Reflections on a Life Through Story

Reflection on a Life Through Story

I have not shared a thought in this forum for several months. This reality is not because I have given up on the practice—I originally said that I would write at least once a month—I have been focused on finishing my memoir. GRANDPA JUNG’S LESSONS…for a slow reader is nearly ready to be published as an e-book on Amazon. Now I am faced with the task of presenting this work to the public.

The nexus for the memoir is the idea of story; that is, the stories I have created and told in performance for more than forty years, tell the story of my life. And in truth, this blog has been centered on the same idea for the past six years. Many of the stories that I have shared here over the years will be part of the memoir. The difference is that the memoir—I hope—does a better job of weaving the story strands together to create the whole picture of a life. To demonstrate my point I want to share the “introduction” to the work. Much of the story material in the introduction has appeared in this blog over the years; what is different is the way it is woven together.

Introduction: Individuation Through the Art of Story

Talking Yams and Other Flights of Whimsy

One day a farmer went to his garden to dig up yams and take them to sell in the market. And while he was digging, one of the yams complained to him, “Well, now you come. You did not come to pull out the weeds. You did not come to water us. But now you come because you want to sell us in the market. Go away, leave us alone!”

The farmer was startled and cried out, “Who said that?”

“It was the yam,” said the farmer’s dog.

The farmer’s mouth dropped in amazement. He thought he might have been a little crazy in the heat of the day, so he called to the farmer who was working in the garden next to his garden. “Brother, the strangest thing just happened,” the first farmer said. “My yam talked to me and then my dog talked to me!”

The second farmer shook his head and said, “Brother, you have been in the heat of the sun too long. You better rest in the shade of the tree.”

“Yes,” said the corn that the second farmer was hoeing, “maybe you should rest in the shade.”

“What, who said that?” asked the second farmer.

“It was the corn,” replied the second farmer’s cat.

“Wait, who said that?” asked the second farmer.

“It was your cat,” said the first farmer.

Both farmers now knew something strange was going on, so they decided to run to the village elder and tell him. They found the elder sitting on his chair in the shade of a tree. Excitedly the first farmer said, “Father, I was working in my garden when one of my yams spoke to me! Then, my dog spoke to me!”

Yes,” said the second farmer, “and then, my corn and my cat both talked to me!”

Now the elder listened patiently. Then he stood up, shook his finger at the two farmers and said, “These are wild stories; I think you both are just lazy and trying to get out of doing your work. Go back to your gardens or I will punish both of you for disturbing the peace.”

The two farmers turned and went back to their work; and the elder looked to his chair and said, “Nonsense like that upsets the whole community.”

“Indeed,” said his chair. “Imagine the crazy idea! A talking yam? Nonsense, pure nonsense!”

Imagination is an amazing tool for enlivening our experience of the world. Granted, it sometimes leads others to question our sanity –this has been true in my life. I grew up in the heartland of industrial America, in a family of little education and a strong sense of practical materialism. What imagination existed was applied to finding a good job, owning land, establishing a family, and building a house. At the age of eight, I was encouraged to find a job and started to earn money. This view of the world was not naturally my own. I was more inclined to daydreaming and imaginative play, but for many years I did not know this about myself. It took a small child to teach me, but I am giving away the plot of my seminal, personal story: My Pre-School Mentor.

My Pre-School Mentor

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 to build schools with support from C.A.R.E (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere). When I returned from the Peace Corps, I wanted to attend an inter-city university where I could continue my work in a Spanish speaking community. I chose Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While attending Temple, I started a community center for youth who lived near a Presbyterian church. The United States government at that time was deeply committed to a war in Vietnam, and I decided the Presbyterian Church would better support my ideas about social change.

After graduating with a degree in Anthropology, I moved on to Princeton Theological Seminary to pursue a Master’s of Divinity degree. While in Princeton, I rekindled my interest in international involvement in Latin America. During the summer, I participated in a human rights project in the Dominican Republic and studied Social Justice in Cuernavaca, Mexico. 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 joined a march in Washington, D.C. to protest our nation’s involvement in the war.

The social revolutions in our country and Latin America were not the only revolutions in my life at that time. Along the way I married, and a son was born. While I was a student in Princeton, my wife worked to support our new family. Most days, I attended classes in the morning. In the afternoons, when my wife went to work, I became a stay-at-home dad. As I look back on that time, now nearly fifty years ago, I remember that I was a serious young man who saw himself as part of the societal revolutions of that time. But, I shifted gears every afternoon and entered the world of my two-year-old son. He helped me to discover a personal revolution that I needed to go through to become whole as an adult human being.

When you have a two-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, New Jersey, you can imagine the great variety of monuments in the graveyard, from simple stone markers to mausoleums the size of a small house. I enjoyed walking through the graveyard and reading the historic dates and descriptions of the people buried there.

I remember one day I was busy reading tombstones when I realized my son was not in sight. I called out to him, “Matthew, where are you?”

His blond head popped up from behind a tombstone, “Here I am.”

“What are you doing over there?” I called.

“Watching ants climb on this thing,” he responded.

Nonchalantly I called back to him, “Don’t get lost.” And I returned to my own interests.

