The Life at the End of the Tunnel

We change our shopping habits as Ash Wednesday looms, stocking up on fish fillets and cheese slices, cans of tuna, toasted sunflower seeds to sprinkle on crisp lettuce salads. I simmer up a batch of veggie broth. When the day dawns, we are ready.

So we greet Ash Wednesday with eggs and toast–a hearty breakfast to last until lunch; there is no eating between meals on this particular day. Choice of sandwiches for lunch–cheese or tuna or peanut butter; for dinner, a homemade mac and cheese and fresh, crisp green beans to accompany the fish fillets we grill. It is not exactly awful, but the gaps between meals seem long on this day of still-observed fast and abstinence–this day that ushers in a season of fasting, denial, sacrifice.

Ash Wednesday is like a heavy, solid metal security door, one that needs shoulder and hip pushing to open, protestingly, into the long, dimly lit tunnel that is Lent. And once I’ve shoved my way inside, that door snicks firmly shut behind me. There is no way out but through. I set off, reluctant and with threadbare grace, for a six week slog to Easter.

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I learned about Lent as a child.

Like many good Catholic children, I cut my reading teeth on stories of the saints and martyrs.  I read about the three children at Fatima, and how, devout and prayerful, they would mortify their flesh by wearing rough, horsehair belts underneath their garments, chafing their tender skin. They would deny themselves any kind of treats, eating only what they needed for sustenance. There were no pictures in my book, but I imagined their glowing, ascetic faces turned toward the heavens, awaiting the appearance of the Lady, cleansed and ready to receive her special message, that special sign of favor.

I read about Saint Theresa of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who knew from early childhood that she was destined for a life of prayer and sacrifice as a Carmelite nun. She petitioned the Holy Father for special dispensation to enter the convent before she even entered her teens. Admitted to the cloistered life, she found that she did not have any special gifts of living in community, not as a cook or a confidante. So she embraced the role of acceptance, not arguing when her sisters treated her meanly or unfairly, spending every possible hour on her knees, praying for all the ills she knew of in the world.

I imagined that kind of life–a life of self-denial and prayer. I wrote to the Carmelite sisters; they must have been used to receiving letters from passionate Catholic six-year-olds who’d just encountered the saga of the Little Flower. They wrote back, counseling patience and prayers for discernment, and enclosing informational brochures.

I burned with religious zeal, but I also enjoyed trying to burrow through the contents of my mother’s never-empty cookie jar and the raucous fun of a family wiffle ball game in the backyard after dinner.

And I wrote to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris too, and their replies and the nuns’ replies seemed equally to come from exotic, never-to-be-visited worlds.

By the time I was seven, my career aspirations had morphed to the world of rock and roll–maybe I’d be the fifth, and first female, Beatle. But then Lent would roll around, reminding me, again, of the value and necessity of sacrifice.

I learned about Lent at the Catholic school I attended. Sister Mary Elizabeth, the first grade teacher, inspired me with the joy of sacrifice, but didn’t offer too many hard and fast techniques. (Looking back, I think Sister must have been twenty at the most, and I wonder how the rollicking Sixties affected her vocation.) The lay teachers who came after, in grades two and three and four, shaped me more specifically. Mrs. H was clear and firm and a little dour: she saw no point in wimpy sacrifices. If sweets were what you loved, give up sweets for the whole six weeks. You loved TV? Give up ALL television shows. Make your sacrifice, she said, be something that you FEEL, something that is muscular and demanding.

Sacrifice, Mrs. H opined, was meant to hurt.

Mrs C and Mrs M were a little more flexible. They advocated giving up one thing–say, cookies–making it okay to have, occasionally, a cupcake or a little dish of ice cream. Or give up a flavor, they suggested, like chocolate. Then you could still have Payday bars and snickerdoodles; you weren’t entirely bereft of sweetness for a month and a half.

Or give up, perhaps, one favorite television show; go outside and play instead.

They debated with my friends on a controversial concept: whether or not Sundays were Lenten ‘days off.’

Both Mrs C and Mrs M were plump, cheerful, silver-haired, the kind of women who illustrated the concept of ‘grandmotherly.’ Mrs H was small and taut and scrawny.

