Growing up, my family would make the short trip to Leo’s in Hoboken, where we’d eat eggplant parm and stuffed calamari. We were surrounded by photos of the city’s favorite son, Frank Sinatra. His songs crooned from the jukebox; the most iconic of which was “My Way,” a metropolitan anthem written by Paul Anka specifically for Sinatra. The song comes with requisite bombast, which is unavoidable for us sons of New Jersey.
Even after I went to college in Pennsylvania, I’d return to Leo’s when I came home to visit — necessary pilgrimages. I went there a few days before 9/11; I hadn’t realized that the couple who opened the restaurant in 1939, Leo and Tessie DiTerlizzi, had died earlier that year. As their grandnephew would later say, “Tessie became sick in February and Leo died of a broken heart in July.”
I’ve come to learn that life and love are a series of confluences, coincidences and surprises. A few weeks after that September 2001 trip, I met my wife. We were two Catholic New Jersey kids in the middle of Pennsylvania. We met at our priest’s rectory, where he had Sunday dinners for kids (like us) who missed the comfort of eating with our families. October 2001 was a time when that longing was particularly acute.
I remember listening to the Gipsy Kings with Jen, especially their self-titled third album. Her family is from Galicia, Spain; she would spend summers there growing up. Although the band is from southern France, its members were born of gitanos in Spain. I loved so many songs on that pop flamenco album — “Bamboléo,” “Bem, Bem, María,” “Tú Quieres Volver” — but I felt an especial attraction to “A Mi Manera.”
The rhythm felt familiar, and yet the song’s delivery felt dissimilar. Jen explained that the song was a cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” — which I’ve since learned was itself an adaptation by Anka of a song “Comme d’habitude” from France. The song’s meaning has evolved through its iterations, from falling out of love to affirming one’s own vision of the world. For me, hearing a song that I’d grown up with in English delivered in Spanish created a transformative moment. I considered that perhaps the original “My Way” wasn’t “self-indulgent,” as Sinatra feared. Perhaps we can find a way to affirm who we are without hurting others. Lent is a time to see the old with new eyes and a great time to listen to “A Mi Manera.”
The poet Franz Wright died in 2015. In one photo of his Waltham, Massachusetts apartment, candles stick up from the necks of empty wine bottles. A cat paws at yellow paint smeared atop a bookcase (Wright would paint and scribble lines of errant poetry around his home). A framed painting of the Immaculate Heart of Mary is on the wall, the image partially obscured by an overhanging window shade.
Wright became a Catholic in 2000, at age 47. He was devoted to Mary in word and deed, and that partially obscured painting of her is the perfect metaphor for his Catholicism. The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright, and a Pulitzer Prize winner himself, Wright lived through addiction and mental illness. He experienced despair.
“The Fire” is one of Wright’s poems that inspires and sustains me during Lent. As someone born on Ash Wednesday, I’m preternaturally drawn toward this season and also aware of its atmospheric melancholy. “The Fire” brings me close to the flame, but ends without the burn. “Listen,” the poem begins: “I’ve light / in my eyes / and on my skin / the warmth of a star.” The narrator seems awakened to the fullness of the world, and yet there is so much “I / can barely comprehend it.”
The poem speaks of transformation: “And / everything alive / (and everything’s / alive) is turning / into something else.” Wright’s parenthetical feels like a world within a world; the sense I get is that Lent is this strangely beautiful space carved into the everyday. As he often does in his poems (and did in his life), Wright pivots to the fires of the world that which is “burning, invisibly, always / burning,” and yet his ending is glorious, a resurrection: “just try / to watch your own face / growing old / in the mirror, or / is it beginning / to be born?” Lent provides the answer to that question.
Nick Ripatrazone is a writer, editor and teacher. His latest book, “The Habit of Poetry: The Literary Lives of Nuns in Mid-century America,” is available for preorder from Fortress Press. His other books include “Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age,” “Longing for an Absent God: Faith and Doubt in Great American Fiction” and “Wild Belief: Poets and Prophets in the Wilderness.” Nick is the culture editor for Image Journal and a contributing editor for the Catholic Herald (UK). Nick has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Esquire, Outside, The Sewanee Review, America, Commonweal and elsewhere. Learn more: nickripatrazone.com.