Tenacious Magic ~ Chapter 3
It's 1922. We Meet Katherine, Katherine Meets Gurdjieff.
This is the third chapter in an emergent serial story called Tenacious Magic. It weaves back-and-forth in time between my story which is autobiographical and takes place in the early 2010s in New York City, and Katherine Mansfield’s story, which takes place during the last months of her life in 1922-23. Both women are working through complex dynamics with powerful, male spiritualists; finding that tenacious magic, but losing themselves in the process. My intention in sharing the stories now is that together we (me and you, my readers) can see, own, feel, and process some of the subtle dynamics that arise in the archetypal journeys of the student/teacher, masculine/feminine, and the sacred marriage. I couldn’t see them on my own, so I invite your questions, comments, and curiosities each week. The more we share our perspective on these stories, the closer we might come to including and transcending the shadows. It’s an experiment and I so appreciate your participation. Here is some background on the project. Here is chapter one. Here is chapter two. Enjoy!
(By the way, including this overview and links to previous chapters was a request from a friend and reader, Emma. Thank you, Emma!)
“His eyes particularly attracted my attention, not so much in themselves as by the way he looked at me when he greeted me, not as if he saw me the first time but as though he had known me long and well.” –Description of Gurdjieff from Views from the Real World
L’aigle Noir, Fontainebleu, France ~ October 1922
Eventually, spring comes. It never ceases to amaze her when it does. For weeks she is braced against the cold and using the hot water bottles to warm her feet at night, then suddenly one day the sun is warmer, closer, brighter. The earth responds by sending up tender green shoots—daffodil, crocus, and clover—then the exquisite apricot-colored quince along the road and finally, the trees themselves pop to life as green buds and tiny leaves sprout from awakening branches. “The quickening,” as they say. Today she feels a quickening inside herself, too. Standing here at L’aigle Noir, the inn in Fontainebleu, with her friend, Orage, she sees the sun’s radiance like an expression of the hope in her own heart.
She smiles as she listens to Orage butcher the language with the driver and muddle through a handful of coins as he pays. The driver is shrugging his shoulders at the Englishman who is getting frustrated at appearing incompetent. “Out of proportion to the scale of the situation, as usual,” she thinks. But, she doesn’t let it bother her. She is already practicing the self-remembering exercises she’s learned from Ouspensky; and with the Prieuré only miles away, she feels a new era has begun. She is lighter than air. She remembers Ouspensky’s words of advice to her before setting out for France: Identify yourself not with the body or with Katherine, but with the energy that lives in the body called Katherine.
It has been liberating to finally admit to herself and to close friends that she knows she is dying now. She no longer cares what this information does to others—cannot assuage their sadness or fear on her behalf—and has chosen to focus her remaining energy on becoming…She dares not say it, but her mind thinks it anyway…immortal.
At the doctor’s recommendation, she has begun to put her affairs in order. What a funny phrase. He was abrupt, even rude, at their last meeting, but she suspects it was his ego offended at her dismissal of his treatment advice. He had been reluctant to endorse this trip to France, to live with the notorious and controversial Gurdjieff, but she is tired of swallowing the prescribed medicines. None of them have saved her, yet.
Her affairs. What a joke. At this point, they consist of a stack of manuscripts, a trusty old typewriter, a statue of the Buddha, a few luxurious dresses bought in flush times, a fur, and a few pieces of moderately nice jewelry given to her over the years by Murry. All of it can fit inside a single trunk. Beyond this, the other affairs, those of the heart, have never been orderly in the least. She’s loved many and passionately, but seldom very well. She’s left a string of broken hearts and frustrations in her wake and because this is how the universe works, has had her own heart broken many times, too. She’s come to accept that this is all a grand lesson in the imperfection of earthly love and pleasure, but she also knows there is something deeply wounded within her that prevents her release into another. She’s been accused of being promiscuous (in less gentile terms) many times, but she knows the truth. Her dalliances have always been a way to feel fully alive in a broken body.
But, now her mood is jubilant. For the first time in a long time, she has a plan that feels entirely her own. She fought, begged and ultimately demanded to come here to live amongst these seekers on the edge of civilization. All of them looking for salvation…not the kind they peddle in the church—she’d given up hope for that—but the kind one finds in the forest in perfect harmony with nature, where the cultivation of human nature is in alignment with the elements.
She’d felt this kind of union in her childhood. Memories had been resurfacing with force lately, reminding her of happy days in New Zealand: at the beach watching dolphins in the blue waters, lazy summer afternoons playing ball with her brother, the tree she’d climb with her pen and notebook, drawing pictures of the leaves and writing stories about places she’d love to see one day: Kyoto, St. Petersburg, New York City.
The memories carry the state of radiant health she’d had then, too. In them she can feel her body alive with energy and breath; growing into a vessel she thought she’d have for decades. Children frequently imagine dying, but no child imagines how it feels to live day after day ailing and unable to fully embrace life. She had been full of possibility once, could she find her way back to that place briefly before leaving this all behind?
A porter comes to help them with the bags. Katherine gives Orage a radiant smile, the music from a nearby carousel floats in the air around them, “There he is!”
