In the etiquette class, everything had a proper place and use—even me.
Long before my own haphazard conversion to Catholicism, I was a tween accepted on a merit scholarship to a Catholic high school. St. Scholastica was an all-girls school on the far north side of Chicago. Though I knew nothing about the school when I initially applied, the ribboned promise of “all-girls” and the neat allure of uniforms enchanted me.
I imagined an orderly place, something like finishing or charm school, the sort of place you would go in a knobby-kneed girl and come out an elegant woman. My fantasy was further cemented when I saw that on Admitted Students Day, we had the choice of attending some sporting event or an etiquette class. I, of course, chose the etiquette class.
In my memory, the classroom is rosy, lit with illusory lamps. There were stiff white tablecloths draped over round tables. As an adult, I reflect on this memory and puzzle over how inaccurate it must surely be—the class took place in a repurposed classroom. There’s no way there could have been fringed lamp shades or beautifully upholstered chairs lining the windows. And yet, my twelve-year-old girl self insists that it was so, or at least, seemed so.
It didn’t matter that, most days, I felt awkward no matter what I did, straddling nascent expectations of womanhood, still grappling with the nausea of moving to the United States. The promise of etiquette, the promise of orderly knowledge to usher us into perfect womanhood, seemed to imbue everything with a preternatural sophistication. In the etiquette class, everything had a proper place and use—even me.
Attendance was sparse, but I didn’t care, thrilled as I was to learn how to angle a soup spoon away from one’s mouth to avoid the cardinal sin of slurping. I was twelve, with no real understanding of alcohol, but I eagerly learned the difference between red and white wine glasses, flutes for champagne and snifters for brandy. I was thrilled to tell the salad fork from the dinner fork. Dabbing at imagined lipstick with my napkin, I was completely submerged in a fantasy of manners.
Dabbing at imagined lipstick with my napkin, I was completely submerged in a fantasy of manners.
The next day, when touring the halls of the actual school, I was surprised to see that the girls I’d imagined as miniature ladies-in-waiting donning perfect plaid were just regular girls. Their messy blonde ponytails flew behind them as they ran through the halls. They picked at chicken nuggets in the dining hall, voices ruffling into boisterous laughter. They dragged field hockey sticks and pestered each other for tampons. They compared hairy underarms to see who’d gone the longest without shaving.
As I watched them flitting from class to class, I found myself torn between twin urges of desire and disdain. Disdain, because I was fresh off my etiquette-class-high, heady with the borrowed superiority of politeness among these loud, unruly girls; desire, because even amongst my disdain, the vulnerable, horrible truth was that I wanted nothing more than to be free of rules, to also be the kind of carefree (often white) girl with loose hair and a snaggle-toothed face-wreathing grin.
In writing this column, I have written about women in the Bible who I admire (Esther), women who I feel empathy for (Delilah, Ruth), and women who I have spent countless hours thinking about (Eve). I have related my own life in episodic and narrative fashion to their stories, reimagined their presence in the Bible, in culture, in my own life. And while I feel a degree of connection to all of them, some stronger than others, there is no one in the Bible who I identify with as strongly as Martha of Bethany.
Martha is a New Testament woman, depicted in the Gospels of John and Luke alongside her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus. She is an anxious busy-body, constantly reprimanded by Christ for focusing on domestic tasks instead of her faith. When we first meet her, Jesus and his disciples are staying at her home, which she has prepared meticulously for their arrival. It is easy to imagine her cleaning furiously a week in advance, starting preparations for dinner the day before, shooing her siblings in and out of rooms with her broom.
As the evening goes on, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to what he has to say instead of helping Martha host their guests, so Martha approaches Christ to complain, saying: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
Martha’s assumed righteousness is painfully clear in this exchange, telegraphed in what I have always imagined to be her slightly nasal voice. But Christ rebukes her, explains to her that she is “worried and upset about many things,” when only one thing is really important—himself. In this way, “Mary has chosen what is better,” and Martha has chosen false.
Martha, Martha. Even in recounting this story I feel my shoulders rising to my ears, my nose crinkling. What a try-hard goody-two-shoes she is; what a try-hard goody-two-shoes I am. In reading this story, I can only think of my own preoccupation with manners and rules. Reading the chapters about her in the New Testament is like looking in an unflattering mirror.
Not even a mirror that reflects back the potentially interesting dark and twisty parts of me, but rather a mirror that simply portrays my most mundane, bulbous insecurities. The lighting of the Martha-mirror is harsh and unforgiving, making each pore and blemish appear in sharp relief.
I never grew out of my preoccupation with manners and rules. Instead, the obsession has carried over well into my adult life. I check and double-check for dress code on invitations, memorize my friends’ food allergies, and wonder about the seasonal appropriateness of wearing velvet. Just last week, I got into a quarrel with my husband about whether one should slurp soup at home.
“No one is here!” he whined. “Why do you care?”
