Friday, June 22, 2012

Nun Sense

 “That’s what I liked about those nuns. You could tell, for one thing, that they never went anywhere swanky for lunch. It made me so damn sad when I thought about it, their never going anywhere swanky for lunch or anything. I knew it wasn’t too important, but it made me sad anyway…”

“…They said they were schoolteachers and that they’d just come from Chicago and that they were going to start teaching at some convent on 168th Street or 186th Street or one of those streets way the hell uptown.  The one next to me, with the iron glasses, said she taught English and her friend taught history and American government.  Then I started wondering like a bastard what the one sitting next to me, that taught English, thought about, being a nun and all, when she read certain books for English.  Books not necessarily with a lot of sexy stuff in them, but books with lovers and all in them…”

“…Oh, Romeo and Juliet!  Lovely! Didn’t you just love it?” She certainly didn’t sound much like a nun…
                                                -Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

Even Holden got a good sense about nuns. I don’t think it was a coincidence that he met up with two travelling nuns after his encounter with Sunny the prostitute. He not only helps them with their cheap suitcase but also is surprised by their love of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.  Their self-sacrifice, their disregard for expensive things whether it be food or suitcases, and their embrace of the more human, intellectual and yet romantic side of life did not go unrecognized.   They weren’t “phonies” as Holden was always on the lookout for.  Many are the real thing.  And I think that we are finally realizing that today.

This “Nun sense” has been on my mind lately. I hate to prejudge a book by its cover but I have to say I am fascinated by Sister Margaret Farley’s recently publicized book “Just Love.”  Anything that the Vatican condemns is a must-read in my book even if it has taken them 6 years after publication to make that judgment. It took them nearly 400 years to reverse their denouncement of Galileo’s theories. 

My interest in Vatican-banned items stems from the Catholic newspaper “The Advocate” from the Newark Archdiocese  that my Aunt subscribed to when I was a kid.  I used to read it when at her house for Sunday dinner. I distinctly remember it had a column devoted to religiously objectionable media, which, of course, were the first books or movies you really wanted to see, even as a nine-year –old.

No one should have the right to tell anyone what to read, see or think.  

So I will be reading her book soon. It comes at a time when the midst of rampant pedophilic priest sexual abuse, the Catholic Church is trying to make itself relevant and decidedly far right by supporting Republican efforts to narrow abortion rights and women’s health issues. A surprisingly easy sell in today’s post women’s movement world and I fear for the worst.  It is unfortunately not 1974.

But there is hope. I am impressed with the “Nuns on the Bus” tour. They, like their evangelical counterparts, are defying the separation of church and state by protesting the mostly Republican policies affecting low-income families. They no longer want the “back of the bus” seats on government matters.  If the women’s movement had it’s peak wave in the 1970’s, the conservative movement  is a forceful undertow pulling our country back.  I applaud these progressive women who want to at least consider a seawall. I will jump on their bandwagon, er, I mean,  bus to protest recent political issues. I have joined their “Nuns on the Bus” Facebook page and sent a small donation.

You go girls. These were the type of nuns I respected in school. I had a mixed bag of sisters in my 13  (kindergarten + 12) years of Catholic school.  Some were the most patient, intellectually curious yet practical women I have ever met to this day. Yet some were just DSM IV’s waiting to be diagnosed. I remember every one of them (even you Sr. Eucharista) and even have reconnected to some through Alumni or fundraising events.  I still have a special place in my heart for a certain sister who taught me math throughout my high school years.  Her round jovial face and small wire framed glasses reminded me of Santa Claus and every class was Christmas. Her love of teaching all levels of Algebra, Geometry Trigonometry through Calculus was a true gift. She often started it with a circle on the board and the joke:  “You know people are crazy when they can draw a perfect circle.” It always followed with a her laugh which made most of us either wake up or just settle down to concentrate.   Her circles were never perfect but her warmth and inspiration for teaching girls math was.

These are the women who did humanity’s (God’s?) dirty work.   Whether it be running tough inner city schools where parents, like mine, wanted a more disciplined academic environment, running hospitals, ministering to death-row inmates or caring for the world’s untouchables, they performed in arenas hardly ever visited by gold frocked priests.

I am reminded of the scene from the movie “Doubt.”  Mealtimes at the convent versus the rectory were portrayed as very different affairs.  The Sisters had had orderly meal with grace and a sharing of ideas.  The priests, on the other hand, had meals that resembled a fraternity party with plenty of alcohol and cigars. It was easy to pick out the more disciplined of the bunch.

I can’t say that I am a practicing anything now.  I don’t think any particular faith holds all the answers to life’s big questions, but when impractical guidelines trump common sense, it’s time to question things very deeply. I think the sisters, at least the good ones, do not avoid these deep questions.

It’s funny after all these years, these ladies are still teaching me things.

Just like Holden.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


I went to the Trail early this morning for my usual walk, although given time constraints it’s turning into more of a walk-jog-walk-walk-jog- walk.

Rain was in the forecast but it didn’t matter.  The only preparation I needed was to wear my older running shoes.

Because I needed the ablution.

Every religion has one.  In Christianity it’s a baptism.  Judaism has mikvehs.  Islam has its partial ablution in wudu and whole ablution in ghusls.

I cannot profess any particular faith right now.  Forget the Catholic crap I was brought up on but still remember.  

I chose the rain.  And it felt wonderful.

You are probably wondering what my sin is.  If my original sin is trying to love someone for so many years and that person innately incapable of returning the love I need, then so be it.

Bless me father….

