When I was barely twenty-one, I spent a brief and difficult period as a postulant in a Carmelite monastery. It didn’t take me long to discover that I lacked a monastic vocation. No one who has felt the throttling sensation of the walls closing in will ever forget it.
In the wake of that painful experience, I moved on to graduate school and a different kind of common life: sharing a narrow, tumbledown Washington, D.C., row house with six other young women. The house was located on an extraordinary street. Tucked away in the Brookland neighborhood, Perry Place was home to some of Washington’s few remaining Italian immigrants.
They were a tightly-knit community, all from the same small region of Italy. As much as they could, they had turned their little block into something redolent of the Old World: the front yards overflowed with flowers, alongside pots of oregano and cement birdbaths. Elderly residents would sit on their front porches on summer evenings, enjoying the gardens and exchanging neighborhood gossip.
The house we lived in had no garden and was in terrible condition, but we loved it anyway. We arranged hand-me-down patio furniture on the front porch, where we’d sit on warm evenings with glasses of wine and plates of fresh...