A Woman's Path


by Jo Giese
photograph by Jill Johnson

Sister Jo is just as likely to be found sharing the stage with the Dalai Lama in Chicago, speaking about simplicity and spirituality, or driving a Jeep in New Mexico, helping the native people learn how to get the resources they need. Every five to seven years she's had a moment of clarity, her work has changed, and her path has led her somewhere new.

I flunked kindergarten. I had a dull teacher. She was so religious about us drinking that warm milk and lying down when we weren't tired and tying shoelaces around chair legs. I had nine brothers and I already knew how to do all of that. I couldn't find anything that interested me except Officer Bob and his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. (I've always had a plus attitude for the law since, and I've always loved Harley-Davidsons.) Officer Bob came during recess and asked if I'd like a ride. So every recess, if the weather was decent, I rode around the block in his Harley-Davidson sidecar.
When school was over the teacher sent a note home with my grade and it said, Fail. She wrote: This child does two things well. She runs up and down the fire escape and rides around the block on a motorcycle with a policeman. I was so disgusted. She didn't even know the name of the motorcycle, and I'd called it a Harley-Davidson all year. I said to my mother, "I don't care. It was boring. I'm glad to get out of there." My mother said, "But you're not out of there, Jo. No one has been put on this earth to entertain you, my dear daughter. If you were bored all year, it's because you were boring. You are here to entertain yourself." She said, "You're going back to repeat that class until she lets you out." I went back and I was so cooperative I drove the teacher crazy. I force-fed the kids that warm milk, and within two weeks she passed me on to the first grade. That's how I got out of kindergarten. It taught me that I'm responsible for my life being interesting, and that if I'm bored, I'm boring. That was one of the best lessons I could have ever lived.
In the second grade I had a vision and learned what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had a wonderful teacher, Miss James. There were eighty-three children in the classroom. (I have to smile these days when fifteen is too many. Everybody had sixty-seventy kids in a classroom. One teacher. That was a normal public school in Montezuma County, Colorado, in the 1930s.) Miss James was an old maid. She cut her hair short and comfortable. She was rather plump and she was, I'm sure, in her seventies, because she was supposed to have retired. But we just loved her. Her classroom was magic.
We had a spelling test one day and I got a perfect paper, which meant that the girls' team had won and we'd get to take half a day off from school. But some kid turned around and accused me of cheating because I'd forgotten and left the little spelling book up at the corner of my desk. I hadn't looked at it, but I looked guilty because this book was open on my desk. Open. Miss James said, "Jo, did you look at the book during the test?" I couldn't answer her. I shook my head and cried. She put her arm around me and said, "Don't worry. I believe you. The girls have won!"
What a wonderful world-to have somebody who could do something like that for your life. Somebody who could believe you. I decided then that I was going to be a teacher. That was a vision for me. The spelling contest was the last period of the day. The class had ended, but I'd caught something special and I didn't rush out. I was full of light and understanding, and I stayed a long time at that desk, so the vision wouldn't go away until I understood it.
It may seem unusual for a seven-year-old to act like that, but I've talked to children about things that have happened to them, and I don't think it's so unusual. I just think children don't have anyone to talk to about it, or it happens so fast. People have told me these things happen, and they push them aside. But I didn't push it aside. I was trying to hold on to it.
I was thinking how I'd learn to be the best teacher, like Miss James. I knew I had to make a serious effort and get right into it. I got money from my piggy bank and bought a spiral notebook and ruled it into four columns. I headed them: what I like about this teacher, what I don't like about this teacher, what the other kids like about this teacher, what the other kids don't like about this teacher. I kept books on all my teachers, all the way through college.
Until the eighth grade I was going to be a great teacher, that's what I said. Then I met another great teacher, Mrs. Kuenneth. She said to me, "So, you're going to be a teacher?" I said, "Yes." She said, "Why don't you be an educator, Jo?" I said, "What's the difference?" She said, "The size of the classroom. If you're an educator, the whole world can be your classroom. Teaching can be limited; education never would be."
We had so much teaching in our house. My dad was very good in geology and social studies and geography, things like that, and my mother was good in math and spelling. They were natural teachers. We had this big blackboard in the kitchen and Dad would say, "Okay, everybody to the board for geography tonight." He'd call out capitals and we'd write down the states. Or he'd call out states and we'd write down rivers, all of that. That was just to warm us up. Mother would have the math and spelling contests.
It was fun for us to learn. We had a lot of hoboes come to our house. Out on the porch we kept a towel for them, and a razor and a soap dish. Dad would say, "These men are living geography lessons. They've been all over the country looking for work. If you've got any questions, these are the men to ask." We had no church and only had Mass about once a month, so we had all these visiting ministers and mission priests. Everything was learning for us.
