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You know, I realized last night that I was so caught up in thinking about yesterday’s class that I didn’t even realize Wednesday was the day we were supposed to fly home. As I was updating my datebook while waiting for Gabe at the movies, I saw the whited-out flight information, and marveled at the fact that I hadn’t even given it a second thought. Guess that means it’s a good thing we didn’t go!

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be at my mom’s house right now, and wake up to her pancakes on my birthday next week. But I wouldn’t have loved to be waking up at her house at 3 AM with jetlag, nor to be saying goodbye to everyone again in two weeks’ time before coming back here for another month and a half. I think that would’ve made our final time here intolerable.

This way, there is nothing but sweet anticipation of our return home. And Sweden. And lots of visitors. Between them, I think I’ll make it through.

***

During my trip to the lycee yesterday, I was struck as I usually am by the beauty and poised maturity of the young women here. The school goes from kindergarten through 12th grade, so as my friend and I walked through the halls, I saw girls of all ages, from little ones of 5 or 6 to almost-women of 17 and 18.

Many of the older girls were far better dressed than I, with carefully made-up faces, a self-conscious swagger to their hips, and painfully hip outfits, no doubt bought on their lunch breaks at the giant mall across the street. As I passed, they looked at me with curiosity and frank assessment, which I returned in equal amounts. I smiled at many of them, sometimes even getting a shy crease of the lips in return.

These girls were a world of contradictions. Summer weather is now in full effect, and the short shorts and skirts it has brought out both accentuated these girls’ impossibly long legs and at the same time revealed their coltish girlishness. Faces still round with childhood held studiously bored eyes rimmed with smoky makeup, an odd counterpoint to the braces peeking out of their shiny, well-glossed lips. Most women here wear their hair straight and long, but on these girls, the style served both as a distant echo of a child’s carefree tumble and a conscious effort to appear like their well-manicured older counterparts.

The contrasts between sexy and childish, worldly and naive, made me think of a conversation Gabe and I have been having on and off for the entire year. Portugal itself embodies so many of those same juxtapositions, in a way one would think impossible for a country of its size.

Most recently, we renewed this conversation when my uncle sent me an article saying that Portugal has just legalized gay marriage. Even though the President disagrees with it morally, he knows that any attempt he’d make to quash the measure would be overturned by the liberals. Instead, he is willing to put aside his objections in favor of focusing on the larger issues at hand, namely, their failing economy. Wow! What a concept.

As I’ve discussed before, Portugal also has one of the most pragmatic, progressive, and successful drug policies in the world. By decriminalizing all but the most blatant dealing of drugs, they have reduced the amount of drug crime and its associated societal ills by a drastic amount. Again — such pragmatism!

And this from a country that only legalized abortion three years ago, which turns out 150,000 people to see the Pope, and which still counsels young couples about to get married against using any form of birth control. Not to mention one that will not allow bikinis to be worn in a swimming pool that is frequented by men wearing tiny, see-through white shorts. (Yes, I am still bitter about that, nearly six months later.)

Makeup and braces indeed. This country can’t figure out what it is: gawky adolescent girl, or mature young woman. Like the students I passed in the halls yesterday, Portugal seems to fall somewhere in between the two, striking a note of sweet, self-conscious maturity tempered by shadows of its more innocent days. All in all, it provides a fascinating transition for an outsider to observe.

So the Pope did come yesterday, ash cloud notwithstanding — what is a puny volcano when you have God on your side?! As expected, the entire city shut down, and the celebrations resembled a much more sedate version of what we witnessed on Sunday night. About as many people, equally as devoted, but less rowdy and rambunctious. Not so much red face paint, either.

When I went to the gym around noon, Avenida da Liberdade was closed to all except buses and taxis. Normally I take my life into my hands when crossing that street, so it was strange to see it more or less deserted. Barriers had been set up to keep people on the sidewalk, and as I walked home, big groups of police were unloading from their transport vans and starting to set up shop.

