Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Rite of Passage

I956, the Boks were beaten, the Avon river bank daffodils were in bloom when I was introduced to, (I shall call her Rebecca, - I’ve never had a friend with that name), a trainee nurse. The person bringing us together us hoped Rebecca’s unthinking acceptance of her faith would strengthen mine. A trainee for the Presbyterian ministry I was having doubts. For a brief intoxicating spell the relationship worked. James Brown’s line ‘I imagine sex/ to be like peaches’ was true for that uninitiated youth. Even though I knew Rebecca sprang from a class above me I fell in love. Love, that word in this context which blends basic animal sexuality with the reciprocal attraction of someone else and the desire to be wanted. Her sophistication appealed to me as much as my naivete appealed to her. But:

‘to-day in the surf
a wide-hipped girl
chuckled as you once did

the rusty boatshed
in which you changed
has been demolished now
the tides have burred the glass
that bottle we each had drunk in turn
and which I hurled at the oyster rocks

I can't complain
about the treatment of the years
and trust the same for you
but had I been
less clumsy or more kind

tease, remember
you undid both straps
no, that's unfair, most unfair
you, like me, were caught by crossfire
actions, then as now, are seldom simple.’

The crossfire was mainly generated by me being a Ministry trainee with old-fashioned ideas of male chivalry coupled with inexperience. If I lowered my guard on drink I kept it up on sex. Grass green on matters of intimacy, my expectations were conditioned by books and movies. Kissing was permissable, but an embrace moved into dangerous and unknown territory. Fondling and petting were off limits except for mutual rubbing against one another at dances. For some reason that was legitimate (and pleasurable) - all very confusing. While suggesting carnality was not the way to fulfillment, the Church encouraged romance with that very unclear word, Love. I had had no preparation for the strength and volatility of the emotions that Rebecca triggered in me. She would listen to my church dreams with an engaging wide-eyed interest, then kiss me. I would pull away, body throbbing with new impulses which made a mockery of all the religious talk of purity - such confusion common in those pre-pill days. We could get a girl pregnant. Every now and then a student would have to get married, having got someone "in the family way".

During our long serious walks, (certain spots in the Christchurch Botanic Gardens still trigger surges of recollection), she argued that as a passionate person she could not live with a sexless parson. I replied that marriage would alter that state, but until I'd finished training, at least four years ahead, I couldn't afford to. She bounced back; we could marry early and live off the smell of an oily rag. We would have children, I countered they were expensive. All the merrier, she responded. The blissful thought of married life led to more heavy kissing, and then my pulling away, and then often a altercation. It seems another century now. Part of me looks back and shudders at that callow youth. Another part, remembering the agony of that intensity, can only sympathise and feel pleased it happened long ago - when the call of "phone for you, Harvey" would see me race to the phone box in the hostel courtyard to hang breathless and tongue-tied if it was Rebecca, curt and offensive if it wasn't.

Then she went to a dance with someone else. Jealousy hit me - a specific searing moment. I demanded an explanation. She owed me nothing, she could go out with whom she wanted. Wretched, in danger of flunking my exams, I stopped reading for the first and only time in my life. Prayer didn't work, even though I spent hours in the evening gloom of St Andrew's faking faith as I wrestled with my passion for Rebecca.

Years later Waikato University education lecturer Sue Middleton sent me a paper about the forces that turned her into a feminist teacher. I quote from the section dealing with the 1950s:
"Female sexuality embodied contradictions. The traditional sexual double standard constructed two ideal types of women: 'good' women (virgins, then monogamous wives) and 'bad' women (whores or sluts). Sociologists have analysed schooling as reproducing this double standard... Academic stream girls were expected to delay sexual activity until they had completed their tertiary education... Sexuality and intellectuality/professionality were socially constructed as contradictory."

The double standard of the time also affected men. My upbringing stressed remaining a virgin until a monogamous marriage. Certainly, until I finished my training I could not afford marriage. Many men of my vintage make the same comment. Admittedly some did sleep around, and some established relations with a steady girl friend, but many more did neither.

I went to a doctor. He checked me over physically before questioning me about the emotions dominating my life. ‘Young man, you have some problems. Only you can solve them.’ He gave me some sleeping pills. I slept and slept. Life looked a little less distressful. Someone lent me Somerset Maugham's 'Of Human Bondage'. The fact I began to read again suggests some return to normality. I empathised with Phillip's love for Mildred:
"He had thought of love as a rapture which seized one so that all the world seemed spring-like, he had looked forward to an ecstatic happiness; but this was not happiness; it was a hunger of the soul, it was a painful yearning, it was a bitter anguish, he had never known before."

Trying a last rapprochement with Rebecca, I bunked lectures, and after taking the train through to Lyttelton, we launched across to Diamond Harbour for a picnic lunch. We swam but hardly touched. And then talked. Her passion cooled, she offered friendship. My desire still uncontrolled, I offered to give up the Ministry for her - a gesture which excited her. However, it backfired: "I cannot ask this of you". Miserably we trailed back to town.

With medication, common sense asserted itself. There were exams to pass, only three weeks away. I tried to catch up on the work. I went home for the recess. Mum worried about my health, fed me up as I swotted flat out. Back for the exams, I found I had done enough to pass the history and the political science. Ancient History proved a breeze, I flew through, but of course did not write about the heresies free-floating in my mind. The point was to pass the exam. I went home for the summer wiser, sadder. My fellow theological students had miserable exam results, nearly all failed most of their units. The Presbyterian Church's insistence on a rigorous academic training was at a cost. They were more secure in their beliefs. Aware of the fragile nature (and I was feeling unworthy as a result of the failed relationship) of my faith I had the skill of passing exams.

Over the summer break physical work proved restorative; satisfaction in a few well-aimed cuts and the tree toppling exactly as planned, a patch of blackberry curling up after being sprayed, and classing the wool. Yes, I would go on to train. I had survived a rite of passage.

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