Category Archives: Memoir: Swimming in a Secret Sea

No theory of evolution here! Swimming in a secret sea (v)

She was so electrified by religious fervour that her wiry red hair almost stood on end. I was fourteen, she was enraged.

“ Miss Anne Whitaker, how dare you ask me if I believe in the theory of evolution. If YOU believe in the theory of evolution, you will be damned to hell everlasting !!”

I believe that was the last time I asked a question in R.E.

Ardmore beach, during the summer holidays a few weeks later. I was just beginning to develop my pilgrimages, being at an age where I could slip away for a bike ride without that attracting too much parental protectiveness and restriction. I had such a deep need to be alone, quite often. Sharing a room with my six year old sister, I had no private space in my parents’ home.

Here at Ardmore it was usually deserted. There was a rumour that World War Two mines lay buried in the sand. This may have been propaganda designed to keep people from wandering around the perimiter of  the nearby airport. I didn’t believe the story about the mines; moreover, there was a great place between the dunes to leave my bike where it would not be seen.

Tern on patrol

Tern on patrol

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roseate_Tern

The beach was about a mile long, approached through dunes spiked with marram grass and patrolled by terns. Here, I could walk, forage for interesting objects cast up by the tide, have solitude. The endless timeless rhythm of sea breaking and ebbing on the shore hypnotised me.

The sound I heard would have been the same a million years ago – would probably be the same a million years hence. This realisation was too big and awesome for my mind to hold for long. As I strolled, finding a slow rhythm, the tensions and tightness in my body generated by the lack of peace at home began to unwind.

I now understand that I would fall into a meditiative state on these walks, taken as often as possible from that summer until I left home at seventeen. In that state I felt just like a grain of sand on the beach – minute, but an integral part of a great Wholeness.

In those days as puberty began to thrust my body, mind and spirit from the cocoon of childhood, I found the Holy Spirit in the wildness and expansiveness of sand, sea and sky. It was certainly not present in my  secondary school Religious Education class on the religion-obsessed island on which I grew up……

Night Sea Journey

Night Sea Journey

(http://www.flickr.com/photos/magnusvk/166233536/)

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To read the first four parts of “Swimming in a secret sea” click HERE

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(note: inspiration for the title of this series of posts was taken from a book which I read a very long time ago but whose haunting title I have never forgotten: “Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle)

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500 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Fencing with fundamentalism: Swimming in a secret sea (iv)

Fortunately, it was a peat bank we hit. That cushioned the impact, saving the car from much damage. Uncle Patrick had stopped singing “Abide with me”: for once, he was completely silent. Perhaps he was wondering how to get the car out of the ditch. Aunt Maria, white faced, was leaning over into the back of the car where I had been jolted onto the floor behind the driver’s seat. No one had heard of seatbelts  in the 1950s. “Are you all right, dear?” she said anxiously. “I think so,” I said. “Maybe I’ve bruised my knee, that’s all.” ….

At last Patrick spoke. “I think perhaps you shouldn’t mention this to your father,” he said. He knew my father’s opinion of his driving, gained from the local grapevine. He also found my father rather intimidating, perhaps because Dad was not the least in awe of his clerical collar. I liked Patrick, despite the increasingly intense arguments we were having about religion as I moved into the truculence and awkwardness of adolescence.

“No, of course not,” I said. I understood very well that his mind was always more on God than the mere driving of a motor vehicle. Also being the owner of a wandering mind, inclined to “higher things”, I had a secret sympathy for his predicament. Life on Earth was too mundane for our liking, my aunt included. Not that we ever discussed this, of course. My family was not strong on personal disclosure of any kind. But I was very good at knowing how people thought and felt without them saying anything.

“If she doesn’t marry a minister, she’ll make a minister out of the man she marries!” prophesied my father about my maiden aunt Maria. It was known that she was ‘disappointed in love’ – her first great love had been for a presbyterian minister. I never did discover what had happened. She seemed to be wedded to God, until Patrick appeared in her life. Ten years younger than she, he had had a colourful life as a whaler, then a docker, until, in his early thirties, he “got the curam”.

