SELF PORTRAIT

A friend of mine has pointed out that I have no images of Michou, my cat, on my blog  –  so, here is one.

 

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Looking at all the objects on the mantelpiece in my bedroom, I thought to myself: “all these objects are like a self portrait.”  So here we go.

First on the left there is a photo of a lotus flower, pale pink on a bluey grey background. In December 1993 I went on a trip to India, visiting the sacred sites of southern India. Here we are visiting the ashram of Sri Aurobindo, the Indian saint. He had a close companion, a Frenchwoman who was called The Mother. She took beautiful photographs of flowers, and this is one of them which I have kept. I like it for its simplicity and purity.

In from of it is a small photo, in a round decorative frame, of Prittiwi, my first cat, sitting on the window ledge and reaching out with her paw to a plant of purple heather. She was a Chartreuse, a continental breed, blue grey with chocolate undertones.This was a favourite breed with Colette, the French writer, who has written some wonderful stories about cats. I was living in Brussels at the time and studying Sanskrit, so I gave her a Sanskrit name.  Prittiwi means earth, or earth goddess.  She was a rescue cat and always very timid, but beautiful and gentle. I loved her dearly.

Next there is a photo of an adorable ginger cat asleep. Her name is Mela and she belongs to the Ty Mawr convent in Wales where I go on retreats.

In front of this is a small photo of my mother in a silver frame. She is arranging flowers in our flat in Brussels. She must be in her eighties. I love this photo. It shows her complete absorption in any task she is doing, be it cooking, sewing, or arranging flowers. It is a very graceful photo, her white hair is swept back in a chignon, her expression is attentive, her hand stretched out towards the flowers. I have caught her unawares.

Behind her is a postcard. It shows a painting by Lucian Freud of his mother, Lucy. On the back, dated February 1988, is a message from my friend Katie. She has just been to visit his exhibition. Lucian painted several portraits of his mother, of which this is one of the last and the one which, I think, shows her most at peace. Katie took care of his mother during her final years. She had taken an overdose after her husband died.  I always felt that Katie, through her love and care, had brought Lucy back to life. This card reminds me of Katie, one of my dearest friends, who played an important part in my life.

In front of Lucy is a small and very beautiful bronze Buddha, emanating that sense of stillness which all Buddhas do.

Next to it another circular, decorative frame, this one is old, about the 1900s? and contains a photo of my mother’s Pekinese dog, showing just her arm holding the Peke. She adored him and this reminds me of her when she was young.

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Behind him – more cats! A postcard of a painting by Elizabeth Blackadder showing three cats.

Half hidden behind a succulent plant in an apricot orange pot is a photo of Amma, the healing Indian saint. I met her once, in Ireland, when she gave me a great bear hug which nearly knocked the breath out of me, and then a second time when we had a good laugh together. She emanated huge warmth and energy, an experience never forgotten.

Still behind the plant is a card from a friend, another cat lover. It is a painting of two cats, one black one sitting behind a tortoise shell cat. It has the delicacy of a Japanese print and it has come from the Ixelles Museum in Brussels.

In front is a pebble, covering up a bare patch in the paint.

Almost at the end now on the far right is a photo of my mother in a silver frame. She was seventeen, wearing a white cotton blouse falling in folds from the neckline, soft and pretty. She has a pensive look on her face, which is beautiful, gentle and sensitive. She had light brown hair and blue eyes. Did she have any presentiment of the life ahead for her?

When I was born my mother was forty two, and when I was nine she started working very hard, as a cook housekeeper in boarding schools. I had only known my mother as worried, careworn, and old. When I saw this photo for the first time in my thirties, my eyes filled with tears.

Last of all on the right hand side is a photo of my oldest and dearest friend, Rezza. Now ninety three, she has been a land girl during the war, a teacher of small children, dietician, yoga teacher, and teacher of circle dancing. She has been my guide and mentor for many years. She can still sit cross legged on the floor and bring her legs right up to her head. When her daughter published this photo on Facebook it got over a hundred hits, as they say.  “Fame at last!” said Rezza.

Above the mantelpiece is a painting of the plains of Saskatchewan, where my mother was born, painted by me.

These objects do not, of course, give an exhaustive picture, but I hope they will have given a glimpse into who I am.

Here is a poem which I wrote on one of my retreats at Ty Mawr convent. It is called In the Stillness Dancing.

