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Category Archives: Catholic Left

Yesterday I had the most amazing conversation with a very old friend, a former priest who had planned to be part of a companion draft board action to our anti-corporate action. I had woken the day before with a script between the two of us writing itself in my head. The scene of us waiting outside the government building that housed the draft files was so vivid. My memory clearly pictured the darkness, the cold, the rain, the warm coffee cup in my hands, the fatigue, the closeness I felt to my friend. This would make the perfect beginning for my book, a fifth version of the most difficult chapter – the first.

I had written a version of the scene, but now I wanted it to become even more real, the reader’s first contact with the narrator and two main characters. I realized that I needed to talk to Phil, to pump him with questions, to interview him about that night, to make the words leap to the reader with immediacy. I had tried to find him for years, especially when I planned the reunion two years ago. But this morning, the Universe and its powerful agent, the internet, served me well. It must have been the right moment. I found a contact who emailed him and we set a time to talk, all within a few hours.

Before we talked, he sent me a wonderful selection from his journals that mentioned his activities in DC at the time of the action. Details I needed, memories that varied from mine. When we finally connected by phone, we were both so happy to be in touch again that the words, thoughts and feelings flowed, years fading. We were both still passionately concerned about peace and social justice, still working in communities that served those ends. We shared news about our families, our work, our spiritual journeys over the last 40 years. As I remembered, he was able to plumb to such depths quickly, sharing a beautiful story about the death of his first wife.

He said something very freeing about our differing memories about the timing of some events. “It’s like scripture, isn’t it? Every person has their own words, their own view and memory. It’s a good thing, or else we’d only have one book instead of dozens.”

Now I’m waiting to skype the young man who was inside the building we were watching! More connections to come!

Friday evening I met for the first time with my new writers’ group. The woman who invited me to join the group had participated in a class with me at the Writer’s Center last fall on Narrative Non-fiction. She gave excellent, detailed feedback on my book and other submissions by students in the class. The revival of her writers’ group happened at a perfect time to give me energy, focus and feedback on the book and a proposal I need to submit to an agent within a week. I sent the participants the first four chapters of the book before our meeting, and received enthusiasm for the story, stimulating questions, suggestions and a possible new title. Saturday afternoon I worked on a revised proposal, including a cover letter with a pitch, an overview, bio, marketing plan and chapter summary. This evening I sent it to several members of the group for feedback.

Saturday I was also inspired with yet another approach for the beginning of the book. This idea led me to search for the ex-priest who was supposed to participate in a draft board action several days before our DC-9 action. I envisioned our dialogue as we waited outside the building housing the DC draft files and wanted to interview him for details. I researched him on line, found a lead, emailed an organization in California to locate my old friend. By this morning I had an email back from him. Re-connected after decades! Love the internet! Tomorrow we plan to do the interview.

My husband is constantly urging me to continue writing, to follow my muse, to let the world know how important this book is to me. Is it true that when we follow our deepest instincts, when we open our hearts to share our truth, we are aided by angels? Definitely when we ask those angels for help. Help arrives.

Thank you, my angel fellow writers. Thank you, California peacemakers.

Joe O’Rourke – High School Photo at his Memorial 9/08

Editing the chapters of my book on the DC-9 trial brings alive the words and feelings of people like Joe O’Rourke, the only one of the Nine who has passed away. What a brilliant and powerful speaker! Here is a sample from my summary of the trial transcript:

Joe O’Rourke was allowed to present the lengthiest statement the defense had been able to give at this point in the trial. Joe said that our only defense (against the five federal felony charges of burglary and malicious destruction of property) is “our lives.” He maintained that while we didn’t have the consent of Dow to enter their offices, “ we did have the consent of the poor people around the world; the 50% of the world’s population now dying of malnutrition, the mothers, the babies that die every day in the US. We feel we did have their consent to stop the Dow Chemical Company’s relationship with the United States.” (Transcript p. 582).

