I walked into my (Jewish) father’s bedroom, where he and his wife were sitting up in bed, watching the news, last night. I had just come from Thursday Night mass, and felt overcome with emotion. I don’t write any of this to alienate or “trigger” any of my atheist readers. I told them I have plans to convert to Catholicism.
“Oh you’ve been saying that for two years,” said my stepmother sharply. “I know,” I said, producing a smile to indicate that the arrow was well deserved.
“There were people there older than me, who were baptized tonight,” I said. “I’m what’s called a catechumen. Don’t you love the language, at least?”
Well, I do. “catechumen” sounds to me like a little caterpillar type creature, curled up safe and warm.
My father’s wife of 9 years is a staunch atheist, who knew Ayn Rand. My father, on the other hand, prays for two hours every morning, before rising. Then he “closes” his prayers with a curious backwards walk in the large foyer. I think for him, it’s simply important to give thanks.
My mother, who was Swedish, was of course born Lutheran, but her mother, Ingrid, rather inexplicably, took her two children to Stockholm in the late 1930s and converted them to Catholicism. Then my mother converted to Judaism, in order to marry my father, who descended from Russian Jews–not particularly devout.
The Rabbi, right after my mother was converted, said: “That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish.”
Then everything blew to pieces and there was no longer a family, just war, which I’ve written about here. When I was 9, my mother took me out of public school and placed me in an all girl’s Catholic private school here in New York–The Convent Of The Sacred Heart. I was in heaven. Ironed my white blouse each night, put on my grey uniform dress, pleated skirt, took the bus across the park, changed out of pants or wool stockings in the vestibule in the winter months. I loved all the rules and the Nuns, contrary to many other people’s experiences, were my liberators. They taught me I had a mind, and could use it. They has us performing Shakespeare in Elizabethan English, and for the first time in my life I excelled in school–skipped grades, even did well in math. My brain trauma seemed to disappear, and I no longer froze during tests. I fell into a spiritual reverie and began my conversion process. I loved this figure: Jesus. I felt he would always be on my side.
Then, in the winter of 1976, we went to Sweden, and in a small hotel in the town of Orebro, my mother told us we were not returning to New York. Not for at least 8 years–to avert a custody battle that was very real in my mother’s mind.
Sweden is almost perfectly secular. Atheist, materialist, “socialist,” (then) and there was no way of continuing my Catholic exploration. We moved into a housing complex that had incredibly serious class implications. “Working class,” we were told. But we were also told in no uncertain terms that people with dark hair, immigrants, at the time called “svartskallar,” (black heads) lived where we lived. We were from New York so didn’t really understand the Big Deal. They said it had low status, We said whatever. The apartment was bleak, with cement walls, vinyl floors–built to crush the human spirit, But perfectly modern. The kind of apartment complex that now has “no go zones,” where the police won’t even go.
Soon we began to be indoctrinated by the Communist Party–its youth program, which preyed on our very young minds, and began gender-leveling by sending us girls to work in car parts factories, the boys to learn nursing and other female oriented professions. This communist eruption happened to me, but not my older sister. I was always way more gullible and emotionally impressionable. They taught us The Internationale in Swedish, had us raking leaves, painting red stars on the walls of the Youth Center, reciting the outrages of the proletariat. We learned about Joe Hill and Victor Jara. One word I do still feel a certain nostalgia about from those days is “Solidarity.” Like when I sometimes have to lock Jack in the bathroom for a few moments because he is pushing things off counters, even though I have fed him, Lewis goes and sits outside the bathroom door and won’t budge. It only takes minutes until I feel like such a tyrant, I let him out. “Solidarity” is a wonderful concept and yes, they drummed it into us. But when we were 14, the bearded Socialist Youth leaders we had given our souls to, had us raking enough leaves, picking enough apples, to go on a canoe hike. It was very important that nobody who “could afford it” had an advantage–so we all worked for a set amount of time, until the money was raised, and then we took off. I actually, looking back, don’t understand how we raised money this way but in any case, they made their point.
I think I was 12 or 13 when I once came home having attended a Communist Youth rally, and was late. My sister Bibi had to tell my mother where I was and my mother went rather ballistic. I was in very serious trouble when I came home. My mother called my father in New York, furious, and if I recall, hollering. But this time she was not hollering at him, but rather, about me. “Her life will be ruined Barry! She won’t be able to return to the States!” My mother wanted them to agree to ship me off the live with my very strict grandparents in Fort Lauderdale. I don’t know how I even “heard” this, considering the cobra phone technology of the day, but my father, a Conservative, since Nixon, who ran for the office of Mayor of New York in 1977 (the year before) started laughing uproariously.
This infuriated my mother. “It’s not funny Barry!” she roared. And my father roared back: “You’re calling to tell me Celia is a communist. You can’t say that’s not funny.”
That’s become one of our standard phrases to this day: “You can’t say that’s not funny.”
Let me add: I respect my mother’s concern.
