Kathleen Norris exits a hotel on Michigan Avenue and heads toward a late lunch with her husband, David Dwyer, who’s accompanying her on a promotional tour for the paperback edition of “The Cloister Walk,” the second of her two non-fiction books, both of them surprise best sellers.
She has just come from a newspaper interview, and later she’ll be signing books at a store in Oak Park.
A Chicago Tribune photographer is a few feet in front of her on the sidewalk, moving backward as he snaps her picture. She’s amused. This is a first for her, being photographed in public like this, like a celebrity.
She’s pleased she’s wearing one of her best ensembles, but even more delighted it was a bargain.
“I got it for $19 at Ross’,” she says proudly, referring to her discount-chain frock. “I have a nun friend, and she owns maybe seven or eight articles of clothing, That’s freedom. She never has to worry about what to wear.”
Norris has a number of friends who are Roman Catholic sisters and priests, most of them monastics. “The Cloister Walk” is a memoir based on her experience as a Presbyterian layperson invited to spend two nine-month residencies at a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota.
The invitation followed her official association as an “oblate” in this 1,500-year-old order, which she writes about in her first book, “Dakota.”
As Norris proceeds to her luncheon rendezvous and the photographer continues to click away, passersby peer curiously at her, but no one seems to know who she is.
This is predictable, for authors, even successful ones, don’t usually attain the instant-recognition star status that top-line show-business and sports figures do.
No matter. In the publishing world, Kathleen Norris is a household name and something of a phenomenon, a welcome oddity, a literary long shot who has become a hot property, a wonderful writer who now occupies a niche she may have largely to herself.
At the heart of her two books is a personal exploration of what is most authentic and enduring in life and her unfolding sense that religion, of all things, offers the most valuable resources for such a quest, that religion at its best asks the important questions and provides the tested, countercultural principles with which to answer them.
Like others in her Baby-Boom generation, she had quit going to church while in college and now, after her return, she remains wary of cant.
In “The Cloister Walk” (Riverhead Books), she tells of being asked during a radio interview if she considered herself a Christian. “I sighed and said: ‘My problem with that is that so many people who publicly identify themselves as Christians are such jerks about it …’
“I said I often wondered if being a Christian is something we could, or should, claim for ourselves; that if being a Christian meant incarnating the love of Christ in my own life, then maybe it would be best to let others tell me how well, or badly, I’m doing.”
Yet she also detects spuriousness in the barbs of self-righteous cynics. “A college kid asked me what I thought of ‘all those hypocrites in church,’ ” she says in an interview. “I told him the only hypocrite I have to worry about in church on Sunday morning is me. The others are there for their own reasons. I can’t make a judgment on them, and I hope they don’t judge me, but I can judge myself.”
On the worldly level of selling books in a big way, hers is a real-life Horatio Alger tale, a gratifying story from the when-good-things-happen-to-deserving-people category.
Four years ago, at age 46, Norris was a nobody who lived on the dark side of the moon.
That is to say, she was an obscure, if published, poet who made her home in Lemmon, S.D., population 1,600 and only a few hundred yards from the North Dakota border.
She and Dwyer, also a published poet, had moved to Lemmon from the Big Apple in 1974, trading the stimulating intellectual circles of Manhattan for the bleak rural isolation of the High Plains in order to manage the modest farm properties bequeathed to the Norris family by Kathleen’s paternal grandparents.
They moved into the grandparents’ small, white-frame house in town, worked on their poetry when they could find time and put food in the pantry and a few bucks in the bank by holding a succession of part-time jobs.
Dwyer, who has a degree in Greek classics from the University of Chicago, wrote computer programs for area businesses, translated French literature and tended bar.
Norris, a liberal arts graduate of Bennington College in Vermont, became a librarian, bookkeeper and traveling artist-in-residence at public schools in both Dakotas.
Then in 1993 came “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography,” a collection of essays and journal entries that assessed the demands and rewards of small-town life in a region which, she writes, “the rest of the world considers a barren waste.”
With a first printing of 2,500 copies, the publisher apparently didn’t expect the rest of the world to want to read about this barren waste, but rave reviews and fervent word-of-mouth sent sales surging and presses rolling.
The New York Times called the book “deeply moving” and “endlessly instructive.” The San Francisco Chronicle praised her “humor and lyrical grace” and described her as “at once a pondering visionary and a news reporter.”
