MY RETURN TO THE ABBAYE

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There are some places in the world which are special, places which seem untouched by time. Such places have been called ‘thin places’, where heaven and earth seem to touch, where the human and holy meet. I recently read a description of Iona, the island off the north coast of Scotland, where St Columba and his companions landed 1500 years ago, and founded a monastery there. For those early Christians, looking at where sky and earth met, it must have seemed that they were on the edge of the world, where the veil between heaven and earth is very thin.

I believe that the Abbaye, in northern Brittany, is such a place. It sits at the end of the little village of St Jacut-de-la-mer, on a narrow peninsula.

It was some forty years ago that I last visited the Abbaye, which had been my childhood home, the place where I spent my formative years, from the age of three to seven. It was with some trepidation and a certain amount of foreboding that I came here again in my ninetieth year. Would I find it the same, would it have changed?

I need not have worried. As soon as our taxi passed through the iron gates into the old familiar courtyard, happiness fell upon me like a gentle balm. Like a familiar presence, the Abbaye embraced me in its loving arms.

Daphne & John 1          Myself at four with my friend John in the courtyard

It has had a long and turbulent history. Founded in the fifth century by St Jacut, who is reputed to have sailed across the sea from Wales, landing on the small Isle des Ebihans just off the coast, he set up a hermitage with his brother Guetenoc. Here they led a life of prayer and penitence and are said to have followed the rule of St Columba. It became a substantial monastery, with many ups and downs, till finally during the French Revolution in 1790, the building was rased to the ground, all its property and wealth stolen and pillaged. All the monks fled, it was said, to the nearby Isle des Ebihans.

When I arrived there in 1931 with my mother at the age of three, it had been restored and rebuilt by the Sisters of St Méen, of the Order of the Immaculate Conception. They had bought the property back in 1875 and it had become once more a place of devotion and sanctity. No longer supported by the government, the nuns had to make a living, and so they began to welcome visitors and the Abbaye became a ‘pension de famille.’

How to describe my feelings when I revisited the Abbaye all those years later. Whatever unhappiness or darkness might have existed when I was separated from my mother at the age of four, and which I have described in an earlier blog, none of that remained.

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Myself today

I was transported right back into my childhood, everything was familiar to me; the old stone walls covered with wisteria, hundred of years old, reaching right up to the upper windows, with roots thick as a tree; the holy well in the centre of the courtyard; the tree shaded walk leading right down to the sea, called the Monks’ Walk; and the vegetable gardens where, as a small child, with my tiny rosary, I had walked with the nuns in their long black robes, as they paced and told their beads.

Going down the Monks’ Walk I came to the Promenade which surrounded the Abbaye grounds, and the old stone wall protecting it from the sea. I looked across to the Isle des Ebihans, about a mile away, where we used to walk, taking a picnic with us and our shrimping nets. Now I could see people still walking over the sands and there were still figures digging in the mud searching for shrimps, mussels and whelks. I felt as though nothing had changed. Looking out to the far horizon, where earth and sea seemed to merge, there was a sense of timelessness.

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The fact that the Abbaye is situated on a spit of land surrounded by sea, in French it is called a ‘presqu’ile’, (almost an island), accounts for the fact, I think, that it has remained relatively unspoilt and untouched. And it still seems to be unpolluted, which is rare in this day and age.

All around us was the sea, great expanses of sea and sky, changing colour all the time, sailing boats with their white sails on the horizon, across the bay from us clusters of houses, and rocks rising up out of the water like sentinels. I wrote in my diary:

“Today the sea is turquoise blue, the sailing boats are out, the sky is cerulean blue with streaks of white, little wavelets are lapping against the wall with a soft shusshing sound. It is all so beautiful, so peaceful, a haven, a place to come and be, a place of happiness, of simple pleasures. It is a hidden treasure.”

The interior of the Abbaye had, of course, been modernised. The dark hallway which I remembered had been replaced by a light spacious entrance and the reception area was open to all. The old stairway had gone and there was now a lift.

The big dining room which I remembered was still there. It was big enough to hold one hundred to a hundred and fifty people, with tables for six to eight people. I remembered when I was a child, at Christmas, families used to come, even from England, and we played games in the dining room, the tables would be pulled back and we would play trains and musical chairs, with the chairs piled into the centre of the room. I have a vivid memory of the fun we had.