This is an occasional but distinctive syndrome particular to the Hebrides, whereby a man (usually) having lead a dissolute life – “He would have sucked whisky through a dirty doormat on the steps of the Stag Hotel!” as my father once memorably put it of a local drinker who had “got the curam” – suddenly discovers God and goes away to Aberdeen University divinity faculty to train to be a Free Church minister. He then, usually, takes up a charge in a country parish in the Highlands and Islands and rails from his pulpit about, amongst other things, the evils of his former lifestyle.

(nb I am not suggesting for a moment that this is the case with all men who train for the ministry at Aberdeen Uni divinity faculty. Just some of them !!)

And thus it was with Patrick, ably assisted by his new wife my aunt Maria, a natural academic and scholar who had never had the opportunity to go to university herself. Having left school at fourteen, barely literate, Patrick mastered Latin, Greek and Hebrew with her help, and duly became a minister. Although our disagreements became more entrenched as I grew older, I admired them both hugely for this effort and eventual success.

 

The Big Why ?

 

I have always asked questions. However, I have equally had an innate dislike of anyone providing me with THE ANSWER, having always sensed – and the unfolding of life, experience and much reading has affirmed this – that there are many answers. Mere humans are in no position to determine which, if any, are correct.

This persistent orientation has probably assisted me in having a complex and colourful life; it has also had its serious downside. Life is much easier and simpler if you believe the answer is out there somewhere, and feel gratitude when someone convincing provides it.

Uncle Patrick, and with equal conviction but less rhetoric Aunt Maria, had THE ANSWER and did their best to provide me with it. However, I simply could not accept that every word in the Bible was literally true, that Darwin’s brilliant theory of evolution was the work of the Devil, or that the Pope was the Antichrist and that all who were not Saved (ie a few thousand believers in Predestination on a small, wet, windswept, obscure island) were Damned to Hell everlasting.

So I spent a lot of time in my mid-teens, as the time grew closer for me to make my longed-for escape from home to University, arguing philosophy and theology with Patrick. He had the edge over me in the theological department. for obvious reasons. But my study of ancient Greek, a few years after Patrick had completed his, drew me much more at that stage in my life to the classical splendours of Homer’s ‘Oddysey’ than to the religion taught to me during my childhood.

By the time I left for Uni, Patrick feared I was a lost cause. For the first two years, Aunt Maria wrote to me regularly – long religious homilies wrapped around large bars of Cadbury’s fruit and nut chocolate. How I hated those letters! Eventually the searing anger and resentment I had carried with me from my difficult and painful family life boiled over and scalded her: I recognise now that she was unwittingly providing me with a scapegoat on which I could dump my anger.

I wrote to her telling her that I objected to her trying to ram her beliefs down my throat, and never to communicate with me again. Our relationship thus broke down, and was not to be healed for nearly thirty years.

However, Patrick and Maria taught me one valuable lesson during our long and increasingly bitter wrangle over religion. It is a futile waste of time to bother arguing with fundamentalism. As my life went on, I discovered that this early truth applied whether the context was religion, science, politics, education, feminism or whatever. There is no way of engaging in dialogue with fundamentalism. Any attempt is doomed to failure. So I learned, at quite a young age, not to bother trying.

As a much older and I hope slightly wiser person, my approach now is to try to be tolerant and good humoured in the face of  those who have THE ANSWER. But that is hard to maintain – especially given the marked lack of tolerance usually offered in return….

 

Night Sea Journey
Night Sea Journey

(http://www.flickr.com/photos/magnusvk/166233536/)

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To read the first three parts of “Swimming in a secret sea” click HERE

The next episode will be

(v)

School, R.E, and sea….

to be continued

(note: inspiration for the title of this series of posts was taken from a book which I read a very long time ago but whose haunting title I have never forgotten: “Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle)

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1150 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Desperately Seeking Annie: Swimming in a secret sea (iii)

Where does the longing come from?

Early memories may carry clues – tucked up in bed, cosy and warm, safe and sound, listening to the winter North wind tearing the world apart. Night after night after night. Other nights, clear cold, wintry, still. Standing on the concrete of the garden path, gazing at the clear night sky above the roofs of the houses at the top of Ellison Road hill, awestruck with delight at the blaze of radiance dancing in the heavens. The Northern Lights, heavenly dancers.

