Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Health Concerns

Hello All,
Seems I’m missing all the fun of visiting your blogs and posting on my own. For two weeks I ignored what I was sure was a urinary tract infection. Finally last Thursday it was diagnosed and I started the prescription.
            On Friday a series of symptoms began that had me, I felt at one time, down for the count. New lab results came in on Tuesday and there are some complications. Not worrisome. Just a fact.
            So I’ve started a new medication. The infection was simply so virulent that it went beyond the urinary tract and affected much of the rest of my body.
            If I heard the assurances of the doctor correctly, by the new year I’ll be “fine and dandy, like sugar candy” as my dad used to say. I do hope that soon I’ll be able to get some real sleep and eat more than applesauce.
            Days have passed. I missed Christmas and I spent an entire day mired in self-pity. But now I seem to have the whole thing in perspective. It’s just a bump on the road to 2012—a year I’m looking forward to.
            So see you in the new year.
            Take care.

PS: If any of you know a home remedy for healing rawness on the roof of the mouth and around the gums, please do let me know. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011


To all of you from South Africa to Great Britain
to the far-flung states of the Northwest and California
to Canada and Florida,
the Southwest and the Midwest,
Boston and Cleveland,
and all the toasty homes in between,
I wish you a Chanukah filled to brimming with merriment,
a Christmas heart-deep in peace,
a Boxing Day sparkled with laughter,  
a Kwanzaa candlelit by joy,
and a year’s ending
that finds you content
with your life and its gifts.

Ellie, Maggie, and Matthew
have asked me to convey their gratitude to all of you.
Now that I’ve joined the family of bloggers,
I no longer disturb their naps with play.
For this, they give thanks
even as they hunker by the patio doors,
gnashing their teeth and chirruping
at winter birds and squirrels feasting on sunflower seeds.

Those three hoodlums,
one snoopy as a young sleuth,
join me in wishing you a new year filled
with possibilities for growth in the human spirit.

May you enter the new year merrily
and come to its end in good health,
your lives enriched with friendship
and your spirits enfolded
in the Holy Oneness of All Creation.

You and I,
the three felines observing me type,
and all your cherished animals
are part of that Oneness.
We are the essence of One.

Peace as ever and always.

I hope this photograph, from twenty-five years ago, conveys the joy I feel today from having met so many engaging bloggers this year. Thank you for your ongoing support, and thank you, too, for reading this blog so faithfully. Your comments and encouragement have lifted my spirits during a difficult year.        
           Finally, thank all of you who have ordered A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story. Your meeting Dulcy for the first time is a great gift to me. Let there be, for all of us, joy in the morning.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Words Given Today

Ta-Dah! I completed the project and celebrated by sleeping in today. That explains why I’m posting later than usual.
            Yesterday afternoon, I sent the author the copyedited manuscript + a dog-eared style sheet + a nine-page memo. I spent five hours composing, proofing, and polishing it. I was supposed to have the manuscript to the author by December 23; I may miss that date, but not by much.
            The manuscript necessitated somewhat heavy copyediting. The author will decide what to accept of my suggested changes. She’ll then insert them into the computer file. Sometime in January, she’ll send the manuscript back to me for proofing and minor copyediting. At that time, I’ll also copyedit the numerous footnotes she’ll have complied.
            You may wonder perhaps why I’m still doing this work at age seventy-five. The answer is simple: I like to copyedit. I become a sleuth discovering dates and ages that don’t agree, names misspelled, words that long to be lowercased. Finding the relevant rule in the Chicago Manual of Style is like wandering a maze with a Sherlock Holmes’ magnifying glass. DJan will know what I mean because of her editing career.
            Liking my work is one aspect of accepting projects. The other is my desire to move back to Minnesota. The money I earn on this project will help me hire a moving van. I lived in Stillwater for thirty-eight years before moving back, at age seventy-two, to my birthplace. Slow of wit, I hadn’t realized that the North had become home to me. Now, three years later, I yearn to be back there.
            If all goes well, I’ll put my home on the market in March 2012. Who knows how much time will pass before a buyer recognizes my abode as a haven? Once that happens, I’ll find a place in Minnesota where I can spend the remainder of my life.
            And yet . . . and yet, I must admit today that I’m ready to give up editing projects. I hanker to be published again. Right now, I have rough drafts for three novels—one takes place in first-century Palestine, one inhabits bronze-age Greece, one follows the paths of four ex-nuns. I’ve also completed four books on cats—from a fantasy to a self-help book for felines. All await an agent and a publisher.