My mother was small and taut and scrawny, too, and her views aligned pretty closely with Mrs. H’s. Sacrifice wasn’t sacrifice if it didn’t hurt; sacrifice was also no good if you broadcast it around. So my friends would wail and moan about how hard it was to live six weeks without cookies. I would clamp my mouth shut over the loss of my dear friend chocolate for the duration. Being dramatic about it, my mother taught, was a pleasure in itself. To truly be a sacrifice, the ordeal must be endured in silence. She brought all of the joy of her Scottish Presbyterian upbringing to her fervent conversion to Catholicism; there was no arguing.

And there were no Sundays off.

As I trudged through that childhood Lenten tunnel, the light would grow dimmer as the end approached. Lent broadened out into Holy Week, and the statues in the church—Mary in blue, with her immaculate heart; Jesus in red, his right hand raised to bless us, his sacred heart ablaze; St. Joseph, humbly clad in long brown robes, patient and quiet and giving–would be completely shrouded in deep purple drapes. The candles would flicker at daily Mass; Latin would be intoned, with no music; the shrouded figures pulsed with mystery and danger. There was often incense, chinked rhythmically from the jeweled golden censer. The air was dense with smoke and a heavy, spicy odor, an environment that was tough on little people fasting three hours before receiving the Body of Christ.

Roman Catholic Lenten and Holy Week activities in the early 1960’s were not for the faint of heart.

We re-enacted the Last Supper at church on Holy Thursday, our fathers on the altar, baring their white, frail feet for washing. We spent three hours–from noon until three–in church on Holy Friday. We had no Eucharist, but we lined up to inch toward the altar and to kiss the pale and holy plaster feet of Jesus.

Holy Saturday was like a day to hold your breath, a nothing day, wedged in between the sere and devastating drama of Friday and the glorious joy of Easter Sunday.

And oh, the light of Easter Sunday! The necessary travail of being bundled into scratchy dress clothes, with anklets that drooped and pinching shoes and a hat that would never stay on my outsized head, no matter the number of bobby pins pressed into the battle,–that was all endurable because after that, the hat came off, the jeans came on, and the Easter basket was there–a basket full of candy for just me, if I hid it well enough. (Prevailing wisdom dictated eating the good stuff first, just in case.)

There was ham for dinner and some kind of yummy dessert and Jesus was risen. And after the magnificent holiday was over, we were standing in the pouring-down light of that wonderful thing, ordinary time.

And the Lenten sacrifices disappeared back into that tunnel, dim memories that had no effect on life, moving forward.

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I have traveled some distance, in activity and belief, from those austere early days, but the practice of Lent stays with me. Every year since then, I have at least nominally observed Lent, giving up, some years when I was a young partier, beer and alcohol in general, but more often, my dearly loved chocolate.

My reasons have morphed, from guilt (“Our Lord spent three hours in agony, giving up His LIFE for you, and you can’t last six weeks without a bite of chocolate????”) to greed (“Chocolate tastes so much better when you haven’t had it for a month and a half!”) to an acceptance that sacrifice is a mindful way to center my thoughts, to reflect on what I believe and how I live. So I have pushed away the beautiful chocolate cake, sneaked a Payday bar from the vending machine when my sweet tooth got the better of me, and stopped at the chocolatier to buy a wonderful treat for Easter morn.

And the long season of Lent, for years and years, has passed by, and the door slammed closed on Easter morning, and life returned to exactly where it was before I spent six weeks in that trudging tunnel.

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Belatedly, a thought occurs to me: shouldn’t what I do, or what I don’t do, during this Lenten tunnel-time somehow change me? Shouldn’t my life be somehow informed or transformed, after the measured observance of six weeks of mindfulness?

This year as Lent begins, I am working with a Julia Cameron book, The Prosperous Heart, a creativity course intended to help the reader-user clarify and change her relationship to money. Cameron proposes some rules: keep track of money spent–any and all money. Take walks, write morning pages. And don’t, she tells me, ‘debt.’ So–no whipping out of the credit card to order a book because I have a coupon, because there is a discount, because the author is a favorite blogging buddy…because I just NEED to have that book. Oh, I can have it–but I have to plan and pay for it with real money. I have to be mindful of where my money goes and where my spending leads.

I give up my credit card for Lent, and I find myself growing critical, considering now every blithe expenditure, the need for the cruller or the magazine, the scarf or the silly gift. Do I need that? I ask myself. Could I MAKE that?

Sometimes, I realize the item is a need, and I buy it. But more often, I return it to the rack and leave the store.

Often, these days, I don’t go into that store in the first place.

