If there is frustration at trying to get back to where you left off, this can be solved by entering into the search box ‘January’ for the beginning, or Part Two, Part Three etc.
I have enjoyed a sense of community as I see that some new and many old friends in many countries of the world are sharing my first year of grief following the death of Elle. Since then my brother, Greg, has also died, in the same month as Elle three years later. I am still processing what I have learnt from his beautiful and at times troubled soul and his death, and my writing is continuing to help me sift and sort through my thoughts. I have a sense of wanting to say thank you to you all.
I also wanted to communicate something of where I am ‘living’ now and for this reason I have included my journal thoughts for today:
I never fail to be excited by my personal but simple discovery that looking deeper into words and metaphors supplies me with a multitude of clues that help to illustrate and join up more and more of my beloved dots. I continue to labour under the belief that one day a beautiful painting of the meaning of my life, or anyone really, will be revealed to me in all its glorious livery. As I continue to explore my inner workings in the hope of becoming a more conscious being, I have become more observant of things that are constantly happening around me which normally would pass me without causing a flicker of recognition. I was struggling to fall asleep last night and it was not clear to me that I was anxious about anything in particular, so I decided to observe my insomnia in a different way. I have this luxury being retired. I opened my iPad to YouTube to find something I could listen to and perhaps even fall asleep to, and took a look across the various offerings that the algorithm was throwing up for me. Again, I allowed my interest at observing the element of coincidence to make my choice for me, and the one that caught my eye was a talk by Tara Brach. I was familiar with her name and chose Learning to Respond and not to React. Definitely something I have been working on! Her first words were: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” These words have been attributed to many people including Lao Tzu, the probable first person to have uttered them.
As I listened to her talk I found myself playing with what she was talking about, and while I was struck by the undeniable truth of what she was saying I started to wonder if one could travel the other way through this path and what that would say to me. And yes, I came up with something, which didn’t exactly surprise me. But first I want to explain another mental game I played with myself the other day.
When my brother Greg died, Peter gifted me two songs to ease my sorrow. One was Empty Chairs and the other was Crossroads, both written and sung by Don McLean, and both songs were unknown to me. Bless him—they were the perfect gift. I was listening to my playlist in the shower the other day, sometimes it is my Greg one and other times the one I have for Elle. Crossroads came up and it got me thinking about words and the clues they reveal to me. A crossroad is where two roads intersect. How many times have we not said, I, he or she, came to a crossroad in life. With the water falling on my head the excitement started to rise up and challenge me. If this is what happens you can bet that three options lie ahead of you. Yes. You can choose to change direction by turning to the right or to the left, or you can carry on down the same road you were on. The left often gets a bad name – sinister – so I am going to call it the High Road and let right be the Low Road for a change. I think it would be fair to say that a few of us will make poor decisions, and we may or may not realise at the time that we have chosen the Low Road, while the vast majority of us may glance to our left and our right and choose to carry on straight ahead—seems easier to stay with what is familiar. I will call this one the Middle Way, and I definitely don’t think it is necessarily a poor choice. In most cases it is the best we can do, especially if we have consciously eschewed the Low Road. But one day we may be asked to enter the unknown and take the High Road. Is this that time?
That said, back to my initial play on words and ideas. There is no doubt in my mind that Lao Tzu’s well-used saying is a Truth. But if there is the possibility of multiple or even infinite directions of travel, or more likely only two, forwards and backwards, then perhaps the following is possible too. Perhaps we come into the world with a prescribed destiny, and once born with our genetic characteristics, opportunities and circumstances bring into play free will. Our environment that we grow up in causes us to build up habitual ways of responding to stimuli and events which can make it easy to press our buttons if our habits feel judged, in turn making us act in certain ways, and say things we may or may not mean. And ultimately we start to think about what we have become and what we do and say, and maybe or maybe not we end up seeing the light. And our destiny, the original contract, is finally revealed to us. A circle of life and death is once more manifested. Perhaps when we are finally ready to make that difficult choice and choose the High Road, along which only a very few have walked, our mission will have been accomplished, and then hooray we get to stay Home.
July. Middle English Julie, from Old English Julius, from Latin, from Gaius Julius Caesar
What we know of Elle’s last few weeks after she returned from visiting Kate and Isaac is very patchy. I feel strangely familiar with her spirit and presence during the days she was with Greg, almost as if I was there, but I cannot make the same connection with the preceding few weeks. So a while back I asked Larah if she could put me in touch with people who may have spent time in Elle’s company in her final few weeks, and with her help Peter and I met up with Maili today. I will write about this meeting later.
Back to my friend M… She told us of a moment she experienced some years ago in the company of her friend Roseline, Elle’s mentor, which freed her to sing and record the many songs she had written. Roseline had previously spoken to me of M as someone who years earlier gave her the courage and support to develop her own artistic practice on the island by befriending her and commissioning many pieces. How time and karma, if a space is made for them, work their magic in our lives. M is an example of someone who has gone in search of her own unique talent, and proof that it is never too late.
Today my journey feels less like a mountain climb, and more like I am being shoved around on a Snakes and Ladders board, and now I have landed on a snake that takes me all the way back to the beginning and into the underworld. Not good for the heart! As always, I just have to ride it out. Peter finds it hard to stand by when I go down and keeps trying to talk me up one of the ladders instead. I have asked him to be patient. I will come up, but in my own time and in my own way.
