Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Move Accompanied by Music

In late May 1967, the four friends whom I’d met at the Loretto Guild suggested that we find a house to rent. One of them worked at the University of Dayton and knew that during the summer months the University rented the houses in which students had lived during the school months. At the end of May we moved into the house pictured in last Thursday’s posting. We stayed there for three months. During that time I dated a little. By the end of the summer that had ended.
         In August one friend began to study the classified ads in the Dayton Daily News. She found a three-bedroom apartment at a “swingin’ singles” complex that boasted a swimming pool with a concrete surround furnished with deck chairs, tables with umbrellas, and hootenanny music.
         For that swingin’ singles’ pool I bought a two-piece swimsuit. It consisted of a top that was like the modern-day sports bras and a pair of shorts that came four or five inches down my thighs. The suit was modest, its pattern a smattering of tiny pink, blue, and yellow flowers with green leaves on a white background. It suited someone like myself who was still uncomfortable with having much flesh on display. The memory of seven yards of black serge lingered and my body missed the anonymity of the habit it had worn.

         Many days in September and October, after taking the electric trolley bus home from work, I’d don that swimming suit. Opening the door to the pool area, which a tall wooden fence enclosed on three sides, I’d first dip my toes to test the water's coldness then sit on the edge of the pool, making circles in the sun drenched water. Next, I’d enter the shallow end and sit in the water. But I didn’t know how to swim, so after a few minutes, I’d emerge from the pool and settle into a lounge chair, positioned in the shadows beneath the overhanging railed balconies of the second floor.
         There I’d read while humming the songs the local DJs were playing on the radios. When not engrossed in a novel, I’d raise my head and watch the bronzed men and nubile young women flirting with one another in the pool and dancing on the concrete area surrounding it.
         The local radio stations played records by many folk artists, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Glenn Yarborough, and Simon and Garfunkel among them. It was a time rich in music.
         One of those songs—written by Seeger in the 1950s and sung by Joan Baez in the mid-'60s—helped get me involved in the Vietnam War protest.

         Another, sung by Glenn Yarborough, appealed to the men around the pool but spoke to me also. I embraced the independence advocated in the song—the searching for what’s next in life. It became sort of an anthem of freedom for me.

         A third song, written and sung by Simon and Garfunkel, forced me to truly look at the world in which I lived. It helped me recognize the alienation around me and the desperate need to find meaning. It helped me understand that I wasn’t the only person lost and confused.         

         The music of 1967 and the following ten years or so is embedded in my psyche. Those songs of protest, young love, human need—of taking to the road and being open to change—helped form the woman I was to become. Just as the goodness of my mother and the prayer and dedication of the convent nuns had formed me.
         Slowly I was finding a life, but I needed help because mostly my mind was muddled. I still disliked myself intensely. So next week I hope to share with you what the second Dayton psychiatrist said to me. It was peace I was seeking and with him I found mostly questions to ask myself for a lifetime.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Photographs of the Dawning of Self

Last evening I riffled through a box of old photographs that date back to the early twentieth century. There were great-grandparents, Grandma Ready and O’Mara, Mom and Dad, my brother and his family, friends, as well as myself. Among those photographs I found some from early 1967 that show me during the first few months after I left the convent as well as one from the month before I left and a couple from a year later. Today, I’d like to share these with you.

         Here’s Sister Innocence in November 1966—a month and a half before I left the convent. I was teaching high school students in the Mount Academy and this is one of the Asian students. I had weighed 118 pounds from the time I was in grade school. But during those final months of 1966, I lost about 15 pounds and was the thinnest I’d been since fifth grade.
         Wearing the clothes of my pregnant sister-in-law, I left the convent on Christmas Eve, 1966. The following two photographs show me two days later at a party she and my brother gave for the family. In the one below I’m standing next to my cousin-in-law. I’m not sure what article of clothing I’m holding.

         In this second photograph I think I’m examining a half-slip my brother and his wife gave me as a Christmas gift. As I’ve said in earlier postings about this time, I did a lot of acting for a few weeks. Acting surprised. Acting happy. Acting interested. Longing always to be home with my mom and dad in their house where I didn’t need to act.

