HOLLYWOOD—Lent was the gray furry stuff that accumulated in the vent of my clothes dryer—that's what I used to think. And then on a lark, a '63 Studebaker Lark, whose replacement parts are extremely difficult to obtain, I adopted this seasonal practice of renouncing a sweet addiction during the forty days and nights before Easter Sunday. Each year has brought new and surprising lessons, recounted here:
Everything is Expendable
Year one brought the revelation that nothing is irreplaceable in this life. Release the old thing that you think you cannot live without, and there suddenly appears in its place something new and often superior. For example, I decided to swear off doughnuts. I soon discovered donuts, and found they could do just as well as doughnuts. They tasted virtually the same and went very well with a nice hot cup of coffee.
Year two I got serious about Lent and gave up coffee. I endured three jagged days of withdrawal. Headaches and lethargy afflicted me. It was a real achievement to make it through the morning hours without my java. It was always a thrill to find that noon rolled around, and I still hadn't keeled over. After about three days, I started feeling better, cleansed and focused. During the course of abstinence from coffee, I discovered herbal tea—mint and chamomile and green tea—bolstered by tons of sugar got me to the other side of Lent.
The fat came out on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) when, year three, in emulation of fitness guru Jack LaLanne, I dared to give up both caffeine and sugar. Fearful that I couldn't take it, already seized by fierce nostalgia for these rat-race staples even before I'd given them up, that Tuesday I treated myself to a pungent espresso and créme brûlèe (custard burnt on top to make it look better). During Lent, in return for the supreme sacrifice of caffeine and sugar, there were some cravings to be indulged, such as red meat and peanut butter.
One Saturday night, my daughter and I shopped at Trader Joe's and I bought a jar of peanut butter. All the way home I was looking forward to that peanut butter, a spoonful of plain peanut butter. Thanks to lent and the renunciation of sugar and caffeine, this anticipation reached the intensity of lust. We got into the door of my home. My daughter snatched the bag of groceries and said, “Don't come into the kitchen.” She had that sly, mischievous tone of preparing a surprise.
And all I wanted was a spoonful of thick, creamy, unadulterated peanut butter. I waited and counseled myself to smile no matter what the results of her gastronomical surprise. Five minutes must have passed. Finally, she delivered on a plate slices of bread, peanut butter slathered on top and buried by heaps of granulated sugar and bathed in maple syrup, prepared with all her love and anticipation of my thrilled delight. In a way that I regret to this day, I flipped, and forsook my personal code of gratitude for all and kindness, especially to children. “Look what you did!” I shrieked.
After that I felt rotten, absolutely rotten. Lent be damned! All for a spoonful of peanut butter!
Embrace the Sinner
This year I felt unequal to the challenge of giving up something for Lent.
Whatever it is, it seems somebody has some to offer me. Whether it's pastries, espresso, or Tangier heroin. And it seems a breach of gratitude to explain that they're enticing me to forbidden fruit. Rather, I graciously accept what is given. I have lapsed now any number of times without being turned into a pillar of salt—that's beside the point. This time, I've given up the stultifying ideal of sticking to it. I've developed a capacity for pardoning myself. You know, to err is human; to forgive, divine. My compassion has increased ten-fold to encompass a fuller spectrum of humanity, including the imperfect saint who strays, that is moi, and now when I attain the perfect plateau of shamelessness I shall run for public office.
Grady Miller twitters at www.twitter.com/GradyMiller
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