In any case, that canoe hike put a decisive end to my communist dreams. Our leaders forgot the maps in the bus. So we winged it–the part about where to carry the canoes and where to paddle. That was all marked up in the maps, left behind. Somewhere around day two, we were paddling along happily when all of a sudden, we were engulfed in rapids. Then we were holding on to the bottom of the canoes, trying not to drown. No life vests. A man called down to us: “You can’t paddle down there!” This we knew. But how to get out? We eventually made our way to the edges, and started climbing up the muddy incline. It was raining. We all got out, but our provisions had floated off, and all our clothes were soaked. I don’t know how many days it was, but we wandered in the wilderness, without food, and with wet clothes, long enough that we began to hallucinate from hunger. Our leaders, unlike us, had packed their clothes properly, and my distinct memory is that “solidarity” went out the window. Not to demonize them, but my best friend for her first period in the middle of all this, and they were not helpful. I don’t know if this contributed to her being worse off than I was but she got very ill. When we were finally rescued–having found our way out of the wilderness, to a small village, she was grey. She was taken to the hospital, with acute meningitis, and her heart stopped–she died. But they started her heart again, with a shot of adrenaline into her heart, which kills you if you are not technically dead. She was so angry at the doctors who brought her back that she cursed them out. She said it was so wonderful on the other side, that there are no words to describe it. None of the youth leaders visited her in the hospital, or called. The same day as her heart stopped, my mother’s fiance fell down dead with a stroke. He was cooking breakfast–boiling an egg– and we were all, the four of us, supposed to go on a vacation trip that day.
My mother and I went anyway–how we got it together I will never understand. She cried, of course, for weeks, like I never heard anybody cry.
I became an anti-communist, but my friend retained her faith. If I’ve told these stories before, forgive me. I am rarely able to remember what I wrote or said or did. “Classic PTSD,” Dr. Brooks always says. I only know the present moment and can’t connect back very well. Eventually, I traveled to the following countries to study communism for myself: The Soviet Union, East Germany, Czechoslovakia (as it was then called,) Romania, Bulgaria, and Cuba. Right now I am too depleted and exhausted to say any more. I don’t even know why I am trying to explain all this, right now. I don’t think my views “matter,” but I have a compulsion to write things like this, unprompted, maybe to calm my nerves. I can’t bring myself to write about the situation with North Korea, China, and the US. A friend from Japan wrote: “Japan is freaking.”
Well finally somebody is having a reaction that makes sense.
I feel like everything I write is getting more and more stupid, like I am still 14. I can’t explain why I never can remain consistent. Feels I am inside a small cell, and barely speak English anymore, but have to keep talking. I can’t form fancy sentences, or “write.” I am trauma with eyeballs. Everybody is angry. Everybody has always been angry. How can I make people less angry, at least here?
I started this post actually wanting to address my kindergarten sense of Catholicism–went to Mass yesterday, and today, and will go tomorrow, and Sunday. This could become a blog that is simply a diary of a middle aged half Jewish woman trying to become a Catholic, but everybody and their uncle will try to get me to drop it. My friend S. wrote me long texts today saying if I was going to do this I should join a non-denominational Church. Why would I want to do that? That’s the last thing I need–a non-denominational Church. I can’t even stand the words “non-denominational.” Cold and watery. Like everything else. And no, I am not a “Buddhist.” I’m also not from a Buddhist continent.
I want Catholicism. I don’t want to be let off easy either. I wrote a letter to the only editor I ever chained my soul to, at the age of 20, and told him I have quit journalism and am becoming a Catholic. (He’s Catholic.) Here is part of the letter, maybe the most important part:
“I am, at the same time, discovering that my distance from God has caused everything. I need to tell you this, since you are one of the only practicing Catholics I know: I went to mass last night and all of a sudden I was able to feel the sorrow of The Betrayal, and I cried. When they turned the lights off and walked around (I lack all the right terminally but can’t wait to learn) …the Stations, I knew it was real, in a way that is more real than the “truth” I have been caught up in all my life.
I was so affected. I walked to my father’s feeling like a different person, like I was no longer alone, cold and in pain. I know Christ would not mock me or sexually degrade me or feel the need to cut down my mind. (Journalism)
He didn’t hate women! He would never allow a woman to be disrespected.
I have always loved him but didn’t think I was “allowed” to because of the false Jewish/Christian divide. It’s all the same, it’s all one. I don’t have to leave my father or my fragmented judaism to embrace the Cross. Judaism, in fact, does not offer redemption from sin and pain. Not really.
Morals, yes, but healing? My father used to quip, when we could still hold a Seder in his home: “All Jewish holidays are the same story: They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”
But I am out for stars. My whole life has been being hunted. I believe that Christ can cause us to love ourselves and never be hunted, no matter what. ”
That is my “faith.” I can either continue to bleed to death from political, social wounds, wounds of knowledge seeking, or I can embrace the offering of redemption. Today I learned that Christ was mocked on the cross, by the other two crucified.
Did you know that? It made me think of Andrew Wakefield, Peter Duesberg, Ignaz Semmelweis, Galileo Galilei; It made me think of scientists:
29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself !” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
Walking to my father’s, after mass last night, I took a photo of another Church–New York is a very Catholic city, and also, a city of sin and pain. All of America, paralyzed by pain, sin, rage. I’m sick of it.
I don’t want to be around people who don’t think they should atone for a thing. Who have no beauty about them, which is to say, no remorse. When we ask to be forgiven for our sins, we don’t endorse a blood-soaked Patriarchy. We just open up the possibility of reversing the plague of selfishness. Of zombie-dom. We thaw our frozen hearts.
The war never ends, never changes. I believe that Satan is real, and that he works through us, through our wounds, causes us to inflict suffering, in a vain quest to escape the pain.
I did not like who I had become.
So I went to Church.
The Trump war was Satan’s triumph. Like the episode of The Twilight Zone “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” where longtime neighbors, from fear, start accusing one another and the whole community breaks down.