Who Are You Really? Gifts of a Mentor

In composing MyStory memoirs, we are looking at particularly meaningful events, relationships, and themes that have deeply impacted and shaped the person you have become. These are situations or events that we tend to tell ‘our stories’ about, again and again, refining and embellishing these signature tales to bring out their messages as life lessons or as highlight adventures that have come to define us. We each have these stories in us that we have shared time and again.  I believe it is helpful and illuminating to collect these tales, to assemble them in a volume or journal that you can rightly title MyStory.

MyStory tales are usually about transformational moments or relationships in our lives, so recording these stories allows you to uncover and reveal the mystery of your MyStory: to unravel the interwoven key lessons and insights of a lifetime or of a meaningful chapter of your own mythic Life Story.

This week I will focus on my own Life Theme of Mentors.  If you recognize a similar meaningful theme, or maybe a larger umbrella theme such as Relationships or Education, I invite you to reflect and journal your own stories around this theme this week. (Please feel free to share your story with me and I would be happy to reblog it, or you can refer to your journaling insights in Comments.)

To exemplify what I mean by a transformational MyStory tale, I will focus on one of three hugely influential mentors from my life: Dr. Antoinette (Toni) Mann Paterson, whom her Philosophy students sometimes referred to as “Tone-the-Bone” Paterson.

My Life Mentor, Toni P.

               I have so many significant memories of Toni P that it is difficult to select just one or two; cumulatively her mentorship and moreover her friendship changed me entirely.  From her I learned to contemplate the majesty of the smallest details of life and to expand my own potentials accordingly. I also learned that one can be a learned scholar in academia without sacrificing one’s creativity and spiritual practice.  So, I will assemble a few of the most memorable insights and stories I have acquired from the blessing of this great mentor in my life.

The Mighty Acorn

I mother-sat for Toni P’s mom, Mary Mann, around three days a week for 2-4 hours a day over several years, at Toni’s old Victorian home in Buffalo, New York.  Dr. P was a full Professor of Philosophy at Buffalo State (SUNY) College, where I met her while an undergraduate student. Mother-sitting provided a wonderful opportunity to spend quality time with both her mother Mary and with Toni herself.  One day over lunch, while we were discoursing about religion and whether she believed in (a) God, Toni shared with me about an interaction she had with her son in Delaware Park when he was young. 

Toni found an acorn on the ground beneath a giant Oak Tree. She held the acorn in her hand, studying its magnificence.  Then she handed the Acorn to her son as a special gift.

“This,” Toni said to her son, “is God!”

The small acorn carries, in seed form, the grand design of a majestic, mighty oak.  TP shared this story also to explain why all the furniture in her beloved Victorian Buffalo home was made of Oak. Most of her furniture she had acquired from Salvation Army stores.  She loved finding gems where others might see only used, disposable objects; this too was a lesson for me.


Who Are You, Really?

Shortly after I first met Toni P (another tale worth telling!), after a Creative Studies–my Minor–class that she had visited to talk with us about ‘the philosophy of creativity,’ She asked me point-blank:

What is your name?”

“Linda,” I answered.

“No, I mean what is your REAL name?”

I was flummoxed. “What do you mean?,” I asked her. Then I told her of how when I was around six or seven my brother had told me I was adopted, which I could not disprove because my mother had lost my birth certificate. I had created a fictional name for myself: April Thornton.

                                              “April.”  Toni repeated the name. “Yes, I will call you April.”

What was this about, in retrospect? I think she was asking me if I had yet discovered my IDENTITY. Truly at that point in time, I had not. I was whom others saw in me; I had no mature, core sense of self. I carried this question with me for many years and in fact underwent several periods of psychotherapy to explore and gradually to discover and express Who I Am.  I am grateful to TP for this quest.

So What? Whan!

To complete this ensemble of MyStory tales about my dear mentor, Toni P, let me describe her a bit further and tell a classic story of how she taught me to probe deeply into the meaning of life.

Toni published a book called THE INFINITE WORLDS OF GIORDANO BRUNO, and she was a supporter (and colleague) of Immanuel Velikovsky–who, like Bruno (burned at the stake in the 1400s for the heresy of telling people to seek truth experientially Within instead of through priests), was vilified in mainstream academia for his WORLDS IN COLLISION book, where he explored historical truth via studying cultural myths.

Also, while not religious, Toni P was one of the most spiritually aware persons I have ever known. She would stand before students in her Philosophy classes lecturing with her eyes closed, and then she would open her eyes and stare directly at a particular student to ask a bold question. E.G. That first day I had met her at the Creative Studies class, she arrived early and was sitting at a round table with students to whom she had not yet been introduced. She picked up and examined a papier mache art project of a student who had come from an art class, of a human dancer, I think. “HOW THE HELL DID YOU DO THIS!?” Toni asked the astounded student. “I mean, how the Hell can you do this, when I can hardly draw a stick figure?” Then as class opened and she was introduced, Dr. Paterson discoursed about a philosophy of creativity. 

When I mother-sat, one day over lunch Toni explained how every day she “dived into the Ocean,” meaning she took a contemplative ‘nap’ (what Jung would call active imagination) on the little cot she slept on in her bedroom.


Now then, one day I was depressed. I came into her office for my Independent Study on a topic we had agreed to: ”a philosophy of, not Science, but Silence.

“So, what?” I asked my mentor.

She responded: “Take out a piece of paper and a pencil and write two words: So, What, question-mark.” For your assignment this week, answer that question. Bring me your answer next Wednesday.”

So, all that next week I searched the library for literary and philosophical clues to the question I had posed of “So, What?” I abstracted readings and wrote in my journal.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, wrote an essay on “The Transparent Eyeball” that I found useful to the probe. Again I found this was about personal identity, whether “I” had any distinct meaning or purpose as an individual.

I arrived at Toni P’s office for our class session that next Wednesday. I told her about some of the thoughts I had arrived at but admitted I had not really answered the question.

Toni had set up a card table with a large, blank roll of sketch paper draped over it, and she called me to sit down at the table. With a large felt pen she wrote  the following words at the compass points of the paper:

WHO

WHAT

WHERE

WHEN

WHAT

She placed each of these WH- words strategically in a circle on the paper, like compass points, and then drew lines to connect them to one another. She intersected them all at the center of the page, where she wrote one more word:

W H A N

“There is the answer to ‘So What?’,” Toni said. “It is WHAN.”

This solution was totally understandable and made total sense. Yes, of course. At the intersection of all the WH- questions, is WHAN.  What is the meaning of Life? WHAN. The purpose? WHAN.

In other words, questions are meaningless in themselves. Life IS what it IS, and that is not only OK; It is GOOD; It is WHAN, and that is enough.

“It Just Is!”, I soon after discovered independently, is a profound spiritual Truth. Try sometime just chanting the word IS, over and over as a mantra. (I did that for several hours one day, and arrived at a remarkable inner awareness!)

There are more stories about Toni P that I will include in my MyStory logs. But this is enough to share here!

images are from pixabay.com
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What of your greatest Teachers or Mentors? What life lessons have they helped you to learn? I invite you to write your own MyStory memoirs, to probe your own mystery: Who are you, really? Why are you Here?

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