Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lent-ills, and Other Beens

A deliciously ascetic season, Lent was characterized by an iconic "giving up" of some treat, typically food, announced to family and friends. Such as, "I'm giving up Wise potato chips this year," which was a common refrain of my brothers and me over the years. We loved potato chips (called "crisps," I believe, abroad), addictively and rapturously and unhealthily. (Still do.) This addiction was anointed at any early age when my older brother and I, in the 1950s, would have an evening snack of potato chips in a little imitation copper bowl, which, emptied of chips, we irreverently placed on our heads, like a prelate's skullcap, as our parents watched the television sermons of fierce-eyed Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. One year, we learned that Sundays, as "little Easters," did not count as part of the forty days apportioned to Lent, so we felt that gave us a tremendous loophole. And so we binged on chips galore on Sundays. (Was Chips Galore the once and future husband of Pussy, the siren in the James Bond movies?) But, to be honest, that took some of the fun (if that's the word) out of it all; it was kind of wimpy; not up to the challenge. Exercising the loophole induced a guilt for not being guilty enough, if that makes any sense at all (as if this makes any sense at all to the postmodern mind).

One year, I forswore sugar in my daily tea. The habit was to have two heaping teaspoons of sugar in my morning tea, this from the earliest age I can recall. When Lent ended, I never went back to the sugar in my tea, and that's probably more than thirty years ago. What, if anything, does that tell me about human character (mine), and habits, and change? If anything, it tells me that the permanent change was barely intended, was almost imperceptible, almost accidental; mostly effortless; certainly not any result of rolled-up-sleeves willfulness. (Don't you just salivate over those semicolons? Could I ever abstain from employing semicolons, even if I tried? Not likely; not this year.)

The years of attempting to swear off booze, I guess I managed it, or nearly so. But by Easter it was off to the wild races (so, surely, I could not have opted for the loophole each week, because the brakes would not work by Monday morning) without a doubt.

Speaking of doubts, I doubt I ever gave up "impure thoughts" for Lent. How could I, or anyone else? After all, such thoughts invaded my brain unbidden, like gamma rays or rain or oxygen or incense; the charge was not to "indulge" them, though, alas, the glossy pages of porn or a lingerie ad in a Sears catalog (pre-Victoria's Secret), or a fellow teenager getting off the bus downtown in a plaid skirt galvanized my own charged-up psyche -- and made me look like a minor character in a James Joyce short story, call it "Portrait of the Hardest as a Young Man." (To you less innocent than me: yes, a Victorian term:
impure thoughts. The actual deeds? You gotta be effin' kidding! [Speaking of "effin' I sort of promised myself I'd try to drop the F word during this year's practice. I can report I have not been successful even before evening. This practice is not as puritanical as it sounds; it makes for an intriguing self-auditory analysis, especially in traffic. My other goal is to avoid conversational interruptions. That may be more impossible than resisting so-called impure thoughts. As I've blogged before, I can't even stop myself from interrupting myself!]).

In later years, it's been toast without butter or some other things I can't even recall. In fact, recently it's been less and less of that youthful melodrama, a drama all about me. And why not? Who's youthful? Not moi.

Naturally, "giving up," or self-denial, has its place in the universe (though not particularly in the postmodern Western Hemisphere), but not if it's all about self.

No, not if it's all about the self, despite proud postures of solipsism proclaimed in one's blog banner.

The inventory of Lenten acts over the years is unfortunately not filled with visits to hospices, jails, or homeless shelters; such are the exception, not the rule.

So, forehead smudged with mortality-reminding ash this evening, I close with this commentary from my Zen Calendar for this day:

sin and evil

are not to be got rid of

just blindly.

look at the astringent persimmons!

they turn into the sweet dried ones.

P.S. After drafting the above post, and revising it several times, I went upstairs, got a washcloth, wet it, soaped it, and set about cleaning the ashes off my forehead. Successive rubbings did indeed clean my forehead, but a redness remained where the ashes were. Then I found that the icon of mortality stubbornly remained on the washcloth, the "human stain" (to use a Philip Roth phrase), which even more stubbornly clung to the sink, as one last black ember refused to be swallowed down the drain, finally yielding to my incessant pouring of water, as if I were some guilty murderer in an Edgar Allan Poe or Stephen King story.

P.P.S. Annual visit to a certain type of medical specialist today. PSA results normal. This is one situation where The Laughorist likes to be "normal."


Bo Steed said...

This post was very well done. The description of the wash cloth incident has the makings of something profound, in my opinion.

Bo Steed said...

BTW, apropos of nothing, one of my favorite treatments of Lent/Lent issues in modern (good) litereature is in Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany. I am always (oddly) reminded of that book at this time of year.

Odat said...

May we all turn into "sweet dried ones".....

Glamourpuss said...

I'm giving up self-denial for Lent.


Natalie said...

I hear it takes 23 days to make a habit so I would think that 40 days of not doing something could certainly change someone. Yesterday was the first time I saw someone on the street with ashes on their forehead and didn't think the world had gone mad. I grew up in Protestant country and don't think I saw any ashes until I was about 19. One Wednesday in April I left campus and went into New York City it was really creepy.

mist1 said...

I stopped giving stuff up for Lent a few years ago. I decided that G*d doesn't want me to do less, but rather more.

I guess I gave up giving stuff up for Lent. Dammit, now I'm confused.

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Pawlie Kokonuts said...

Thanks for the comments -- and the reading suggestion. I recall reading a large portion of Owen Meany originally in The New Yorker. (Incindentally, the cold ember resurfaced in the sink this morning. Yikes. But I'm still here.

A fine sentiment, well said.

What's the 'glamour' in that?? (Did you know 'grammar' and 'glamour' are cognates? I think they are.)

23 days? Whew, for some habits I neeed 23x23x23x23 days (would that make me dead??).

More or less, I agree.

Fine with me.


Meloncutter said...

Over the years, I have lent out several items that never were returned. I guess this is a form of giving up something for lent. I guess the great god of flatulence must have been punishing me those years for not making enough offerings.

I have since upped the offering ante and things have been fine.

Later Y'all