THE TURKEY BASTER SOLUTION

Three nights past I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth before bed. In the process, I noticed that the water was not going down the sink drain. Have you been there? So I dutifully went to the closet, took out a bottle of Drano and dumped a good supply down the sink drain. I waited half an hour. Then, as instructed on the bottle, I heated water and put a follow-up dose of boiling water down the drain–still clogged. I repeated the process another time, but no success.

That night, I went to bed and contemplated my next step for clearing the drain. I could call a plumber in the morning–I can afford the cost–but I am the son of a steelworker, the machinist, from Midland, Pennsylvania who built his own home. Solving practical, everyday problems was important to my father. So in the morning, I went out to the garage and found my little used vice-grip pliers and went back to the bathroom to take apart the trap under the sink.

When you are seventy-seven years old, it is not easy to work under a bathroom sink. Despite the rusted connectors, I was able to disassemble pipes and found that the trap was clear. This meant the clog was further into the system of drain pipes. I found myself staring at the dark end of a pipe that disappeared into the bathroom wall. Using a piece of wire, I was able to discover that the pipe went through the wall and turned downward.

So there I lay on the bathroom floor pondering my household problem–not so different from the problem of looking down the dark hole when you are creating a story. I reasoned that I needed to find a way to inject more of my Drano through the wall and down the pipe. But how do I do that?

Here, I had the perspicacity to climb out from under the sink and consult with the other side of the brain trust that lives at 68 Clemens Road. I went to Nancy, my wife, and explained my problem. She thought a moment and said, “Why don’t you try the turkey baster! And I have an old tea kettle that holds a gallon of water. You will need a lot of hot water.” Over twenty years of marriage, our anniversary will be May 1, I have learned to listen and follow-up with actions based my wife’s solutions to life’s problems big and small.

There was a dramatic climax to our household experiment. With added contortions, I managed to squeeze ten shots of Drano down the offending pipe and reassembled the trap. Then, after waiting half an hour again, I gorged the sink drain with boiling hot water–waited and waited–the water did not disappear down the drain. Finally, I went back to Nancy and said, “It’s not working, better get the plumber’s telephone number.” Then, I went back to the bathroom to pick up my tools…and there I saw it….the seas had parted through the grace of God, Nancy Wicklund Gray’s powers of reason and my minimal plumbing skills–the drain for our bathroom sink was working again!

I have spent a life creating stories; and as an old man, I am trying to connect my creative energy to my spiritual journey in life. Nevertheless, I enjoy nothing more than the opportunity to discover the same creative energy in the practical, every day journey of life.

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THE MASTER’S PAY

Last month I shared a story that was created out of the angst of separating from the Presbyterian Church fifty years ago. Evidently my creative self was not finished with telling that story. About two weeks ago, I had a dream that brought me back to the same nexus between my creative and spiritual lives. I found myself silently reading a text with a female companion. As I read, she offered a spoken interpretation of the text. When I woke up in the morning, I understood the dream to mean that the “spoken interpretation” was an intuitive and creative reflection on the rational story of my life. My female companion was my anima! This dream was a gentle reminder from Grandpa Jung to not forget my connection to the unconscious, both the personal and collective.

What next? Intuitively I decided not to go back to my stack of old stories–as I did for the last blog–instead I turned to the book shelf where I have stored fifty-six years of journals in twenty books. Quickly I separated out the journals that covered 1969-1973. These were the years that saw the transition from potential minister in the Presbyterian Church to storyteller. There I found an entry from November of 1969 that stimulated the creative process in me:

“Read my Bible every day,
Study hard, hard, hard,
And I will earn the Master’s pay.
Leave these books, forget the Word,
Work hard, hard, hard,
Can I still earn the Master’s pay?

I feel great pressure about the decision I have to make in the coming year. What am I doing in my life? I question my ability to make the right decision. I don’t have anyone I can go to, to talk about what I am going to do. I do not trust my own judgement. I need to find someone to bounce my ideas off, and to see my reflection through another set of eyes.”

