The Idler: Back from a Nunnery

It was almost 40 years since I had been on a bus. For thirty-nine years, six months and two weeks, to be exact, I had lived as a cloistered nun. Now, by a series of highly improbable concurrences I found myself adjusting as best I could to the life of a single person in the urban setting of southern California.

The solo bus ride was the first big test of my ability to survive. I could not afford a car, and anyway I did not have a license. I held the bus passport tightly with my thumb firmly on the spot marked “Place Thumb Here.” The slot through which it was destined to pass was just above the Welcome sign. Nervously I passed it through and heard a strong female voice from somewhere announcing firmly: “Error! Try again!” The bus driver said softly: “Let it go all the way down.” I relaxed somewhat and passed it through a second time. This time the same unemotional voice announced: “Special!” One small success.

I kept a tight grip on my newly acquired jumbo purse, very much aware of the numerous warnings from friends of possible mugging; I watched carefully for each passing street sign to make sure I would recognize the proper exit cue. It was a very long 15-minute ride, but I made it.

My years within the cloister had not been totally shielded from contact with the world outside its walls. I had gone to medical and dental offices via friends’ cars. I had walked the short distance to the polling place to cast my vote. There was access to the local newspapers (in recent years) and rare viewings of television programs.

These had become more frequent as homemade community entertainment had lost volunteers. I had even flown to other cities for group meetings, but always I was surrounded by the protective aura of a traditional ankle-length habit and the over-solicitude of lay persons. All these proved scarcely adequate as preparation for any painless insertion into life as it is lived in today’s urban society.

The transition was eased by the hospitality of members of two apostolic communities. Fortunately for me their convents had spare rooms. These Sisters had remained faithful to their original commitment and had preserved the traditional hallmark of religious life—hospitality. It was they who passed along to me their extra clothing. They supplied the bus passport and bus schedules; alerted me as to which neighborhoods were not to be walked through, which were not even to be bussed through, where the shopping centers were. So I slipped into the single life gradually, among friends.

But I could not remain a guest forever. With help from friends—that has become a constant refrain in my memory—friends both within and outside religious communities, I found a relatively inexpensive apartment in an older area of town—reasonably safe, comfortable, where I could pull myself together and adjust to a new way of living.

The habits of half a lifetime cannot be discarded at will, however, but what was there about contemporary society that made adjustment so difficult? First and most immediately jarring was the noise and bustle. Traffic noises had previously been muffled by the high walls and thick shrubbery. The daily routine seldom varied appreciably and personal encounters were always with the same 15 or so companions following the same way of life. Now I was gingerly finding my way through hundreds of all sorts of people hurrying in every direction. Instead of keeping attentive to the house bell summoning to prayer or dinner or recreation, I was straining to keep alert to all signs, signals, warning sounds involved in negotiating ordinary traffic. It was difficult to try to keep from jumping at the unexpected blast of hard rock music from a passing car, to remain unhurried and calm through the constant cross currents of people and vehicles going in all directions. Months later, this same never-ending parade provides an unlimited source of wonder and amusement.

But litter was something else. That was not so easy to accept as a part of life. The stuff was, and is, everywhere: on the sidewalks, the streets, in the shrubbery—discarded cups, plates, forks, straws, bottles, cans, styrofoam carry-out containers, not always empty, even clothing, often within a few inches of a public refuse container. Streets are pockmarked with bottlecaps ground into the surface by passing vehicles. Men, women, and children hold on to their carry-out drinks like pacifiers as they wait for the bus, drive their cars, walk, jog. Once I was horrified to find my exit from a bus impeded as my shoe was held firmly to the floor by someone’s discarded gum.

I had read much about the identity crisis among religious. I had never had one, but now I was experiencing it in reverse. Without a card from the Department of Motor Vehicles bearing a photograph of myself, I was for practical purposes a non-person. Before I could open a bank account, get a library card, buy a bus pass, I had to have the indispensable ID. Even so I remain marginal because I cannot produce a driver’s license.

As to food I anticipated no difficulty. Over the years I had always had some variety of chore related to food: purchasing, cooking, serving, cleaning, helping the cook. But how do I buy for one person only? One potato, two potatoes? One banana? Potatoes keep well. So do frozen foods. But after I get perhaps a week’s supply stuffed in the tough little plastic carry-out bags, how do I get it home? The situation demands a master logistic plan to balance out the amount of food I need, the amount of money I have in the purse (minus the coupons) the amount of weight I can carry and the proper toting arrangement within the bags. And there seems to be always an added variable, such as: will the frozen items defrost if I take the sunny side of the street or shall I risk tripping on the shady side now torn up for repair?

