I’m not overly fond of Lent. The whole discipline aspect sets my teeth on edge. Isn’t life hard enough? What good is it to offer up a bit of sugar in my morning coffee? Or stifling honest irritation over vexing situations?
Strangely enough though, by the end of the second week, I’ve changed pretty much all my original sacrificial intentions and come to a whole new perspective on what God is asking of me. No voice-overs telling me that He doesn’t need the blood of bullocks to make His meaning clear. Life does that well enough, thank you.
Perhaps the swelling buds on trees, the sun peeking over the horizon earlier each morning, the contrast of melting ice and nesting birds has something to do with my appreciative understanding. Or the natural fact that eating better, getting a good night’s sleep, and sticking to chosen goals actually makes me feel better.
Lent reminds me that I make choices on a daily basis, and if my life feels out of control, it’s on me to deal with it. There are a host of things that I can’t control. But Lent insists that I bear not only the power but the responsibility to acknowledge my part in human affairs.
On the weekends, some of the girls and I pick a television series to watch together. Fun and comforting as that can be, I’ve also found it to be discombobulating to the extreme. Nearly every modern show, no matter the setting or the venue, has heavily accented a homosexual perspective. Apparently, homosexuality is the new crisis of our age. Though not new at all, really. Like abortion, it delves into the messy, dark side of human experience—the oft repeated strangled scream, “No one understands my pain.”
And there stands Lent, refuting the foot-stomping message that no one understands. God does understand. He is our Creator. We are the created. That reality informs and shapes us, our families, friends, and the entire known universe. It’s a sticking point, to be sure.
Our human experience isn’t defined by current cultural crisis: our sexual orientation, when life begins, human rights, or what makes us happy. The crux of human experience—on the most basic level—is a matter of truly accepting God as God, our existence as Created Beings, made in His Image, with the freedom to accept or reject what that means for us, (personally and as a member of the human race) now and in an unseen future.
Lent demands self-discipline. Without some effort at self-control, offering up the silly to the sublime or making an effort at self-improvement, inside and outside, it isn’t really a Lenten offering.
Lent is an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be Christian, a son or daughter of God, the created being of our Creator, who nourishes our lives at the root level, knowing better than we do what we really need.
And there lies the challenge. We don’t get to decide our parental DNA, our family heritage, our sex chromosomes, when life begins, or a host of other realities that we struggle with each day. We fight and argue, insisting that we know best—but do we?
Pushing against known boundaries has literally brought us closer to the stars. But has denying God’s Image at the core of our bodies, minds, and souls led us to the ends we really desire?
This year, when the kids and I plan our garden, though we have a great deal of freedom as to what to plant where, we still have to take into consideration factors that are beyond our control: weather, soil, time, and our own limitations.
Balancing human freedom within God-given realities does not make me less free, it makes sense of my existence. This human journey is not all about me. It’s about God and me and the rest of my human family. Lent reminds me that, like all serious relationships, this journey with my Creator involves sacrifice and self-control.
My coffee is more bitter of late, but beyond all expectations, my life is sweeter.
“Sucked into Black Holes During Sleep, They Share Their Darkest Secrets.”
Bruno read the headline twice, promptly running his cart into the store shelf. Stunned, he jerked his gaze off his phone.
“Hey, not supposed to read while driving.” A woman, fifties, blunt-cut, short hair, laughed with shining eyes.
Shocked, Bruno stashed his phone in his pocket and shoved his cart alongside the shelf, a guilty child trying to hide the evidence. He forced a grin. No words forthcoming.
She sidled up, her smile dimming by degrees. “Sorry. I tried to warn you. But you were so intent—”
He scratched his head. He didn’t want to have a conversation. A lie formed before his conscience could object. “I had to check a text—”
She lifted a hand. “Not my business. I was being stupid.” Her gaze took in the contents of his cart.
Dang, it. An extra-large bag of his dad’s Depends and a bright blue denture cleaner box bared the naked side of human misery. In revenge, he snuck a look at her cart. Red hair dye and blue nail polish. He glanced at her. Grey hair, fingers unadorned. He frowned.