(I have never seen them since childhood. It is my keen wish to see them again before I die.)

I used to ask myself : what vast Power generates the destructive energies of the wind, the visual delight of the Northern Lights? What are they for? Who performed the long, hard labour of setting upright on a Hebridean moor that great Neolithic astronomical calendar, the Callanish Stones? Why did they do it? What rites were performed there? What gods were honoured ?

Where does the longing come from?

For as long as I can recall, I have longed to know  why we are here, why the world with its staggering diversity of  teeming, turbulent life is here. I have tried to find out what our presence here may mean, whether it is random or not.

During my lifetime, the vast scale of  the Universe has been visually confirmed by the explorations of science far beyond the boundaries imagined by Darwin or Einstein. I have the Hubble images on my wall, and gaze at them every day. Their beauty, and the vastness they invoke, goes beyond the power of words to express.

We now know that our Universe is one of  many, that there may be a vast Multiverse: matrix from which arise countless Universes. We are so minute, here on planet Earth, the Solar System, The Milky Way Galaxy, home to millions of other stars. Why am I standing here, wondering why we are here and what it all means?

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula

New Hubble Image: Carina Nebula

(http://blogs.sacbee.com/photos/2009/09/hubble-telescopes-latest-image.html)

It’s a long way from the Metaverse to the eccentric Rev. Dr. de Sousa in his green plus fours and his rusty bicycle, teetering precariously from his gloomy rectory to his sombre church during the late nineteen fifties.The small island town in which I grew up, a place of some five thousand souls, was remarkably well served for churches in those days. There was no shortage of  Christian establishments in which I could place myself in an attempt to find some answers to my big WHY.

The Episcopal church was regarded with suspicion because of its uncomfortable perceived closeness to Rome.

There was the United Free Church, where Popery would have shrivelled to a cinder had it ever crossed the threshold. Serious Christianity was practised here. No flowers, no music (apart from precenting), definitely no graven images. An old testament God hung out here. Fun and laughter were not encouraged.

Then there were the Seceeders, whose precise denominational and doctrinal position remained a mystery to me throughout my youth. I knew they had split off from some other lot, and therefore regarded themselves as “a cut above” – but above what, I never quite established.

Then there was the plain old Church of Scotland. The minister, a mild, thin, bookish looking soul who had been at school with my father, bore the distinctly uninspiring nickname of “Optic” which had stuck with him since his very short-sighted schooldays. His spectacles, I was convinced, really were made out of the bottoms of milk bottles.

I used to attend his sermons with hair rollers under my Sunday hat as a mute and invisible but satisfying form of protest. He had had a charisma bypass, and took boredom to punishing levels. However, I always liked the Benediction at the end …...In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost…” it always seemed to come from somewhere other  than him, although he was saying the words. This sense never failed to confuse me…..

We went there on our intermittent forays to Church, depending on whether inertia or guilt dominated my mother’s frame of mind on a Sunday evening. Trips to Church were usually minus my father, apart from hatches, matches and despatches.

A spiritualist medium, describing my father’s wayward character to me with remarkable and eerie accuracy not long after his death, said he was a man “who knew his God.” Wherever Dad’s God hung out, it was not in any of the establishments on offer in our mid-20th century small Scottish town.

Personally, long before my encounter with the medium, I always thought my father’s God was out there in the distant hills where he went to poach deer, or in the eye of a storm at sea.  Not that we ever talked about such matters. The only time we ever discussed my spiritual life was when, aged twelve, I realised that I could not face replacing the utter tedium of seven years of Sunday School with the probable continuing tedium of Bible Class, which is where you went on entering secondary education.

An epiphany prompted my nervous and tentative approach to my father. We had recently aquired a Readers’ Digest World Atlas, a huge book which I could barely lift. I was riveted by a double page spread of the whole world, with countries coloured in according to religion. I realised that day how many world religions there were.

Although Christianity appeared to hold its own across the world, it was visually clear  that the great majority of the world’s population – which was a mere two and a half billion in total when I was doing my big religious sums – believed in something else altogether.

