as Sister Purissima in her opal linen gown her tanned cheeks backlit by her veil like an angel surprised, longed to script the green alphabet above her head in elegant loops, to gesticulate like her: fingers to cheek when pleased, over her mouth when not. In her loamy voice I longed to say, How dreary to be somebody! How public like a frog... I never thought about unused eggs or night screams sewn into silent corners or being driven insane like Theresa of Lisieux by another nun’s beads clicking against oak.
— Luke 10:4
Awakened by the mourning of Harlem River fog horns, groggy, I peeked through the black window guard over the fence into the concrete yard where twenty-one nuns billowed like black sails into early mass in the gray haze. I slipped my wool sweater over my pajama top and toweled the sleep from my eyes. I abandoned my hollow -cheeked mother to the cowled baby howling in the cradle and dashed to kneel behind their domed veils, shoulder-to-shoulder, a medieval, fallow flank, candles radiant like saved souls before them. Woozy from my midnight fast, in a tallowed, incensed swoon, I longed to sneak into their hallowed heaven, wound in white linen, unaware dark habits lurked there, too.
her floor length linen scapular into her black leather belt and cuffed her balloon sleeves to keep them clean. As our last classmate skipped out the door to summer, my buddy and I filled a porcelain pan with bubbly water and scrubbed each desk erasing inky archives of another year. Ripping paper bag covers from books we stacked spellers and math texts into ordained spots lonely since September. Stripped of flawless essays festooned with johnny jump-ups we had cut out to hasten Spring, bulletin boards paled. Then for the last time in fifth grade on the third floor fire escape we conjured huffy ghosts with clapped erasers as June sun hazed us for completing another year, a small ritual built into our brittle lives. Sadness settled over me as I whispered goodbye to Sister alone in that sterile room not knowing if I could ever love that much again.
Wine-sopped, wafer thin, I dervished drunk, a faith felon questing to be unfettered: flung spirit in this fleshy, flabby world. I teetered on a steep cliff until I buttered bread and fondled sweet earth again. But not Terry McKenna, thirty pounds fatter, a prodigal postulant with too much flare, on the night she returned, and daisied in her mother’s house dress. She savoyed at the Inwood Lounge and quaffed foamy beers chased by succulent nuts. She told me: I’m dying here; you are, too. But I persevered, purging out the old leaven, taking on the new man, the white veil of the novice.
Norma Jean and I had the same last name which we both changed because she longed to be a star and I longed to be a saint. While the steam from a subway grate billowed her vanilla skirt up to heaven, I shrouded myself in opaline linen and the stiff veil of the novice. As she exploded on the big screen, I scratched the Rule like a hair shirt til my face soured white like a millstone. I shriveled into a scrupulous bag of bones, so the folds of my habit would fall with the grace of a dancer, not the grace of God. As I chanted Introibo ad altare Dei, she oozed Diamond’s Are A Girl’s Best Friend in a cerise sheath, stripped off elbow length gloves. As I inhaled the host she was devoured by the camera’s web. I thought I was letting go but I was holding onto a life a yard wide and all wool. But Marilyn couldn’t hold on while her therapist paraded her on a Freudian red carpet, not to a cloister of peace but back to a maze where her schizoid mother split in half like a ripe, summer melon. Sleepless she swallowed pills while I awakened, staggered backwards to my old self, to the twenty-year-old I was meant to be who burgeoned like cherries on a bough, who grew her hair ‘til it brushed her waist and penciled the arches of her eyebrows.
Liz Dolan’s first poetry collection, They Abide, was recently published by March Street Press. Her second poetry manuscript, A Secret of Long Life, is ready to go and in need of a publisher. She has been published in On the Mason-Dixon Line: An Anthology of Contemporary Delaware Writers and has also won a $6,000 established artist fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts, 2009. Liz is most proud of the offsite school she ran in The Bronx and her nine grandchildren who live on the next block in Rehoboth. “They pepper my life,” she says.