            Writing, as you know, is labor. But for those of us who love the written word, it is a labor of love. Just today I spoke with Elise, whose book The Golden Sky was published in November. We agreed that characters often surprise us. Unbidden, they arrive in our consciousness, insisting on sharing their lives with us. They make themselves present to us. That is why, perhaps, for me, writing is prayer. I am never more in the present and in Presence than when I write.
            Your blog comments have helped me decide to return to writing my own manuscripts. We writers don’t spend hours writing so as to fill up a file drawer. We want our manuscripts to be read and enjoyed. Given that, I’ve decided that in 2012, I’ll retire from editing the work of others and return to my own writing. I’ll try to find an agent to represent my work. That won’t be easy, because finding an agent is difficult in today’s publishing world. Composing a captivating query demands a skill I may not have.
            But as Dulcy says in her book, “At the end, all that matters is love.” I truly love to write. This blog allows me to do that, but I have so many stories I want to share with others—stories of characters who demand entrance into reality.
            I hadn’t expected to write all this today. I was going to continue the saga of getting published. But these words came; I accept them with gratitude. On Saturday I’ll return to A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story and share with you my first reading at the Stillwater library.
            Tomorrow I’ll begin to comment on your blogs. I’ll need several days to catch up, but I look forward to discovering what’s been happening in your lives while I’ve been gone.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Inspired Artist

Those of you who commented on my Saturday posting have looked in vain for any response from me. The truth? I’ve gotten behind in the copyediting project.
            Since last Thursday, all my energy has gone into discovering guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style, napping, checking compound words in the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, cookie munching, aiming for consistency as I copyedit a 488-page nonfiction manuscript spanning nearly two hundred years, drinking black tea liberally laced with skimmed milk, creating a style sheet, and tsk-tsking at the cats as they jangle the Christmas tree ornaments.

Christmas in my Stillwater, Minnesota, home ten years ago.
Note the T-shirt!

            I had hoped to finish the project today. Tomorrow, I planned to begin reading and commenting on your blog postings. But ah, my friends, the best-laid plans of Dee Ready, the neighborhood cat lady, have gone astray. I’ve asked for and received an extra day beyond the deadline.
            So today and tomorrow will be taken up with copyediting the last thirty pages, going back over the manuscript to check my notes, and composing an explanatory letter to the author with suggestions for design. Thursday I will sleep in and then do my final Christmas shopping. It will be Friday before I begin reading all you’ve posted since I began my final campaign to complete this project. I hope, in the days that follow, to read and comment on every posting I’ve missed.
            Now a little more on the process of Dulcy’s book getting published between July 1991 and October 1992. Jane Meara, the editor, called in early January with the news that Crown had decided to add drawings to the book. The surprise left me speechless.
            She knew that as a curriculum developer I often worked with designers who found artists for what I’d written. “Do you have any illustrators you’d like to recommend, Dee?” she asked.
            “Do you need the answer right away?”
            “No. Take a day or two.”
            I immediately called my favorite designer. She knew Dulcy. She also knew many artists and their styles. “What about my sister?” she asked. “She’s great with animals.”
            I’d never before worked with her sister. “Do you have any samples of her work?”
            “I do.”
            The next day, she showed me her sister’s art. I saw immediately that Judy King had the unique ability to capture the essence of cat. I gave Judy’s phone number to Jane Meara and left the rest to the Universe.
            In the months that followed, Jane sent me the rough art Judy submitted. All but one of the illustrations pleased me mightily. That one portrayed Dulcy glowering. She looked mean.
            Dulcy was never mean. When Judy heard my reservations, she assured Jane that fixing those eyes would take but a few extra strokes of the pen. And so it was done.
            Finally, Jane sent me copies of Judy’s final art. I found myself in awe of her talent. Her inspired cover beckoned readers with its jeweled hues. 

