“We rise again from ashes, from the good we’ve failed to do/ We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew . . . Give our stumblings direction, give our vision wider view/ Of an offering of ashes – an offering to You.”
–“Ashes,” Tom Conry (published by Oregon Catholic Press)
I never liked Ash Wednesday until I moved to New York City.
Living in the fairly secular city of Portland, I was used to two distinctly different kinds of environments on Ash Wednesday: either I was at church or school, which meant everyone had ashes on their forehead, which takes the novelty out of it, or I was somewhere else, like the bus or the grocery store, where nobody did. But it’s different in New York. The city is full of Catholics. There are Catholics everywhere. You can know this theoretically and still be astonished by the miracle of Ash Wednesday, the day when they all wear their Catholicism in thick black ash on their foreheads, visible from half a block away.
In 2004 I was a fresh-out-of-college intern in the development department of Manhattan Theatre Club, a massive artistic landmark with a huge staff and a theatre on Broadway, where I had spent six months feeling very small and lost. I didn’t fit in with my coworkers in Development, many of whom were posh Upper East Side princesses whose Burberry coat linings matched their umbrellas and handbags. I, in contrast, was constantly doing or saying or wearing the wrong thing – talking too loud on the phone, or embarrassing myself in front of celebrities, or showing up to an opening night in flowing silk pants and a tank topped with a grass-green silk Beijing opera robe my friend Julia had brought me back from China, only to find everyone else in the department wearing what looked like the exact same navy blue suit, staring at me like I had committed some unpardonable transgression. I had gone to school to study theatre and had lucked into an amazing internship at one of the country’s greatest theatres and my parents were helping pay my rent on my room in the Bronx, and I wanted to feel like I was having a grand adventure, but instead I felt like every day the universe was telling me, “These will never be your people.” Whether the universe meant MTC specifically, or New Yorkers, or theatre people, I didn’t know, but the effect was the same.
Andy the development director, who was delightful and brilliant and very intimidating since he was like eighteen rungs up the food chain from me, came over to my boss’ desk to drop off a file and caught me checking out the ashes on his forehead. “I’m not dirty,” he laughed apologetically. “I’m Catholic. It’s Ash Wednesday.”
“No, I know,” I said. “I’m Catholic too. I would have them too, if I had a church here.” And then he, and the three other be-ashed staff members sitting within earshot, told me about one of the city’s best-kept secrets – on Ash Wednesday, to accommodate impatient New Yorkers who don’t like to wait more than half an hour or walk more than half a block for anything, there are churches all over the city that give out ashes all day. And there was one literally a block from our office. I could go on my lunch break. Which is how, after about a two-minute walk, I ended up on a street I walked down nearly every weekday where somehow, magically, there was now a Catholic parish. Because here’s the thing: when New Yorkers walk they look straight ahead. Tourists look around, or up. New Yorkers – and Oregon girls who desperately want to LOOK like New Yorkers – charge forward, like they’re on their way to somewhere very important. Which is how I had rushed past that wrought-iron gate and concrete stairs probably three hundred times while running errands without ever knowing they led to a church.
This is how to step back in time. Start in the busiest, noisiest, loudest, most hellish part of Times Square. Turn west, towards the river. Walk past Port Authority. Pass the Duane Reade pharmacy, and the camera store, and the parking lots, and the brownstones which seem perpetually under construction, and there – sandwiched between a 7-11 on the left and a Burger King on the right – is the Church of the Holy Cross. It was built in 1852 and is the oldest structure on 42nd Street, river to river. When the property was granted to the diocese, it was farmland with cows wandering by. Its brick walls are thick. The second the door closes behind you, 42nd Street and Port Authority vanish, and you are in a different New York. This is the New York the immigrants built, where in the early 20th century, night workers – from New York Times typesetters to cab drivers to chorus girls – would gather in this sanctuary for the 2:30 a.m. “Printer’s Mass,” presided over by a former World War I chaplain. Eighty years later, they still throw their doors open to the neighborhood workers by offering twenty-five minute prayer services throughout the day so everyone in the midtown office towers can swing by on their lunch break to get their ashes.