Cooking for one requires a good supply of freezer bags for storage or an easy conscience in the matter of leftovers. No matter how small the amount of raw food I begin with, there always seems to be enough food remaining after one meal to supply two or more meals in the next week or month. There are, of course, the single-serving micro instant products in astonishing variety, but after the single serving there is the bundle of wrappings to be gathered for consignment to collection bins.

Friends had supplied me with sufficient secular clothing to get by until I could make my own collection. But the hairstyling I had to entrust at first to a professional. I could not begin to unravel the intricacies of the styling accessories. As I watched the expert do her work, I assured myself that I could go on my own once she had completed the styling. That was over-confidence; I still have to return for postgraduate demonstrations.

I did notice that the older women in town were almost invariably well-coiffed. The geriatric set, I soon learned, will cancel even a bingo game rather than lose a beauty salon appointment. That explains why the women are so alert and self-confident. Not even a designer wardrobe so enhances a woman’s self-confidence as the awareness that her hair is arranged properly.

In launching into my own preferences in clothing I watched what others were wearing. And that was: anything and everything. I am grateful that I have medical reasons for wearing wraparound sunglasses to conceal my involuntary reactions to what I was seeing. For standards, I found myself recalling the not-so-halcyon days of the 1940s.

Then: As always, people dressed to make themselves attractive, sometimes to boast, but no one mentioned the price of one’s clothing except in carefully contrived ways.

Now: Designer tags on the outside are considered a necessary statement of self-affirmation. So far I have not actually seen a sales ticket on the various components of clothing, but it will show.

Then: It was a generally acknowledged weakness of adolescents that they felt impelled to assert their opinions as loudly as possible, especially in public places.

Now: It is considered not only acceptable, but almost de rigueur to wear one’s underwear on the outside with a “Hey, look!” message emblazoned across the front. My trusty wraparounds concealed my distaste for the cutesy messages and my positive revulsion from the obscene ones. Trying to keep in mind that these scruffy messengers of indecency are persons in whom Christ wishes to dwell has been very difficult at times.

Then: Slacks for women were plentiful and common for in-house work and vacation activities. They were slack and comfortable.

Now: Jeans, jeans, everywhere blue jeans, washed-out, bleached-out, tattered, cut-off, patched and re-patched, artificially torn for the desired exposure, with leg pockets for knives, and anything but slack. How can they be comfortable? The rule seems to be: the more weight the woman carries, the less slack.

Then: Actors and actresses were able to convey powerful emotion, present a story, elicit laughter without a great deal of gross physical contact and with language which seldom threatened the limits of respectability.

Now: The sheer physicality of TV programs and an inability to convey any cerebral content whatever makes most of them unbearable for me, un-watchable. There is a whole new vocabulary of offensive language that even the old gangster movies never found it necessary (or permissible) to use. Even the veteran performer Bob Hope observed recently, “Take out the offensive language from today’s shows and you’re back to silent movies.”

There are exceptions, of course. Re-runs are popular. Search for those rare programs of real merit has to be made with an awareness of the current vocabulary and moral standards. A program listed in the media reviews as “clever, witty, well-written, well-acted” turns out to be based on a plot presenting adultery as hilariously funny.

Diversion has limits as stress therapy. For me, contact with the real world remains the best antidote and the challenge. Walking daily to the early Mass, good weather or bad, replaces descending the one flight of stairs to the monastery chapel. Instead of the great silence there is the cheerful exchange of greetings with the school traffic guard, walking slowly home with a fellow senior exchanging unimportant comments on the weather; walking to the supermarket; bussing to the shopping centers; mulling over the constant choices regarding budget versus tastes, necessity versus luxury, urgency versus postponability. Nothing dramatic or world-shaking, these routine trivia of daily activities are repeated again and again as a new pattern of life comes into existence. I find unexpected delight in the little events that swirl around me.

When life seems dullest, the funniest things happen. I go to the row of mail slots to look for my mail. A woman living in the apartment complex opens her box and turns to me.

“Have you teeth?” she asks.


“Do you have teeth?” She holds up a sample of tooth paste that has come with her mail. “Here, you take it. I can’t use it. My teeth are upstairs.”

Then there is the woman in the

apartment next door who reproved me gently for not letting her know that I had been out of town for a week.

“You should let us know. We watch out for one another here, and we are concerned when we don’t see someone for a few days.”

The friend who had not seen me at morning Mass and called to learn if I were ill. I was. Could she pick up groceries for me? Did I need them? I did.

One step at a time. There may come the time when I will be able to take on a little part in the work force. But entry-level work in the NOW world no longer means a typewriter and years of office routine, but the word-processor, the computer, computerese.

Thirty-nine years, Lord, is a mighty long time.


  • Agnes W. Hayes

    At the time this article was published, Agnes W. Hayes wrote from Long Beach, California.

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