Throughout the afternoon, I heard amplified chanting (which sounded like nothing other than the muezzin in Morocco), and an increasing number of helicopters overhead. Around 5:45, about forty-five minutes before the mass was due to begin in the huge Terreiro do Paco square down on the riverfront, I flicked on the TV. As soon as I did so, I was rewarded with a shot of the Popemobile (or Papamovel, in Portuguese — apparently every language has a word for it) moving in grand formation down the Avenida just outside our house. I was very glad I wasn’t down there though, as I could already see the crowds lining the streets, many of them waving Portuguese flags or ones with the Pope’s face on them.

The Popemobile itself managed to be both absurd and impressive at the same time. It looked like one of those ugly Brat cars from the 70s, a kind of sedan/pick-up truck, with a tall glass chamber set in the bed. The same can be said of the man inside the vehicle, whose grand robes only served to highlight the fact that he looked like a rather bemused little old gnome, more like someone’s kindly grandfather than a major religious leader and head of state. Again, I was glad I hadn’t fought with the crowds to get one glance of him as he drove by, because it would’ve been rather anticlimactic.

Instead, I watched the whole procession and the following mass on TV, understanding very little of it. I’m not sure what was more cryptic — the Portuguese, or the Catholic rituals. Possibly both. But the whole thing was beautiful, both in setting and in pomp, with the setting sun glinting off of the clouds overhead and the river spread out behind their immaculate white pavilion. Sailboats were pulled up as close as they could get to the back of the square, which I thought would be the proper way to watch, since according to the news there were 160,000 people in the square itself. Many of them had been waiting there for hours, but everyone seemed very happy to be there, which again mystified me. But then who am I to understand the religious proclivities of others?

Gabe got home about halfway through the two hour mass, and we ate dinner while marveling at the grandness of it all — not to mention the expense. I know the pavilion was custom made, as they have been redoing the entire square at Terreiro do Paco ever since we arrived here, likely for this very event. And I very much doubt they had a Popemobile just sitting around in Portugal waiting for him to get here someday. Not a small energy footprint there, either.

Looking at all this, I could definitely see why so much resentment has been directed at the Catholic church and its riches throughout the ages. If I were a beggar starving in the gutter, I would not want their meager wafers, watered down wine, and promises of Heavenly riches. I would look at that fat gold ring on his hand, the quality of his robes (how many times did he change for a two hour event?!), or the huge gold staff he was carrying, and I would find life patently unfair. One can occasionally sympathize with Henry VIII.

All of that aside, however, it was a grand spectacle indeed, and hugely entertaining from a sociological point of view. People waited in the square for hours, presumably to get a glance at the Pope and/or take communion as blessed by him. Just as with Benfica the other night, the level of devotion was palpable even through the TV screen. Or perhaps they were just trying to get a glimpse of someone famous, as we were. Whatever their motives, there were people of all kinds in the square: little kids wearing Papa Bento T-shirts, nuns with wimples, young men in uniforms, choirs singing hallelujah. You name it, they were there. It was fascinating.

Just as we were getting ready to have our post-dinner cup of tea, we saw the golden Papal hat going onto the white Papal head, and the beringed Papal hand once again taking up the gold Papal staff. “He’s on the move!” we said, and hurried down to Avenida, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Papamovel as it left town.

There was no need to hurry in the end, as it took him a good twenty minutes to reach us. But we didn’t mind, as it was a nice night out, and the crowds had by then all gone down to see the action at Terreiro do Paco. Our end of Avenida was thankfully more or less deserted, aside from the very bored-looking cops stationed every ten feet or so along the length of the road. Eventually we started seeing cars with blacked out windows whizzing by at a massive speed, causing Gabe to speculate that the real Pope was in one of those cars, with a fake one in the Papamovel behind. Not a bad theory.

Soon enough, we saw the motorcade rounding the corner into the Restauradores square down the street, with the odd and decidedly un-aerodynamic Papamovel towering above them all. He passed us not twenty feet away, smiling faintly and waving. All I could think of was my dad, who used to look about that tired at the end of the day. Poor guy, I thought. He looks exhausted.

