The year I impersonated a nun, my marriage was falling apart. Pages torn loose from the binding, we weren't sure which verse we were on. Fresh out of my MFA in 1980, I went to work for North American Liturgy Resources, a publishing house that produced sheet music, hymnals, and record albums for post-Vatican II congregations.
Such upheavals! People were used to worship services unchanged for centuries, services offered in a language unspoken except in Catholic churches all over the planet. And now they could improvise. They could put things into their own words. The freedom was explosive, heady, vertiginous. Some churches resisted, threatened to break away. Some worshippers missed the prayers they'd chanted in Latin all their lives. Others felt cool breezes, fresh water, renewal. The vernacular. Miles of felt banners. Liturgical drama and dance. Guitars and drums in church. Women reading scripture.
People on the phone would assume. "Thank you, Sister," they'd say, deferential to my vocation. "You're welcome," I'd reply. I was a mongrel Protestant not even guilty that I was taking bread out of the mouths of somebody's Catholic child. I needed the work.
Everything with words on it came across my desk. I wrote catalog copy for religious supplies and knickknacks, ramped up desire for polished wooden offering plates. I wrote articles for in-house publications aimed at music ministers and choir directors. I proofed lyrics, learning in great detail how words meant to be sung should be divided.
The irreverent in-house composer who received stacks and stacks of heartfelt drivel showed me one scrawled letter. "God gave me these songs." The handwriting, in pencil, was childlike. "Give them back," the composer wrote. He had the hunched posture, the brooding disposition, the prodigious beak of a night heron. We produced one "compilation" Christmas songbook with contributions from fourteen composers. Really, our in-house heron wrote all the songs. Even he cracked a smile as we made up his pseudonyms.
I turned into plain English articles submitted by people whose primary strengths didn't involve crafting graceful sentences. I had great conversations with those who could write, especially a gay Jesuit priest many years my senior, a man who was always reading something interesting. He spoke in parables. He asked me one day what my husband read. "He doesn't read much," I said. To be fair, my husband read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings over and over. And he did like motorcycle magazines. I heard the pang in my voice. So did the good father. "It's not your fault you're married to the wrong man," he said gently. Ironic, those words of a man who could never marry.
I hadn't until that moment put words to what had been building inside me, hadn't realized quite the sources of the pressure. "No," I thought. "My husband's doing everything he promised to do. He's just married to the wrong woman."
In high school, my nickname was "The Nun." Not for religious reasons, but because I didn't smoke or drink. (We didn't know that nuns smoke and drink. No clergy we knew would have dared, at least in public.) I dragged home my siblings after binge parties in the desert, but never found anything fun happening there. Out in the boonies, I was trying to figure out how to make a life that involved reading and writing, a life that didn't involve the screaming and fighting of childhood. I was trying to write a script for a life I wasn't sure was possible.
At work, I wrote liner notes for record albums that hadn't been produced yet. I'd get somebody to cover my phone, and head down to the recording studio where rehearsals (and fierce arguments) were eating up very expensive time. No matter how organized the project seemed ahead of time, players got flaky in the studio. Too much caffeine, too little sleep. The composer got stubborn, and wanted to get things right--meaning just the way he imagined them. He insisted on another take. He demanded a more intricate arrangement, more instruments, more background singers. The producer mentioned that they wanted lay ministers and choirs to be able to sing the songs. The pressure of the budget, always too low, hung over the sessions, mingling with cigarette smoke and the haze of cheap booze.
The liner notes had to be printed before the record was pressed. The notes had to work into the cover design. The artwork had to be done and the cover printed and assembled ahead of time so the finished record could slide right in. I'd listen, make my best guesses about what might still exist at the end of the process, then wing it. Laudatory, always. Not too specific. Notes to appeal to the folks who bought this person's work the last time. Notes to appeal to the people who held each church's music purse strings.
