The post below was originally published in 2011, and it's been updated each year to reflect where I am in my life and the new...Read More
Nothing Matters. Everything Matters.
I’m part of a casual writing group that meets once a month to share our writings on a particular topic. A few months ago, our writing prompt was “travel.” The first thing that came to mind was the incredibly moving, almost transformational, experiences I’ve had in churches, synagogues, and cemeteries on my travel adventures — despite the fact that I’m not at all religious.
This is the essay I read at our writer’s group. I feel compelled to share it with you now for a few reasons: the holidays, in equal measure, crank me up like a 3-year-old on a sugar bender and inspire me to be reflective… we’re planning a trip to Prague, Slovenia, and Croatia, so travel adventures are on my mind… given the tragic events of the last few weeks, now seems like a fine time to focus on the things that matter.
My parents were both raised Catholic and attended Catholic school, as did all of my mom’s eight brothers and sisters and their children… and my dad’s siblings and their children… and all of their relatives, too.
Our local radio station played the recitation of the rosary every evening, and family weddings, at least when I was a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, always included a formal mass. I’m pretty sure that’s why I now have so much affection for couples who provide a civilized cocktail before their vows: I can still recreate the uncomfortable feelings of anticipation and anxiety that surrounded those 10:00 a.m. Catholic wedding ceremonies that seemed to last forever. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel. Sing. Stand up. Sit down. Kneel. Sing.
My Aunt Polly, Mom’s sister, was my favorite aunt. She was an advertising copywriter, and back in the day, she was always pulled together: hair styled, lipstick applied, matching handbag and shoes, and always, a chic hat and floral scarf. Always. She smelled like powder and flowers, and when she came to visit, she slept in my room, reading to me from a bible with perfectly crinkly onion-skin pages. The two of us would snuggle, heads together under the crucifix that hung above my bed. She’d been born again and lead bible study groups in Pennsylvania. I remember being hypnotized by the sound of her voice, her fragrance, and the alluring crinkle of the pages as she licked her finger tip to turn to the next passage.
At Syracuse University, I wanted to sing, and unless you were a superstar music major, the only option was the choir. I joined the Hendricks Chapel Choir, and every Sunday morning, I woke up at 7:00 a.m., put on respectable clothes, and hiked up the hill to the Chapel to sing hymns and glorious classical pieces that pay homage to a God in which I didn’t place much faith.
But I loved that Chapel. It was cool in the summer; cozy in the winter. There was nothing extraneous; lovely in its minimalism, it offered a clean dome overhead, wooden floors underfoot, and carved in large letters around the room, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
Because it was a non-denominational chapel, the services were practical and matter of fact. There was no hand-wringing and slinging of incense balls like St. Ambrose back at home. The minister doled out good advice, we sang beautiful music, and everyone went to brunch.
I’m not at all religious. Spiritual, yes, but I don’t belong to a church. So I found it interesting that some of my most meaningful travel memories are the result of sitting in a church or a cemetery. I feel reverence and serenity and a connection to humanity when I sit in a centuries-old building or the final resting place of people whose time on this earth has passed. The obvious devotion of others moves me, even though I don’t share their beliefs or practice their traditions.
I think it started with Notre Dame de Paris in 1985.
I was on tour with the American Music Abroad Choir. We’d been on the road for almost three weeks, wearing blue bottoms, white shirts, and red blazers while we sang negro spirituals and traditional American folk tunes — plus a choreographed Beach Boys medley — in town halls for appreciative, America-loving locals. Our last stop was Paris, and instead of the civic settings to which we’d become accustomed, we were singing in Notre Dame, under the stained glass windows and flying buttresses. I was 16 years old, and I couldn’t imagine anything better. It’s hard now, at 44, to imagine anything better still. My friend Louise sang a breathtaking solo in the middle of our Mozart piece, and it was all I could do to keep singing around the lump in my throat. The music soared in that space, and I felt the spirit of the people who built it, worshiped there, mourned there, were bored there. Somehow, all of that over-the-top-ness, made it all very human and real.
