Hello Lent.

Hello Lent.

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“Lent is a time to renew wherever we are in that process I call the divine therapy. It’s a time to look at what our instinctual needs are, look at what the dynamics of our unconscious are.” –Thomas Keating

I’m scheduling this post to go up early, before Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, to give any readers who want to participate in Ash Wednesday/Lent fully but weren’t aware it was upon us (hey, you never know!) a heads-up. Mardi Gras will be celebrated by bringing doughnuts to my team at work, and an early Valentine’s Day dinner at home with Husband. Hope you all have a wonderful run-up to Ash Wednesday!

Lent. Where to even begin? Lent is my favorite liturgical season. It resonates. It’s powerful. The secular world feels it too—lapsed, or cafeteria, or wholly secular Christians go to Ash Wednesday services and give things up for Lent. Ash Wednesday is NOT a holy day of obligation, and yet masses are often standing room only. What is this phenomenon?

People who have never encountered Lent often think of it as a time of somber misery and self-sacrifice, and in some ways that’s true. It certainly can be. What they don’t understand, which is indeed a profound and resonant irony, is that we CRAVE this time of reckoning. I think one explanation for the overwhelming popularity of Ash Wednesday and Lent is that the human soul craves a memento mori in a world that bombards us with the lie that immortality is achievable and suffering is avoidable…that life is about looking and feeling good, so we should chase those things forever on a nihilistic hamster wheel.

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The thing is…our souls know these messages are false, and like cleaning house after a raucous party, we crave the harsh soul-scrubbing and deeply personalized asceticism Lent offers us. It’s the antidote to the slow-acting poison of an “I’m ok, you’re ok,” culture, a materially driven culture, a nihilistic culture that leaves us, even subconsciously, cringing interiorly at its crass falsehoods.

There is nothing in the secular world that does this. No time or holiday or event that grabs our shoulders, stares into our eyes and says, “Life is hard. It’s full of suffering you can’t escape. You’re going to weaken, and die, and decay. And that’s ok. Your suffering isn’t for nothing. The arc of life isn’t a tragedy. You don’t need to be a slave to your body’s desires and cravings. You don’t need to be a slave to your heart’s desires and cravings. You can do the hard, good thing and in doing so, you’ll sanctify yourself and the world. Now go do it.” There is nothing in our culture that does this, because this message is inherently counter-cultural. To be told to lay down the transient material to free ourselves to choose the good– an objective, not subjective, good– that is counter-cultural.

I was so pumped for Lent last year. I had prepared very consciously, had a list of spiritual practices I was going to adopt, things to give up, things I was going to begin. Lent began on March 1st. On March 13th Grandma died.

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It was such an interesting experience—having to put down the mantle of self-imposed discipline and symbolic mourning, and pick up the mantle of actual mourning. Actual death. Every single goal, every single plan, every single hope and idea went directly out the window. I ate ALL the sweets—cake, chocolate, doughnuts…I spent a fortune on eating sushi for dinner almost every night for literally weeks. I didn’t pray. I didn’t talk to God, or Grandma. I just sat in my house, first in a stunned shock and then in an agonized bereavement. At the time, I thought my Lent had been a total failure. Looking back, it was the most real, painful Lent I hope I ever experience. I had thought I knew what I needed to do to temper my soul, but God had other plans, and I was swept along by them as in a current, with no choice but to yield.

I didn’t want to make too many plans this year, but it’s always good to decide on concrete goals rather than general, wishy-washy ideas so that you have something measurable to hold yourself to. Many of my goals are going to be tucked away in my heart, where only God can know them, and likely I won’t even share them with Husband. Husband has these too…silent promises known only to him. These goals aren’t secret, rather, they are sacred…kept safe in quiet corners of our souls where they can germinate in this winter cold, and hopefully bear fruit by Easter.

I can tell you a bit about them, though: I always try to do the hard-and-fast traditional abstinence from meat (not just Fridays!), desserts, treats of various kinds, and expensive or indulgent meals. We don’t eat t a lot of meat, so I’m expanding this to include dairy for myself. I often begin new spiritual practices, or dedicate myself to old ones that have fallen away. Husband and I try to prioritize charitable giving in ways that are most feasible to us. Bad habits get tackled and extraneous demands on our attention are pruned.  Not everyone’s sacrifices and penances look like this, and that’s ok. We do what’s calling us, what is placed on our hearts, and despite what it might look like from the outside, there isn’t a hierarchy of holiness determined by self-imposed suffering. It’s not about suffering– it’s about a quiet transformation.

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A few final thoughts on Lent:

We love Lent the way we love having a sparkling clean house. Scrubbing the toilet isn’t fun, but the result is always worth it. To put a more nuanced point on it, Lent shows us that the process of scrubbing– the sacrifice, the painful, un-glamorous, tedious, hard part– is the part that does the most good. The clean toilet, or whatever metaphorical object you care to replace it with, is just a pleasant addition to the value you gain inwardly in doing the hard, good thing. In the end, you want to be a person to whom “keeping a clean house,” comes naturally and without constant struggle. Practice makes perfect!

