On Elizabeth Bishop, Loss, and Coming Out After 20 Years in a Convent

Patricia Dwyer Revisits the Spaces She Has Lost

Shepherdstown, West Virginia, 1993

“What are some of the things the speaker is losing?” I begin.

I am teaching one of my favorite poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s brilliantly constructed and achingly poignant villanelle, “One Art,” to my American Literature class at Shepherd University.   

The students chime in immediately; “A lost door key,” Justin in the back calls out. 

“And wasted time trying to find it. I hate when I do that,” Sarah adds. 

“We can all relate, right?” I continue. “What next? Places and names and maybe memories—where it was she was going to travel? Next, her mother’s watch. How is that different from what has been listed so far? Right, more personal, more precious. The next line: ‘And look! My last / or next-to-last, of three loved houses went.’” 

Here I pause. “Bishop was peripatetic,” I explain: Worcester, MA; Nova Scotia; Key West; Ouro Preto, Brazil; Boston. So many houses. “Have you noticed that the characters in her poems often have a complicated relationship with home? 

I did. 

Perhaps this is even what first drew me to Bishop in the first place.

*

I had been a nun for almost 20 years and was facing both my 40th birthday and a major life decision when I first encountered Bishop’s poetry in my doctoral program at George Washington University in DC. The poet’s biography and verse fascinated me. A closeted lesbian, with a life disrupted by such sadness: her father’s death when she was an infant, her mother institutionalized when she was a young girl. Bishop’s forced move from the comfort and familiarity of her maternal grandmother’s small town in Nova Scotia to live with her more affluent paternal grandparents in a Boston suburb. Sick from allergies, eczema, and a deep loneliness, Bishop was moved again, this time to stay with her mother’s sister in a neighborhood of Irish and Italian immigrants outside of Boston. Vassar College and a 19th-century clapboard house in Key West followed.

The poet’s professional life, often stalled by alcoholism and depression, came to a breaking point during her position as consultant in residence at the Library of Congress, in Washington, DC. At 40, Bishop found herself living in Washington, and like me, desperate for a change. 

*

Flourtown, Pennsylvania, 1969

Just out of high school, I decided to enter the convent, to join the Sisters of St. Joseph who had taught me through grade school and high school. Maybe because I never saw myself as the marrying type. I wasn’t particularly attracted to boys, was overweight and self-conscious about my extra pounds, and more interested in hanging out with my girlfriends. In fact, I preferred that.

Or maybe because I wanted to escape the chaotic feeling that often characterized my childhood home. It was a two-level, comfortable house in a suburban middle-class town near Philadelphia, with its variation of colonials, ranchers, and split levels, backyards big enough for our brick patio and the ten-by-twelve, two-foot-deep vinyl pool we children would pile into from Memorial Day to Labor Day; a basketball court in our driveway, mostly occupied by my older, more athletic brother and sister; fragrant rose gardens on each side of the house; and an elegant russet Japanese maple in the front yard.

My father, vice president of an advertising agency in Philadelphia, was part of the Mad Men generation, but never in sync with the martini lunches and extravagant life style that went with it, only with the pressure and stress. As a child, I was oblivious to his promotions from writer to executive but recognized that he was getting home later and later. After dinner each evening we could hear him retching in the first-floor bathroom; we all waited quietly for his return to the table. My mother, with five children by the time she was 30, went to Catholic Mass each morning, probably the only moments of solace she could capture before the bedlam of getting the older ones up and out to school and preparing for a long day with babies in diapers and toddlers on the run.

What is it about repetition? Why would Bishop use this form for a poem about loss?

And so at 18, my first home as a Sister and as an adult, was an expansive dormitory with curtains dividing the space into small compartments that served as our bedrooms, each with a single bed, closet, small chest of drawers and desk. Other than the towels that dabbed our cubicles with a palette of colors, every bedspread, pillow, and furniture arrangement looked the same. For two years, we got up at the same sound of the bell, dressed in identical black habits, prayed in assigned places in chapel, had specific times of the evening for “recreation” as they called it, took the same classes to prepare us as teachers (with not much attention to the different grade levels we would encounter), and learned about our common history as Sisters of St. Joseph. Uniform. Structured. Predictable.

*

Shepherdstown, West Virginia, 1993

A villanelle is one of the most intricate and rigid of poetry patterns. A nineteen-line poem, five tercets followed by a quatrain, with two repeating lines and two refrains. The first and third lines of each tercet are repeated alternately in the last lines of the succeeding stanzas; in the final quatrain, the refrains serve as the two concluding lines.

“Notice the phrases repeated throughout the poem,” I say to my students. “’The art of losing isn’t hard to master’ and ‘their loss is no disaster.’ Over and over, in each tercet, some variation of this sentiment. What is it about repetition? Why would Bishop use this form for a poem about loss?” 

Dave in the back raises his hand. “You know when you keep repeating something over and over, you might be trying to convince yourself that it’s true. Maybe that’s what the speaker is trying to do—convince herself that the loss isn’t really that bad.” 