Fifteen years later, Dave and I went on holiday to Paris and serendipity showed her hand: there was a concert one night in Notre Dame Cathedral of the same Mozart piece I’d sung. Others might call that divine intervention, but I prefer to think of it as Fortuna, turning her wheel and giving me my turn at the top.
That was also the trip that took us to Pére Lachaise Cemetery, the final resting place, most infamously, of Jim Morrison. But I was more interested in the graves of Chopin and Oscar Wilde. I was never the goth girl who was into cemeteries when I was the appropriate age to be the goth girl who’s into cemeteries. The artsy and creative students at Syracuse were notorious for going to the cemetery near the dorms to smoke, to draw, to relate. I never joined them.
But our day in Pére Lachaise was one of those perfect days that materialize when you’re up for adventure. The weather was crisp and cool. Dried leaves crunched under our feet, an accompaniment to our boots clacking on the cobblestones, both spooky and comforting. It’s tradition for ladies to kiss the tomb of Oscar Wilde, and imprints of pink and red and maroon lips covered it like confetti.
Chopin’s grave was buried under a colorful, bobbing mass of flowers, and I enjoyed imagining the reactions of both men to their postmortem celebrity. Wilde would surely toss off some biting bon mots about how wasted a woman’s lips were when applied to him. And I could see Chopin, who is credited with starting the tradition of musicians wearing dramatic black for performances and sitting in profile to the audience… all the better to show off his handsome profile, n’est-ce pas?… smiling with smug satisfaction that even 150 years after his death, he was still drawing a smitten audience.
After we’d meandered among the tombs, crypts, and headstones, we randomly chose an exit to see what we’d see on the other side, and found ourselves in a residential neighborhood, then a tiny bistro unaccustomed to English-speaking tourists. A hint of tension floated in the air as we took a table, but with garbled French on my part and a willingness to try at English on the waiter’s side, we were soon all smiles and tucking into omelets and croque monsieur. The hike among the dead had created an appetite for life that required wine and good French food.
Our experience at the Jewish Cemetery in Prague was equally life-affirming but far more somber.
It started with a visit to the synagogues in Prague’s Old Jewish quarter. The first, the Pinkas Synagogue, was built in 1535 and used for worship until 1941. After WWII, it was converted into a memorial for the nearly 80,000 Jews from Bohemia that were killed during the Holocaust. The walls are hand painted with the names of each person lost to the Holocaust. I knew that before I stepped across the threshold, but I wasn’t prepared for the exquisite sadness of those rooms. I felt tender and raw and open; not sad so much as awed at all the people who pass on this planet and do what they do. They eat, complain, laugh, get bored, get drunk, make mistakes, achieve their dreams… or not. But we all live, and we all die, and it was all right there. And as we solemnly read the names on the walls, and I tried to put labels on the emotions firing through my body, a cantor began to sing. Sorrow, optimism, life, death — they were all wrapped up in the haunting, undulating notes.
We moved in silence to the Old New Synagogue. It was completed in 1270 and is still actively used for worship. It’s a smallish building with vaulted ceilings and an overwhelming sense of hush. We followed the path of the tour through the heart of the synagogue and marveled at the mystical details, but it wasn’t until we took a seat in what’s essentially the lobby that my heart joined the rest of me. I sat on the stone bench, cool and smooth beneath my bottom, and realized that I was sitting in a small dip, worn into the stone by almost 800 years of other people sitting down to rest and take it all in. Eight hundred years of girls and boys and men and women, sitting on the stone, breathing the cool air, relishing the calm. Or not. Because for most of them, their Jewish faith would make their experience in this synagogue far more complicated — potentially more rewarding or troubling — than mine. I felt both small and grateful, and I breathed. And sighed. And then there was nothing left but to move on.