And then he was past us, making his way up Avenida, leaving the closed off street to the traffic barriers and the cops. How odd to see that normally crowded street completely silent and empty except for one man — and 150,000 of his closest friends, who had been trickling their way back home for some time.

Gabe wanted to see the setup at Terriero do Paco now that it was empty, so we tried to make like salmon and go against the stream of people. But it bottlenecked at Restauradores, and I balked at the noisy crowd, so home we went. I didn’t feel any more holy or blessed for having seen the Pope, but did get a thrill from having seen someone famous, just as I did when I saw John Edwards talk at LSE, or when the Queen almost ran a bunch of us over when we visited Windsor. Not enough of a thrill to have stood around the square for four hours, but enough to have justified walking down the hill at any rate.

So there you have it: our second religious manifestation of the week. This has certainly been an eventful one here in Lisbon.

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There are two things the Portuguese people take very seriously: their religion, and their football (also known to us heathens in America as soccer.) Last night we experienced an excellent demonstration of this country’s second deeply held belief system, only days before the first comes to town in the form of the Pope. From an outside observer’s point of view, the timing of these two events could not be better.

As Gabe and I were making our Mother’s Day calls home last night on Skype, we started to hear horns tooting and people yelling on the streets. “Oh,” I said, “there must have been some big match on today,” but didn’t think too much of it. We’ve heard such things before, but they normally die down pretty quickly.

Not this time.

If anything, the tooting got louder and more insistent as the evening went on. Weird, I thought, and went to poke my head out the window. I was shocked when I did, for underneath the localized tooting around our house, you could hear a much deeper  layer of noise, the kind of noise that can only be achieved by a concentrated group effort. Shouting, many more horns tooting in the distance, waves of rhythmically rising and falling voices that implied chanting or singing of some kind… all combined to form a low-level cacophony of truly impressive dimensions.

Surprised, we flicked on the TV, where we found the same thing on every single one of the local Portuguese channels. One of the local Lisboan teams, Benfica, had just won the Portugal-wide league championship for the first time in five years, and the entire city had come out on the streets in spontaneous joyful celebration, all of them waving flags and decked out in Benfica colors, T-shirts or wigs or face paint.

The main shot was of the Marques de Pombal roundabout just down the Avenida da Liberdade nearby, which must have been where we could hear all the noise coming from. It was completely mobbed with people and shut down to traffic, with fans climbing up the statue in the middle to wave gigantic Benfica flags off the marble plinth. Cars were crawling through dense traffic in all directions, but the drivers they interviewed on the news seemed just as happy as the people on the streets. Many of their passengers made the most of their slow pace to jump out of the car or wave flags out of the windows, literally taking the celebrations to the streets.

It was truly impressive, and also slightly frightening for someone who loathes crowds. Gabe’s immediate response was, “Let’s go check it out!” I said, “No way, I’m not going out there. I can see it just fine on the TV.” Even on our screen, you could almost get a contact high just from watching these people’s elation. Gabe said there was also a massive firework display at midnight, which miraculously didn’t wake me up.

All I could think of was what our friend had told us at lunch about the Pope’s visit tomorrow. She said that 100,000 people were expected to show up to hear his address at the Terreiro do Paco down by the water, which has been under construction all year in anticipation of this grand event. 100,000 people. There must have been at least half that out on the streets last night, and the partying will probably just segue straight into his visit tomorrow, transitioning smoothly from one national religion to another.

Coming from as iconoclastic, quirky, and devotedly secular a place as Santa Cruz, I’m fascinated by both forms of mania, er, devotion. UC Santa Cruz doesn’t even have a football team, of the American kind anyway. Our biggest teams are water polo, tennis, and frisbee golf. So I just don’t get mass celebrations of sport victories like we saw last night, nor what happened in New Orleans when the Saints won earlier this year.

As for more traditional types of religion, we mostly let everyone do their own thing, whether it’s meditate with Buddhist monks or go to church on Sunday morning. (That said, my mom told me that when the previous Pope visited California, he filled Laguna Seca with over 250,000 people. Apparently I don’t move in the right circles.)