She grimaced. “My mom’s dealing with that crap too. She was at Wayside, but with everything, I brought her home and got home healthcare. It’s better, but not really good, if you know what I mean.”
Relief, like a spring breeze, washed over Bruno. “Dad’s still on his own, sort of. Lives in the apartment above me. Neither of us can give up our independence. But…”
She snatched up the box of dye. “She gets bored and depressed. So, every couple of months I do a new treatment. This month—” Her lips flapped as she blew a puff of air. “Rad red! I’d like to take her out to eat or something—”
Bruno shrugged in compassionate understanding. “Hell trying to keep ’em on their feet.”
She snorted but a smile crept back into her eyes. “It was easier with a toddler. I could toss them into a cart and strap ‘em in.”
“My twins gave me weekly heart attacks, but they grew out of their hijinks.” Bruno tried not to let the next thought tear his heart out.
With a commander’s wave, she redirected her cart. “Well best of luck then, and keep an eye out for where you’re heading.”
“Ha. I’ll be more careful.” I’m not going anywhere.
Bruno flipped three grilled cheese sandwiches and then stirred a pot of creamy tomato soup. “Lunch is ready, Dad.”
His dad hobbled in. Using his cane with deft power, he nudged a kitchen chair aside and plunked down at the table with a long sigh. “Smells good. He stretched his neck, peering at the pot. “You add something extra?”
“Lots of garlic salt.” He slid one sandwich onto a plate and placed it on the table. Then he poured the soup into a wide bowl and set it alongside. He fixed his own meal, grabbed a couple of spoons, and dropped them into place. He plopped down on a chair across from his dad, folded his hands, and bowed his head.
Hurried sign of the cross, a quick prayer, and they started in.
Slurps and clanks of metal on glass accompanied their chewing and swallowing.
The old man glanced up, wiped his chin, and huffed. “Anything new in the big world?”
Bruno shrugged as he swallowed his last bite. “I ran into a shelf and some strange woman laughed at me.”
His eyes widening in horror, the old man spluttered. “The wretched—”
Bruno grinned. “I wasn’t looking where I was going, and she was nice enough.” He pulled out his phone. “I wanted to check something, and I got stopped by a headline—something about people falling into a black hole. Caught my attention at a weak moment. Smack. Hit the toothpaste shelf full speed.”
Grinning, the old man rested his spoon on his empty bowl and tucked the used napkin underneath. “Good thing you didn’t hit a middle aisle. You could’ve set off a cascade of cat food.” He frowned. “What were you checking?”
A blush burned Bruno’s face. “There was such a variety of adult diapers. I had no idea.”
Dropping his gaze, a flush darkened his dad’s cheeks. “Aw, hell. I wish—”
“Don’t, dad. It’s not so bad. Everyone has stuff to deal with. That woman’s mom is depressed and needs a new perm every month.” He leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And likes to have her nails done. I’ll take a bag of Depends over that any day.”
The old man’s hand shook as he reached across the table and pressed his son’s fingers.
Though dark clouds scuttled in from the north and the temperature was dropping, there was still enough time to get in one more lap around the park. Bruno shook the last vestiges of tension from his shoulders and focused on a pair of squirrels chasing each other around a tree.
He promptly bumped shoulders with a woman jogging by on his left.
Huffing, she scowled and stopped. “Hey! Look where—”
She looked strangely familiar. Embarrassment and dripping sweat sent an uncomfortable chill down Bruno’s back. “Sorry. I was—”
“Oh, you again.” A smile quirked her lips. “But you’re not texting and driving, at least. Thank God for that.”
A park bench behind the central swing set beckoned.
“I’m ready for a break. You?”
She nodded. “Sure. Mom’s napping, so I sneak out on the weekends to get in a little R & R.”
Trudging across the dead winter grass, he puffed a laugh. “You call running rest and relaxation?”
She plodded alongside. “Don’t you?”
He waited while she brushed broken twigs aside and plopped down.
They breathed freely for a few moments, gazing at the quiet park.
A trio of squirrels scampered past.
Bruno wagged his finger. “It was their fault, really. I got caught up in their drama.”
Laughter filled the park. A happy sound. She settled into a giggle. “Yeah, it’s always something, isn’t it?”
