Michaela and Geoff in concert
I nearly died at birth, due to my mother’s Rhesus negative blood type; my mum was urged to name me immediately, but luckily a pioneering blood transfusion technique was employed and I survived.
I have three older brothers, Robert, Andrew and Jeremy but the baby who was born a few years after me, named Timothy, died at birth. I have wondered if this difficulty at my birth made any difference to my spiritual awakening later in life. Was I given a chance for a reason?
My parents and brothers gave me a safe and loving childhood, with little money, but lots of singing, parties, camping holidays and a slight sense of superiority over everyone else on our council estate in Barnet, North London. At school I was once asked to write about my experience of going to Barnet Fair and I admitted I had not been, but I could write about seeing the blue whale at the Natural History Museum, something few in the class would have experienced.
There was a lot of unity in our family, mainly because my brother Jeremy had learning difficulties and we all had to look out for him; in fact we still do and he is often the source of great joy and hilarity at family gatherings.
My best memories are of singing together around the piano at Christmas with my extended family, including Nana Kath (a.k.a. Granny Glitter because of her sequinned wardrobe gleaned from jumble sales). We also sang in the back of our Bedford camper van as dad drove us around Britain looking for campsites in Wales, The Yorkshire Dales, The Lake District and Scotland……. ‘ Is everybody happy…. you bet your life we are!’ …is a chorus that sticks in my mind.
I cannot recall any spiritual conversations at home. I went to church with the Brownies once and probably went to a wedding at some point where the singing was probably the highlight for me. However at Whitings Hill Primary School the head teacher, Mr Mason, read the parables of Christ and I must have been affected by them as I asked for a children’s bible for my 8th birthday, which I still have today. The other wonderful experience at school was singing hymns and carols. ‘When a knight won his spurs’ was a favourite which many years later I rearranged using Abdu’l-Bahá’s words ‘He will come to your aid with Invisible Hosts’.
Once a couple came into school and played guitars and sang ‘Freight Train’ and I distinctly remember a light bulb moment – and the thought came ‘I’m going to do that!’ My mum must have somehow been influenced by that thought as she announced that I should either start singing or guitar lessons soon after this musical inspiration. My dad’s friend, Leon, a Pole, also suddenly gave me a beautiful classical guitar which he had skillfully restored. I had guitar lessons for the next three years. None of my brothers had this privilege. We really had very little, so I’m very grateful I was given this opportunity. I think my mother made a wise investment.
My spiritual enlightenment as an eight year old was quickly veiled during my teenage years and I soon decided all this church stuff was hypocritical rubbish. I took on my dad’s ideas that the world was run on economics and nothing else worked.
After ‘A’ levels I applied for University (another first in my family) and arrived in Aberystwyth in September 1980 to study English Literature. I had two goals at University:
Find a boyfriend, hopefully musical.
Join a band.
After a fairly lonely first year which involved lots of pub crawls and essay writing I returned for the second year and within a few weeks had found a boyfriend and joined his band. I remember walking down a street with my housemate Simon, when he pointed out this guy Geoff and said “he’s the one who plays guitar“.
I had met Geoff briefly the year before and had not been the slightest bit attracted to him, but he seemed to have undergone a transformation over the summer. He now had a beard, a blue leather jacket and white baseball boots and a little voice in my head said “he’s the one”. Within half an hour of seeing him on the street we coincidentally met in the second-hand bookshop and started talking about music. This discussion then continued in the coffee shop where we discovered our album collections were almost identical. We then met at a musicians’ co-operative meeting where Geoff tried to dazzle me with his guitar prowess only to discover I was considerably more advanced than he in my knowledge of chords. A few weeks later the girl singer in Geoff’s band became ill and could not do a gig booked for the Student’s Union so I stepped in and consequently took over and joined his band.
Now Geoff was already a Bahá’í but had lost his way a bit at university. At the first dinner date we had he asked me whether I believed in God and I bluntly said ‘no’ quashing any further spiritual conversation. Later in the term I met Geoff’s friend Zarin Hainsworth who was a year above us studying drama. She invited Geoff and me to play for a Bahá’í event, and also invited me to a dinner party in her student digs where the guests included her lecturers. I was amazed that a student would have the confidence to do that.
A fortnight after Geoff and I met, we decided that we would get married once we had finished our studies. We eventually moved to Cornwall, where Geoff had grown up, and we were married in September 1984. Some local believers encouraged Geoff to have a Bahá’í wedding, and once I realised how important it was for him I readily agreed. We had a registry office wedding with lots of family and friends in the morning and a Bahá’í service in Trudi Scott’s cottage in the afternoon with just a few friends and parents. Trudi was once secretary to the world-renowned potter Bernard Leach. Paul and Diane Profaska officiated and I remember being quite moved by some of the prayers and readings.
Geoff subsequently became more involved with the faith and I tried fasting one day to keep him company. Three years after our marriage I had our first child Rosie. I’m sure her pure soul so closely connecting to mine for nine months must have had an effect on me. Three months later we were at a meeting at Ken and Betty Goode’s house, probably with Rosie as well. I remember having a prayer book thrust in my lap by Betty and being asked to read, which I felt was a bit odd. I think I was attending some Bahá’í events with Geoff and Rosie and even though I knew very little about the faith, I wrote a song ‘One People One Planet’ for a children’s class. I asked Geoff to check the lyrics to see if they fitted in with the faith’s ideas.
