Pathways Banner

Charlotte Selver April 4, 1901 – August 22, 2003

Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, October 26, 2003
Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

(This is the full version of the eulogy that I prepared. In the end I had to leave some of the stories out because of time constraints.)

(Paragraphs in blue are Charlotte’s own words)

Reading: The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke, by Rainer Maria Rilke
“Reiten, reiten, reiten, durch den Tag, durch die Nacht, durch den Tag.
Reiten, reiten, reiten.
Und der Mut ist so müde geworden und die Sehnsucht so gross. Es gibt keine Berge mehr, kaum einen Baum. Nichts wagt aufzustehen. Fremde Hütten hocken durstig an versumpften Brunnen. Nirgens ein Turm. Und immer wieder das gleiche Bild. Man hat zwei Augen zuviel. Nur in der Nacht manchmal glaubt man den Weg zu kennen.”

“Riding, riding, riding, through the day, through the night, through the day.
Riding, riding, riding.
And the heart has become so tired, and the longing so vast. There are no longer any hills; hardly a tree. Nothing dares to rise up. Alien huts squat, thirsting, beside muddy wells. Nowhere a tower. And always the same scene. One has two eyes too many. Only when it is dark do we sometimes think we know the way.”

Rilke’s “Cornet”, an intensely romantic little novel about the nature of masculinity and war, was very popular in Germany in the 1910s, when Charlotte was a teenager and trying to free herself from a well protected bourgeois upbringing.

I remember how I once walked with Werni through a field of wheat. That was the afternoon when he declaimed the lay of the love and death by Rilke. It was very beautiful. I even remember what I was wearing. A white, embroidered blouse. And he was so tall, and I only reached to his shoulders. These were wonderful times. These pure emotions.
He later died as an alcoholic. Terrible, the decay of a human being.

It was the time of Weltschmerz (world-weariness) in Germany. They always said: "Yes; yes; no; no; rather a gentle death.” ("Ja; ja; nein; nein. Lieber ein sanfter Tod.")
The emotions one experiences as a young person. These almost sacred feelings with Werner, my chosen brother. He played the piano for me when his parents were gone. We would sneak into his apartment and he would improvise for me. Once we heard the key in the door. I quickly hid behind the door and then snuck out without being murdered. Because his mother said: “Before you walk on the streets of Duisburg with a girl you have to be at least engaged to her.”
And my mother said: “I don’t want any artists in my house. If you go out with artists I will disinherit you.”
Werner and I wrote each other daily. And here is how we exchanged letters: we hid them in a phone booth behind a sign which said: “Kindly take notice”. In one letter he wrote: “You are my sister.” We had a wonderful connection.

Charlotte had a very long life. She had a lot of history in her. She also had a fabulous memory for things that happened in her early life. Well, sometimes the stories changed slightly over time – Charlotte was also a great story teller, as many of you know.

Charlotte: “Once, when I was at the school for photography, a fellow student approached me and said: Tell me a good story and I promise to add some lies to it.”

I had the great fortune of spending a lot of time with Charlotte to record her oral history. Today, instead of telling you about Charlotte’s professional life, I would like to evoke her spirit by sharing some memories of her childhood and youth with you – in her own words. They do not necessarily follow a narrative but are more like bubbles popping up out of the vast ocean of Charlotte’s memory. That is also how Charlotte told us about her past, stories would just bubble up unpredictably.

Once, when we were talking about her past, Charlotte said: “The past is so tempting and the older I get the more vivid my memories become. They often seem more real than the present. It takes more and more effort to come back.”

“I didn’t feel at home with my mother. She was very dominating as a mother and as a wife and in our community, exceedingly dominating. I resisted her very much.
She traveled very often and was not there [for me]. She loved to travel to Holland – and wherever she had relatives or friends. She was also hard of hearing. And it seems that she became hard of hearing during child birth, because I was very reluctant to come out and she must have had a very, very difficult time delivering me, and she was hard of hearing afterwards. . . . She was a very beautiful woman.
I had a nanny whom I liked very much. She would iron things in the house and then she would sing. And I would sit on a little stool in her neighborhood and listen and hear her stories.