He turned. “How’s your mom doing?”
She blinked and swallowed. “Okay. Not really thrilled with the red. She wants to go back to being a blond, but with her wispy threads, it wouldn’t be pretty. Need something to distract the eye, if you know what I mean.” Changing course, she clapped one mittened hand over the other and focused on him. “And your dad. How’s he?”
“Scarfs down my grilled cheese and tomato soup like it’s going out of style.”
A fresh laugh, softer, but honest and appreciative.
Two plump robins hopped nearby.
He nudged her and signaled with his eyes.
She smiled. “Wish I brought something. Breadcrumbs…”
She cleared her throat. “You ever bring your dad out to eat? Like to your kids’ place or—”
He tipped his head. “I would, but they live in California. An airport would be a nightmare.” He cut his glance aside. “Yours?”
“Naw. They’re not very patient with her. Nice enough when I do everything, but they’re mostly eat-outers.”
Like a bobblehead, he just nodded a bit.
The clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine illuminated the park, bathing the playground in golden light.
“I have a ramp up to the kitchen door. A neighbor helped with it. Got treads and everything.”
Two of the squirrels perched on a branch, sitting amiably. The third bounded toward the swings.
“Your mom likes grilled cheese?”
Though her head stayed down, a smile lit her face brighter than sunshine. “She loves it.” She looked over, shifting in her seat, getting a firmer position. “I make a fantastic beef stew. Really easy to chew but nutritious as all get out.”
“Really?” He pulled out his phone. “You know, I read that black holes have been catching people while they sleep. Thought maybe you’d like to help me keep watch out for ‘em.” He cleared his throat, scrounging up his courage. “Maybe we could have dinner together sometime—your mom, my dad—us.”
A glimmer entered her eyes as her smile widened. “Oh, yeah. Got to keep our eye out for those pesky black holes. They swallow people alive, I hear, unless we help each other out.”
He stood and pointed across the park. “My place is just there. Dad’s got his own ideas about things—but he’s feisty enough to keep black holes at bay. Care to meet him?”
She stood and squared her shoulders. “Only if you’re willing to meet my mom. God knows what color her hair will be.”
He laughed as he nudged her forward. “Long as she hasn’t been swallowed whole—she’ll be all right with me.”
Stupid mistakes left Trix cold. Her own especially. Who on planet Earth was responsible for spelling? And could she find a legal precedent for killing the nameless perpetrators outright or would it have to be a clandestine affair? Though surely, she’d had a good portion of the world’s fifth-graders in her corner.
Was it her fault that few human beings could state her name without topping it off with an “ie,” turning her name into a bunny meme, or that grey was spelled with an a on one side of the Atlantic and with an e on the other? What demon-possessed people to care—much less sing-song their way through a quarterly review, insisting that she better shape up or—
The words had been left hanging. Just like that. An unspoken doomsday “Trix End.”
Trix stomped through the grocery store, huffing through her mask, which only fogged up her glasses. Lord have mercy. Would the trials of the year never end?
Head down, shoulders at ear level, she maneuvered her cart through the seafood aisle, blinking at the prices. She mumbled to herself, though visions of serving shrimp with some-kind-of-undetectable-poison-and-watching-her-bossy-boss-slip-to-the-floor-dead flashed through her mind.
Glowing lava rocks exploding from an active volcano had nothing on Trix at that moment. She grimaced, keeping her eyes wide so that as far as anyone reading a masked expression could figure, there was a smile under there somewhere. She faced Brenda, one of the homeschooling moms who sat behind her at Mass. She had polished a small mittened-hand wave to good effect. “Hey, Brenda.”
“So, are you going to the Winter Fun Event on the town square on Sunday?”
Rolling her eyes to the ceiling, Trix mentally consulted her calendar. She had to teach school all week, an editing project was due on Thursday, her dad had slipped on the ice, so she wanted to drop off some chocolate panaceas on Friday. Saturday, she’d charge into battle against the encroaching spiderwebs, dust bunnies, and household scum that managed to accumulate when her back was turned. Sunday remained her shield against overwork and flippant insanity. “Well, I’m not sure. I’ve got a lot going on. And besides, is it safe?”