Dulcy lies on the red Persian carpet—from Sears—
that covered the floor of the dining room.
She’s grooming her white fur.

I will always be grateful to Judy for her significant contribution to A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story. Her art enhances the book. Since its publication, she and I have become good friends. Another gift from Dulcy.
                                                                            (Continued on Thursday . . . )

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Contract and "Thank You"

Merry morning on this overcast day here in Missouri. No snow. No rain. No sunshine. Just chill.
            I plan on accomplishing three things in this posting.
First, I want to thank all of you who have purchased Dulcy’s trade paperback or her e-book. I don’t know the names of the latter, but I do know those who are getting to read her story in its paperback version because I autograph and mail those books. Thank you one and all.
            Second, I want to thank Melynda, the published author who blogs on Crazy World: Where Craziness Abounds, for helping me promote Dulcy’s book. This past Wednesday she posted our interview. On Thursday she reviewed the book.
            If you haven’t read her review, please immediately stop reading this posting and go to her blog. Why? Because her review reflects the true meaning of Christmas. You will meet a loving mother whose eyes no longer permit her to read small type and a devoted son—Mr. P—who reads to her. A madonna and her child. Their story, as captured by Melynda in that posting, made me imagine Yeshua (Jesus) and his mother.
            Was he high-spirited? Did he play noisily in their crowded one-room, mud-and-straw home? Did he grind barley for his imma? Did she make flatbread on the round oven in the courtyard, which they shared with their neighbors? Did she add spice to a heroic story of their ancestors by acting it out for him?
            Did she wet her index finger and wipe a dirty smudge from his cheek? Did he wander off into the hills beyond Nazareth and run home to describe for her the fluid flight of eagles riding the wind? Did they play together on the earthen floor of their home with a wooden toy Yosef had made for him?            
            Melynda’s engaging review called forth these musings. And more. Her review made me rejoice that Dulcy’s book brought her and Mr. P even closer in their tenderness for one another. Thank you, Melynda, for so skillfully sharing the story of how Dulcy's life touched you and your son.
            Third, I want to continue the saga of getting published.
            We left the story Thursday with my receiving—on July 6, 1991, a Saturday by the way—a call from Jane Meara, a Crown editor. She offered me a contract for A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story.
            I received the contract in the mail sometime in July 2001. A friend read it for me and called it “boilerplate.” That is, it was a typical contract; its terms for the advance and the royalties were common for a first-time author.
            I’d receive $2,000 as an advance against what the book would ultimately earn. This money was nonreturnable. That is, I didn’t have to return it if the book ultimately didn’t get published or if it didn’t “earn out” the advance. I’d receive this advance in three equal payments: when I signed the contract; when I approved the copyedited manuscript; and when the book was published.
            My royalty would be 10 percent on the first 5,000 copies sold; 12 ½ percent on the next 5,000 copies; and 15 percent on anything beyond 10,000.
            I signed the contract and hugged myself in delight. Dulcy’s book was going to be published.

Jeremiah, Eliza, and Noah await a treat,
while I await news of Dulcy’s book.

            During the next year—between signing the contract in July 1991 and the release of the hardcover in October 1992—I spoke often with Jane. She did a superb job of sharing with me just where the book was in the publishing process.
            The copyediting was minimal, but essential. Dulcy had used many short sentences. The copyeditor often brought these together with the judicious use of the semicolon. I learned from her the use of that mark of punctuation.
            The other big happening during those fifteen months was the selecting of an illustrator. I’ll share that satisfying story with you on Tuesday.
                                                            (Continued on Tuesday . . . )