You know that I loved my father very much. With my father it was different, he always tried to create peace. And he would say – he would go with me over the Rhine bridge and would say: “Don’t you see, when you don’t give in to your mother you will not be able to go to the theater, nor to the concert. She will punish you. And I would say: “But she said this and this and it’s not true! But she...” And my father said: “I know but when you want to go to the concert please keep your mouth shut.”

Charlotte’s father was a businessman. He had a factory for sausage casings – an occupation he did not enjoy very much, according to Charlotte. As a child, Charlotte was horrified by this factory. In her own words: “The casings came from the guts of animals which were slaughtered in the butchery right next door. In my father’s office you could hear the animals scream when they were killed. I went there only once or twice in my life – it was unbearable. But the casings made in my father’s factory were famous for their quality. They were shipped all over the world – South America, Africa, everywhere. They were particularly well prepared, dependable, clean, etc. But when I was asked by my peers what my father did it was always terrible. I never knew what to say. It was like a dark shroud covering my youth.”

My grandparents lived in a different house. I did not like very much to go to my grandparents because my grandmother drank coffee from a certain grain and it smelled through the whole house, and I disliked the smell very much. So, when my grandparents wanted to see me they would tell me that they had something as desert which I liked very much. And then I would come. And then it wasn’t true, and then I would scream the whole neighborhood down with: “Ihr habt mich betrogen! Ihr habt mich betrogen!” [You betrayed me, you betrayed me!]
And I do remember that in my grandparents house was – the stairs were painted new, the walls along the steps. And I declaimed for the painters Max and Moritz. And I knew everything by heart but I did as though I was reading it but I couldn’t read yet.

Reading: from Max and Moritz by Wilhelm Busch:
Ach, was muss man oft von bösen
Kindern hören oder lesen!!
Wie zum Beispiel hier von diesen,
Welche Max und Moritz hiessen.

Die, anstatt durch weise Lehren
Sich zum Guten zu bekehren,
Oftmals noch darüber lachten
Und sich heimlich lustig machten.
Ja, zur Übeltätigkeit,
Ja, dazu ist man bereit!
Menschen necken, Tiere quälen,
Äpfel, Birnen, Zwetschgen stehlen –
Das ist freilich angenehmer
Und dazu auch viel bequemer,
Als in Kirche oder Schule
Festzusitzen auf dem Stuhle.

Ah, how oft we read or hear of
boys we almost stand in fear of!
For example, take these stories
Of two youths, named Max and Moritz,

Who, instead of early turning
Their young minds to useful learning,
Often leered with horrid features
At their lessons and their teachers.
Look now at the empty head: he
Is for mischief always ready.
Teasing creatures, climbing fences,
Stealing apples, pears, and quinces,
Is, of course, a deal more pleasant,
And far easier for the present,
Than to sit in schools or churches,
Fixed like roosters on their perches.

I was about four years old when my sister was born. I remember we were playing school at a cousin’s house. Somebody came and said: “Charlotte, come. You have a little sister.” And I said: “Oh, we are playing school so nicely.” I wasn’t very keen about it. And we were very different. My sister from the very beginning on she was very house – for the house, and for cooking, and for helping, and for – a real little housewife. While I always wanted to go out. So we were not much together. I must have been a difficult child. And my sister must have been a much easier child for my parents. My sister had a wonderful voice.
My father would say: “When Ruth sings everybody comes into the room. When Charlotte sings everybody leaves.” (Laughter) And that was true. My voice a little bass. When I came to school the bigger girls would take me up their arm and they would say: (in a very deep voice) “How are you, Charlotte?” (Laughter) And I would say: “Well.” So already when I was very young my voice was in the cellar.

I had a very, very lovable aunt, the younger sister of my mother. Her name was Hanna.
The whole town knew her as Tante Hanna. And she did everything for the poor people and – to help wherever she could. She was very beautiful and creating peace and well-being for many people. Tante Hanna was the one in my native town where everybody turned to when they needed advice or help or whatever. She was very lovely looking. She had long, curled hair and blue eyes like my grandmother, and was very peaceful.
She never married, she ... must have had an unhappy event in her girlhood and she tried to kill herself. She was fished out of the Rhine. She wanted to drown herself.
She was a kind of peace angel in our house. She was a very beautiful person. I loved her very much. Her illness came back when she became much older.
And we moved to Duisburg and that was a seemingly very crucial question for her. People said: “When Tante Hanna doesn’t see the church towers of Ruhrort she cannot live.” She later died in a mental hospital. I was in despair. I always thought, if only I had died instead of her. I loved her very much; much more than my mother. She always created peace in our house.

