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Slowly, the women’s locker room door opens. Out limps a wizened senior, the drape of her swimming suit clinging to her thigh bearing a recent incision. She studies each step as she leans upon her helper’s forearm and inches her way toward the pool.

“Oh! She’s back!” says another, with white cornrows patterning her head like crop circles. She begins to wave. “Carolyn! Carolyn! We’re here! Over here!” Others, already in the pool, wiggle off the noodles supporting them in the water and head toward the steps. As they splash, eyes glisten with joy; gaiety implodes their spirits.

It is Tuesday morning at the Clayton Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and time for their water aerobics class. Only one other group ripples the surface of the pool at the deep end.

Carolyn looks up, a grin parting her creased lips, her shoulders shrugging off the tension. She stops, draws a deep breath. These are her old friends, the Noddlers—Their storied lives sealed by years of such Tuesdays, always followed by lunch at Subway’s.

Such groups like the Noddlers evidence the multifaceted mystery of life. Despite the crimping of physical pain and other diminishments, their spirits thrive within the so-called amniotic fluids of the heated swimming pool. Like the unborn, they are becoming the beautiful women God intended. Such happens within each Tuesday’s splashing around.

We learn from them.

 

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Does the little black dress evoke instant memories of allure, of cocktail parties, loud music, dating, drinking? Perhaps a coming of age outfit adorned with pearls, black pumps? Such was my experience in the 1950s.

 

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So I found myself among generations of women, all abuzz, leaning into the slight incline toward the  entrance of the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis. Word had drawn us to the exhibit, Little Black Dress: From Mourning to Night. Over sixty glass-enclosed mannequins exhibited this global phenomenon that seized the imaginations and dressmakers of upper class women from the mid-nineteenth century to the 200s.

To the widowed Queen Victoria, in 1861, do we attribute the protocol of mourning attire for women. For the next forty years she wore black, with dressmakers modifying her voluminous gowns, in keeping with the prevailing styles. Her example influenced generations of widows in many parts of the world, to their great expense.

In 1926, however, a reversal occurred with the French Coco Chanel’s design of the little black dress in jersey (then, the fabric used in men’s underwear), loose fitting and calf-length; it publication in Vogue catapulted it into the cocktail world and other soirees. Subsequent designers on both continents continued to tweak this phenomenon as depicted on the blank-faced mannequins in this exhibit.

However before I left the final gallery, the patriarchy with its control roiled through me. Big money, then and now, sets fashion trends for women, compelling many to buy seasonal wardrobes that afford them identity, status, and a place in man’s society. It’s as if couturiers, of whatever gender, have an unconscious imperative to distract women from their true power lest they usurp the status quo.

Never have I found the true-woman spirit in the pages of  Vogue or Elle. She needs no adornment.

It was a women’s afternoon, balmy, fragrant. Four-part harmonies of sacred hymns hovered within the curlicue of stone arches rounding the circumference of the monastery church, St. Anselm’s. Listeners upon wooden pews grew still as intricate harmonies wove our hearts within the ineffable.

Nineteen members of the Missouri Women’s Chorus, inconspicuous in their black attire, gave full voice to eight Latin selections, recently discovered by musicologist Craig Monson (Nuns Behaving Badly – Tales of Music, Magic, and Arson in the Convents of Italy, 2010). Organ and cello enhanced the sonorous tones of the singers.

It felt like being in a time warp, suddenly enveloped in sixteenth-and-seventeenth- century Bologna and Milan, in the company of gifted nun-composers who chose cloister walls to better live out their consecrated lives. Such passion for the Sacred found expression in their hymns. But their singular voice angered the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, created in 1572, lest they lose authority over the masses. Despite restrictions upon the cloistered choirs, the nuns kept composing motets and the townspeople kept filling their chapels, over ninety-four of them in Bologna. The Sacred Feminine would not be silenced. Its expression saturated thirsty souls and evoked deep communion. This, indeed, was life.

Then, as well as now, such sacred harmonies restore wholeness, rejuvenate psyches, and enlarge faith in the unseen beauty that permeates all creation. Humbly, we seek its presence and thrive.

 

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