With the release of Harbor of Grace, I am officially ending the Hard Cider Abbey series of mysteries. Don’t worry, I did not kill off all my monks, nor shutter the monastery! The series ends in a very gentle way, and it’s possible, though not probable, that I will return to the series at some later date. But it just felt like time to end it, and I have to confess, I feel a great sense of relief in doing so. It’s been a joy to write, but (excuse the expression) hell to market, although the entire experience has been a valuable learning experience. Which is why I started the series in the first place: This was my mystery apprenticeship. I simply wrote it to learn how to write mysteries, and to see if I could sustain a group of characters and overall story arc over several books. And fortunately, I found I could.
The other valuable lesson I learned is the importance of identifying one’s audience. I had assumed my audience would be mainly folks fascinated by monks. And while that might have been a good audience for Thomas Merton in the 1940s and ‘50s, that same sort of audience does not really exist today. A strong and general skepticism about religion among literate folks has pretty much erased much of that curiosity; and if I thought Catholics and Christians in general would be entertained by my books, I was mistaken about that, too. For it seems that believers who take the time to read specifically Christian literature are of a deeply conservative, traditional bent, and those readers were not amused by my more modern, progressive take on the Church. I got some pretty unpleasant and unfair reviews, probably more on average than if I had written a less complicated mystery. But I don’t regret a word: Through it all I gained a number of faithful (and very intelligent!) readers, actually hit the best-seller list a few times and experienced the delight of hearing my work read and recorded by a narrator, when Hard Cider Abbey was turned into an audiobook; and got to connect with readers and writers in the beautiful state of West Virginia.
But it’s time to move on. I’ve begun a new series, purely secular--although some clergy might turn up now and then—and purely escapist. It’s historical, set in the post-war era of the 20th century, mid-century modern so to speak, which was just about the time I entered the world, so I remember a good deal about it. Though I came of age in the 1960s, I had a classic kind of 1940s-1950s childhood, living in the downstairs of my grandmother’s house, in the industrial southwest corner of Hartford, CT, on a street running alongside railroad tracks and flanked on each end by factories (Francis Avenue, for those of you who know Hartford). I grew up listening to tales of the Depression and World War II from grandparents and great-aunts and uncles, and now I have a chance to channel some of that sensibility into a new series of books, even though the book is not set in a factory neighborhood or a small New England city, but on a huge American fighting vessel that has been converted post-war into a luxury world-wide-cruise liner, with many intriguing ports of call. It’s a mystery series, with an amateur sleuth: the ship’s faintly starchy but sharp-witted librarian, Elsa Tamerlane. I can tell you the first book will be witty and fun and somewhat over-the-top as far as plotting goes, but an accurate depiction of its era. I’m hoping to launch sometime this summer, so check back in the spring for my progress. This year 2020 may have gotten off to a slow start, but I have a feeling it’s going to be amazing.
Dear Readers: I'd hoped to have a new book out before the holidays 2019, as well as a Christmas story for this year, but here's the problem: My writing office is also our guest room, and family tends to come home for the holidays so...I literally have not been able to get to my computer. A feeble excuse, I know, but I always want my books to be the best they can be and not be rushed out. But Harbor of Grace is finished and proofread and will be published very shortly, though likely in the first days of 2020. It will be followed by a short story, which essential ends the series for now. And I've made no secret of the fact that I've started a new mystery series, so more on that as the year progresses. In the meantime, enjoy your own holidays and thank you for all your support so far on this road.
In early 2020, I’ll be revamping my entire website to reflect my continuing progress in writing and publishing mysteries. As 2019 draws to a close, so too will my saga of monks and cider. When Harbor of Grace comes out later this month, and the Christmas story in December, I feel the overall story arc of the series will be coming to a natural end, and so it will be time to move on to a completely new series in 2020. More on that as the process unfolds. But this is not to say I’m abandoning my monks completely, for I will continue to promote them in the year to come at various book festivals and fairs across the US and here online; and I may return to them at some time in the future. Or not… I will finally, in the next few weeks, be releasing paperback versions of my formerly Kindle-only work: Brother Rattlesnake, Name of the Father and Sins of the Father. No thanks to Amazon and their clunky online cover-maker, which held up production on those for months. And at some point next year, I’ll take the series “wide” so it will be available on other reading venues, such as Kobo and Apple.
