Ann Patchett, whose new novel State of Wonder will be published in June by HarperCollins, contributed a moving essay for our Aliens issue about Sister Nena, the nun who taught her how to read and write in elementary school. Decades later, their paths cross again – just as the now-retired nun is on the verge of living alone for the first time in her life. As Ann helps her with this dramatic transition into the larger world, a beautiful, heart-warming portrait of a student-teacher relationship emerges and morphs into a friendship of deep intimacy – one that inspired the author to re-examine her notions of personal growth, love and faith.

Assistant Editor Patrick Ryan recently spoke with Ann about the experience of writing the essay, what she learned and how Sister Nena reacted when she read the piece.

 

PR: Your essay is, in part, about learning how to give and how to receive. Do you think these things are taught, or that they exist within us already and just need to be found?

AP: I would say both things are true. I believe that we all have it in us to give and receive, but human beings need to be socialized. It’s like having good manners; anyone can do it but guidance is helpful. The nuns were every bit as much about teaching thoughtfulness and respect as they were math and English. I appreciate that.

Almost all the people in this essay are women, and one of the underlying themes is friendship. What have you learned from your female friends?

I am all about female friendship. It’s been the specialty of my life. I spent twelve years in a girls’ school, I went to Sarah Lawrence (which had about a dozen male students back when I was there), my mother, my grandmother, my sister, my girlfriends, these are the central relationships of my life. The nuns were clearly very good friends. They had a lot of fun together. Sister Nena and I were out a couple of days ago and she was telling me a story about when they got their first new car. She and Sister Helen went out driving and they were so excited. Sister Helen kept rolling down her window at stop lights and waving at people, shouting, “New car!” and then they would laugh their heads off. I grew up in an environment where there was nothing weird about limitless friendship. We were like a tribe, we had each other’s backs. We studied together, played together, ate together, talked about everything, slept over at each other’s houses. The nuns were great role models for friendships.

You write that Sister Nena is ‘everything I had ever loved about our religion distilled down to fit into one person’. Does your use of the past tense mean that, outside of your friendship with Sister Nena, you no longer have much to do with Catholicism?

If you asked me to define myself, the word Catholic would come up sooner or later. I think of myself as a Catholic, but there is plenty about the church that is appalling to me. I don’t think I need to make a list. Still, there are other parts, the parts that Sister Nena represents: charity, compassion, humility, and those are things I hold very dear. I go to mass with Sister Nena sometimes and there are parts of it I find so moving. I think, okay, this is it, I’m coming back. But by the end I’m about ready to pull my hair out. It’s one of Sister Nena’s great gifts to me: she gives me a way to stay connected to the good parts of my faith and sidestep the rest of it.

The nuns’ lives circumnavigate conventional distinctions between dependence and independence, and the radical and the conservative. Are they themselves aware of these disconnects?

Oh, best not to speak for nuns. They’re all going to have their own take on how they see their lives. The differences between the orders alone would keep me from getting into this. There are nuns who wear full habits and lead much more restricted lives who don’t even regard the Mercies as real nuns. The Mercies do not look upon this kindly. The way I understand it, being a nun is a cross between a marriage and a job. It’s a very devoted, all-encompassing relationship that from my limited perspective seems to have more to do with God than the church.

As with the nuns, it seems both a conservative and radical decision for you to continue to live in Nashville. Do you ever wish you lived elsewhere?

I never wanted to live in Nashville. I spent my entire youth dreaming about getting out of here. I left when I was seventeen and moved back when I was thirty. I came home because I had fallen in love with a man who lives here (I later married him) and to help my mother take care of my grandmother. I was miserable for the first couple of years being back in Nashville. But now I love it. My family is here, my oldest friends. It’s a good place for me to work. I understand how everything works here. I’m past the point of thinking that maybe I’ll move to Vienna someday.

Did you have any trepidation about showing the essay to Sister Nena before publishing it? How did she react?

I dreaded giving her the essay. It’s like painting someone’s portrait and saying, here, this is how I see you. It’s a vulnerable spot, especially when it’s someone you love. We had never talked about the fact that I was afraid of her when I was a child, so there were things in the essay that were going to come as a surprise. I actually went to leave it on her doorstep when I knew she was out playing tennis but her game had been cancelled and she opened the door. There I was, standing there with this envelope. It was like I was turning in my homework. She thought I was crazy for being worried about it. She read it, her nephew Andy read it, Sister Jeannine read it, then she called and told me she liked it. There were some very funny things she made me take out, but that’s okay, it’s her life. Sister Jeannine said I must have misremembered and been afraid of another nun when I was little because no one was afraid of Sister Nena. She told me I must have gotten it wrong, and I said, but Sister Jeannine, the whole essay is about how I got it wrong.

 

 Photograph by Politics and Prose Bookstore

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