‘Lock the tree with the old man in a bedewed house, and by eating of its fruits he will become young.’
As we get older, in less cheerful moments we may feel that nothing new will happen to us again in this lifetime. But actually, I don’t hold with that idea, as I think there’s always scope for a surprise, or a new activity or friendship which blossoms even at a late stage. It’s true however that there is more behind us than ahead of us, and that our ability and energy become more limited. There’s a painting by Russian artist Vasily Maximov, from 1889, called ‘All in the Past’. In it, an elderly aristocrat and her aged female servant sit together outside their summer cottage – brooding, snoozing, knitting and remembering. But although distinction of rank scarcely matters any more, with a touching sense of kinship as their lives even out, there is also a depressing sense that there is nothing more to expect from the future.
However, that’s not the only aspect of growing old – or it needn’t be. Even for those who experience severe physical limitations, inner change can still occur as the threads spun over the years are gathered together. Maybe there’s a symbolic touch to the servant’s knitting?
I describe one instance of this in my book Everyday Alchemy, about something which happened with my mother. Before I include this extract, though, I’ll add a hasty rejoinder that this kind of change may not be possible for everyone, and a person’s state of being may hinder these gentle transformatory experiences. However, I write about them here in a spirit of optimism. Certainly Michael Maier’s emblem in Atlanta Fugiens holds the promise of this, embedded in a symbolic image of alchemical change.
After the extract from my book Everyday Alchemy below, I’ll follow with a further reflection on my mother’s love story.
Distillation and eating apples
First a preamble, also drawn from the text of Everyday Alchemy: an idea of what ‘distillation’ means in alchemy, during the process of changing base matter to gold.
In alchemical terms, this process of receiving sustenance from the higher world is called distillation. The vapours rise from the ‘cooking’ of the ‘earthly’ substance in the vessel; they ascend and then condense into purified drops, running down again to feed the matter that remains below.
And you may like to listen to the vocal ‘fugue’ which Michael Maier wrote to accompany this emblem; like certain other alchemists, he believed in a fusion of visual imagery, music and poetry to accompany his interpretation of each stage of alchemy.
In Wisdom’s garden grows an apple tree
With fruits of gold. Take it and our old man,
Enclose them in a glass house, wet with dew,
And let them stay there many days conjoin’d.
When he has eat his fill of fruit, behold!
The former old man is a youth again.
Here we have a somewhat bizarre image of an old man sitting in a glass house, eating apples in order to grow young again. Interpreting this in terms of everyday life, let’s not think of it as a literal turning back of the clock, but instead as the renewal of optimism, hope, and energy. We are at liberty with alchemy to wander between the worlds when we interpret its imagery, and to find a way of relating it to our own lives.
To take part in this process of renewal, one thing is essential, and that is the willingness to change. Sure, life is full of changes, and ageing brings change, but that’s the kind of change that seems to advance without our consent! In fact, the more we age, the more we tend to resist changes, building up habits of comfort and thought and lifestyle. And this is not exclusive to the elderly; if you are over the age of twenty or so, you can be sure that those habits are already setting in. They just become more pronounced with the passing of the years.
When we give up accepting change, we give up on life. And maybe this is inevitable in our closing years. My mother, in her last years, wanted to slow the world down, and make it a place of as little change as possible. She kept more and more to her room, and lost interest in what was happening outside. But at the same time, something else was happening. Her memories began to play a very important part in her life. Ironically, as is often the case with old people, her sense of time began to fail, and her short-term memory was poor. But old memories that had meaning for her resurfaced vividly. Verses of poetry she had learnt as a child came floating into her mind again. She relived her courtship and marriage, and told me the story of her first love affair, which she had never revealed before.
It was soul-work. She was contemplating her life, ordering it, and distilling it. Even at that stage of her life, transformation was still in progress, and she ate of the apples in Wisdom’s garden. It was also work that lasted for a particular time span of about eighteen months, and when that was done, it really did seem as though there was nothing else that she had to do except to cope with the increasingly difficult routines of simply staying alive, until the body itself gave out. On the last day of her life, I arrived too late to see her still alive. But instead of the gloom and despair I expected when I entered the house, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and release. It was a beautiful spring day, with flowers bursting into bloom. In some curious way, I felt that she was at last free to be a part of that. The same day, I went to see the priest about the funeral service, and told him that I couldn’t only feel grief, because there was such a powerful, joyful energy which accompanied her passing. We composed a service which included poems about nature, which she loved.
Alchemy draws its secrets from nature, and from our natural range of experience in life, it but works with them at a higher level. So the natural process which my mother went through is one that we can actively choose to use in our own lives now, without waiting for old age to bring it. The whole principle of taking a process that happens naturally, but using it in a distilled form, means that its potency will be greater, just as in homeopathy the highest potency remedies are those with the least substance in them. (Incidentally, alchemy was responsible for perfecting the art of distillation and inventing brandy!)
Pps 118-119, Everyday Alchemy
The Love Affair
What my mother revealed during that visit, when she showed me the picture of her first lover, stayed with me. It was a kind of strange mother-to-daughter gift, and I do believe that a mother’s gift can be a mixed blessing, even a curse sometimes, as fairy tales and personal experiences readily show. But perhaps that’s a theme for another time! At any rate, it has percolated through my mind since, shedding a little light on my parents’ own relationship, and the hidden emotions that must have remained in my mother’s mind during my own early childhood. Such a close-up insight into our parents’ emotions can come as a shock.
