|The Forgotten Language of Childhood||Source|
Contents ♦ click to select chapters
In the sixties, a woman with a two-year-old daughter makes a U-turn in her life as single mother in New York City
As her peers choose India as a destination, Lillian Firestone meets the Gurdjieff Work, stays in America, and allows her daughter’s development and education to become a living backdrop and stage upon which her own spiritual development unfolds.
This important book has many beautiful things to show-and-tell, not the least of which is a mother’s love for her child reflected through her own wish to work.
A mother who today has the commonsensical good judgment to use a child’s drawing of an elephant as the dominant cover image for her impeccably designed book.
More than a record of Gurdjieff and his Teaching’s love for children-being-allowed-to-choose-their-fullest-potential by adults who Work and care for them, The Forgotten Language of Children represents a new contribution to the literature of spiritual education and spiritual search.
|Posted on 31 May 2021|
That year we spent a whole winter in the drafty pottery barn at the Children’s House in Armonk, kneading wet clay, rolling and cutting our hexagonal tiles, painting them, firing them.
Each was designed by one of the children and no two were alike. There were flowers, geometric patterns and animals, a rich and subtle feast when they were all laid out together, over three hundred in all.
The little pool was excavated and we poured the concrete. The children moved the tiles around endlessly until the arrangement was just right.
We waited for the spring to come so we could activate the machinery. Water would flow from rock to rock; glazing the tiles and making them shimmer. But when spring came and we brushed aside the carpet of dead leaves we discovered that the freezing and thawing of snow and rain had turned our tiles into a carpet of glazed rubble. As a ceramic expert confirmed, our firing temperature had been too low, and the clay had not been frost-resistant.
That morning we gathered the few surviving tiles and swept up the rest. A whole year of effort had produced only a garbage can of shattered fragments.
“I’m sorry the fountain project is over,” I announced to the children at lunch. There was a long silence. I made no attempt to lighten the atmosphere: there was nothing in me that felt hopeful.
“Why don’t we just make new tiles?” one of the children asked. “We can do it all again.”
There was a general nodding of heads, a consensus among them appearing in looks and smiles. It was decided. Eugene who didn’t like to knead all the air bubbles out, Seymour who ran away from the tedium of glazing, Kate who wanted to sculpt animals, not make tiles – they were all ready to start again. They put into practice the idea George Gurdjieff had so often spoken of: to love work for its own sake and not for its gain. This time it was the children who reminded the adults.
If you wish your children well, you must first wish yourself well. For if you change, your children, too, will change. — George I. Gurdjieff
While in the children’s work, I learned how to hammer a nail, plaster a wall, saw, plumb, use electric tools, drill, listen, sit quietly, watch, hear, see, climb, carry, build fires out of anything. I learned I could write, that I didn’t have to be the fool, that I had something to say, that there were many different sides to me, that it rains out of nowhere in Arizona, that the mountains in Montana have to be one of the most beautiful sights on earth, that I didn’t know America until I’d seen it – and the same goes for myself. — Chris, one of the children
Encourage the children to think for themselves, and not to be afraid. — Jeanne de Salzmann
Only efforts in life count. — George I. Gurdjieff
When he appeared in the West in 1912, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff brought a body of teaching gleaned from decades of search among the ancient and sometimes hidden spiritual traditions of the East. A circle gradually formed around him, including many of the prominent intellectuals and artists of the day, who gave his ideas wider currency. These ideas had a perceptible influence in fields as diverse as physics, music, mathematics, theatre and film. Gurdjieff’s view that man was not a finished being – that evolution of his consciousness is not only necessary but also attainable – spawned the human potential movement of the ’60s.
Children were particularly important to Gurdjieff. They were always around him, and he devoted endless energy to their growth, presenting them with challenges and gifts. Most striking was his unconditional respect for their inner lives, for who they were and who they could become. Gurdjieff understood a child’s need to be challenged.
At the same time he forbade his pupils from indoctrinating their children with the ideas of his teaching. He wanted to awaken the children’s own questioning and allow them the freedom to grow into adults able to pursue their own aims, their own search. Children were not allowed into the readings, discussions and meditations; those were for adults, whose personalities were already formed and who had joined his circle for their own reasons. Gurdjieff said, “I have no groups for children, because people must have enough experience, they must first try different things and must be disappointed in them.” (PMPE, p. 90)
Instead, Gurdjieff prepared special activities suited to children to develop their physical and emotional sides as well as their reason. That they become their own person, directed from within and able to distinguish reality from the world of images and dreams in which everyone lives, was his aim for them.
Gurdjieff taught indirectly. He would tell a story that subtly related to the question at hand, or he would direct an answer meant for one person to someone else. He used tales to convey his meanings, stories about people facing quandaries, stories with comical, heroic or unexpected solutions.
Presenting new ideas indirectly though stories gave the children time to “try on” various meanings. Good impulses the children could imitate were embedded in his tales – kindness to animals, humor, courage, resourcefulness, indifference to hunger and cold. Under the guise of amusement some stories raised much bigger questions. The hero in myths and fairy tales asks, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
In front of such questions the ordinary mind knows it cannot answer and grows quiet – in that silence a new understanding can appear. As we worked with the children, we were shown again and again that it was the questions, not the answers, that helped understanding to deepen. How not to answer, but to draw the answer from the questioner himself? What prompted the question? What did the child already believe?
Sometimes it could be quite simple. A child might ask, “Why is the grass green?”
Rejecting the impulse to launch into an explanation of chlorophyll, the adult might counter with another question that might allow an exchange to take place – for example, “Is it always?” Of course the tone was most important. It could not be a test, but a conversation. Whatever the child answered, whether logical, half-understood or whimsical, had to be allowed its space, for that was the state of the child’s reason at that moment. The adult’s responsibility was not to set the record straight about the color of grass, but to help the child see that there are many ways to understand a question. Sometimes the grass was not green – it could appear as differing colors depending on the light and the time of day; the insects who live in it – what color is it to them? Exploring any question can lead to any subject in the universe, if one resists the temptation to immediately provide the “right answer” and instead enable the child to see the world in its interconnectedness and multiplicity, starting from his own point of view.
Instead of triggering automatic thought and reaction, ideas presented indirectly allow time for real thought.
Libraries abound with books about spiritual search. Much less is known about the form a spiritual search may take in children or how to raise them with the intention of helping them to discover their own inner qualities and the courage to live by them.
Gurdjieff demonstrated that relating to children can be both idealistic and practical. These principles are embedded in his books, particularly Meetings with Remarkable Men and the trilogy, All and Everything.
Gurdjieff’s particular genius was to reconfigure the issue of human potentiality, freeing it from religious imagery. Man the machine is also endowed with the capacity to overcome his mechanicality and awaken. A harmonious development of all parts, thinking, emotion and body, prepares man for contact with his authentic nature. This search for self through awareness is a necessary condition if mankind is to continue evolving – an evolution not of phylogeny but of consciousness.
But how can Gurdjieff’s ideas be applied to raising children? The reader trying to discriminate among the welter of conflicting practices and theories of present-day education is advised to take nothing on faith but to verify what Gurdjieff proposes for oneself, through personal experience, personal effort.
Beside his body of writing Gurdjieff transmitted his ideas by example. His pupils witnessed how he created special impressions and challenges for children that enabled them to call on capacities they did not know they had. Respect for young people was central: raising children to be free and capable enough to search for the sense and significance of their lives, on their own path.
Gurdjieff believed that contemporary education, which largely aimed at developing children’s intellectual capacity, lacked the broad scope that would help them develop with some measure of inner freedom.
For this a supplementary education was needed – one that would foster common sense, conscience and high ideals, in preparation for their becoming responsible adults. This result could come only from the children’s own personal experiencing of real-life events.
When Madame Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff’s senior pupil, who was entrusted to carry on his Work after his death, proposed working with a small group of children to see if these aims could be actualized, we eagerly responded to the challenge. It was left up to us, the adult team, to create the special conditions that would serve the educational aims Gurdjieff envisioned.
Although Gurdjieff placed a great importance on this additional education, he set strict limits. The children were not to be turned into followers of his teaching. Instead, we tried to create an environment in which children could come into direct contact with real experience, be it sawing a piece of wood, casting a pot or pitching a tent. This “additional” education would perhaps better prepare children to live in the real world also through having real-world skills. To use tools, cook, fix things, live outdoors, earn money as needed, paint, play music, travel, welcome new circumstances – this was the agenda for them – to think for themselves and not to be afraid. We wished to impart ideals in action, without doctrinal philosophizing to muddy their experience. At the same time, contact with adults who were striving for a level of sincerity in their inner and outer lives was part of the equation.
We struggled together to find activities suitable for varied age groups, and to find the right inner impulse in ourselves that would convey our aims without outwardly teaching or preaching. Since this activity would be totally voluntary for the children, they would have to feel attracted only by the challenge of becoming more self-sufficient, more grown up. There were no outer pressures or rewards. It was to be a work for its own sake and not for gain.
Efforts should be rewarded, but not the results. The child can produce a poor product through great effort, while another can produce something very lovely without trying very hard. The parents should not praise or reward according to the end product of the work but according to the effort involved.
Madame de Salzmann guided every major step of our work with children, and without her understanding it would not have been possible. She never gave us any program to follow; she might propose an idea and then leave it up to us to figure out how to make it real.
What impressions did the children need? What special conditions did this transmission demand? How could we know if we were providing the means for the children’s inner growth? Madame de Salzmann helped us discover how to create conditions in which the children could begin to see for themselves the real world and their place in it.
When young people outgrew the Children’s Work, they were not shuttled into adult groups. It was not a recruitment system. The Children’s Work was meant to be aexperience.
Although the principles may be listed and discussed as if they have a fixed form, the actual process of discerning them came from our struggles along the lines Jeanne de Salzmann indicated.
- Affirm the being of the child, Madame de Salzmann told us.
- Bring a challenge to the children that they can try for themselves. What others do doesn’t matter, results don’t matter – only the trying matters.
- Give nothing ready-made. Everything must come from the child.
- Create large events.
- Remember what it felt like to be a child.
- Be honest with the children.
- Be intentionally generous.
- Sense your own presence while with the children.
- Work “as if” you were already conscious. What would a conscious person do?
- Present high ideals.
- Join the children in their efforts.
- To love work for work’s sake and not for its gain. (MWRM, p. 39)
- And also:
- To be outwardly courteous to all without distinctions, whether they be rich or poor, friends or enemies, power-possessors or slaves, and to whatever religion they may belong, but inwardly to remain free and never put much trust in anyone or anything. (MWRM, p. 2)
It was only to the extent that the adult team was able to generate a degree of consciousness, a degree of self-awareness, that the work with the children became vibrant.
We tried many things that could create special conditions, including, but not limited to, carpentry and construction, crafts of all kinds, music and singing, cooking, theatre and trips to distant places. But ultimately we realized that the adult team members were the special conditions that brought these activities to an inner intensity that called the children. Otherwise, it remained well-meaning and ordinary, on a par with many organized activities for children.
The team members learned we had to enter wholeheartedly into the activities, to include ourselves in the challenge, to help children find and feel “I can.” Overcoming difficulties suitable to their age and abilities was a reliable source of affirmation for the children and brought with it a confidence based on their own experience.
Working in the kitchen was an ideal activity, requiring new practical skills, teamwork and a chance to serve the whole group. Creating a meal required all the children’s capacities and often had the effect of transforming ordinary effort into a labor of love.
Crafts posed a challenge: was it possible for children to meet a high standard of work without pressure from adults, but instead, with interest in, and love of, the process? Behind every craft project was the belief that it was possible for children to work really well and to experience the deep satisfaction that followed: driving a nail clean with one blow, sawing a straight line, throwing a pot, repairing a broken appliance, baking and icing a cake. The skills the children learned did not merely turn them into good craftsmen, it left them with a certainty that they could master whatever life required of them, that they were able, even in the face of adverse circumstance, to find their own footing. We could see for ourselves how the children grew in self-respect and confidence from year to year.
Encouraging the children to use the power of their imagination and creativity in expressing their feelings was the unspoken aim of our art projects. The imagination of a child set free could produce unusual harmony and beauty that was often reflected in their paintings, sculpture, tile work and weaving.
Singing, chanting and spontaneous “orchestras” in which every child had a part were a regular feature of our work with the children. Usually held at the end of a day after vigorous activity, these circles of clapping hands, with percussion instruments improvised from any found object including a pot or pan, created melodic and percussive lines that blended into improvised jamming sessions. The starting point could be a folk song, a spiritual or simply a rhythm.
Putting on plays was a regular part of the Children’s Work. The contents ranged from completely improvised pieces developed by the children to staging scripted works based on folktales or legends, such as the Chinese folk novel Monkey, the Hindu 22 Goblins, the Egyptian Her Bak, and the Persian Art of Asha. Being on stage, bathing in the concentrated attention of the audience and exploring how it felt to “be someone else” were all growing experiences for the children, all of whom were always included in each production. To step onto the stage and be natural and oneself while playing the role of a prince, a pig or Buddha, left an indelible impression on the young actors. Theatrical productions were some of the larger events that showed what was possible when many worked together.
Travel to distant places was hugely popular with the children. Unexpected destinations, meetings with unusual people, the hardships of hiking, living and working outdoors – the spirit of adventure coupled with an emphasis on self-sufficiency drew the children whenever a trip was offered. Trips to the Far West to see Native American Indian dances, to archaeological sites in Mexico, long backpacks on the Appalachian Trail, and shorter expeditions in the Northeast – these trips and many others served our aim for the children in an unusually concentrated way. On the road, the adults seldom needed to invent challenges and difficulties. The rigors of travel, of keeping a caravan of many children and vehicles in motion over thousands of miles, was challenge enough. The children loved the trips both for the chance to face the unexpected together, and they met the challenges of this rugged form of travel with élan.
Although the primary aim of the Children’s Work was to bring new impressions to the children, the adults also benefited. How the adults held up their end of the common search determined the outcome for everyone. The struggle to create special conditions produced something which made the adults want to continue this demanding form of work.
The open, unsentimental presence of the children was like a searchlight illuminating sides of ourselves that remain hidden in easier circumstances. This intensity gave us contact with our own reality, and, for some, who unstintingly devoted their time and energy, the growth of understanding was palpable. We learned from the children: much self-deception disintegrated in the face of their candor; and when we made mistakes, the children’s quick forgiveness reminded us that it was possible to live more freely and carry less baggage.
However, there was also something about the presence of the children that exacerbated the normal tensions generated by any group trying to work together. It was much harder to work with other members of the team than with the children. We were more exposed. We felt that we were seen – the unspoken agreement to ignore each other’s failings was inoperative in this context – and like the soccer dad who runs onto the field to argue with the coach, we often felt compelled to correct each other as we would not do under other circumstances. Why the children roused such passion in us to appear to be right remained a mystery. We knew only that some primal feelings were roused that refused to abide by our adult understanding. And it sometimes brought us into conflict of over trivial things.
But, as one of us noted, “The children are always willing.”
In our work together the children verified for us the validity of Gurdjieff’s ideas about education. They were often able to tackle large projects and make difficult choices with discernment far beyond their years. When the children made mistakes, as was inevitable, the principle of facing the consequences of their actions fueled a powerful inner growth, the foundation of courage, conscience and will. Time passed. We saw the children grow in understanding and capability. They were beginning to see.
Everything in this book happened – but memory is elusive. Others who lived these events may recall them differently. All mistakes are my own.
For those who have an instinctive capability for working with children, many of these ideas will be familiar. For those who are trying to find what can be useful in present day conditions, these stories offer material.
Before attempting to present the work with children in its many aspects, I offer a few words about how I found my way to it.
Gurdjieff International Review June 2006 published “Children and Money” excerpts from Chapter 7 “Money”.
Armenia Gurdjieff Conference 2006 – Portions of the introduction were read at a paper at the Armenia Gurdjieff Conference and will be published with the proceedings of the Conference.
Photos courtesy of The Children’s Work Archive and Dushka Howarth
ISBN No: 0939-100 4-3
Chapter 1 — The First Day
Chapter 2 — Houses of Work
Chapter 3 — Methods
Chapter 4 — In the Kitchen
Chapter 5 — Listening … Speaking
Chapter 6 — Choices
Chapter 7 — Money
Chapter 8 — On the Road
Chapter 9 — Discipline
Chapter 10 — Impressions
Chapter 11 — Games People Play
Chapter 12 — Difficulties
Chapter 13 — Remorse
Chapter 14 — Dawn
Lillian Firestone was born and received her early education in China, where her family's travels nurtured her lifelong interest in Asian philosophy and culture. She met the ideas of George Gurdjieff in New York City, and has studied them for many years with a succession of teachers including Jeanne de Salzmann, Michel de Salzmann, Henri Tracol and Christopher Feeemantle. With their guidance she applied the ideas to the education of children in a special practical work on which this book is based.
Ms. Firestone is the founder and publisher of Indications Press. She is the editor of On Attention: Talks, essays and letters of Christopher Feeemantle; On A Single Breath: A lost interpretation of the Lord's Praye, and others. She is the author of The Forgotten Language of Children: Discovering Courage, Creativity, and Consciousness and of the forthcoming The Last Jew in China & Other Stories. She is active in the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City, where she lives.
Lillian Firestone, Parabola's editor-at-large. (Author: Lillian Firestone at Parabola)
WORKING SECRETS: The Forgotten Language of Childhood
Based on the Ideas of George Gurdjieff
by Lillian Firestone
Copyright 2007 by Lillian Firestone
All rights reserved
“I have no groups for children,” Mr. Gurdjieff said. Then how to bring children a spiritual experience of life without indoctrinating them into any particular teaching, even his own? This was the challenge that faced us – a small group of adults who were instructed to start a “work with children” in the early '60s in New York City. This “Children’s Team,” which became the focus of my life for the next 20 years, appeared seemingly by chance.
I was 25 years old and I felt my life was at an end. Raising a daughter alone in New York City, everything I counted on had crumbled. What could show me a way out of a dead end – a future that seemed to lead nowhere. “I’m going to India – there’s a spiritual teacher I’ve read about”, I confided to a college friend.
“Not necessary,” my friend said unexpectedly, “there’s someone here in New York. Have you heard about the Gurdjieff Work?”
A month later, after daily phone calls that went unanswered, a call was returned. I finally met with a middle-aged woman with shorn red hair. Evelyn Sutta looked at me calmly – neither approving nor disapproving.
I heard myself tell her, “My life is like a car rolling downhill – and I can’t find the brakes.”
“In the Gurdjieff Work the conditions in which you find yourself are the best place to start,” she said.
“But my life is so difficult ” I protested.
“From a Work point of view, life is essentially neutral. Our slavery is not to outer circumstance but to our waking sleep, the stories we tell ourselves.”
Mrs. Sutta became silent, and I was suddenly afraid. Would she send me away? Then she said, “I can prepare you to work with my teacher.”
She was speaking of Jeanne de Salzmann. When Gurdjieff died in 1949, he entrusted the transmission of “the Work” to her, his closest pupil. What would an enlightened being look like, I wondered. Would I be able to see something unusual, some marvel?
Finally, I was invited to a meeting with Madame de Salzmann.
My daughter was two years old, and I had arranged for a student to stay with her, but as the time to leave drew closer, she still hadn’t come. Beginning to dread that I would miss the meeting I had anticipated for so long, I waited nervously. Finally, the doorbell. But it was only my neighbor, a painter, and so she was enlisted instead.
Running eight blocks to the subway and four blocks to the meeting, I arrived just as the door was closing. Pretending composure I went in and sat down. Across from us sat a woman with elegantly coifed white hair and dark eyes. In response to a question, she began to speak. But I simply could not hear her over the pounding of my heart and the labored breathing, which I struggled to quiet. When my anxiety subsided, I realized that I did not understand what she was saying.
Though she spoke in English lightly accented with French, it might as well have been a foreign language. I could not understand. I gave up trying and simply listened to the sound of her voice. Without warning, I fell asleep, maybe for a moment or two, perhaps longer.
Ashamed but refreshed, I awoke and at last was able to hear: “There are two currents in life, the one we know and the one that runs alongside it, a stream of conscious life with another purpose and another aim. We can also belong to that second stream.”
At one moment her gaze rested briefly on me, and I wanted that – to have that force and her unfathomable calm. But the only way for newcomers to work with Madame de Salzmann was to sign up for a Sunday at Franklin Farms, the New York groups’ country place in Mendham, New Jersey, where the day began in the early morning and lasted until nightfall. Discussions and meditation alternated with farm work, crafts, theatre and music. While the older pupils led the conversations and studies, everyone took turns gardening, caring for the animals and preparing the meals. During her visits to New York from Paris, Madame de Salzmann came to Franklin Farms, and anyone there could ask her questions.
After a long train ride on my first Sunday, I found myself at the manor house of what had been a governor’s grand estate, walking through a tight alley formed by twined bushes and trees, a fairy-tale lane. Suddenly, a large German shepherd blocked by path. As I tried to slip past him, he barked, then grabbed my ankle splattering drool on my leg. I tried to shake him loose but he tightened his grip and growled. Did he smell my fear? Would he lunge for my throat?
Where was everyone? I was alone.
Then, from a distance, a man whistled, and the dog bounded away.
I decided to go back to the station and take the next train home. But the taxi that brought me had disappeared. The only hope of finding someone was to continue through the low doorway of what used to be the servants’ entrance and grope my way through a dark back kitchen.
Inside, two middle-aged English ladies greeted about six of us aspirants and rather imperiously assigned us to teams for “practical work.” They spoke very formally, calling us by our last names and Mister or Misses. This was oddly reassuring, and so, hoe and hat in hand, I followed my team towards the kitchen gardens. I had imagined a patch of vegetables by the back door, but what stretched in front of us was a low valley covered with an acre of tomato plants. We were instructed to pick the ripe fruit into bushels, then prune and stake as needed. Try to finish by lunchtime.
A city person, I hadn’t known that tomato plants smelled like mint or that the sun-warmed fruit bent low into my hands as if agreeing to be picked. Ecstatic moments of contact with nature alternated with a grinding boredom and increasing fatigue – of sweat-drenching heat, the monotony of plodding up and down the endless rows, the weight of the full bushel baskets threatening to wrench my arms out of their accustomed sockets. I found I could endure the heat better when I stopped daydreaming or worrying about my daughter at home and concentrated my attention on exactly what I was doing. Suddenly, the impression of a leaf or a patch of light would fill me with an almost unbearable joy. It passed as rapidly as it appeared, and no matter how often I glanced at my watch, the hands barely moved, as if time had stopped, and it would never reach one o’clock.
After the glare of the fields it was hard to see inside the dim dining room. We sat at tables arranged in a semicircle. At the center, a head table with the older pupils; Jeanne de Salzmann was seated between two tall rather thin Englishmen, John Pentland and Christopher Fremantle. They sat motionless, looking out over the room but not exactly at any of us. They reminded me of the lions I once saw in a game park in Florida, who reigned unmoving from a hilltop. We ate in silence. Portions were very sparse. Maybe from hunger or from the freshness of the greens that had just been brought in from the garden, I felt as if I were tasting food for the first time.
After the meal was over, questions. Madame de Salzmann spoke of needing an active attention. We do not have it. Our attention is passive, weak, distracted by anything, by our appetites and desires.
“You see this chocolate in front of you,” she said, holding up a small piece of candy, “and you don’t know if you should have it or why you should not have it. You need an attention that is quicker than your desires, quicker than your thoughts, an attention that is free, that can connect you with another level,” and she moved one hand upward.
Other questions followed, but I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know the language. And I didn’t dare.
As though starting life over again I had to learn everything the Farm way. Under the stern tutelage of the English ladies, we washed walls, floors and ceilings until they squeaked clean, learned to iron properly, spin and card wool from the Farm’s sheep, candle eggs, churn butter, make cheese, while at the same time trying to be mindful of our inner state. Gurdjieff told his pupils, “I am what my attention is.” We were instructed to work fast and carefully and yet not be attached to the results. The struggle was not only for a clean floor but for an inward freedom. Even the simplest task was used as a help for remembering our purpose. We had to try to do everything exceptionally well, far better than the standards of ordinary life – a balancing act between the call of inner work and the no-nonsense demands of the English ladies.
Only the most senior women were trusted to prepare our food, which had to be handled with respect. Could we taste the state of those who had prepared it as they said Jeanne de Salzmann could?
I struggled to get the hang of the exercises; they sounded so simple: just bear witness to the inner world, know that I am thinking, know what I am feeling. Do not blend with the thoughts and disappear. An attention was needed in order to watch, that was not caught in the turnings of the mind. But thoughts intruded. What was I doing here while my daughter was home?
Oddly enough, hard physical work made this watching easier. What I saw again and again was that my thoughts seemed to turn and return to the same few subjects, like a dog worrying an old bone. My emotions were also glued to a few familiar refrains. My body? The rebellion of my body, subject to heavy unaccustomed work, was easy to observe: it was tense. These “inner snapshots” were of the state of being Gurdjieff described as sleep. Yet paradoxically when I recognized my sleep, it jolted me awake for a moment. Was there something, a real self that could “see”? The longer I could endure this inner look, the more energy it generated. And that changed everything.
The older pupils, many of whom had worked directly with Gurdjieff, set the example usually silently, of the exercise we were trying.
Though we were supposed to practice these exercises as we went about our usual lives during the week, I found them very hard to remember without the help of others trying in the same way. Again and again I forgot and identified with my woeful narrative, the harried single mother working to support her child.
Tired and angry on a Sunday morning, I would find myself on the 6:30 A.M. train to Franklin Farms, vowing that this would be the last time I ever forced myself to get up that early after a hard week. But my ill humor, a monolithic fog in the morning, would gradually disperse driven off by an expansion of energy that increased as the day wore on. Instead of becoming drained, I was coming alive. So, just before leaving in the late afternoon, I would sign the list again.
A log set on a rock. Boys two at a time step on each end of the log and attempt, acrobat-style, to balance. Mostly they just fall off. It looks as if they are purposely paired unevenly, tall with short, heavy with light. It is impossible for them to find a balance on that uneven surface.
But is it our thinking that creates obstacles? An adult watches attentively, saying little. Edging carefully forward or back suddenly a pair finds the point where both ends of the log are in the air. It’s impossible but they have done it. In that moment the boys feel as if they can fly. Then it is time for the next pair.
It is Easter Sunday and there is to be a celebration. Standing on the stone veranda at Franklin Farms, I see a flock of children darting across the lawn, playing tag.
“What are the children doing here?” I asked the woman with them.
“Some of the parents bring them every other Sunday. You don’t usually see them because they spend the day at a cottage down the road on Corey Lane. They’re here today for a party.”
“Do they work? What do they do?”
“You should talk to Peggy. She directs the program.”
Now I had a name – Peggy Flinsch – and a new thought. The Gurdjieff Work had a place for children. My daughter could come with me!
I wanted to join the team that worked with children, but would I be accepted? And did the team need to know about my dysfunctional family? The difficult childhood that haunted me certainly got in the way of my raising my daughter. Old patterns shadowed me – they were all I had, all I knew. Without first-hand data of how a normal family worked or how a loving mother spoke or acted, I felt condemned to repeat the special hell of my own growing up. A new influence, radically different conditions, were needed. I hoped that the Children’s Work would give me a model, a way of being with my daughter that I could not yet imagine, but which was surely crucial to her life and mine.
The word reached Peggy that I was eager to join the team, and I was invited to one of their meetings.
We had just assembled around a table in her dining room when she turned to me. “I understand you want to work with the children?” Something about her gaze made me think of the word “impartial.”
Speaking as honestly as I could, I confessed that I didn’t know how to work with children; I was a writer and didn’t have many practical skills.
“People want to work on this team not because of the children but because of their own childhood,” Peggy reassured. “If you have a question about who you are, if you can keep an open question about the children and what we are trying to do, it can be enough.”
I acknowledged that I did not lack for questions.
“We meet on Wednesday evenings,” Peggy said. “Come at seven.”
After scarcely one meeting with my fellow team members, I found myself one Sunday morning at the children’s cottage, the eponymous Corey Lane. Unlike the grand manor house of Franklin Farms, the cottage seemed too small to contain the bounding energies of the children and teenagers who crowded its little rooms and who raced up the narrow staircase, three steps at a time. I stood uncertainly inside the doorway waiting for directions, for someone to notice me. The children all seemed to know one another, and I felt like an outsider. Echoes of my own lonely childhood made the children’s indifference almost too painful to bear.
Despite the seeming chaos, work was going on. A meal was being prepared in the dilapidated kitchen. Excavation of the crawl space would soon turn it into a pottery studio. Sewing, hammering and frying all sounded together. There was nothing to fear in this cozy tumult except the unknown.
Finally, someone noticed me and I was assigned a job: collect the small clip-on lampshades from around the cottage and have my team of children paint designs on them. This was good. I had studied art and I could paint.
The three teenage boys on my team looked at me uncertainly. I, too, was uncertain. Would they like me? Would they recognize my inexperience and simply ignore me? Gathering supplies cast me into a fresh anxiety. Only dried-out remnants of poster paint could be found. Cheap brushes that came free with craft sets were already crusted with glue. It was impossible to paint lampshades with tools like these.
The boys drifted away and I was left with no team and nothing to do. This was much harder to bear than any labor at Franklin Farms.
Despite often feeling utterly alone in my confusion and doubt, my aim to stop the repetition of my own childhood drew me on.
“The children feel your effort” Peggy said to me. “That is what counts. Don’t worry about the results.”
In the late-1950s Jeanne de Salzmann asked Peggy Flinsch and Jim Nott to start a work for children in New York. Peggy Flinsch who had been part of the Gurdjieff work for many years, had two daughters and had started a nursery school in New Jersey and Jim Nott, a young artist, still unmarried, had grown up near Gurdjieff.
Create specific conditions for the children that would offer them challenges and foster their ideals, Madame de Salzmann proposed. This was not to be daycare.
We took it as a principle that the work had to have reality and purpose, that there had to be goals and challenges, that laziness and inertia would have to be met and overcome. Yet that was not all. Those conditions applied equally to many groups that work with children: scouting, Outward Bound, various study and charitable organizations. Since we were all students of Mr. Gurdjieff's ideas, it seemed that the answer had to do with us, the team.
There were usually eight adults and no more than 25 children in our work together. Although the program was meant for children between the ages of 7 and 17, occasionally a younger brother or sister would also attend.
The activities included special rhythmic exercises called “movements,” music, crafts and practical work such as carpentry, and cooking.
On Saturday mornings children would come to the Gurdjieff Foundation in Manhattan for movements and storytelling. Later, there would be Sundays too. Day-long programs of outdoor activities and crafts at Corey Lane, Franklin Farms, and Armonk progressed to weekend and week-long trips, and eventually even month-long trips during school holidays. Our work with children was serious but we tried never to be heavy. There was a quality of discovery, even in some moments of drudgery. Parties were held on every possible occasion and on our week-end sleep overs every Saturday night had a feeling of a celebration. There was always special food, baked treats, games, improvisations, music, and laughter. Behind the seriousness was always laughter and behind the laughter there was always something serious.
Sitting on the floor in the anteroom of the Foundation on Saturday mornings, the children would hear stories, myths or folktales before their movements class. They were divided into three groups: ages five and six, seven to ten, and pre-teens to sixteen. Waiting with them by the door were young men and women ready to lead their class. There they would be asked to try to march in rhythm, to see a sequence of arm positions and remember them, to hold a position that was hard to keep, to watch, to listen, to move on time, to run, to stop on command. Being put on the spot to go one step further than they thought they could was a challenge the children loved.
