Monday, March 31, 2014

Free Souls, Chapter 12

One night the spring of her senior year, a little over ten years ago, several of her girlfriends came over for a slumber party.
In the early hours of the morning, when the records had been played and the discarded pizza crusts lay drying in the box, after they’d finished painting each other’s nails and ironing one another’s hair, they’d sat down in the Beichtens’ wood-panelled basement recreation room and gone solemn all at once.
“This might be our last slumber party,” said Brenda, a little black-haired gamin whose curls defied all efforts to straighten them. Her tone was fatalistic.
“Oh, no, no!” some of them protested. “There’ll be plenty of time in the summer!”
“I don’t know about that,” stated Felicity, with her usual thoughtful stolidity. “We’ll have a lot to do over the summer, getting ready for college, and some of us will be away.”
They all paused to let that sink in. The silence was broken by Carole, whose blonde beauty could deceive the shallow-minded into overlooking her prodigious intellect. She said, “I know I won’t have time for parties. I’m headed to Stanford for Pre-Law and I need to do all the reading ahead of time that I can. I’m not letting anyone–” (and they all knew she meant “any boy”)– “get ahead of me!”
A murmur of appreciation passed among the girls, then Pat, a brown-haired girl in John Lennon wire rims, spoke up with, “You know I’ve been accepted to Oberlin. I’ll be majoring in Political Science.” It was her ambition to become the first female Congressional representative from their district, and they thought if any woman could make that happen, it was Pat. “And Elise has been accepted to do Biology at Johns Hopkins, so she can get into their MD program.” Elise nodded. “And Sandy, we all know what Sandy intends to do.”
At which Brenda blurted out, “Sandy’s going to be a knight in the cause of Architecture!”
The other girls laughed, but Sandy said slowly, “Actually, Brenda is right. That is the way I feel about it. Architecture isn’t just a profession or a career for me, it’s a calling. I’m convinced it’s what God wants me to do.”
“With a T-square instead of a sword!” said Brenda, who was planning to study Electrical Engineering at IIT.
“You know,” said Carole, “I’m with Sandy on this. It doesn’t matter one damn bit that I’m a woman, when I become a lawyer I’m going to be a knight with Jesus as my liege Lord.”
Carole was a fellow-member of Fourth Presbyterian, but it didn’t take Dr. Wallace’s preaching for any of these young women to embrace the idea of serving God through their professions. To a woman, that night they all affirmed the same.
“You know, I like the concept of knighthood,” said Pat, quite earnestly.  “Particularly the idea of total dedication. You had your life, of course, you took care of your manor, but really everything you did you did in the name of your lord and king. So if Jesus is my King . . . It seems to give more meaning to life, you know?’
They knew. They also knew they were swimming against the cultural tide that pushed the New and rejected the Old, but they were Blakewell Public Academy Classical Honors students. Being countercultural against the counterculture was what they revelled in.
To the annoyance of their less-favored schoolmates, Classical Honors students feasted on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Austen; they quoted Ovid and Aquinas (in the original Latin); they were into Shostakovich as well as Steppenwolf; they attended plays, operas, and art exhibitions; they wrote poetry even when it wasn’t assigned; and at times between the boys and the girls they even affected an ironically sincere parody of the conduct and speech of the knights and ladies of Medieval legend. “We must have been insufferable,” Sandy thought now. “We would have been the better for a good scare.”
But in spite of all their self-admitted posing and deliberate irony, Sandy and her peers believed in the high standards their education called them to meet. More than that, they were fully confident they would meet them.
It was no different that spring Saturday night.
“And purity,” said Sandy. “Don’t forget they pledged themselves to purity.”
“Of mind, soul, and body,” confirmed Pat.
“Don’t you think purity is the same as focus?” proposed Felicity, who was going on a full scholarship to Juilliard to become a concert pianist. “Focussing on what’s really important and not letting other things get in the way?”
“‘The single eye,’” said Carole, echoing Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew. “That’s about keeping your focus on God . . . And knowing your real treasure is in heaven.”
“Felicity, you have a point, ” said Elise. “And you, too, Carole. But focus– purity– the single eye– whatever you want to call it, it’s going to be harder once we get to college. You guys keep me honest. Once we’re scattered all over the country . . . Where will we ever find a group like ours? I hope I won’t be tempted to let my standards slide.”
“Especially when it comes to purity,” said Carole.
“What kind of purity are you talking about?” inquired Brenda. “Saving yourself for marriage?”
“Well, that, but– ” began Carole.
“Yes, that, and also– ” Sandy spoke up at the same time. She apologized. “I’m sorry, Carole, go ahead.”
“No, you, Sandy. You’re the one who mentioned purity in the first place.”