The night after being at the Goode’s house I had a disturbed night and felt in a kind of turmoil. I had a dream that I was being held in a huge hand and I was lying in a foetal position. The message that the dream conveyed to me was one of reassurance and that God was telling me it was okay to believe in Him which was something I had been struggling with. I needed a big sign.
I told Geoff later that day, after some pondering, that I had decided to become a Bahá’í because of this dream and he was quite shocked as he thought I never would. I declared at the next feast in December 1987 in the company of Bahá’í friends Arthur and Drusilla Wetherelt, John Perkis and Teresa Trevethan.
Afterwards as a songwriter I seemed to have a flow of creativity. Suddenly I had something to write about. As our family grew with the arrival of Jordan, Bonnie and Mica, we somehow still managed to write and record a lot of music. The faith, family and music seemed to create a triangular structure that bound everything strongly together. Praying had been an alien concept to me but I suddenly felt melodies springing from the words and this helped me to hold them in my head.
The Smith family when the children were young
Ruhi Farmer encouraged us to go to our first summer school in Warminster in 1991. There we were able to connect with a much bigger group of friends and have opportunities to perform my original songs and versions of prayers. At summer school I seemed to be surrounded by spiritual giants who seemed to be on a different plane of existence to me. I was intensely attracted to these souls, but felt I could never aspire to their heights.
In Cornwall with so few people in the Bahá’í community it suddenly became a priority to attend as many summer, winter and spring schools as we could manage on the credit card. We wanted our children to see a bigger picture of the faith and make friends. At home we taught a class for our own children and their friends, always putting the prayers and writings to music with them. We used family consultation even when they were tiny, showed them how to do the Long Obligatory Prayer and tried to be their exemplars especially in using their musical abilities to be of service. We had junior youth and youth groups with their school friends and neighbours and for three years we were running courses ‘Surfing the Spirit’ for large groups of youth who travelled from all over the UK to learn spiritual concepts (surfing skills) and participate in service projects.
In 1998 we took the chance to live in Canada for a year on a teaching exchange, with Geoff exchanging jobs and houses with a Canadian teacher. We lived in Penticton in the Okanagan Valley. Here the family really gelled together as we quickly immersed ourselves with the local Bahá’ís and spent all our free time travelling to isolated communities where we performed as a whole family, like the Von Trapps in ‘The Sound of Music’. Our old Ford truck had no radio so on long journeys like the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse we would hone our a cappella singing skills. Our Canadian friends were surprised that we went to everything, but coming from the very small community of Cornwall, having a big community was wonderful.
Being in Cornwall has more recently become a challenge. We joke about ‘exit by troops’, as with little industry in the area and being a far flung peninsular and holiday destination, no one really stays – including our children, though our youngest Mica is currently still here. I have a circular route around my village and either walk or run around it chanting ‘Remover of difficulties’ constantly whilst imagining the Shrine of the Báb at the centre and drawing people towards it. Four neighbours have declared and another nearby in the next town so I know this chanting has been having an effect.
We try and use all our holidays and many weekends to travel around the country doing concerts in any community that will have us. This is our way of using our talents to serve the cause and is a great way to see what’s happening around the country. We love connecting with people’s hearts through songs, stories and Geoff’s skills as a speaker about virtues in education.
Another significant dream I had which I often mention in our concerts concerned our dear friend Jan Fixsen who succumbed to cancer in 2006. After her death I had a dream in which she embraced me and held me as we danced saying ‘Give me something to do…. I need something to do!’ On waking I knew she wanted me to call on her to help in all my efforts to teach. Jan’s death was a huge tragic loss to all who knew her, but this dream confirmed to me that our work continues in the next world and that our friends there are eager to contribute.
A few things have intrigued me about my childhood and family since I became a Bahá’í:
My grandmother and father both worked in the telecommunications building opposite the entrance to New Southgate Cemetery where the Guardian is buried.
My mother worked in Osidge library just down the road from the cemetery for 25 years.
I attended Queen Elizabeth School for Girls which was used regularly as a venue for Bahá’í activities.
Both my grandmothers and my father have had their funerals in the chapel at the Guardian’s Resting Place – these were humanist services though I did say a Bahá’í prayer at my dad’s. Geoff, our children and I said prayers at Shoghi Effendi’s grave before the service and as we joined my extended family for my father’s funeral, it was as if we were suddenly removed from the realm we had just experienced moments before, physically close but spiritually so far away.
I feel so blessed to have been given this gift of belief and knowledge and to have rested my head so many times at Bahá’u’lláh’s resting place, my spiritual home. Rosie, Jordan, Bonnie and Mica have all gone on to be dedicated servants of the faith and I feel that they are the fruit of my spiritual journey and a consequence of both Geoff and me putting the Creator at the centre of our relationship.
Cornwall, September 2017
Geoff and Michaela with their adult children