There was only one thing I really liked about my two-year stint in Catholic school. Well, two if you count the book they gave us that outlined every word of mass. I performed it regularly in my backyard to a congregation of stray cats I fed and a few mynah birds. I knew what I was doing was sin in the eyes of the church, possibly a mortal one, so I never let anyone attend for fear they would be tainted by my mass instead of sanctified by it. I wasn’t too concerned about the consequences, but that was back before I became overly concerned with rules. What I loved was the feeling of making each day sacred, each day an honoring of the divine. And I liked being the one in charge of my own ritual. I’d ad lib every now and then. If only parents had camera phones with video in those days.
But the other one, the one I want to write about and the one that has made its way into countless stories of mine, is not my story so much as my teacher’s. I went to Catholic school because we had just moved to Hawaii and my parents had heard the local public schools were terrible (not sure this actually turned out to be true, but it got me this story, so no complaints). Our teacher, Sister Jean, was all hard edges and a relentless lack of sympathy. She wasn’t the sort of person you’d meet on the street and think, “Oh, yes, you’d mix well with fourth graders.” She was interested only in the curriculum and resisted every effort to share some insight about who she was outside the school walls. But when the rains came she told us a story of the graveyard at the convent. I have no idea what precipitated this conversation because I likely wasn’t listening, so I can’t say why she opened up and told us this. Please note that it’s been 30+ years since I’ve heard the story and I’ve lived with it in my own way all that time. Factual inaccuracies are bound to exist. Proceed at your own risk.
The ground at the convent was below sea level. So when any substantial rain came, the lot would flood. Apparently, the land used to be a Hawaiian burial ground. Yeah, I’m going to pause to let you take that horror in (and I don’t mean horror in a scary movie way, I mean horror in a “Our God is better than your gods and so we’ll just build on your sacred space” kind of way). The Hawaiians did not bury their dead in coffins, nor did they bury them as deeply as the nuns would have liked. So up through the murk and mud rise the bones of these forgotten Hawaiians while the nuns watch from the window.
For reasons I do not know nor understand, the sisters were told they were on their own with their fellow inhabitants. I either do not recall or do not know why, but the priests basically told the sisters the boneyard was theirs. Seeing as how the deceased were not Catholic, let alone Christian, no one was going to spring for coffins to properly entomb them. So each year when the rains came, the sisters would go out and collect the jumble of bones and try to dig a grave that was just a little deeper than last year and put the bones back. No matter how deep they dug, those bones rose again. I had never known Sister Jean to exude any love, except when she was talking about the bones, about wiping them down, about toiling in the rain to re-bury them. Perfect story for October, no?
It’s interesting, though, because that story came to me today for another reason. Someone I am close to is struggling (I am going to name this person W and use “they” instead of a proper singular pronoun to maintain confidentiality because their pain and their journey is their own, not mine to share). W is dissatisfied with everything they see. Actually, dissatisfied probably understates the case. Judges harshly and/or loathes is probably more apt. Anyhow, W is also desperately trying to focus on corporal things, controllable things. All surfaces must be neat or everything, whether important or not, is simply dumped. W’s appearance must conform to certain rigorous standards. The only things W finds worthwhile are those that can be tasted, touched, seen.
I was worrying about W, wondering how to be a good friend when I see the level of frenzy rising like smoke into the fall air. It’s then that Sister Jean and her bones came to me. What’s happening to W, and to me too, is that something has turned soft and those things we deem the most awful are rising, asking to be put to rest once and for all. Only some things are too frightening to look in the eye (or the clavicle, if you will). Sometimes we aren’t ready to do anything put take a rain boot-covered foot and push them back down into the muck. We buy ourselves time and those dry, warm periods are so glorious we almost forget that the rain is headed our way, that we live on borrowed land.
I’ve been going through a fairly intense time myself lately. It’s a large part of why I’ve taken a break from posting. I’ve been collecting my bones, washing them as Sister Jean taught me, naming them, thanking them for the empathy they taught me or the lesson on how to recognize a snake, and then giving them a proper burial. Thank goodness that Catholic school book had last rites in it too.