It was on Saturday after meeting Maili, who worked with Elle during the week before her death, that I found myself sliding down that slippery snake. That night, after switching off my life [a rather apt Freudian slip when I meant to say light!], I turned onto my back, put my hands together and prayed as usual, addressing myself to Dear God and Dear Elle. I know that my prayers are usually sloppy, and probably ‘soppy’ even—I don’t think I have a good enough relationship with God yet to be able to natter with him. I usually go through the names of all my loved ones who are no longer with us, then say how much I am missing Elle, talk about the person, wife, mother and grandmother I am trying to be, start drifting off to sleep but just manage to slip in my Amen, turn onto my side, and then, as if on cue, the monkey in my brain starts its incessant chatter. But not that night. Someone seemed to take my hand and show me how it should be done. This time the prayer flowed out of me in one smooth movement. It seemed to flow faster than I could think, but I heard it perfectly. It was quite long and seemed to say much more eloquently than I could exactly what I wanted to say. I am easily amazed.
One of the island’s attractions for me is its clarity of light, even during the hot summers. I have always been conscious of how light affects me, and I definitely find my inner peace is affected when the light quality is poor. I have a sense though that what I call poor most people think of as normal. I struggled to settle in the UK where the sun most days has difficulties finding a path through the clouds except for a few hours now and again, and it took seven years for me to stop fighting the weather and get on with just living. I had similar problems in Los Angeles and in Italy where there was either air pollution or something else causing the light to be somewhat opaque.
Another reason I love the island is because it has always attracted ‘seekers’, people not interested in just living but wanting to understand why they were living. Wherever one lives you can always find them but almost everyone here seems to be seeking something or other, some more positively than others. I remember exploring the island with my father in 1978 and experiencing the serenity of the elderly Ibicencans we came across as they farmed their land in the old ways and tended to their livestock. I didn’t understand much about life then, but I knew there was something special about the island and its people, and certainly it has captured the imaginations of many artists and writers since the very earliest of recorded history, and more obviously since the beginning of the twentieth century. There was always something cosmopolitan about the young incomers, whether from the mainland or from further afield. The hippy tribes from many parts of the West were attracted to the island because there seemed to be an openness towards them, a lack of judgement, and this still lingers on today, but I don’t know for how much longer. And then there were the people who wanted something of what the hippies had—their beauty and physical, mental and emotional freedom from the mainstream of society, but with the security of having money behind them. And finally, all those in between. While a part of me identified more closely with the hippies I have never wanted to belong to any particular tribe of humankind, just as I have stood back from religion institutions and political parties. There are many legends and theories about what makes Ibiza special and I am no different in having my own. I gathered another helpful basis of knowledge about human nature in those two years I spent on the island back then, and I took with both hands a chance to experiment with who I was, and who I was becoming.
Peter has always worried about me when I wander off into distant places of my mind, and now more so than before. I think he fears that he could lose me forever, but I told him he doesn’t need to worry. I am nowhere near that edge, and never will be. I told him that I don’t want to be talked off my ledge—I just need some time and I will be back soon enough. Today I am alone in my studio space at Greg’s home. I feel comfortable and even a little inspired. I sense I am emerging, at least until the next time and I am sure one day those times will be spaced a little more comfortably apart.
Thank you oh lord
For the white blind light
The Ghost Song, Jim Morrison
I am cooking, singing my songs and crying, all at the same time. Boy, has ‘missing’ come back to haunt me.
It was only going to be a matter of time before I looked into the origin and mythology of the Snakes and Ladders game, a childhood favourite. The snake was definitely worth looking into and made all the more interesting for me because Elle and I are both snakes in the Chinese calendar. Probably no other animal or reptile features more in the mythologies of every culture in the world. It is also the origin of all dragon mythologies. There is barely a culture, going back as far as stories have reached us from, that do not reference the snake in one form or another. Its most wide-reaching associations seem to be with healing and fertility, including ceremonies to ensure a good harvest. There could be many reasons for this, one being that snakes visibly shed their skins, so are symbols of rebirth, transformation, immortality and healing—a bit like the metamorphosis of butterflies and moths, who are also seen to represent rebirth, and therefore associated with death and grief, but are more transitory than snakes. In the case of snakes it may also have arisen out of their appearance, with their unblinking lidless eyes and the absence of facial expression which makes them hard to read. Do they feel? Is there an all-knowing entity behind that staring gaze? The legless smooth movement of snakes across the earth, through water and up trees also serves to give them an air of ambivalent mystery. Are they with us or against us? We now know they just are, but they are also deeply embedded as an archetype in the collective unconscious of our DNA. In the US the symbol representing medicine is commonly the caduceus which is two snakes coiled around a winged rod. This is the symbol associated with the Greek god, Hermes, who was the god of commerce. Not really who you want your doctors associated with. But for the rest of the world it is the Rod of Asclepius, a single snake coiled around a rod or staff, the staff being symbolic of the wandering medicinal men of old.
And then there is the elephant in the room: the snake that tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden. I has been years since I stopped seeing the snake as the ‘devil in disguise’ but rather viewing it as something of a prod by God—the first invocation of duality, of light and dark, calling us to our human destiny, to venture into the unknown and begin our education in Earth school, through the first conscious exercise of our free will. What use were we to God’s purpose of creation simply existing in all our inert innocence in a place of perfection? And I love that it was an independent Eve who opened up the way of the next stage.
I also looked into what ladders might infer—less than I expected, as it turns out. But a major reference that pops up is ‘The Ladder of Divine Ascent’, or ‘Ladder of Paradise’, a religious treatise written in a Christian monastery on the Red Sea around 600 AD. It describes the perilous climb required of mankind to ascend to religious perfection, or heaven. Apparently, there were thirty steps to represent the thirty years of Christ’s life. Many paintings depict this treacherous climb with all the temptations one could fall prey to on route—not usually a pretty picture.
But I do have my own ladder story. I had a series of recurring dreams featuring ladders throughout my twenties. Typically I would dream that a tidal wave was coming and I urgently needed to find higher ground. I would look for stairs if indoors, or more usually a ladder, often made of rope, to scale a cliff or a building, and awaken feeling exhausted and frustratingly short of my goal. Never did I actually see the tidal wave—probably because it wasn’t the point of the dream. In the last dream of that series, I managed to ‘force through’ a scenario in which, having reached the final three steps, a person held out their hand and pulled me up to safe ground. I can still feel the immense sense of relief and achievement. I know I learnt something from it on a subconscious level, and can see now that it would probably have helped if I’d noticed that what I needed was to ask for help from someone on higher ground, reminiscent of the words of the first medium who found me shortly after Elle died.
