Today is the first day of Lent.
I'd like to say it snuck up on me, but seeing as I had a calendar alert programmed weeks ago, the answer would be no.
That said, I WAS surprised to see the alert pop up when I sat down to my computer this morning. (What a struggle to get it into gear...boy did I need that first cup of coffee.)
On the one hand, I'm kinda bummed that I missed the chance to celebrate Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday as we call it back home, in proper, over-the-top style. I had dreams of hosting a bead-festooned, King Cake-loving, Bourbon Street-themed extravaganza for friends here in London. Show folks how to celebrate like they do in ol' New Orleans.
Heck, I might have even flipped a pancake or two for the cause, as that's how it's traditionally celebrated here in England. Alas, the evening turned into lamb shanks for one and an argument with my boyfriend. More on that later.
But that leaves me thinking, in the spirit of Lent...in the spirit of preparing for Easter with a real sense of expectancy that something great is about to happen...how will I prepare?
In the past I've given up TV, caffeine and alcohol. Of the three, TV was the most interesting choice. Alcohol and caffeine were much easier to kick as I'm a light drinker at best and a "one cup is more than enough to get me going" coffee consumer.
Giving up TV definitely had its hardships. 40 days! Cold turkey? Really???
So that particular sacrifice had to have its own rules. For example, I could watch movies and syndicated shows on DVD but no broadcast/no Internet viewing. The idea being that I should be more thoughtful of what I consumed (or chose not to consume) each day, rather than just mindlessly flipping through the channels at the end of the day and settling for whatever crap...I mean quality programming...was on.
At first it was hard, admittedly. Living alone, I missed the noise, if nothing else. It's called a squawk box for a reason.
But at a deeper level, it felt more personal. It felt like I'd lost an old companion. A faithful friend who greeted me enthusiastically every morning and then sweetly lulled me to sleep every evening. And despite living in a high-rise apartment in the center of Manhattan and having a world of friends just walking distance away, I had to admit that TV had become through routine my first and last "human" contact of the day.
Maybe this Lent thing was going a bit too far.
Then I got more into the spirit of it all and discovered a wealth of classic movies, e.g., Cassablanca, North by Northwest, Roman Holiday, etc., that cried out for viewing. So I started picking a new title each night so I could settle in for some uninterrupted, choice-based entertainment.
It didn't take long to realize how hard it was for me to sit still for 2 hours and not be drawn into multi-tasking...a phone call here, an email there, a little web surfing in between.
God how I craved those heavenly breaks...every 8 minutes or so...that you could rely on during broadcast TV. So darn useful for doing odd bits around the house, dashing off a quick text or grabbing a sandwich between cliff-hanging plot points. Oh yeah, that's me saying I actually missed COMMERCIALS!
So despite trying to work my way through Hitchcock's entire ouevre--or maybe because of just that--I found out that I couldn't really be mindful with the tube on after all, which had been the whole purpose of switching off to begin with.
So I simply found myself in front of the TV less and less.
Tell you what.
My dog, Gabby, loved it! She never saw so much of Central Park as during that time. We spent the evenings and weekends exploring its lovely grassy knolls...traipsing North to the reservoir, east to the Met, west to Strawberry Fields and everywhere in between.
But denial hasn't been my only experience of Lent. In my home church, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, we also observed the practice of chosing to add a commitment to your life during Lent, something that could serve as a daily reminder of the journey.
This curiously enough, I found much, much harder.
Well, when you're a natural doer, giving up something feels like a release, a vacation, a well-deserved break. Taking on something more feels like, well...a punishment. "Don't I already have enough on my plate?" "Who needs another to-do on an already overcrowded list?"
But interestingly enough, the "adding on" years were some of the most heart-changing. I made more friends, found myself being happier, and connected more with my city, during those seasons when I chose:
* to say hello to one stranger each day or
* to start every morning reflecting on something I was grateful for or
* to take at least one detour during work/play/errands so I could practice seeing things afresh.
So back to 2011.
To give up or to take on, that is the question.
Well, this year, as you know, I'm a little behind the curve but the meditation has begun.
I'm in a period of transition at the moment and I feel like there's a lot I'm missing...my family, my plucky sense of security, my dear old FAPC, my late 30s (ok, well in one month I will be). So as a result, I'm sensing gratitude needs to be back on the list.
I find that I've been feeling a little put upon lately and experience proves there's no better cure for that feeling than to adopt an attitude of thankfulness.
So though the roots of my Lenten traditions are firmly planted in Brooklyn, where I was born, this year "the tree" and the journey towards Easter begins in terra (kinda) incognita...Chiswick.
Tonight you'll find me expanding my traditions, observing them here in England, as I join the everning service at St. Peter's in Hammersmith for communion and the imposition of ashes.
Hopefully great things will bloom.