Wednesday, February 13, 2013

"Why don't you take up smoking like a normal person?" and other Lenten reflections

The first I heard of Lent was my sophomore year at ASU. I had a Catholic classmate who gave up caffeine for Lent, leading me to believe that Lent was mostly about giving up something you really like to prove to God how devoted you are. I've come to see that there's a bit more to it than that. I wrote this description on my old blog a couple of years ago:

We start with a potent ritual reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, then an invitation to set aside for a time some of the more trivial pleasures or distractions of life to make space for something more meaningful. (Last year, atheist Sabio Lantz wrote about observing Lent "to taste life more fully and more intentionally," which I thought was really beautiful.) Then comes Easter, a celebration of new life, new beginnings, a way to be redeemed from the darker side of our human nature, and I love it, not because I have to please some god who's keeping tabs on me, but because want to be a better person, and taken symbolically, the story of Christ conquering death is a road map of how to do it that works for me.

Easter and Lent are really a package deal. I remember the packed church on Easter Sunday last year, and I don't have a problem with people who only show up at church on holidays, but as I looked out at some of those bright eyed faces in the congregation I felt a little pity as I thought, Easter really just doesn't mean as much if you haven't been through the discipline of Lent.

Actually, the whole liturgical year is really a package deal, and one of the things I love about the mainline Christian tradition that I didn't experience when I was a Mormon. Each season is meant to compliment the others. The anticipation during Advent heightens the joy of Christmas. Christmas and Easter are seasons, not just days. Even when we're just coasting during "ordinary" time, there's still intention and focus, and the knowledge that the cycle will begin again.

Lent was one of my first religious observances that my oldest son took notice of. The first year I observed, I gave up eating out during Lent, so when my son (age 6 at the time) asked about going to IHOP one day, I explained to him that we weren't going to do that for a while. He asked why.

"Well, it's something I'm trying out. A lot of this is new to me because we didn't do it in the church I grew up in."


"Well, Joseph Smith, the man who started that church, he got rid of a lot of things that the other churches were doing because he thought it was just a lot of stuff that people made up and it wasn't from God."

"Oh. Well, is it?"

"Well, I think it is stuff that people just made up, but that doesn't mean it's not good."

Last year, I gave up scratching my head, which I'm sure sounds funny. I have dandruff and it's not even that my scalp is itchy, but I find it so incredibly gratifying to feel those flakes sloughing off under my fingernails. (If you suspected before that I might be weird, now there can be no doubt.) I lose track of time and get distracted from important tasks because I can't drag my fingers away from my head, and I know it's not good for my scalp, so I tried to give it up last year. I did well for the first couple of weeks, and then one day I had this paper due that I had worked on for days and hadn't gotten anywhere with. I'd pulled an all nighter and was desperately scrambling around campus with my laptop to get it finished before class that afternoon, and under the stress, I fell back into the old habit of head-scratching. I was sitting on a bench with my laptop next to another student (a friend), who could tell how frazzled I was. I told him about how I'd tried to give up scratching my head for Lent, but I was slipping up that day. He looked at me like I was crazy and said, "Why don't you take up smoking like a normal person?"

This year, I'm stealing Sabio Lantz's idea and giving up checking my blog stats, for a couple reasons. First, it's addictive and eats up vast amounts of time, and I need to graduate this semester (which is also why I'm not giving up caffeine). Second, it makes me more concerned with the results of my blogging rather than the process of my blogging. I recently read this really great interview in which Cheryl Strayed gives the advice, "[Be] ambitious about your writing, not about the accolades you hope your writing may someday receive." Elsewhere in this interview, Strayed says of one of her recent books, "Wild would be the book that it is regardless of how many people read it." I do think that my writing is good, and deep down I know that number of readers does not affect the inherent goodness of my writing, but... Still. I do! I want people to read my stuff! I had a fairly decent readership on my old blog, and I was proud of that. And I confess feeling at times frustrated and disappointed that the new blog is still so modest by comparison. I always feel exhilarated when I finish writing a post. I think, Wow, that was fun! It was so great to find just the right words to wrap around those ideas! And then I start checking my stats and think, How come more people aren't reading? How come more people aren't commenting? How come more people don't put me on their blog roll? Why am I even doing this? And all the satisfaction is replaced by frustration. It's not like no one reads. People do read! (And thank you, by the way!) I'm not even sure if there's a level of blog traffic that would make me happy, that I would deem "enough." But I do know that constantly checking on how many people read doesn't make me happy, so I'm not going to do it for a while. Life is too short. Another great quote from that Strayed interview: "You are not supposed to have success. You’re supposed to have a life."

Remember that you are dust.

I was wondering where the ashes come from that are used on Ash Wednesday, so I texted my priest and asked him. Turns out, they save and dry out the blessed palm fronds from Palm Sunday and burn those to get the ashes for Ash Wednesday. "It smells like pot," he said. (I ♥ my priest.)

