Of all of the traditions imposed on me as a deeply Catholic little girl, Lent never crossed my radar. A ritual of sacrifice at the onset of spring seems ill-timed in the first place, and besides it was not a holiday for kids. Easter was more memorable, in that way that recurring events bleed into one, generic memory–in this case a holiday rolling itself out in a burst of fuzzy, pastel glory right around my birthday. We usually celebrated with my grandparents out at Lake Buchanan, in their little neighborhood, a collection of trailer homes occupied by hunters in the fall and bungalos for retirees and wealthier vacationers year round–all situated on roads which were paved in sections but mostly dirt.
The neighborhood sat in a lost corner of the Hill Country–a great, otherwise-unsettled sea of stunted shrub trees and interjections of granite shouldering out of the earth. It was a lonely little collection of streets which seemed to have been sheered off of a small town somewhere and set afloat. On the Saturday before Easter, we would set sail in my grandparents suburban, venture into the countryside with big plastic water buckets, which we’d fill to brimming with bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes. Near the backdoor of my grandpa’s mobile home, atop the arabesque of laminate flooring,we’d arrange these into concentric circles to form a nest for the Easter bunny. Yes, it did occur to me that rabbits didn’t live in nests, but there was chocolate at stake, so I said nothing. This anthropomorphic rabbit with avian tendencies always snuck in at night (presumably because he was also nocturnal) and left behind enfoiled goodies, those wonderful, spongy peeps, and a rainbow of jelly bean eggs, which I rejected where they tasted dim and rubbery next to the rest. In my imagination he was a giant rabbit and not a little scary, but if it meant chocolate, I could put up with a lot.
Equally vivid among these quasi-religious memories were my weekly trips to confession before mass–a requirement of students on Friday at my Catholic school, save for my friend Roxanna, who was Jewish and so immersed in a whole different tradition of guilt-inducery. As a girl, I would struggle to summon and release my sins upon a shadow drifting around behind a screen of brocaded metal. At that age my missteps were yet scant: a “damn” or “hell” here, a lie that seemed urgent at the time, maybe some sassback. All in all it was a useful exercise, one which forced more conscientiousness on me than naturally occurs in eleven-year-olds, though I have to say I never felt less sin-y after my five Hail Marys.
All of these events took place between the steady drip of masses. Those ordinary Sunday hours–the hard labor of sitting still while grown-ups talked and prayed over things beyond my limited range of interests. Had the sermons involved unicorns or Thundercats, or the the hymnal included one or two hits by the Stray Cats, it would have been another story. As it was I was adrift in a sea of old people, a geriocracy, my cooperation dutifully rewarded with the donut of my choosing afterwards in the recreation center adjacent to the church. Most of mass was spent contemplating whether chocolate or strawberry icing would call to me from the long table that week. No plain donuts, please, and for certain none with gelatin filling. Donuts were sometimes followed by a short trip to the on-property petting zoo, time permitting. The zoo boasted a monkey house with one, shy simian and a pen with a goat or two. You could never really see the monkey, it’s possible he wasn’t there at all, though many claimed to get a glimpse of him. As an adult, I am forced to wonder what business the church had keeping a monkey prisoner and who among them might have deemed him or herself expert enough to care for an incarcerated primate, but I digress.
When I got older I became a reader at mass. I was famous among my classmates (in my head) for being chosen for this starring role. It must have seemed funny given how little I spoke in general, but my teacher was never at a loss for kind words concerning my crisp enunciation and mastery of the antiquated vocabulary. Later I was promoted to altar server, a post newly opened to girls and only at some churches–meaning the liberal ones. From there I went on to youth group, once again looking forward to the cookies that accompanied meetings, in this case sugar cookies shaped like stars or with icing; such things were never allowed at home and therefore were the most delicious things in the world. While I might have a love-hate relationship with Catholic doctrines, their sugar-policy was all win.
All of these years culminated in a service trip to rural Mexico when I was fourteen and just before I was removed from my home and dropped out of the organized religion game. Mostly I remember eating buttered noodles out of fresh tortillas, sleeping on concrete church floors, and surviving a bout of dysentery which nearly floored me in the middle of dawn mass. Later that day a local man tried to trade his horse for me. I was told it was because of my blonde hair, which he would have been disappointed to know was a product of bleach and not genetics.
Through the years I remained respectful, though not particularly reverent, which is my holding position to this day. On one memorable occasion I snuck up to the altar with some of my wayward friends when the church was empty and we found and snacked on a tin of communion wafers. Afterwards I expressed guilt and one of my friends rolled her eyes and made a big sign of the cross over me in the air, like a priest. Much like the Hail Marys after confession, this didn’t make me feel much absolved.
And yet Lent, through all of this, never registered.
Funny then, that as an adult, genuinely ambivalent about religion, Lent is the only holiday I look forward to. The others strike me as child’s play, full of garish costumes, mystical fauna and, of course, chocolate. But I can dress up and get drunk with strangers pretty much anytime. In Austin, you can’t swing a pig without hitting some sort of costumed bacchanalia. If you’ve seen one tranny in a buckskin g-string and Victorian wig made of glittery Christmas ornaments taking tequila shooters, you’ve seen them all. Lent, on the other hand, is my metaphor for adulthood: a celebration of striving and sacrifice and self-improvement. On their face, these things sound burdensome: Why can’t we just go back to childhood and keep the parties without the penance? Kids have it so easy (or so I used to think.)
As a parent now, it seems to me that kids don’t need Lent because their whole lives are a sort of Lent. The shockingly short journey from infancy to individuality is a toil of its own. I’ve watched as my little daughter has been obliged to give up one treasured thing after another. First she shed the cicada shell of constant care and embarked on the long journey of school, well pre-school anyhow. She must strive every day to make herself understood in a language yet clumsy in her mouth. Her daily life is a barrage of ‘no’s: no crying for no reason; no touching that stove; no more television; no candy bar before dinner and no candy bar after. This all happens while her ant’s eye view of life prevents her from understanding why it must be so. While there is plenty of fun and no shortage of games, every day also brings with it a new winnowing of possibilities as the borders of life harden around her.
For me though, and for other grown-ups, the world has long since taken shape. It is our second skin. Once the major “no”s are absorbed, there are precious few rules left to stalk us and precious little agony left in the sacrifices we make. Indeed, sacrifices are little more than haunted choices. And that is the beauty of Lent: an opportunity to visit upon ourselves what parents and priests long-since lost the power to impose—a little discipline, a bit of engagement with our higher selves, an opportunity to think long and hard about our privileges and what we owe in return.
I haven’t been to confession in years. At this point, it would probably take a week kneeling there in the dark and countless rosaries afterwards to even put a dent in the transgressions I amassed in high school alone. God forbid we get to what I got up to in college. But sitting here at the onset of spring, with the neighborhood Judas tree already erupted in its blushing, pink blooms, I find it not so odd that this would be the season of Lent. I may be too old to find myself excited by chocolate eggs (or not), but I’m still young enough to be reborn around the edges, given a little holy imperative.