habits

“Writing is a way of life: a trust nourished by practice. It is a habit. A person who writes has the habit of writing. The word habit refers to a routine, but also to a stole, to a costume befitting a calling. In the same way that a monk puts on a traditional habit, so the writer puts on a traditional habit. As writers we find where we are comfortable and with a stole over our shoulders, we write” .-Susan Tiberghien

Historically, many women religious made the choice to join the convent because it was one place where they were able to be free of the cultural gender conventions of the day. In a religious community, women might be afforded the opportunity for education (at least, for literacy) and also access to roles not available to them in the larger society, where they would’ve been forced to marry (into often appalling circumstances) in order to merely survive. Monasticism was for many an escape from a life of one-dimensional drudgery.

As a child growing up, I must’ve somehow learned that such a life was a great sacrifice, a waste of a life, and an aberration from what was ‘normal’. I was carefully taught that a fulfilled life meant marrying and having children, a life lived in the service of others.   I could not imagine why anyone would willingly choose what I believed to be a barren existence.

Those women instead chose to wear the habit, to intentionally choose ‘barrenness’,  de-sexualizing their identity from one defined by service to another …as husband or mother… to one in service to the soul. Not at all to say that relationships cannot be profoundly in service to the soul, but for many women relationships have historically tended to be solely other -focused, other-centered,  other-directed and accommodated. From this vantage point in my life today, I am struck by what can feel like barrenness of another sort, a life spent but unblossomed. I am not merely my body…an object of a man’s desire and pleasure, not merely a receptacle, bearer, and nurturer of children….although each of these things is also very good  (I am seeking to steer clear of either/or dichotomies, but to decry the elevation of one at the expense of the other). I am that, and so much more.

I have heard some muslim women, who choose to wear the veils and hijabs, the burquas and dupattas of their culture, express their feeling that their dress is more respectful to women than that of the western culture. They feel they are not on display as objects and sexualized in the same way that we are. I have had that feeling too, when I pull a shawl up over my head, of inward safety in a covering that allows me to remain contained within myself while gazing outward to receive through eyes of love. There is something about that which feels deeply honoring of my humanity to me. And, of course, that is what I seek to do when I write.

I am struck by the way in which the word habit also means a regular discipline. How donning a habit then is in fact a way of creating a boundary around oneself in which one is freed from certain constraints and expectations, certain projections and identifications so that there is space given for something from within, from the soul perhaps, to emerge.

If I am to don a habit, I also must discover a way to create such a boundary around myself, protecting the sacredness of the conversation that is occurring between the sacred and myself, between the silence and myself. I must hold such space as inviolable, wrap myself up in its protection and its embracing comfort.

So many women I know, even today in our ‘progressive’ culture, live lives in which their natural rhythms are usurped by the needs and expectations of others. I had lunch yesterday with an intelligent and compassionate woman whose life has become so small, so usurped by her husband’s preferences and ideologies that she dreams of moving into a ‘tiny’ house in order to find space to breathe. Another woman friend of mine recently packed up her entire life (of 30 years) in order to follow her husband’s call across the country. Not that her move has not been in many ways a gift to her, but it was his agency not her own rhythm that inspired it. Another woman, whose husband has recently retired, has lost the sense of autonomy to her days, her flowing rhythms too often prescribed by the presence of another and his agenda in her day, playing catchup with herself as she did when the children’s schedules were her defining force.  These noticings are not intended to be man-bashing, but to be woman-lamenting. Why do we still struggle so with finding the freedom to follow our own callings?

Or perhaps it is just me, projecting.

I recently read a quote by William Wordsworth, “How does the Meadow flower its bloom unfold? Because the lovely little flower is free down to its root, and in that freedom bold.”

This winter I had the opportunity to wrap myself in a habit (even if it felt like I was stealing time to do so) in which something in me blossomed. It was a great revelation for me, as I found something in myself that I have known all along was there, waiting for me to show up, but had not found permission or the space to enter. The experience of bounded space, dedicated to self-nurture and practice, affirmed for me the deep intuition I have had for so many years that I need such a space. Time and again I have denied that instinct , settled for something less than I knew I needed, put many other’s needs above and before my own, talked myself into and out of, and been made to believe it was an excuse.

Perhaps a turtle shell is a great habit, after all.  Protecting what is valuable and vulnerable, it creates a boundary that is inviolable. I do not wish to be hard, but claiming space as inviolable might just allow me to remain soft inside. Otherwise, this sacred gift that I am just might die unrealized.

Of course, I know and I believe that this cannot ever be true, that this very life I lead in the midst of this everyday is sacred, blessed and enfleshed with the holy, including my presence in it even in the midst of my feeling unfulfilled, but I cannot always see that. We never really can. Bidden or unbidden, intentional or unconscious, the holiness of our lives plays out. But I also know and so believe that it does our bodies good to consecrate our lives. It uplifts and affirms, imbues with meaning,  opens the mysterious two directional line of communication between what is visible and what is hidden.

A good habit can provide that visceral reminder, lending a quality of integrity, intentionality and visibility to our lives, while subscribing and providing an inwardness  to those of us, often women, who cannot seem to keep the external expectations and demands, accommodations and accessibility from diluting our very essence. Within that kind of self-containment, our lives are claimed as holy.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Opening the window | Emmaatlast's Weblog
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