“Remember, man, that thou art dust
And unto dust thou shalt return…”
You may have noticed that in my New Year’s column there were no resolutions. That’s because the Catholics don’t start their diets until February. Today is Ash Wednesday, forty days, more or less, until Easter, which is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. Lent is actually 46 days long, but you couldn’t convince most Catholics of that.
Ash Wednesday is to Mardi Gras what All Saints’ Day is to Halloween, in that both of them got started by the Pope, but eventually got overshadowed by the party the day before.
The First Thing About Ash Wednesday
The first thing about Ash Wednesday is the smudge on the forehead. You don’t even have to walk into a church anymore. You can get ashes-to-go. It’s a very Buddhist reminder that you better make this moment count, because all we are of us “dust in the wind.”
The Second Thing About Ash Wednesday
The second thing is that it’s one of the two days of the year that we abstain from eating meat.
Pop (my father) was what I would call a Fundamentalist Catholic, in that he never accepted all of those Vatican 2 changes, and, up until his last night on the planet (he died on a Saturday), he skipped meat every single Friday. Which meant the Paulsons had my two most hated food groups: macaroni and cheese or Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks.
One week, when I was a teenager, Nurse Vivian (my mother) had gone back to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to visit Grandma, leaving me home to cook dinners for Pop. We had gotten through four dinners without a complaint until we got to Friday, and, I thought I would try something new. Found a recipe for vichysoisse, and spent the day gathering ingredients. Imagine finding leeks at the King Kullen in South Ozone Park.
Parents, by the way, this is how you know your teenager is gay: It’s not the porno; it’s the French cuisine. An hour before Pop got home, I chilled the bowls and just as he walked in the door, I ladled the cream broth. Pop sat down, said grace, picked up his spoon and took one sip. “This is soup. Potato soup. And it’s cold.” From then on, to spite my father, I ate vegan every day except Fridays, when all three of my meals included bacon.
The Third Thing About Ash Wednesday
The third thing about Ash Wednesday is the giving up, the tradition that we give up something we like so that we have more time to focus and meditate. This wasn’t written down anywhere, except Nurse Vivian made a list on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) of the things that she thought the rest of the family should give up, but instead, Pop always gave up skydiving and cotton candy. Depending on my weight, I’ve given up chocolate and potato chips and alcohol, and usually I fell off the wagon about three weeks in. The only one I ever really stuck to was in 1980, when I gave up heterosexuality for Lent. Kept that one for almost forty years.
And on that subject, Brian (Papa) dances in Maui this week with the Fresh Meat Company. There are some readers who have suggested that Brian does not exist, a literary convention, not unlike Charlie in “Charlie’s Angels” or Niles’ wife Maris in “Frasier,” always talked about but never seen on camera in this weekly column. But really, the secret to our thirty-something years together is in the scheduling. We are never around the other long enough to be annoying. His dance career has extended from Broadway in the early ’80s to teaching at the San Francisco Ballet on Tuesday, and I could not be more proud of a man who learned to succeed in what he is passionate about. And, with Papa being away, I am alone with the boys all week, and I think that’s penance enough. And I will not repeat my mistake of some forty years ago by cooking my boys cold potato soup.
What do we teach? Would abstaining from M&Ms impart any wisdom to Zane and Aidan?
So this Lent I decided not to give up. I decided not to give in. I decided to just plain give. In New Orleans, where they take Mardi Gras very seriously, they have this thing called a lagniappe, and it comes from a Quecha word meaning “doing something a little extra.” Might give money to a homeless person. Might coach softball with the fifth grade. Might bake soda bread for a neighbor.
Making America Kind Again
We’ve talked a lot lately about making American great again. But what if, instead, we worked to make America kind? We could get a lot done in 46 days.