A large lunch for all those who wished to stay was prepared by the children themselves, with some adult help. Though the house was teaming with teachers, parents and a volunteer doorman, what struck me was that nobody bossed the children around – nobody was “exercising authority.” The adults who took part in the Children’s Work, the Adult Team or, simply, the Team, tried to be aware of the children’s efforts and respect them, creating an atmosphere in which the children were able to try new things with less fear of making mistakes.
Since the adult team was at the heart of the work with children, its composition was carefully considered – simply being a parent was not enough. Neither was just “loving children” in a sentimental way. The team was comprised of people who were, or could be, open and direct in their relationship with younger ones and with each other, people who could talk to children without condescending. Craftsmen were useful, and many team members were excellent carpenters, potters, weavers or musicians. Those who didn’t know a craft learned one.
All over the world, Gurdjieff groups experimented with suitable work for children. The forms varied. In many cities, weekend activities for children include theater, crafts, music and practical work from construction to cooking. A nursery school that opened in Venezuela in 1974 grew to include an elementary school and then a high school. More schools followed and now there are schools in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. In the United States for example, a farm school in Aurora, Oregon, originally attended only by children of parents in the Gurdjieff Work, now attracts children from the larger community and goes through high school. There is another school in White Plains, NY. In Provence, France, a seventeenth century farmhouse was restored into a summer activity center for children between 8 and 18.
Invited by the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York to renovate a sixty-foot chicken house at Franklin Farms, we packed our gear from the cramped cottage at Corey Lane and moved on. The new location was promptly dubbed the Long House, in reference to Native American lodges; but to me it resembled a sailing ship – the glass roof flooded the building with light. With the sky all around everything seemed possible.
After some years in our beautiful and airy headquarters in the Long House, the Children’s Work again followed the adults, this time to their new country estate in Armonk, New York. We were offered the chance to start over again, a challenge to transform a large garage with cement floor and no heat or plumbing into our new headquarters. Ultimately, the children installed wooden floors, windows, hot water and heat. They learned to do electric wiring, to set windows, to insulate walls. The “Lower Shed” became habitable and our own.
One man remembers his experiences as a child at Armonk:
It felt important to do maintenance: mowing the lawns, putting together a building. It was something we didn’t do at home. It was a new thing, and fun. What I didn’t like was jobs where you did something just to keep busy. But when you felt like you were doing what the men were doing – you had a mission and you could define it.
To challenge the children, the work had to be real. The most dismal moments from the children’s point of view were the lame attempts of team members to “keep them busy” at something or other while the adults got organized.
Having to move a room full of furniture out of the nursery cottage down the driveway to the shed, my helpers were two eight-year-old boys who fidgeted with disinterest at this boring job. I tried to coax them to work by giving them light things to carry, thinking they would mind less.
Suddenly, Peggy shouldered me aside. She grabbed a heavy carton of books and thrust it into the arms of one of the boys.
“Here Jon, take this to the shed,” she said briskly.
“Wow,” Jon exclaimed, then smiled happily, “this is really heavy!” He was back quickly ready for another load.
When he was out of earshot, Peggy explained that I must give the boys heavy things to carry – that would challenge them and make them feel like men.
She added, “When you feel stretched, you like to work.”
The older children often had a younger assigned to them as a teammate and helper. These assignments called on every ounce of ingenuity that the responsible one could summon. One boy remembers:
I was doing some sort of plumbing job that involved sanding inside of a metal pipe by hand, very repetitive, very dull. David and I each had a pipe. I got sick of the job and didn’t want to finish, but David started telling me the story of a tapestry the children had made that hung on the wall across from us depicting a prince on a horse and all his adventures. I wanted to stop sanding, but David would only tell the story as long as I kept on, and I really wanted to hear the tale of the tapestry. Finally, we finished.
I looked up to David. He was 14; I was seven or eight.
“The hardest job was to keep my helper helping me” – a teenager reported.
Intensity was what the children wanted, and once they had the taste of it, life became very interesting. By having something big demanded of them, the children discover that they have something to give, that they can help us, and this gives real satisfaction. Love of difficulty may be instinctive: overcoming an obstacle validates the child’s hope of becoming a capable adult.
Another man remembers his experience at Armonk when he was eight. He was easily, and endlessly, verbal. He would chat with anyone – child, adult, friend or stranger – engaging them in serious conversation. But he was not inclined to exert himself physically and would disappear from view when heavy work was offered.
A pipe burst and our water supply failed while we were camping in the lower shed one freezing Saturday night. Our plumbing crew dug at the broken connection. But meanwhile water was needed for cooking and dishwashing. The team selected him to bring water, giving him two buckets and sending him out into the night:
I had two large buckets to carry up the hill to the pump house, and it was very cold and very dark outside. I was scared to go out on the dirt road alone and wished someone would go with me, but everyone seemed busy; so I had to go by myself. I ran all the way to the pump house and filled the buckets from the tap as fast as I could. Then I slipped and sloshed back to the shed. The buckets were so heavy when they were full I thought they would tear my arms out. When I got back, there was just a little bit of water in each bucket. The rest had splashed all over me, and I was soaked. I thought I could get out of any more water carrying.
But Jim insisted that I go out again, and this time bring back full buckets. He told me, “Don’t look down. If you look down, you’re changing your center of gravity because your body follows your head. Look straight ahead.”
I hated going out the second time so much. Somehow I just knew I had to do it. It was just as dark and just as scary, but I was mad, and this time I wasn’t going to run. I filled the buckets again and carried them more slowly this time. I kept my eyes fixed on the lights of the shed, and I tried to make my steps smooth so the water wouldn’t slosh out. This time I came back with the buckets almost full. Nobody said anything about it.
The team needed water, and I had brought water. I felt the difference between talking my way out of things and actually helping. It felt good, and for the first time that night I was very happy.
Even today when carrying a cup of coffee I remember.
Always bubbling with jokes and chit-chat, Wendy, an excitable nine-year-old who could barely keep still was distracted by anything near her and distracted everyone within range.
We were planning a Christmas party, and as we chose an appropriate present for each child, we also chose a forfeit, something they had to do to “earn” the gift. We began a list: stand as still as a statue for five minutes, recite a nursery rhyme backwards, juggle two raw eggs. We created more and more forfeits, each suited to a particular child. But what would fit excitable Wendy?
Cut a long roll of ribbon down the center so it becomes two rolls, we chose. An older girl stood silently behind Wendy, ready to help if needed. At the other end another teenager held the roll taut. Wendy wielded the scissors; the more she cut, the more ribbon unrolled, the more cutting was required. To devote her full attention to the task, Wendy stopped talking, her face a study in concentration as she cut slowly and carefully. The whole room hushed. But even had we talked, I think Wendy would have kept going. It was as if she had found some pleasure in the challenge of staying in the center of the fabric, not slipping off to one side or the other. She must have cut her way through ten yards before the spool finally ran out. Wendy looked up. She smiled proudly at the long perfect curls of ribbon on the floor around her.
A moment of satisfaction that comes from having completed something difficult does not require any validation from outside. We saw again and again that the satisfaction the children experienced as a result of their own efforts strengthened them and gave them a genuine and enduring sense of self-worth. Satisfaction earned through effort penetrates and endures.
Cheerful and open, Robert loved anything physical. His splendid coordination must have contributed to his courage: he knew his body would not fail him. When we were not quick enough to stop him, he would jump off the roof of the cottage, about ten feet off the ground, and land nimbly on his feet. The other boys followed him to prove their worth. He was equally fearless at mumble-de-peg, a knife flipping game he played with a sharp hunting knife, to the consternation of the adults who confiscated his seemingly endless supply of knives. He was the first to chop wood, carry heavy loads, do anything that needed doing.
Yet when it came to social contact, Robert was timid. He found it hard to speak in meetings and always waited for some other child to bring material with which he could then agree. We decided that help for him would take the form of encouraging his emotional bravery to match his physical courage. We assigned him the job of secretary for his age group, eight boys and girls from 11 to 13 years old. He had to keep them informed of all our plans and the many details involved in working together: who would bring tools, who would supply food, who had room in their cars.
The following week at a meeting Robert reported: “This was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t know why it was so hard for me to call the kids I don’t usually hang out with. But the funny part is, once they got on the phone and we were talking, it didn’t seem bad anymore.”
“Nothing is difficult. It is only our thought that makes it so,” one of the adults said, quoting a line from a play the children had just performed.
A flash of recognition: Robert had been in that play, even said that line. He remained secretary for many months, and it was only when he no longer dreaded making the phone calls that we switched the job to someone else.
But we adults could never bask in our satisfaction for long. What worked well for children at one stage became an obstacle to their growth in the next.
What truly mattered? Results or effort? How was the environment we tried to create different from their regular life?
One of the children remembers her years at the Foundation and the various houses of work:
In the ordinary world people teach you things, and you have to do them exactly as they teach you. At the Foundation our experience was our teacher. There, everything was turned upside down: in school only the results mattered and what you experienced was of no interest to anyone. Here, only the inner experience mattered, and the results of our efforts were accepted, the only important thing being that we tried for ourselves.
To the adults Peggy said:
The children can be called to this relationship through the right demand. Not a demand of obligation, but of a job needing them or an adult needing them to participate. Interest and concern can be shared especially when the demand is a very big one. One of the first tasks of the adult team is to provide conditions where this moment of related experience can take place. The work to be done should need to be done, not something contrived. This does not mean that crafts are only utilitarian, painting or music as are necessary as cooking.
Children close up when we are ordinary with them but open quickly when we make efforts. The force of people working together brings a response from the children that can be quite remarkable.
Another child adds:
It was always a tremendous relief to me to be free from the pressure of the expectations. There were no grades, no punishment, no blame. You felt it most in the trips when we had many hardships and adventures. Peggy broke the rules – this was thrilling to us. She insisted we call her by her first name, she slept on the ground, she expected meals to be prepared by the children! Usually adults cook the meals – she trusted us.
When we sent the teenage girls and boys to the main house to work with the adults they brought back conflicting reports. Mostly they complained that the adults did not let them work, did not trust them to do the job assigned, did not believe they were capable, even though they had already learned considerable carpentry and plumbing skills from working with us in the Lower Shed. “They just have us stand around” the boys said.
The children's hunger for reality was greater than their desire to be entertained. That is why they came. Today, what real experience is there for children? Do they feel a lack, to which they cannot give voice? They know only that sometimes they feel bored, that “there's nothing to do.”
Real things often demand effort, sometimes discomfort. Some of them felt this instinctively. Others were helped to understand this through their experience of work. They wanted, needed, to overcome difficulties. Meeting challenges strengthens a child’s sense of self-worth. And in order to bring this challenge, the adults first had to challenge themselves.
The children didn’t even know we were giving them “work,” and it didn’t matter.
When we were perceptive enough we could recognize the child’s needs by the signs he gave us, we could see when he or she was grown enough for the next step, and what the next step should be. The adolescent is interested in ideas, the child’s relationship with us must be based on our use of intelligence especially as the child grows older.
One parent observed that when she gave her teenage boy a task to do, out of necessity, a task she thought was beyond him, he did it very well, and she saw that she had been denying him the opportunity of growing up and being himself.
Madame de Salzmann told us – give freedom before it is demanded.
Another reported that when she did not listen to her young child’s complains about not being able to do a task she gave but kept the demand, in spite of her own wish to stop – the child was able to do the task and had a feeling of right accomplishment
A team member remembers encouraging her five-year old daughter to help clean house. She gave her a little bucket and sponge and showed her how to wash the floor of her room.
When I had finished the other rooms and was ready to go, she was still carefully sponging her floor. ‘Hurry up,’ I said, but she continued. “I lost patience, ‘It’s good enough, we have to go,’ I said. “But it wasn’t. ‘I want it to be perfect,’ she cried as I took away the sponge and bucket over her protests. Later I wondered, do we teach children things are good enough before they are? Lip service to the idea of excellence is easier than demonstrating it stroke by patient stroke.”
Dilapidated buildings were transformed into a place for our activities, whether at Corey Lane, Franklin Farms, or Armonk. This gave the children practical skills and the satisfaction of seeing they could do real work. Yet it was not the results we stressed, but the effort.
Periodically, it’s useful to start over again.
Methods and guidance to teams working with children around the world came from Jeanne de Salzmann when she visited us in New York, as she did the centers in Europe and South America.
She loved the special events the children prepared: a fiesta in Mexico City for 400 guests; a fair in New Jersey where the children’s handicrafts were sold, a play presented, and supper served to 200 guests.
During those winter months she spent in New York City, Jeanne de Salzmann sometimes attended the adult team meetings and answered our questions. But we were not to take notes; we had to listen. I regret that I did not keep a journal of what she said so only fragments remain in my memory. Though principles emerged from our struggles they are not rules or dogma, our insights were distilled from years of questioning, study, trial and error.
Affirm the being of the child, Madame de Salzmann told us. In order to affirm, first we had to see who was in front of us and know where we stood in relation to ourselves and to the child. It seemed our inner attitude not as our demeanor was perceptible and formed part of the children’s environment. When we worked interiorly to feel “I am here,” without speaking of it, the child might be touched for a moment.
Bring a challenge to the children that they can try for themselves. What others do doesn’t matter, results don’t matter – only the trying matters.
Give nothing ready-made. Everything must come from the child. Encourage the children to find their own solution to problems, to search for a way to meet the challenges we proposed. This required them to use their imagination and think for themselves. Hear what they propose.
Give Freedom before it is demanded. Responsibility can usually be given long before you think it is time. The child may be ready before you are.
Create large events. The children discover that they can create events of large scale by working together, and that helps them overcome fear of new situations and builds confidence. Staging plays, craft sales and parties that involve many people and complex logistics gives children responsible interaction with the adult world.
Remember what it felt like to be a child. When we were young, what made us angry? What made us sad? This can help us connect to the children’s experience.
Be honest with children. First, be honest with ourselves. Become aware of what we are thinking and feeling; recognize our state in the moment. Honesty is the food of inner growth. Lies destroy essence.
Be intentionally generous, especially with our attention. Be generous with encouragement, love of work, empathy, good humor, hope. We saw that we did not have as much to give as we imagined, and that fact made us wish to work more, in order to be able to give more.
Sense your own presence while with the children. Practice with mind, body and feeling. During tedious jobs, like washing pots and pans, maintaining our own attention helped children to keep theirs alive.
Work “as if” you were already conscious. What would a conscious person do?
Present high ideals: Describing his own childhood, Gurdjieff wrote, “My father … by his constant conversations with me and his extraordinary stories greatly assisted the arising in me of poetic images and high ideals” (MWRM, p.39). We told the children stories such as Ulysses, Gilgamesh and Black Elk. Each personified traits such as courage, persistence, kindness, as well as the need at times to be clever, daring and resourceful.
Join the children in their efforts. Whether welding a pipe or baking a pie, rather than instructing, do the job together. When a child says, “I can’t,” it may mean she is afraid to try and fail. By joining the effort, the adult adds encouragement, the missing courage.
Along with these precepts, we tried to live by two of the commandments Gurdjieff received from his father:
To love work for work’s sake and not for its gain. (MWRM, p.39)
To be outwardly courteous to all without distinctions, whether they be rich or poor, friends or enemies, power-possessors or slaves, and to whatever religion they may belong, but inwardly to remain free and never put much trust in anyone or anything. (MWRM, p. 2)
Learn one new skill, craft or language every year, Gurdjieff proposed to his students. We tried to put this into practice with the children. Book-binding, silk-screening, choral singing, folk dancing, auto repair, baking, needlepoint, weaving, pottery, carpentry, photography, music and film production were some of the things we learned together.
Whatever their particular talents and capacities, every child needed a chance to make music, dance, paint, sculpt, think and use all kinds of tools to touch the artist, the craftsman, who is in each of us. Art give expression to the feelings. It was needed.
For adults who were not masters of a craft, our own patient struggle with the new skill was the necessary model. Whenever we learned something new together, no one had an advantage, no matter what the age.
In the face of something new, “I can’t” is a familiar reaction. This attitude screens our fear of failing, of appearing foolish or inadequate. Together, the adults and the children pushed against our imagined or self-imposed limits, leaving the safety of the known, risking failure. Mistakes are essential to the process of learning, but convention has it that mistakes are bad a failure. The only way to avoid failure is to try nothing new. In our work, “mistakes” were a natural component of growth.
In the struggle to learn, the adults discovered that a reflexive judgment, a criticism of our own efforts and the children’s follow us like a shadow. How to keep in check the corrections that seem to rise automatically in our comments – and in our eyes? I found that it was easier to the give the children the encouragement to “go beyond” than it was to give the same permission to myself. Another harsh truth: the deep reluctance to appear to fail was as strong in us as in the children, and we had to see it in ourselves first before we could help the children to be free of it. To make it possible for the children to feel “I can,” we had to be steadily attentive, and quietly encouraging.
So easily summoned, and so easily lost, the children’s energy was extraordinarily lively, their attention so easily summoned and so easily lost.
Their tempo was three or four times faster than ours. For us, words were very soothing and could take the place of actions. Talking about something gave us a good feeling, as if we were actually doing it. Not so for the children. Woe if you asked them to work on something and that something was not primed to begin the children would disappear while the team fumbled to assemble the necessary tools and ingredients.
It was easy to begin together in the kitchen with the ingredients for each dish – providing everything had been planned for and purchased in advance. But for other types of projects, necessary tools were sometimes scattered over a 23-acre estate, with six-foot ladders at one end of the property and paint supplies at the other. If we were going to paint, we had to collect sandpaper, scrapers and the like, enough for everyone to use. And we had to make sure there were no open cans of paint in sight lest the children start dipping their brushes while we were still explaining the need to sand and prime. If all this was seen to, children as young as seven could paint as carefully and productively as adults to their great satisfaction, though for shorter stretches of time.
Speaking with a directness that penetrated our usual ideas and cast them in a new light, Mme. de Salzmann told us, “Every time you are together working with the children it should be an event they will remember all their lives.” The team struggled with this idea. “What is ‘an event’?” someone asked.
“When you create special conditions, the children will receive an impression of themselves,” she said.
The next round of questions inevitably dealt with how to do what she indicated. Both “events” and “special conditions” must refer to something different from their ordinary meaning, but what? Madame de Salzmann asked us to find examples, to expand on the ideas ourselves.
We found it was absolutely necessary to remember that our own inner effort was the most important thing. Of course we were working with the children and for them, but it must be a based on a work for oneself.
Another time she explained, “The preparation is very important – how you prepare the environment, the challenge. And then be there for the moment itself. Make this special effort to be there fully but do not speak of it. If you do this, the children will experience what it necessary without being told.”
Three elements – creating an event, preparing a “challenge,” and being there for the moment – had to be incorporated into our planning. It seemed as if every hour of work with the children required an hour of preparation for at least one of us and sometimes for the entire adult team. The success of a project depended almost entirely on the degree of effort the adult team was willing to make in advance. That was the price. Were we willing to pay?
When Madame de Salzmann spoke about “the challenge” she meant bringing an inner demand to the children that paralleled the outer work, and added another dimension to it. It might range from working side by side with a buddy and matching tempo with him, or working without speaking for a certain time or trying something unaccustomed. Much depended on how the challenge was brought. It required life, creativity, interest. The adults also had to try it out and abide by it. This enabled all of us to see what we were made of.
One adult remembers the challenge:
Would you like to build a house, just you children? Would you like to try to put in the sink? Would you like to try to build a fireplace? Would you like to try to wire the walls and put in the electricity?
It’s cold. There is no insulation. Can you try even thought it’s hard?
There is a mouse in the rice pot! Can you still make lunch? Can you try?
Can you make the sandwiches for 250 people? What do you need to do that? Can you do it without talking? Who can try to walk on stilts? Can you try to make a rope bridge? Can you try to juggle? Will we charge? How much? Would you like to create a festival?
Can you try not to talk for five minutes? (for the little ones)
Can you try not to talk for the morning? (for the older ones)
Can you try not to complain until the snack?
If sometimes the children appeared to pay little attention, it did not mean that the impulse was not received. Even that carefully cultivated blank look by which they seem to dismiss new ideas could not be taken at face value. They absorbed impressions of working with us in their own way and in their own time. Often, this came to light many years later when they were able to reflect on and verbalize their earlier experience.
One of the children remembers the impact of those events:
At the Children’s Work, the method was different. When you tried something new or from your imagination, nobody corrected you. Nobody said, “You’re wrong,” “You’re stupid” or “You don’t know what you are doing.” Instead you were trusted to come up with something of your own, and the adults just let you do it.
Knowing that I could go inside and trust my inner resources about a creative dilemma gave me a lot of confidence for things that came later. At the Foundation, it was not about the outer outcome, which is totally at odds with the regular world, where only the result counts.
Time is innately different for children. For them, “the future,” which adults totally believe in and implicitly trust, is so abstract that it hardly exists. “Now” is all that children possess; it is where they live. Talking about some future project, whether next week or just later in the day, would never engage the younger ones. As soon as something was proposed, they viewed it as taking place immediately. If the team was not ready to put the event into motion, or if we spoke too theoretically, the children would simply lose interest. They might pretend to listen but really go off into their own thoughts or dreams. But just as likely they might turn to a friend and begin to talk or play idly with whatever was at hand. At a meal, a rubber band and a fork could be made into a launcher for peas or other small projectiles. Their sense of immediacy helped us, demanding that we stay active and awake. There was only one constant in the rapidly shifting tides of their interest: our attention connected them to us.
Create “special conditions,” Madame de Salzmann said and we struggled to understand the “how to” of it. Gradually we realized that we were the special conditions on which everything depended – it was our effort to be more aware of ourselves and the children that created an atmosphere of attentiveness in which suddenly everyone might experience their own life, here, for an instant. When that effort was not strong enough, our work with the children remained on the level of a pastime or a hobby, well-intentioned but lacking immediacy.
We tried to plan each Sunday as an “event.” Could we be sure the children would even come given the pull of weekends at home with their friends, sports and TV? Endless meetings of the team were needed. And were we creating special conditions? So troubling were these questions that I was compelled to try harder to remember myself in front of the children.
To pay this dual attention to oneself and the children even for brief moments when actually in front of them was remarkably difficult. The team began to study how to listen to them, to the meaning behind their words. And in the space that listening created we were better able to hear our own thoughts, what we said to one another and what we said to the children. Sometimes we could hear the sound of our own voices as we spoke. Lawfully, there were results: insights, moments of illumination. But we could never predict whether or when they would appear.
Instead of my seeing only a girl or boy fidgeting on the wooden bench, at moments I was able to see the inner person who was quite capable of understanding. The distinctions of age, gender and position would disappear, and we would be able to speak simply and directly to each other. Was this what Madame de Salzmann meant by creating an event the children would always remember? Certainly there were such events for me.
There is no use in saving myself – my best thoughts, feelings or energy – for later, or for a time they would be more useful or more appreciated, just as there is no use saving my best clothes, my good china, the crystal, the silver. If you don’t use these “best” things, you simply pass them on to your heirs who also will not use them, having never seen them used, and existence will be cheated by a kind of holding back, an emotional stinginess. The idea of putting away valuable things for special use has a practical side of course, but it also encourages a sense that ordinary life does not deserve the best one has. It is necessary to be generous. And the child in front of me is just the person who requires my best attention because she and I are sharing this moment of “now” together. There is no other time.
To be sure that we were doing the right thing, we adults wanted to find a formula – something we could do the same way week after week and always obtain a good result. Yet we began to understand that this desire for a curriculum, for certainty, was a way of avoiding the process of questioning ourselves and what we were doing. Our understanding needed to remain open to the changing realities of the moment. We needed to change the tempo and the pace from time to time. It could not always be the same. What was needed was not a “method” but a wish to know reality that was stronger than our habits. An active attention. A special effort to become aware of the whole of oneself – mind, feelings, body, intuition – objectively, without judgment or criticism. And of course, this shifted in each moment.
Sometimes encouraging a child to prolong her struggle for even a moment longer than her usual tempo dictated was victory enough.
To prepare us to work in this way, Madame de Salzmann gave us a series of exercises. For example, study the children. See who they are. Study your own child without judgment.
We tried, and our efforts to be more objective only pointed to the persistence of our automatic likes and dislikes. To be objective seemed impossible. So the exercise was explained further. Each team member was to choose one child and try to see what was the strongest in him or her – the body, the feelings or the mind? What was the least developed? The quickest? After a time, we would choose a different child and compare our observations. Then we worked together to find exactly the right effort for each child at his or her stage of development, and the right moment to bring it.
How the children related to their different jobs helped us understand their strengths and weaknesses and gave us hints as to what they needed. Some had greater aptitude for abstract thinking and organization while others were stretched by being asked to try those jobs.
Madame heard our reports and gave us another indication. “When you look at a child, visualize how they will be, who they will be, when they are grown. Try to see them as if they were already adult. Then speak to that person. Affirm the being of the child.
The thread for me was to be there to give the children a change to grow something strong in themselves. What was the aim exactly? It was to go against some automatic response or reaction, to grow in caring for others, to see “I can try”.
One night the team was having a meeting. It was snowing, and many had a long way to go to get home, but the meeting ran on and on.
“My father was very negative and controlling. I’m afraid that I’m repeating my father’s behavior without even noticing it – that I’m doing the same to my son,” said one parent. He spoke honestly. His heavy-handed way with his children had been very evident.
“You had a difficult father,” Jim Nott agreed. “But Gurdjieff told us that we can repair the past. Change today, then tomorrow will be different and it will even affect yesterday.”
The team agreed to work on a new exercise: to sit quietly each morning and remember what it was like to be little, to be a child. What made us angry? What made us sad? “Once we re-experience how we felt as children, we may be able to understand better how the children feel,” Jim told us.
This brought the team new material and a fresh agenda. No longer trying to decipher a sometimes blank face by questioning the child, we could turn to our own childhoods and remember what it felt like. And that made a moment of real communication possible.
Another exercise was equally simple. Early in the morning, sitting quietly and relaxing the body, we were to visualize the face of each of the children we would be working with, one by one. That was all, just briefly to “see” them.
Some of the school teachers in the Gurdjieff Work who use this exercise in preparation for their ordinary classrooms report that their students become more attentive, willing to listen, ready to be taught. None of us, nor these teachers, can explain how or why this exercise produces such a marked effect.
A more general exercise of preparation for the team members was to simply sit with the eyes closed, relax tensions and practice being aware of the moment. This, too, brought remarkable results. Late one late night, we tried this exercise together. We had been working on a play with the children all day, and now, in the quiet, we tried to ease the fatigue that we all felt. In this calmer state, it was possible to notice my shifting mood and tune in to my unspoken thoughts.
Jean, a new team member, felt it, too. “I get so much from these quiet moments,” she said. “Why don’t we teach the children to meditate?”
“How do you know it will help and not hurt them?” Peggy asked. “Do we have the right to give the children exercises for which their development may not be ready?” She explained that stages of growth need to be understood and respected. A premature demand to turn inward can be harmful, disturbing the child’s natural growth and their need to stand strong in their own lives. It’s one thing to call a child’s attention to some activity and, in the course of doing it, ask them to be quiet in order to listen better, to work better. Attention freely given strengthens their power of concentration, their power of will. It’s quite another thing to propose adult exercises to children before they have matured.
Another man remembers that he helped the children to produce fine wooden flutes using files, chisels and knives which were often considered “too dangerous” for such youngsters. But his confidence in their competence and his watchfulness enable them to gradually master the tools and make beautiful sounding instruments which they afterwards played in an ensemble. Our aim was not to produce masterpieces, but efforts.
Most difficulties, it turns out, are constructs of the mind fueled by fear. The challenge in learning something new is to see the moment as it is, not as it should be, and include my inevitable resistance and fears in it – without allowing them to stop me. The effort continues.
“God is not mocked,” Gurdjieff said. “No effort is ever wasted.”
Jim always seemed to have a train of youngsters tagging after him. All he needed to do was pick up a tool and the children would gather to help him. I wanted to know his secret. “It is only to the extent that our effort of attention is alive that any difference occurs at all, if we want the children to have more attention, we must first have more” he told us. When we don’t have attention, the day becomes ordinary, and the children – without knowing why – are disappointed. They become bored and rebellious. Last week my team of boys was completely out of hand in the carpentry workshop,” Jim continued. “I picked up my tools without a word and began to work as hard as I could, trying to include them but without speaking to them. One of the boys drew near and began to tackle the work, and then another.…”
“Teaching” in the ordinary sense is worse than useless for our purpose. But if the adult is truly active in doing or making something, the child will observe, and respect, and come voluntarily and openly to learn.
The children’s state was a mirror of ours. When the adults were engaged, the children thrived. When we were preoccupied or inattentive, the children were aimless and restless. When we engaged in work ourselves and left the children free, their interest would be warmed by ours, yet they would feel no pressure from us, nothing imposed – we would be too engaged in our own work to impinge on theirs. They would feel trusted as human beings.
We were careful not to criticize what the children said or did, but rather try to find the element of struggle in it and praise that. They needed to feel that their efforts were seen, recognized and valued. This would encourage them to try again. It was important, as Madame de Salzmann said, to “raise them” (she would make a lifting gesture with her hand). Too often, she said, adults simply push children down by their criticism, and unwittingly discourage them from trying. This was a delicate business. It called for real thought and a corresponding struggle on the part of the adults to review the automatic methods of parenting we had brought with us from our own childhoods and to discard the habit of automatically criticizing the children as a way of “improving them.” The only real result of criticisms is to discourage children from further effort.
Madame de Salzmann’s visits made us wish to awaken, to search. That quality came from her own labors, and her ability to go deeply into her own nature, unmoved by the contradictions she saw there, until finally there were no contradictions, but a world of penetrating consciousness. Her acceptance of each person was unfailing. In meetings, everyone was free to ask a question, and she would always respond when the question was sincere. Even when it was evident that someone was just strutting or philosophizing, she also might answer. Her secret was that she spoke to the person, not to their words. She taught us how to listen by how she listened to us. She was also very clear that we should not speak of “higher” things unless we were actually experiencing them as we spoke – a difficult condition to meet. Sometimes she would interrupt a high-flown account by asking the speaker, “And now, do you feel that now?”
While she was with us in New York so much seemed possible, and when she left us to return to Paris, we tried to continue the work she had brought.
Madame de Salzmann reminded us often, “See the children as they will be when they are grown, speak to that. Affirm the being of the child.”
“If life is a school, the kitchen is the university,” Jeanne de Salzmann said. In the Children’s Work even the youngest went straight to college. The team that prepared our big noonday meal usually included one teenager as the captain and several eight-, nine- or ten-year-olds as crew, supported by one adult team member. The result was unpredictable, ranging from excellent to marginally edible. Burnt muffins (the oven heated very unevenly) or sand in the spinach was as likely as a deliciously flavored stew or flaky apple pie. Whatever the results, work in the kitchen enabled the children to learn to follow recipes, to measure, chop, whip, blend and slice, all on a scale much larger than they could experience in their family lives. We were thirty-five or more to feed on a Sunday.
Life in the kitchen posed a dilemma: usually the children could learn the skills they needed from one another or figure them out themselves – but not always. “Don’t give anything ready made,” Madame de Salzmann told us. But if the children needed to master the basics of measuring, mixing, chopping, how would they if we didn’t “teach” them? How could we allow the children to discovery what they needed to know?
Gurdjieff had arranged conditions through which his pupils could learn without being “taught.” To demonstrate, not to rely on words. Yet, inevitably, some explanations were needed, we had to speak, but how? And this became an ongoing question for the team. We found that letting the children learn by trying kept them interested and challenged. The adults acted only as helpers, for instance, lending a hand to lift heavy pots off the flame, read instructions or measure ingredients. Our method like an apprenticeship was to show a little of a technique, then let the children do it their way, put their own ideas into practice – and make their own mistakes. Meanwhile we watched to advise only when needed.
