DEAR MOTHER SUPERIOR
And oh, how superior you seemed!
Dear Mother Superior,
It was a few decades ago that I sat before you humbled and at your mercy, hurting and confused. You might just as well have placed a scarlet letter “A” on my chest. Had it been a couple of thousand years earlier I may have been stoned to death in the village square. But now I was simply enduring the mortifying shame, rejection and public embarrassment of being expelled from college. I was hoping against hope that you wouldn’t but you did. And you know, that event was to become one of the most catalytic events of my entire life.
There was a very big and important looking wooden desk between you and me, and you sat squarely in the middle in your black and white penguin habit. Your double chins rolled over the edge of the angular perfectly starched white collar which seemed to make your face red and choke you as you spoke.
I just sat there tense and chagrined with my heart pounding from my chest right on up to my throat. There was no escaping the heat of my flushed face and the salty sting of the tears hanging heavily beneath my shamed and sorry eyes. I was so very shaken and fragile sitting there across from you, and I was fearing not only for my future but for my very life. I was anticipating your sentencing, my punishment, a formal pronouncement of my exile from Notre Dame College for Women of Staten Island, New York, my chosen institution of higher learning.
Little did I know at that time that there was indeed a ‘higher learning’ taking place.
My academic standing was fragile at best. I was barely keeping my sanity in a household that had been a war zone for as long as I can remember. After my dad died when I was five, the pressures of raising myself and my brother, while holding a full time job as a legal secretary and caring for her elderly and ogrely mother, my mother was, more often than not, on the verge of snapping.
That Saturday was one of those particularly ugly days.
Dr. Wittert, my metaphysics professor and new best friend had invited me to go to the faculty party as his date.. I was 19. He was 33. I sought out his friendship with only one motive in mind. I deeply wanted to know the truth about God. In class he taught about St. Thomas Acquinas and his proofs of the existence of God, about Martin Buber and Kierkegaard, and I knew I needed more than classroom time with him. I desperately ached for peace in my mind around this thing called faith, and about the religion that had been hypnotically etched in my young mind throughout my parochial school childhood. So, I decided that if he was willing to have his brains picked after school I was eager to pick them. And he was most wiling.
Eventually our long walks turned into long drives and then, as the brisk autumn weather turned to bleak winter, our afternoons spilled into evenings in the living room of his cozy apartment a few miles up the Victory Boulevard hill from where I lived with my mother and grandmother.
Goddard, as I now called him, loved to sip his whiskey while we talked and I sipped a watered down version. I delighted both in the grown up feeling and the philosophical inquiry of our time together. Goddard affirmed me for both my beauty and my intelligence. He loved my eager need to know. Christian Metaphysics was his life. Sharing it was his joy. Eventually, as the warm liquid spirits did their melting magic we would find ourselves snuggled into the same chair and we would sip and talk, and sip and talk into the late hours of the night, when he would drive me home. But it wasn’t until that one Saturday night, still giggly and playful from a lively time at the faculty party, that we even thought about sharing ourselves intimately with each other.
Mom had been on a particular rampage that afternoon. I can still see her standing there in the living room, with vacuum cleaner hose in hand waving it towards me like a weapon. She was snarling. If looks could kill, I would have been shot dead right on the spot. I was curled up on the couch, hair rolled in curlers, cream on my face, painiting my finger and toe nails in prepartion for an exciting grown-up date. Her barrage began “You know Karen, if you wind up pregnant you’ll be out on the street, because I won’t want to have anything to do with you.” My heart sank as I steeled myself in that old very familiar way.. Abuse, both physical and emotional, was an ongoing thing. From my earliest childhood memory, I had to learn to somehow to brace myself for her tongue lashings but it was never easy, and at a very young age I was keenly aware of the psychic damage that was driving its way into the fabric of my self esteem. .She had threatend to put me in an orphanage too many times during my childhood, often harshly reminding me that raising two ungrateful brats was robbing her of her life. This time she ranted “And furthermore, if you go to that faculty party tonight just don’t bother coming home.”
So I went, and I didn’t come home. At two in the morning, the knocking at the door began. “It’s Henri Beauchamps (the French professor) “." Goddard, is Karen in there with you?” We looked at each other and froze. We didn’t answer. At 3 AM. it was KNOCK! KNOCK! “It’s the police...open the door or we’re coming in.” I was escorted home in a squad car. My angry mom was waiting and she informed me that “the Dean wants to see you in her office first thing Monday morning.” Her voice was victorious. She had successfully enrolled the Dean as her ally in her effort to control me.. My heart sank. I was busted. I had often felt that my entire childhood was about her ongoing need to break my spirit, and now the sabotage was in full throttle.
Mother St. Rita, I know you probably don’t remember...Who knows if you’re even still alive? But you looked at me that Monday morning with a sort of sweet disdain and said exactly “You know Karen, you look as though butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth” The implication was, of course, that I was a reprehensible sinner, a seductress, a wanton promiscous tramp and a disgrace to the pristine good name of the school. In my mind, all that I wanted to do was share my love and feel his. And it was an innocent love born of a thirst to know and share truth with each other as best we could. Would Christ really have been opposed to this?
Some things I know you didn’t know were that Goddard was, at thirty-three years old, still a virgin. And I wasn’t very far ahead in my own sexual experience. And I cared for him, and I wanted him to see and feel my sensual femininity. I wanted to give him the gift of my tenderness in gratitude for all the sharing and kindness he had given to me. I had had so little of that in my growing up years. I was starving too. That kind and quality of presence and attention was almost non-existent in my life. I had been, for the most part, a lonely and frightened child. And another detail about our dark and dangerous laison that you could not possibly have known is that although Goddard was a small man with delicate features and an exquisitely gentle way about him, he had the largest wand of light and pleasure I have ever seen to this very day! Even if we had desperately wanted to join our bodies in sexual union it still would have been impossible in my near to virginal state. Yes it's true, we did try, but we weren’t even close to a fit.