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Call Came

The die was cast. I’d sent the 22,000-word manuscript of Dulcy’s story off to Jane Meara in mid-May. Almost immediately I called a good friend and asked her to visualize me hearing from Ms. Meara,
            “I’ll get right on it,” she said. This relaxed me for she was an outstanding visualizer.
            I waited through the rest of May and all of June. July dawned, stultifying all of us in Stillwater with hot and humid weather. On July 3, 1991, Eliza disappeared. I roamed the neighborhood, calling her name. She didn’t come home that night. The next day I wandered farther afield, calling, calling, feeling my heart clutching within me.
            That evening I went to a copying shop to print flyers in which I offered a reward for her safe return. The following morning, I left the house at 8 a.m. and began to walk an eight-square-block area, thumb-tacking a flyer on each telephone pole.
            Around 1 p.m. I returned home to nap for an hour. Quickly I fell into a deep sleep. Grief and tiredness had taken their toll.

Dulcy and I at the birdbath.

            Sometime later, the phone rang. I woke, groggy and a little disorientated. I’d been dreaming about Dulcy and didn’t want to left go of her presence. I reached for the phone and croaked out, “Hello.”
            A voice began to speak. For the first minute or so, only an occasional word or phrase impinged the fog within my brain. “ . . . Jane . . . happy to . . . hardcover . . . thinking of illustrating . . . like you to add . . . .” Then, suddenly, surprising, amazingly, I heard a word so earth shattering that the fog vanished and thought rushed in.
            The word?  
            “Wait!” I shouted. “Wait a minute! Start over. I was taking a nap! I haven’t heard a word you’ve said! Did you say ‘contract’?”
            Now I’m sitting upright on the bed, the phone pressed to my ear. Attentive. Verging on giggles. Smiling wide in disbelief.
            Yes, it was Jane Meara—“Call me Jane, please.” She “loved” the book. All I needed to do was add a brief section about taking Dulcy for shots. Jane wanted readers to realize how necessary this was. I confessed to her that I’d never done that, but I could see her point and would be happy to add a scene in the vet’s office.
            She said she’d put the contract in the mail to me on Monday. I thanked her and then gave her my deal-breaker. The cover of Dulcy’s story had to say, “As given to Dee Ready.” Only then would I sign the contract. She asked me why this was so important. I explained that I hadn’t written the book. I’d only edited it.
            Jane graciously assured me that the line would be on the cover. She proved just as gracious in all our future dealings.
            After we finished our phone call, I called my friend. “Tell me,” I said. “How did you visualize me hearing from Jane Meara?”
            “Every day since you called, I’ve been seeing you come home with groceries. You put the car in the garage. You carry two sacks across your side yard toward the house. You hear the phone ring as you reach for the porch door handle. You drop the sacks and rush in to answer the phone and hear the good news!”

The garage, side yard, and porch 
of my 1870 lumberjack home in Stillwater, Minnesota.

            Whatever the scenario, I was getting a contract! Details were mere piffle. 
            After sharing the good news with her, I got ready to post more flyers. With thumbtacks, flyers, a thermos of water, and an apple in my backpack, I locked the front door and turned toward the street. There, padding up the front steps was Eliza Doolittle. Hungry. Exhausted. Disgruntled.

Eliza Doolittle on top of kitchen cabinets. Aggrieved.

            I concluded that she’d been in a neighbor’s garage since the morning of July 3. The owner must have gone away for a few days and returned on the afternoon of the 6th.
            The call from Jane. The offer of the contract. The return of the prodigal feline all took place on July 6, 1991, the two-year anniversary of Dulcy’s death.
            She just kept giving me gifts.
                                                            (Continued on Saturday . . . )

PS: Besides the usual holiday activities, I am in the midst of copyediting a lengthy manuscript for a Minnesota client. The deadline for completing it is next Tuesday, so I’m going to work long hours between now and then. Because of this commitment, I won’t be reading blogs or commenting on them until next Wednesday. I will miss reading your wonderful blogs, but I’ll catch up on all your postings in the days after the manuscript goes in the mail. Thank you, in advance, for your understanding. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Almost Giving Up

Dulcy’s manuscript came to 44,000 words, plus the poems that now enhanced the text. So with renewed energy I wrote to still more editors at those New York publishing houses. Weekly I received form rejection letters. Discouragement hovered.
            In the last week of April 1991, nearly a year and a half after Dulcy’s death, I decided to make one last-ditch effort to get Crown interested. At the Stillwater Public Library, I looked at a reference book that provided the names of all Crown’s editors. I waited for one to leap out at me.
            No. No. No. No. No.
            Yes! The name Jane Meara was Irish. I was three-fourths Irish. It was a sign.
            I made another important decision that day. I’d read that writers should send out only one-page query letters. Only if editors expressed interest should writers send a sample of the manuscript. That advice hadn’t worked in six months. So this time, along with the query letter, I enclosed four chapters of Dulcy’s manuscript.