My dad said two things to all of us. He said, "Try a lot of things and figure out what you love. Then figure out how to make a living with it. Never start the other way around. Never start with money. Start with what you love to do." The other thing he said was, "Life is all about selling. You just have to decide what you want to sell. Sell ideas, sell yourself, sell wares." Those two themes stuck with me. I knew I wanted to sell ideas. Later, I knew I wanted to sell the possibility of spiritual values and truths.
My parents were both equally my role models. I wanted to think like Daddy and tell stories like Mother, and cook like Mother and sell things like Daddy. (He was a salesman of professional shoes-he sold only to chefs and nurses, people who were on their feet all the time). I loved both my mother and father. I thought they were unique. My mother was a full-blooded Seneca-Iroquois is our nation, Seneca is one of our tribes. Daddy taught us to live by our head, and Mother taught us to live by our heart.
I was getting ready to graduate from Colorado State College-it was a five-year program and I had a double major in English and business. And the priest said to me, "How are you and John"-that was the guy I was dating-"getting along?" I said, "Fine." But I told him, "I don't want a good man, a nice guy. I want somebody who's got a spiritual path." He said, "Have you ever thought about being a sister?" I said, "You mean a nun? That's got to be the most abnormal way in the world to live-no men or anything. I'd never want to be a nun." He said, "You don't know anything about it. They do a lot of things you believe in. They run their own lives, they're teachers. Maybe you ought to look into it."
I did not want to enter religious life. But I was used to listening to wise people, and he was a wise man. That's how I was taught as a child. Listen to so-and-so, they know more than you do. So, I had that as a pattern, to have my ears perked up.
My mother had raised me as a Franciscan, so he suggested I go to a Franciscan community to look at it. I went to the public library and found that there were 103 Franciscan communities. I made out a questionnaire and sent it to them all. It was hysterical. I told Father, "If they don't answer every question 'yes,' I won't even consider them."
About ten wrote back and said things like, You don't ask the questions, we ask you the questions. The Sisters of Saint Francis of Assisi of Milwaukee were the only community that answered all the questions "yes," and they offered an invitation to call if I had questions. They even wrote a personal letter: "Dear Jo, I can see you know absolutely nothing about religious life..." It was signed "Sister Mary Esther," and my mother's name was Esther. I thought I'd better look into that.
I called and said, "I'm coming." She said, "Wait! Someone will come to see you." I was working in Estes Park, waiting tables in a restaurant and bartending at night. Two sisters came, the major superior and a member of the council. I'd been at a party at Estes Park, and I was all dressed up. I'll never forget-white skirt and white blouse and red shoes, red earrings and everything. They were very friendly, and the major superior said, "Well, so this is Jo. Spin around and let's see how you look." I was a grown woman and I thought that was a little odd, but I spun around. Then I said to her, "Now you spin around, so I can see how you look." She just burst out laughing. She said, "Here's one with a mind of her own!" We visited for a couple of hours. See, they like to get a look at you, see if you're basically normal, healthy. See if you look like you'd fit into the community.
That September I made the decision to enter, to try it for a year. That was the key thing. I didn't enter to stay. I entered to look. I saw an awful lot of women doing what I thought were great things, living a simple, meaningful life, actually a poor life in terms of their personal things, having much time for prayer and study-everything that seemed important. Although I didn't appreciate all the aspects about it, Father had said, "You don't know anything about it, so keep your mouth shut for one year. At the end of a year, look at your whole experience. If there's not more life there than you've ever experienced before, get out and never look back."
I did that. I didn't sit and nitpick my first year; I threw myself into it. I found there were tremendous opportunities for life that I'd never seen before. And it satisfied me enough spiritually to go on. See, I had five years to live it and test it and see if it was right for me.
What appealed to me was that these people were living by a spiritual guide. And then I like the life of Saint Francis. Here was a man who was happy, who had nothing, who was a peacemaker, who was in connection with the animals. That's the way my mother had brought me up-that the animals were all my relatives, that the earth was my mother, and the sky my father.
We made our own choices as women-we ran our own money. Even though we had Rome and the clergy, that didn't affect our daily lives much. And you had the opportunity to keep studying, to keep learning. I just loved it. It was so vital. The first year you're a postulate-that means you are asking about the life. The next two years you're a novice-you are studying the life. And then you take temporary vows-you are living the life. At the end of eight years, you take final vows for life. That's when you take the vow of celibacy. The obedience didn't bother me, and the poverty-I always knew that the less you have in material things, the more power you have spiritually. Celibacy was the hard one.
