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
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."