Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith was a complete surprise to me. A whap-to-the-side-of-the-head walloping shocker. Why? I’m not completely sure, but the surprise was delightful and refreshing. It’s good writing, for one thing, and it’s also honest in a way that I appreciated. So much of Valente’s story and struggles resonated with me.
I haven’t figured out how Valente spent so much time with the sisters at the Mount St. Scholastica monastery, but I’m glad she did, and I’m glad her journalistic training prepared her to capture it to share with me.
This book spoke to my heart and applied to my experience. Valente faces a challenge, and the challenge is life. She carries a burden, and the burden is hurt. She seeks a solution, and the solution is Jesus.
Atchison Blue is part memoir, part guidebook, part something I don’t know how to name. It explores difficult questions of faith and hard experiences of life. It’s raw and gritty and fun to read, somehow. There’s laughter, but there are tears, too.
I had a chance to talk with Valente about her book, the writing process, and how it relates to living an integrated Catholic life. Here’s our conversation:
Sarah: Judith, your book was such a delightful read, and yet it challenged me too. Tell us about the challenges you faced when you were writing it.
Judith: The biggest challenge came perhaps in what to include and what to let go. I thought everything I was experiencing was fascinating and every word the sisters spoke to me worthy of being immortalized. And then you have this crushing experience, when your book’s editor gets hold of the manuscript, of that person saying, “Well, you know, that just isn’t that interesting to anyone but you, so you should take it out.”
I also wanted it to be much more about the sisters than me. My publisher (Sorin Books) was pushing me to make it even more about my journey: what was I feeling, how was I being transformed, what was I struggling with?
I suppose in the end, the book became a balance, a happy medium, between my life and the sisters’ lives and how they intersected.
There was, of course, an internal debate over how much to reveal about other people. I write in the book about a very serious conflict I have with my supervising producer at PBS. I write about the far-from-perfect relationship I have with my adult stepdaughters.
I decided that I had to be no-holds-barred honest. I believe the reader can smell a phony a mile away. And so I thought if I write honestly about the situation, and put my own actions under the microscope as well and fess up to my own complicity in the failure of those relationships, then readers will sense an authenticity and maybe even be able to see some of their own experience in mine.
I did worry about how my husband would feel about what I wrote about his daughters. He read every word, and I was prepared to take out anything he found offensive. But when he said I had written the truth, then that was a great relief that I had done what I needed to do.
I had written honestly about them, and about my own foibles as well.
A lot of Atchison Blue is about your journey down what I can only call the “Benedictine road” with the Benedictine sisters. How have you continued in that journey? Is it something you tap into every day?
I like to think I walk down “the Benedictine road” every minute of my days. I think you develop certain habits of mind that make you “Benedictine.”
In the book, I talk about my struggle to tame my hot Sicilian temper. Well, the sisters taught me a little exercise. Before you open your mouth to speak, ask yourself is what you are about to say true, is it kind, and is it necessary? I find I can stop myself sometimes before that fuse gets lit. Not always! But a lot of times.
They also used to have a tradition where before they embarked on a task together, they would bow to one another and say, “Have patience with me.” I love that! I’m a pretty hard taskmaster on myself and I can get very irritated if I think someone is not working as hard or as well as they can. And so now instead of lashing out, I just think, “Have patience with me.” We just sometimes have to have the patience to let people be who they are going to be.
I also pay more attention to my prayer life. I like what Dorothy Day used to tell people. When you are the most busy and things seem the most hectic, that’s the time you need to stop to pray. And when I feel I’m just in a frenzy of work, I often will just pause, and take some time for prayer and meditation.
I also do a lot of spiritual reading. The Benedictines talk about “lectio divina.” I don’t think this means just reading spiritual texts. I think it means reading anything—a poem, or even a film—with an eye toward “What is the deeper meaning here for me?”
I became a Benedictine Oblate in April 2013. I am now a lay associate of Mount St. Scholastica, and you actually take vows to live the Benedictine values and commit to “conversion of life.” I also think taking those vows changed me. I’m much more aware of being part of this larger family of Benedictines, and how I speak and how I behave reflects on them. So I want to conduct myself in a way that is worthy of being part of this great monastic enterprise. Would, though, that I would always live up to my own ideals!
I’ll be recommending your book, though I’ll be honest: I’m having a hard time finding the words to best describe your book. How do you describe it to those in your family and to your friends? What’s the “elevator pitch” you use with those closest to you?
This is a poetic book about one woman’s unlikely journey with a group of fantastically quirky, interesting, and powerful women who happen to live in a monastery, and whose struggles, setbacks, and ultimate insights will probably resonate with your own life.
Living an integrated life is an ongoing struggle for pretty much everyone I know. In your book, you introduced me to the Benedictine idea of conversatio. How does that play a role in your everyday life now? How can it apply to everyone else too?
Conversatio involves an on-going conversatio of your life. It comes from the Latin root, “to turn with.” I like this notion of turning, because turning connotes change, and there is so much I am trying to change about myself.
But I best like the definition of conversatio given to me by Sister Thomasita Homan: conversatio as a constant conversation with life.
When I felt very depressed one day about losing my temper with my beautiful husband, I asked Sister Thomasita why I can live conversatio at the monastery, but I can’t seem to live at home around the person I love most in the world. And she said something I’ve never forgotten. “You are living conversatio,” she said. “Your struggle, that’s the conversatio.”
And that gave me hope that I don’t have to be perfect, I can just be human. Because conversatio isn’t the final word, it’s an ongoing dialogue. And with conversatio, there is always the chance to begin again.
Your book is really a courageous baring of yourself, Judith, and I admire that. What did you learn as you traveled the road to publication with this particular book?
Well, my publisher told me when it accepted the manuscript that the book needed only minor editing. I learned there is no such thing as minor editing! By the end of the process, I had to cut about 20,000 words from the manuscript, to get it to fit the book length the publisher had in mind.
I also learned that I made the right choice to be so frank and reveal my own foibles and struggles. That is what people always comment on. I think by making myself vulnerable, it gives those who read the book the courage to face their own doubts/failings/struggles too.
Sarah Reinhard is a Catholic wife, mom and author whose nose is probably in a book if she’s not scraping something off of her shoes. Her latest book is A Catholic Mother’s Companion to Pregnancy: Walking with Mary from Conception to Baptism. Check out all of her books at http://sarahreinhard.com/writing/my-books/.
Visit Sarah’s website: http://sarahreinhard.com/
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