Monday, June 25, 2012

The Dress That Changed My Life

On the plane from Athens back to Paris this past weekend, the student sitting next to me gave me a stack of fashion magazines to help me pass the time. I came across an ad for an essay contest in one of them: "The _________ That Changed My Life." It was asking for submissions about an item of clothing that signified a life change. 

I had always joked with my sister that a dress in Urban Outfitters that we saw on one of my "free days" in the convent was what made the switch in my head go off that religious life wasn't for me. I even said I would entitle a chapter in my life's memoir to it! So, naturally, I had to write a submission. 

If I make the cut, my essay will be published in this well-known fashion mag! Thought I would share my submission with you all:

"The Dress That Changed My Life"

“You could wear this if you left!,” my sister said as she held a yellow and white striped summer dress out to me. We were in a typical shopping mall in Middle America (in an Urban Outfitters, to be exact) during what was becoming a new Sunday “free day” ritual for us. 

“Free days” came once a month for me.  On this particular “free day” I stood there in my white Oxford button up blouse and knee-length shapeless navy blue skirt admiring all of the frocks I once would not have hesitated to try on and purchase. But now as I stood  in my make-shift habit with only a light blue hoodie to make my appearance more modern, I reminded myself: “you live in a convent now.” And I shook my head and only smiled to my sister.

Clearly, I need to backtrack a bit. 2007 was the year I turned 26. It was also the year I happened to leave the job that I loved and entered a convent. It was a decision that I made freely and happily. It was not a spur of the moment decision, but one I had pondered for a while. I was confident and eager to live a life of such sacrifice because I thought it would help me be my best self in the world. Even if it meant leaving my fashionable closet behind.

The yard sale that I had before I entered the convent was one not to miss. I had told all of my friends to come by and take their pick from my modern and fashionable closet of J. Crew, Anthropologie, and the like. But something inside my mother told her to make sure I saved one box of my treasured wardrobe  “just in case” the life of the convent turned out not to be for me.

And now here, in the Urban Outfitters with my sister, on the day once a month that I was allowed to be “out in the world” with her, I was having an existential crisis. 

To be clear, it wasn’t that the dress itself was so phenomenal. And I had been contemplating making a move back to the ordinary for a while. In the beginning, the ideas of poverty, chastity, and obedience had been so liberating. But were they for me? This year had been set up for me to decide, but now, in an incredibly superficial way- with my sister holding out that bright, summer dress so contrast from the drab clothes I had taken- it seemed like the decision was being made for me.

This mall dress represented more than just the life I once had, but the joy that I used to feel. I had hoped and prayed that the life I chose in the convent would bring me the same joy, but the reality was becoming that the life wasn’t for me. It was nobody’s fault, and it was so much more than just the superficial choice to wear fashionable clothes or not. The clothes I stood before my sister in that day had begun to represent the insecurity I had been feeling about my decision instead of the joy it was supposed to bring me.

And so even though I only smiled to her on that day, the words she spoke to me stuck in my head: “if you left, you could wear this again.” And wear that dress again I would. 

Shortly after that day, I went to my superior and told her that this life was not for me. She already knew it. She did not try to keep me in a lifestyle that did not allow me to feel like myself and I respected her so much for it. 

Life is certainly more than a closet full of dresses, but it is about the joy found in being yourself. I am grateful for the opportunity I received that year to truly discern how to best be myself, which turned out to be in that cute summer dress.

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