19. May 2013 · Comments Off on Grailville · Categories: N. Grail School Year

The Grailville I write about, as well as the Grail Women’s Movement, have evolved and are not what they were in the 1950’s.  They are now better described as a feminist movement with no particular religious affiliation.

JeanneP Alden_0001fx1 copy

JeanneP Alden_0002fx copy

A note from Jeanne, who was Director of Grailville at the time I was there.


Jeanne P

Jeanne left the Movement in 1964.  She married.   By chance, I met her while shopping in New York City.

After that, we became good friends as was not possible before.

 Alden Brown copy


Alden Brown flaps

Alden V. Brown’s book The Grail Movement chronicles those times.  It places my narrative in a larger context, but it is not necessary to my story.

I tell only my own story.



18. May 2013 · Comments Off on Piece of Cake · Categories: N. Grail School Year

This is the bakery, Marge says.    We are in a small, cozy room in the building across the yard from the main house.  The room has a delicious smell, like fresh bread.  There is an electric stone grinder for flour.



We eat only whole wheat here, Marge explains.  We mix hard durum wheat, which we buy, and soft wheat that we grow here.   White flour is not good for you.

The brown bread at lunch was good.   But you can’t imagine how good the bread is in Macau.   And the Portuguese rolls with sliced pork that we take to the beach, what is better?  All are white.

Why is white flour not good?  The firmness of her tone warns me that questioning her would fall into the murky area of what the nuns regarded as “insolence.”  I am not going there.

On the wooden counter is a large, smudged card with a hand-written recipe for pineapple upside-down cake.  All the ingredients you need are here, she gestures towards the small refrigerator.  The batter will fit into these two pans.  Two large, rectangular pans are set out.  Marge says the cakes are our dessert for supper tonight. Then she’s gone.

The recipe says to cream the shortening.  What is shortening?  There are no cookbooks.  I saw where the kitchen is in the main house.  I run across the yard.

It’s butter!  The women in the kitchen giggle as I run back to the bakery.   I take the solid blocks of butter out of the fridge.  Cream it?  Do I add cream?  No, there is no cream listed in the recipe.  I run back to the kitchen.

You beat the butter with a wooden spoon until it becomes creamy.  They don’t say stupid because they are trying to be charitable.

I beat the solid chunks of butter until I manage to reduce them to pea-sized chunks.  That must be enough.   I add the sugar, eggs, and alternate the dry ingredients with milk.  What I get is flour coated lumps of butter floating on a large bowl of cold milk.  Even I know that if I poured that over the pineapple slices I would not get cakes from the oven.

No way will I run back to that kitchen.   I find a pot and stir the mixture over the stove.  Eventually, it all melts together so that I think it must be what a batter looks like.   I divide it over the two pans and stick them in the oven.  While the cakes bake, I clean up the mess.  There is no mystery to that.

I join about a dozen women in the courtyard standing in two rows facing one another with open breviaries in their hands.   They all wear dresses or skirts and blouses.    No one looks like a farmer.   No pants are allowed here.   I did not bring my jeans or shorts.

Vespers outside

We sing Vespers in English.  I know about Vespers, but I thought only nuns and priests prayed them, and always in Latin.

There are about twenty people at dinner.  All are women.  Most of them are in their twenties or thirties.  There is no one my age.  Someone says the year school has not started yet, and that in another week or two there will be others closer to my age.

The women are cheerful and friendly.  Someone says that when she heard that doreen cotton has arrived, she thought they were announcing a new fabric.   We all laugh.

We stand around rectangular, bare wooden tables set with thick, beige stoneware.  Designated servers place dishes of food on each table, to be passed around.

The head table has a centerpiece of berries and ferns.  The woman who presides over the meal says grace, and we all sit down.

I don’t remember the conversation at our table.  I mostly listen, but what they say seems remote.  No one asks me a personal question, or anything about my trip all the way from Macau, or how I am doing since I arrived.   But they smile a lot in the cryptic way that Mary did on the bus.

Before dessert, someone rises and walks to the side.  Everyone stops talking.    She reads from a book.  It is a kind of religious tract.  It seems longer than a typical sermon.

As Marge said, dessert is my cakes.  They have flipped the cakes so that the pineapple is on top, cut them into squares, and put large dollops of freshly whipped cream over them.  The thick sweet cream is from the cows in the barn and is so delicious that it turns the pineapple cake into forbidden fruit.   It would probably do as much for any dish you want to transform.  No one leaves a crumb.


