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Being with Erika and Miss G

Erika Whittaker and Margaret Goldie were really like chalk and cheese. In the early days, as young women, they did not get on too well. Goldie had, said Erika, somehow got into what she called the “inner circle” at Ashley place (by which she meant the Alexander family, plus Irene Tasker and Ethel Webb) and she did not mix very much with the other students.

According to Erika the children at the Little School were a little bit frightened of Goldie; one day when they were all being served with soup, none of them dared to start eating in case they had not “inhibited” enough. Then F.M. came in, sat down and said, “Eat, eat. It will get cold!”

“She had this way” Erika said, “of looking you up and down as if to say ‘what are you doing here?’, and one felt an icy chill. The other students were all a bit frightened of her.”

When, more than half a century later, they re-established contact, they formed a touching friendship. Erika, having found some strange things going on in the Alexander world after an absence of several decades, was very grateful to be able to talk to Goldie and be re-assured that she was not alone in her critique. While Erika was staying with me on one of her London visits she was invited to Goldie’s for lunch.  She came back delighted.

“We had smoked salmon, Stilton cheese and champagne; my favourites.”

Goldie also valued the contact with Erika. When I told her on a later occasion that Erika was coming again to London, she became quite emotional.

“Oh Erika!” she said. “When we were at Ashley Place she was always so light, so joyful and so free. Mr Alexander was always sending us off to go for a walk, saying we were too serious.

‘Why can’t you be more like Erika,’ he would say. ‘She understands.’

But we couldn’t. We didn’t know how.”

I only went to Miss Goldie’s house in Richmond once, and that was to take Erika to visit her. I dropped her off and went a few hours later to pick her up. I went in and spent half an hour or so together with these two old ladies who had influenced my understanding of Alexander’s work so much over the last twelve years. It was the only time I was to see them together and it was the last time I saw Goldie before she died.

Goldie was sitting at her little desk under her bookshelves, full of fascinating titles. You really got the sense that she was a thinker: someone who reflected on subjects which had concerned mankind throughout the ages. She looked very fragile and had bruises on her face after a recent fall, but with Erika’s clever and considerate questions and prompts, the conversation was lively and Goldie reminisced happily.

She told us the story of her first lessons, when she was having each day one from FM and one from AR. She said she loved her lessons with FM, but hated the ones with AR. In desperation she wrote to her father who was paying for the lessons, and said that she thought it was not right that he should be spending all this money when she was only benefiting from half of the lessons.  His response was that he was paying all this money so that she could learn to face and deal with any problem that life put in her path, and this was one of them.  Later, she said, she became great friends with AR.

Erika asked her, for my benefit really, how was it that FM could see and work with so many people in a day without seeming to get tired.

Goldie laughed. “It was because he wasn’t doing anything” she replied.

“A lot of young teachers nowadays” continued Erika (and by “young teachers” she meant more or less anyone under the age of seventy), “are very concerned about getting more pupils and trying to make FM’s work more popular. What’s your view about that?”

Goldie smiled and said. “It was never meant for everyone. It is meant for the few who wish to evolve.”

© John Hunter 2015

Being With Erika: #14, Munich 1995

My good friend Renate Hoffman, who trained in London – first with Patrick Macdonald and then with Misha Magidov, lived in Munich.  She was a pupil for many years of Margaret Goldie and revisited London often to continue having lessons with her. Renate was very keen to meet Erika, who spent many of her childhood years in Munich and still had friends there. Erika had also maintained for many years a correspondence friendship with Sydney Holland’s daughter Mary; Erika and Mary, who ran a training course in Munich, had never met. The conditions all seemed very favourable for organising an “Alexander trip” to Munich with Erika, and so Renate set to work to arrange things while Erika was in Europe again in 1995.

We visited two teacher training courses, at each of which the tea break proved to be a feast, and Erika finally met her correspondent Mary Holland.

There was also a weekend of workshops for teachers. One never quite knew what to expect from these events. Even though I had by now been to numerous such gatherings, they were always different. She never planned what she was going to do. To break the ice, she often began by recounting her own early experiences with her Aunt Ethel Webb (she loved to imitate Miss Webb saying “Keep your length, Dear!”). She was, so to speak, feeling her way into the situation, gauging where people were in themselves , how they might be getting in their own way and seeing what they needed.

It is a curious fact in the AT world, however, that we use the same words to refer to different processes and experiences. Renate told me that she overheard two of the participants discussing their reactions to the first morning of the workshop.

“I think we are doing that already, aren’t we?” asked one.

“Yes I think so” said the other. “I think we’ve already got it.”

“Yes I agree. We’ve got it. We don’t really need to stay for the rest do we?”