We wandered, finally, to the Jewish Cemetery. The headstones topple over and crisscross each other like adolescent teeth that haven’t yet worn their braces. Jewish graves cannot be destroyed, and there was no room to expand a cemetery belonging to Jews, so when the cemetery was full, they added a new layer of soil and buried the newly dead atop the old graves. There are now 12 layers of history in the Old Jewish Cemetery.
Dave and I sat on a bench in the shade, emotionally exhausted but softly exhilarated, too. I looked at the tombstones and had this thought: Nothing we do matters, and everything we do matters. We’re small and humble and eventually we go into the ground and really, what does it matter if our house needs paint or I’d like to trade down the size of my jeans?
Somehow, at the same time, it all matters. Love matters. Dreams matter. Doing the right thing matters. Because in the end, we all go into the ground, and what we do with our time above ground must matter.
Our last stop in the Jewish Quarter was at the Spanish Synagogue. It’s the fanciful, accessible synagogue, built in 1848. Its Moorish design and glittering gold interior are now used as part of the Jewish Museum and for music concerts.
During WWII, the Nazis took it over as a repository for property stolen from Jewish families. Walking into the warm, glowing interior, I cringed at their wickedness while I read about the Synagogue in my guide book: “Of the 120,000 Jews living in the area in 1939, just 10,000 survived the Holocaust to see liberation in 1945.” Those words were still hanging like dialogue in a cartoon thought-balloon when the music started. Bach’s Air on a G String.
At the sound of the first note, hot tears spilled from my eyes. Piercing and poignant. A reminder that nothing we do matters and everything we do matters.
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Your thoughts remind me much of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your heart in that post.
Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.
Really beautiful piece…thanks for sharing.
I’m glad you liked it. Thank you!
This reminded me of my own travels here in the states and abroad and like you, I find myself many times in churches and cemeteries in a world of serenity. Everything we do matters-follow your bliss (in the spirit of Joseph Campbell)..I believe we are all on a hero’s journey.
I always feel weird when I say stuff like that, but I really do believe it’s true: the little things do matter. And, of course, so do the big things… and yes, if you look at it right, we’re all on a big old adventurous hero’s journey.
This hit home for me, and I admire your openness with all of this. My wife and I are novice Crossfitters, paleo eaters at home (Well Fed? Yes!), tattooed as many are, and I’m an active duty Army chaplain with experience in both Iraq and Afghanistan, though I’m about to “cross the Tiber” and become a Catholic priest! Your comment about being “spiritual but not religious” is one that I hear a lot, but I’d ask you to give this a little thought – your most important memories shared here are ones that you shared with someone else, whether just one other person or a group of people. Whatever someone’s faith may be, it’s always lived out in community – that’s part of what makes CF boxes so bonding, that shared experience of pain and suffering, very similar to the pain and suffering that our Soldiers go through together when in combat. So, I’ll get out of your way for now, but I would encourage you to explore those religious tendencies. People pay thousands of dollars a year for “mental health” help, when many need God’s touch in their soul and a good workout.
Congratulations to you on becoming a Catholic priest! I’m assuming you won’t be doling out punishment with a ruler like my parents teachers 😉
Thanks for sharing your thoughts! And thanks for eating from Well Fed. YAY!
Ken – this line needs to be copyrighted. I keep going back to read it “People pay thousands of dollars a year for “mental health” help, when many need God’s touch in their soul and a good workout.”
Mel – exquisite writing. My copy of Well Fed arrived yesterday and I curled up in bed to read it like a good novel! I am pregnant w/ boy #3 and trying to keep gestational diabetes at bay so my perinatologist recommended eating this way. I looked through dozens of paleo books out there and settled on yours to add to my collection. I especially love your concept of “cook like a restaurant.” Well done!
Beautifully written piece. You may enjoy this ex-pat’s blog: email@example.com. I sent him a link to yours.
