Monday, June 7, 2010

Suburbs of Our Discontent

“St. Anthony’s Bookstore. Lift up your haht.”

I pause, panicked by the sound of a human voice. I’d hoped to get an automated message. I really just wanted to find out the hours, but I should have known better: No web site with colorful pictures of saints and crucifixes, no user reviews, nothing. I’d rather research alone in my room than speak to a stranger. And this one wanted me to do something with my hat. Oh, God. Did she know I was a half-Jew trying to horn in on her Catholic wares?

“Yes. Hi. How late are you open today?”


It was time for a field trip to Framingham.

My house has been on the market for three months. I spent months before that scraping wallpaper, painting, creating a mudroom and a dressing room, caulking every crack. And for what? No one wants my old--I mean, my "historic"-- house with the big fenced yard.

So this morning, after a quick chat with my son's preschool teacher who knows about these things, I decided it was time to bring in the big guns: St. Joseph and his powers over all things domestic. I’d heard stories about how, if you bury a statue of St. Joseph in your yard head-first, then your house will miraculously sell. If you go online there are tons of sites hawking him and his real estate powers. After three months of keeping my house clean and not being able to find my kids’ shoes or my hairbrush I'm game for anything.

Which is what brought me to St. Anthony's this morning.

I enter the store and am immediately hit by the sense that I do not belong here. And yet I'm drawn to the walls of statues, jewelry, and prayers.

I've always been a religious outsider. My Mom grew up a strict Lutheran, but eloped with my Jewish Dad two weeks before she was supposed to marry a nice Protestant boy. My father’s parents had come to New York from the Ukraine at the turn of the century, and had assimilated like so many others at the time. They didn’t give their sons bar mitzvahs, and they didn’t go to temple. My mother remained a Christian, but didn’t take us to church except for Christmas eve. The Easter bunny came to our house, but he ranked alongside the tooth fairy and Santa Claus as a bringer of goods, and nothing more. Whenever I mention a visit to a psychic or feng shui-ing my office, my Mom crinkles her brow (even if I can’t see her, I can hear the crinkle), and says, “I should have had you kids baptized.”

My outsider status, though, has given me the freedom to appreciate guilt-free all kinds of spiritual practices. I've always been fascinated by relics and rituals. I can see why it was hard for 16th-century Englishmen and women to give up Catholicism, with all of its spectacle and magical thinking, and turn to the new state religion, a Christianity stripped of its pomp and mysticism. I don't know if Shakespeare was secretly Catholic or not, but I know that his most dramatic finales rely on the same kind of visual theatrics that kept people going to Church and saying their novenas.

After scanning the shelves at St Anthony's and not finding St. Joseph, I ask the lady behind the cash register where I could find him.

"He's right in front of you," she says, pointing to the basket full of them sitting on the front counter.

Of course he is. Because in this real estate market, he's their best seller.

I buy him, and throw in a St. Michael's medal while I'm at it (it's for the preschool teacher to protect her son who just joined the National Guard, although I'm probably overcompensating--kind of like when I took out Judy Blume's Forever from the school library and wedged it between four other books.)

Do I feel guilty that I just buried a Catholic saint head-first in my garden? Maybe just a little bit.

Do I think he might help me sell my house? Maybe just a little bit.

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