Lent is a time for personal retreat from the things the world wants to inundate us with, distract us with. The world wants all of your spare time to be spent on Netflix, and Facebook, and Reddit, and Twitter, and bad food, and anxiety, and obsessions, and lies. Lent offers us a retreat from these things, because these things aren’t spiritually enriching, and they don’t define us. It is weird to say to my Facebook groups “I’m checking out for Lent, see you in six weeks!” but it feels so good. And if that’s too much retreat from any given thing, that’s ok. Sundays are mini-feasts and technically don’t “count,”so if you care to observe them traditionally by revisiting whatever it is you’ve put aside for six days a week, that’s fine! The one exception to this is if you are trying to break or build a specific habit, in which case Sunday indulgences could compromise the overall goal.

Despite all this talk about tempering ourselves during this time, Lent is a really profound time to think about the world, and to orient our perspective so that we no longer appear to be at the center of it. The three pillars of Lent are prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. At least two of these direct our attention to the world outside our own heads, outside our own experiences. All three do, in fact, but if you’re new to fasting I can tell you that you think about yourself A LOT while hungry. But even this type of self-focused thinking can help us to reflect on the world around us– how many people in the world feel hunger all the time, and how lucky am I that I only feel this way if I choose to?

St. Benedict warned his sixth century monks that during Lent, they shouldn’t be taking on anything that is truly burdensome or harsh. This isn’t about setting ourselves up for failure or pain. This is about reevaluating our place in this cosmos, our relationship to God, and what we need to do to bring about order from disorder.

Keep an eye out for my next post, “20 Thing To Do For Lent,” a short list of ideas for preparing your home and your heart for the upcoming season, as well as ideas for things to take on this year.

Whatever you choose this season, whatever you take on or give up, whatever changes you make, whatever resolutions sit nestled in your heart, may they all be graced with guidance, love and mercy. May you have a blessed Lent!

 

 

*Photo credit in this post goes to Senior Airman Jensen Stidham for his beautiful photo of a little girl receiving ashes at the Shaw Air Force Base, February 2015.

 

 

 

 

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Ghosts of Christmas Past

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Christmas was her most favorite thing in the entire world. She owned it. She reveled in it. Christmas was a glorious celebration of things she loved most in life—children and gifts. Gift giving was her love language. There are few people in the world as materially generous as she was. She had grown up poor during the Depression, with an alcoholic father, her mother dying when she was just twelve. Painfully, she recalled the single dress she wore to school, day in and day out, the bags of goods handed out, or brought to their home, marking them the poor family on the block. There were other poor children, lots of them in fact, but that didn’t matter. She was still ashamed. When she had money later in life, when Poppie was retired and their house paid for, they could do anything they wanted, and so they did it. Part of what she wanted was to bring joy through giving. Boy, did she do it.

It varied from $5-$20 here and there, candies, treats, spontaneous dinners out any old time… to $1,000 for a friend who had a medical bill come due, $100 tucked into anonymous Christmas cards for our friends who had no idea where they came from or who the giver could be, grocery shopping sprees for my then-boyfriend (who would become Husband), and vacations by boat and by plane to faraway lands with her two loves—Sister and me.

But like I said, Christmas was her most favorite thing in the entire world.

For years, decades, since before I was born, Christmas Eve was celebrated at her house at a big party for friends and family. Aggie, her oldest sister, and Aggie’s husband Unc, Gloria, a dear friend and neighbor, Auntie Geri, a best friend and relative of Poppie…and so many relatives besides. All are dead now, and she was the last. The ghosts of Christmas Past.

Her tree often went up December first. We helped her decorate, of course. Every kind of beautiful glass ornament shone from the artificial tree that almost touched the ceiling with it’s pointed glass gold topper, the bottom branches laden with her handmade ornaments. She’d made them over the years, full of beads, lace, sequins, and every color of the rainbow, each a little treasure. Beneath the tree was a village, every little house and shop lighted, a mirror for a skating pond, miniature Christmas trees and white fluff for snow completing a scene I wanted to shrink down into and live in. An army of nutcrackers of every shape and size stood sentinel atop the hi-fi cabinet near the ceiling. Bringing them up from the garage each year was like greeting old friends. The cavalry of rocking horses, also of all shapes and sizes, surmounted the mantle, no less than fifty Christmas cards tucked behind them from every friend, relative and acquaintance she stayed in touch with by mail.

And after December first, there were so many other things to do each year that marked the coming of The Best Holiday Ever. One afternoon was always reserved for making gingerbread boys, which we would decorate with multi-colored powered sugar icing, and every kind of candy sprinkle imaginable. One evening was slated for visiting Auntie Marcie’s Christmas Bazaar—a craft sale held in the basement of her cousin’s San Bruno home as a church benefit, amid a bustling party. We loved this sale, because everything was handmade and charming, and affordable for children who needed to spend their allowance money to buy their family gifts. Alongside my parents she would sit in the school auditorium as we sang in the annual Christmas pageant. These events, and many more besides, were sacramental in their ritual and sacredness—to her, they made the season bright, and through them she made it bright for us.