When I read the phrase, “Master’s pay”, I immediately made the connection to “God” as the world’s spiritual master. Then, I thought about young, Raymond Lowell Gray, he came from a family of steel workers and coal miners. In the working man’s world the company was the master who set your schedule and paid your worldly wages. Finally, I thought about my world: Who is my master? The best I can imagine is that my creativity has set my schedule and paid my wages for over forty years–modest though it be.

Then a few days later, I had a second dream that I thought had a relation to this subject. This time I found myself at a party where I met a young man. We talked about a career for him. I suggested that he was good looking and personable. He might do well to find a corporate job and work his way up the ladder to success, wealth and fame. A wry smile appeared on the young man’s face and he disappeared from my dream. When I woke up, I realized my dream companion this time was myself as a young man!

Finally, the light turned on and I made a connection to the beginning of a story. It is a story about my two “selves”; my self as a twenty-seven year old Young Man; and my self as seventy-seven year old Old Man. They will meet and the Old Man will be the other “set of eyes” that the Young Man is seeking in his journal entry. I wonder what advice the Old Man will offer him? And, perhaps more interesting, I wonder what advice the Young Man might offer to the Old Man?

**********************************************

The story begins on a November night in 1969. We find Raymond Lowell, a twenty-seven year old, sitting at a desk in an apartment in Princeton, New Jersey. On the desk before him is a letter from the Presbyterian Church telling him officially that he has been rejected for ordination as a minister. With a gesture of anger and frustration, he sweeps the letter from the desk and it floats gently to the floor. From the side of the desk he purposely takes hold of a journal where he records his most personal thoughts and feelings about life. He picks up a pen and begins to write: “I feel great pressure about the decision I have to make in the coming year. What am I doing in my life? I question my ability to make the right decision. I don’t have anyone I can go to, to talk about what I am going to do. I do not trust my own judgement. I need to find someone to bounce my ideas off, and to see my reflection through another set of eyes.”

Gently Raymond Lowell puts down his pen and reads the words he has written on the paper. For a moment he considers who that person might be–that other set of eyes–his father, his wife, his mother, his best friend? Yes, he will consult with all of these close members of his family, but might there be one who is close, but not tied to the present circumstances? Quietly he closes his eyes and waits for a response from the unconscious.

Raymond Lowell finds himself sitting in a comfortable reclining chair. As he looks about him, he sees a man sitting at a desk, his back to Raymond. The room about him appears to be a study. There is a bookcase full of books. On the walls there are pictures, some reprints of paintings, some original and some are photos. He recognizes the people in the photos. They are members of his family–his parents, his sister and brother.

The man is working and he is unaware of the visitor to his world. He is typing on the keyboard of what appears to be typewriter, but instead of the words appearing on paper above his keyboard, they are appearing on a portable screen standing on the desk. Raymond has no words to describe this machine. He has never seen personal computer.

Wishing to engage the man, Raymond coughs and says gently, “Excuse me sir.” His approach is not gentle enough, the man is startled. The man turns and for a moment Raymond sees a look on his face, like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. “I’m sorry if I startled you. I just want to ask a favor of you.”

The man quickly regains his composure and smiles. “That’s OK, I am easily startled. We all have our shortcomings.”

Raymond takes a moment to measure this man of his dream. He is elderly, thick through the middle, but not obese. His hair is gray, the hairline receding, but he still has a full head of hair: and his smile, it radiates a warmth and willingness to communicate. Raymond feels emboldened: “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’m facing a difficult time in my life and……and I need someone to talk with…I mean someone who can help me reflect…you know, like another set of eyes to see into the future.”

The Old Man rolls his chair away from the desk and closer to Raymond. He reaches out his hand and touches Raymond’s knee: “Where’s the rub?”

His eyes looking away, Raymond continues: “You see, I’ve always thought of myself as a spiritual person. I think about God a lot. I’ve tried to understand my relationship with the divine….about my soul and its relationship to God. For me, this relationship is tied more to people and social responsibility than to the practice of rituals”

“That works for me”, says the Old Man, “where is your problem?”