So seeing a celebration like we did last night was for me totally foreign, in many senses of the word, and I expect that tomorrow’s religious ceremonies will seem equally so. I am glad to be able to witness these demonstrations of devotion, and as always, I admire the Portuguese zeal and passion for life. However, I am also well pleased to be able to observe them from afar, as getting caught up in a loud, frenzied crowd — or even a quiet religious one — doesn’t really sound like my idea of fun.

More from the land of religious and sports devotion to come…

The Pope (aka Papa Bento, as they call him here) is coming to Lisbon on Tuesday. There are banners all over the city advertising his arrival, including a massive one with his picture on it at the main roundabout at Marques de Pombal. Most of the smaller banners have a picture of an average João with a serene look on their face, exhorting people to give back to the one who taught you. Or at least I think it says that.

I’m sure you can all imagine how thrilled I am that he’s decided to visit in honor of my birthday (slightly early, but then, he’s a busy man.) Oh, and look, he’s following us to Porto this Friday. How nice. The honor, I can’t even tell you. Yeah right — getting around either city will no doubt be a nightmare. Good times. My gym, possibly the most secular of institutions possible, even has a long notice up advising its patrons of how his visit will disrupt transportation on that day. I think I may not leave the house that day — which as you know is a hardship for me.

Just as with The Bachelorette filming last month though, I have to admit that it is interesting to live in a capital city, where TV shows and heads of state visit. Doesn’t happen very often in Santa Cruz. But it can be a pain in the ass, too, for those of us trying to carry on with our lives.

Back in the real world, we had a lovely relaxed rain day yesterday, made easier when the friend we were supposed to have lunch with called to ask if we couldn’t postpone til today. No problem, I said, and we immediately settled in for a quiet, lazy afternoon. Or at least part of it was lazy, as I became restless once I finished my book, and spent the rest of the day cleaning the flat, doing laundry, and going to the gym. But Gabe took a long nap, as he has finally succumbed to my cold. I guess he had the relaxing part covered for both of us.

For dinner, we went to see our French friends and doppelgangers up the hill. We haven’t seen them much since all our traveling began, so it was really good to catch up with them. At one point S said, “It seems like you guys are out of the country more often than you’re in it lately.” We laughed and said yes, it’s felt like that to us, too.

It’s strange to think that soon we will be out of the country for good, and all of the lovely people we’ve met here will no longer be just up the hill or across the city from us. I have a feeling though that we will meet again, either on this side of the world or on ours, so I’m not too worried. Quality friendships don’t come around all that often, but when they do… they tend to stick.

And today, another rainy day. Sigh. I had so hoped to have lunch out in our friend’s beautiful terrace garden…

Last night we had our makeshift Passover seder. Gabe did manage to find matzoh and horseradish at the big department store, but we had to make do with tuna instead of gefilte fish (oh darn.) For the bitter herbs, he bought ondives, which we supplemented with the bunch of parsley the lady had tucked into our bag at the market last week.

Gabe printed out one of the shorter scripts he could find, and we dutifully read and sang our way through the plagues and prayers. It was way less fun without his cousins around to clown each other, and I especially missed the wonderful plague bags that his sister makes every year, with toys to represent each of the ten plagues. It was also a lot quieter without the kids running around trying to find the afikomen, although I was thrilled to be able to read the four questions, as for the first and probably only time ever, I was officially the youngest child present.

Gabe’s family, being Sephardic Jews from Morocco, does something very special on Passover. Right at the beginning, they sing a song to acknowledge all the people who couldn’t be there, whether passed on or absent. The officiant of the evening walks around the room with the seder plate while everyone sings, passing it over each person or couple or family’s heads. People call in from all over the world, and everyone holds up their cell phones to let their far away loved ones be part of that particular moment. It’s a very emotional part of the ritual, and I’m a big fan.

This year, we added a 21st century twist to it: we did it on Skype. Gabe called his parents in California, who were just getting ready for lunch while we were starting our seder, and we all sang it together. Gabe passed the seder plate over each of our heads, and then over my computer, letting his parents be a part of our blessing. What a marvelous thing, technology.

