Hello All, on this crisp morning in December. I meant to post another story about my life in the Seneca, Kansas, mission during the 1961-62 school year. But the flu bug conquers all!
I did get the flu shot as I've done each year for nearly two decades, but that yearly shot hasn't kept me from having flu three or four times a winter. I'm lucky that each bout lasts only a couple of days.
This one began with a headache that lasted ten hours, despite my taking some prescription medication. Once the headache vamoosed, flu ached in the muscles and nausea greeted my stomach. So I'm going to simply drink lots of fluids, munch on soda crackers, and eat applesauce for the next couple of days.
And visit the site where I'm enjoying the Jacquie Lawson Advent calendar this season. Here's a winter scene from a Dutch artist. It reminds me of the Edwardian-mansion scene on the calendar. Very Downton Abbey.
Take care. Keep warm. And keep your head covered when you go outside in the chill. Peace.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
In the ‘50s I listened as Nat King Cole sang “Smile.”
That song influenced my whole way of looking at life
when I was young and wanted to please everyone.
In the fall of this year, I posted a series of stories about my introductory teaching assignment after making first vows as a scholastic in January 1960. The memories of that Omaha classroom are unclouded in my mind. I’ve never forgotten those seventh graders who challenged both my mind and my heart.
But the years after that—in Seneca, Kansas City, and Baileyville—are not as memorable because not as challenging. I have little memory of the students I taught from the fall of 1960 through the spring of 1966 because the truth really is that the squeaky wheel gets the oil and almost all the students in my subsequent classes were eager to learn and to please. The seventh graders in Omaha had been “squeaky wheels.” As such, they were unforgettable.
In the fall of 1961, the mother superior of Mount Saint Scholastica Convent assigned me to the Seneca, Kansas, mission. My memories of the students and the classroom there are dim. What I do remember clearly, however, is my surprise at the discovery of just how human nuns could be and were. I remember that and also how hard I worked to shape my negative impressions into a positive image.
In the ‘40s I’d heard Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters sing this song.
Its emphasis on the positive influenced my outlook on life
until I found myself falling apart when I was in my forties.
At that time, the Mount convent housed more than six hundred nuns. I knew only a few of them from my college days and from my eighteen months in the novitiate. Still, I habitually refused to acknowledge any evidence that didn’t support the romantic, unrealistic, and erroneous view I had of the convent and of religious vocations. For Sister Innocence of the Order of Saint Benedict, nuns were called to be saints and so they were. They had to be or my carefully constructed view of life would come tumbling down.
The nuns in Omaha had not dissuaded me from that view. Sister Brendan, the superior there, was everything I thought a superior should be. But a handful of nuns and the superior in Seneca were an entirely different matter. I judged them, rather harshly.
I judged rather than simply accept that any group of people is going to be mixed in every way. There will be healers, peacemakers, gossips, malingers. There will be the compassionate, joyous, generous, kind, helpful, brilliant, gleeful, curious, prayerful, gentle, shy, and unassuming. There will also be the vengeful, obsequious, gossipy, ashamed, guilt-ridden, embittered, nosy, domineering, self-serving, gregarious, judgmental, imperious, selfish, mean, self-centered, self-absorbed, and depressed.
There will be, that is, all the human traits that we meet everywhere, in every group. Those traits might be muted by the life of service the nuns have chosen, but the traits—whether admirable or not—are ingrained and do not disappear with the making of vows.
In the first weeks of my life in Seneca, I knew I was judging others. That wasn’t, I thought, the way a nun should act. And so in an attempt to mend and reverse the judgments in my mind, I found all sorts of reasons for why the superior and the nuns would act the way they did. Rather then accept their humanity, I twisted my thoughts into a skein of knots. I made my own reality.
In the ‘50s Nat King Cole encouraged all of us to “Pretend.”
I learned to do that very well when I was young.
Next Thursday I hope to share with you some of the very human traits I found on that mission. Traits I refused to accept. Instead I concentrated on my own judgmental attitude and found myself despicable.
Thus I began to travel the path that led to my leaving on Christmas Eve of 1966. I left broken, not so much by the convent but by my own struggle to create nirvana in the midst of the gathering of humanity in which I found myself.
It wasn’t so much that I found the nuns and the convent wanting. It was that I found myself so far short of perfection. And that, my friends, was my undoing—the belief that to be loved one must be perfect.
Thursday, November 28, 2013
Hello to all of you whose blogging friendship has enriched my life during the past year. All of us, I hope and trust, have so much for which to be grateful. Each day, life offers us blessings pressed down and overflowing. Often these blessings come as surprises: we feel a sudden upsurge of gratitude within our innards. A lightness of heart and mind. Joy. A feeling of contentment.