 

 

REFUGEES

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I recently went to see a remarkable exhibition at St. Michaels Without church in Bath. In mediaeval times it was the first church outside the city walls when going out of the North Gate, hence its name. Now, in the centre of Bath, it is a light, airy church, with tall slim pillars. The pews have been replaced with chairs and there is a feeling of spaciousness.

 

The exhibition was designed to raise awareness of the plight of the refugees, and for me it did exactly that. The first thing I saw on going in was a large table covered with crocheted hearts in different colours and sizes. I was invited to choose a heart and then to thread it through the metal fencing on which were hung portraits of refugees, on either side of the central aisle leading down to the altar.

 

I chose a dark pink heart. There was a safety pin attached to the end piece of wool and scissors were there to snip it off, so I could pin it onto my jacket. With my heart, now loosely unravelling, I walked down the aisle, threading my heart in and out of the fencing and looking at the portraits of the refugees, men, women and children, which had been skilfully painted by the artist Penny Faux, from photos provided by the UNHR Council. By each portrait there was a record of that refugee’s story, many of them already known to us. As I walked along, looking and reading, and saw the multi-coloured threads of wool running zigzag up and down the fencing – two tents had been placed on either side outside the perimeter fencing – I found the symbolism deeply moving.

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 PHOTO BY: PAUL GILLIS 
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Painting by Penny Fraux, “Hope” PHOTO BY: PAUL GILLIS 

The whole exhibition, put together in such an imaginative way, was created by two women, one a painter, the other an installation artist. As Penny said: “It’s to keep people aware of the crisis and the need to help others. These are not masses of people who we should be frightened of.”

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Local artists Anne Egan and Penny Faux  PHOTO BY: PAUL GILLIS

Following on my visit to the exhibition I saw that our local Tory MP was going to have a surgery in my village. I am not a political animal, though I am a humanitarian one, and I have never done such a thing in my life before, but I went to see him.

 

He was a very nice young man, with nice eyes behind his glasses. An old friend of mine used to say of all politicians – does he have a human face?

 

My visit was very timely, he said, as they were just in the process of negotiations with the French government. I mentioned the unaccompanied children in the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, with relatives in Britain. They were trying to trace and identify all these children, he said. Some of them were only two and three years old, and only knew their name. It could take months to trace them all.

 

My heart sank. What could happen to these young children in that space of time? I did receive a long and comprehensive letter from my MP. With the best of intentions, it did little to reassure me. The wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow.

 

I have been listening to John le Carré reading extracts from his fascinating memoir on Radio 4.

 

In 1974 he went to Cambodia with a journalist friend. There he found himself in the thick of combat, and he soon realised he was not a brave man. One of the bravest people he had ever met, he said, was Yvette Pierpaoli. He described her as a ‘small, sparky, tough, provincial Frenchwoman.’ With her partner, she ran a business selling small planes, tractors and chemicals. By 1974 a large number of refugees were pouring into Phnom Penh, fleeing the advance of the Khmer Rouge. She was moved by their plight, and spent much of her time helping the refugee children. She had no scruples when trying to get cash from people whose money, she considered, would be better off in the hands of the needy.

 

There is a story that she decided to take a number of children to France, and went to the French Consulate to obtain passports. The official asked who was their mother. “They are all mine” she declared. He looked astonished at so many children around the same age. “Yes, they are all quadruplets”, she declared. She got her passports!

 

She returned to France and continued her humanitarian work. She demonstrated that a single person can sometimes achieve what large organisations cannot. She said “people assumed that a project had to have ideas, personnel and materials and funds. In my mind, things happened in the opposite way …”

 

In 1992 she published her autobiography Woman of a Thousand Children. She also became European Representative of Refugees International. In 1999 she was killed in a car crash whilst on a mission to assist refugees from Kosovo.

 

Le Carré said he based his book The Constant Gardener, later made into a film, on her character.

 

Perhaps we need more people like Yvette Pierpaoli around today, people who can cut through the red tape and get things done.

 

The Water Babies

For my eighth birthday I was given a copy of The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley. I loved this book. We were then living in Jersey where my mother was working as a cook housekeeper in a family home. I remember reading the book in her sitting room for hours on end, poring over all the long words which I did not understand. A lot of it was above my head, the social implications and the scientific information, but I think the moral message it contained was loud and clear.