But by far the best part of the whole evening was the wine, which a friend had brought for us ages ago. We’d saved it for a special occasion, largely because of the label:

The wine is called “Valley of the Jews,” but for some reason features a church on the label, complete with a massive cross on it. Ah, yes. Because nothing tastes better with bitter herbs than sweet, sweet irony.

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The first step to any trip for me is always to clean the house, because there’s nothing I hate more than coming back to a dirty messy home. It’s bad enough coming down from the high of a trip, especially when you’re jetlagged, but when you come home to a nice clean place, everything seems a little more OK. At least to me anyway. So yesterday I cleaned, which I’m getting a lot better at — I can now do our entire flat in about 90 minutes, 2 hours if you count changing the sheets and folding laundry.

Soon, it was time for us to get out of the house before nightfall. So we walked up the park again, which like most walks in Lisbon involves a not-insubstantial elevation gain. This one’s a bit more subtle than most though, so by the time you’ve reached the top of the park, you’re looking out over the whole of Lisbon, and only when you see the castle on a level with you do you realize how much you’ve climbed.

Yesterday was a beautiful afternoon, chilly from the sudden cold snap we’re having, but still warm enough for all the young families to turn out in force. We passed kids rolling down the gently sloping hills in the planted strip at the center of the park, babies passed out in strollers, and bundled-up toddlers clutching lollipops, bags of popcorn, and towering piles of cotton candy from the vendors that have cropped up around the base of the gigantic Christmas tree.

Along the way, we even saw the tail end of a wedding photo shoot. The videographer and two guys with cameras preceded the bride, who was walking along the path in her enormous white dress, clutching a bouquet of red roses as her gray-clad groom trailed after, her train caught up in his hand.

We didn’t have time to dawdle, however, as we were on a deadline to see a movie. We went to our usual theater, forgetting of course that it is in a shopping center — and yesterday was a Saturday, less than two weeks before Christmas. The crowds were out in full force, shopping their little hearts out, and we scurried through as fast as we could, making a beeline for the theater. We made it in plenty of time, especially with all the ads and trailers they play before the movies here, and settled into our seats for what turned out to be two full hours of heavy-handed, preachy, but still somehow powerful movie-making.

We saw Agora, which was set in Alexandria at the end of the Roman empire. I might not have chosen to see it at home, but since our options are limited here, we take what we can get. There were no good guys in this film: pagans killed Christians, Christians killed Jews, Jews killed Christians. They all killed each other, and all in the name of religion. Gabe found it entirely too heavy-handed, and I did think the violence a bit gratuitous and the plot overly long. But it was historical, and history was by nature heavy-handed, especially when it came to religion.

Although it did rather hit me over the head with it, I still valued the lesson the movie tried so unsubtly to demonstrate: we are all the same, and we have more in common than we do dividing us. This is especially so for certain universal, scientific and mathematical truths, ones that the main character, Hypatia the philosopher, strove to discover, even in the face of religious uproar and civil unrest.

Perhaps the past three months have made me more receptive to this lesson than I would’ve been otherwise. In order to become comfortable in my new city, almost daily I have had to look for the commonalities between myself and the people around me. It’s been a recurring theme on this blog, as you know, and now I am able to see past the differences almost without thinking about it. Smiling at the cute little kid with the glasses and the striped beanie? That’s a universal truth. Laughing at the shaggy dog chasing the ball on the lawn? Same all over the world. The impulse to gather with one’s family during this time of year, no matter what language or the reason or the affiliated icons that go with it? Also universal.

Nothing brought this point home more strongly for me than when we passed by the Christmas tree on our way home. By now it was night time, and the giant tree was lit up, its flashing, changing light display accompanied by the inevitable Christmas music (in English, ironically enough).

