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This essay makes brief reference to attempted suicide. If you are considering suicide, you can call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 any time to speak with a trained crisis counselor and be connected to resources.


THE NUNS KNOW THEY’RE WORTHLESS,” said my taxi driver, “that’s what makes them better than all of us.”

I was looking out the window at the sand-colored and clipped facades, eyes smitten and mind distracted by Rome, glorious even when dressed in piles of curb trash. My chauffeur was a middle-aged man who kept the radio up as he made voice messages on his phone. He was taking me from my tiny studio rental in Furio Camino to Roma Termini, where the train to Jesi would leave at 11:15 a.m. The plan was to work in a monastery in exchange for food and housing for one month.

I had meant to finish my oral exams before leaving. And I should have, since there was only one left, and I had been studying for weeks, but I read the time wrong and missed Women in French Medieval Literature by four and a half hours. The irony was that I had been locked in my room in quarantine, studying ceaselessly. I could picture the professor, somehow inside her laptop, waiting for me at 12:30 p.m. while I lay lazily in the old washroom-turned-rental on the trundle bed, which touched the desk, which touched the kitchenette, which touched the bathroom door, which almost touched the shower that was turned on by pressing a digital button on a plastic remote. If you went backward, from the remote-controlled shower to the bathroom door, to the kitchenette, to the desk, there was my laptop, closed. And touching it, the trundle bed. And touching that, me. And during the twelfth hour, my professor was waiting for me, growing angry. While I was just one foot away, isn’t that funny, kicking my legs, stomach-down with the pigeonhole window open, rereading my highlights on an article about Marie de France, wishing the exam could be sooner so I could get it over with. When I logged on at 4:59 on the dot, I was confronted with my tardiness in front of other students. Maybe it was the fact that I had been living in isolation. Or that I had put off this exam for two years. Maybe I just felt bad for disappointing the professor because I had planned on asking her to be my advisor. Well, I started to cry. I cried on the video chat, and as I apologized, the faces of two students and one professor stared back at me from the screen.

“What? Am I crying in an American accent?” I asked, before shutting the laptop.

But now that was over, and I was in a taxi driving past ancient ruins, feeling fresh and full of life as I refocused on the world and moved away from myself. I rolled down the window a little more and thought about how to respond to the taxi driver who said that nuns think they’re worthless. What about the laypeople who also consider themselves worthless? I built the question in Italian.

“Well, they become taxi drivers,” he answered. “You know, I studied to become a dentist. I went to a trade school for dentistry.”

“What happened?”

“What happens only once to everyone in life, there was a chance—”

“—to get free?”

“Yes. Exactly. I really didn’t like being in an office all day. So, here I am.”

I looked at the back of his head in real life and his eyes in the rearview mirror. At that moment, we passed an old palazzo divided into businesses. I imagined one as a dentist’s office. The dentist was operating on someone and, for a moment, would look out the window, tools in a patient’s mouth, to catch a sunny glimpse of a taxi driver, windows down, with a woman in the backseat, his hands on the wheel, living his little freedom.


Anna was an atheist until one month ago. Now she wants to become a nun. She is thirty years old and from a small town in Italy called Staffolo. She studied literature in college, and although she finished, her grades were bad. She hated studying. But she liked to read in the garden. She also liked to work in the garden, and she was good at it. The paths she pulled weeds from were immaculate, carved straight in perfection. Her dad was Dutch and her mom Italian. She lived with them during college. Her face was youthful, her limbs long, her shoulders square. She was a vegetarian. She lived with her parents after college too. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. She liked reading and gardening. And singing. She sang in a choir, and she was trying to teach herself piano. Then, one day, something changed inside her. She couldn’t explain it. She just saw, for the first time, all the gifts in the world. Like singing. And she realized there must be a giver—right? There must be a Giver.

She remembered that three years prior, her mother had found a convent where one could work in exchange for food and housing. You should go, her mother proposed to her father, but he declined. They’re divorced now. Anna remembered this place, and now she wanted to go. Her desire made her curious about herself. Maybe this was what she was supposed to do.

She found the phone number and called. As it rang, she nervously brushed crumbs off her desk.


“Hello. Good morning. My name is Anna, and I’m calling because I’m wondering if you could just answer a quick question I have.”

