Sunday, April 15, 2018

Convent Mysteries and Memories

For Catholic girls growing up in the 50's, nuns were mysterious and oddly glamorous -- with the long flowing habits, wimples and veils that hid all traces of womanhood and set them apart as special spiritual beings.

From early childhood, some of us dreamed of joining their ranks. When we were in grade school, my friend Pat and I would play for hours, dressed in our makeshift nun's habits. (My brother borrowed mine one Halloween to wear trick or treating and got a candy bonanza and lots of hugs when he showed up at the door of the local convent. The nuns had no idea who was wearing that habit! But that's another story...)

In my early teens, in singular style of teenage rebellion against my non-believing parents, I used to attend daily Mass, pray in the back yard at sunset with my arms outstretched to the heavens and terrorize my parents by sending away for literature about entering a faraway monastery at 14, garnering enthusiastic replies like "Our next entrance date is September 8. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could join us on that day?" While other parents stressed about keeping their daughters chaste, in school and off drugs, mine strove to keep me from running away to a monastery.

Those attending Catholic high schools got the clear and frequent message that there was no higher calling than dedicating one's life to Christ. Many of us admired our nun teachers greatly and wanted to be like them. And when a schoolmate would enter the convent, it was a major event. When my classmate Sue prepared to become a Dominican sister, I went with her to buy her required orthopedic oxfords, something as exciting in its own way as trying on bridal gowns or a ballet student getting her first pair of pointe shoes.

It all seems to very long ago, lost in the mists of changing times and traditions. But for those of us who lived through the pre-Vatican II era in Catholic schools, there are lingering memories of the mysterious wonder of nuns' lives.

In her new memoir Prayer Wasn't Enough: A Convent Memoir, Dee Ready dispels some of these mysteries, exploring the motivations, the process and the challenges of becoming a nun in the late 1950's and answering some lingering questions.

Why does a young woman, fresh from college and with a lifetime of choices and possibilities ahead, decide to enter the convent?

What process transforms an idealistic young woman into a nun?

What is life like in a religious community?

And what of those who make the painful choice to leave after months or years of striving for spiritual growth and perfection? How does faith continue to grow and thrive after a young woman realizes that the religious life is not her calling after all?

Unlike some of us, entering the convent had not been Dee Ready's dream while growing up in the Midwest. The yearning for perfection evolved during her college years and a transcendent spiritual moment sparked her desire to pursue a path to love and oneness with God and the universe and led to her becoming a Benedictine nun after graduation.


It's a fascinating story of faith and hope, the transformation of youthful idealism and the loss of self taking her down a frightening path of  doubt, indecision, anguish and, eventually, mental illness. She doesn't blame the Church or her fellow Sisters. From the perspective of time, healing and emotional growth, the author pinpoints her own crippling hunger for perfection, her flawed misconception of sanctity and her emotional immaturity as primary factors in her struggles.

In many ways, this is a story with which all can identify -- youthful idealism and a search for meaning that collides with the realities of life, whatever path we might have chosen in our lives. But this excellent memoir also offers a glimpse into the mysteries of convent life -- the expectations, the rituals, the daily experiences -- of nuns in those bygone times.

Prayer Wasn't Enough is a compelling, harrowing, ultimately triumphant tale of hope and despair, pivotal, sometimes wrenching, decisions and unexpected new beginnings. It's impossible to put down -- or to forget.

Prayer Wasn't Enough: A Convent Memoir by Dee Ready is available as an e-book or as a print book at  

Monday, April 9, 2018

Eight Years and Counting

It was eight years ago today that I walked out of my office at UCLA Medical Center for the last time. I was officially retired.

But it quickly became evident that we all have our own, very different, retirement dreams. Though my husband Bob and I left the stress of Los Angeles traffic, selling our home of 29 years and moving to an active adult community in rural Arizona, we settled in to very different retirements. He happily slipped into his dream routine: working out, playing music, reading, doing crosswords and jigsaw puzzles. After taking a six month breather to relax, swim, socialize and indulge in recreational reading, I took another direction: getting back to my original career -- writing. This blog was the first step in my new direction.

What have I learned about retirement in the past eight years?