I then looked for the tiny isles of the Outer Hebrides, coloured Christian pink. Next, the top island where I lived, barely discernible in the context of the whole world. A wave of inescapable logic washed me away that day. It simply did not make sense that a few thousand members of eg the Free Church of Scotland considered themselves to be right and saved, leaving almost the total remaining population of the world wrong and damned regardless of the integrity and sincerity of their differing beliefs.

My mind buzzing with this powerful realisation, I told my father that I didn’t want to go to Bible Class. I now wanted to do some of my own reading and work out religion for myself.  “Fine” he said. “Don’t go, then.”

At the age of twelve, that was it for me and Christianity, for a very long time, although I continued under pressure to attend church intermittently and always enjoyed singing the hymns at hatches, matches and despatches.

The longing, however, continued, like a barely audible ghost of a sound, echoing my heartbeat….

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To read the first two parts of “Swimming in a secret sea” click HERE

The next episode will be

(iv)

Not Finding

Fortunately, it was a peat bank we hit. That cushioned the impact, saving the car from much damage. Uncle Patrick had stopped singing “Abide with me”: for once, he was completely silent. Perhaps he was wondering how to get the car out of the ditch. Aunt Maria, white faced, was leaning over into the back of the car where I had been jolted onto the floor behind the driver’s seat. No one had heard of seatbelts  in the 1950s. “Are you all right, dear?” she said anxiously. “I think so,” I said. “Maybe I’ve bruised my knee, that’s all.” ….

to be continued

(note: inspiration for the title of this series of posts was taken from a book which I read a very long time ago but whose haunting title I have never forgotten: “Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle)

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1300 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Granddad the Bold: Swimming in a secret sea (ii)

During 2006-8, in the final stages of my recovery from a long bout of  burnout and retreat, I wrote a short memoir recording some of the early influences – via significant people and experiences up until the age of thirty – which had been important in determining the direction of my particular spiritual quest. I’d like now to share some of those episodes, which might very well trigger my readers’ own reflections on the early influences shaping their spiritual lives. If they do, it would be great to hear from you either via comments or email!

(i)

Grandpa Donald

It was a very stormy day, as is frequently the case in the Outer Hebrides in winter. The ferry was tossing alarmingly, the passengers were very scared. Some were lying being sick in the toilets. Others, white faced, were on the cafeteria floor, clinging to the table legs for comfort and support.

Grandpa Donald’s nerves were steady. Despite being over seventy, he was  dapper, and had never lost the sea legs he developed sailing between South America and his native island before the First World War. He made his way with a calculated stagger into the cafeteria full of screaming children and whimpering adults, serenely advancing to the serving area. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a cup of tea?”

He was on his way to South Uist to do a spot of lay preaching, and saw no reason why a force nine gale should come between him and his afternoon cuppa.

Donald died when I was eleven and he was eighty three. Typical of the man, chasing hens up the street was the last thing he did before taking his leave of this world, serene in his faith that he would be re-united with his departed loved ones in the Life to Come.

He used to babysit for me. I have no memory of those occasions, but according to my mother he used to say, every time my parents returned home, “My goodness, that child. What questions she asks, what questions!”. About the stars, and God, and where we all came from, and what life was for, apparently.

I do remember his serenity and good humour, and his kindness. I adored him and was devastated when he died. Donald had always made me feel safe, secure and valued. No one else in my childhood years had done this for me in quite the same way, as I struggled to grow up and get away from my parents. They loved me, but were too damaged in themselves and their unhappy relationship to support me in the ways that I needed.


After Donald died, I asked questions only of myself and my books.

Night Sea Journey

Night Sea Journey

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The next episode will be

(ii)

Seeking

Where does the longing come from?

