On an Ash Wednesday—long before we knew sugar could hijack our bodies—I kneel with my classmates at the marble altar railing, feel the priest’s thumb mark the sooty cross on my forehead, and hear him murmur in Latin, “Remember, man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” For six weeks I sacrifice what is dearest—Heath bars, Hershey bars, Milk Duds, and Black Crows. Candy. For forty days we four Kennedy kids do not eat it, but we do stash it. In the hallway, in the scarred top drawer, we line up our candy. Abstemious child that I am, daily I sacrifice, and daily I count my treasures.
Today’s theology says that sacrificing sweets may not be the best preparation for death and resurrection, but I hold to old ways. Candy, for the most part, holds little appeal, but doing without peppermint chocolate in my coffee? Now, that is denial of the highest form. Once more, for six weeks, I drink my coffee straight, counting the days when I can scoop a rounded teaspoon of Stephen’s Candycane Cocoa into my caffeine.
Lent’s color is purple, the hue of triumph and defeat, death and resurrection. Six weeks set aside annually to let bruise and dignity, darkness and elegance share a common table. In the delightful Hailstones and Halibut Bones, Mary O’Neill writes of purple’s conundrums: jam and a pout, air without light and violets in spring.
Years ago, my wise mentor, Sister Theona, read aloud T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”: The desert in the garden the garden in the desert. She would look up, as if to say. “Do you hear this delicious wisdom?” Wanting to please, I nodded, the rhythmic words resonating, the meaning far beyond me—except for the poet’s repeated prayer, like a cup brimming with contradiction:
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
For the next forty days or so, I will hang out with Old Testament passages, aware of my purple shirts and the purple crocuses, hoping to face the truth of my falsehoods, trying not to care too much, even about the foaming chocolate coffee to come someday soon.
“Starting from anywhere” is one of those lines from T.S. Eliot that makes me feel wise and wonderful, although Eliot’s poetry often is beyond my comprehension. What hooks me every time is the word cadence.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season.
It would always be the same; you would have to put off
Sense and notion.
Journey is an old theme that contains infinite interpretations. I began to write my memoir, If You Came This Way, the story of my family, the convent, and my decisions to remain too long in a place where I did not fit. Now the memoir is complete, but a question remains. What exactly is at the heart of any journey?
The Dear Lucky Agent Contest (http://tinyurl.com/j4d3kqz) encouraged me to attempt a new understanding of my writing odyssey. One contest requirement is to submit the first 150-300 words. Ah, if that doesn’t demand a clear-eyed knowledge of a starting point. Next, I had to map my memoir’s route in one sentence. I fussed for a while. Impossible to put my unique story in such a confined space. Yet, I did. After I met the challenge of both word count and succinct sentence came an experience akin to hanging out with Eliot, a belief that I’m little wiser and a little more wonderful.