It’s Just a Flesh Wound

When I was eight, I wanted to be a nun.

I went to parochial school throughout my elementary years (somewhere between bell-bottom pants and feathered bangs), and many of my teachers were nuns, gliding about in their ominous black habits and wearing stern and unyielding expressions (and wielding rulers…which were more often used for knuckles than measurements). If it sounds like a stereotype, it most certainly is. Nevertheless, if you kept your head down and did your best work, you mostly escaped their wrath, which was my only goal (come to think of it, escaping wrath has been my primary goal throughout my life). Being a girl helped too; the sisters held a particular animosity towards the male gender that went beyond the usual irritation at how obnoxious they might be.

Our tiny school was situated upon the grounds of the Ponca City Church of St. Mary’s, and it included a convent which lay just beyond our playground. The playground was a desolate stretch of sand with a set of monkey bars and an enormous, bark-less log that was bleached white by the sun, upon which we most often reenacted Pete’s Dragon during recess. There were rumors from the older kids (sixth graders!) that within the convent there was an ancient woman, a nun, who was sweet and kind and would give you candy if you only knocked on her door. Such a mythical being was surely a ruse to get us into trouble! A nun who was sweet and kind? We shrugged and went back to pretending the giant log was Elliot the Dragon and we were beleaguered orphans escaping the grip of backwoods hillbillies.

One day, however, our curiosity got the better of us.

We crept across the schoolyard, hoping to escape the gaze of the playground attendant, who was usually chatting it up with the custodian, and knocked breathlessly on the convent door. Shuffling was heard, and a creaky voice calling. The door opened and standing before us was an ancient woman, dressed not in black but in an infinitely gentler gray habit. She smiled, her face wrinkling like a dried apple doll.

“Come in, come in, children,” she said, and we did. Standing in the kitchen of the convent, I marveled that nuns must actually eat in order to require such a room. Did they have bathrooms, too? I squashed the thought as impossibly irreverent. The old woman introduced herself as Sister Mary Helen, and her entire demeanor was one of tranquility. The convent was quiet, quieter than any place I had ever been. It seemed isolated from the outer world, protected by a divine hand, and it soothed my turbulent soul, fraught with cares brought on by a home life that was often less than placid.

Sure enough, she had a bowl of hard candy to offer.

“Or would you rather have a prayer card?” she creaked, holding them out. Prayer cards were the same size as baseball cards, only instead of pictures and stats of famous players, they were bedecked with images of saints, with a prayer printed on the back. My compatriots shook their heads and chose the candy. I, feeling awestruck at my surroundings and desperately desiring to be pious, took a prayer card.

The clang of the recess bell broke the reverie, and we said hasty good-bye’s as we left the convent and tore across the playground to line up at the school doors. No one seemed to have noticed our absence, which is why our visits to Sister Mary Helen became an almost daily occurrence, her pleasure at seeing us never flagging. There was the greeting, the invitation, the bowl of candy, and the prayer cards. Sometimes I dared to take the candy.

One day, the principal, a shockingly modern nun who wore regular skirts and blouses rather than a habit, visited my classroom.

“It has come to my attention that some of you are visiting Sister Mary Helen during recess,” she intoned. “I must tell you to stop immediately. She says it is wearing her out.”

We knew it was a lie. Never once had Sister Mary Helen looked worn out. On the contrary, her face lit up when she saw us, and she laughed and patted our heads like we were the best part of our day. Still, the boom had been lowered. Petrified of being caught, we never visited again.

When I look back, I see myself, a child in desperate need of comfort and a refuge from the world that was hard and sometimes terrifying. It’s no wonder I longed for the solitude and silence that a convent offered. I longed for peace. 

I decided at ten that I didn’t really want to be a nun. There were boys, for one, and I wasn’t so sure about the whole vow of chastity thing, though I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. I decided instead to become a writer. The two callings might seem different at first blush but becoming a nun and becoming a writer both offered similar things to me: an escape.

To write fiction is to create people and characters beyond what exist in the ordinary world. To write is to find other lands and other times, and lives that transcend the challenges that you might be facing. To write is to disappear into the landscape of imagination, a place where anything can happen and often does. To write is to find your better self, to be the hero you always wanted to be.

I knew I wanted to be a writer. I had to be a writer. I needed to be a writer.

I penned my first poem at eleven, a hopelessly prophetic verse about my tangled thoughts. From there my work grew and matured, fed by English teachers and Creative Writing professors, until I was sure my dream could be a reality. But the urgency, the never-ending immediacy of life, took precedence.

For years, the dream sat on a back burner while I raised children and learned, stumbling over and over again, how to be a mother. How to be a wife. Dear god, mistakes were made. But that’s a story for another time.

And then, I had a mental breakdown. Sorry! I mean, I had a break. I got a tiny writing house, built by someone who loved me more than I knew (another story), and a wee bit of freedom. An eye in the middle of the maelstrom. I began to write.

The words poured out of me like a shaken soda bottle. I wrote three novels in a year. Poetry—some awful, some not so bad—flowed. I felt like I was finally getting somewhere. For the next decade, I wrote. I had some modest success; I won some awards, I was published in literary journals, and I learned how to self-publish. The novels that sat in the darkness saw the light of day. I joined writing groups, and I took classes and went to conventions. I thought I might actually be getting somewhere.

And then, my dream took a serious hit. A year of heart-shattering blows knocked it on its face, followed by months of crippling distractions and crises. Like the infamous Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, its arms were cut off first, and then its legs, one after the other. It sat on the ground, incapacitated, ignored, and dismissed. I left it behind, certain I could find some other quest that would satisfy my deepest longings. I toyed with getting a job at Wal Mart, or the local brewery. I thought about going back to school (I still do). Ultimately, however, my dream continued to howl at me from its place in the dirt.

“Come back here, I’ll bite your legs off!”

Unlike King Arthur, I came back.

And I’m going to keep coming back. This thing is impossible to leave behind, this urge to write, these tales that whisper in my mind as I lie in bed, wishing for sleep. This is my last best hope for courage, and for the strength to go on. The dream is still alive, though wounded and limping. It’s ferocious. It doesn’t even know when the battle is hopeless.

Vincent and Ginny continue their quest in my most recent fantasy romance, The Oracle’s Choice. Another novel lies in the hands of an agent. My other books, Borrowing Trouble, Where to Go from Here, and Rise and Other Tales continue to sell, although I’m not getting my beach house anytime soon at this rate. But I’m going to keep on believing. What else is there to do?

In the words of Franz Kafka, A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.

Tis but a scratch,

J.W. Rose