An invitation to teach at The Institute for Arts in Transformation in Philadelphia came my way recently; I turned it down, but was reminded of the time before last that I taught for them, when the institute was held in a building that was half dormitory, half nunnery.
The event kicked off with a welcome from Sister Something or Other, an austere woman not unlike the nuns who taught me 1st through 6th grade. Her stern, unsmiling greeting was more rules than reassurance, a stark contrast from the artsy types that had gathered. Her henchwomen were no different; find yourself late for lunch, as I did one day, and turn the corner to find a nun blocking the hallway before you.
Aren't you supposed to be somewhere right now? she asked.
Yessister, came my deeply-ingrained reply.
Lunch, unfortunately, was not something to rush off to. God-awful food lined the nuns' buffet. Aesthetically-displeasing lumps that left us guessing, Jell-O salads made with pairings more ill-matched than a duet at the Grammys. The first day, we politely made our way through meals. By the next, many of us begrudgingly decided to diet.
Fortunately, I had my friends Hank and April in nearby New Jersey to rescue me. We made plans to meet up on the campus of the convent.
There was a good chance they would be delayed that evening, so I visited the nuns' library for some reading material. Partly to get away with something without their knowing, and partly because I was interested in a particular author, I swiped a book.
And there I waited, under a tree, in sleeveless shirt and mini-skirt, reading a Henri Nouwen book on celibacy.
Whatcha reading about? Hank yelled out the window as they drove up.
Celibacy, I answered.
Uh huh, Hank said.
Hank is a large Italian man very much in touch with his senses, especially when it comes to food. At their house one evening, as April scrambled to prepare the family for their daughter's church concert in just a few hours, Hank whisked me to the car, drove me to a gourmet food store, and led me right to the dessert counter where, he knew, the angels were singing.
Pulling out of the campus now, I warned them to drive fast, because the nuns might be after me. Stolen book. Night on the town. Woman doomed for hell.
But the celibacy book, I said. It's interesting.
Uh huh. Long weekend, Amy?
No, really; they're supposed to pour all that desire into their devotion for God.
Hank was too distracted to engage in conversation; he was set on finding a certain Brazilian grill. Not one of those chain places but the real thing, the kind of place where you bring your own wine and communicate with the waiter via hand gestures.
Vibrant music played in the tiny, packed place. We squeezed into our table, touching backs with the happy family behind us. Servers came by with skewers of juicy red meat and vivid yellow grilled pineapple. Yes, yes! We ate, we laughed, we drank.
Then they drove me back. The book in one hand, I hugged my dear friends goodbye, smelling the black beans in April's mass of gorgeous black curls.
The conference attendees could smell it on me, too. I fessed up as to where I'd been, and they were devastated. They insisted I tell them how to get there, and they'd find a way. I wrote down what I remembered.
Then I walked down the hall, tipsy, slipped into the library, and put the book exactly back in its place.
and you thought I couldn't connect celibacy and cooking.