‘Between un-being and being’… ‘a perfect shed’

‘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

‘Other echoes

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.’

This entry was posted in American character, British/English character, connections, friendships, Jung, yoga. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to ‘Between un-being and being’… ‘a perfect shed’

  1. Firstly, i am struck by the word ‘between’, it seems to offer a space, a pause, the glimmer of transition or transformation; it sits well with me accompanied by a certain excitement. Then, I see Burnt Norton come alive! and I find myself smiling conspiratorily at the ladies spying. Thank you for the sharing of your expedition and the unexact hues of your pre-digital photographs. And thanks be to whomever for the timely appearance of the angel Mrs George and the night’s sleep in deep feather beds.

  2. karin says:

    Spot on – the ‘between’ is very much alive, then and now – always…Mrs George and Miss Nash could have been two sleuths in an English detective series. Mrs George would have been the mischievous one with the glint in her eye, Miss Nash the foil, the prim and proper spinster schoolteacher. They were a great duo. There was so much more to Mrs George and we had many return visits to her Tudor cottage, discovering there for the first time the delights of perry. Thanks for appreciating the photo quality and the underlying feelings!

  3. Madhu Sameer says:


    I don’t understand the context very well, but thats ok, most writing is done to sort out inner tangles, and this must be it for it.

    I dread shedding/shredding paper. Like life’s mistakes,, it cannot be undone. So I have found a way around this. I have begun to scan and digitize. As for the boxes from the past, someday I will have time to run those thru my scanner…

    A lot of people try to analyze this, and tell me it is associated to hoarding. I laugh, and let it go, for I never was like this, until psychology…

    Because, you see, nothing is lost in the psyche. Every image, every encounter, ever thought is forever. I figure if it works for the psyche, it must be a psychic necessity. As within, so without.

    So shed if you must, and keep if you must. But know both are actions derived from causal chain of events….

    Happy New Year.


    PS:Nice pictures btw. Very calming.

    • karin says:

      Hi Madhu
      Thank you for your new year wishes.
      I encourage you to read T S Eliot’s Four Quartets if you’re not familiar with these – he was strongly influenced by Indian philosophy, and a lot of the concepts may resonate for you. In ‘Burnt Norton’ you will find acknowledgement of the deep latent impressions (samskara) in the psyche that can be reactivated by a person, a place, an experience…what you know so well.
      For me, as all that matters and all that binds and frees is in the psyche, why keep the load – and why digitise?! I feel better, lighter, clearer binning and burning…the weight of this world. Somehow I will dredge what is needed when it’s needed from inside.
      Wishing you well for the new year too,

  4. sally oliver says:

    Mike and I are sitting in a Mayan ruin called Copan in Honduras reading your marvellous piece about time. Thinking about being and unbeing , hoarding and unloading amongst these ancient carvings and temples, I realize how important it is that there are hoarders amongst the shedders. Many of the famous Victorian travellers were by nature inquisitive knowledge hoarders like Burton, while Pitt Rivers gathered and hoarded and never sorted such a huge collection of eclectic artefacts that they filled a whole museum! Every niche in Nature is filled, there are birds that can’t fly and plants that are carnivores. Shedders and hoarders are just in different niches, and are able to move between either state as they adapt to inner and outer promptings.

    • karin says:

      Thanks Sally – I have been thinking of you recently due to some reading I’ve been doing, and now I can picture you and Mike in your Mayan ruin. I like the idea of you reading about time, space and Burnt Norton specifically (such an English setting) in Honduras in real-time. That is a special power of our time, and of the internet.

      Thanks for your comments and references which add a whole other context to the reflections. I haven’t been to the Pitt-Rivers museum yet though I intend to having visited it virtually: The Hermitage: A Wayfarer’s Cabinet of Curiosities

      The Victorian hoarders kept things of curiosity and interest. My papers are mainly not that! I keep the ones of that type so maybe I am a selectve hoarder.

      Look forward to seeing you when you get back. Happy new year.

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