27. May 2013 · Comments Off on Breaking Spirit · Categories: N. Staying Alive

They move me from the House of Joy to St. Brigid’s, past the dairy barn way down the road and off by itself.   It is one of two art centers.  The other one is The Caravansery, a converted old barn near the bookstore where they weave cloth on a loom and make tapestries and liturgical vestments.

St. Brigid’s is a converted chicken coop with a domed roof and skylights.   It is small, but the light is good. The back is partitioned off for sleeping.  It has beds and little room for much else.  There is a cold water hand pump and drain on the concrete floor near the side entrance.  Outside, there is an outhouse.

Helen is in charge of our little group.  She doesn’t use a clipboard.  She just tells us what to do, down to the smallest detail. I clean the outhouse to squeaky clean and carry the tall bucket to a pit nearby.  After emptying it, I sprinkle lye over the mess.  I practically sterilize the bucket.  I remember the reasons for those painful cholera shots.

For showers we go to the bookstore building.  For warmth we keep a stove going in the center of the workspace. Helen takes us to a local workshop to work with power tools like table saws, jigsaws and lathes.

We make benches, stools and crosses. We make silkscreens from scratch and create designs with stencils and knives.   We work with leather.  I make a suede cover for my breviary.

Helen is meticulously neat.  She makes us wash out each brush after using it.  Then we have to soap and shape the bristles and let them dry in shape.  We wash the soap out again before we use the brush. That’s just one little ritual. We save every scrap of leather and every thread long enough to pull through the eye of a needle.  We make our own toothpowder with baking soda and cloves in little tins into which we dip our wet toothbrushes.  We are in a sort of survival mode. I can live with Helen’s ways because I naturally like to put things into some kind of order, but it drives the other girls a little crazy.

Many years later I learn that Helen was told to “break” my spirit, the way you do a wild horse, I suppose.   But she is not really up to the task. She makes me grow my hair.  I have the kind of thick hair that has a soft wave in it that pretty much takes care of itself.  I am used to plunging into the sea and then just letting my hair dry in the sun.   Helen makes me put my hair up in metal curlers.  It is awful to sleep with those curlers, but I get used to it.  She gives up and has my hair cut.

There are other little bothersome things like that.  I suspect they were some of the things Helen suffered as a child that did break her spirit to some extent. When spring comes, Helen takes me to clean out the corn crib.  We discover a litter of pink baby mice.  They are so cute, we leave them alone.  Helen has a soft heart for little things.  I think of Ah Seem and the little pink glass piglets and my glass dragon.


mouse bavbies1-11-2014 7-10-59 PM



Helen takes us to find wild flowers.   I love knowing their names like Lady’s Slippers, Dutchman’s Britches and Queen Anne’s Lace.  In my childhood I played with a great variety of plants and flowers, but I knew very few of their English names.


lady slipper




Queen Anne's lace



Helen plants a garden of herbs with the precision of a mandala.  It is a marvel.  From her I learn reverence for the details of nature.  On the other hand, sometimes she prefers things to people. I am assigned to the kitchen staff for the summer.   One afternoon Helen passes by and sees me reaching for the top shelf of the commercial sized refrigerator. There is a ledge at the bottom of the fridge like a running board on a vintage car, and I am standing on it.  There is no other way I can reach that shelf.

Helen berates me for mistreating the fridge.  She orders me to go out to the fields and meditate on my “sin”.  There is no point in arguing.  That kind of punishment is pure central planning.   Helen did not dream it up, she is just following her vow of obedience. The conceit is that if you meditate on something you are told is wrong, God will enlighten you that your leader is right.  It seems to work for them.

I need a break from the hot kitchen anyway, and a walk in the fields is a relief.



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