The bedrooms too had been modernised, very functional but comfortable, and with excellent showers. France in the past was never known for its good plumbing!

There were still lovely flower borders in the spacious gardens, though the pond with the statue of St Christopher in the centre had gone. There was now a large Zen garden in its place!

St Jacut pond

I had come with my art group to paint. There were five of us, and we soon settled down into a routine. I was glad that they all loved the place, especially Michael, my art teacher. We had a small, light and airy room where we could work, and we were soon visited by the curious French, or they peered in at us through the large windows as they passed by.

Two twin sisters were very friendly. One of them had been a painter, but since having had a stroke she could no longer use her right arm. We suggested she try using her left hand, and she said she felt inspired by us to do just that!

Michael felt very much at home, as the French have a proper appreciation of the place of art in life. He was delighted too, at the way the French people greeted each other in the mornings, everyone kissing each other on the cheeks.

There was something about the atmosphere of the place which seemed to infect us too. We enjoyed the mealtimes, we had our own table, and were surrounded by family groups of lively French people. The meals followed exactly the same pattern that I remembered, coffee in bowls for breakfast, I adopted this practice again, and brioche. At lunchtime, which was served at 12h15, there were five courses, entrée, meat or fish, salad, cheese and dessert, and in the evening, soup. Didier, one of our group, always prepared the salad, it became a ritual, he called it ‘attacking’ the salad. And there was, of course, a bottle of wine on the table and a large baguette. The novelty of it all seemed to loosen our tongues, we laughed uproariously and had most interesting conversations. We were nearly always the last to leave the dinning room.

We decided to have a picnic at lunchtime so as not to interrupt our painting. We each received a large bag containing bread, butter, a savoury filling, small salad, a fruit or fruit compote. The staff were always obliging if we wanted to change, nothing seemed too much trouble for them. There were tables and chairs dotted around the lawn and we found a shady tree under which to sit and eat. Being in France, we supplemented our meal with a good bottle of wine. This became another pleasant ritual, which usually ended with our needing a siesta to sleep off our lunch.

I was interested to see how the Abbaye had changed. There were now only five nuns living there, no longer dressed in black, but wearing cream coloured mid calf dresses, and no veils. As I was crossing the courtyard one morning, I saw an old nun walking to the front door. She looked rather severe, I thought, and at that she turned and gave me a radiant smile.

No longer run purely by the nuns, it has become a very successful centre managed by a religious and a secular group working side by side, offering hospitality and space for conferences and retreats and creative pursuits, such as our own art group. There was a chapel and an oratory, and a pattern of prayer throughout the day for those who wanted it. Whilst we were there, there was a large group of people doing Gestalt therapy, much to our curiosity and amusement. (Gestalt s a form of experiential psychotherapy) In fact, by the end of our holiday we decided we had been doing some Gestalt ourselves. Many people, we discovered, came there just to enjoy the peace and quiet and the beauty of the place.

The Abbaye has become a place of freedom and liberation, a place where you can come to learn and reflect, or a place just to ‘BE”.

Coming back to the Abbaye now at the end of my life has made me realise that it is indeed a place of higher consciousness, a place where it is easy to believe in a better world.  I remembered my mother telling me that when I was a child, I used to have long conversations with someone whom I called ‘a beautiful Being” and how I used to tell her all about it. No longer a child, I still had a strong sense of that all pervading benign presence.

I felt that I had been able to recapture my childhood self, a sense of wonder and delight, a sense of happiness;  I reconnected with the energy of the French people and their spirit, an innate lightness and joy. I had come home.

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I’M ALIVE, I EXIST

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We have all been appalled by the stories of the Windrush generation and how, for the want of a little piece of paper identifying them as British citizens, they have lost their jobs and been threatened with deportation, even though they have been living in Britain for fifty years or more. This is a story of bungling mismanagement, and even plain inhumanity. Bureaucracy, it seems, causes basic common sense to fly out of the window, to be replaced by mindless pen pushers only concerned with carrying out the letter of the law.

