Gurdjieff International Review

Beatrice Sinclair

Mary C. Arendt

B

eatrice Sinclair had a magic about her. One could not be in her presence for long and not feel the sparkle and joy that hung in the air around her. For me, it was because she loved life, all life, totally.

I was introduced to Beatrice soon after meeting the Gurdjieff Work in New York and joining a group led by her husband, Frank. It was the early 1990s, she was perhaps in her 70s, I was about 30, and the Sinclairs had invited five of us to Easter dinner at their home in Grand-View-on-Hudson. Her height alone, at less than five feet, was intensely captivating. One of the guests, a young male actor, also new to the Work, was somehow persuaded by Beatrice to read aloud from a tale by, I think, Hans Christian Andersen (“The Story of the Wind”?). The scene made quite an impression—not the tale or hearing it read aloud, but Beatrice herself and the atmosphere of wonder and wise innocence that both enveloped her and that she radiated as the story unfolded and she sat, literally, on the edge of her seat.

The following November, this same small group of mainly younger people joined Beatrice and Frank for Thanksgiving (I was a long way from my family in California), and soon, as I became more immersed in the Work ideas and less interested in the pursuits that had marked my 20s, I was visiting regularly, usually on Sundays and mostly in the warmer months. On these Sundays I would help Beatrice in her pottery studio or, more often, in the garden. We sometimes took her car (whose interior was a kind of automobile equivalent of Gurdjieff’s famous pantry) and drove to the local nursery. These were wonderful outings, providing me with an education in basic horticulture and the chance for conversation with Beatrice. While I drove, she might ask me about literature (I had majored in English at Berkeley) or to recite lines of poetry, such as these from Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” and “Glory be to God for dappled things.” There was also, one of my favorites, William Carlos Williams’s spare “The Red Wheel Barrow,” which for both of us captured how the everyday, and our relationship to it, could suddenly be imbued with a transcendent quality (“so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens”).

Anyone who saw Beatrice at her home on the river could feel her extraordinary sensitivity to things of the earth—to flowers, trees, birds, and other animals, especially baby animals—and to beauty. Beatrice was sensitive to life, and she had a remarkable ability to awaken that sensitivity in others. Krishnamurti, whose talks she often read or listened to, and whose photo she had pinned up near her papers and books, said something that I think really captures this quality that Beatrice had in abundance. He said: “To be sensitive is to feel for people, for birds, for flowers, for trees—not because they are yours, but just because you are awake to the extraordinary beauty of things.”

Beatrice was awake to beauty. And not, I think, because she was an artist—though she was that, and a very fine, very grounded one whose inspiration came mostly from nature. Beatrice was awake to beauty because, unlike so many of us, she was not encumbered by the need to prove herself. This meant she was free to see, really see, into the heart of whatever was before her—an object, a plant, a bird, a face, a picture—and discern its specialness. She could take the most ordinary thing—a print advertisement for Apple computers featuring a photo of the Dalai Lama, for example—and elevate it to something profound simply by placing it—carefully, attentively, just so—amid her surroundings. Her enclosed, sun-filled porch at her home on the Hudson was filled to overflowing with postcards of paintings, sculptures, and icons; photos of animals and nature torn from newspapers and magazines; black-and-white photos of people like Krishnamurti; and quotations from books copied out in her modest script—all lovingly positioned. Beatrice knew what she liked, and she liked to be surrounded by beautiful forms, harmonious colors, and meaningful representations.

To quote Krishnamurti again: “The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy, of it, you will discover that for you the world is transformed.” Anyone who had the good fortune to visit Beatrice on her porch or in her garden could see that she had this love, because when you entered her world you experienced a world that was different from the one you saw. Her world had a shine; it sparkled and was somehow blessed. What I found so extraordinary was that in looking at the world through her eyes, I could feel how generous she was, and kind, and absolutely without an agenda. This aspect of her nature—which as she got older seemed only to intensify—had a way of causing those who dared to put themselves above her to reveal the opposite in themselves, their disingenuousness and lack of generosity. She was without guile. It’s no wonder she got along so well with children. They grew wide-eyed in her presence. To them, Beatrice—who was diminutive and spritely and whose countenance was open and accepting—was surely an enchanted being, living proof that fairy tales are real.

