Patron Saint FOR Sweat
Erin Fogarty Owen
I despised going to Mass. And I bet you can never guess why.
You may think it was the rigorous structure that stymied any sign of creativity. Or, the male-dominated culture that prevented girls and women from being equals in prayer. Or, how I would always get caught whispering to someone sitting next to me, even if I only whispered once, just for a little bit.
Yes, I hated Mass for all of those reasons, but there was one more that beat them all: shaking hands before communion.
Why was the “sign of the peace” such an issue? So, I’ll just say it. I was born with sweaty hands.
Have you ever heard of such a thing?
This might not mean anything to you. Perhaps it even sounds silly, like a non-problem. But I can assure you as a kid with sweaty hands who had to go to Mass twice a week, every week, except for the Lenten season leading up to Easter when I went 6 times a week, this was a major problem.
I felt like I was the only one in the entire Catholic flock with this affliction, and I wanted to keep my situation private. That wasn’t possible. According to Catholic church doctrine, for me to be a good Catholic, I needed to stick out my hand and offer people near me a sign of peace through a handshake.
As Mass inevitably moved toward the sign of the peace, I would pray to God—and any patron saint who helped sweaty people—to deliver a miracle and fix me.
Thinking about the approaching sign of the peace only made matters worse. You see, anxiety about my sweaty hands had only one outcome: more sweat from the hands. It was a vicious cycle. The anticipation and shame I felt swiping palm sweat into an unsuspecting student’s non-sweaty hand was too much to take for this young soul.
Throughout my childhood, I tried to develop Olivia Pope-like crisis strategies:
- I asked my teacher if I could go to the bathroom, so I could perfectly time missing the sign of the peace. Problem was, whisperers weren’t always granted bathroom breaks. And even if the teacher said “yes,” that trick could only save me on occasion. It was not a foolproof solution.
- Sometimes I would bring a pocket full of bathroom paper towels from the school, and when we got close and I would take that cheap, brown, non-absorbent paper and crunch it tightly into my hand hoping all of the sweat would be soaked up. It never worked.
- I rubbed my palms on my wool uniform sweater and polyester skirt. But they were no help to me either. In fact, I think this process actually encouraged the pores in my hands to weep more.
- During the winter I would pretend to be “really cold” and keep on my winter gloves for the entire Mass. Yes, I would get odd looks, but I knew what I was doing. “Go ahead and think I am weird,” I would say to myself, “but I just saved you from my hand.”
As the priest would say “Now, let us offer one another a sign of peace,” my heart would sink. I’d pray that my fellow classmates would not notice the wet fish I was about to offer to them, and whisper softly to myself, “I’m fucked.”
I would awkwardly turn to a student and use a quick-action shake movement that I hoped prevented the classmate from feeling anything. The first handshake was always the worst and the second shake a smidge better. There was a momentum created during this process, and because I had shaken so many hands by the end there was plausible deniability that the moisture really even came from me.
All of this strategy made me very tired, which in turn made me want to whisper more.
I thought that things couldn’t get worse for this young Catholic girl.
I was wrong.
One day after Mass, one of the best-looking boys in my grade school asked me, “Why are your arms so hairy?”
For Erin Fogarty Owen, the written word has been at the heart of her professional career. Her writing outlets have varied from newspaper articles to television scripts, from blogs to journals, from speeches to presentations, and from newsletters to tweets, while working at the United States Senate as a press side, at NBC News as a producer, and at the University of Nebraska as a director of communications.
Erin is new to the world of creative nonfiction and is currently in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She received a B.S. in business communications from the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.