From authority-ridden Catholic girlhood to the convent to the liberation of being a free spirit.
I’ve wondered often how I, who was in the convent for a year, could have become the authority-free woman I am today. Of us nine kids, I probably took Church rules the most seriously. I remember urging my teen brother in the 1950’s to ”be careful” on his dates. I hadn’t understood what sex was about until I was myself a teen, so I took it on myself to encourage siblings to follow the rules.
I remember tattling on classmates in grade school, feeling totally justified, since rules were made to be kept. One of the nuns in my 12 years of Catholic schooling said that if we thought we had a vocation and didn’t follow it, we’d never be happy. That put the fear of God in me. Knowing myself to be “a good girl,” I suspected God might want me as a nun.
So my second year of college found me in a convent in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It felt a little bit like pioneer life. We sewed names on all our clothing, including washable cloth sanitary napkins. Twenty of us postulants slept in a big dorm, with sheets as dividers in our approximately 4’ x 8’ sleeping area. We had one black outfit for Sundays, and one for weekdays. We went to Confession on Saturdays, and I associate the smell of baking bread down the hall with those weekend Confessions.
We’d pray the Rosary on daily afternoon walks, and listen to Madame Butterfly often in evening recreation, because the Postulant Mistress liked it. (I do too). Even at age 19, I couldn’t understand why the other girls talked during afternoon chores. The rule said No
I’d probably still be a nun if it weren’t for a wise Mother General. She interviewed each of us at the end of our year as a postulant, before we became a novice. I was going to be Sister Nathan as a novice, though I would not take the vows of poverty, chastity and
obedience for a few years. When the Mother General asked, “Are you happy?” I answered, “I’m not happy, but I’m satisfied.” And she said, “That is not enough for a bride of the Lord.” I’d most likely still be Sister Nathan otherwise, if I’d not been so gracefully dismissed. In 1961, I was still authority-ridden. I had no other life experience than as an obedient Catholic.
Two years later, considering marriage to an Iowa suitor, I was still innocent/ naive enough to confess that I’d sat on my boy friend’s lap. Told that was an occasion of sin, I never did it again. That romance ended in a few months. Five years later, I had taught one year of sophomore English and one year of junior high English, followed by four years of second grade. I was engaged to Don, whom I’d met through a correspondence club. I even had my second graders write him a letter.
I was, at 26, a virgin on my wedding night. Interestingly, no one had told me I wasn’t supposed to enjoy sex after marriage. To my surprise, after the first couple days and nights of the honeymoon, as we walked toward our Hawaiian lodging, I’d be chirping, “We’re almost there!” And to this day, when anyone says, “We’re almost there,” I have happy flashbacks to February, 1968.
Now I was still “a good Catholic” a year later at a Church camp when a priest, who later left the priesthood and married an ex-nun, said around the campfire, “If the only reason you go to Mass on Sunday is to avoid mortal sin, you shouldn’t go!” My mouth must
have been hanging open. This was a man of the cloth giving me permission, it seemed, to do whatever I liked. Apparently, at the time, all I needed was a bona fide authority figure’s pronouncement to loosen the shackles that had bound me all these years. That campout was the beginning of my liberation as a woman who could now begin to think for herself.
When I was unhappy a few years later, often thinking, “Is this all there is for the rest of my life?” it was only after a good friend convinced me I wasn’t meant to be unhappy that I dared to separate and then divorce. As the first one in my family to divorce, I did not
feel support from my parents.
As many divorced people did in the ‘70’s, I enjoyed a good deal of personal freedom. I’d spent a summer month on a car trip to California from Iowa, while my kids, around 4 and 6, were with their grandparents on the farm. Seeing personal ads in California papers, I came back and placed the first such ad in the Iowa City paper. I met Don and Frank, both professors at the University of Iowa. I grew to love them both, and my kids and I spent alternate weekends with them. Both lovers knew of the other, and felt fine about our times together. I’ve never felt tempted by swinging, but can see the potential merits of polyfidelity. I see people as capable of loving more than one partner. If not for jealousy, it could have many benefits beyond having more than one lover. (The ex-nun in me is amazed that I believe this. But I do. )
How can I explain to you, let alone to myself, how the obedient child became the autonomous woman? From that priest at the campout to the influence of many friends and authors and public figures, I have learned to listen inside more and more. I am
comfortable in my body, and love the childlike freedom of no clothes whenever I get the chance. Still, I am not surprised when the old need for propriety and approval occasionally come up. I am now quicker to notice when I have taken someone else’s truth for my own. And I’m open to any new experience that my heart leads me to.
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