Every year I go on a silent Retreat with my Bede Griffiths Sangha community, usually to Ty Mawr in Wales. This year, because of lockdown, we stayed at home and did it online, from Wednesday to the following Monday, six days. This was a very different experience for me.
At Ty Mawr we are far away from the world in a remote part of the countryside. We stay in a guest house in the grounds of the convent Ty Mawr; it is slightly elevated so that we have a beautiful view over the Wye valley and the distant hills. We cannot get any connection for our mobile phones, so we are completely cut off from all of our normal communication. All our usual problems and activities fall away, and it is very easy to settle into the rhythm of our days, meditation, prayers and chanting. Apart from this we are able to sit in the beautiful gardens, go for long walks, read, sit and reflect – or just sit.
How to accomplish this in one’s own home. With difficulty, I was thinking. I was going to need a lot more discipline to refrain from looking at my emails, watch television or listen to the radio, or make phone calls. It was good to see the familiar faces on zoom, meeting up together over the years we have all become good friends.
I got into trouble on our first day, having mistaken the time of our first evening meeting, and so I was too late to join in. I was disappointed at this. However, things got worse as I wrongly thought we had a meeting at 8pm, so when I tried to join in I got the message that ‘the host was in another meeting.’ I tried again and and again, getting ever more frustrated. It was only when I was finally able to join our final meeting at 9pm and I was told that there was no meeting at 8pm that I realised that all my troubles were of my own making, which did not make me feel much better! Wonderful as the internet is, it does have its downside!
So I decided I would watch TV, if only to calm myself down, and I saw the third instalment of an excellent film called ‘Des’ brilliantly played by David Tennant. He played the part of a very troubled man who enticed young men into his home and then killed them. Not a very elevated subject, but psychologically very interesting. Then I watched the News, by which time I realised this was not a very good idea, switched off and went to bed.
Thus ended the first day of my retreat.
I rose early the next morning in time for our first meeting at 8am, with meditation, spiritual readings and singing of sacred chants. Our day is based upon the routine followed at the ashram of Shantivanam in southern India, presided over by Bede Griffiths for many years. Bede Griffiths was a Benedictine monk who went out to India to find, as he put it, ‘the other half of his soul.’ Many of us have been to Shantivanam and it was to continue his teachings that, after his death in 1993, the Bede Griffiths Sangha was formed.
Our next meeting was at 12pm with meditation.
We were fortunate to have very beautiful weather. every day a cloudless blue sky and sunshine, so I was able to sit outside in the courtyard surrounded by pots of geranium and my Buddha.
I was sitting outside having my lunch, and this was when I first noticed the spider. He was hanging suspended from a silken thread in the pot of geraniums next to where I was sitting. I was fascinated. He was quite small and delicate, with a translucent body, black down the the middle, and black down both sides. His legs were striped grey and black, two of them were above his body, two were out sideways, and four were hanging below his body. He was completely still.
Every time I returned to my chair, there he was. I became used to seeing him and studied him closely. Was he aware of me, I wondered. I felt his two little black eyes were looking at me. I must have seemed enormous to him. I kept very quiet so as not to disturb him. One time I noticed that the black part in his middle seemed to be protruding out of his body. Was he weaving his web? I tried to see the threads that were attaching him there in mid air. One line stretched right up to the top of the wall, more than 6 ft high, another line went to the garden ornament planted in the pot, and there were many, many more. I marvelled at the intricacy and skill. This tiny creature could accomplish far more than any human was capable of doing.
I decided to give him a name, so I called him Webster.
The days of our retreat were now beginning to unroll more smoothly. Every day in the mid afternoon we would have a sharing. I talked about my friend Webster. One morning he was not there. Had he died? No, at midday there he was again, hanging in mid air, completely still. Somehow he became the symbol for me of the inner silence we were all seeking.
The theme of the retreat was ‘to be in the world but not of it’. To be in the world but not attached to it. One afternoon some of us discussed the problems going on in the world right now, and how difficult it was not to get involved in them, but at the same time asking what could we do to help. Meditation seemed to be the key. Through meditation we could attain a state of calm and detachment which would enable us not to become emotionally overwhelmed, but to see clearly what action was needed by us.
The following day, Sunday, I got another answer. I decided to go online and watch the service from my church. Lore, our priest, gave a sermon on Jonah and the whale. God had asked Jonah to go and preach to the citizens of Nineveh doom and destruction if they did not mend their ways. But Jonah ran away, he boarded a ship which was wrecked, fell into the sea and was swallowed by a whale, where he stayed for three days. On the third day he was ejected by the whale onto the seashore and this time he did God’s will, went to Nineveh and warned them of their doom. But the people of Nineveh believed Jonah, repented and put on sackcloth and ashes. So God forgave them and they lived. At which point Jonah was furious and he said to God: “I did what you said and now you have not done what you said you were going to do.” God replied to him, saying “My ways are not your ways. Trust and believe in me.”
The message I got from this is that we do not know God’s ultimate purpose, and that we must keep faith and trust in Him.
Back to my spider, every day I looked for him, one morning I saw him curled up in the geranium leaf, then at noon there he was again suspended in midair! I was developing a relationship with him. How long did spiders live I wondered. I said a little prayer for him. Does it not say in the Bible that even a blade of grass is loved by God. This little spider was teaching me, qualities of patience, determination and persistence, of creativity. I started thinking of how we each create our own web, through our relationships, our thoughts, our aspirations, our actions, so we are not so different. From there it was a short step to envisioning the master spider of all creating the world!