Thanks so much for the recommendation to read a French Frye in Paris — I just subscribed to his RSS feed.
Great! If you have a chance, check out some of his past entries–his adventures in Paris range from the hilarious to the sublime. He doesn’t post often, but when he does, it’s worth the read.
This is a great post. You’re a wonderful writer, Mel. Thanks for sharing.
Also, I had no idea you went to SU! Syracuse girl born and raised. 🙂 Go Orange!
WOOT! I weathered lots of lake effect snow and giant blue & orange sweatshirts in my four years there. I miss the cold sometimes, especially now, when it’s ridiculously 80 degrees and humid here in Austin.
Also, real Buffalo wings. OMG.
Thanks so much for sharing! I too have visited the Old Jewish quarter of Prague, and felt a lot of the same emotions. Since I was there alone, it’s comforting to hear someone else’s perspective on it. The Pinkas synagogue was definitely a place and moment in time that still has a hold of me.
Oh! The Pinkas Synagogue. I really thought I was ready for it, and it just demolished me. So beautiful and exquisitely painful.
Thank you for writing and sharing this. I can really identify with this as I too have that feeling when entering the older churches and libraries of Europe. One of the best memories I have is attending Christmas Eve mass in a ruined church in Holland.(bombed in WWII) that part of it was re-built. Just knowing that so many families came to sit and worship centuries prior with the candlelight flickering off the walls. The feeling of warmth and fellowship during that evening. It is a memory that will always stay with me.
That sounds like such a lovely Christmas Eve experience. Thank you for sharing it with us!
My favorite line.
Somehow, at the same time, it all matters. Love matters. Dreams matter. Doing the right thing matters. Because in the end, we all go into the ground, and what we do with our time above ground must matter.
Thank you, Candice!
Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful piece. I, myself, was in the “spiritual but not religous” camp until about 3 years ago when a big, lumbering man with the biggest smile I’d ever seen wandered into our CF box. Turns out, he was (is) a Methodist minister, and his love for people radiates from every part of him. He is now one of my best friends, daily WOD partner, mentor, role model and confidant. I am no longer just “spiritual,” but I am also “religious.” In tragic times such as those lately, I am able to look to my friend and my God for answers, for comfort and for the joy so desperately needed. Best move I ever made.
Thanks again for sharing.
Thank YOU for being part of our crew. I’m grateful for you.
Lovely, simply lovely. Thanks for sharing.
So beautiful! Thanks for sharing
Beautiful! Thank you for sharing these heart-felt thoughts.
So I know that you have a blog with a bajillion fans, and I know you made a cookbook that is so much more than just recipes…but only when I read this, after I wiped my eyes and came to from being lost in my own thoughts, did it really hit me what an amazing writer you are…Wow. Mel you have so much talent wrapped up in one adorable spunky little package! I am grateful that you have chosen to share it.
You are very awesome to say that, Walker. Thank you! It feels really good to put the words together in a way that seems to reach other people. Thank you for reading.
Mel, this was beautifully written. I too am not religious, although raised Jewish and I felt that exact same sense of connection to history in those old European churches. The synagogues and cemetary in Prague were overwhelming for me and imprinted on my memories forever. When you travel over there again, be sure to try to fit a trip to Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia.
Beautiful piece. Now back to making those Czech Meatballs for Hubble’s work party (in beef gravy).
Istanbul is definitely on our must-visit list! We’re hoping to live in Prague for a few years and use it as our homebase to travel all over Europe. Sigh.
Hope the Czech meatballs were a hit! Happy holidays to you!
Gorgeous. I loved this essay, and your photos.