This raises the interesting fact that our very right to live seems to rest on the possession of a piece of paper establishing our existence.

I have the utmost sympathy for these people, though it appears the government is now preparing to rectify these injustices which have resulted from past government decisions.

This has brought back many memories for me of my own story. When I was born in Nice in 1928,  my mother, who was unmarried, forgot to register my birth at the time. When she remembered, her French doctor advised her that she would receive a heavy fine (not very good advice) for not having done it before, so she did nothing, and thought no more about it.

Daphne & Ma

When I was nine, in 1937, I came to England with my mother and I travelled on my mother’s passport, which was possible in those days. My mother, being Canadian, had British nationality at that time. All went well, until in 1945, when I was seventeen, I wanted to visit my pen pal in Lille, France. It was then that we discovered that, without a birth certificate, I had no nationality. It seemed that I could not be Canadian, I could not be British and I could not be French, as I did not conform to any of the rules prevailing at the time.

What to do?  I wrote to Sir Anthony Eden, believing in my naivety that he would surely come to my aid! And received an anodyne letter couched in the usual bureaucratic waffle, offering no help whatsoever. This made me realise for the first time, what a tiny little cog in this great universe I was.

Eventually, after my mother consulted a lawyer, a solution was found.  I was declared an ‘alien’ and I was given an ‘Aliens’ certificate, which then enabled me to travel. The only inconvenience was that whenever I changed address, I had to report to the local Police station.

And there the matter rested for many years, and I was able to travel abroad when I wanted. Of course, being considered and named as an alien did nothing to enhance my self esteem, which was already pretty low.

So when I applied to work for NATO in Paris and was accepted, I was over the moon. The year was 1959 and I was thirty one years old. I had carefully explained to the Personnel Officer in NATO my legal status. However, once in Paris, with my mother, I then learnt that I needed an ID card in order to live there. The Police station in Paris informed me that I needed an official Passport, and that my Aliens certificate was not sufficient.

It seemed that once again my hopes and dreams were to be dashed to the ground. I was instructed to  have an interview with the Deputy Head of Personnel. I remember him as a thin, grey man, with an inscrutable face.  Even when, in my desperation, I exclaimed “But I’m alive, I exist!” I saw no flicker of expression cross his face.

I then went to see the Welfare Officer in NATO, Mme Dreyfus. She was a doughty lady, small and dark, with flashing eyes. “We have engaged you and we must look after you” she declared.

It was my good fortune to have this formidable woman on my side. She went to see my French boss and together they decided that something must be done about “my lack of nationality.”  The sources of power in NATO were set in motion, resulting in my being called to the British Consulate in Paris, where I met the British Consul, Betty Barclay, and I became a naturalised citizen of the United Kingdom.

Finally I had that little piece of paper which enabled me to stay on in Paris, and finally I was able to declare myself to be British. My eternal gratitude goes to that one small lady with a big heart, Madame Dreyfus.

Which is why my heart goes out now to the Windrush generation.

 

MARIA

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Maria and Patricia

 

I have been thinking of my friend Maria delli Zotti.  Maria was a simultaneous interpreter at NATO in Brussels during the sixties to eighties when I was there. She was also a member of the School of Philosophy, an esoteric Wisdom School which I attended, which is how I came to know her. Maria spoke several languages, French, Spanish and Italian, as well as English. This, she said modestly, was because of her background, French/Italian, and probably other strands as well.

Maria was a senior member of the School, was a tutor as well as a meditation teacher, whilst I was quite junior.  She was extremely elegant, small and petite, she was always beautifully dressed in a classic style. I admired her greatly. She was warm and outgoing, and regularly invited people round to her flat for tea and a chat.  I found her very easy to talk to, I had many problems at that time, and she always listened and gave me good advice. In a way she became a confidante and a kind of mentor to me in the School.

Me, Carol, Maria

An early morning calligraphy class, Carol is teaching in the foreground, I am next to her in a red cardigan, Maria is in the background, also in red.

Very sadly, Maria died quite suddenly when only in her fifties. This is what I wrote at the time.

“My friend Maria

I was having lunch with my friend Maria. For quite a long time she had been complaining of headaches. It was so unusual for her to complain, I ought to have realised there was something very wrong. I had seen her getting thinner and thinner, but she was immaculately dressed as always, even more elegant than usual.