These transcendent moments enrich our spirits as we meld with all others who inhabit the Universe and are part of the Holy Oneness of All Creation.
That Oneness unites us despite our differences with regard to religion or politics or skin color or ethnicity or sexual preference or other beliefs to which we cling sometimes as that which defines us.
What really defines us I believe is our ceaseless search for authenticity, for wholeness of the human spirit—a wholeness that speaks loud and clear of the great gifts we bear to all human—and animal—kind.
This year I am especially grateful not only for the friendship you have extended to me but for my family, the cats with whom I live, my home, the beauty of our natural world, and my health. And one thing more: renewed possibility.
Meniere’s entered my life in 2006 and has narrowed it in many ways. But this month I flew—for the first time since the disease took up residence within me. Flying is somewhat tricky for those of us who are often in the throes of vertigo and the accompanying headaches and so I’ve given up traveling to anyplace except where I can drive. And driving long distances at seventy-seven is tiring!
This past year, a young mother and her four children “adopted” me as their grandmother. During my lifetime I’ve been daughter, sister, and aunt, but I’ve never been called wife, mother, or grandmother. This is a whole new episode in my life and I feel humbled by it—and grateful.
When this family of five invited me to visit for two weeks I hesitated because the distance was too far to drive. I checked train and bus schedules but both time and cost were prohibitive. After much mulling, I decided, with some trepidation, that I had to venture forth and take to the skies. I found an inexpensive roundtrip ticket that pretty much made the decision for me.
A Meniere’s friend in Stillwater, Minnesota, gave me sound advice on how to prepare for the flight. Nevertheless I felt stressed, which can exacerbate Meniere’s. So on November 6th, both anxiety and I boarded the plane.
Now here is the wonderful news: I experienced no problems in flying across the country and back. NONE. O ye jigs and juleps! O, joy in the morning! This means that my life has opened up to possibility again.
As I’ve aged, my life has narrowed. Partly because of Meniere’s and partly because of moving away from friends of thirty-eight years and settling here in Missouri. I am neither a joiner nor a churchgoer and after volunteering for fifty-some years, I’m ready to leave that enriching way of meeting other people to the younger generations.
But discovering I can fly means I can visit with friends in Minnesota more often. I can visit those places that are on my “bucket list.” Moreover, the realization that Meniere’s is still present but that it no longer holds my life in thrall has helped me realize that even here in Missouri I can venture out more and seek new experiences. I can get on that superhighway to Kansas City and enjoy the concerts and plays there.
And so today as all of us honor the courage of the soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, as all of us give thanks for our health and our families and friends, as all of us gather with loved ones to embrace the goodness and abundance of our lives, I am saying a special thank you to the Universe for the treasure trove of possibility that I now see opening up before me. Life is good.
Peace to all of you, pressed down and overflowing, on this Thanksgiving Day.
Note: The photographs from Wikipedia are of the Rocky Mountains. I flew over them and also was driven up them and through their canyons. The world is indeed beautiful.
PS: Next Thursday I hope to begin posting regularly again. You’ll find me in Seneca, Kansas, teaching fifth graders.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
In late August of 1960, I returned to Omaha. For the next nine months I taught a delightful class of fifth graders. Just thinking of that year with those eager fifth graders who soaked up learning makes me smile. How different from the seventh graders of the spring before. The only thing that marred those idyllic and carefree days were the recesses and the days I did the convent laundry.
Throughout the year, several fifth graders would always gather around me during recess. We’d talk and laugh. And daily the members of that seventh—now eighth—grade gang would intrude. “You won’t be smiling when we’re done with ya,” they’d taunt. “We’re goin’ rape ya ‘til your ears ring.”
Always the threat of rape.
Because of that, Sister Brendan told me I was never to walk back to the convent alone. Another nun always accompanied me.
The gang never raped me, but they did toilet-paper the trees and scrubs around the convent numerous times. Moreover one of my obediences was the weekly laundry. I’d pin a load on the line and go back inside the convent, only to return to the backyard and discover all the wet clothes trampled in the dirt, the clothespins littering the yard.
After this had happened a few times, another nun stood guard during the laundry days.
One playground scene imprinted itself on my mind. In mid-winter, I was talking with Eugene, a fifth grader who was all of four and a half feet tall, malnourished, his face thin, a shock of black hair over his forehead, a woeful look in his eyes.
Eugene was telling me about his dad’s drinking when one of the eighth graders—a member of the gang—strode up. He was tall, at last six feet, and burly. He smirked, put one of his muscled hands around the back of Eugene’s neck, squeezed, and lifted him off the ground. Eugene’s feet dangled; panic widened his eyes.
“You b___,” the eighth grader snarled. “We’ll get you tonight!”