By our final day I felt very settled in the rhythm we had established. Now it was time for our final sharing together, everyone’s was different, each one of us had experienced it in their own way, but we were all agreed that we had felt the benefits from it. We waved each other goodbye on zoom.
I shall always remember this retreat because of my spider. He came to represent the still point for me. Every time I saw him he reminded me of the still point; how in the midst of all our activity we need to remember to come back to that still point.
The day following the retreat it was raining. There was no Webster. I looked for him but I have not seen him again.
My dear beloved Michou passed away on Wednesday, 22nd July this year. He was nineteen and a half years old. As I was holding him, Daisy the vet injected him, and through my sobs, to my delight and surprise, I heard him start to purr. So he died happy. It was all over in seconds.
Michou was one year old when he came to me, very lively then, exploring everywhere, I never quite knew where he was. One day he disappeared and was absent for a few weeks. I was distraught and looked everywhere for him, posted advertisements and knocked on people’s doors. When I went away for a weekend I dreamt about him and that he jumped onto my bed. On my return home, I opened my front door and there he was!
The story was that he had been found in an empty house by two ladies who had come to clean it, they heard him mewing and finally discovered him up a chimney. By chance a neighbour who had my key was passing by. She went to my house and found one of my old hats with which they were able to entice him to come down. He was very thin and covered in soot. I was overjoyed to see him again, and gave him a thorough wash and shampoo. I don’t think he ventured so far afield after that, to my great relief.
In his young days he was a great mouser. Often I would wake up in the night to hear him scrabbling round on the floor chasing a mouse. Sometimes he would lay one at my feet, with great pride. But I never saw him catch a bird.
He was a gentle cat and quite timid. Often we were visited by a very bold ginger cat. Michou would not confront him, so I had to protect him by shooing Ginger away. Nor was he a sulky cat. When I went away he did not turn his back on me on my return. He loved his food and was not fussy, he ate everything. He was not a lap cat, and that was fine by me. He liked to sit beside me on the sofa when I was watching television.
I loved him best when he was curled up in a ball on the bed, a little bit of pink tongue sticking out, or when he was stretched full length outside in the sunshine in complete abandon, a picture of hedonistic bliss.
Sometimes he would sit still and remote, Zen like, looking into the distance. What was he thinking of I wondered. Nothing probably. This, we are told, is the ultimate wisdom.
So the years went by, he got older and sleepier. He had a few problems with his teeth, but otherwise kept very good health. He began to be not very well at the beginning of lockdown. He was already nineteen years old, so getting on, a hundred and thirty in our terms!
He started to lose weight quite rapidly, yet had a ravenous appetite. I knew the time had come when I would have to make a decision. My previous cat had died very suddenly, and I had not had that problem. A friend of mine told me that her own cat had died of cancer with similar symptoms, and she gave me the name of Rosemary Lodge in Bath where I could take him.
I made an emergency appointment, met the vet Daisy and her assistant Nathalie. After a brief discussion we made the decision to put him to sleep. It was heartbreaking, but it was the right thing to do. Even more so when I heard him purring as he passed away!
We love our pets so much, I think we do not realise how much they give to us.
I buried him in the garden and with my friend Ros we held a little ceremony, with some prayers and a few poems.
I end with a poem sent to me by a friend.
A Message Michou might have meowed
My dear friend, you knew from the start
that being your cat was my great art.
That’s why you won’t find it too hard
to feel me in your very heart.
It had become hard to play the cat-part,
so I thank you for letting me depart.
At home we cannot be apart.
NB. This will be my last post on michousgarden. I shall be starting a new one soon.
When I was living in Paris, I was working for NATO at the time, I made the acquaintance of two young French girls, devout Roman Catholics, and I invited them home to tea. My mother prepared us a sumptuous meal, sandwiches, scones and a lovely cake. “Vous avez une maman en or” they said to me afterwards.
And it was true. I did have a mother made of gold.
Only I did not realise it.
One day returning from work I met the old lady who lived across from us. We exchanged a few words and she ended by saying “Of the two of you, the one I feel most sorry for is your mother.” I felt slightly troubled, no one likes to be an object of pity.
At that time we were living in a minute studio flat, a small bed sitting room with one double bed and a kitchen and bathroom combined, very cleverly designed. It was perfect for one person but not for two, its main advantage being that it was very near NATO. The cramped conditions were not ideal, and did give rise to some friction between us. This was Paris, and any kind of affordable accommodation was very hard to find.
My mother’s name was Nora. Born in Saskatchewan, the prairie lands of north western Canada, she had been adopted at the age of eight months by her aunt and uncle, who lived in Ontario in a town called Barrie on the shores of lake Simcoe, eight hundred miles further south. Her own parents had separated.
Her childhood was happy and secure. She was clever, she was always in the top three in her class, she told me. She was making her own clothes at the age of eight. She was artistic and talented. Later on she designed and made wedding dresses for her friends.
