I’m in need of some faith. I went to college and graduate school to be a teacher. And for a while, that’s what I was: a high school English teacher in some of the worst neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn. But I’m not anymore.
The gauntlet of testing, the unending paperwork, the constant attitude from students who didn’t feel inspired to go to school, the demand to always give more, do more with less, overcome, left me drained. I searched for another job but no one seemed to think I was qualified to do anything besides stand in front of a classroom. I finally managed to find one, but the commute was an hour and fifteen minutes each way on the train, which left me a lot of time to stew in my own bitterness, frustrated and sad that I’d given up my twenties to be a surrogate mother to other people’s children, leaving me no time to consider my own. Teaching gutted me and left me feeling empty. My job search left me feeling worthless, like I had nothing to offer that anyone wanted. My new job leaves me feeling restless, like starting all over again.
I’m thirty-one. Everyone keeps telling me I should be fighting to “have it all.” But I often find myself trying desperately to scrape together the pieces to “have enough.” I’m jealous of those people who say things like “I need to pray on it.” And the people who meditate. The ones who are sure of divine purpose. I want to believe in something. But I don’t know how.
My own relationship with faith is confusing. The rituals and repetitions of Catholicism are slipping so easily from comforting to consuming. Growing up, I found myself tipping toward obsessive, praying over and over again until I said the words perfectly, and then once more, just in case, to please God. Some nights found me up late praying, praying, praying because if God could be as vengeful as he seemed in the stories they told me at Sunday school, certainly he would demand perfection in my prayers to protect my friends and family. I think about those nights and balk, hesitant to return to this, this feeling of inadequacy when searching for relief.
I look to my husband’s faith. His Judaism is similar to my Catholicism, lapsed and fleeting. He draws upon it both in whimsy (the time in college when he gave up beer for Passover) and necessity (the time he was responsible for making the decisions for his grandfather’s end of life care). We light the Hanukkah candles (using an iPad app in the days before we purchase a real menorah). He says prayers in a language I don’t know, but understand all the same. And I feel anchored to a thousand years of survival and perseverance. I eat the bitter herbs with his family and I feel weighted with the will to live in the face of insurmountable obstacles.
My brother-in-law’s faith is stricter, needed, like a compass that always points him True North. His faith gives him rules to follow to live his best life. He does not drink. He prays when called. He smiles in my wedding photos, quietly ignoring his growling stomach, empty because of Ramadan. My sister and him attend the Eid Al-Fitr celebration, her wearing the long skirt to show respect. There’s a Quran with gold writing prominently displayed in their living room, and I feel his fight to preserve his religion in a world that is so hostile toward it. I feel the pride it must take to defend it in the face of ignorance and fear.
And still, there are memories from Christmas Mass as a child, listening to my father sing “Silent Night” in Latin, how he winked at me when he caught my surprised face. There is the way the prayers still sound when said at friends’ church weddings, my voice lost in a chorus, how the Ss in “forgive us our trespasses” whip around the congregation like ghosts. Maybe this is what my faith will look like in modern America. Creating it. Making it from scratch. Putting together the pieces like a puzzle until the picture finally emerges and you find what you need. A mosaic of beliefs. A patchwork of comforts.
Because my family will sit around the table on Christmas Day with the tree shining brightly in the background. My dad will cook a Halal turkey. My mom will wrap my husband’s gifts in special Hanukkah wrapping paper. My nephew will beckon me to “Arwa!” (Come on!) in Berber. And maybe, this is where I will find my faith.