Interesting cyclical implications. Palm Sunday was the only time Jesus received any glory during his mortal life, and the remnant of that glory is what smudges our foreheads as we begin the journey that culminates in sharing in his death, burial, and renewal. We are marked with it. Palm Sunday won't be the same either, now that I know what happens to the palms. It will be a reminder of the transient, ephemeral nature of the praise of the crowd. So really, really don't fret yourself over accolades. Just live your life. Even if you get accolades, they won't last. And neither will your life.

Remember that you are dust.

"Lent" watercolor by me

I had to write earlier this week about how I view sin, since Lent is about turning from sin. Checking stats may not sound like a sin, but it is something that inhibits me from being my best self, cuts me off living and loving more fully, so in excess, it does actually fit into my definition of sin. But turning from sin isn't just about giving up things. I tend to be much more of a "things left undone" sort of sinner; I don't think I often do hurtful things (and almost never do I intentionally do hurtful things), but neither do I often actively do helpful things. My default mode is mostly focused on my own little world with not a lot of reaching out. What can I add? What am I leaving undone?

What's coming to my mind is Christopher Walken's prayer in the movie Blast From the Past, "Make us ever mindful of the needs of others," which is hilarious and ironic when they're down in the bunker. I do think it's a good prayer though, and I'm going to make it my prayer for Lent. "Mother-Father God, Source of all Life, Light and Being, make me aware of the needs of those around me." Often awareness of a tendency is all that's needed to correct it. I hear from my voice teacher, and tell my own students, things like, "You need to loosen your jaw on the [i] vowel," "I'm hearing too much [h] in that melisma," "Your placement falls back and your vibrato gets heavy around C and D." And after having the tendency pointed out, we catch ourselves when it creeps in during practice and make the necessary adjustments.

So my "adding to" practice for Lent is going to be an effort to be conscious of my tunnel vision tendency to not notice people around me, to try to be a little more outwardly focused, to make more connections, to be part of the world instead of just passing through it, for soon I return to dust.


  1. Giving up any kind of technology is a great sacrifice for Lent. I don't know many people now that can actually do it. :)

    1. We'll see how this goes. We're twelve hours into Lent, and I can't say I'm not curious, but I have thus far successfully abstained. :)

  2. Hi Leah,
    I came across your old blog when I was egocentrically doing a google search on the title of my novel - I Call Myself Earth Girl. (see the similarity?)It was just released on and I wanted to see if it was showing up in Google search.
    Anyway, your title intrigued me and I read the blog about why you use that name and leaving Mormonism. Then I jumped over to via media and read a few of those too. I liked them, so I subscribed.
    I was raised as a Catholic and spent years leaving and returning, and then finally completely leaving after my 5th child's First Communion (bu which time I was divorced). Anyway, I have gone through many of the same seeking/yearning that you describe and I have ended up pretty much rejecting organized religion, though I am very spiritual.
    I love your comment about the Episcopal Church being a good place between Protestantism and Catholicism. I so get that! Of course, there are a whole group of Episcopal church members who are converting to Catholicism. They are leaving the Episcopal Church for all the reasons I like it more than the Catholic Church. If I ever join another religion it would probably be a UU congregation, or Bahai. But for now, my spirituality is fed by being close to nature.
    Just a quick note on Lent - I used to give up TV for Lent when I was a kid. I was very obnoxious about it...bragging, etc. Not exactly the point of Lent. LOL
    I love your reference to Christopher Walken's prayer about being mindful of the needs of others...irony! But, as you, I also think it is a great prayer.
    Anyway, as someone fairly new to blogging and always happy to get a comment on a blog, I thought I should let you know how much I enjoy yours! I have subscribed to it via email.
    Peace and love!
    Jan Krause Greene

  3. Hi Leah,
    I just left a very long comment which, I think, disappeared while I was verifying my identity.
    I'll try again later.
    Short version - I really like your blog.
    Long version - too long to write again while the yard work is waiting. Maybe later.
    Jan Krause Greene

  4. Beautiful blog & writing!

    We are dust - but, since all is God, we are also God - if we get sufficient ego out of the way!

    Creation is a process, an ongoing emanation - not a one-time past event.

    God is the Whole - and best thought of as a verb not a noun! IMHO

    "The nature of God is a circle of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere." – Empedocles (Is this the only 'definition' of God that works?)

    Today we need to move on up to realizing:
    We need ”sip the healing nectar of perfume & wisdom from various spiritual flowers!”
    The suffering peoples of the world need us to acknowledge that paths are many but the summit is one.
    The aching Earth needs us to realize that beyond diversity is the garden of Oneness.

    Enough of metaphors!

    May all your projects be showered with blessings!

    Roger at sunwalked.wordpress DOT com