As I say, we were having lunch. She did not talk very much and I was struggling to find things to say. We fell silent. I had a feeling it was taking her all her energy just to sit there. She suggested a walk in the fresh air.

I was hurrying a little, as I had to get back early to the office. As we went out and down the steps, she stumbled and lost her shoe. I remember thinking what absurdly high heels she was wearing. I realised I was going too fast and slowed down my pace to hers. I parted from her at the Main Entrance to go back to the office.

A week later, I heard she was in hospital, three weeks later, she was dead. Even as I left her, she was dying on her feet. If only I had known – but she would not have wanted it that way. She was courageous, considerate and kind, to the very end.

A very rare human being – my friend Maria.”

At the time of Maria’s death, I had left the School, but we still kept in touch. I went to her funeral, which was simple and very moving, and I met many of my old fellow philosophers there, among them Trevor who came up to talk to me.  I had left the School in 1985 and I left Brussels in 1989, so it must have been at some point during those years.

Another old friend from the School has just recently died, Anita Morris, a very lovely lady. Her death has brought back many memories of the School. It was a very special time for me, which is why I feel like paying this tribute to Maria here now.

Anita & Trevor

Anita and Trevor

May they rest in peace.

 

MOTHER

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Early in the summer of 2015 I attended a Conscious Writing Retreat led by Julia McCutcheon in Glastonbury. At that retreat I had the sudden realisation of what it had meant to me to have never had a father. In some turmoil I decided to see a therapist. She set me three tasks, to write a letter to my father, to my mother, and to my inner child. I recently came across the letters I had written to my mother and to my small child. I felt like reproducing the letter to my mother here. The photo above is of her at age seventeen.  Here is the letter.

“My darling mother,

You often used to say to me: “we must try to understand each other better.” I would look at you without comprehension, I did not see what there was to understand. I have changed so much since those days and I can see now where you were coming from.

It makes me sad now to realise how lonely you must have been. If you were alive now I would be able to talk to you and understand you.

There was so little psychological knowledge in those days. You had done everything you could for me, brought me up, clothed me, fed me, but you could do nothing for my state of mind. You did once say to me: “I wasn’t brought up, I was dragged up.” I have often wondered whether you felt any guilt about me. You never showed it and we never discussed it.

If only we could have talked, but I was very incurious as a child. I never wondered who my father was or asked any questions about him, and I never asked you about your own life.

I remember you as a comforting presence in my life, you were always there as something secure and safe. I was quite selfish and self absorbed and took you for granted, as I suppose many young people do.

I am grateful because you gave me a good education and because you were a stable force in my life. Without you I think I might have gone off the rails.

This is not to say that there were not moments of happiness between us. But I turned out to be an oddball, not the normal, conventional girl you would have liked me to be. I know you were proud of me because I was clever and you were very ambitious for me. I was cripplingly shy and had no ambition at all, not in a worldly sense anyway.

You always said I was too mystical for my own good, but I think it is that quality that has got me through my life and to where I am now.

I know now that I have inherited a lot of your qualities, but when you were alive I felt dwarfed by you, you were such a strong woman and very gifted.

Of course now I could meet you on an equal level, as I have developed my own strengths and my own gifts.

It is a great regret to me now that I did not appreciate you more when you were alive and that we were never able to become close. It also makes me sad now to realise how sad and lonely you must have felt at times, and that I was the cause of that.

I know you would have been proud of me later on when my work life improved and I got the MBE for my work in NATO. I’m sure you would have been pleased at all the things I’ve done since I retired, my painting, my singing, my writing. Whether you would have understood them, I don’t know.

As the years have passed my relationship with you has changed and I have come to understand YOU much more. My love for you has grown and my profound respect and gratitude.  What enormous courage you showed back in 1928, to give birth to an illegitimate child, and then, when you lost all your money in 1932, to start to work and build up a career for yourself with your cooking in schools, even writing a book about it!

In my later years I have tried to repay and honour you, first by painting you when you were a beautiful young woman, and later by writing about you and depicting the truly remarkable woman that you were.

