Category Archives: Ash Wednesday

Love & Lent

It’s Valentine’s Day and it’s also the first day of Lent. That’s one of the dangers of a February holiday like Valentine’s Day: sometimes it falls on a fasting day. A really nice dinner is a traditional part of many Valentine’s Day celebrations; sometimes, like this year, Lent shows up as an unwelcome guest at the table. Whether you fast or not is up to you. I certainly won’t say anything.

Nonetheless, with the passing of Fat Tuesday, the excess of Carnival is done. It’s now Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, a forty day journey of penitence, fasting, and almsgiving. The idea of abstaining from meat and things of the flesh (milk, cheese, eggs) during Lent was instituted by Pope Gregory in the late 6th century as a way of helping his flock prepare for Easter and the miracle of spring by mirroring Jesus’s forty days of fasting in the desert. But although it is a season of denial imposed by religious belief, the fact is that in earlier times this was a season of scarcity in general. Folks did their best each fall during harvest time to store away food and provisions to last through the winter, but by this time of year, these things were beginning to get scarce. The salted meat would be running low, the eggs running out. There’s not much to gather in the wild and not much is growing yet in the fields. In the Northern Hemisphere, we are just beginning at this point to spring out of winter. In times past, if you were lucky, you’d still have a decent quantity of flour in the barrel and a good store of dried beans, root vegetables, and dried fruits and nuts and hopefully some salted fish. Even without a decree from the Pope, some fasting would almost always be necessary to get your family through the remaining weeks of winter.

As I mentioned in the Book of Days chapter two days ago, titled “Fat Tuesday,” the traditional symbol of Carnevale in Italy is a plump man wearing a necklace of sausages about his neck. He is in stark contrast to the traditional symbol of Lent: a gaunt old woman, all skin and bones. She is known as La Vecchia. Her time gets the name Quaresima, which sounds so much more lovely than our stark English word Lent. Sometimes La Vecchia takes the form of a baked loaf of bread in the shape of a skinny old woman with seven legs. One leg is broken off with each passing Sunday of Lent, a calendar of sorts, marking the passage of this spare season.

Nowadays, most Catholics simply abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Restrictions have loosened a lot over the years, perhaps in direct proportion with our abilities to keep food on the table at all times of the year. The restrictions are mostly now just symbolic. But the custom we have of dyeing eggs at Easter comes directly out of the old ways of Lent: folks were so excited to welcome eggs back into their daily diet each spring, they celebrated by dyeing them with natural dyes like beetroot, chamomile flowers, red cabbage, and onion skins. I still like dyeing eggs with these things of nature.

Being a time of spare solemness, it is not surprising that there are not many celebratory foods that accompany Lent. There is one, however: The humble pretzel. At their most basic, pretzels are made with just three ingredients, all Lenten-friendly: flour, salt, and water. It is thought that the name “pretzel” is derived from the Latin bracellae: “little arms,” essentially, evoking the prayer posture of early Christians, who prayed with their arms crossed over the chest. Go ahead, try it right now, then look down at your chest: class pretzel shape. This penitential bread––again, so common nowadays so as to be nothing special––has a history that goes back many many centuries. The first pretzels were thought to be made in the 6th century. Some historians think they go back three centuries more.

Connexions like these are, I think, so fascinating. That a common pretzel can have such interesting roots (and deep ones, at that) and mark our celebratory days (or penitential ones, in this case) is such a wonderful thing.

Love is at the heart of our table no matter the meal or the season, even in the humble dishes that make up our meals during Lent. Perhaps there is no better Valentine’s Day than one that falls on Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we are made from the earth and to earth we shall return. The time is short. Ash Wednesday is, at its core, a day to remember the brevity of things and to understand that we are here to love and to lift each other up. These forty days of Lent are a good time, I feel, to focus not on what we deprive ourselves, but on what we can do to enrich the lives of others. So go on: Love with all your might.

 

Image: “La Quaresima Saggia” by Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. Engraving, c.17th century. The haggard old woman of Lent, trodding upon the remnants of Carnevale, framed by the foods of her season: fish and snails, onions and other root crops, beans, and I’m pretty sure those are cardoon stalks at the top right.

 

Forty Days, & Your March Book of Days

Tonight we eat pancakes for our supper. It is Shrove Tuesday, and with this dinner we clear out the pantry, for tomorrow, we enter a new month and the lenten season, too: our annual forty days of solemn reflection that set the stage for rebirth and the miracle of spring. Forty days, or Quadragesima in Latin, fortieth, which is why the Italians call this season Quaresima. It sounds lovely, no? Not nearly as spare as the English word lent, pared down to four letters, bare-bones. But whether we say lent or quaresima, it is, traditionally, a period in stark contrast to the excess of carnival, which has been going on for weeks now in festive towns like Venice and New Orleans and ends tonight with Mardi Gras. And once Mardi Gras passes, so lent, quaresima, begins.

It is no secret that here at home, it’s been a rough time for us. We lost my dad earlier this month. But life is all of this, the joy and the sorrow, embracing it all, not turning from the hardest parts. And so we do not turn away and we love, even if it brings hardship. Family was the most important thing to my dad. And my dad, it seems, took care of us to the very end. While the past few months brought many challenges his way, and worry on the part of the rest of us, Dad took care of that worry for us. He checked out on his own terms, at peace, it seems, with all he had to make peace with, and he took those worries we had about him and dispelled them, sent them out to the world, diluting them to nothing. One last great act of love and caring.