It was essential for us not to talk too much. When we didn’t harangue the children with well-intentioned instructions, it gave them the space and the time to think for themselves.
Once they mastered a skill, it was theirs forever, and it was time to move on.
Speed was a necessity not only to keep food from overcooking; a fast tempo prevented a kind of daydreaming from absorbing the children. Working quickly, yet without hurry, demanded the attention of the mind and a feeling for the task, a connection to the work, to which the body eagerly responded. Suddenly a moping child would become upright, elastic and incredibly quick.
Each job was someone’s responsibility. Even the guest count became a useful exercise for one child who had to remember who was there that day. The number of the places at the table had to match exactly. If some of the group were away, their place had to be subtracted. It’s not easy to keep track of over thirty people when you’re nine or ten.
Plates were served through a chain of hands that stretched from the kitchen to the dining table. The children especially liked “the chain,” the magic of moving a hot dish from one to another so surely, so smoothly, as if we were all one organism. Everyone felt connected and when it went fast, it was great fun. The cooking team watched with pride or chagrin as we ate the fruits of their labors. After the meal, the dishes were cleared, washed, and put away in a similarly choreographed sequence.
Apropos of kitchen struggles, at one of our meetings Madame de Salzmann related her story of learning to cook. Daughter of a prominent Swiss civil engineer, she was taught the gentle arts: poetry, piano, ballet. Her parents couldn’t imagine that she would ever need to do domestic chores, so household matters were not part of the curriculum. When she married Alexandre de Salzmann she discovered that he loved the woods, and he took his new bride camping. He built fires. She attempted to make meals. Disaster! Everything burned, nothing was fit to eat. But instead of criticizing, her husband ate everything she had prepared and praised it. His kindness filled her with remorse – and motivated her to learn to cook well.
“Children have an innate sense,” she said. “Can you call it up in them instead of imposing your own? Can you allow them to live with the consequences of their actions, without reproach?”
One child, Risa, remembers:
I was eleven, and I was made head cook for a Sunday lunch. An adult team member was my assistant. I remember going to Jean’s beautiful Park Avenue apartment to plan the meal together. We consulted cookbooks and recipes and decided on a menu of meatloaf, salad and apple crisps.
Sunday arrived. In the country I carefully unpacked the paper bags of groceries and began assembling ingredients for each dish. When all the bags were empty, I realized that we forgot the lettuce: there was nothing with which to make a salad. I couldn’t believe the meal was possible without a salad; it was part of the plan. I asked my mom if someone could go to the grocery store three miles away.
But Peggy intervened. “It’s better if nobody goes,” she said. “There’s a time for everything, a time when a thing must be done or not done. When that time passes, you can’t bring it back. You have to go on and do what is needed now. The time to get lettuce was when you were shopping; now it’s time to cook. We will have lunch without the salad.”
I fully believed that the meatloaf would look quite ridiculous alone and that the lunch for which I was responsible would be ruined. I found it terribly painful at the time, but Peggy was right. She helped me to see I had to take responsibility for my actions. I had been so proud of myself for having planned and shopped for the whole meal. But she made me confront the fact that I had forgotten something. I wasn’t such a big shot after all; I made a mistake. And I wasn’t allowed to hide the results or recast them as perfectly as my ego required.
That lesson stood me in very good stead in my life – there were many mistakes, much larger ones – that I was able to acknowledge and live with without hiding the results. I could accept “criticism” without undue hurt or giving up. My performance wasn’t always perfect: I needed to see that and go on just the same.
Risa is my daughter. Her turn as head cook was a source of pride for both of us. When she told me she had forgotten to buy lettuce, I knew by her tense expression I had to leave my own team and get some at once.
As an afterthought, I went to find Peggy. We never left the grounds without telling the person in charge. Peggy wanted to know why lettuce was needed. After Risa’s explanation Peggy said, “It’s better if you don’t go.”
I found it hard to look at Risa’s desolate face, but Peggy was immovable. “We do not try to patch things up – we allow the child to experience the results of their actions,” she said.
Risa began to cry. Why should my daughter be made to suffer? But Peggy’s eyes were particles of flint so, still crying, Risa went back to the kitchen. I couldn’t let my own tears show. Eventually the meal was served.
My memory of the event was troubling. Peggy had said “we pity our children and want to save them from hardships which might be just the thing that will work against them rather than for them.” I believed in principles, but not in cruelty, and I couldn’t reconcile the two. However, decades later Risa surprised me with this comment:
That missing lettuce helped me, even through medical school and a demanding internship.
One Sunday in Armonk we chose as our theme to find a harder way to do a familiar thing. This was to help us try to penetrate the dullness of the familiar, to us see things freshly. As it was my turn on kitchen detail, I decided my team would walk the three miles to the nearest store to buy groceries for Sunday’s lunch, instead of bringing them from the city by car.
Three children and I started walking on that ideal June morning. Gradually, I noticed that the weeds lining the road totaled an almost complete medicine chest and pantry for the Native Americans. “Look,” I said. The sock-clinging burrs of burdock towered over the other weeds. The root was an excellent vegetable, and when dried could be steeped into the supreme “black drink” of the Southeast Indian tribes which purified the blood. Creeping humbly almost unnoticed were fleshy, milky purslane, to be eaten raw as a vegetable or squeezed onto wounds. Dandelion leaves and roots make a nutritious salad and cleansed the kidneys if harvested before they grew bitter. Heads of cattails could be ground for flour. Leggy, blue-flowered chicory, a bitter substitute for coffee, and a tonic, clung to the edge of the ditch demonstrating the traditional maxim, “Let your food be your medicine, let your medicine be your food.” In that seemingly random tangle of roadside weeds, nature had provided everything necessary to live for free. Even my life had been given to me.
The three miles didn’t take long to cover. We reached the crossroads store before eleven and began our shopping. Supplies for thirty were needed and, almost at once, 13-year-old head lead cook Angela, and I were at loggerheads. She wanted to buy everything canned – the vegetables, tomato sauce, even premixed juice drinks, while I wanted her to choose fresh, dry or frozen ingredients which were lighter. Despite my objections I was not willing to veto her decision. We ended up with four heavy bags filled with cans.
Dividing the groceries, we made a lighter load for the younger ones. The sun was now high overhead. We hadn’t gone more than a few hundred yards when Angela slowed down and announced that her bag was too heavy and that she was too hot. Our little team spread out and straggled down the road.
Had I made a mistake, choosing something too difficult?
After another hundred yards, Angela stopped, protesting that she didn’t want to do this and it wasn’t fun. Anyway, no one could make her, she said, putting her bag down and daring me to try. The younger girl copied her, planting her bag next to Angela’s, declaring that she also was too hot. We stood in a small, uncomfortable circle while I reminded them they had agreed to our plan and I pleaded for their cooperation. But Angela was adamant. She started back towards the Children’s House, the younger girl at her side.
What was I to do? Telephone for help? Hitch a ride? Nothing seemed right. I wanted to fulfill the exercise to which I had agreed, so I picked up Angela’s bag as well as my own – it seemed as much as I could carry and starting walking following the two empty-handed girls. The boy followed me, carrying his bag; but the younger girl’s bag remained on the side of the road, reproachfully. So finally I circled back and I picked up that third bag as well. I cradled one in my arms like a baby, the other two bags cut into my hands by their thin twine straps. The load was too much for me.
Silently I began to count my steps. Ten steps, then ten more. The shimmer of the heat on the road gave the scene a surreal air. Everything was clearer than usual, the sound of my breath louder than I have ever heard it. I counted to myself in canon from 1 to 12: 7, 8, 9, 10, and back, 10, 9, 8, 7. As long as I kept counting, I could keep walking. But my thoughts kept circling, telling me the load was impossible, that I couldn’t make it back. Thoughts were my enemy. I had to quiet them to keep the count and continue to walk.
Somehow we reached the turnoff, and then the Children’s House. The children ran off to tell their friends we were back and, with a few extra hands, we prepared lunch. The trembling of my arms and legs didn’t subside for a long time, but it didn’t matter. We had completed our task.
The meal was finally served, and Peggy asked me to read aloud after lunch – an honor. The chapter was “My Father” from Gurdjieff’s autobiographical Meetings with Remarkable Men. Although I knew the book well, this time I heard it differently. The episodes of Gurdjieff’s life were living moments, happening now. It was hard for me not to weep as I read aloud:
In spite of the fact that I was then still only a boy, I very well remember this period in our family life down to the smallest detail and in this setting there stands out in my memory all the grandeur of my father’s inner calm and the detachment of his inner state in all his external manifestations, throughout the misfortunes which befell him… (MWRM, p. 42)
After that walk, I knew that my body, though not particularly strong, can carry something heavy and for a long time, but it cannot do it on its own. It can obey an intention that overrides both negative emotions and thoughts. I faced the question: Who is it that carries?
To speak in pictures using analogy and metaphors, not just words, was our new task. The struggle to do this showed us how much of what we said was quite empty of meaning, and unexpectedly connected us to the language of parables with its secrets, and to folktales and myths.
The chapter “My Father” in Gurdjieff’s Meetings with Remarkable Men hinted at this:
“… my father would tell stories to us children either about ancient great peoples and wonderful men or about God, nature and mysterious miracles….” (MWRM, p. 34)
When children hear a story read aloud they must use their imagination to make a picture of it for themselves, Madame de Salzmann once explained, strengthening their power of creativity. Watching television or film gives ready-made images that swamp the senses. The moving image is so overwhelming they cannot turn away, forcing the children to undergo a specific experience, whether they want to or not.
We discovered that there are two modes of thought, one through words, and the other through image, each processed differently, with words registered intellectually and pictures touching the feelings.
Peggy added: One reason we have such a hard time with children is because we have forgotten their language. We talk and think they can understand us. But we do so through a language that isn’t theirs. There is a language that can touch them: pictures, images rather than words. This is a deeper form of thought, it is the basis of all fairy tales. This language enters the subconscious and later they can have conscious intellectual content. Images can lead to nothing or they can be the root of an ideal. In working with children we must bring an ideal bigger than they are, an ideal to work toward: to strive for perfection, to be stronger inside, to be braver, to be able to stand anything, to have something more inside. Instruction to us means using words; we must not approach children with the ideas of work, how could they understand them? Our aim is to instill certain impulses. Mr. Gurdjieff has indicated that our role as parents and educators must be to bring good impulses, by example, by stories, with pictures.
Every Sunday one adult would attempt to “start the day” with some question or idea, an anecdote or exercise that would give the children an impulse for their work and which could be the subject for a discussion at lunch. Such an impulse could be embedded in a story, or it might take the form of as question, for example: “Was there something inside us that always said ‘no’ – something we could struggle with?” If the story or question was of the right stuff, it would be felt all day.
Finally, it was my turn. What could I propose? I was still new to the team and had no confidence that I knew the secret of a successful morning theme. Nothing I thought of seemed right until I found a story about the teenage Hercules at a crossroads. He faced a choice posed by two beautiful women. “Come with me,” one offered, promising him a long life of pleasure, filled with every luxury. The other proposed great hardship, a short life and eternal fame.
The morning I was to tell the story we all sat on benches in the shed where we worked, our breath visible in the frosty air. I was nervous. Pressing my back against the cement wall for support, I tried to concentrate my attention and look at each person in turn before beginning.
At the next adult team meeting, Peggy unexpectedly brought up the subject of my story. “All of you heard Lillian tell the Hercules myth,” she began, “but I was sitting next to her so I could see something you could not. Her voice was steady but she was trembling. The issue is not whether you are afraid; it is whether you do what you have to. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is accepting your fear and going on just the same.”
The lunch meal was another occasion when words were necessary. But what words? We couldn’t just eat in a stiff silence; we were to try to have meaningful conversations with the children in which they could express their thoughts or speak of their experiences. The adult who had brought the morning theme sat at the head of the table, flanked by Peggy and some older team member. He or she led the discussion, which could be wonderful or hellish, sometimes both during the same lunch.
We were supposed to encourage the children to speak about anything and everything and keep their questions alive – to let them grow rather than stifling them with a pat response. Without being preachy or didactic we were to enter a question as if it were our own and thus discover new sides of it. That is, if there were any questions or observations. Priming the pump was permitted but not always effective – many attempts led to a long dull silence. We often fell back on the tired queries: How did it go this morning? What did your team do?
Fearing silence, I generally tried to have some harmless diversion ready to throw into the void. When silences lasted beyond my brief unsteady tolerance I suffered bouts of panic. It was not too different for some of the children who couldn’t bear a quiet moment either. Some escaped into daydreams, leaving only their blank expressions behind.
But sometimes a real question would appear and catch fire and engage us all in an unexpected exchange. The point was to be willing to endure the silence, but not to let it become leaden. Adults followed a strict protocol, taking turns speaking, so that no one dominated the discussion. The example was meant to encourage all the children to participate, not just the verbal ones. One off-hand remark once brought a rush of comments when one adult simply asked: So what do you want to be when you grow up?
Certainly we weren’t always successful. One teenager remembered:
I remember self-consciously trying to capture the “correct” demeanor during the talks and readings which we would often have after meals. Look at the adults … straight back, serious face.…
Sometimes a child’s comments transformed the atmosphere by their simplicity and truthfulness, and the team tried to match the directness and honesty of the children. Thus we grew more attuned to reports of real efforts as well as our own posturing, self-protection and lies.
It was a method of self-discovery. By sharing it, the children confirmed the truth of what they had found. “Is that true? Are you sure? If everyone in the world said you were wrong, would you still believe that?” a team member might challenge. The discussion validated their experience, made it an enduring part of their inner world. Our role was verification; that was all we tried not to interpret, only to underline the experience for them.
Adults fall easily into “I really know what’s going on here and I’m going to teach it to you.” But when we saw through that and were willing to go into the process of living with the children as equal participants, we learned from them as much as they learned from us.
During a week of work a task was proposed at breakfast: “we will work this morning on something very strong in all of us: anger. Something happens, someone tells us something, and immediately I begin to shout. When I feel this anger arise, I am going to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and then continue with my work”
At lunch time Ronnie said that he had been angry all morning because he had been given contradictory orders. Jim answered that this anger took so much energy that is just wasted. “It’s natural to be angry in these circumstances but it doesn’t do you any good. Why should something, as for instance a nail, get inside me, and where am I?”
Lucy said that she had been washing bottles, and that she got mad because somebody kept sending them back to be done over again and it never finished. “Why does this make me angry?” Jim asked. “Sometimes the anger is there because I have an idea about how something should be done, and this idea is broken by somebody who interferes with my way of doing things. What happens within me, in my body, when I am angry?” Armando asked. There were many answers, John said “I am blind to everything but the object of my anger, and this appears to me like a large mountain”.
“Nobody can make me angry unless I give them that power” one of the teenagers said.
One day our lunch guests were Alfred and Lise Etievan, from the Gurdjieff Institute in Paris. It was Lise’s turn to speak. She had actually been served a pretty good opener by one of the children but she seemed to be waiting for something and did not respond. The silence grew longer and longer and still Lise did not speak. Time seemed to stop. My body remained still and my face held a fixed expression and I tried not to show my anxiety.
This long silence would cast a pall over lunch. Why didn’t Lise answer? Since she was my senior, I didn’t dare jump in with some helpful remark, and Peggy, too, kept silent. I don’t remember how the lunch went after that: my attention had fled. Finding Lise afterward I asked her why she had not replied. Was it that she did not know what to say?
“No,” she said. “I had something ready, but I waited. I knew that if I was patient and left a space, Alfred might bring something that was so much better.”
It was not enough for Lise just to keep things going. She demonstrated that we could reach for a level of quality – and trust that it would appear.
Leaving a space sometimes gave the children the courage to express themselves in a way they might otherwise hide, show their real selves, not the “people-pleasing” façades they had already mastered. Our attempts at sincerity encouraged them to search for their own truth and to manifest it.
It was midnight. The children were finally asleep and the team assembled, sitting on sleeping bags, in a circle. We were in the middle of a children’s weekend at Armonk.
“This was a good day,” Jean said warmly. “I’ve never seen the children work so hard, with so much enthusiasm.”
“They really got into digging that trench,” one of the men agreed. “If we had floodlights, they were ready to keep going all night.”
“So how do we capitalize on all this enthusiasm?”
“We don’t need to let the pendulum of excitement swing too far,” Jim said. “Tomorrow, let’s calm things by working in silence until lunch.”
High spirits prevailed at breakfast, and the children were surprised at the suggestion to work without speaking until noon.
“But what if I have a question about my job?” one of them asked.
“See if you can figure it out for yourself,” Paul said.
A very lively lunch discussion followed this morning of silence, as if all the pent-up words finally had been allowed to flow.
“When I wasn’t talking, I still wasn’t silent,” one of the teenagers volunteered. “I didn’t say anything out loud all morning but I kept talking to all my friends in my mind.”
“When there’s no one to talk to, it seems like I’m talking to myself,” another observed.
Our silence isn’t silence. Thoughts, ideas and memories flow into one another ceaselessly, weaving a kind of inner narrative that captures my attention. This talking occupies me, keeps me circling through the oft-repeated stories that I call “my life.” And it is this unnoticed yet insistent inner dialogue that keeps me from the freshness of the moment. Curiously enough, a call for an outer silence amplifies this inner noise so we can witness it without the distractions that normally mask it. Yet all we asked of the children was not to talk for a certain period of time. It was their own experiences rather than the adults’ material that produced insights.
One of the teenage boys remembered the exercise years later:
“I loved that task of not talking. Perhaps focusing on it took my attention away from how onerous my job was, and yet allowed me to feel my dislike of it; I found the experience of my own dislikes – and how to get past them – to be one of the most useful experiences of my life.”
Doug, then a teenager, remembers a similar exercise:
We were also given a “task,” talking only when necessary or not talking at all. When one adult commented that “one part of me remembers the task but another part wants to chit-chat,” I remember being flabbergasted. You mean there is more than one part of me inside? Instead of just the outside world and “me” there was the outside world and different parts of me?
If the children wanted to talk could we receive their stories warmly without criticism, without good advice? So our uncertainty, our impatience for results was a constant reminder to us that we were supposed to be working on ourselves, – not on them. We could try to create conditions in which the children would have room to be resourceful, or courageous or intelligent. But we couldn’t produce effects. We could neither force them nor reassure ourselves that we had “done the right thing”.
One evening we gathered around the fire and each of the children had to tell a story. They all did and it took a long time. It was very touching to see the children listen to each other supportively. Even the youngest ones had a turn, and if their story did not seem to have a point, it did not matter. Everyone was heard.
The child’s inner experience did not belong to us, though perhaps we were greedy to pry it out of them. Naturally enough, parents wanted to know how the children had spent their day and what their experience had been, and if the children wanted to speak of their day, that was fine. In any case, it was our work to welcome their material without judging it. But the children needed time – maybe decades – to understand their impressions. We asked the parents not to question their children after a day of work, not try to find out “what they had gotten out of it,” other than what the children volunteered. Like digging up a seed to see if it had germinated, any attempt to get the children to talk about their experience might keep it from sending deeper roots to nourish their spiritual growth, their sense of an authentic self.
Our mistakes and missed opportunities often passed unnoticed. From politeness or fear, children rarely confronted us, perhaps because they didn’t know they could. Missed opportunities were due to their very ordinariness, events hardly worth noting. The moments of choice seemed trivial.
The results of our actions are often not visible to us because cause and effect are separated by the passage of time. Not being able to see the future, we live under the law of unintended consequences. We seldom recognize what is at stake. When we are attentive to the moment a seemingly small thing can affect the children deeply, and it is vital not to let opportunities pass unnoticed.
We went on a one day hike to the Palisades in New Jersey. 12 years old Anson tried his best to be part of the company, yet he was a little at loose ends. Sometimes he ran ahead to scout the way; sometimes he lagged behind to climb a tree. By late afternoon we had climbed ten rocky miles, cooked over an open fire, packed up and descended; everyone was tired. We could already see the parking lot when Anson announced that the Oreo cookies he had brought with him had disappeared. What difference did it make? They cost less than a dollar and could easily be replaced, but Anson explained that he had saved them specially for the long ride home.
If someone had mistakenly packed away the Oreos, should everyone be inconvenienced over a such trifle? But a glance at Anson’s face showed that for him this was a dismal ending to a long day – a catastrophe. We called to each other along the trail, and everyone returned and spread their daypacks on the ground: the clothes, the remaining charcoal briquettes, the garbage from lunch we were packing out. And the Oreos were found and returned to him.
Years later Anson spoke about that moment which I barely recalled. “That was a turning point in my life,” he said. “That a big serious bunch of adults would stop everything they were doing to search for my Oreos. Maybe I was worth something after all.”
To really listen to the children revealed that something that may seem trivial was important to the child; this required ongoing effort.
Though it took time, gradually the children came to trust that when they turned to the team for something they needed, they would be met by a willing attention. Where’s my jacket? Who took the hammer? When is lunch? What time is it? Each question was an opportunity for a moment of contact. The question “What time is it?” could be seen as an opening into the child’s concern, such as, how much longer would he have to try? Or, was she alone in her work?
It was crucial not to brush away these questions but to enter as fully as possible into whatever occupied the child’s feeling at the moment. Sometimes it meant leaving what we were doing in order to search wholeheartedly for a missing tool or a vanished mitten. With two looking, the missing object was almost always found. There might be a momentary flash of recognition, as if to say, “Thanks for helping me.” This might be expressed in words, but often the child would just grab his possession and run back to his activity. When I lose something, it’s as if a piece of myself has been broken off. My attention is caught in concern for the missing part, even when it is only a hammer or a hat. I feel complete again when the fragment is restored. That an adult takes the time to help a child find a lost object is more important to him than we perceive, that we are willing to sacrifice something to help them. Perhaps children take it to mean that their concerns are important to us, that more than our own convenience at the moment – they are important to us.
Another child never missed a chance to relate scenes from one of the latest horror movies he had seen. He was eight years old and troubled by nightmares, which some of us attributed to the scary films. What constituted the children’s lives outside our activities was not our domain. At same time to us, horror movies seemed an added burden fostering his many imaginary fears.
We were privately critical of his movie viewing until one team member asked him when the two were partners on a hike: “Why do you watch horror movies?” “I want to know what it is like to die,” the boy unexpectedly replied. Trying to match the child’s candor, the team member said, “What I’ve seen of death is not like the movies. Those gruesome scenes are not real. Usually by the time people die their bodies are worn out and their spirit is ready to move on.” The boy listened intensely and asked many questions about dead and dying as they continued walking together.
Helpless in the face of adults who controlled everything, children sometimes grow angry or act out. But we cultivated an atmosphere in which children found they could trust us to listen to them and not try to force opinions on them. The children wanted to hear our views. That made them more open. Our candor helped them to recognize their own feelings.
Especially open to everything in their environment, children receive impressions that they may not be able to receive so readily later on, for good or ill. These impressions are the essential core around which the child’s inner world will form.
We can help children distinguish between truth and lies, not with words, but by creating conditions in which they can experience reality for themselves.
The subject of ten-year-old Joe came up at one of our team meetings. We had seen Joe’s father bully him, and his mother’s inability to protect him from his father’s temper. We wondered, could we help?
“We can’t change the conditions of the children’s lives,” Peggy answered. “Even though we may want to. But we can add something else. We can show them another way. Joe will have this material also. Later, he will be able to choose.”
“The universe is not a closed system, the opportunity for choice exists in every moment,” one of Gurdjieff’s pupils, Christopher Fremantle, said.
Can we leave the children free to choose?
We did not allow the parents to enroll their children for a day of work: the children themselves had to say whether they wished to come. This seemingly small detail was actually very important. The sense of having been pressured or compelled to work would rob the day of its quality and evoke a resistance or sense of obligation that was very different in feeling from a day freely chosen. If the children had not come voluntarily, how could they act from themselves?
Naturally enough, the parents who participated in the adult work did not want to leave their younger ones with a babysitter or their teenagers home alone. They wanted to share what was precious to them with their children and it was hard for the children to refuse. Yet, if they did not want to come on a Sunday, even if that meant that they wouldn’t participate in the programs we had created for them, we encouraged the children to have the courage to resist their parents’ urging. The most important thing was to affirm the children’s right to choose freely, even though it was often hard to be faithful to this ideal and not just to pay it lip service.
However reluctant some children might be to sign up for a Sunday, almost everyone accepted an invitation to a weekend. An intimacy was possible – the children valued sharing this experience with each other and with the team. Besides, it was fun.
A banker and his wife dropped off their two daughters for a week-long period of work. They drove off for their vacation secure in the belief that the children’s week was going to be “good for the girls.” But we soon found out they had not honored our rule about letting the children decide if they wished to come. The younger girl joined into the activities happily, but 14-year-old Jennie made her opinion known – she had not wanted to come, she did not wish to take part, and she was not going to. It was too late to contact her parents.
After three days of balkiness and resistance, all the adults were tired Jennie and her attitudes. We put her on the evening wash-up because “it was good to make her face a demand” or maybe to punish her. She refused, in tears to help wash the dishes – then vanished.
Jim hurriedly drove off in search of her and found she had not gone far. She was sitting on a stone wall at the edge of the property weeping. Jim did not drive her directly back to camp, they detoured to a diner a few miles away where they could talk. After about an hour, they returned and Jennie went and joined a team. Her unhappiness had vanished. When she joined us we realized – for the first time – that she had suffered and that her suffering was no less real for being so unpalatable to us
Greatly impressed by this turn of events, we eagerly waited for the evening meeting to hear Jim’s account.
“Jennie explained that she did not want to be here,” Jim said. “You did not come of your own choice,” I told her, “You cannot change that – but now that you are here, how you want to spend the next two weeks is up to you. You can choose.” That was all I said.
Later, Peggy added: The child can be introduced to the idea of effort that he can make himself. He has a choice. Does the child want to work or not? Maybe he chooses work rather than play, or play rather than work. He sees that there is a choice. There are two things – work and not work. Interesting to see that sometimes a child who really isn’t interested in a job goes against his not being interested. Or he can see something about his laziness. But we interfere. We are sentimental. We all have the same difficulties by the way we were conditioned. We want them not to be hurt, or we become policemen, or we boss. We must struggle to be present there and give freedom of choice to see what will happen. Our chief difficulty is to look without judging. If we could hold back reactions of praise or blame we could have answers.
And our attitudes must be very positive towards the value of this work. Our conviction, our sense of importance of it is what is necessary here. All ordinary attitudes, explanations, pleading or begging is completely useless. The children will go because they sense that this is something important, and out of the ordinary.
If I love what I am doing, this will communicate to the child. We need to call them. Children are barometers of what takes place in us.
A unifying project for all the children was needed one year. We had produced a big play months earlier, and wanted to do something totally different. A steep slope connected the nursery cottage and the children’s house – we could landscape the hillside.
The shape and design of the site was left to the children. They expanded the idea to include a reflecting pool and fountain. After weeks of earnest discussion and tramping about, they agreed on an irregularly shaped basin faced with painted tiles. A sluice of natural stones from the top of the hill would channel the water. Hidden nozzles would create sprays. Clay animals would surround the pool as if they had come to drink.
All the children took part in at least one team. While the construction team excavated and built the pool, the pottery team produced the animals and tiles. Each child was supplied with a generous mound of clay to work with, as much as they wished. We had no idea what creatures would emerge, or how big they would be. Those that survived the firings ranged from a few inches long to a foot high, and included snakes, dinosaurs, birds, even a tiger.
The photography team saw the chance to make all this into a movie. With equipment and technical support from one of the adults and a palm-size frog created by one of the children as the protagonist over time, “A Frog in the Fountain” was scripted, shot, narrated, set to music and recorded by the children.
Their story: the hero frog discovers a reflecting pool in the woods. He admires the tile work, the waterfall, and the fountain and decides to live there. Returning to the workshop where he was made, he tells all the other animals about his discovery. The owl, tiger and dinosaur are intrigued. They come to life, hop off the shelves and follow him. Soon other animals join. It is a long journey with Frog leading them through the woods in series of hops over the rocks. The camera draws close to show their faces. They seem content and at home as they take their places around the rim. The music swells as the final frame appears, a beautiful sign painted by one of the children, “The End.”
The film was shown just once at a party the children held in June to celebrate the end of the school year. Production values were uncertain: the footage jumped wildly and the soundtrack was scratchy but it was the children’s own work. Our guest of honor was Madame de Salzmann, and the children jockeyed to sit next to her. She praised the film and asked to see the protagonist. One of the children brought the frog.
“I would like to take something back with me to the children in France to show your work, maybe this frog,” she said. “Will you give it to me?”
There was a moment of startled silence.
“Oh yes, oh yes,” the adults gushed inwardly, but we knew better than to answer. After all, she had asked the children.
The children seriously considered the question, and they decided she should ask the girl who made the frog, 13 years old Barbara.
Madame de Salzmann asked Barbara directly, “I would like to have your frog to take back to Paris. Will you give it to me?”
Barbara’s forehead tensed slightly. “No,” she said. “No.”
The children respected Barbara’s right to choose and not be pressured.
Madame de Salzmann, smiling, did not seem the least displeased, but the adult team suffered in humiliation. How could Barbara say no? Didn’t she realize she made us look bad?
Although the adults remembered with dismay that we refused to part with a little clay frog, one of the children remembered it another way:
It was after lunch when Madame came down to the lower shed to see “The Frog in the Fountain.” Even though we had tested the projector carefully and the film had been racked up and was ready to roll, as soon as we started the screening, the projector choked and died! It took endless fussing for the film team before the projector finally sputtered and ran.
I remember such a strong feeling of injustice when Madame asked for the gift of the little clay frog. My heart had a terrible pang. Why was she taking away our mascot? Barbara said no, she didn’t want the frog to go.
Then Madame laughed and told us to choose a souvenir for her. We offered her one of our good tiles instead which she happily accepted. It took me almost thirty years to realize that Madame did not have a personal interest in our little frog. She was pleased to see that we valued our work and had the courage to say no to her.
She wanted to know if we would part with something that had absolutely no intrinsic value but was something we valued. The seed was planted in us: what were we willing to give up, and for what purpose? Decide for ourselves.
We needed to be given choices – to be allowed to choose. If the adults made all the choices, we would always depend upon their opinions, always buckling under.
But I need to trust myself.
Jim Nott remembers Madame de Salzmann meeting with several of the team members in 1960 in New York:
At one point I asked, “What is the most important part of our working with children?”
“Try to discover what they want,” Madame de Salzmann said.
I wasn’t able to grasp the sense of what she said, and told her so.
A few years later during a conversation with her in Paris, I told her I had begun to understand what she had meant. “When I was a boy and an adolescent, I never really knew what I wanted to do in life. I did what I thought I had to do.”
“You see, that is where laziness is born,” she replied. “If a young child cannot find in himself what he wishes, what he wants, it is very difficult for his individuality to grow. It is not easy for a man to discover what he really wishes.”
I spoke of some of my impressions when I was at school in England, and I told her about one friend in particular, an intelligent and sensitive boy named Tom, who like me, was a member of the rowing crew. Years after we left school, I met him accidentally in the street in London and found myself talking to a perfectly turned-out British officer in his immaculate camel hair coat who spoke with a rather clipped army drawl. Who is this, I asked to myself, where is the Tom I knew? I looked into his eyes searching for the young Tom, but I couldn’t penetrate the veil of his bland and unresponsive expression. Where had he hidden himself – who was there now, speaking in his name? We went through the motions of “how are you, where have you been,” but Tom did not show up in that conversation.
