DeFrees' overwhelming response to hearing Whitman was complicated, and deepened, by the fact that she was, at the time, a nun at the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, where her sobriquet was Sister Mary Gilbert. With hindsight, she writes:
By that time, I had let down my guard with Bruce and could tell him with great hilarity what a radical shift the title of Whitman’s poem signalled for me. Our Mistress of Novices had believed that to say myself with accents on both syllables indicated large reserves of egotism. Unfortunately, the word occurred in the vocal portion of the evening prayer, routinely read aloud in chapel by a succession of novices. All of us were trained to say m’self, trying our best to minimize the reflexive pronoun. Religious modesty demanded this kind of attention: and for Thy sake I love my neighbor as m’self.
I told Bruce about the intense inner conflict this created for me. Should I obey without question, or should I be loyal to the language? When it was my turn to lead prayer I put the language first, hurrying past the offensive term, but avoiding the contraction. I was not sure whether I could get away with it, but nothing was ever said.
There were, maybe, five people who attended daily mass on a regular basis, one of whom wasn't a member of the clergy. To a 12 or 13-year old it felt like a foreign country. I recall sitting on the folding chair on our front porch waiting for my mom to drive me to church that week. It was bitterly cold, I was tired, cranky, and full of anger and self-pity that I had to get up an hour before my classmates, be driven to school!, serve mass in a virtually empty church, and then endure an interminable school day and whatever drama and melodrama awaited me there. I sat on the porch with my head in my hands, bemoaning my fate. This was as far from selfless as I'd ever get in relation to serving mass. My self, myself, so enlarged and all-encompassing it is a wonder that I fit in the station wagon where I sat, surly and—in mournful retrospect—treating my tireless mother with icy silence. I don't recall any moment serving that week where I left my egotism behind, where I embraced, in the halting, timid way that a pre-teen can, the spirit and the transcendence of mass. This I regret.
Cropped cover of Song of Myself via Shambhala Publications. Altar Boy by Herime Steller via Photography by Charly.