I’ve only ever taken one serious writing class in my entire life. I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania when they introduced a new requirement: Everyone, regardless of their major, would now have to take a writing class. I remember thinking this was a bit superfluous for someone like me, who already knew she was a writer—ha—but I was excited about it, too. In my memory, they issued a special publication listing all the different, themed writing courses we could choose from, though it’s possible I’ve trumped this up in my mind, and the listings were only a part of the regular course catalog.
My boyfriend thought we should sign up for the same writing class, since he was an economics major and this would be our only chance to take a class together. I didn’t necessarily agree that this would make the class more fun or interesting—and in fact it made the whole experience more tense, at least for me—but it happened that we were both drawn to the same listing, out of all the many we could choose from: Writing About Death. We signed up.
Writing About Death was taught, and I believe was created by, a young PhD student who had gone to school at a university that was infinitely more liberal than ours. She was a more radical thinker than anyone I’d met up until that point, probably, and it made a big impression on me. Twenty years on, the class is still so vivid in my mind. We arranged our chairs in a circle and faced each other to have our conversations. There were only two female students, me and one other girl who—I woudn’t put money on this, but I’m almost certain I’m remembering this correctly—was pre-med, and had little to say about the readings. Our teacher’s ideas were challenging but her presence was protective, and I felt safe and seen in a sea of overconfident boys in baseball caps.
We read and talked about James Joyce (“The Dead”) and Allen Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” and watched a film about the AIDS quilt. We made a visit to the Shambhala Center downtown and tried meditation, which was unfamiliar to most but not all of us. I stunk at it, but I can still remember the buzz in the air in that room, all of those young bodies thrumming with energy and trying, briefly, to be still. In fact, all of the things we thought, talked, read, and wrote about in that class were as much about life as they were about death, but that’s kind of how that goes, I think. Can’t have one without the – other!
Ginsberg visited our campus that semester, and our instructor got to meet and have dinner with him. She showed him the writing we’d done in response to “Kaddish,” and the next time our class met she reported to all of us that he’d picked mine out, was impressed by it. Well, she’d explained, these aren’t exactly original. This was an exercise based on your poem.
“I know,” she said he said. “But this girl got it.”
Will you hold it against me that I’m bragging about Allen Ginsberg reading and praising something I wrote, all these years later? It’s just such a dear memory for me. Early encouragement of the most electrifying kind.
Anyway. Anyway, anyway. I have stayed in touch with that teacher here and there over the years, and I subscribe to her email list. Not too long ago she sent out a message about a show she was putting on at a gallery in New York. Through a performance in the space and graffiti scribbled on the walls, she would explore the secular usage of godly turns of phrase. Expressions like Oh my god (OMG!), the kinds of things people say all the time. She wanted to investigate the meaning of these words when they’re divorced—or are they?—from their religious context. It’s such an exciting idea, I wish I’d had it. She invited people to submit things remotely, and she would then write some of them on the gallery walls. I wrote something short in response to the call for submissions at the time, and have expanded on it a bit, below.
The word holy. I heard it so much growing up, in church and in my Catholic grade school and high school—which were extensions of church, figuratively and almost literally, with chapels inside the schools and, in the case of my elementary school, the beautiful, stone parish church right next door. The priests lived in their house on the property and the nuns lived in theirs, and we kids were in the same small class with the same kids from first to eighth grade, starting out as a pile of puppies and turning into tall, awkward young teenagers; in my mind now those kids occupy a space just to the left of siblings. For us, school and home and church and family were hopelessly intertwined.
The holy family. (That’s Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.)
The holy trinity. (That’s Jesus, God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit.)
Holy of holies. (That’s God in general, I guess. This one was both said and sung during the Mass.)
The language of Catholicism sounds ancient, even though it’s no longer the magical, dead language of Latin. When I was a kid the word holy so often it was normal and even mundane, but I don’t hear it said or think about it much anymore.
These days, ”holy shit!” is one of my favorite things to say. It’s profane, but it functions as an affirmation, like “Wow!” or even “Good for you!”
Though I find myself in a very secularized micro-culture, most of the people I know say “Bless you” or “God bless you” when someone sneezes. I’ve trained myself to get used to saying “gesundheit” instead. It makes me feel uncomfortable to bless someone in casual conversation, and I’m surprised that more of the people I know, almost none of whom are religious in any way, don’t find it odd.
Here’s one more little story for you. For the first several years of my life my parents did not give us any sort of religious education, but when I was around 8 years old my mother decided to go back to the Catholic church, which she had grown up with. She enrolled me and my sister in Catholic school and started taking us to church. During the first Mass I ever attended, I was scandalized because I heard the priest say “Jesus Christ.” I whipped around to my mother and whispered, “He just said a bad word!” She was mortified (and pissed), but it wasn’t my fault: I’d only ever heard my father shout “Jesus Christ!” when he accidentally broke something or hammered his thumb instead of a nail, so I thought the word Jesuschrist was a curse.