I recounted how as a child, I tried to relate to my uncle and aunt and other adults, to ‘who’ was there, behind their words and gestures. Their inability to be simple and direct – their lies were so clear to me then. This impulse to find and feel the true identity of a person, to sense who he is, is still strong in me.
Madame de Salzmann agreed that it was harder – much harder – for an adult to discover what they really wished.
To give children real choices and support their decision took effort for the team, especially if we felt their choice was a “mistake.” By “protecting” children from making mistakes, adults weaken their capacity for choice. Blunting the consequences of their actions keeps them from discovering how the world really works and how they will one day be able to navigate it. To encourage children to act on what they thought was right, and to support them in facing the consequences, is what we tried.
Sometimes the team found an inner resistance to leaving decisions to the children. Our reactions happen so fast, it was important to be ready. To watch, to see, to restrain the impulse to immediately “fix” what we saw, is very difficult. When faced with something we do not like in ourselves, it is much easier to “do something” as quickly as possible than to stand in front of the truth. Yet only that moment counts in which I allow myself to be seen. Sometimes, when I maintain that objective look a moment longer, a transformation occurs and I no longer feel alone in my struggle but part of something larger.
Doug, then a teenager, remembers:
One time the team told us we could pick any job that we thought needed doing and do it ourselves. I determined to at least go through the motions and try, instead of running away as I would have at home. In the workshop, I had always felt irritated in trying to find a particular-sized screw, nut or bolt, as they were all dumped together in a few glass bottles. I decided to organize the hardware.
Categorizing bolts and nails, I got so bogged down that I ended up with 30 different piles all from one bottle. When clean-up was announced, I hadn’t prepared any little containers, so I had to put all that hardware back into the same bottle, and thus accomplished nothing! I had to admit I had been completely blind as to how to get the results I wanted. Now, in later life, even though I may think I know the best way to accomplish a task, I feel impelled to at least try different approaches.
Martin Benson once told the children:
“If a man has an aim life stands aside and lets him pass.”
At the close of one season of the Children’s Work, Jeanne de Salzmann met with a group of parents.
Towards the end, a father abruptly asked, “What are we trying to do?”
This sudden challenge annoyed the team. That very question had been discussed all evening.
But Madame de Salzmann patiently clarified: “Try to discover what the children wish. Encourage them to think for themselves, and not to be afraid.”
Money is the blood of society, Gurdjieff tells us, and one of life’s driving forces. Neither good nor evil in itself, the power of money permeates our relationships, openly and in myriad guises. This makes it an essential subject in our study of ourselves in order to see the subterranean layers of belief, imagination, dreams and fantasy that give money power over us.
Madame de Salzmann told us this story. One day, when her young son Michel wanted money to buy some treat, Gurdjieff heard the request and said, “Michel, you can keep anything I give you as long as you can add it up.”
Michel was eager for the challenge.
“Put out your hand,” Gurdjieff said, and he began slowly laying money in the boy’s open palm. First, there were small coins, one franc, two francs.
Michel added them up and happily sang out the total.
Then Gurdjieff increased the pace. He added five, ten, twenty franc notes while the boy struggled to keep the addition going. Michel knew that as long as he kept his attention he could continue to count. But as the pace of the cascading money quickened, fear of losing it distracted him. Faster and faster the notes came, overwhelming his resolve, until he finally lost count. The game ended with what he had been able to tally. But he kept for a lifetime the impression of that struggle within him of greed and fear – and something else that was able to observe the battle.
Imposing specific behaviors on a child can usually produce desired results through repeated conditioning, but this creates an adult with automatic morality, not an individual conscience. Gurdjieff writes,
“You know that I always have candy in my pockets, and when I see a child, I’m giving him one. There’s always someone around the child, his father, his mother, his aunt. They all, without exception, say the same thing to the child: ‘What are you supposed to say now?’ And little by little, the child starts to mechanically say ‘thank you’ to everybody, without feeling anything anymore. This is not only idiotic, it is a crime! When a child feels like saying ‘thank you,’ I understand. I know his language. And this is what I love. Just to hear this, just to witness this true impulse, I give away five kilos of candy every day – which I’m paying 410 francs per kilogram. Only to see this impulse. … But when children are told ‘what are you supposed to say now?,’ it kills everything. It kills the child for the future, it kills his willingness. … Everything is mechanical, we make the children function like robots.” (Autres Paroles, p. 88-93)
When Gurdjieff sailed to Paris on an ocean liner in 1933 with some of his students, eight-year-old Michel made his way to the shipboard casino. Trying his luck at roulette with twenty-five cents, he suddenly found his change doubling and redoubling as an amused semi-circle of adults cheered him on.
By the time his mother found him, he had amassed $280 U.S. dollars, a substantial sum in those days. Madame de Salzmann, did not want to seem unfair by simply taking the money away from him, yet she did not want to leave him with the impression that something could be had without effort, that it is not always necessary to pay for what one receives.
She asked Gurdjieff for advice. He sent for Michel.
Gurdjieff truthfully explained the group’s precarious finances to the boy and that as soon as they landed he had to meet pressing bills. “How much do you need?,” Michel asked. Gurdjieff named a figure – it was exactly the sum Michel had won.
After a few moments of reflection, the boy reported that he had that much money himself and would be very happy to lend it to Mr. Gurdjieff. Any moralizing about gambling would have made him feel guilty and small. Instead, his unexpected windfall enabled him to help the group in an adult way, to be a man. He had been given the opportunity to choose.
“Everything must come from the child,” Madame de Salzmann urged, a most important principle which meant, among other things, that children should always be offered a choice. Seemingly risky in the short run, proposing choices accomplished a great deal on a deeper level. In practice, however, giving children choice demanded much more from the adults. We needed to understand why choice was important, and then remember to offer it and live with the results.
When the subject of money came up, the children were honest. They were fascinated by it and admitted it. It was real, and despite what adults said, they knew it had a powerful hold on everyone. They had only to ask their parents for some to experience first-hand that this was stuff that mattered. The team hoped to offer a modest corrective to the idea that children should be shielded from money as if it were something beyond their grasp. By creating special conditions that enabled children to study their relationship to money, we hoped they would discover how they could control this potent force, how to be free enough to use it without undue fear or awe of its power.
We kept to the tradition of raising money though the sale of crafts we made, though occasionally we added “White Elephant” tables with donated items such as dishes, toys, appliances and various odds and ends. The children were always eager to work at fund-raising activities, as they wanted access to one of those big forces that shaped adult life. We gave them an opportunity to earn money which added another level of interest to what they were otherwise quite content to do just for the love of the activity itself, and they were perfectly willing to work as hard as necessary to make it. It was a way of gauging their efforts in the world, and this challenged them.
At the sales, they could make first-hand observations: people varied. Some wanted bargains. Others just wanted attention or the friendliness of the young cashiers, and they’d buy almost any old thing just to keep the contact going.
The children were allowed to buy things too, but at one sale we proposed a condition: buy only what remains unsold at the end of the day. This task was accepted by the children but soon ignored – they engaged in a brisk clandestine trade of bargains from their various tables for the boxed games priced at one dollar, the working toys, the more interesting junk. They reported later that a kind of fever had gripped them, particularly the younger ones, and they simply could not allow someone else to buy and take away toys they coveted. They were able to glimpse what controlled them in that moment – and how a little bit of stuff could become their master. They discovered greed.
Whenever we proposed a task, the adults were bound to try it as well.
At this sale the adults decided to take a corresponding task; to contribute one thing to the sale we really valued and to be aware of our inner experience. It was as productive for us as for the children.
Rather than rejecting what is considered “bad,” Gurdjieff’s methods include using our contradictory traits to see our different sides as they are, for instance our generosity along with our greed from a perspective that includes both. We have a capacity to be neutral, to be objective, to witness. This could lead to a contact with our deeply buried conscience – and perhaps an eventual freedom from some of the myriad features of our inner slavery.
Our long summer camping trips were particularly useful for the children to learn about dealing with money and for the adults to practice abiding by the consequences. Every few days, one child was designated treasurer and given all the trip funds to administer. The treasurer had to safeguard the monies and dole them out.
As a point of honor, the adults also handed in their personal money. We had to ask the treasurer his or her permission to draw on our account to make our personal purchases – if we could make a convincing case for the need. This balanced the disparity between child and adult and reminded us how much we grown-ups relished control – being able to spend money as we wished, even for small things. The banal recurring events of everyday life provided opportunities for both adults and children to learn about themselves – from money.
We didn’t travel on credit. Treasurers experienced first hand the price of necessaries such as food and gasoline and unexpected costs such as vehicle repairs, cold drinks and the occasional need to distribute ice cream, that threatened to swamp their careful budgets. To keep a daily total of all expenses was one of the greatest challenges for the treasurer. Rounded numbers were not accepted – all receipts had to match to the penny. If the young treasurer was having too hard a time, he or she was given an older assistant. If the treasurer was having too easy a time, we might still offer an assistant, as this “help” often produced a crisis that offered many insights. It was not unusual to see the treasurer sitting on a fallen log, surrounded by ribbons of supermarket receipts, adding and re-adding columns of figures. Control of the purse was too great a power to relinquish willingly so the children struggled to produce a daily balance down to the last penny, sometimes only late at night.
Carson, then age 13, remembers being treasurer:
I found an empty cardboard shoe box for all the trip cash. My friends, former treasurers, argued with my choice. “Don’t use a box, it’s too big,” they urged. “Use a wallet, get a bag with a zipper, get something you can fit in your pocket, strap a pouch around your waist.” The suggestions went on, but I refused to be persuaded. I liked the shoe box. There was plenty of room for the money and also the receipts, a small notebook, pencils and the change I needed as part of my job.
We made a rare stop at a motel. In the morning, our departure for some exciting day trip was announced, and the rooms were emptied almost instantaneously as everyone scrambled for their place in the cars. Several hours later I remembered the shoe box. I didn’t have it. I thought I had left it on the bed. All the trip money was in the box.
Our car raced back to the motel. By the time the rest of the caravan had joined us I was desperate. I had turned my room upside down and now got all the others to help me tear their rooms apart in the hope that I might have carelessly put the box of money somewhere else. The hotel staff was tactfully queried, but no one had found it. That night, at our general meeting, I had to give my account of leaving the shoe box and my unsuccessful attempt to find it. There was a lot of drama. How was the money to be replaced? Could the trip go on? Many opinions were given.
At last Harry spoke. He had been the last to leave the hotel and had checked all our doors to see if they were locked. Finding mine still open, he went in and took the abandoned shoe box under his protection. He now produced it, contents intact.
“But what about the treasurer?” Peggy asked. “Do you want the treasurer to continue, or is it time to choose someone else? You must decided together and then tell us.” She got up and left the room, trailed by the other adults, and me.
It didn’t take long, although it seemed like an eternity. I guess the kids felt I had suffered enough. They let me keep the job.
I loved those trips. And being treasurer – losing the money – I’ll never forget that. Every mistake was precious, provided I faced it.
Our exercises with money allowed for the gradual development of the children’s own judgment, and taught them to have the courage of their convictions. If encouraged in childhood, the impulse of acting from one’s own belief and facing the consequences can lead to a truly independent and inwardly-free adult. We observed this effect many times through the years.
In New York one summer, just before school started, the teenagers were invited to spend a weekend with Peggy. One of them remembers:
Our destination was announced that morning as a modest beach resort on the eastern tip of Long Island – Montauk. We were four boys, three girls. Peggy drove. For three-hours we watched as dense city buildings gave way to one-story houses, and eventually we caught glimpses of sea inlets, stretches of sand, and finally the ocean. It was off-season and we arrived at a motel managed by one of Peggy’s friends. It was virtually empty; we would stay there.
After sandwiches and a meeting, Peggy suggested that we try an experiment in self-sufficiency. “What if everybody gave all their money to the treasurer, and then, each one alone, found a way to provide the means to eat tonight?” she asked.
This suggestion was greeted with silence as we thought over what that could mean.
“And if we don’t come up with anything, we’ll just do without supper,” Peggy added.
We were surprised, but we all agreed. We gave our money to the treasurer and filed out the door.
I must have been fourteen years old. I had absolutely no idea of what to do or where to go. But I knew the country a little. I had seen roses growing along the highway so I headed for the beach to pick rosehips, berries that could be made into a lot of things – or at least boiled for tea. I was sort of pleased to have thought of that and I filled my jacket with berries. But rosehip tea is sour without a sweetener. I began to think that maybe this was not what Peggy had in mind. In a way, it was too easy. Maybe what was needed was for me to go into town and earn some money for food.
When I got back to the motel, only my friend Biddy was still there. I was afraid to go into town, which was miles away and there was no bus. But the alternative was to sit in the motel and do nothing. I didn’t want to fail at the task. I have never felt such an inner struggle. Then Biddy said she would go with me.
When we got to town, we parted. I noticed a “Help Wanted” sign in a hotel and walked in. I was hired on the spot as a maid. I made beds and washed bathrooms, working really hard, trying to do it well. When the shift ended, I had to figure out how to get paid immediately, and I didn’t want to lie. So I said that I did not have a cent, which was definitely true, and asked the hotel manager if he could pay me now so I could get dinner. He kindly gave me my wages in cash.
We gathered back at the motel, pooled what we had earned, bought groceries and had a huge dinner. After that weekend I knew deep down that I could really count on myself to face any challenge.
I never felt like a helpless, dependent kid again.
In our work together, the children verified the validity of Mr. Gurdjieff’s principles and were often able to make difficult choices with discernment far beyond their years. When they also made mistakes, as they inevitably did, the principle of facing the consequences of their actions fueled a powerful inner growth, the foundation, we hoped, of courage, conscience and will.
Gurdjieff’s trips with his pupils – across the Caucasus, in the French countryside, or to America – created special conditions for their work. We continued this tradition with the children on trips that lasted from three days to a month during school holidays. We went camping and visited Indian reservations and ancient monuments – excursions that would offer intensified impressions and unexpected events.
We caravanned by car. Every day a different child navigator was appointed for each vehicle, and he or she was responsible for plotting a route to our destination and then directing the adult driver. Armed with road maps and pencils, the young navigators looked forward to their turn at the helm and would have lengthy meetings each night to plan the next day’s course, starting with a general rendezvous point for lunch several hundred miles away. Map-reading tips were exchanged, skills shared. The adult drivers were not to make any turn-offs, unless told to do so by the navigators, nor choose when to stop. No “back-seat” navigating was allowed. The drivers varied in their commitment to this arrangement, but those who tried faithfully to follow orders often found themselves lost – usually within the hour.
Were we going to be travelers or tourists?
Travelers conform to ways of life different from their own, tourists stubbornly insist on being as they have always been. The children agreed we would not intrude on native people but try to blend in with the surroundings.
As always, we had themes:
- We will take a trip together. Only the strong can go on the trip, but strong by doing what I don’t like. Can I try?
- Laziness: Will I be a traveler or part of the baggage that other people have to carry? Can I try?
The caravan became a mobile community in which everyone had an important part to play. A trip budget was established based on the anticipated cost of gas, car repairs (the vehicles had a tendency to overhead and break down), food, and sundry expenses. The total was divided among the number of voyagers and each paid their share, but no one was excluded who could not afford to pay. Any deficit was absorbed from a small reserve fund to which we also contributed.
The slowest vehicle was always put first so it would not be left behind. Each car was responsible for the car behind it, and a scout, the “Eye”, was assigned to make sure the next in line did not disappear. This job was always performed meticulously, as if the children had a greater commitment to keeping the trip together than the adult drivers who often couldn’t bear the slow pace and wanted to “make time” by speeding past the lead car. There were many anguished conversations about this at night among the children and adults. The drivers seemed to hold a deeply-rooted belief that faster is better, but to the children staying together meant the most.
From the children’s log:
The caravan had difficulty keeping together. Ben’s van continuously sped way ahead, followed by Jerry’s car frantically trying not to lose sight of it. Then the others meandered along, with Bob’s Volkswagen usually at the tail. On a few frenzied but amusing occasions, Jerry would halt to see if the rest were having difficulties – after everyone in the car except the Scout, the “Eye” had noticed that the others were nowhere in sight. Eventually Jerry would end up speeding ahead to catch up with Ben. Yet even with all the occupants of Jerry’s car screaming, shouting, and waving out the windows, the van would continue ignorantly and contentedly on, until one of its passengers happened to point out to the “eye” the phenomenon out the rear window. A communication system was finally arrived at – if gas was needed, the driver would flash his headlights. If there was an emergency, he would keep them on steady.
For the children the emotional focus was what went on in the cars. Their relationships with each other and with the adults produced more powerful impressions than the sight of mountains, deserts or exotic locales. In turn we tried to demonstrate a way “to see myself as I am and accept what I see.” Events are essentially neutral - this was not to say that difficulties do not exist or are only imaginary, but that our attitude towards them largely determines our experience. The children hoped that in their moments of difficulty we would be wiser than they were, showing them how to turn the tables on their suffering and point the way out. To try one’s best, no matter what the outcome: we demonstrated this was possible in all the circumstances of travel.
Peggy was concerned that our trips would be too easy, that they would lack the element of hardship and challenge that gave them point. So the team spent many meeting planning difficulties that could be introduced if things went too smoothly. Driving all night instead of camping, for instance, or switching jobs so that everyone would face something new - the girls pitching the tents, the boys cooking the meals. Though we left well prepared with “hardships,” they were hardly ever needed – the road, our collection of vehicles, the weather, and life itself always provided the necessary challenges.
The cars were dependable sources of difficulties: once the muffler come off the Buick, so Bill, with three boys, Jon, Hank, and Evan spent lunchtime under the car. Another time the children met and decided to change jobs, so they all rotated to the next one. The kitchen team felt a little cheated that they didn’t get to serve the stew they prepared, but felt it was an interesting reaction considering they had decided to try to make things run smoothly without being noticed.
Surprise is useful for making a moment vivid for the children – a major ally against the subtle dullness that surrounds activities that are pre-discussed, pre-imagined, pre-lived. To use surprise for maximum effect, we prepared our trips without announcing the destination. The element of the unknown made it livelier for the children.
“Where are we going?”
“We’ll get our maps in the morning when we leave.”
Similarly, only the chief cook had to know the menu in advance.
Surprise spared the children some of the fear of new situations. Many of them, as well as some adults, worried needlessly about how they would face future events. Since a situation can be faced only in the present moment, anticipation is only a tiresome fighting with shadows.
Presented with a challenge in the moment not only spared the children anxiety, it fostered their ability to handle anything unexpected on the spot – a blown fuse, a flat tire, a torn tent or a torn ligament. The team’s willingness to face difficulty with interest, good humor and a sense of opportunity gave the children a model of how to meet the unexpected. And the children loved the spirit of it and adopted it as their own.
There were as many responsibilities as there were children – besides navigators and scouts there were scribes, treasurers, auto mechanics, lookouts, fire starters, shoppers, heads of clean-up, tent riggers, car stewards. The team was constantly trying to be inventive and match responsibilities to the ability of the child, and to change their jobs daily. Chief cook was reserved for an older child, 14 to 16 years old, who, with her assistants, was expected to produce three meals a day and multiple snacks out of the coolers, paper bags and plastic sacks that occupied every spare niche of the cars. Maintaining the spirit of the cooking team was also the chief cook’s responsibility.
One child in each car wrote the day’s log, and a trip scribe collected the logs and wove them into a narrative that was read aloud every few nights – always an exciting event. We caught glimpses of ourselves seen through the observant, unsentimental eyes of the children, and often we rocked with laughter.
From a 1970 journal of a ten-day trip:
That day, several comic incidents occurred. Each time we stopped for fuel, the gas station attendants appeared to be very confused by the kids ordering the gas and such while the adults milled around talking. … At one point, Bill’s navigator, Kevin, steered him into an exact-change lane without having the exact change. The toll collector thought Bill to be stupid and illiterate.
How do you rouse the camp to action at five in the morning when we went to sleep at two? The fire-starters were always up an hour earlier to find dry wood and coax a flame from it. Many of the children had been city-bound so their fascination with fires was enough to overcome the desire to sleep. Next the cooks would emerge and rattle the pots – and after a time, oatmeal and coffee would appear.
American Indian tribes traditionally had a Whip, an individual who swung a long rawhide thong to help break camp fast; the survival of the tribe might depend on him. Our version of the Whip would circulate through the patchwork of tents urging the occupants to dress, get out, strike the tents, and make sure the ground was swept bare.
No matter how the Whip tried, there were always dawdlers. If we planned to leave at six o’clock, the appointed time would find only a few cars packed and a lot of gear still littering the campsite. Peggy would have her station wagon loaded by then, filled with her day’s crew. She would start her motor as a signal, and anyone who was ready would run to their vehicles. No one wanted to be left behind, but long before the last car was even packed she would drive off, leaving the others to follow as best as – and as fast as – they could.
Gradually we recognized that inertia always seemed make us linger. The only way to break camp was simply to get ready and leave. This seemed at odds with the general principle – instead of waiting for the caravan, whoever led in the morning had to be free enough to drive away and not look back to see if the rest of us were following. Follow we did, and amazingly all the vehicles would soon reconvene on the highway. Does this undertow exist in everything – that pull to stay with what is already past, a reluctance to break clean and move on?
Once an exercise was proposed: depart quietly without leaving a trace. No garbage, no clothes, no lost gear on the ground. Carry the cooking stones back where we found them, “leave only footprints.”
One of the campers, then a teenager, remembers:
We are on the road somewhere out West, and Peggy decides to hold a party. We will prepare food and entertainment. Peggy explains she will give all of us a special task to fulfill over the course of the evening. We will each be given an adjective, secretly, and each of us will have to act “in the manner” of that adjective during the party. We may not tell each other our adjectives, but there will be a time of guessing at the end. Peggy gives me my word: “disagreeable.” I must be disagreeable all evening.
I remember feeling quite pleased, rather smug, at the time. The fact that she has asked me to “act disagreeably” must have meant that normally I am quite agreeable. I remained pleased about that adjective for years. It is only recently that I begin to understand the lesson of that word and its ramifications in my everyday life. Twenty-odd years later and those lessons are still being worked on.
Despite the chaos, delays, false starts and occasional hardship, there were moments of genuine magic on the trips that made the children sign up for them whenever they were offered.
Recorded in the trip log:
We get up about two hours before the sunrise and leave camp. Our cars travel to the flat top of the mesa where the Hopi village lies in the darkness. I remember sitting in a group on the flat top of adobe roofs peering into the darkness without being sure of exactly what I was waiting for.
We sit half asleep as the sun slowly rises and touches our faces with orange light. I become aware of a certain focusing of attention around me towards a point far off in the distance something is slowly approaching the village plaza.
Indian adults and children gather watching as a group of men? gods? enter the village in single file. They stand in a line, masked and covered with pine branches, and then they begin to stamp their feet and sing … is it men singing?
The earth seems to be speaking as the strange deep, monotonous chanting rises up around us. It hypnotizes me, and my tired, restless shifting ceases. It is normally very hard for me to remain motionless for long periods of time, but now I remain still, without effort. Mesmerized. I am totally unprepared, knowing next to nothing about the “meaning” or the context of what I am seeing … but somehow I understand. After the day-long ceremony, we all leave silently and return to our campsite, all of us understanding without words.
Another child’s log entry:
We were going to see the Corn dance at a Hopi pueblo. We had decided to blend as inconspicuously at possible with the Indians who were going to watch the ceremony, and to take it as a task to do as little fidgeting as possible, and not getting up and down and asking for things. In other words, not to make spectacles of ourselves.
I remember trying to sit very very still as the day got hotter and hotter. It was August; it hadn’t rained for months, and the crops were dry. The sun was actually unbearable, baking down on us without a cloud in the sky.
The dancing was very monotonous. They were drumming and chanting and stamping their feet, doing things with corn silk corn maidens, kachinas heavily costumed with masks and big headdresses. It was like watching something from another planet.
I was trying to understand the significance of the corn dance. We had no program, no point of reference, nobody explained anything. It went on hour after hour.
I hated sitting there in that heat and listening to the monotonous music and not being able to talk, move around, eat or drink anything. But we were determined not to ask anyone for anything as long as the dancers kept going.
About four o’clock it suddenly got dark as clouds gathered in the sky; unbelievably it began to rain. Then five or six of the sacred clowns ran out and began to cavort among the dancers. They brought out a watermelon and broke it with a blow, and then distributed jagged pieces to everyone in the crowd, all the dancers and even to us.
We sat there in the rain eating watermelon and fried bread that they shared with us, it tasted like the best thing I had ever eaten.
It seemed to me they were celebrating having called the rain which was essential to the crops they depend on. This was what they were dancing for. The day grew much cooler and there was a tremendous relief as if everything that was needed had been accomplished. As the mesa emptied, none of the Indians said a word to any of us, and we were left to ponder the meaning of what we had seen.
Another child wrote:
We had never seen gods before.
We could have tried explained the meaning of the dances and struggled not to. New impressions are hard to come by. Surprise helps.
A log entry:
After the dances we spoke about how alien our cars felt as they zoomed across the highway and how much sped-up their rhythm was. Yet once we got into our cars we too sped-up, forgetting the taste of a slower tempo from before. The Indians, we thought, were much more in tune with that slower tempo, which is perhaps more natural for human life.
For two-weeks our teenagers backpacked a portion of the Long Trail along the Appalachian Ridge in the mountains of Vermont. Chris was out of sorts and out of shape. He was always the last one to pack his gear – his clothes and pieces from his mess kit were strewn around camp. He made his rebellion visible. He was especially skilled at the delaying tactics that irritated everyone. He tells his story:
We were hiking on the long trail and I was having a hard time. I was 13 and mostly miserable. I hated my school, I hated my life, my backpack was too big for me, and too heavy. I was in terrible shape, both physically and mentally, and my unhappiness at climbing a seemingly endless incline was not surprising.
I wasn’t subtle about my displeasure either. I complained a lot. And probably loudly. Of course, I didn’t really know I was doing that. All I knew was that I was trapped on this Godawful trip with a lot of people older and stronger than me, and my legs hurt and I was tired, and why can’t we just stop already? What was I doing there?
Our group was lagging behind, partially because we had waited at our first rest for a long time and partially because of me. I was the proverbial slowpoke holding up the rear. So much so that the team behind us had passed us mid-way on the day’s trek, and we only caught up with them because they had decided to stop for lunch.
Climb. Suffer. Complain. My back hurt. My shoulders hurt. My legs.
It was right about the time I thought I was truly going to collapse that we ran into Harry’s team. As we approached them we were assaulted with what is usually called good-natured ribbing about how slow we were. What was the problem?
They all pointed their thumbs at the slow poke. Harry was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “Why don’t you put him in front?”
This made absolutely no sense to me, but as he said it, I felt a kind of chill, like someone had shot some cold water up my spine. Bob, our team leader, immediately agreed and put me in front – to my companions’ clear dismay.
Suddenly, I was filled with energy. I mean, literally, my limbs no longer hurt, I wasn’t winded, none of the fatigue and strain I’d been feeling before. I ran up the mountain. I mean, I flew. I felt like Flash. I was going so fast that the rest of the team had to work to keep up with me.
I think when Harry challenged my team leader to put me in front, he was changing roles on me. I knew the role of the complainer, the chubby kid, the scapegoat. I hated it, but I lived it. When he put me in the role of leader, it freed me from all that. I think it was the trust he had in me. Instead of assuming that I was my pose, he challenged me to recreate myself.
And sometimes when I remember, I still do it.
We believe the resistance of the child too easily. We commit them to their own weaknesses and make their prison for them. The child’s personality is for him, not final. He can recognize that something other than his usual reactions is possible.
We must not give their resistance a wrong importance since wish and resistance are always both there. If we give their resistance too much weight we are closing the bars of their prison around them.
When we suggest to a child that he has a certain quality or weakness and then reinforce the suggestion quite unconsciously many times, children will believe the suggestion, and put “I” to it, believing that it is themselves.
What were we to do with Ronnie, just 17, who wouldn’t participate in anything? Without our noticing he had gotten too old for the Children’s Work. But here he was. He spent the morning goofing around, unwilling to join a team, pulling other boys along with him. Jim watched Ronnie but said nothing. Then, at the coffee break, Jim proposed that Ronnie drive the car that shuttled people between the Children’s House and other destinations.
At that night’s team meeting another of the adults, Ruben, complained: “Ronnie is very clever. He is continually fooling the adults. Why reward bad behavior by letting him drive?”
Jim replied that it was not intended to be a prize but a demand to try to find the real Ronnie, “I do not believe that Ronnie was as he appears there are many other qualities that might appear when the ordinary Ronnie was put in a responsible position. Perhaps he would fail, perhaps not, but in any case we have given him the opportunity to know himself better.”
An in fact, Ronnie took this responsibility eagerly, driving the narrow country roads with great care.
At nightfall in camp one of the teenage boys found me. Though handsome and intelligent, he lacked confidence and was constantly joking to cover it. He waited until we were alone and spoke with unusual feeling.
“I want to be a leader,” he said, “and I’m finally willing to do just about anything it takes. Tell me what to do.”
Words like “responsible,” “trustworthy,” and “dependable” sounded in my head – lots of words. I knew that if I said them aloud they would bounce off him without leaving a trace. I turned instead to the thing I knew I could trust, directing my attention towards my body. It is easier to do than to explain. I could feel the tension in my face relax, and my knees unlock. Tension eased from my shoulders. I even sensed that my feet were standing on the ground. Waiting for something more intuitive to appear was critical, as was a willingness to bear the discomfort of not having a ready-made answer.
What is a leader? I never faced that question before, and the reality was that I really didn’t know. I pictured our fire starters rising before dawn so the cooks would be able to prepare breakfast; or plunging without hesitation elbow deep into cold greasy dish tubs to scrub the pots clean; or driving the cars to refuel them while the rest of us had a break; or being willing to keep silent and wait and let another one speak.
“I don’t know about being a leader,” I finally offered, “but if you want to lead, do what no one else wants to do.”
In the weeks that followed, I saw him experimenting with the idea, trying it out. It changed something in him and in his relationships.
Years later people took him seriously, he was able to lead, and his humor evolved into a valuable light touch.
Road trips also had a component of boredom. There were long stretches when there was nothing much to do, and other stretches when all we could do was wait – wait for the fire to catch, wait for other cars to catch up, wait for the Indian ceremonies to start, wait for the sun to rise. Where did I go inside myself? What is boredom? So much of our automatic nature could be observed while waiting.
But for the children we prepared a store of activities, for those times of waiting, and were ready with squares for making a quilt, studying sign language, making lists of plants, improvising songs.
Driving in caravan from New York City, we had tried to reach Cleveland by sundown, but we were running late and decided to camp overnight by the side of the road and start early the next morning. Luckily, a farmer gave us permission to use his field, and even provided us with water. Ellen, fifteen, was new to the caravan. Her parents were recently divorced and she wasn’t happy about it. Ellen tended to argue with anything she was asked to do.
Ellen, Kate and I were to make dinner. While we were setting up our kitchen in the last of the day’s light, Ellen watched a horse grazing on a nearby rise and bragged that she had a horse at home in New Jersey and could ride anytime she liked. Bits of her story drifted towards me as I organized groceries. Instead of helping me, she was distracting Kate. When they disappeared; I was almost relieved.
Twenty minutes later Peggy appeared at my side and whispered, “Ellen is hurt – I’m going to the hospital with her. Harry will drive us. Serve the food when it’s ready, don’t wait.” And she was gone.
The news gradually spread that Ellen, disobeying strict instructions to leave the farmer’s horse alone, had climbed the fence to ride it bareback. They were cantering when the horse stumbled and Ellen fell. Her cries brought Kate who had been watching the forbidden ride, and in a few moments, Peggy and Harry had Ellen in the car, heading for the local hospital.