Peter then suggested I look at the origin of the game of Snakes and Ladders. The game was popular in ancient India where it was called Moksha Patam. It has links to traditional Hindu philosophy, illustrating the difference between karma and destiny, or desire. It was thought that a version of it (and Ludo) was brought from India to Victorian England around the end of the 1800s. It doesn’t take a genius to see how it could be used as a tool for teaching the virtues of good deeds and the consequences of bad choices.
We are just two in the apartment, but we seem to fill a bag of plastic for recycling every day. How is this ever workable? What hope can there possibly be for this planet in the long term? I know it sounds so ‘glass half empty’, but today I struggle to hang on to hope. So many emerging countries aspire and work hard to join us in the twentieth century, never mind the twenty-first. The oceans are already overflowing with plastic, and we have no real solution for how to live without it. A young friend from South Africa was telling me that finally Africa is hopeful that its time is coming. Strange that we all emerged out of Africa once upon a time, and just as it is Africa’s turn to shine once again, things are not looking good for the planet.
I think the world has slipped into a parallel universe, or at least into an upside down alternative reality. Brexit, Trump, Popularism/Fascism, ‘alternative’ facts and downright lies—all bring an unsettling foreboding of moving in the wrong direction. How are we to get ourselves out of this mess?
I can hear Christina and Elle reminding me not to get agitated and anxious about what I cannot change. They both feel the world is taking its lead from the collective consciousness of humankind—nothing will change because I worry about it, and by adding my angst into the melting pot of human consciousness, I may even be contributing to the energy that grows my fear. I know they are right. I have to allow light to reflect from my being—perhaps the future depends on us all choosing to live in the light. After all, it is hard to see the forest for the trees in the dark. I wish we could all live with more love and peace in our hearts.
A family member posted an interesting link: ‘Why Grief is a Series of Contractions and Expansions’. I am not sure whether the writer, Joanne Cacciatore, is the Zen priest described as the source of the content in the article. It comes from a site called ‘www.tricycle.org’, and definitely resonates with me.
A contraction of grief occurs when our attention and energy are pulled inward, our surroundings made smaller perhaps because, in this particular moment, we feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed, we contract and tighten emotionally; we conserve our energy and attention, focusing intently on grief—and on self. In a moment of contraction, it feels as if our very survival may be in question. We may feel unsteady, unsafe, unheld; we may feel tenuous, desperate, fearful, and vulnerable. In such moments, we may curl up and hold our breath. In such moments, we feel the call to self-protect. We sense, on some level, that contraction will save us.
Expansion may come with the deep in-and-out breath, in a period of small, even minuscule, growth post-contraction. Allowing contraction to just be, in time we see it naturally ebbs, and the tightness loosens, we grow larger, and we become more willing to venture out and explore, to take risks, to open and unfold. And we find ourselves in a moment of trust, safety, curiosity, willingness, connectedness, belonging—and maybe even hope. In previous moments, the contraction saved us; in this moment the expansion will save us.
After ten months of contractions and expansions that can each last from hours to days or even weeks, I have come to trust the process. It is after all the contraction and expansion of our lungs that sustains the life of our bodies, and therefore not surprising that I find comfort in its tidal rhythm. I am comforted knowing that I cannot forget Elle. But Time is not yet my friend. It will have to work a little harder to gain my trust.
I fell asleep easily last night—unlike the night before. That is how it goes. In the early hours of this morning I woke up sensing I’d had a pleasant dream, perhaps featuring Elle. Sadly I could not retrieve it. I drifted off to sleep again, but when I awoke at my usual time I was not in a good mood. Later, at my Pilates class, I realised my irritation seemed to be morphing into anger. I don’t have anything or anyone to focus my anger on, so I am just angry that Elle isn’t with us. She has been constantly on my mind this morning, with memories just floating by, one after another after another.
I shall try to focus on the cicadas that have just woken up from a long sleep in the ground, full of wing snapping and sexual energy. I love their peculiar squeaky rattle that reaches into the mists of time and returns with memory after memory of happier summers. For a moment, my sadness is forgotten in a haze of memories.
And suddenly I am with Elle back in Barcelona at the end of May, just three months before she died. After writing her first-year philosophy module exam, she wanted to go shopping and we ended up in the lanes off Las Ramblas. Elle led me into a store full of hippy-style clothes run by an attractive young man, and she tried on a number of things. While she often asked my opinion, she rarely took it, but I came to understand that my comments were still somehow useful to her. I learnt a long time ago not to push her into a purchase, because if it didn’t sit easily with her it would stay in the cupboard. There had been a number of these mistakes over the years as she wrestled between wanting to express her innate sense of style but feeling more comfortable holding back. On this occasion she went for it, and bought a pair of trousers that said ‘look at me’ and decided to keep them on for the evening. They were flamboyant psychedelic hipster bellbottoms, and she looked gorgeous in them. Before setting off to find a good place to eat she asked me to take a photo of her. Thank goodness—it is not something I often remember to do. Even though it is a hard one to look at, I am very grateful to have it. I don’t know if anyone else saw her in them, as they weren’t amongst the things in her room after she died. Maybe she gave them away. She preferred to blend in rather than stand out. There really wasn’t much amongst her clothing worth hanging onto, but I have kept a bag of them for Kate to go through when she’s ready.