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I loved the story of little Tom, the chimney sweep covered in soot, who jumped into the river after being accused of stealing, where he became immediately cleansed and was turned into a water baby. There followed all his adventures with the creatures in the river, and then in the sea. Tom was not always a good little boy, and so he met Mrs Bedonebyouasyoudid, who punished him. He tried to be better and was rewarded by meeting Mrs Doasyouwoudbedoneby, who cuddled and kissed him. Tom’s adventures led him to Mother Carey, the grand old lady who created all things, or rather made them ‘make themselves’, until he finally landed back on the earth, where he met Miss Ellie again, into whose room he had originally fallen down the chimney.

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Time expands and contracts, and different characters mysteriously become one and the same, all very fascinating to a young mind. It is interesting too that Charles Kingsley’s world is presided over by goddesses.

The other day a film of The Water Babies, made in 1979, was shown on BBC4. I watched the film, because I had loved the book. It was not very good, but it was followed by a commentary on the book by Richard Coles, which was much more interesting. He explored it as a social tract, which actually had an impact on the politics of the day, as shortly afterwards a law was passed in Parliament on child labour. It was full of scientific facts which seemed to show that he was in some agreement with Charles Darwin, and finally it was a Christian parable, peopled by feminine deities. All this a way above my head then.

My mother was an atheist and so I had little religious input after leaving the nuns, and what I did have made little impact on me. But I have a feeling that the message of The Water Babies had a profound effect on me, and I still remember reading it, for hours, absorbed by the story.

When I retired I started going to a writing class. I came across this piece the other day, it was an exercise on the senses at the age of five. Following on the theme of childhood, I thought I would do a podcast from it. Here it is.

 

 

 

 

Five Finger Exercise

I was saddened recently to read of the death of Peter Shaffer, the playwright, although he had reached a goodly age, he was ninety years old.

Peter Shaffer played an important rôle in my life. I was working in London, I was thirty years old, a repressed, studious and earnest young woman – living with my mother – we shared a comfortable bed sitting room in a flat belonging to a Jewish couple in Hampstead and I was working as a secretary at ICI on the Embankment. I hated my job, I had tried unsuccessfully to make my way in publishing, and so finally opted for a better paid job.

In 1958 Peter Shaffer’s first play, Five Finger Exercise, was produced in London by John Gielgud and I went to see it. I loved the theatre and saw many plays, usually without my mother, she was not with me on that occasion. Being deaf it was hard for her to hear.

     I no longer remember the details of the play, it was about family tensions, but the catalyst for me appears to have been a scene where one of the characters was making an Indian curry; he was doing something that he loved doing.

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There was little in my life at that time that I loved doing. I disliked my job, I did not know what to do next, and I was full of a sense of duty about looking after my mother. I remember how the play struck me like a revelation; it was akin to Joseph Campbell’s idea of ‘following your bliss’. I sent Peter Shaffer an enthusiastic fan letter.

He was 32 years of age and this was his first play on the London stage. I received a handwritten, two page reply from him, dated Jan. 22nd, 1959, in which he said: “it is so enheartening to receive a letter like yours, although I don’t believe a word of those fine things you said about me.” He went on: “if only one used anything like one’s total abilities as a person, I think we go through life being half-people or quarter-people. I’m delighted my play affected some kind of resolution of tension inside you, that’s a wonderful thing for me to know. Even if the resolution is only partial (as you indicated), it’s good I think – relaxation leads to relaxation.”

Of course I prized this letter, and I am wondering now how instrumental this was in my applying for a job at NATO in Paris.

I had fallen in love with Paris on my 21st birthday, the 14th of July, when I was driving through it on a coach on my way to Spain. We drove along the Champs Elysees to the Place de la Concorde. The sun was shining, there were flags and bunting everywhere, and the Parisians were out en masse celebrating. I was entranced.

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To work in Paris seemed like a dream, and I did in fact move there in July 1959, that very same year. This move was to change the course of my life.

I went to see all of Peter Shaffer’s plays, Amadeus, in the cinema and on the stage, The Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Equus, this last one after I had retired to Bath. I thought he was an extraordinary playwright, and I would like to think that my early fan letter was an encouragement to him at the start of his career, just as his reply to me and his play helped me to change my own life.

 

Julia’s Writing Retreat

I have been reading a book called Ordinary Magic: Everyday Life as Spiritual Path.  I quote from a passage in this book:

“The key to everyday life as spiritual practice lies in bringing a full, rich quality of being and presence into whatever we do. ……To find the spiritual path in our daily life, we need to bring being and doing together. This is precisely what happens in creativity, where the beauty that we love can become what we do.”