For novelist Melissa Pritchard, reviewing for the Chicago Tribune, “Dakota” was “a book of stories, a book of prayer, a book to be read meditatively and well,” and “a gift of hope and balance.”
For Norris, “Dakota” was the product of the alarm and frustration she felt in witnessing the economic devastation of farm families caused by years of drought and falling crop prices.
“I didn’t really want to write a book of prose,” she says. “But I was watching the farm crisis and the small-town reaction to it, and I knew my poems couldn’t contain all that. So I wrote these articles and essays in the mid-‘80s for different publications, and they finally grew into ‘Dakota.’ “
Her visits with the Benedictines would, in turn, grow into “The Cloister Walk,” published in hardcover last year.
“This is my claim to fame,” Norris says. “My book and Dennis Rodman’s were the only two new books to make The New York Times (non-fiction) list of best sellers in the same week in April of 1996.”
Rodman’s book, as serious students of literature know, was the piercingly thoughtful autobiography, “Bad As I Wanna Be.”
“His book immediately shot up to No. 1, while mine was tied with three books for last place. I complained to a monk I knew from the monastery. ‘Look at that,’ I said. ‘Dennis Rodman is No. 1, and I’m barely in last place.’ “He said, ‘Well, Kathleen, maybe you’re not as bad as you oughta be.”’
She loved the monk’s drollery, of course, but she wasn’t surprised by it. After her stays at St. John’s Abbey, 75 miles northwest of Minneapolis, she had become accustomed to the buoyant, sometimes irreverent, wit of her hosts. Indeed, she had come to expect it.
That wasn’t the case when she first arrived, for in addition to the clothing and books she had packed, she also came with a full satchel of false stereotypes.
“I thought of the monks as humorless people, but I ended up writing a chapter on monastic humor,” she says. “I also thought they would hate women, that they’d joined a monastery to get away from us. I mentioned this to one of the older monks one day, and he said, ‘Oh, you came at a good time, Kathleen. We had one like that, but he died.’ “
If Norris stirred any anxiety throughout the abbey, it was that she would develop biases of an entirely opposite nature.
The monks worried that she would romanticize them, as some writers, in their view, have done.
“People think we walk around carrying candles, contemplating skulls and wearing hair shirts,” says Rev. Daniel Durken, a monk of St. John’s Abbey for almost 50 years.
To the monastics’ relief, Norris got it right, presenting them as devoutly human and populated with a mix of personalities and predilections that turns up in any workplace or family.
Norris writes: “One monk, when asked about diversity in his small community, said there were people who can meditate all day and others who can’t sit still for five minutes; monks who are scholars and those who are semiliterate; chatterboxes and those who emulate Calvin Coolidge with regard to speech. ‘But,’ he said, ‘our big problem is that each man here had a mother who fried potatoes in a different way.”’
While Norris was mindful of what the Benedictines have in common with the rest of us, it was their differences that she found enriching.
She writes: “To eat in a monastery refectory is an exercise in humility; daily one is reminded to put communal necessity before individual preference. While consumer culture speaks only to preferences, treating even whims as needs to be granted (and the sooner the better), monastics sense that this pandering to delusions of self-importance weakens the true self and diminishes our ability to distinguish desires from needs. It’s a price they’re not willing to pay.”
Her tenure at St. John’s, she says, provoked fresh perspectives about many aspects of her life, including her marriage.
“Looking at the people who make monastic vows, I came to realize that marriage is also a lifelong religious vow, that I’m committed to monogamy as a nun or monk is committed to celibacy. If I hadn’t come to see marriage this way, I’m sure mine would have fallen apart.”
Her doubts elicited insights.
“I thought the monks would be real impressed with my doubts, and this 82-year-old monk looked at me and said, ‘Oh, Kathleen, doubt is just the seed of faith. Having doubts means you’re on the right road.’ Nobody ever told me that before.
“I think faith and doubt are just part of the religious package. But I think talking about faith and hope might be more productive. God allows us to hope and have some faith. Maybe not a list of doctrines but faith that life is worth living, and maybe I should care about other people as much, if not more, than myself.
“Those are the basic things that all the world’s religions tend toward, and unfortunately sometimes they do more harm than good, but I think religion means to do more good than harm.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.