“Do you believe her?” I ask. I hear murmured no’s and see a few shaking heads. “Or do you think she is just trying to hold it together—stay restrained, not give into an emotion that can paralyze, or, in her words, be ‘disastrous’?”    

*

Allentown, Pennsylvania, 1971

After leaving the novitiate, we were each assigned to a convent to teach in the parish school; my first “mission,” as we called it, was in Allentown, PA. The convent consisted of two large old houses connected by an enclosed walkway. Dark woodwork, beveled glass in the beautifully crafted doors, hardwood floors with colorful oriental rugs placed just so, a regular kitchen that I could raid in the middle of the night if I wanted to, and best of all, a real bedroom to myself and a large bathroom I shared with just one other sister.

The convent was situated on a lovely tree-lined street away from the busy downtown, right across from the church and school where I taught. For five years, I entered the lives of countless students, counseled and comforted their parents, got invited to dinners and socials at parishioners’ homes, walked the neighborhoods through every season, and became fast friends with many of the Sisters with whom I lived.

One Sunday afternoon Mother Maria called us all into a large front parlor to give us important news. As we shuffled in to take our seats, I noticed she had several long white envelopes in her hands. What was this about? I don’t remember much of what she said to open the meeting—perhaps something about God’s will or resisting attachments to things of this world, or vocation as a calling. I do remember hearing my name, however. My heart pounding, I made my way to Mother Maria’s seat up front and shaking a bit, took the envelope from her hand. 

“Don’t open it yet,” she whispered. “We will do that together.”   

When the envelopes had been distributed to the three or four of us recipients, we were given the nod. Tearing mine open, I unfolded the paper on which was carefully typed: Sister Patricia Dwyer, you are being sent to teach at Bishop Hafey High School in Hazleton, PA. You will live at St. Thecla Convent. God be with you! And with that, my comfortable world came crashing to a halt. 

Still with me: Fear of coming out. What would they think?

How could this be? This was my home. I had poured my heart and soul into this place. How could I just pick up and move, to Hazleton of all places? In a daze, I walked up the beautiful staircase to my bedroom on the third floor and started sobbing.

The next two weeks were a blur. A few goodbye events, students coming to visit, a mad dash to get my belongings ready for a move. I would weep with each farewell, promise to stay in touch, but I knew life would go on, and soon, I would be replaced by another nun in that third floor bedroom.

This pattern would be repeated. 

*

Hazleton, Pennsylvania, 1976

Lose the small two-story house situated in a working-class neighborhood. Cozy kitchen where one of the nuns made cinnamon buns and pound cake on a regular basis. The second floor room where we gathered around the television each night for a week, riveted by the production of Roots. My bedroom, personalized with photos of my mother and dad; this was the year we discovered he had colon cancer. The small chapel where I joined the Sisters each morning and evening to pray matins and vespers together. Snow and more snow. Inches to feet.

*

Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, 1978

Lose the lovely old stone building in a picturesque suburb of Philadelphia, a cobble stone main avenue lined with bustling shops and trendy restaurants. Visits to my younger sister’s apartment, within walking distance, a regular Friday evening ritual, and supper with her at the Spice Shop Restaurant next door. A Jesuit parish, liberal and bold. Sisters too.

*

Easton, Pennsylvania, 1979

Lose the stately three-story 1920s grey stone house in the heart of downtown Easton; the Portuguese Bakery next door, with its aroma of piping hot rolls; a charming restaurant on our block, magical at Christmas time with holly garland and flickering candles; the used book store, my favorite of all time, just a few blocks away. One short year later, the convent was closed. Economic decision.  More efficient to merge us with twenty other Sisters in a convent nearby. A real convent. Long corridors. Shiny linoleum floors. Hard and cold.   

*

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1980

Lose this, the most institutional of all; built to be a convent; overstuffed Lazy Boy recliners, arranged in an arc, pointed toward a huge TV in the front of the large, nondescript living room; an expansive kitchen with lots of pantries and freezers. No bustling neighborhood. Instead, a brick building that matched the adjacent high school, set in the middle of a field, probably once a farmer’s pasture. Black macadam everywhere. Plenty of parking.

*

Jersey City, New Jersey, 1983

Lose what felt most like home, a convent nestled in an urban Italian neighborhood; Sunday afternoons at Louise’s, with tortellini and broccoli rabe dripping with garlic and olive oil; warm relations with each Sister, a sense of mission together; my father’s death; dress shopping with my mother for her remarriage two years later, light pink and grey organza; trips to the Big Apple, to sing-alongs at the Duplex, to plays and musicals at half price and nose-bleed seats at the ballet. Lunch at a NYC sidewalk café with my dear friend. A tearful confession: “Ellen, I think I may be gay.” 

Not lost: Angst at the thought of leaving my Sisters. Shame about why.

