I take Lent fairly seriously. It's a time of year when I intentionally set aside something I enjoy to make more room for God in my life—room for him to speak to me, to wake me up from my self-induced complacency. I always try to choose something real. Something that will remind me every time I think of it, every time I long for it, that my deepest longing is for God. That I should be doing something about that.
This year, I couldn't decide what to give up. My husband chose a difficult fast, and I felt like a slacker when I decided to give up coffee. Not caffeine, although it works out to be a severe cutback by extension. Just coffee itself. The smell, the taste, the sheer comfort of it.
I had tea instead of coffee the morning of Ash Wednesday. Everything at work went surprisingly well. I did not get a headache, and I felt focused and on task.
Until I received an e-mail from mrizh telling me to call him at once.
I took my phone into the break room. Apparently, our apartment building had caught fire that morning. No one had been seriously hurt, but how severe the damage to the building might be was unknown.
The rest of the day was a blur. We attended a meeting for tenants at the Red Cross shelter and heard the first real news: that not only could we not go home that night, it might be a while before anyone would be allowed into the building.
We were homeless, for the time being.
mrizh said to me, “It's like God said, 'You thought you were giving up Facebook for Lent. Nope! You're giving up your apartment!'”
We had our cars and a backpack full of smoky-smelling clothes that the firemen allowed my husband to retrieve from our intact apartment. We talked, squishing down our unsettled emotions as we tried to decide where to spend the night. I left the tenant's meeting part way through to drive over the Hollywood hills to Ash Wednesday service.
On the drive to church, I couldn't stop thinking about the fire. I'd watched videos of it on YouTube; our neighbors filmed and uploaded some, reporters got more. Columns of black smoke, visible flames.
Someone in the building lost her cat. I nearly lost control while driving when it hit me that the poor thing had died in a fire. Had burned to ash and bones. The visercal horror of that image kept returning to me all night.
Talk about being reminded that “from dust we are, and to dust we shall return.”
The dust on the clothes I pulled from the backpack, the soot... It was the ashes of books, bedding, clothes, kitchen tables, TVs, CDs, carpet, artwork, shampoo. All things that we use to create ourselves, to create a peaceful space around us, to create a home and a family and a life. Particles of those destroyed things made my shirt, my jeans, my underwear stink like death.
After the service (at least the cross of wood ashes on my forehead didn't stink), I went to get dinner at the hotel restaurant. mrizh had already eaten, so I dined alone. I had a cocktail, because I felt I needed a treat. I mean, really—what a day.
But then, although I knew better, I also ordered wine with dinner. And it was an enormous pour—more like 2 1/2 glasses than one. I drank all of it in less than an hour. I normally have one to two drinks when I drink, so I was closer to drunk than I had been for some time.
When I realized this, I began to think: how is it that our sense of self is so bound up in what we have? Not necessarily in rich possessions, or many possessions, but in the fact that we have things at all? In the fact that we can make a place to retreat from the world and find shelter? Make shelter for others?
Cut off from home, from my quiet space, and even from coffee, I sought out something to make me feel better. And I sought out an excess of it.
If there is anything I learned as I began this season of Lent, it is that we are needy creatures. If we do not know how to let God in, we simply fill the void with whatever comes to hand.
May you be blessed with the ability to discern between desire and need; and to take both of them to the One who created you, who knows exactly what you need and how and when.