Next thing I know, they make me the new baker for the duration, which is until the “Year School” starts.


17. May 2013 · Comments Off on Rules · Categories: N. Grail School Year

Each morning we rise early and walk to the parish church in Loveland.  We are not allowed to talk until after breakfast, so we walk by ourselves.   It is still a lovely walk for about one mile on a country road.

Daily Mass is part of the schedule.   Besides nuns and priests, Uncle Pedro was the only person I knew who went to six o’clock Mass every morning.

Someone comes with me to the bakery and shows me how to bake bread.   We bake forty loaves because students are arriving every day.  I like kneading the dough.  It is such a large batch that my arms sink into the bowl almost to my elbows.

The loaves come out of the oven begging to be tasted.  But I have been warned that we are not allowed to eat or drink between meals.

Someone with a clipboard tells me what to do every hour of the day until lights out.

Most of my day consists of manual chores.  Besides my work in the bakery, they assign me to other chores.   I learn to clean a room.  I am told that manual work is holy.  I already know that the work our amahs do is essential and to be respected.

The furniture here is simple.  I think of Ah Ngung threading an oiled cloth expertly through the lacework back of a rosewood chair.  She is so proud of her work even though no one sits in that parlor full of antiques if they can help it.

I sit on a folding chair in a semi-circle of women outside the canning kitchen and cut up apples.  No one is allowed to talk.

I am given forty-five minutes before lights out to do personal stuff like getting my clothes ready.

There is no escape from the clipboard, not even on Sundays.  There are no radios, no music except for our own a capella singing, no newspapers or magazines and no time to read anyway.   I see radios and newspapers and other normal things only in some of the staffers’ rooms.  It is puzzling.

Is this a school or a convent?

The women speaking for the staff insist that they are definitely not nuns.  They do not have a chaplain as nuns do because they want to be independent of priests, who are all men.

However, they are careful to say that the Archbishop is okay with that.  Their publications have his stamp of approval.  They definitely have his blessing and also his financial support.

The staffers keep repeating that they are lay people, they are not nuns, but they might as well be.   I guess they included me in their convent routine because I am here early.

I can hardly wait for the start of the school year when I can be just a student again.  Even the nuns who taught me since kindergarten know that I am not suited for the convent.


16. May 2013 · Comments Off on Strange Finishing School · Categories: N. Grail School Year

All the new students are here, about forty of us.  Most are in their twenties or older, and a few are recent high school graduates.  Finally, I am not the only teenager.

The girls come from Louisiana, Illinois, Texas, Michigan, New Mexico, New York and all over.  They’ve been recruited from the Grail’s city centers.  There are a few foreign students.  They are a lively bunch.  I am so relieved.

We compare accents.  They say where did you learn to speak the King’s English?  I have to explain that English is my native language even though I come from the Far East.

Then they ask me to repeat the calf walked down the path just for the fun of giggling over my accent.  I totally got that from Mother Paulinus.  I don’t mind because they say they just love to hear my British accent.

What kind of finishing school is this?  Actually, it isn’t at all like a school.

Even the students must go to daily Mass and communion.  It is always a Missa Cantata or High Mass.  We sing it in Latin.  We sing processionals and hymns in English.

After Mass we must walk back in silence with the group.  We are not allowed to go anywhere, not even to the general store and post office without permission.   And then someone always comes with us.

There is only one lecture each morning by various members of the staff.  So far, it is all about this women’s movement, how it started and what they want to do.

Grail banner

They want to train everyone to be saints and convert the whole world in about seventy-five years.  They are dead serious.  I am not going to write to anyone about this.


15. May 2013 · Comments Off on The World Outside · Categories: N. Grail School Year

The girls are scattered in small houses on the farm.  I am still in the main house, the House of Joy.

Hs of Joy File0890

House of Joy

BookstoreGV copy


We assemble in the large main hall, which takes up almost the entire second floor of this building that houses the bakery, bookstore, music center, laundry and canning kitchen.  The hall is usually bare.  It looks new.  There are no pictures on the white walls, no furniture, and no curtains on the windows, but I can see the fields through them.  The floor is wood, polished to a glow.  Can a bare room be beautiful?  I think it is.

This room can be transformed in a flash into a lecture hall, a meditation space, or a chapel.  Most events need only folding chairs and a podium.  The altar is assembled with a few large wooden pieces.  It is designed so that a visiting priest can celebrate Mass while facing the people.   It is something new that people from all over come to experience.