“Gurdjieff? This is his hotel. I think he’s a guest here…” Orage is enjoying her mood which is becoming contagious, and looks around the empty courtyard in pleasant confusion.
“No, silly. L’aigle noir! The infamous black eagle.” She points to one of the large iron eagles crowning the entrance gates to the hotel’s driveway. “It sounds like a cheap detective novel.”
“Let’s hope the rooms aren’t out of a cheap detective novel,” Orage teases.
She smiles at him with genuine affection, “Thank you for bringing me here. You’re a true friend.”
He smiles back, “Did I have a choice?”
Katherine settles into the small room on the second floor overlooking the hotel’s entrance. The wallpaper is a bold, red toile with pastoral scenes she studies from the bed. The window curtains rise gently on the breeze. She is writing:
What a strange sensation! I’ve come all this way searching for something — I hardly know what — and yet sure I’ll find it. I am reminded of that statement about pilgrims… “Unless the pilgrim carries with him the thing he seeks, he will not find it when he arrives.” I know this to be true: what I seek is within me. But, I need such help finding it under the layers of sediment. I think Mr. Gurdjieff is the archaeologist I seek. He can teach me to dig around in this old bag of bones and find the treasure. I truly believe he can. I wonder, will I be up to the task…and is there time?
Don’t think of coming here, L.M., to rescue me as you always do. I’ll be alright without Murry and without you (Please don’t take that the wrong way, you know I love you dearly). I want so desperately to root in with my new…family. There, I’ve said it. Family. The word has such a nice ring to it.
I feel almost embarrassed. They call it “the work” after all and here I am reposing in this luxurious hotel. I do so hate the role of prima donna. I’m tired of the white glove treatment, the delicacy and trepidation my fragility provokes. I am anticipated everywhere I go: “How will K do here? Is it too draughty for her in this room? How is the climate this time of year? K can’t stand too much cold…nor, heat. Will K be able to manage the stairs?” It’s like being an old maid! I long to seize life again, L.M., and to be seized by it! It’s something physical I long for—like wrestling with the angel. I want to be tumbled, tousled. Playfully, of course. I want to prove to them and to myself that this body still has life in it. I can still take a few knocks. Oh, to run! To be tired at he end of the day, rosy-cheeked from physical exertion. My stamina is invisible to everyone but me. No one understands what strength it requires to be an invalid.
There’s no sign of Mr. Gurdjieff yet, I suppose I’ll have to wait until Sunday to meet him. What a thrill.
In your last letter you asked about my writing. I simply haven’t been doing it. Nothing seems worth recording at the moment…I feel so in between worlds. The old stories simply won’t do anymore and I haven’t yet reached a new state of being. The old way of seeing is already gone, but I can’t yet see with my new eyes.
All of this waiting for the new would be fine except for the ever-present panic; the urgency I feel to leave a mark…
It is late afternoon on Saturday. Katherine is sitting at the desk in her room when Gurdjieff returns to the hotel. She hears the car pull into the courtyard. There have been many cars, but something about the voices draws her out of her writing. Her heart skips a beat…could it be? She stops what she’s doing abruptly and moves to the window.
A tall gentleman and a woman have just exited the car and are standing on the steps chatting amicably. The woman’s face is radiant as she looks up and around the courtyard and the facade of the hotel. The gentleman removes his hat and opens the back door. Katherine steps back into the shadows. Relief rushes through her, as she watches the woman…”The Mother,” she thinks, “The Work has a mother.”
Then, out comes Gurdjieff. She watches as he glides out of the car. He is solid and graceful like a great cat. He is wearing a long overcoat, too warm for this weather, and a small Middle Eastern fez atop his bald head, which shines in the afternoon sun. He smokes a cigar and is speaking in a deep and steady voice to the tall gentleman, who pays close attention, nodding vigorously. Katherine leans into the light again and strains to hear, but cannot. As she does this, she becomes briefly visible to the party on the steps. They look up. The woman catches her eye and smiles. Katherine jumps away from the window as if caught snooping.
She hears the small party walks up the stairs and into the lobby.
“Is it possible? Surely not,” she speaks aloud to herself in wonder, “I just felt him enter the building.” She is lightheaded.
She sleeps poorly that night. Not from the coughing, as usual, but from some otherworldly energy. There seems to be an electrical current running through the dark hotel. Her ears are ringing and her body is filled with a very subtle buzzing: sometimes at her heart, sometimes at at her brow. She knows it is related to Gurdjieff. With some effort she distracts herself—dozing and waking—until the light begins to filter through the curtains. Now, it’s morning and she’s hungry. Oh, when will Orage be up? She is ready to meet her destiny.
Sunday, Le Prieuré
Katherine stands in the parlor of the Chateau Le Prieuré. The place is still wildly unkempt and rambling inside and out, despite the efforts of the students who have been living on the grounds since late summer. Katherine admires them as pioneers in a new way of living—such a grand ambition! The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. She sees herself as lucky to be among them. It’s a far cry from the lavish weekends at Garsington and the country estates of her literary friends, but so much more to her liking.
