Editor’s Desk: Hard Grace: What Jack In the Beanstalk Taught Me


Most of us can recall the tale of Jack in the Beanstalk and can remember how we thrilled at the rhythmic chant of the giant ogre, “Fee-fi-fo-fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman. Be he alive, or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.” As an adult and the mother of an adult son, this tale became quite significant to me. Robert was about 20 years old when Michael, my husband, and I bought some property in Mendocino County in Northern California. We became landowners with three other couples and were experimenting with living communally as part of the “back-to-landers” movement. At some point Robert moved up to the land as well. He fixed up a little cabin to live in and worked as a prep cook in a local restaurant. I was ecstatic that he was part of the community and that he wanted to continue to live in such close proximity to me. He called me Mom as we hung out enjoying an idyllic summer.

The men on the property had another view of this close relationship and decided to take it upon themselves to initiate Robert into adulthood. They designed an all-night ceremony in which only the men participated. I was all for it but was completely knocked off my game when he came out of the ceremony calling me by my name, Justine, instead of the endearing term, Mom. I was pissed and stomping mad at the men for ripping my lovely boy from my orbit. It felt like a deep betrayal.

It was then that I synchronistically came upon a cassette tape produced by poet and leader of the mythopoeic men’s movement, Robert Bly. Honestly, this was an absolutely magical moment. I remember seeing the tape on a shelf where it had been resting for many months. Why I picked it up and started playing it continues to be a mystery. I can only say that it was a grace guided by invisible energies.

Bly was telling the story of Jack in the Beanstalk from the perspective of the coming of age of a young man.

The tape was recorded in the mid-70s. Bly narrated the scenario of what would have happened if Jack’s mother had been of the “New Age” ilk. He described a scene of Jack returning home with the magic beans and intoned what a “New Age” mother would say, “Oh, Jack, I know we’re starving but I’m going to put these magic beans in a jar and place it in a special place on the mantelpiece.” He goes on to say that in doing this she thwarts the magic potential of the beans.

Bly goes on to point out that the Mother who is depicted in this folktale could not be accused of being anything close to a “New Age” mother. Instead of being all syrupy and sweet, she is irate and screams, “You did what? You idiot. What a dumb thing to do?” She grabs the beans and tosses them with gusto out the window. We all know what happened next; the seeds take root and Jack’s adventure is launched.

I was stunned as I listened to this portrayal of the tale. A kind of hard grace descended on me and opened my eyes to see my mothering more clearly in the light of day. I was making things more and more comfortable for Robert. I was using whatever means I could to get him to stay close to home and with his staying there was the implicit acknowledgment from him that I was a good mother. The main point was that he had nothing to push off on. It became clear to me that I was doing him no favors by making life more and more easy for him to hang at home and the men on the property could see this so much more clearly than me. I could see myself clearly in the role of that “New Age” mother in the story that Bly presented and knew that I had to surrender and let my adult son find his own path, his own destiny.

Shortly after this initiation Robert answered an ad in a sailing magazine and signed on to be part of a crew on a sailing schooner that was scheduled to sail from Panama to San Diego. Up until then his only sailing experience was to take a course at San Francisco State University in which he sailed around on the very placid reservoir of Lake Merced near the campus. He got his passport, got himself down to Panama, and found, to his surprise, that the crew consisted of him and one other guy. It unfolded as a true Jack in the Beanstalk adventure. But that is another story.

Fairytales or, as some call them, “Teaching Tales” come to us as gifts. They can support us in making better sense of our life path. They guide us in the deeper meaning of initiation; they help us move through the dark and foreboding forest; they aid us in recognizing the strange helpers along the way.

You might want to take some time to think of the folktales you found most entertaining in your youth and how they might inspire and enlighten your path today. These tales are filled with universal themes and metaphors and can be used to induce wonder and hope into our lives.


-Justine Willis Toms