They give us our mail in the assembly hall where they have set up small tables and chairs.  We will be getting mail only once a week.   We must answer our mail right now.   We have the rest of the hour.

I get a ton of mail because they saved it all up.  There are letters from cousins and friends at home and photos from those I met on the voyage.  There is an Indian silk scarf from a friend on his way to university in England.

There is no letter from my sister.  Instead, the daughter of her landlord writes on her behalf.   Her name is Vivian.

Vivian scolds me.  She says that although the school notified our relatives in Macau that I arrived safely, my sister did not get a letter from me.  She mentions the many things my sister did for me for my voyage.  Why didn’t I write as soon as I arrived?   I should be ashamed to be such an ingrate.

I write a bread and butter letter to my sister.  I explain that I have not written to anyone else either because they’ve kept us too busy.  I say everything is fine and that I will write again when I can.

The most interesting letter is from John at Dartmouth.  His life at a boys’ college reminds me of the letters Howie wrote to my cousin in Macau. Howie is my cousin’s cousin.  He is also at a boys’ college in the U.S. and regaled us with stories of college life.

 I put a good spin on my life here.  I tell John that the theme of the school year is Towards a World Vision and leave out all the conversion stuff.  I write about the farm, the folk singing and the students from other countries and all my interesting new friends.

After we write our letters they collect them.  They mail them for us.

I remind myself that I have to stay here for a whole year.  I am going to do my best to learn whatever they are teaching me.   I don’t mind the manual work.  Actually, there is a kind of satisfaction in learning to do these things.

There are other students like me.  If they can live by these rules, so can I.  How tough can it be?

14. May 2013 · Comments Off on Pug Nose · Categories: N. Grail School Year

We are all waiting outside to be assigned chores.  Juanita and I are passing around photos we got in our mail.  She is a recent high school grad like me.  She is from Albuquerque.

Put away those photos.  The voice is sharp.

I look up and see a staffer.  Her name is Helen.  She is not smiling.  Just because you have a pug nose you think you are cute.  Her tone is mocking.

Until this moment, she seemed nice.

That is so rude and uncalled for.  But Helen has no idea how ironic her remark is.   I think my nose is my worst feature.   Ah Ngung and I laughed about our noses.

 Noses Fix

We joked that after I get to America I will send for her and we’ll get our noses fixed by plastic surgeons.   We’ll get noses like Elizabeth Taylor’s!  Thinking of Ah Ngung makes me smile inside.

I keep a straight face.  I don’t say anything.  I know better than to make light of what a staffer says.

Juanita and I put away our photos.  Juanita would get a good laugh when I share my nose story with her.

13. May 2013 · Comments Off on Silence is Golden · Categories: N. Grail School Year

There are many visitors this Sunday.  The dining room has been extended into the front hall.  Almost from the start of the meal it seems that the designated servers are not keeping up.

The presiding staffer is getting frustrated.  She wants to do her reading before dessert and the singers should start when people are having their coffee.

Instead, half the tables are cleared while other people are still eating because their food arrived late.  The meal is taking too long.

I am at a table in the front hall.   Maybe I can help out the designated servers.  I ask Kathleen, a staffer, if I should clear our table.  She says yes.

Finally, the leader stands up at the head table and tells the designated servers to come forward.  She reprimands them and metes out some punishment.  I watch this harsh dressing down from my seat.

I feel sorry for the servers.  After all, they are all new at this.  Is it necessary to humiliate them?

I notice that while everyone in the room has returned to normal conversation, it is quiet at our table.  Everyone is watching Kathleen and she is staring at me.  If looks could kill, this one would be prosecutor, judge and executioner.  There is no defense or appeal.

I know in an instant that she deems me a shirker for not coming forward and taking my punishment with the servers.  She doesn’t have to say it.   It would do me no good to remind her that I am not a designated server but was only helping to move things along out here.

She is not interested in reasoning with me.  She has perfected that look.  It works too.  All the others know who the sinner is, though maybe not the transgression.  They shun me for the rest of the meal.

I am horrified.

I am new here.  Even though I think they are unfair and cruel, I don’t want to be shunned.   It is a small point to concede.  Before lights out I write Kathleen a note saying that she is right, and that I am sorry.  Then I slide the note under her door.

But then horror turns to anger.   Why am I accepting this?  Shunning someone as a group in that arrogant way is not just bad manners.  It is behaving like a mob, a kind of barbarism.   The nuns would not allow this.