So I am revamping the website to make it a little less monk-centric, dropping the cider blog I never really had time to work on. I will bring the Father Irenaeus page up to date, although I’m not planning on any nonfiction or biographical projects any time soon. As for the new series, well, hang in there: All I’m going to say at the moment is that I’m finally getting out of the “Christian Mystery” category, which has turned something of a trial for me, both profit-wise and faith-wise. However, the new books will be similar to HCA in that they will be gentle and quirky (Not cozy—how I hate that pigeonhole!), and laced with humor—something I found was hard to get away with, when I was writing about religious orders.
In real life, still working toward the ultimate goal of moving the family homestead east, and close to the sea, but that may take another year or two. Meanwhile, it seems all our spare moments are spent painting and repairing and reorganizing this old Jersey house for the next owners; but at least we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor a little bit, and enjoy another cycle of seasons in the Mid-Atlantic region. OK, boomer! The next house is likely to be an old one, too, but that strikes me as a good thing, as all this fixing-up work is good exercise for a sedentary writer and the equally sedentary artist who happens to be my husband. Happy holidays to all, and be sure to check out my newest offerings on Amazon!
Up until recently, I have not garnered any Amazon reviews for the 4th installment of the Hard Cider series, which caused me some concern: Was it a flop? Did readers hate it? Was I beginning to fall down on the job? With any series, there is always the possibility that one or more books won’t measure up, and I worried about that, even though I put as much care and effort into Sins of the Father as with any of my other books. Well, a review finally rolled in this weekend, and it was, to my dismay, a one-star. But when I read the review, which was rather lengthy, I felt relieved at first—the review wasn’t really about my book at all, although it groused about the mystery not being quite up to snuff (fair enough; it’s more of a family-saga story). But I was greatly dismayed by the apparent purpose of the one-star: It was to punish me for daring to write about an allegedly transgender male, who, with an unmistakable calling and the best intentions possible, enters a monastic order.
“I’m not a transphobe,” the reviewer demurs, but then goes on to note that bothersome “hip, trendy, New Catholicism” seeping into everything, and my supposed motive being to force the Church into accepting something it apparently doesn’t wish to accept. Moreover, I’m not sure, but I think the review itself might be deeply offensive to transgender people in general, suggesting they are not “normal”; and that would be reason alone to ask Amazon to remove it. I will do that eventually. But first I’m going to put that review to use as a springboard.
I knew, when I chose to write about a religious order in this day and age, I was choosing a bumpy path. I’m literally damned if I do and damned if I don’t: Liberal Catholics will complain about my over-attention to ancient and traditional practices and esthetics; conservatives blast me for being irreverent. And since Amazon, whose bots are unable to classify me into any distinct mystery genre, put me in “Cozy” and “Christian” mystery categories, too many readers assume that my tales are sweet, head-in-the-sand mush that won’t require them to think or worry too much about a Church that seems mismanaged and in desperate need of change. And boy, are they mad when that turns out not to be the case. Sorry, but even as a Catholic in good standing, I cannot present an ideal and unchanging Church as the backdrop for my books.
I write fiction, but I also believe in telling the truth. Taking the advice of the great fiction mentor John Gardner, I try to allow my fiction to mirror real life—warts, controversies, difficulties and all—so that it can take on a life of its own, and provide an authentic sort of vision to the reader. The Church is in trouble, and as an author, I am simply trying to document it all in an honest way, without either excessive praise or condemnation. It’s a real tightrope, and I’m especially prone to falling off. I suppose I do lean a bit left in Brother Rattlesnake, but I was really outraged by the whole Archbishop McCarrick fiasco, especially since I actually met McCarrick once in his heyday and thought him a decent guy. Otherwise, I would have written Hard Cider as a period piece (I did consider that, and thought of placing it in the 1950s, before Vatican II).
