“Are you going,” Mark starts tentatively, “to have nutty nuggets for breakfast today?”
I look at him blearily, still fogged by sleep. I lift my coffee mug, open my mouth to answer, and then realization dawns.
“No!” I say, and I put the mug back on the table. “No, of course not! Today, I am making breakfast for you!”
I clatter out the skillets. The sausage links are frozen; I slit open the plastic, tumble the links into the cast iron pan, add a layer of water. I turn on the heat and cover them up. While I whip together eggs and milk and nutmeg and vanilla, while I cut thin slices of Italian bread, those little sausages plump up in their casings.
I pour oil into a hot frying pan and dip the fresh bread into the egg mixture. I slide four slices into the pan. It hisses happily. I drain the water from the sausages and put the pan back on the flame; they, too, begin to sizzle and snap.
The red Fiestaware today, I decide, and we tote thick mugs of steaming tea and coffee, pour cranberry juice into little goblets. I put syrup and a jam pot and the butter dish on the table. We load plates up with French toast and sausage.
By my place, I discover a heart-shaped candy box and a beautiful card.
“Awww,” I say, and lean across to kiss my husband through porky, eggy steam. “Happy Valentine’s day, Bubba.”
It is February 14, the feast of lovers, a day for chocolates and flowers, wine and prime rib, a day of indulgence and joyful celebration.
It is also, this year, Ash Wednesday, tolling Lent onto the calendar with a solemn call to fast and abstain.
“I think,” I say to Mark, “that there’s probably a special dispensation for lovers today.”
“I checked,” Mark answers. “Apparently, not so much.”
No matter. We still, all of us, observe Lent, but it’s been some time since those strictest of rules worked to bind me.
I scroll backward through my mental Rolodex, back to Mrs. Clark’s third grade classroom at St. Joseph School. Mrs. Clark was a stern taskmaster, but we had seen her tears spill onto her turquoise dress on the November day that President Kennedy was shot. We knew now a tender, vulnerable heart lurked beneath that austere surface, that her snowy white hair and snapping blue eyes belied a teacher who cared very deeply. She realized we knew her secret; it was like a pact we held close, a hidden knowledge that bound us tightly.
This morning we were working on math—the new math, which only a few of us understood. My paper was worn thin with erasures, and still I could not make the numbers I was given fit into the sets they needed to comprise. And then the classroom door swung open, and the principal, Sister Mary Francis, strode in.
Our pencils slapped down into the little wells at the top of our desks. We hastily, clumsily, screechily, scraped our chairs back and stood at attention on the right-hand side of our desks. Mrs. Clark, half-turned from the chalkboard, nodded slightly.
“Good morning, Sister Mary Francis,” we chorused.
Sister waved her hand royally and bade us sit down, which we warily, noisily did. And then she started, gauzy black robes floating behind her, down each row, inspecting our work.
Everything about the woman was black or white, the black robes and long black veil, the white wimple that framed a plump white face. Her glasses were rimless, her eyes were lashless, and her hands emerged white and pale and powdery from long, long black sleeves. She had strong, thick fingers with short, short nails.
Sister terrified me, and I kept my head down. She used her right hand to smack the back of it as she passed my desk.
“Messy!” she said. Classmates snickered, and my stomach lurched in shame.
Circuit completed, Sister went to the front of the room and commanded us to tell her what we were giving up for Lent. She pointed to the first child in the row closest to the windows.
“Chocolate chip cookies,” whispered Nancy C.
“Chocolate CHIP cookies?” roared Sister. “Chocolate chip? I suppose peanut butter cookies are fine? And help yourself to ginger snaps, is that right?” Her lashless gaze bored into Nancy. “I think,” said Sister sternly, “that isn’t much of a sacrifice. Now, if you were to give up cookies entirely…”
Nancy C, head bent, nodded miserably. The rest of us quickly recalculated our answers. Sister nodded at the child behind Nancy, and the litany continued.
I thought I was safe because my mother, a zealous convert, took Lent very seriously. It was a time of repentance, she told us, a time of cleansing. We needed to make ourselves worthy—not that we could ever really be worthy, but we’d try, imperfectly—of the sacrifice Christ made for us on the Cross. In light of that, we had to give something up that really meant something, and, in my mother’s world, we also had to DO something.
So I was giving up chocolate, which was my favorite thing in the world besides books, and saying a decade of the rosary every night. I thought that would satisfy Sister, but then, two seats ahead of me, Rebecca sat up straight and confidently reported that she was giving up chocolate and saying a decade of the rosary every day.