The meal was a subdued affair.
By midnight, dinner eaten and dishes scoured, the camp was quiet. I was deeply asleep in one of the tents when a flashlight shone briefly on my face. Peggy was kneeling next to me and I remembered my relief at seeing her back in camp. She whispered, “Ellen’s leg has multiple fractures; she is in a lot of pain and probably won’t sleep much. Will you go to the hospital and spend the night with her?”
I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and Harry drove me to the hospital and left me there. When I entered her room Ellen opened her eyes. She seemed glad to see me. So I sat in a big chair next to her bed, and we chatted until she fell asleep; then I leaned back and closed my eyes. At four in the morning I heard my name whispered. Ellen was awake and wanted to talk. Her leg was hurting a lot, and she rang for the nurse to bring pain medication.
Most of all, Ellen wanted to tell me her dream:
I dreamed I saw God writing the history of all peoples and that his medium, his ink, was human suffering. When the pain in my ankle was most intense, I dreamed that as he was writing I became the point, the nib of his pen. When my pain receded, God moved on and someone else became his writing instrument.
Ellen flew home a few days later, and we continued on our journey. And I had a new question: when night was falling and dinner was needed I had prepared a hot meal for everyone. Was that my task? Maybe I needed to see that my real work was to engage two girls who were supposed to help me but had run off. Which was more important? What should I have done?
To act consciously requires some measure of attention free of my usual concerns, not caught in my repetitive thoughts and feelings – an attention that includes myself and the child, an attention I have to work for.
“The present moment exists to prepare the future, and repair the past” G.I.G.
“How can I get my children to obey me?” a parent asked Madame de Salzmann. We leaned closer; everyone on the team had their own war stories, their own questions. If our role was to awaken the children’s own wish so that they could act from their own initiative rather than from conditioning or coercion, then what to do when the initiative isn’t there?
If the lunch dishes were congealing in the sink and crusted pots and pans were piled on the drain-board and no child was in sight; if the tools had been left scattered around the workshop and it was already time to leave – the sound of running motors outside indicating that parents had arrived to pick up the children for the trip home – what then? Who could be found to carry the garbage to the collection bin? Was it right for the adult team to clean up after the children? Discipline only made sense for us in relation to a higher goal, but how…?
“Never use force,” Madame de Salzmann said softly. “You must talk to the child until he understands why he should do as you ask.”
One of us objected that sometimes talking did no good. But Madame de Salzmann was firm. “You must explain your reasons. It is up to you to help the child to understand … never ‘because I say so.’”
A father reported: “All my relationships with my children seem to be weighted down with a very heavy sense of duty. That I “ought” to be this way or that with them, and that they “ought” to be a certain way. This heavy duty leaves no room for anything else, anything more alive in me”. Jim Nott answered: “What in me does this comes from? Isn’t it a tension? Tension because something is lacking. Because I feel this lack, I go to the last resort, I command. Something closes in me and I lose sight of the children. I’m afraid of the situation, it’s not the way I want it to be, so I get more tense.”
Peggy: You must try to remember: How was I as a child? . This feeling of duty will color everything you do because you are unconscious. You act from an image you have of your children and you want them to conform to it. What is this image?
What sort of authority is required? What is our role?
“It’s better not to forbid things to a child, because these things go in through one ear and go out through the other. You must, before anything else, bring up in him the impulse that would help him act this way or the other.” (Autres paroles, p. 88-93)
Teenagers sometimes helped out in the nursery for little children. One girl remembers:
I faced an angry little boy sniveling, fighting, crying, dirty and refusing to wash up, and it was almost time to go home. Was there any way to get him into the bathroom without physically dragging him to the sink? I said to him very softly in a confidential voice, “You know faucets can cry – it is true, they want to be used and when you don’t turn them on they cry after we leave.”
He stopped crying and looked at me. Then he turned the faucet on and let the water run.
Then I said, “The soap has feeling, too, and if you don’t use it, it will be so sad.” He took the soap and washed his hands and face. It was not about forcing him. He had a chance to do someone a favor.
Forcing children to do our bidding, a kind of bullying, is always “for their own good”. But when the adult desire for control is restrained and tempered by a new understanding, children learn to control their own aggressive impulses.
An exchange in Gurdjieff's apartment in Paris in 1943:
Mrs. D.: I would also like to ask you for a specific advice. My little boy is trying to affirm himself more and more. He always says no, and opposes everything. To make him give in, I have two solutions. I can talk to him for a very long time and try to reason with him – but this is not always possible. Or distract him, give him a toy or something, which is very easy to do - but this doesn't seem OK to me.
Gurdjieff: The second solution is bad, the first one is good: talk to him using analogies. Children like them very much.
Mrs. D.: But it is very difficult.
Gurdjieff: But for him it is easy. For you it may be difficult, but for a child it is very easy to understand a good explanation. It is difficult for you to explain to him because you are wrongly educated. You were brought up not to be a schoolmaster, but to knit socks. And yet, here you are a schoolmaster … and me, I have holes in my socks! (Laughts) (Autres paroles, p. 88-93)
Sometimes the children accepted our authority and other times opposed it. On what did it depend? What was our responsibility? What of our unwillingness to lose popularity with the children by insisting on a chore? To whom and for what were the children responsible? And what if they did not acknowledge any responsibility, especially the older ones whose responsibilities were greater? Answers we came to often collapsed in the face of actual events. Yet when someone asked, “How is it possible to stick to principles?,” Peggy replied that Gurdjieff said the practical is higher than the philosophical.
This answer was particularly confusing and painful to me. I had tried hard to put ideals into practice and here was an altogether different demand: to see what the moment already contained – what was needed within the situation exactly as it was, not as it should be. A new outcome requires a different point of view, free even of “ideals.”
“If only” had to be banished from the team’s thinking. It was not a question of how to proceed “if only” we had more time, “if only” we had more hands, “if only” things were different. It was necessary to know how to be with things exactly as they are. But for me this challenge presented the greatest difficulty – especially where my own child was concerned.
Two teenage boys developed a crush on the same girl during a week-long period of work. A rivalry began that turned angry. This fighting among the children was rare. But in the case of Ian, a visitor from Canada, and John, one of the American boys, a push turned into a shove, then a blow, and soon the two had crashed to the ground pummeling each other.
Jim was with them. As we ran over, we expected that he would immediately break up the fight. But he didn’t. He stood by for what seemed to me like a very long time watching them wrestle and punch. I was shocked that he waited. But he was watching closely and could see no real damage was being done. When both were dirt-stained, but still punching, Jim pulled them apart and had them follow him into his tent for a private talk.
When they emerged, the boys seemed satisfied – and peaceful.
That evening after the children were asleep and the team had gathered for planning we barraged Jim with questions. Why hadn’t he broken up the fight at once? What had he told the boys that set things right?
“They were not brawlers. Their way of fighting showed that,” Jim said. “So there was no danger they would hurt each other very much. I wanted to let them fight a bit so they would have a taste of it, know what it was like. After I asked them how they felt during the fight. They said they were angry. I asked them if they felt angry enough to kill, and both agreed that at moments maybe they did. They seemed surprised and somehow together in this admission. I told them, ‘Now you know how wars begin.’”
Another confrontation recalled by a visiting team member, Armando:
Yvon threw a punch for a stupid reason: Ronnie had spilled some water on him. I pretended not to notice, expecting they would stop by themselves, but soon I interfered because it was becoming ugly.
I spoke with both of them.
Ronnie immediately assumed full responsibility and said that Yvon even tried to stop the fight, but that he, Ronnie, would not stop. So I told them that something very interesting had happened and that it should not be seen in the ordinary way of “who takes the blame,” or “let’s be friends,” but to try to see that there was something behind all this, that we are slaves of our reactions to the point of violence.
“The fault is no one’s,” I told them, “it’s nature, we are like that, we have to see that.”
The most interesting thing was the way they listened.
Paul told a boy, “You don’t have to be angry if you don’t want to be.”
“Not even with my brothers?,” Jon asked.
“Not unless you give them that power,” Paul said.
Jon listened. We did not want to convince the children, only to offer them another view.
One Sunday in Armonk it was my turn to bring an “impulse,” or task, in the morning.
“No is what I often say to things people ask me to do, or I say ‘later,’ which also means ‘no.’ Just for this one day, I’ll say ‘yes’ to everything,” I proposed.
The team was always honor-bound to try the effort along with the children.
Four children were assigned to wash the pottery area with me, including the immovable wooden work table on which we wedged clay to make sculptures and tiles. The table was so wide no one could reach the center. Encrusted layers of dried clay covered the wood, and the clay-mottled cement underfoot. Both needed to be scrubbed and washed.
Sulky 13-year-old Angela was on the team, and I thought the “yes exercise” was the perfect opportunity to get her to tackle some jobs which she habitually refused. I gave her an electric floor scrubber to start on the cement, and soon she was engrossed in maneuvering the machine around the floor.
Suddenly, she climbed up on the table with the machine, looked down and asked me if it were OK.
There was something about seeing her standing on top of the table that bothered me – that’s not how the machine was supposed to be used.
“No, you can’t. Come down.”
“But you said the exercise today was to say ‘yes’ to everything,” Angela countered smugly.
My “no,” so fast I couldn’t track it, prevented me from remembering what was really at stake. How painful it was to acknowledge that I had forgotten my own exercise and that Angela was showing some initiative which I had tried to squash. It seemed a long time but was only seconds until I finally forced myself to say “yes” to her.
Equally unpleasant was facing Angela’s smile of triumph.
But, admittedly, after she’d worked on it, the table was really clean for the first time. One of my habitual reactions – an automatic reflex that says “no” when confronted with something unexpected. Was amazingly fast and hard to intercept. It had taken one of the children to remind me to weigh the moment before speaking.
While we adults had the advantage of ideas, of purpose, the children had a quick willingness to try, which helped us – and often gave us hope.
The task one morning was: who do I obey in me? Jim explained that we are always obeying someone or something, and that today we should try to see whom we are obeying in ourselves.
From the log:
Robert was faced with an unpleasant surprise that there was no washing machine and that he had to wash clothes by hand, which he did not like at all, but he continued to do it. Sandy, who was waxing at Franklin Farms, said that she was very tired, that she tore her trousers and that she didn’t like what she was doing, but she did it anyway. Jim told her that it was interesting to see that in spite of many things opposing me from doing something, I still did it. This meant that I must have in me a voice powerful enough to command myself and what we were trying to do was to connect ourselves with this voice. Jim added”, wasn’t the biggest voice you heard saying “poor Sandy”?
Yvon explained in detail what he had been doing and then answered a question of Jim’s, saying that he did it because somebody had to do it, and because he wanted to obey. Jim said that there was someone in me that loves difficulties and that this person in me is really my possibility of becoming a man.
I was quite demanding and critical of my daughter. Whether strict or just short-tempered I am not sure. I had strong feelings for her, but I didn’t know how to express them. I took the best care of her I could, but mostly I kept her at a distance, perhaps treating her as I had been treated.
One summer day we were having a team meeting indoors while the children played on the lawn. Suddenly, we heard a shriek from outside, a scream of terror, rage and sorrow.
“Who’s that crying?” I demanded. A silence followed.
“Your daughter,” someone said.
That sound penetrated. Her father had died only four months earlier and now I heard my daughter’s suffering for the first time. Behind her placid expression was her hidden world of nightmares and loss. Once heard, I could not forget it.
My actions towards my daughter changed forever.
I began to draw her close to me, clumsily and fearfully at first. By degrees I felt more confident, and I began to see that, despite everything, she loved me. Gradually I became her ally.
Weeks later I brought it up at a meeting. “That cry – I don’t know if any of you remember it. I’m too strict with my daughter.”
The team was silent; nobody looked at me.
I addressed Dorothea, the woman on the team I found most sympathetic, one who never seemed to judge me. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“We’ve been telling you for years,” Dorothea said gently. “You couldn’t hear.”
Some dark sides, including many self-justified cruelties, can only exist under the cover of darkness. That moment brought remorse, and the hope of a new freedom.
Many years later, when my daughter was about thirteen, I noticed that she began to oppose me in little ways. Somehow it was no longer enough for me to just say something for that opinion to become the prevailing wisdom. Now she questioned my judgment. I was puzzled and a little hurt since I had always allowed her considerable latitude, seeking her input in decisions that involved her and respecting her opinions, ideas, and decisions. We had arrived at a very compatible way of relating to each other, I thought. But now that she was becoming a teenager, where was the closeness, the friendship, the trust? What happened to all the efforts I had made on her behalf? All seemed lost in an adolescent tide of opposition and argument.
Eventually I brought the question to a meeting of the team. There were expressions of sympathy.
Then Madame de Salzmann said: “Treat your daughter as if she were your best friend. Don’t say anything to her you would not say to your best friend.”
That was all.
It was not a suggestion to go through life pretending – rather to act as if the desired result was already a reality. In a difficult situation I can act as if everything is normal, and this directs it towards normality. It is our attitudes, postures and tones of voice that influence that direct events and outcomes. Choose to act, not automatically but in service of your aim – that is the meaning behind “as if.” “As if she were my best friend.”
Madame de Salzmann didn’t speak of “conscious acting,” an idea I couldn’t have understood. But “as if” was simple and clear enough for me to try. She did not speak of discipline – she called for a new effort.
I began to listen to myself when I spoke to my daughter. A little harsh in tone perhaps a bit bossy or authoritarian. Would I speak to my best friend that way? For my friends I had a different, more collegial voice.
I struggled to speak to her as I would to a friend. This proved unexpectedly difficult; the habit of command was deeply in place from my own childhood. I discovered a subterranean world of my own fears and suspicions that wanted to keep the status quo. When my attention faltered, habit would prompt me to scold, blame and lay the vexations of life at my daughter’s door. These scenes of undeserved scolding and reproaches would echo in me quite painfully.
One time I was able to say “It’s not anything you did, it’s not your fault that I scolded you, I just can’t control my temper.”
From that hard-won honesty something new appeared – the truth brought reconciliation between us. Instead of the reproach I expected, I received instant forgiveness! – for children are quick to forgive when you share your real world with them.
The litmus test Madame de Salzmann gave us – would I say this to my best friend? – helped me distinguish between excuses and reality, and harmonized the inevitable friction between my daughter and myself.
As I practiced it, my daughter trusted me more. Whatever my failings, she could depend on my wish to be honest, and whatever my shortcomings, she could love me. I stopped blaming her for my irritations and accepted that the source was within myself. This effort to be honest gradually neutralized the acidic effects of my outbursts and repaired the past.
Sometimes when I looked into her eyes, I wondered who was helping whom? My wish for her well-being supplied my motivating force. Her ready acceptance of me helped me to try again. Transcendent moments.
Madame de Salzmann’s indication produced a totally unexpected result. My daughter and I truly became best friends.
To act “as if” can be tried anywhere, at any time. It does not imply a lie; quite the contrary, it makes visible now at once, the result I seek for the future, bringing about the new condition I hope for. Know that you are acting while you try this – until by some unknown law “as if” becomes real.
A father asked if parents should be “pals” to their children. But the relationship is not one between two equals. Children are not on the same step in understanding. The child needs something different from a parent than from a pal. This does not mean that parents should not work with the child or alongside her until he or she is able to work by themselves, working together creates a special kind of sharing, a unique bond.
Rebellion is a sign that the child looks for authority in himself or herself, and does not find it. The child wants to be given a direction, he wants the adult to take the place of one who thinks, be the “head” of the family. As soon as the child recognizes something as being more real, he will agree with it. It brings a demand to us to think and not merely to react.
The idea of authority begins with the head. There must be a “head” to coordinate, to watch, to bring together to see and gather all the elements. We must think of authority at the moment when we are in relationship with the child. When authority is not present, the little self of the child takes over. Something in their development is hindered if the child is given authority over the adult. Children are always testing us. They want and need authority of the right kind but perhaps since we do not give it enough, they have to speak their needs in diverse ways, by a complaint or misbehavior.
You wish to go to the child and fill his needs, but there is something else first. Remember “I am I” then you can answer.
Part of the reason we are not obeyed is that we use the wrong language of centers. Instinctive actions need instinctive commands, not sermons. When the child doesn’t do what they are asked, sometimes all that is required is a gentle push, or an imperative “look here” instead of a stream of words.
For every discovery we made about the children we were cautioned not to react to what we had seen. Otherwise we substituted one mechanical reaction for another. We can even do great harm to a child by suddenly deciding that something we have sanctioned and encouraged for years must now suddenly not be tolerated. How can we see and continue to act as though we do not see, so that more can be understood?
Every action has consequences and the children need to feel that their actions will result in one or another consequence for them. Usually we are so asleep when we give an order or command that we do not even bother to notice if we have been obeyed. This is certainly wrong education. When we give an order and cite consequences for not carrying it out, we must be responsible for following through. We must be careful if we threaten punishment as it may be difficult for us to enforce it and stand by our word. There is a trap in becoming too heavy-handed with our orders.
Create firm but fair consequences for disobedience. The obedience is not to you, but to the order to the laws of the universe which extend to us and our children. By teaching them to obey what is just and necessary, to obey their own sense of rightness, we demonstrate how to be in harmony with nature itself. There is proper authority in the role of parent, but parents must be under proper authority themselves if they are to fulfill the role, not as pals or police, not out of personality, but as “parents” to nurture essence.
It seems that most children, unless they have been seriously mistreated and sometimes even then, have an instinctive aversion to causing pain to other beings, other creatures. Deeply wired in our very DNA this innate revulsion to cruelty needs to be understood and respected. At the same time, aggression is an equally natural impulse and the two struggle for control, pride of place, for influence, for dominance. In this struggle this crucible conscience begins to make its appearance. The struggle is a unique aspect of being human, of having two natures, the animal and the spiritual. There is no automatic passive way of allowing one side or the other to dominate. There needs to be a meeting of the two opposites so a new understanding beyond duality can emerge.
Justice was an important component of discipline for the children. They had to feel rules were equally applied, and that transgressions were dealt with impartially. In an essential way, the children wanted fairness, and to be treated equally. When difficulties arose on some of our trips we appointed a Counsel from among the older children. The members served for one day, so that there was no permanent authority. The children looked forward to serving on the Council – the power attracted them, and the responsibility and respect their efforts brought. In turn the children trusted the fairness of the Council and willingly accepted its decrees, even unpopular decisions, when the children themselves arrived at to them. One of children later remembered:
On one trip out west, a 14-year old boy acted out his anger, tormenting everybody. After two weeks of trying, a council of the teenagers decided that the situation had gone too far. They voted unanimously to send the boy home. He begged to stay. But even though they liked him and pitied him, they nevertheless stuck to their decision, and he had to leave.
Why was it easier for the children to accept the authority of the Council than that of the adults? Did they have more confidence in its impartiality?
When discipline is in the service of a larger ideal, and when it is fair, the children accord it their cooperation and respect.
Gurdjieff said, “Judge others by yourself and you will rarely be mistaken.” [Aphorisms, MWRM] How can I recognize what is going on in me? It is of no use just looking upward hoping to connect with higher feelings or higher ideals. I must also look inward to the emotions, the body. What tensions, preoccupations or daydreams absorb me? To discover and then accept the reality of what is happening as it takes place gives a new possibility, one that will support me. As Henri Tracol offered, I can “lean on the moment.”
I only stumbled on this when I was cornered and had no place to turn.
It was David the cut-up, David the clown, always calling attention to himself by teasing the other children or mimicking the adults, who was unwittingly the cause of this discovery.
Exhausted, impatient and hot, I couldn’t wait for one work day to end so I could at last go home. It was summer, the last day of a week-long period. In the full blaze of the afternoon sun, Peggy called a time-out. There was a beautiful stone pool on the property, and we would all go for a swim. The thought of plunging into the cool water changed my mood. No longer tired, I was running to get my bathing suit when I heard my name called.
“Something needs to be taken care of,” Peggy explained. “Unpack the children’s bags and make sure they are not taking anyone else’s clothing that might have been mixed up in the laundry. There’s no time for you to swim.”
Why was I the only one who wouldn’t have a break? I thought angrily. But I had come to work, not to swim, I reasoned. Still, my fatigue and despondency returned. Trying to ignore shouts and laughter from the pool, I started sorting the boys’ clothes, and it took the whole two hours. Judging by their name tags there were lots of misplaced garments.
When David and the middle boys came back to change into dry clothes and discovered what I had done, they explained that they had purposely traded clothes to remember each other by – a sign of friendship.
My sorting was totally useless. David was tickled by my irritation and mimicked my attempts to “restore” their belongings. I would have tolerated his nonsense on another day or at least pretended to, but this time I was too frustrated. Angrily I demand that he follow me outside for a talking to.
We sat on the grass, and I immediately regretted my outbreak. What could I possibly say to David that would change anything, or that he would even hear? He toyed with a clump of clover, waiting for a dressing down. I had called him outside and now what? In desperation I tried to find the truth of what I was feeling without evoking shame or blame. It was frightening to leave my usual responses, my security in being the knowing and powerful adult, to face the unknown. What was really going on?
Haltingly, I started, “Listen, David, I am mad at you for making fun of me. And I can’t help it.” Long pause. “And you are making fun of me because you can’t help it. Let’s try to figure it out – I know I don’t have to be mad if I don’t want to be, and you don’t have to clown around if you don’t want to.” I talked about our habits, how they ruled us without our knowing it.
I stopped, waiting for him to protest, but he was listening. “The other kids have habits, too – they know you are going to try to make them laugh. But nobody knows that you can’t help it a lot of the time, that you can’t stop even if you want to. Just like often I can’t help getting angry. But this moment can be different. We can choose – you can choose how you want to be. The other boys expect you to come back making fun of everything. Why not surprise them; do something different.”
David weighed this and asked cautiously, “What should I do?”
I had no answer for this; I didn’t have some model of behavior in mind – it wasn’t about how I thought he should act. “Anything you like,” I finally offered. “Be a man. Isn’t that what you want?”
We sat on the ground together a little longer without speaking, then went back inside.
The boys looked at us expectantly. Would there be a scolding? They waited for David to start clowning, but he was self-assured and dignified as a prince.
I had wanted to punish David in the name of discipline, but actually it was for making fun of me. The truth of the moment was that he was as helpless as I was. When I shared that insight with him, everything changed.
Freedom from the tight garment of habit – that was what the children wanted as much as we did. “Leaning on the moment” shows what is real – habitual masks and roles can drop by themselves. This contact with reality can be trusted even when we do not know where it will lead. Above all, attention in the moment can bring a level of sincerity, of transparency that makes understanding possible.
When I ask for obedience, who asks and for what aim? What can I obey in myself, and what can a child obey in me?
“You must talk to the child until he understands why he should do as you ask.”
Struggling with a Christmas project which included handmade gifts for each child, painted decorations, and a vast array of baked sweets the team was feeling overwhelmed. Time was running out. It seemed we could never finish. Had we proposed too much?
Madame de Salzmann came to a meeting and shared a story of one Christmas in Moscow when her husband invited her for a walk at dusk. As they tramped far into the snow-covered forest, he led her into a clearing, seemingly by chance. She saw with amazement that a ten-foot-tall pine was covered with tiny candles, ablaze. Glittering ornaments, glass globes, and candy hung from the branches. Her shock at seeing this spectacle was unforgettable.
“Can you imagine walking that far into the woods? The trouble he took to decorate the tree, then lead me there, in order that I could see it unexpectedly?” she asked.
What can penetrate our usual torpor? How could we make that other realm appear? The sight of something beautiful – a glimpse of another reality – could be brought to life if we cared enough. We worked on.
We created a stage set made of leaves, branches, flowers and colored fabric, with candles, sweets and music in order to produce an experience of having stepped – for a moment – into another world. The Lower Shed which the children knew so well – its cement floors, bare walls and battered work benches and tables – was transformed. Silken panels covered the walls, doorways were outlined with evergreen wreaths, votive candles flickered in recesses along the walls, and cookies set with translucent glazed candies hung from the ceiling by invisible threads. Wherever you looked there was something unexpected … something beautiful. It was magic.
“How shall we end the year?” Paul asked the older children. “What would you like to do?”
There was a silence. One could feel ideas rising and being considered by the young people 11 to 14 years old.
Finally, 12-year-old Mary said, “Let’s have a party.” It wasn’t a particularly original thought. Yet, if allowed to grow, it could lead someplace.
“A party?” Paul echoed. “For whom? Who should we invite?”
Various guests were proposed. One of the boys suggested that we invite all the brothers and sisters who were too young to take part in the Children’s Work and make the party for them. This generated a lot of enthusiasm.
More questions followed. What would the theme be? What kind of decorations? Costumes? Food? Since it was winter, the idea of Santa’s Workshop emerged. The children decided to be Santa’s elves and make a present for each of the younger guests. A new craft study followed, and we all learned how to make jointed wooden toys and trains.
An ambitious program of construction, decorations, costumes and food was planned in addition to the toys. To prepare for the party, we scheduled several weekend sleepovers with the children. Along with the usual dramas of frozen pipes and burnt meals, the sleepovers produced costumes for each of Santa’s elves and almost 40 unique handmade presents.
The party was a great success. At the end, one of us brought a challenge: Could we be stronger than our curiosity, our desire to have what we wanted right away? When gifts were distributed, could the children not open them but see how long they could wait?
The team member had barely finished speaking before the youngest were eagerly pulling the wrapping off their toys. Nobody minded, and we joined them in their play. But many of the older children were intrigued. Some waited until the party was over, and others even took the wrapped gifts home with them. Alan, then thirteen, was one of those who carried his present intact to the family car.
Years later, we learned that Alan had put that gift on a shelf in his room where he looked at it every day. At last he opened it one year later, at Christmas.
But the gift the children remembered longest and liked best was neither a toy nor a game. Jeanne de Salzmann arrived from Paris with thirty packages, one for each child. A small blue travel bag with a zipper on top, contained, among many other things, “Evening in Paris” cologne for the girls, gadgets for the boys, and, also in each bag, a miniature loaf of French bread and a small bottle of purple grape juice. The children’s delight was unmistakable as they showed each other over and over, the bread and “wine.”
Art has always been used as a means of transmitting knowledge. In the history of esoteric schools, theater emerged in the form of Greek Mysteries, Medieval Passion Plays, the Troubadours, and Commedia Del Arte. In Asia, Kabuki, Noh drama, Bunraku, the Ramayana epic, Chinese opera, Kharogoz, Balinese shadow puppets, and others, combined music, poetry, spectacle and drama to bring an impulse to humankind to turn inward or to look up. A theatrical performance in the town square or church was a sustaining event in the cycle of everyday life, a narrative of human existence in a cosmic context. These theatrical dramas dared to pose the big questions: What does human life mean? Why do we suffer? Why are we here?
Today the ideas of Gurdjieff can be found in varied works of the pupils of his ideas, such as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, said to be the most frequently performed play in America. His influence is apparent in the film Groundhog Day, which has entered into the culture as the embodiment of man trapped in the cycle of repetition. The groundbreaking director Peter Brook depicted Gurdjieff’s own search in his film Meetings with Remarkable Men.
Presenting big questions in a theatrical form suited to children was our team’s repeated challenge.
Madame de Salzmann advocated theatre, not only for the themes, but for the impressions they created on both the actors and the audience. She encouraged us to research traditional theatre as well as to help the children create their own plays.
It is hard to forget the experience of acting, even if only in a school play. The moment of being on stage is somehow unique. The actor is intensely aware of, and at the same time removed from himself. The intensity of the moment, the feeling of being bathed in a pool of attention, awakens him. He may have a taste of being free of his ordinary self – is this me, here? Once the action begins fear tends to evaporate under the heat of the lights and the concentrated gaze of the audience. The actor feels larger than life, more powerful. All too soon his part is over and he must leave the stage, but an impression remains.
The children’s imagination, still active and accessible, allows them to “make believe” with spontaneity. In playing a role, their emphasis is on play. “Make believe” is extremely appealing to young children. They love walking around in papa’s shoes or carrying mama’s handbag. There is imitation in it and also a question. What is it like to be grown-up? In a dramatization of the story of Noah’s Ark for example playing the roles of various animals gave free reign to the children’s need to create, to express.
Adapting narratives from many sources, Indian, Chinese and Arabic, as well as stories the children wrote, we produced a new play every year. Some were short vignettes and others elaborate productions which included every child. Sets and costumes, “orchestras” for accompaniment all were designed and built by the children.
Long after the final curtain, the stories they portrayed continued to exert an influence on the children. The roles, the lines they spoke lodged in their feelings, so the adult team was very careful with what we chose trying to be sensitive to the nuances of the material: What did the characters value? How did they face obstacles? What forces were at play?
John Pentland, then President of the Gurdjieff Foundation in the United States, visited the children one work week and read them the tenth century Persian poem “Firdusi,” which explained the origin of the game of chess. According to the poem, Pentland said, the white pieces were metaphors for the forces of light, and the black of darkness together representing the dual aspects of creation. The horizontal squares on the board represented space; the vertical squares were time. Chess, he told us, was used to train the minds of princes. If you knew how to lay out the pieces on the board, you could foretell the probable outcome of future events.
Fascinated, the children played chess and talked about it for weeks. They wrote and produced a play called “The Art of Asha.” A giant chessboard was painted on the stage floor, and each piece was represented by a costumed child. Seated high above the board, a young Persian king and his tutor played the game with these living pieces. At their command the chessmen would step forward and speak.
The night of the performance twenty-five excited children were crammed into a makeshift green room, waiting for their turn to go on. At fourteen, Alice, the Black Queen, wanted to be an actress. She imagined this “debut” would prove her talent and persuade her reluctant parents to let her go to drama school. Her important role cued many other speeches.
Just before her turn, she told one of us in a panicked voice, “I can’t do it. I forget.”
There was a silence. “The audience is not coming to see you – they are coming to see your work,” a team member explained quietly.
“My work?” Her expression changed. With relief she remembered that people would not judge her personally. She knew she could try that her efforts were within her control. Her nervousness vanished and her lines returned to her.
Risa remembers how that play challenged her:
For some reason I was asked to design the scenery, the program and the costumes. I had no idea how to make the giant chessboard on the floor, and I asked all the adults but none of them seemed to know either. So I stapled big sheets of oak tag together and painted some white and some black. I kept thinking there must be a right way to do it, but nobody would tell me what it was so I had to dig into my own imagination to figure something out. The same with the costumes: what did chess costumes look like? No one knew any more than I did. Finally I decided to use wire to make the headdresses, but the wire was too hard to bend. Harry came to my rescue and, using pliers, he and a team of boys shaped the headdresses to my drawings.
Having been in a situation where I had to come up with something made me more confident of my own creativity, and not just assume that there was a professional way, a better way, a “real” way to do it. Very interesting to get that kind of latitude. I was just fifteen.
Unlike the children who were trusted to do everything, my relation to theatre started modestly enough: for the first few plays I was only allowed to help backstage. Eventually I was invited to work on a script, a dramatization of an extremely long and complicated satire rooted in Taoist and Buddhist folklore called “The Monkey King.”
The story of Monkey: he had gone to find an immortal, and he discovered that no one in the world was interested or knew anything about such beings, finally he found his teacher, learned the immortal charm and challenged Heaven. From that moment we were on Monkey’s journey or he had joined us. After one chapter the young boys asked questions: Stephen wanted to know “how could Monkey unseat heaven?” “Who was the Buddha?” “Who was greater?” But underneath was the one question I felt they couldn’t quite express: was it all true? The story ended with Monkey truly becoming “The Great Sage Equal to Heaven”. “And what did he do then?” Eugene wanted to know. “Well, he helped to govern and was very wise” I said, “and he played no more tricks”. “Oh”, they said disappointed, “no more tricks?.”
