“A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears.” —Michel de Montaigne
Greetings Dear Ones!
A dreary wind that sounds like a far off freight train blows an exhausting sort of cold through all the cracks in doors or windows. It’s true; we do have a little more light these days but it feels thin and watery and uncertain. Winter is losing its charm yet overstaying its welcome like a guest who should be going any day now. It makes me think of that line from an Eagle’s song, “the sky won’t snow and the sun won’t shine/it’s hard to tell the nighttime from the day…” Only our sky DOES snow, with great regularity. Every few days, a fresh layer covers up the grimy stuff like a temporary whitewash that disguises treacherous ice or slush underneath.
The sap is starting to run up and down beneath the bark of the trees, confused as to whether spring is really coming, and all the maple sugaring folks are out there in their torn coats trying to wrestle a bit of sweetness from the bleakness. It takes a lot of resilience and pancakes to survive in New England at this time of year!
I am tired of the grime—on my car, on my coat, on the floors when we walk in the door… I am tired of wearing heavy layers and boots that feel like depression yet I am NOT ready to don a bathing suit either! My body, along with my spirit, has gone to seed… Prom gowns and wedding gowns are trickling into the shop and bringing with them big, tiresome hems that take a whole afternoon to do properly. Last week, I did a gown so encrusted with glitter, it was like a glitter bomb had gone off in the shop. I had to vacuum my machine afterwards because the bobbin case was jammed with a thimble’s worth of glitter. There was glitter on every surface of the shop, glitter in our lunch, glitter falling out of my hair onto my pillow that night. I hate glitter! It’s disgusting stuff that I’m convinced is actually an environmental hazard and should be outlawed. Where does all that shite go eventually? Into our drinking water? Into the playgrounds of baby dolphins? One shudders to think of it.
A girl in the dressing room has eye-color-changing contacts which give her the effect of having the eyes of a wild goat. She has jammed her arms through the ribbon loops at the armpits of her strapless gown and is now wondering why they are too tight. I explain that those loops are really to hold the gown on its hanger; they aren’t straps. This is, after all, a strapless gown. When I emerge from the dressing room, another customer is waiting for me at the counter. She confides, in tones usually reserved for conveying the news that there has been a death in the family, that her undershirt has a layer that is “loose” and she cannot live another moment with it like that. The shop phone is ringing while a millennial, not realizing that seamstresses use their hands for other things besides texting, is simultaneously texting the cell phone to see if we are open. Meanwhile, I have to get on with the business of destroying a wedding gown for a bride who fancies herself a great designer. She bought a dress online that does not fit her in any way and is now having me hack it to bits to make it look like trashy lingerie.
I gaze out the sunless window at a passing plow truck scattering grit and sigh… If only there was some way to make all of this WORSE. When things get Worse, they are usually on their way to getting Better. This time of year is so dull and dreary and filled with mediocre tedium. We are all waiting for spring but not ready for it either. Making or forcing things to be better does not seem like a viable option yet. Literally, we must wait for the planet to hurtle a few million more miles through space yet—it’s like the long trip to grandma’s house—and we are all asking from the back seat, “Are we there yet?” No. So how can we make things worse? Prudence steps from the shadows. “I know a wonderful way to make everything worse,” she says. “It’s called LENT and it starts today. Offer it up. Offer up all your measly little sufferings like spare change you can use to pay someone’s debt in Purgatory.” “Isn’t this Purgatory, right here?” I ask. “No,” she says. “Purgatory is a waiting room in the sky, full of people holding crumpled little numbers like the ones they give at the deli and they just watch the big screen with all the current prayer tallies in numbers spinning like trades at the stock market. They haven’t paid full fare to get to Heaven and they are stuck, hoping your bout with lumbago will get them on the next ferry.”
Offer it up. It is an echo from my childhood. Whenever I had a complaint, my mother or grandmother or some nearby desiccated nun would say “Offer it up.” Whatever you are suffering, whether it is a stubbed toe, the torment of a sibling, or a broken heart, a nice slice of guilt is the perfect side dish for your troubles. Think of how LUCKY you are and how Unfortunate someone else is and offer your suffering for the release of their pain. Collude in your own neglect/abuse/discontent by choosing to embrace it, on a spiritual level. You may not have any choice in the matter in the physical realm, but you do in the energetic realm. This is what sainthood is all about. Choose to accept your suffering and make something holy of it that you can offer as a gift. Prudence, who fancies herself holier than most because she “suffers” more than most, smiles a satisfied smile as I roll my eyes. I hate being told to offer it up.
Still, there is a lot to be said for changing my energy around what cannot be changed. I often say, “when you cannot get out of it, get into it.” Even if that means making things temporarily worse. A friend of mine is going through a dark time and confronting some personal demons. “Don’t run,” I say. “Stay and fight. Get in there and wallow. Get scratched up and bloody and find out what these demons have to teach you. You’ll be a better man for it in the end!” Once we admit that the Buddha was right: All of Life is Suffering, then there arises some beautiful evidence against it.
Today is the day that many people will go to church and have their foreheads crossed with ashes and be told “remember man that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” (“I wonder if your house is some sort of way-station for people coming and going,” whispers Prudence.) I used to think that this was to make us humble and to show us that life was essentially pointless. I used to think that we were encouraged to give something up so that we could suffer extra for the souls in purgatory—or just suffer for suffering’s sake. Sometimes Lent was just like a mini New Year’s resolution to lose weight or give up a vice. I am reminded of the story of the man who told his son he was giving up alcohol for Lent. Three days later, the boy witnessed his father having a beer. “I thought you gave up alcohol,” protested the son. “Oh,” said the father, “this is just a beer. It’s not hard alcohol. I just gave up the hard stuff.” “Whew!” says the boy, “what a relief! You know how I gave up candy? Well, it was only hard candy!”
For some, the next forty days will be all about dropping a size or two before consuming all their lost calories in chocolate bunnies and peanut butter eggs. For some, it will be a time of deep reflection and acts of piety and service. Maybe we will all be better for it, maybe not. It’s worth a try—bargaining and reworking our bargains with ourselves until we get back to where we started. It’s a great idea to test ourselves with consuming less and doing more. These are good ideas any time of year whether you choose to hook them to a spiritual practice or not.
Don’t tell Prudence, but I like the idea that the next forty days is a potential workshop for the soul, though I have no intention of making myself humble as a result. Humility just leads to arrogance, as we try to smugly out-humble each other. I am the oldest of five—I know exactly what smug out-humbling-as-a-way-to-start-trouble is all about! When we are arrogant, we think certain people and jobs are beneath us. When we are humble, we think we are less than and undeserving. Neither is true. When we are with What Is and see ourselves with loving clarity, then no job is too awful, no weather is too bad, and no season too dreary. We get on with the business we came here to do and we continue the journey lovingly with our fellow travelers. We do that filthy, glitter-encrusted work AND we are Grateful!!! Like the pancakes, life is sweeter for our laboring.
Be well my Dearies! And do good work!