Gurdjieff International Review

Eight Silver Dollars

By Patty de Llosa

The following excerpt is from Patty de Llosa’s new book, The Practice of Presence, Morning Light Press, scheduled for publication in March 2006. Patty is the daughter of Dr. William and Louise Welch, both long-time pupils of Mr. Gurdjieff.

In December 1948, Gurdjieff made his first postwar appearance in New York and I met him for the second time. My brother and I were brought to the Wellington Hotel for dinner at his invitation. (“Bring resultats” was his command and his way of referring to his students’ children.) “Can he read my mind?” I asked nervously as we prepared to go to the hotel. “Of course,” answered my stepfather lightly, and rather callously I later felt. I was consumed with fear of this unknown man, wondering how I could hide my thoughts from him.

We entered a large rectangular living room almost empty of furniture. A few people were in chairs against the walls but most sat cross-legged on the floor. Gurdjieff was seated in a chair at the center of an end wall. Almost immediately someone began to read a chapter from his unpublished book, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. Everyone but me listened attentively. I sat against the long wall with my legs stretched out in front and couldn’t stop myself from staring at him. There he was, the magician who had my parents coming home at three and four A.M., the cause of their getting up tired and crabby every morning, the reason they practiced strange dance positions during the day.

During the reading, Gurdjieff’s great bald head turned in a slow, implacable arc from the person sitting beside him at his left all the way around to the right side, as he studied his listening students one by one. Every time his gaze passed over me I shrank back inside and tried to think the right thoughts, whatever they might be. His deep look was all the more overwhelming because it seemed to take absolutely no notice of me and my terror, nor did his face change expression as his head swiveled inexorably on.

Later, in the dining room, my fear was refueled by one of his well-known displays of anger. Dinner had ended, and coffee was being served. My godmother had brought him a bowl of sugar lumps, which he liked to put in his mouth to sweeten his coffee as he drank it. But she had been unable to find the small square ones he liked, so these lumps were large rectangles. On seeing them, his shouts of outrage filled the room. Suddenly my godfather stood up and said in a quaking voice, “Mr. Gurdjieff, you cannot speak to my wife that way!” Like a snuffed candle, Gurdjieff’s rage disappeared instantly, as he quietly said “Bravo!”

On January 13th, l949, I made my second trip to the Wellington Hotel for Gurdjieff’s yearly celebration of the Russian New Year. All the children had been invited and were introduced to another of his favorite teaching methods: that his students make difficult choices, decisions from which there was no turning back. Shortly after we arrived, I was put in charge of a deep dish brimming with silver dollars, while a younger girl was handed a bowl of crisp new ten-dollar bills. Then he asked each of the children to choose, as “a gift from Mr. Gurdjieff,” either eight silver dollars or a ten-dollar bill. We politicked among ourselves as to which would be the better choice while the adults watched, amused and curious. Patty's Necklace (Photo: John Hemminger)

I championed a pragmatic approach, arguing that $10 was more than $8 any way you looked at it. I don’t remember why I tried so hard to convince them, but in looking back I now think I was trying to drive the herd rather than be a part of it. In any case, most of the boys immediately agreed with me, and when the fatal moment came to choose, all the boys but one opted for the ten-dollar bill, while the girls carefully selected silver. Finally only the bowl-holders were left to make a decision. The other girl took a bill from her bowl, and I was about to reach over and do the same, when an unbidden thought stopped my hand. A ten-dollar bill would be quickly spent, but the silver dollars were solid treasure, as well as a memento of this enigmatic man who had such an influence on my parents.

My head was now pitted against my heart. Embarrassed to expose such impractical weakness in front of eighty or ninety people, I quickly reached into my own bowl to count out eight silver dollars. I’ve always been glad I did. I set them in a necklace I sometimes wear on January 13th, but the part of the story that Gurdjieff would have enjoyed most is that each coin is now worth $20–$30. Who knows how much they would bring on eBay as a gift from him!

Later that evening Gurdjieff asked Katherine Hulme, author of The Nun’s Story, to tell the children a story. She sat down next to him and painted a melodramatic picture of a refugee child traveling alone on a plane. She went on and on about how terribly sad it was not to have parents and how lonely the child must have felt, in a whinier and whinier voice. Although we were bored, we remained politely attentive. I wondered whether this was part of the Gurdjieff “show.” The adults were also getting restless. When she finished, Gurdjieff leaned toward where we were sitting on the floor at his feet, and said slowly with a smile, rolling out every word: “Now, children, you understand what means Crocodile Tears!” The room reverberated with laughter as we looked at each other, relieved that these grownups did have a sense of humor!

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Copyright © 2005 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2005 Issue, Vol. IX (1)
Revision: December 1, 2005