At this moment I promise myself that never again will I grovel this way.  If I don’t agree, I will keep it to myself.   If I dissent, I will be silent.  It is their school.  But I will not cringe.  I will not be false to myself.

Suddenly all those long periods of forced silence reveal an unintended golden lining.

Kathleen does not bother to acknowledge my contrition.


12. May 2013 · Comments Off on Not a Single Male · Categories: N. Grail School Year

I look forward to John’s letters.  We have conversations about things that matter, but he is also witty and fun.   He asks me to send him a close-up photo.  He already has snapshots.

His fraternity is having a contest to choose “Sweetheart of Delta Upsilon.”  I look through my photos.  There is nothing worth sending.

I hope it’s just a fun contest and not a real beauty contest.

I remember that I have a color transparency that my sister’s photographer friend has done.  Besides my passport photos, he wanted to take some shots for his own portfolio.  He asked me to wear evening dress.

He gave me one transparency.  I am amazed what a clever photographer can do with lighting.  I don’t even notice my pug nose.  That’s the only photo that I would submit.

The general store here is not equipped to print it.  They say it is too expensive and they have no demand from customers.

John says send it and he’ll get it printed.  He also invites me to his college for Homecoming Weekend.

Dartmouth old

Before I can answer, he writes that I have been voted “Sweetheart of Delta Upsilon.”  I definitely have to show up now.  This is so exciting!

The answer from the staff is no.  I plead that I came all the way from China by myself, that John is a perfect gentleman who helped me in San Francisco.  There will be many other girls visiting, and the weekend will be properly chaperoned.

It is simply no.  Do not ask again.

I write to John and explain as well as I can without offending him.    I would love to come, but I cannot get permission.  I do not get a reply.  After some weeks, I write to him again asking why I have not heard from him.

I never hear from John again.  I know that he is a courteous person who would not be rude.    But I have not heard from most of my other friends either.   Come to think of it, not from a single male.  Are they censoring my letters?   They have no right!

Would they go so far?  I shudder.   Why are they doing this?   Maybe I’m mistaken.   There must be some other explanation.

This is going to be harder that I thought.


11. May 2013 · Comments Off on The Claw · Categories: N. Grail School Year, The Beast

I hear Juanita’s merry laugh.   She is on the driveway saying goodbye to friends.  She calls me over and introduces me.  One of her relatives is a young priest.  They have just come back from a day at an amusement park.

Juanita describes how thrilling it was.   I remember an amusement park called Luna Park in Hong Kong, but it was small and didn’t have roller coasters.

Juanita tells her friends that I am from the Far East.  So far from home!  They say you must come along with Juanita next time.  Of course I’d love to.

I head back to the house.   I feel a sharp pain in my shoulder as I am pulled back.   I turn and face Leitha.  She is an older staff member going way back to when they were in Europe.

Whenever I see Leitha looking at me she seems to be disapproving of something.  I try to avoid her.

Now her eyes are boring into me and her expression is unmistakably malevolent.  I am an insect she must crush.

Special friendships are not allowed here!  She practically spits it out.


Her hand is still dug into my shoulder like a claw.   Why is she so angry?

Do you understand?  It is not a question it is a command.

She was watching me laughing with Juanita’s friends and she does not like it.  I don’t understand.

I just want to get away.   I nod yes.

She lets go and I walk away quickly.


10. May 2013 · Comments Off on Dressing Down · Categories: N. Grail School Year, The Beast

My trunks are still on the floor of my room.  Whenever I have a little time, I sort out and put into one trunk the warm weather clothes I won’t need till next spring.  All my clothes are new.

My sister has done a marvelous job of putting together this wardrobe, which really is her idea of what a college girl should wear.    Going with classic and elegant, she said, you can’t go wrong.

But just for fun she threw in a ready-to-wear bright red wool jacket with whip stitching.  It has a warm yellow sun and happy palm trees embroidered on the back.  She said it was the latest fad.  It would be perfect for going with Juanita to an amusement park.

My sister kept a team of tailors, dressmakers and knitters busy for weeks.  I designed some of the clothes, just as I did for my paper dolls.  But it was my sister who made them real.   She saw to every detail so that everything fits me and is so comfortable to wear.

She suggested that we order a padded mandarin jacket for dressy occasions.   Wouldn’t that be smart and original?  I find Chinese high collars uncomfortable, so she had the tailor make a lower collar for me.  I chose a pearl grey silk satin with gold dragons.  It is my favorite jacket.