Dulcy and me in 1980 in our side yard in Stillwater, Minnesota.

            The following week I received two more rejection letters. The week after that three. My spirits drooped. So when a letter came from Crown on May 10, 1991, I couldn’t abide reading one more rejection. I simply tossed the unopened letter in the wastepaper basket. Then I brewed a cup of green tea and sat drinking it on the porch with Eliza Doolittle on my lap.

Eliza Doolittle gazing at me.

            I told Eliza how disappointed I was in myself. Dulcy had given me a gift, and I wasn’t able to get it published so people could meet her. My tears dribbled on Eliza’s long gray fur. She gazed at me and miaowed. She seemed to say, “You’ll never get the manuscript published by quitting.” As usual, Eliza was right.
I set aside my teacup, placed Eliza gently on the floor, and retrieved the Crown letter from the wastepaper basket. Opening it, I discovered, not a form rejection letter, but a personal letter from Jane Meara.
A. Personal. Letter.
 Oh ye jigs and juleps!
Hands trembling I read the three-paragraph letter in which Ms. Meara informed me that I’d reached the right editor because she “loved cats.” She then said that Dulcy’s story, while appealing, was too long. If I’d cut it in half and concentrate just on “the relationship” between Dulcy and myself, she’d be willing to look at the manuscript again.
Did you get that? She’d be willing to look at the manuscript again! All I had to do was cut it down to about 22,000 words. Could I do that?
You bet your bottom dollar I could. Relationship was the key. For the next three days—Friday, Saturday, Sunday—I cut. I simply looked at each paragraph on the computer. Was it about Dulcy and me? Keep that one and the next and the next. Oops, a paragraph on what Dulcy thought about the car. Cut that.
The only difficulty was that Ms. Meara had also asked me to delete any mention of other cats. I could delete Ishmael, who was Dulcy’s brother, because he’d been in our lives such a short time. But to understand Dulcy a reader needed to know how she’d reacted to Bartleby and Tybalt. I took a chance and kept both of them, but ruthlessly cut extraneous stories and happenings.

Ishmael, Dulcy, and me in Dayton, Ohio, in April 1972.

On Monday, May 14, I mailed the completed 22,000-word manuscript to Jane Meara. Then I waited. And waited.
To learn what happened next, you’ll have to wait too.
                                                (Continued on Thursday . . .)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Getting the Manuscript Ready

This past Thursday, I announced that A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story is now available as both trade paperback and e-book. I also relayed a few tidbits about how the book came to be. Today’s posting begins a series about writing that memoir and getting it published.            
          First a promotion note: Two other blogs have recently shared stories about the book. If you have the interest and the time to visit them, you’ll learn more about how Dulcy's memoir came to be.

·      An author herself, Elisa Hirsch—The Crazy Life of a Writing Mom— invited me to write two guest postings about A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story. Yesterday’s details the actual channeling of the book, how it got published, and how I spent the royalties it earned. Today’s tells the story of how Dulcy and I met in March 1989.

·      I beamed when I read the two reviews of Dulcy’s book that Inger Wiltz posted on her blog—Desert Canyon Living. In November she enthused over Dulcy’s story. This past Thursday she shared her excited response to the news that the book is now available.

            Now let’s begin the ongoing saga of the next few postings.