Food was always a highlight of the Christmas Eve party. The dining room table was moved aside, pushed against the front windows to become a buffet table. As the food was warming in the oven and on the stove and in the toaster oven (no microwave in her house), the Christmas dishes were laid out—serving platters, tiered cookie trays, dinner plates (purposely mismatched), appetizer plates (also mismatched), and serving utensils all lovingly collected over decades, all Christmas themed. Everyone got a different Christmas plate, but she always took the one Spode with the Christmas tree on it.

The coffee table held the mini hot dogs, and the butterfly-shaped dish with mustard and ketchup in the wings, a shot glass of toothpicks and a stack of cocktail napkins handy. The dining room table held the feast. Two kinds of stuffed shells (chicken with white sauce, spinach with red), pizza squares, teriyaki chicken wings, “Swedish” meatballs (really Italian), macaroni salad, Italian cold cuts, deviled eggs, homemade baklava, little finger sandwiches, smoked salmon, and trays of cookies. The butterballs and shortbread were brought by Gloria—dear Gloria, with her booming voice, her perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, her painted fingernails, who always took the corner chair in the living room by the hall next to the hi-fi. She ate pigs feet, and drank whisky, and was Irish and feisty, and loved Sister and I like we were her own grandchildren, but really we were no relation except of dearest friendship. She loved watermelon candy. In the run up to Christmas, I’d go with Gram to the Sweet Factory at the mall and fill blue-striped cellophane bags full of all their watermelon flavors to give to Gloria Christmas Eve. She was generous, and always shared with me.

All the many presents Sister and I got from Grandma and Poppie, and from everyone else except Santa, were opened Christmas Eve. Toys and clothes, books, cards with checks inside…all the generosity and love that marks the season overflowed in the living room, where everyone sat on the claw-footed sofa, love seat, chairs lined up around the edges with TV trays open before them and Burl Ives or Andy Williams crooning from the record player. She was Swedish, she always said, and the Swedes always did Christmas on Christmas Eve. She wasn’t wrong. Her father, such as he was, was from Stockholm. They had always done presents on Christmas Eve. It was just what she knew and loved.

Sister and I wore our Christmas dresses, usually matching, with white stockings and mary janes. Grandma wore her festive trousers—our favorite ones, black with multi-colored polka dots—and held a highball of brandy and ginger ale clinking in a lowball glass. Poppie sat in the chair on the other side of the hi-fi from Gloria, an uncharacteristic beer in a tall pilsner glass propped on the Infinity speaker (vodka and soda would follow), his cheeks immaculately smooth, white moustache trimmed ever-so-neatly, smelling of original Old Spice and soap.

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I can hear these ghosts now. I can smell them and taste them. I can feel their hands on my cheeks, see the joy on their faces, feel the warmth of their hugs. And I absolutely cannot fathom that they are dead and gone, and that this Christmas—a relaxing, loving, delightful Christmas—was the first in what will be a lifetime of Christmases without her. Without them. Without any of them. With all of it totally dead and gone.

In the months after her passing, I realized just how easy it would be to develop a real kind of psychosis. If I just spoke the way she did, said the things she said, made her gestures (all known by heart), I could just become her, and so keep her alive. If I sang her songs, if I told her stories, if I called myself “Fessie,” with an “f,” the way only she did…I could be her, and she wouldn’t have to leave me. Each time that thought occurred to me, I immediately realized “this is how multiple personality disorder happens.” Maybe. In a way, those thoughts were the same kind of everyday intrusives that anyone has– “I could step in front of this B.A.R.T train,” “I could totally just drive off this cliff,” “I could yell ‘bomb’ in a crowded airport,” the kind that for healthy people are immediately followed with “That was a weird thought,” and then dismissed as the fleeting fiction they are. “I could create a second personality so as to keep my dead Grandmother alive,” seems infinitely more complicated, and uncomfortably reminiscent of a Hitchcock movie plot, but, naturally, it too was followed immediately by “No.”

“No. That’s not how we keep our loved ones alive.”

“I know. But I could…”

“No. You couldn’t. Everything you’d be trying to hold on to is already gone.”

“I know.”

And I do know. I know that the way I keep them alive is by reliving their memories, and sharing them. Right now, they hurt so much. They hurt so much that over Christmas I tried really hard not to think about them at all. And I did great! Until two days ago, when the dam failed again and I apologized to Husband through spontaneous sobs that came unbidden as we were falling asleep. I think he’s learning that the tears aren’t the hurt, they are the healing. I’m learning this too.

I’m learning. I’m remembering. I’m holding on.