         In Dayton, where I got my first post-convent joy, I first lived at the Loretto Guild where I met four women who befriended me. In the early spring of 1967, the five of us moved to a house near Dayton University. My sister-in-law was due any day and so would soon be needing her spring and summer wardrobe.
         With the encouragement of my new friends, I bought myself dresses and shoes to wear to work. They were excited for me and wanted to take photographs showing “Sister Innocence” in her new finery. Below are pictures of me in one dress after another. These were taken outside the two-story home we’d rented. It was on a residential street where many students lived.

         On my face you see smiles that are real. I was no longer acting. I’d settled into life beyond the convent. Friends enriched my life. I enjoyed my work as an editor at Pflaum Publishing. I was going to movies, concerts, plays, dances. I had a library card. I traveled successfully on the city buses. I knew where to shop. I was being invited to the homes of co-workers to meet their families, play with their children, and enjoy tasty home-cooked meals. 
         I was taking a class on the novels of Charles Dickens and George Eliot at the University and writing papers that were garnering good grades. This was proof, I thought, that my mind was working well and that I hadn’t lost my ability to craft sentences. In a word, I was happy.

         That summer I traveled home to visit my family. This is a photo of me at Lake Jacoma in Blue Springs, Missouri. My family and I did some fishing there and then sat on the grass to enjoy a picnic with some of Mom’s famous potato salad. I note in looking at all these photographs that none of them show me in shorts. It took many years before I bared my legs by wearing pants that came above my knees.

         Finally, here is a winter 1967 photograph of me at my brother’s home in Independence. My hair is different; my smile is different; my whole demeanor has changed. This is what time and good friends and loving family can do for someone who has been deep into the abyss of depression and has—by some great grace—decided to live.
         Last night, while viewing these photographs that show in their own way a resurrection, I thought of Robin Williams. My heart aches for his pain and for the forlorn darkness of mind and heart and spirit in which he must have been living. May he now know the truth of himself and know, too, the meaning and worth of his life and the joy he brought to so many of us. May he know that he was and is a gift from and to the Universe. Peace.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why Dating Didn't Work

Last week I wrote a story that illustrated I wasn’t a total wimp when younger. I could—when push came to shove—speak up for myself. As the psychiatrist in St. Paul said many years later, “Dee, you have the deepest sense of survival of anyone I’ve ever worked with.” I think I felt my survival being threatened by that first Dayton psychiatrist. He set up roadblocks to my surviving in a new environment.
         As I indicated at the end of that posting, I soon found a second psychiatrist. I want to tell you about that experience, but before doing so, I need to share with you my life outside work those first months after I left the convent.

The Loretto Guild

         This past April I described the Loretto Guild where I lived for the first few months of 1967. While there, I met four young women who became friends. Like me, they worked in downtown Dayton. Unlike me they hadn’t been in the convent, so they were younger than I—all in their early twenties. But in the ways of the world they were so much more sophisticated and knowledgeable.         
         These four women—all different just as the women in the convent had been—helped me settle into the life of a single young woman in a bustling city. I have such good memories of our laughter each night when we went out to local restaurants for supper or settled in the lounge of the Loretto to watch television and gab.

“Dance at Bougival” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

         With them I went to the local dances sponsored by the Catholic Church in a Dayton auditorium. It was there I met two men in their thirties who asked me out on dates. Hesitant, shy, awkward—I was all of these and more. Inarticulate often, I was inept at carrying on a conversation with a man. I still carried with me the fear of the neighbor who’d molested me for three months in fifth grade. (Click here and here if you’d like to read that story.)
         Since I was ten, that fear had pervaded my entire response to men. It—and the acne I’d had in my teens and twenties—had been the reason I’d done so little dating in high school and college. Now I had to move beyond that fear and accept dates with these men and . . . let them kiss me goodnight after a movie or supper. Yet I so feared that one of them would clutch my breast or move his hand up my thigh.
         Here I was, thirty-one years old, no longer ten. I’d studied psychology in college. I’d been in the convent where, especially in Omaha, I’d learned to be resolute when faced with difficult situations.