Since the original book was over 800 pages packed with jokes, parables and metaphors, Monkey was an ambitious project. I wanted to condense the long difficult text to a more child-friendly syntax and length. But Peggy insisted that we stay true to the original and let the children stretch to learn it. Our final version ran over three hours.
To my delight I was named Director, with a mandate to stage the production.
For Monkey we chose quick-witted Kevin who would be able to memorize long passages, and Hank, a strapping 14-year-old with good comic timing, was cast as Pigsy. “Did you pick me for Pigsy because I’m big and fat?” he demanded to general laughter. Hank played the role with gusto, attacking all the other characters in turn with wonderful physicality.
But my happiness was short-lived. After the initial excitement of getting their parts the children lost interest in memorizing their lines. They lost their scripts from week to week, necessitating continuous recopying. Rehearsal after rehearsal, there was no progress. How could I get them to learn their lines? The time for the performance drew closer until there was only one weekend left. Rehearsals were still a shambles, with most of the lines still coming from the prompter. Though the scenery was painted and the costumes sewn, the cast wouldn’t – or couldn’t – learn their lines.
Dutifully the girls learned their supporting parts, but without the main male characters, there would be no play. I felt betrayed by the boys. Why wouldn’t they learn? Neither cajoling nor threats helped. Only the wooden sword fights were enthusiastically performed. The difficulty of rehearsals was equal to drama of the script itself.
I felt frantic then despaired. Miserable, I finally gave up and accepted the worst: the play would flop – I had failed as director. But Peggy seemed unfazed, as though she knew something I didn’t. When I stopped pushing the boys and sat back, perhaps that shocked them into seeing that time had run out, and that if they did not wake up there would be no play. Perhaps it was the adrenaline of the dress rehearsal itself. But unbelievably, the night before the performance, the boys were finally able to remember their lines. Was it my giving up that helped them to take responsibility? Were we also under some other laws? We had set forces in motion, created conditions, and now momentum carried us and the children.
The night of the performance, nature played her part. A trail through the woods was marked in the ground. Flickering votive candles revealed the twists and turns of the trail leading to our outdoor theatre. A clearing under a seven-foot-high cliff provided three playing areas: the ground level on which the audience also sat represented the World; the top of the cliff reached by a ladder represented the Kingdom of Heaven; and we used a recessed portion of the cliff wall for the Kingdom Under the Sea. Rows of freshly-trimmed log seats were arranged around the rock-framed stage. Torches lit the playing area. There was no distinct boundary between woods and stage, audience and actors – all blended into one.
When it was dark, we began. The lines spoken the by children were at the same time comedy, make-believe, farce and a message from a very high order of truth.
One of the children’s favorite scenes was the last one. When the pilgrims reached India, “the other shore,” they met the Buddha. His disciple Ananda gave them three precious baskets of scriptures, the prize they sought. On the way back to China they discover that the scrolls they received after their long journey were blank. Confronted with his duplicity Ananda explained, But these are the true scriptures. The pages must be blank. Only emptiness can convey the reality of the moment, which is ever changing. Truth cannot be fixed. And furthermore, Ananda added, “it is not a very likely prospect for our heirs, handing out scriptures gratis.” The children loved the joke.
Treasuring the praise that came my way as director, I understood that while something had been up to me, a great deal had come about without my doing. Though we had started the event and pushed to make it happen, at a certain moment I needed to get out of the way and allow the children to make the play their own.
Sound the first note, the “DO,” and then let the children develop the rest of the octave, watch to help when needed. This was a method of the Children’s Work. A play, a sale or a party was organized like a theatrical pageant – a gathering for hundreds of guests with decorations, costumes and excellent food, an Arabian Nights of entertainment and music. The large events we staged demonstrated what could be accomplished when we worked together.
How much effort was needed to create a single fresh impression? We would spend weeks in preparation for an event that lasted a few hours. Everything was prepared with such attention to detail that the guests would feel they had entered another world. And it was all done by twenty-five or thirty children and eight adults.
Monkey was so well received that Madame de Salzmann asked us to repeat it for an audience of 400 adults the following year. But we balked at teaching the long and difficult script to a new cast. Why not repeat the performance with the same actors?
“Everyone’s role must change,” Peggy insisted.
Like us, children are very suggestible, and we must be careful not to assign qualities to them. If you emphasize any trait, even in play, you strengthen it, went the discussion.
“Hank must not play Pigsy a second time,” one of the team said. “It will reinforce a certain side, an idea of himself that is already too fixed.”
In the next staging of Monkey, Hank was cast as the Buddha. He carried the role with a strength and gravity from quite a different side of himself – one that rarely appeared. And he was exceptionally good in that role, too.
Late into the night, after the performance, we carefully dismantled the scenery and props. Like Tibetan butter sculptures or Navaho sand paintings that are destroyed once they are complete, we dispelled the illusion that the work we undertook together was for its external results, for its “gain.”
The place where we staged Monkey was restored to its original condition, leaving no trace. Except for the impression left in the children.
Was there any difference between the children and the adults? Gurdjieff said that some children could be more grown up than the adults raising them. Though surely adults have more material, more experience to draw on, Gurdjieff said that some were stuck at an early stage of development, inwardly remaining children. As he put it,
“The only difference between a child and a grown-up man is in the mind. All the weaknesses are there, beginning with hunger, with sensitivity, with naïveté, there is no difference … love, hate, everything. Functions are the same, receptivity is the same, equally they react, equally they are given to imaginary fears. … A boy or girl of eight can be grown-up, and a man of sixty can be a child.” (Views, pps. 151-52)
Where were we on this spectrum?
When snacks were being packed into the cars, the children clustered around to see where those specially prized bags of cookies or chips would go. We adults were just as interested, but feigned indifference. In matters of purpose and self-control, the team members were usually “ahead” of children, but in feeling, appetites, relationships and desires, we could see – if we were honest – that there was no distinction. Behind the learned nuances of adult life and talk, the same longings and repulsions exist. Our work was to experience these inner tides consciously, aware of what we were feeling and thinking. But for long stretches, we disappeared into our moods, and there was no neutral observer left to see that we were living entirely by rote. However, as with the children, special tasks could make the hidden visible at the least expected moments.
One girl remembers when she was ten years old:
During the two weeks at Armonk one morning task was to make our appearance totally different, something that would appear odd to other people. I racked my brains how to change my appearance. I decided to put my hair up and wear a shower cap. It was the oddest thing I could think of.
Freddy made a necklace of orange rinds. I thought he was incredibly courageous to drive into town to get gas, still wearing his orange necklace. He perfectly connected with the spirit of the exercise. But Peggy was not happy with this. She did not want to ridicule Armonk or give the neighbors the impression that we were strange.
In my shower cap I felt extremely self-conscious all day long, even though we were all doing it together. That's why Freddie was my hero.
What stops us from being ourselves? Is it fear of what other people think?
A Japanese children game was brought by William Segal, who later became President of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York, during one work week in Armonk. “Do you want to try the Pillow Game?” he asked.
Mr. Segal explained: any two who have a dispute can play. Quickly two younger ones volunteered to hold a small pillow between them.
Holding the first side, each child in turn had to say, “I am angry with you because, (and give a reason). And I am right.” Then he directed the children in turn to take hold of another side of the pillow and had them say “You are right and I am wrong,” and this time explain the dispute from the opponent’s point of view.
Holding the third side of the pillow, each in turn had to describe how “we are both right because…”
On the last turn, the pillow was held on the fourth side and each explained, “We are both wrong because…”
The children were intrigued, but the game was not yet over.
Pointing to the middle of the pillow Mr. Segal added: “The empty center is the place for something totally new to appear that does not come out of the quarrel. For example, this could be the time for everyone to have a treat. A new element, ice cream, could reconcile.”
We took the hint and distributed dessert.
“When people are on opposite sides of a question it can be very positive,” Mr. Segal said, “it doesn’t mean that they must remain antagonists. The fact that they are both related to the same issue, even if from different sides, shows they share something. When they focus on what they have in common, differences diminish. This can be a starting point.”
“But some things are too important to compromise,” one of us objected.
“You see, you are doing it now, disagreeing when you could be agreeing,” Mr. Segal said. As he was leaving he added, “Try to see what unites you.”
Like breathing in and out, periods of practical work had to be balanced with time to let off steam and have fun. To bring the day into balance, play was needed. A rule for the adults was that we participate in the games with the children, not just turn them loose. Our presence added another dimension to the games, and gradually we found out how much this mattered to the children.
Because they were used to video and television, the children did not know many games, had not played the staples of our childhood, and some were genuinely distressed when we made it a condition that all electronics stay home when they participated in our activities. On our long car trips, no radios, video games or tape players. We felt we did not have the right to take something away from the children unless we could provide something in its place. So the team researched games we could play together or searched into our own childhoods for old favorites. We came up with dozens of word, attention and outdoor games.
We found the children were always ready for something new, but the adult team members often had to struggle to force themselves to play. While some found it natural, others had to overcome all kinds of disinclinations, perhaps afraid of appearing foolish, or simply not knowing how to play. Or did we sometimes prefer to daydream uninterrupted – play might disrupt of our habitual passivity – and we were not always willing to pay that price. During a long car ride, the driver might excuse himself from a game on the grounds that driving required all his attention, but these transparent strategies never fooled anyone. Besides, once the game took off, even the driver would join in.
We thought up questions like, what one thing would you take to a desert island? What is the most important thing in the world? What is the biggest? What is the smallest? Or we might tell stories – our own real life adventures were the most popular.
Maintaining the interest of a group of children of different ages was hard. The span from 7 to 17 years old covers a great range of skills. But the children themselves found ways to level the playing field and keep games going; they gave the younger ones extra chances, more time, more hints.
We played Geography, taking the last letter of a country, city or ocean as the first letter of the next. We played I Spy in which everyone guesses what one person has seen which is visible to everyone. We played 20 Questions, Grandmother’s Trunk, Ghost.
The Prince of Wales Has Lost His Hat was a favorite with its cadence call. Everyone sat in a circle, clapping to a beat. The players were designated by number. The first person to play chanted, “The Prince of Wales has lost his hat and Number Ten has got it.”
The player called had to reply immediately on the beat, “Not I, Sir.”
“Who then, sir?” asked the caller.
Number Ten then answered by calling on another player: “Number Three, Sir.” Now Number Three had to reply in rhythm.
The responsive chanting continued until someone failed to answer on the beat and had to leave the circle.
With one player less, everyone’s number moved over. You had to remember your new number and keep clapping. We watched each other to see who was not paying attention so we could call their number when our turn came. And sometimes while busy plotting another’s overthrow, we forgot to answer the call of our own number.
We played outdoors. Running backwards, climbing over walls, balancing on narrow beams, shinnying up ropes – the more inventive we could be, the more the children loved to play. Classic games like King of the Hill, Tag, Hide and Go Seek, Simon Says, Freeze met the children’s need to move, to be tricked, surprised and to remain absolutely still. Games gave them a chance to test themselves and one another.
Native American games were most popular. The children loved being led on a fast walk in single file through the woods – blindfolded. In another game, Animal Calls, a caller, not blindfolded, runs uttering an animal or bird call and then stands still. The other children, blindfolded, rush towards the sound in an attempt to tag him. When they stop moving, the caller runs to a new place and signals his location with a different call. Difficult as it seemed, the children would invariably catch and tag the caller as if that faculty of “seeing blind” was already in them, waiting to be discovered. Few adults were brave enough to join when we played Animal Calls.
I often had a hard time with the physical games. I was afraid to get hurt playing rough ones, and I hated to lose. Driving some young children to a beach one hot summer day I hadn’t even taken the time to change into a bathing suit, the swim was for them, I reasoned. So I stood on the sand watching them. Finally I couldn’t resist the water and waded in as far as my dress would allow. The children were romping happily. Suddenly one came over to me and pushed me backward, over an accomplice who had crouched behind me.
After the initial shock, I started to laugh and splash water at them. I realized I was having fun – just playing. The children were happy to see me drenched, laughing and playing with them. And that’s how one of my negative attitude dissolved.
We told old riddles and tried to think up new ones together. One boy volunteered this: answer each question using a different single word, “What is the easiest thing to do? What is the hardest thing to do?”1
The Mirror Game was brought one evening. Two of us faced each other as if looking into a full-length mirror. Silently one player had to “mirror” the other’s every movement and facial expression as if she were the reflection of the other. Big gestures were easy to imitate, but the real fun was in seeing how someone observed and copied the slightest changes of facial expression, of posture. After a few minutes, the players changed places, and the “mirror” became the one mirrored.
The mirror game morphed into pantomime when one of the adults asked the children to imitate her silently. The child was free to use props to move, walk, sit or stand. Amazingly perceptive, hilariously accurate, the children missed nothing. Their imitations showed us the little vanities we thought no one could see and which we could never admit to ourselves. And the children were kind. They never mimicked the fragile adults. Their natural empathy kept the game from becoming cruel.
From the children’s log:
That night, after the food, Jerry began to play the guitar and we sang. First woman’s songs, then men’s songs, then spirituals. We got rather carried away and Peggy suggested we stop. Then we went round the room and everyone had to do something. Kevin played a duet with Jerry, Risa and Barbara sang a camp song, Jean and Kate did a pantomime of cat’s cradle, Alicé sang a ballad. John skinned the cat, and then taught Allen. Peggy recited a poem. Nella did a mime of herself growing up. Hank did a mime of a subway traveler. Judy sang a low New Mexican lament. Alann put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Judy played the recorder, while Barb played the flute. Evan did a drum solo on a pot, Risa put herself through a keyhole, Sylvia did a Japanese song and dance. Lillian sawed wood with a string, Alan did his trick show, Tim played the violin, and John committed Hari-Kari. Tommy sang Indian chants, and Robert made a martini in the air and spit out the olives. Chris pantomimed a person kept awake by the phone, and David sang “Shat Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor.” The evening ended.
As with many things in the children’s work, some of the best moments occurred not in spite of our mistakes but because of them. “Remember the time we were camping and it was so late we didn’t put up the tents and it rained and our sleeping bags filled with water and everyone was soaking wet and ran around looking for shelter?” Chris said. “That was fun!”
1 Forget. Remember.
Relationships on the Children’s Team were a never-ending source of opportunity – and difficulty. I learned how to get along with the children long before I could work easily with other adults. Frequently clashing over minor things, though politely, we wondered why others did not see that we were right. It seems we were all caught in our unwillingness to respect each other’s opinions. Something about the presence of the children exacerbated the normal tensions generated by any group trying to work together, as though we were more exposed. It was much harder to work with other members of the team than with the children. The unspoken agreement to ignore each other’s failings was inoperative in this context – and like the soccer dad who runs onto the field to argue with the coach, we often felt compelled to correct each other as we would not do under other circumstances. Why the children roused such passion in us to appear to be right remained a mystery. We knew only that some primal feelings were roused that refused to abide by our adult understanding. And it sometimes brought us into conflict over trivial things.
“The other adults are harder to work with than the children,” I admitted at a team meeting.
“Of course,” Peggy said, “the children are always willing.”
Nevertheless, we knew perfectly well that we couldn’t do this work alone, and we had to find a way to get along because we needed each other. Perhaps we only half knew it.
When Neil volunteered to help me in the pottery one Sunday, I gladly agreed. He was tired of carpentry, and I needed a second adult with the clay. Settling comfortably at the table that morning, he began wedging. I thought he was preparing clay for the children, but instead he started to sculpt. Though I wondered why he wasn’t helping them, I reminded myself that everyone’s work was their own business, and I wasn’t Neil’s keeper. Meanwhile I had to keep moving, showing one how to roll the clay, check for air bubbles, cut clay to the pattern. Others needed help with design. There was also paint to ladle, tiles to glaze – too much for one adult to supervise. I tried to catch Neil’s eye but he was absorbed in his own handiwork. Finally, I couldn’t restrain myself.
“Give me a hand,” I whispered urgently.
He nodded but didn’t look up.
I continued running from table to table all morning. “Can’t you help me?” I pleaded again.
He smiled in agreement but did not move. I saw over his shoulder that he had finished a whimsical dolphin and was at work on a second.
At last the morning ended, and the children rushed off to lunch. When I made a final round of the pottery, I saw a pair of clay dolphins on the drying rack among the children’s tiles. They were Neil’s.
I walked away from the rack in disgust. “This was supposed to be the Children’s Work,” I thought. I returned and slapped both dolphins into the watery bin of raw clay with enough force to break them; I stirred some slip over the remains until they disappeared. Of course Neil would be furious if he found out, but lots of clay work just disappears, broken in the firing – or maybe he would not even come back to the pottery and never know.
Although we had other activities in the afternoon my thoughts repeatedly strayed to the pottery. By evening I began to regret my action. I had destroyed someone else’s work.
As the next meeting approached, I knew I had to tell Neil what I had done. The spiteful side of myself which I had witnessed in the pottery was in stark contrast to my self-image – kind and even-tempered. I couldn’t reconcile who I believed myself to be and what I saw in my destruction of his dolphins. I needed Neil to understand my dilemma and forgive me so that I could forgive myself. But not in front of everyone – this was personal. I asked him to meet me alone before the meeting.
Promptly at seven we sat across a restaurant table and fiddled with coffee. It was hard to begin, but finally I poured out my story.
His expression remained bland, “It’s nothing. I don’t mind,” he said.
“But it matters. Your dolphins were beautiful,” I protested – although it really wasn’t about the dolphins but about how we had been with each other.
His eyes blank, impassive, Neil produced his noncommittal smile, and refused to be drawn out. His careful politeness was painful. I longed for confrontation, reproach, anything to clear the air, to restore our trust in each other. But his real feelings never appeared; I was left feeling isolated and guilty.
The necessity of bringing our difficulties to team meetings was something I had not understood. Together we could reach a degree of objectivity through which our conflicts could be reconciled, struggling not to take sides, to search for principles of work and to support both sides was the team’s function. This often allowed everyone’s perspectives to shift and a new understanding to appear. We could not do this on our own. I didn’t realize how essential it was for any conflict to be aired, and hopefully resolved, at the end of any day of work. In the evening, even late into the night, the adult team and sometimes the children met together. We counted on the group to harmonize any differences that had arisen, and it almost always did. An intelligence that was greater than that of any one of us, a practical intelligence, permeated with common sense and compassion, came from the group, as a whole. The voice that brought reconciliation might be anyone’s. The “caravan” had a nascent conscience – if the adults had the patience and openness to allow it appear.
“The present exists to repair the past and prepare the future”, Gurdjieff said. The fixed attitudes we carry from who-knows-what early impressions are the field of our struggle. Not to do as we have always done was a way to repair. Yet some of our negative emotional and intellectual responses are so deeply rooted they are difficult to see; they appear to be “myself.” How can we repair something which invisibly blends with our thoughts and feelings, those negative attitudes which present themselves as part of our identity and certainly not something we view as the cause of our troubles? Repair can only be done in the present moment. Not to do as I have always done. But in the intensity of interactions with the children and other adults, we were thrown up against our deeply held opinions of ourselves, and of them. Was it possible to be different?
Neil moved to California a year later, leaving the Children’s Team, and I regretted that our relationship had never been mended.
Noticing I was visibly upset one evening just as our team meeting was about to start, Ben, who was old enough to be my father, asked me what was the matter. On my way I had lost one of my gold earrings, a wedding present, I told him, but it was gone and that was that.
“Let’s go find it,” Ben said enthusiastically. I was surprised by his naïveté; this was New York City, and gold jewelry doesn’t linger in the streets. But he insisted that we should find it, quickly, before the meeting started.
Just to humor him and avoid arguing, I agreed, and we started back towards the subway, side by side, watching the pavement. After a few blocks, a faint gleam in the gutter caught my eye – my earring!
Ben was elated. “I told you we would find it.”
Walking back, he said, “You don’t trust me, and there’s no reason you should. But I want you to give me a little conditional trust. Trust me for a mile – until you trust yourself. Will you do that?”
He was talking about finding lost things – and about the Children’s Team.
And I couldn’t answer.
Susan joined the team after our fountain-building project. She was my age, but she had a Ph.D. and a successful husband. Soft-spoken and pretty, she was readily liked. I tried hard not to resent her. I had to acknowledge that she knew a lot and was willing to share it. For over a year, our projects had revolved around the construction of the fountain. Now we were looking for a new inclusive theme, and Susan had exactly the idea and the expertise we needed.
I felt a stab of envy. I tried to experience it, not to drive it away but simply watch it eat at me. This was an inner work. Gradually, this persistent effort to remain connected to something so painful had an effect. Allowing this envy into my awareness neutralized it – the light of attention transforms what is seen. Going against my automatic desire to oppose her, I tried to listen carefully to what she brought and support it. This had an effect on my feelings and gradually a strong friendship was forged in this particular fire. I missed her presence much later during a crisis on one of our long trips.
After we had completed the fountain project with its endless tiles, plumbing, construction, and filming, we wondered what we should we do next. Could we take the children somewhere new? Traveling together during the summer recess required a worthwhile destination. But what could be meaningful?
“There are Algonquian Indians living on the Onondaga reservation a few hundred miles away,” Susan volunteered. “I did my Ph.D. thesis on the Mohawk.”
A traditional Native American community within driving distance? – That was news and it excited the team. We resolved to join the children in a study of the Mohawk language and then travel together to their reservation.
“Contact will be difficult,” Susan cautioned, explaining that the Indians were not eager to be entertainment for tourists; in fact, the reservation was closed to uninvited guests. Still, we were hopeful.
We read Apologies to the Iroquois. We learned about how traditional Indians reached agreement through a long silence at meetings of the whole tribe; of their respect for the a universal spirit that infused all creation with life. Here were people who integrated the sacred into the everyday.
“Don’t get moon dust in your eyes,” warned a team member who had known Indians in Michigan. “They don’t live that way anymore, not after all we’ve done to them. It’s all over – they are a broken alcoholic people.” But he could not discourage us.
Indian legends, myths about the ages of the earth, folk stories, trickster tales and the successive appearances of mankind were read to the children. We found out a Powwow, a general assembly, would be held in July at Onondaga. All tribes were welcome and visitors were tolerated. Here was our chance, and we proposed a trip to the children. Nineteen of them signed on; the youngest was Susan’s two-year-old, the oldest, was sixteen-year-old Daniel.
Our caravan of cars set out on a warm morning. After a day’s drive a cow pasture near the reservation was the closest we could camp and, with the permission of the farmer, we made our base there. Dusk was approaching. Hurriedly we unpacked the cars and pitched our tents.
It was dark when we reached the assembly. An athletic field surrounded by a tall wire fence was the unlikely venue for this gathering of the tribes. At one end was a wooden stage. A great log fire burned in the center, and packed closely around it, hundreds of Indian family groups sat on blankets or on the ground.
We made our way between the Indians, finally finding a clear place far from the fire. We settled down, the teenagers sitting together and the younger ones staying close to the adults. The darkness and the fire created a kind of magic; drumming and chanting pulsed from the stage. Around the fire, men and women in buckskin shirts, jeans, mismatched sweaters, headbands and bits of Indian finery swayed and wheeled, keeping a perfect beat with their stamping. Young, middle-aged and old men and women danced around the fire, the soft thud of their feet in unison on the hard-packed earth.
Not staying on our blankets for long, our children melted into the darkness to explore the concession stands, the music, the mysterious field.
Where was the singing coming from? The complex rhythms seemed to emanate from four men who pounded a five-foot wide drum with deerskin-padded sticks. The drummers’ mouths never moved. Who was chanting?
“Look closely,” our resident musician said. The drummers’ throats were vibrating; they were chanting without moving their lips. “Ey–oh–oh–ya, oh–oh–eh–ya,” they sang, an irresistible invitation to join the circle. A few of our adolescents tried, but the emcee cautioned that only Indians were allowed to dance and they quickly withdrew. At intervals the next dance was announced: the rabbit, the coyote, a war dance. The fire snapped and hissed.
Standing in front of me in line for the water tap was a bone-skinny Indian, his long black hair tied in a ponytail, wearing a faded flannel shirt, worn jeans and old boots. Bright, intelligent eyes shone from a deeply tanned and lined face. We smiled at each other and began talking, though a rumbling cough would sometimes interrupt him mid-sentence.
Henry said he was a MicMac and traveled from one Powwow to another, welcome in all nations. Once in a while, he would return to the Schubenacedie reservation in Nova Scotia to visit his mother. He was a long way from home.
“Why do you people always want to change the Indians?” Henry asked. “If God only wanted one kind of tree, he would have made only pines. Sure, roses are nice. Just think how sad the world would look if there were only roses, only pines. Why do you people want us to be like you?”
I had no answer, except to invite him to join us after the dancing ended. Henry agreed.
I was so excited introducing him that the words wouldn’t come right. “This is Henry MicMac,” I fumbled, and he corrected me: “I’m Henry Knockwood, a MicMac Indian.”
Everyone laughed. The children were soon plying Henry with questions while we kept his coffee cup filled.
His life story was the first of its kind we had heard. His simple way of speaking struck everyone, so that the children remembered afterwards what he said almost word for word. The darkness also helped, his thin face silhouetted by the firelight as he paced up and down.
“I was born in Schubenacedie on the reservation. About the time I was eight years old, the Catholics built a place for Indian orphans in Quebec. Trouble was, there were no orphans. If Indian moms or dads die, all the relatives want the kids. That big orphanage was standing empty, so they come to the reservation and take the kids away from their parents by force.
“Now before they take me away,” he continued, “my Mom and Dad, they want to give me a present, but they are poor and they got nothing to give. So they take me 100 miles away from Shubie in the forest and they leave me there and they say, ‘Son, find your way home.’”
A ripple of protest passed through the children. One asked, “Didn’t your parents love you?”
“Oh yes,” said Henry, “they love me alright. Understand – they want to give me a gift – and when I get home, they know I will feel like I can do something hard – like I’m a man.”
“But what if you didn’t make it home?” one of the girls asked. “Wouldn’t they be sorry?”
“Oh yes,” Henry said, “they would feel real bad. My parents, they worried just like your parents, but it was the only thing they could give me. And I knew afterward, when I made it home, that I would be okay on my own. Then, I wasn’t so afraid to leave Shubie.
“When they come to take me to the orphanage, my mom, she’s crying pretty bad, but they tell her I got to go. So I go. I don’t like the orphanage much. They make the kids kneel down and kiss them statues. They tell us that’s God. But we know our father is not a statue. He is in everything. So when I won’t kneel down, they beat me pretty bad. I lost a couple of teeth, but I never did kneel.”
When it was bedtime, Henry stretched out on the ground, putting his head closest to the fire. He chose a small log for a pillow.
“Can you really sleep on the ground without a blanket?” a child asked.
“Sure, if I haven’t got a blanket,” he said.
He examined the spare sleeping bag we found for him with interest, and we gave it to him as a present. Months later, when we met Henry again, he didn’t have the sleeping bag. He had passed it along to someone he thought needed it. And so it was with anything that came into his hand: a little money, a western shirt, a buck knife. He would be delighted with the gift, enjoy it for a time, then give it away to a nephew, a neighbor, or a stranger, who would get the same pleasure from it as Henry had.
The next day, he watched as several of the boys struggled to start a fire with damp kindling. His offer to teach us the “Indian way” was gratefully accepted.
The Indian way? He took a reserve can of gasoline he had spotted in the van and poured it liberally on the wood. Then he struck a match and the fire blazed hot and high. He chuckled at our disapproval. Common sense, according to Henry, was the “Indian way.” Why would anyone struggle with damp wood when there was gasoline nearby?
Henry stayed with us a while. When something needed to be done, he was the first on his feet and even the quickest; the teenage boys couldn’t beat him in splitting wood or carrying water, putting up a tent or packing a car. Tying tight bundles was a specialty; his knots didn’t come undone. He knew ten different ways to swing an ax and could produce paper-thin shavings or thick chunks of wood. But the moment the work was finished, Henry lounged. If there was nothing that needed doing, why not rest? He never tried to look busy, never pretended.
I began to hope that our relationship with Henry would repair his view of whites: that he would see we were capable of friendship and honor. His explanation of why the tribes called the settlers “two hearts” had cut rather deep. The Indians reasoned that the Europeans must have two hearts in their chests in order to be able to say one thing and do another. The famous cliché “white man speak with forked tongue” was another attempt to describe a duplicity the Indians found unfathomable. Henry’s stories often dealt with the theme of betrayal, but there was no outrage in his tone. What happened had happened. It had been prophesized.
We learned that the deer and the moose were gone. There was not enough game on the reservations to live in the traditional manner. Henry became a wanderer, moving from tribe to tribe bringing greetings and news, working here and there to pay his way.
After that weekend, we were added to Henry’s circuit. He would turn up at our New York City apartment every few months, with no more notice than a phone call telling us he was a few blocks away.
In 1969 he invited us to the “Rez,” to visit traditional Indians during the summer. We gladly accepted and planned a ten day trip to “Grandmother’s Land,” the Schubenacedie reservation in Nova Scotia.
Peggy was busy elsewhere and couldn’t make the trip with us, and the team faced her absence with some trepidation. Who would mediate our disputes? Who would supply the just-in-time impulse? Who would whip the lead car into that dawn departure? The team met and it was decided that the tribal analogy could be extended, as well as our usual roles as scouts, fire starters, cooks, scribes, drivers, and the “whip,” we would have a leader. Ben would be our “chief.”
We rather highhandedly decided that this time we would travel like an Indian tribe with the children respecting their elders and the authority of the chief. We didn’t consider this model to be at variance to our usual way of relating to the children, that having a leader undermined the principle of team work and defeated our commitment to share decision-making with the children.
Practiced campers now, we rounded up an assortment of cars and vans and planned our itinerary to reach the Bay of Fundy on the first day, tent by the ocean, then cross the Canadian border on the second day; we would have a week on the Rez and two days to drive home. If the traditional Indians could show us something, well and good, but even if the “Indian Way” was now only history, it was, after all, still an opportunity for an adventure.
The journal of the trip, written by a different child each day, reflects their perceptions:
It was a rainy morning in New York City. We gathered at the meeting place. Everyone arrived by ten. Some had come as early as seven. Tents, luggage and tools were packed into the van before the meeting. Then Ben began by speaking of adventure and responsibility. When he had finished, Henry told us to feel welcome at the reservation. He would travel ahead of us to prepare the way. He promised, too, that Indians would like us if we followed certain courtesies. First, we should avoid grabbing, as he noticed we tended often to do. Next, we were to at all times respect our elders and not interrupt their conversations. Lastly, he asked us not to walk in front of a Micmac, nor cut across two people who were speaking, as it would be a great insult.
After the car personnel list was read, a navigators and treasurer’s meeting was held. Then Henry gave a prayer for guidance by the Creator. As a suggestion for the first day, it was proposed that we try to travel as silently as possible.
The caravan passed through New York, Connecticut, and on. Each car indulged in its own form of traveling entertainment and games: story telling, improvisation, tape recording and just hacking.
Unlike any of the previous Indian trips we had made, there was an air of assurance. We thought we knew where we were heading and what we would find. Just the same we were still excited and anxious.
When we reached the Bay of Fundy, the wind was rising, whipping the waves against the cliffs. Nowhere else in the world does the ocean tide rise and fall 160 feet with the moon. We raised our big tent first and then the five smaller ones facing east. As soon as the tents were up, the boys scattered. They found footpaths down to the ocean, and we could see them running along the beach hundreds of feet below. Dinner was cooked and eaten. When it was dark, we gathered in the big tent.
