Gurdjieff International Review

Margaret Flinsch

Caty Laignel

M

argaret Flinsch (Peggy) was a pupil of G. I. Gurdjieff and was dedicated to his teachings from the age of nineteen to her death at one hundred and three. She traveled with Mr. Gurdjieff and spent time in Europe to be closer to him and his work, and was one of the founding members of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. Peggy also hosted Jeanne de Salzmann in her NYC apartment for many years when Mme. de Salzmann visited the US.

In the late 1950s, Mme. de Salzmann asked Peggy and Alfred Etievant to take on the responsibility of movements classes with children in New York City, which they did. Mme. de Salzmann then later requested that the work with children grow, and Peggy began to hold weekend activities for them in her apartment, then at Corey Lane in Mendham, NJ, and finally at the property the Foundation purchased in Armonk, NY where the cottage and the lower shed were dedicated to the children’s work. In describing this period, Peggy wrote, “My understanding of the need in children to be called to listen and to meet challenges was formed and developed during those twenty-five years... Our aim was not to prepare future group members, but to keep alive the deep inner questions of the children and to provide conditions for them to struggle with their weakness and respect their efforts and those of others.”

Peggy herself had a questioning and problem-solving spirit since childhood, with a firm belief in one’s ability to think for oneself. When, in the early 1920s, she became aware that many low-income mothers were leaving their young children unattended to go to work, she founded the Princeton Nursery School in New Jersey, the first interracial nursery school on the East Coast. She later homeschooled her own children for several years and was attentive to the various rich impressions they received travelling to France to see Mr. Gurdjieff, attending sacred Native American ceremonies out West, and learning to swim in the lakes of northern Florida, among others.

When decades later members of her New York group wished to create a community living more closely off the land, Peggy offered her property in rural North Carolina facing the Blue Rock Mountain. A rigid local school system caused the parents to seek a more holistic alternative, and, with Peggy’s guidance, the Blue Rock School began. In 1987 the Blue Rock School was moved to New York State from where many of the founding families originated. The school has just celebrated its 30th anniversary on its current five-acre campus in West Nyack, NY.

Peggy was one of the most fearless people I have ever met. She was undaunted by snowstorms, potential tornadoes, or crossing into the oncoming lane to pass rows of slow moving trucks as she drove across the country or into the city to her many meetings at the Gurdjieff Foundation. She was also emotionally brave in her self-observation. One memorable example was an apology I received as a teenager from her when she perceived she had wronged me. I was taken aback that at seventy-six and while holding such a position of responsibility and general authority, she would share so honestly her remorse and ask her sixteen-year-old granddaughter for forgiveness.

Peggy had a strong inner discipline that she adhered to with quiet rigor. She was demanding of herself and also of those around her. She believed in hard work and during the weeks of summer vacation we spent with her when I was a child, chores and study time were part of every day, but so too were times of play and stories. While mornings might be spent with school work and house work, in the afternoons we went to swim in waterholes and rivers, or on a rainy day we might listen to her read The Jungle Book[1] and other classics. Evenings were often full of family games, charades, cards, and magic. Satisfaction in hard work and a job well done, the adventure of a good story and also the joy of group laughter and games are aspects of my childhood that I cherish and that we continue to emphasize at the Blue Rock School.

I inherited my life-long interest in theater from my grandmother. Peggy’s love of theater was born during her own childhood when a Polio epidemic caused a six- month quarantine during which she and her five siblings had to stay at home. The industrious group not only put together a gazette with multiple publications, but also created many plays which they performed on a small stage built in a top floor playroom.

At Armonk I participated in outdoor plays that Peggy directed with other adults during children’s weekends. I also remember the excitement of going to the theater with her in New York City. This love of story began early and grew as I began to recognize the truly sacred potential of the theater—how the focused presence of the actor on stage requires a special attention as an individual, that the openness to other players as part of a larger ensemble relies on an alertness of the senses, and finally that the communion and connection to the audience, who are alert and present to what is being shared, beckons us to consider the quality and message of the stories. These early experiences seeing and making plays were formative for me.