Her life, as she described it to me, sounded idyllic. She had many friends: in the summer they went sailing and swimming in the lake, played golf and tennis: in the winter they went skiing, skating and snow shoeing, boating across the frozen lake borne by the wind. They had parties, going from house to house, each one bearing a different dish to share. There were balls and dances. All this against the vast, open spaces of the Canadian landscape, long months of snow and ice in winter and humid heat in the summer.
She also liked reading, many different kinds of books and poetry. Her diverse reading led her eventually to become an atheist, a fact which grieved her father. She loved music, at one time sang in the church choir, and she loved life and adventure.
She was beautiful and had many admirers. She was unlucky in love; the man she loved was married. They nearly eloped but thought better of it.
Both her parents died when she was in her early thirties. She went to New York to study art, suffered a bad accident and returned to her home in Barrie. She continued to study art at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. It was there that she met my father, who was one of the teachers.
He was also married. My mother must have decided to end the affair by moving to Paris, where she studied art at the Sorbonne.
It was in Paris that my mother discovered that she was pregnant; she was now in her early forties, and so she entered on the second phase of her life.
She could not return to Canada, where she would have been ostracised. She used to tell me that it was the French people who helped her the most, with enormous kindness.
I remember my mother in those early days as a warm, comforting, loving presence. My love for her was boundless; she was my whole world. I was born in Nice, but we moved when I was about three to northern Brittany, where we lived in a convent pension run by Catholic nuns. Living was cheap in France before the war and we were very happy. There were many English families living there, and other nationalities.
My mother made friends, made me beautiful little smocked dresses, played bridge, whilst I played with my little friends, on the beach and in the gardens.
Then the blow came when my mother lost all her money in the Great Depression and we became penniless.
It was then that my mother showed her resourcefulness. She left me with the nuns, who offered to look after me while she found a means of earning her living. She had not been trained for anything, but she was a naturally good cook, and she found a job making scones and cakes for the Scottish Tea Rooms in St Malo. She then moved around in France, finding various kinds of cooking jobs, and this went on for about three years.
She had one very good male friend and devoted companion, who must have been a great support to her at that time. I cannot begin to imagine what she must have gone through emotionally.
When I reached the age of seven, the nuns made a proposition to my mother that they would pay for my education if she allowed me to become a Roman Catholic.
This was one thing that she would not tolerate and she immediately took me away from the convent. I do not know why she had left me there for so long, for by this time I had grown roots there and was virtually a little nun.
Our relationship was very different. I had become very silent, retreated inside myself and no longer chattered to her as I had done before. She was now nearly fifty, working hard and worried about the future.
Once again she showed her resource. She found a job as a cook housekeeper for a wealthy family in Jersey, where she could keep me with her. I remember her in those days as resting a lot, always tired and beginning to be a little deaf. I immersed myself in my books and became a bookworm.
When I was nine we moved to England. She had managed to find work as a ‘lady cook housekeeper’ in a boarding school where my education was thrown in as part of her wages. It was a happy go lucky school in Somerset. I remember how kind my mother was to her kitchen staff, who were deaf and dumb, and how devoted they were to her.
I hated England at first, people seemed cold and unemotional. My mother was still tired and always worried. I got used to this and clung to her like a little animal. Nonetheless there were moments when we were both happy and relaxed, and we were beginning to settle down in our new environment.
I was doing well in my school work, and showing signs of talent in elocution. My mother was an ambitious woman, she had had great plans for her own life. She now turned her ambitions on to me, and decided I needed better schooling and a better class of person to be with, so we moved to another school, where we would still be together.
Once again I was uprooted, and for me this was a disaster. I did not fit in with upper class girls from wealthy families, and I became a ‘problem child.’
It was decided I needed to be in a different school from my mother, and I succeeded in winning a scholarship to a public school in North Wales. We were now separated for the first time.
Again I have no inkling of what my mother must have been going through during this time. I think her male friend had died by this time, he was about twenty years older, and she was very much on her own. Again she must have drawn upon all her resources of inner courage and resilience. I do know that all the headmistresses she worked for admired her and helped her in every way they could.
It occurs to me now that by the time I was born, my mother had become a complete person. She no longer had a religious faith, but she had great inner reserves of resilience and strength. She had known great love, she knew what it was, and through sacrificing that love she was able to give herself completely in love to looking after me, at the cost of much ultimate sadness for herself. She sacrificed herself for me, and it is only through grace that I have ultimately come to understand what she did for me. She will live for ever in the pantheon of great souls, I will put her there. She had to become both male and female, the nurturer and the provider.
It was wartime and she must have got some satisfaction from a job well done. She was catering, ordering and planning meals, and cooking them, for a hundred children. She always prided herself on providing balanced and nourishing meals. In some ways she was the ‘Jamie Oliver’ of her day!
I went on to university and got a good degree, which made my mother very proud. She must have lived on hope from then on. Although I had done well academically, emotionally I was very undeveloped for reasons too numerous to relate here. I had cripplingly low self esteem and I hadn’t a clue how to earn a living.
The two of us survived together, through my disastrous affair with a mad artist, several jobs in a variety of bookshops, ICI, culminating with a move to Paris to work for NATO. My mother all this while was still working to keep us financially solvent. She wrote her book on cooking for large numbers at this time, which I had typed out reluctantly with much grumbling, and it was published with some success.