In June I am going on a ‘ conscious writing’ retreat with Julia McCutcheon. I am often asked what ‘conscious writing’  means. Depending on who I am talking to, I find it difficult to explain.  I will let Julia’s words speak for me. This is a holistic retreat to ‘discover your true voice and writing from your heart with the voice of your soul.’  I went last year and found it a wonderful experience.

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We stayed at the Abbey House in Glastonbury, a lovely retreat centre which abuts on to the Abbey ruins.  From a bedroom window you could see over the garden to the ruins, and you could walk right through to the ruins from the bottom of the garden.

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Not only is Glastonbury home to the music festival, but it has a very ancient spiritual history going back many centuries to the time of Jesus.

This created a wonderful atmosphere in which to explore our writing. Julia led us very lightly through a series of holistic exercises and guided visualisation into a space from where we were able to dive deeply into our authentic nature to find our own voice in our writing.

I found myself in a very stimulating group of bright, loving and compassionate women and one man, and was able to gain much insight and wisdom for the writing of my own Life Story. So that is why I am going again this year.

Following on the retreat, I decided to create this website. Another suggestion which was made to me was to read extracts from my book in a podcast. A year later I have finally managed to do it.  Here it is. It is my first attempt, so I hope to improve it with practice!

 

The Sufi poet Rumi wrote:

‘Let the beauty that we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.’

 

 

 

SOUND AND FORM

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When I was on my retreat I spent a long time looking at this tree, when these words came into my mind:  ‘In the form is the music and in the music the dancing.’  I did not know if these were remembered words, or whether they were my own.  In any event, it felt like a fresh discovery.

I remembered many years back when I was living in Brussels, my mother was still with me, and I had been going for a few years to the School of Philosophy.  This was the school of esoteric spirituality which had transformed my life. I had been initiated into meditation, which I now did regularly, morning and evening.

It was a Sunday morning, my mother was still in bed, the radio was on and I was listening to a piece of modern music, I think it was Enesco. I was not really in to modern music, but on that particular morning my mind must have been very quiet and I heard every note very clearly. It was beautiful, had I ever really heard sound before?

Still in that frame of mind I went to buy some milk at the local corner shop. The Belgians have a very lilting way of speaking, their voices go up at the end, rather like the Welsh. I bought my milk, and in the formal way they have, she said “Merci madame, au revoir madame.”

As she spoke I had an instant realisation that the words coming out of her mouth were  creating  her form.  The form was in the sound. The two were one.  I saw it so clearly. It was like a revelation. I have never had that experience again and when I tried to explain it to Gilles Petit, my singing teacher, he did not seem interested.

I wonder if anyone else has experienced this? I would love to know. Was this what Keats experienced when he heard the nightingale?

RETREAT

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I have just been on a retreat at Michaelgarth, which is a guest house in the grounds of Ty Mawr, an Anglican convent in a remote little corner of Wales, so remote you can easily miss the narrow lane leading down to it.  This is a photo looking down from Michaelgarth to the convent, which is hidden in the trees.

Every year I come here on a silent retreat with the Bede Griffiths Sangha, this year it will be for seven days.  Our leader always chooses a theme for us, and this year she has chosen a line from a poem by TS Eliot: ‘in the stillness, the dancing.’ Eliot talks about waiting, waiting without hope, without love, without faith, and yet all three are contained in the waiting.  And that is exactly what it felt like, just waiting. Waiting for what, I asked myself.

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This is the shrine we set up in the room where we meet and hold our services.  As one of us remarked, as soon as it is in place the whole feel of the room is changed and it becomes a sacred space.  Here we meet three times a day to meditate, sing bhajans and share readings from the different scriptures, chosen by us all. These services are loosely built around those held at Shantivanam and which were led by Bede Griffiths.

We share the communal tasks of preparing and serving meals and washing up, and the rest of the time we are free to do as we please.  A sense of community slowly builds up in the silence, not without a few laughs. I always feel I get to know people at a much deeper level.

At first I experienced a great sense of emptiness, of dryness, where was I going with all this?  And somehow the answers began to emerge, as the days went by:  through the silence, the countryside, the birds singing, the walking, seeing the lambs in the fields, the horses galloping:  through the chanting, the readings, the good company, joining the nuns in their Sunday service.  It all began to build up into something very precious and beautiful, so that the stillness became the dance and there was tremendous clarity.