Attempting to avoid a maniacal expression, Trix hid her grin behind her mask. The “Is it safe?” comment usually stopped every conversation cold. She glanced aside at the rows of frozen foods. A suitable location, indeed.
Even behind her they-all-look-alike mask, it was obvious, Brenda’s face fell. Her eyes dimmed. Her joy-spark snuffed.
Geeze! Who cares about Winter Fun? I have my sanity to keep track of! Isn’t that more important!
Trix tried to cool the use of mental exclamation points, but her heart sank to her chilled boots. If Old Scrooge could see her now, he’d embrace her as a fellow frozen-soul.
Good soldier and honest Christian lady who kept faith with all sorts of happy thoughts, Brenda squared her shoulders and drowned whatever sorry-reality haunted the depth of her eyes. “No problem. I was just asking. You’re right to be careful. Just sometimes, you know—” She glanced aside, definitely not seeing the delightful array of frozen yogurts. “You’re doing well. That’s all that matters.”
Trix’s icy heart started to drip.
Her mistake hit Brenda like a bullet train. She burst with contrition. “Oh, I forgot. I said Trixie—and you hate that. Sorry. I mess up names all the time, so I use those stupid mnemonic-things to remember. But I still manage to—” Gripping her cart with dejected humiliation, she aimed for the meat and cheese aisle.
Her cheeks flushed, Trix swallowed a chunk of ice. She stopped Brenda’s cart. “I’m heading to the candy aisle to find something chocolatey for my dad. Want to come?”
As they turned into the next aisle and at the sight of Brenda’s tear-filled eyes, Trix snatched a box of cocoa off the passing shelf. “You want to stop by for a cup Sunday afternoon? We’ll both need warming up.” She grinned right through her mask.
Martin, dressed in jeans, a light sweater, and his running shoes, stood on the edge of a gaping hole where his home was supposed to stand and realized that the earth beneath his feet could give way at any time. He stepped back. When the pressure of solid earth penetrated the soles of his feet, he stopped.
Taller than her brother, with long black hair rippling down her back, her body wrapped in a winter coat, yet still shivering, Jacquelyn meandered close and clasped his frozen hand. “You need to forget it. Let it go.”
His snort, bitter and abrupt, left no doubt about his feelings on that score. “It let me go! It left me without a foundation for my house.”
Jacquelyn hugged his arm. Words were of no use now.
With a sigh, he turned away. “There’s nothing to do but abandon the whole thing. Chalk it up as a learning experience, though I can’t say I learned much. What’s a sinkhole supposed to teach me? That my hopes, like my marriage, can drop into the abyss at a moment’s notice?”
Jacquelyn pulled a thick strand of hair from her face. “You’ll find a better place and another—”
Heat flushed Martin’s face as his heartbeat ricocheted through his tense body. “Good God, if you say I’ll find another wife, I may never speak to you again.”
Tears filled Jacquelyn’s eyes.
With an apologetic shake of his head, Martin grabbed her hand and hurried to his truck. “You shouldn’t be out here. It’s too cold, and you’re just getting over that ridiculous flu.” He opened the passenger door to his Ford truck and helped her climb in. Then he jogged to the driver’s side, slapping his hands to regain feeling in his fingertips. He slid into place, started the car, and backed out of the makeshift driveway.
A few trees still sported burnt orange and yellow leaves. As dark clouds bundled in the west and the wind picked up, only the hardy oaks held fast. The rest would be stripped bare before the week was out. With a sinking feeling, the image of his wife, soon to be ex-wife, describing the house she wanted and all the fun they’d have filling it with adorable children, stabbed his gut.
He turned the truck onto the freeway. “You feeling okay?”
Jacquelyn shrugged. “Dad didn’t know who I was on my last visit. Jay got laid off, so I’m trying to pick up another online teaching job. Amy hates her biology teacher, and me half the time, but she’s getting through. Our family stubborn streak comes in handy.” She flashed a smile, though her face didn’t reflect it.