The first time I went to Holland was during the war. But the Dutch made fun of us and I was appalled. I was so patriotic.
Holland was the land of plenty for us. I always said, they already give you candy when you come through the door. And they always eat! My mother had a cousin there. He was the man she really loved. He was very faithful to us and visited us often. He was a lawyer but he never had clients. He always read dirty magazines – I heard. He often joined us on our vacations by the North Sea. Once there was a springtide and the water came through the dunes. It was so exciting. And I was caught by a wave and pulled into the water – and then hurled back into the dunes by the next wave. I loved it. But my parents didn’t know where I was and everybody was searching for me. Finally, uncle Sam found me. He took off his vast cape, jumped into the water, pulled me out, saved me – and spanked my behind.

Charlotte Selver was 13 years old when Germany launched a devastating war in 1914. The Germans were in a trance – and so was Charlotte’s family. In Charlotte’s words: “We were terribly patriotic... We lived very close to the Rhine-bridge. When the war started the soldiers passed over the bridge to France. And we all stood there with baskets full of beautiful things, with fruit and flowers and all kinds of goods for the soldiers. How exciting it was to see them march to war. We did whatever we could to support them. My dad even drove to the front lines to bring them more goods – until he was drafted himself. We had a map at home and we would stick little flagged pins into it every day to indicate the progress of the German army. And we would scream: Hurray, another 400 Frenchmen dead.”
But soon the German army got stuck – for years on end. Charlotte again: “The first war was a terrible disappointment. And when the soldiers came back – those who came back, most of them didn’t – they were starved and devastated. We gave them food too... I still feel sick to my stomach when I think of our excitement for war, this so-called patriotism.”

Already before I started school I was fingering the piano. I loved to play. Later I had a piano teacher. And the day when I had piano lessons was a special day in our house. We had a music room with a grand piano and some arm chairs. My father came earlier from his business and sat down in the music room. He offered a Havana cigar to the piano teacher, Herr Quast, and then – after I had my lesson and Mr. Quast had admonished me to work harder – my dad asked him to play the piano. So Mr. Quast would sit down and play. Often he would play only the very beginning of a piece and then examine me: 'Who is the composer?'
I put all my emotions into the piano – and I improvised a lot. In a way the piano was my only true friend, my way of expressing myself, for years and years.
And then – much later, when I studied with Heinrich Jacoby, he asked us to improvise on the piano. I was so excited and couldn’t wait until it was my turn. And I couldn’t understand why everybody else was so timid about improvising.
Finally it was my turn and I let loose. When I was done, Jacoby asked me: “So, you improvised?” And I said, Yes. And he, with a devilish friendliness: “Would you be so kind as to try again? But listen!” So I played again and I heard myself playing Schumann, Beethoven, Schubert... And I jumped up from the piano and shouted out: “But that is impossible!” I had not improvised after all.
And I never touched the piano again. It was a terrible blow – music had been my life!
Thank god I had Elsa Gindler. I think I put all my sensitivity into the work. There I was feeling and didn’t repeat myself.

You see, we have to be tremendously careful to make sure all we do and all we teach is genuine. You too have to be very clear about that. Rather do nothing than something which is not real. It has to come from within and has to be felt through. This is only possible if you have no method. Sensing is the basis of it all. Don’t copy others. Don’t leave the purity of direct experience. Don’t pretend to know. If you handle the Sensory Awareness Foundation in this way it will stay forever young. Don’t stay with the old stuff, even if it sounds great. Start anew!

My father had a great sense of humor. At the time when I introduced Heinrich to my parents he had plans to emigrate to Palestine. He wanted to become a gardener and was in an apprenticeship. So when he first visited my parents he came with these breeches which were worn in the knees.
And because it was the first time my parents would meet him, they received him in the oak salon, a special room for special guests. So Heinrich came with his breeches and my mother suggested that he needs new trousers. But Heinrich, pointing to the well worn knees of his breeches, said: “These are honorable spots of work.” Now my father pointed to the bald spot on his head and said: “We have our honorable spots up here!”
And my father asked Heinrich: “So what do you want to study?” And Heinrich said: “The world.” That was just what my father wanted to hear.
Later, Heinrich formally asked my father for the hand of his daughter. I stood behind the door and peeked through the keyhole. So, Heinrich asked my father but my father hesitated and only said: “I have nothing against you.” So we eloped and got married secretly in Düsseldorf. The next day we came back and told my parents. They were appalled.
But later on they liked him very much. Even when we were not together anymore and he had children with Irmi. My parents were like grandparents to their children.

