Shoreline Meditation

Everything I have ever done

has prepared me for this.

Everyone I have ever touched

has led me to this embrace.

Everywhere I have ever been

has brought me here.

Every now

is a yes


The mockingbird’s refrain,

the slow moan of ocean breath,

the swaying sea oats gleaming,

the cricket whistle,

my neighbor’s flapping flag –

none of these could entice me

nothing new could surprise or delight me

if it were not for all

that went before.

Even this tiny seabird

with its rusty song

would be only a bird

among other birds

(greasy crows

squealing gulls

stalking sandpipers)

had it not been

for everything


I have ever done.

Memoir or Novel?

Many think my first novel is a memoir in disguise. Especially readers who know me believe all I did was change the names. I protest, to sly smiles and the inevitable, “Come on, tell me which parts are really you.”

“A writer uses everything,” I explain, because it’s true, but I also hope it gets me off the hook.

My publisher first suggested I call my novel, Perfection, a “fictional memoir,” but that felt too transparent. Readers see MEMOIR and forget about the FICTIONAL part. So I embraced the doctrine of the “character arc” and blended many characters, so that all the named characters in my novel had their own arc; that is, an initial conflict followed by a series of lesser conflicts and a final resolution.

Sticking to the novel pattern both lengthened and shortened my novel. It lengthened it because I hadn’t bothered initially to give all the named characters their own arc, so those elements of plot had to be added. It shortened it because I had to pare down my cast of characters from 45 to about 15!

Choosing novel over memoir format sent me back to my computer for five months more of writing and editing than I’d planned on. But it also gave me a much tighter, well-developed story — IMHO. My editor, publisher and early readers agreed.

Memoir writing is, in many respects, easier than novel writing (again, IMHO). You’re crafting a story, of course, but in the end, the overarching guideline for memoirs is: “This happened. Period.” How you tell the story is crucial, but always grounded by the truth of the tale.

Here’s the clincher for me: If you name names, depict places and incidents, you’d better have your ducks in a row: Written permission from all those identified. Dates verified. Times and places carefully vetted.

What if one of your major characters says, “No way.” Won’t your readers sniff out the gaps in your narrative? Even so, libel lawyers stand ready to profit from your indiscretions and errors.

We also know that one person’s memories and truths are another’s blasphemies. How many of us have a sibling, cousin, parent, etc. insisting: “It didn’t happen that way.”

Choosing novel over memoir gave me freedom to weave a good story, craft interesting and lovable characters, and come up with the best possible ending. My fictional characters DID experience nearly everything I did, but with a level of courage, daring and consciousness I felt I lacked.

I do have more stories to tell. I’m still convinced they’ll fit best in the novel form.

To Sequel or not to Sequel

My recent novel, Perfection, opens with an 18-year-old girl, her heart set on leaving home and becoming a nun. It is 1960 and Maggie Walsh is determined to embrace the customs and practices of a monastic world that hasn’t changed in centuries. Maggie’s innocence is shaped by these customs (often so secret that they remain unknown outside the convent cloister). Her spiritual longing for a close relationship with her God is her guiding light.

Over the course of a decade, Maggie’s determination and resolve are tested, by internal challenges, as well as external social and political forces — Church changes dictated by Vatican II; civil-rights upheaval; anti-Vietnam War resistance; and a string of assassinations of revered leaders followed by unrest and violence.


By the time the novel closes, Maggie has fallen out of love with her high-school sweetheart, only to fall into love with a fellow teacher named Will. Her outspoken zeal and impatience with slow change, invite scorn or at least disapproval from the very sisters she promised herself to.

Her discernment as she encounters real life tells her the only path to loving God is through loving another human being. Maggie and Will close the final chapter, Maggie wearing Will’s ring, Will singing Maggie a love song.

Shouldn’t it end there?

Do my readers really want to witness the struggles Maggie and Will are sure to face? Who wants to know if Maggie’s girl friends stay in the convent or go? Will Maggie’s brother Jack, back from Vietnam, recover from the horrors of war or be plunged into depression and alcohol-soaked anger? Is there anything AFTER 1968 as compelling as that Sixties decade?

I count on my readers to help provide the answers. To write a sequel or let these beautiful, lovable characters be? That is the question.

Secrecy and Cover-ups

The Pennsylvania grand jury report that more than 300 priests sexually assaulted over 1,000 victims should shake us to our core. Will it? Most Catholics — saddened, angry, disgusted — are not really surprised. They’ve grown up amid the Church’s culture of secrecy. They’re numb with the realization that those in authority — the cover-uppers — continue to go unpunished.

In 1960, at the age of seventeen, I embraced this culture of secrecy and cover-ups when I entered a convent — choosing a life secluded from the world, where silence reigned. My early years of formation dictated separation, eyes cast down, avoiding the temptations outside the convent walls. Seculars were left to imagine what went on inside.

I need to say that, once the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) opened in Rome on October 11, 1962, (closing in December 1965), dramatic church reform unfolded. Nuns around the world embraced change, opened their shutters, shed their habits for modern dress, and moved out of institutions to serve the poor. Of course, some resisted. But for women religious, Vatican II challenged and lessened the culture of secrecy and cover-up.

Still, back in 1960, I proudly donned the habit, a “cover-up” that exposed only my face and hands. Underneath these layers of starch and wool, I admit to feeling mysterious. Such other-worldliness could be intoxicating, leading to a misguided sense of power. It was an unnatural role for women, whose nature is to nurture, connect, unify, and empower — not dominate — others.

Five years after I entered the convent, I welcomed the changes dictated by Vatican II. I’m proud to say that the community I belonged to embraced the changes with courage. We ‘uncovered’ ourselves. It was both risky and liberating at the same time. We shed our cloak of secrecy, because sharing our charism and spirituality, our humanity, our community practices with others outside the convent cloister was the compassionate thing to do. Everyone was richer for it.

Why didn’t the majority of priests and bishops do the same? Richly decorated vestments, for example — often gem-encrusted, embossed and gold-trimmed — are only an external sign of a grab for power and mystery. Why, when parents of children abused by priests reported the crime, did bishops insist they keep it secret? Offending priests disappeared without explanation, only to turn up in another diocese. I know of friends who reported abuses and were told either “It’s none of your business,” or “We’re handling it.”

Cultures are formed over centuries and unless they evolve and change, they face crumbling rather than renewal. Even within our own families, secrets can fester. But that doesn’t make it right or healthy. Such cultures of secrecy perpetuate pain, block healing, and silence those most in need of truth. The Church’s secrecy seems motivated by a determination to protect the Institution at the cost of its own faithful people. We are watching a culture of patriarchs desperately trying to hold onto their power.

In my twenties, I shed my cover-up and experienced a new freedom — that of allowing myself to be seen as a flawed human being. Eventually I left the convent, though I am still close to many sisters and hold them with deep respect. They’ve evolved and so have I. For decades I’ve joined with others who’ve dedicated time and energy to stripping away the cloak of patriarchal secrecy.

Let us hope this revelation in Pennsylvania willfinally be the light that shines in the darkness.

Matthew 4:16… “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”

Don't Judge a Woman by her Cover (up)

When I was a little girl growing up in the Catholic Church during the post-war 1950’s, I viewed the nuns in their black veils with equal parts curiosity, fear and awe. Adjectives that came to mind to describe these women, their bodies covered in layers of black material, were: holy, mysterious, dedicated, prayerful, powerful. Okay, scary too.

Today I view young women choosing to veil themselves and I am conflicted. Adjectives to describe my own feelings at seeing these women in various stages of cover-up: confused, curious, judgmental, sad, and, if I’m honest, intolerant.

Whether it’s the retro-Catholic nuns returning to pre-Vatican II reform days, or modern-day Muslim women choosing to cover their heads and shoulders with the hijab, or their entire bodies with the burqu’ I struggle to understand their need to cover up. Is it conscious or unconscious yielding to the power of Patriarchy? Or are they making a free choice to live a veiled life?

I have good reason to feel such conflicting emotions: I was once covered up like them.

When I was an eighteen-year-old in 1960, I myself embraced that veiled culture by joining the very convent of the Catholic sisters who had taught me from grade school through high school. The dramatic reforms in the Catholic Church were still to come, and I wore with pride the medieval-styled habit, which left only my hands and my face exposed. Even in the recesses of the convent, we remained covered up, until Vatican II directed we change, modernize, reach out.

In 1967, the Order to which I belonged directed us to bare our necks, wrists, and our legs up to our mid-calves, though through shaded stockings. Within a few years we’d embraced ‘street dress,’ which in fact was what our Founders had worn centuries earlier, and which had morphed into a religious habit. Adjectives to describe the shedding of the old and embracing of the new: frightening, invigorating, freeing, risky.

Today, decades after leaving the convent, I encounter the various cover-ups designed to hide women’s bodies, and I react with a mixture of sympathy and disdain. I don’t understand. Still, it’s not my job to judge. The most obvious cover-ups can be seen in the Muslim tradition — the burqu’, hijab, khimar, niqab, chador — all designed to allow for a woman’s face to show while covering the rest of her body.

Why did I choose this cover up for myself way back then? The decision to ‘take the veil,’ as it was called in Catholic tradition, was my own free choice. I was embracing a new identity, rooted in my religious culture, and providing me with a social, i.e., communal and political alliance. I say political, because wearing the veil and the religious habit felt powerful. It gave me authority and recognition I could not have had in any other way. I say alliance, because we must not underestimate the importance of belonging, then and now. Belonging — and letting the world know it.

Why this cover up for Muslim women? They insist it is a free choice, not fear of Patriarchy’s rules or punishments, that motivates them. They explain it is part of their identity, rooted in their religious culture, providing them a certain level of alliance or belonging to both a social and political group.

It must be said that there are a small number of Muslim women who choose not to cover themselves. Those women without cover-ups say they are resisting what they judge has become an end in itself, rather than a meaningful practice. They choose instead to focus on their own spirituality as it relates to their relationship with God. More power to them.

Neo-conservative Catholic religious orders who are wearing a habit that covers them except for their faces, seem to be reacting to what they perceive as lost during the reform of the Church during the 1960’s and beyond. Re-covering (pun intended) is their way to retrieve treasured traditions, thus assuring a sense of security and identity with the past.

I believe it is also true that what women wear is inextricably woven into their search for power and control. This may sound contradictory. Why wouldn’t a Muslim woman demonstrate her power by rejecting all cover-ups? And while most modern Catholic nuns wear either a modified religious habit on no habit at all, there are orders of Catholic nuns springing up and taking root who are embracing the full-habit cover-up. Why?

Why is female dress, whether covering or un-covering, so important? It seems obvious that at the heart of all power and control is freedom of choice. And while we as women often feel dictated to by fashion, feminism, religion, Patriarchal power, or male chauvinism, in the final analysis, we as human beings find ourselves seeking meaningful alliances and fuller identity with ourselves and our culture of choice.

What we women do with our bodies and how we cover or un-cover them must be our own decision. Until those women covering up state otherwise, I am making a conscious effort to say, in the spirit of Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?” But it isn’t easy.

How Many 'Nun's Stories' is Too Many?


While there is a universal hunger and curiosity about life in a convent and the search for authentic spirituality, there are surprisingly few books written about the intersection of the two. The earliest and most well-known memoir, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, came from author and commentator Karen Armstrong, published in 2005.

In 2009, Gerelyn Hollingsworth published Convent: A Novel, described by one critic as a “thinly disguised memoir.” In 2010 Cheryl L. Reed published Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns.  During the last two years, four other memoirs have emerged: The Green That Never Died: A Convent Memoir of the 50's and 60's –  2015, by Rose Gordy;  Called - The Making & Unmaking of a Nun – 2016,  by Marge Rogers Barrett; The Shortest Skirt – 2017, by Sally J. Jardine; and A Nun’s Story – 2017, by Sister Agatha.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but given the thousands of people who experienced this life, it is clear that the time has come for PERFECTION.

The critical praise for the recently released movie, NOTITIATE, written and directed by Maggie Betts, indicates the interest in this subject. But despite its glowing reviews, the movie only lasted two weeks locally – and was shown only in Cincinnati’s “art theater.” The Washington Post’s critic described it this way: “Novitiate” is less about losing religion than it is about finding oneself. The same has been said about my novel, PERFECTION.

What’s different about PERFECTION? It is not a “thinly disguised memoir,” though I know my subject matter well. It’s not a tell-all expose, nor is it a vendetta against the Church, the convent, or any individuals.

Perhaps the reviewer below said it best:

“For those who grew up Catholic during that tectonic shift in the Church following the changes wrought by Vatican II – particularly for those who felt the allure of religious life – PERFECTION is a refreshing book, reflecting the questions that dog those on a path to personal faithfulness.

For everyone else, PERFECTION is simply a tender love story – not just between a man and a woman, but within a family, among friends, and most importantly, between our authentic selves and that Divine Mystery most simply called God – that Mystery endlessly calling us home to the full embrace of love itself. Read this book, but be forewarned: Its engaging prose will make it hard to put down.”

~ Barbara Lyghtel Rohrer, author & consultant



Why I Wrote Perfection...

Six weeks before my eighteenth birthday I entered a convent. I left when I was twenty-nine. I kept silent about my years as a nun. It was hard to explain. Why would I leave my family and friends – seclude myself from the world – cover myself in a religious habit – just as the turbulent 1960’s were unfolding?

We didn’t celebrate birthdays in the convent. When I left I wasn’t sure how old I was. I lacked the life experiences most normal thirty-year-olds enjoy: college life, sexual awareness, finding and holding a job, financial independence. I had to start from scratch.

For years I buried those years as a nun. I didn’t want to admit I’d missed the Sixties. No matter where I went or what I did, someone always found out. Cincinnati is a small town. People’s reactions fit a pattern: disbelief, then curiosity, then the inevitable questions: Why enter a convent – you seem so normal! What was it like? Why did you leave?

To answer those questions, I wrote. First, for myself, eventually sharing my stories with a few trusted listeners. I wrote about the light and darkness, the joy and pain. A good writer tells the truth. The more I wrote, the more I became conscious of voices other than my own, demanding to be heard. I rarely wrote fiction – mostly poetry and non-fiction – but I couldn’t silence the voices of other characters. Tell my story! they shouted.

Margaret Ann Walsh (Maggie) emerged in my imagination, along with her brother Jack. Maggie’s high-school sweetheart, Stan, appeared, then other members of her family.

Maggie’s is a coming-of-age story. Jack’s is about his passion for civil rights and his opposition to the Vietnam War – including anti-war demonstrations and violence that marked the 1960’s.

When an entire colony of characters took over, I welcomed them! While I’ve based this novel – PERFECTION – on some of my own experiences, it’s now the property of my characters.

There’s Mother Loretta, a harsh and exacting Novice Mistress, who is fighting her own secret demons.  There’s her replacement, Mother Vivian, more in tune with the radical changes happening in the Church as a result of Vatican II.

During Maggie’s years as a novice, she stifles her love for Stan, believing, trusting that God alone will satisfy her. Then Will, a shy and handsome seminarian, appears out of nowhere, capturing her imagination – and her dreams. 

I wrote to show readers what it takes for a young woman to be true to her vocation, no matter the cost. How does someone like Maggie deal with a heart divided between loyalty to her own self as a loving human being, and her public profession of devotion to God alone? 

I wanted readers who hadn’t lived through the 1960’s – and even those who did – to relive the generational conflicts caused by Church reform, the civil rights movement, and opposition to the Vietnam War. To understand the despair that flooded the nation – including Maggie and her friends – following the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King.

After you’ve read PERFECTION, you’ll understand more why the 1960’s in American history caused divisions within the family, the church, and the nation. If you did live through that decade, this book will resonate with you even more.

Maggie’s choices, trials, decisions, relationships – her strong and loving character – are not mine – I wish I were more like her. Once you’ve read PERFECTION, I trust you’ll be able to answer these troubling questions: Why did Maggie (and others like her) enter a convent in 1960? What was it like? Why would she leave?  

Yes! That really happened!

Yeah, that really happened.

It started when my creative writing professor, Dr. Tom Romano, told us to make a list of what he called, “indelible moments.” I was one of many teachers, associates in the Ohio Writing Project’s summer at Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Holed up in a college dorm, untethered from the obligations of teaching high-school English, freed from papers and portfolios, we had the luxury of solitude – though I missed the comforts of home, and time with my spouse and pets. Nevertheless, I explored the liberating practice of free-writing. I marveled at the stories that spilled out.

It was 1990, twenty years since I had climbed over the convent walls (figuratively) and ventured out on my own after ten years as a nun. I hadn’t shared those years – my life as a young nun – with many people. When I did, the typical response was a barrage of questions, expressions of disbelief, and a stereotype overlay that I’d studiously avoided. Still I shouldn’t have been surprised when the “indelible moments” that spilled onto my journal came right out of my years in the convent.

The first piece I wrote depicted the day I ‘took the veil,’ as they say. But it wasn’t putting on the habit that was the indelible part. It was having my head shaved. They hadn’t told us we’d be shaved, only that our hair would be ‘clipped’ so that it fit neatly under the veil and headpiece (called a coif). I relived that moment, step by step, detail by detail. When I read it to the small group I reported to each day during that summer, there were gasps, shouts, even tears.

“That actually happened?!!” they asked. I told them that indeed it did. “This is incredible. You’ve got to keep going,” they urged. “What else happened? We want to know!”

I had an audience. Captive, I admit, since we were all stuck in the college dorm together. But still. Why hide any longer?  I began to believe I had a good story, and I needed to tell it. One indelible moment after another emerged and filled my journal: A severe punishment by the Mother Superior. A moment of tender compassion with another novice. A college drama class that demanded bravery. Slipping into those embarrassing clunky grandma shoes for the first time. Eventually (decades later, in my case) I had a novel titled Perfection.

I’m a firm believer that each of us has a string of “indelible moments” waiting to hit the page. The really good stories emerge from – depend upon – truth-telling. Many such stories are enhanced when they find an audience, even better when that audience is a circle of skilled, compassionate, honest listeners and fellow writers. But the best stories, the ones that become indelible – not only for the writer, but for the reader – begin when we can say: “Yeah. That really happened.”



Kill Your Characters!

“Even fifteen named characters in a full-length novel is pushing it,” my editor warned. But how could I not mention my main character’s spiritual director? Or her favorite uncle? How could I not give them ALL a name?

But once I tried the elimination process, I discovered that many characters blended easily, say, from five individuals into one. Example: In my novel, Perfection, my main character, Maggie, enters a convent in 1960 with twenty-plus young women. It wasn’t possible to give them all space in the novel, though at first I tried. Eventually, I accomplished the task by simple division (5 into 25).

There’s Angela from Memphis who is tight with her family – especially her older brother, a priest – and who has a streak of the rebel in her. There’s Delores from Nashville, who needs constant exercise, finds humor in everything, and believes in writing petitions when the convent rules don’t serve her. Pauline, a high-school classmate of Maggie’s, is quietly thoughtful and wants to be a concert pianist, though she realizes she’ll probably end up teaching seventh-graders. Rosemary, also a high-school classmate of Maggie’s, finds solace in nature and tries not to make waves. And then, there’s Maggie herself, who has come late to the idea of joining the convent, but is hell bent upon giving her all to becoming the most perfect nun she can.

That left me with ten more characters I could give a name (and still stay within the boundary of fifteen named characters). My main character’s family: older sister Marianne (and her husband and two kids, but I cheated there); older brother Jack (and his girlfriend Amy, again cheating); Maggie’s Mom and Dad.  Very important: Stan, Maggie’s high-school sweetheart. (5)

Five to go. Three Mother Superiors. A difficult principal named Sister Corella. Father Mark – a priest friend and mentor. I tried to stop there. I couldn’t, but I’m not sorry about adding four more pivotal characters: Dr. Wickham, a college professor; Sister Audrey, also a college professor; Victor, a Brother of St. Paul; and finally a fellow teacher, Will McBride. All are instrumental in Maggie’s metamorphosis.

Is nineteen named characters too many for a novel? Only if they’re not carefully developed. And here I’m talking about the sacrosanct and not-to-be-violated Character Arc. “Give a character a name,” my editor, Michael Ireland, told me, “and you MUST write that character through the Arc.” Beginning with their first appearance in the novel, readers need to see that each named character is going to be challenged in some way. He or she will rise, fall, rise again, fall again, and eventually reach a conclusion – every character gets its own denouement. 

Observing this rule requires both murder and mayhem. As a new novelist, I found it a high and necessary bar. In my first novel, Perfection, I hope I came close to clearing that bar.  If Dostoyevsky ever knew this rule, he probably didn’t worry about violating it. Maybe that’s why I can’t seem to finish War and Peace.