Thank you, dear mother, for giving me my life. I think in the end it has not been in vain and that I have vindicated all the the hopes and trust that you put in me.

Your very loving, devoted daughter

Daphne”

You will be able to read about the relationship between my mother and myself in my forthcoming book, which goes up to my mother’s death. How I fared after her death will be the subject of the sequel.

Here is the very first painting in oils which I did in Paris of my mother, then in her seventies. She did not like it, I am not surprised, but for me it is a reminder of how she was, a comforting presence, and it is actually very like her.

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ART THERAPY

When I retired in July 1989 and came back to England, I started going to all kinds of courses and workshops, there was such an abundance of them, not available in Brussels. One of these was an art therapy course in Totnes, which I went to early in 1990, over a three day weekend, Friday to Sunday.

Our therapist was a good one. She gave us large sheets of paper and poster paints and various exercises designed to help us relax and open up to our subconscious minds. I did eleven of these paintings and  I have written about them in my life story, but my editor wanted more in depth information about them. How did they make me feel and how do I interpret the pictures?

So I have looked at them again. Yes, they are shocking and very, very powerful. What are they about? They cover that early period in my life when I was left behind with nuns in a convent in Brittany, whilst my mother found work after having lost all her money in the great Depression in 1932. I was four years old and I stayed with the nuns till I was seven.

I have been feeling for a long time that this was a crucial period which determined the rest of my life. Fortunately, I can now look at them with some degree of equanimity and much more understanding.

I have decided to publish them here now in advance of the publication of my book.

Here is the first painting.

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I get a feeling of some primeval sludge, something which has been trampled, from which all the life force is being squeezed out, a primal scream, a darkness from which all the light is escaping.

Here is the next one.

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Here is a small child, a child still full of light, but who is encased in a prison, see the hands holding her down. She is distressed, tears are flowing from her eyes, and her mouth is wide open in shock and bewilderment. Her two extremities, her hands and her feet, are blue with cold, which will begin to spread throughout the whole of her body.

And the next one.

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The words along the side in red read: I FEEL TRAPPED, FRIGHTENED, HOPELESS, HELPLESS, I WANT TO GET OUT OF THE MAZE. Here is a small child, with bright yellow hair and blue eyes, surrounded by huge black figures who look as they they are trampling her to death. She is trying to escape but she is hemmed in on all sides.

And here is one more.

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Here a small child is standing in front of what looks like large black boots hemming her in, the middle of her body, heart and tummy, are blue and she is screaming to a menacing black figure above her :  Go away, I don’t want you, I hate you. MUMMY – HELP – love, protection, security, cuddles –  where are you? why aren’t you here? There is a barrier between her and the woman in blue who is walking away. The woman can’t hear her, her ear is covered by a red patch. The meaning of this picture seems to me to be self explanatory.

And the following picture, again self explanatory.

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An old crone is bathing a small child, who seems formless, with fair hair and blue eyes, and she is screaming. The crone has a large wart on her chin with three black hairs sticking out, she seems to be smiling. The black bars seem like a prison, while the red denotes a sense of menace.

The next drawing shows a change.

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The image is not very clear. A small sturdy child, now with brown hair, seems to be falling down a long chute surrounding by various kinds of monsters. Right below her is a large, kindly yellowish being who appears to be supporting her, maybe a sea monster, as he is rising out of the sea.  This is the start of the heroine’s journey.

The next picture has the caption: I want to find my Mummy. The small sturdy child is now on a pathway leading through hills, trees and valleys, with various obstacles on the way, as well as some more benevolent figures.

The next picture is a strange one. It shows a  large blue bottle with a yellow figure popping out of it and splitting:  there are body parts, legs, arms, a torso, feet, a head and a heart all flying around the page, while another bowl at the side looks as though it is ready to receive them all. Someone I recently met told me that shamanic healing consists in taking you apart before reassembling you again into a whole.

In the following painting we are back to the brown figure landing on what looks like the seabed: there is sand, fish swimming and waving seaweed. On the child’s face is a smile of triumph and the caption says: I”m here!

Here is the last but one painting.

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Here we see the bright yellow child again, with yellow hair. She is leaping out of the deep blue sea onto the beach, whilst the bright red sun is pouring its rays down on the scene. It is the end of the journey and all is well.