“Yes, dear?”

“How long does it take to become a nun?”

“Seven years, dear.”


“Yes. Of training and studying.”

“Longer than an American PhD?”

The nun paused before speaking again. “You can seek discernment, dear. Talk to a local priest and you can find out if the sisterhood is your calling.”

“Thank you.”

Anna hung up. She packed a suitcase and left.

In the early mornings at the monastery, she swept the courtyard, which she liked. In the late mornings, she pulled weeds from the garden, which she also liked. After lunch, she would wash her work clothes in the sink and hang them to dry, then read in the garden. She liked it there. No one cared that she was thirty and still didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. She could breathe easy in the silence, in the deep blue lack of other people’s thoughts.


Anna arrived at the monastery on a Sunday, and I arrived on a Tuesday.

Anna was in her room before dinner, a simple attic room with an old wooden armoire, a single bed with a sheet, a desk and chair, and a sink in the corner. The ceiling slanted downward to meet the window, low to the ground, overlooking one of the three cloister gardens. She decided to wear her floral skirt that night. It would be her first night not eating alone. She pulled it over her hips and smoothed her shirt over its waist. There was a small mirror over the sink that never caught Anna’s eye, not once during her entire stay. She checked her phone and saw it was 7:31. As she trotted down the steep steps, she heard a door close and some laughter, a voice, another. She reached the bottom of the steps to abruptly face me, holding the handle of a very large suitcase, mostly full of books. Anna flinched, and Mother Laura said, “This is a new volunteer.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Anna.

“Nice to meet you too.”

“Why don’t you go up and put your things away, then you can join Anna for dinner.”

I made my way up the stairs, and Anna continued down the hallway. My hands buzzed. Meeting new people always made me anxious. Meeting other women at this age was scary, with all the real hope it bled. I knew that biologically this was the thing I needed: men live longer when they’re married, and women live longer when they have strong friendships. My nerves were evolutionary, you could say. To survive, I really, really needed to be liked.

When I arrived in the dining room, Anna was already waiting at the table. The lit candle made shadows move over plates of pasta and vegetables, a basket of bread and some water. Lucia, one of the nuns, stood in the doorway smiling.

“She likes to eat in the dark.”

“I mean, if you want, we can turn on the light.”

“It’s fine. I like it.”

“Well, I’ll leave you two. I’ll come back in about an hour to take the dishes.”

I sat on the wooden chair across from Anna. “So, when did you get here?”

“A few weeks ago.”

“Is the work hard?

“No, I mean, I quite like it. Mostly gardening and cleaning. Sometimes we restore old furniture. It’s nice.”

I began to use my fork to bring sliced vegetables and cheeses to my plate. “Sort of meditative?”

“Yes, it’s quite relaxing.” A laugh jolted out of Anna.

I smiled, trying to understand. “Was your life before this not so relaxing?”

“No, I’m just still getting used to the prayer and meditation schedule. I’ve never done either before.”

“I didn’t realize we had to follow their schedule.”

“It’s because I’m doing a discernment.”

“A discernment?”

“To see whether I want to join the convent.”

Lucia returned to clear the dishes. Before she rolled the cart away, I stopped her.

“Will you tell us why you chose to become a nun?”

Lucia’s mouth relaxed in a surprised smile. She was the youngest nun, almost forty.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to.”

“Let me think about it. It’s hard to explain.”

“Of course.”

“Here. I’ll tell you this. Tomorrow, when I bring you dinner, I’ll let you know whether I’ve decided to tell you.”

“Of course.”

“I just need some time to think about it. How to tell it.”

Anna and I spend five hours a day either pulling weeds from the paths, restoring ancient furniture, or resanding and painting window frames. On the first morning, she asked me about my ring. She and the nuns seemed stupefied by it. I wasn’t the only one to wear a ring, though. Anna told me Mother Laura did too, because she’s married to God. But my ring was strange to them. In Europe, I was too young to be married. Plus, I was alone. The ring is interesting, but an empty space next to you, especially in a foreign country, makes people raise their eyebrows. He was going to come, I would say, but there were bureaucratic issues.

While we sat on the overgrown stones and began to pull weeds in the heat, Anna would stay silent. I would always speak first, and each time she would look startled, not as if she’d been interrupted, but as if she were amused to discover that I had been next to her all those minutes.