As the shadows rose and fell with the lights, they revealed people all around — clustered in the park above, standing in the small plaza below, walking along the sidewalk. The kids we passed stared up at the tree, mesmerized. The parents laughed and joked with each other, and shared their kid’s bags of popcorn and cones of roasted chestnuts. Grandmothers carried sleeping babies, fathers took pictures of their families in front of the tree, couples kissed and hugged. People were happy, and they were together, and all because of this one huge fake tree with the silly angels and stars on it.

It wasn’t the tree itself that mattered, it was how it brought people together.

That for me is the truth to these holidays, no matter which you choose to celebrate or how you choose to do so. That may not be what it was historically, as I realize there’s been a lot of blood shed into the cracks dividing these traditions. But now, in this day and age, it should be the only thing that matters. And to me, it is.

These thoughts stayed with me all the way home, accompanying me from the Christmas tree and carols of my youth to the candle-lighting and prayers of my present. We came home and added another candle to our makeshift menorah, and I could almost hear our nieces singing the prayers along with us. I can’t wait to be back with our own families this week, to follow centuries of tradition on both our sides and come home for the holidays.

Being with the people we love: that is what matters most to both of us, even despite the differences in our upbringing. And in that, we have far more in common than we do dividing us.

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I had an introverted day yesterday, as I was feeling like “too little jam spread on too much toast” after our weekend away (thanks to Gabe for the inspired LOTR quote there.) So I worked out, I wrote (a lot, as you saw!), I worked (a little), and generally just had a relaxed, restorative day. Given that we’re going home in a week — woohoo! — I don’t imagine I’ll be having too many more of that kind of day in the weeks to come.

We did venture out after dinner last night to revisit the aforementioned largest Christmas tree in Europe, this time in all its lit up nighttime glory. It was a lovely evening, not too cold, and the tree was quite the sight to behold. We didn’t climb the whole hill to see it up close, but stood at the bottom of the sloping Parque Eduardo VII and watched the tree cycle from one color and design to the next, uttering appreciative “oohs” and “ahhs” all the while. It was like a firework display! 

I think those gold shapes on it are actually angels, but it was hard to capture without a tripod. My particular favorite was when it was lit up all in white, which made it look like a giant beacon of light standing on the hillside. So lovely. Even though the more religious and celebratory aspects of Christmas are lost on both of us, it’s definitely a very pretty holiday to look at.

The tree, along with all the other decorations in town, will remain up until January 6, aka Epiphany. In between Christmas and Epiphany lie the twelve days of Christmas, a tradition that the US really doesn’t observe but which appears to be live and well in this corner of Europe. See Ma? I learn new things every day.

I am happy to report that I managed to survive my second Passover, all two seders of it. I was a little nervous at first, given that I am currently even less fit than usual for public consumption, but I made it through two days of almost constant human interaction without having a nervous breakdown and/or screaming at anyone. In my world, that is always a minor victory. This particular weekend, it was a triumph.

Instead of turning this into yet another ode to my own introversion, however, I want to talk about the external world for a change. Specifically, I would like to talk about my husband’s incredibly extroverted family. Normally at events such as these, all I can see is the sheer number of faces and voices, and it’s all I can do to keep myself breathing in and out while eating at the same time. Talking comes a distant third behind these two essential tasks.

Last night though, after the prayers were all said and the meal itself was begun, I stepped outside my own social anxiety for long enough to take a look at the people around me. These people make a fine art out of being family junkies. For them, the religious holiday is just another great reason to bring everyone together, and people come from all over the state (and out of it, in some cases!) to attend. For a fellow family junkie, even one with a totally different upbringing, it is quite frankly a beautiful thing to behold.

At one point, my husband and his cousins were reminiscing about Passovers gone by, and how they used to be the gang of little kids who ran around and made a ruckus during the meal. Now it is their kids who provide the entertainment, which last night included one of them coming in to show his daddy a toy leafblower — complete with sound effects! — in the midst of the Hagadah.

