Lent arrives with a familiar feeling of obligation, a feeling that tugs at me though I have no reason to acknowledge or honor it. If I have ever believed, it hasn’t been for a long time.
The word “Lent” is so simple, and I associate it so entirely with deprivation, abstinence, spiritual cleansing, that it hadn’t occurred to me until today to wonder where it came from. It’s a word that has come to seem almost onomatopoeic—an illusion generated perhaps by its rhyme with “repent,” or because it is such a gentle, fluttering, plaintive word, a tongue to the teeth, a wet leaf flicked by the wind. It seems a word designed for the use we give it now.
But “Lent” comes from an old English word for spring. It’s simply a designation of a season. Associating Lent with fasting, with Christ’s season in the wilderness, must grow out of an historical necessity. After the long winter, the storehouses are nearly empty but the ground is still too cold to replenish them. Spring—Lent—is a season of starvation, ironically butting up against the season of abundance and rebirth. Making a spiritual discipline of it is making a virtue of necessity.
New York is the first place I learned to understand how spring could be cruel. In the south, spring comes on fast and easy. Here it approaches and recedes, torturing the weather, tempting you to plant seeds, then crippling your sprouts with late frost. It’s also the first place I’ve lived where I saw regular people walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashy crosses on their foreheads. It came as a surprise to me, who’d grown up in the Christian south thinking of New York City as a wildlife preserve for pagans and atheists, to see this public demonstration of piety on the subway platforms. Perhaps the austerity of Lent is easier to embrace in a place like this, where spring isn’t a riot of flowers and sweet peas.
I’ve made symbolic (and secular) sacrifices for Lent in the past–I’ve given up meat, sugar, alcohol, sleep. This year I plan not to give something up but to meditate on something I lost long ago, think about a hunger I already feel.
I dreamed I was reading a new book by a widely-admired writer, and the passage I read was truly beautiful, and it made me understand why everyone loved him. But I was also a little discouraged, a little envious knowing that something as beautiful as that could never spring from my head.
A wing, a web, the flutter of an old woman’s fingers, waving you off on a long slow run on the first day of the year.
My children saw something gleaming in the ditch and stopped to investigate. “Marbles!” The younger one bent down to look closer. “There are lots of them!” They were many colors but when they started picking them up it turned out they were not marbles but flat-backed fake “gems,” the kind you’d buy at a craft store or an aquarium supply.
And sure enough, among the gems were pebbles of safety glass, silicone caulk, black plastic stripping. Knowing our neighbors it was not hard to imagine the scene that had led to this: a child crossing an adult, an ultimatum that seemed, to the child, too wild to be real. A moment of testing, an eruption of rage, the fish tank’s bubbling filter dropping to the floor and wheezing like it was itself a beached fish as the adult carried the sloshing tank in his bare arms through the living room, through the door he kicked open in one blow, green scummy water splashing his shirt, reeking, fueling his anger, not stopping even to look for traffic, not that there ever was any, then the whole thing dropped to the road with a sodden crash, the man cursing and leaping back as the water splashed over his feet. The door slamming again, just audible over the bellowing of the man whose anger was inflamed and not assuaged by the punishment he’d devised and carried out, the weeping of the children and the pleading of the mother all swirling together to a crest of misery.
My children didn’t see any of the tank parts, they were so focused on the gems. They picked them out of mud and from under clots of leaves like it was Easter morning. “We can make decorations for your party” said the older one. “We can wash them off and glue them to boards. They’ll be so shiny.”