Like any good Christian campers, we were celebrating the Passover. Of course, it wasn’t actually the Passover. And I wasn’t even really a camper. I was just the tag-along kid of a faculty member who helped my favorite teams cheat at Capture the Flag, and noted for my future how to ask a boy to campfire. I spent my days with my best friend Jessica– also the tag-along kid of a faculty member– playing carpetball and sneaking to the back of the Canteen to get free handouts of Nerds and Snickers bars. We were scolded every other day for locking ourselves in the walk in freezer, listened outside of windows at the request of older girls to find out if the boys were talking about them, and meandered from cabins to mess hall to woods to creek, our tan skin getting tanner and our blonde hair bleaching blonder. But on occasion, our moms would deem something Important, and we would be required to put aside our free play and Attend an Important Lesson with all of the Older Kids.
This night, it was Passover. The mess hall was transformed into candlelight, round tables, and smelly Junior High kids trying to keep their thoughts pure in spite of the dim lights and close proximity to the opposite sex. As with most of the times my mother had me attend Important Lessons, I did my best to emulate holiness and prayed for a joke to break the tension. And I grappled with the Sadness that goes with trying to learn the Important Lesson of Loving God.
We ate our courses while the Camp Dean explained the Lesson, but didn’t explain the Sadness, and I felt cheated by the lack of authenticity of grape juice for wine and then felt guilty for thinking about wine when Jesus would want me to be thinking about grape juice. And then I felt guilty for thinking about Jesus when I was learning that there are people who don’t think about Jesus, and that in that moment, I was that person, which meant that I was essentially pretending to go to Hell. Then I wondered if just by pretending that I was Jewish, if that would count against me on Not Pretend Judgement Day. And then, for a second, I felt free of Jesus’ ever watching eye– like I could think anything I wanted since I was already going to Hell. Then, I knew I was definitely going to Hell. And no one could answer my questions because it was candles and round tables and holiness. And this was how I rattled around my 10-year-old brain until the parsley.
My Someone likes to trace our food history back, particularly when we eat something new or are trying to make new what we’ve been eating old. And we had been eating tabbouleh for weeks. My Someone wanted to know my first experience with parsley, and I was astonished to be taken back twenty years to a dark mess hall across the table from a chair left open for Elijah, picking up the green sprig and mustering my face into a grimace as I bit down on the garnish.
“The Bitter Herb of Enslavement,” I told my Someone. “That’s my first memory with parsley.”
Like in any classic suburban childhood, we did fancy dinner at Olive Garden. And after makeshift Passover, I was consistently confronted with the leftover garnish on the side of my Shrimp Alfredo. My secret eating of the Bitter Herb was caught twice by my brother, who insisted that the parsley was actually poison and not to be eaten. After my parents assured me I wouldn’t die, I continued chewing and swallowed it down. It was a habit I kept whenever parsley was present. Although I couldn’t quite remember the details, I knew it was my responsibility– because somebody somewhere had a bad thing happen, I had to keep eating the mock Bitter Herb of Enslavement. Either until there was no more enslavement or no more bitter herbs.
When we had successfully botched Passover, the lights came up. Something about not needing to be in darkness anymore. Something about Jesus helping us not have to eat things that don’t taste great. Something about let’s take communion now and be thankful we are not going to Hell in a Challah bread basket. And then we moved to the chapel and sang songs that kept us safe from other people’s traditions and other people’s Bitter Herbs of Enslavement.
I felt the relief everyone else did. We are saved! We are free from Bitter Herbs! And then I felt the Sadness of the Important Lesson of God’s Love: that the wrong glass of grape juice with the wrong slice of bread is a grave misstep. Not all glasses of wine are the same. Neither are all games of pretending what the wine should be.
I haven’t taken communion in years. I’ve tried to reconcile myself to all sorts of excuses. I’m allergic to the Body of Christ. I am too nervous to go up front. I am too afraid I will be struck by lightening. I am too self conscious that my parents or my friends or the strangers around me will sense I am a fraud. I am too aware that I don’t know how to pretend right. Out of habit, though, I still swipe the garnish from the side of my plate, trying to chew it thoughtfully– for somebody, somewhere.
Maybe what I am finding out is that it is much easier to chew on someone else’s suffering than to force feed myself shame. Maybe I am finding that the only tradition more bitter than the Bitter Herb is the bitterness of being excluded from a simple meal of wine and bread– and that somehow, somewhere, someone is being told they’re suffering was for nothing. That in the end, the wrong meal is sending them away from the Love of God.
Today for lunch, again, we will eat tabbouleh. It’s no wine and bread, but it nourishes us well and doesn’t leave us feeling heavy. It gives us strength to keep working away from our daily enslavements, and keeps our brains focused enough to notice those who are enslaved around us. I’m sure even Jesus would think it was tasty.