The final painting depicts a figure, not quite a child, could it be the soul, more like a stick figure with one large blue eye facing a woman in nun’s dress of pale blue now, with a veil. Her head is inclined to the yellow figure and there is a benign expression on her face. The childlike figure is extending her arms in a gesture of welcome. No black colours here, but yellow, green and blue, colours of peace and harmony.

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On the Sunday morning, the last morning of the retreat, I had a dream. I dreamt about the nuns, but they were no longer all in black, they were all wearing white robes. I lay in bed, feeling peaceful and happy. It seemed that there had been some resolution, a reconciliation. And all this had been going in my unconscious mind. It seemed like a miracle.

My mother removed me from the convent when I was seven. Why did she leave me there so long? It was only when the nuns wanted me to become a Roman Catholic that she took me away. She herself was an atheist, but there had never been a Catholic in the family! Again, years later, when I wanted to become a Catholic, my mother used the same argument. I returned to the priest to tell him I had changed my mind. His parting words to me were that he hoped that Grace had not departed from me for ever! Fortunately, I do not think it has.

Before the separation I was a happy and talkative child. When I came back to my mother again, I was a nervous, shy, almost silent child. I have hardly any memories of this period of my life. It has taken me a lifetime to unravel all the complexities of what happened to me at that time.

But this story does have a happy ending. When my mother died I had a strong sense of her spirit inside of me. Now I know that her spirit is with me all the time, and I have been told so by a shaman. My life has been one of spiritual exploration, and I think there has always been a knowledge deep inside of me, when I used to have long conversations as a child with a beautiful Being, which has somehow sustained me throughout all the ups and downs of my life.

 

 

THE NEW WOMAN

When I was eighteen and in my final year at School, I came across the following extract by the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. I had a book (my Commonplace book) in which I used to copy my favourite quotes, my poems and short stories. I still have this book, and I recently found this extract whilst looking through it. I remember my excitement on first reading it, and I feel equally excited now. Here it is, written in 1904:

“The young girl and the woman will for only for a time imitate masculine manners and modes in their own development, only for a time practice masculine professions. Once these fluctuating time of transition are at an end, it will be seen that women, in these often ridiculous masquerades, have only sought to purify their nature from the distorting influence of the other sex. Woman, who lives a more spontaneous, fertile, confident life, is certainly more mature, more near to the human than man, the pretentious and impatient male, blind to the worth of that which he thinks he loves, because he does not plumb the depths as woman does by reason of the burdensome fruit of life. This humanity, matured by woman in suffering and humiliation, will see the day when woman will discard the conventions which condemn her to be no more than a woman. And the men who do not sense the coming of that day will then be amazed and confounded. One day (to which certain signs in the Nordic countries already point) the maiden, the woman will come into her own. And these words do not imply merely the contrary of the male, but something of worth in itself, not just a complement or a limit but a life, a being engaged in history, woman in her humanity. Such an advance will transform the experience of love, today so full of faults, and that in spite of man who will first be outstripped. Love will no longer be the intercourse of man with woman, but that of one humanity with another. (Von Mensch zu Mensch, nicht mehr von Mann zu Weib.) And this more human love (this love full of respect and silence, sound and sure in all that it binds and looses) is indeed that for which, in strife and pain, we make ready. It consists in this, that two solitudes protect, limit and hold each other.”

This beautiful prediction is, I think, already beginning to happen.  It is not a battle between the sexes. It is, as Rilke foresaw, the emergence of womankind from her previous subservient role into one of parity with her male counterpart.

I have never been a feminist as such, though I am grateful to those women who obtained the vote for us, and  to the pioneering women who were ahead of their time in breaching the male dominated professions. There have been exceptional women in every age.

I think men and women have different functions, inasmuch as they are physiologically different, so that their whole mental and emotional makeup is different. I would even go so far as to say that I think that women are the superior sex! But I think that for some time now women have lost their way. In trying to ape male ways they have lost sight of their own inner wisdom, and this has led to the great moral imbalance that now exists in the world.

