Under the surface, diving deep for memories, I found the face of Sister Boniface, my second-grade teacher. She was not a major figure in my childhood, although I must admit she was one of the nicer nuns I recall from elementary school. If she is still alive, she’d be hard-pressed to pick me out of the lineup of the thousands of second-graders she taught at St. Julian Eymard. She’d certainly never remember the incident that rose to the surface of my awareness along with her face recently. Squirrels, scissors and Holy Cards—the combination is admittedly odd, yet these things instilled in me an unforgettable life lesson.
My siblings and I missed out on all athletic genes, but we didn’t notice much. My maternal grandfather was an artist, a skill we thought was way cooler than tossing balls around in the yard. When the city of New Orleans issued the first permits to artists allowing them to paint in Jackson Square, he got one. His spot was directly across from the St. Louis Cathedral. While other kids dreamed of pitching, kicking and dribbling, we crossed the Algiers ferry to visit our Papete.
My folks didn’t dislike sports, they were simply pragmatic people. My daddy went to his grave without ever learning to drive or owning a car. We were not allowed to impose on neighbors or relatives for a ride unless there was an emergency. Ball practice, cheerleading and swimming lessons simply did not qualify as emergencies. When I became a mother, carting my own children around for various activities, my mama constantly scolded me. “You go on and make yourself crazy, but you remember, I never did any of that with you all—you’re just spoiling your kids.”
Yeah, mom. I know.
Despite my lack of athletic skills, I did learn a little about competitiveness at an early age. The Marionite Sisters of the Holy Cross made contests out of good grades, good conduct and perfect attendance—we received Holy Cards as earthly rewards to prepare us for the heavenly ones in the next life. On one side, there might be an image of God, the Virgin Mary or the Holy Ghost. Most often, I received the one a saint who’d lost his head or got boiled in oil over his or her love for Jesus. Saints who’d been crucified upside-down or used as fondue by the Spanish Inquisition were gruesome reminders that it wasn’t just sinning that could get you in trouble. Keep your ears open and your mouth shut—no one gave you a Holy Card for listening to that advice ad nauseum. The flip sides often contained a bio, as well as an unspoken question: Would you be willing to sacrifice your life for your beliefs? The public-school kids we rode the school bus with were blissfully unaware of how easy they had it!
Now, lest you believe these cards were handed out liberally, let me disavow you of that notion quickly. Nuns had very high standards. Punishments like kneeling in raw rice or writing lines were meted out more frequently than rewards. Sure, we memorized our Baltimore Catechism carefully, but knowing how to spell Tchoupitoulas or being able to recite all the Glorious, Joyous and Sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary—these were the feats-of-mental-strength that earned you Catholic trading cards. Even the toughest class bullies coveted these because you earned Indulgences along with them. A Get-Out-of-Purgatory ticket that allowed you to skip Eternity in three centuries instead of nine? You could never have too many of those in your spiritual 401-K!
One afternoon, I finished some test quickly, beating the time of even the best students in my class. There was bound to be a reward—who would I get this time? My collection already consisted of Saints Theresa, Agnes and Rita. The nuns believed in doling out gender-specific cards, so I was intrigued by strong female martyr-models like Agnes. After refusing to marry, she was dragged naked through the streets to a brothel, tied to a stake above a fire that refused to burn. Some versions say she was decapitated; others that she was stabbed through the throat with a sword—either way, as an impressionable eight-year old, I spent a lotta time wondering about the meaning of brothel. My brother scored the apostle John, who had emerged unscathed from a cauldron of boiling oil. What kid’s imagination wouldn’t be piqued by such gruesome stories of torture? Superman? Batman? Little Orphan Annie? Meh! Mere television heroes used to sell us Ovaltine. Kid stuff!
My best friend (really my only friend in second grade), was Agnes Kay. She was impossible to best in spelling bees; her skill at jacks, hopscotching and kick-the-can were equally legendary. She easily had the most enviable collection of Lives-of-the-Saints trading cards amassed by any second-grader at St. Julian Elementary School history, girl or boy. (Looking back, the term ass-kisser comes to mind in my meaner moments.) Back in the early 60s, teacher’s pet was the cruelest taunt levied at her behind her back. I have no idea where she is today, but when I saw Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, the bristles of my hair-skin shirt stood at attention.
On the afternoon of this incident, Agnes must have been off her game. She was still working on her paper when Betty Ann followed me to Sister’s desk. Betty was a petite, quiet, straight-A type who wore glistening little diamond studs in her ears. Agnes was not fond of her. One day at recess, she pointed to a Gothic mansion across the fields from our playground. There, in a dark, spider-ridden dungeon, she confided in us, Betty’s father was withering away. There he sat, shackled in rusty chains, a convicted used-car salesman. We knew the mansion was really just an “old-folks home, ” a place where we sang carols to the residents every Christmas. Still, Agnes sure could weave a damned convincing tale. When someone pointed that out, she countered with a conspiratorial wink. Sure. That’s what they want you to think. Obviously, Agnes Kay was allowed to stay up to watch late night television! That was verboten in our home.