I am finding it hard to enjoy Wimbledon this year even though it is one of my favourite annual sport tournaments. We took the dogs for a walk and they are both still panting—a combination of a good run and a very hot evening. I am feeling even angrier than I did at the start of the day. Angry and deeply disappointed that Elle was cheated out of a life that was getting better and better. Three months was all she got after this photo of her looking so at ease with who she was becoming. I know, I know. I am going to have to work through these feelings, but for today I shall allow myself this intense anger against the whole world and everyone who is alive.
I am feeling kinder and a little lighter today. Although I got bogged down in an anger flare-up yesterday, my faith and beliefs remain untarnished and undiminished. Thank goodness! To lose my faith would make it harder for me to stick around. Today is also Isaac’s first birthday. We have travelled a lot recently, and Kate and family will be with us again very soon, so we left them to have a barbecue celebration with their friends this year. But we definitely won’t miss his birthday next year.
It is also the eleventh full moon and I will no doubt do some moon bathing tonight but meanwhile the heat of the day is already ratcheting up. Our friend Rachel joined us for breakfast in the bakery café we can see below our living room window. We met her not long after moving to the island, and we have developed a strong friendship over the years. Elle practised chanting with Rachel and other members of one of the Buddhist groups on the island for quite a long period, but in her last year or two she mostly followed her own practice. This included silent meditations, chanting, drawing, walking in nature, and also practising the martial art, Wing Chun.
Around 5 pm last Thursday, Manu, a friend and also a Buddhist, had asked if she could come and chant in front of the butsudan, a small wooden cabinet, that houses Elle’s Gohonzon, a calligraphic mandala scroll awarded to students who have attained a certain level of practice. It sits on the desk in our study. This morning when Rachel and I were alone, she told me that while she was chanting last Thursday, a message came through from Elle. Apparently she regularly has ‘a word or two’ with her. What made the message more noteworthy was the coincidence that Rachel was chanting at the same time I was holding Elle’s prayer book and chanting with Manu in our apartment.
About three months ago, I had said to Peter, ‘You know what? I think I was built to cope!’ It was a statement that even took me by surprise. Today Rachel told me that Elle had said that she was never going to live a full life on earth, and that I was specifically chosen to be her mom because I was capable of detachment. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to why I identified at a young age that love and I were complicated bedfellows. I had certainly identified that Elle was in the process of detaching from me from the beginning of 2016, and it felt more like a necessary and natural process than something I should take personally. Rachel had found the message confusing, but nevertheless passed it on to me as it came to her. There are now two new adjectives that appear to describe me—stubborn and detached but I am fine with that, because I can see the positives and negatives of both states.
Peter and I are trying to settle into the difficult idea that perhaps Elle didn’t come to stay.
I do not use the word ‘epiphany’ lightly. I keep it for moments when I learn something fundamentally new that leads to a change in my framework of thinking. What I experienced during Pilates this morning I would call a mini epiphany. As I said before, I am not in the habit of engaging with mediums, and perhaps Elle would call it my innate stubbornness, but I believe it is not my place to seek ‘inside information’. Since my coffee with Rachel I have wondered why it is necessary for messages/information to come through a third person. What is wrong with telling me directly? This morning I got what seems like an answer loud and clear—sometimes it is necessary. While I am becoming adept at recognising a thought that arrives in my mind from the universe, the collective consciousness or the Oneness, I can see that there could be times when it is harder for me to make the distinction, and important that I hear it. Yesterday Elle gave me an important message through Rachel. It has helped me to come to terms with an aspect of myself that has caused self-criticism, self-disappointment and confusion at various times in my adult life. It has been tough too for Peter and the girls to understand why sometimes I don’t engage with things they feel I should. What I also understand is that detachment should not be confused with absence and perhaps it is better understood as non-attachment. It helps one to take a step backwards before reacting to situations, circumstances or consequences. I like to think that any ‘detaching’ I am doing these days has more to do with non-attachment. And yes, I do understand why it is necessary for messages sometimes to come to us through a third party, and maybe I should be more open to hearing what mediums can contribute to my understanding of who I am is—you know what I mean!
Today Peter and I met Natasha, the jeweller Elle worked for. It always feels good when we meet up with her and her sister Charlie. I had a few questions for her too. I am still trying to fill in some of the last few gaps in my understanding of what may have gone wrong, if that is what happened, for Elle in the last week of her life. I shall always have a deep fondness for both sisters.
At the moment I am happy, or should I say, comfortable with who I am. Rachel also told me that Elle said I would be happy again. I still want to reject that. I can only achieve happiness now as long as I am forgetting her for a while.
I have enjoyed listening to the odd Ted Talk for many years, but over the past year I have moved on and discovered the incredible volume of lectures and interviews available on YouTube. How wonderful to have access to all this material. Earlier I searched for ‘Jung and synchronicity’, and a whole array of options popped up. The first lecture to catch my eye was one by Stephan Hoeller talking about Jung and synchronicity, which led me on to Terry McKenna talking about his DMT experiences, and on to other related talks. By now you are familiar with my love of coincidences, otherwise referred to by me as road signs and, more importantly, synchronicities. I view my life as a journey that’s all about an earthly experience—a journey of self-discovery and purpose, and this can literally translate into another kind of journey that always excites me—a road trip. I loved being on the open road in South Africa, particularly on my own and from as soon as I passed my driving test. I regularly drove my blue and white Mini up to Knysna to join family or visit friends. The lecture I listened to this morning reminded me of the pleasure I got at the thought of miles of open road that lay ahead. All I had was a car radio which needed to be constantly tuned every few miles, so it was usually just me and my thoughts. I would fantasise about my future, review past events and reflect on the meaning of life.
