Tuesday, January 1, 2008

my scenic route to God ~ PART TWO

My parents enrolled me in a parochial school when I entered the first grade, and this was the year that I began my long descent into hell. (Actually, I had been taking little steps downward for a long time, but this is the time frame when the ground opened up underneath me and the fall was dizzying.) There were many ingredients that got tossed into a pot and stirred together to create the witches brew of my misery. But the element of the potion that I'll talk about for the purposes of this story was the eye of newt of Catholic school. I only spent a half a year there before I was yanked out and placed in public school but the damage was already done.

I remember one particular day standing alone against a brick wall during recess. It was a bitterly cold and windy day and my family was fairly poor so my coat was old and ratty and not very warm. My whole body was shaking and my teeth were making a sound like Spanish maracas. From across the playground two very well-dressed girls marched over to where I was standing and one of them said very emphatically, "I hope you freeze to death." So I did. Something in me went very cold and still from that day forward.

There were a lot of little deaths like this during my time in Catholic school. The children were cruel and the nuns were either oblivious or indifferent. But the thing that made this really unbearable for me was that it was all juxtaposed against the religious paraphernalia of the convent. Along with learning math and spelling and all that, I was learning God-rules. Mixed in with all the humiliation and torture and isolation was a stream of God-talk. Not God-talk like, "Jesus loves you, honey." It was all the little rules and corresponding punishments if you broke those rules. (Catholics in those days had really lurid ways of describing hell and emphasizing how very easy it was to offend God.) Every day these things were stirred together into a big hateful poison that pulsed through my tiny freezing frame.

There was one notable exception. One day my teacher told me that someone wanted to see me out in the hall. I walked to the door in a terrified stupor and imagined that I must have done something really horrible to be singled out this way. On the other side of the door was this beautiful little old lady: the mother superior. She was holding something shiny in her hand. She told me that she used to be my dad's teacher when he was a little boy. Then she held out her hand and gave me a little rosary that she had made just for me. When she placed the rosary into my palm I suddenly understood that she was God coming to rescue me. She was that same warm and loving presence that was so familiar to me. I loved her instantly.

It was just enough.

I suspect she knew something about the other storms in my life outside of that place and possibly even noticed the way I was fading day by day. Her kindness is something I'll always remember and treasure. But overall I would have to say that the church represented by that school failed me. It did not point me to God. I'm not blaming anyone here and I'm not even confident enough in the mechanisms of memory to say anything much about this at all.

Years later, I wrote this poem:

Catholic School
Every day I had three choices~

all the same:

three white blouses

three pleated skirts~

a green and blue plaid
that pulled me into its threads, and tried to erase me.
It was easy to disappear into the fabric of the uniforms.
Even my rosary bead magic

which pressed against the skin of my chest

could not protect me.
My bare knees peeked out from under those pleats
in the middle of a February blizzard,
nd I waited for the numbness to rescue me~
welcomed it like a friend.

The snow became the green and blue of the uniforms,

and buried me in the avalanche
of its conformity~
the world all green and blue.
I was the mismatched color~

the sin beneath the tons of snow.

Something of me was buried by that place. There was an opportunity to save me and that opportunity was lost. In the weeks after I received that rosary everything familiar in my life went away. This is not the place where I'll talk about that, at least not today. But even in the buried parts of myself there was some form of frozen life. Cold preserves things and I had not really died. My heart was being stored away for a time when it would be safe to resuscitate it. God was still holding me. In fact, I know for sure that he was suffering his own form of hypothermia, his limbs blue with shared grief.


  1. Wow, I get to be first. I didn't comment on part 1 but I did read it. First let me say that you are not a poet, you are a "Great poet" I could feel the cold and pain when I read what you wrote. I am impressed and wish I could write that well. I wrote some similar poems (not as good) when I was younger dealing with the pain and humiliation that I felt at the time. I don't know what ever happened to them though and I had forgotten about them until now. I too lived in my own little world and would talk with God frequently. I was confused as a child when people of God (Church going people) treated us so badly. It left a mark on me and I stayed away from the church for a long time. For a long time, I was angry with God. I had forgotten all about that. It was a long time ago. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Terri, your stories are moving me to a place where I don't have anything to say. All I have are feelings. I am deeply moved, saddened, amazed, awestruck, both by the actual details of the story here and by the truth that God eventually rescued you and brought you back to life. I love you, sister in Christ, after a few short days of knowing you.

    And I will echo what your friend here has said many times already: you are a born writer. Keep writing. We need you to.