“It’s the Church”, says Raymond, “I thought I could serve God and satisfy my spiritual needs by becoming a Presbyterian minister. I’ve been successful at earning the degree, but I failed when I was questioned by the Church elders about my beliefs. My problem is my passion for the spiritual journey. I start to talk and tell stories and I don’t think about institutions and the people who run them…I forget about the beliefs of the Church–taking Jesus as my Savior and looking forward to my reward in Heaven means nothing to me. My spirituality is in the here and now, in my relationship with those that I love and want to serve. Now the Presbyterian Church has turned me down, rejected me for ordination…and I don’t know what to do.

The Old Man is silent for a long time as Raymond Lowell shifts nervously about in the Old Man’s so-called “easy chair”. Finally he responds with a question: “Do you know what it means to live a creative life?”

Raymond frowns: “You mean like the hippies, ‘do your thing’?”

The Old Man laughs out loud and slaps Raymond on the arm, “No man, I’m not saying you have to smoke dope, grow long hair and wear bell-bottom pants. But you do have to be willing to step outside the norm of what others want you to be and do. And you have to know that you are going to make mistakes, steps in the wrong direction, not everything is going to work. Here’s where your Christian idea of grace comes into play. You’re allowed to make mistakes, be forgiven and start over again.”

Raymond stands up and walks over to the window and stares outside for a quiet moment. When he turns back to the Old Man, he now has a frown on his face. “What about my family? What about my parents? They want to tell their friends about their son, the Rev. Raymond Lowell Gray. And I have a wife, a son and a second child on the way. How am I going to support them?

The Old Man stands up and he faces Raymond Lowell, eye to eye. “It ain’t gonna be easy. You will have to work, work, work to earn your Master’s pay. I believe you can do it. I know you will do it.”

When Raymond Lowell opens his eyes again, he hears his son crying in the bedroom of the apartment. It is time to comfort a child’s fears of the unknown. We all need support and guidance, another set of eyes to help us find our way in this life.

********************************************

Last night I finished the part of my story where the Old Man shares his advice, or wisdom, with young Raymond Lowell Gray. As I fell asleep, my rational mind was thinking about the next part of the story. What will the young man share with the old man? Again, my unconscious had a response that was shared in a dream:

It is a warm, summer day and I am standing on a grassy field. My companion is a young girl about the age of eight or nine. She is laughing, happy and bit mischievous by the look on her face. She tells me to lie down on my back in the grass. She turns and runs a short distance; then, turns back toward me and warns me to be very still. Suddenly, laughing loudly, she runs towards me. When she comes to my body, she puts her hands on my fat belly and somersaults over my body, arms and legs awry, and still laughing!

When I woke up I pondered this dream: ‘So what’s this about? Maybe something the Young Man wants to share with the Old Man?

Before we go back to the story, I have an explanation to make about my name. As a young man I was known as Raymond Lowell Gray. My family called me “Ray”, but I believe, if I had become a Presbyterian minister, I would have been known as the Rev. Raymond Lowell Gray. As my life happened, and I became a teller of stories to children, the school children chose the name of Ray Gray. This happened on a day early in my work as a presenter of school assembly programs. I walked into a school where I had performed a couple of times. Some kids saw me and one called out: “Hey, there’s Ray Gray, the storyteller!” From that day I started to promote myself as “storyteller, Ray Gray”. With this explanation, let’s go back to our story of the Young Man, Raymond Lowell, and the Old Man, Ray.

**********************************************

Ray Gray is sitting on the old recliner in his study. He is thinking about a story he is writing. It is a story about a meeting between himself, as an old man, and himself as a young man. Ray imagines being able to talk with himself, that young man who was twenty-seven years old and trying to find his way in the world. What would he say to him? What advice could he offer from fifty years of living? Maybe more important: What would that young man say to him? What advice might a young man share with an old man of seventy-seven years? Ray closes his eyes and he waits for the unconscious to speak about the advice that the young have for the old in this world.

Ray finds himself sitting in a comfortable reclining chair, not unlike the “easy chair” in his study, but newer and more comfortable. As he looks about him, he sees a man sitting at a desk, his back to Ray. The room about him appears to be a student’s apartment. It serves as a combination, living room, dining room and study place with an old oak desk. On the walls there are picture of a small, blond hair boy. Ray recognizes the boy as his own son at the age of two.