In the Wisdom school which I attended many years ago, we were told that it is the function of the woman to set the moral tone for the nation.  The definition for a liberated woman, was:  ‘a woman who is in legal possession of her own mind.’ We were also told that it is the woman who holds the vision for the future, and the man who carries it out.

Not everyone will agree with this, I know. I have made no mention here of the great debate which is raging at the moment. This is for another forum.

When I was eighteen I had a certain confidence in my own inner beliefs, but I had no confidence whatsoever in my relationship with the outside world, and gradually I came to lose even that inner belief. My story is all about how I came to regain my own inner self confidence, as well as being able to relate it and myself to the outside world.

 

MEDITATION

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There is much talk about meditation and mindfulness these days. A couple of weeks ago Ruby Wax was in Bath to talk about her new book on how to be human, and recently I heard her being interviewed, together with a neuroscientist, on BBC Radio 4 about the benefits of meditation. John Humphreys remained sceptical.

In the 1970s, whilst I was living in Brussels, I joined the School of Philosophy, which claimed to help solve some of life’s problems, its teachings being based on universal spiritual principles. As part of the teaching, we were initiated into meditation. Aside from a short break, I have been meditating ever since.

At that time, I was very unhappy, suffering from depression and sometimes feeling suicidal. Meditation changed me from being very nervous and anxious to becoming very calm. I became much more centered and rooted in the present moment. All this took place over a period of time, of course.

I can only speak for myself, but I put down my good health, my equanimity (mostly), and the fact that my mental faculties are still intact, to this practice of meditation.

The other day the Skype system on my desktop broke down. I use it mainly for writing purposes. I had been planning to Skype with a friend, also a writer, to discuss the book I am writing. I was looking forward to it, not least because I was hoping to clarify some of my ideas on how to get it done.

I must admit here that internet problems send me round the bend, and my equanimity flies out the window!

For whatever reason, we could not connect. My friend said that I was not ‘on line’, I said that I was, since it was up on my screen. We spent several fruitless minutes on the phone trying to correct the problem. In the end, we gave up.

I am sure everyone recognises that feeling of frustration and powerlessness when confronted with the mysteries of modern technology.

My mind was in a turmoil, my heart was beating, I felt agitated and very upset. So I sat down and meditated. It took me probably ten minutes or more before my mind quietened down sufficiently for me to sit in a restful silence.

It then came to me to use this free space which was suddenly available to me. I went into Bath to do some shopping. I bought some special art paper that I needed, I went to the Body Shop to get some more toilet articles, and I bought a Clean Me Green detox kit from Neal’s Yard that I have been intending to use for Lent. All this in the space of an hour and I was able to get the next bus home. I spent the afternoon baking, and I made some Banana Bread using a new recipe I had been given. That felt good.

By the end of the day I was back to my normal self. The following day the IT man came, fixed my Skype problem, which wasn’t so difficult after all – its just a question of knowing how – and all was well again.

I am not saying that meditation is the only way of sorting out our problems, but what interested me was that during this period my mind went haywire, my thoughts were all over the place and I could not find the words I wanted. My mind had been broken into a thousand disjointed bits.

Dementia is such a current problem these days, more and more people seem to be suffering from it. They say it is due to our living longer, but I wonder if it is not due to the stressful lives so many of us lead nowadays. To my mind, meditation is a way of counteracting these stresses. It might even help to delay the onset of these diseases of the brain.

I am only a layman and so can only speak from my own personal experience.

From a secular point of view, mediation can be looked upon as a useful tool. But for me it has become a spiritual practice. Meditation has, in fact, been practiced for thousands of years, particularly in the East. Only now in the West is it slowly beginning to be recognised and acknowledged as a Way of life.

 

“Stillness within one individual can affect society beyond measure”

Father Bede Griffiths

OLD MAID

 

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When I was in my twenties, in the 1950s, I was working and living in London and shared a rented flat with my mother. I was making £4 a week and my mother had her pension. We both supplemented our incomes by having extra jobs at night and at weekends. I worked as an usherette in the cinema or the theatre, or found typing jobs, and my mother did odd cooking jobs.

So, although we were poor, we were able to make enough money to go on holiday, which was usually a cheap package tour to Spain. One particular year, it might have been 1954, we went to Mallorca. I was excited at arriving in this strange new country, new surroundings. We arrived at our small hotel, feeling tired after our journey.