Knysna is my maternal hometown. This sleepy town was, and some would say still is, one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it is where my parents met. There is sadness to this moment as well, because it is the place when my father’s first marriage came to an end. Knysna is the second name of Marion, my half-sister, who I was told of when I was eleven years old. The town sprawls along one side of a long and beautiful lagoon surrounded by hills and the magnificent Tsitsikamma forest of massive hardwood trees. There is not a lot left of this semi-rainforest which is the reason Knysna came into existence some centuries ago. In times long past the forest folk who felled these giant trees with axes were known as the Knysna woodcutters. They lived in little huts or cottages isolated even from each other and rarely emerged from the forest. Their children did not attend school but were educated in the ways of the forest and raised to distrust everyone except fellow woodcutter families. The beautiful novel ‘Circles in the Forest’ by Dalene Matthee describes Knysna, the town folk, the woodcutters, the company that bought their wood, and the magnificent Knysna elephants that the woodcutters shared the forest with, who were said to be even larger than the elephants further north. I have a further special connection with this book as it mentions my mother’s grandfather who was the pilot guiding ships in and out through The Heads where the lagoon washed out into the Indian Ocean. As a young girl, my mother actually saw a small family of elephants at a picnic site called the Garden of Eden found between Knysna and Plettenberg Bay.
When Peter and I first visited Knysna together the Christmas after we met, I was keen to show him the forest, and we found ourselves unexpectedly in the front yard of a woodcutter’s cottage. The mother looked at us from behind a stable door while her children hid behind the trees, and from nowhere a huge wolf-like dog leapt onto the bonnet of our car and put his snarling face up against the windscreen. The whole experience felt primordial. Peter slammed the car into reverse, and managed to throw the dog off the car as we left at high speed, both admitting that we had lost our appetite for a forest experience too.
Immediately another memory surfaces, and one that I have thought of from time to time although I don’t know why. It is from just a few years earlier. I was eighteen and joyous that finally I had come to the end of my school years, and as usual our family was holidaying in Knysna. Some friends had invited me to join them, and the plan was to look for a house called Sugarhouse somewhere in the forest. I also want to mention that the big hit of the time in South Africa was Sugarman by Rodriguez, later to be the subject of a documentary called Searching for Sugarman.
This house was the centre of a massive manhunt in August 1969, a couple of years earlier, after Rosalind Ballingall, described by the press as a beautiful young hippy, disappeared while staying there. All we saw for a while were lots of trees whose canopy kept the light down. Eventually we entered a clearing, a grassy knoll, that rolled this way and that and bathed in sunlight, and then we came upon a woodcutter’s cottage. And yes, we were aware of being observed from behind a stable door by a tall slim woman in a headscarf. I must have been on high alert because I can still see the whole scene clearly and in full technicolour.
The house we were looking for was a little way beyond at the edge of the clearing. Unusually for the forest, and I cannot imagine how it was ever possible to get planning permission, it was a contemporary single storey building of brick, wood, and glass. We all felt spooked but being young this was part of the attraction. Around the back of Sugarhouse we found a studio with abandoned sculptures and an unlocked back door which we entered cautiously. It was even more eerie inside. We found empty bowls with porridge residue in them and newspapers scattered around in an area that seemed to be something of a sunken sitting room. It was apparently the home of a sculptor and his wife, and Rosalind had been staying there along with a few other people. While they may all have been referred to as hippies, it would probably be closer to the truth to describe them as New Agers, and Rosalind was a second-year drama student, the daughter of a prominent Cape Town family. What is accepted as fact is that she walked out into the forest with just a Bible, and her disappearance wasn’t reported for twenty-four hours, perhaps because house guests often went for long walks, or because the other residents didn’t want publicity so first searched for her themselves. There had been very heavy rains, which washed away any tracks, and nothing ever came to light about what happened there before, during or after her disappearance, and no arrests were made. It was reported though that the evening before her disappearance they had all been talking about the Book of Revelations in the Bible. This was also a time when most people were suspicious of this new sub-culture just arriving in South Africa, and viewed the hippy and drug culture to be somewhat anarchic, and theories and accusations abounded.
What got me thinking about Knysna this morning during the lecture on synchronicity was something my mother told me just a few years before she died. I had worked out sometime during my late teens that I was conceived ‘out of wedlock’, when that phrase was in common use. My mom and dad were courting, and he had taken her out on his speedboat and possibly the first in Knysna—I believe it was a Chris Craft from America. I have a photo of my mom in a headscarf and holding a cigarette, sitting on the bench seat at the rear of the boat with the lagoon at low tide in the background, showing a few islands and scattered sand banks. I have always loved this photo of her.
For a period during her later years, my mum lived with my sister Heather and her family, and we were visiting them in Barrydale over the Christmas holidays. I showed my mom a beautiful beaded ring I had just bought from Heather’s shop called Inkaroo. The tiny beads were in oceanic blues and greens mingled with a few that were iridescent. I told my mom it reminded me of the sea, particularly the Knysna lagoon. She ‘disappeared’ for a moment as if questioning herself before a smile crept across her face. Her eyes twinkled as she told me that I was conceived on a sandbank in the Knysna lagoon. She and my dad had gone out for a summer evening cruise and it must have been New Year’s Eve because I was born on 3 October, and I put my mother through three days of labour before being born by Caesarean. Probably a half century earlier neither of us would have survived that ordeal!
I like to think that they were overcome by the emotions of the season and the romance of the sunset, and passion took charge of my destiny. Apparently, they managed to call out to someone they knew passing by on another boat, to tell my mom’s mother, Lylia, that they were stuck on a sand bank and would return home with the high tide in the morning. I loved her so much in that moment for telling me the story of my conception. She was very sensitive to divulging information that might lead others to judge her badly. Many years before this moment Peter had told me that he was conceived in a tent on the Sand Banks near Poole, England! Too odd to be a coincidence but I can’t see what deeper meaning can be drawn from this, other than ‘all is written’. Or was someone having a laugh!
The links I am drawing on here are a bit random, but I enjoyed looking for them and more often than not, I find there is always some purpose in that. Unsure why I raised the Rosalind Ballingall mystery, I decided to look it up on Google and was surprised by what I found—a Stellenbosch University thesis written by a student (submitted in 2016) called The Riddle of Rosalind Ballingall: Poster girl for hippie counterculture in Cape Town in the late 1960s. I know it is random but there were many descriptions of Rosalind that resonated with what people had said about Elle.