It hit me then that this is what Judaism is all about. That is how it’s been passed down through countless generations, through oppression and tyranny, across different continents and languages. Each generation brings its children together, just as they were brought together when they were children. Somehow, despite their general lack of attention, the kids manage to soak up the rituals that the adults are performing, and grow up to do the same for their children. I watched our little blond niece fearlessly reciting a portion of the Hebrew prayer next to her grandfather, and marveled at how effortlessly she has soaked up the rituals and traditions of her heritage.

Being slightly older than six, I am having a slightly harder time of it. As a former academic, it’s difficult for me to embrace something without fully understanding it. Thus I am still struggling to understand and embrace the traditions of my faith-in-law, and will probably continue to do so for a while to come. I don’t want to subscribe to these traditions blindly, but rather to feel them in my bones, the way many of the older people in that room so clearly did. These were not just words to them, but rather rituals binding them to their ancestors and to their absent loved ones. Their cheeks were dripping with tears as they sang, even as they laughed at the children’s continued antics and the cousins’ terrible jokes. In that dichotomy you could see everything that this holiday embodies: bittersweet memories of the past combined with beautiful lessons for the future.

Once I saw and understood this, I came a whole lot closer to understanding what the holiday was really about. So what if the passages we were reading didn’t make much sense, or if the songs we sang were super cheezy? In the end, it’s the underlying tradition that’s important, linking each generation to the next and ensuring that the faith — and the family — continues.

Plus, to my surprise, I am actually quite fond of gefilte fish and horseradish. Perhaps I am starting to become a little bit Jewish after all.

Or at least that’s what my mom called it this morning, and since she’s one of our resident religious experts around here, I’ll take it.

It’s Easter morning, and I am looking forward to spending the day with both my own parents and my husband’s. That may not seem like anything out of the ordinary for most people, but for me, it’s special. My husband is Jewish, and we have spent the past two years learning much about each other’s traditions. There have been some misunderstandings, mostly involving Christmas trees and cereal, but otherwise it has been a relatively smooth and educational process.

It helps a lot that neither of us is very doctrinaire with respect to our religion. Having been raised by two religious scholars, I have always been more concerned with spirituality itself rather than which particular form it takes. There were a few years in high school when I decided to become a regular church-goer, but that was more because the guys at the youth group were totally cute. But hey, it kept me away from partying and gave me a sense of belonging during an otherwise unfounded time in my life, so it wasn’t all bad. At least until I went to college, and then all bets were off. But that’s another story.

My husband was raised with a much more defined sense of religious tradition, and he and his family still observe Shabbat dinner, Yom Kippur, Passover, etc. To his immense credit though, he has never asked that I participate in or observe any of the above, simply that I accompany him and be present with his family during their observance. I have done so happily, being the eternally curious creature that I am, and only occasionally do I feel like an outsider. (See my Hanukkah post for more on that topic.)

What is it that has allowed us to stay together despite what some may consider irreconcilable differences in faith? I am sure many people would find that to be a deal breaker. Indeed, my own dear husband has confessed that if he hadn’t mistakenly believed that I was Jewish (though no pretense of mine, I swear!) while we were getting to know each other, he would’ve thought twice about dating me. Good thing I deceived him, however unwittingly.

But that was two years ago, and much has passed under the bridge since then. We have stood by hospital beds on both sides of the family, spent Hanukkah and Christmas with each other, survived through his fasting on Yom Kippur while in Croatia (now that was a tough one!), and celebrated our marriage following his traditions… with a little nod to my own thrown in with a blessing from my dad, including a round of “Om shanti om” in acknowledgment of my Indian roots.

Frankly, the toughest conflict to overcome so far has been on Thanksgiving, which is the one holiday our families have in common. Otherwise, all our holidays are like today — we can all go to my family’s house, because for his, it is a Sunday like any other. And next month, I can spend both seder dinners with his family, because I am not obliged to be with my own.

The key here is family. That is the one thing all of our respective celebrations have in common, as we are both families junkies and basically view any holiday as an excuse to get a fix. We both hold family sacred above all else, which enables us to come together and celebrate no matter what the occasion. Christmas at your parents’ house? Sure! Passover at your aunt’s? Bring it on!