As in fairy tales, the theme of transformation was central to Beatrice’s life. As a potter, of course, she was constantly transforming clay into objects of quiet but startling beauty. (There was never anything “extra” in a Beatrice pot; her pieces spoke to you, but never loudly; instead, they had the weight of real feeling, and they communicated that.) The transformation that she was more interested in, and that she devoted her life to, involved a much bigger and more profound work: the transformation of her being.

Beatrice began this work as a young woman in her 20s, when she met Solita Solano, another pupil of Gurdjieff. Soon, she was living at Franklin Farms in New Jersey, a resident community of people who, like Beatrice, were searching to understand the meaning of their lives and how to live, authentically, a life based on values of a higher order.

In this search and in what it required—persistence, self-discipline, the constant wish to see and know oneself, an unflagging thirst for being—Beatrice was a natural. The influence of people she met at Franklin Farms—the de Hartmanns and Madame Ouspensky—never left her, even 60 years later. She was always applying her mind to the search. Beatrice wasn’t a reader, or, God forbid, a writer, but every day there was some intentional turning toward this question of how to live a more authentic life. She might copy out a quotation from a book and place it where it could serve as a frequent reminder, study one of the more challenging chapters in Gurdjieff’s All and Everything, or step out into her garden and, with deep breaths, take it all in, intentionally. She was an avid swimmer well into her 80s, doing laps at the local pool, and also took up piano late in life.

Though Beatrice wasn’t a writer, she did provide an account of her experiences with Gurdjieff during his last visit to America in 1949; it is published in her husband Frank’s book Without Benefit of Clergy.[1] To produce that account, she dictated while I typed, and it was an experience I will never forget. As Beatrice told her story, I would occasionally, without saying anything, make the smallest adjustment to a word or phrase in an effort to make it more grammatical or sound, to my mind, better (I did, after all, have some experience as an editor). But in reading a paragraph back to her, she knew in an instant when something had been changed. I would try to convince her, explain why it should be as I had written it, but she would have none of it. Just as she could, with that calm, steady, open gaze of hers, cut through lies, chatter, and masks, she could, by listening, hear a false note every time. Beatrice knew better than the editor how to keep the words authentic and real.

Perhaps this ability had something to do with having lived, for most of her life, so close to nature. Beatrice grew up on a dairy farm; there were the years at Franklin Farms; and then there was the house on the river in Grand View, where every spring Beatrice planted a vegetable garden. The idea was not to plant in rows separated by the proper amount of space, using the right amount of seed for each type of vegetable. No, when you planted with Beatrice, you learned that the point of having a vegetable garden was to extract as much nature as possible from the soil. So you doubled the number of rows and planted handfuls, rather than pinches, of seed. Everything grew, of course. It was riotous and unruly. That is, it was beautiful.

“The seed of God is in us,” says Meister Eckhart at the beginning of a quote that Beatrice loved. The quote was included in a little book of table graces that we often consulted before a meal together. In time, this quote was the only one she wanted to hear, so I stopped trying to find others and would turn directly to it. Eventually, in keeping with that way she had of always applying herself, she and I enjoyed reciting it from memory. In the months after Beatrice died, I came to feel that the Eckhart quote—more than any biography that could be written about her—told the real story and significance of Beatrice’s life, as well as what she taught me through being who she was:

The seed of God is in us. Given an intelligent and hard-working farmer, it will thrive and grow up to God, whose seed it is; and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature. Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God-seed into God.              —Meister Eckhart

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Mary Arendt is an editor and writer at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and lives in Manhattan. She has been a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York since 1990 and works with Movements and groups.


[1] Frank R. Sinclair, Without Benefit of Clergy (2005) Xlibris Corporation.

 

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Featured: Spring 2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (2)
Revision: October 1, 2019