His eyes on the road, Martin pressed her arm in a gentle squeeze. “Sorry. I’m not the only one going through stuff.” He sighed. “You’re right. I got the land cheap, and I’ll find another place to build. Sandra only married me for my good looks, charm, and oodles of money. Guess it served her right to discover the frog under her prince, eh?”
Jacquelyn peered out the window, her tears gave way. “She doesn’t know you, or she’d never have left.”
“She knew. She just wanted something else. Someone else.”
“She wants to be someone else.” Jacquelyn shrugged. “Easy mistake to make.”
Martin took the right lane and followed it to the exit. He curved with the road, checked the quiet intersection, and pulled onto Main Street. Going a modest 30 mph felt like crawling.
A group outside the Famished Farmers café waved as they passed.
Martin waved back.
Jacquelyn imitated an Egyptian mummy.
With a tilt of his head, Martin frowned. “Wasn’t that blond with the spike heels your friend from—?”
“She made some comments on my peer review…pretty harsh. I’m staying out of her way.”
“Her husband had a crush on me and well…”
Martin winced. God, when did life get so bloody complicated?
As he wound his way through town, Martin picked a safe topic. “Still taking your medicine?”
“Only if I have trouble breathing. Been doing well the last few days.” She glanced aside. “And you? Still taking that anti-depressant?”
Martin wanted to slam his head against the steering wheel as he picked up speed along the country road. “No. I had lots of reasons to be depressed, but it isn’t the end of the world. I just need to figure out how to get undepressed.”
A hound chasing a rabbit dashed out in front of the truck.
Martin swerved, hit the brakes, and skidded to abrupt stop inches from a deep ravine.
As they sat there, stunned, Jacquelyn exhaled a long shuddering breath.
Martin swiveled out of the truck, not even bothering to slam the door shut. He strode around, stared at the tires peeking over the edge of the gorge, and waved at his sister. “Don’t move!”
He sped to the truck, slipped into place, and slowly edged the car backward. Then he started to sob.
Jacquelyn rubbed his back in a large, slow circle. “Catch your breath, Marty.”
Martin rested his head on the steering wheel. “After the accident, I thought I’d be strong. Mom died so quick. But no matter what I do, Dad’s slipping into senility. Despite the fact that my wife found a guy she likes better, I still planned to build the house, and then the ground sinks from under me, literally. And now, I nearly drive us off a cliff.” Martin lifted his head and stared at his sister. “You think someone got me mixed up with a guy named Job?”
A tired smile ghosted across Jacquelyn’s face. “Life is hellishly hard, but we hang in there anyway.”
Martin’s mind drew a blank. “Why? It’d be so much easier to give up.”
Jacquelyn dug into her purse and pulled out a wallet. She snapped open a small picture album and wiggled out a photo. It was a long-legged, longer-haired Martin, age twelve. She held it up.
Martin leaned forward; his jaw dropped open. “What’re you doing carrying that around? It should be burned! I’m wearing bell-bottoms for Heaven’s sake! It could be used against me in a court of law.”
Jacquelyn snatched it back and pressed it to her chest. “It’s mine. When I have a bad day, I pull it out.”
Martin shook his head, confusion rising like late-summer fog.
“This was the year that guy I loved dumped me for my best friend, I got that awful perm, and I failed algebra. Mom was working evenings, dad started drinking, and I hated everyone.”
“You were fifteen.” He pointed to the picture. “Why are—”
“You took me out for ice cream, and I punched you, splattering chocolate sauce on your good shirt. Made a big stain on the front, you can still see the mark.” She tapped the picture.
A smile spread across his face, reaching his heart. “You were a bully. What’s new?”
“I tried to apologize by ordering you to wear a clean shirt, but you said that you’d know people by what they saw. Either they’d see a stain or they’d see you. Later you gave the shirt to Rosco so he’d sleep in the doghouse without barking all night.”
Martin ran his fingers through his hair. “Color me confused.”
“When I look at the picture, I see the me I want to be. I don’t see a stain. I see possibilities.”
Martin tilted his head, put the car into gear, and pulled onto the road. “You think I could turn a sinkhole into a basement or something?”
Jacquelyn laughed. “Make it a family room, and I’ll help you build it.”
Martin dropped Jacquelyn at home and then headed to the worksite. He was back on solid ground.