Why is she alone? Where are the others? Orage went to get tea ages ago.
A cracking of gravel outside indicates the arrival of a car into the driveway. It must be his. She heads to the foyer and peers out the glass window beside the front door, recognizing the vehicle from the hotel.
She wonders what to do. She dare not open the door. That would be too eager. Despite the rush of blood to her heart, she tries to act casual. But, she already knows this is an essential moment—it will be seared into her for all time. Already nothing is the same, but she knows his arrival marks the beginning of a new era for her and for the other students. What they’re doing here is radical. What’s she is doing here is a matter of survival.
She retreats a little into the salon and stands beside a large armchair, steadying herself by gripping the back. Orage returns with a tea tray, which he places on a small table. He smiles at her as if to say, “Here we go.”
Before she can worry much about how to arrange herself for the encounter, she hears voices outside and the door flies open. Several new faces appear. They are youthful and lively, talking animatedly and clearing the way for their teacher. Katherine is so still as she watches the little group tumble into the foyer, they don’t notice her. But, he does. There he is—stout, graceful, with a presence somehow larger than the others.
Their eyes meet and she smiles: face-to-face with her last hope, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. She is unprepared for the effect of his eyes—which seem larger than they ought to be at this distance. Under his gaze, she feels her past and future collapse into right now. She holds onto the back of the chair, her knuckles white and gripping. She is shaking now—intensely self-aware, spinning a little as others come rushing to greet their teacher. She feels exposed. But, there is nowhere to hide and isn’t that precisely what she’s wanted for as long as she can remember? To be seen completely?
Gurdjieff receives his students warmly with kind words and polite bows to each. As the energy begins to settle she sees an opening and glances at Orage who urges her forward. She approaches G boldly; striding across the space with her hand extended,
“Mr. Gurdjieff, I’m Katherine Mansfield. Pleased to meet you. I was sent by Ouspensky. I’ve come with my friend, Mr. Orage.”
He bows his head respectfully, but does not extend his hand to take hers. His voice is rich, resonant and thickly accented. It fills the room and everyone stands at attention.
“Yes, Ms. Mansfield. One of the London group, if I remember correctly? I’m pleased you came. We have much work to do and not much time to do it. Olgivanna and Adèle will see to it you are comfortable. How long do you plan to stay?”
“As long as you’ll have me,” she answers brightly. She has packed everything she has of value. Not much.
He seems to feel into the ether around them, “What is it the English say? Make yourself at home.” He smiles warmly, his eyes twinkling. In this moment his decision has been made: she can stay.
Olgivanna steps forward and takes her arm. The soft touch from the motherly woman brings a welcome return to the body as she realizes she has been electrified, atomized by his presence.
Olga guides Katherine towards the stairs, “Come, I’ll show you to your room and we can get acquainted…”
Katherine nods and smiles, leaning into the woman’s physical strength. Olga slows her pace as they mount the steps and notes the difficulty Katherine seems to have climbing them. At the top of the stairs Katherine holds the banister and pauses to look down. Orage, who stands off to the side, gives her a reassuring wink.
Like the eye of the storm, Gurdjieff is holding the center, while a cheerful chaos swirls about him. He looks up, “It’s wonderful to see you again, my dear.”
So, he did see her.
A NOTE and QUESTION for you, DEAR READERS…
It was a big decision this week to jump from my story in New York in 2009 to Katherine’s story in 1922. It felt right to me. I wanted to introduce both worlds so we can play with more material.
Next week, the story will be for paid subscribers only. If you’re interested in staying with us, I hope you’ll please subscribe. It’s so helpful to me as a writer and artist.
You might notice that the writing style here is slightly different. This just seems to happen. When I write Katherine’s pieces, I tend to take on a bit of her style. It’s more old-fashioned, more descriptive…more of the era. You may also notice that my story is told in the past tense, as a memory. Hers is told present tense as if it is happening now. I think this is because my story IS a memory for me whereas her story, when it comes through me, feels very immediate. Funny. I have played with changing them to match—making both past tense or both present tense. It doesn’t feel right. I’m curious what you make of this, or how it feels to you.
I’d also love to know where your curiosity is right now.
Finally, one commenter said she hesitated to post because she was worried about whether she was “doing it right.” She made the wonderful observation:
I am fascinated by this project and I hope I am getting the assignment right. It "feels" strange though, and somewhat confusing. I am imagining that the story has already been written and I don't understand how the reader would be shaping. But I am curious to find out!
She is right in that the story was mostly written in 2017-2018 but I never finished it…I couldn’t see it clearly on my own. I am bringing pieces out here and re-writing them as I go. Katherine’s story is partly fictional and therefore, very fluid. My story is fact, but as we know…facts are also fluid. I know the outcome, but we can still change the past by rewriting it!
If you are feeling trepidation about adding your voice because you’re not sure you’re getting the assignment right, please just jump in! I have no expectations and truly I don’t know if I am “doing it right.” Add your voice, express your feelings. I really want to hear, to know. Everything helps me understand the story better and write it differently.
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