I’ve mentioned that I have stayed at a farm and I have visited a convent, but I didn’t say that I vacationed at a farming convent this past summer.
When I came back, I made up some kind of script to tell people what I did, because that’s the efficient thing to do. I couldn’t say “I prayed,” because it’s politically incorrect to admit you have a religion, and everybody knows anyway that prayer is what people do at a convent. Religion nowdays is like sex a hundred years ago, when it was incorrect to admit you had sex but everybody knew that sex is what people do in a marriage, and sometimes outside of a marriage, too.
So I recited my little script, which, now that I am writing it down, I realize has the singsong cadence of a children’s book: The nuns keep goats. Twice, I helped to milk the goats. I stood with the goatkeeper nun in the kitchen and watched her make mozzarella from the milk. The next day I grated the mozzarella while the same nun made an enormous pizza crust. She put the mozzarella on it with some vegetables. Then she baked the pizza and we all had it for dinner.
People got a peculiarly difficult to read facial expression when they heard this script. I wasn’t sure if they were revolted at the thought of my eating something that I had pulled out of a goat and then left out overnight to drain of bodily fluids (which is what whey essentially is), or if they, too, felt the draw of the bucolic dream I had lived for a week, and envied me. Maybe the idea of veiled nuns eating pizza just weirded them out.
But the most vivid memory from my visit was not easy to put in a script, so I didn’t tell people. The goats all had non-Christian names, and the one I most clearly recall was a kid named Dexter. I fed young Dexter some fresh warm milk out of a liter bottle with a nipple, and he was very happy to have it. I understood then why goats are depicted as they are; like dolphins, their faces have little smiles built in. But goats smile as if they were trying to keep from telling a dirty joke, and when they are happy, they smile as if it were a particularly juicy vignette that propriety forbids them from sharing. When the bottle was empty, Dexter kept smiling at me and licking my rubber gloves to get every bit of that deliciousness.
Then the goatkeeper nun (she was a novice, not a full-grown nun, but let us not split hairs) let Dexter and his male cousin out into the yard. We started to feed the adult goats their hay when the nun realized that Dexter had pushed through a little hole in the fence into the yard where the female kids were. She hustled out of the barn. “Dexter, get back here!” she shouted. She explained that even young goats are, well, goatish, and prone to take any opportunity to mate with any female goat they see. It was important to keep Dexter from committing incest with his sisters and female cousins, I gathered, not for religious reasons, but to keep the breeding program strong.
Dexter paid no heed to the nun’s shouts. He merrily capered away from her, and then I understood why a goat, or “caper” in Latin, gave rise to the verb and the noun “caper.” It was a striking dance-like gait. Finally, with veil and habit billowing behind, the nun caught up with Dexter, slipped her fingers around his collar, and led him back to the barn.
Many people “in the world” (who do not pursue a religious career), when they think about nuns and monks taking a vow of poverty, think of windswept barrenness, spareness, emptiness.
I did not see that in the convent, not at all. What I saw was action. The nuns did stuff, they didn’t own stuff. They were so busy working and praying that although they had plenty of space in their convent, they didn’t have space in their lives to own many things. They each had a few things individually, like seashells or a book about flower species, but stuff didn’t own them.
So when I write about objects that captivate me but which I choose not to own, I’m at an extremely basic level of asceticism, because stuff still captivates me, which is to say, things hold me captive.