I admit I was utterly intrigued by the idea of a person of uncertain gender entering religious life. How would that play out? And in Sins of the Father, I’m not pushing any kind of agenda or philosophy, I’m simply presenting a possible scenario. Gabriel, the character in question, isn’t really transgender; he is only claiming the true gender he feels he was born with, physically, but was taken from him shortly after birth. There have been true, documented cases of this sort of thing occurring, and it seemed to me a dreadful injustice. Would you add to that injustice by barring the person from a fulfilling religious life? My critic claims by creating this kind of character, I’m giving legitimacy to all transgender people (!!) Wait—didn’t the Pope himself say, if they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? Maybe the reviewer gave him a one-star review, too.
If you’ve read my series, you know I am all about inclusion. (Yes, I know, there should be more female characters, but the Church hasn’t created co-ed monastic institutions yet) And this is incredibly important to me, because many of my nearest and dearest—family and friends both—are not all white or straight. Or Catholic, or believers! The greatest commandment, as Paul says, is love, and that really the only thing I’m pushing in my books. Love, tolerance and truth.
This past weekend I got to travel down to almost-heaven West Virginia, and participate in the West Virginia Book Festival, which took place in the capitol city Charleston. I couldn’t have picked a better weekend to go, although it was quite warm for an autumn weekend (a toasty 98 degrees on Saturday). The famous friendliness of West Virginians was on display everywhere. I met plenty of avid readers, and was deeply impressed by the strong commitment to the arts and to literature in this Appalachian state. The stereotypes the state gets stuck with—poverty, ignorance, hillbillies making moonshine—really don’t reflect a rich and complicated culture of people with a unique take on the world. I can’t wait to return.
At the festival, I shared a table with fellow members of the Mystery Writers of America. But only two of us had any connection to West Virginia (a member of Wheeling joined us, but the rest of us were NYC area denizens) I was in a unique position to connect with the attendees, most of whom lived nearby, since I was not selling books, but giving away copies of my audio book. Next year I plan to have my own booth, devoted entirely to Hard Cider Abbey! I was also invited to join West Virginia Writers Inc, which I certainly plan to do: Anything to promote books and literacy in that wonderful part of the country.
On the way in, I had driven straight across Pennsylvania to the town of Newell, which sits at the very top of the northern Panhandle. I thought it would be interesting to follow the Ohio River all the way down to Parkersburg. And it surely was. In Newell, I stumbled upon, by chance, the Homer Laughlin Tent Sale—I had not realized the famous and colorful Fiesta potteryware was made here, and well…now I’m a big fan. I came away with a few pieces for my kitchen…Driving through Weirton and its vast post-industrial landscape was an eye-opener, as was the literally hundreds of coal barges and coal-filled railroad cars I saw, glittering black in the sun, as I drove along. I got lost in Wheeling, which otherwise looks like a seriously interesting city; and believe it or not there were spots where the Ohio looked quite blue and serene, amid a verdant mountain backdrop.
I took my time returning home, visiting the Charleston Farmer’s Market (where I got my Halloween pumpkin); then made my way into the heart of the state to breathtaking New River Gorge, where I drove over the famous bridge and did a bit of hiking around the other side of the river. It wasn’t quite autumn yet, and as I drove back, I was delighted to see the trees gradually brighten into shades of gold and red, the further north I drove. I spent my last night in West Virginia on the far eastern Panhandle, in the town of Hazelton, east of Morgantown; but in the morning, couldn’t resist one more country road adventure, instead of just jumping on I-68 east, and took a meandering curvy and hilly road up into the Youghiogheny area of Pennsylvania, and eventually onto the Turnpike and home.