Even in my innocence, I knew that coveting your neighbor’s goods was a good way to get your limbs vivisected and barbequed. Still, I hankered madly after Betty Ann’s Barbie doll lunch box, with its matching thermos and her crust-less PBJ sandwiches. I often dabbled in self-delusion, thinking I would dump know-it-all Agnes if I ever got invited to Betty’s house. Rumor had it she slept in her own bed, all alone, without a pillow-snatching sibling. A pink-canopied queen-sized bed at that! She did not have to share a bathtub with her brothers either. I’d seen her dad out mowing the yard one day, so I figured Agnes was a bald-faced liar. But I digress…
Sister tempted us with a new reward that day. Since Betty and I finished first, she handed us a stack of mimeographed papers. Could you girls color these squirrels so I can use them to trim the bulletin board for Parent’s Night? The pages were still warm from the machine. That delightfully antiseptic smell of purple ink filled our nostrils. As the grand-daughter of the artiste, he of Jackson Square fame, I anxiously grabbed a few sheets and ran back to my desk. Walking haughtily past the desks of dullards who were stymied by two-digit subtraction, I had just the perfect coloring technique in mind.
I’d been taught how to blend colors together by my grandfather so I chose carefully from a 64-count Binney & Smith Crayola box. Holding Burnt Sienna loosely on its side, just like a real artist, I added highlights of Indian Red and Umber. With painstakingly careful concentration, l used an eraser to smudge the shades, adding some grays and blacks sparingly. The overall effect pleased me; it mimicked the texture of real squirrel fir.
When I stopped to rest my fingers, I noticed Betty was racing through her stack of squirrels. She was coloring across entire pages with the stub of one worn-down, plain old brown crayon. Brown! I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing! She was cheerfully oblivious to her artistic blasphemy: she was coloring out of the lines! It was agonizing to observe. She was about to become the laughingstock of the class, maybe even the entire school if word of this ever leaked out. Finally, I forced myself to return to my “perfect” squirrels. Just being an onlooker could make me an accessory!
In my fantasies, I could see Sister framing my work, setting it apart from the others as one would an Old Master still life. Clearly, in the future, she would be unable to entrust any other student but me to do her coloring for her. I was the Michelangelo to her Medici patronage.
I watched as Sister approached Betty’s desk. I pitied the creativity-starved child. Despite what Agnes thought about her sticky-fingered parent, she didn’t deserve the kind of contempt that was about to be dumped upon her. Sister picked up a stack of pages that Betty had “colored” and returned silently to her desk. Would she say anything with the rest of the class listening or would she spare Betty the humiliation, waiting to ridicule her in private? Her face was inscrutable. After all, she was a nun, trained to curb even her non-verbal cues–it would not do to let emotions leach out from under her wimple. I watched her eyebrows. Nothing. I listened. Nothing. Not even a tch-tch-tch being muttered under her breath. Hmmm? Perhaps she was sending a silent intercessory prayer straight up to the patron saints of artists and long-suffering teachers. Would she dispose of the offensive squirrels, tossing them into the wastepaper basket when no one was looking?
Sister Boniface was among the gentlest of nuns I recall. If I had to pick one, it would be she who would be most considerate of a student’s fragile self-esteem. I glanced at Betty who naively asked for more coloring sheets. She smiled with the serenity only an unknowing victim could assume. I knew, however, that somewhere there were fires being stoked, hungry lions being loosed and axes being honed—even the most guileless among us were fodder for the faithful.
Sister was taking a pair of scissors out of the desk drawer—my palms sweated and my throat began to ache. Was she considering murdering these unfortunate squirrels, slicing them to shreds right in front of Betty and the entire class? I looked around. Was I the only one that cared? Every head was bowed down over test papers; apathy hung in the air like June’s persistent humidity.
Sister began cutting the squirrels out carefully, following the heavy purple outline of their bodies. All of Betty’s fevered out-of-the-line scribbling fell in discarded heaps into the waste basket. Perfect little brown creatures emerged from beneath the blades of her scissors. One by one, the body count rose as one, five, ten, twenty squirrels joined the stack on Sister’s desk. I fought back scalding tears. Betty glanced over at me, smiling amiably. Humbled, I sat on my hands so as not to rip her flawless diamond studs right out of her perfect little ear lobes.
“Madelaine, what’s with you? You must be day-dreaming. You’ve only colored one squirrel in all this time?”
“I colored twenty,” Betty said graciously. “Would you like some help?”
Writing is now my preferred way to color out of the lines. Whenever I sit, blank page staring at me from the computer or ink pen in hand, I give myself permission to write wildly, without boundaries. I can write whatever comes to mind, unencumbered by expectations, my ego or my critics’ voices. Writing out of the lines—it’s liberating.
You can always return to trim away the excess and discover perfect, furry squirrels hiding within—nuggets of stories conceived in your unconscious. As in all things creative, the first rule is that there are no rules. Okay, maybe one. Extend the utmost in hospitality to your Muse, even if she smokes old stogies and demands shots of expensive Scotch whiskey. She’s liable not to show up otherwise.
When I first read this Natalie Goldberg excerpt, the vibrant colors I saw in my imagination were Burnt Sienna, Umber and Indian Red. Inspiration will not be held prisoner; energy is a renewable resource. Write out of the lines often, with abandon.
First thoughts are so energizing because they have to do with freshness and inspiration…you actually become larger than yourself and first thoughts are present. They are not a cover up of what is actually happening or being felt. The present is imbued with tremendous energy. It is what it is. As my friend who is a Buddhist said once after coming out of a spiritual retreat, “The colors were so much more vibrant after.” Her meditation teacher said, “When you are present, the world is truly alive.” –Writing Down the Bones