Friday, October 24, 2008


I'm fascinated by the themes in my life and those of my friends. Themes have a way of informing the characters, plots, and settings of our writing. For me, nuns have been a recurring theme.

Until I was thirteen years old, I lived in Skokie, Illinois. Skokie has a really large Jewish population, and I had lots of Jewish friends who helped me appreciate their religion and culture -- and food. I was raised a Methodist, growing up in the shadow of St. Lambert's church . My best friend was Catholic, and often told me I'd be going to h - e- double hockey sticks for not being Catholic. I didn't believe her. The mysteries of these very different religions made for an interesting childhood.

My brothers and I would encounter nuns gliding along in their habits on their way to church or back to their home. Even at that age, it seemed unfair to me that the nuns had to walk so far from their church while the priests lived right 'on

Even today, nuns remain an enigma to me. Friends have told me stories of their amazing brutality and great kindnesses. I imagine a nun will figure in one of my books some day.

Until then, I offer up these two views by Maxine Kumin, who was -- for a time -- New Hampshire's Poet Laureate and former Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress back in the 1980s. Thankfully they're now called Poet Laureates.


by Maxine Kumin


O where are they now, your harridan nuns
who thumped on young heads with a metal thimble
and punished with rulers your upturned palms:

three smacks for failing in long division,
one more to instill the meaning of humble.
As the twig is bent, said your harridan nuns.

Once, a visiting bishop, serene
at the close of a Mass through which he had shambled,
smiled upon you with upturned palms.

"Because this is my feast day," he ended,
"You may all have a free afternoon." In the scramble
of whistles and cheers one harridan nun,

fiercest of all the parochial coven,
Sister Pascala, without preamble
raged, "I protest!" and rapping on palms

at random, had bodily to be restrained.
O God's perfect servant is kneeling on brambles
wherever they sent her, your harridan nun,
enthroned as a symbol with upturned palms.


O where are they now, my darling nuns
whose heads were shaved under snowy wimples,
who rustled drily inside their gowns,

disciples of Oxydol, starch and bluing,
their backyard clothesline a pious example?
They have flapped out of sight, my darling nuns.

Seamless as fish, made all of one skin,
their language secret, these gentle vestals
were wedded to Christ inside their gowns.

O Mother Superior Rosarine
on whose lap the privileged visitor lolled
-- I at age four with my darling nuns,

with Sister Elizabeth, Sister Ann,
am offered to Jesus, the Jewish child-
next-door, who worships your ample black gown,

your eyebrows as thick as mustachioed twins,
your rimless glasses, your ring of pale gold --
who can have stolen my darling nuns?
Who rustles drily inside my gown?

1 comment:

Mur said...

Maxine summarized my childhood perfectly. I was educated by both saints and psychos.

Interesting pick, Janet!