Tuesday, April 17, 2012

To Be or Not to Be—A Woman

(Edited repost from June 2011 . . . )
My last post ended with me being kicked out of scouts. I was told I’d never be one. Today’s is about being a real woman.
            This happened in my first year of the Scholasticate. Those three years were meant to give me a chance to see if I really wanted to be a nun. They also gave the professed nuns a chance to see if they really wanted me among them. In other words, was the life for me and was I for the life.
            In the ceremony that began the Scholasticate, I’d taken five vows: poverty, chastity, obedience, conversion of morals, and stability. I meant those first vows. In three years, I hoped to take final ones.
            I’d spent the past school year in a terrifying classroom of fifty-five seventh-graders. One student had thrown a knife at me when I had my back turned and was writing on the chalkboard. The blade barely missed my hand.
            The students themselves weren’t any safer. When the girls passed out class work, the boys jabbed their behinds with compasses. The girls yipped and yelped as they reeled down each aisle, trying to avoid the compass points.
            In early June, I’d come home to the convent, exhausted. I panicked when the Scholastic Mistress told my convent class of eighteen that we had to “turn” our habits that summer. I could face knives, but not thread and needle.
            At recreation, I asked two friends if they’d turn my habit while I did their obediences. One tablewaited in the summer refectory; the other worked in the scullery. They also polished the halls of the four-story building. All that sounded like a walk in the park to me next to the ordeal of turning a habit.
            To turn a habit was to make the back become the front by changing the sleeve openings, the yoke, and the hem. The back of our daily habit had become shiny and threadbare in spots 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. This brought me up close and personal to her veins, wrinkles, and liver spots for I was actually kneeling as we talked. That was our body’s attitude when we asked a permission of the Novice Mistress, Scholastic Mistress, or Mother Superior. Also when we made culpa for faults—like not lifting our habit when we climbed the steps. That dragged the hem on the stair edge and frayed it—a fault against the vow of poverty.
            I closed my mouth. I’d taken the vow of obedience. I’d lived it out on mission at a school where the kids toilet-papered the clothesline when I was doing the laundry and threatened to rape me if I didn’t let up on them in class. 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 the Scholastic Mistress 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, I discovered that many people—both women and men—defined a woman as “married.” Or, even better, “married with children.” I didn’t then, 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.

Photo of needle from Wikipedia



  1. For some people it is easy to grow into the person others think they should be. For others, becoming the full person they are, to meet their own goals for happiness, to live their life according to their wishes and desires and to go down the road less traveled is the right thing to do. People who have made differences never have been known to walk between the lines.

  2. I think be yourself, be what YOU want to be, don't try to please others all the time.

    Enjoyed your post.


  3. I've been thinking, too, about what being myself means particularly in the face of what others deem me to be.

    "Shopping for a hoodie . . " www.marginalconsiderations.blogspot.com

  4. A knife just missing your hand! Teaching school can be hazardous to your health, that's for sure. Good grief!

    Funny how people always seem to have THE rules for how to be this or that. I was just talking about living out of the box on my blog today. I'm glad I started out there. I listened enough to what other people had to say as it was. ;)

  5. I guess I'm not a woman cuz I can't sew worth a darn. Teaching can be very scary. I taught for a few weeks (I couldn't even last a month). The kids threatened me constantly and threw things at me, but at least no one threw a knife at me. You are an amazing person to stick it out, and I love the conclusion of this post.


  6. You are an amazing person. I mean that, Dee. You have come through trials and tribulations that I can only imagine and have never experienced. And you are better for it, and now you are in the process of teaching me what you learned. Thank you. :-)

  7. I am with DJan. You are amazing, and inspirational.
    I am not married, I have no children and I used to be able to sew but now cannot. I would still define myself as a woman, and I am still working on being whole.
    Thank you for this post - as much as for all your other posts.

  8. I can kind of relate to your love of the needle. I passed home economics in school by a similar bargain. No one liked to rip out mistakes so I ripped out the mistakes of others while they completed my project. I became an accomplished ripper.
    Find it hard to fathom the types of children you were exposed to. What sad lives they must have led with only a dim future available.

  9. I am open mouthed at the children's behavior you taught- I would have completely run the other way and never come back. When someone around me talks of the "good old days" of teaching, I am going to remember your stories.

    I just like to define myself by how God defines me: His child. No more, no less.

  10. I had to sew a small cloth name tag into a ballet costume for my daughter a few weeks ago and it completely baffled me. All the other moms were stitching away happily though, while I left a small trail of blood along the inside edge of my daughter's tutu. I never knew needles could be so sharp! And I absolutely can't imagine turning a habit. Yikes! Apparently, there's a good chance I'm not a real woman... :-)

  11. "Surely Dante considered sewing one of hell’s worse torments." My sentiments as well, Dee. I've tried and tried, but I'm just no good at sewing.

  12. Sewing and womanhood. I'm a very bad sewer,Dee: I use copydex.

  13. I can't sew either, except for buttons and patches on DH's jeans. I'd run a mile before turning a habit! It's sad when we feel ourselves defined by others' expectations of us, but you have had the courage to grow way beyond those into a strong and remarkable woman, Dee.

  14. I can't imagine such a complex sewing project when one doesn't sew! It feels impossible to me. You have pushed through so many barriers and accommodated the things you had to endure just to make it to the end...and to come out of those systems knowing yourself all the better. Your strength is really a strong example to others, Dee. I know that you have had to really look deep into yourself to not let the definitions of others break your really beautiful spirit. Being your authentic self isn't easy when others don't give feedback or encouragement, but somehow you've managed to do just that. I so admire. Debra

  15. I am stunned that the students you taught were that awful. The teachers and parents before you didn't do their job very well. And neither did the community around these kids! What can be taught when those souls who have been so degraded that they must pick on you? They seem to have no sees of fairness. They seem to be very lost. Sad!
    I spent a lot of my teaching days bringing some kids like that back into a place where they felt trusted and had more self worth. Some principals hated my ability to get the clowns as they put it back on track. For me it was just getting them to believe they mattered and that I could learn from them. And I did. Some are still in touch and have done well. Other s got lost over the years.
    Once on a gr.7/8 overnight trip I was in charge of the guys during our lay over in a residence. They wanted to sneak out at night but I managed to convinced them that we play cards in my room after lights out. It kept the guys on their floor. Though I had little sleep I had no trouble from them either. It was fun too! there was a risk of losing my career over such an event! But at the time it seemed the right thing to do. My gender mattered not. They just wanted to be special and be liked but silently. And they were a group of over a dozen.
    The role of a what makes a woman is not really definitive. Let's hope that the world understands the uniqueness of every soul soon. Gender is just a thing that religious groups seems to want to define more than any others. Word of God seems to be their argument.

    Just for the record I was able to ace home ed. but that did not define anything for me. It allowed me to stitch clothes for us so we could save some money. Ready made stuff was costly.

    That you chose to try to be part of that whole institution is really remarkable. That you went on to do other thing s is even more so!

  16. I have the same aversion to sewing. I'm enjoying catching up on your stories, old and new. May things work out very well for you in Minnesota.

  17. I am so glad you had the courage, will and strength to stand up for yourself in these situations.