            Many of you have had books published or are in the throes of writing a book and seeking publication. Today’s publishing world differs greatly from that of twenty years ago when I found an editor who was willing to take a risk with Dulcy’s book. Yet some similarities still exist.
            Beginning on July 8, 1989, I sat at the computer for an hour each morning. For two months, Dulcy remembered our life together. Ultimately I channeled over 65,000 words. I didn’t want to delete any of them; all seemed necessary. However, the manuscript was too long to be a gift book. The truth is—Dulcy was wordy. Reluctantly, I donned my editor’s cap and cut her verbiage to 44,000 words.           
            The manuscript was now, I thought, in “great shape.” So for the next six months I sent out numberless queries. With no Internet, this was done by “snail mail.” Months passed while my query letters moldered in slush piles.
            Finally, an editor at a prestigious Boston publishing house requested the manuscript. Almost immediately she rejected it with the terse comment, “Not for us.” All the other editors I queried simply sent back form rejection letters. While I remained undaunted, a question niggled: Was the manuscript perhaps not in as great a shape as I’d thought?
            To find out, I sent it to ten friends. All, knowing how Dulcy’s loss had devastated me, tempered their critiques. All that is except for two friends who thought I deserved the truth of their response. One advised me to place the manuscript in a safety-deposit box, leave it there for five years, and then retrieve it to see if it contained anything of value. The other chanted, “Bor-ing! Bor-ing! Bor-ing!” when I asked for an opinion of the writing.
            I refused to accept their judgment. Months earlier, as Dulcy paused in channeling her memories, I stood, took a turn around the room, stopped by the kitchen window, and spoke aloud. “This book’s going to be published,” I heard myself say. “And it’s going to be published by Crown. And it’s going to touch many people’s lives.”
            All three predictions ultimately came true: Crown published Dulcy’s memoir and it did, indeed, touch many lives. The letters I received bear witness to that.
            But before that, a Seattle friend asked a momentous question: What had Natasha, Dulcy's mother, purred that made her so determined to turn me into a one-cat woman?

            I wondered myself until Dulcy surprised me with a series of poems for her memoir. They explained many aspects of her response to me and to our life. My taskmaster had given her handmaiden orders—type these poems! I did.
            Next Tuesday, I’ll share the story of finding the editor who offered me a contract.
                                                            (Continued on Tuesday . . . )

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Cat's Life: Dulcy's Story

For the next few postings I’m going to share with you my ongoing love affair with cats. At SoulComfort’s Corner, Karma enriches Rita’s life. Beginning in April 1972, Dulcy enlightened mine.
            For those of you who believe in reincarnation she may once have been a high priestess in a shadowy Egyptian temple. If so, I was her lowly acolyte. Still later, she may have been a Celtic sorceress. And I? Undoubtedly, her apprentice. And in modern times, I suspect she played the imperious monarch; I, her court jester.

            We shared seventeen years together. Then death claimed her on July 6, 1989. Yet she did not leave me orphaned. Two days after her death, she began to relate, in her own soft purr, the shared memories of our life together: memories of her training me, tutoring me in ancient feline, inviting me beguilingly to become a one-cat person. I channeled her memoir, which was her final gift to me. It is, I believe, a love letter.
            My gift to her was getting her book published so that animal lovers around the world could rejoice in the pets with whom they lived and could grieve those who’d died. It took me three years to achieve that goal.
            Crown published Dulcy’s memoir as a hardcover in October 1992. Then in December 2000, J. N. Townsend Publishing in Exeter, New Hampshire, published the trade paperback of A Cat’s Life: Dulcy’s Story. In the span of those eight years, Dulcy’s book was published in Germany, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.
            Both US editions are now out of print. The last 670 copies of the trade paperback rest in seven boxes here in my office, awaiting readers. Please note that to the right of this post is the colorful cover of A Cat's Life: Dulcy's Story. Judy King, a gifted illustrator and friend, created that cover as well as the eighteen drawings within the book. Beneath that cover is the trade paperback purchase icon. 
            The pen-and-ink portrait of Dulcy is the Kindle e-book icon. It leads directly to her page on where several readers have posted five-star comments about A Cat's Life.             
            When Dulcy’s hardcover was published in 1992, I set up thirty-six readings and signing in the Twin Cities. The book sold almost 14,000 copies. Many people that year bought Dulcy’s story as a Christmas gift for both adult friends and children.
            In the past nineteen years, I have visited several classrooms in which teachers read Dulcy’s book to children as young as second graders. Dulcy delighted them. My heartwish is that animal lovers everywhere will also delight in her sweetness.