The woods are my confessional box and I haven't been on my knees in years.

My penance is my walk-jog-walk-walk-jog then walk.

My “Hail Marys” are listening to the blue jays squawking in the background.  My “Our Fathers”- the rooster crowing on a nearby farm.  My “Act of Contrition”- the pattering of raindrops mixed with my tears on the nearby falls.

I am soaked but clean after my five miles. 

I have a towel in the car to dry off.  I face a new day and a new life.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Benny Goes Home

I was never a person who used the word “summer’ as a verb.  I heard it used that way the other day at my daughter’s private school and it made me laugh. Perhaps I observe and subsequently judge too much.  Perhaps it’s the clientele at that private school.  Perhaps I am just too nosy and overhear too many conversations.  Whatever the reason, the word seemed dated and pretentious just like its speaker's Lily Pulitzer prints and perfectly clean espadrilles.  It's funny, but I didn't think Stepford, Connecticut really existed. As the political season heats up though, I wonder.

Although I have certainly been in the company of many of people who “summer,” I never quite was comfortable with that sect.  With my working class ethnic roots, I was more of a “going down the shore” kind of gal.  Anyone from New Jersey knows that phrase.  It is as prominent in our lexicons as “the tubes”, “Taylor Ham”, “jimmies”, RC Cola, “rippers” and of course “Bennys”. To those uninitiated to NJ speak, they are, respectively, the Path Trains to NY, a specific brand of pork roll, sprinkles on ice cream, a specific brand of cola, deep fried hot dogs that are cooked until their skin has “ripped,” and the tourists that frequent the shore in the summer.

After all these years, I am not sure if I am a Benny or not now.

According to the website (yes it exists):

The term “Benny” is believed to have come into existence some time in the first half of the 20th century, and was fully entrenched in the local vernacular by the post-war boom of the fifties.  While there is no consolidated record on the meaning of the name, it is commonly believed to reflect the places of origin for those frequenting the coastal area.  Train luggage tags at this time would have routinely been stamped with station stops from departure points, with Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York being the most common sights.  So, it is believed, the term “Benny” emerged as a universal acronym to describe those originating from places north of the Raritan River, and especially New York. June 1, 2012

in the first half of the 20th century, and was fully entrenched in the loca
I never heard the term “Benny” until my family became turncoats and actually moved “down the shore” from Northern NJ in 1979.  Prior to that we were those tourists from the North.  But you switch allegiances pretty quickly when stuck in new found traffic jams just going to buy milk that you previously walked to the neighborhood A & P for. It became quite a movement about that time. I have even seen those low flying planes with beach banners with the phrase “Bennys Go Home.” A derogatory term, yes, but it fades quickly away by August when the tourist dollars are tallied.

That shore holds a special place for me. Those short weeks of a small vacation from the hot pavements of urban NJ were incomparable.  I have traveled the world from Edinburgh, to the British Virgin Islands, to New Delhi and even to Korea, but those vacations were like slide shows. True vacations are  states of mind and there was nothing like that state nor the minds at the Jersey Shore.

Our arrival was heralded with the crackle of white-walled car tires on unpaved sandy roads.  It announced two to three weeks of:  Scorching sand on newly bared feet.  Sand flies.  Sunburns that stung well into the night.   Peeling noses.  Zinc Oxide noses. Murky Atlantic Ocean water.  Flying kites at dusk. Showering outside in attached dressing rooms. Twilight surfers commanding the two-foot waves.  Sun bleached hair.  Jenkinson’s Boardwalk. Seaside. Miniature golf. The Parking Lot called Route 35. Ladies with reflecting visors and black eye cups sprawled out on plastic beach chairs.  Cute boys who could whip their wet longish hair back with just one quick turn of their heads. Life guards who wrote the high tide, low tide and ocean temperature on slate chalkboards on the back of their stands. Several near drowning episodes that you never told your parents about. Trying to body surf (never could get the hang of it).  Riding the waves with rafts that only had a half-life of about a week. Beach umbrellas, towels, beach badges, and other accoutrement you were loaded down with for the morning trot to the beach, leaving the bivouac for lunch,  then hauling everything back at 4:30pm when grilled dinners were the norm. Never eating on the actual beach. Crabbing in Barnegat Bay. Taking handfuls of sand back with me to the city in canning jars to savor a bit of the magic throughout the new school year.

It offered rare moments in my childhood summers when I didn’t watch TV near continuously.  Instead we played board games and were taught poker and gin rummy by my ex-Sailor uncle. My uncle was quite the gambler and we bet with real money. I suspected he let us win. I wish I remembered some of those lessons. But that old gruff exterior hid an infinitely patient side as he also took us to the beach at night to fly his box kite.  I never understood the aerodynamics of a box kite and even now as I Google it, I am amazed how he got that thing to fly.

My entire family along with two aunts, an uncle and a few of my father’s cousins thrown-in stayed in that small house.  And those bungalows were only two to three bedrooms.  Where we all slept, was anyone’s guess.  I do remember a family who rented an adjacent house and had their kids sleep outside.  I thought it was infinitely cool. When I suggested it one year, my mother made her usual comment  “No we are not cannibals!” It was her answer to what she considered aberrant behavior.  She made the same remark when I wanted to get my ears pierced.  I went with my seemingly cannibalistic aunt instead.

I will be selling my Dad's house near the Jersey Shore soon.  I am not sure I will be returning when sold. 

I will be leaving a hell of a lot more than just real estate when all the papers are signed.

Way too many things to fit into a canning jar.