July 6, 2000
When I moved to Chicago I didn't anticipate feeling this weird for this long. I always liked it here as a visitor from New York the downtown skyline rearing straight up from the Lake, the Lake itself, where you can swim, just like that, without even thinking about it, the huge spacey apartments everyone seems to live in, where people have furniture, and closets you can stand in. But moving here, it was different. A year later I still have a lingering feeling that I'm outside of my real self, walking around in this weird place without pay phones.
Lately, I have been going to movies hoping to find insights, even little ones, into myself. There haven't been very many, because of course most movies suck and are absent of insight. But then there was one I saw about a month ago that, in spite of the obvious silliness of it in many ways, kind of moved me and made me think about major things. It was "Keeping the Faith" you know, the one with the rabbi, the priest and the girl. It's embarrassing that this movie, with its goofy trailers and somewhat implausible premise, had anything to do with me figuring something out, but it did.
Anyway, the thing with this movie is that it was about this group of three childhood best friends who are reunited when the girl comes back to town, New York, for a temporary assignment for her job. The rabbi and the priest are still there, still best friends; the only difference is that now they are spiritual leaders, not adolescents. What's particularly interesting about them is that they are hipster spiritual leaders, in a Hollywood sort of way they bring in big crowds to their places of worship by making a splash and having "up-to-date" ideas. Their goal as a priest and a rabbi seems to be to bring their faiths up to date as well. It sounds so corny, and it is, but somehow, this idea really appealed to me. They are doing all these cool things: talking about funny and racy stuff during sermons, starting this interfaith community center together where Jews and Catholics and everyone else can hang out together and sing karaoke and plan community projects. It's all about community. In fact, there's one speech Ed Norton (who plays the priest) gives to his congregation that particularly hit me in the gut. He is talking about faith, defining it sort of, and he says that faith is this hunch we all have that there's something larger out there, God in this case, keeping us believing that the world makes sense somehow. He says, we make sense as a community because we have this hunch in common that brings us back again and again to church to make that hunch part of something larger, a larger group. If we didn't have faith that this hunch is based on something, we wouldn't be here. The "we" he is referring to is his congregation, but I also felt like he was talking to the movie audience, to me.
I grew up without any religion my parents both seem to be agnostics (at the most) and certainly never did anything during my lifetime in an organized religious setting. My father's a lapsed Catholic, I guess, technically, though he only practiced for about a year between the ages of eight and nine and then lapsed. My mother's parents took her to church sometimes, I gather, at some Protestant denomination I cannot commit to memory no matter how many times I am told, but she quietly stopped going when she was old enough and no one really minded. My parents believed in surrounding yourself with people, in friendship as a high priority, in helping your community. As kids, my sister and I never went to church or celebrated religious holidays for anything except gift-giving and eating and going to the movies on Christmas. We were like a lot of New Yorkers.
I grew up knowing lots of Jewish and Catholic kids, and throughout my life, I've had moments of Jewish and Catholic envy. I would feel a desire to celebrate Passover, especially, because it was both fun and filled with traditions, and I'd hope to be invited to Seders. I would feel envious of getting to go to Mass, because it seemed so communal there's the taking of communion, for one, and the people all around you hearing the same words and saying things together. When I lived in Mexico in college and later in Nicaragua, being included in trips to Mass with families I was staying with, to these musty cool cathedrals on hot Sunday mornings, I would feel lifted up by something, well, religious. What the Catholic and Jewish people around me seemed to have was a certain cultural tradition, countless references they could make that others would understand, something concrete to accept or reject. They get to go through life with the sense that they are part of something larger, and it carries them around in their daily lives.
When I was about ten I started going to the movies. I was addicted to old black-and-white movies, starring Greta Garbo and Katherine Hepburn and Carole Lombard. I went to this revival house in the neighborhood where I grew up, almost every weekend, with my friend Elisabeth, or my dad, and saw a double feature. I papered my walls with 8 x 10's of old movies from "Ninotchka" and "East of Eden." My ideas about men and women were informed by certain characters. I identified more with spunky actresses of the Forties, with their combination of awkwardness and grace, than with Princess Leia or Farrah Fawcett. I really did. They seemed more real to me.
But I never developed a religion. Not a regular one. Sure, I have things I believe in, moments I feel the larger forces at work. I was raised to believe that you should be good to other people, that you owe them something, that we are not operating as separate contained bubbles here. I still believe that. But there have to be places you can go alone, and just be you. That must be why now I still go to the movies feeling a little lost and looking for some moment in the dark, surrounded by other people, where I can feel like someone is telling me something I need to listen to, and I don't have to say anything back.