Gurdjieff International Review
essmin Howarth was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1893. When she was four her mother died and her father took her and her brother to guardians in England. At the age of 17 she went to study violin in Dresden, Germany, where she came in contact with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze. She earned her diploma as teacher of Eurythmics at his institute in Hellerau and later in Geneva. Early in 1916 she joined the French “Theatre du Vieux Colombier” with Louis Jouvet and others. For three years she was choreographer for the Paris Opera. In 1922 she met Mr. Gurdjieff in Paris and came with him to the United States for the first demonstration of Movements in Carnegie Hall in 1924. In the following years, she taught Movements in New York, at Lyne Place in England and later at Franklin Farms. During the last years of the Second World War, she helped manage the French Press & Information Service in New York City. She played an important role in the coming together of the Gurdjieff and Ouspensky pupils and until her death in 1984, she oversaw the teaching of Movements throughout North America.
My young adult self slipped low to the ground at the back of the Armonk Movements hall, shoulders up against the wall—feeling the vibrations of the music, the rhythms, the feet on the floor—certain that I wasn’t supposed to be there, and hoping I wouldn’t get caught! How I longed to be able to understand, to participate.
I first met Mrs. Howarth, oddly enough, during a holiday in Arizona over Christmas in 1970. She was a quiet, diminutive elderly lady with a thoughtful air and most pleasant and easy in conversation—“not scary at all” as my daughter would tell me years later. While there were no formal “work” events during this time, I do have a very clear memory of Mrs. Howarth patting rhythmically and firmly, a very young, fussy baby who was part of our entourage—and the somewhat alarmed mother of the baby exclaiming “Mrs. Howarth—that is a baby, not a drum!”
When Mrs. Howarth arrived in Halifax with the Welches, and their Toronto group, in the summer of 1975, she had been “brought out of retirement” as it was explained to me, to help our fledgling group begin work in Movements. And what a beginning it was—she started, in the old local schoolhouse, with the arm positions of what I knew later to be the First Obligatory—and she said we should come back the next day having understood them!
Of course, we neither understood them, nor understood how to remember them, and when she asked us the next day to show her—of course, we were a complete disorganized mess! “Dears,” she said, her head tilted a little sadly—or so it seemed at the time—“we must work better.” That was the beginning of a long relationship until her death in 1984, which inspired and fed my own understanding of the Work, and, most particularly, of work in the Movements.
How often I have been reminded of that first class over the years—knowing that I had not taken something she had taught deeply enough, seriously enough, and being unable to match the effort she had made in bringing work she hoped we would understand. I have a recollection of a Movements “seminar” at Armonk, when she ended our class a bit early and saying: “Dears, you must be tired, go now and take a good rest.” She was clearly disappointed by our inattention, and wrong effort—and I ran from the class into the woods, throwing myself face down on a pile of leaves and sobbing at my own inability to understand this real work—and disappointing my teacher. I can still smell those leaves.
Over the years I came increasingly to appreciate her generosity with her time, her notes, her corrections, and her inspiration to continue even when there seemed to be insurmountable difficulties. She wrote: “I do wish everyone well with all my heart—to go on trying—and if ever notes or a word from me can be of any support—just let me know.” And then, of course, with her sometimes wicked sense of humor, a little chiding: “Dear, if you really can’t tell your left from your right, why not write it on the toes of your slippers the way they do in kindergarten?!!” Or, in response to my chattering on about “liking” to work in certain places in the class: “front, middle, back, like, dislike, what does it matter—the point is to work!”
Mrs. Howarth came with Dr. and Mrs. Welch to Halifax over several summers in the late 1970s and we had wonderful classes with her. I also went to New York when, between job and children, I could manage it. I would meet Mrs. Howarth, usually at the Foundation to go over notes, but more often, to show specific Movements positions—which she would carefully correct, putting my rather uncooperative body and limbs into a more correct position. I remember one such “tutorial” in a quiet corner she found in the dining room at the Foundation—where she apologized for not being able any longer to show me all the parts of the Note Values obligatory, but then proceeded to demonstrate much of the Movement herself!
In spite of these occasional visits to New York, most of the “instruction” from Mrs. Howarth was via handwritten letters—often describing experiences with Mr. Gurdjieff as they related to our own group’s struggles—“I remember how Mr. G. used to put together, in working couples or teams, people of opposing temperaments—quick ones with slow ones, introverted ones with outgoing ones—and how we found that since we had the same aim, even if it was only to clean a room, we could respect each other’s effort and make things go harmoniously. For me, I was placed in the Movements always with someone for whom I had the feelings of a dog towards a cat, but because we both loved the Movements and wanted to do them as Mr. G. seemed to wish, we became close friends forever.”
Other letters would give very specific instructions—usually in answer to a description I had written about the group: “as to making a bridge between “sitting” or work together with special conditions, one sees that one loses the awareness of oneself so quickly as soon as one moves or speaks. So, one has to find a specific anchor for one’s attention ahead of time—perhaps to sense one part of one’s body as one stands up, then move it with the strong feeling of one’s life force vibrating in it, while at the same time being aware of the whole mass of one’s body—the living envelope.”
Other examples: “the essential is for one to choose a specific anchor for one’s attention—to work more quickly, or move more slowly, or quietly than usual, to listen to the sound of one’s voice, to be open and aware of sounds, of odors. When washing up, kneading bread, patting clay—to sense one’s hands and be aware of facial expressions, count the sips of one’s coffee—don’t miss one!—take a moment before answering the telephone to assume a relaxed position, and keep it while talking. Oh, hundreds of little alarm prods to remind one to come to oneself!”