We met these folks at trade shows. Our boss, the patriarch of a family business that had grown a little faster than he could handle, had his flunky order what he considered "cute" little outfits for the women to wear in the booth. They were little all right. "Where's the outfit for the guys?" I asked. Oh, they'd be wearing business clothes. "Then so will I." The patriarch arched his eyebrows. I wore business clothes.
Once I was sent to San Luis Obispo to help with the release of a new album. Coming from bare-walled churches full of somber Lutherans predestined to depression, and later from Methodist halls full of entrepreneurs who made good business contacts on Sunday, I found the Catholic rituals foreign. The regalia and the old artwork were seductive, bringing me in touch with ancient stories. How would it feel to be born part of something so vast?
There beside the ocean, I breathed. Wave after wave, the same motions, changing. In the fine old church building, the singers warmed up, eager to try new songs. A vibrant young priest had revitalized the whole parish. Just before afternoon mass, before a packed crowd, he placed a wooden cross around my neck.
"BUT," I protested.
He grinned. "We're proud to allow women to take part in serving communion."
"You'll do fine," he reassured. He turned, hurried away. I was trying to tell him I wasn't Catholic. I didn't have a clue what I was supposed to do. The person next to me whispered in my ear. The woman lining up the shining vessels handed me a chalice of wine. As the communicants came forward, I tipped the grail, murmuring, "The Blood of Christ, the Blood of Christ."
I felt light in my body, floating. Strangely moved. I didn't believe what they believed. But I can testify to a powerful calm, a peace that surely passeth my dim understanding. Afterwards, with the day's last sunlight slanting through stained glass, I told a musician friend that I hoped I hadn't sent all those people to Hell.
"No, of course not," he said, his hand on my shoulder. "You're the one going to Hell."
In some ways I was already there. I couldn't find words for my restlessness, couldn't manage to negotiate my pain.
My husband's mother, studying to be a minister in the Unity Church, had all the answers, prepackaged, ready made. When Jehovah's Witnesses knocked on her door, they had no idea what they were inviting. They figured they'd nudge someone Awake, they'd offer the view from their Watchtower. Phyllis invited them in, sat them at her Formica table, poured tall glasses of sweetened iced tea. Then she started talking. Unity, her religion, believed in seeing the good in everyone. (Her son would say, "Yeah, when little Billy sets your pant leg on fire, you say, My, you sure know how to handle matches.") She'd tell them about her dream to visit Unity Village, about all her projects to enter the ministry, all her studies--"Those nomads never stayed in one place very long!" They'd try to ease a word in edgewise, but she never came up for breath. After three glasses of tea, they asked, politely, to use the bathroom. After a couple more, stunned by caffeine and laughter, not really understanding how it happened, the Witnesses agreed to come to her church. They couldn't see any other way to get out the front door.
I couldn't find words.
Sometimes I wished I were Catholic. Not for the dogma, not for the hierarchy. No. I coveted the chance at absolution. All you had to do was find the words, then give voice to your shame. If you confessed and repented, you could wipe the slate clean. But the lapsed Protestant in me couldn't really get behind this. How could another person, even an intercessor, offer this? Wouldn't it take a god I didn't believe in? (Brief aside: When my sister was engaged to a Catholic man, they'd enjoy the sweaty and gymnastic sex of the very young. Then he'd go to Confession. She was outraged. "If you think it's wrong, we should stop doing it." No, no he didn't want that. But his conscience wouldn't let him revel in their bodies' exuberance without acknowledging what he knew HAD to be a sin.)
I couldn't find my way.
So I did unforgivable things, things that even if my husband forgave, I couldn't forgive. In this way, bewildered and broken, I broke out. I rewrote the whole album. It's been more than thirty years. I'm still looking for words. I wish I could have been kinder.
Peggy Shumaker served as Alaska State Writer Laureate from 2010-2012. Her new book of poems, Toucan Nest, is set in Costa Rica. Red Hen Press will publish it in spring 2013. Her lyrical memoir is Just Breathe Normally (U. of Nebraska Press). She edits Boreal Books, publishing literature and fine art from Alaska, and the Alaska Literary Series at UA Press. She lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. www.peggyshumaker.com