Rain drummed lightly on the canvas roof, then more and more heavily. We drew closer, for whoever touched the sides conducted a stream of water into the tent, soaking us and creating puddles. A spasm of lightening flashed through the tent’s plastic windows punctuated by thunder. The bay was white; America’s easternmost point of land was in its most characteristic aspect: storm.
With glimmer from a flashlight, we began to read the MicMac myth of Glooscap, who created earth, animals and man. The storm gave the stories unexpected confirmation, lighting the tent with day-bright flashes, suddenly revealing our faces. The children were silent, attentive, they strained to hear the words of Glooscap through the storm. He divided the heavens. He sent lightning. He named the animals.
There was an atmosphere in the tent. It was palpable, charged. I felt that our gamble to seek out Indians had already paid off. Contact with the MicMac had been made.
The next day, at the turn-off for Schubenacedie, Henry was waiting on the highway. How long had he been there? He joined the lead car and directed us to his mother’s small house. A short, round woman in her eighties, she welcomed us with a smile.
That night a few of the youngest children slept in Henry’s mother’s house on the floor in sleeping bags, the rest outside. The next day, we were all up by six and gathering in the yard around a freshly made fire. Coffee in our largest pot, bacon, eggs, potatoes, bread – a feast. Soon all the children had eaten, plates were being scraped – but the youngest, Chris, had not appeared.
He was still on the floor in his blankets, asleep. As I bent over about to wake him, Henry’s mother appeared at my side. She asked me softly, “What are you doing?”
“Breakfast is almost over,” I said. “I have to wake him up so he can eat.”
“Wait until he has slept enough. Then he will get up,” she said.
I heard a protest rise in me. But what about –
“He’s still little,” she said, smiling at me kindly to show that she wasn’t challenging me, that she meant no harm.
I was very touched by her smile and the gentle expression in her eyes. Let them sleep until they awaken? Looking at Chris I knew he would be too tired to eat anyway; he would simply sit silent and miserable waiting for a chance to sleep again. So I let him be. Henry’s mother had given me a gift: to see things as they are – a tired child didn’t need to be awakened to face a breakfast he wouldn’t be able to eat. The Indian way was about living in this world, where the real took precedence over the planned.
After breakfast we packed our tents and gear and started for the campsite. Henry, his mother and his nephew Alfred led the way along old logging trails stepping from one half-buried log to another. Miles later Henry finally brought us to a flower-filled meadow, facing a lake ringed by a forest of pines, birch and ash. As soon as we pitched our tents, we gathered for the day’s plan. What shall we do? And where were Henry’s Indian friends who were going to instruct the children?
Henry was evasive. He was waiting too. When were they coming? He could not say exactly. He explained that they did not live by clock time. But they knew they were wanted.
“They will come soon,” he said.
Without other chores to do, the children were happy to be free in this natural remote place and scattered into the woods and along the shore of the lake. But the men in the team were restless and unhappy: what should we do in the absence of a plan?
Henry’s mother appeared from one of the tents. “I can show how to make something out of leaves,” she said to me shyly. “Dresses.”
I called the girls together, and we sat in a semicircle around Henry’s mother and watched as she carefully picked leaves off a branch. She smoothed the bigger ones into a pile, and put the smaller ones together next to her. She removed the twigs from the leaves and used them as pins to attach each leaf to the next in a long row. A second row of leaves was pinned to the first, then another, until she had made a green leaf dress, held together at the shoulders with twigs. It had all been done deftly and without a word. Pinning their own leaf dresses, soon the girls were dancing around in them in the clearing. Light played on the leaves piled in my lap, so clear, so finely contoured. The air buzzed and hummed, the forest was incandescent. And I was part of it.
It was late afternoon when Henry’s two Indian friends paddled across the lake, dressed in the old lumberjack shirts of the local people, looking neither traditional nor particularly Indian. They seemed like just a couple of old men. They talked with Henry in Mohawk for what seemed a very long time. They smoked. No one wanted to interrupt them, but …
What about a schedule? There was none, there couldn’t be one: “This is not our way,” Henry had said. But the schedule was our protection against chaos. How could we have a successful day, a day that “gave something” to the children, without a schedule? Could we bear an unstructured day? Would we be setting a bad example – one of aimlessness, of passivity? The men on the team became irritated. They gave Henry hard looks.
Henry finally announced that the Indians would teach the children how to make bread without pots or pans, “like you might have to if you were on the trail and had nothing but a sack of flour.” The children stood around in a ragged circle. No explanation, just “This is how you bake bread in the woods when you have no pots or pans.”
Springing from his restful pose, Alfred sprinted into the woods, and was back quickly with freshly-stripped rectangles of birch bark. Henry asked for a bag of flour and salt. He squatted on the earth and poured a little water and salt into the bag, mixing carefully to keep the flour from spilling. He kneaded the dough in the bag until it formed a large moist ball, which he then handed to one of the old men. We were quiet, watching. The old man spread the birch bark on the earth, and kneading the dough some more, pressed and stretched it into a rough square smaller than the bark, then covered the dough with the remaining pieces of bark. Carefully shoveling earth on the bark, he created a low, flat-topped mound. They then built a small fire on top. When there were enough burning embers, one of the old men spread them to cover the mound. There was nothing more to do, so the men squatted by the side of the fire and smoked, while the children ran off, understanding that this part of the demonstration was over. The team, however, stood around uncertainly, wondering how we were supposed to fill the time.
About an hour later, when the fire had died down, Henry began brushing the embers off the top of the mound with a stick. Then he dug away the mound itself, uncovering the bark. He carefully peeled away the top layers of bark. The dough had risen, the loaf was big – at least a foot and a half across. It had an unevenly browned top crust, and a little ash clung to the edges. Tearing it into pieces, he handed the hot bread around.
The children were exultant – it was real bread.
Alfred swept the displaced dirt back into the fire pit, restoring the ground. Then he returned to his favorite lookout spot and stretched out on his back, gazing across the lake. The demonstration was over.
“Why didn’t you explain what you were doing?” one of our men asked.
“That’s how my Dad and uncles taught me,” Henry answered. “The children can see, what’s the use of talking?”
From the day’s log:
Bill held a meeting on the beach. The adults seemed very cold, stern and scornful. After insisting that we sit up straight facing them without looking away or fingering the sand, they told us that we had been hacking too much. As Henry had promised to bring a few traditional Indians to play music and to dine with us, in preparing for the occasion we were all to work seriously in absolute silence until supper. So the meeting dispersed. Not understanding this new coldness of the adults, many of the children were surprised if not hurt.
That night Henry promised we would hear real Indian music by a renowned musician from Shubie. We waited expectantly. After dinner another old Indian arrived by boat from across the lake. Under the bright Nova Scotia stars, he was ready to play.
Unwrapping a small violin, he tucked it under his chin, stepped up to the fire and began to fiddle. It was old country fiddling, of Irish or English origin maybe, merry folksongs and dances, old popular tunes. He fiddled high and he fiddled low. It seemed to suit the dark forest and the sparks rising off the fire.
But one of the team members, a musician, could not contain his disappointment. Wouldn’t it be too bad if the children thought that this fiddling was really Indian music?
The old man fiddled for over an hour. The children liked it. Then, for the Indians, it was time for coffee and smokes by the fire. Afterwards, they stretched out on the ground around it to sleep, using small stones for pillows.
The team went to the meeting tent instead of going to sleep. “It’s time we faced this,” the men said.
“This is not working,” “The Indians have nothing to give to the children,” “We have to leave at once, before this trip totally falls apart,” “This is not the Children’s Work,” “We cannot let it go on,” the men said.
“But shouldn’t we ask the children what they think?” someone asked.
“Some things are too important to leave to the children.”
Too important to discuss with the children? This wicked idea was flattering. We were the adults. We had power. We knew.
But not everyone agreed. After a heated exchange, we decided that everyone should speak briefly in turn; that there would be no arguing; we would simply state our views and try to reach a consensus.
Our musician, still smarting over the fiddling masquerading as traditional Indian music, spoke first. We had five days left with the children. Weren’t we responsible for the impressions they were getting? And what were they really seeing? Indolence? Passivity? Several of the others agreed. One, a film-maker, felt that nothing was happening, there was no action. Why stay?
When it was my turn, I spoke about our promise to Henry to stay for five days. He had put himself on the line for us, gotten us permission to camp there. If we suddenly left, it would appear that what he had provided was not good enough. We would be breaking our promise. We would make him lose face, betray him. And what about the children? Would we not betray our principle of being honest with them?
Ben spoke next. He was angry, and he wanted to leave. The other men were also restless. “There was nothing to do here.” Gradually Ben aligned the men to his point of view, and then the cascade they outdid each other offering ever more radical suggestions. The people who could have stopped this were not there: Peggy was busy with other work, and Susan, who really knew Indians, was not on the trip.
I was alone in opposing the men – but I felt powerless not able to move them. They said I was “sentimental” and didn’t understand what was at stake.
Leave. Yes, we should leave, leave soon, even leave tomorrow. After just one day in the forest? I couldn’t believe it.
The more I tried to reason it out, the more bewildered I became. What was right? What was at stake? How did what I understood of Gurdjieff’s teaching apply here?
It was wrong to break our word to Henry. I could hardly bear the thought that, like all the others, we would betray him. And didn’t we always share our decisions with the children? But what about the team – could they all be wrong? Was I being egotistic, imagining that only I knew what was right and the rest of the team did not? If only Peggy were here! Peggy would get to the heart of the matter, would know what this conflict was about.
Despite having agreed to speak briefly and in turn, everyone repeated, argued, justified. It was almost dawn. I was tired. I began to realize that although I could continue to oppose the men, I could not sway them. Defeat tasted sour to me, but I did not want to remain alone on the losing side. I gave in.
“I take the responsibility,” Ben said forcefully. “You can blame it all on me.”
It was over.
How would we go on? How to explain our sudden change of plans to the children? We had not given them a choice; we had decided what was best. Now, we would “sell” that decision to them. It was a familiar adult-child relationship – but not for the Children’s Team. And what would we do with the remaining days of our trip? “Let’s climb Katahdin,” Ben unexpectedly proposed “it’s only a long day’s drive away”. Five thousand foot Mt. Katahdin, the highest mountain in the East, was 650 miles to the northeast. We could drive back to the Bay of Fundy, then due west into Maine, and have time to make a base camp, climb the mountain and return home.
The idea lifted everyone’s spirits, even mine. I had never climbed a mountain before. The men went down in a huddle over the maps.
Now only one detail remained: who would lie to the children, who to Henry – and what lie?
All kinds of “explanations” were proposed. When we faced the realization that there was no way to justify or dignify our departure, I began to hope that maybe we would stay. But someone came up with a new idea to cover the gap: silence. No explanation, say nothing. We would simply announce our departure and give no reason, letting the children think whatever they wanted.
And what about Henry? They would leave that to me; I could tell him whatever I wished.
“I am going to tell him the truth,” I warned.
But the team really did not care what I told Henry.
That morning, we broke camp with unseemly haste. A sudden storm had come up. Wind squalls and sheets of rain on the lake hurried our departure. I took Henry in my car. He must have known by my stricken expression that I did not relish the role of betrayer. We drove out of camp together, my heart heavy.
A buzz of questions filled each car: Why did we leave? What happened? As agreed, we didn’t answer the children. We drove slowly on the unpaved roads and paused at the top of a hill at the end of the reservation for the rest of the vehicles to catch up.
The Children’s Journal – July 15, 1970 – the sixth day.
At 8:15 the next morning the cooks prepared breakfast. The rest were aroused by 8:45. However breakfast even though somewhat skimpy was not really ready till 10:00. Soon after while we were airing out the tents and the sleeping bags Jerry suddenly called a meeting. Several of us teased him – “Oh, you lost your keys again” but he did not reply.
Ben told us we had to leave immediately. Bill too arose telling us not to ask any questions. All the children were stupefied. Henry, bewildered as the rest of us, repeated over and over, “I don’t know why ya’s gotta go, but if ya gotta go, ya gotta go.” Mom quietly invited us to come again.
Silently the tents and gear were packed and carried back up the hill. We still did not know where we were going. Just the same, we hit the road.
Many trying to comprehend why we were leaving reasoned that because of the strong winds a hurricane was approaching. Others thought that Peggy or someone else was ill or had died. Most of the children still not understanding the adult’s cold abruptness were resentful and afraid.
“When I was a little kid, my father took me up here,” Henry said, his voice low. “In those days the woods were full of deer and moose, and the sky was filled up with ducks and geese. He told me that when I was a man, everything I was looking at would have disappeared. I didn’t know what he meant, but he could see what was ahead.” We looked out over the reservation. The wildlife was long gone. Logging roads and government-built cottages checkered the forest.
The rain had stopped. Henry got out. “I bless your road,” he said, “The blessing will be there – even when you don’t remember it.”
The trip log includes:
On the whole, during the trip, there was a great confusion of emotions. From the first day, a gap seemed to form between the adults and us. The adults were always stressing responsibility. Hacking was so frowned upon that we felt guilty every time we laughed. There were few minutes of fun. But each time the adults left us to do something like pitching or packing we were afraid we were being punished. Furthermore, we were leaving Henry. None of us wanted to go; we could see Henry was hurt. And again the adults were cold and demanding. Most of us were afraid, not knowing why or where we were going.
Mt. Katahdin is the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Picturesque with waterfalls, Katahdin is not a simple mountain, but a broad massif of several peaks, and ridges, surrounded on almost three sides by a ring of lower summits. Essentially a high plateau that runs north-south entirely above the timberline Katahdin drops off steeply on all sides to the forested lowlands below. This concentrated group of mountains stands utterly alone in the otherwise flat Maine north woods, the highest summit is at 5,000 feet.
In a holiday mood; the children seemed to remember nothing of Schubenacadie, as though it hadn’t touched them.
But a coldness, a distance between team members persisted. Or did I imagine it? Like the stale smell of tobacco after a party, the feeling of mistrust, of shame, lingered. “Safety is key when climbing,” Ben said over and over. Sturdy shoes, food, water, warm clothes.
What was he talking about? I was somewhat contemptuous of the men’s mountaineering “expertise” – it seemed like so much macho posturing. We were on a spirit quest, no harm could come to us.
It was hot at the foot of the mountain, and the children jettisoned their jackets. The teenage boys raced ahead, running up the mountain trails, doubling back again when they came to a portion of trail too dangerous for us and leading us by an easier route. The trails grew steeper, breathing became labored and a little effort of will was needed to keep the legs moving.
Little Chris suddenly sat down on the trail and refused to go further. He was annoying; he could climb if he wanted to.
But Ben unexpectedly took his side. “I’ll stay with him. We’ll wait for you here.”
I searched Ben’s eyes. There was so much contradiction in each one of us. Ben, whom I couldn’t forgive for leaving Henry, was willing to stay behind with a little kid while the rest of us climbed to the top.
Then word came down the trail that Jon was missing. Everyone fanned out to search for him, circling the slope where he was last seen. It was quiet on the mountain. “Jon,” we called, “Jon, Jon.”
Finally, someone found him, his ankle wedged between two rocks. Luckily he could still walk.
What was this mountain? Where was it? In front of me was only a vertical wall of jumbled rock, some loose under foot, suddenly giving way when I stepped on it. The careful order of our climb unraveled, and I made my way as best I could alone, the children surging ahead.
Suddenly, on a slippery slope of scree, I felt my daughter bracing me, her arm tucked under my elbow in a steady grip. “I gotcha Mom,” she said gaily, and I realized how afraid I had been of sliding helplessly down that rubble-strewn gorge into the abyss. She never left my side, and we climbed together; I would make it to the top, I decided, no matter what. But better not to stop too often or rest too long. The summit was far.
The climb became steeper and the trees thinned away until we were beneath a huge avalanche slide of rocks. The slope seemed to be at a 45 degree angle. We were sometimes forced to climb on our hands and knees.
Further up the timberline ended. Below us we could see lakes, forest and the ring of mountains.
As we pushed towards the peak, it began to drizzle. Each group sought shelter under boulders. As soon as the rain subsided we started again.
Finally we reached the top of the rock climb. Yet contrary to our hope this peak was not the top. Before us lay a large plain form which rose to another peak, the time summit. Behind us the rest of the Appalachian Mountains wound back into the haze. Huge clouds drove in from all sides. Some were even below us. We seemed to be at the top of the earth or on an island in the clouds.
It had been getting darker – and colder. At first the chill felt delightful – a relief from the unrelenting sun on the mountain. Though it was mid-afternoon, the light deepened and the temperature continued to fall. What started as a light drumming grew louder. It got dark, Hail began to shower the mountain. The stones stung when they hit, pounding our backs, our heads and exposed skin. But we had finally reached the peak.
I pulled a waterproof parka from my pack. But what of the children who had left their jackets below? Hypothermia was a real danger. They were tired and wet.
“Eat your lunch,” one of us ordered, and crouching on the summit, the children devoured their sandwiches and candy bars. The oversized garbage bags in which we had packed lunch became, with three slits, impromptu raincoats.
We were a comical sight but warm and dry in our garbage bags, giddy with relief.
But our moment of triumph was brief. The endless vista from the top was blotted out by fog that pressed so close we had to grope to find our footing. Our descent was laborious, slow.
Lightning. Beautiful distant flashes in the dark sky moved closer and closer, then exploded striking at rocks just yards from where we stood. There was no shelter.
“Get down off the mountain,” one of the men yelled – and, terrified, we moved down more quickly than I imagined possible. No longer carefully probing our way, we ran down the trail – pursued by the lightning. It seemed impossible, but the lightning was an excellent accelerator. We had descended in half an hour what had taken us four hours to climb. We gathered below in an excited throng. We were safe.
The children loved the ridiculous way we looked in our garbage-bag coats and made fun of us and of each other. Laughter diffused the real peril the storm had brought.
We were a team again, our troubles with the Indians forgotten.
From the trip log:
The one saving experience was the Katahdin climb. Few regretted it: many even thought the climb was worth leaving Henry.
As uncomfortable and difficult as the trip was with its misunderstandings, it was the most rewarding of all the Indian trips we previously made, for in many ways we are all stronger from it.
But back in New York, Peggy would not let it rest. We would have to meet with the parents and explain what happened on the trip, what went wrong.
Why did we lie to the children? Nobody looked forward to that.
For the three days before our meeting with the parents, I didn’t go out. I called no one, made no plans. Unexpectedly, I would find myself crying. Despite the excitement and fun of the mountain, the trip itself felt like a dismal failure. In our contact with traditional people – like all the whites before us – we broke our promises as soon as they no longer suited us. And what about the foundation of our work with the children, the principle of honesty? We kept them out of the decision making – and we lied.
We were so eager to experience “being Indian,” or at least how we imagined that to be based on what we heard of Henry’s stories, that the essence of the Indian Way, that is keeping one’s word, ultimately eluded us. Only the play acting remained.
All these questions rose again and again during our meeting with the parents. We stammered and justified our various versions of the event. Finally, the parents understood. Even though they trusted us with their children, we had no special wisdom that saved us from error. For all our striving, we were as fallible as they were. Struggling and meaning well, we made mistakes but we admitted them, and that enabled the parents to forgive us and for the team to forgive each other.
But I couldn’t make peace with myself. I had gone along with the lies. What happened to my ideals? They were paper thin and crumpled under the pressure of real life. It was unbearable.
“Encourage the children to think for themselves,” Madame de Salzmann had told us.
But how could I think for myself? It was too late to look for someone to teach me. I would have to turn inward for that truth – find it in some deeper part of myself that I had not needed before. What was the price. The voice of conscience always seemed to point to the harder, more painful alternative.
We had not been able to follow conscience – to share our dilemma with the children so they could participate in our decision. We had kept our misgivings hidden so they could not choose.
Wanting the children to question everything while we stayed safe in an attitude of superior wisdom produced a lie. Either we joined them on this uncomfortable frontier of not knowing, or it could not be crossed.
Madame de Salzmann had said, “Teach them not to be afraid,” but in fact, fear had ruled me, the fear of being in the wrong, of losing the approval of the team. How could I model not being afraid of social pressure, when I buckled under it?
Pacing around my apartment, I came to see that the episode was a betrayal of the principles of the Children’s Work as well as of Henry: we did not ask the children what they thought. In a moment of difficulty, we simply told them what to do. I promised myself that at whatever cost, I would not knowingly betray my understanding again. Remorse brought me something new.
For the first time, Gurdjieff’s words “remorse of conscience” for one’s past deeds against one’s own convictions” became a reality for me. (A&E, Book 3, p. 149).
This experience became my guide. Deeper than thought, a new understanding is possible, something authentic. I have my suffering over betraying Henry to thank for that.
I cannot give my conscience over to anyone – not even the team.
Any group can lose its way.
“Will my father die?” is the hardest question I was ever asked.
The child in front of me was eight and painfully aware that her father was in the hospital again, and each time he came home he was noticeably weaker. Many believe it’s wrong to tell children the truth about death. Why not? Besides, do we know the truth? It cannot be reduced to “yes” or “no”, it is not limited to a recollection of facts. It must include meaning and purpose. The context prevents truth from being “brutal”.
Who is asking? Why? How will the information be received?
Leaning on the moment, sensitive to the feelings of the child, I can appraise the truth of the moment. Honesty is being faithful to that truth.
Difficult as it is to trust, honesty is what I can lean on in any moment of uncertainty or crisis.
Honesty requires an instantaneous appraisal: What is the truth? What is the simplest way to express it? Does the child already know it? Sometimes the children need to hear the truth from us simply to validate what they already know.
Momentarily paralyzed by life events we find ourselves ready to lie when the truth is overly-revealing, embarrassing or simply too hard to face. It is difficult to stay alert enough to search for the truth in such a moment, but without it, there can be no honesty. Mistakes have to be acknowledged promptly, bad judgment, bad temper, all seen, admitted without regard to ego and self-image.
A moment of sincerity often brings relief, even laughter, and invariably establishes a bond between adult and child.
Does lying about death, illness, divorce and the various troubles that shadow children’s lives protect them from painful realities? Often children have already grasped the truth. But when an authority figure lies, the authentic feelings of the child are replaced by the habit of looking to others to know what is real. The child no longer trusts him or herself and lets others define reality. From being lied to, self-doubt becomes habitual.
“Will my father die?”
“Eventually, everyone will,” I answered. True. “It is the same for all of us.” True, but the question is about her father. “I hope that he will live.” True. “I do not know the future.” True. “Though he is very ill (true, and important to acknowledge), “we hope that he will recover,” a truth that does not crush the child’s hope.
To have simply asked “What do you think?” required presence of mind, or maybe courage that might have shown me what was needed. The children will tell us, if we listen, what they already understand and what they can bear to know.
If the children had questions about death, they echoed my own. Having lost both parents that same year, I urgently needed to understand what happened.
I brought my questions to Henri Tracol, the president of the Gurdjieff Foundation in France, when he visited New York that December, in 1976. Where were my parents now? Did they exist outside me?
Tracol replied: “Of course it would be very easy to say ‘No,’ but I do not have the right. I simply do not know. But I have no need for such an idea – they exist within me.”
I heard Mr. Gurdjieff say three or four times over the years: “You and your father and your grandfather all the way back to Adam are one. They exist in you. You have the possibility to free them, or the opposite. The idea of linear time is a great obstacle. It is closer to reality to think in cycles: the day and night, the seasons, heartbeat, breath. If time can be understood like that, in cycles, then I see that it is simply my turn. My parents exist through me; only now it is my opportunity to experience for them. It is my turn to try.”
In ancient Chinese thought it was considered that if a child rose, he raised all his ancestors in the past and future. If he fell, he dragged them all down with him. Gurdjieff told me this story several times. The Chinese emperors had a merit system, and all their subjects, rich and poor, were tested. Those with the highest scores were promoted to the position of Minister.
When a new Minister was appointed, the Emperor sent a special delegation to the cemetery where his ancestral tablets were kept. After ceremony and drumming, a captain would proclaim, “Listen, ancestors of Minister So-and-so. Because of you, because of what you did, your descendent today has the highest honor of serving the Empire. You may feel joyful and proud. It is because of you.”
When a criminal or rebel was to be executed, the Emperor had a similar delegation sent to the unfortunate’s home village. After ceremony and drumming, a captain proclaimed, “Listen, ancestors of So-and-so. Because of you, because of what you did, your descendent will be put to death. You must feel sorrow and shame. It is because of you.”
“Sometimes I feel I don’t want to free my father, but to be free of him,” I said.
Mr. Tracol replied,
Yes, of course, that is exactly an illustration of what I was describing. We are born with the negative traits of our parents, who also received them from who knows whom. They struggled as much as they were able, and we are fortunate enough to continue the struggle for them as well as for ourselves. Mr. Gurdjieff spoke about repairing the past and preparing the future. It can only be done now, in this moment. That way you also repair for them.
I wanted to believe.
Gurdjieff said in response to a woman who suffered many tragedies in her childhood and pitied herself:
“You know “Justice” is a big word – it is a big thing in the world. Objective things are not small things like microbes, they go according to law, as the law has accustomed them to go. Remember: as you sow, so you shall reap. Not only people reap, but also families and nations. It often happens that that which happens on earth comes from something which was done by a father or a grandfather. The results converge on you, the son or grandson; it is you who have to regulate them. This is not an injustice, it is a very great honor for you; it will be a means which will allow you to regulate the past of your father, your grandfather, great-grandfather. If misfortunes come to you in your youth, it means that someone brought them – for this you must reap. He is dead, it is another on earth who reaps. You must not look at yourself egotistically. You are a link in the chain of your blood. Be proud of it, it is an honor to be this link. The more you are obliged to repair the past, the more you will have remorse of conscience. You will succeed in remembering all that which you have not done as you should in the past. Those things which you have done contrary to justice have mortified your grandfather. Thus you can have ten times more remorse of conscience and your worth will augment in proportion.
You are not tail of a donkey. You have responsibilities, a family. All your family past and future, depend on you. Your entire family depends on the way you repair the past. If you repair for everyone, it is good. If you do not repair for everyone it is bad. You see your situation. Logically, do you see what justice is? Justice is not occupied with your little affairs, unredeemed pledges, it is occupied with big things. It is idiotic to believe God thinks of small things. It is the same with justice. Justice does not touch all that, and at the same time, nothing is done on earth without it. Search for the reasons. You are obliged to have a position of responsibility in the line of your blood; you must work to repair the past. It is difficult to understand all at once.” (Voices, p. 174)
We wished we could learn what we were trying to show the children - but we have so much more baggage. The children are freer, they take up our challenges happily and discover that they have the power to move their universe, that their efforts are valuable, that even the most difficult moments bring them what they need. They discover he joy of being themselves.
If we did not tread on the earth with the light confidence of the young ones, at least we were able sometimes to take a step that was truly our own. Sometimes we found our own ground to stand on. Our ordinary selves continued much as before, but there was something new. Lightness was the sign of this when it appeared. Not sentimentality or lack of purpose, but less negativity and less baggage. Lightness is more freedom, more possibility to relate freshly to the moment, aware of a finer quality of energy in the midst of ordinary life. As the children practiced expressing their own genuine ideas and feelings, they learned to look to themselves for guidance the next steps.
Encouraging independent thought in the children, we sometimes asked them what big questions they had, what puzzled them, what would they ask if they could meet someone really wise? The topics varied: justice and injustice, anger, fate, luck, the meaning of life, death. Exploring these questions together with the children, we tried not to impose our views but to leave space for theirs.
On one of our camping trips, we divided the children by age, putting the older ones in one car and the younger ones in another. Each group was asked to come up with a question they wanted to ask Madame de Salzmann. After several hours the caravan stopped for lunch, everyone eager to learn what each car had come up with.
To our surprise, both groups had reached almost exactly the same question: “If we are going to die anyway, why should we work?”
The older children brought this question to a meeting with Madame de Salzmann. Afterwards, they struggled to recount to the rest of us what she had said. The body dies and is dispersed, but if one works, something continues, she told them.
At another time she explained:
“There is an energy that is trying to evolve. That is why it comes into a body. If a person works and helps the evolution of this energy, at death this energy will go to a higher level. If one does not work, the energy returns to its own level. But the human life is wasted.”
You cannot understand life without understanding love, Madame de Salzmann said. She explained that love is a cosmic force that pervades the whole universe; it is not merely a “welling-up” of feeling. It is not even personal. We tried to understand; how could love not be personal?
When she proposed to us that we “affirm the being” of the children, it unexpectedly brought us to the question of impartial love.
Do I love my children? At this seemingly absurd question, we are struck by our fierce attachment to them, and it is all too easy to call this “love.” Yet, depending on whether they conform to our sense of how they ought to be in that moment we might “love” them more or less or not at all. And with others around, how our children reflect on us, their progenitors, may very much influence our degree of affection for them. Is there anything that can be considered impartial in our feelings towards them, an unconditional acceptance that relates to their being, not their appearance, their actions, or how they make us look?
Peggy added: We can’t talk about loving the children. We have emotional responses to them but this has to be questioned. This could be part of my desire for success, my ego, my greed. The other side is that the children bother me. They interfere with my picture of them. I’m ready for them when I’m ready, not when they are. Do I really have concern for them? Do I know what’s at stake?
We began to read, to study. Love keeps the stars wheeling in their places, says an ancient text. According to St. John, God is love. Love everything that breathes. (A&E p. 198, old edition).
Partiality ruled our way of relating to the children – our preferences were palpable. We loved some but not others; we felt loving sometimes, but sometimes not. “Love” could turn into indifference – even hatred – with incredible swiftness. Impartial love, however, would include the “good” and “bad” alike, just as rain makes no distinction where it falls. Our love was far from such an impartial cosmic force that included everyone.
Even the love we feel for people closest to us may be just a reflection of a great force passing though the prism of my ordinary self.
The moments when we loved the children as if they were all equally ours were very rare. And we could not force love, it follows its own laws. Attempts to manipulate it degrade it to a form of commerce, negotiation, barter.
But even if impartial love was beyond our control, we could try to give an impartial attention – turn our gaze on the children with enough awareness to see them, and not just a projection of our idea of them.
We could try to hear the child through the screen of language, to listen for the meaning behind their words.
We could picture the children as they would be when they were grown and give them the same respect we would give their adult selves – the unconditional acceptance every being yearns for.
Wanting and needing to be seen, when we looked at the children with some degree of consciousness, their existence was affirmed. They felt that they were not just bits of stuff blown about by adults, by their peers or by their own powerful emotions. They knew the universe had a place for them, their own place. It was as if God looked through our eyes.
So from the question of what love is, we came to another question, more possible to work with: how to free our attention from everything that holds it captive, to experience a sphere of freedom full of new possibility. We did try often to tear ourselves away from our usual concerns and agendas and give our attention, still wavering still caught by distractions, but offering the possibility of including them and ourselves in the same moment. And in the next moment we would try again.
Paradoxically, “not to know” makes room for a higher intelligence to appear that cannot enter while I am sure of everything. My old conditioning comforts me, assures me that I already know everything important, every truth, and that there is no need to stand in the unfamiliar place of not knowing, of having to question. The search to free myself of the tyranny of my acquired beliefs gradually leads to a freedom from my illusions, and, inevitably, a contact with a more objective reality. The falling away of the known opens the door to the world of consciousness.
Various practical exercises, for the children and the team, made this more conscious state possible.
Chris, then sixteen, remembered:
Leaving the farm in Oregon, Peggy gave me a task. “You must record in your mind everything that you see and do today.” She specified, “Down to the last detail. And you must remember and tell it back to us tonight when we camp.”
I chose to take this task very seriously. From the moment we broke from breakfast, I went over in my mind everything I said and did. It went something like this:
Went over to the sink, washed hands. Water was warm. Miles asked me for a towel; I gave him a towel with my left hand. He thanked me. I turned more hot water on and burned my right hand. I pulled it back. I turned the water off. From the small window over the sink, I noticed a bird flying from a branch. Cami asked me to move so she could put something under the sink. And so on.