*

Washington, D.C., 1989

Lose the convent’s modern decor, an historic building, renovated and remodeled in shades of white and grey, art work and high ceilings; starting a Ph.D. program, feeling independent, going to classes and spending hours on my own; discovering Elizabeth Bishop, frequenting Foggy Bottom coffee shops, teaching Robert Frost to college students; therapy and sushi for the first time (not together); peeking into Georgetown’s grand brownstones or sweet stone cottages as I walked home from school at night.  Fantasizing about life on my own.

Still with me: Fear of coming out. What would they think?

*

Shepherdstown, West Virginia, 1993

“Let’s take a look at this final quatrain,” I direct my students. “We have seen the lost items progress, right?  From lost keys, to a mother’s watch, then on to houses and continents and rivers. Now what?” 

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Maybe writing it helps her to deal with the loss . . . Maybe this is freeing for her.

“This one seems the most personal,” Stephanie responds. “She seems to be talking directly to someone she really cares about and knows. I mean, you have to know someone pretty well to notice the way a voice sounds ‘joking’ or what’s implied in a gesture. And besides, she says she loves the gesture.” 

“Yes,” I reply.  “And remember the last two lines of the villanelle—the ones that should repeat the refrains we’ve seen in each of the tercets?  What happens here?” 

“Well, in the earlier lines,” James contributes, “the speaker seems pretty sure of herself, like definitive. Loss is not a disaster, and losing isn’t hard to master. That kind of thing. But here, she changes the phrasing slightly—losing’s not too hard. It’s kind of breaking the form, isn’t it? Same in the last line. That’s not the same wording either. Is she having a breakdown or something?” 

“And what does she mean in that last line when she puts “Write it” in parentheses?” Jodie questions.

“What do you think?” I ask them. 

“Maybe writing it helps her to deal with the loss? Maybe it’s her way of putting her loss out there, really concretely, so she can face it and move on? She is a writer, after all,” Rachel suggests. 

“Maybe this is freeing for her,” Rose adds. “I mean, in writing these last lines, she’s kind of broken that villanelle format thing you were talking about. Maybe finally, she can stop feeling so confined. Even in her life. It feels like she has broken through something. I don’t know. I may be way off.”

“Or maybe it’s not freedom at all. Maybe it’s more like she’s cracking under the weight of really heavy emotions she is finally able to face,” Anna counters.

“But can’t that be freeing too?” Cassie asks.

*

Washington, DC 1991

For some reason, turning 40 became a threshold, a line I could not cross without figuring out who I was. And so at 39, I have decided to take a leave of absence from the Sisters of St. Joseph. My decision has not been made lightly. Counseling and prayer, long discussions with dear friends. Like Bishop, I have come to my own breaking point, or perhaps a break through. My own carefully patterned villanelle disrupted. My personal version of “Write it!”   

I sit on the bed in my small room at a convent in Georgetown, now without the slightest resemblance to the lived-in space I have occupied for the last 18 months: photos of family are packed away; the empty desk is almost unrecognizable without heaps of books and articles to be read; a poster from an Elizabeth Bishop conference in Key West, carefully wrapped in brown paper, leans against the wall. Outside my bedroom door, I hear the Sisters light chatter about the upcoming Parent-Teacher meetings or lunch with a friend; I smell the cinnamon as one of them bakes muffins in the kitchen, a batch promised to me as part of a farewell gift. Today is the day.

Bishop, at 40, also knew something had to change. Leaving stuffy D.C. bureaucracy for Brazil’s exotic Amazon seemed the perfect antidote. How could she ever have imagined that while traveling on the Amazon, she would suffer a severe allergic reaction to a cashew, resulting in an extended stay under the care of an acquaintance, Lota de Maceda Soares, a Brazilian aristocrat and architect who later became her lover? Bishop stayed with Lota in Ouro Preto, Brazil, for 17 years. She wrote some of her best poems here. It seemed she had discovered that elusive sense of home, at least for a time.

And what will home become for me? Perhaps no longer a place I imagine with crackling fireplaces and high ceilings with crown molding; or a Dupont Circle walk-up with splendid views of light streaming on the Capitol; or even a rancher in the suburbs complete with a small yard where my future dog Grace can roam. Maybe home will be more about being settled within myself, and honest, while embracing a life complete with all its terrifying and exhilarating firsts: dating women (or really, dating at all), paying bills and saving for retirement, weathering the heartaches of unrequited infatuations, finding the first job that had not been assigned by my “superior,” and making mistakes, lots of them, sometimes hilarious ones, but also disappointments and heartbreaks.

I hear some whispers in the hallway outside my room. The Sisters have gathered to wish me well. My 1989 Honda, bought for $1,500 thanks to a gift from my mother, is packed and ready. One more look around. I stand up, open the bedroom door, and walk through. I am headed home. 

Patricia M. Dwyer
Patricia M. Dwyer
Patricia M. Dwyer's writing has appeared in Hippocampus, Narratively, and the Baltimore Sun. She lives in Baltimore with her spouse, Connie, and their dogs.





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