1. We all have different -- and valid -- visions for retirement. While I revel in the fact that I no longer have to get up before dawn for a hellish commute, I find great joy in work that I love. In the past eight years, I've written three books for major publishers, many blogs and podcasts, and am now writing regularly for And I'm happy -- even when deadlines loom. I'm not suited for full-time retirement. I'm not cut out for card games and other common pastimes of retirement communities. That doesn't mean that I think my way is the better one. I've come to see the value of engaging in activities one loves -- whether it's golf or MahJong or crafts or volunteering -- without snarky comparisons. Some people want to spend their retirement days enjoying and caring for their grandchildren. Some people have moved to this remote location to put some distance between them, their adult children and daily babysitting duties with the grands. It all works. We all delight in doing exactly what we want.

2. Frugality, within reason, is a good idea.  We bought a brand new home with the fantasy that repairs would be minimal for a long time. All those budget projections we made pre-retirement didn't account for the fact that water heaters and appliances in Arizona have dramatically shorter lives than their counterparts in California. The harshness of the water here took out our water heater, in rather spectacular fashion in the middle of the night, after only four years. We've already replaced a refrigerator and a washing machine. Not to mention our complete air conditioning system. Last summer, Bob's car needed thousands of dollars worth of work. Just before Christmas, both of our cars needed new tires. Someday soon, I'll need another dental implant. It's always something. Even when you've planned carefully, even when you're truly okay financially, there can be jolting surprises and some unanticipated adjustments to your budget.

3. Whoever you were before, you'll be in retirement. When Bob and I used to fantasize about retirement, we imagined ourselves in a social whirl in our new community -- active in all manner of classes and events, socializing with neighbors and living a life quite different from the one we had as two working, commuting, exhausted, mostly solitary people in suburban Los Angeles. And at first, it seemed we were on-track with our fantasy personas. We had parties and outings with neighbors. We worked out at the gym every morning -- with a group of gym buddies -- and spent long, languid afternoons in the outdoor, recreational community pool, talking with friends. But gradually, our daily routine became more familiar: I spent more time working. Bob craved time alone to read. We took fewer classes over time until we weren't enrolled in any. I found that the exercise classes that I had envisioned attending regularly clashed with my writing schedule, especially when I was on a deadline for a book. I found that I preferred working out -- often swimming laps -- in the evenings. As the years have sped by, we seem more and more like our old selves: semi-reclusive, engaged in largely solitary pursuits. Bob occasionally visits our neighbor Wally for an afternoon of talking and laughing. I do the same with my friend Marsha, with whom I have breakfast every Saturday. But usually we're alone -- he in the house, reading, and I in our casita, writing. And it suits us. Just as it suits many of our neighbors to go to parties and dances and group trips.

4. As time goes by, one lets go of one's previous working life and becomes more engaged in cheering on the younger generation.  Generatively grows in these years as you celebrate the triumphs of the younger generation. And there are moments of new painful realizations that some of the knowledge or power you once had may be gone forever. I may never again have the level of success or earning power that I enjoyed as a writer in my younger years. Bob still has dreams about work from time to time. But recently, he was shocked to find -- dreaming about giving a seminar once again on hydrologic technology -- that some of his technical knowledge was no longer there. "I'm no longer The Pump God," he told me with a hint of sadness yesterday. "I don't much. I guess now I'm only The Pump Prince -- or The Pump Jester." At the same time, we both feel tremendous pleasure in seeing the career success and wonderful personal growth of our "surrogate son" Ryan Grady, who is nearly 35 and a licensed clinical social worker and administrator in Los Angeles, with a happy marriage and a lovely new home. It's such a joy to see his successes and also those of the adult children of our friends and to celebrate every one of them.

5. We realize, more than ever, the importance of cherishing each day.  Eight years ago, we and our neighbors were healthy and active. Now we've watched, often with a combination of sadness and horror, as lives change irrevocably with illness and growing disability or end, either abruptly or with long suffering. Too many friends have died in recent months and years. And many others will soon follow. Just this morning, Bob got a call from his high school friend Stan, who lives in California, to tell him the bad news he just got from his doctor -- that his congestive heart failure is at the end stage and that there is nothing further they can do for him. Bob himself has had his challenges the past few months: sudden blindness that one doctor diagnosed as dry macular degeneration with a prognosis of lifelong central blindness. A second opinion was more optimistic: the second doctor correctly diagnosed PCO, a common side effect of cataract surgery that is curable with  a quick laser procedure. Bob can now see again -- and doesn't take his good fortune for granted for a minute.

We take nothing for granted. We've been very fortunate these eight years. Today, we're still healthy and active. Today, we're solvent and have a home we both love. Today, we can each live our retirement dream. We realize, with new clarity, how quickly everything can change. So each day of health and vigor and discovery is a treasure.