“Let Eugene go!”
“I suppose he’s your pet. Probably likes you. Doesn’t know what a b ___ you are.” As he spoke, he squeezed tightly so that Eugene’s face turned blue; his eyes rolled back.
“Drop him,” I yelled from my five-foot-four height.
“Make me!” he shouted.
I slapped him.
The bully dropped Eugene, who crumpled to the ground, coughing.
Rubbing his left cheek, the eight-grader muttered some choice curses, debating whether to hit me.
Seeing the white line across his cheek left by my slap, I was appalled at what I’d done. But I had no time to apologize because Eugene was struggling to get up, still gasping for breath. I knelt on the asphalt and gathered him in my arms. Looking up, I saw the eighth grader looming over us, his fists clenched, his curses still bluing the air.
“I’m going to report you to Sister Brendan,” I said.
With that, he turned away, sullen, and rejoined his buddies who’d been watching. I don’t know what Sister Brendan said to him and his gang, but that ended their playground forays into fifth-grade territory.
The year passed. I enjoyed being with those young children whose curiosity made learning exciting. But I continued to feel guilty about the hatred I’d incited in those gang members. When I’d taught them, my intentions had been good, but the results echoed for many years so that it was only thirty years later that I could finally see that I did have a gift for teaching and that those first five months had little to do with me and much to do with those damaged boys.
And that, my friends, ends the saga of Omaha.
Note: I’m taking a vacation for a while, but will return to this on-line memoir in late November to share with you my next teaching assignment: Seneca, Kansas, in the fall of 1961.
All photographs from Wikipedia.
All photographs from Wikipedia.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
The summer of 1960—the summer I discovered why Mother Alfred had sent me to Omaha—Sister Sweteberta told my scholastic class of eighteen that we had to “turn” our habits that summer.
I panicked. I’d faced knives, but thread and needle were an entirely different matter.
About fifteen years before, the sewing of an apron while in Girl Scouts had been a dismal experience. A failure. My flippant attitude about the project had incensed the leader who’d summarily dismissed me from the Scouts.
Bess Truman with the Girl Scouts
After Sister Sweteberta gave us the news about turning our habits, I asked two friends if they’d do it for me while I did their obediences. One tablewaited in the summer refectory; the other worked in the scullery. They also used a polisher on the terrazzo floors of the four-story building. All that sounded like a leisurely summer picnic next to the ordeal of turning a habit.
Sewing Fisherman’s Wife by Anna Ancher, 1890
To turn a habit was to make the back become the front by changing the sleeve openings, the yoke, and the frayed hem. The back of our daily habit had become shiny and threadbare from our having sat on it for two years. The long, narrow scapular of black serge we wore over the habit—back and front—would cover the shine. Turning would keep the habit whole, not holey.
Turning was beyond my capabilities.
My two friends thought they got the best of the deal. They actually liked to sew. Both of them had probably been great girl scouts. When the Scholastic Mistress heard my plan, she nixed it. I’d turn my own habit.
“I don’t like sewing,” I explained.
“It’s your habit, Sister Innocence. It’s your duty to take care of it.”
“I’m not good at sewing.”
“You’ll get good.”
“Believe me, I can’t sew no matter how much I try.”
“If you don’t learn how to sew, you’ll never be a real woman,” she said.
“I don’t want to be a real woman if that means sewing,” I countered.
She held up her right hand for silence.
I closed my mouth. I’d taken the vow of obedience. I’d lived it out on mission for five months with an unruly group of seventh graders. Surely turning a habit couldn’t be worse than that.
Let me be the first to tell you: it was. That summer I had to do it all by hand because the personality of a sewing machine continued to evade me. I had so many needle pricks in my fingers and left so many drops of blood on that black serge that my friends felt sorry for me and surreptitiously helped whenever Sister Sweteberta wasn’t looking. We were downright sneaky.
Years have passed and I’m fairly certain that letting others define us is hazardous for our emotional growth and contentment. The Scholastic Mistress defined a woman as a female who could sew. Upon leaving the convent on Christmas Eve in 1966, I discovered that many people—both men and women—defined a woman as “married.” Or, even better, “married with children.” I didn’t then and I don’t now fit those definitions.
The truth is I’m not particularly concerned about “being a woman.” Being either male or female is of little interest to me. What is important is becoming an authentic human being. I’m gently greeting—day by day—the Oneness that lies deep down in the center of myself. I choose to let this Oneness define me.
What I know for certain is that I never become a scout . . . or a seamstress.
Surely Dante considered sewing one of hell’s worse torments.
Note: Next Thursday I’ll share my second year in Omaha with you. That will complete the Omaha saga!
All photographs from Wikipedia.