ASH WEDNESDAY 2021
When I was a child, Ash Wednesday was a holy day of obligation, a day of forehead smudges and fasting. The beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday began my family’s ritual of giving up something we each loved as penance until Easter. For me, that was usually candy. I remember being at Lowry Elementary School in Northeast Minneapolis, in second or third grade, and the crossing guard had a paper bag full of those candy-coated chocolate malted-milk eggs which I loved. She gave me one when I was on my way home but, as it was during Lent, I carried the egg home inside my mitten intending to save it. By the time I got to our house three blocks away, the candy coating had melted all over the inside of my warm palm and the egg was ruined. But I had resisted temptation. One year, I tried to give up television; I discovered candy was easier to give up than stories flickering across a black-and-white screen every evening. It made me very sad that my parents watched whatever they wanted while I suffered. What saved me that particular Lent was the break that was allowed on Sundays – we could indulge in our favorite off-the-table-until-Easter activities for that one day each week. On the last Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, we knew we were in the home stretch. We took our palm leaves home after Mass and braided them together; my mom put hers behind one of the pictures above her bed. Or maybe it was behind the crucifix that was also on that wall, which makes more sense. Anyway, her braided leaves would stay there until the next year, when she would replace them with new ones as a constant reminder of the passion of Christ.
Once Easter Sunday arrived, I was eager for the Easter treats I knew my parents would get for me: yellow Peeps bunnies, foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, a chocolate bunny with hard frosting decorations. When I was seven or eight, my Easter treats included my first two-wheeled bike, a blue one that I practiced riding in the alley behind our house while my dad ran behind me. Easter dinner was the other big treat of the day and usually included ham and scalloped potatoes. When I was older, we went out to dinner and my dad always wore a tie. Dressing up was part of the Easter Sunday celebration.
Even though I no longer observe the Lenten or Easter rituals, there is something about the beginning of Lent that still resonates. I like the quiet of the season, the reflection that is part of penance, the forgiveness that comes with the acknowledgment that we are all imperfect. There are the seasonal aspects here in the northern hemisphere of waning winter and looming spring, rebirth and growth, shifting light and promise. This awareness feels sharper this year, almost 12 months into our pandemic lives. It is precisely this enforced time at home that nudges me to remember those practices from long ago, think about what mattered and what was celebrated.
I recently began a one-week practice offered by the Network for Grateful Living called Tending the Rituals of Our Lives. It fits so well with this week’s mood. The practice began on Valentine’s Day and each day, along with reminding myself of whatever it is for which I’m grateful, I’ve been thinking about the rituals that formed me and the small ones that I perform daily. Being raised in the Catholic tradition primed me for a love of all kinds of rituals. At this point in my life, my definition of “ritual” has expanded to include very simple things: early morning zazen, morning coffee, Tuesday yoga class, my just-before-bedtime trip outside with our dog, the pause just before I start cooking dinner, using a Cretacolor pencil for poem drafts. Some current family rituals are nonnegotiable: making fudge together just before Thanksgiving, carving jack-o-lanterns together just before Halloween, celebrating everyone’s birthday. I’ve been thinking about them all, grateful for the solidity and comfort of customs and practices that shape this life. Grateful, too, for new practices that introduce me to other possibilities.
Whether you run around today with a smudge of ash on your forehead or see this as just another Wednesday in the late part of winter, I hope you recognize the little rituals that make you happy and feel loved and safe. These are the practices that will see us all through the pandemic and forward into whatever comes along after that. These, too, are the practices that strengthen our bonds with each other. Nothing could be more important than that.