My sister gets the best of everything at unbelievable rock bottom prices.   She knows fabrics and cut and what each tailor is best at.  But most of all, she knows how to bargain.

At tea time we go to Dairy Farm and order their huge, preposterous ice cream sundaes.  I love to read aloud the elaborate descriptions on the menu and am always amazed when the waiter brings in what the chef dreamed up.

My sister and I have so much fun when we are in her world.

Oona comes into my room.  She is a staffer with an officious air.  She gets right down to business.

We need your camera for our missionaries, she says.  She picks it up and puts it on the other bed.

It is an expensive new camera in a leather case.  My uncle’s clients in Hong Kong gave me a farewell lunch and presented me with it.  I didn’t even use it on my voyage because my friends were better photographers and took lots of photos.

What?  She is not even asking, she is just taking the camera.  I feel shock and outrage, but I freeze.

Oona then goes to my trunks.   She sees the souvenirs that I bought in Japan.  She takes all of them and puts them next to my camera.  We need these for the Oriental Room, she said.  That is a room in this house that the staff uses to entertain guests.

She sees the six beautiful silk scrolls that Father Minelli asked me to bring.  They are scenes from the Gospels that Chinese artists have painted in original Chinese settings.  Father wants me to try to find buyers for his artists.

They are not mine, I explain.    Oona doesn’t care.   She takes them and all my souvenirs to the Oriental Room down the hall.

Oona returns.   She goes through my clothes.  She picks the red jacket first, and then all the dressy pieces and whatever else she wants and piles them high on the bed.  The whole time she is giving me a lecture on giving of myself.

Then she slings my camera on her shoulder, grabs the pile of clothes, and walks out the door.

It feels like a mugging.

09. May 2013 · Comments Off on Narrow Bridge · Categories: N. Grail School Year, The Beast

There is going to be an evening of entertainment.  We are continuing the World Vision theme.  Each one of us is expected to contribute a song, a story, something from our own national culture.

Officially, my nationality is British.   But I’ve never even been to England.  Nor have I been to my mother’s home country, Portugal.  Our Eurasian culture in Macau is a hybrid and hard to pin down.

Then a light bulb comes on.  I know what I will do.

When my turn comes, I tell the audience that I will say a poem in Cantonese, which I learned with my tutor, Miss Wu.

I am wearing my mandarin jacket with the gold dragons, which Oona overlooked.

I tell the audience that the poem is from the Chinese Fourth Reader.  Chinese students habitually memorize all the poems.

This one, my favorite, is about an old man, feeble in mind and body, who struggles to cross a narrow bridge.

 The bridge is tall, the boards are narrow.  The old man’s knees weaken, his heart flutters, and he falls.

A young student sees him and rushes to his side.   He lifts up the old man.   He calms him.   He helps him cross safely to the other side.

I say the poem in Cantonese.

I remember the poem, word for word, even though it has been four years since I learned it by heart.   Or as Miss Wu would put it, since I learned it in my heart.

The audience loves it.

As we are leaving the hall, Leitha steps out of the shadows and takes me aside.

We need your jacket for our member Connie, she says.  She is Chinese and needs it for social events at our city center.

I say nothing.

Leitha starts to take the jacket off me.  I shrug out of it as quickly as I can and hand it to her.

I can’t get away fast enough.



08. May 2013 · Comments Off on Rubbing It In · Categories: N. Grail School Year, The Beast

I am told to go to the bookstore for a book.  It is the Liber Usualis, the official book of Gregorian Chants.


I walk into the bookstore and see Leitha.  She is waiting for me.  She has the book in her hands.  But first, she has something to say.

She says that they had written to my family for money and was told that there was no more money for me.

Sounds like Titi.  Did they really write to Titi?  I suppose that my grandmother’s address is on my school records and that is what they have.

Some people, she says, will send their children to school and not even give them money for books.

She knows very well what they took from me.  It is the triumphant malice on her face that starts the chain of outraged responses in my head.

Since they took my camera and most of my brand new clothes they have also taken all my money.   My family gave me enough cash to cover what I was likely to spend this school year.  I spent only a fraction of it on the voyage.

And in the unlikely event that she did not know, even though they have endless committee meetings, why didn’t she ask me to write home for money?

No, she knows.  The triumph in her eyes tells me she knows and enjoys making me suffer not only loss but also injustice.

Except for Leitha’s demand for my mandarin jacket they don’t do it in my face anymore, as Oona did.