Now sitting there across the desk from you, my stomach hurt with the angst of wild confusion. What on earth makes this innocent urge so evil? Are my longings so despicable? Is my perception so skewed? Am I somehow soiled, defective, a tramp, as my mother so often railed. Could I ever trust myself, or my body?
The last few months of elementary school flashed on the screen of my racing mind now as I sat there in your office feeling like a woman-child condemned. I was remembering the sweetly innocent flushes brought on by languid tongue seeking kisses and soft caresses to my so delicately forming breasts. How wondrous it all felt, how alive! I longed to feel more and more and more of the exquisite sensations that warmed me all over and made my heart burst open with love and joy. To be consumed in the fire of passion was my fondest dream. Who cares about careers, who cares about history and literature? I wanted only to be consumed by love’s passion, to be lit up with a fire for life! How could these enlivening feelings be so wrong? So shameful? Immoral? What crime against life is it to feel so alive? The aching screams of my pubescent body and mind were now becoming lonely muffled whimpers that were burrowing themselves into the watery matrix of my cells. Would I die with them unheard? Would I cry myself to sleep with my yearning for all eternity? Are there others screaming this same scream? Could this be what is meant by 'hell'?
A forbidden world of pleasure and sensation was opening up, but at what price I wondered? Fear of horrible consequences accumulated heaviness like a dark thunder cloud. My mother and grandmother constantly harped at me about the disgrace of losings one's reputation. Would I have to sacrifice my reputation to feel fully alive? Already, I was in the confessional weekly, then kneeling at the altar to say long penances and acts of contrition for having impure thoughts and deeds. But when Joey would pick me up on Saturday afternoon on the stairs outside the church where I had just given my solemn confession, and we’d walk home through the park, all of my just cleansed holiness would fly out the window as soon as his arm wrapped around my waist, and I felt his sweet breath on my face as his mouth came closer to mine. I thrilled to know that the engorging snake pressing against the front of his pants was making him weak in the knees, and that even though we wouldn't dare, the urge to merge was casting its euphoric spell over us. That in itself, was exciting enough!
You know Mother St. Rita, I may not have been so vulnerable to this teenage loveplay if I had felt loved at home, but I didn’t have that. Oh, I was looked after all right... I had clothes and a warm bed and enough to eat, but the gentle softness of my mother’s nurturing love had been long gone, swallowed up by her fight for survival and cyclical depressions, and I was starving.... to give love and receive it. The Catholic Church wanted me to accept that Christ’s love was enough, it could fill me to overflowing, but I needed something with some skin on it!
My heart was heavy with guilt, shame and worry about my future as I left school that spring . After the years of emotional abuse at home, being called a tramp since the age of twelve, long before I lost my virginity, along with the many other assaults to my self-esteem and character, I set out to work in the lower Manhattan financial district, near Wall Street. I had no real marketable skills, except a killer smile, my fresh nineteen year old beauty, and a light-hearted engaging personality that belied the ravages of my early emotional life. I was still really a child, and still tethered to an unhappy and destructive mother. But now the fire was burning inside of me. I wanted to know, why this suffering around sexuality, this distortion about something that seems so harmless at least, and at best beautiful, even sacred? Sharing energy, sharing love, adoring bodies, drinking life, melting the edges of myself into another...becoming one, the very thought remained intriguing and intoxicating.
During those emotionally fractured Wall Street years, I got hired and fired, I dated and drank and sexed a bit here and there, and then sought refuge and ‘sanctioned' sex with a very wrong (for me) guy. We married. It seemed the right thing to do. The nightmare continued. He wanted sex. Lusty, plunging, groaning towards his own release from tension. Did he even realize I was there? I longed for intimacy, union, eye connected, heart connected, spirit connected passionate open hearted, engaging rapturous physical, emotional, spiritual love. Where was it? Would it come later? Maybe it was me. Maybe there something wrong with me, as mom had always said? But wasn’t that what marriage was about? Isn’t that what good Catholic girls saved themselves for?
Affairs, swapping partners, swinging all proved empty and futile stabs at the great mystery. Then a lesbian lover and finally there was a real and heartfelt connection. A sensual, intimate connection that carried over into the light of day. But why wasn’t she a guy? Was this possible with a man too? I was so completely feminine. I had been deeply conditioned to want a man, a prince, a male counterpart, a soulmate. My mind reeled with the relentless questions. My body, heart, soul, aware of a constant yearning for a full-bodied intimate communion, with my male counterpart.
Sitting there in divorce court ten years later, again, I thought of you and of that terrifying day I was banished from your school. And now, I was alone and frightened out of my wits again. And once again, it was all about my sexuality. This was no simple divorce, if there is such a thing when children are involved. I was now in a bitter and ugly battle with my soon-to-be ex and his multi-millionaire mother for custody of my two young sons on the grounds that I was a lesbian and therefore, an unfit mother. Why not just add an “L” now to the “A” of shame on my chest. All of this angst and misery because I wanted, NO, I needed to, understand the mysteries of sex and spirit.
And as time and life went on, understanding these mysteries became my life’s imperative. It was not a path that was intellectually chosen, but one that was energetically destined from a place in my heart and soul handed down to me through the ages. And it has become my conclusion that this erotic yearning is a truly honorable and sacred force that lives in the heart the soul of all humankind calling us to understand it's revelation of the unity of all life, and the power of the energy of creation that lives within each one of us.