Monday, March 2, 2009


Yesterday I had a really interesting encounter.

In December, I experienced some garden variety social exclusion when I volunteered to help wrap Christmas gifts at my daughter Sylvie's new school. I wrote about it on this blog and also got up and spoke about it during January's National Diakonia (If you follow this link, you will see a photo of Chris and Fr. Julian -- I can't be sure, but I think that the photo was taken while I was speaking -- at least I know they were both cracking up while I told about my adventure).

Well, yesterday Sylvie was invited to a birthday party for one of her classmates, and I was determined to stay with her because the party was at the pool, and Sylvie doesn't know how to swim yet. All the other mothers were there as well, and while they are not the same women who were at the gift-wrapping event, they are from the same tight community of people who were born and grew up in this town and who have known each other since they were small. As I approached the women all sitting together poolside, I wondered what adventure I would have this time! But what a different experience!

One woman hailed me immediately, while I was still several steps away, introduced herself (her name is Amy), and asked my name. Amy teaches preschool at the same school where her daughter is in the first grade with Sylvie. As soon as she determined my name, she began introducing me around. All the other women chatted easily with me. Amy and another woman named Tricia were the most open, and even when they spoke about their high school experiences or people I didn't know, they made a point of giving me enough information so that I could follow the conversation. I sat between them and they never talked over or past me. It is interesting to me and does not seem a coincidence that these two particular women spoke, at a certain point, about how their daughters are in CCD together (and are thus Catholic). It was so simple and ordinary and almost impossible to detect how these women so smoothly made me feel I was one of them. They were honestly interested to know whether I was happy in their town, whether I felt at home there. Even when I revealed the reason we moved here (my husband got a job at the University -- a good reason to be suspicious of me since there is quite a sharp division between town and gown here), they didn't bat an eye. When they learned that I have a daughter in the Catholic school, they didn't look at me askance (another source of sharp division here); and even when I revealed that I have four children (after they had discussed how impossible it was to parent well with more than two children), they only looked at me with admiration tinged with awe.

This experience only hit me with more wonder and gratitude as I compared it to my last attempt to make friends with other parents of kids at Sylvie's school. Perhaps I would not have been so touched or so open to this kindness if I hadn't had that prior experience? Also, the fact that Amy was a teacher at the school might have been an obstacle for her -- teachers often feel that they can't get too close to parents -- but there was no formalism or distance in her manner at all.

At a certain point, another woman joined us. She told us this was the first birthday party she had let her daughter come to because she knew she would have to go, too and she was nervous that she wouldn't know the other mothers at the parties -- she had been likewise nervous about coming to this party but had come anyway, for her daughter's sake. She said this with delight in her voice, and I understood she meant to communicate her relief and delight at having been able to fit right in, just as I had. Her arms were covered in tattoos all the way up until the skin met the sleeves of her t-shirt. I admired the artistry, especially evident in the tattoos on her left forearm, and she gave me a beautiful smile and said that she had taught herself to make tattoos, practicing on her own skin. I looked closer and saw that the tattoos really were intricately well-made. Then she told me that she had planned to go to art school and thought that doing tattoos for others could help her to finance it. I asked her if she ever did go to art school, and she told me no, with a wistful look in her eyes. She said instead that while visiting a carnival, as she was admiring the horses, their owner offered her a job helping to care for them, so she joined the carnival and traveled all over the country, including up through Canada. I wanted to know what had brought her back to our town? She said she returned when she got pregnant with her daughter.

Then I showed her my own tattoo (see the picture above -- it's on my shoulder), and told her that I only had one but that one day I will get another. I explained that getting the first tattoo was so thrilling at the time, that I realized at once that if I weren't careful, I would be covered from head to foot in tattoos! So I had made a promise to myself that day that I would only get one more tattoo, but I haven't done it yet because once I did that, it would be over for me and tattoos, and besides, knowing I can only get one more has made it almost impossible to decide what the second one will be -- so many good choices! Then she told me that she had taken a break from tattooing after her daughter was born, but that she is almost ready to start doing it again and that she is really excited about the new tattoo gun she just bought. The old one kept breaking and she would have to solder it back together constantly. At this I was very astonished! She knew how to solder?! It was easy to solder, she assured me.

Now why is all this tattooing talk so important? I used to wear sleeveless shirts all the time, so that I could show off my tattoo. I got it in the summer of 1989, and I never regretted it until I went to art school, in 1999 (where everyone had them and it was a rotten cliché -- but I got over that pretty easily). In fact, shortly after I got the tattoo, I was invited to go swimming with the family of one of my greatest mentors. She frowned when she saw my pretty little iris and asked me what I would do if I were invited to a formal affair and wanted to wear a sleeveless gown? Smart-alec that I was, I told her I wouldn't have to buy a corsage.

Then I began as a catechist with the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and I loved it so much that I didn't want anything about my person to be reason to scandalize the parents or other adults in the Church who might be attracted to this beautiful method. I began to wear sleeves to hide the tattoo, for the sake of something greater than my vanity.

The truth is, though, that even with the tattoo hidden, I don't make a very convincing "Church lady." And besides, having a tattoo isn't a sin! And it doesn't detract one iota from the proclamation of the Gospel to the children. So, I am rethinking my dress code.

The bigger point is that the fact that I was so comfortable sharing this "secret" with my new acquaintances by the pool was a beautiful taste of freedom for me. I will treasure it always.


kabloona said...

wow! So surprising yet familiar.

clairity said...

Love that fresh corsage! ;)

christopher said...

i was just talking about your tatoo yesterday!!!! i'm happy sylvie has some nice girls/nice moms around. :)

Dcn Scott Dodge said...

"I experienced some garden variety social exclusion when..."

There's novel stopped up behind this phrase.

Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."