Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/08/2011

“Church ladies” – a conundrum

Church Ladies, from "Crowns"

Church Ladies, from "Crowns"



Yesterday after playing the organ for the early service at the Big Church, I came down from the organ loft to discover one of my teaching colleagues engaged in conversation in the narthex of the church. She was the first friend from the real world I had ever seen at the Big Church. I told her I was playing the organ. She was totally unimpressed.

Her response was, “Oh, I forgot. You go to church, don’t you?”

Well, now. I must do something to change the perception of my colleagues that I’m a church person. An acquaintance used to talk about growing up in the church. He was (is?) an over-the-top African American drag queen, and his childhood goal in life, he would say, was to be a “church lady”—that is, to wear colorful dresses and BIG hats like the ladies at church. He eventually became one of those ladies, but not in church.

I don’t want my colleagues to think of me as a church lady (instead of interesting things they could think). But, of course, I am a church lady (sans hat and dress).

My ambiguity about church—it is, in fact, a conundrum, “a riddle, esp one whose answer makes a play on words” or “a puzzling question or problem”  (1)— about being known as a church lady, is one great riddle of my life.

In Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, Father Jean Marie Latour, in his last hours

. . . thought very little about death; it was the Past he was leaving. The future would take care of itself.  But he had an intellectual curiosity about dying; about the changes that took place in a man’s beliefs and scale of values (2).

As he dies, the Archbishop’s “spiritual” (for want of an accurate description) ideas seem to change from the doctrine of the church he has served for decades.

More and more life seemed to him an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself.  This conviction, he believed, was something apart from his religious life; it was an enlightenment that came to him as a man, a human creature.  And he noticed that he judged conduct differently now; his own and that of others. The mistakes of his life seemed unimportant . . . (3).

Life is an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself. Is Cather writing Freudian theory? I don’t know. I do, however, have my own understanding of life as “experience of the I” and not “the I itself.” Yesterday I played an organ work I learned in high school, “Fanfare” by the 19th-century French organist-composer Jacques Lemmens.  Before the Baroque renaissance in organ performance that eclipsed Romantic organ music, the Fanfare was a popular “encore” piece, showy and loud, but easy to play. I played it yesterday because I thought I could play it nearly in my sleep.

That’s no longer true. I had to work hard for a week to get it under my fingers well enough to play even at a less-than-exciting tempo. I can’t tell if re-learning and playing a piece of music I first learned fifty years ago is part of “I” or simply an experience of “I.”

The conundrum, the riddle I cannot solve and know better than to try to solve in public is, “How much of what happened in the few minutes between my beginning to play the Lemmens and the end of the conversation with my colleague was ‘I’ and how much was simply an “experience of ‘I’?” This is not a smart-ass question or an attempt to be academic in some way I’m not capable of.

My gift of temporal lobe epilepsy aside, I often have the sense of watching myself (my Ego?) participating in normal daily activities and wondering where “I” (my Ego?) is. I experience what I’m doing, I see what others are doing, what the world (both natural and fabricated) is doing, and I think none of it is “I.” My guess is I’m pretty normal in that respect but most people don’t talk about it because people will assume one is crazy or because one will be frightened.

Yesterday I heard an edition of Radiolab on KERA. (Radiolab is an intriguing hodge-podge of reports on fascinating stuff). I tuned in during a segment about Ian Waterman, one of the half-dozen or so people in the world who have lost the “sixth sense,” that is “proprioception” or “sense of the self.” He simply lost all feeling or idea for where he is as well as what his body is doing. Yes. All physical sense of himself (3). But you should hear him talk about it. Fascinating. I think he knows his “I.”

My first memory of the use of the word “Conundrum” is the title of the autobiography of Jan Morris. She is perhaps still the most public transgendered person because she was, before her sex-reassignment surgery in 1974, an important journalist and writer. She continues her award-winning career to this day. The conundrum of her life is public.

The conundrum that I don’t know my “I” is exemplified by my ambiguity toward the church. I grew up in a world where Ego and self and “I” were all supposed to be related somehow to church, to religion. But I’ve come to a place similar to Archbishop Latour’s where the “I” is “something apart from [my] religious life.” I wonder if—I suppose I could say I fear that—I will have to give up parts of my existence that I experience as organic to my Self in order to be “I” (OK, I admit a cheesy reference to “conundrum” as a play on words, mea culpa).

One can hardly play the organ without being a church lady, with or without a hat.

I’d like to ask Jan Morris if life seemed to [her] an experience of the Ego, in no sense the Ego itself, and how (whether) that changed as she changed.

Church Lady, No Hat

Church Lady, No Hat

And then there’s the enlightenment that came to [Archbishop Latour] as a man, a human creature.” I fear that enlightenment falls under the inaccurate description of “spirituality.” Here I fall into thinking about conundra, riddles that cannot be solved even with plays on words.

In an article I discovered looking for material on Willa Cather (I seem to have a new literary interest), Julie Leibrich defines spirituality as

. . . space. I call it the space within my heart. It is my most precious self. My spirit. My soul. My essence. My being. It is the breath of life. The innermost part of me. It’s the place where I meet myself. It’s where I belong. It is where I find a sense of connection—with my self, and with something beyond my self. . . (4)

I wonder where I will meet my “I.” I’m beginning to wonder how much of the Church Lady I will have to give up.
(1) “conundrum.” Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 2009. Web.  08 Aug. 2011.
(2) Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop. Barnes & Noble Classic Collection: NOOK Book (2010). Originally published 1927, 202.
(3) “The Butcher’s Assistant.”  Radiolab Season 2, Episode 4. WNYC New York. 2009. Heard on KERA Radio, Dallas, 7 Aug 2011.
(4) Leibrich, Julie. “Making space: spirituality and mental health.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 5.2 (2002): 143-162.


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