Though I’ve never met him, I keep a photo of the man responsible for my second birth in a grainy Shutterstock image tucked into my wallet. Maybe he’s my third parent or my patron saint -- the priest who has utilized the space my father’s half-hearted, haphazard Buddhism and my mother’s shed Catholicism have left -- for the spiritual education of their eldest daughter. That very famous American novel was The Great Gatsby. That man is F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Someone once told me that the English language is a warehouse of words in which the contents of other languages converge, but despite that this observation was reinforced for me through lists of synonyms in royal blue Expo marker, the English language (my native and only tongue) was just that to me: my tongue. I fought in it, groveled in it, complained in it of string beans and sunburns and the smell of our Labrador retriever’s damp black coat, but long did the extent of its extraordinary reaches escape me.
I came to understand my own language, however, when I read Fitzgerald, and I was born again to the world through a perspective altered so that I, to use a phrase his own, “revalued everything . . . according to the measure of response” it drew from his discerning eyes. The English language became my language, the effective weaving of its many threads my goal.
Fitzgerald says that “part of the beauty of all literature” is that “you discover that your longings are universal longings.” But the mutualities that we share, I found, went beyond those desires we call universal. I found we were both sensitive, both observant; I had, like he had had, the kind of extremity of willpower which proves itself conducive to either extraordinary success or harrowing defeat.
Given the occurrence of this rebirth at age twelve, when my classmates were discovering the texture of other people’s mouths and seeing to the best of their abilities that the Orinda Intermediate School locker room was choked in clouds of Victoria’s Secret PINK perfume, I was approaching the estimation I now harbor: that it is those very traits which had made me a difficult and unhappy child which today render me so often breathless.
Baptism into the English language—his individual use of which I’ve decided, for lack of a better comparison, is a room of textual Calder mobiles—was not the only rite for which I am indebted to Fitzgerald. He also did for me what hundreds of years of ancestors and the cultural Petri dish of the New York metropolitan area somehow failed in: he made being Irish cool.
My interaction with heritage had, for a long while, consisted of not much more than a report I did once in which I’d affixed the more aesthetic Google image search results of the country—these deep green and abundant with sheep—and a rosary on which I knew not how to count in the stomach of my American Girl doll’s wooden suitcase. Five years ago, I would have been lying if I said I’d have had no difficulty locating the island on a map.
Now, however, having been introduced my culture through its romantic portrayal in Times New Roman, I find myself unwittingly smiling at the cultural appropriation of the color green in my neighborhood Starbucks, combing the internet for stories of the saint whose name marks the day. Where a year ago I was unoffended to have first my friend tell me that I couldn’t ask to celebrate a “white holiday” and next my Spanish teacher tell me that “You celebrate that in your English class!” I now find myself resolved to do just that.
On the eve of today I stood in our kitchen with such a purpose, making soda bread and nursing a leg cramp in a room dark and solemn, flat, almost, as is the background respective to the Dutch Masters. I stood indignant at what had been a year past of silence, a year in which a part of me—that part drawn to discourse—had felt the simultaneous need for expressing and the inability to express that the freedom for which America is heralded is not one earned of a reigning homogeneity, but rather a mosaic in which I, by way of my Irish heritage, was no more and no less than any other American entitled chips of glass.
Last night, it seemed romantic to me that the metaphoric story of Patrick driving the “snakes” out of Ireland is centuries old, a fact which encourages the theory that the island’s mountains were morphed as much by mythology as by tectonic plates, its shores shifted as seriously by sentence as by erosion, for, it always did appear, to use Fitzgerald’s phrasing, to be a land which “sprang from [its] Platonic conception of [itself].”
As I stood watching the square, tomato-colored numbers on the stove timer, waiting for the soda bread, I worked to reconcile those images of my childhood with the access to use of the word ‘heritage’ which I have presumably been barred: the intersection of lines in the soda bread which is supposed to represent the cross but which instead conjures first the X and Y components of a mathematical graph, my grandparents’ account of Kennedy’s election as the first Catholic president on our way back from the JetBlue terminal at JFK which is like being underwater, the familiar Tiffany glass and dark paneling of pubs where I ate mac and cheese and didn’t drink but smelled the shades of the different ambers, the moan of bagpipes up 5th Avenue in pleasure derived of a procession of firefighters and policemen.