Joe argued that we were not committing a crime but stopping “a criminal activity by a massive institution that is crushing, not just lives in Vietnam, not just in Guatemala, but our own lives, because most of us are still powerless to change Dow, to stop Dow from making a bomb, an incendiary which is against international law; whether, indeed, the history of Dow Chemical Company isn’t precisely the thing that should be on trial here today…isn’t Dow the criminal? Isn’t their relationship with the government a criminal act? Aren’t their foreign investments sapping land resources, money, labor from countries all over the world? Isn’t that a criminal act?

…Isn’t it Dow that really should be on trial before you today? Isn’t it because of their managing, manipulating, killing, in your name as well as mine, we have alleged to have tried to stop them and you must judge whether that was just, or not.” (Transcript, p. 583)

The six of us were leaning forward, sending Joe our energy and support as all the Jesuit training in logic and public speaking poured into this powerful delivery. He continued to argue that some property, such as slave ships “that brought some of your ancestors to the US, the gas ovens of Nazi Germany,” and Dow’s napalm have no right to exist. If Dow is the burglar, the thief that steals from the poor around the world, then Dow is the one with the malice, manipulating our lives, turning our economy and society into an ‘economy of death,’ a ‘society of death.’ (p. 584). “What we did was really an act for life, an act of hope that you can trust us, trust our truth.” ( p. 585).

Do you have friends you would like to bring alive in your writing? Are the political causes of the sixties meaningful to you today?

Today I had all morning and all afternoon to work on my book, focusing on Day Two and Day Three of our DC-9 trial. I’m bushed. It was a grueling experience in 1970 and practically wore me out again in the re-writing of it. Judge Pratt had taken a page from the lessons of the Conspiracy Eight trial in Chicago – shut them up, gag them if they try to interrupt with questions. Never let them cross-examine witnesses, even if they fire their lawyers.

I have been fighting a cold too for the last several days. But I couldn’t pass up the chance to use the hours available to me, a clear, phone-interruption free day! What a gift!

I also feel gratitude for the opportunity we had in 1970 to confront the court system, to speak out against war, injustice and corporate murder of innocent people. I can feel the feelings I felt then, over 40 years ago. I suppose that is why I keep writing, to bring alive the scenes, the defiance we exhibited, the fire in our hearts to struggle together for justice and peace.

Now I can rest, rest my cold, rest the work energy, rest the feelings and trust the great spirits of today’s young people to carry on the fight for justice, peace and real rest for all people.

Viva Tunisia!

Where are the other three of the nine, including the two women?

My waking thoughts were about Charlie Meconis’s book With Clumsy Grace: The American Catholic Left 1961-1975. It must have been a doctoral dissertation with all the citations, charts and references to court documents. He interviewed 46 people for the book (including me and other friends), so there are quotes from Joe O’Rourke throughout, also Neil, Phil, Dan, Liz, etc. I read more at the Y yesterday afternoon, then kept it up in the late afternoon and evening at home. So, it was fresh in my mind. Also, I worked on the Chicago jail/court chapter yesterday morning, so most hours of the day were given to my book – either writing or reading the Meconis version of events surrounding the subject of my book.

The Catholic Left was an amazing movement, and much credit for the energy, vision and organization goes to Phil Berrigan. But Meconis also brings out conflicts within the movement over religious motivation vs the humanitarian/political, between the women and men, between increasingly “violent” tactics and the philosophy of non-violence, paranoia and precaution against FBI infiltration.

Memory is so fluid. It seems affected by the present moment, by who I am now. I have elements of my past operating in my present: my nun self that likes schedule, routine, silence and my “wild woman” self that loves my sweet young husband, all my crazy friends and my criminal past. I discovered when I was writing about one important character in the book that I was writing more about the person I know today (compassionate, secure as a leader and teacher, open to exploring his own suffering) than what I really remember about him in 1969. Amazing that we have somehow maintained and worked through the difficulties of a 42 year old relationship!

I know that my particular story, my vision, my memories will contribute to the mosaic that is the tale of the Catholic Left, the broader anti-war movement and the women’s movement of the late sixties, early seventies.


