In which I confess my resentment

On Thursday, preoccupied with plans for a weekend away, I managed to show up at work sans slip. The skirt I wore was dark, with a beige repeated figure on it, not unlike that created by a Spirograph. My point in bringing that up is to stress that I was not prancing around in some diaphanous white linen number: my skirt was suitably opaque. Still, the realization that I was slipless brought to mind a similar situation from out of the distant past.

Growing up, my family attended the local Episcopal church, which may sound dull until you hear that they served white wine at communion. This was a very Now church. For a couple of years, it was the fashion for families in our congregation to take a week or two to traipse down to Cape Cod and stay at the compound of a place I will call the Circle. The idea was that your family would show up, stay in a dorm, and donate your labor to the benefit of the Circle. I believe there was a charge for this privilege. And so, because it was the fashion, this is what my family did one summer.

The compound existed in a lovely, rural locale by the sea, and consisted of a number of houses inhabited by a couple hundred residents, a central church building, a theatre, and some dormitories. My mother and I stayed in the women's dormitory, my brother and my father in the men's. During the day, we would meet at the home of a host family to assist with chores that benefitted the community. One day, for example, we made sandwiches. My task was to slice tomatoes "lovingly," as per my instructions--a task I took so seriously that I ended up slicing my finger almost to the bone. The knife had been sharpened lovingly to a razor's edge.

The house in which we spent the most time was occupied by two groups: A family I'll call the Birminghams, who owned the house; and a tense and bitter couple I will call Ted and Judy Pegler. I perceived that part of their bitterness stemmed from being required, due to relative poverty, to share a home with the cheerful and prosperous Birminghams. The Peglers spent most of their days monitoring the guest families for sins that would necessitate immediate and public confession. (The group's strict policy on absolute obedience meant that anyone accused of a sin was required to confess on the spot. The confession was then appraised for accuracy and sincerity, and, often, judged inadequate, which required a follow-up confession or two or three.)

The Circle was led by two women known as "the Mothers," who governed every aspect of daily life. I recall an occasion when Mr. Birmingham, after dinner, phoned the Mothers' residence for permission to go get ice cream at the Dairy Queen. Every adult male was "Uncle" and every adult female "Aunt," and that bitch Aunt Judy took obvious and sinister delight in watching us like a hawk for any signs of sin. I spent the week mimicking cheerfulness under her watchful gaze, alternating with crying when she found something to nail me on. (I was afraid of her, having heard rumors from the Birmingham teenagers that the Peglers had been radical drug dealers who'd been written up in Life Magazine, before their religious transformation.)

Aunt Judy took her vow of absolute obedience with manic sincerity. During one of the enforced sewing days (girls only, please), I was working on a bright blue peasant skirt when I realized that an error meant I'd need to rip out some stitches. I joked that I was used to having to redo seams, and BANG! There was Aunt Judy with a smirking, pious, "I think that Violet needs to confess her self-pity." Oh, that miserable, miserable bitch. She was so happy about her hobby. The sewing day ground to an abrupt halt as everyone gathered to listen to my confession, which if tearful, was so because of embarrassment and not remorse. My mother sat at my side, nodding in agreement with Aunt Judy, listening to my confession with an air of sorrow at the obviousness of my shortcomings.

I never did finish that skirt, come to think of it. I can see the pieces clear as day, still pinned to their pattern, and I'm sure they're still in my mother's attic, moldering in the plastic bag I packed them in that afternoon.

Anyway, part of the joy of attending the Circle came with the many mandatory church services there were to attend. I don't know why this happened, but I attended one such service in a lovely beige-and-white plaid linen skirt (per the rules: skirts only, below the knee, please), a white blouse, espadrilles, and no slip. Probably, I'd forgotten to pack one. I was a kid--these things happen. In the middle of the service, one of the Aunts approached my mother with a slightly desperate air, and began a brief, whispered exchange, after which my mother ushered me out of the church. It seemed that although I was sitting in a pew, my lack of slip was causing a scandal.

My mother rushed me back to the dormitory, found me a slip, and the day progressed as usual--i.e., a rigidly enforced day of labor for the benefit of our hosts, masquerading as obedience and devotion to the Lord. The men and boys mowed lawns and picked up dog shit. The women worked in the kitchen.

I was standing at the sink washing mushrooms--the knife no longer in my arsenal, following the accident--when into the kitchen came an unfamiliar woman. She was introduced to my mother and to me, and upon hearing my name, she exclaimed, "Oh, yes! You're the one who came to church without a slip." She said this as though it was a delightful memory of something I had accomplished, and I smiled politely in acknowledgement, unwilling to disagree or show emotion, for fear of yet another public confession.

Those confessions: they really took a lot out of a person. I'd start out confessing a sin, determined by whomever perceived it in me. Then, because my confession was viewed as hollow, I'd move on to confessing my insincerity or resentment. Each confession amounted to nothing more than a series of increasingly refined statements of self-abasement, voiced in appropriately humble tones. From there, it was but a short step to the Theatre program in college.

And further, it occurs to me that there is really no reason to disguise the identity of this little operation. Here is some information. Go check it out, if you are curious or given to displays of absolute obedience to the rules of relative strangers. I'm sure they're still accepting applicants.

One piece of advice: pack a slip.

Star of the day. . .The Blessed Virgin Mary
posted @ 6:23 p.m. on February 03, 2009 before | after


She lay awake all night,