Rebecca was thinner than I was; her hair was redder than mine, and her freckles were deeper—the kind of freckles that constituted, my father said, a map of Ireland. Her family was holier than mine, too; Rebecca’s uncle was a bishop.
Sister liked Rebecca, and she liked her Lenten sacrifice. She stopped and pointed out how nice it was that a child should choose to give something up and say special prayers during her Lenten journey.
When my turn came, I knew I sounded like a copycat. I muttered that I was doing the same thing as Rebecca, earning me another smack upside the back of my head.
“See that you keep that promise,” Sister warned me.
When everyone’s sacrifice was critiqued, Sister gave us a short homily on the dangers of eating meat, or eating between meals, on days of fast and abstinence. She urged us to go to confession at least weekly, to attend daily mass, and to pray the Act of Contrition at night, in case we should die between the dusk and dawn. An unforgiven sinner would descend abruptly into the fires of hell; we all knew this to be true. And we all knew, and Sister reminded us, that we were sinners from birth and from habit.
We stood to wish her farewell in one greatly chastised voice, and Sister swished toward the door, black wooden beads clacking. I drew my thoughts rigorously away from a contemplation of whether she was bald beneath her headdress, and went, almost with relief, back to math.
That would have been the first day of Lent, 1964. Lent felt, back then, like a long and arduous tunnel that took way too long to navigate.
My mother snorted when I told her that Sister had demanded to know our Lenten sacrifices. (Although they never said anything, we sensed that our parents didn’t respect all of the nuns who taught us. “They’re all frustrated,” said my irreverent father, although it was years before I realized just what he was getting at by that.)
Mom had had a strict and pious teacher when she converted to Catholicism; he had impressed stern and narrow dicta upon her. One of these was that sacrifice, announced, was nothing more than self-indulgence. To be valid, to be useful, sacrifices had to be made in secret, a matter only between the person and their God. Mom expected us to give things up, and she expected us to shut up about it.
But even then, I think I realized that there was a glaze of self-interest around any sacrifice, the gloss of self-righteousness, the icing of superiority. You have no idea how damned holy I am, the fervent sacrificer thought, smugly, especially when an erring, hungry sinner swiped a Lenten cookie.
And sacrifice brought pay-off too: the absence, for six weeks, of chocolate made that Easter basket candy taste so, so good.
I remember my childhood Lenten church as a frightening place, awash with incense, bereft of music, bathed in a violet twilight kind of glow. The statues were all covered with purple cloth: purple for sorrow. Mary, swathed and hidden; Christ’s sacred heart covered and withdrawn from view. The cloaked figures were frightening in the way that clowns are frightening: clearly something powerful lurked, masked. It seemed sinister and threatening to hide what I knew was there.
Penances seemed steeper during Lent; after Saturday afternoon Confession, I would kneel dutifully at the altar and say my Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s. My brothers would wait for me.
“I’m telling Mom,” they would taunt. “You must have done something really bad to get that long a penance.”
I wondered how their penances were so short, and I wondered if the priest gave boys easier penances than he gave girls. It would not have surprised me, given the state of the church in the 1960’s. In first grade, my two best friends and I set up an altar behind my old barn and played at being priests and giving out communion. That got back, somehow, to the holy folk at church, who told our parents to remind us what Catholic women could and could not do.
It never occurred to me that my brothers might not DO the penance the priest had given them, or that they would abbreviate the prayers to get out of church more quickly. Penance done right was necessary to expunge one’s sins.
You couldn’t breeze through sacrifice: sacrifice had to hurt to be effective.
We observed Lent, my mother and my teachers told me, to commemorate the time Jesus spent in the desert, the 40 days before he started his ministry. Jesus fasted during that time, and we would fast, too—we would give up favorite foods. We would abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday. We would eat only lightly on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and not at all between meals. (We were happy to learn, as we got older, that unlimited coffee was allowed on these abstinence days, and that one could smoke all one wanted.)
Lenten sacrifice would ready us for the joy that Easter brings.
Why did Jesus go to the desert for forty days? It was not a question I thought to ask. We were not encouraged to read the Bible. We were encouraged to take things on faith. Things that could not be explained—how could God be three persons? How could Mary conceive a baby since she did not know man? How could nuns be Brides of Christ?—were holy mysteries. Good Catholics accepted these things because they had faith. They did not question.