  3. Greg: thanks for the lovely compliment and for the ways you entered into my story. i think that's one of the benefits of putting things out there is that all of the people with similar stories find their words and feel a little more known.

    Christianne: i love you too. thanks for listening with your heart.

  4. Beautiful, just beautiful when we can see God without the blindness of religion.

    I think I misunderstand you a little bit more now!

  5. Teri- I was deeply moved by your words. I love your description of your heart being stored away for protection. I so understand this. Thank you for writing openly of your spiritual journey here.

  6. Hi Karen...glad to have you here.

    Chloe: I know from what you've written lately that you get what I'm talking about. I'm glad you're back from your break and I'm glad you're here listening in.

  7. I love love love reading your writing, as usual. LOVE it. Beautiful stuff...thanks and love ya.

  8. It's so amazing how one word or phrase, like "I hope you freeze to death" can define (or sum up) an entire chapter of one's life.

    A girl once told me that my clothes never matched (my wife still says that, but that's another story) and it has stayed with me. I still hear her voice when I go clothes shopping.

    And those little rules about God seem to be the most effective way to suck the joy out of knowing Him ever devised. I wonder if we ever get over them...

    So glad you had at least one "rescuer" who saw you when you need it... and wow, powerful poem!

  9. You have me hanging on your every word.
    You are a gifted story teller. Truly.
    I too know that sense of things not dying but being buried, preserved for safekeeping, until a time when they can bloom to life. It is a true act of love.

  10. "one of them said very emphatically, "I hope you freeze to death." So I did."

    terri, that is incredible way describe what happens to us more sensitive people who have been bullied or teased.

    I can see you are thawing terri...I want to thaw with you!!!!!!!!

  11. T;
    26 yrs of marriage and every time I hear parts of that history . . . my heart still breaks and the tears come.
    Wish I could have been there to save you . . .
    (Great pic by the way

  12. Terri -- You are such a gifted storyteller. Somehow you manage to describe this painful period with such descriptive word pictures that I get what I sense is a very accurate idea about how it must have felt for you, but yet I don't sense any bitterness. How do you manage that?

    (No, wait, I know! It takes time & grace & baring our wounds so we can start healing? Is that a good start?). I can only imagine what a tedious & painful process it is to let wounds such as these be healed. Nothing hurts quite like a wound inflicted in the name of God.

    I'm so glad He preserved your heart, that He stood out in the snow & freezing cold with you. From what little I know of you so far, He has preserved something of infinite value & beauty.

    With love,

  13. Jen: thanks. that means a lot coming from Greg's super-editor and also as someone who i love and admire.

    Tom: yeah, the curses of six-year-old girls are incredibly potent. (be loosed thou foul demonic clothing curse!)

    and i'm glad you liked my poem.

    Bella the beautiful: to be named a great story-teller by you is an amazing honor. i'll try to live up to it and not get too neurotic in the process of trying to live up to it.

    Julie: bullies are powerful beings aren't they? and probably just as wounded as the rest of us. (maybe more?) thanks for being such a nice warm blanket.

    Dave: you did save me. you are my darling, my knight in shining armor, my true friend who introduced me to the great power of kindness and a generous spirit. i love you so much.

    Kirsten: you'll see as the story develops why i'm not bitter but here's a hint: i can't really pick apart the threads of my story that are hurtful and the threads that formed me into who i am. also, i've come to realize that it's not really "my" story, at least not in the exclusive sense. in some ways it's the story of everyone i come in contact with, and even more than that, it's God's story. i have a big responsibility when i speak these words.

  14. What a gift of grace to be able to distill the truth from these experiences, to take into consideration the story God is telling with your life.

    Waiting with baited breath ...

  15. Wow. Just ... wow.

    I was just thinking today of a similar negative incident that happened when I was roughly the same age and I could FEEL the environment all over again. My experience was hot rather than cold but had the same intensity and annihilation of self.

    Your story and your poem immersed me in your experience in nearly the same way. That was incredible, Terri. How God uses those awful things seems beyond me most times but there moments like this when I'm almost ashamed that I want to say "Thanks for letting that kid be mean to Terri" because I know that I have a sister in Minnesota who GETS me.

    Blessings, T.

  16. Hi Sharp, that's what I mean when I say it's not just "my" story. To the extent that I can speak with faithfulness in a way that others recognize and feel, it's their story. I'm sorry that you experienced those things, but I'm glad it helps to see that you have a lot of company. Thanks for stopping in.