“So, why are you considering joining the convent?”

At this, her eyebrows folded downward. Anna had a stutter, one that went on for so long that it wasn’t funny at first, then it was, then it wasn’t again.

“I don’t know,” she said.

That morning we carried a ladder upstairs to a room with an eight-foot windowsill. Anna, six feet tall already, used the ladder to get even closer to the sky, and I sat on the window ledge beneath her, sanding. A nun walked by below us, and we waved. We were on the first floor, which is the second floor in Italy. She stopped between the rosebushes and said, “Lower the shutter! I’m afraid you’ll fall.” I looked up at Anna, and she shrugged. I lowered the shutter two-thirds of the way, casting a shadow on the room, and we kept working.

“We wouldn’t have fallen,” said Anna.

I looked up at her and smirked, but she was focused on the task.

“I’m going to use the restroom,” I said.

I walked down the hallway, past all the rooms with window frames we had yet to paint. When I washed my hands, I saw there was paint on my nose and cheek, in a way that made it look like I had done it on purpose to be cute. My hair was dirty, and I looked greasy. I couldn’t remember the last time I had looked in a mirror. Our rooms had little sinks in them, and the toilet on our floor was a standalone. Each morning, I would get dressed and splash my face with cold water, brushing my teeth while looking out the window of the attic into the garden.

It made me feel so light, being that present. Like I didn’t have a past or a future, just a list of daily tasks from the nuns and questions to ask Anna. It felt so healing, being told what to do, having a curfew, meals prepared and wheeled across the cloister to our table. We could take the train to Jesi or walk up to Saint Paul’s in the afternoon if we wanted, they told us when we arrived. I wanted to, until I was cradled by the rhythm. I hadn’t known this life was an option, otherwise I probably would have chosen it. It seemed unfair to have grown up in Orange County with career aptitude tests and the pressure of achieving new money. No one ever thought of wisdom or poetry or traditions. I was beginning to genuinely feel this was a missed opportunity. But I wanted to check something. That afternoon I asked Lucia, “Are you allowed to leave?”

“Of course,” she said. “We run errands in town. We visit our friends in other convents. We go on hikes together, and then some nuns even prefer to wear their personal clothes instead of their habits.”

“Could you, say, meet a friend for coffee?”

“No,” she said. “Of course not.”

So I realized it wasn’t meant for me after all.


Some nights, we had visitors. People passing through on pilgrimages, or just coming to visit. A former volunteer named Maggie and her parents came down from Tuscany one night to celebrate Maggie’s birthday. Anna felt sick and stayed in her room, so it was just us four. Maggie’s mother made a point to fill any silence. Whether in English, Italian, or Danish, she did not like to shut up. Maggie was annoyed by this; you could see it in her elbows and her eyes. She was striking; her hair was cropped above her ears, and the buttons of her loose white blouse moseyed across her bronze chest, the simplicity of the fabric relieving her beauty. Her father was quiet. They were from Denmark but now lived in Tuscany. Maggie had been doing her master’s back in Denmark but came to live with her parents once the pandemic hit. Her mom liked to have the locals over for dinner. Her dad liked to paint, sometimes read. Maggie was a genius. Her mother told me all of these things. When Lucia came in, a sort of shift shuffled around me. Maggie and her mother began to relax. Maggie’s dad got up and went out to sit on the veranda with Lucia.

The second the door shut, both women exploded with the truth, letting it flow out of their mouths like frothing milk.

“He’s depressed,” said Maggie’s mom.

“But he’s not usually like this,” said Maggie.

“He was diagnosed with MS,” said Maggie’s mom.

“He didn’t tell me until six months ago, and he’s had it for four years,” said Maggie. “Four. Years.”

“His depression makes the disease seem worse,” said Maggie’s mom. “But it’s really not that bad. He tells himself he’s dying, and he constantly complains about everything, which gives him more pain and makes his body actually start dying.”

“Mom, you never shut up. Let her talk,” said Maggie. They looked at me.

“Wow,” I said. “That sounds really hard.”