Much, much later, I read that some scholars propose that Jesus did not understand his divinity until his days in the desert. He went into the wilderness with an incomplete understanding; he came out, lean and chastened and having wrestled with his demons, forty days later.
That was a new spin on sacrifice. What if, like Christ, we come to understand ourselves better through sustained and thoughtful sacrifice?
Life tumbles us, that’s for sure, polishing our rough edges, smoothing down the bitter points that stick out, in danger of snapping off. As I grew and leaned into periods of self-indulgence, and learned that sometimes I could cheat the system without ever being called to account, my understanding of sacrifices grew too.
I discovered that sacrificing NOW, delaying immediate gratification, can result in wonderful things—pounds lost, money saved, a raft of time set aside for a satisfying, creative pursuit.
I learned that sacrificing time and energy and other personal resources—talent, imagination, enthusiasm,–can (especially when the sacrifices are made in company with other impassioned people) create something rich and new and vital.
I learned that, sometimes, I have to put my own interests and needs and goals on hold to help someone else achieve a more urgent quest.
But I learned this, too: a life composed only of grim and thankless sacrifice produces only a grim and thankless martyr, a dried out, juiceless being, one not fun to be around. A person without joy.
And there should be—there absolutely should be, in a world packed with wonders and nature and people who amaze—there should always be joy. Even in end days, even in times of loss, the tears should tell out the joy that was shared, and not mourn the things blocked from coming to fruition.
It is good, I think, to deny myself, to learn that I am capable of doing without easy resources or an abundance of choice treats—to challenge myself to take the hard road and hone my own pampered skills.
It is NOT good to hide my gifts, to sacrifice the joy of using them. That doesn’t help me, and it snuffs out possibilities for the folks who might have enjoyed seeing my quirky, limited, distinctly individual, light shine.
Thursday dawns, a gray, warm day, and I put the remaining chocolates up where I can’t see them. I pour skim milk onto my nutty nuggets, and I make a new to-do list. It includes mixing up a batch of wheat-free flour, a blend of five different flours that have no gluten, to augment our Lenten eating. “Wheat-free” looms more like a challenge than a dread omission.
Mark packs a simple lunch to take to work, slicing meatloaf, chucking a tangerine in the bag, and Jim cheerfully reports on what he can drink, these forty days, that is not soda pop. I lace up my sneakers and head out for a refreshing, centering walk before the rain falls down in earnest.
It is a cloud-pressing day; the sky feels close, and the ground is sodden with rain fallen and warily waiting for rain to come. I walk down the hill; two cheerful young guys load furniture from the little gray house’s yard into a Re-Store van. We trade good mornings, and the bespectacled one says, “Come to help us, didja?” I make Popeye arms and we all laugh.
“Work fast before the rains come!” I say, and I wave and head around the corner, past the houses on Edgewood where no one, on a wet Thursday morning, stirs outside. I stride past the vacant lot where the old school building stood just last year; it is a puddled and soggy, patchy field now. At the corner, I pause, considering.
I could turn left and take the short way, what we call the Big Block, a half mile rectangle that starts and ends at my door. Or I could turn right and make a real leg-stretcher of this walk, maybe even retracing my steps on the way home, climbing, instead of avoiding, the hill.
I waver, and then I push off toward the right. There’s little traffic, and the birds chitter and call. One sounds like this: Peer, whoo whoo! Peer, whoo whoo! Peer: whoo whoo WHOO! The others are a chirring chorus behind that extraordinary solo. A cardinal flies one way; a blue jay intersects his path. And then a red-headed woodpecker soars and dips and lifts up to the tree I’m approaching.
I pass the tree, walk past the big lot by the big white house, and suddenly the low gray sky cracks open and the street is filled with golden light. “That’s IT,” I think. That’s what I am trying to say.
Choosing to take the longer way, the harder way, didn’t, of course, tease the clouds to open or the sun to shine. But, if I hadn’t decided to turn right, to push myself a little, I would never have had that sun-breaking moment.
I walk in the unexpected sunshine for maybe another quarter mile, and then I turn back. I don’t turn off at flat and easy Norwood Street; I march back to Normandy Drive and I push myself up that steep-sloped hill.
By the time I get to my door, I am panting, and the clouds are sliding back together, the golden light seeping away, and it’s time to get things together and drive to Westerville.
It will be a busy day. Within its weave, there will be moments of simple sacrifice; there will be moments of doing more. And those moments open up possibilities: on what seem like ordinary, even dismal, days, the path I choose may put me, for a joyful moment, basking in the golden rays of an unexpected shot of sun.