A Strange Communion

From my second wedding–same groom
as the first. A story for another day.

The holy water font had brown cardboard over it–a haphazard lid to signal emptiness. The water had been drained from all the fonts at the church entrances but not the baptismal font. Not yet anyway; somebody said there was one baptism after Mass that morning. I saw the baby–rosy-cheeked in his mother’s arms–on my way out of church. My last Mass, maybe for all of Lent. My last time singing with the choir. I haven’t sung a note since, as if doing so would signal that this is the new normal: sad, bad impromptu soprano solos locked in my home office, dressed in my bathrobe, alone.

Gone was the singing in communion, the holy water, the hand-holding, and hand-shaking at the Sign of Peace. The next week, there would be no Mass at all. Should we shake some of our holy water around the house? My husband and I brought bottles home from Knock, Ireland, the only shrine I’ve ever visited, which we did for a day on our honeymoon, in between pubs and church ruins. We may have a bottle around still, though it might have gone moldy. We’ve been married 16 years as of yesterday. We got carry-out to celebrate, our first since we started playing keep-away from everybody we don’t live with, and it was wonderful. Every stranger-interaction–even picking up carry-out at a curb–seems imbued with a little holiness now, or grace, or gratitude in communing, however you like to see it.

Maybe I’d been spoiled by the choir voices around me, the Signs of Peace aplenty, a whole church full of, if not all friends, congregants–the whole of us choosing to be in the same place at the same time, for the same reason, more or less. I try to remember that it only takes two or three gathered in His name, but there is comfort in a crowd. In Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction, a title that just keeps feeling more and more prescient, author Nick Ripatrazone says, simply: “Catholicism is a communal faith.”

In his book of essays, Ripatrazone unveils the role of Catholic storytelling in the American literary cannon. He takes the reader from Flannery O’Connor through Andre Dubus to living writers, like Cormac McCarthy, Alice McDermott–and Phil Klay (whom I’ve yet to read)–among others. Raised on the Mass, these writers share some sensibilities: the idea of faith in community, of liturgical seasons–rituals a comfort. Says Ripatrazone, “Catholics raised on a religion of mystery, image, smell, and song are particularly vulnerable to the pull of sentimentality.” Can me sentimental then.

Another modern novelist, Ann Patchett, has credited the Catholic faith for giving her “a boundless capacity for creativity and appreciation for metaphor.” If you’ve ever stepped foot in a Catholic church you can probably see that: everything is imbued with meaning. From Ripatrazone:

Catholicism is an assault on the senses. The thickly sweet smell of incense clouding a church. A finger dipped into the holy water fount; the almost otherworldly touch of it. The feel of a back against the hard pew…The Rise and refrain of hymns…the silence of prayer…the high drama of Lent.

It all means something, more than one thing. And certainly, there’s a performance aspect to the faith that isn’t lost on this Catholic kid raised on church and ballet–pretty much in equal measure. I recently, mistakenly, called the altar “the stage,” and it’s no wonder why. There’s the Mass’s “script,” with its accompanying ritualistic movements–very much body-centered–a reverential dance of signs and postures. There are “costumes” whose colors are filled with meaning. Right now, we’re penitential purple. Are we ever.

Which might be why that piece of ordinary brown cardboard over the drained holy water font bothered me so much–the lack of performance or ritual. Or, preparation. Ritual takes preparation, and none of us had any rehearsals for the effects of this pandemic.

So, my hope today is that we all lean into the rituals that provide us some comfort and connection–even if virtual.

What are you reading? How are you dealing? What rituals are you keeping or instilling in your household as you physically distance yourself from others?

Looking for a new author to read, a poet or memoirist? Check out my handy categories above, where you’ll find my writer interviews, book reviews, essays, writing advice, and more.

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CHERRY has Me Seeing Red: an Unreliable Book Review for an Unreliable Narrator

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Image courtesy of goodreads.com. (Can you see what’s looking at you?)

Let’s preface this pseudo-review with the fact that I am a dogged Northeast Ohio booster, clapping the backs (but not lining the palms, sorry) of any and all creative ventures to come out of my native place. Lifting it up, bearing as much as I can its failures and successes.

I love the Cleveland area as only a daughter at a distance can—with rose-colored glasses adorned with sparkles of half-memories of a cherished childhood I can’t forget or relive.

This got me thinking prodigal daughter. Or, prodigal son. Yeah, let’s start there, with one of the most memorable and infuriating stories of the Bible. Shall we? Let’s do, because this is a shared knowledge: You see, Nico Walker, author of this memoirist fiction, and I (and so many Cleveland natives) have Catholicism in common. What pisses off us well-behaved Catholic kids about the story of the prodigal son? The guy did everything wrong and got lauded for it. The party and the fatted calf, or maybe it was a goat or a lamb. (I said Catholic, not Methodist.) Anyway…

The cursory summary: Cherry by Nico Walker follows an unnamed young male narrator (ahem) from a failed semester of college and young love in Cleveland; to Iraq, where he is “a cherry,” a new guy, in military jargon, and then a warrior medic; and back to Cleveland, where he ends up addicted to heroin. When he turns to robbing banks to support his addiction, he gets caught. Walker wrote this book from prison.

The author’s note:

This book is a work of fiction.

These things didn’t ever happen.

