I packed up my suitcase and closed my van’s door. I drew in the dusk, summer air which smelled of rain, soil and pine. A raccoon crosses the street to go take care of its babies. It always feels like a shock when I leave the hustle of Chicago. I go from being surrounded by art museums and trendy coffee shops on every corner to being encircled by trees. The closest thing we have to skyscrapers are suburban houses, chain restaurants, and a shady motel. It’s one of those places where everyone is “Catholic”, but that means something different to each of them. They go to Mass on Easter and Christmas, but haven’t been to Confession in years. They pray to God, but can only recite maybe one or two prayers by heart. They wear medals and crosses, but don’t really know what they mean. They know that Jesus taught everyone to love one another even though they haven’t read the Catechism of the Catholic Church out of fear of being seen as “too religious”.
Growing up Catholic in one of these towns is like standing on a tight-rope. Being “non-religious” or an “atheist” is too edgy, but being too religious is seen as being too weird.
I started to develop my nerd-level interest in the Catholic Church when I was in high school. I began to wear my miraculous medal to school and I’d occasionally get side-eye, but I was used to that. I was viciously bullied from elementary school through high school. There comes a point in your life where you have to decide to be who you are. All my attempts to be “normal” and “basic” never succeeded. I decided that if I was going to always be the “other”, I might as well be the “other” I want to be. I still live by this mantra today. It once was a burden upon my heart, but now it is my freedom. I chose Joan of Arc as my patron saint because to me, she’s an archetypal “wild woman”. She rejected marriage and remained single her whole life. She left her home to travel in order to achieve her calling. For me, I left the suburban Midwestern town I grew up in to move to Chicago.
When I moved to Chicago, I rejoiced. I was surrounded by art and culture and the people were so nice to me. I definitely believe that different cities have different “vibes” of people. You mesh with some cities’ vibes and not others and that’s okay. That’s why I think its really important for people to explore living in different cities and moving away from their hometown to discover how different people live and behave. So, to put it blankly, the Chicago people were my people. Chicagoans are quiet, but if you initiate conversation, they’re very kind. There’s a strong sense of community found there that isn’t found in many other major cities. There is also a vibrant leftist history in Chicago. Los Angeles is more liberal-friendly whereas Chicago is more friendly to those who find themselves “left-of-liberal”. As a spiritual and political nomad when I first arrived to the city, I found this to be very appealing. I rediscovered what I believed while living in Chicago. I became practicing Catholic once again and I began to explore politics without being ashamed. This political exploration was a process since I had been societally trained to believe that getting involved in politics isn’t something “nice girls” do. Going for coffee runs, gathering at peaceful protests, and going to Mass afterwards became my way of life. I often filmed YouTube videos in the middle of the night. There was always some kind of movement, some kind of noise, that was comforting like the sound of pulsing waves upon the sand.
Returning to visit my hometown was like getting hit with a gust of wind when you are wet. You lose your breath. I’ve always been more comfortable in chaos and the stillness of the place I grew up slightly unsettles me. I’m not the “nice girl” I was when I left. I have to take a deep breath and realize I could never win with this town. If I was too nice, I was weak. If I’m a woman with opinions, I’m too controversial. I wish I could say that the longing to perfectly fit goes away, but it honestly doesn’t. You just know better. You’re challenged to pay attention to the little things the others seem to ignore. Find company with the other discarded things. There’s others like you if you know where to look.
For me, that search for discarded things began with morning walks to Marian gardens. What I like about Chicago is that no one questions devout young people about why they’re devout. There’s too many people and too many things to do. In the small towns and suburbs, you get stares. There’s that underpinning of “weird girl” that doesn’t really go away. That’s something I’ve been learning to let go of, one visit at a time. And looking around the neighborhoods and forested paths, I find myself filled with a sense of longing; the homes are simple, the birds sing, the loudest noise is the engine of a pickup truck. I’m yearning for a past that I didn’t know I had, hidden amongst the agony of my adolescence.
I went from being an exile to a wanderer.
And I wander past the cottages near the church. The old women who were my catechists still live there. Their Mother Mary statues still sit in the window. Sometimes a cat is perched next to them. I love visiting these kinds of women. Their homes are filled with old lace and houseplants. Sacred imagery is depicted everywhere, on the walls of the kitchen and the walls of the bathrooms. It’s both chaotic and wholesome while also being slightly unnerving to those who didn’t have to grow up looking for the hidden things. These women remember when Vatican II was instituted. They remember the way it was before. They beg for women to remember what Vatican II achieved for them, but many do not listen. Having experienced grief and beginning to feel the death of my childhood, I have the pang in my heart knowing that these cozy cottages have expiration dates.
I feel it is my duty to collect every story, every recipe, every piece of this culture that will be unavoidably snatched from me. When stories aren’t collected and told, they are forgotten and the people who lived them are forgotten too. It seems that both the traditional Catholics and the seculars agree that these stories are junk: worthless. They’re things that belong on driveways and curbs, on garage sale tables. These stories are the tales of the past that hoped for a future of new life in the Church, a past that dreamed of tomorrow. They are the dreams of fools. Holy fools, perhaps, but fools nonetheless. Once my grandma went to an estate sale and found a statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague covered in dirt. It was sold at an incredibly cheap price. She brought it home and it washed it, scrubbing off all the dust from the years of neglect. And beneath the cakes of gunk were rubies that lit up with midday sunlight from the upstairs window. The statue was set up on an altar where it remains today with restored dignity that’s still hidden. This is how my Catholic faith is to me. Hidden away from the credit-bought sports cars and the perfectly manicured lawns is something that transcends the hustle of keeping up with the Joneses. It is something that I love with all my heart that many will see as cheap. But in the end, it is these little things I ignored, the Eucharist I so often neglected, that are the good things. The people here might not understand Transubstantiation, but they still pray. They may not go to Mass, but there’s still rosaries that hang from their dashboards. They may not understand the theology of intercession, but they will still pray to St. Anthony when they need to find their car keys.
There’s an innocent ignorance I ignored when I was complaining and making other plans.
I spent my childhood dreaming of bigger places, places of fantasy and grandeur. And I’ve begun to see those places. But even as I sip champagne, I think of that old town. I feel guilty for this nostalgia because its not like my town was the kindest. It still isn’t the place for me. Many of the people there never liked me and still don’t like me. Yet, there’s enough discarded little things for me to carry with me in my suitcase. I’ve made room for my rage, but I don’t want it to take up all the space. I want to have a little space in my bag for the good. I had it better than many, despite being full of pain. I can be grateful for that.
There’s something beautiful about the mundane nature of culturally Catholic towns.
I wish that I would have noticed it sooner.