My things just disappear, one at a time.  They know how to cause prolonged, maximum pain.

They took every bit of jewelry including my watch.  They took my new leather handbag, and even my two trunks.

They have all the power.  They have my passport and all my documents, they control my mail and they control my activities every minute of the day.

There is no one to talk to.  Juanita has gone, as have a few others.  There were no goodbyes.

I keep my thoughts to myself.  I thank Leitha for the book and go back to my chores.

07. May 2013 · Comments Off on Serenity · Categories: N. Grail School Year

They set aside an hour each day for individual prayer or meditation.  They say that every member is required to do this.  We need to learn.  For this we gather in the hall.

We are to kneel on the floor a few feet apart.  Because we are beginners, we are allowed to lean or sit on a folding chair if we cannot kneel for the full hour.

We can meditate on what was read to us during the meals, or on scripture or something personal suggested by our leaders.  But this is not the time for reading, and books are not allowed.

At first, my knees hurt.

My mind starts to race with all the cruel things that they are doing.  I am so angry, but I don’t want to dwell on it.   I wish I could be busy in the laundry or the kitchen so that I can shut out the thoughts.

Eventually, I start to go away to that sweet calm place I discovered when I was eight, when I had escaped from Uncle Pedro and was hiding among the date trees.

The hour is over.   I feel serene.  I can’t say that I was meditating on anything or praying for something.   I wasn’t doing anything.  I was just there.

I think maybe another word says it better.  Contemplation.

Whatever they call this slot of time on their clipboards, I will have it to myself every day.  Just knowing that is a relief.

06. May 2013 · Comments Off on The Dancing Monk · Categories: N. Grail School Year

Dancing MonkSt. Francis Dancing on Water, monument by Monika Kaden. Photo by Christine Walters Paintner Ph.D.


His name is Dom Ermin Vitry, OSB, a Belgian monk of the Order of Saint Benedict.

He is supple and leaps around as he demonstrates the rhythms of Gregorian Chant.    He calls it eurhythmics.

He sings

Ad te levavi animam meam

To you I lift up my soul

Reach up, reach up your arms, your whole body!  Reach up with your whole soul, reach reach!  He lifts his arms together, left to right in a sweeping gesture.

Deus meus in te confido

My God in you I trust

Dance, dance!  Father Vitry has wings on his feet.

We follow him.   It is like nothing I have ever done.

Very soon, a star emerges.  Her name is Cele.  She is a teen.  She is tall and blonde and moves as though she is an angel and this dancing was made for her.   She just looks like one of us when she is not dancing.

But dancing is not Father Vitry’s real objective.  He is here to find conductors.   He is making us dance by way of teaching us his way of conducting Gregorian Chant.   He tries to show us how to get the energy from the music into our hand and wrist.

After a few sessions, we are asked to perform, one at a time, so that he can pick the ones who will undergo further training.

We take turns, and after each one there is polite applause from the group.

Almost the last to conduct is Thonda.  She is the daughter of a chief in Africa, educated at a missionary university.   When she has the whole dining room singing

Imbube Imbube Imbube,

and our voices sounding like drums, her beautiful singing soars over the beat.   She brings down the house every time.

Thonda conducts the chant in a natural rhythmic way.  This is followed by a thunderous applause.  However, we all know that the way she conducts has nothing of what Father Vitry tried to teach us.

After Father Vitry leaves the room followed by staffers and also Thonda, Leitha holds us back.  Then she lets us have it.  She says that what we did to Thonda was unacceptable and insulting.

The chant isn’t Imbube.   It is a different kind of rhythm, generated from the meaning of the text.   We know that Thonda did not grasp what Father taught, but that is okay.  Very few of us, maybe two or three, will be chosen to be conductors.   If we had given Thonda the polite applause everyone else got, that would have been fine.

Instead we gave her this thunderous applause everyone knows was false.  It is condescending.  It is never to happen again.

For the first time, I respect Leitha’s scolding.  I did not expect her to make a perceptive distinction like that.

I am used to some of that leveling out that the nuns do.   Not getting awards and credit for what I do, stings a little, but it doesn’t change anything in the long run.

I would really feel insulted and condescended to if I am given an award or credit that I know they think I don’t deserve or worse still, belongs to someone else.

I just never expected anyone here to think like me.  I was used to my teachers saying, after they ask a question that required some thought:

Everyone think, except Doreen.

Everyone just took that for granted.  Nobody wanted to see me suspended from school again for insolence.