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This is the lily pond in the walled garden.  It was here that I experienced a sense  of the unity of all things, with everything and with everybody.

 

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HAPPINESS

I have been surprised sometimes, when looking at an old photo, to experience an extraordinary sense of happiness arising from it, even though I was not feeling happy at the time. Pondering over this, I decided that there must always be a ground of being which exists in us, even though it may be overlaid by our worries, thoughts, desires. This ground of being is a sense of our own existence,  a fact to which many people do not pay much attention. It is this ground of being which comes over to us in those photos, when past worries and thoughts have long been forgotten.

These two photos show me with my mother, the first one when I was seven and my mother had just removed me from the convent and we had moved to Jersey.  We certainly were happy there. The second one shows us in Brussels in our garden, my mother now in her eighties and I am in my forties. There seems to be a nimbus around my mother. She has an ethereal look about her. I did not know it then, but in under a year she was going to die. So much had happened to us in those intervening years.  I know that I was not a happy person at the time and yet, looking at it now, I cherish it.

We hear so much these days about the simple words I AM, the Invictus Games highlight it and at another level the spiritual teachings tell us about it.  Our true happiness lies in the realisation of those words, the invincible knowledge that we exist, that we have a right to exist and the right to develop to our full potential. But more than this, to recognise that ground of being as our source,  to acknowledge it, and to reverence it in whatever way is appropriate to us.

I think I buried that knowledge deliberately for many years. That is what my book is about and how I came to unpack that knowledge, bit by bit. I also want to honour my mother, her courage and her unfailing love.

Joyful January and other things

 

My thanks to Susan Netzger for the photo

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I have just taken part in a very enjoyable event called Joyful January.  The aim was to find something every day which gave you joy and write about it:  a description, a poem, add a photo, whatever.  This practice made me really focus on my days throughout this rather gloomy, rainy month interspersed with brief spells of sunshine.  By the end of the month I really did feel much happier and – self congratulatory, I have to say.

One of my practices is meditation, and I know some of you are interested in this.  Meditations vary, some are good, some not so good and one has to take the rough with the smooth. This morning, the first day of February, was a particularly good one.  I went into a very deep space, no thought, body calm and balanced, it felt totally peaceful and as though I were at one with everything. There was no emotion, no feeling, no bliss. Reflecting on it, it felt as though every cell in my body was in alignment with the whole earth. I wondered if this was how the animals are, without thought apart from their physical needs. All I can say is:  it felt good.  In these states I feel I can go on meditating for ever.  Though I don’t!

I know how a good meditation can affect my whole day. We are told that meditation can also affect everything around us, creating ripples that extend far beyond, so I like to think that my meditation practice is not only good for me but for my environment as well.

As the purpose of my writing this blog is to create interest in the book I am writing about my life, I am including here the synopsis of my story which I read to to my writing group. Although I say that there will be a sequel to the book, I may decide to put the whole story into one book.  More on that later!

SYNOPSIS

I was born in the south of France, my mother was unmarried and I never knew my father. In 1932 when I was four, my mother lost all her money in the Depression and we became penniless. Whilst my mother found work, I lived with Catholic nuns for three years, which profoundly influenced me.

We moved to Jersey, then England. Here I received my education in several different schools, ending up at University with a degree in languages. I had become extremely shy and nervous.

Too late, we discovered that I was stateless, my birth never having been registered. I was classified as an ‘alien’ and given an Aliens Certificate, which enabled me to travel.

I had a chequered work career until I applied for a job with NATO in Paris. Fortunately, through the auspices of NATO, I was able to become a naturalised British citizen at the age of thirty one. I stayed with NATO for thirty years.

As a result of the tensions in my life and an unfortunate relationship I had a nervous breakdown when I was 36 and suffered bouts of depression after that.

I had a difficult relationship with my mother, but she lived with me all her life. It took me a long time to realise how my development had been affected by not having a father.

In 1970, we were now in Brussels, I found a spiritual path after many years of searching. I had given up belief in a god when I was fourteen.

In 1976 my mother died, which brings the first part of my story to an end.

These are the bare bones of my story. They cover my relationship with my mother, my search for an identity and my search for a spiritual identity. What followed after my mother died will be told in the second half of this book.

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