            After her death, my home became simply a house. Its soul was gone. In mid-July of 1989, I visited the animal shelter in Afton, Minnesota, and brought home three small kittens. They, too, are now dead and I live with three young Missouri cats. All of them are grateful to Dulcy for the training she gave me. She was not only priestess. She was taskmaster. And I? I was always her willing thrall.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Joyfully Professing First Vows

We rose early on that first day of 1960. Compline had ended our retreat the night before. Afterward, we’d returned to the novitiate for our final night of sleep there. While dressing that Friday morning, my thoughts skittered from my first days as a postulant to the battle I’d fought during retreat to the wonderment of where I’d be sent that weekend to begin teaching. 
           From the frosted second-story dorm window, I looked at the outlying stars that wintry morning. Who inhabited those far-flung galaxies? Did they know that here on Earth eighteen novices were dressing for a day of celebration? Did the music of the spheres reach them as it did me? For indeed, I felt the lilt of song within. Everything—anything—seemed possible. All the world seemed poised to welcome my vows. Joy coursed my veins. Gratitude thrummed my heart.
          Teeth chattering from chill and excitement, we silently left the novitiate and walked across the driveway to the monastery side door, ready to embrace our new life as scholastics. Later that morning, we huddled together in the foyer of the college chapel, awaiting our vow ceremony. Was there doubt about what we were each doing? There must have been. This was a professed commitment.
          But that doubt became as nothing amidst the great joy that found us smiling at one another. Beaming. Unable to keep from grinning. I looked out the small window facing the lawn. Sunlight jeweled the snow. Dark pine branches sagged from its weight. A few dark-eyed juncos fluttered about beneath those trees, fluffing their wings against the cold and imprinting spidery tracks on the snow’s crest.

            Suddenly, glorious music filled the chapel. The eighteen of us processed down the center aisle. On each side stood parents, relatives, and friends who’d gathered to celebrate with us. An unbounded smile stretched my heart. I’d made my decision. I’d chosen this life. Now, before Mom and Dad and all the nuns of the monastery, I’d profess, for three years, the five Benedictine vows: poverty, chastity, obedience, conversion of morals, and stability. I was ready. Eager in fact. I wanted to relinquish doubt and move ahead with my life.
            The ceremony began. Large pots of welcoming poinsettias graced the high altar. Golden yellow beeswax tapers, flames flickering, stood tall in gleaming candlesticks. The bishop wore the ornate vestments of a great feast. We prayed. Sang. Knelt. A surging tide of anticipation flowed toward us from those sitting in the pews. They’d come from many states to what was for me that day the center of the Universe.
            Now came the climax of the ceremony. The bishop blessed our new habits and veils. A professed nun deftly removed the white ones that proclaimed us novices and then reverently covered our heads with the black veil of a scholastic. We gathered before the bishop and lifted our palms high as we joyously professed our first vows.
The black veil indicates I have taken first vows and am a scholastic.

            The ceremony ended. The pipe organ sounded its clarion message: “Te Deum Laudamus!”—“Thee, O God, we praise.” That praise arched above all those gathered there that day. My heart lifted up. I came new into the world.  
            When the rite ended, the eighteen of us turned and processed out into the foyer. It was there our parents greeted us. My mom and dad hugged me close. I knew they remained as unsure of my decision as I’d been. But I knew also that they’d always said to me, “Dolores, you can do anything you set your mind to.” During the remainder of the afternoon, we ate together, then visited in the college lounge.

Dad and Mom and I enjoy one another's presence on first-vow day.

            That evening, after our families had departed, we eighteen new scholastics prayed Compline with the rest of the community. Afterward, we climbed the stairs to the fourth floor of the monastery and entered a new dorm. It was, I may say, a beginning within an ending.
            That night, lying in bed, I murmured to myself the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of my favorite poets. His “Pied Beauty” perfectly described what the day had been for me.