She kept up her interest in politics, she was a staunch Conservative, reading the Daily Telegraph from cover to cover. She kept notebooks filled with cookery recipes, and she made notes on travel, she loved to travel. Once a year we made a trip abroad, cheap trips to Spain, to Mallorca, to Belgium and to Italy. She would come alive on these trips, as she always took an interest in everything new.
She showed her disappointment in me when we were in Spain, as I was carefully putting things away in our room. “You’re just an old maid, really”, she said, looking on. I hid the hurt I felt, there was no longer any real communication between us.
The move to Paris was another turning point for both us. I was thrilled to be in Paris, I had fallen in love with it on my twenty first birthday when travelling through to Spain. My mother loved Paris too, she felt very much at home with the French people, so much more extrovert than the English; they were able to penetrate her reserve, and she felt at one with their artistic nature. The French culture and French attitudes were liberating for both of us.
It was very nearly short lived, as I had no nationality, due to the fact that my mother had never registered my birth in Nice, and when the time came for me to get a passport we found that I did not slot into any of the categories which would make me British, French or Canadian. I was given an Aliens Certificate which enabled me to travel but did not entitle me to live in France.
I have always thought that I must have a good fairy looking after me, as due to the good offices of the NATO authorities, I was able to become a naturalised British citizen. So our destiny was assured from then on.
My mother was a natural home maker, and wherever we lived she always made a home for us. She had a flair for decoration, she made beautiful flower arrangements, and she produced tasty meals. All of this I took for granted.
It was very hard to find good accommodation in Paris, but she took our many moves in her stride. I was young and found it all amusing, but she was now in her seventies.
It was when we were living in our minute flat near to NATO that we had a stroke of good fortune. A Belgian friend of mine who was leaving Paris passed on her flat to me. We now had a bed sitting room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom, and an entrance hall. It was luxury! This was the best accommodation we had ever had in our lives together.
Yet this did not improve our relationship. I was heading for a breakdown and I was increasingly irritable with my mother. The inner stresses which I was experiencing led quite suddenly to a nervous and physical collapse, and I was sent away to convalesce in a mountain resort in France.
My mother was on her own for three months, she did have some contact with the Canadian Club in Paris, and the Social Welfare officer in NATO visited her. I remember how the latter, a very dynamic French woman, considered I should be living apart from my mother, and offered me accommodation in her home when I returned.
When I was getting better my mother visited me in the mountains. She had brought with her some old photos which a friend had sent her from Canada. Amongst them was a portrait of her as a young girl of seventeen. Her beauty and sensitivity moved me to tears, I had only ever known her as an old woman, tired and careworn.
On my return to Paris I went to stay with Mme Dreyfus. After three days I knew I could not stay there, I took a taxi and crept into our flat. I heard my mother talking to herself, she was in the bath: “after all I’ve done for her” she was saying, “I don’t understand it.” My heart turned over and I knew I could never leave her.
When NATO moved to Brussels in 1967 we moved too. Brussels was then a small provincial town and it was very easy to find a reasonable and comfortable flat. I was earning more money by now and I finally learned to drive a car. On a material level our life was much better, and I was happy that we could afford to take several good holidays to Spain, Italy and Switzerland, which my mother always enjoyed.
Our relationship stayed much the same, we were never close, but we got along, neither of us having much understanding of the other, since we did not converse. She was also by now very deaf. I had recurring depressive episodes, usually in the autumn, sometimes feeling quite suicidal.
My mother never got used to Brussels, which she disliked, although I was able to accept it and see its many advantages.
It was when I discovered the School of Philosophy that things changed. For me this was an entry into a whole new world, the world of spirit.
I began to attend the classes regularly and I became a member of the School. My whole world opened out, it was as though scales had dropped from my eyes, and I was seeing the world as I had not seen it for a long, long time. For this was an esoteric school of spirituality, what used to be known as a Wisdom School.
My mother saw what was happening to me and she did not like it. By now she had become very possessive of me, which was quite natural, as I was all she had. My mother’s values were firmly rooted in the world. My own values were more fluid, I was an idealist and a romantic, but I had no idea what they were, until I finally found a spiritual path which I could follow. My mother had always told me I was far too mystical for my own good.
This was to cause a deeper rift between us. I would be at the School one or two evenings a week, and sometimes at the weekend. Sometimes I would go away for a week or more on a School Retreat. If I had had a male friend, she would have found this acceptable, but this was something which she did not understand. She became very jealous of one of the leaders of the School, a woman, and I think she felt that her own role was being usurped.
This made me sad, but there was nothing I could do about it. I invited a friend to tea and asked her if she thought my mother was unhappy. She said no, because of the light in her eyes. This reassured me, as my mother still had a great interest in whatever was going on. Now in her eighties, she was still shopping, cooking delicious meals, and making her own clothes. We had found a very nice flat by now, with a large garden, and she had had all her old furniture shipped over from Canada, so she was surrounded by her own possessions.
I had been told of a very nice place to stay in Fiesole, in the hills above Florence. We went there on a summer holiday. It was a Pensione, or boarding house, run by Irish Catholic nuns, who were called the Blue Sisters. Their mission was to look after the elderly and sick and some of them stayed there permanently. They took other visitors as well, who came from all over the world, and many priests would come from Rome for a break.
My mother loved it there. It was peaceful and beautiful, and the nuns were very kind. We made trips into Florence, visited the museums and art galleries, and the beautiful little art shops.
