The Church of the Sacred Manicure
I am a Catholic convert. And if you know anything about Catholicism, you know that no denomination has more perfected the rite of Confession – or Reconciliation, as they now call it – than the Catholics.
Add to that the fact that no one is more zealous than a convert…and guess what?
Building within me is this feeling, this yearning, this need as relentless as the urge to scratch…I want to confess.
I WANT TO CONFESS that, yesterday, while sitting at Iris’s station at Pretty Lady, I realized something not very pretty about myself: I am better at making my weekly manicures than I am at making Mass.
Yes, judging by my behavior over the past few months, I am more concerned about the maintenance of my nails than the sustenance of my soul.
As I said, not pretty. But then I got to thinking…
Pretty Lady is a pretty wondrous place, and not because it is girly with things crystal, beribboned and sweetly floral, although I wallow in that kind of stuff as happily as a pig in slop. Pretty Lady Salon is wondrous for the same reason that long, solitary walks in a garden, watching the sun rise with the sandpipers, snatching a nap beneath a tree in an unexpected glade, or meandering among the tall, dried grasses of the Texas hill country are wondrous. It is quiet.
At Pretty Lady, none of the customers – barring the occasional chatty teenage girl or granddame social butterfly – says a word much beyond hello, thank you, or see you next week. I don’t know why, exactly. We just don’t. And even when my manicurist, Iris, or one of her colleagues speaks, which isn’t often, it is in gentle, hushed tones that brush over the rest of us like a breeze on a summer day.
I love it. The tension in me eases –infinitesimally, perhaps, on bad days – but it eases. It’s perceptible.
I breathe in, and I breathe out, and I breathe in, and I breathe out…and, in time, my mind catches on that it’s perfectly okay to follow the example of my motor mouth and switch gears to Park.
Sometimes, someone gets a pedicure and…ah, the bliss of it! I get to hear running water, too.
I often say that I hear God in Mozart, in laughter, in a birdcall, in the rain and in waterfalls. But, thanks to Pretty Lady, I have also learned that God can be found in a pedicure tub. Which, come to think of it, is not all that different, really, from a baptismal font.
Please don’t think I am being disrespectful or cavalier when I say this either. Others far more attuned to the Divine than I have made similar claims.
“They say that God is everywhere,” wrote poet Emily Dickinson. “And yet we always think of Him as somewhat of a recluse.”
So I was getting my manicure and basking in the Silence while Iris filed, buffed, cuticle clipped, and oiled my nails. Then she left for a moment, returning with a small bowl filled with warm water and began to scrub my hands.
And I found myself transported back in time, back to my first Holy Week as a Catholic-in-training...
It is the Thursday before Easter – Holy Thursday – and, moments before the service begins, my mentor, Debbie, blithely informs me that she has signed me up to take part in the foot washing.
“It’s very moving,” she assures me, pointing toward a cluster of barefooted parishioners and priests assembled in the vestibule of the church. “A wonderful experience.”
“Excuse me?” I say.
“It’s easy,” Debbie calls over her shoulder as she disappears into the sanctuary. “Just kick off your shoes and follow what the person in front of you does.”
I open my mouth to argue, but Debbie is gone.
The person in front of me is wearing robes. A priest.
“Excuse me,” I say, swallowing hard. I am still so new to the faith that priests scare me the bejesus out of me. “I’m rather inexperienced at this, and I’ve come down with a brutal case of stage fright. Would you mind explaining what I am supposed to do?”
The priest smiles. He is truly handsome – not Richard Chamberlain-in-The- Thornbirds handsome but memorable, although I can’t, now, for the life of me recall his name. Nor have I seen him since, although of course, being me, I have looked. I am beginning to suspect he was an angel.
Anyway, the handsome angel-priest explains that, when it’s our turn to lather up, he will sit in one of the chairs set up in front of the altar – there were four or five lines of us taking part in the rite – and I will come forward and mimic Christ and wash his feet. Not soap them down or trim his toenails or anything. All I have to do is lift each foot, one at a time, and pour water over them from a pitcher thoughtfully provided by church staff into the basin in which his feet rest.
“And then you sit in the chair and the person behind you washes your feet,” he concludes.
