Care of the Soul: Skipping Stones
My father liked to teach his sons basic skills, like how to use a saw, tighten a nut, and catch a baseball. In one of my earliest memories of him we are on a beach and he is teaching me how to skip stones across the water. First, choose the right stone: not too heavy and not too light, flat enough and having an edge so you can spin it off your finger. You also have to bend over and throw it at just the right angle.
Even in his one-hundredth year my father had plenty of youth in him. The psychologist and philosopher James Hillman was my good friend, fifteen years older than me, and I often felt that old-young pattern with him, although he, too, had a very young side. In his writing he was preoccupied with the interplay of youth and old age in us, however old we are, whatever gender. He used the old Roman words: puer for the spirit of youth, senex for old age, like the English words: puerile and senile.
Images of youth appear in myth, like Icarus or Narcissus, Persephone and Daphne, and in literature, like Peter Pan or Lewis Carroll’s Alice. You may know people who are forever young or who started life with an odd maturity. Icarus flew too high, got close to the sun, and fell, his wax wings melting in the heat. Interestingly, pilots are often filled with the puer spirit, and puer people often have flying dreams, and sometimes, like Icarus, they crash.
The joy my dad and I found in watching the stones bounce in the air, glancing off the water, reflected the kind of life each of us wanted: not too serious, not excessively grounded, not sinking into the waters of emotion and melodrama. We enjoyed touching down but preferred to stay in the air. I imagine that it was in this same spirit that Jesus, in many ways a puer, walked on water. He was like a skipping stone himself, enjoying life one minute and praying to his Sky Father the next.
C. G. Jung said that as a boy he liked to play with stones and sit on big ones. As an old man he carved his life philosophy on his Bollingen Stone. And, in his alchemical writings, he wrote extensively about the lapis, Latin for stone, describing it as the hidden substance of our lives and discussing its connection with water. In alchemy a stone is never just a stone but a quality of soul.
Senex people usually want to ground the puer, make him grow up, force him to be serious and mature. For their part, puer people make fun of the old ones who can’t change and remain fossils. It might be better to let these two contraries coexist, giving support and toning each other down.
For years I had flying dreams at night, but about a decade ago they suddenly stopped, when I became a parent and serious writer. I haven’t skipped stones for a long time now. I never wanted to be a pilot, but I did study to be a priest, which is another flyer’s calling. In my older years I’ve developed a fear of heights that wasn’t there before.
So maybe Hillman was right. We don’t have to ground the puer out of fear for his extravagances. Wait a while, and life will bring him closer to earth.
My father really enjoyed his one-hundredth birthday party. He had conversations with everyone present, laughing heartily. People asked me how he managed to stay so young for so long. I wanted to tell them it was all about skipping stones and walking on water, but I didn’t want to be obscure.
Although my dad enjoyed his party, he was keenly aware that life was coming to an end. For all the fun he got out of life, he always had a seat in the audience, watching for the serious matters that give a darker background to the playful ones. Maybe that’s how he worked out the senex-puer issue. He let the flying boy have a long leash, while quietly he reflected on the serious and heavy matters that gave him ample gravitas. He was no fool.
The trick is to grow up without losing your innocence and playfulness. The more seriously you take life, the more room there is to remain a child. When you teach your child how to skip a stone, maybe you’ll notice that it’s a game but also a lesson in life.
Why did my father have such a good time at his one-hundredth birthday party? Because from his youth he had developed the skill to be seriously playful and playfully serious. He looked at life from the proper angle and put the right spin on it.