So it was a surprise to me when, the following winter, she said she would like to go there to get away from Brussels. I made arrangements for her to stay there for a month from February to March. I flew down with her, stayed a night and left the following day. I remember the look of sadness in her face as we said goodbye.
Shortly afterwards, I heard from the nuns that she was in bed with flu. I made great efforts to write to her regularly with cheerful news of all that I was doing, mostly in the School. I heard from the nuns about her progress, the month had passed, and it seemed she was well enough to return to Brussels.
I flew down to bring her back. I found my mother in good spirits. She was well enough now to sit in the dining room for meals. She sat next to a very nice young Catholic priest who engaged her in conversation. They talked politics, she had always taken a keen interest in politics, and they had a lively exchange. I was pleased to see her so animated.
She wanted me to buy some material for her in Florence, to make a blouse to go with a skirt she had made. I had made arrangements for a wheelchair for her when we got to the airport, as she still seemed quite frail. We were due to fly back the next day. The nice priest wished her a good journey home. I went with her to her room and helped her have a bath. She seemed very peaceful, and told me she was looking forward to going home. I went to bed happy with this thought.
Early the next morning a nun knocked on my door and told me to come downstairs. I went down to find my mother had died in the night. She had suffered a slight stroke and her face was a little awry. I sat beside her, quite stunned, feeling nothing except shock.
The nuns took over, I decided to have her buried in Italy, and there was a place available in the little cemetery in Fiesole. I hardly cried, as at some point I began to feel her presence inside of me, she seemed closer to me than she had ever been in real life. People must have thought I was cold, but it was as though all the differences between us had gone and only the essence remained. At the same time I felt a great sense of relief.
I feel that my mother had consciously chosen her own moment to go. Another function of the nuns was to pray for the dead. During that month away from Brussels she must have reflected on our life there. At eighty eight she still retained all her zest for life, and she left it on the crest of the wave, looking forward to what was to come, not knowing that she was going to her true home.
Reflecting on our life together, I remembered all the fun bits we had had. In Paris we lived very near to Longchamp, one of the famous racetracks, and on a Sunday afternoon we would often go to the races and place a bet on the horses. She loved music, and we went to concerts and the opera in Paris. In Brussels we went to many concerts and ballet performances. With the car we drove down to the south of France, and in Switzerland round and up narrow winding roads. My mother never turned a hair, which helped give me confidence.
Forty four years have passed since my mother left me, and my understanding of her has deepened over that time. I have felt much regret and sorrow as I have realised how little support I gave her in her moments of trial and that we never became really close. Her deafness and reserve contributed to this, and my own mulishness. I was unable to confide in her with my deepest thoughts. I have come to realise the depth of her love for me, and to appreciate her strength of character as she battled on over the years, very much on her own.
When she was alive I felt in her shadow, quite weak and unstable. It is only as the years have gone by that I know that I have inherited many of her qualities. She was loyal and steadfast, reliable and conscientious. I know that I have made something of my life, and I feel she would have been proud of me. That makes me happy, and I am at peace. For whatever reason, this was the way our lives had to be.
I feel now that I have recaptured the love I had for her as a child: my beautiful, talented, brave, adventurous and sensitive mother, with her tremendous love of life which helped her to navigate the shoals and rapids of her destiny.
Thirty years ago I wrote this poem for her, which follows here.
FOR MY MOTHER
You made me
You made me what I am today
When I was a child my love for you
Stretched out to the far horizon
Of the sandy bay where we lived.
As I grew up, we drew apart
We became strangers to each other
I, in my brash cleverness
No longer saw who you were.
An old careworn woman, with straying hair,
Working her guts out
In a hot and steamy school kitchen
To give me an university education.
You had so much courage
You had the courage to bear me in days
When to do so, made you an outcast.
When you died, I felt you inside me
You were closer to me than we had ever been in life.
I never had the guts to tell you that I loved you.
“Affairs are now soul size” wrote Christopher Fry, the playwright, back in the fifties. Now, more than ever, does this seem true.
I have chosen this photo of my mother, age seventeen, as I have been thinking so much of her during this period of lockdown. One of the advantages of this time is that we have been given so much time to reflect, and that I think is a blessing.
My mother was Canadian, unmarried, and we were living in a convent pension in the tiny village of St-Jacut in Northern Brittany. We were very happy in our little enclosed world together, until in 1932 when I was four, my mother lost all her money in the great Depression. Penniless, and in a foreign country, what was she to do?
Mlle Abilly, the Mother Superior of the convent of l’Abbaye, like a true Christian, offered to look after me, initially for nothing, until my mother was able to find work. My mother, being naturally a good cook, was soon able to find work, and I was left with the nuns till I was seven.
It occurred to me, during this enforced period of ours, that for me this was another kind of lockdown. Here I was now, a small child of four, separated from the mother she adored, surrounded by women in long black dresses, mostly stern and serious if not downright gloomy, separated from her little friends, separated from her china doll which she also loved, bewildered and alone.
I had a moment of deep insight and at the same time I experienced a feeling of deep compassion for that small child.
And here I am now, at the age of ninety one, all those years later, and in another period of lockdown.
Undoubtedly I suffered from that experience. Something in me shut down and remained dormant for many years. I was reunited with my mother but our relationship had changed and was never the same again.