I find some books on the ‘New Nonfiction’ shelf at the library. One shows  ways to make colorful old t-shirts into bracelets and flowers and spring-time wreaths. The other is written by a blogger who has embraced sustainable living. The things we need, she suggests, are usually already on our shelves or in our cupboards; we can concoct rather than shop. I check those books out, and I  take them home to pore through.

A daily reflection challenges me: what are you doing, along with your sacrifice? And I think about that, and I think of all the undone projects, and I decide that, while in the tunnel, I will complete as many unfinished starts as I can. I’ve knitted, for instance, torso, limbs, tail, and head of a silly monkey doll; those flat, empty monkey parts nestle next to one panel of a scrap-knit afghan. I’ll get my needles out instead of playing two-suit spider solitaire on the computer after dinner.

There are the brushed silver knobs I bought for my kitchen a year ago, along with the paste and paint to repair the random gashes and dents in my dark wood cabinet doors. There is a little pot of spackle, meant to repair cracks in the settling walls. There is semi-gloss paint to touch up the woodwork.

There are boxes to be mod-podged, and there are cracked but beloved ceramic pieces waiting to be morphed into outdoor mosaics. There is furniture to paint. There is mending to be done.

In the time I am not debting, perhaps I can be creating or completing.

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I feel, this year, a little of that reverent mindfulness that imbued my early Lenten journeys. There’s a reason for this, I think, and the lack of debting, and the act of fixing, weave together to build me a sense of actual change, and a bubbling sense of hope. Maybe, this year, I will develop a new habit. Maybe, by April 16th, my home will look as different as I project my spending habits will. (And it won’t hurt if I cut down on my chocolate consumption…but that won’t, this year, define this season for me.)

This year, when I climb out of the Lenten tunnel, climb into my sun-drenched ordinary time, I hope those ordinary days are a little differently shaped. I hope I will be buoyed by a sense of completion, lightened by awareness of living cleanly within my means. And I’ll be a little different, with shelves that are cleared and satisfaction in finishing long-simmering, oft-delayed projects, and the peace that mindfulness and restraint have given my relationship to the money I earn.

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This year, I embrace Lent, and I look forward to seeing a change in the light—a change in the LIFE–at the end of this particular tunnel.

Sacrifice and Celebration–different definitions

The sun is pouring through my dining room window as I write this in the early morning of Easter 2014–a glorious sun, like a metaphor, like a proof.  The season of sacrifice is over, and the day of celebration has arrived.

I made my pig-picking cake this morning, and we feasted on that for breakfast; there is Anthony-Thomas chocolate waiting on the counter. In an hour or two, we’ll get in the car and drive for five hours to the home of Mark’s parents, and we’ll feast again, on traditional Easter noshes provided by Mark’s brother and sister-in-law, Thomas and Susan.

Lent is over; the season of sacrifice is over.  But I keep thinking about some young men I met recently.  Their time of sacrifice seems to roll on and on.

We were putting together, at the College where I work, a workshop called ‘Dealing with Challenging Classroom Situations,’ and planning what topics to cover: What to do when a student is hostile, or helpless, or rude or distracted.  How to proceed when a student stops coming to class or shares dire information about a family situation.  What actions to take when a student really seems to need accommodations but refuses to seek them, or conversely, says s/he needs them, but doesn’t have the paperwork to support the claim.

We were talking about which campus experts could best cover which topic when my young colleague Heather made a suggestion.

“Why,” she said, “don’t you talk about about returning veterans in the classroom?”

So that’s exactly what we did.  Heather, who is one of our outstanding veterans’ support officers, gave us some scenarios, dug up grant money for refreshments and door prizes, and found three student veterans, all young men, to serve as resource people.

We set up the panel discussion in a ‘speed-dating’ format, so the participants, in small groups, spent fifteen minutes talking to each of five sets of ‘experts’.  When the whistle blew (or in this case, when the screaming monkey doll flew to the center of the floor), each group moved to the table to their left, and a new discussion.

There was great information being shared from the Advising Center, from Disability Services, from the Student Success personnel who help track down the absentee student.  But what the student veterans had to say impressed people the most. They didn’t talk about their service, except to tell us where they’d served–one in Kuwait, one in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.

“How was it?” someone asked, clumsily.

There was a pause, and then–I’m making up these names–Kurt said, “It was hot.”

Steve added, “It was really hot.”

And Bill agreed.  “You’ve never seen hot like that hot.”

And that was the extent of their comments on active duty.

