My thoughts are echoing through all 1700 square feet of my house, and the wind is beating on the windows, rustling the curtains through the cracks. It's hard to believe that over the last few days, there has been a rotation of thirteen people (at least) in and out of this house, with the majority crashing on couches and beds, smoking on porches and steps, cooking soul food for the masses, and drinking, drinking, drinking. Oh, Mardi Gras. This week has been a fantastic excess for me -- from sex and sleeping in to copious amounts of drinking and parades and revelry. So much chaos! By Monday night, I always start to run out of steam, and by Tuesday... I'm ready for a long nap, a hot shower, and a long reprieve.
It feels good to come back to the real world. Sometimes, I nary say I do prefer a pumpkin over a carriage.
Yesterday morning, I headed to my favorite church for my ashes. Unfortunately, due to mass traffic gridlock, I missed the service by a few minutes. Instead, I turned and headed back to a Catholic church I had passed on the way, where people were overflowing out the door. I missed most of the service, but as there were easily over 400 people waiting for their ashes, I made it just in time to head toward the end of the line. I even caught a song or two by the gospel choir; I've never heard the staid Catholic hymns sung by an all-black choir in a call-and-response fashion -- so incredible. It was a gorgeous, traditional church, striding the border between the Treme and French Quarter, but clearly touched by the unique history and love and power of the community. I felt guided there, almost by serendipity.
The older white priest touched my forehead, making the sign of the cross in black, and spoke over me -- "Remember, you are from dust and to dust you shall return."
And so began Lent.
As a child raised Episcopalian, I remember debating each year what to give up. Cokes? Chocolate? There didn't seem like many options. I usually chose something I liked, vaguely, always something superficial. I don't remember Lent much until my sophomore year in high school. By then I had more or less walked away from Christianity, but for some reason that year, I wanted to practice Lent. I tried to give up swear words, and in my childish way, I would mark on my arms with a pen each time I used one. That lasted roughly a day or two, as I came home marked up on both arms, which my mother was not so pleased with.
The next year, at the urging of my girlfriend (who was raised Catholic, but was even further removed from any belief or practice than myself), I gave up soft drinks. Cokes, for those of us raised in the Deep South. All of them. That act went over much better -- in all honestly, I still don't drink them, except as the occasional mixer.
But as an adult, I find the ritual of cleansing, sacrifice, and self-reflection to be very important. Call it Lent or call it Ramadan -- I don't think the time of year, the nature of the religious affiliation (or lack of one!), or the motivation is so pertinent. I think what's important is making sure to schedule time to reflect, to focus, to prioritize, to heal. For me, I choose Lent -- even though I don't identify as Christian or practice most Christian beliefs and rituals. But I do find power in rituals, and Lent is one I have chosen to take with me into my adult life.
Especially after the mad excess of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, there's something appealing about a bit of austerity. It's so easy to get caught up in the chaos, as I was this year -- constantly going, drinking, seeing all my old friends who had come to visit, meeting new people, making sure that everyone is having a great time. My self care needs, my thoughts, get lost. There is no time to reflect and process.
This description could so easily be a metaphor for life. We get caught up in day-to-day work schedules, in school, in paying bills, in dating and partners and children, in family obligations, in dreams, in text messages, in friends and crises. It is easy to get swept away, to move from one thing to the next constantly, never giving myself a moment to think, a moment to reflect, a place and time to do so. I don't believe Lent is simply about denying myself chocolate or caffeine, but instead, it's about cutting down on some of the distractions and refocusing myself. It's a chance to make improvements. Life moves so quickly; it's difficult to slow down long enough to make positive changes. I've heard that it takes a minimum of 21 days to change or form a habit, so I feel like I've got twice as good of a chance to make that happen during Lent.
Last year, for Lent, I took on two major changes. First, I was approaching the end of a relationship, and I needed time to think and decide what I wanted -- to continue dating or to end things. But in the midst of all the frustration, anger, and pain I was feeling, I had lost sight of everything else I wanted -- I was drowning in school and work, having left those responsibilities behind. So I planned to refocus my thoughts and prioritize my needs and obligations better.
Second, I gave up something. I come from a Southern culture where gossiping is considered impolite but expected; I grew up in Mississippi surrounded by family and friends who didn't make conversation any other way. But I find it hurtful and often, downright mean -- yet, I felt like I did it much more than I should, almost as a guilty pleasure. So I gave up talking badly about people. I made an effort to refocus that energy -- to try to find something good to say about everyone, to learn to think in the positive. I find this is a long-term change, one I still have to work on some days. But it has become tremendously easier as the days go by.
This year, my Lenten goals are equally complex. I've had an incredibly busy semester, in grad school full-time and in two jobs, and I'm finding that I've taken on so much that I'm giving half-effort to everything. It's disappointing and frustrating. I want to re-prioritize. I want to make sure I still have time for myself and for my friends, and I want to make sure I'm cutting out whatever obligations aren't necessary.
I'm giving up one of the biggest hindrances in my life: guilt. I have a horrible guilt complex, and I find that I can't work past it, even when I feel guilty about issues and problems I can't control. I find that many of my decisions and actions are powered by guilt in ways that aren't healthy. I want to make sure everyone around me is happy, and I feel guilty if I'm not working to do so. I feel guilty about saying "no" to anyone's requests for help, even when it's in my best interest to not take on more obligations. I feel guilty when I don't perform 110%, when I don't accomplish what is probably superhuman. I feel guilty when I fear someone else is disappointed in me, even when I feel completely justified and sure of my actions.
Guilt has a place, yes. It drives me to apologize when I need to. It reminds me that there are some actions I shouldn't take because there are long-term consequences, even if they seem pleasurable in the short-term. I'm not writing it off completely. But guilt can also be disabling, especially when that guilt surrounds things out of my control. It's a powerful motivator, yes, but also a negating one. I would prefer to find my drive through love and strength, through my interests and passions, not through the fear of not accomplishing something, not through the fear of not satisfying everyone, and definitely not through the guilt that stems from that fear.
So for Lent, I'm going to refocus. I'm going to prioritize. And I'm going to find strength, not guilt, in doing so. I'm going to empower myself to rise above my fear and guilt, to give up indulging in those very powerful emotions. And hopefully, at the end of 40 days, I won't be carrying so much baggage around -- but instead, I'll find that indeed, positive change and austerity can become a lifestyle -- not simply 40 days without potato chips and chocolate bars.