My mother worked hard to look after us both. She was an intelligent woman and she used her cooking skills by cooking in schools. We moved to England, she became a ‘lady cook-housekeeper’, the ‘lady’ was important to her, and my education was thrown in as part of her salary.
In the meantime I became a ‘bookworm’, I removed myself from the world and lived my life through books. I studied hard, I had a good memory, so I did very well in exams, as I was able to reproduce pretty accurately what I had been reading.
I gained a scholarship to a public school, and then went on to university where I ended up by getting a First Class degree. My mother was very proud of me at that point, as she naturally wanted me to do well in life. I began to think that I was very clever and, of course, knew much better than my mother.
My mother was still working her socks off to keep us both, and by now she had moved to a small hotel in Stratford-on-Avon.
She was a very sensitive woman, mercurial in temperament, and sometimes she would break down in tears, upset by something which had happened. I remember over the years feeling very embarrassed by my mother. As a child we naturally want to fit in, and I somehow knew we did not ‘fit in’. I was unable to offer my mother the support she needed in those times.
I remembered a time when we were in Stratford, I was at university and during the holidays I worked as a waitress in the hotel. My mother had an assistant in the kitchen, domestic science trained, a rather starchy woman. She was very disapproving of my mother, not trained but with a natural flair, and who did not always follow the rules. She must have complained about my mother to the owner of the hotel. I have been thinking about this episode, and how impervious I was to my mother’s distress at that time.
I feel shame again, and I ask my mother’s forgiveness. I know that I was unable at that time to do anything else.
Why am I talking about this now?
My mother and I were never able to become really close again, something which I now deeply regret. We did live together and I looked after her till she died.
Since she died my relationship with my mother has changed. In my forties I found a spiritual path, which I have followed ever since. I have been able to make peace with who I was at the time, and know that I was loved by my mother and that I loved her.
This period of lockdown has brought up many things for us all: much sorrow, much hardship, struggles and tests; at the same time it has brought up courage, love and kindness, many stories of bravery which have touched our hearts. It has shown the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It has also highlighted the injustice there is in the world, brought about by ourselves.
My mother used to tell me that, as a child, I had an imaginary companion, a Beautiful Being dressed in beautiful clothes. I had long conversations with Him, which I used to relate to her. She would laugh as I told her, very earnestly, that He said ‘everything would be all right in the end.’
At the end of a long life, with many ups and downs and varied experiences, I know that the only answer to this mystery of what we call Life is to find love in our hearts. There are many reasons why that love might have become distorted or twisted, lost altogether, yet it is always there, no matter how small. There are many ways of experiencing this love, as many as there are individuals, and all of them are good. The labels don’t matter, it is the heart of them that does.
If we love each other, then we will care for each other, and we will care for our world, this very beautiful earth on which we live, which nourishes us and protects us.
I go back to that original message which I received a small child, and that is: “Everything will be all right in the end.”
In 1989, when I came to Bath, having retired from NATO in Brussels, I started exploring a number of different courses. The New Age was in full flow then, this was an alternative world which was new to me, and I embraced it with enthusiasm. I dipped a toe into the world of crystals, I learnt about the chakra system in our bodies. I studied Psychosynthesis, which is a therapy based on holistic principles. I went to writing classes and painting classes.
Then I discovered Chloe Goodchild through hearing her singing on a tape. In those days we had tape recorders! I found out that she was living in Bath and that she was giving singing lessons. I had always wanted to be able to sing. Even as a young girl at boarding school I had tried for the school choir and been rejected. I was too self conscious and was never able to produce more than a small, reedy singing voice. I immediately signed up for her class.
Chloe was a teacher like no other. Her aim was to awaken in you your own authentic voice, the voice of your soul. I shall never forget the first morning I sang with her. First she taught us how to ‘stand in mountain’, feet firmly planted on the ground, feeling the earth deep beneath us. Then we started to chant ‘AH’ over and over again. This we did for three hours at a stretch, without a break, no time for a cup of tea or coffee. By the end of the morning my body was like an empty column filled with sound, without a thought in my mind. When I went out for lunch, everything in my path seemed to part before me. Ordering my lunch I felt such empathy with the waitress, we were as one.
I decided to visit India with Chloe and her partner Roger, visiting spiritual centres in Southern India. We had some amazing experiences, notably in the ashram of the Indian saint Ramana Maharishi, which I will not relate here.
Chloe with Ramana Maharshi
Chloe was embarking on her first year long teaching of a group, and I decided to join it. Here I learnt to develop and ground my voice, gradually getting more confidence in hearing my own voice and following Chloe’s particular method of devotional singing.
After Chloe I went on to study raga singing with Gilles Petit, who had been Chloe’s teacher. He was a Frenchman who used to come over from Paris to Bristol and the West country. He was a man of huge stature and presence, and at first I was terrified of him! I learned to love the raga, and I also found that he had a heart of gold. A group of us would meet up every so often over a long weekend, we would limber up with some physical exercises, give each other massage, do some voice exercises, and finally we would learn the notes of a raga (of which there are many hundreds, and there are different ragas for each time of the day.) Then we had to learn how to improvise. I never became very proficient, I didn’t practise enough, but it taught me how to listen to the notes and how to recognise their different qualities. My musical appreciation vastly improved. As the days progressed I began to feel bathed in sound; again there was nothing but sound, which engendered a feeling of total bliss.