“Well, all right. Yes, purity of body, for certain. But, I mean . . . ” She groped for the right words. “I mean, I don’t think we should make ourselves into some golden trophy to be awarded to some guy when we marry him. I mean, there’s something obnoxious about remaining a virgin just to remain a virgin, don’t you think? But I guess it gets back to the knighthood idea. Abstaining from sex, fasting, all that was part of getting them focussed on serving their king when they went to war. If they were too busy slipping in and out of ladies’ bowers why would they ever want to put their armor on?”
“Or in our case,” agreed Pat, “getting all distracted by who’s dating who and who slept with who last weekend and love triangles and breakups and all that drama.”
“Which you will notice that our crowd doesn’t get involved in,” said Brenda, airily. “We just stand above it and let the common herd of hormone-ridden high-schoolers run themselves to ruin, misery, and rotten grades!”
They all laughed.
“Yeah, that’s true,” said Sandy. “We Classical Honors people, seems like we’re all focussed on doing the best work we can, boys and girls both. We don’t distract each other, we work together. Has it ever occurred to you that in our crowd we have a lot of boys who are friends, but few of us actually have boyfriends? And that’s okay?”
“Yeah,” said Carole. “The other kids think we’re weird. ‘Honors monkeys run in packs,’ that’s what they say about us.”
“Well, I like being weird,” said Sandy, laughing with the rest. “Besides, who’d want to date somebody who isn’t in our program?”
“Really,” said Brenda. “I’d want any guy I went steady with to be at least as smart as I am!”
They laughed again, but they knew she was serious. They all felt the same way. “But with the Honors guys . . . ” said Carole, “wouldn’t going steady with one of them seem like incest? Especially if it came to sex!”
“Definitely! Like making out with your brother!” said Sandy, thinking of Larry and Mark and shuddering.
“Sex just complicates things,” Felicity said. “Like Pat said, it’s a distraction from your work.”
“I don’t think guys think of it that way,” considered Elise. “At least, not the general run of guys. For them it’s a ‘creative outlet.’”
“Sure,” said Pat drily, “when it’s not a procreative outlet!”
“I support a lot of what the Women’s Movement is doing,” Elise went on once the laughter at Pat’s comment had subsided, “but I think they’re off-base in thinking that sex is just the same for women as for men.”
“Or should be,” said Sandy.
“Or should be. Seems to me if you have sex with a guy without knowing it’s permanent, it’s like giving pieces of yourself away all over the place. How are you supposed to get any important work done if you’re constantly starting and ending some new sexual relationship? It would be devastating.”
“Not to mention devastating to your reputation,” said Felicity. “It’s so low-class. How would you like people talking about you like they talk about Doreen Steltzer?” Everyone knew Doreen Steltzer; at least, what the boys said about her: “She walks through the neighborhood with a mattress on her back.” She shuddered again.
“You mean the Handy Pass-Around Pack?” inquired Pat sarcastically. “No thanks. I don’t want to be known for sleaze.”
“Do you think it’s different if a girl stops before going all the way?” wondered Carole. “There’ll be plenty of attractive men in college. We’re not planning to be nuns, after all. Where would you draw the line?” She made the statement as if proposing a problem for scientific study.
“Maybe not letting him touch you under your clothes, at least not below the waist or in front?” posited Felicity. “Any farther, and guys get, well, expectations.”
“That’s right,” said Brenda. “It’s not fair to the boys to let them get their expectations up–or other things”--she grinned broadly-- “then say no, you were just fooling. Seems like using them, to me.”
“I totally agree,” said Sandy. “The ‘professional virgin.’ Sometimes I think that’s worse than being an out-and-out slut.”
“Maybe you’re right,” agreed Felicity. “There’s a certain gay abandon about the one. Like they can’t help themselves. The other seems almost, well, premeditated.”
“Not necessarily,” Pat said. “It could be more what we were talking about earlier, loss of focus. I’m not sure girls like that know what they want. So they get themselves into stupid situations. Over and over, which is stupider still.”
“‘Stupider’?” Carole teased. “You of all people’re using a word like ‘stupider’?”
“You know what I mean!”
“Seems stupid to me, too,” said Sandy, getting back to the subject. “That’s why I intend to focus on Architecture until I get my degree and am out and have a good job. Boys as friends are fine. But I’m not letting one of them get in the way of my serving Jesus as an architect!”
“What if Jesus sends you a nice boy you love enough to marry while you’re still in school?” asked Brenda with a knowing look.
“Sure, He can do that if He wants. But it would have to be a nice Christian boy. You think it’d be hard dating someone who’s not in our program. I think it’d be worse being married to someone who didn’t think Jesus was the most important thing in the world. Talk about losing your focus!”
“Some people say that marriage is just a piece of paper,” said Brenda. “I know the Women’s Libbers do. And you can be just as committed if the two of you just decide to move in together.”
“Yeah,” laughed Felicity. “And your report card has nothing to do what how hard you studied in school.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Don’t you get it?” Felicity said. “A marriage certificate, a report card, just two pieces of paper. But they stand for something bigger and more important that somebody has done. Come on, you remember that from when we studied symbolism in Introduction to Philosophy!”