A 1966 Volkswagen Beetle.

         But in the darkness of a car on a residential street at eleven at night, I lost my certainty that I could say no if one of these men tried to go beyond where I felt comfortable. And so, when one of them would pull up at the curb before the residence where I was living, I’d clutch my purse and say, “Thank you,” while hurriedly opening the car door. I’d almost run up the sidewalk to the residence door, behind which safety beckoned.
         As you must already suspect, the men gave up on me. My conversation was forced. My response to sexual overtures was awkward. My confidence in myself was nil. I must have been—I’m quite sure of this—a dismal date!
         So I stopped going to the dances. I stopped dating. And instead I went to night school to learn more about literature. I could hide in a book.

All photographs from Wikipedia except for the Loretto Guild, which is from the Dayton Library Postcard Collection.            

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Unexpected and Unexplained Wrath

Today we are back in Dayton, Ohio, in March 1967. I’ve returned from Washington, D. C., where I visited a friend earlier in the month. She had helped me understand that I needed professional help.
         I know now—after sessions with two psychiatrists in Dayton, one in New Hampshire, and a psychiatrist and counselor in Minnesota, and after having two spiritual directors—that I had deep-seated problems unconnected with the convent. The convent simply exacerbated my fear of betrayal and my belief that I was both unlovable and worthless.
         My friend had searched for and found a Roman Catholic psychiatrist who, she thought, might understand nuns; who might appreciate their answering a call to the religious life and, hopefully, their answering their own inner call to leave that life.
         Several of you in the past have commented on my memory. And it’s true that I have a good one. Often I can remember the whole of a conversation because since first engaging in it, I’ve often repeated it to myself. But with this psychiatrist all I can remember is the content of what he said and my response.
         I entered his office with some trepidation. At that time seeing a psychiatrist was something rich people did. People who wanted Freudian analysis. I wasn’t rich and I knew nothing of Freud.
         Also, at that time, most people I knew believed that psychiatrists treated truly “crazy” people. “Loonies.” Those who’d “gone off the deep end.” Or “around the bend.” Those who babbled inanities.
         None of those descriptions fit me I thought.
         Or did they?
         I was hallucinating—and had done so for many months—three separate aspects of myself: Anna, Dolores, and Dodo. One persisted in berating me; one assured me I was doing the best I could; the third would have, in the 1990s, taken as her mantra, “Don’t worry; be happy.”
         They entered the doctor’s office with me. Each immediately chose a corner. Each kept commenting as I recounted my convent experiences and stammered the muddled reasons why I’d left. Each had something to say as I waded through a quagmire of emotions: Grief. Regret. Shame. Guilt. Contrition. And yes, relief.
         The psychiatrist’s response? Contempt. He ranted about how God calls a person to be a nun. How I’d made final vows. Vows for life. And I’d tossed them aside.
         My memory is of him spewing forth all the dislike he had for me because I’d dared to toss aside my vows and leave the convent.

Sculpture by John Flaxman: The Fury of Athamas.

         I listened, my eyes tear-filled. After fifty minutes he barked that he’d see me the following week at the same time. My three counterparts and I left the room.
         The next week, as I remember, was the same. He cloaked me in shame, insisted I was a miserable failure.
         He commanded me to admit my mistake. Return to the convent. Do penance. Try to placate God who must be so displeased with my tossing aside His gift of vocation.
         I can remember the import of what he said, but not his exact words. I see him snarling at me. Angry. Disgusted.
         I returned to my room at the Loretto Guild and began to center myself in Presence. And as I did, I found a wellspring of peace within me.
         The next week I returned to his office. My three tag-a-longs and I walked in. He invited me to sit. I didn’t. Instead, I stood and told him the truth as I saw it: He did not believe nuns should leave the convent. He was biased. Acting on that bias was unhelpful and unprofessional. He was a sorry example of a person whose job description should have included listening with an open heart and mind. Objectively, but compassionately.   
         Then I turned around, left his office, and found another psychiatrist.