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San Miguel is a great place for a religion junkie, a category to which I definitely belong. By all accounts, this town has even more fiestas and religious holidays than most places in Mexico. This week, Semana Santa, is peak season, but there’s a lot to celebrate even before Holy Week gets going.

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We deliberated for several days about what to do about Pesach this year. Our ideal is to host a Seder and invite friends, but most of our friends are 1500 miles away (or more), and we had trouble reaching the few we do have here. We looked into the San Miguel Jewish community’s Seder, but their response to “would a three-year-old enjoy it?” was not very encouraging. So we decided to just have a Seder for the three of us, with Joy cooking and me in charge of creating an abbreviated Haggadah.

Then, a few hours before the Seder, Joy saw an e-mail from a woman looking for a child-friendly Seder for her and her six-year-old son, K. We always have more food than we need, so we called them, they came, and we were so glad they did. They were really nice, interesting people; they’re UUs too; the munchkin and K hit it off (what a find, a six-year-old who’s happy to play with a three-year-old!); and having them here made our holiday complete. Eating dinner with just our family is lovely, but for the holidays it doesn’t feel quite right.

It was a funny business, creating the Haggadah. I’ve done it almost every year for several years now, for our church Seder, but having to really cut out most of it brought home to me what a crazy conglomeration and compilation it is. It shows all the signs of having been built by accretion; not just the recent, feminism-inspired additions like the orange and Miriam’s cup, but many elements, have been incorporated in response to some need or political moment that’s fallen into the obscurity of history. The four children, for instance; when did that come along, and why? All the lists and formulations, like the singing of the order of the Seder itself, and the “matzah, maror, pesach” bit—where did they come from? Why the four cups of wine? What does Chad Gadya have to do with Passover? Reading a typical Haggadah is like a walk through Jewish history. I’d love to see one that includes the works, with annotations about how each element entered the flexible canon that is the Haggadah.

What follows is what we considered essential and absorbable by our daughter. She has been to four or five Seders in her three years, starting with the one we held with close friends at home when she was a month old, but I don’t think she remembers anything from any previous ones. If she remembers anything from this one a year from now, I’m betting it will be playing with K, and the prizes they won.

(ETA that I notice a lot of people are finding this entry via searches for “unitarian haggadah” or “abbreviated haggadah” or the like. So if you’re wondering if you can use this, yes, and if your family doesn’t do “mad face” or blessings in Cat, adapt it to your own kids. Just please credit me, and make it clear to whoever uses it that it is drastically edited out of the vast realm that is the Haggadah.)

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I’m making a collage involving an image of shed skin, having been captivated by a passage in a book on reptiles that said most “higher land animals” shed their skin, but whereas mammals like us do it so gradually that it’s mostly imperceptible, snakes are unusual in shedding in “one elegantly complete operation.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about continuity and change (that Mary Catherine Bateson chapter, the one I quoted in a somewhat different context on February 5, tugged on some threads that have been in my mind for a long time), and the idea of changing oneself in “one elegantly complete operation” is intriguing. Do we ever do it? So many radical changes feel paradoxically like returning to our real selves, the person we’ve known we were or wanted to be for a long time . . .

Anyway, for this piece I need something that looks like what a person would leave behind if we shed our skin the way a snake does. After a couple of false starts–draw it? use tissue paper?–I realized that the perfect medium was white glue, white glue as it appears when it’s dried on your hands and you’ve peeled it off, as we all did in school. Well, maybe some of you washed it off with warm water. I reveled in peeling it off, and in fact, my friends and I would deliberately spread a little extra on the backs of our hands for the pleasure of doing it some more.

So I spread a 3- by 8-inch swath of glue on the inside of my left arm this morning, waited twenty minutes, and peeled. OUCH. Swath is right. A swath is what it felt like it was taking out of my skin. I couldn’t even take the advice I’d given to the munchkin just the day before when she was fussing about band-aid removal and pull fast!, because I didn’t want it to tear. Ow ow ow.

Joy said, “You’re suffering for your art.” Glad to do it, but if there’s a next time I might sacrifice the texture (which will probably be invisible in the final piece anyway) and just spread it on a piece of plastic.

Practically-pure bliss.

There are a few things I do miss. I miss the cats—I swear I almost signed up with a one-on-one Spanish tutor, even though it’s a very expensive way to learn and I would do just as well or better with a class of other students at this point, so that I’d be able to pet his cat who looks just like my sweet, snuggly Luna. I pale a little when I consider that it will be another 5 months before I get any dim sum. (We had dim sum about five times in our last couple of weeks in California, trying to store it up, but that doesn’t really work.) I miss our house when I think about it, but it will wait for us, unchanging, and I find it comforting that a lovely family is living there and loving it. I do wish I could talk to faraway friends more, but the internet is sure a help there, and a couple of them are planning to visit.

I don’t miss work. Not in the slightest. This was not a foregone conclusion; I love my job, and last fall’s were my happiest months of work in a long time, full of particularly interesting challenges and promising more. And I’m not someone for whom retirement is the point of life. I would go mad with nothing to do but lie on a beach and read. Work, the doing of something that stretches my abilities and is useful to other people, is one of my chief sources of happiness; I ought to speak a language where “work” and “play” are the same word, if there even is one besides Pravic. However, the beauty of sabbatical affords most of the blessings of work without most of the downsides. I’m learning a lot and pushing myself to do difficult and rewarding things, while—these are the tough parts in regular worktime—getting enough sleep, having enough time with my wife and daughter, not fretting about stray critical comments or church politics, not feeling like I have more to do in a week than can possibly fit, putting first things first. All of those things will be hard to maintain once I’m back in the intensity of daily ministry. In particular, I am not good at letting go of the concerns of work to make heart-space for the other parts of my life, though I’m hoping I learn something during this time that will make it easier. It is so, so good to be in a different mode.