On January 8, 1924, Charlotte wrote to Heinrich:
“...Heinrich, I am currently the miracle-working doctor in Ruhrort. I give lessons to a circle of ladies belonging to the ‘haute volée’ here. They are as dignified as they are anti-Semitic, and they are devoted to me as though I were a venerable teacher.
The field of gymnastics and breath-work is so big, one can work in many ways to help people. And now that I had such little workshops I begin to understand how much loser one gets with these people on a human level too. But it is hard to always give. That is why I am so happy to have met Elsa Gindler, and to be able go back to Bode and Medau as a student. I admire Gindler who, entirely on her own, is able to give so much. But she too draws from Mazdaznan and makes his work her own....”

Years later, after Charlotte had completed her training in Bode Gymnastik, she worked with Hinrich Medau.
“When I was working for Hinrich Medau I traveled from city to city and stayed in a different hotel every night. But then, on Fridays, I went to Leipzig, where Heinrich was.
Heinrich had a room in the attic of a working class family. When we first moved in there were three pictures hanging on the walls: The one hanging over the bed was of a naked woman. Then there was one of soldiers, and finally a photograph of a bearded man. We took them all down. When the landlady discovered that she was very upset. She said: “ I can understand that you took down the picture of the naked girl. I can also understand that you removed the photograph of my husbands regiment. That you took down the picture of Karl Marx is unacceptable. We do not let anybody drag our ideals through the dirt.” So we quickly hung Marx up again. I was interested in Marx’ very much too but I didn’t know what he looked like.

Charlotte’s time in Leipzig was formative for her professional life. It was also a fateful time, both personally and professionally. Leipzig was a place of success for Charlotte but it was also where her professional life eventually came to a standstill, when the Nazis came to power.

Once I had an interview at the First Girls' High-School in Leipzig. The director was a big man with wide shoulders and a huge bald head. He sat behind his desk and explained: “This is the First Girls' High-School where the daughters of the cream of the crop go to school. There is also the Second Girls' High-School. That is where the daughters of the fat Jews go to school.” When he was finished I said: “Mr. Principal, I cannot teach at your school.” “Why not?”, he asked. “Because my father is one of those fat Jews you just mentioned.”
You should have seen this man. He sat there, with his head sinking down. And he was silent for a long time. Then he lifted his huge head and said: “You just taught me something. Of course, you will teach at my school, of course!” And he picked up the phone and called his wife: “I have somebody here who will show you how she works.” And right away I had to go to the gym to make a presentation in front of all the students. Then I got the job and worked there for some time.

Interesting how life goes. Was there anything else you wanted to know from me? All these memories, strange – it is all so impermanent.

Reading from Rilke (as above):
Rast! Gast sein einmal. Nicht immer selbst seine Wünsche bewirten mit karglicher Kost. Nicht immer feindlich nach allem fassen; einmal sich alles geschehen lassen und wissen: Was geschieht, ist gut. Auch der Mut muss einmal sich strecken und sich am Saume seidener Decken in sich selber überschlagen. Nicht immer Soldat sein. Einmal die Locken offen tragen und den weiten offenen Kragen und in seidenen Sesseln sitzen und bis in die Fingerspitzen so: – nach dem Bad sein.

Rest! To be a guest for once. Not always to entertain your own wishes with wretched fare. Not always to grasp at things like a foe; for once to let everything come and go, and to know: what is happening is good. Even the bravest man should, for once, stretch out his feet, and relax at the edge of a silken sheet. Not always to ride on a dirty path. For once to let your hair fall untied and to leave your collar open wide and to sit in a silken chair, and to know to the very roots of you hair the pleasure of having taken a bath.

Email List

sign up for our
Pathways of Sensory Awareness LLC
Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt
PO Box 185, Hancock, NH 03449 USA
Email: / Tel.: (603) 525-7289