It’s December 24th, Christmas Eve, which used to matter to you. It’s the night you sit by the fire, enjoying the soft glow of lights on your Evergreen tree. The tree you decorate sentimentally each year, now surrounded by gifts. A plate of cookies for Santa that you and your sisters pretend to believe in. In the morning you rise, take down the felt stockings, brimming with candy and little girl trinkets. Your parents awake, and you all take turns giving, receiving and opening. You shopped for days, carefully choosing just the right thing for each family member.

The O’Brians, your neighbors, do Christmas the real way, attend Mass at midnight, have a big dinner you know includes ham, a meat that your father disdains. Has something to do with being a Jew, but what, you don’t know. Sometimes you wonder why you make Christmas, don’t light a menorah, but you’re just a child and children love Christmas and need traditions, and being a Jew is not yet a thing that matters to you. Until you are twelve, and you sit by that tree alone in the room, scanning your feelings and coming up empty. Christmas for your family has nothing to do with religion or God. But you want it to.

It’s Passover, your family has gathered at your aunt’s home for a Seder. You and your cousins, grandparents and parents take turns reading from a Haggadah. There are jokes and laughter and nobody pays much attention. People are anxious to get to the matzah ball soup and chicken fricassee, and your teenage cousin with the long pony-tail lights up a cigarette as you read quietly to yourself, imagine these thing, this splitting of sea, these ten plagues, this Moses with a staff, these people called Hebrews escaping a king. You wonder if it’s real, this story they tell, and it’s so long ago, and why does it matter to you, living now?

The meal is the main thing and people are hungry, and you’re hungry too, but not just for soup, though it’s tasty and comforting, like putting on slippers; you’re hungry for truth.

People are hungry, and you’re hungry too, but not just for soup. You’re hungry for truth.

You’re in seventh grade and you hate junior high. The school is enormous and all of your friends are assigned different classes, so you sit among strangers. Over the summer your two best girlfriends matured faster than you and are interested now in only one thing. In PE where they make you get changed into starchy white shirts and ugly green shorts, in a locker room shared with hundreds of girls, you figure out how to undress really fast, and wonder why adults don’t remember the need to be private or maybe they do and don’t care, which is worse.

At lunchtime, when boys come over to talk with your girlfriends you blush, feeling shy and unable to flirt like your friends, who have started to wear make-up and clothes that reveal how they’ve grown. Now, every morning when the bus drops you off, you have no-one to stand with or talk to, so you take a long time getting stuff from your locker until the bell rings. By the end of the day you’re so tired from running because some of your classes are on the opposite end of the very large school, and it takes the whole time between bells to get there.

You ask your mother if you can go to a school with less people, a school where the teachers remember your name. She sits by the pool, sunbathing, reading a novel, listening but you don’t feel like she’s hearing. She says something about not believing in schools that are private, and says that your sister did fine at this school, so should you. She has also decided you’re now old enough to get up by yourself in the morning. She sleeps while you rise early to catch the bus, the bus that you hate because cool girls say things that are mean to shy girls like you. You eat breakfast alone, pour milk into cornflakes at the kitchen table, your stomach so hollow, it aches, but not just from hunger. You think that your mother should still fix you breakfast and lunch, and you promise yourself that you will be different when you are a mom. Thirteen is not old, but you know it’s not young, it’s just in-between, not a place you like being.

You discover ballet and each day after school your life is a dream; you’re a swan, you’re Giselle as you dance and you sweat and your toes bleed through pink satin shoes. For a few happy years your dream is your hope, but slowly that dream starts to fade. Your mother keeps saying you are one of a thousand, and don’t have what it takes. You secretly worry that she could be right because you have feet that are flat and you started too late, which matters, but less than the fact that she doesn’t believe you can do it. This gets in deep. That, and the fact that you’ve come out of your shy shell and dance lessons take all your time, and you now understand that dancing takes everything, and you know that one day you want to get married and have children, and dancers can’t do it all.

And there is that feeling again, like hunger and thirst and you eat a few cookies and then a few more.

When you tell your instructor, who has coached you and trained you, that you’ve decided to quit, he hugs you and says you can always come back, but doesn’t say “don’t quit,” which you know means you should. You get home and you cry and write in your journal, pouring the pain of a dream unattained onto white pages. You write in large letters, “What do I do now?” Your mother is knocking, you don’t let her in. Conversations with her tend not to end well; though her intentions are good, when she listens she doesn’t hear what you mean, doesn’t connect all the dots or something like that, but whatever it is, she won’t understand. And there is that feeling again, like hunger and thirst and you eat a few cookies and then a few more.

There’s no God to turn to for comfort because God is a crutch, at least that’s what they taught you. God is for losers, for weak people who need something to hold on to. God is for dumb people who don’t know about science and physics and math. Religion divides, causes hate, brings on wars, like John Lennon said, you imagined it all, drank that punch. But something has changed, and that place deep inside, like a pit growing deeper, tells you these people you love won’t be able to give you the things that you need. In your journal you write, “Why am I here?” and “What is this life?”

You are eighteen and your search begins now, and looking for answers in churches with crosses and temples with Buddhas, you live many lives, make many mistakes. You pray, meditate, and wander and wonder, in search of the truth. You keep on writing and your thoughts become prayers on the page, mixed with tears that are real and make smudges. And prayers mixed with tears go straight up to heaven where God waits and listens.

It’s early October, Sukkot eve. That matters to you because in a few hours you’ll sit in your sukkah with family and friends. You’ll eat steaming soup you have cooked, and sing songs and tell stories of people who escaped a bad King, and lived in the dessert in huts such as these. Your grandchildren listen and know they belong to those people who lived all those years long ago. Now a young grandchild with curls just like yours, holds up her bowl, says Bubbie please more.

Close your eyes for a minute, you’ll see what God sees: a young girl long ago by a tree trimmed with lights, who danced like an angel and longed to be found, now a woman with hair that is gray, feeling so full as this night strokes the day, full of love and of light and of God. And when you ask, like sometimes you do, what was God thinking, sending your soul to this world like he did, on the path that was yours, you know that your path was the path just for you, for reasons not known, in this world, not to you.

No matter what was, what matters is now, in this place that is filled by the glow of your candles, the laughter and songs, the warmth of the soup, the people you love, the branches above, and the stars peeking through.

Photo credit: Mikayla Mallek, Unsplash