My name is Jeannine Pitas. I am a 37 year old teacher, poet, writer, and Spanish-English literary translator, and I have been fortunate to call many places home: first Buffalo, NY, where I grew up; then the New York City area, where I did my undergraduate degree; then England and Poland, where I studied abroad for about ten months in each; then Uruguay, where I did a US Fulbright grant in 2006; then Managua, Nicaragua, where I taught in a Catholic school; then Toronto, Canada, where I completed a doctorate in comparative literature, and now Dubuque, IA, where I teach English and Spanish in a small college that mainly serves first generation university students, many from backgrounds of urban and rural poverty. Since the COVID-19 outbreak I am back in Buffalo, teaching remotely and accompanying my parents, who are 78 and 80, through this situation as best I can. I have no siblings or spouse, but I have been blessed with many wonderful friends and a 21-year-old legal ward (I call her my “fake daughter”) who is eagerly waiting for me to come home.
My journey in faith has been complicated. I was a cradle Catholic who grew up in a fairly sheltered environment (I didn’t even know a single non-Christian until high school). At that point, I began to question my faith and deliberately chose to attend a very liberal, secular liberal arts college. While traveling and working abroad, I initially fell away from my faith, and at one point I had a kind of existential crisis where I truly questioned God’s existence. It was largely the experience of living in Nicaragua that brought me back. I was teaching in a wealthy private school where most days it felt like the students were eating me alive (they literally would throw crumpled papers at me when I turned to write on the board). Every day was exhausting, and when I asked the administration for help, they told me to figure it out for myself or expect to be fired. My roommate Nina, who had also come from the US to teach in this school (she was teaching 4th grade while I was in the high school) had a very different experience, and most days she would come home happy, not drained of energy like me! She was a devout Catholic who had attended Franciscan University of Steubenville, and under her influence I started attending Mass regularly for the first time in several years. I was grateful that she never judged or proselytized – she just led by example. I envied the peace and joy she seemed to radiate, and in my own difficulty I turned to God for help, following her example.
Though I’d originally planned to stay in Nicaragua for two years, I left after one and moved to Toronto, Canada for graduate school with the intention of becoming a college professor (I’d discerned that I wanted to teach, but to teach more mature students who were freely choosing to learn rather than attending school out of a sense of obligation…little did I know that, alas, many college students are a lot like my high school students!) The seven years I spent in Toronto were among the best of my life. I loved my academic program; I started publishing poetry and reading publicly; my first book-length translation was published; I got involved organizing cultural events with Toronto’s Latin American community, and I co-facilitated a writing workshop at a mental health hospital for six years. However, in terms of faith and spirituality I had a problem. My academic program was highly secular, and I often worried about revealing my religious views to my new friends there. Meanwhile, I was also afraid to reveal many of my more progressive views at the university Newman center where I attended Mass.
My inner conflict intensified soon after my college sweetheart, whom I’d met studying in England and corresponded with for years, move to Canada to be with me. I was deeply in love with him and believed that he would be my one and only life partner, but problems started to show up soon after his arrival. His atheism had previously not caused any conflicts for us, but he soon joined a group of mostly techies who called themselves “rationalists” and believed in using the scientific method as the basis for all decision making. Many of them were not only atheist, but anti-theist, and for the first time in seven years of knowing each other, my partner made me deeply question my faith. After much struggle, I returned to religious belief and practice, but unfortunately, love was not enough to transcend our differences of ideology, values, and way of life. I held on for years, but he decided to end the relationship after I won the academic lottery and landed in a tenure-track job in Dubuque.
Needless to say, the move to Dubuque was a rocky one, and five years later it still does not feel like the place I desire to call my permanent home. Toronto was the best of both worlds for me – a large, cosmopolitan city (the most diverse in the world!) two hours from the place where I grew up and where my family still lives. Dubuque is a community of 60,000 people twelve hours by land from the region I call home. Nevertheless, Dubuque has offered me many unexpected blessings. Perhaps the biggest was meeting a woman who had herself recently moved there, and we immediately discovered we had much in common: we were both Catholic, both writers, both Spanish speakers, and had both lived in Nicaragua, though at different times. Through her, I learned about the progressive movement within the Catholic Church, which previously I had not known even existed! Under her influence I began writing for Catholic publications and joined the Catholic Women Speak Network, a group of women from around the world who are “staying in and speaking out,” advocating for change at the local and global levels.
In 2016, after I’d lived in Dubuque one year, two things happened. First, after Trump’s election I was determined to take action in some way. As a Spanish speaker I decided to use my language skills to support immigrants in my local community, so I began volunteering as a legal interpreter for Catholic Charities and a nonprofit called Dubuque for Refugee Children. Also, I met and began dating a man who lived in a Catholic Worker house; I began volunteering there, praying in his community, and learning about Catholic Worker beliefs and values. Alas, this relationship also did not work out, but Catholic Worker has a way of grabbing quite tightly to those who encounter it. I still consider myself a part of the movement.
In joining this workshop I am eager to discern, dream and scheme with what looks like an amazing community. While eager to participate in all aspects of the workshop, I must admit I am eager to work toward some spiritual growth and to find God’s presence in all of you. For me, faith is a struggle. Perhaps due to my education, maybe just due to my temperament, I have a strong secular bent. For this reason, one “saint” I am bringing with me into this workshop is Simone Weil, a lifelonger seeker of truth who remained between worlds, standing on the threshold of the Church but choosing not to enter. I also invoke Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, and my confirmation saint, Dymphna.
I am a bookworm and my favorite books are usually the ones I’ve just read – right now those are “Kindred” by Octavia Butler and “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. “The Captive Mind” by Czeslaw Milosz is a nonfiction text I believe everyone should read. A good poem for these times is “Toward the Unknown Region” by Walt Whitman, beautifully set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Thank you for reading this, and I am eager to meet you all. Take care, and God bless,