Sometimes reviewers claim I’ve gotten it all wrong about West Virginia and that I don’t really know anything about it at all: But that’s only based on their experience of the state. And there are many different ways to experience West Virginia: Urban, suburban, rural, literate, illiterate… The thing is, despite its small population, WV is so diverse and changes so much in character from mile to mile, you can’t always get a specific handle on its character in general. I was comforted, however, at the things I got right. I actually saw a billboard, We Buy Ginseng! in the southern part of the state—you’ll remember I mention that herb in HCA. There are not many Amish or Mennonites in WV, I will confess (also portrayed in HCA), but they are quite abundant in the neighboring states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, so it’s not unlikely a few brave families would end up in the Mountain State as well. And a lofty mountaintop in central-middle-eastern West Virginia would be the perfect place to found a Cistercian-style monastery; I’m certain Thomas Merton would have thought so.
I think I can say, after four decades of this writing business, that I’m finally a mature, bonafide writer—no longer an editor or English teacher who writes ‘on the side,’ not a would-be writer or writer-in-training anymore. My apprenticeship is over.
Some of this thinking is the result of my father’s death, just months ago (readers might notice I dedicated my last novel, Brother Rattlesnake, to him). My father was a professional (corporate) writer and editor, and you think he’d be proud that I followed in his profession, but in reality he was pretty harsh and critical with me in regard to all that. It was part of that old-school wisdom where you never offer praise or encouragement, and I get the logic behind that, but it did a number on my self-confidence, I can tell you. Eventually I stopped sharing my books and writing with him, because there seemed no point.
Last week, as my sister and I were cleaning out the apartment down in Florida, I scanned the wall of my father’s bathroom/dressing room, and saw right beside the mirror, a promotional postcard of a book I’d written about eight years ago: The Raven Girl, a historical novel set in Ireland. It was a bit yellowed with age, but there it was, posted up next to the mirror where he shaved everyday, where he could see it everyday. So finally, proof that something I wrote finally got through to him.
Then when I came home to New Jersey this week, I received a telephone call from one of those dubious marketing firms (likely overseas). My husband reported that they had been calling me all week while I was gone. The gist of it was that they wanted me to ‘interview’ with them, and sign away my book rights to them so they could market and promote them ‘more effectively.” I told them, in the politest possible terms, to go to hell.
I’m not done writing, but I am done with the Writing Business. I no longer need writing books, seminars, webinars, conferences, expensive classes by egotistical has-beens, writers groups, rigged contests which charge you a hundred bucks or more for a flawed and unreliable ‘analysis’ of your writing and all that other nonsense insecure writers (myself included, for too many years) rely on to keep themselves going in a monstrously stressful and demanding profession. After all these years, I finally figured it out: When you’re young, all you have to do is read. (And ignore your father.) And as you get older, all you have to do is write.
This is not to say I don’t need to keep honing and improving my art. I certainly do. But you do this by continuing to write and self-edit, every single day, not by spending money on that literary magic bullet. I don’t know where we get the idea that throwing money at something necessarily makes it better, when all you really need is time and thought.
Being an independent publisher, despite the many glitches and hard lessons and lack of prestige, has proven to be a Godsend for me. In the many years I’ve been blogging, I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, ‘traditional’ vs. self-publishing. In the beginning, back in 2010 or so, it was wonderful and revolutionary, then it was awful when everyone decided to jump into the pool. But now that it’s settling out, and losing its luster with other writers, it’s getting easier again for those of us who persevered. I don’t spend a fortune on promotion and advertising; I have a strict budget and try to use alternative means to get the word out. If I have any lessons to share with other writers, it’s these: 1) Write what you love, no matter what. 2.) Write every day. 3.) If you want to create an income, write a series, and build on it. 3.) Proofread and proofread and hire an editor if you feel you must, but don’t make yourself crazy: Nobody’s perfect, and when a critic says your book has too many typos, it’s not a valid criticism—it’s harassment. 4.) Don’t worry about reviews, professional or otherwise. I’ve sold plenty of books with and without them, it doesn’t seem to make much difference. If you get too many bad reviews, however, something’s definitely wrong. And finally: 5.) Don’t worry what your father (or wife, or children, or boss, or professor) says (or doesn’t say) about your writing! Just go ahead and do it anyway.