These people didn’t ever exist.

Genre: er, memoir disguised as fiction, which is perfect for this creative-Cleveland booster, because now I can’t be mad at you, author Nico Walker. For writing a story that glorifies misogyny and drunkenness and drug abuse and so much self-harm I read this book through my fingers, shielding my eyes. Because I’m not just a reader; I could have known you, Nico Walker; we could have driven down Mayfield on the same night—me, home from grad school, you, in high school. We could have hung out on Coventry, eaten Presti’s doughnuts at 2am. We could have sat in the same church pew at Midnight Mass. Only, when I was feeling sorry for the well-behaved older brother of the prodigal son, you were taking notes on the younger rebel.

If I sound mad, I’m not. Maybe just disappointed. (God, didn’t we hate to hear that from our Catholic parents?) I’m disappointed in the man, Nico Walker, but not the author. I’m disappointed–or maybe just plain scared–because I’m not just a reviewer; I’m a mom of boys who will be young men too soon, and the world carries one frightening epidemic after another, threatening to eat our bodies or our souls or both. Or, maybe I am angry at author Nico Walker, because there’s no hope in the life of this book. Lives are wasted and the stories are stupidly tragic, and it makes my skin crawl like no book should. Or should it? (My head is not in the sand: last year, my Maryland county suffered 214 deaths from opioid overdose.)

Language: graphic, crude, slurs, at once up-in-your-face spitting and detached, cold. Generation Kill kind of stuff, but more removed. Lots of second-person, addressing the reader, “you,” when the narrator means himself. Once in a while quite staid.

…everything dismal as murder.

…you couldn’t remember the last time it had rained. [Note: it wasn’t rain.]

And we smoked cigarettes as we were wont to do.

Style: spare, reportage-ish, which belies the unreliable narrator. The young man on the page doesn’t spin tales to get you to like him. He doesn’t care if you do. He reads Vonnegut. Hemingway-esque, other reviewers have said of the author’s style. Denis Johnson resurrected. What saved me was the humor, that kind of sad laugh that leaks out at funeral jokes. Nico Walker is damn funny; irreverent doesn’t begin to cover it.

The ornaments were stick figures depicting the Stations of the Cross, metallic stick Jesuses hossing the crosses around. Sometimes Jesus would have the cross about upright. In other places He’d be about collapsed under its weight. I said to Emily that it looked like a man suffering an accident while setting up a basketball hoop.

And…

If you’re known to rob things people will just give you guns. It’s kind of like sponsoring missionaries.

If this were truly fiction, I’d say the author was glorifying the basest of our natures, and I’d close the book. If this were truly memoir, I’d cry for the lost lamb. But, this is creative-limbo-work here, expertly written, and ferried by way of editors, publishers, and publicists who have set this in my lap. There will be a film deal.

A book is a thing without a soul to be critiqued—separate from the teller, even of memoir, which this isn’t. (Or is it?) Published. The author still in his 30s. By a major publishing house. Am I jealous? Hell, yes, and never ever.

It’s early in the book when the narrator describes a church’s Stations of the Cross: Jesus’s bearing up and falling down under the weight of the cross on his back. The young protagonist’s descent mirrors for me Jesus’s falling. Would-be Nico Walker falls the first time for a girl (aren’t we the root of it all still, Eve?); then for the masculine ideal of the soldier, he never really inhabits; then, after war, for that faux-savior opioids. Only, Jesus was falling for the rest of us.

And I can’t. Or I could–maybe I did–do a proper review and talk about layers of meaning here.

And a sophomore effort from the author: I hope for one, because I hope for Nico Walker, the man, to rise after so much falling.

What to do with sacred art when churches close?

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Image from the Museum of Divine Statues in Lakewood, Ohio, courtesy of The Plain Dealer

If the Rust Belt is a bastion of anything, that thing might be Catholicism. Or, maybe not–given that about 40 Catholic churches were shuttered in Cleveland, Ohio, alone over the last few decades.

As the city’s population waned and its churches closed, some of the sacred art was shipped out to existing and new churches; some wasn’t.

Thanks to a good friend and follower of Rust Belt Girl for putting me onto the story of Lou McClung. A makeup artist with his own cosmetics line housed in a former Catholic school, McClung bought the closed St. Hedwig Church (named for a beloved Polish queen) in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Ohio, in 2011, and began restoring its statues. In an article in a 2017 issue of Catholic Digest, McClung said:

I do restoration artwork across the country and I thought it was important to remember where all of these statues came up. The art represents the immigrants and all their hard work and sacrifices that made these [now closed] parishes possible.

The artist lovingly restores the statues and researches and shares the provenance of each piece in the Museum of Divine Statues he founded. Lately, McClung’s museum has been receiving religious artwork not only from the Cleveland area but from all over the country.

Other Rust Belt locales preserving shuttered churches and their art include the Buffalo [New York] Religious Arts Center and the Jubilee Museum in Columbus, Ohio.

McClung’s restoration work for his Museum of Divine Statues is beautiful. Great pics can be found at these sites:

http://www.cleveland.com/style/index.ssf/2017/02/lou_mcclung_restores_curates_m.html#incart_river_home

https://patch.com/ohio/lakewood-oh/new-life-for-shuttered-catholic-church-in-lakewood