A short time ago, Lent was something I actually looked forward to.
A Catholic convert at the time, I saw the season as a perfect opportunity to deepen my faith and engage with the traditions I had fallen in love with. Feast days, fast days, the opportunity to wear ashes on my forehead… all of these things are incredibly appealing to the baby Catholic who is just beginning to tiptoe out into a storied cultural landscape. I didn’t understand more seasoned Catholics’ complaints, lighthearted and only half-serious as they were. I looked forward to each turn of the liturgical calendar, but none entranced me more than those two seasons of fasting: Advent and Lent.
When I walked away from Christianity (and Catholicism by default,) I struggled for a long time with my desire to live within a sort of seasonal rhythm. My type-A personality greatly enjoyed having nearly 2,000 years of traditions to fall back on, to plan around. Having a framework already set for the minutiae of everyday life was a great comfort. After my departure from Catholicism, I continued to engage with all the secular holidays... but did miss the liturgical seasons.
Disentangling oneself from many years’ worth of habits is tricky business. No one warns you about the sense of loss; no one wants to speak of it because it looks suspiciously like wavering resolve. This is, of course, patently false. Mourning a loss isn’t necessarily the same thing as feeling regret or a desire to undo what has been done.
The night before last, Caleb and I watched The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, a Netflix movie (and true story) about William Kamkwamba, a then-13-year-old boy who saved his Malawian village from famine by building a windmill to pump water to their dried-up fields. While watching the movie, we stopped a couple times to consider—really consider—the many things in our lives that we take for granted. Food insecurity has never been even the barest blip on our radar. The idea of a child being unable to attend primary school due to unpaid tuition (as William had,) was an utterly foreign concept to us. For Caleb, this was especially unsettling, as he teaches students that are William’s age at the public school district he works for every single day. Students who receive high quality education in a district that can afford the luxury of supplying each and every student with a laptop.
As we watched this movie, completely engrossed in the storyline—our furnace quietly drew its last breath.
We didn’t notice until I tossed the blanket off of our legs and felt the cold prickling my skin. I marched over to the thermostat, and there it was—the temperature inside the house was a few degrees lower than the already-chilly setting we’d agreed to leave it at during the winter (so the furnace, which had been making a strange noise over the last 48 hours, wouldn’t have to work as hard.) My first instinct was to groan, curse, and throw a significant amount of money at a 24/7 A/C service to make the problem go away. But when the technician called back to confirm our 9pm appointment, we declined and decided to schedule an appointment with another company that had already come out, told us that the strange noises were nothing to worry about (HAH.) and invited us to call them again if we had any other issues. After piling all the blankets in the house on our bed, we turned in for the night.
The morning of the first day of Lent, we woke up to a house that was cold enough for us to see our own breath. Then, as I scurried from one end of the house to the other, trying to get chores done while we waited for the furnace repairman, I discovered that our washing machine was inexplicably out of commission as well. Another call to another technician, another appointment scheduled for another appliance.
As I hung up the phone and walked back into the bedroom (where Caleb was safely ensconced in a mountain of blankets,) we exchanged a loaded glance. Then, I felt a smile break across my face, laughed, and turned my gaze to the ceiling.
“We’ve done worse, haven’t we?”
Caleb grinned. “Yeah. The kitchen could flood again.”
I mock-glared at him, and knocked on the wooden doorframe beside me. “Or the power could go out.” I knocked again, and Caleb echoed that sentiment by rapping his knuckles on the windowsill behind his head.
“Tree could fall on the house.”
“We could not even have a place to live.”
Eventually, I kissed him goodbye, picked a sweater out of our closet, bundled up with a few more layers to brave the freezing temperatures outside, and then hopped in my car. I cranked the heater on, and picked up coffee on the way to work while my fingers and toes thawed.
Lent has lingered.
On my way to work, I took note of most, but not all the things I take for granted (because what an enormous task that would be—to unpack every ounce of good fortune and privilege that has befallen me entirely by chance.) A car. A working heater in said car. The means to take care of the car and make sure it would continue running for (barring some catastrophe) many years to come. Interstate and highway systems that are in decent enough shape to get me not only from my home to my workplace, but from one end of the country to the other—while taking a road trip on vacation. The fact that I even have a job, and that I didn’t start off my day hungry, or sick, or injured, or oppressed.
The list, as you know, goes on.
Last night, when we decided to watch that movie, the lenten season was perhaps the furthest thing from our minds. When I tossed that blanket away and stood up, discomfort nipped at our heels and reminded us.
Most of the time, our interfaith marriage looks like this. Caleb sees his god’s presence pretty clearly in every aspect and event of our life together. As an agnostic—I can, on occasion, catch a glimpse of what he’s observing. Straddling the fence of faith and doubt, if you will, has allowed me to tamp down my argumentative nature and find some measure of peace in this liminal state. I can see where he’s coming from in perhaps thinking that this is his god’s way of sparking a fruitful season of fasting. I can also see where the stalwart nonbelievers would scoff at such a notion—what kind of god would break the motor of a furnace for the sake of two people’s spiritual development, and ignore the nations and people with real problems, not just discomforts? Not a loving one, certainly. Perhaps a petty one with a sizable blind spot.
So be it providence or happenstance or something in-between: I don’t think the origin matters. Whatever the cause, this nuisance has accomplished something. It got the gears turning. It invited us to step out of our own heads and turn out attention away from our small difficulties, if only for a moment.