Ceremony, celebration, is a curious thing. It appears at times like frivolity, and it certainly can be. But there are deeper roots to these ceremonies we hold, year after year, as our parents and grandparents did, through time immemorial. Roots that grow through the ground, the ground that holds my father and all our ancestors, all who came before us. It is the one commonality we all share. Were it not for death, we would have no pressing reason to celebrate, no reason to make the most of each day. And this is why we say there is a seat for death at the table at all our celebrations. Death is the guest who must be present at every celebration, every ceremony. Without death, the “ceremony of a day” is nothing.

And so we approach these forty days, forty days that begin with ashes and an invitation to be well, to put all our efforts into making a good life for ourselves and for all around us: “Remember man that thou are dust and to dust you shall return.”

And yet there is more than this, too. The dust is what remains and there is something more that is larger than all of us. Here, I know, we run into belief systems and philosophies, but I think we can all agree that something more remains once we are gone: spirit, soul, memories… call it what you will. What you call it does not matter.

Last Friday, after work, I stopped at the rehab center where I would go see Dad most every day for the last few weeks of his life. More than two weeks had passed since I was last there, and it felt important that day to stop and to say thank you to the nurses and assistants who took such good care of him in his last days on this earth. It was, perhaps, another aspect of closure I was seeking. And so I drove up, with a heavy heart, and I entered the building. At the reception desk, where earlier in the month I had been checking in multiple times each day, I explained, as tears welled up in my eyes, what I wished to do. The volunteer there expressed her condolences and she issued me a visitor’s badge. I went up to the second floor, stepped off the elevator, and walked the corridors, past Dad’s first room, past the nurse’s station, past the room Dad moved to halfway through his stay, past the second nurse’s station, and then another loop around again. There were RNs and nursing assistants everywhere, but I didn’t recognize a single soul. Not one of them. Even Dad’s old roommate and his wife: they were gone. “Why do you seek the living amongst the dead?” echoed through my mind, and I began chuckling a bit. There was nothing for me there. I stepped again into the elevator. I descended, and I left the building. Outside, the sun was bright and the air was warm. There was a gardener working in a bed nearby. I looked at him twice, but definitely did not recognize him, either.

 

Here is a link to where you’ll find your Convivio Book of Days Calendar for March. It may not be updated to March’s calendar when I first publish this blog chapter, but if not, check back again in an hour or two, for it will be. This month’s cover star is a type of shaving brush tree that we see round Lake Worth and neighboring towns. The tree loses its leaves each winter, one of our few deciduous trees here in South Florida. Come spring, it blossoms in advance of the year’s new green leaves. The blossoms are amazing bursts of pink energy––the pink shaving brushes that give the tree its common name. Death and rebirth: the story never grows old.

 

Pancakes!

Pancake Maker

To begin with: my apologies. We lost a good friend and mentor in late January, Arthur Jaffe, it was difficult to get back on two feet once that happened. Arthur was a great guy: the type of person we all want to emulate, the type of person who reminds us that it is important to appreciate each day, and that, after all, is what this blog is all about. He was a subscriber to the blog and a believer in it and in me and was looking forward to seeing the Convivio Book of Days as a real book someday, for he was a man who loved books and left a real legacy of them.

And so I missed writing to you about St. Valentine and about St. Agatha and who knows what else. But I was at the Finnish bakery in Lantana the other day, the place packed with tall Finns speaking a tongue I do not understand, and on the top of the cases was something I had never seen there before: round pastries that were bursting with whipped cream. I asked the Finnish woman behind the counter about them. “We make them every February,” she said. “They are filled with almond paste and whipped cream. You should have one.”

She said they were not affiliated with any particular holiday (“No, we just make them every February”), but it was a day or two later, in realizing I had forgotten about St. Agatha’s Day, that I realized the Finns at the bakery were probably tuning into a tradition perhaps long forgotten, for the shape and the filling happens to be exactly like that of the pastries that the nuns of Catania in Sicily make for St. Agatha’s Day, which was on the 5th of February. The story is gruesome (in her martyrdom in the third century, St. Agatha’s breasts were severed) but the pastries are delicious (meant, as they are, to evoke what was lost by the saint) and people have been unapologetic about these things through the ages. Why wouldn’t we bake something like this in February?

I also missed writing to you about Carnevale, and now, today, it is Mardi Gras, its festive conclusion. It is known in some places as Shrove Tuesday, and tradition would have us eat pancakes for supper tonight. Pancakes for supper? Yes, please. That alone is cause for celebration. The idea is it is a supper designed to use up the last of the eggs, the last of the butter, the last of all that was restricted in earlier days as we enter the somber season of lent, which begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday. It was a matter of necessity as much as of observance in those times, for by this time of year, the stocks of food from the harvest were probably quite depleted. If folks were to make it through to the first harvests of spring and summer, a little restraint now was an important thing.

But that is tomorrow. Tonight, we celebrate. Tonight, we have pancakes for supper, and we remember the importance to love each day.

 

Image: De Pannenkoekenbakster (The Pancake Maker) by Jan Miense Molenaer. Oil on canvas, 1645 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Tagged ,