“Not really!”

Another participant, let’s call her “X”, who had picked up some crumbs from Marj Barstow’s table at one of her Swiss workshops, came face to face with her nemesis when she insisted on the importance of slumping.

It is true that some Alexander students and teachers fall into the trap of trying to go up at the front (which can lead to a phenomena knows as the “£10,000 chest“) and to maintain such a posture at all times. Marj would often remind people that slumping is not per se a bad thing; it is part of one’s flexibility. She would even invite students to “have a little slump” before directing up out of it and into movement.

The aforementioned participant at Erika’s workshop had latched onto Marj’s point in a distorted form, concluding that slumping was good and that this was some kind of Alexander esoteric knowledge that Marj had transmitted to her. But Erika was having none of it. Although I had heard her say many times something similar to Marj, Erika recognised the misconception in the participant and confronted it (see also Note 2 in Traps, Pitfalls & Culs-de-sacs: the £10,000 Chest).

“Erika was fantastic” Renate told me afterwards. “She was like a Zen Master. She wouldn’t let X off the hook. X insisted that she was right but Erika just laughed and told her she was wrong; she had misunderstood.”

For X this was like a koan. She found herself in an impossible situation. She would have to let go of her misconception or ……… Or what?

In the end her misconception, together with her sense of feeling special, was more precious to her than the opportunity to move on. She decided to leave.

It was touching to watch others, more open, allowing their understanding to be transformed – if only momentarily – especially when Erika put hands on them and they had the experience of a different quality of energy flowing through them. A moment can, after all, be short in “outer time”, but deeply significant in “inner time”.

Yet it was the more informal times that were the most delightful and illuminating. There were dinners at Renate and her husband Peter’s apartment, full of light and serious conversations; there were trips to Munich’s wonderful Konditoreien.

Walking past the Opera House, she reminisced about her childhood, telling us about the “Opera Line”. It seems that in the 1920’s it was already possible to ring the operator and ask for a direct connection to live performances.1

Erika introduced us to Munich’s artistic community at a party. She had kept in touch with people there who fondly remembered her from their childhoods fifty, sixty or seventy years before, It was a sight to behold when they, already themselves no longer young, came face to face with someone from the distant past – but still so full of life.

1. Thanks to Pia Quaet-Faslem for contacting the Bavarian State Opera, who confirmed that the Théâtrophone was in use there until around 1930 when radio broadcasts made it redundant. See Wikipedia: Théâtrophone

© 2014 John S Hunter

Being With Erika: #13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

After Christmas and New Year with her family in Edinburgh, Erika had a few more days in London before her flight back to Australia. The book she gave me as a Christmas present reflected many of our conversations about Taoism and Zen over the past weeks. She was particularly fond of the story about the Taoist master who – when asked, “What is the Tao?” – replied, “It’s nothing special”.

It’s time to drive her to the airport and we are, for some reason, behind schedule. Before I know it she is off downstairs with her heavy suitcase.

“Erika!” I exclaim, “Let me carry that for you!”

“It’s all right” she replies. “I’m not carrying it. It’s just hanging from my arm.”

Then we are in the car and up onto the flyover of the motorway.

I’m anxiously checking the time and calculating how long it will take to get to the airport, find a parking space and walk to the terminal. Erika is watching the planes flying parallel to us on their approach to Heathrow.

“Erika, don’t you get nervous when you are late for a plane?” I ask her.

“What’s to be nervous about? I am just sitting in a car watching the traffic or the planes … and that’s all!”

A couple of weeks later I was very surprised to receive a phone call from her in Melbourne. She was a wonderful correspondent and I am one of several people with a great collection of letters from her (will they ever be published?) but, calls being still very expensive at that time, she practically never phoned.

“That book I gave you…” she said, “…it’s on page 29. That’s what Alexander was trying to teach us. You can’t separate things.”

I found the quote and read it over to myself, recalling several conversations we had had about making the link between Alexander work and daily life. They are words I often come back to:

“All practices are carried out at once: there is no before or after, and no in between.” 1

1. Zen Dawn: Early Zen Texts from Tun Huang, translated by J. C. Cleary, Shambala Publications Inc, London and Boston, 1986, p29

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993

Being with Erika: #12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993

At the end of that very intense fortnight, I wanted to give Erika all the money that people had paid for the workshops. There was a considerable sum. I pulled out a wad of banknotes and handed them to her.

“Oh but you must take half of that for all the work you have done in organising everything and looking after me.” she said.

“Oh no Erika!” I replied, taken aback. “I couldn’t possibly take any of this money.”

Erika was very quiet. She looked at me – right into my eyes, right into me – and said, “You’re worrying, aren’t you!”