Brother Emerick sauntered down the long, dim north corridor of Holy Face Abbey, hands buried deep in the hip pockets of his monastic habit. He was on a casual sort of mission, checking in on a visitor to the abbey, but the sight of light at the end of the dark, tunnel-like corridor suddenly filled him with unease. He knew it was nothing more than the last ray of sunset, slanting in through the arched window of the back wall, yet he paused a moment, remembering a recent near-death experience—he’d had several—where a similar light tried to pull him from the dark and into the afterlife. It suddenly made him particularly nervous about what was waiting for him in that last room at the end of the hall.
Compline and evening prayers had just ended, but the sun still low hung in the sky as the solstice approached. The sticky heat of Appalachian summer had begun to permeate the stone walls of the abbey, prompting the monks to shed their cowls, roll up their sleeves and adopt Emerick’s personal habit of going barefoot. And it was the cool slate floor tiles that did, at last, ground Emerick, bringing him back to his senses, the stone soothing against his hot and blistered bare soles.
I’m just going to check on him, he told himself. Make sure he’s okay, not sick or anything, not gonna stick around for any of his chit-chat. Not even gonna step inside, just gonna peek in on him and leave…
The abbey was silent, but for the buzzing and chirping of outdoor insects and crickets, and some of the monks had already retired for the night, to get in a little sleep before the 2:30 am Vigil bell. So no one heard Emerick as he loped down the hallway, least of all his intended visitor: the disgraced former Archbishop of Massachusetts, Julian J. Gannone.
This particular corridor was a relic of the mid-twentieth century, when ‘Hard Cider’ Abbey teamed with men burning with monkish vocation. At that time there had been some fifty professed brothers, and another dozen ordained priests, completely filling the one-story, cross-shaped stone building that sat nestled into the eastern face of Stilton Mountain, above the old mining and manufacturing hub of Skerritville, West Virginia. Now all the monks—which, counting novices and priests, numbered a mere dozen—fit into a single wing of the building. The scandal-plagued visiting archbishop had been given his own lonely wing, to keep him in seclusion from the others, in an effort to encourage some repentance and humility on his part. This had not, however, kept him from trying to worm his way into the monks’ company whenever possible.
Hence, Emerick’s mission this evening: No one had seen Gannone—who they had been ordered to address as ‘Brother Julian’—since the evening before. He had not shown up at meals, nor at liturgy, and the monks had begun to hope, feebly, that perhaps he had fled the abbey for good.
Maybe last night’s noxious stew had done the trick, Emerick thought. A fat timber rattler had been caught near the cider barn, carved up and cooked into a concoction that curiously resembled canned chicken noodle soup. It was then served with great flourish as dinner to the former prelate—as chicken soup. When informed, after he’d eaten two bowlfuls, that it was actually snake-meat, Brother Julian had merely smiled in a bitter way. “Best damned meal I’ve had here yet,” he remarked, before stalking off.
And that was the last anyone had seen of him.
If the archbishop had indeed escaped, the Abbot would not be happy to hear it, from long distance. Dom Frederique was away tending to his elderly mother in France. He had specifically asked Emerick to keep an eye on the abbey, paying particular attention to their troublesome and uninvited ecclesiastic guest. Nothing could happen to Gannone, he had warned, as the bishop was only at the monastery for ‘safekeeping,’ awaiting a full Vatican tribunal into his alleged misdeeds. And if anything did happen…it would all be on Emerick’s head.
He stood now before the prelate’s door, listening for activity within. He could not be asleep already, could he, at only nine in the evening? Emerick knew Julian was something of a night owl, since the only liturgy he attended reliably was middle-of-the-night Vigil.
“Bish—I mean, Brother Julian?” He tapped lightly on the door. He waited a moment, and knocked a bit more forcefully. “Hey, y’all! You in there?”
None of the monk-cells had locks on the doors—not even so-called important visitors were given one—so Emerick carefully turned the doorknob and creaked the door open a bit, peering inside. The archbishop’s room was like every other dormitory cell in the abbey, small and narrow, the walls a drab green gray, a single window, single bed, desk, crucifix. Someone had dragged in an old armchair at Gannone’s request, so he could sit and read. Emerick saw first the bed, neatly made and empty. The remains of the day, filtering in through the single window, glinted off the gilt frames of the artwork Gannone had brought with him. Not just art, but jaw-dropping classic paintings, from distant centuries, filling nearly every inch the tiny room’s walls.
