Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Punctual Rape of Every Blesséd Day

Writing about Cathy Seipp’s death yesterday on Gates of Vienna has led me to a long meditation on my childhood.

What sparked the ruminations was the clear memory of singing Gregorian chant during the many Requiem Masses we were called out of class to chant during the liturgy. I can’t remember how many of us there were…though since our choir director,Sister Marie Therese, is still alive and more active than I am, I will find out. Back then, it felt as though our numbers filled the choir loft.

Not being very good at it, I was ususally relegated to the alto section. Not much tune in the alto section, but we made up in strength for what we lacked in quality. And I liked the ver plain chant of the alto part. It was soothing.

Which led me to thinking about my less-than-optimum childhood and to wondering why I am not more dysfunctional than I am. What factors “saved” me?

This may sound strange, but I have often wondered if group singing had a great deal to do with soothing the savage breast of so many displaced children. We sang all the time: at church, during recreation time, on bus rides to while away the boredom. I know the old songs from the childhoods of the nuns, the songs of the Big Girls (anyone over ten was a “Big Girl” and was of much higher status than we were). These higher beings rolled their hair in curlers, wore bras, and they sang the latest songs - Nat King Cole comes to mind. They were also in charge of cooking and did a terrible job at it. Perhaps I grew up to become a good cook partly in retaliation for all the mornings of burned oatmeal.

Obviously singing is not enough to get you through [“Hah,” say my Observing Self. Just hum a few lines of “Whistle a Happy Tune”]. The linchpin holding everything together was our unvarying schedule. All these years later, I can still recall how the hours of our days were structured, winter and summer. We lived a cloistered life, punctuated not only by song, but more importantly by prayer. Prayers for getting up, prayers for lying down. Prayers before and after meals. The Angelus at noon. The rosary in the nuns’ chapel after dinner. Prayer was the skeleton on which the flesh of our days hung.

When I grew up and read The Eight Ages of Man, I remember the author saying that what saves childhood for many of us is an over-arching sense of meaning. A few months ago I read his daughter’s story of her father’s life. He invented himself, carved out his own meaning. He never even knew his real last name, so when he moved to this country, he named himself Erik Erikson. And - in an attempt to preserve an identity that was closed to him by his mother’s silence re his beginnings — Erikson resisted his Jewish step-father’s fervent desire for him to adopt Judaism. However, I think the rituals and observances of the religion he refused saved him, too. Erikson’s productivity was unflagging.

And his new identity? An attempt to get past the boundary his mother erected, to find his first Self.

My productivity is more porous than his. I never know, on waking up, if I will be scattered and lack all initiative, or if whatever remains of the inner Mafia of my childhood will permit me to move through the day in relative calm, experiencing the initiative that - in more integrated souls - allows one to stay vertical and busy. I read once that happiness means being busy about eighty or ninety percent of the time. That sounds about right to me. In fact, I lust after the energy required to maintain such a virtuous schedule…and on the days that I do, life is glorious.

Richard Wilbur captured it perfectly in this, my favorite of his poems:

Love Calls Us to the Things of the World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blesséd day,
And cries,

“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.’

Aside from his ode to laundry - obviously he didn’t wash it or hang it out, nor does he suffer from the "rosy hands" that did so...still, since it billows there outside his window on wakening: he knows, oh he knows:

The soul shrinks
From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blesséd day…

The soul's "bitter love," indeed.

The painting, “Washday” is from a small collection of works by Val Doonican


At 7:34 AM, Blogger Maggie Rose said...

hello. quite by chance (your image of the bicycle wrapped in the tent catepillars) has brought me to your site. and I like what I have read and can see more visits in the future. so I have added your blog The Neighborhood of God to my daily roll on my blog, Marginal Views...if you do not mind. should you mind, that is okay. sincerely, no problem. just let me know and I will remove it from the list (but still visit weekly)

kind regards,
Maggie Rose

At 12:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps you and I should trade notes on dysfunctional childhoods. Regardless, I think that the caring of the Sisters, as impersonal as it may have seemed was an essential part of your salvation to ordinary life. Mine was my grandparents.

Children are amazingly resilient. It only takes a very small amount of love and care to keep them going in a proper direction. It may take a huge effort later to recapture the childhood view of the world, but whatever it takes it is worth it.

Notice I said childhood view not childish view. To see the world as a benign place with wonderful things to see and do is like childhood. To see it as giving to our every need is childish.

From that paragraph, dear reader, you can build a huge edifice.

At 12:45 AM, Blogger Dymphna said...

I don't want a huge edifice; a small. orderly cottage would do...ah, dream on, Dymphna from Chaos.


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