A Search For Meaning

During my childhood years, my Roman Catholic mother would insist that everyone, including my Protestant, divorced-and-remarried father, dress appropriately for Mass. To me, “appropriately” meant something other than blue jeans and bare feet. She insisted that I at least wear a skirt. I knew the promise of a treat afterward was a bribe, but I did not mind. I almost always had a paperback book with me anyway. We usually went to hear Mass on Saturday night, at Saint John’s Church, more than forty-five minutes away. Several people I knew from school were usually there. Talking was forbidden until the service was over and the congregation had filed down the stairs to the cement-floored hall in the basement. There, we kids would drink punch and eat cookies while the adults discussed whatever it was boring adults talked about.

We always said grace before a meal; even the punch and cookies counted.

Bless us, O Lord, and these your gifts, which we are about to receive from your bounty.
Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

I was a bit rebellious at times, especially where religion was concerned. I did not like the idea that I should not talk to G*d myself; that I had to have a priest, a middleman do it for me. While many of the stories were entertaining, the whole resurrection thing did not make sense. The more questions I asked, the more I got into trouble. I learned to keep my doubts to myself.

Belief in truth begins with doubting all that has hitherto been believed to be true.
~ Friedrich Nietzsche

To please my mother, I went through all the ceremonies, sacraments, and rites of passage that a young, baptised, Catholic girl would do: First Communion, First Confession, and Confirmation. My Confirmation ceremony was the last time I attended that church regularly. I remember asking my mother if she was happy. She had tears in her eyes; she was so proud. In my white dress and white strappy sandles that were just a little too tight, I asked her if this really made me an adult. When she agreed, I said, “That means I can choose to not ever come back, if I want to. Right?”

I went outside and waited by the family station wagon until she was ready to leave.

Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.
~ Dr. Seuss

I spent the next ten years searching for spirituality, trying on religions like clothing, checking for a good fit. Were the sleeves of ritual too restrictive? Did the foundation feel solid? Each ceremony I attended, every learned person I met with, they all encouraged me not to question. I should accept on faith that G*d was out there, watching over me, judging and grading me. This did not compute in my analytical brain.

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
~ Albert Einstein

Eventually, I had the great fortune to meet a Rabbi, who asked me to call him Billy. In his congregation, questioning was encouraged. I attended services nearly every Friday night. Billy would tell stories to illustrate that particular evening’s message, but there was no fire-and-brimstone. I learned through conversations with him, and with others, that the point is not to worry about the afterlife, but to focus on this life. When I questioned my existence, the answer was simple: Tikkun Olam. I was here to make the world a better place. When the congregation met after services, it wasn’t for milk and cookies. We shared a meal together, and it was as though we were all family.

Barukh atah Adonai Elohaynu melekh ha-olam
ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.
(Amen)

I converted to Reform Judaism and married my husband under the chuppa that we put together ourselves. That was many years ago. I have moved several times, and while I am not affiliated with any synagogue now, I am Jewish. I pray each year to be inscribed into the Book of Life. I occasionally whisper ha-mozti, the blessing over bread. I light my menorah. I remember when the rabbi came to Purim dressed as Garth, and I smile.

Though I am still searching, still questioning, I know that I am in the right place for now.

When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength.
Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living.
If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.
~ Tecumseh

Refuge of a Child

I remember the scent of the fresh-water marshes. Decomposing vegetation, wild roses, pine trees, and salt-laden breezes drifting back from the ocean filled my nose. It was not unpleasant; it was quite the contrary. Even today the scent transports me back to one of my safest refuges: the willow tree. My father, in an attempt to help bring my mother out of her most recent depression, purchased a large farmhouse when I was barely six years old. Our old home had been a tiny thing. Three little girls shared a largish attic bedroom, while the newest sister slept in my parents bedroom. The new house seemed like a mansion to us, with a separate bedroom for each girl, a kitchen that seemed larger than the entire first floor of our old house, a formal living room and an informal one too.

Life at this time was not good for us. My mother was in the hospital for a long time, and my father brought in friends to help care for his four daughters, a mere six years between the eldest and the youngest. The farmhouse, with its great barn, needed a lot of work. Our heat that first year was almost exclusively a wood stove in the kitchen. There were many mornings, in the coldest parts of winter, when I awoke to find ice in the drink I had left out the night before.

We girls did not know it, but we were very poor; living on soy burgers before they were popular and drinking powdered milk for our bulk, generic cereal. What we did have, though, was land: four acres to farm and explore. Our property line was a stream that ran through the marsh, wrapping around the back, and finally intersecting the road used to access a commercial chicken coop. On a small outcrop of land, overhanging the marsh grasses and cat tails, was an enormous willow tree.

My neighbor next door told me once that the tree had been planted there when the house was built, more than 200 years before. While the house had been through not one, but two fires, the tree had thrived. It had a central trunk that took three of the sisters, holding hands, to encircle. There was a fork about five feet from the ground, and two great branches grew out from either side. I fell off the larger of the two branches when I was thirteen and broke a rib, but that is a story for another time.

The great willow had eventually budded a child, a smaller tree a mere fifteen feet from the enormous base. This younger tree was still old enough to have a trunk that my six-year-old-arms could not wrap around. It was my friend, my companion, during the more difficult days of my childhood. I could not climb the mama, the mammoth tree, when I first met her. I could, however escape up into the branches of the smaller one, hidden from the house, hidden from the painful things that awaited me there.

One part of my tree had been damaged in a long-past storm. The nook that resulted held my most prized possessions: a metal lunch box containing a my latest reading book, a small pad of paper for sketching, an assortment of pencils, and my imagination. I would climb into the tree and watch the marsh. I taught myself to recognize the calls of the various birds that hunted there, and I would try to mimic them. I read my book. I drew what I could see. Sometimes, I just sat silent, listening to the world around me. I drank deeply of the scents of water and mud and ocean air, and I was safe.

The last time I visited my parents, for they still live in this house thirty-five years later, the old mama tree had been wounded during the most recent tropical storm. One of the major branches had come down, and she looked ill. Her child, though, had grown even bigger and stronger, though the waters of the marsh washed over the roots when it rained. I can finally climb the giant willow, but it will always be her child that I love best.