And then he saw the archbishop.
Sitting straight up in his borrowed armchair, dressed—not in the farm-laborer’s garb he wore by day in the fields, or the novice’s white robe the Abbot had ordered him to wear inside the monastery, but in the black clerical traveling suit he’d worn his first day at the abbey. He seemed to be in some kind of reverie, staring off into the distance, eyes glazed behind no-nonsense tortoiseshell spectacles.
“Julian? Brother?” Emerick set foot into the room, his toe hitting a pair of packed suitcases set by the door. “Hey! Are you planning on leaving us? Are you…” When the man did not respond, Emerick inched closer to him. “Hey! Bishop!” He waved a hand in front of the man’s face. No response.
Panic ripped through Emerick: He had seen years ago in the Army, in combat and later at the Veteran’s Hospital, men die with their eyes wide open. He grabbed the man by his shoulders, and found him warm to the touch, not cold or stiff. But he didn’t seem to be breathing… Emerick shook him frantically. “Hey, Bishop, wake up! Wake up now, this isn’t funny!” But the bishop’s only response was to pitch forward toward Emerick, his eyes still wide open. Emerick pushed him back into the chair and grabbed his wrist, struggling to feel a pulse.
He then grabbed his cellphone from the pocket of his habit, punching in a single digit. The infirmary monk, Gabriel, answered right away.
“Gabe! It’s the archbishop! He’s…he’s…dead! But he’s still warm! Either he’s dead…” His eyes fell to the nightstand table, where he saw a half-finished glass of wine along with…a small hypodermic needle. “Or someone went and turned him into a zombie!”
Want more? Hang in there: I’m hoping to have this up for sale on Amazon by July 15th, in both Kindle and paperback format, and as always, at an affordable price.
dWhy did you self-publish this series—especially since you’ve had books published by ‘traditional’ publishers in the past?
This is a question most frequently asked at cocktail parties and big gatherings, usually by published literary writers, and usually with a look of peevish disdain and disapproval. Well, I had no choice. I have been published by traditional publishers, and I did seek the traditional path with Hard Cider—starting with a lengthy canvassing of literary agents. Unfortunately my timing was dreadful, querying my faith-based novel series just as the Church’s pedophilia scandal decided to erupt yet again. Long story short, the very few agents who actually responded to me felt compelled to point out the bad press the Catholic Church was getting. They could not imagine such a book selling in such a climate, and of course for agents and publishers it’s all about money. So I knew I’d have to self-publish. I had a hunch that despite scandals and bad publicity, there was a definite audience for my work; and thankfully, it turns out I was right. It seems to be a gradually growing readership, but it does keep growing and hasn’t nose-dived yet, so I must be doing something right.
Now I’ve been self-publishing since 2011, having had some limited success with a historical young adult series I wrote, but I really don’t like doing it, to be honest. It involves a lot of work that is not writing, as well as copious amounts of self-promotion, which I HATE, and a certain amount of skill and research to make it all work the way it’s supposed to. Generally it does not work well for my kind of book, which deals with faith and edges toward the literary; well-defined hard-core genres such as science fiction and romance do amazingly well. Mystery is a bit of a mixed bag: the thrillers, if well-written and well produced, do very well for their authors; the cozy mysteries (which alas, is my Amazon-designated category, even though it really doesn’t belong there; I think anything without excessive sex or violence gets automatically dumped in there) seem to do a little less well, and quirkier, literary stuff just drops off the sales algorithm. So I’m walking the tightrope here, writing what I hope is high-quality fiction, while staying within the strictures of my chosen genre. I relaxed a lot after the first book, when I realized all I had to do was tell the story, and not worry about perfect sentences, literary allusions or any of the other bunk you pick up at writers’ workshops. I don’t get a lot of reviews and the ones that come in are all over the place, from hate-filled one stars to glowing and loving constellations, and a lot of in-between, but I like this, because I feel it’s honest and authentic, and helps prospective readers decide if they want to take a chance on my book.