For both myself and my husband, religion equals family. So even though we were raised speaking different dialects, for us it is still the same language. True, we have some misinterpretations now and again, but for the most part we manage to communicate extremely well. Thus I am looking forward to spending Easter, or Spring Festival, or whatever you want to call it, with all of my family, new and old.

Last night, I stood in our front doorway to say goodbye to my husband, who left on a short snowboarding trip to celebrate the end of the quarter. (Leaving me cause to celebrate of my own — house to myself, huzzah!) As he was busy packing his board into the back of his car, I really just wanted to say, “OK bye honey have fun!” and go snuggle into my nice warm bed with a book. While it would satisfy my true cat nature, I thought it wouldn’t be very wife-like, so I figured I should at least make some effort to bid him a proper goodbye.

So instead I remained in the doorway, trying to find something to divert myself from the cold, harsh reality of the world outside my bed covers. My eye was soon drawn to the flower bed by the front door, which is my current obsession, I mean, project. Normally, when my gaze falls on this particular bed it is with a critical cast — analyzing how much each plant has grown in the ten seconds since I last inspected it, planning what plants to put in next, or figuring out what to do with the existing ones.

In the dark, I couldn’t see any of this. All I could see were the shapes of the established plants, illuminated by the light spinning out from the doorway: the spiky leaves of the iris, the spindly branches of the rhododendron, the delicate oval leaves of the startup (OK, weed!) growing into the cracks of the front pathway. No matter what the plant, in their blind, instinctive way, they were all twisting away from the shady overhang of the house towards the life-giving comfort of the sun. And every single one of them, regardless of size or shape, was leaning at the exact same angle.

At that moment, the shape of their yearning struck me as simply, elegantly beautiful, and stayed with me long after the house grew quiet and I was tucked up in my bed. I think we are all a little bit like the plants, growing towards whatever source of heat and light we have put first in our lives. If we are put in a situation where we have good exposure to that source, we thrive and produce things of great beauty. We might do OK in less than optimal situations, but the growth just isn’t quite the same as when we’re allowed to follow our personal sun.

Take my good friend who is getting married in June. The other day, I was lucky enough to witness her baptism, a symbolic washing away of the past before starting a new life with her wonderful husband. She and I have very similar stories, and somehow, miraculously, we both seem to have ended up at very similar places in our lives.

For her, religion has been the light towards which she grew. She met her fiance at church a little over a year ago, and by becoming a part of the community there, she ultimately gained the courage and confidence to accept his love. As the culmination of that year of growth and hard work, her baptism was a hugely important step in her life, and I was immensely honored to bear witness to the cleansing of her soul.

Alas, my own belief in organized religion took flight once I went to college, along with my virginity and a number of other cherished symbols of youthful innocence. So I was slightly skeptical about going to church again, thinking the dry tinder of my soul’s transgressions would surely catch fire immediately upon setting foot in a holy building. Luckily, no such combustion occurred, and the ceremony was done with such simple beauty that it brought tears to my eyes and restored some measure of faith to my battered, cynical heart.

What truly took the breath from my lungs, however, was the look of sheer joy on my friend’s face as she emerged dripping from the water. In a word, it was holy. She had the look of a plant who has found the perfect angle to the sun, and I for one cannot wait to see how she continues to grow and bloom.

So for my dear friend, faith has been the light that made her growth possible. But we all have different ways of leaning towards the sun, and it sometimes takes a while to find which angle gets the best exposure. My husband’s is teaching, and mine without a doubt is my family. I spent years trying to get away from my hometown, only to get desperately homesick as soon as I left and come running back at the soonest opportunity. Once I finally embraced my life here and my role as a family person, I started to grow in ways I’d never imagined possible: I fell in love, got married, and achieved a contentment that no amount of traveling had ever produced in me.

Most recently, in order to improve my sun exposure, I left my job to spend more time as a caregiver for my family. Although the decision continues to be a scary one, I keep reminding myself that I am only doing what every good plant does best — following my sunshine.

“Treat history as a springboard, not as an anchor.”

- General John G. Medaris

When I Wrote It

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