My face must have given me away. Again, the angel-priest smiles. His eyes are blue, I think; but it is difficult to tell for sure because it is dark in the vestibule and the sconces are pretty much worthless.
“It’ll be okay,” he says.
I open my mouth to wheedle a bit more reassurance than that, but someone taps him on the shoulder and he turns away.
That avenue thwarted, I follow the angel-priest’s example and turn to check out who’s behind me. It’s a woman – which, considering we’re going to get kind of intimate within the hour, reassures me. I peer down to inspect my toes for chips.
“It’s been a couple weeks since my pedicure,” I alert her. “I wish I’d known I was doing this.”
“Relax,” says my partner. “No one’s here to judge your feet.”
The long line of us file, in bare feet, toward the altar. About halfway up, we pass Debbie. “You are so dead,” I mouth.
Debbie smiles. The people beside her smile, too.
Easy for them, I think sourly.
The line takes forever to advance. But then, I blink and it’s show time. The angel-priest is at the altar, kneeling in front of some gentleman sporting grey dreadlocks, a black leather jacket and strategically ripped jeans. I peer through the shadows. His scarf is so pretty. Is it Burberry? The angel-priest reaches for the pitcher…
And now he is standing…He steps forward to take his turn in the chair… I feel the fellow with the dreadlocks file past.
Somehow my legs move. I wobble a little as I kneel – there is no railing to clutch for support –but no one seems to notice, and I am grateful I haven’t toppled over like the heavyset gal a few lines over. I lift the angel-priest’s left foot and, then, inexplicably stricken stupid, freeze. Eyes wide, heart pounding, I gape upward at him.
The angel-priest’s eyes meet mine. Oh, for eyelashes like that. He gives a little nod of reassurance. “Go on,” the nod seems to say…
The first thing I notice is that his foot is not nearly so entrancing as his face. In fact, his toes are kind of gnarled and thickened and yellow. His heel is calloused; the top of his foot, veiny and scaly. Angel or not, this guy could stand a good pedicure.
Nevertheless, miraculously, what I am supposed to do comes back to me. Over first one foot and then the other, I pour water. Time stops. The angel-priest’s ugly feet blur, become okay, become beautiful…And, heaven help me, I realize I am crying. But it is happy crying: it feels so good to serve, to forget myself for a change, to place others first.
Yet then, again, things shift, and I find myself serving one particular person, a person whose humanity I have denied and buried beneath slabs of pain. A person to whom I once wrote a rant of a poem entitled Today You Died (and may you never rest in peace).
A tinge overwrought, I suspect. But people in great pain are often a tinge over-everything.
They are certainly mad
However, now, I am crying not because I am choking on a Whitman Sampler of hateful emotions but because I am so perfectly at peace. I am washing the feet of my nemesis, my betrayer, my enemy, my tormentor, and, in so doing, I am washing away the past, scrubbing from my soul my wrath, my grudges, my petty need to wound in turn. I almost swear that the water in the basin is red. Except, when I look again, it is clear.
“You are so dead,” I had mouthed off to Debbie.
No, I am the one who is so dead. Who knew that, in dying, I would feel so fresh, so WASHED from the inside out? So – oh, let’s just say it – reborn.
Well, obviously, Debbie did.
I hope I remembered to thank her, I think as Iris reaches for the polish.
I hope I’ll remember to hit Mass more.
It takes a village, Hillary Clinton once said. Yes, and it also takes a nail salon.
“Ah, they’re gorgeous again,” I say, wriggling my fingers in delight like I always do when Iris finishes.
And, like Iris always does, she laughs. “You love red.”
I do. I never tire of red. Red is my neutral.
I once looked up the meaning of the color red, in an attempt to understand why I am so passionate about it. Red is energizing. It excites the emotions and motivates us to take action, some site or other told me. The color red awakens our physical life force.
Amen to that.
I researched the name Iris just now, too. Roughly translated, Iris means rainbow.
And you know what they say about rainbows. Rainbows are little miracles of light. Rainbows are symbols of HOPE.
So watch out! Like me, inexplicably, unexpectedly, one fine afternoon, you just may find yourself kneeling at the feet of a creation of light. At the foot of a rainbow. And everyone knows what you find there.
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