Gilles with his various instruments
Slowly I would begin to unwind, I felt happy, relaxed and secure in the sound of everyone’s voice, just as they too relaxed and softened under the healing power of the music. At the very best moments we became one.
We went to Greece, to the island of Cefalu, where we sang in the olive groves, with the mountains behind us and the sea in front of us. They were magical times.
With my friend
Now, after almost thirty years, I am back singing with Chloe again, following one of her online courses from America.
One of the exercises she has given us is to write our Vocal Self Portrait. I have done this and I have called it Lost and Found. Here it is.
“This is a story of lost and found. When I was very small with my mother I had plenty of voice. I chattered away to her, I was safe and secure in her love, her ample bosom. I was happy but then my mother left and I was surrounded by women in black, strange voices, strange sounds, stern faces, nothing did I understand. Why was I here? What was I doing here?
I began my search for my mother. Where was she? Gradually I lost my voice and it became a whisper inside of me, a lament, too dangerous now. I retreated deep inside myself.
My mother came back, but it was too late. My voice had gone. I could no longer speak, my wound was too deep, it was too big to express in words, so I shut it up and developed a small, tidy voice to conform to the outside world and what was expected of me. My inner voice lay dormant for years and years. I was able to manifest in the world, do what was necessary, but that voice lay hidden.
Things got bad, very bad, and then one day I discovered another voice, a voice outside of me that spoke to me. I began to listen to it, it said things that I could understand, that I could relate to and so gradually the voice inside of me began to emerge again. Was it safe? Could I let it be heard? From time to time I had come across other voices, in my readings, voices that spoke to me.
My mother died. Now I was on my own. I fell in love. That was new. Much heartache, much sorrow. I could not express my love.
Then I stopped working and I began to explore. That was the start of my journey to find my voice again, to reclaim it, own it, recognise it as my own and myself for who I was, much older now, beaten down by life, but not quite finished.
I discovered my voice, first through Chloe, then through Gilles, and many other things, writing, dancing, painting. I met congenial people and began to make a few friends. Slowly the world opened out, I still had depressions and black periods, but they became more manageable.
Then I discovered Julia McCutchen and ‘conscious writing’, which teaches you how to write from your authentic self and express the message of your soul. I found myself among amazing women. I felt I had found my tribe.
The questions I had tried to solve about my existence began to fade away as I began to express myself and who I was. So the dark clouds began to lighten and I began to emerge into the light.
I finally met up with Chloe once more, the circle had been completed and I had found my voice again.”
I have navigated the waters of life and find myself on the further shore.
I now have the intention of starting a new blog in which I will share lessons I have learnt from a long life. I look forward to meeting you there.
“The Heroine’s Journey beautifully showcases eleven powerful and original art therapy paintings that depict the stages on the journey from darkness to light undertaken by the amazingly courageous and deeply inspiring Daphne Radenhurst.
The paintings are accompanied by an overview of Daphne’s fascinating life story and focus on a particular time from her childhood that led her to experience the heroine’s journey of the title.
It has been a privilege and an honour to have been part of Daphne’s journey over the last few years, and I have no doubt that this book will inspire all who have had intense experiences during childhood to find their way forwards from darkness to light.
Julia McCutchen, Intuitive Coach, Mentor and Author of Conscious Writing: Discover Your True Voice through Mindfulness and More.”
I am deeply indebted to and honoured by Julia McCutchen’s endorsement of my work. Julia has been an inspiring teacher and mentor to me for many years.
Here is another review.
“In 1932, aged four, Daphne was left alone in the care of the nuns in a convent in Brittany. There she remained for three years. Her single mother had lost all her money in the financial crash and was forced to seek work. Now in her 90’s, through a series of powerful paintings that emerged during art therapy, Daphne courageously explores those years, the traumatic separation, and ponders their impact.
Each of us follows a path of trials and adventures in order to find our true selves and achieve redemption. This gem of a book combines pithy text and poignant illustrations, giving us a privileged glimpse into Daphne’s ‘spiritual journey’. Over 80 years after leaving the convent she returned there and ‘felt nothing but joy’.
Jane Saunderson MSc, MA HIP, MSTAT.”
I feel equally honoured by Jane’s kind words about my book. Jane and I have been members of the Bede Griffiths Sangha and I have attended retreats with her for nearly thirty years. She has been a friend and also a spiritual mentor to me along the way.
I have written this little book as a precursor to my memoir “….till I end my song”, in which I have written about my life after those crucial years in the convent, about the impact they had on me and how they directed me in my search for meaning and led me to find a spiritual path, which is still ongoing – as this journey never ends.
Here is a photo of me back at the convent, at the age of 90, last year.
There will be a book launch of my book on Saturday, 13th July, in Bath.
Everything sings the same message. Spring watch, the trees, the flowers, the birds. We need to listen, listen, hear the silent message. Trees are good for us. We are destroying the world. Is it now too late? This beautiful universe, this planet, this earth, the galaxies, too vast to even contemplate. As Pascal, the French mathematician, once said: “The infinite vastness of the universe fills me with terror!”