After a few minutes of reading inscriptions, I remembered again the child in my life. I looked to the tombstone where he was watching the ants. He was nowhere to be seen. I called out again, “Matthew, where are you?” This time there was no answer. I walked over to the tombstone where I had seen his head pop up and looked around. Then I heard a giggle and I caught a glint of the sun on his blond hair as he ran to hide behind one of the big mausoleums. That day we started playing “Lost and Found” in the graveyard. It was a game we enjoyed many times afterwards. This was the beginning of my course in learning to play, and using my imagination again.

They say all revolutions begin with a simple demonstration of truth. If so, I was not an easy convert to the wisdom of imaginative play. My son and I had many activities for a warm afternoon; another of our favorites was a walk along the canal that ran past the apartment where we lived. These walks gave him a chance to explore a different environment and me to think about social theory and philosophy. That semester I was reading Che Guevara’s, La Revolucion Agraria, and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was a hard nut to crack, but my mentor was persistent.

One day we were taking our walk along the canal. It was a sunny, autumn day just as the leaves were starting to turn to their colors of yellow and red. I was walking along, and thinking about something philosophical, when I realized my son was again out of sight. I called out to him, “Matthew, where are you?” No answer. I looked into the woods and down the canal path. Finally, I turned frantically around and looked back up the canal, and saw him kneeling beside the water’s edge. I called out, “What are you doing? You could fall into the water and drown!” He did not look up or answer me. I ran back to where he was kneeling down and called again in anger, “What are you doing?”

He answered me in a calm, matter of fact way, “I’m sending Tubby the Tugboat on his way 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.

Displeased, I said, “You could kill that tree by taking bark from it!” He did not respond. He just came up from the bank of the canal, went to the tree and broke off another piece of bark. Then he returned to the water to send another Tubby the Tugboat on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

It took me a while, observing this child’s play in the water, to remember the fun of getting wet and muddy. Finally, I joined my son making more boats and sending them off to explore the great, wide world. I later learned that shagbark hickory trees naturally shed their bark and it does not harm them if you peel off some of it.

That year my son turned three and we had many more adventures. When we read Charlotte’s Web, we visited a pig farm to learn how they really live. Interest in farm animals led to the creation of our own animal stories. We created stories about a donkey that was always getting into trouble. One of these stories became my first original story for young children called Ice Cream Mud. My young mentor’s magic was working slowly, and I was becoming aware of the changes in myself. I was beginning to hear the “talking yam” and imagine the world like a child again.

My last semester at the Seminary I took a course called Anatomy of Revolution. For the final paper, the professor asked us to write about how we intended to be personally involved in the revolutions of our time. I thought about my time in the Peace Corps, my work for the human rights group in the Dominican Republic, my work in the inter-city for the Presbyterian Church. I could have written about any of these subjects. That would have made sense for the way I had lived my life, until my child came into it. Deep down inside of me, I recognized that my revolution had more to do with my son and what he had opened up to me. I did not write a paper on the anatomy of revolution; instead, I spent the semester creating a photographic essay about the relationship between a father and his young son.

The professor did not disagree with me. When I went to his home to retrieve my project, his daughter answered the door. When I told her my name and my purpose, she responded, “So, you’re the one!”

In the year of 1970, I did some things that many in my family thought were a little crazy, as if I had spent too much time out in the sun listening to “talking yams.” After graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Master’s of Divinity degree, 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.

The Greek word, metanoia, means to have a change of mind, or heart, and begin anew. When I decided to not become a Presbyterian minister, and set out on the journey to create and tell stories to children, I experienced a major change of heart and mind. This happened at the age of twenty-eight. After that there were only minor changes in my creative life for thirty-seven years. Then, at the age of sixty-five in 2007, another important metanoia happened. At that time my mother, Ruby was living with my wife and me. She was ninety-three and slipping slowly into dementia. One day I was reading in the living room when Ruby came into the room. She looked at my book and asked, “How long does it take you to read that book?”

I looked up from the book—Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung—and responded, “Forty years”.

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

I laughed in return. Later, I thought about the fact that I had been reading this book all of my adult life. Why was this true? I wondered. I realized that MDR had been my Holy Scripture, my guide for living the life I had lived for nearly forty years! I went back and read it cover to cover one more time, only this time I looked for the parts that had truly guided my life.

The result was a performance, in the character of Carl Jung: Imagining the World of Carl Jung. This performance had a life from London, England to Boulder, Colorado, from Sarasota, Florida to Sudbury, Canada over the last eight years.

The Jung performance birthed the idea to work on adult stories that I imagined were my “stories for the last third of life”. And I started to think about a memoir that explored the Jungian concept of “individuation” through stories. This is the process of finding wholeness through integration of the conscious ego with the unconscious self. Here we come to the central purpose of this work, which is to reflect on my life through the stories I have created over the past forty-six years. Some of these stories have a long history of my telling them in live performance–mostly to children–and others have never been shared with an audience. Some are shared in the first person, like the one about my son. Others are shared through fictional characters that reflect on the individuation process for all of us. The stories fall into different genres: personal story, folktale, fable, myth, journal, and one-act play. By putting together this memoir, I hope to bring to consciousness the life I have lived to the present and to share the creative process for others to reflect on their lives.
                                                                               End of Introduction

When the memoir is published in the next two weeks we will share more information on this page. One last comment related to the work; because GRANDPA JUNG’S LESSONS…for a slow reader will be an e-book, it will have a multi-media format. Some stories will only be in print, others will also have audio or video forms. The audio and video stories are already available on the “media” page at my revised website. http://www.raygray.com.

 

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