I opened the heavy outer doors and closed them behind me, then pulled open the inner glass door and stepped into Alleluia.
I was late – 12:05, not 12:15, Andy – and Mass had already started. The crowd was singing the Gospel Acclamation – the “Celtic Alleluia,” one I knew well. I slipped into the furthest back pew, soaking in the familiar music. We sang this at my church too. I even knew the cantor’s verses. We stayed standing for the Gospel reading, then sat for the homily. And that was when I noticed the slim paperback hymnals labeled “Today’s Missal” and “Music Issue” tucked carefully into the racks on the back of each pew. Why is that important, you might well ask? Two reasons. Number one, those were the same hymnals we used at my church. I grew up with these songs. And number two, while Catholic churches all over the world use all manner of musical anthologies for congregations, those particular two happen to be printed by the world’s largest Catholic music publisher: Oregon Catholic Press. Which is located not just in Oregon but in Portland, and not just in Portland but Northeast Portland, and not just Northeast Portland but about five minutes from my family’s house. My father worked there. My sister worked there. I had worked there for a summer during college, doing data entry. Some of the OCP staff were composers, which meant I could flip through the hymnal’s pages and see “Arrangement by . . .” at the bottom of the page and recognize the names of men and women with whom I had shared cake in the break room on someone’s birthday. And right there on the title page, I saw the words “Publisher: John Limb.” John and his wife were among my family’s dearest friends. I babysat for his kids. He had known me most of my life. And here he was, thousands of miles away. In a church where I knew no one, in a city full of strangers, I suddenly realized I had at least one friend. A slice of my own world had been uprooted from the other side of the country and handed back to me. One block from my office, hidden away in Manhattan’s loudest and most alien neighborhood, jangling with neon and stinking of subway fumes from the street vents, two thousand nine hundred and forty-eight miles away from the church where I was baptized, there were hymnals with John Limb’s name.
I leafed through the pages of the Music Issue during the priest’s homily, matching the numbers on the cantor’s board above the altar with the corresponding page numbers and realizing with delight that they were all songs I knew – the same songs my parents and siblings would be singing later that night when they went to Mass at All Saints, the same songs I had been singing on Ash Wednesday since I was in fifth grade and joined the church choir with my father. I may not have any business working for a Broadway theatre company, I thought, or living in New York, or doing any of the things I’m doing, and I may be way too Portland for this city, and I may be twenty-two and in a panic about what the hell I should do with the rest of my life – but I know these songs, and I can sing.
* * *
We lived in Japan for a year when I was a kid, and I hated the food. I complained all the time. I never learned to like anything Japanese except white rice and potstickers. (And candy. Japan has GREAT candy.) But from time to time, care packages from the States would arrive with things like taco seasoning and falafel mix, and Mom would make us food that we recognized. In Oregon I thought falafel was the grossest thing in the world, herby-flavored sand balls pretending to be meat. In Tokyo I thought they were sent from the gods. “What are you talking about, I’ve always loved falafel,” I told my mother when she raised her eyebrow at my empty plate. But I hadn’t. It was just the miracle of something from my old life at a time when I needed an anchor. It was food I ate at the kitchen table where I’d grown up, walking distance from my church and school. “This is tempura chicken! It’s like chicken strips! You love chicken strips!” she would plead with me desperately. “This is ramen! You love ramen!” As though it was about the food only, and not about how much I missed my best friend Bill or how I never got used to being unable to read street signs or how it stung to flunk a class for the first time in my life because they wouldn’t let me transfer out of Intermediate Japanese where the rest of my classmates were. I’ve traveled a lot, and I’ve moved around a lot, and I’ve done lots of things that might seem on the surface to indicate that I’m a person who goes out and has adventures, but the truth is that I’m a giant chicken. I hate change. It terrifies me, every time. I prefer stasis. Going out and doing things is an instinct for some people, but for me, it’s all learned behavior. If there hadn’t been a social stigma attached to it I could have happily lived with my mother the rest of my life. She would never have stood for it, though, not in a million years. The night before I left for New York, we sat out on the back porch drinking lemon drops and watching the sunset, and she told me something that would still be burned into my brain even if she hadn’t died five years later.