At midday, as we were driving south to Arizona – our destination was a group of Hopi Indian mesas near the Four Corners – I was still fervently trying to record everything I said and did.
Then for about twenty minutes, the entire world changed. It started with the trees. We were driving down a very straight highway that was lined on either side with pine trees. I was looking at them whizzing by when, suddenly, I noticed them. I had been watching them for the better part of an hour, and all of a sudden, there they were. They were green, those trees, and brown and, well, incredible. As they flew by, I saw colors in them I had never before imagined were in pine trees, all different shades of green and blue and gold. The brown of the bark, the textures – it was as if they had been painted in some magical way to make them glow.
Then I noticed the dashboard. That ugly brown Dodge dashboard I had been made to stare at all morning, that cheap molded piece of plastic, was suddenly vibrating with color and energy; it was actually moving. I reached out to touch it, and my hands were equally interesting.
When we stopped for lunch in a small park, I had absolutely no interest in eating; rather, I went straight to a nearby garden and waded into the flowers seeing and smelling them as if for the first time in my life.
What is the result of an exercise? Will it produce some external effect or leave an inner imprint? The quality of attention, its duration is the alchemist's gold, gradually refining the nature of the one who works until it is purified. Our caravans, camp-outs, crafts, parties and plays were not ends in themselves but only a means for us to taste this. And since no effort is ever wasted some slight yet imperishable trace must remain in the one who tries.
Dong, another child, remembered:
In the Children’s Work, from age 5 until I went away to college, one memory stands out far and above all others: moments when, as if a heavy blanket had been lifted off of me, I experienced a tremendous sense of clarity. Not only was the world more colorful, more full of meaning, but I also was aware of everything around me: the state of my muscles, the thoughts and emotions as they proceeded in me. At these times, I could see the problems of my life in a clear and sober light, yet also with a desire to face them head-on. Perhaps more extraordinary is that these moments occurred in the midst of the most mundane tasks, such as carrying rocks or looking for a broom.
What is this? I wondered, waking up before dawn one Sunday.
I walked to my car, feeling the strong rush of wind that comes just before the sun rises. The birds were awake, excitedly calling to each other not to miss the moment. My struggle to get out of bed no longer felt like a drama.
From the streets, the heavy-lidded windows of apartment houses showed their occupants still sleeping, as I, too, would otherwise be. It was an extraordinary happiness to be awake at dawn, watching the sky lighten until finally the sun appeared, a rim of liquid fire.
My attention, absorbed by this spectacle, was momentarily free of its usual preoccupations, and this space was filled with joy.
The Children’s Work gave me this moment, and this new life.
What was the long-term effect on the children of this Children’s Work? Of the original twenty-five in this account, some became doctors, physicists, psychiatrists… Others followed creative paths, becoming journalists, painters, screenwriters, playwrights, directors and actors. A few went into business. Virtually all are married and raising children of their own and questioning how to bring some of the experiences they valued in the Children’s Work to their own children’s lives. Although they are widely scattered, their bond to each other and the adults who worked with them remains strong. A few chose to participate in the Gurdjieff Work as adults, or, more exactly, sought it out after some years away.
In New York, the Children’s Work continues shifting its base to follow the adult work. The number of children remains fairly constant as older ones leave and younger children enter. Sometimes a group of teenagers decides to stay together and gather periodically on breaks from college. There is no set pattern; much depends on the nature of each generation of children and the particular adults of that team.
Gurdjieff’s dictum that children should not be inducted into the adult work was and is scrupulously respected. Some choose this work as a spiritual path, but all retain, perhaps for a lifetime, some of the ideals we struggled to embody.
Reality is a better guide to the truth, to right action, than any abstraction, however noble. Though the Children’s Work was informed by principles presented by Gurdjieff and by the counsel of Madame de Salzmann, the dichotomy between theory and practice was very fluid. Ultimately, what mattered most was the adults’ struggle to be present.
The effort in the moment was, and is, the guiding principle.
The adults who worked on the Children’s Team discovered much about themselves. The unrelenting demand of this particular experiment yielded exceptional insights and was greatly valued. Places on the Children’s Team were sought after, perhaps because some of us were also helped to grow up.
As for me, I never expected to write a book about working with children; the impulse for this project came decades later.
Michel de Salzmann, who continued the work of his mother Jeanne de Salzmann after her death in 1990, said one day, seating himself beside me at a seminar, “You are a writer? Write about the Work.”
“But I never knew Mr. Gurdjieff,” I protested, “and anyway it’s all been written by people like Ouspensky and Nicoll.”
He persisted, “You have your own way of speaking. Write something from your experience.”
“What should I write about?” I asked.
He didn’t answer.
When I saw him again, I asked if I should write about our work with children. He nodded. Encouraged, I told him I planned to interview all the people who had brought us the Children’s Work and edit their material into a history or a manual of instruction.
“But that would be journalism,” he said. His tone left no doubt that journalism was not what he wished for. “Your story – what happened to you, in your own voice – yes, and bring out the principles.”
“I don’t know the principles – we were always questioning.”
“Find them in your stories,” he said.
Over the years, in New York City and at his chalet in Chandolin, Switzerland, he vetted my many drafts, not seeming to mind their obvious limitations, and urged me to complete the book.
Michel de Salzmann did not live to edit this final version but I hope in reading this final draft he would have herd something of my own voice.
These principles did not spring ready made from any theories, but were distilled from years of questioning, study, trial and error:
The practical is higher than the theoretical
Respect the child’s inner world.
Trust in the child; honesty is the foundation of trust.
Believe in the competence of the child.
Provide a challenge that enables the child to go beyond the known. Children hunger for challenge.
Call the children to high ideals as a reminder that there is another level of life.
Persist in effort.
Strive for excellence rather than “very good.”
Make room for the unexpected and welcome it.
There is no such thing as “if only.” Start with things as they are. Accept yourself as you are.
Regard each moment as unknown, for the unknown permits discovery.
Give nothing ready-made, everything must come from the child’s wish.
Nothing is difficult, only our thought makes it so.
What others do doesn’t matter; results don’t matter – only the trying matters.
Work “as if” you were conscious.
Create large events.
Remember what it felt like to be a child.
Be honest with the children.
Join the children in their efforts.
Love work for work’s sake and not for its gain.
“Lean on the moment,” open to what is actually happening:
Use all you have: don’t save your best for later.
Be intentionally generous – and first, with your attention.
Keep questions alive.
The work must be real.
Affirm the being of the child.
Before we could challenge the children, we had to challenge ourselves. Who were we?, what were we doing and what were our aims? Who were the children we were working with?
This study became a lifeline that helped me stay afloat through various misfortunes: the illness of my parents, the death of my husband and even the demolition of the building I then called home. The admonition of Mr. Gurdjieff proved exact the harder the circumstances, the better for work, provided one worked, and this difficult period became a time of growth. The study of the children was objective, bringing order, hope and moments of clarity that transformed my life.
These notes were collected from a number of study sessions. Everyone shared their questions and discoveries and the senior people, inspired always by Jeanne de Salzmann, gave form to our material.
We struggled to understand what is my responsability to children as a parent? What is my role as a team member?
Q. In what way can I be responsible?
A. We are at least responsible to think.
Q: I have to fight very hard so that the part of me that’s most responsible can win. How can I do this?
A: We are all too passive in regard to our children. We must begin to be more active towards them. They are the results of our efforts. We do not give them enough of ourselves because we are lazy, and our attention span too short. We often reward disobedience and punish them when it is not required. We ought only to reward merit. At the same time, we must be willing to do more with our children, instead of pushing them into passive things, such as watching TV.
Q. I saw how I go at the children all the time with my demands, and my automatic assault brings a completely predictable response. When I bit back a habitual command, the response was different.
A. Will you try it tomorrow? Will it be the same? There are no techniques. I’m going to forget so easily that I have a role. Habitual demands spring from the image of what I want the child to be, which is quite contrary to the demands of the role. Our attitude must be different, we must want the relationship. This must be more important than whether the child brushes her teeth. Learn to wait. Wait for inspiration, for how it should be, for what you should be, should do. It won’t always be the same. Relationship is what we’re working for.
Q. I see that my child is more than his body, his psychic life also needs attention. Mostly I do not feel any responsibility towards the development of the whole child, his future possibility of having a contact with his authentic self, his real “I”.
A. Taking responsibility in the exterior way is the aim of ordinary life. We are parents and because the children have no one else to look to we are responsible for the inner as well. But we do not take this seriously. We are responsible and yet not responsible. The child is growing up somehow, regardless of whether we take our rightful place in this process.
Q. How can they have the right kind of dependence on me now, in order to have the right kind of independence later?
A. They depend on us to help them struggle with their lacks, their weakness. The main thing children can get from the work is the ability in later years to make a choice to struggle or not to struggle. Since the struggle between yes and no goes on all the time anyway, the work prepares them to be able to choose the “yes” and to assist the “yes” in that struggle. Any other things they learn would be merely outer things, that could be learned in the usual ways in ordinary life. This choice towards struggle can be developed under the special conditions provided for the children, and enable them to be genuinely independent as adults, able to fulfill their own lives.
Q. What do I really want for my child? What is my real wish for him or her? What are the means by which this could be brought about?
A. The children have within them a touchstone of truth, that they are born pure and essential and gradually have to assume more and more worldly baggage. Do we wish them to find their purpose in being born, living and dying? And what is our relation to those questions? They will soon be adults. What kind?
We don’t take time to think what is the essential nature of the child. What are his main faults? Difficulties? What will his main stumbling blocks be? We really need to try to bring our intellects into consideration with our children. We must take as a task and add it to our morning quiet effort to ponder about how we can be more active toward our children for ten minutes every day. We are also to remind ourselves many times during the day of this intention of ours. Only the parents can supply certain active impulses into the presence of their children at this time of the children’s lives.
Q. I have to see the discrepancy between the role and how I really am. Change comes when I can sometimes see that. When I try I have a chance that things might be different then if they just go by themselves, I am trying to study the idea of image, and how it is built up.
A. I made a picture of my life. I don’t know how I made it but I believe in it. What kind of person I am, who the children are. When someone doesn’t think about me the way I want to be thought of, I don’t like them. I exclude them.
We must try to understand on a deeper level why our children make demands on us just at the most inopportune times, when we are tired, busy, etc. What is behind this?
Q. How can I shield my child from disappointment?
A. When children are unhappy we always want them to be happy. We don’t leave them free enough to have their experience, pro and con. If they are sometimes left with a question, maybe that’s the best thing for him or her, to be left in galoshes.
Q. Is there something we have to do right now?
A. We need to engage our thought about our children. There is an educational process we need to engage in, for their whole being. Of course we are not adequate but work is something that comes through. Two currents exist. We know it. After enormous struggle, comes great energy and a great feeling of life. We’re giving them the opportunity to experience this double value of life.
We must put working with children on the basis of a search. It’s a question of how to be in front of them.
Q. What is up to me?
A. Something is up to us and something is not up to us. We confuse the two. We fall back into our ordinary attitude: what shall I do now? How shall I be now? The problem for us, with our upbringing is that we put everything on the basis of right and wrong. Our tendency is to bring a moral tone. But we have to be aware of that trap, so that children can be brought to their own experience. A feeling of relatedness should be there all the time. We need to envisage what’s needed now. Children are not nearly as sentimental as we are. They are open to us when they feel our wish for them, our concern for them, that we care for them. This feeling of parent comes through and they want that. But they don’t want the sentimental way.
Q. Can I be present to the demands of my child? Do I react all the time? 9 times out of 10, I do.
A. I am more identified with my child than anything else. My judgment is warped, I can’t be honest. Then I withdraw and don’t give the child its needs. Children are so quick so responsive to help or hurt. They close instantly when I am ordinary, and open instantly when I am making an effort. The force of people working together creates a response from the children that can be quite remarkable.
If you come with doubts or disagreement you must speak about it.
Q. I see that I am concerned with the outside of the child. My attention is always attracted by her body and its needs. Has she had enough to eat? Is she tired, hurt? There is no concern over her inner need. The exercise of watching what attracted my attention brought me to see the weight I give the outer.
A. The children are already unbalanced in their functioning yet we accentuate that imbalance all the time by emphasizing what is already strongly developed and ignoring the rest. We must study the individual child. What happens when the child is asked to obey? From what does the child act? Which part manifests: instinctive, motor, feeling, body, mind? Which part predominates? What is lacking? What is behind his actions. The child wants something from us. There is a call there. What part is calling?
How we are with the child is conditioned by our attachment to our own self-image and image of the child. We must try to see more impartially, as though he or she is somebody else’s child, not ours.
What to do when the child is more open as a result of an inner struggle? What does the child really need? After overcoming difficulties, children are more receptive. What then?
Q. Is it wrong to lie?
A. There are two kinds of lies, a cowardly lie to protect oneself from punishment, and a brave lie to protect something precious. The children can very well know the difference.
Q. I see that as regards my attention, my children’s demands are not more important to me than doing the laundry, or cooking. They cannot get my attention when I am occupied with something else that seems important to me.
A. Our attention is caught only when the child goes against our ego. Instead of understanding our role, we are unconscious emanators of all the nuances of our ego, particularly our negative emotions. Conscience education would be the antithesis of automatic reactions, of bad moods, greed, etc. To be responsible would be to responsible for my manifestations, and we see that we cannot be. There are only rare moments when I even feel that I should be responsible.
Q. My child’s problems only became alive for me when I observe that they are really a reflection of my own problems.
A. We do not see the real problems of the child because our picture of ourselves stands in our way.
Q. What do the children want from us?
A. What the child really wants from us is that we make a demand on him. That we help him to overcome his weaknesses of which he is already quite aware, and which makes him feel helpless.
When an outside demand is made rightly, this helps him to go against his laziness, unwillingness, denial, etc. This weakness is also the area of his greatest imbalance. So in calling him, or demanding from him that he go against this weakness, we also help him to pass through his own imbalance. When the child is more in harmony with himself, having overcome difficulties and weakness, his response to the demand is gratitude.
- How to give the impulse if I don’t feel it myself?
- How to look at things from another side? To wait. Not to jump in.
- What is the meaning the children are trying to express when they speak?
- What can we say to bring the children to wish to work?
- How to remember my intention? What is the difficulty?
- How to avoid the traps of reaction, or forcing, or cajoling?
- How to understand that children act more from instinctive, moving and emotional responses, less from logic?
- Do children have fewer associations and understand things more literally?
- How to relate to their rapid tempo 4 or 5 times faster than ours?
- Why do they become interested?
- Do they agree with the aim of work?
- Why can’t we be more natural with the children?
- How to be more perceptive?
- We love them with our personality. How to love them with our essence?
- What do we educate them for? What do we want to have happen to them when they grow up?
- What is our relationship with each other? with our own parents? spouses and siblings?
In presenting the themes we developed for children we tried to be sincere and to connect to our own experience as we spoke. Inbedded in the ideas we brought was often a question; how to struggle with my weaknesses and become my own master. We tried to bring good impulses but not to “teach”.
The Idea of a Test
Testing for what? In order to be more. A way of growing inside. Work will be very intensive.
We will face a big demand. Various tasks for making an effort.
The Job needs doing:
- There are different kinds of work, those I like and those I don’t like. I must do both kinds as well as possible, not just any old way.
- The job needs doing. How is my work when I do a job I like, how is it when I do something I don’t like? Do I let my like or dislike get in the way?
- What happens to me when I don’t “want to do it?” “don’t like it?” “don’t know how”?
- If the work isn’t done well, it must be done over. Suppose I work all day on the sewing but put the sleeves in backwards. What if there is a mistake in the kitchen and it can’t be done over, there is no time, so there would be no lunch?
How to work with mistakes
- Everyone makes mistakes. I work as well as I can yet I don’t know how to, then someone who knows comes and tells me. What do I do then?
- Suppose $100 was wasted. What do we do now? Do we just say “what a pity?”
- Can we work as well the 2nd, 3rd or 4th time?
- Mistakes can be better than best, because we have learned.
- Fixing mistakes.
- Not fixing mistakes.
- How do other people face mistakes, they can help me.
- Facing the mistake. For example, I work as well as I can yet I see a mistake: what to do then?
- At lunch discussion: Did anyone make any mistakes this morning? What was the worse mistake you ever made?
- Being responsible, “on our own.”
- Struggle with the part that doesn’t want to work.
- Can I disobey myself? We always obey something, what do I obey? My wish is to daydream. Can I go against that?
The Idea of Test
- Can we work for perfection in what we do? Can I be the judge and make myself do things over if they are not right?
- Can I do a job I do not like, or anything in the job I don’t like just as well as what I do like? Interest or like are the same.
- Can I take responsibility for the beginning middle and end, of the task?
Obstacles arise when I wish something. If there is no wish there are no obstacles. What do I wish for?
- Can I see what needs to be done before I am told?
- Interruptions. What happens to my work when someone interrupts me? What happens to me?
- Doing what must be done even if it is unpleasant. How to grow up, be chosen first?
- I must be ready for this trip, for anything, by making my work better. Can I work harder, better, more quickly than before?
- When directions are given to me I will carry them out exactly?
- What do I set out to do, and what do I accomplish?
- Can I work without talking until break, and if I have a question about my job, figure it out for myself?
A series of talks for the older children and teenagers were given by some of the responsible adults: Remarkable trips and journeys that had been made by great men; Moses, Jason, Ulysses, Black Elk, Milarepa, etc…
Another series of talks were themed to initiation; The 12 labers of Hercules, Daniel and the lions, David and Goliath, Initiation to Kinghthood, The Grail, Mulla Nasser Edin, Potlash, Popal Vuh and Zen stories.
In talking to teenagers we were trying to share a feeling of the struggle of two forces, we were not trying to teach ideas of the work. How to explore both currents simultaneously. They want to understand, they are at an age when life attracts them very much yet also repels them.
Theme: the current of my life is in moments. This moment disappears as I pass my time thinking about the future. When am I aware of this moment? When I put a big resistance against obstacles that come up in my path. Every time I see an obstacle and struggle with it I am here in my moment. In spite of this I believe that obstacles are bad, are they bad? When I am able to think that all obstacles are there so I can struggle and experience my life, I can live my day in a succession of moments.
- Can I take orders in a new way, can I be ready ahead of time; can I be an awake member of my team, can I see what needs to be done before I am told?
- Can I give myself an order in a new way to go on working when something wants to stop? In working with adults I want to keep up, so I work.
- Can I still obey the order I give myself when something very strongly tells me to stop?
- One task is to work all morning actually side by side with my partner and decide to do nothing without my partner. My job is nothing if it is not cheek to jowl with my partner all morning even if it is much easier to work separately.
- Is there a secret in life that can be found out? Do you really want to find out? There is not chance of discovering anything by doing things in the same old way.
|1956||Children’s Group begins at Franklin Farms, in Mendham, N.J.|
|1957||Work begins at Peggy Flinsch’s apartment and at other private residences in New York City|
|June 1957||First Children’s play|
|February 1958||Children’s work begins at Corey Lane, a cottage near Franklin Farms|
|May 1958||Two Plays|
|December 1959||Children’s party at Corey Lane|
|May 1961||Puppet Play at East 61st Street – “Prince, Princess, Witch”|
|June 1962||Corey Lane Festival – “22 Goblins”|
|August 1962||Two weeks of work for children and young adults at Franklin Farms and Corey Lane|
|December 1962||Christmas Party at Long House at Franklin Farms|
|First children’s trip to North Carolina’s Bat Cave, with 7 children|
|September 1963||Children’s work at NYC Foundation begins: movements, crafts|
|May 1964||Open class of Children’s Movements|
|November 1964||Children’s Work at Old Lake Street|
|April 1965||Children’s Work begins at Armonk, NY, continues at Old Lake Street|
|August 1966||First Trip to New Mexico, with 17 children|
|December 1967||Children’s Party at the Lower Shed in Armonk|
|June 1968||“Monkey” play at woodland site in Armonk|
|“Monkey” play in tent for 400 adults|
|June-July 1969||Ten days of Work for children and adults at Armonk|
|July 1969||Trip to Onondaga Indian Reservation|
|December 1969||Children’s Play given during a snowstorm at Armonk with Jeanne de Salzmann as guest|
|July 1970||Trip to MicMac Indian reservation with 19 children in Schubenactedy, Nova Scotia|
|December 1970||Four days of work at Lower Shed in Armonk|
|June 1971||Four performances of two plays: “The Art of Asha” and “The First Day,” at ABZ Studios on 78th Street, New York City|
|Second Trip to New Mexico to Indian dances with 17 children|
|December 1972||Santa’s Workshop at ABZ Studios|
|June 1973||Padisha’s Picnic for 200 guests at Armonk|
|December 1973||Christmas play - “The Two Kings”|
|June 1974||Four days of Work at Lower Shed, Armonk|
|December 1974||Play – “The Lodestone”|
|June 1975||Children’s Trip to survey American and Indian Religions|
|June 1978||Children’s Trip – Hiking the Long Trail|
|June 1979||Children’s Play performed “on the road” in Boston, Montreal and Cleveland|
Many people have asked for suggested books to read to their children. Good ones are not always easy to find. Many are out of print. Here are some that we read aloud. Told stories are best for young ones, provided you prepare and learn the tale in all its detail. Be ready to repeat the same story many times. Trust the children to tell you when they want to hear a favorite again and when it’s time to move on. Be ready with stories you can tell while waiting for an elevator, or a bus, or a meal. Stories can turn any circumstance into a wonderful shared moment.
If one book doesn’t interest, another will. Sometimes the children want to take turns reading, and whether it is your turn to read or to listen, be attentive. Try to hear the meaning: the story is also for you.
A few titles from a vast array. Choose myths, fairy tales, folk tales of all nations. Stories from Native Americans can give children a deeper connection to their country.
Andersen, Hans Christian
Fairy Tales. Westbrook House, London, 1969
Arabian Nights. English Edition, Giant Golden Books
Aesop’s Fables. The Viking Press, New York 1942
Bordeaux, Edmund S.
The Essene Book of Asha, Academy Books, San Diego, 1976
A Search in Secret Egypt, Rider & Co., London, 1954
Selected chapters like magicians, hypnotists, etc.
The Education of Little Tree, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque , New Mexico, 1989
A memorable tale of growing up Indian filled with love and respect for that way of life.
The King of Ireland 's Son. McMillian & sons, 1933
Edmonds , Mardot and Clark, Ella
Voices of the Winds. Facts and File Inc., New York, 1989
Native American Legends recounted with respect.
Gurdjieff, George I.
Meetings with Remarkable Men, Second series. E. P. Dutton & Co, New York, 1963
Several chapters, including, “My Father”.
Glooscap and his Magic. Stewart Limited, Montreal, 1970
Legends of the Wabanaki Indians retold with style and grace.
Konrad Z., Lorenz
King Solomon's Ring. Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York, 1961
The Life of Milarepa. E. P. Dutton, New York, 1977
Stirring tale of young man who turns from black magic to become one of Tibet ’s spiritual masters. First half, until he receives the teaching makes great reading.
The Princess & Curdie. Looking Glass Library, Random House, 1960
The Princess and the Goblin. David McKay Co., 1962
The Secrets of Metals. Anthroposophic Press, Inc., Spring Valley , New York, 1973
Fascinating ideas for older children.
Schwaller de Lubicz, Isha
Her-Bak, the Living Face of Ancient Egypt. Hodder and Stoughten Ltd., London,1964
Engrossing story of a young boy who searches for wisdom through setbacks, doubts and discoveries. “Ancient Egypt presents two faces: one ”living” filled with charm and humor; the other hieratic, containing a lesson in every feature.” We made this into a play.
A Twister of Twists, a Tangler of Tongues. Lippincott Co., New York, 1972
Excellent collection of riddles and tongue twisters for long car rides or spare moments.
The Five Sons of King Pandu. William R. Scott, Inc., New York, 1976
An excellent retelling of the central story of the Mahabharata, one of the greatest hero tales of the world “– equal to King Arthur or the Iliad – with a theme that the only real conquest lies in winning the battle against oneself.” The children dramatizes portions in a play.
Singer, Isaac Bashevis
When Schlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories. Farrar, Straus & Giroux , New York, 1968
Lively and humorous Jewish folk tales for all ages retold by a modern master.
Bees. Anthroposophic Press, Hudson NY, 1998
The life of bees with all their secrets.
The Iliad and the Odyssey. Golden Press, 1964
Waley, Arthur, Translator,
Monkey. Grove Press, New York, 1984
Black Elk Speaks. Pocket Books, New York, 1972
Book of the Hopi. NY Ballantine, 1974, Penguin 1977
Masked Gods. Swallow Press, 1950
Apologies to the Iroquois. Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, New York, 1960
Part of our pre-trip reading.
Yeats, W. B.
Fairy Tales of Ireland. William Collins and Co., London, 1990
A rich collection of inspiring Irish folk tales, by a great poet.
The Unknowable Gurdjieff. Routledge & Kegan Paul, New York, 1962
On Attention. Indications Press, New York, 1993
De Hartman, Olga and Thomas
Our lives with Mr. Gurdjieff. Penguin Arkana, London, 1992
Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson: All and Everything, First Series, in three volumes. E. P. Dutton, New York, 1973, Two Rivers Press, Oregon, 1993
Meetings with Remarkable Men, Second Series. E. P. Dutton & Co, New York, 1963
Life is only Real then when I am, Third Series. Elsevier-Dutton Publishing Company, Inc, New York, 1981
Views from the Real World. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1976
Undiscovered Country. Little, Brown, and Company, Boston/Toronto, 1997
Nott, C. S.
Teachings of Gurdjieff. The Journal of a Pupil. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1962
Ouspensky, P. D.
In Search of the Miraculous, Fragments of an unknown Teaching. Harcourt Brace, London, 2001
The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution. Hedgehog Press, 1950
Boyhood with Gurdjieff. E Baylis, London, 1964
Heart without Measure. Morning Light Press, Canada, 2004
Gurdjieff, A Master in Life. Dolmen Meadow Editions, Toronto, 2006
Toward Awakening. Far West Undertakings, San Francisco, 1978
Venture with Ideas (Rep). Luzac Oriental, London, 1995
P. D. Ouspensky, The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, 1950, page 90
pp. vi, 18
G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men, 1963, pages 39,2
G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men, 1963, page 42
G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men, 1963, page 34
pp. 46 60,1
Autres paroles de Gurdjieff
Question de Gurdjieff (no 50) ed. Albin Michel, 1989, pages 88-93
G. I. Gurdjieff, Views from the Real World, 1976, pages 151-152
A&E, Book 3
G. I. Gurdjieff, All and Everything, 1993, Book 3, page 149
William P. Patterson, Voices in the Dark, 2001, page 174
Caption 1 It was said of George Gurdjieff that behind his laughter there was always something serious, and behind his seriousness there was always laughter. Shown here with the daughter one of his students. Paris, 1948
Caption 2 Jeanne de Salzmann (right) guided every step of our work with the children. Whether attending a party or watching their plays; her interest, her attention, the quality of presence enlivened our search. Her work with us continued undiminished until her death in 1995 at age 101.
At a performance with Olga de Hartman (left) in New York City, 1962
Caption 3 At a party at Corey Lane (photo left). At gift giving time with Peggy Flinsch,(left), 1958
Caption 4 Sawing wood - hammering a nail, real work calls children to a new quality of attention that can bring them a satisfaction that is stronger than many of their pleasures. When the middle boys finished building a long picnic table for the sale, they found a novel way to move it to the fairgrounds.
Caption 5 Animals, tiles, bowls, pitchers flowed from the pottery where the children brought raw clay to life through their own designs, and sometimes sold them.
Caption 6. Money making projects fascinated the children. This flyer for a White Elephant sale reflects their planning and creation of booths, games, concessions, the sale of crafts and a buffet lunch for 150 people.
As soon as the sale ended, a flash rainstorm swept over the fairground. Everyone ran to get the left-over merchandise under cover and the children sang till the rain stopped. Then we went outside to see a perfect rainbow arching over the fields at Armonk.
Caption 7 Corey Lane June 1962 Children’s Work Archive. Falk doming on the lawn.
Caption 9 A picnic lunch at Armonk 1980’s, Children’s Work Archive
Caption 8 – none
Caption 10 The role of navigator on any of our trips was surely one of the greatest challenges for the young map readers. The adult drivers who obeyed their navigations were equally challenged.
Along the Appalachian Trail, fitful sunshine, wet sleeping bags, packing their food and gear made the 14 day Long Trail trek one of the hardest and most valued. Will it ever stop raining?
Caption 11 Cinders in the stew? Most meals were prepared over an open fire with variable results.
Caption 12 We arrived at the pueblo at dawn well before the 2 clans of village dancers filled into the central square. Drawing or taking photos was strictly forbidden at these ceremonials and Indian marshals patrolled the crowds to enforce the rules. The villagers danced till the sun went down. After returning to our camp after dark, Risa, 15, drew the dancers from memory.
A sketch of the village with the direction of Squash clan kiva to the left, the Turquoice clan kiva to the right, the shrine in the center. Dancers entering from the south.
Caption 13 Front- Shalako dancer male
Kachina female front, back, 2nd Kachina
Caption 14 - Teenagers were revered by the younger children. A puppet play they wrote and produced specifically for a spellbound audience of five and six year olds featured a prince, a quest and the magical transformation of an ugly old witch into a beautiful princes. 1961 New York City
The plays the thing that drew everyone together at the end of the White Elephant sale when the children presented The 22 Goblins an Indian folk tale with enough parts for all of them. The author back to camera helped with makeup. Corey Lane 1962.
Caption 15 - We adopted one of China’s best known fables, The Monkey King into an ambitious 3 hour production. The large cast of monks, innkeepers, gods, pigs, a host of human, half human and mythical characters gave all the children roles to play.
Caption 16 – none
Caption 17 Since each of our stage production included every child in some capacity, the Art of Asha, a play based on the game of chess with 32 living pieces suited our aims particularly well. The costumes and giant chess board floor were created by the children.
Caption 18 William Segal ( 1904-2000) painter and publisher brought stories, games and exercises with form and color to the children and young people
The origins of chess, a game to train the mind of prices came to life through a story brought by John Pentland , The Art of Asha.. Pentland (1907-1984) was president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York from its inception in 1953. Shown (rt.) at intermission with Muriel Benson. New York City 1971
Caption 19 The elders of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York City. Left to right, Nancy Pierson, Maurice Sutta, Olga de Hartman, Martin Benson, a guest, Jessamin Howarth, John Pentland. At a childrens’s picnic in Franklin Farms 1962
Caption 20 A MicMac Indian from the Schubernacterdie Reservation in Nova Scotia, Henry Knockwood (top right) camped with us and shared our struggles as we sought to connect our children to something genuine of the Indian way.
Holding tight to whatever remained of traditional Indian life, Henry’s mother (top left) welcomed us under her roof with a generous hospitality and a total acceptance that required to pretense, no falseness from us. She spoke little but drew the children to her with her kindness.
When she trekked with us deep into the forest to our campsite, we were struck by the tone of respect in Henry’s voice whenever he said “mother”.
Caption 21 We slept under canvas on our long trips and everyone learned to pitch the assorted tents we carried with us - each seeming to need a different set of poles, which were inevitably mixed up together.
Caption 22 Michel de Salzmann (left) and the author in Chandolin, Switzerland, 1998. What was I saying? What did it mean? I had to look more deeply, more carefully, as though I was responsible for the written trail I would leave. Michel de Salzmann, patiently helping me edit this manuscript, brought this demand.