I was almost twenty-eight and I went seeking counseling to a Jesuit down at Marquette University. He said, "The confessional is no place to talk about sexuality as a sister. Meet me out in the pews." I almost went home because I didn't want to talk about this face-to-face. But he came out and shuffled over-this old, old man, about eighty-five, with one little wisp of hair. I thought, Oh, God, I'm trusting my information on sexuality to this guy?
He put his arm around me and said, "Sister, we have enough anemic nuns in the Catholic Church. If you've got great passion, you've got the power to be a great saint." He said, "Sexuality is part of all life. It's part of your fullness as a human being. But you have to learn how to handle the physical part, and if you can't do that, you shouldn't take the vows." He said, "Celibacy's a gift. A lot of people don't know that, and they want to do it by gritting their teeth."
He said, "Sexuality, when it's expressed physically, is essentially an appetite. You have to understand your appetites. I want you every day at every meal to deny yourself something-just very small, it should go unnoticed, never tell anybody. If you like salt, don't take it. Every meal I want you to do that-to tell yourself that you have the power over that appetite." He said, "Do it for a year, and you'll have the data that you can do it. Now, whether you want to do it or not, that's you own choice.
"You'll always have the itches and the urges. Don't just run and take cold showers. That's not the answer. Get into doing something you love to do. Do something exciting and physical, get out there and do what you want to do." He said, "You'll always have them, if you've got a real healthy appetite for sex." And I still have. They don't bother me a bit. I just smile because I know they're natural, they're part of me, and I don't give in to them."
My major superior wanted me to go on for a master's, and the community was going to send me to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. I said, "No! I'm a Notre Dame woman!" My brothers and I had listened to their ballgames all my life. They didn't take women, but they included sisters who were at the graduate level of study. I joked that we were neuter, that we were so well-armored in our habits that we weren't any kind of a temptation to anybody.
Afterward, for about seven years, I taught high school and college, and in the seminary. When I was teaching at our private high school in Milwaukee, I offered a class in creative writing for juniors and seniors-with the guarantee that they would publish by the end of that year. And they did. The editor at the Milwaukee Journal did a double spread on the class. Educators around the state invited me to speak at conferences. Word began to spread, and my public speaking career took off. As my jobs changed, my speaking changed-it moved from the area of creative writing and education to spirituality and prayer.
Then I asked to go into formation work, training the young women who enter the religious community. I did that until I was about forty. About five to seven years seems to be my average doing one thing. That's my style. It's happened all my life. About every seven years I get the next direction. I moved into working in areas of peace and justice, women in prisons, ethnic groups, and, because I'm an Indian, I was doing things with Native Americans, and people wanted me to speak from that perspective. See, that's how the public speaking kept building. I'm still booked two to three years in advance, and this is year thirty-six.
It was a surprise to me how much freedom I had when I entered the religious life. It was amazing to me. I was doing all this in relation to my community. I always asked my community, Do you want me to keep going out there and talking? Even if I went alone to start-to visit women in prisons and see the injustices, or the Native Americans on reservations to help them find new ways through the tangles-my community always supported me.
Next I'm heading for the Southwest. I've had invitations to work in Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Gallup. I'll probably just move into a house with no furnishings and wait and see what I'm led to do. Within a week or two I'll know what I'm supposed to do. I find wherever I go, the native people come to me because I know how to help them get the resources they need. I'm never doing the work for them. I'm for helping them find out how to do it for themselves.
When I'm on reservations I drive to where the people are. I have to drive with automatics now. I had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A year of chemotherapy for that destroyed those cancer cells, but the chemotherapy went astray and hit my left ankle bone. I've had seven surgeries on my ankle. This is my twenty-ninth cast, my fifth brace. It's just been one damn thing after another. I discovered I had cancer the week I was sixty-five, and now I'm sixty-eight. I'm going to have a permanently deformed left foot. I don't sit around and mope over what's gone wrong with my life or when I hurt. People say, "How do you keep going?" The doctor said I can stay home and feel sorry for myself, or I can continue to do the work I enjoy doing and have a little more pain. I choose a little more pain.
As a child, we always said a prayer when starting on a family journey. We'd call ourselves to consciousness by saying: Our Lady of the Highways, be with us on this journey, for all your ways are beautiful and all your paths are peace.

From A Woman's Path, Jo Giese. This book is comprised of candid first-person stories and stunning photographs that celebrate the diverse life paths of women of all ages. Copyright ©1998. by Jo Giese. Excerpted by arrangement with Jo Giese. $30. Available in local bookstores, or call 800-488-5233, or click here.