What I do miss about church, though, is the people. I love my congregation so much. They are a very smart, funny, devoted group of people, fun to be with, who challenge me (mostly in constructive ways *grin*) to be a better person as well as a better minister. It’s hard to be separated from their lives for this long, knowing that they are going about their daily worries and joys and that I can’t share them. However hard it might be to re-enter the pressure chamber of sermons, meetings, etc. come August, being with them again will be the reward.

At home, before we eat, we all take hands and say “Thank you for the food.” The speaking of the words usually falls to the munchkin, who delights in adding variations: “Thank you to Mommy/Mama for this wonderful dinner,” “Thank you for the shrimp and the noodles and the carrots,” and the like. When we got to Mexico Joy and I proposed saying it in Spanish as well every time. Munchkin responded by adding a third language, one in which she is fluent, and after she’s informed us as to which one will be said by whom, the family meal now begins something like this.

Joy: Thank you for the food!
Me: ¡Gracias por la comida!
Munchkin: Meow!

In such ways do we make rituals our own.

Speaking of which, we went to a fabulous fiesta Friday night, where the image of Jesus “Señor de la conquista” is carried out of the Parroquia (parish church) amid fireworks, dancing, and drumming. The article in the local paper says the fiesta is held “porque el catolicismo conquistó a los indios,” but, while I’m not dismissing the real, frequently devastating impact of Catholicism on native religion, the overall impression I got from the festival is that los indios and their pre-Catholic religious practices are going strong.

People of all genders and ages danced and drummed. The munchkin declared this guy “scary” but loved the whole event. We thought she’d want to watch for a few minutes and then eat dinner; an hour later she was still mesmerized.

The good old Catholic church. “Fine, keep your feathers and your drums and your heathen dances, as long as you add Jesus into the mix.” (Mexican national pride is part of the mix too, as you can see from the dancers carrying the flag.) I’m betting this relaxed attitude toward syncretism is a more successful way to spread the word than uptightly insisting that indigenous people wear trousers and sing Wesley’s hymns–in short, imposing European cultural forms that are not inextricable from the religious concepts.

I make this assertion knowing almost nothing about missionary history. However, I think it’s a point to ponder for people concerned about church growth and diversity. What would Unitarian Universalism look like if we (meaning those who currently “own” it, a term I use ironically) relaxed a little more about the forms it takes on as it comes to different cultures (or subcultures) than the white, English-speaking, Calvinist-descended people among whom it largely originated? I don’t want us to conquer the natives, but I would like everyone who feels the call of Unitarian Universalism to be able to respond, and meet with a warm welcome instead of skeptical looks from those who are at home with the Protestant worship structure and European classical music that dominate today. It will look different in other hands. They will change it for themselves and, in some part, for everyone. If that means dancing like we saw Friday night, it sounds like a win-win to me.

Only one more week remains of my drawing class, and I think I’m going to take another. I’m having a great time, I’m learning a lot, and I think it will take a few more months of daily practice for me to really learn, deep in my bones, that I can pick up the pencil and make good things happen—that it’s still a joy to do even when I don’t like the results. Right now, on my no-class days when I’ve promised myself I’ll draw, I still have a reluctance to start. I have done two drawings on those days that I’m happy with, though, a portrait of my daughter and one of myself. The latter is old hat—all art students draw themselves a zillion times—but drawing the munchkin was a big step. I have often wanted to, but the prospect of falling short, as I would inevitably do, and (so I imagined) messing up this face I adore so much . . . *shudder.* It was a breakthrough to give it a try. The drawing and the falling-short.

It’s amazing to discover how much fear I have around art. I knew I was scared of drawing, but I’ve been sobered by how intimidating it is even to make collages–as if I have forgotten how to play when it comes to art. This morning before art class, I had a chat with a woman who’s teaching a collage workshop in the studio next door, who said several things I know to be true and want to keep in mind re: making art, all in the friendly tone of someone who faces these demons all the time herself:

-It’s all an adventure, full of surprises. Just follow things where they lead you and don’t be too attached to any one version, or too dismayed by dead ends.

-The unexpected places the pieces will lead you are what make art so rewarding to do.

-Fear is a sign that you’re in new territory, not staying in a rut.

-Everyone has these doubts about their abilities. We know from Michelangelo’s writing that he was dissatisfied with his work.

-Being afraid isn’t necessarily a problem, but thinking there’s something wrong with being afraid is.

Something else that has helped dispel fear over the past couple weeks has been the love that’s welled up as I look so closely at some little piece of the world. I fell in love with a plant in the grounds as I drew it, and was sad when I came in this week and found that the gardeners had pulled it up! (Another student said “But you memorialized it!”) Drawing people, even the strangers who model for us, makes me feel like I love them. Their bodies are so beautiful! (Do they know it? Can they possibly look in the mirror and see themselves with that appreciation for how wondrously made they are? I hope so . . . ) I find myself, not only thinking “I have to get that curve of shoulder right, it’s so gorgeous,” but feeling like it’s personal: that I want to do right by these people and their beautiful humanness. That feeling last week made it possible to go home and draw my daughter.

Click for drawings

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