05. May 2013 · Comments Off on All in the Hand · Categories: N. Grail School Year

I am among those that Father Vitry chooses for further training.   I am excited because I sense that I am going to learn something rare.

Father Vitry is endearing in his candor.

He says that he will do almost anything to avoid tangling with “committee women”.   There’s that mischievous twinkle in his eyes.

He tells stories about his monastic life as a young monk.  He questioned why the friars ate different and inferior food in the same monastery.

When he was sent to America, all his nieces wanted to know was whether he would meet any movie stars.   He promised to tell them if he did.  Are there any movie stars here?

Father Vitry has a dynamic way of interpreting the chant.  We hit on key syllables in the Latin text as springboards in either direction – up or down.   The meaning and emotion of each word, each phrase, is interpreted by the conductor and brought out in the voices of the singers as a group.


Not all the sacred texts can be interpreted this way.  There is a psalmody in eight tones into which texts are fitted.  There are many set responses and hymns.

Father Vitry’s method applies to most parts of the Mass.

As conductors of the schola (choir) we have to stand straight and still.  With the heavy liber open and balanced on the left hand we conduct only with the right hand.

It takes training and practice to concentrate energy into the hand, to charge it, so to speak, and to use the hand and wrist to convey emotion and meaning to the singers.

From what I’ve seen, it’s probably something you can improve, but it can’t be taught.  It’s another one of those gifts from the universe.

The way I see it is that usually a monastic choir chants in an even rhythm, like a team of rowers in a boat.

Father Vitry is surfing the waves.


04. May 2013 · Comments Off on Wild Music · Categories: N. Grail School Year

I go to all the daily schola rehearsals right after supper.  Sometimes I even conduct the rehearsals, but I have not actually conducted in church.


One night just before lights out, Angela comes to my room and tells me that I am to conduct the Introit in the morning.  She will lead the rest of the Mass.

Angela is the Director of the Music Center.  She seems only a few years older than I.  I think she is the most inspiring of the conductors.  Her soul is in her music.  She writes music for numerous antiphons and passages from the psalms and scriptures, all in English.

She set to music a hauntingly beautiful version of Psalm 136.

Upon the rivers of Babylon

There we sat and wept

When we remembered you O Sion

O Sion! 

Upon the rivers of Babylon

There we sat and wept…

That drawn out O Sion! That cry of universal longing of the exile will stay with me forever.

The next morning after Mass, Angela takes me aside.  She says with a trace of amusement, Those eyes!  You almost hypnotized me with those eyes!

That is as close as she would come to giving me a compliment.  At the same time, I know that I have to capture the choir with my hand movements more than with my facial expressions.

By the time I am conducting whole Masses, both in church and in our hall with the priests facing us, I am also called occasionally to lead folk singing, and sometimes Vespers and Compline.

One evening a week, a professor from the Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati comes to give us a session on polyphonic music.  It reminds me that most music is not written on a 4-line staff.

In polyphonic music we sing in harmony but in distinct parts.  I am a soprano as are many of us.  The rare treasures are true altos like Eva.  In this music you can throw in all kinds of instruments like organs and trumpets and even clashing cymbals.  They add to the splendor.

In Gregorian Chant there are no parts.   We sing together as a single voice.  That voice was perfected out of hundreds of years of men living in monasteries.  For these true believers the world had become a wilderness, one way or another.

They created a complex liturgy weaving the sacred texts of their faith into the seasons, into every day of the year.  They sang this liturgy every day and every hour of the day, all year. Then they repeated the cycle.

It is an alternate world, but it is not an alternate reality.  There is a wilderness in every one of us.  Most of us do not live there.

I think there is enough of a monastic life here to bring that voice to something close to the monks’ cry in the wilderness.   It isn’t all about pain and loss either.   It is also about longing and anticipation and hope.  In the many alleluias, particularly, we found subtleties like peace, acceptance, even whimsy.  Sometimes it is just all out joy.

It was always about the voice.  One voice, stripped of all embellishment.  Add anything to that, and you make it harder to find that voice than to chase a unicorn in the desert.

03. May 2013 · Comments Off on Any Place · Categories: N. Grail School Year

It is Christmas Day.  We Year School students gather in the hall for the opening of our Christmas presents from home.

Most of the girls get woolies and warm clothes and chocolates.  My Aunt Edith sent me a tin of individually wrapped Chinese preserved plums.  She knows they are my favorite.   She also writes to say that she knows I am doing well because the school wrote and asked the nuns to “send us more Doreens.”