The man is sitting at the oak desk. He is working and unaware of the visitor to his world. He is typing on a Smith-Corona typewriter like Ray had as a young man. Wishing to engage the man, Ray coughs and says gently, “Excuse me sir. “His approach is not gentle enough, the man is startled. He turns and for a moment there is a look on his face, like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. “I’m sorry if I startled you. I just want to ask a favor of you.”

The man quickly regains his composure and smiles. “That’s OK, I am easily startled. We all have our shortcomings.”

The man stands up and extends his hand. Ray stands up, face to face with the Young Man. He takes a moment to measure this man of his dream. He looks very familiar, almost, kind of like, like Ray remembers himself as a young man. He is solidly built, but not fat. His hair is auburn colored, close cut and he has no facial hair. He is smiling; his face radiates a warmth and willingness to communicate. Ray reacts to the Young Man’s smile and he is emboldened to speak: “I’m sorry to disturb you, I’m old and maybe a bit set in my ways…you know caught up with my past…and maybe I can’t see the world as younger people see it. I need another set of eyes…. eyes to see the world as a young man, not an old man.”

The Young Man reaches out and touches the Ray’s arm. He says: “Tell me about the life you have lived. I’m interested to hear how have you spent the past fifty years?”

Ray turns and looks out a window. He is quiet for a moment and then turns back to the Young Man. “I guess you would say that they have been good years. I did what I needed to do…to become myself…not what others wanted me to be. I didn’t find fame and fortune, but I made a living. I guess if I have a complaint at the age of seventy-seven…..I mean…..what bugs me is that my creative ideas today are ignored by young people. It feels like they don’t listen…and it’s just because I’m old!

The Young Man smiles and says: Maybe you’ve forgotten how the game is played?

Ray frowns: “You mean like old men who play golf…nah, I don’t enjoy competition anymore… I certainly don’t like the games that young people play with old people at the gym. Yesterday I saw a young man leading a bunch of old people through a set of exercises on machines. As they pumped, he asked them trivia questions from the 1960’s….and I don’t like games old people play to keep their minds from developing dementia! I am more interested in creative work than play.”

The Young Man laughs as he turns and points to one of the pictures on the wall. “Do you see that boy in the picture? He is my two year old son. He is also my teacher, the one who is teaching me to play again. I think we know how to play as children, but we forget as we grow older. Let me tell you a little story.

Before that two year old came into my life, I was very serious. Life was work, work, work: social causes, book work, changing the world. One day my son and I were walking along the canal near here. I was thinking about Karl Barth’s idea of ‘dialectical theology’ for a paper I was writing. I didn’t see my son stop, go to the edge of the canal and hunker down right at the water’s edge.

When I turned and saw him, I hollered: “What are you doing, you could fall into the water and drown!”

He ignored me and dropped a piece of tree bark into the water.

I ran back to him and said, “Don’t you know you could drown in that canal. What are you doing?”

He looked up to me and said: “I’m send Tuggy the Tugboat off to find the sea.” The story of the tugboat was my son’s favorite story,and I liked the story too.”

The Young Man smiles and looks at Ray:” You know that day I stopped thinking about theology and took time to play with my son. We both went home muddy and wet after launching ten Tuggy the Tugboats off to the sea!”
The Young Man turns to Ray with a pensive look on his face, “You like that story? I do, I’m not sure where this will lead, but I like playing with the idea of creating and telling stories. Maybe I can work something out.”

Ray smiles: “Thank you for reminding me to play….and keep working on the story telling thing. I think your on to something!”

***************************************

It has taken me nearly a lifetime to begin to discover the synergy that grows out of the relationship between creative play and work. I will continue to create stories that talk about this basic part of human experience. Like the man of my dream, I will try to provide the intuitive and creative reflection on the rational story of my life. It is my way to earn the Master’s pay.

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THE CUT AND RUN KID…still on my mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes sir.”

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

“Yes sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you participated in those southern boycotts?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MY FATHER, THE MACHINIST…and more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A STORYTELLER MINING FOR GOLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Would I Rather Be Fourteen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A RETRO STORYTELLER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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