“It was horrible,” said Maggie. “Especially during Covid, because we were so isolated. I couldn’t write my thesis because I was constantly distraught by the fact that my dad was trying to kill himself. Did we say that already? Every time we left him alone for a second, he would disappear, and once I found him trying to hang himself. Another time he tried to drown himself in the bath. He doesn’t even care that I keep finding him and how much it’s affecting my life. I kept requesting extensions for my thesis, and the third one was declined. So I had a video call with my—what’s it called?”


“My advisor, where I just broke down crying and told him everything that’s been happening, and he gave me another extension.”

“Anyway,” said Maggie’s mom, cutting into her breaded veal. “Lucia had MS. That’s why we’re here.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that.”

“You didn’t? She used to be in a wheelchair. Then she was on crutches. For years, actually! How she healed is a miracle. So we brought him in to talk to her.”

“She’s one of the only people he’ll actually talk to.”

I looked at Lucia and the father outside on the rattan deck chairs overlooking the garden.

Later that night, after everyone had gone, Lucia came into the dining room as I was clearing up dishes.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m still thinking about it. I’ll let you know tomorrow whether I’ve decided to tell you.”


In the middle of the night, I knew what I really wanted to say. I got out of bed, charged my computer, typed the message in an email, and sent it. It wasn’t impulsive. Well, it was, but I could recognize its truth.

Sometimes the things you feel in the middle of the night are the most true. That’s when you’re yourself. Sometimes they’re the most false. That’s when you’re not yourself. But either way, it’s always about the middle of the night.

My feet were dirty, and the room was humid. I opened my window to catch the summer night. I left the light on, and after about an hour of writing, I looked up to see hundreds of mosquitos and gnats covering my ceiling.

I thought of Lucia. When I looked at her on the veranda, all of a sudden she seemed fragile and weak. Shouldn’t she look strong? It’s only the strong who are silent about their suffering, who let their story be told by others, who are okay with that fact that people might never know their story at all. I wasn’t like that. I was always sending closure emails to remind people that I had a final say of the narrative.

The next morning, I forgot about the email for a few seconds after waking, then I cringed, then I felt glad I had written it. I clicked on “sent” emails to reread the message I wrote. But it turned out I had just sent it to myself.

I knew I was starting to feel more like myself because I was able to push through the moments when I didn’t feel like myself. I was the first one awake, and I decided to make a birthday card for Maggie. The night prior, she and her mother had been so open with me, but when I gave her the card, she acted as if we had just met yesterday. Which was technically true.

The next day, after another morning of pulling weeds and an afternoon of reading, Anna and I sat down at the long dinner table at dusk, just us two. The decrescendo of our conversation was spurred by the sounds of metal and wheels at seven-thirty, when Lucia popped her head in the door frame with her usual grin.

“Hi,” she said, shy, knowingly.

“Good evening!” I said, and Anna nodded lowly.

We helped Lucia move the dishes from the cart to the table as she explained her decision. “So. I have thought about it. If I come back again after dinner to take away your plates, I will tell you. But if I don’t come back, and instead it’s Mother Laura or someone else, that means I’m not going to tell you.”

“Of course,” I said.

With that, Lucia left.

I sat there with Anna. One of us was attracted to the holiness of the church. The other was burned by shame from the church. Does the shame come from touching holiness? We shared our experiences with religion, and Anna said she was depressed for five years until arriving at the convent.

“What was it like for you?” I asked.

“Well. The more depressed I am, the more the world bleeds together and everyone seems like the same predictable person. When I’m happy, though, I can appreciate the uniqueness of each person and thing. The world is all of a sudden full of people who have obsessions and voices and nuances and handwriting that have never been seen in the history of this world and are never to be seen again. I don’t really know how to describe depression, except to say that none of that exists, so everything becomes shriveled and blurry.”

The sound of the cart rumbling on the uneven tiles grew louder. Lucia entered the room, but she didn’t even sit. She paused near the corner of the table to say only this: 

“I used to want to do something to help people with my life. I was going to become a nurse.” She glanced out the window where the leaves were dark around the candlelit reflection cast of us three. 

You know, its like a flower. If I give you a flower,” she opened her hand to reveal her palm. It’s beautiful. Its nice.” She let her hand fall to her side. But its not useful.” She shrugged. I believe our life is like the flower.”



Skyler Di Mauro is a writer from California currently living in Milan, Italy.




Photo by Mario La Pergola on Unsplash

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