This search led me to another thesis abstract submitted by a film student at the University of Cape Town in 2005, Memory, Time & Place in The Ballad of Rosalind Ballingall, by Nicole Schafer. What caught my attention immediately was an opening extract of a poem by TS Elliot, called ‘Burnt Norton’. It immediately appealed because of my regular tussles with time. This is what I read, and it is just the first part of ‘Burnt Norton’, which is itself only the first part of a quartet of poems:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.
It is beautiful and worthy of a full reading. There is obviously a lot more to this poem but to sum it up in just a few words, he hoped to encourage people to leave their time-bound world and look into their ‘selves’. Many critics said that he had let himself down with the religious content while others believed it to be a masterpiece. T.S. Eliot begins with two quotes, or epigraphs, which were taken from fragments of the work of a pre-Socrate Greek philosopher Heraclitus which translate as:
- Though wisdom is common, the many live as if they have wisdom of their own.
- The way upward and the way downward is one and the same.
I have now also looked up Heraclitus, known as ‘the obscure’, and later the ‘weeping philosopher’, a man after my own melancholic heart, who is said to have ‘flourished’ between the years 504–501 BC. He may have lived a long time ago, but I am struck by how modern his thinking sounds. Exposing myself to the ancient philosophers for the first time is definitely helping my own jumbled thoughts become more coherent—well, at least to me! What a pity philosophy is not compulsory in schools from the age of ten years old. I could imagine children becoming more experimental in their thinking rather than losing interest and confidence in what they are being taught at such a young age. I can also imagine it impacting on all subjects. If I had been introduced to philosophy at school, it would have saved me a lot of time!
For the sake of ease, I am including this quote from Encyclopaedia Britannica on Heraclitus:
“Though he was primarily concerned with explanations of the world around him, Heraclitus also stressed the need for people to live together in social harmony. He complained that most people failed to comprehend the logos(Greek: “reason”), the universal principle through which all things are inter-related and all natural events occur, and thus live like dreamers with a false view of the world. A significant manifestation of the logos, Heraclitus claimed, is the underlying connection between opposites. For example, health and disease define each other. Good and evil, hot and cold, and other opposites are similarly related. In addition, he noted that a single substance may be perceived in varied ways—seawater is both harmful (for human beings) and beneficial (for fishes). His understanding of the relation of opposites to each other enabled him to overcome the chaotic and divergent nature of the world, and he asserted that the world exists as a coherent system in which a change in one direction is ultimately balanced by a corresponding change in another. Between all things there is a hidden connection, so that those that are apparently ‘tending apart’ are actually ‘being brought together’.”
I love his idea of the unity of duality, and it fits so well again with current thinking that we need to begin to understand the nonduality of the universe, that is its oneness, and that linear time is an illusion that keeps us trapped in our egos. Perhaps it is being able to understand the paradigm of duality within the paradigm of nonduality that is to be our new experience of the earthly school, another two becoming one. Nonduality is a conceptual state that is much easier to grasp at the abstract level which is why I think that only some people are able to know it, while few still can ‘live’ it. It is something like the ‘unitary’ experience I tried to describe but put more simply you could say that it is an experience or way of being without opposites and cannot be reconciled with emotions like anxiety, confusion, pain, sadness and fear. There is an acceptance of what is and living with attention and equanimity. That is as far as I am willing to try and describe it, and even so I think I have taken too many liberties—books have struggled to given a cogent understanding of it.
Many years ago—I would have been nineteen or twenty years old—Christina and I went to a lecture on transcendental meditation in Cape Town, my first introduction to this practice. There were some words I heard that night that stayed with me more or less intact for the rest of my life. It was only once we had the internet that I was able to search for a reference to them. This is how I remembered them: when the left becomes the right and the right becomes the left, when the inside becomes the outside and the outside becomes the inside, then shall you have found the kingdom of Heaven. The words wrote themselves into the core of my being and I would say remained with me as a ‘truth’ my whole life, even if my understanding of them at the time was more on an abstract level. It makes me smile when I think of all the times I have quoted it to others and mostly caused confusion and probably some derision too. I now know it comes from the Gospel of Thomas, saying or logion 22, found many years ago at Nag Hammadi—the Dead Sea Scrolls:
Jesus saw some infants who were being suckled. He said to his disciples: These infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom. They said to him: If we then become children, shall we enter the kingdom? Jesus said to them: When you make the two one, and when you make the inside as the outside, and the outside as the inside, and the upper as the lower, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male is not male and the female not female, and when you make eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then shall you enter [the kingdom].
The reason I am including this in my book is because it is a good example of how I pay attention to the many things, which I now call ‘dots’, that have happened in my life and which before I saw as simply random events. This event, that took place before my unitary or universal experience, kind of gave me a mantra that has occasionally cropped up in my thoughts and conversations all my life but I have only recently realised how deep a meaning they carry for me, and how much they explain who I am. I see how much clarity they bring to so many of the dots that are highlighted in my ‘playbacks’.
So while the Knysna links may be tenuous, I have certainly enjoyed my rich pickings.
While showering after a lovely swim this morning, I was thinking about Kate and felt a need to speak to her. I try not to call her during the time after lunch because this is when she is writing or taking a rest. I had just finished dressing when she called me. I sensed she needed to talk. She says she has had a few big self-revelations lately. So much of what she is learning about herself is coming out of her recent writings. I remember her saying soon after Elle died that she believed they were ‘made of the same stuff’. Like one coin whose sides face in different directions, I remarked back immediately. Kate is thirty-four years old and I couldn’t help but see the synchronicity in that I had had my thirty-fourth birthday in Spain when my friend Christina was visiting, during those few months when Peter and I had separated. Kate is now the same age, and that separation came up in today’s conversation. It was the acausal ‘collision’ that brought those two events to mind and marks the importance of the moment so the meaning can be revealed.
