It was dark, near midnight, and everyone in the house was sleeping. I stood watching out the window as Ray’s car pulled away, and I sobbed. My heart was breaking. Why was this so painful if it was God’s will? I didn’t understand.… With him went any romantic dreams I may have allowed myself. Now, decades later, I think of it: call him back. But then I didn’t. I watched him go and wept. I was going to be a nun.
Getting love as a child
I wonder how much slack God took up for parents who didn’t have time to listen. God always listened, I believed, and he knew me, knew my heart, even when I felt my parents didn’t have a clue…. Therapists have said, “You must have gotten love somewhere,” and I always begin thinking of my aunts, my teachers, sometimes my siblings, but never before have I thought, Well, yes, I felt that God loved me and never stopped loving me. That must have had a profound effect on sensitive little me.
The first thing she does is cut my hair—not a real haircut, but a fast snipping off of clumps of hair. We are giving up the vanity and womanly seductiveness that goes with hair. A nun wouldn’t want either. It has to be done quickly because we are to return to the chapel by the time the vow ceremony and the Litany of the Saints are finished. In the next day or so, one of the novices with some expertise in the matter will attempt to make a decent short cut of it, I know. But for now, it is just chopped. It feels like a shock. Hair has never been that important to me, but some of my classmates, mostly 19– and 20-year olds, cry quietly as their hair falls to the floor. The image flashes through my mind of hair being chopped off as some kind of punishment or humiliation. I don’t know what to feel.
Heroes outside the convent
I saw what real dedication looked like, and it wasn’t necessarily in a habit. It was ordinary people joining lines of marchers, risking violence and even death, to say that the laws of the country were wrong and unjust. There was a shift inside me, and I leaned toward those good people. Not long after, I joined an interfaith social action group in Cleveland’s inner city. I met Bill Bolton, an Episcopal minister who looked more like a truck driver. When he heard about my musical background, he asked me to help with the choir at his neighborhood mission church that served blacks, whites, Hispanics, gypsies and Native Americans. I accepted, and the following April he asked if I would come as an adult leader with a busload of his teenagers who were going on a weekend work camp to a poor church in the Appalachians. I got permission from my superiors to go and enjoyed working side by side with the welcoming church’s members and our teenagers.
I saw clearly through all this that neither the Catholic Church nor the convent had a corner on goodness and integrity. I saw courage and real commitment. I can see now that my attention was being drawn away from the Rule of the Order, from belief that living in a prayerful community of women was the most worthy thing you could do with your life. My heroes were outside the convent. They were working in the neighborhoods, among real people with real problems, trying to bring justice.
A man in my life?
In August, I came back from a faculty meeting and found an envelope in my mailbox from California. It was a letter from Jim, the poet-host whom I had thanked for the party, and it was very personal. He told me he had watched me during the workshop and felt I had a “sacred sensuality” that he found beautiful. My heart was pounding as I read. I quickly stuffed the letter into my pocket and went to my room, where I read it over and tried to sort out my feelings.