“Oh, yeah,” said Brenda. “True.”
“So, ” said Felicity, “the report card is the record and symbol of how you did in school, and the marriage certificate is the record and symbol of the commitment you made when you promised to love, cherish, and so on and so forth your lawfully wedded husband. Or you will make, when you get married,” she amended.
“Do you guys think it’s important that that commitment be public?” wondered Pat. “Does it need to be done ‘before God and all the neighbors’ for it to count?’”
“‘Before God and all the neighbors’?” questioned Elise.
“Can’t help it,” said Pat. “I have hillbilly ancestors.”
“I think so,” said Sandy, answering Pat’s question. “If nothing else, it proves that your husband is willing to commit to you in public!”
“I think it’s totally essential. It’s what marriage is all about,” said Carole. “Christian marriage, at least. Standing up before God and all the neighbors as you put it and saying, ‘This is my man till death do us part.’ It comes down to having witnesses to a contract. That’s what marriage is, really, a contract.”
“Sounds so cold,” said Brenda. “I guess that’s why a lot of people say true love is enough.”
“It is a contract,” said Carole. “It’s also a commitment, a covenant, an agreement, a vow, a bond, a whatever you want to call it. Because true love isn’t enough. That’s what Dr. Wallace says. And don’t tell anyone I said this, but I think our parents are right in saying it should be public.”
“Like the oath of fealty the knights took, like we were talking about before,” said Pat. “That was in front of the king and his court. The witnesses held the knight accountable and helped him keep his vow.”
“That's all true for marriage. But what about the work we’re going to do?” Sandy wondered. “It’s nice for us to sit here and talk about focus and purity and doing it all for Jesus, but with our work, is it just between ourselves and God? Do we have any witnesses keeping us accountable in that?”
“Well,” said Felicity, “there’s always our professors–”
“Of course we’ll all write to each other and– “” began Pat.
“Hey! Wait a minute!” gasped Elise, cutting across them both. They all turned to stare at her. “We all agree that it’s good to be held accountable. Like I said before, you guys keep me honest. Right?”
“Right,” they all agreed.
“Okay. So here’s my idea. Let’s form an order! We’ll pledge to be noble knights and true as we fight against disease and injustice and bad architecture and all the rest of it, and we’ll be each other’s witnesses! We can call ourselves the Lady Knights of the Single Eye!”
“And promise to stand for Pure Focus?” suggested Brenda.
“Certainly, that’d be it!” said Elise.
“Or Focussed Purity!” said Sandy.
“How about both?” said Pat.
“Sure, why not?” responded Elise.
“Can we drop the ‘Lady’ part?” asked Carole. “I’ll be a full knight or none at all!”
That sounded good to them all. Felicity asked, “So what will our pledge be?”
“Well,” said Elise, “we’re all Christians, right?”
“All right, first of all we all dedicate our lives, our work, and our honor to our liege Lord Jesus Christ.”
“And how about this?” said Sandy. “Just to be clear, we should say that means that we will be virgin knights until our Lord sends us the Christian man He intends for us to marry. Speaking for myself, I mean . . . ” She looked around at the others. One by one they all nodded.
“And we pledge to focus on the work He has given us for His glory alone,” said Pat.
“Absolutely,” they all agreed.
“So are we all in?” said Elise. “Who will pledge her fealty as a charter member of the Knights of the Order of the Single Eye?”
A solemn hush went around the room. To Sandy, it was like being in church. Something momentous was about to happen, and they all knew it.
Then, “I’m in,” said Brenda.
“So am I,” said Pat.
“I am, too, all the way,” said Sandy.
“Me, too,” said Carole.
“Here’s my hand on it,” said Felicity.
“And mine,” said Elise.
And then and there, in the basement rec room of Sandy’s house, they swore their solemn oath to be faithful knights in Jesus’ service, dedicating their future work and their purity of mind, heart, and body to Christ alone. It was Sandy who suggested “Be Thou My Vision” as their anthem, and now, years later, it brought tears to her eyes to recall how earnestly they had sung it together, once she’d fetched the hymnal off the piano upstairs.
They had been so committed, so sincere! True, their baptismal and confirmation vows should have been enough to set and keep them on the path they swore to walk that night.  But there was nothing wrong in the vow they’d made, Sandy knew it, and nothing whatever wrong with the principles they’d dedicated themselves to. They were honest and worthy and noble and good.
“It was nothing to laugh at!” she shouted hotly at the grinning unseen skeptic who haunted the empty room. Nor did she care if the neighbors heard. “We were right to promise, right, right, right!”
Which made it all the more frightening how quickly she, at least, began to break the bond.
by Catrin Lewis, 1983, revised 2013 & 2014.  All rights reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment