Saturday, July 21, 2018

Memoir or Novel?

My first novel has been accused of being 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 for me. 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 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. 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 couldn’t have, if I were writing my memoir. I do have more stories to tell. I’m still convinced they’ll fit best in the novel form.

To Write a Sequel to Perfection or not?

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.

SPOILER ALERT!! If you still haven't read the novel, skip the next two paragraphs!
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.

Leave a comment or contact me: I'd love to know what you think!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Sneak Peek: Chapter One of my new novel!

A novel
by Kathleen Wade

PART ONE:  June 1960 - August 1962


I waited for him on our front porch—something I’d done a hundred times. His old blue Ford chugged down our street of modest, red-brick houses. He parked and slid through the opening in the boxwood shrubs—a shortcut he’d created during the two years we’d been going together.
The sight of Stan gave me butterflies—his wavy hair, flashy smile, broad shoulders, and tanned arms. This time, though—on this June day a week before my high school graduation—it would be different. He took our front steps two at a time and planted a kiss on my forehead.
I didn’t kiss him back.
“Stan,” I said. I looked him in the eyes—those beautiful blue-green eyes. “I have something....”
He interrupted, out of breath. “Don’t say a word.”
“But wait, I want to....”
He held up a hand to silence me. “Close your eyes.”
“Stan. I need....”
“Come on, Maggie.” He smiled, his face full of mischief. “Close. Your. Eyes.” He was gentle, but it was a command.
I obeyed. I could feel him close, smell his Old Spice aftershave, hear his breathing, quick and heavy.
“Now—give me your hand.”
I held up my right hand.
“No,” he said. “Your left hand. No peeking.”
“Stan, what are you…?”
I held up my left hand. He hummed as he slipped a ring on my ring finger. “There! Open your eyes.”
He was beaming.
I looked down at my hand. “An opal. It’s my....”
“Birthstone—I do pay attention. Your sister helped me with the size.” He seemed pleased with himself. “Do you like it?”
“Stan, it’s…just...beautiful.”
“It’s not technically an engagement ring—couldn’t afford a diamond. But the jeweler said it’s the finest opal he’s ever seen. It’s not flashy, but....”
“Stan…I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll wear it.” He leaned in, twining his fingers into mine, and whispered, “Think of me—how much you mean to me. How much…I love you.”
I couldn’t speak. I could hardly breathe. I nodded.
“Something’s…what is it? Maggie?”
“Oh, Stan.” His fingers were still locked in mine. I led him to the porch swing. “Here, sit down.”
We glided back and forth, our bodies touching, the way we’d done on so many summer nights. The chains holding the swing creaked and groaned rhythmically from their hooks in the porch ceiling. My throat tightened. The tears I’d promised not to cry welled up.
“Something’s wrong.” He loosened his hand.
“Stan, it isn’t you.” I couldn’t look at him. “It’s me. I need to tell you something. You need to listen.”
“Jesus, Maggie, you’re crying. What’s happened?”
I caught my breath. “I’ve made a decision…about my future.” I felt the tears and took a few deep breaths.
Stan pulled out his handkerchief and handed it to me. Telling my family had been one thing—that hadn’t been easy. But telling Stan—how many times I’d tried. I’d put it off for too long.
“There’s no easy way, so I’m just going to say it. I’ve decided to enter the convent.”
“Yeah, right.” He laughed. “And I’m going to be the next Pope.”
“I’m not kidding.” I met his gaze.
Stan’s smile faded, his eyes darkened. “You have to be kidding.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not. On September 8, I’ll enter the convent of the Sisters of Saint Mary.”
The swing stopped abruptly—he planted his feet on the floor.
“You’re not joking?”
I shook my head.
“Don’t you think you owe me an explanation?” His voice rose. “When did you decide this—big decision?”
I didn’t answer.
“How long have you been stringing me along?”
“I only just decided—for sure—a few weeks ago.”
“A few weeks ago?” The anger in his voice startled me.
“I told Sister Helen first—my drama teacher—then my parents, then yesterday we met with the Mother Superior at the Motherhouse. There are papers to sign and stuff to order in the next two months. It’s been really fast.” I tried to get the swing moving again.
“All this time, you’ve kept this little secret from me? How could you?”
“I can’t explain it, even to myself,” I said, swallowing hard and dabbing at my eyes with the handkerchief. “You’re the first one I’ve told—after the Sisters and my family.”
“Great. Is that supposed to make me feel better?” He got quiet, then stood up and paced back and forth, his hands in his jeans pockets. “You’ve told Jack?”
“He’s my brother, Stan, of course I told him.”
“He’s my best friend. Why couldn’t he…?”
“I made him swear—don’t think he didn’t want to. Jack’s not exactly happy about this.”
“You thought I would be? Jesus, I’ve been a fool. Your whole family knew and I didn’t? Your sister helped me pick out the ring. Why?” He stopped pacing and faced me. “You owe me more than I can’t explain it, Stan.” He was deliberate, demanding. “I thought you and I were…come on, Maggie. Give me something.”
My mind was racing. What could I say that would make sense? That I loved God more than I loved him? That I’d been thinking about this since sixth grade but had never told a soul? That I’d been called by God to be a nun—not in so many words, but still, a real call? That my Catholic religion taught that I needed to answer that call? All those things were true—at least I thought they were—but how could I say any of it to Stan?
He stared at me, his brow furrowed, eyes squinting, as if I were a stranger. “How long have we been going together?”
“Two years, I guess.”
“You guess?” He looked up, as if he were calculating. “Two years, three months, and seventeen days.”
“You count the days?”
“It’s an estimate.” He leaned over me. “In all this time, you couldn’t give me a hint that this was coming? I took you to prom, for God’s sake.” He sighed. “Maggie, look at me.” He brushed his hair off his forehead.
I looked at him. His bright eyes were clouded. “The most I can say is—I’ve always known I had this calling,” I said. “If I don’t follow it, I’ll never know who I am.”
“God is calling you to be a nun? How in hell do you know that?”
“I told you—I can’t explain. I’ve prayed about it. I’ve just got to do this. If I don’t.…”
“What? You’ll go to hell?”
“Don’t mock me, Stan—not you.”
“Mock you? Who’s mocking who here?”
“Please. Listen. Like I told Mother Superior, I’ve tried to ignore the call for years,” I said. “But in the last year, I’ve felt it at Mass, walking in the woods, during prayers. I finally feel ready.” Stan wasn’t Catholic—so he didn’t understand my religious upbringing. Besides, what if this was all my imagination? “During the last two years, I put the idea aside. We’ve made such a good pair.”
He scoffed.
“But I can’t ignore it any longer. I wish I could—I don’t know how to make you understand.”
He looked confused, sad, angry. It broke my heart. I reached for his hand, he pulled away. “Come on, sit down next to me,” I begged, wiping tears away.
Finally, he sat down. We glided back and forth without saying anything, without touching.
“You’ve always said you wanted to be a writer,” Stan said.
“I do—at least I did—but this is a calling on a much higher level.”
“What about college? Your dream to major in theater?”
A million thoughts were running through my head. Stan didn’t know how my Mom laughed at my dreams of becoming a writer or an actress—or how she held up my older sister, Marianne, as the perfect daughter. But I was not a summa cum laude student like Marianne. I didn’t want to go to nursing school like she had done.
“You know I’d need a scholarship to go to college,” I said. “I’m not scholarship material—not like Marianne.”
“That’s bull,” Stan said. “You’re just as smart as your sister.”
“Then why did I fail the math part of the test?” I hadn’t planned to tell him that.
“I’m surprised. I don’t understand….” Stan looked out to the street and watched three neighborhood kids tossing a ball.
“I’d have to wait a whole year to take that test again—and fail. So now I’m following a different dream. I heard a voice, months ago, at church.”
“Now you’re hearing voices?” He sounded cynical, scornful.
“I don’t expect you to understand.” I couldn’t explain how I’d been praying—asking God to show me what to do. Give me your whole self—nothing less, the voice had said. Was it God—or my imagination? I needed to find out. “There’s only one way for me to know if I’m being called to give my whole self to God—and that’s to become a nun. I don’t know what else to say,” I managed to squeak out.
“I thought you loved me—that we were—was that a dream?”
“No! I did.” I sniffed and drew in a deep breath. “I do love you.”
I touched his face. Seeing the sadness in his eyes, I was tempted to say it was all a big mistake. But I’d committed—been accepted by—the Sisters. I couldn’t go back on my word.
“If you love me, call it off.”
He must be reading my mind. “I can’t. I have to do this.”
We sat together without speaking. I stopped crying, listened to his breathing, felt the warmth of his body next to me.
He sat up straight. “Remember when we saw that movie—The Nun’s Story—not more than six months ago?”
I remembered—Stan’s shock and anger after that movie had taken me by surprise.
“Audrey Hepburn…joins a convent and gets sent to some God-awful place.”
“The Congo.”
“Where she’s humiliated, mistreated—not by the natives, but by the other nuns.” Stan’s voice was rising, gaining energy. “What happens to her? She leaves—broken.” He looked at me. “Am I right?”
“That was different—the story was set forty years ago.” I felt more sobs catch in my throat. “It was just a movie. Things aren’t like that—where I’m going.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do,” I said, stifling sobs. Did I know?
Minutes passed. Stan took a deep breath. “I know you, Megs,” he said. “You’re so damn stubborn. I’m not going to try to change your mind—not right now.” He looked at the opal on my finger. “I’ve been saving that, for just the right moment.” His laugh came from deep inside. “I rehearsed a speech. I was thinking of it as a pre-engagement ring. The joke’s on me, isn’t it?”
“Stan. I’m so sorry.” I started to slip the ring off. “Maybe it’s better if I….”
“Don’t insult me!” It was the first time Stan had raised his voice to me. Immediately he regained his composure. “The ring is for you. Only you.”
He took my hands, his eyes filling with tears. “I’m leaving now, Megs.”
“Please—don’t go.”
“You haven’t seen the last of me.” He squeezed my hands so tight it hurt. I winced. He let go, stood up, and hurried down the steps. He slipped through the hedges, slammed his car door, and roared off down the street.


Stan called me twice a week—from mid-June until early August. Could we go for a ride, get a pizza, catch a concert in the park? Could he just come over and talk? Each time, I begged off—then hung up and cried my eyes out. My parents and my sister and brother tried to convince me to see him. I was afraid I wouldn’t stay firm. Finally, I told Stan it was no use—I wasn’t going to change my mind.
Most Saturday afternoons, I heard his voice in our back yard as he shot baskets with Jack. I watched from my bedroom window, tears falling, as he and Jack jostled. I admired his strong arms and bare back, his golden tan, his gentle laugh, his graceful athletic leaps, twists, and turns. The more I tried to separate myself from him, the more helplessly in love I fell.

I remembered the first day I’d ever seen Stan—paired with Jack in a tennis tournament at the Y. I was finishing sophomore year, Jack and Stan were about to graduate. Stan had returned Jack’s final serve with a volley, beating Jack, and advancing in the tournament.
I’d liked Stan’s smile, how his sandy hair fell in waves in the sunlight. But it wasn’t just his perfect tan and clean good looks. Was it his eyes? Or the way he leaned in to speak with Jack, face to face?
I’d followed Jack off the court. “Who was that guy?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Jack loved to tease me. “Interested in him, little sister?”
“You know I am.”
“We made a pact,” Jack said, “there at the net, to team up as doubles partners and win the next tournament. We’re unbeatable.” Jack wasn’t boasting—just stating a fact.
Before long, Stan was spending his free time at our house. I was shy at first, then glad to be invited into their conversations, as Jack’s friends hung out on our front porch or shot baskets in our back yard. I avoided playing tennis opposite Stan—but he insisted and I finally gave in. He was a good teacher, never lording his talent or strength over me.
“I’ll never be able to play like you. What’s the use?” I said one day, after losing badly in three sets.
“Don’t you want to get better? Besides, it’s just fun to be with you. Next time, I promise to let you win.”
I loved how Stan could say, “It’s fun to be with you,” and not sound phony or turn red in the neck. By the end of summer, we were holding hands as we walked from the Y to my house most evenings before supper.
“You’re the first non-Catholic I’ve ever been around,” I told Stan one day, as we sat on the porch swing. “My Dad thinks I should convert you.”
Stan took my hand in his. “Is that so? Do I need converting?”
“No, you’re fine. It’s just—Catholics aren’t supposed to date Protestants. The mixed-marriage stigma and all that.”
He dropped my hand. “That hits a nerve.”
“I’m sorry. It was stupid—I don’t know what I’m talking about.” I knew little about Stan’s home life, except that his father did not live with them and his mother had to work to support them. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand.”
Stan sighed, then picked up my hand again. “My Dad was brought up Catholic, my Mom wasn’t, so when they married, she had to promise to bring us up in the Catholic Church.”
When he didn’t continue, I risked asking, “What happened?”
“My Dad showed his true colors as a cheat and a liar. I don’t blame my Mom for giving him the boot. I just wish he’d left before he spent everything on booze and gambling.”
“I didn’t know.” I held his hand tightly.
“Now you do.”
That explained why Stan had not made plans for college, why he worked full-time at the bowling alley—so he could go to classes at night. We’d dated for over two years, but we were not love-struck teenagers. We took walks together, went to football games, listened to music. On Saturday nights, Stan would come over and we’d play records, sneak a few beers from my parents’ fridge, and slow-dance in our basement.
I was walking away from my best friend. Every night I lay in bed, praying for strength. I missed Stan—the life we had together. If I trusted the call was real—and I did—then I needed to go through with it.

One Sunday afternoon, a week before I was off to the convent, I heard our Irish Setter, Danny, barking at the front door.
“Hey Boy, it’s only me,” Stan said.
My heart pounded. I opened the door and invited him in.
“I know you don’t want to see me, but I have something to tell you.” He avoided making eye contact. Danny loved Stan and sat obediently while Stan scratched his ears.
“It’s good to see you.” I stumbled over my words. “I’ve missed you....”
He cut me off. “I won’t stay long.”
We stood awkwardly in the living room. I was glad I was the only one home.
Stan eyed my opal ring. I’d worn it all summer.
“Come and sit down.” I tried to take his arm and lead him to our sofa but he pulled away.
“I’ve enlisted in the Navy. It’s the only way I’ll be able to afford an education. My Mom is in tears.” He smiled gently, then his face turned serious. “She’ll get over it. It isn’t as if I’m walling myself up inside a convent.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“Sorry—I shouldn’t have said that.”
We looked at each other. The upward curve of Stan’s mouth was permanent, even when he was angry. The sight of him—his blue-green eyes and wavy hair, streaked blonde from the sun, made my stomach dance.
“When do you leave? Where will you go?”
He took a step back, looking down at Danny, sprawled at his feet. “I leave next week for Boot Camp—Great Lakes Training Station in Chicago. After that, who knows?” He smiled. “Join the Navy. See the world.” His smile turned to a frown. “Funny—I’m going to see the world, and you’re going to leave it.”
“Will you write me?”
“Will you write me?” Stan shot back.
Just like the tennis volleys he is so good at, I thought. Would I write him?
“Probably not,” I said. “Maybe—I don’t know—if I’m allowed.”
“I thought as much. I hope Jack will. I hope I haven’t lost both my best friends.”
“Stan, I’m so sorry. I wish....”
He cut me off. “Listen,” he said. “I’ve got to go. Mom wants to make up for all the time we never spent together while I was growing up and she was working at the Post Office.”
What a beautiful guy, how lucky some girl is going to be, I thought.
He looked at me, his eyes narrowing. “This isn’t over, Megs. I’m not giving up on us.” He leaned in, put his arms around my waist, and drew me toward him. He held me tight and kissed me harder and longer than he ever had before.
I locked my arms around his neck. I kissed him back. I felt his heartbeat, the rise and fall of his breathing. He must have felt my heart thumping.
Eventually, he pulled away. His fingers brushed my cheek. “You see?” he said. “This is how I know it isn’t over. Not by a long shot.” Then he was gone.
I don’t know how long it was before I could move. I had no words to describe the sensation. I’d never lived through an earthquake, but I was feeling one inside of me—a series of tremors and ripples. I had to sit down.
The days before leaving home were a confusing mix of anticipation and heartbreak, knowing I might never see Stan again.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Kathy's Novel - Perfection - is now available!

Perfection is now available to order!!

My new novel, Perfection, is a coming-of-age love story set in the 1960’s.  The main character, Maggie Walsh, is a young woman who enters a Cincinnati convent in 1960. Post-war peace and prosperity are giving way to civil unrest, protests, and Church upheaval. Can convent walls protect Maggie from the world outside?

The Sixties in America were turbulent times: race riots; a Church turned on its head by Pope John XXIII’s call for change and renewal; an explosive political home front, punctuated by civil-rights marches, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, and assassinations that rock the nation. It’s not a stretch to draw parallels between the 1960’s and current national unrest.

Perfection is an uncanny blend of local and national history and tender love story. I've published non-fiction and poetry, but this is my first full-length work of fiction. 

Please join me for a book-signing celebration:  Saturday, April 28, 2-4 pm, at Women Writing for (a) Change in Cincinnati

How to get your copy of Perfection:

Available at these online Book Stores:  (

And at these local Book Stores:

Joseph-Beth Booksellers
The Booksellers on Fountain Square
The Bookshelf Inc., Madeira

 What critics are saying about PERFECTION:

"This well written book kept me turning the pages! I loved the unfolding story and the complexity of its layers. Now a “recovering” Roman Catholic, with a childhood education filled with Sisters, I loved the inside stories of monastic/religious life, especially through the big transitions of the 1960’s and 70’s - a time when I watched, with young eyes, the transformation of my teachers and the women and men of my own Catholic family."

“I just finished this novel, and I couldn’t put it down. I loved the themes of Maggie’s search for her calling, search for ‘perfect love’, and her questioning and seeking within her religious and personal life. The characters’ lives are woven within the tumultuous context of the 1960’s and 70’s, touching on the Vietnam War, civil rights, and Vatican II. A great read!"
"Honest and searching, Perfection is one young woman's surprising spiritual adventure into her life's true work. Wade's richly observed characters and intelligent storytelling charm and inspire.”  ~ Karen Novak, author of Innocence

Synopsis of Perfection:

Maggie Walsh has entered the convent. Her brother thinks she’s wasting her life. Her sister doubts she has what it takes. Her mother is heartbroken; her father is happy. Her boyfriend pledges to wait until she “gets it out of her system.”
Abandoning her dreams to be an actress or a writer, Maggie embraces Church teaching that says the convent is the path to perfection. She sets out to prove – to herself and her family – that she can do it. She’ll follow her higher calling, no matter what. 
It is 1960. Church reform is a few years away, but when it comes, radical changes unfold swiftly. Maggie embraces that change. Her brother, Jack, who tries at every turn to get Maggie to come to her senses, involves her in civil-rights and anti-war activities – forcing her into conflict with her superiors. Should she keep the peace in the convent or follow her conscience?
A charismatic fellow teacher, Will, captures Maggie’s time and attention. Then her first love, Stan, returns home from a Navy tour. Seeking perfection seemed so simple; now, it is anything but. Maggie must choose: A solitary life with God or the exclusive love of another person?


Why Did I Write 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?

About the Author...
I've enjoyed a thirty-year teaching career, then served for ten years as writer, teacher, facilitator and Executive Director of Women Writing for (a) Change, a writing community for women, girls and men in Cincinnati. Most recently I served as Director of leadership-development programs for women religious and their associates. 
My full-length, non-fiction book, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives, features the lives of lay people who are associates of religious communities. I was a member of a religious community of sisters for over a decade. 
Contact me if you'd like me to visit your book club or writing group! I'd love to use the novel Perfection as a stepping-off point for discussion. The novel is not only a tender love story, but it's also a inside view of a life style and spirituality that has long been hidden. In addition, Perfection is a close-up view of the turbulent 1960's in America and in particular, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Angel Food Cake Story

I'm not sure why, but my "Angel Food Cake Story" has become something of a legend.  Every few years, I am asked by the writers in the WWFC community:  Oh please, read the Cake Story!  Well, it's a bit long, and I'm not really willing to cut it short, so here it is, in its entirety.  Enjoy!

“Where did I go wrong?” my mother lamented when I telephoned her as a last resort for advice on a cake I was trying to bake.  You should know that my mother – except for a scrumptious lemon cake and her prize-winning German potato salad – was not a very good cook.  She enjoyed a sparkling kitchen more than good food.  I learned how to polish silver, but I didn’t learn to cook from my mother.  Nor did I get any practice in the kitchen during my twelve years in the convent, where I ate whatever was put before me without complaint, grateful I didn’t have to cook it myself.

So here I was, a year or so out of the convent and on my own, learning to cook – which was another way of saying that I was getting good at dumping all manner of things into a crock pot.  However, when a love interest entered my life, I sensed the need to make him believe I knew how to cook.  During a romantic weekend we shared at Shaker village in Pleasant Hill, KY, I even bought a Shaker cookbook, perhaps to give the impression that someday I would use it.  This happened sooner than I expected, when he suggested that, for his birthday, I bake him the coffee angel food cake we’d both admired in the book.  This I agreed to do.

Impressed with the Shaker philosophy of simplicity, I mistakenly assumed that baking this angel food cake would also be simple.  Once I’d read through the ingredients, I realized that not only would it be a lot of work, it would also not be cheap.  Besides the staples of flour and sugar, this recipe called for a dozen eggs, a pound of butter, and a special kind of coffee.  I also had to buy an angel food cake pan, and since I didn’t own an electric mixer, I decided it was probably best to buy one of those too.  

I stopped at the natural foods store for the coffee, before going on to the local Krogers grocery store, where I gathered the ingredients:  the dozen eggs, a bag of sugar, unbleached flour, a box of baking powder, the butter, and Krisko to grease the pan.  I was stumped by one ingredient – cream of tartar.  After scouring the dairy department, I searched up and down the condiment aisle.  When it didn’t turn up there, I decided to ask the Krogers manager, who seemed a bit puzzled and walked back with me to do his own search.  Finally we both decided that Mrs. Paul’s tartar sauce would probably do just as well.

Back home I mixed all the ingredients together in my largest mixing bowl.  Within seconds, the mixer’s beaters twisted and collapsed like paper clips.   Maybe the butter needed to be melted, I thought.  I left everything sitting in the bowl while I drove back to the hardware store for another set of beaters.   But after nearly an hour of beating, the mixture remained the consistency of cement.  Re-reading the recipe, I was shocked to find I should have separated the egg whites from the yolks.  No wonder the whole mess was so yellow and sticky, I thought.  Nothing to do but trash this batch and begin again.

Back at Krogers, I picked up another dozen eggs and another pound of butter, swinging by the mayonnaise section again just to make sure I hadn’t missed the cream of tartar.  With new vigor, I was careful to separate out the yolks, only breaking one or two in the process, and wondering what I was supposed to do with this bowl of floating orange slime.  In order to keep the beaters from breaking, I decided to melt the butter in a sauce pan first, which speeded up the process considerably.  I greased the angel food pan, as directed, and sloshed in the mix.  The oven had been preheated for two hours, so I was ready to pop it in. 

When the timer went off an hour later, I was speechless to find the thing had not only not risen, it had shrunk from its original size.  I could hardly recognize the thick brown mass, which weighed about fifteen pounds.  Refusing to panic, I re-read the directions again.  I was surprised to discover that I had missed the part about adding the ingredients one by one, a little at a time, beginning with the egg whites.  I also noted that the butter should be softened, deciding that completely melting it might have also jinxed me.

I was hoping not to run into the manager at Krogers this time, thus tipping him off that things were not going well with this project.  Keeping my head down and heading directly to the dairy section, I tucked another carton of eggs under my arm and grabbed another pound of butter, wondering at this point how much this cake was actually going to take out of my meager receptionist’s paycheck.

Back home I renewed my resolve.  This time everything went smoothly.  I had practically memorized the directions by now, so I was feeling confident and I scooped the mixture into the greased cake pan, smoothing it out with the spatula I’d bought during my second trip.  I set it carefully in the thoroughly pre-heated oven and waited, afraid to open the oven door one second ahead of the prescribed time.  I’d remembered hearing something about the oven door causing a cake to fall – or was that bread?  I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t afford to take the chance.  When the timer went off, I opened the oven door a crack, expecting to see my masterpiece puffed up around the rim of the pan, golden brown and glowing.  This is not, however, what was there.  All those eggs, the butter, sugar, yes even the teaspoonful of cream of tartar, were somehow reduced to a dark brown ring no higher than an inch, but every bit as heavy as the previous batch.

It was then I decided to call my mother.  “Read me the recipe,” she said, and when I did, she said, “Wow, that’s a really rich angel food cake, but with the baking powder and the cream of tartar, it should rise just fine.”

“Well,” I offered, “there was this one little problem with the cream of tartar.  What is that stuff anyway?”

“Oh, it makes the cake rise,” she went on.  “A little white powder with a whole lot of punch.”  There was a pause.  “What was your problem with the cream of tartar?”

I told her how I’d searched in the dairy section, then among the condiments – how even the store manager thought the tartar sauce would work.  There was another long pause.  “Where did I go wrong?  I’ve failed you as a mother, haven’t I?  I can’t believe you didn’t look in the baking section.”

“Mom, I gotta get going.  If I hurry, I can still make this cake.  You may have just rescued me and your reputation.”

That evening, I watched my boyfriend blow out the candles and cut into my masterpiece.  “Ummm, this is delicious,” he glowed.  “I had no idea you were such a good cook.”
I smiled as I took a bite and said, “There’s a lot about me you don’t know.”

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Nun Shoes

I remember the shoes – heavy black grandma shoes with square toes and heels like building blocks.  Weeks before I entered the convent, my mother and I had sat in Potters, one of the few stores still selling support shoes in 1960.  I tried them on with laughter, dread and disbelief. I was seventeen.

Those shoes gave me athlete’s foot.  I never took them off, except at bedtime.  They didn’t breathe.  Summer and winter, my feet smelled and swelled and rubbed against those shoes.  I kept and shared that itchy rash with eighty other victims.  Maybe that’s why I still dread trying on shoes.  For a long time after I entered the convent, I still couldn’t believe I was wearing them.  I would look down at the floor and be caught by surprise.  “Who is the old woman dressed in my feet?”

I had been wearing the religious habit and its matching grandma shoes for five years when it happened.  One Sunday during a family visit, I held my three-year-old nephew on my lap.  When I slid him to the floor, his little frame already too heavy, he landed on my habit, which was fanned out on the floor before me.  When I tried to stand up, I couldn’t.  “Patrick, you’re standing on my dress,” I said, as I coaxed him to step off the front of my habit.  I chose the word “dress” deliberately,  knowing the word “habit” wouldn’t be in his toddler vocabulary.

He did step back, but not before staring back up at me.  “You’re not a girl,” he said.

I gasped:  “Why do you say that?”

He pointed to the floor and said,  “Girls don’t wear man shoes.”   Then he said it again:  “You’re not a girl.”

I assured him I was, indeed, a girl.  But how would he know?  I had hidden my girl under the long black cloak of self-denial, covered her up even down to my feet.  At twenty-five,  all signs of womanhood were gone.  His childish statement rang in my ears.  It still does.

Decades later, I remember the shoes.  They didn’t breathe.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Barns, Farms and Wadesville Indiana

Traveling along the Ohio River Byway, we had to pull the Blazer over to the side of the road again and again to photograph barns and farms in the spring sun.  Some were bustling and thriving... others had been long abandoned.

What struck me was the absence of noise.  Even the cows were eerily quiet.  All across Indiana and into Illinois, we found reasons to stop the car and take pictures.

Before reaching New Harmony, Indiana, we found a photo-op we couldn't resist at Wadesville.

Followed back roads through exotic Illinois villages named Carni, Eldorado, Muddy, and Vienna.  At one point, we stopped to photograph  cornfields gone fallow, filled with goldenrod, and dotted with natural gas pumps.  One pump, spewing fire, and hissing like a geyser, did not seem to bother a red wing blackbird. No sign of humans, and I couldn’t help thinking of Michael Pollan’s account of the corporations and their dynasty of corn.  We followed a backroad to track down Cougar Bluff 4 miles, but the rain had washed out the road so we had to turn back.The neon green, following spring rains, the lilac, spirea, and iris, competed with golden wildflowers thick in most former cornfields.  After a while, I had to close up the camera.  What follows are photos from an Indiana farm dotted with natural-gas wells, depleted corn fields, and flat flat land.