“I moved from my parents’ house to my husband’s house,” she said. “I don’t regret it. I love my life, and I love your dad, and I love you kids, and I’m very happy. But I watch my daughters move away to new places and new lives, and it makes me so proud. I never moved to a faraway city and had to learn a new public transit system or pay the electric bill. I never lived alone. You girls will have adventures I never had.”
“I’m scared,” I said.
“I think you’re supposed to be,” she said.
The next day I got on a plane. I cried every night the first week. By the time I saw her again, I had mastered the subway system enough to give her and the family directions to every place they were going without having to look at a map. Just like she’d known I eventually would.
* * *
Like falafel in Tokyo, Ash Wednesday in New York made me fall suddenly and crazily in love with Tom Conry’s song “Ashes.” Every Catholic I know knows the words to “Ashes.” Ash Wednesday-specific music is a slim niche, and by the time you hit Confirmation you’ve sung them all a dozen times. Back home in Portland, I was SO OVER IT. It had lost all meaning. I had been singing it for twenty-two years. But in that church in Manhattan, it was a gift – the one thing in this disorienting new place that I absolutely knew all the way down to my bones was that I could sing the hell out of “Ashes” – because I had been singing it for twenty-two years. And the way it felt to be standing in a crowd of New Yorkers who were also singing the hell out of “Ashes” was the closest I had come at that point in my life to feeling the presence of God.
There was an elderly African-American woman sitting beside me, in a truly spectacular Southern Church Lady hat. We were the only people in our pew. We held hands during the “Our Father.” At the sign of peace, she hugged me and told me I had a beautiful voice. “You should sing in the choir,” she said, as though I were a person who belonged here.
And I knew that at least for twenty-five minutes that day, I did.
I knew that there were one billion people in my family, that “home” is a concept and not a street address, that it can move along with you from place to place inside your boxes of picture frames and books, that there is something primal and fiercely satisfying about walking into a room full of strangers and knowing exactly what to do, when to kneel, and how to sing “Alleluia.”
I knew I would never see the woman in the hat again, that we had intersected briefly and then separated to return to our own entirely distinct lives, but marked by fellowship, by the sign of a secret brotherhood. We would walk down our separate streets wearing the same password on our forehead. “When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the mark of the promised Holy Spirit.”
I called my mother that night. “They use OCP hymnals here,” I told her. I did not say what that meant: that for those twenty-five minutes I was both two thousand nine hundred and forty-eight miles away from her and as close as if she were holding my hand. But five years later I would overhear her telling John Limb, “Claire’s church in New York used OCP hymnals,” which was how I would know she knew.
This is the Kingdom of God: Ash crosses on street corners. Ash crosses sitting in the back of a cab, stopped at a streetlight. Ash crosses coming in and out of gleaming office towers, ordering tuna sandwiches at the corner bodega, wearing headphones on the subway and bopping their heads in time to the music, ash crosses on Andy and the church hat lady, ash crosses pulling pints in the Irish pub where I stopped in for dinner to break my fast with fish and chips. Ash crosses everywhere I went, from 42nd and 9th to 205th and Grand Concourse. A city marked by God. And in a place with a reputation for being at times unfriendly, a place where strangers rarely make eye contact and we all walk down the street encased in our own private bubble, Ash Wednesday was like a gift – the one day of the year when every member of the brotherhood could recognize every other, where I exchanged knowing smiles with butchers and bartenders, school kids and old ladies, cab drivers and men in suits, and we could feel the thread that tied us together. You are part of something, they said to me. You are one of us. And for the first time since I moved to New York, I knew that I was.