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Creating traditions that connect us to the sacredness of life

April 17, 2012

Creating traditions that connect us to the sacredness of life

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

When parents come from different faith traditions, finding meaningful ways to celebrate religious holidays as a family can be a particular challenge.

While the Seder and Easter celebrations, which marked our respective childhoods, are rich in symbolism and meaning, including the universal themes of freedom and new life, there are beliefs and practices from each tradition that my wife, Lori, and I, choose not to embrace.

So as parents, hiding the Afikoman and coloring eggs aside, we tend to use religious holidays as an opportunity to revisit our shared values and do our best to figure out how to honor the traditions of our ancestors and create new traditions that hold special meaning for our family.

Lori does this with both ease and grace. I, on the other hand, tend to mull, at great lengths, needlessly twisting my thoughts and emotions in knots, trying to make sense of the great mystery of life, religion and a long list of things that have insignificant consequence.

Venturing into wild spaces has long been a way to feed my soul, to renew my sense of the sacred, especially when I find life a bit unclear. So on a recent weekend, bookended by Passover and Easter, exploring the natural wonders of a nearby conservation area served as a welcome adventure.

Unlike the Jews of ancient Egypt, we had plenty of time to prepare for our journey traipsing through the wilderness. We gathered fig bars, water and extra clothing to sustain our bodies, and a field guide, two nets and a collection box with nifty magnifying lenses, to study the critters we hoped to find. We left the Matzos and Easter eggs at home.

Arriving at the trailhead, my 5½-year-old Zoe, aka “Nature Girl,” and I, were both surprised to see nearly 30 people gathered for the vernal pool nature walk.

A local biologist served as an amiable guide, directing the group to two vernal pools, each no bigger than our house, and teaching us many lessons about the creatures, which are unique to these habitats.

We learned, among other things, these fishless pools serve as protective environments where certain species of frogs and salamanders prefer to meet and reproduce, in early spring. With the recent wave of unseasonably warm weather, the only evidence of these annual courting rituals, were masses of floating amphibian eggs, the parents of which had moved along to thrive in the surrounding woods and nearby lake.

While we were greatly disappointed that the critters we most hoped to net were absent from these pools, the egg masses were fascinating. These floating gelatinous globs, each about softball-size and containing hundreds of eggs, dotted the pools, clinging precariously to partially submerged sticks, and hovering above the watery bottoms that were lined with fallen leaves from the surrounding oaks.

A white, opaque, salamander egg cluster, broke loose from its mooring, despite the careful approach of the wading biologist. Holding the mass in his cupped hands, he placed it in an observation tray, where Zoe and I were able to look closely and gently touch the soft, mushy blob.

Across the pool, a cluster of translucent frog eggs floated near the surface, hundreds of black dots, each a developing life form in its own separate egg, were clearly visible.

But as the scientific talk continued, our enthusiasm for adventure pulled us away from the group and toward the nearby lake, where Zoe collected fists-full of algae – “gack,” as her brother, Adam, likes to call it.

I managed to net a frog and Zoe, with a firm but gentle grasp, held its slippery body in her little hands, just long enough for us to marvel at its pulsing body.

As we hiked back to our bike and trailer, we wondered, together, how many frogs and salamanders we might find when we return this summer. Zoe assured me there would be “lots of them.”

While pedaling home, I felt reconnected to the sacredness of life. A humble depression in the earth’s surface, rejuvenated year after year by rain and snowmelt, made visible, to all ages, the cycle of new life. And, a little girl, kneeling at the water’s edge, opening her hands to release her catch, made visible to me, the importance of granting freedom to all life.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Ross Bell permalink
    April 18, 2012 12:32 pm

    Hey John,
    Loved this month’s column….it really resonated with me…..I too refer to nature and the forest as my “church”…. I especially enjoyed the metaphor of nature’s bounty representing the afikomen/easter eggs and the image of “nature girl” setting the frog free….I think you may have started a holiday tradition.
    We bought some seeds this week….can’t wait to get them going. -Ross Bell

  2. April 18, 2012 9:17 pm

    Great column John,
    This made me think about the challenges many traditions face today…how do you bring together people in customary ways when so many customs are intermixed now? And when people from multiple customs are able to come together, how do you choose which custom to represent? And if you’re able to represent all of them, then there’s the problem of diluting each involved to a series of surface level acknowledgements.

    I think you nailed the fundamental importance of such get togethers…spending time with the people you love, sharing the love that you have to give, and expanding yourself with those you love. Your column makes me realize how simple it is, and how easily it can be to make things work for the best. Thanks for the great insights.

    Most appreciated,

  3. April 27, 2012 8:11 pm

    Hello John,

    Thank you for your kind words about Monday Metaview, and for introducing me to your inspiring blog. It is heartening to witness a father engaged on all levels with the mystery and opportunity of parenting, and so eloquently expressed!

    And, “twinkles” to little Zoe, who held the frog so lightly and graciously–and allowed it to go free.

    Martha Hopewell

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