I spluttered, vitriolic, offended that one should put down the mantle of manners simply because no one was here. Who ought we to be well-behaved around if not our own selves, I argued. Was I not enough of an audience? Was he? The argument slid sideways, became impassioned and strangely fraught as I defended my desperately held belief.
I say ‘desperately’ because in the harsher light of adulthood, I am beginning to see this obsession for what it is: a faulty defense. As a child, I adopted politeness and civility as a survival tactic in an increasingly bewildering white, patriarchal world. I believed that if I could be well-behaved, if I could control my behavior, I might control the response of society toward me and the people I loved. I wanted to render the rules of society as legible as possible, so no one could ever accuse me of being less than them. I even learned enthusiasm for etiquette, training myself to enjoy the rule-learning in order to telegraph perfection so that I’d be above reproach.
But as I get older, as I write more thank-you cards, and find myself in more situations where rules of decorum seem only to selectively apply, I am learning that knowing which fork to use or sending a thank-you card does not offer protection. If someone doesn’t see you as fully human because you’re a woman or because you’re not white or because you’re not cis or whatever it might be, chances are that you knowing how to hold a salad fork won’t really change that.
The many etiquette books I read as a child, the seasonally appropriate greetings I draft first in pencil, then in pen, the soup spoons and dessert spoons; none of these will erase the fear, anxiety and longing I feel about my half-way-immigrant, half-way-lady self.
The second time we meet Martha, she is with her sister Mary again, but now her brother Lazarus has died. Christ, a friend of Lazarus, is visiting and Martha cannot contain herself or her unbridled grief. I imagine her hurtling into the road before Christ can even make his way to her door, the whites of her eye roiling. She accuses him of not coming sooner to save her brother, to which Christ responds that she must believe in him.
Later, when Christ expresses his intention to go into Lazarus’ tomb where he has lain dead for days, Martha tells him that “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days,” only to be rebuked by Christ yet again.
Oh, how my heart lurches for Martha in this moment. Even here, undone by grief, she cannot help but be concerned with propriety. She blurts out that the tomb smells bad, trying even in this instance of grief to preserve a sense of order and civility. Martha betrays her own grief here, pushing it to the side to try to maintain her manners.
This moment for Martha (and the echoed moments for me) emphasize that, in the end, being right, knowing the rules, following the etiquette, doesn’t save us. It doesn’t save us from our sorrow nor our self-flagellating shame. It betrays us, obscures our own pain behind a concern for propriety.
Through Martha, I am reminded that centering civility has the effect of de-centering—and potentially even hurting or betraying—myself, my friends, and family. More often than not, this looks like me hurting myself, but sometimes, in even more shame-filled instances, it involves me hurting the people I love most. How many family occasions, friend gatherings, and romantic evenings have I sabotaged by focusing on some small matter of decorum, a foot out of line, a word out of place? How many times have I bypassed my own anguish or even the hurt of those I care deeply about to spit out some rule or admonishment?
Even if I never said it aloud, even if I laughed all night only to stew over some small imperfection in bed by myself before falling into a fitful sleep, I know the feeling of poisoning my own possible joys with my rule obsession. The immediate shame and horror coils in my gut, as the wanting-to-be-right feeling scrabbles alongside. No one can embitter me more than I embitter myself in these moments. I hate that I am fixated and hate what I am fixated on all the same.
I hate that I am fixated and hate what I am fixated on all the same.
I don’t have a happy ending or neat bow to give Martha or my Martha-self. The reaction to claim politeness is still deeply ingrained in me. Though I am starting to identify more my own shame of that reaction, I still struggle against it every day. Just last week, a friend commented on how much they disliked my propensity for being a goody-two-shoes. Their comment was teasing and good-natured, but I carried their words around with me for days, agonizing over how I might have hurt them, how ashamed of myself I was.
Even today, I found myself scrolling Twitter, anxiously worrying that I’m less a Prince Harry (says to hell with the system and protects who he loves) and more a Prince William (stays in a possibly oppressive structure because it is his duty and public role). Every day, I find myself trying and succeeding and trying and failing to give up propriety as a defense. Every day, I hope for a messier, more earnest future.
My fervent hope for Martha is that she allowed herself to go undone. I hope that she got angry. I want to believe that she eventually told Jesus that he was being kind of an asshole (because he really was!), that she kicked over a bucket, and screamed, and broke some plates.
I want to think of her free of the burden to perform politeness and civility, that when Lazarus walked out of the tomb, she sobbed with her mouth wrenched open, teeth bared, saltwater and snot sliming her face.
I hope she cradled her worn and raw self, all the edges frayed, all the neatness undone.
Nina Li Coomes is a Japanese and American writer, currently living in Chicago, IL. Her writing has appeared in EATER, The Collapsar, and RHINO Poetry among other places. Her debut chapbook haircut poems was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2017.