When I was 9 years old, a little girl in dance class told me – in no uncertain terms – that it was not possible for me to be both Christian and Jewish. At the time, I chalked this up to her being some version of an 9-year-old intolerant asshole. In my mind, there was no question: I was Christian and Jewish. I knew all the words to the blessing over the Hanukkah candles and could sing “L’Dor Vador” just the way Uncle Sonny taught me. We went to church on Christmas, and had waited eagerly for Santa and the Easter Bunny….me, and my life, and my worldview – I thought they were big enough to be both.
And now, most years, I go home for a Passover Seder and sit at a table with a traditional Seder plate and a cup of wine for Elijah as well as bunny candle holders and Easter egg tchotchkes adorning the centerpiece and the mantle.
Because I am both. The stories trickling through my veins necessitate the telling and witnessing of the Passover story, and the celebration of life and rebirth that is Easter. I grew up attempting to swallow Grandmother’s overcooked peas for Easter and Bubby’s gefilte fish for Passover. I sat in pretty dresses and little white shoes at Grandmother’s house before searching for Easter eggs and also sat in pretty dresses and little white shoes at Bubby’s house before searching for the afikomen. My history of religion has always been yes, and.
Now, at 31, my chosen religion puts forth as one of its 7 principles that part of my living tradition is to continually engage in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I’ll be honest: the past several years, my response to the holidays this time of year has been much less “yes, and” and much more “nope.” Not feeling it. I identify these days as an agnostic; I believe Jesus may have been just a cool, historical dude; and I have never found much meaning or cultural understanding in the Maxwell House Hagaddah with its obscure text, its repetition, and its passages I barely understand as I read them aloud.
I always feel pressure to find meaning in the holidays. For reasons that are complex and hard for me to sort out, thinking about Easter and Passover left me feeling confused and shame-filled and less-than. As I drove yesterday afternoon, I was angry at myself for my lack of ritual, lack of gratitude, and seeming inability to believe in a god. In the spring holiday department, I was officially giving myself a big, red F. How nice it would be, I thought, to put faith in a story of redemption and rebirth and hope and renewal.
However, there was also this: last Monday, I was driving to work and listening to “The Moth” podcast. Storyteller Andrew Forsthoefel was telling a story entitled “Deluded in the Desert” about walking across the US with the goal of collecting stories and listening. While walking across the desert in Arizona, Andrew meets a young man who believes he is a Messiah. Andrew is somewhat scared of him, feels unable to be compassionate towards him in the same way he was towards other people, and was unable to listen in the same way — and so they part ways. But: they meet again in the desert and truly listen to one another. In that conversation, Andrew sees himself reflected in that young man. He says,
“Maybe what was crazy was that he didn’t have a circle, a village, a culture, a country saying, “yes, you’re waking up to your own greatness my man, yes, yes, it’s in you. ….and it’s in me too. Maybe what was crazy was that this kid slipped through the cracks…
It became so obviously clear that I could never begin to show up for all the listening that had to be done in America today. I couldn’t even do it for this one kid. The burden and the privilege of listening to people in this way had to be shared among all of us and until it was, there would continue to be people like this kid, left to fend for themselves alone in the desert.
It had to be all of us. It has to be all of us.”
So as I pulled into the parking lot, I asked myself this question: what if I listened to one person a day that I wouldn’t normally hear?
Literally 4 hours later, as I walked down the hallway to the bathroom, I saw a woman struggling up the concrete steps outside and attempting, unsuccessfully, to sit down. A colleague came out of the kitchen, saw me walking to the door, and peeked out.
I walked out the door and up to the woman: “Hey there,” I said. “Are you doing okay?”
“Oh,” she said, and she started to cry. She explained that she had to wait for a long while for transportation to come pick her up and that she was unable to sit down, but can’t stand to wait.
“I work right in this office here,” I said, pointing to the door behind me. “Let me bring you a chair.”
“And some water too?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I can do that, too.”
I brought her the chair and the water and she took my hand and told me that her son had died suddenly two days before and she didn’t have money to pay for his funeral the way she would like. She found someone who said they would help her, but she didn’t know if they would come through.
“Do you think they’ll help me?” she asked. “Do you think they’ll really be able to help me? I just don’t know.”
“You know, I don’t know,” I said. “But I know whatever you’re able to give your son is going to be a perfect celebration of his life.” She nodded and began telling me what she had already been able to arrange. When I stood to leave, I said, “I’m going to keep you in my thoughts, okay?”
She nodded and patted my hand. “Ms. Ida,” she said. “My name’s Ms. Ida.”
I went inside where my colleague stood, wide-eyed.
“What was all that?” she asked.
I explained that she needs to wait for transportation and just needed a chair to assist her in waiting comfortably.
“But all that conversation — did she ask you for money? What did she want?”
“No no, nothing like that.” I paused for a moment, until it dawned on me.
“I think she just wanted someone to listen,” I said.
Friday night, I went and heard spoken word poet Andrea Gibson in Philadelphia. I laughed, and I cried, and…well…it’s hard to put into words what their poetry does to/in me. It’s necessary – that’s all I can say. It’s just…it’s necessary.
They read a poem entitled “Angels of the Get Through” which they wrote for their best friend. I share it here, not for a particular person, but for all of us: for all of us Angels of the Get Through–
“…We gather each other up.
We say, the cup is half
yours and half mine.
We say alone is the last place you will ever be.
We say tonight let’s stay inside reading Pema Chodron
while everyone else is out on the town
Pema will say “only to the extent we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation
can that which is indestructible in us be found”
You’ll say Pema is so wise.
And I’ll say yes she is, and we are too.
Angels of the get through. We are too.”
And there it is, right? The resurrection. The rebirth. The way that we all can come back from that place of failure, of loss, of lack, no matter the way we got there, or how frequently we feel we visit Unworthyville and all her highways of shame and guilt. It is the way I can come back from that shame-filled place of spring holiday failure. On this free and responsible search: this day (today – each day) can be the day we celebrate our year-long process of being born and reborn as worthy. This day is the day we celebrate and acknowledge that we — each of us — faces a terrible suffering, and we — each of us — is here to go side-by-side through that suffering. We are here to resurrect one another from those ashes of despair. To bring each other from the desert of emptiness and lack and struggle through to the land of connection and worth – not as a Messiah of listening and connection, but as a fellow human, attempting to make it out of the desert alive, too. We are here to forgive one another and to love anyway — not in spite of, but right through the mistakes, and faults, and failures. We are here to “gather each other up.” To wake up to each other’s greatness, as well as our own. To make sure we are one another’s circle, village, culture, and country.
So perhaps this free and responsible search — this connection, this yes, and, this learning to journey not-alone — perhaps this is my journey out of Egypt and my resurrection. We can’t leave each another to fend for themselves alone in the desert. The burden and the privilege has to be shared among all of us. This gift of yes, and is the greatest gift we can give one another. It is the greatest gift we can give ourselves.
Even if it’s just bringing chairs and Dixie cups of water. Even if it’s just listening.
In fact, maybe there is no “just.”
Maybe this is everything.
Maybe this is all there is.
***Featured image is from Philadelphia’s “Magic Gardens.” You should definitely go there.