I have almost no cards or letters from anyone else.  But then, I have heard from fewer and fewer friends and then none at all.

Since I learned to conduct Gregorian Chant, I feel that at least I’m doing something specific to this school that few can do.  They didn’t bring me here just to do manual chores, even though those are still a large part of my day.

I’ve also done a lot of dancing.   I dance at many prayer vigils with themes that include dancers who interpret the theme.   Cele is not a conductor, but she is unsurpassed as our star dancer.

We have square dancing on the tennis court (but no tennis ever) when there are a lot of visitors.  They put me on the team that demonstrates square dancing to the visitors.   I had to learn everything from take your partner and dosado and promenade left and allemande to the Alamo.

 square dancing copy

Rehearsals are the most fun.

With all that singing and dancing, I still am not in the Music Department.   I am not in any department.   I am in the House of Joy although I have been moved to a room on the top floor where there is a cupola.

There are two other young women in my room.  I think they are junior staff or maybe preparing for the missions.  I don’t know because we are usually observing silence when I am up there.



02. May 2013 · Comments Off on Into Town · Categories: N. Grail School Year

I take part in a dance drama we stage in a theater in Cincinnati.  It is called “The New Eve.”

 Mary and Serpent copy

 Mary the New Eve Crushing the Serpent’s Head

I dance the part of Eve’s son.  He is neither Cain nor Abel but a generic son.  I dance the part as the chorus tells the story.

We also have a group dance where we race around the stage depicting joy.  The chorus sings Diffusa Est , which we learned in our polyphonic class.

We are bussed in and out of Cincinnati for the event.  I get only a glimpse of the city.  The production is staged one time only.

The polyphonic classes culminate on Easter Sunday in a Solemn High Mass at the Cathedral Basilica near Cincinnati.

 Assumption1 copy

We are part of an army of singers, choirs from around the city, a great number of priests and seminarians, and even an angelic small boys’ choir.

The highlight is our singing of the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah.  It is overwhelming to be in the middle of that tremendous outpouring of celebration and triumph.

Later I thought how it was bracing to hear those deep men’s voices.   I have been hearing women’s voices only.  I thought of Father Vitry’s dynamic way of interpreting the chant.  What must that be like sung by monks?

I miss having men in my world.  Fortunately, my school year is coming to an end.   I wonder what college I will be going to next year.

01. May 2013 · Comments Off on Upon the River · Categories: N. Grail School Year

The Grail has a small property about five miles away.  It is called Superflumina.   That is Latin for upon the river.   I don’t see any river.  They may be referring to the rivers we sing about in the psalms.

Two small houses and a barn are perched on a narrow piece of land right off the highway.

It is apparently what is left of a steep hill when they built the highway.  There is nothing on the other side.  I can see something of the town in the distance, but to reach the road at the bottom of the hill I would have to go down a long flight of steps.

One of the older Grail leaders from Holland is visiting, and a few of us are invited here to meet with her.

She seems warm and friendly and tells me how well she thinks I have adjusted to life at Grailville.  Then she asks if I know that the Grail has a nucleus of dedicated women.  Yes, that has been explained.

We make vows, she said, not formal ones to the church, as nuns do.  We want to be free to make our own rules.

What vows?

Chastity, poverty and obedience.

They make the same vows that nuns make.  Yet they are not nuns.  They don’t take orders from priests.  Why is she telling me this?

You are a pretty girl.  I must ask you if you are still a virgin.

What?  Yes, I am.   Why is she asking?  Oh no!

I say that I have never wanted to be a nun.  I don’t want to make any kind of vows except marriage vows, someday.  I am not suited for this life.  I have no vocation.

I’ve said everything that I would say without giving offense.   It is not necessary to say that I don’t agree with many of the things they teach.  I would not do to others the things that they do.

You are wrong, she says.  God has called you to be a member of our nucleus and dedicate your life to Him.  It is obvious.

I cannot believe it.  She goes on as though I know nothing about myself and she has a direct line to God.

Finally, I say you promised my family that after a year here you would arrange for me to go to a college.

She smiles that cryptic smile that is beginning to infuriate me.

You are remaining at Grailville for the time being.  You are still very young.

I will turn seventeen in August, old enough for college in the fall.

No, I say, I can’t stay.  I don’t belong here.

Her eyes harden.  You are refusing the grace of God.  In time, and with prayer and meditation, you will come to realize that.

With that, and the smile, she dismisses me.

This can’t be happening.