May was two weeks into her summer job and one full year into her new life of Christian faith, and she felt emptied out by both. Her boss Joanna sat her down after lunch for a little lecture.
“I know you’re new here and you’re a fairly new believer, so I’m just trying to help you adjust. We don’t wear earrings here at the retreat center, but I keep seeing you with earrings on. I know people have different views on these things, but we have to keep one standard so everyone feels comfortable and in harmony. And this shirt you’re wearing today, the sleeves are too short. If you’re going to wear a short-sleeve shirt, the sleeve needs to cover most of your upper arm. Things like this will become second-nature after you’ve been here a while. Is that OK?”
“Yes, I got it,” May said, tired and angry. Earrings and sleeves don’t matter, she thought, so why all these stupid rules? But she said no more and got up to leave.
“Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll see you later.”
May was between her second and third years of college, where she had fallen in with one of the campus Christian fellowship groups. The camaraderie and fun she had with the Christian crowd helped her survive the doubts and loneliness of campus life. Sarah, one of her friends from the Christian crew, told her about the retreat center when she mentioned looking for a summer job.
“It’s run by some independent Christian people, kind of a Bible-based approach to a retreat center. And they run some summer-camp programs for kids. I was an apprentice there for a year before I came back to college last semester.”
“You liked it there?”
“They really push you to grow in your faith. It’s a place for spiritual growth and accountability. I think it would be good for you too.”
May was distracted as she resumed mopping the dining hall floor. She had read through the employee handbook that came in the mail a few days before she started the job. There was nothing about earrings or short sleeves. Is this what Sarah meant when she said the job would be good for her, some kind of army-style attitude adjustment?
She missed her classes at college. The other art students were very talented and a little wild. Well, she didn’t know how wild they really were. She got along great with the other students in class, but they seemed kind of careless and disorganized. They would often stumble into class looking like they had woken up just minutes before, mismatched socks, wrinkled clothes, hair a mess. She assumed some of them were hung over a lot of the time, though she had no proof of this.
There was a small circle of art student girls that were friendly to her. They invited her a few times for a midnight run to the donut shop, but she never accepted. She needed her sleep to make it to all her classes during the day and the fellowship meetings most evenings. Back in April a couple of those girls had invited her to someone’s house in the country for a party all weekend. They said there would be some fun people, and they’d be way out in the middle of the woods where no one could bother them. May felt kind of scared of that invitation. What kind of party did you have in the middle of nowhere? Maybe it was OK, but she couldn’t just ask what they would do at this party. That would look pretty dumb. She’d be trapped out there and couldn’t get away if she wanted to. Her Christian friends would notice that she wasn’t at her usual Sunday morning worship service, and she definitely couldn’t tell them she went to some wild woodsy party with a bunch of art student girls for the weekend.
The weird thing about those girls was, they did awesome work. One of them did such striking, almost disturbing sculptures. A couple months ago she did a stone owl that made May gasp when she first saw its menacing face. It really looked like it was turning its head to look at her. Another one was great with ceramics and pottery. May fell in love with a particular piece of hers, a stout green coffee mug standing on little legs doing a dance. May couldn’t understand how the students who seemed the most undisciplined, the up-all-night and party-in-the-woodds girls, how did they accomplish so much good work?
During her afternoon break she walked out to a peaceful, isolated spot among some trees behind the horse barn. She flopped down on the ground and leaned back against a wide, old tree to get her brain straightened out. Why did she let Joanna push her around? Why didn’t she argue back that there weren’t any rules about earrings and short sleeves?
At school she had tried to stay disciplined and accountable like her Christian friends always talked about. They would tell stories at Bible study about John Wesley and other old church people who were so spiritual and holy by living a methodical life in every way. Every minute was planned, every cent was spent intentionally, every word and thought guided by the desire to be holy and pleasing to God. But what the heck did that have to do with earrings? If she wanted people to boss her around all day, she’d join the stupid army.
She sighed loudly as a horse whinnied in the barn. A few weeks back her favorite art professor had told her that she should throw herself into her work, because she had untapped potential. Something she had read about Leonardo came to mind. Something about his mind being totally enslaved by a drawing or a tiny bit of a painting. He would just think and look all day without doing anything. Then he would finally make a few strokes with his pen or brush once it was absolutely perfect in his mind. That was probably what the professor was talking about, but how do you get there? Her mind was always bouncing around, thinking about where she needed to go later or about what happened yesterday. She was especially bad about thinking over conversations, wondering why someone said this or that to her. Leonardo probably never had problems like that.
She shook her head slowly and chuckled. Sarah, the Christian crew at school, and this Joanna person, it seemed like the one sin that a person should avoid was doing something impetuous or unpredictable. Why were people so afraid of … what? Whimsy, was that what you call it?
Joanna walked around the building one more time, but she couldn’t find May anywhere. No one had seen her for hours. “look,” she told a few of the people preparing dinner in the kitchen, “I gave her a little lecture about keeping her appearance modest. So maybe she got upset about that. Just let me know when she comes back so I can talk to her. I’ll be in my office”
As she was about to sit down at her desk, she saw something on her chair. It was a piece of paper folded up. It was a note from May.
“Thanks for the opportunity to work here. I apologize for leaving with no notice. I know it’s not the Christian thing to do. Please say goodbye to everyone in the kitchen for me. I’ve realized that I need to be more accountable to my imagination rather than to other people, so I have to go. Plus I want to see if some of my art-major friends want to hit the donut shop tonight. Good-bye, May.”