Glory be to God for dappled things—

            For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
                        For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
            Landscape plotted and pierced—fold, fallow, and plough;
                        And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
            Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
                        With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                                             Praise him.

I slide into sleep with words of praise on my lips. Alleluia. Amen.

PS: This posting concludes the stories about my life in the novitiate. I’m going to turn now to stories about my growing-up years and my life with cats. In a few weeks, I hope to return to the convent postings and take up life in a Catholic grade school in Omaha, Nebraska.

“Pied Beauty” from Gerard Manley Hopkins, published by Penguin Books in 1956.
Snow photo by Evgeni Dinev at

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Preparing for First Vows—Part Three

Time spent in the novitiate was time spent away from the noise, the distractions, the problems of the larger world. My world for eighteen months consisted of the monastery itself, the two chapels, the laundry, the novitiate, and its side yard. 
             During that time, I saw no television. Listened to no radio. Read no magazines or newspapers—except the ones I sneaked a look at when I did my lavatory obedience in the main building. I saw my family twice. Once a month, I received letters, as did we all.

 Dad and Mom visiting me
the summer of 1958 when I was a postulant.

            The ceremony of taking first vows was just a few days away. I’d entered to escape the “messiness” of family and its obligations and commitments. And the truth was that I’d landed myself not in nirvana or in Dee Ready’s idealized home but in a community of very human women, myself among them.
            The poem “Prologos,” which I read during my vow retreat, revealed to me that I couldn’t leave myself behind no matter where I went. And it was myself, more than anyone, I wanted to avoid. I found my dark places ignoble. I couldn’t accept them. And if I stayed . . . surely if I stayed . . . those dark places would become enlightened by my living with so many holy women. Surely.
            I made another important discovery during that retreat. I realized that the narrowness of my life for eighteen months—the physical boundaries of it and the lack of varied stimuli—had made me even more aware of what was lacking within me.
            And so, suddenly and surprisingly, I found myself wanting to make the vows for two reasons: To find myself by serving God through serving others. And to get out of the confines of the monastery and meet a whole classroom of students.
            In my mind the two were inexorably fused. I’d attended a Catholic grade school, high school, and college. The teachers and professors I knew were all nuns. It was nuns who taught.
            Soon I’d take a train to wherever I was sent to teach. I’d be in a new place with new sights and sounds. Maybe I’d get to shop in a grocery store.

I’d meet children and hear new stories. I’d see Victorian houses with bric-a-brac. I’d hear the beep of car horns and the squeal of brakes. I might hear a student sing a song from a recent Broadway musical. I’d smell bodies washed with perfumed soap. I’d touch a clothesline. I’d taste tea again after eighteen months of coffee. The wonder of it! I’d know the wide world again.
            You see, during that retreat I discovered something else: that prayer had become a way of avoiding life and that, after the narrowness of my life for eighteen months, I wanted broader horizons. More stimuli.
            But right now I wonder if perhaps what I really wanted was not to be “up close and personal” with myself and my own darkness. Maybe more stimuli would mean that I wouldn’t be so aware of my own failings. That I could get out of my mind.
            And so the night before making first vows I lay in bed, unsure of the next day or the journey I was about to undertake.
            It seems to me this Friday evening as I write these words that I thought the only path to wholeness and holiness was through the convent. And so, frightened, yet excited. Joyous, yet sorrowful. Confused, yet expectant, I accepted what I was going to do the next day. I would put off the white veil of the novitiate, make my vows, and don the black veil to show my commitment to being a member of this monastery in Atchison, Kansas.            
            It’s 10:36 p.m. now. I’ve thought about this posting all day. I’m not content with the writing for it seems jangled to me. Convoluted. Muddled. But perhaps that is as it should be for that is how I was on December 31, 1959, the night before I made first vows.
            So be it.
            I invite you to visit this blog on Tuesday, when I’ll share with you the celebration of taking first vows and the end of this series of postings on the novitiate.
                                                                              (Concluded on Tuesday. . . )