For the last six mornings, I have worked on my book. I have felt very productive. Sunday we had an “art camp” session with Pat creating new guitar pieces downstairs while I wrote upstairs in the office. We find it helpful to carve out special days when we support each other in our art. Then on Tuesday and Thursday, I missed my regular meditation group due to concern that I would become ill again from the freezing temperature in the room. I stayed home to meditate and do Qi Gong with Pat, which gave me two extra mornings to work. Morning is still my best, most productive writing time, but it has been quite a while since I have had six in a row to write.

My writing had been interrupted by illness but also by the quandary about how to continue the book if I take the suggestion of my teacher to begin with the DC-9 action. This would be my fifth version of Chapter One. I know that the reader needs a dramatic beginning to be drawn in, so I plunged right into the “action”:

Hearts beating fast, almost in unison it seemed, the nine of us circled in a group hug in front of the glass doors of the Dow Chemical lobbying office on 15th and L St. NW, Washington, DC. We were close enough that I could smell Art’s breakfast coffee on his breath and Bob’s cologne as we gave each other our last embrace and smile….

Part of what had me stumped was the dilemma of “explaining” what we were doing and why without the five chapters that had preceded this one in the first four drafts of my book. Would readers understand who we were, why a nun, ex-nun, draft resister and six priests would be destroying Dow property? Not only my personal background, my reasons for joining the convent, my gradual politicization process but also the background of the anti-war movement, changes in the Catholic Church, everything before this defining moment would become “back story.” Was it really the right place to begin? Or a sacrifice of meaning to drama?

I hope I have found a way during this week of hibernation, intense writing, reorganizing and pause in my blogging to flow from the DC Nine action to scenes that happened in earlier historical periods. I did this by answering questions posed by Catherine Melville in DC Women’s Detention Center about my convent experience and political development. I found myself able to experiment with letting go of the earliest two chapters on my childhood, education and religious upbringing (although the old versions will be gifts to my family). By Friday, I had finished a fairly major revision of the first four chapters with more “showing” than “telling,” more dialogue, more scenes. I will proceed with chapter five on Monday.

Although this reworking of the beginning of the book has been extremely time consuming and difficult, Pat reminds me of Robert Fripp‘s aphorism “We begin again constantly.” Perhaps this is a metaphor for life.

Has there been any “beginning again” in your life?

What I actually write for publication is such a CHOICE. I’m at that point with my book. I have to focus and choose what to keep and what to drop. I have to find a way to weave my early childhood, my motivations for joining the convent into “backstory.” It might mean changing the whole chronological way I approached the book, possibly a total re-writing! UGH!!!!!!!! But I’ve known that just rearranging the first three chapters, while cutting out NOTHING of the childhood, education, joining the convent parts wouldn’t work. I need to focus on the real heart of the story, the time from 1968-70 and find my beginning! I know the end, of that I’m very certain. It was like a revelation to see the end of the book-our sentencing in 1970. And it helped to have Pat’s suggestion about beginning each chapter of the book with a progressive “tease” from the sentencing. The action, trial and sentencing are important, the public parts of the story. But perhaps I need to also look at the beginning, middle and end of the story of my other very personal decision. How are the two interwoven? It would have been lovely to know this part of the structure of my book beforehand, but the writing process began where it did – first with journaling and telling pieces of the story to classes orally. Then I just wanted to get the whole of the story into the computer. The final book clearly has to be more selective in order to appeal to a wide range of readers, to grab and hold the reader.

The class last night (‘Narrative History and Biography: Works in Progress” taught at the Writer’s Center by Ken Ackerman) has already been helpful. He asked two of us to give our “elevator speeches” as if we had three minutes to tell a publisher about our books. I had a little warning, so I practiced with Pat as if I had met Gina Contrello from Ballantine Books. But Ken stopped me right away when I launched into the description of the book to ask “where are you now?” It threw me off. Why? Oh, I guess I’m in a class and being introduced to these other nine people. So, I said a bit about my difficulty giving up teaching and making this book a huge priority in the last three years, that I have a completed third draft and am waiting for an agent and need some critical feedback.