It seems to me that our thirties can be a time when we start to look back and see what our twenties have been about for the first time, with a new kind of fragile awareness of the passing of time, and if we are lucky, an understanding of a need to value life more. We are all of us locked into our egos, that we can become as islands surrounded by a sea of aloneness. I was told a long time ago that the word ‘alone’ comes from a combination of the Middle English words, ‘all’ and ‘one’. Again the unity of opposites! I think Heraclitus would like that one.
A thought crossed my mind yesterday and I can quite see how it could be thought of as careless.
Since Elle died I find I worry less about the future of the world, and equally what will become of me and all those I love. I am convinced much more is going on than we can easily comprehend, and that we’re here for an earthly experience in the school in life, and we may as well get on with whatever it is we need to learn, and stop worrying about what we cannot control or change.
It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be here, or that I don’t care about all that is happening. It just means that I am less fearful than before, and please God, no more testing on this! Because I now love more people and more deeply, I find I ‘miss’ more, I enjoy music more and hear more of what it has to say to me, I understand poetry better, I see more beauty around me, I don’t let negative or unwanted thoughts linger in my mind except to know and understand them better, and I don’t shy away from being in a sad place with thoughts of Elle, either. Whatever I am doing by the one hand, my sadness is always in the other hand. Yet I have moments of joy when I want to shout from the rooftops, and I love this path of learning I am taking myself on. If not for my time spent writing, I don’t think I could have coped with the loss of my child. It also fulfils my need to share Elle with the world—no doubt something that every parent who loses a child feels. You want their life to count and the loss of it to matter.
At the moment we are planning a beach picnic on 30 August to watch the sun rise. Our friend Mal will sing the song he wrote for Elle as we watch the sun rise on a day that never dawned for her a year ago. A few friends and family will join us, while others who cannot because of their commitments say they will join us in spirit. Kate won’t be with us because of the way Alex’s annual leave worked out this year, but we will bring her here with the help of FaceTime. This is the last of the shared events we will arrange. It will be the end of a momentous year for all the wrong reasons. In future, anyone who wants to join us as we mark her birth and death days will have to seek us out. Life must go on. It is what it is, but for us, her family, we will keep a photo of her forever in our left breast pocket, our hearts.
Greg invited us for supper last night, and it is always worth turning up for one of those! His house is rather like finding yourself lingering on one of life’s crossroads—not surprising that we call the roundabout outside his front door the Magic Roundabout. Last night an unexpected meeting provided me with a possible insight into what Elle’s last few days may have been like, and a challenging glimpse of what could have been a different outcome for her. Not long after we arrived Greg got a phone call, and I heard him say, “Yes, come over, and you can see my sister as well.” We were seated for our dinner when his friend Ester—the Spanish version of Esther—arrived. I still regularly look up the derivation and meaning of names, and her name means not surprisingly ‘star’, or may also come from the name Ishtar, a Mesopotamian goddess of love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, war, combat and political power—wow, a lot of duties! She gave Peter and me a long Elle hug—we know these when they happen—and then sat down next to me at the head of the table.
I will introduce some background information to strengthen my point about this particular synchronicity. In 2014 Greg was offered a kitchen, bathroom and living space in this house on the beautiful roundabout near San Carlos. A year later he had the chance to take over the whole house, at a time when he was ready for the extra responsibility. The two ladies who were originally renting the whole house had taken on a shop in San Carlos, so they no longer needed the extra rooms to store the stock for their market stalls on the island. Greg was then asked to fit out their new shop, which we have a good view of from our current living room window. 2015 was their first season of business, and Ester ran the shop for the owners. During that season a number of my family visited the shop, and Elle most of all.
Ester soon started describing how Elle would come in and try on various things. There were a couple of standout jackets she liked. Ester told us that she would pop in from time to time to try them on, but just couldn’t make up her mind as to whether she wanted to buy one or even which one she liked best. She had told me about them. I still find it mysterious that the little she told me of her separate life seems to have covered most people and some connective events, and the little information that it was has been even more useful to me since she died. That winter, aware that she needed a warm jacket, I encouraged her to get the one she liked most, but she didn’t. Once again, she satisfied her humble need to keep warm by borrowing a coat from her sister.
Ester said she understood Elle’s hesitancy because she was like that herself. She was drawn towards beautiful things but she too didn’t want to stand out. She really did understand Elle. And the more she described herself, her early years and various experiences, the more I recognised how similar they were. She talked about her interest in different religions in her twenties, and of experiencing a Sabbath ritual at a house on the island around the age of twenty-five, and how it led her to an interest in Judaism. She was born into a Spanish Catholic family, and said that San Miguel, or Saint Michael, is her protector, and Zen is now her chosen practice because it is the least judgmental of the religious paths. The mention of Saint Michael again resonated. Elle wrote his name a number of times in her final notebook. The more Ester talked, and it was more of a monologue than a conversation, the more closely I listened because she was touching on so many of my‘dots’. She mentioned how struck she was that the Israelis wore only white during the Sabbath ritual. This immediately gave some meaning to my powerful instinct for everything to be white during the week after Elle’s death, including the white dress and white rose to accompany her in the coffin. It came upon me instantly out of nowhere but I held onto this need for dear life. As I said, I was not prompting Ester at all, but I felt aware of the gift of this meeting as it was happening.
