Pushcart: Ann Patchett – “The Mercies” (non-fiction) from Granta #114, Spring 2011

Nun Origami by Akira Yoshizawa

Nun Origami by Akira Yoshizawa

If I was firmly wedged between the cracks I’d fallen into, she had plans to pull me up, by the hair if necessary. She would see to it that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life not exactly knowing how to read or write….The only thing interesting about my anger and blame of Sister Nena was my willingness to hold on to it without any further reflection until I was in my thirties.

Back when I started writing about the Pushcart essays, I mentioned Roxane Gay’s comment that memoir has to look outward as well as inward. I think this essay does that very well, if I’m interpreting the concept correctly.

Patchett starts out quite narrowly with Sister Nena’s move into a new apartment, and all the details thereof. The focus soon broadens far beyond the nun’s situation as we learn more about the depth of their relationship. Then it broadens even more to touch on the power of religion, when religion is about mercy. And on the power of a teacher to change a little girl’s life, in a way that the girl might not realize for thirty years. I was moved, and even, dare I say it, inspired.

It’s also about how we grow, and how we realize things as adults that escaped us as children. As Patchett says in her Granta interview about the piece, “The whole essay is about how I got it wrong.”

Patchett, whose family moved several times in her early childhood, struggled to learn to read, and Sister Nena taught her. To Patchet, it seemed like torture at the time. Like continual failure. And yet, she did indeed learn to read. In fact, her childhood inspiration for being a writer was to show Sister Nena: success is the best revenge. Well, she sure showed her, didn’t she.

The only thing interesting about my anger and blame of Sister Nena was my willingness to hold on to it without any further reflection until I was in my 30s.… It was a bit akin to Helen Keller holding a grudge against Annie Sullivan for yanking her around.

A child is molded in ways she doesn’t recognize, of course. And adults, we have our own set of impressions. Of nuns, for instance. I’ve always thought nuns as the opposite of empowered, liberated, iconoclasts. But Patchett sees it a little differently:

What we were told repeatedly was to listen. God had a vocation for all of us and if we paid close attention and were true to ourselves, we would know His intention. Sometimes you might not like what you heard. You might think that what was being asked of you was too much, but at that point there was really no getting out of it. Once you knew what God wanted from your life, you would have to be ten different kinds of fool to look the other way.… [T]he voice I heard was consistent: be a writer. It didn’t matter that writing had never been listed as one of our options. I knew that for me this was the truth, and to this end I found the nuns to be invaluable examples. I was, after all, educated by a group of women who had in essence jumped ship, ignored the strongest warnings of their fathers and brothers in order to follow their own clear direction. They were working women who had given every aspect of their lives over to their beliefs, as I had every intention of giving my life over to my beliefs.

Revenge is sweet, indeed. Especially when it comes in the form of a thank-you note as lovely as this one.

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