‘Time present and time past,
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contined in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable….
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden.’
T S Eliot – Burnt Norton
I sit amongst piles of paper, trying to shed the detritus not just of last year but of many years. I feel I can’t move forward without, at long last, dumping the accumulated weight of years of papers. A sequence of endings – people and projects – have happened over the last year, and the consequence is a feeling of just wanting to shed the load. I need to feel unburdened before I can move.
This unburdening process is not quick. I guess the equivalent is a snake shedding its skin. Research tells me ‘a perfect shed’ – as it’s known in the trade – should take no more than a week and a half.
Over-optimistic as ever, I imagine I can do a cupboard a day when, in fact, a few files is all I can manage without swinging to either extreme – binning everything in an act of defiance, anger and indifference or reverting to default mode and keeping everything as it is ‘just in case…’
This activity of working one’s way through the accumulation of a working life is a strange one. Mostly I do feel indifferent or mildly engaged, but every so often something jumps out at me – usually something in the wrong file! – that vividly takes me back in time, and then reveals patterns to me that are still active in time.
For instance, the letter from my first boss after he was fired (long overdue). He was a tyrant if a talented character. Staff turnover was high and in the gap between being interviewed and joining (two weeks?) there was a whole new set of faces in the department. I’d long since left the company when he was finally sacked, and in fact I was invited back to hold things together until a replacement was found. He had reduced me to tears, humiliated me in front of clients, but none of that mattered because he taught me more than any polite manager would have about the art and craft of publishing. I remember sitting in his office in that strange interim time, feeling uneasy about my quiescence in accepting this bridging role. I wrote him a letter. I have no idea what I said, but his response tells me I was the only person to make contact and that somehow that helped him see a way back to the land of the living.
I’m glad I wrote that letter. I hope I’d do it again. Sometimes there is a confirmation of a sense of self in these discoveries, the self I want to be, yet intermingled is an awareness that only time can give, that some of these tendencies are deep-set involuntary responses, drilled in by early experiences or books I read as a child that made me want to be a certain way. Now I can see the repeated variations over the span of years and this both gives me the comfort of self-knowing in my actions and the discomfort of involuntary ‘choice’ of my actions.
There is a huge emotional investment in these inconsequential papers and, while the activity of hoarding them is no longer necessary to my well-being, the action of letting them go is nothing short of a wrench. I would like to do it in one fell swoop, binning piles without looking at them. I have to force myself to go step by step. How excruciating that can be…
In the secret room I find a box of photographs, I knew they were somewhere. And I am going back to the rose garden….
* * *
I arrived in England in 1978, an intrepid traveller. I soon discovered, if I hadn’t already, that TS Eliot’s poetry and prose spoke to me as no other writer’s did. I was privileged to be working with teachers in The Great Tradition of FR Leavis, and I guess this must have given me a new perspective on Eliot, seeing him now from an English perspective rather than through a purely American eye.
Something triggered a desire to find the places of Four Quartets – one of which was impossible. The Dry Salvages, a few rocks in the middle of the sea, was out of reach, but the other three were all do-able. It became a project for me and my friend Leanne to set out on three separate journeys to find the house and garden at Burnt Norton, the church at East Coker and Little Gidding. The last two were reasonably straightforward, but Burnt Norton was an elusive mystery and so our greatest challenge.
We knew it was somewhere near Chipping Campden and I think we knew that Eliot had visited it in or around 1934 with his friend Emily Hale. But that was all we knew as I recall. No internet in those days, no way of tracking it down. We ended the day in a small village called Mickleton where we stayed overnight and set out to catch a bus to Cheltenham the next morning, planning to make our way to Chipping Campden.
When we boarded the bus, we were soon accosted by a very deep resonant transatlantic voice belonging to a small woman in a very large hat with a plume. She was as interested in us as we were in her, for she took the bus regularly and we stood out like a sore thumb, as non-regulars. She had no reservations in engaging us in conversation, and she was thrilled to discover we were compatriots. Mrs George was an amazing woman with a tale to tell about everyone and everything. She had never heard of Burnt Norton but she was immediately a third party in our expedition. She whisked us home to her Tudor cottage in Broadway to engage in some research, and after a few phone calls, the next morning, having had a very comfortable night in some deep featherbeds, we were on our way to discover Burnt Norton.
It was April 1979 when we rolled up outside the deserted property. No one was there to let us in and I do believe we were trespassing.
Burnt Norton, April 1979
Our return visit, August 1979
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner….’
Mrs George and Miss Nash, spying, on our second visit, August 1979
‘So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool,
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.’
‘The detail of the pattern is movement,
As in the figure of the ten stairs,
Desire itself is movement
Not in itself desirable;
Love is itself unmoving,
Only the cause and end of movement,
Timeless and undesiring
Except in the aspect of time
Caught in the form of limitation
Between un-being and being.’
Mrs George is long dead, so is my ex-boss. I missed both their funerals. 2012 is an uncertain prospect for many – or so my Facebook friends’ brief welcomes to the new year would suggest.
2011 was a mixed bag for me, but overall I feel fortunate and also, perhaps most of all, that it was a test in so many ways….the test goes on.
Resilience and a quiet mind are the tools for the test.
‘Sudden in a shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always –
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.’