Mistaken Identity


Pamela York Klainer

The first poems to be shared with Sister Joan were about Loretta walking barefoot at the Jersey shore, feeling dry sand and then damp sand and then thick, wet viscous sand as her feet came close to the ocean. Sister Joan said that poetry was creating images that convey how you feel, which was a challenge to Loretta who’d grown up in a family where people talked about what they did, not how they felt. That meant Loretta had no practice coming up with those kinds of words. But she did know in her heart how the sand felt, and how her spirits always soared the instant she slipped out of her shoes and ran toward the sea.

Loretta steeled herself after giving her precious writing book to Sister Joan with the first poems inside, expecting to see red marking pen all over the pages. Loretta’s English teachers, to a person, cut her work to shreds with their bright red pens, expecting a very young and fledgling writer to know how to put the broken pieces back together with a more precise degree of grammatical correctness.

But sitting with Sister Joan in the soft light of her office, tentatively opening the book, Loretta saw that Sister Joan had made no corrections at all. Loretta looked up to find Sister Joan smiling, her piercing eyes conveying warm encouragement over the thin wire rims of her glasses. When Sister Joan spoke she sounded not like a teacher, but not like a friend either because she wasn’t that. She didn’t sound like Loretta’s mother might have if she’d read the poem. Sister Joan sounded like somebody who cared about Loretta, and what she said, and what she wrote, in a way no one else ever had. Sister Joan spoke as if they were both writers, talking about their work.

“I grew up in a city, not near the sea. But you make me feel the sand, and how the texture changes as you run toward the water. And I feel how you change inside from a person whose feet are confined in proper shoes to a free spirit with nothing holding you in at all.”

Sister Joan stopped, giving time for the words to sink in. Then she said something Loretta rarely heard, at home or in school. “This is very fine writing, Loretta. You have the makings of a poet.”

Loretta had on the tip of her tongue to say that she knew the poems weren’t very good, that she had a lot to learn, that she would try harder next time. But she didn’t say any of those things, because there was no need to. Sister Joan had liked her work, and thought she was a fledgling poet.

A fledgling poet. Loretta took a deep, satisfying breath, whispering the words to herself, and then ventured another step into the new terrain of intimacy. “I’m a different person when we take a drive to the shore. I can feel it starting just when we leave the driveway. My brothers aren’t different at all. As soon as we hit the beach they start shoving each other and throwing sand and trying to wrestle each other into the water. My father stays on the boardwalk because he hates sand in his shoes and he hates to walk barefoot anyway. He even wears slippers at home. My mother just puts a blanket on the sand and tries to get a tan, but she never does because her skin is so fair all she ever gets is a sunburn.”

Sister Joan was listening, not interrupting, not trying to move the conversation in any specific direction. Loretta took another deep, gulping breath and then went on, not realizing she was talking more to Sister Joan than she usually talked with anyone, even her girlfriends.

“But when I see and smell the ocean I kick off my shoes and start running, and I feel lighter even though it’s hard to run on sand. And when you get really close the wet sand is cold, and then the foam from the waves comes around my ankles and if the water is really cold my feet sting and then my toes go numb. Even if it’s freezing I like to stand there and the waves pull the sand away from my feet and I sink in and I’m the only one in my family who knows what that’s like, being planted in the ocean.”

Loretta finally stopped talking, and she looked at Sister Joan, who was nodding thoughtfully. “You know, Loretta, I wonder if your feeling about the ocean is a little bit the way I experience God. When I begin to pray there’s something before me that’s very large and very powerful. If I let myself move toward it, which I do with my heart as well as with the words of prayer, that vastness comes toward me as well, taking hold of me the way the waves take hold of you. And ‘planted’ is a good word. Instead of God being outside me and unknowable, I feel planted in something shockingly powerful and good.”

Loretta frowned. She’d never connected God as having anything to do with the ocean. Loretta knew about God from the Baltimore catechism, whose questions and answers she’d memorized for her First Communion and Confirmation. God is the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things. God is a spirit infinitely perfect. God is everywhere. God knows all things, even our most secret thoughts, words, and actions.

When Loretta thought about God, which wasn’t much, she didn’t really think of Him as a father figure, although she’d been taught to say “God the Father”. Her father wasn’t everywhere, and happily he showed no interest in Loretta’s secret thoughts and feelings. She’d have been embarrassed, especially as an adolescent, if he’d had. Loretta didn’t think of God as she’d seen Him depicted in paintings, floating around above the clouds with a white flowing beard and looking down at the world. She didn’t think of God as particularly benign, because the idea of someone watching every single thing you did was actually a little creepy. She didn’t even think of God as being especially powerful, because her father often said the world was going to wrack and ruin and nobody seemed to be able do a god damned thing about it.

In fact, Loretta didn’t have a single positive thought about what God might be, only what God wasn’t.

But she was beginning to understand what Sister Joan said about images in poems, and how images could make you feel something larger. If God were like the ocean, then God might be big and powerful and running toward God might make her feel free and grounded at the same time.

Loretta looked toward Sister Joan, a secret smile on her face as if she’d just figured out something important. Sister Joan waited, and when Loretta didn’t say anything she asked, “Can you tell me what just happened? You look different.”

Loretta hesitated, the words almost stillborn on her lips. Then she gathered her courage, and the words burst out. “I want to be like you.”

Loretta trusted Sister Joan completely. If there was a fine but firm line between wanting to be a poet and wanting to be a nun, Loretta was too young and too inexperienced to see it. And Sister Joan, brilliant and accomplished, had herself chosen religious life and more significantly, chosen to stay. She could have told Loretta that being a nun was about a whole lot more than oceans and mystical wonderings about God.

But Sister Joan didn’t, and the mechanics of Loretta entering religious life began.

6 thoughts on “Mistaken Identity

  1. The Nuns on a Bus are in our area for the weekend. They started in Des Moines with Joe Biden kicking off their tour. One of them said in an interview, “Sometimes the Holy Spirit moves you in mischievous ways.” I think Sister Loretta would have more ways to express herself in today’s society. I’ll be following her story to see where life leads her.

  2. for Joyce: The Nuns on a Bus represent the best of Roman Catholic nuns, and I”m so glad Joe Biden is in their corner. Religious life certainly has changed since the 1960’s, when the story of Sister Loretta is cast. Most of the Nuns on the Bus would have entered in that era, so they had to make it through the time of more limited opportunities for nuns to get where they are now.

  3. I really enjoyed the dialogue. And I especially liked your last sentence. “….but Sister Joan didn’t.” Great ending to this episode!

  4. for Nedra: Glad for the push to include more dialogue. Look for it again in this week’s episode. Re Sister Joan: we’re all a complex mix of motivations, aren’t we? Look for more on Joan’s story this week.

  5. I especially liked Sister Joan’s brief “theology lecture.” I think she captures the essence of an Everywhere God, all around us and within us, a concept very precocious for 1960’s Catholic thinking.
    New reader, Louise.

  6. for Louise: The ones who had that idea of God in the early 1960’s tended to be the progressive ones, and they clashed mightily as you know with the more traditional nuns in the post-Vatican II shakeout. More to come with Loretta and Sister Joan!

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