So here’s how this went, in more detail.
On one of my visits to my mother during the last years of her life, she drew a portrait out of her photo box. It wasn’t actually a photograph, but a sketch of a handsome young man.
This was the man, she told me, who had broken her heart.
‘He was my first serious boyfriend.’
Kathleen Owen was a first year student at Homerton Teacher Training College in Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate in another college, and they fell passionately in love. Although my mother – a pretty, slim redhead – was used to going out with boys in her village, this was an affair of the heart of a different order. She pinned all her hopes on him. They exchanged love letters, he gave her his picture, and maybe they were even planning a life together.
‘Then we went home for the summer holidays, and that was it. I never heard from him again.’
Mum may have been a minister’s daughter from a country background, but she was not unworldly. She also had plenty of common sense. So I think her perception that this man was genuinely in love with her was true, not a naive illusion.
‘What happened? Did you ever find out?’
I was caught up in this story, which had been kept hidden for sixty years.
She shook her head. ‘No. I don’t know why he did it.’
Was he too cowardly to pursue a real commitment? Did his parents object? I imagine my mother waiting after she’d returned to the family home in Soham, where her father was a Baptist Minister. Did her glow of joy gradually drain away day by day, as she waited for a letter in vain? Did she have to hide her anguish from the family? I wanted to ask her more, but I sensed that it was a fragile moment, and more than she’d ever revealed to me before.
After she came back to college, the news percolated through that her boyfriend had died, of a burst appendix. But this had happened months after they parted from each other, and wasn’t the reason for his withdrawal. So plainly now there could be no way back – no explanation, and no possible reconciliation. She was heartbroken.
‘And the strange thing was,’ she said, ‘that his surname was Phillips.’
My father’s name, the man she was later to meet and marry, was also Phillips. And thus it was my maiden name too. ‘Joscelyn Phillips, he was.’
She gave me the portrait to keep, plus a photo of him. It seemed to put something to rest after all these years. But there was something more: ‘I kept his love letters until we were living in Sandwich,’ she admitted. This was some twenty years later, in the town where I spent the first part of my childhood. ‘Then, one day, I decided there was no point in keeping them, and threw them into the stove.’
I remember that cantankerous old coke boiler in the passage by the back door. My father would carry up the coke from the cellar, grumbling, and prise open the dangerously hot metal lid in order to shoot it into the flames below. A dangerous monster, to which I gave a wide berth. Now I also see it as one which devoured my mother’s young hopes and dreams.
It was over twenty years ago that my mother told me all this, and although I remembered the story, I didn’t take it any further until recently. And I had forgotten the name of her boyfriend, even the Phillips bit. But luckily, I discovered that I had written it down at the time, and surely I could trace this guy on the internet, with the new powerful search tools not available when I first heard the tale? Family history research is my thing; I know the ropes. Birth, death? College records? Newspaper reports? Should be no problem.
But I got nowhere. Phillips is commonplace, of course, as a surname. And although his first name was more unusual, I discovered that there are many ways to spell Josselin or Joscelyn. I found nothing that matched. His identity thus remains a mystery.
My parents also met at Cambridge, in the early 1930s, where my father-to-be, Ormonde Phillips – from various accounts – was a tall, shy and handsome young man. He was also badly in need of some pleasant female company after an upbringing by a shrewish mother and an elderly, gentle but weak-willed father. He fell for Kathleen, and cemented the relationship. My mother told me that when she heard how badly his somewhat crazy mother had treated him, she determined to make it up to him through her love. I think this became a lifelong promise which helped them to stick together through the rough patches. Dad, unsurprisingly, was not an easy man.
My parents at Cambridge and my father’s graduation day
Their marriage plans, however, were disrupted by the outbreak of war. The preparations for a white wedding with all the trimmings, and a honeymoon in the Peak District, had to be cancelled. Like many couples in a similar situation, a hasty registry office ceremony was arranged before my father was sent off to Salisbury with his call-up papers. I found a newspaper report of the event, held on Thursday September 7th, 1939:
Although Miss Kathleen Florence Owen should have been married in Mansfield-Road Baptist Church, Nottingham yesterday, the ceremony did not take place there. Instead she was married at Gosport, on the South coast. The reason for the sudden change in her plans was that her bridegroom – 2nd Lieut. Charles Ormonde Reynolds Phillips – was unable to get to Nottingham. For the same reason the honeymoon, which should have been spent in Derbyshire, will now be spent at Gosport. Three bridesmaids should have been in attendance, but owing to the change of plans only one could be present – Miss Maisie Owen, sister of the bride. She carried a bouquet of bronze chrysanthemums.
My father’s stay in the army was short-lived, as he was invalided out with pleurisy, and so their regular married life together began not too long afterwards.
And despite some tensions in the marriage, they were loyal, and supported each other in old age. After Mum’s death, I found a card in which Dad had written a poem to her on their 55th anniversary.
This card to all your loving cares
Of me for five and fifty years
Attests, and speaks my love to you.
As time approaches our three score,
Our love must surely grow yet more
And burn as brightly as when new.
So, as we eat our apples, youth does come back in another guise. Memories resurface; hidden love stories can be revealed. Is this a kind of renewal? I think that indeed it may be. Perhaps the title ‘All in the Past’ can actually be a key to transformation, and development of the soul; it points us to the riches which we already have, if we can just recognise and re-live them.