A Lesson in Patience
From "Sliced Bread" by Rosemary Phillips
I had unsuccessfully played on a Ouija board during my first year at Ryerson, but in 1973, when sitting quietly in the living room on Bute Street in Vancouver, and when focusing on the board with Linda, the small triangular shaped plastic table under our fingers darted back and forth across the flat surface to point out letters and spell words. We tuned into all kinds of personalities, each with something to say. Some of the information was garbled, some was prosaic, and some poetic. We got advice, encouragement and entertainment. One evening we received some poetry. Then came the phrase, "A lesson in patience is worth the wait."
We asked with whom we were speaking and the response was, "Patience Worth." Neither of us knew who this personality was and thought nothing more about it.
Ten years later, in 1983, when I was being given some lessons on healing from John Morrison, a Spiritualist minister, I gazed over the books on his shelf and saw above my head a spine with the name Patience Worth. I took the book down and leafed very quickly through the pages and saw verse much like that we had received on the Ouija board. I took the incidence to be evidence that Patience Worth did exist, was a poet, and had not been a figment of our imagination. Judging by the type of book binding I assumed the poems had been published at the beginning of the twentieth century, and that Patience Worth must have lived at that time. I didn't take time to read about the poet, instead I replaced the book on the shelf and forgot about it.
While working on the outline for Sliced Bread (1998) I wanted to include an item on coincidence and synchronicity, something that happens quite frequently in my life. I remembered the 1983 coincidence and wanted to find out more about Patience Worth so that I could be more specific and give details. My sister-in-law checked on the computer Internet and came up with two references linking Patience Worth with Ouija boards, but nothing more. I phoned a friend of John Morrison's to find out where he could be located and was told that he was in a senior's home and his belonging were in storage. I then knew I wouldn't be able to get hold of the book I had seen. I was told, "Why don't you try the library?"
I looked through all the anthologies of poetry, encyclopaedias, directories, and books on famous people, checked the library index and came up with nothing. I went to talk with a librarian who, when putting the name into the computer, came up with Singer in the Shadows, The Strange Story of Patience Worth, written by Irving Litvag. The book was located in a different library and had to be ordered for me. Four days later I felt the book was in and stopped by the library to pick it up. It had just that moment arrived. Coincidence? I started reading the cover as I headed towards the car and couldn't believe my eyes. I had been associated with Spiritualism directly and indirectly most of my life and not once had I heard a reference to this phenomenon called Patience Worth who had bewildered scientists and psychic investigators world-wide. The book cover said:
"She first made her presence known one torrid summer night in 1913 as three St. Louis housewives idled away the evening with an ancient occult toy. Suddenly the pointer of the Ouija board moved quickly to form the words, 'Many moons ago I lived. Again I come - Patience Worth my name.' In the course of the twenty-four years (from 1913 to 1937) that she 'visited' Mrs. Pearl Curran – an ill-educated St. Louis housewife – she dictated seven full-length books, thousands of poems ranging from a few lines in length to hundreds, innumerable epigrams and aphorisms, and thousands of pages of repartee."
It's very hard and totally unwise to read while driving. I hurried home and dropped into a comfortable chair with a good hot cup of tea by my side and began to read, "I discovered Patience Worth (or, as true believers in the occult would say, she discovered me) by the flimsiest of coincidences."
I couldn't read fast enough. Wasn't the whole reason for my using this story to mention coincidences in life? This was becoming a coincidence of coincidences. On page eighteen Litvag wrote, "She refers to her writings often as the 'bread o' me' and her readers or hearers as those who 'eat o' my loaf'." This was all too much. The title for this book, Sliced Bread, had been established almost eighteen years previous and I had already decided to use the loaf of bread as a metaphor for life.
And there on page twenty-eight was the ultimate of coincidences. Patience said, "Wait. A goodly lesson in Patience is Worth a wait."
At this point I was giddy with excitement. What evidence! What coincidence! I read on as quickly as I could. The language, which is very hard to digest, is strewn with obsolete and archaic words, common to the seventeenth century Englishwoman Patience claimed to be. Litvag eloquently steers the reader patiently through the myriad of uncommon expressions and verse, and from his extensive references he gives explicit details of all the surrounding events.
The next day I took the book with me to the Wellness Fair in Nanoose where I was scheduled to demonstrate reflexology. One gentleman came up to me and said, "You can't convince me about reflexology, I'm from Missouri."
"Are you really from Missouri?" I asked.
He replied, "No. That's just an expression meaning that I'm a skeptic."
From 1913 to 1937, there were many skeptics in St. Louis, Missouri. I showed the gentleman the book Singer in the Shadows. He smiled, walked away, then came back half an hour later to try his first reflexology session.
I continued to read the book over the Thanksgiving Weekend, another coincidence because the last reading given by Patience was on a Thanksgiving holiday. Over the weekend, while hanging drapes in my studio, I kept getting verse running through my head. By the time I got to pen and paper I was only able to remember two of the lines:
'Tis thee who builds the arrow straight
And pulls the bow made of thy fate.
On the Tuesday I decided to contact Irving Litvag, and with some very simple creative investigation I found his phone number. I had the urge to call at that very moment but my conscious mind butted in and mentioned that it would be cheaper to call later in the day. I followed the feeling in my gut and dialed. He answered. He told me several people over the years had claimed receiving information from Patience Worth, and he agreed to receive a letter from me in which I could outline my own experience.
At this point I was only half way through the book and couldn't put it down. Then, on page two hundred and six I saw a familiar verse that I had seen once before on a church wall:
My Staff of Faith
Should I lay down the staff of faith,
Then doth my voyage become heavy-footed,
My path bestoned, the hillocks mountain high
And the mountains defeat.
Cleave I unto the staff of faith,
My path is sunnied o'er. There are no stones,
The hillocks are lendful in their curves,
And the mountains bring exaltation to my soul.
I long for that instant, when I
May crest them with my victory.
At the end of the week, while I was cleaning up my desk, I came across a letter from the Devizes sisters in Salisbury, asking me when I would be returning to the U.K. for a visit. The last time I had seen them was in 1981 on one of my trips from London to the south of England for a few days holiday. I had stayed with the Devizes in Salisbury and walked through Thomas Hardy country following the trails of Tess of D'Urberville all the way from Salisbury to Stonehenge. Previously that year I had stayed near Weymouth, in a small but elegant hotel built from the ruins of an old monastery, and I had spent my waking hours walking through the district.
It didn't surprise me later in the day when I came across a few more coincidences. I read that Patience Worth was born in 1649 and had come from Dorsetshire, near Weymouth, not far from Abbotsbury where there were ruins of a monastery. And, three miles inland, was a wee village, Portisham, the birthplace of Thomas Hardy.
So Patience Worth was, and still is, a riddle with supernatural implications, an unparalleled literary puzzle. Her works were revered, and received great critical acclaim, even from the New York Times (1916). Irving Litvag has created an objective full account of the events and the participants, accompanying them with selected examples of Patience Worth's writings "which testify to her beauty of expression, astringent wit, and message of love for all nature, mankind and God".
And the last coincidence – I have often considered myself a singer...but I've spent most of my life keeping that part of me in the shadows.
Footnote: Quotes from Singer in the Shadows by Irving Litvag, published in 1972 by The Macmillan Company, 866 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10022 - reprinted by permission.
Writer Irving Litvag passed away in 2005, six years after the publication of Sliced Bread.