(It reminded me of the only time I’d ever seen my father get truly, white-edged angry. We were at a family-style picnic and an acquaintance of my dad’s was holding forth on World War II.

“I saw my buddies die on either side of me,” the man said.  “I’ll never forget how it sounded. I’ll never forget the smell of battle.”

Not long after the man started expounding, my parents bundled us into the old Buick, and we headed home.  But before he started the car, Dad–who never got mad, and very seldom used any kind of vulgar language–said, “That horse’s ass was a typewriter jockey.  He never left the States.”

He added, “If you’ve been there, you don’t talk about it.”)

What the student veterans did tell us, though, was about the difficulties they encounter transitioning from active duty into the classroom. They don’t like to sit with their backs to a room’s only entry.  They are there to learn, and they are really bothered when other students goof off, are rude, or disrespect an instructor.

Kurt told a story about a classmate who, asked to pull something up on a computer screen, displayed a vulgar and distasteful picture.

“The instructor turned beet-red, but tried to play it down,” he said.  “She said, ‘Oh, I think you got one of those annoying pop-ups.’  I wish she would have told her, though.  I wish she would have kicked her out.”

They talked about the conditions they brought back from war matter-of-factly.

“I let all my instructors know that I might have to leave the classroom when my PTSD kicks in,” said Steve.  “They’ve been good.”

They talked about wounds to limbs and wounds to brains.  Traumatic Brain Injury was a common enough circumstance to warrant its own acronym–TBI.

And they talked about their struggles in the classroom.  Most times, they said, a vet won’t complain.  He or she will just cope, or if that doesn’t work, drop the class.

Should we ask veterans to identify themselves in the classroom? an instructor asked.

The young men looked at each other.

If it’s relevant, they agreed.  If the class is talking about war, or the military, or a Middle Eastern country, of course, ask if anyone’s been there and done that.

But to recognize vets and say thank you?  Not so much, they said.

They just want to get their degrees, move on, and get jobs.  They’re not looking for praise or gratitude or recognition.  Just make it possible for us, they told us, to get this job done.

After the workshop, a participant said, “Boy, give me twenty four students like THAT in my classroom.”

Amazing, we all agreed. But it was a perilous and overly costly course for these young men to reach their points of extreme maturity.

Much of what the young vets said–and one looked young enough to be a high school senior–nagged at me.  I went home and did some research, and what I found isn’t very ‘feel-good’ information.

An article in the Huffington Post (3/19/13), tells me the transition back to civilian life is fraught with hardship.  Unemployment for post-9/11 vets is higher than the national average.  Medicine, the article said, is making it possible for veterans to survive with catastrophic injuries–or, to be blunt, wounds that not so long ago would have killed the veteran are being treated successfully, and people are returning to civilization a different form of themselves–missing limbs, brains irreparably damaged or changed,–and they are expected to get back to normal life.

In 2010, the article stated, 22 returning vets committed suicide EACH DAY, and 228,875 vets who served in the Middle East conflicts had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Homelessness among returning vets, according to the Huffington Post, was still way high, but getting a little better.  At the same time, veterans’ education benefits were being suspended by several branches of the military.

I got on the Wounded Warrior website and reviewed the results of their survey of the veterans who, returning with one of those catastrophic injuries and looking to the program for help, had offered their insights. Depression and PTSD hover around 75 per cent for this group; they have sleep issues, and their energy is low, and many state that they require the assistance of another person or program to get through the day. It’s an eye-opening report; if time allows, you may want to look it up.

What can we do?  The best I’ve been able to come up with is to create a place where we can comfortably talk. In a kind of accidental serendipity, and because of Heather’s outreach, the workshop provided that.  It opened my eyes, and the eyes of my colleagues. I’m proud to work at a College with an official “Veteran Friendly” designation, proud of my colleague Heather and the wonderful work her office does.

This Easter morning unfolds, and my silly little sacrifices–no chocolate, no soda pop, no noshing after dinner–come to an end. There ought to be a different word for that kind of giving up, a smaller, less consequential word, than the one used to describe what the young veterans we talked to gave up in their active duty tours.

I hope, on this day of celebrating new life, that each of them can find that, can move beyond the nightmares of the memories they’ll never share to a future that is rich in achievement and joy.

So here’s my prayer this Easter season: Lord, help returning veterans find a place where life holds joy and promise again. And help us end this fighting, in a swift, just, and compassionate way, so no more young people have to make this transition.  Amen.