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Mary Cattan ’60: A Mission to Write

Mary Turner Cattan ’60, a psychotherapist and spiritual director, published her first book, Pilgrimage of Awakening: The Extraordinary Lives of Murray and Mary Rogers, in June. The biography follows the lives of two missionaries and their transformation into proponents of interfaith dialogue. We asked Mary a few questions about her own journey . . .


How did you choose your career path?

Graduating from college in 1964, I was blissfully unliberated, too busy tending to my firstborn to delve into Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique (1963) or to consider I might have a career path beyond matrimony. Yet that first calling—raising four children—was challenging and deeply satisfying. By age 40, I had learned that human relationships are much more complicated (and fascinating!) than I had ever imagined. Experiences of loss and failure propelled me to wake up and to learn as much as I could about the intersection of human psychology and spirituality. It led to my second calling—chosen much more consciously—as a spiritual director and psychotherapist. Awareness and life-giving human connection—with oneself, with intimate others, and with the loving, life-giving energy of the universe (that some might call God) became my passion. It was that passion, driven by curiosity, that led to my writing Pilgrimage of Awakening.

Did you have any teachers at Walnut Hill who influenced your passion for writing?

Actually, my passion was for the story that cried out to be told. Writing, which I find incredibly hard work, was the necessary vehicle. Of all my teachers at Walnut Hill, Miss Clark challenged me the most to develop writing skills. She was a very quirky, old-fashioned teacher. She had us reading James Joyce, and her writing assignments were tough. As was her grading! No messing around in Miss Clark’s class!

What advice would you give to someone tackling a major project or writing a book?

What I needed most for my project was structure. For me, the saving grace was a doctoral program that required me to meet deadlines. Through Andover Newton Theological School, I was provided with a loving but strict advisor who said, “Just Velcro your bottom to that chair and WRITE!”

What is your favorite memory from your time at Walnut Hill?

My favorite memories involve relationships with friends. Fifty-six years later, Christie Coon, my roommate for three years at Walnut Hill, is still among my closest friends! Back then, we would gather, with three or four others, in someone’s room, door closed. Some of us were knitters, and we would talk, talk, talk about our lives and gossip. Exploits with boyfriends—actual or wished for—were of great interest. Friday evenings were special for me. At most meals in the Eliot dining room, our every move was scrutinized by a faculty member at the head of the table. But Fridays we were allowed to sit for supper without faculty supervision! There was always ice cream for dessert and no rush to go to evening study halls. Just time to connect. Very occasionally a weekend dinner would be spiced up by some guests—a busload of “boys” from a neighboring prep school. A joint glee club concert and perhaps a dance in the gym would follow. We were to “mix”—just not too much! Spotlights were turned up for the walk between Eliot and the gym to be sure the strict rule of not stepping off the sidewalk into the shadows was enforced. Since the blueberry pie we’d all enjoyed for dessert left our teeth and tongues stained purple, the temptation for stolen kisses was kept in check!

Pilgrimage of Awakening: The Extraordinary Lives of Murray and Mary Rogers is available on Amazon.

What Has Kept Me at Walnut Hill So Long

by Steve Durning

A kind colleague asked me at lunch recently what has kept me at Walnut Hill for my entire teaching career (this is my 38th year). The answer "It's exciting to work with young artists!" is obvious, clichéd, pandering. But it's true. Most people are swept up in the pleasures of the senses at times. People who love the arts get to experience the senses in a particularly intense and complex way. While I listen, say, to a student's senior cello recital, my ears take in the music. But there's more to it. All the times since I was in second grade that I've played the piano, or tried to; when I started to love classical music for real, as a sophomore in college; the times the composer being played at this recital has given me pleasure before: all of these experiences are in the room with me. This student's playing of this piece is to the whole of my experience as the final, resolving interval is to the particular piece being played right at that moment. I'm not kidding. I think this is how art works for all of us. It takes place in the present, but it also plays on our memory as if our memory itself were a musical instrument.

The student playing the piece is like the narrator of a literary work. When I read, I always strike up some kind of friendship with the narrator. I think everyone does (as long as the reading is giving pleasure.) As I listen, I rekindle and enjoy my friendship with this "narrator," enjoy the way he expresses his interpretation of the music with his movements, enjoy with a part of my mind what a fun, rewarding student he was when I had him in English, feel hopes for his future . . .

Perhaps the very next night I go to a dance performance in Keiter. Same story, different medium. Different instruments. Different "narrators."

If it's May, I might, two days later, go to the senior show of some students who I  loved having as students. Same story, etc. And that doesn't even take into account theater, both musical and straight. Writing. Filmmaking.

The reason I enjoy particular students' performances is that I know the students so well. I know them the way that comes from climbing together the four-month-long mountain that is a Walnut Hill semester. They did my assignments, experiencing difficulties, experiencing triumphs. I relied on them pulling me up the mountain more than they relied on me to pull them up (little known fact: students have more power in a classroom than the teacher does), but mostly we worked together. We wouldn't have gotten to the top without each other. When a year later I go to his senior recital and listen and watch him make his deep cello magic, I think, "Friend, I am so proud of you, it makes me want to cry! Or maybe I want to cry because your music is so beautiful, I can't tell which!"

If I taught at a different high school, the students and I would still climb the semester-mountain together. A student here would give a recital, a student there would be part of an art show. But the art experiences, created by students I really know, would not be the same at that school. Here at Walnut Hill it's like having music coming toward me from twenty-four different angles from twenty-four different stereo speakers. At that other school it would be like listening to music through an iPhone. I would think, "Oh—music. I think I remember once loving music. But that was a long time ago. Oh well."

Friends and family of mine who aren't connected to Walnut Hill know I teach at an art school. But they don't know how much I love teaching at this school. Nor do my friends and colleagues here know; not really. It's a secret I'm telling right now, in this article. I couldn't have said it until now.