I have been thinking about the stained glass window again, as I sit here by the steady flame of my candle. In my last meditation, I mentioned a visit to the beautiful church of St Pierre in Montmartre in Paris several years ago. I explained how the panes of different colours in a stained glass window which I saw there reminded me of all my friends and loved ones. The window also reminded me that I am not alone. Isn’t this one of the positive features of these long months of lockdown and uncertainty, that we have been reminded that we are not alone, and that we have all been working our way through this most difficult of times together?
However, as I reflect upon it now, that stained glass window has taken on another meaning. The window is me. It is myself in all the different facets of my life, including my relationships and friendships of course. I have also come to realise that at certain times in my life, I have been polishing one pane in that window at the expense of others.
This is certainly true of my career, enjoyable and fulfilling as it has been. Because I have had a long career in mainly one school (with only one year in another one!) and especially because for over two thirds of my thirty- seven years there, I ran my department on my own, I came to be defined by my career. There were times when work was in charge of me rather than the other away around. It is a common mistake if you are committed to your occupation to a high level: call it a vocation, if you will. Perhaps this was exacerbated by living alone, without a partner. In other words, I was polishing that one pane in the window until the glass was wearing thin, or rather I was. It was part of my mid-life crisis when I became 50 years old, and I am sure others have had a similar experience too.
At that time, during the crisis, I became aware of being too consumed by my career and then I began to polish a few more panes of glass in my window and to lead a more integrated life. I was able to develop this further in my final years at the school when I relinquished my role as head of department and became a part time member of staff and, as a result, had more spare time. Then, after my retirement, I continued directing and going into school as necessary with more spare time still.
Nevertheless, I still felt defined by my role in school. I was still polishing that pane of glass to some extent. I couldn’t stop myself. It was a habit with me. Moreover, it had become an image of myself. It is a difficult image to shake off. I did not realise how ingrained it was in my consciousness until I finally left the school last February.
I call it my ‘King Lear’ syndrome, after Shakespeare’s tragic hero, who though he gave up the throne, could not give up being King. ‘Aye, every inch a King’ he says in his madness on the heath in the storm. I do not think I am slipping into madness or have been guilty of his rages for that matter, but the problem remains: retirement can be tough if you are defined by your work role or become aware that you are and then try to divest yourself of it, to start a new life. A friend said to me, ‘It is difficult to live in the shadows, when you are used to the limelight!’
You may remember that the window I described in my last meditation was of a modern, abstract design. It was not dominated by a scene from the Bible or an incident from a saint’s life, as stained glass windows in churches normally are. There might be intricate foliage etched around the edges of the scene or in a bigger window, smaller scenes from the Bible or the saint’s life in squares or roundels might decorate the top and bottom of the main picture.
Perhaps my own personal window would also be dominated by one scene in the centre: Neil, with a large copy of Shakespeare in his hands and a group of totally attentive students at his feet. Or Neil, holding a script whilst directing a couple of eager students in a scene. It wouldn’t be a window of Saint Neil – I am definitely no saint. Neither would it be a stained glass window of a school production when I played Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Earnest’!
But no: the window that impressed me was not dominated by one image. In fact there was no one image at all: it had an abstract pattern and the glass was multi-coloured and of different shapes and sizes. It was multi-faceted as we all are, if we really look at ourselves.
I have recently been enjoying a beautiful pink camellia shrub in my garden. It is near my kitchen window. The flowers tend to last for a month or so and are fading now. Their pale pink blooms will soon be gone for another year. So I have been savouring them in their delicate glory. I inherited the shrub when I first moved in, 27 years ago. The flowers look pink from a distance, but when I look at them more closely, some of the blooms are a hybrid of a lighter and a darker shade, so dark it is almost red. There was one flower this year that was completely dark pink.
I pick them and put them into tiny vases on my kitchen table, which gives me the opportunity to really examine them. Actually, the petals are not completely pink. They have a thin white border and, if you look really closely, behind the pink of each petal is a white membrane making an intricate variegated pattern. At the centre of the flower is a deep golden stamen. So they are not just pink at all.
Just as we are not just one thing as individuals. Hopefully this last year will have enabled us to sit back and reflect on ourselves a little and may have led us to appreciate that there are many different facets to our lives, other than the persistent drives that fuel our interior selves; that make us deaf and blind to the truth of ourselves in all its stained glass splendour.
Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell – until the next blog!
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A selection of previous meditations is also available in audio form as ‘Meditations of Neilus Aurelius’ ASMR on YouTube.