I checked the bread, and bothered to find it unfinished, returned the mound to the tray. When I’m the Statue of Liberty in honors English, I found myself wanting to say, I’m reimbursement for work long unpaid, a voice which speaks not alone but as representative of a people whose past resolve pushed them to risk electrocution to jam pennies into sockets to hold the lights on, who witnessed burnt books and killed brothers and dinner table tensions over religious nuances which then served as walls.
The branch of my family which grew in Brooklyn, I wanted to say, is a microcosm for the Irish people—their transcendent hope, their indefatigable resolve—and however sappy it may be that my grandparents point out their respective landmarks—street corners, small parks—in episodes of Blue Bloods, this sentimentality itself is a kind of luxury they could not always afford.
I found myself wanting to explain to someone who had once referred my feeling of injustice to a chart in which boxes of shades ranging from printer paper to buttercream, that despite our melaninic dearth my people struggled once, too, suffered under the same discrimination other Americans do today, were on the island “a people yearning for self-determination while proudly believing themselves unconquerable, despite a long history of brutal British rule that proved otherwise” and in America an immigrant class whose deviances from Protestant English norms was not forgiven until 1960.
The reason Fitzgerald chose Princeton (in those days when such decisions were still in the hands of the prospective students) was not that it was the powerhouse it is today, but rather, inversely, because he “imagined the Princeton men as slender and keen and romantic,” as their football team was one he often saw “nosed out” by the more brutish players in Yale’s baby blue. After living arguably closer to grace than most in history, I wanted to say as I watched the numbers flip lower on the oven timer, he was denied admittance, like people are to America today, to a Catholic cemetery on the basis of religious grounds.
I wanted to say that I love as fiercely the capacity my culture has allotted me—that of discerning chessboards in Band-Aids and constellations from black BMW-X5 windshields speckled with pollen—as they do their respective cultural attributes and traditions, that however completely my father’s German severity has managed to usurp my features it is not the lens through which I view the world. My people is in all ways a gentle one, I wanted to say, a population beat both by the British and the Americans, a population for whom, as I’m in line at Starbucks looking out at people through the same microscopic discernment Fitzgerald employed, others are playing jeering games of beer pong and slinging slurs over Guinness.
I put the tray on the counter. That is the posterchild of my people, I wanted to say, the Irish-American whose grandparents were immigrants, the Irish-American who lost often and used hardship, rather than as a justification for the rejection of, as a Swiss Army blade with which to winnow an acuter empathy. My people, I wanted to say, while it is a gentle one, is equally as resolute; my grandmother muddling through strict parochial school and daily potato-peeling, my riding two buses in order to attend a competitive polytechnic high school, the two of them, against better judgement and advisable probability, entangling their livelihood on the investment of my grandfather’s PhD proves as much.
My people is made of the determination which caused my mind to have caught last night on the word “cannot” as I uttered the old verse—“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”—in assessing the burnt mound of dough, the same determination which earlier had condoned the prospect of bringing a sand colored, raisin-studded Irish loaf to distribute, welcome or not, to my classmates in honors English.
I burned the bread, however, and the cramp in my calf, similarly hard, wouldn’t vacate my muscle however long I proceeded to knead it. As I assessed the flour-coated floor I found myself, like the Irish Republican Army had been with so few riffles, ill-equipped, for the first time maybe in years, at a loss for words. I wondered then, in the black room, if it was that the church lacked something, too: the discernment to know the difference between the giving and taking of life. Was that why they had rejected Fitzgerald, I asked myself, because they had mistakenly assumed he had performed the task reserved a higher power?
They must have rejected his body for unorthodoxy, I decided, for that extremity of willpower it housed in life which enabled him to act, post-mortem, as a proxy father for a similarly Irish, similarly minded, however totally genetically and generationally unrelated little girl.