Early memories may carry clues – tucked up in bed, cosy and warm, safe and sound, I would listen to the winter North wind tearing the world apart. This could go on night after night after night. Other nights were clear – cold and still. I would stand on the concrete garden path, gazing at the luminous  sky above the roofs of the houses at the top of Anderson Hill, awestruck with delight at the blaze of radiance dancing in the heavens. The Northern Lights, heavenly dancers….

to be continued

(note: inspiration for the title of this series of posts was taken from a book which I read a very long time ago but whose haunting title I have never forgotten: “Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle)

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600 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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Swimming in a secret sea

“One does not discover new land

without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time”

Andre Gide

It is nearly Spring. It feels at last with March arriving that our long cold winter is almost over. I feel vital, alive, engaged – full of gratitude for my sense of well-being. Setting up and running “Writing from the Twelfth House” from mid-2008 has been very good fun –and most rewarding: this wonderful comment from “Lawrence” came in via email two days ago: ” I really enjoy the spiritual serenity your Blog site exudes.. … your site is a healing oasis….”

Other feedback of a similar nature has affirmed that the site is doing what I hoped it might. So my wish is that those of you out there currently going through dark times may take heart from what I write today. Life has its profound rhythms and cycles, which at times clash brutally with how the Ego thinks it should be.

Going through my “night sea journey”, to use Jung’s terminology, took seven long years. At several points I very nearly drowned, in darkness without any apparent navigation points. But the steadfast love of those closest held my head just above the cold dark sea, and I called for aid to that level which I have learned to trust, but which I cannot name. Every time, my call was answered, one way or another. Every time, the deepest message was  Hold on. Try not to be afraid. Be patient. This is necessary – but it will pass. You will be all right. And I am all right, all right and deeply enriched.

Night Sea Journey

Night Sea Journey

Perspective on a prolonged ordeal which removed me from the world shifted and changed as the journey went on. I reached the heart of my own darkness, understood it, accepted how my life had been both blighted and enriched by conditions in place from the beginning. Quite quickly after that act of acceptance, I returned to being well again.

I recognise now that a lengthy retreat from the world was requisite for the kind of person I am – it is not necessary for most people to go through a mid-life summing up of such drastic dimensions, thank goodness! Having practised as an astrologer for nearly twenty years, I could see from my horoscope, when I was well enough and brave enough to reflect on it again, that periodic bouts of retreat seem to be part of my necessity. One of the great advantages to being an older person is that one has several decades to look back on, in attempting to make sense of one’s own patterns.

Gradually regaining the strength, energy and inclination to lead a “normal” life again, along with a profound sense of gratitude that my good health has returned, I am left awestruck at the sheer power, depth and mystery of the human psyche. The sense I already had of being woven into a meaningful cosmos – tiny thread though I am – has been amplified and deepened by many of the experiences I had whilst on my ‘night sea journey’. These experiences certainly challenged my rational, sceptical self. The added perspective gained by wide reading in spirituality, religion, mysticism, science and cosmology enables me to sum up what I now believe in one sentence:

We live in a meaningful, multi-dimensional cosmos where anything is possible.

The last couple of years of the retreat were spent in a state which I recognised from before, which one might call liminal: not quite having emerged from one life phase, not quite having entered another. This felt uncomfortable and frustrating at one level. But at another, it offered an opportunity to practise the art of trusting to the unfolding process of life, or Spirit’s call, to put it another way; knowing that, in due course, the shape of the next phase would become more clearly defined, the time to take action become evident. As indeed it has. Writing feels like my post-career vocation!

During that liminal time between 2006 and 2008, I felt inspired to begin work on a personal memoir. Not wanting to write an autobiography, I did want very much to track my spiritual development from early years. Thus I recorded key developmental points which remained vivid and significant in an unfolding process set out chronologically, but episodically.When the time is right I will tie it all together into a short book. In the meantime, I thought it would be a good idea to share some of those episodes, which might very well trigger my readers’ own reflections on the early influences shaping their spiritual lives.

Here is a taste of the first one, which I will publish on the site next week:

Origins:

i) Grandpa Donald

It was a very stormy day, as is frequently the case in the Outer Hebrides in winter. The ferry was tossing alarmingly, the passengers were very scared. Some were lying being sick in the toilets. Others, white faced, were on the cafeteria floor, clinging to the table legs for comfort and support.

Grandpa Donald’s nerves were steady…..

(note: inspiration for the title of this post was taken from a book which I read a very long time ago but whose haunting title I have never forgotten: “Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle

– and the beautiful photo illustrating the post comes from http://www.flickr.com/photos/magnusvk/166233536/)

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850 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

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