Photo credit: Andrea Stenson
It’s Good Friday, and I’m remembering the thick white stockings that used to come out of the drawer just once a year, every year when I was a little girl, the ones with the runs behind my knees and the crotch that kept creeping lower every year, requiring secret yanks throughout the day. That and the shiny little Mary Janes with the tiny buckles, and my mother bending over my kicking feet, struggling to get the buckle’s impossible prong into its worn hole. It’s only this weekend every year that I wear the poofy petticoat dress with its sleeves stuffed with toilet paper, because we are not real churchgoers, Christian only in the way religion gets passed down as a family inheritance. The dresses my sister and I wear are mostly for the benefit of our grandparents, who arrive on Friday afternoon to have dinner, walk around the reservoir, spend the weekend together, and disagree on politics over my father’s expertly prepared lamb. There will be baskets of chocolate bunnies and the fun of balancing eggs in my grandmother’s rose-handled spoons, lowering them carefully into hot tea cups of dye. The usual cheerful mishmash of the secular and the saintly, our own Boston Irish family traditions.
It’s Good Friday when I sell my novel, about an Irish Catholic girl who converts to Zen Buddhism as a teen, then runs away from home. Later she becomes entangled in a sexual relationship with a manipulative Zen master. Her longing for spirituality dogs her from one faith to the other, dominating her relationships, fraying the uneasy truce she’s struck with her family. I envisioned my novel spanning from Christmas to Easter: one long wet winter in Boston heading into spring, a story about birth and rebirth.
I never had so dramatic a break from my family, nor was I raised in a strict Catholic household, but I was aware of my roots all the same, and sometimes felt the strong bonds of love as burden and obligation. I knew that if I refused to partake in the Easter and Christmas rituals, if I stopped singing carols or letting my mother French braid my hair for the annual Easter brunch, then I would be disappointing her and my family in a profound way.
Religion is culture; it shapes the language with which we speak, the songs we sing, the framework and firmament of our dreams.
They say that Catholic magic is strong. Even a generation removed from it, when I walk around Boston I feel the weight of history and tradition on every street corner. I feel it in the way the stone spire of a church looms over the triple-deckers in East Boston, the way those nubby little 18th-century gravestones can be seen emerging from the earth in the oldest parts of town. I’m part of this community in a way I only occasionally acknowledge. I feel the tight bonds when a post office employee or a cop takes a look at my red hair or hears my name and says, “You’re an Irishwoman, aren’t ya, hon.” It’s a network of history and privilege that opens unexpected secret doors. When I was living in New York, I once ran for the subway and my shoe flew clean off, where it sailed down onto the train tracks. I shuffle-hopped to a nearby police officer, who first looked me up and down, then asked my name and where I was from. When I said “Hurley” and “Boston” he smiled and said he knew a lot of Hurleys in Boston, a lot of whom were cops too. He found a station worker who used an extendable claw to retrieve my shoe. Even though my parents had raised me and my sister without religion, we still knew the Irish jokes and hymns and the Hail Marys; we knew about Ash Wednesday and fish on Fridays and the heroism of Michael Collins; we knew there was a network of Hurleys and Murphys and O’Connells in our town, that we were a part of.
When the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church broke open in the early 2000s, I rode the train through all the old neighborhoods to school and I felt a collective shuddering in the city, as though its very foundations were shaking. After being nearly bankrupted by lawsuits, the archdiocese of Boston decided to close more than 300 of its parishes. There were two tragedies to comprehend here, both wrapped up in each other: the closing of churches, which had formed a bedrock of many neighborhoods’ identities for much of the past century, and the more secret shame, the terrible abuse of children for decades under the knowing eye of church leaders. There was anger and loss and something deeper, a wound torn open in the city that wouldn’t easily be closed. When I started writing my novel, I didn’t immediately realize that this was what I was writing about. But the more I told Nicole’s story, and explored how we lose faith, the more the story grew larger than itself. It became a story about a collective loss of faith, and how faith and identity and community are intimately intertwined. In the course of writing, I saw that Nicole might never truly be free of the Catholicism of her childhood, at least not in the way she hoped. Religion is culture; it shapes the language with which we speak, the songs we sing, the framework and firmament of our dreams. Her Zen identity is a very Catholic kind of Zen.
That feels right to me, though. In my research I’ve found that when people convert, they’re not always creating new identities, but rather hybrid ones instead, new selves that still hold hands with the old ones. We’re all hybrids in our different ways; I’m only part Irish, after all, a mishmash of different immigrant identities like most Americans. My Boston was a vibrant and diverse one; as a child I went to more Bat Mitzvahs than First Communions, and in every neighborhood you can find Zen centers, mosques, and Hindu and Sikh temples. There are people all around me choosing what to take and what to leave behind; we’re all making up traditions and carrying along the ones that still matter to us.
Boston can’t ever fully forget its sins, the way we looked away year after year. The wounds are still there, wherever there’s a church with gates locked and caution tape strung through the iron handles of an oak door, or by now, a pile of rubble, or a new condo rising under a scaffold. The city keeps changing, but it’s an old city, full of tribes and superstitions, committed to its past, its sickness and health. Its rotting docks and bright new technology centers. Its festivals and First Nights. Each year I listen for the drum beats of the Caribbean parade and the raucous cheer of St. Patrick’s Day. The sound of church bells still rings out on Easter morning.
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grew up in Boston. Her short stories are published or forthcoming in Ninth Letter
, The Georgia Review
, West Branch
, and elsewhere. She received a 2018 Pushcart Prize and scholarships from Bread Loaf and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts. Her debut novel, The Devoted
, is due in August 2018 from W. W. Norton & Company.