Thursday, July 9, 2015

Sister Catherine kicks the habit

          While on a quick jaunt at the Home Depot to pick up some paint, the man behind the counter overheard a conversation I was having with a young girl.  She was giving her mother a hard time while we were waiting for our paint to mix, so I cajoled her into telling me all about the color she had just chosen that would soon grace the walls of her bedroom.
"I really want pink, but I have to get purple," the girl said glumly.
"Purple's more soothing," replied her mother.  "You'll calm down and sleep better."
I nodded.  "My bedroom was a cool green when I little."
"Green's my favorite color!" the girl piped up.
"Mine, too!"  After discovering she was heading into second grade, I winked at her.  "I used to teach first graders!"
"Yep," I nodded. "And my aunt was a teacher, too...she even had a purple bathtub in her classroom where the kids could curl up and read."            
The man behind the counter handed me my can of paint along with a couple of small stirring sticks.  "Good luck with your project," he said.  "And since I hear you're a teacher, take one of these."  He handed me a longer stick.  "Just in case you need to use it."
It took me a moment to realize what he meant, then I shook my head and frowned.  "Oh, I'd never use this on my kids!"
He grinned.  "Well, maybe for your husband then."
I just laughed and wished the girl and her mother good luck with her new room.
As I walked away I thought about all the challenging situations I've had to deal with this week, the businesses who have been less than professional, the neighbors who have shot off fireworks until my nerves were shot.  In another lifetime I might have channeled a nasty nun wielding a ruler like the ones in my friends' horror stories, but these days I'm finding there are better ways to express myself. 

When I was a Senior I was voted second most likely to become a nun...and I'm not even Catholic.  There were days when I couldn't walk down the halls of Bowsher High School without being called Sister Catherine at least once.  I was a square, a bookworm, and the person everyone wanted as their study partner the night before an English exam.  And even though I had friends who were boys, I never had a boyfriend.  Still, I did hide myself in loose clothes that resembled a habit:  tent dresses or jumpers or baggy Forenza sweaters...and I suppose nobody wanted to date a girl who wore stuff like that.
 As the resident goody-goody, I went to church every Sunday and taught Bible School in the summer.  I sang in the choir and attended Youth Group every week.  In private I could be a hellion in the first degree, but to the world at large I tried to live up to what most people thought of me and never raised my voice, never started an argument, was always agreeable, deferring to the needs and desires of others.
As a teacher I tried to set a good example for my kids.  I modulated my voice, modeled kind behavior, and always used good manners.  And yet, after eleven years in the classroom, it was getting increasingly more difficult to set the real Kate aside every time I stood up as Miss Ingersoll in front of my kids.  I never faked it, but I often pretended away who I really was out of the necessity of decorum or responsibility.  Once I started taking better care of myself, everything eventually changed.  It was time to hang up my denim jumpers (yes, I was still wearing them) and dive into an unknown existence as a writer and yoga instructor.
When I started teaching yoga in 1999, I was often introduced to people thus:  "This is Kate my guru" or "This is Kate...she does yoga!"  Yoga wasn't the hot commodity it is today and I was regularly considered to be a nut or a novelty by people who didn't know me very well.  But those who did lovingly said, "It's nice to know you do yoga, but also have problems like the rest of us."  
"Oh, yes," I'd reply.  "Yoga gave me a whole new way of being."
But as I've mentioned in other blogs, there are still those who think that because I've been practicing for so long, because I'm a vegan, or because I meditate, I should always be peaceful, always loving, always kind and gentle and forgiving.  I might not be called Sister Catherine anymore, but Yoga Kate can still carry the same connotation.
Well, if those folks lived with me for a week, they'd be in for a big surprise.

This summer I'm revisiting the wonderful BBC series "Call the Midwife."  Set in an Anglican nunnery in the late 1950's, this delightful show blends the lives of bright-eyed young women and seasoned sisters of the cloth who work side by side delivering babies all over the Poplar district in London.  While I admire Sister Julienne, the calm, cool, and collected mother superior, my favorite character is salty Sister Evangelina who tells it like it is and whose bawdy antics often make me laugh until my sides hurt.
She's seen enough to know how to relate to the poor in her district, but is never at a loss for words or kindness in the face of adversity.  I'm not so sure Sister Evangelina would slap someone with a ruler, but she's hit the mark with many of her acerbic comments that tell the truth yet also try to mask her tender heart.  No wonder I perk up every time she's in a scene, for I've finally figured out that's not the only thing we have in common. 
I may not wear a habit, but I've had a bad habit of keeping my deepest feelings hidden, particularly the ones that are the most vulnerable or uncomfortable.  It's only been in recent months that I can be honest with myself about how I really feel in the moment without trying to minimize or justify it...and sharing my feelings with others has certainly taken some practice.  Somehow it doesn't matter what's going on in my heart.   My head always wants to take over so it can analyze and proselytize and compromise by short-changing my emotions through intellect. 
These days it never works for long...and I'm infinitely thankful that I no longer wish to "yoga" or "meditate" my feelings away.  Those can be wonderful tools in helping me move through them, but I've learned that pushing something aside instead of really seeing it for what it is and how it can open me up is simply another form of denial.
And I've denied myself enough for a dozen lifetimes. 

A couple of weeks ago I dreamt that I was getting ready to go out to dinner with a man who was waiting in my living room.  It's not like me at all to be late for anything...or to be unprepared while someone else has to bide their time.  So as I hurriedly searched through my closet for something to match the denim jumper I was wearing, I hastily snatched a green fleece vest from its hanger.  It was much too large, so I walked out to give it to Mr. Dinner Date.
"Do you want this?" I asked.  "It's too big for me now."
He tried it on and it fit perfectly.  "It's summertime," he said.  "I don't know when I'd wear it."
"You could save for when you go running this winter," I suggested.
He smiled.  "Okay." 
I headed back to my bedroom and tried on a blouse with a Peter Pan collar, then caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror.  "Oh, man!" I sighed, looking down at my clothes.  "I look just like a nun!  I don't wear stuff like this anymore!"  Without hesitation I tossed the blouse and jumper on the floor and slipped on a pair of straight-leg jeans, a tank top, and a green and blue gauzy top.
When I woke up moments later, the dream wasn't lost on me at all.  I do tend to keep the best of my emotions close to the vest, and now they've grown too big for me to keep for just myself.  Perhaps by sharing them with another, I might just find the right fit.  Mr. Dinner Date may turn out to be the male version of Cinderella, but instead of donning a glass slipper, he might be running around this winter, warm and well-loved.
In any case, I find that all these years later, I'm still peeling off the layers of modest, yet outdated Sister Catherine, kicking the old habit of keeping my feelings hidden, and wondering where all of this might lead.  And yet, an endearing conversation from "Shakespeare in Love" keeps echoing in my head, one that reminds me of the often-bumpy road-less-traveled that I've traversed for more than fifteen years.
Theater owner Philip Henslowe tells his benefactor, "Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about theater business.  The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster."
Mr. Fennyman asks, "So what do we do?"
"Nothing," Henslowe replies.  "Strangely enough, it all turns out well."
"I don't's a mystery."