It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to record all Ester shared with me in the lead-up to and including the description of her first psychotic episode, except that she mentioned a need to be free of clothes (wanting nothing to hide her from the world), a strong association with water through which she heard voices from other dimensions, her inability to sleep, and lack of interest in eating, and that opening herself to love was a key factor in her moments of crisis. I know the link to water is a leap too far, but I couldn’t help remembering the doctor telling me that Elle had been listening to the world through liquid in her middle ears for the first four years of her life. Ester described herself as too sensitive at times—an empath as Elle had described herself to me—and told me how she has had to fight back the forces of darkness from her life. It was an uncannily familiar story. She went on to tell me that when she felt drained, it was as though the darkness sensed this and rushed in to fill the space—a pattern I recognise again. Elle was doing far too much that summer. Is this what happened to her? Ester now deals with dark thoughts by instantly pressing the ‘delete’ button. I know what she means, because I do this too, but I am learning that it is more important to take note of them, mull over them, and see what they can teach me about myself. Suppression or deletion of dark thoughts is more likely going to slow down our evolution to becoming effective and well-rounded individuals. It is fear that will darken our doorways more than anything else we come up against.
All the time she was telling me about her life I couldn’t help looking at this beautiful lady of thirty-five and thinking that with time, Elle could have arrived at this place too. During Ester’s psychosis she ran to San Miguel church, and someone who noticed her agitation called an ambulance. She was taken against her wishes to a hospital where they seated her with medication for fifteen days. The doctor then told her she was bipolar, and would need medication for the rest of her life. She felt angry with her parents for keeping her there, but later identified that anger as directed more towards the universe, and not because of anything her parents had or had not done.
I should have done this for Elle. My concern not to take away her dignity, which at the time felt overwhelming but now seems neglectful, had prevented me from returning from northern Spain, and while I tried hard to think of someone I could send over to help her, without seeming to interfere or take control, I just couldn’t come up with a name. With hindsight I can think of two who would have been more than adequate, and should have been obvious to me. I will never understand why their names eluded me at the time. There were times I sensed that Elle was angry with me and her family during the final year of her life. It didn’t come out in anything she said, but more in facial expressions when we talked. I raised it with her once, and she told me that she knew the anger she felt was unreasonable and that she didn’t understand it herself. Sometimes she would ‘walk it away’ around the kitchen island, and I would watch her pain and wonder why I was so useless to her. I felt so inadequate when she had these meltdowns although she would usually seek me out, perhaps just to keep her company as she worked through it. I have learnt so much since her death, and I am sure that I would be more useful to her now. But these moments of anger certainly did not dominate her daily life. Most of the time she appeared calm, contented and effective in the way she went through her daily routines, and it certainly seemed to be more so in the last year.
I know a lot of people, on reading this, will say ‘ah, yes, but this is typical of bipolar behaviour’. And yes, typical of something, but not of manic-depression. The changes in Elle’s moods could happen so quickly—she could oscillate a few times in just a day. Sometimes I think that bipolar is just the easiest label to apply to a variety of conditions that are hard to identify because we don’t have the knowledge to yet. If we did know more perhaps the term ‘mental illness’ would not be how we describe it. As it has reached epidemic levels in Western society, with no-one untouched by it, it certainly is the most comfortable way of dealing with it.
Ester said that at times she has used medication to deal with a situation before it became a crisis. She has an eleven-year-old daughter who is her grounding force and the source of her energy, and she wants to make sure her daughter never fears for her mother’s health, and to know that she can rely on the love and support she still needs from her mother. Even though she is not in a relationship with her daughter’s father, she says they are still a family.
I had an obvious question for Ester. How did she feel about having to take medication, and how did the pills affect her? She said one of the medications was lithium, and yes, she hated having to take it. She had also been told she could never have children because of it, and that it effectively made her into a ‘zombie’. But as this was her only route out of the psychiatric ward, she cooperated. She was in hospital for quite a while and she said she found group therapy the most helpful, as the group members didn’t call her crazy but listened without judgement to what she had to say. Her memory of this period seemed crystal clear—something I wouldn’t have thought possible if one were in the throes of psychosis brought on by mental illness. Yes, she said, she had total recall.
As she came to the end of her flow she looked deep into my eyes, and I know she saw my pain. She seemed to understand that I was listening to a story that could have been Elle’s. She had survived to tell it, but Elle had left. ‘But we must remember,’ she said to me, ‘we have no idea what God’s plan is for any of us.’ She spoke of the spirit of Elle that is around everywhere, and close to us. And as suddenly as she arrived, she disappeared from the table.
Peter wasn’t able to hear our conversation easily. He also finds it hard to listen to others who talk about the Elle they knew, or to witness mental and emotional difficulties, so he found a quiet spot instead where he could listen to Greg’s music.
On arriving home I felt like zoning out for a while, switched on the television and ended up watching a programme called ‘One Born Every Minute’. The young woman having a baby had been struck by a car as a child, affecting her both physically and mentally, but she had a very special husband who was going to make sure she got the help she needed to raise their baby daughter. There was so much love all around her. While I say that her mental faculties had been damaged, there was still a kind, perceptive and thinking person there, and I could see why her husband had fallen in love with her. They called their daughter Elizabeth. The next moment it pops into my head—what I had experienced with Ester was from left field, but so illuminating, and both painful and hopeful. It felt like Elle was helping me to understand who she was, and how to accept what had happened. I know I can never be sure this isn’t just wishful thinking, but that is what keeps me humble. That night I spent a moment with her while looking into my eyes in the bathroom mirror. I told her I had heard her. I thanked her for her guidance and requested that she keep guiding me. During the night I had one of a type of panic attacks I have had for the past four years. I will say no more about it, except that it is called proctalgia fugax, which you can look up on Google. After my first one I visited a doctor and when I told him what I had experienced he immediately responded that I didn’t need to worry—that it was a form of a panic attack. Since then they have mostly occurred in my life at times of stress. My own research tells me that they are not an indication of a deeper medical problem, they only happen at night which I know to be true, and that the medical profession doesn’t have any further answers on the condition. I am satisfied with my South African doctor’s advice—something tells me he knows more than he is letting on.