled every minute of the student’s day. In the one-room school, the teacher had to depend on the students to work alone or in small groups. Often a sixth grader was called upon to help the first and second graders. Student had to learn to work alone and motivate themselves to learn their lessons. Like all democracy, the system worked best when everyone was responsible. It did not work well when students were lazy, disinterested or disruptive.

Jamie was none of the above; well, maybe a little disinterested. He had a general dislike of the Dick and Jane characters in the reading books. He could not articulate his unhappiness, but it had less to do with the story plots, and more to do with the fact that he was still working in the second grade reader in third grade. When Miss Pfeiffer gathered the second graders to read, he was asked to join them. So it was in reading class that Jamie learned to become invisible. He discovered if you keep your head down and do not make eye contact with the teacher, she is less likely to call on you to read aloud. Some people are called shy because of this behavior: Jamie saw it as a strategy to evade an unpleasant task.

Morning classes ended when Miss Pfeiffer rang the bell for lunch. Jamie smiled; lunchtime was the best part of the school day. He hurried to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, drink the milk from his thermos and finish with a couple of chocolate chip cookies. There was a group of boys, most of them older than Jamie who always played football. Because Jamie was big for his age and reasonably coordinated, he played with the older boys. In a school with twenty-eight students it was hard to get six to eight boys who wanted to play football.

A sixth grader was in charge of the school’s sports equipment. It was locked in the closet where the teacher kept supplies to clean the school. This day the boy came out to the playground with his hands empty and a look of frustration on his face, “Damn football’s flat, no air, anybody got an idea?”

This set off a round of complaints and blaming among the boys who played football. Jamie did not say a word; instead his eyes looked back to the school where Walter Chulzinski stood near the rear door of the red brick school. He had a half-sized football wedged between one of his crutches and his body. Walter liked the game of football. He could not play with the other boys, but he could watch and pretend to be playing with his little football.

Jamie ran up to Walter and called to him, “Hey Walter, can we use your football?”

Walter drew the ball close to his body and responded defensively. “No, it’s mine”.

“But you can’t play football,” reasoned Jamie.

“No, no, it’s mine, you can’t have it,” he responded a second time.

Jamie tried to think of some way to change Walter’s mind. He was about to try a new line or reasoning when one of the older boys pushed past him. Without saying a word he punched the football out of Walter’s hands and it went tumbling across the school yard. Another boy picked it up and started to run with it. This started a game that had more in common with rugby than American football. It lasted until Miss Pfeiffer’s bell rang to start afternoon classes.

The foremost thought in Jamie’s mind, because he felt responsible for taking Walter’s football, was to get it back for him. When the bell rang he ran toward the boy with the ball. The boy had another idea. He turned toward the woods and booted the football that spiraled perfectly through the air a good fifty feet and disappeared into a tangle of tall feather grass and briar bushes at the edge of the woods. Jamie stopped dead and called to the boy, “Why’d you do that?”

The boy laughed and turned to the school. Jamie looked to the woods. He wanted to retrieve the football, but just as he started towards the woods, Miss Pfeiffer called out to him, “James, get yourself back here, it’s time for classes to start”. Jamie looked at the woods and then turned back to the school.

All afternoon Jamie imagined what would happen when Mr. Chulzinski came to school to pick up his son. Walter would blame him for the lost football. There was only one way to avoid a disaster. He had to find the football and give it back to Walter.

The afternoon seemed to Jamie to drag on and on, and he could not think of anything but that green pick-up truck pulling into the driveway of the school. He imagined Mr. Chulzinski listening to his son’s story and getting a baseball bat out of the truck. Jamie had to find that football or there would be a certain disaster.

When Miss Pfeiffer rang the bell to end the school day, Jamie hurried to the cloakroom, grabbed his lunch box and headed out the door. When he came outside the school, he put his lunch box by the side of the school and ran toward the woods. At the edge of playground, Jamie stopped to collect himself. He told himself to not rush, and look carefully; but when he entered the tangle of grass and briars and started to search for the football, he could not follow his own good advice. His head turned from side to side, but he could not focus on the search, instead he kept looking back to the school to see if the green pick-up truck had arrived.

The sound of the truck downshifting to enter the school driveway sent Jamie into a panic. He considered running into the woods to escape, but then he did not, he could not run. Instead, he dropped down into the tall grass, closed his eyes and flattened his body against the earth –frozen in fear like a wild animal.

For a long time he imagined that he could hear footsteps in the grass, but he was too afraid to open his eyes. And after some undetermined time, he got his courage up and peeked above the grass to look toward the school. There was no green pick-up truck in the school driveway, no teacher and no kids; everyone had gone home for the day. Jamie stood up and looked around again to assure himself that everyone had left the school. He went back to building, picked up his lunch box and headed up the road toward home.

Jamie thought about Mr. Chulzinski and the green, pick-up truck as he walked toward home. He thought how his fear of that man and his truck would never go away. And then Jamie thought about making up a good story that he could tell other people who did not know the real Mr. Chulzinski. He could tell the story to his cousins and other kids in the family. He could add new details to his description of a character like Mr. Chulzinski. He could describe him as being big, six foot and six inches tall and two hundred and fifty pounds. He could say he had one glass eye that was green like the color of his pick-up truck. And he had a red scar under his glass eye. Yes, Mr. Chulzinski was not as scary as Frankenstein, but he was pretty close, pretty close. Jamie thought to himself: I may not be the best reader in third grade, but that does not limit my ability to tell a good story. And my stories will certainly be better than the stories in those Dick and Jane books!

There is a danger in sharing the gift of stories from our past. We become nostalgic for an imagined happier time in our life, a time perhaps when we were young and had our life in front of us, not behind us. This leads to getting stuck in the past and reliving it over and over. Here Grandpa Jung offers us a gift if we are wise enough to appropriate it. The process of individuation—recalling the stories that help us to understanding our journey in life—is not an end in itself, it simply helps us to stand at one point in life and look both backward and forward. This perspective helps us to move forward.

So how do I plan to move forward when I finish my memoir? I have been thinking about the idea of an archive for storytelling in this area of the country. I will start a series of interviews with regional storytellers and talk with institutions that might give our archive a home. Oops! It looks like I just jump back to being socially active again—I might still have to join that social media revolution.

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