Ken talked for about an hour about how to find the “narrative arc” (beginning/end) of the story and showed us dozens of different books to illustrate that this can now happen in many different ways. “A Night to Remember,” 31 Days, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire each choose a particular time frame, a limitation. Reality is infinite. We are using story telling tools to tell the truth, so we need to find the core conflict and its resolution. The story can begin at the end, as does a biography of Emma Goldman – with her exile to Russia. There is a lot of freedom now, even with all the changes in the publishing business.

Then we looked at the two handouts, beginnings of books by members of the class, and gave them feedback. The lecture on “narrative arc” helped us focus on telling the story, finding its beginning and end point, the passion that drives us to write this particular book. In a week I will give the class copies of my first chapters to read!

I had to write this version as best I could for my family if nothing else. I wanted all the details in there someplace. I wanted to tell a woman’s version of the Berrigan-style Catholic Left actions. But the final published book will probably have to be more spare, more focused. I’m really hoping that one of the people in the class can become a possible reader for me.

What choices are you making today? Do they involve letting go? Limiting?

August 20, 2010

Today I completed the third draft of my book The Power of Love! Hooray!

As I was compiling a bibliography, I breathed yet another prayer of gratitude to all the teachers and writers who have influenced me for so many years – Theilard de Chardin, Franz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Thich Nhat Hanh. Two leaders of the Sisters of Loretto whom I dearly loved are on the list – Sister Luke Tobin (Hope is an Open Door) and Sister Helen Saunders (More than a Renewal )- which contains an entire chapter about my participation in the anti-war action that is the subject of my book. I still have the copies of several “handbooks” I dragged all over the country hitch-hiking from trials to demonstrations to speaking engagements: Seymour Hersh’s Chemical and Biological Warfare, Domhoff’s Who Rules America , The Rich and Super-Rich by Ferdinand Lundberg and Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital.

Not to mention the minimum of three novels I need every week to keep me going.

Isn’t it the least I can do– to contribute one book in gratitude for all I’ve been given to read?

After becoming a nun at age 17 and remaining in the order for almost 12 years, I eventually became very alienated from the religion of my youth.  My book traces some of these deep changes, but that story ends in 1970.  A great deal has happened since then.

Saturday I attended the memorial for Bill Callahan, a Jesuit priest who devoted his life to relieving poverty in Central America and challenging sexual inequality in the church.  He founded the Quixote Center, which shipped millions of dollars of humanitarian aid  to Nicaragua during the Contra wars.  He challenged his religious order and the church on many levels.  I was privileged to work with Quixote Center years ago, so I participated in his service with gratitude and joy at having been part of his community.  Two nuns there- whose political actions got them in “hot water” with their original religious orders- found acceptance in my old order, the Sisters of Loretto.  They are part of my community and my life.

I find that my old antagonisms melt in the face of believers of any faith who are able to sing in their grief and celebrate beautiful lives.

Tomorrow evening I will be reading from my book The Power of Love at the Voices from the Heart Community/Unity Variety Show.  This is a very exciting moment for me and several of the other artists performing new works for the first time in public.  I am particularly grateful to the producer of this event for offering a similar opportunity four years ago.  Although that event never happened, I was inspired to begin writing my book with publication in mind.  The writing process revealed new themes and a deeper understanding of my own experiences.

So, tomorrow, I come to the Community/Unity Variety Show with a completed book, 39 chapters long.  Of course, I will only read short introductions to the first three chapters.  The setting for the reading is my sentencing for three federal felonies for burglary and destruction of property at the Dow Chemical lobbying office in Washington, DC in March, 1969 as part of the DC-9, a “Catholic Left” anti-Vietnam War group.

“I stretch out my stockinged and healed foot toward the Federal courthouse step and quickly pull it back near its partner.  Should I actually climb these steps that could lead me to 35 years in prison or run down Constitution Avenue and flee?”

I hope those of you in the DC metro area will join us.