I started unpacking the suitcases, putting our clothes away in the wardrobe and drawers. My mother was resting on the bed, watching me, when she said:

“You’re just an old maid, really.”

I remember feeling very hurt by this remark, but I said nothing. It was indicative of our whole relationship. Later on in the holiday, when I remarked on the long curly eyelashes of our good looking tour guide, she expressed surprise that I had noticed them.

In truth, I was a romantic. In those days my one idea was to find a husband and have a family. I would dream of marrying a writer or an artist, and we would live in a ramshackle old house in the country, with a brood of children, an idyllic existence.

I have, in fact, ended up being an ‘old maid’ or whatever the equivalent for it is nowadays.

Thinking back, I can see now that my mother, though always very proud of my academic achievements, never paid me any compliments on my appearance. Once, when I was in my forties, she told me she did not like the way I was doing my hair. I remarked that she never told me when she liked my hair.

“Oh” she replied, “I never tell you when I like something, only when I don’t !”

This must be the reason why, for many years, I never had any confidence in my own appearance.

In the past, being an ‘old maid’ had a pejorative meaning, a lonely old woman who lived with her cat. Today there are many single women leading fulfilled lives. I never achieved my dreams, and although I live on my own, I lead a creative life, painting, singing and writing. I live in a small cottage, not quite in the countryside, and I have many friends. And yes, I do have a cat!

SELF DEVELOPMENT

It is the time of year when we all make New Year resolutions, and then promptly break or forget them. I have not made any resolutions for a long time, knowing that I will not keep them. This year is different, because I have started with an intention, and my intention is to complete my book.

I have not written anything for a long time, not since my last blog when I wrote about my dear friend Rezza, who died last January. Since that time I have been wallowing in a slough of despond, from which I have been trying to extricate myself through various means. Now, at the beginning of a new year, I have done it.

I have recovered my self belief and my self confidence. I had lost the belief that I had a story worth telling, and any ability to actually tell it. Now I know that my story is worth telling and I am ready to start again. In another blog I may relate how I was able to regain my self belief.

At the beginning of the year I wrote a new Prologue to my book, which is called – for now –  “Journeys round my life”.  The book is in two parts, the first one, which I am calling “Journeys round my mother”, covers my life up to the age of forty six when my mother died. This is completed and I intend to publish it on Kindle. The second part, which covers the rest of my life up to the present, will be called “Journeys round my Self”. This part I have still to write.

Here is my Prologue:

“I remember a moment when I was living in Paris in the early sixties – I was in my thirties – and I had made the tremendous leap of moving to Paris, bringing my mother with me, to work in NATO.

I was sitting in a café with my Romanian friend Arlette. It was one of those cafés, probably on the Left Bank, where one could sit for hours just conversing. I had made many attempts to make some French friends, and the closest I had come to it was Arlette. She had been born in France, but had never quite managed to fit in, and we had met at a club for foreigners. She was striking to look at, with jet black curly hair and flashing brown eyes. She was flamboyant, loquacious and full of creative ideas, and I was happy to follow in her wake.

So  –  there I was  –  in this café with two of her friends, and they had given us a game to play: it was a psychological game. On a piece of paper they asked us to draw three vertical lines, evenly spaced, and one horizontal line across the middle, producing six squares. In each of these squares we had to draw a symbol, a dot, a curve, a straight line and so on. We then had to complete and add to the symbol in our own way. Each of the squares represented some aspect of our personality. I remember particularly the first one, which was a dot, and represented the Self.

I had drawn lines radiating out from the dot, and then a circular line around the rays, turning the image into a wheel.

“Oh, that’s interesting”, said one of them, “that means self development.”

“Yes, we haven’t seen that one for a long time,” said the other.

It is interesting what one forgets, and what one remembers. That I have always remembered.

I have always been an observer, one who sits on the edge of life, observing others. Since I have started to write my own story, I have become the observer of my own life, and I can now see how much I have evolved and grown from those early years. I am still evolving and growing, a fact which astonishes me and fills me with gratitude.

I find my own story a fascinating one. I hope that you, the reader, will find it too.”