I just had to take off that white skirt. Two skirts, really, one inside the other. I sewed them myself. One was very thin material - pilly with wear. The other was smoother and thicker - a little bit satiny even. And there was a third, made of some oxford broadcloth, like a banker's shirt. I always wore two skirts - so you couldn't see through them, which was important, because I was a nun, and I didn't wear underwear.
The skirts were tubes. We wore them by folding them and then tying them in place. My belt was coral silk, knotted and knitted, with a wide middle, and narrow tying-ends. There was always some possibility the whole thing - skirt, underskirt, belt - would come undone and fall off. I just had to take off that white skirt.
I just had to take off that white jacket. I had two jackets. One was made of the same banker's shirt material - and here I mean a frugal New England banker, not some Italian running around in rough silk - and one was made from something thick and a bit padded, sewn by another novice who'd long ago "gone into brown," or left, or both. I put on the jacket by tying it on the inside on the right, and then tying it on the outside on the left. I just had to take off that white jacket.
I just had to take off that dumbass velcroed robe. I had two robes - one was made out of polyester sheeting, and fluttered prettily (an approved look), and the other was made of heavy hand-woven linen, from my grandmother's grandmother's tablecloth (a disapproved look). There is little gravitas in a velcroed tablecloth. I just had to take off that dumbass robe.
I just had to take off that fleece poncho. Anandi, from Germany, gave it to the nuns, and it was more cream than white, more the color that polar bear cubs sour to in adolescence, than the color kids draw them. I could wrap that cloak around my head around my arms back and chest and stride around like some albino Bene Gesserit witch in rubber boots, reasonably warm in the damp dark woods. I just had to take off that cloak, even though I loved it most of all.
I just had to take off that white kerchief I used to keep the sun off my head. After Tibet, I vowed never again to let my ears and scalp get fried. So I hemmed a broad square of robe-material and tied it over my head and around my neck, Brigitte Bardot style. This made the nuns nervous, but it protected my head. I just had to take off that white kerchief, even though it was an invention I'd added to the homeless ones' panoply of wardrobe options.
I just had to take off those white t-shirts people gave the nuns to wear. I don't remember how many of them I had, or whether the long-sleeved waffle was with me the whole time. It couldn't have been more than three or four, surely, but I had tot take them all off.
I just had to give back that retarded* sitting cloth. Whatever sitting-cloths may have meant 2600 years ago in India, in very late 20th Century England, they signified some need for separation between one's pure body and the impure world, or one's impure, going-commando butt and the monastery's pure buildings. Whatever it was, it was some deeply repressive shit, and when I gave back my sitting cloth, I felt not an ounce of regret.
I just had to give back that salad bowl I ate every midday meal out of for two and a half years. It was an ugly salad bowl, and so imagining it as the Buddha's head felt like an exercise in religious virtue. Sure, sure. The sacred and the ordinary are one. Still, this is a dumpy-shaped salad bowl with a pink melamine plate for a lid, and I'm thinking I'd rather eat out of the cleaned-out skull of a water-buffalo. Whatever, I just had to eat my meals out of that bowl, and when I gave it back, I wasn't sorry.
I just decided to keep that bhikkhu-colored Thai bag I carried my bowl around in, and that was a good call, because I still use it from time to time, and I like the way it fits snugly over one shoulder and rests in the small of my back.
I just had to take all of that white stuff off.
I just had to go back into the marketplace with my Mom, and figure out what the fuck else to where after the two pairs of skirts, and the jackets, the velcroed robes, and the tees.
Once, before I disrobed, I was in an REI in Atlanta, also with my Mom. There was this other freaky white lady in there, too - I mean white as in race, but also white as in weird religious avocation. I think she was maybe a Sufi, because her headgear looked like a pumped-up fez, and she had a long skirt like a dervish's. We studiously avoided making eye contact.
I couldn't stand to be naked for very long after all that white came off, and so I flew home in a checked tablecloth and an old waiter's shirt. What happened next? I found a white cable-knit sweater and a hideous mumu; a brown fleece jacket and some
Actually, I can't remember what else, except for a kind of Coney Island in the 1920's black bodysuit I used to swim laps in the Georgia State swimming pool. It wasn't meant for swimming, and so it got baggier quickly. Still I learned to do flip-turns in that thing, by swimming at the wall without slowing down. I learned to come back into the body. I let my hair grow wiry and chlorine-ravaged, looking more like Eraserhead each day.
I just had to let go of all that white.
Eventually I remembered it was OK to wear pants. Eventually, I hated all those early post-nun clothes, except the sweater. I gave Timothy the fleece jacket, and he forgot it in a plastic bin full of rotten potatoes. Then he left it on the lawn in the snow all winter, and so the stink came out, and it got mottled with leaf-death. He still wears it. I call it his hyena jacket.
I just have to think: every single person who goes through their own death and resurrection knows something about all this. How, before I put on all that white, I had to take off the brown satin pants I had made in Lhasa, which I loved, and the grey heather socks with ears I sewed on myself, which I loved. I had to take off the Tibetan jacket with the sky-blue lining at the edges, and the sweater that had been Nico's brother's, before he took it off to become a priest.
I want to meet others who are in the process of their own moltings. I want to be a voice that says, It is our nakedness we seek, and the ornaments it gives us are the ones we never have to give away.
*retarded in my vocabulary means: behaving in a manner that is significantly shy of one's true capacities, whatever those may be.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.