One of the more painful aspects of self-publishing is that it is still largely reviled by the media, libraries, academia and by traditionally published authors, although this is abating somewhat, as overall quality improves among us 'independents.' However, it has become massively harder to self-publish, as the competition is incredibly fierce for visibility on the biggest player, Amazon. The best formula seems to be: Write a good, good book
When I was an eighth-grader at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph’s grammar school, in Hartford, CT, I was asked—along with a handful of other female students in our graduating class—to assist our teachers, the Sisters of Mercy, in a singular, and poignant task. The old convent, which sat next to the Cathedral, was to be torn down that summer, the land made into parking space for the church, which sat on one of the busiest streets in Hartford, not far from the State Capital building. There were about half dozen of us girls, all twelve and thirteen, all good and polite students no doubt handpicked by the Sisters, and we were asked to help the Sisters pack up what remained of their belongings, empty the library and even sweep clean floors that would soon no longer exist. Our reward for this task was cake and tea at the end of the day, and the opportunity to pick some religious trinket out of a box. I don’t remember what I selected, perhaps a small medal or holy card, but I do remember the odd sweetness of that day, the opportunity to peek into the secret lives of the women who had taught us for the past eight years.
On the whole, our teachers had been gentle, wonderfully intelligent women who lived full and interesting lives: They traveled, they wrote, they had close friends outside the convent, and judging by their library, read ferociously. But they were also all women of a certain age, all well past fifty, still dressing in black robes that swept the floor, white wimples and veils. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was witnessing the end of an era—not really the end of American nuns, as we still have them today, but the end of their cultural popularity in this country. As children, we saw nuns in the movies, read books about them, listened to the ‘Singing Nun,’ and then, somehow, as I grew into adulthood, these women were transformed into victims and demons on the screen and in literature. But for me they had always been models of decency and caring, and I respected their long lives of holiness and hard work
What I remember about the convent building itself, which was of Edwardian or perhaps even Victorian vintage and sat directly facing busy Farmington Avenue, was how silent it was inside, quiet. Not a hint of the cars racing by outside, or the general roar of the city. It seemed a lovely kind of silence to me, like a pause in an engrossing conversation: It was silence that promised good things, of peace, not eeriness. When our chores were done—I worked mainly in the kitchen boxing silverware and cooking implements, then had an hour or two sweeping a dustmop through various rooms, the small but cozy mint-green rooms where my teachers slept and planned their lessons. Afterward, just before tea, I wandered with a friend about the rambling interior soon to fall victim to the wrecking ball. We came upon a distant hall toward the back of the building—halfway down this corridor was a door with a frosted glass window, through which sunlight shone from a hidden window in the back of the convent. In serious black lettering across this window was a single word: CLOISTER.
In the older days of the church, cloisters were places where monks and nuns completely withdrew from the world, sometimes behind stone walls and locked iron gates. They were compelled to stay in such places until their deaths. Now the Sisters of Mercy were not a cloistered order, but it was explained to me that sometimes the sisters felt the need to withdraw a little further from the world, even within their own building. It would be years before I understood the monastic tradition, but even as a very young teen, I saw the sense in this this: A break, to be quiet, and think. I remember my friend and I creaking open the door, and seeing another hallway, as ordinary and identical to the hallway we were standing in, with a high window at the end, letting in light from the sky, but no views of the outside world. It did not look like any place significant or awe-inspiring, but I did feel a bit of awe, just looking in. Looking at that line of tightly shut doors, and wondering what epiphanies or agonies or life had gone on behind each one. If walls could talk…
Those walls are gone now, but my interest in the monastic life has not waned, even after years of marriage and motherhood in a busy NYC suburb. I visit various monasteries and friaries whenever I can, and find I do my best writing on retreats. But all you need to create a cloister is a quiet room. A quiet room, maybe a chair and table, maybe a view of the sky; and a little time, for looking within.