This was just beautiful. I totally relate to your love of cemeteries and houses of worship as someone who is also very spiritual but doesn’t identify with a specific religion. I’ve visited sites like this in some beautiful cities, from New Orleans to Istanbul, but the one that holds a special place in my heart is a tiny forgotten Revolutionary-era graveyard in my hometown in NJ. When I was younger, I’d sometimes climb the broken steps and wind through the weeds to get to it. It felt like a magical place where I could escape, reflect, take a deep breath, reconnect with something bigger than myself. I tend not to share this part of myself with others because I’m scared they’ll think I’m weird. This post and the lovely comments (you have the best fans lol) make me feel so warm and fuzzy. Thank you for sharing, Mel. Reading this was such an inspiring way to start the day 🙂
Thank YOU, Maggie. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments so much. Over and over, I learn with my blog that when I share what I think are weird thoughts and experiences, my amazing readers chime in and make me feel like we’re all a little weird together — and that is just beautiful.
Thank you for telling us about the graveyard in NJ. Happy holidays to you!
You write so beautifully! And it’s such a coincidence that you write this now, as I have just come from the beautiful Christmas markets in Prague. I only wish that I has visited the Jewish cemetery while I was there.
P.s. I second the recommendation for Istanbul and Slovenia is so, so gorgeous. You’re going to LOVE it.
Oh! Good for you that you were able to visit the Christmas Market! We’re thinking about going during the holidays next year so we an go to the Market.
And yes to Slovenia! We’re visiting Ljubljana and Lake Bled in May!
My recommendation for Lake Bled is to definitely hire bikes and spend as much time outside as possible. We rode out to Vintgar Gorge through the little country roads and the air is so fresh, so it feels like a really healthy holiday 🙂
Thanks for the tip! We’re planning to run around the lake, but getting bikes later in the day sounds really fun, too!
I never post comments so please know how much it means that I’m doing so in regards to this essay. I have always been drawn to churches, cathedrals, and cemeteries but, not being religious, always had a hard time explaining it to my husband. You have been able to summarize my thoughts and why I feel these emotions and I am grateful to you for that. As I was reading along I was thinking, I can’t believe what a great find this read is! Wonderfully written. Thank you very much.
Thank you for coming out of hiding to post on this one… I really appreciate it! And it’s great to know that you enjoyed this piece. I’m never sure how far afield I can stray with the stuff I write about here, and I’m thrilled to know I made the right choice in sharing this one. Happy holidays to you!
As an expat in Paris who is, like you, not religious but who, like you, feels so drawn to old stones when I’m near them, this post resonated with me.
I’m a writer myself and it’s such a challenge to truly describe that feeling of connectedness and wonder when sitting in an ancient church, and I think you’ve done it admirably here. And to combine those sentiments with the power of music to boot is even more special for sure.
Thanks for sharing your experience, I’m glad one of my readers tipped me off to this post! Best of luck in writing and take care.
Thanks for stopping by! I read your post about Shakespeare and Company, and immediately subscribed to your RSS. Just beautiful! My husband and I are hoping to move to Prague for a few years, so we’re very interested in the expat experience. Looking forward to reading more of your adventures.
Thank you for another wonder post. I come for the food but I stay for the meaningful posts I find among the recipes.
Oh! That’s such a lovely compliment… thank you.
I just reread this (after reading shortly after you initially posted), and enjoyed the perspective just as much. No need to respond, just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed it.
This was a great read! My travels through Europe left me bewildered because I also felt immensely moved and emotional at the churches and basilicas and I am not religious at all. They are by far the greatest memories of my travels. I remember being moved to tears (like I mean sobbing runny nose embarrassing tears!) at the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. I actually found a phone and called my mom in Hawaii just to share the experience with someone I knew would understand. Thanks for sharing your work… and your recipes!
Oh! St. Vitus Cathedral… Dave and I were both overwhelmed by the Mucha stained glass. And the sheer weight of the history of the place. So beautiful and sorrowful and joyous and just… so so so much everything.
Loved stumbling upon this post tonight. Felt like perfect (divine?) timing. I appreciate how you capture those feelings of awe, connection and how those places inspire a perspective shift. Lovely!