Peggy treated children with respect and was not condescending towards them. And although she had strong opinions, she was a good listener and was delighted to be included by the children in their ponderings. During a particular week with young people a problem emerged and it was decided that the children should meet together to find a solution. They requested that the adults leave the room. As Peggy got up to leave, one of them said, “You don’t have to go.” She said, “But, I am a grown up and you asked the grownups to leave.” To which the youngster responded, “Oh, but you don’t count.” And so she remained and listened to their deliberations until a solution was reached. Peggy spoke often of this experience and perceived it as a real compliment, that somehow, without any lack of respect towards her age and wisdom, she was seen as a peer to the young people. After retiring as the head of the Blue Rock School, she would return for every performance and many visits into her 100’s. She was referred to by the children as “Queen Peggy” largely in deference to her great age and as a personal friend of the Blue Rock Fairy (a fairy that is said to have helped the Blue Rock School move to New York and watches over the children to this day.) Although somewhat in awe of this very old wise lady, the children invariably were drawn to the twinkle in her eye and the alertness of her presence, and would come to sit or stand close to her. To one curious five-year-old who wanted to know how she became a Queen she said, “Oh, I am only a Queen at the Blue Rock School. Everywhere else I am just an old lady.”

Peggy was never held back by practical concerns or worries; she maintained a sense of adventure, of taking on challenge as part of the journey. As an adolescent I went on a trip to a remote beach with her and a group of about 12 teenagers. We all had responsibilities: navigator, accommodations organizer, food planner, treasurer, etc. This granting of responsibility to the young people was characteristic of her many trips with adolescents. She encouraged us to do our best with little adult intervention and we felt we were in charge. Well, unfortunately before arriving at the beach the envelope containing the entire group’s money went missing. The loss was only discovered some time later upon arriving at the motel and we had to envision no money to buy food for the next two days. So we had a brief meeting and then set about foraging while the treasurer and an adult went to retrace our steps and look for the lost envelope.

Some of us went fishing, others mussel harvesting and yet others set out to look for wild edible plants. All we had brought with us were a few carrots and one loaf of bread. After several hours, no fish had been caught but that evening we constructed a fire pit and made a thin onion grass, mussel and carrot broth and each of us had a half a slice of bread. We so appreciated and savored every spoonful of that soup that we had truly labored to create. The next day the money was recovered from the gas station where it had been accidently left. Through that and other adventures, she was a role model of optimism and taking life as it comes. She also did not interpret the learning we received from this experience. Our impressions were our own and she respected that. She did not try to “teach us” what this or that meant. Her belief, in what she would often say later on, “that life is the greatest teacher,” was evident in how she let this unexpected experience grant us an opportunity to face hunger, effort, and collaboration as well as observe our individual attitudes in the face of this challenge.

Peggy said, “There are certain things, certain ideas that came through to me so very young. Such as the idea that there is something in difficult circumstances that needs to be understood somehow. The circumstances provide material for understanding myself. In a challenging situation you may receive a shock. The shock of seeing yourself as incapable or inadequate and yet unable to be different in that moment can open the door to search. Accepting your imperfection can bring about a desire for balance.”

I have come to see how, as parents and educators, we can focus on trying to protect children and ourselves from difficulties. Recognizing that learning can come in moments of discomfort has been very helpful to me in meeting misadventure and the inevitable unexpected events both in my personal life and as director of the Blue Rock School.

One of the tenets of the school since its founding is to bring one’s whole self to each experience—mind, body and feeling. Facing the unknown and new circumstances openly is an opportunity to awaken. This is an attitude we attempt to foster at the school and one that the staff also embodies. Our curiosity and willingness to embrace the moment and the rich opportunities for learning that each day provides elicits a corresponding excitement in the students as we go on a journey of discovery together. I am grateful for the many experiences I had with my grandmother growing up, not all of them easy, and the years of encouragement she shared with me as we both worked to support the Blue Rock School as a place where children can learn to embrace life.

Peggy often spoke of Mme. de Salzmann’s request that the Work sound a note in the outer world. Through her own work with students, adolescents, parents and teachers, Peggy inspired so many of us to try to live with an openness to the unknown and a deep commitment to our own development as we in turn provide children the space and time to be fully present as they search for understanding.

~ • ~

Caty Laignel is the granddaughter of Mrs. Flinsch and the Director of the Blue Rock School, a K-8 private school in West Nyack, New York.


[1] Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book (1894) United Kingdom: Macmillan.

 

Copyright © 2019 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 1, 2019