“But Erika” I protested. “It simply isn’t right!”

She wasn’t interested in any of that. Here was a ‘teaching situation’. She was already aware of my propensity to worry, and this was her chance to show me something.

“Yes” she said. “But you’re worrying!”.

Then I got it. I was, for a moment, quite separate from my ‘worrying’, and could see it. In the seeing of it I became momentarily free from it. I laughed, she laughed. We agreed on a division of the money we were both happy with – and moved on.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

Being with Erika: #11, Hands, London 1994

Although she did not express it very much, Erika was concerned about the way that Alexander’s work had developed over the fifty years since she had been at Ashley Place. I will try and put into words in another post what she conveyed to me over a period of several years, but I recall that when on one occasion the subject of “hands” came up. I told her the story Margaret Goldie had told me, about FM saying after the class one day that “They are all in such a hurry to use their hands. I’m waiting for the one who isn’t”.

She was visibly shaken. This was obviously of quite some significance to her.

“Then why didn’t he tell us?” she exclaimed. Of course, I could not answer.

Soon afterwards she had the opportunity to speak to Walter Carrington about it, and asked him if it was indeed true that FM had said that. Walter replied that it was true.

“Then why didn’t he tell us?” she asked.

Walter’s reply was: “FM didn’t believe in telling people what to do”.

This whole incident had particular resonance for Erika because of the division of the students into two groups in the first training course and all that had ensued from that.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

Being with Erika: #10, A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993

Whenever Erika was staying with me I was always keen to get her to talk about her insights into the Alexander Technique and the key individuals involved in its discovery and transmission. Sometimes this became a distraction from actually ‘entering into the moment’.

Erika taught me a lesson, without words and without touch.

After dinner one evening I was washing up. Erika picked up a tea towel and began to dry the dishes. I was impatient to go and sit down and talk about the Alexander Technique. Erika was living it. The more I rushed, the more contrast I sensed between my movements and the freedom with which her arm would appear from somewhere behind me and pick up a plate or bowl or cup. But still I carried on along my furrow of end-gaining.

Then the hand stopped appearing. I turned a little so I could see her in my peripheral vision. She had “stopped”; not ‘frozen’, not ‘paused’ but ‘stopped’. Sometimes when one was with Erika, one became aware of her thought processes. She had stopped, and was giving herself a choice. I felt at that moment that she was perfectly free to put down the tea towel and simply walk out of the kitchen, or to remain quiet and still, or to carry on drying the dishes. She chose to carry on.

By now I had got the message; not only about my own rushing, but more critically about the difference between ‘pausing’ and ‘stopping’. Stopping opens a door into other options.

Even a seemingly mundane activity like ‘doing the washing-up’ could be a medium for teaching.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994

Being with Erika: #09, “Making the Link”, London, 1993

I can no longer be sure of the chronology of all the following events as, after such a long time, the occasions Erika stayed with me for one or two weeks, spanning a period of some five years, have mostly blended into one.

It is interesting to record, however, the way she addressed some of the difficulties young teachers were having – rarely related to a technical question about ‘hands-on’ or what we normally think of as ‘use’, but something more existential.

To one she suggested taking up a craft, perhaps even getting a loom, recognising this person’s need for a creative outlet.

Another teacher who came told her of his constant planning inside his head from the moment he woke up in the morning. She got him to sit beside her and watch together in silence the planes flying into Heathrow airport in the distance. He told me later how, at some point, he felt the ground appear underneath him and all his tensions and worries just drain out of him; he ‘stopped’ – and came into being.

Some did come with very definite questions about this or that ‘procedure’; not being open to other possibilities, they missed an opportunity for another level of self-discovery.

One came with a question which was to capture very succinctly a problem which many had. “How do I make the link between what I have learnt in my training course – and do with my pupils – and my own ‘everyday’ life?”

I personally felt it important to pursue this theme of “making the link”; it also gave me some insight into Erika’s comment “all about teaching“.

© 2013 John S Hunter

Other Posts on Being with Erika:

#01, London 1985 – Annual Memorial Lecture
#02, Brighton 1988 – Key Note Address
#03, Melbourne 1991 – “Come for lunch!”
#04, Melbourne 1991 – Tea Ceremony
#05, Melbourne 1991 – Jean Jacques by the Sea
#06, Back in Melbourne, 1992
#07, “Where did you train?”, London, 1993
#08, “It’s all the same”, London, 1993
#10,  A Lesson in Stopping, London, 1993
#11, Hands, London 1994
#12, “Yes, but you’re worrying!”, London, 1993
#13, “Nothing special”, London, 1994