When I was eighteen I was young, idealistic, filled with ardour. I wrote poetry. Looking back at it I feel it was quite prophetic. Here is a poem that I wrote.
My aim is to sing a song of beauty,
To gather loveliness out of the wind’s caress,
To bring pain into the heart of youth,
To draw out passion from the budding rose
And make it live again in some throbbing breast.
To pierce the bud of jessamine
And bring forth scents and sounds
Excelling all those ever smelt or heard on earth before.
That is my aim.
I thought this was a pretty tall order, the vaulting ambition of youth. But now that I am old and look back on all the vicissitudes of my life, I see that perhaps it was not. For we are all different. In being true to ourselves we are each of us unique, we are truly original. To say that my song is like no other, born out of my own experience and my own personal make up, is the perfect truth.
This is why I have produced my first book, “The Heroine’s Journey: from darkness to light”, and why I am writing my life story “……till I end my song.”
More to come on this in my next blog, so stay tuned.
Grace, what is grace? “It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven upon the earth beneath.” It has many meanings, secular and religious. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as “pleasing quality, charm, ease and refinement of movement, action, expression or manner.” “By the grace of God” implies a divine gift which is bestowed freely and is unmerited, thereby placing the recipient in a state of grace. It comes from the Latin root meaning ‘favour, dear or pleasing.’
I recently attended a Candala of Grace retreat at a retreat centre in Somerset. I went primarily because my friend Lizzie was facilitating it and I wanted to support her. I should add that I was suffering from the tail end of a cold, and therefore not in the best space. But I was full of expectancy.
A Candala is an illuminated art form designed to light up our world. Built as an installation with positive intent, it is based on the circle and incorporates light and symbolic materials.
There were six of us on the retreat, we were an eclectic mix: a businessman, an interfaith minister, a former royal airforce woman, a carer, a former secretary and NATO employee, and an investment banker, who also ran healing courses. The course was being run by Lizzie, writer and poet, and Jehanne, cellist. Lizzie is also an artist and originator of the Candala art form.
We sat around a simple installation, a single tea light on a white circle surrounded by a circle of clay beads, on a white square. It was simple and beautiful. We listened to the rich, warm tones of the cello as Jehanne played two Bach cello suites, leading us into a contemplative silence.
We were then invited to share our intention for the day. The word ‘learn’ came into my mind. I was there to learn whatever the day might bring forth for me.
Lizzie told us a little about the Candala concept, its philosophy and values, and her exploration of it after her own experience of spiritual enlightenment. It was designed as a reflective space for our times and a multi-sensory experience for the exploration and embodiment of Grace, which was our theme for the day.
Our first practice was the making of the prayer beads, we were each given a small piece of clay to roll into a ball, a pin with which to make a hole in the ball, and we then placed our bead into an individual dish with our name on it, and these were put aside. Talking about them, Lizzie told us that the traditional number of beads in different cultures was nearly always one hundred and eight. Very interesting.
After having been led into a guided meditation, we were invited to share our own definition of what the word ‘grace’ meant to us, which elicited a number of responses. I was still undecided at this stage.
Another sensory experience followed. We each chose a stone and a feather, felt the hardness, smoothness, weight of the stone, felt the softness, lightness of the feather.
We were given three ‘Illuminating Reflections’ to ponder. One of these I found particularly healing.
Time for some movement, and we were invited to move around the room in a circle, moving mindfully, aware of our feet on the ground, our breathing, and finally ending with some guided movement, sweeping our arms up and down, bringing energy into our bodies.
Seated once more, we then shared with a partner what we were experiencing. I remembered an episode in my early years when I had decided to become a Roman Catholic. I went to see a priest, told my mother, who was horrified, saying ‘there had never been a Catholic in family’, returning to the priest to say that I had changed my mind, and his saying to me that he hoped ‘Grace would not depart from me for ever.’ We both laughed at this story. I did not feel it had.
Lizzie told us about the Mexican artist, Frieda Kahlo, who overcame her own physical disabilities with great courage to become a renowned painter, and Pavlova, the Russian dancer, with her extraordinary powers of levitation and evocation of a dying swan. Jehanne played the St Saens cello composition of the Dying Swan, and we were invited to listen with our eyes closed and then to move our hands in response to the music. I found this very beautiful.
The day came to a close with a final ritual incorporating the beads which we had made earlier. We were handed a golden thread and we each placed our bead onto it, which was then placed around an antique gold decorative tripod holding a white sphere. This symbolised surrounding our beloved planet in a Circle of Grace. As we stood round this symbol Lizzie asked each one of us for a word to express the day. The word ‘cooking’ had already come to mind. I felt that we had been engaged in an alchemical process, making a magic broth, literally turning water into wine.
We all sat down and the day was brought to a close and we shared what the day had meant to us. I myself felt renewed and rejuvenated, fully restored to health. I expressed my gratitude to Lizzie and Jehanne.
There was a general consensus that we had created a sacred space, a place of light which would spread out into this dysfunctional world of ours. There was a wonderful sense of peace and harmony between us.
I finally understood what the Candala meant and the importance of symbols. Every detail of the day had been integral to the whole, nothing had been out of place, everything had meaning.
Reflecting on the diversity, talents, energy and vibration of all the participants, it seemed to me that we had created a strong, harmonic sound to be sent out into the universe.
In some magical way, we had all of us been touched by grace.