And the photo of Hendrix Chapel was a nice blast from the past. Although only culturally religious, I did head there some Sundays to get that sense of community and comfort at times when I was feeling adrift at SU. And it was my experiences at SU that, ultimately, led me to become a pilgrim on El Camino de Santiago along which I explored the kinds of places and themes you share so beautifully in this piece. Glad to have found your blog!
I’m glad you found me, too, and how fun that we have the Syracuse connection. Thanks for letting me know you liked this post!
Melissa… Just bought your book and jumped over to check out your site, and it is clear your blog will now be a regular stop for me. You have made me stop and think about “all of it” in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Thank you for that.
Thank you for stopping by — and for getting a copy of Well Fed! I’m glad you enjoyed this post. Best wishes to you.
Beautiful. I have moments in my life also that I completely feel that nothing we do matters, in a good way…as in, I realize that the hours I spend wishing I was skinnier, or that my cellulite was gone, is such a waste….and it would serve me and everyone else better if I would let that stuff go and live my life….thanks for bringing that thought back into the front of my mind. It deserves to be there..just so hard to keep it there most of the time.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts! In the aftermath of all the horrible events of last week, I, too, have been trying to keep perspective on the things I sometimes slip into thinking are “important:” the size of my jeans, the roundness/flatness of my belly. I’m strong, healthy, free to do the vast majority of the things I want to do, loved by my family… those are the things that are really important and impactful.
I tried my first well fed recipe this week . . . czech meatballs. I loved them and can’t wait to eat my leftovers at lunch today and try more recipes. So as I am getting used to this dino-chow style of eating I’ve been checking out your blog and came across this wonderful post–beautiful pictures and thoughtful writing. Like the first commenter, I too thought of the book of Ecclesiastes and appreciated the sharing of your experiences. Do you ever wonder where those feelings of connection to humanity come from and how powerful and amazing those feelings are?
Hooray for Czech meatballs! Thanks for taking the time to comment — glad you liked this post. I’m in Prague now and am thoroughly enjoying being among the beautiful, emotion-filled places in this city. I’m not sure that I agree there’s a “soul” in the way most religions do, but I definitely feel that the energy of those that came before us is still all around us, and I love that.
Great writing Mel! I have just purchased you book “Well Fed” & love it. Also feel that Eastern European passion that you do having grandparents from Yugoslavia (Croatia & Slovenia). Love your great recipes. I have struggled for years trying to find out how to eat what works for me bu I think this is a keeper!
Keep up the great work & thanks for sharing it with all of us!
Thank you for the compliment and for buying Well Fed. Really appreciate it!
You come from some good cuisine! 🙂
Happy cooking to you.
Just bought Well Fed 1 couple of days ago. Wow! I should not have waited so long. Your recipes are delicious. My family and I actually feel better after eating than we used to. More energy for Crossfit; Yeah! Thank you for sharing your recipes and your spiritual post. Sometimes I think it is what we don’t do that matters the most.
Thank you for buying Well Fed! I’m really happy to know you’re enjoying it. YAY for CrossFit energy!
This is a very true piece of writing.
Haunting and beautiful!! Makes me want to write.
Thank you — I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Now that I’ve spent the better part of a day reading your blog, I think I can call you “Mel”. It was a true delight to stumble on your beautiful piece of reflective writing. I identify with your feelings and emotions evoked by the ancient churches and cemeteries. I’ve wondered why I respond this way when I’m in an old place of worship. I,too, feel the connection with the generations that have passed, and I feel a little dorky, because I don’t think everyone around me feels the same. But I embrace it and it reaffirms the idea that everything matters. All those lives lived before this point in time matter.
Thank you for a wonderful blog.
You are totally welcome to call me Mel — and I’m really glad you enjoyed this essay. Thank you for taking the time to comment! I was *just* thinking about Pere Lachaise the other day… the leaves crunching underfoot and the utter peacefulness. So rejuvenating. I love that irony 🙂