To Ashes

I used to find the ashes creepy.  Everyone in this church will die.  Every old person, young person, baby, and flower in this church will die.  (I think all our flowers are real.)  As they come down the steps,  I would imagine their funerals.  What will be said?  Where will it be?  Will a lot of people come?  Who of all their family and friends will survive to mourn the loss?  Where will they be buried or thrown to the winds?

That sounds depressing.  This year, I also thought: what a relief.  You may think your problems and your schedule and your angst are a big deal.  You’re gonna die anyway.  Ash Wednesday suggests you might compare your ego and your problems to the entire universe.  Or, more colloquially, dude, give it a rest.

A hundred years ago, there was a completely different set of people at my church.  A hundred years from now, if it’s still there, if people still think Ash Wednesday mass is valuable, the worshippers will be a completely different cast of characters.  Something has held people to this ritual for centuries.  Something has held people to these rituals on that very spot since 1898.

They were very important– helping build and maintain a church I love– and very unimportant– mostly forgotten, all dead and buried.  I know they worried about work and money and their loved ones.  And now they don’t have anything to worry about.  They are said and done.  They are ashes.

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Giving Up

So, it’s that special day of the year set aside by the church for perfectionists to freak out about what else they ought to be doing, and start doing (or not doing) that thing like gangbusters for 40 days plus Sundays.  They say “sacrifice” and they say “pay attention to what matters” or “do more good,” but honestly I hear: “Perfectionists, get ready, get set, go.”

I spend the week before Mardi Gras running my brain around like I’m rehearsing it for a dog show.  Run, and leap, and prance.  Run, and leap, and prance.  (It’s just that boring, too.)  Is giving up booze for Lent still meaningful to me?  What is supposed to mean?  Or is it just a cultural thing to me now, like my Easter basket?  That isn’t spiritual, but it’s part of my holiday.

This year, still smarting from breaking up with my boyfriend, I feel antsy at the thought of giving up anything.  Haven’t I given up enough lately?  I’m not sure I can get past my resentment to a more generous place.

Nice thoughtful people flood me with ideas.  You can give money for Lent.  Or time.  You can pray.  Or meditate.  Or exercise.  Or read some spiritual stuff.  If the practice is such a great habit to have, I think, well, I ought to be doing it anyway, all year.  I do meditate most days, exercise a couple times a week.  I’m already a vegetarian, so I can’t give up meat.

I’ve thought about drawing every day– I already write every day– but that makes drawing seem like sort of a punishment, and what if I burn out my enthusiasm for it?

I like using a Lenten practice because it can mean taking a hard look at things, trying to be more honest and more tough.  My love of doing difficult things and trying to be tough is not always beneficial, though.  Sometimes it makes me take myself too seriously.  Or it can encourage me to avoid asking for help.  Lent isn’t supposed to feed your demons, that’s for sure.

First, you have to feel like you have plenty.  You can’t consider sacrifice or sharing until you are relaxed.  You have to have this “enough” feeling.  I can get that feeling at church, or meditating, or soaking in art I love, or sitting down after unloading all my weekly groceries.

I’d love to think I could get it sitting in the dirt picking at the boils the devil sent me while my friends tell me I’ve brought it all on myself, but luckily I haven’t been tested to such an extreme.

Once you know, really know, that you have what you need, you can think about what is extra.  What you can give, or give up, from your generosity.  Giving from resentment is risky.  For you, and for the people who receive the gift.

I’m not sure what is extra for me right now.  At least today, on Ash Wednesday, I feel like I need everything I have, and possibly a bunch of stuff I lack.  But maybe I’ll get there.

Why I Stopped Drinking

One summer, several years ago, I wrapped up an evening of art openings in my boyfriend’s neighbor’s loft, listening to beautiful Spanish poems recited.  Everyone at this gathering was an artist of some sort, and conversation flowed around South American travel adventures, and paintings, and poets.  I listened to their conversation begin to pool and cycle.  I got irritated and thought: I want to go home.  This is getting boring.  They were drinking a lot of cheap Cabernet, and I was not. 

This was early in the history of my alcohol absention.  For years, I gave up chocolate for Lent, but alcohol eventually became the greater pleasure, and thus I added it to my list of forbidden indulgences.

I think the first year I gave up alcohol was also the year I went on a first date and seriously disappointed the man by ordering a Sprite at Gillhouly’s.  It’s Lent, I explained.  I don’t drink during Lent.  First dates are much harder without a drink.

Sobriety isn’t the greatest virtue.  I’ve known plenty of cold, nasty sober people.  I even find some virtue in drunkenness.  Sharing the experience of losing sobriety, and the progressive scrambling and blurring of the world, can be sacramental.  There are safer ways to get out of your head (meditation, exercise), but drinking is awfully fun. 

I think there is a time and a place for drinking and even for drunkenness.  I love wine and whiskey, and I love the casual, romantically self-destructive community of bars.  I’ve been lucky enough to maintain a relationship with alcohol that I enjoy.  I think it’s as safe and healthy as most of my relationships.

Giving up alcohol for a short time (Lent is 40 days plus Sundays) ensured that I spent some of each year resting my liver and reassuring my addict DNA that I can live without it.  It forces me to remember that I go to parties and bars to be with people, not to drink.  That when I say, “I need a drink,”  I actually need to breathe and relax.  Sometimes I need a nap, a meal, a hot bath, a massage.

Not drinking makes Lent about sobriety.  It is about honest confrontation: you are going to die.  You are not perfect.  And the response, the reason that you can face this is that your tradition and experience tells you it is okay to die and it is okay to not be perfect.  To die and to be imperfect, in fact, is a critical part of the human experience. 

Most religions encourage confronting this reality– Jews particularly on Yom Kippur, and Buddhists during every meditation.  Christians have Lent, which is way longer than the Days of Awe, and usuall y milder than a stringent meditation schedule.

So, I might give up alcohol again.  It’s only 10 AM, Ash Wednesday.  No one’s offered me a drink yet.