A Season of Doing Without

I haven’t written a blog post in an eternity. Luckily this is due to nothing more calamitous than it being winter, when the trees find themselves with no leaves and I apparently find myself with no words. But a canopy of yellow-green now lines the street to my daughter’s school, so I too will start again, with a few baby leaves of my own.

I have found myself in several conversations about Catholicism lately. Isn’t it funny how conversations seem to repeat themselves in your life within a certain time span? Like if I talk about how I’m an underachiever with one person, then the next thing I know my neighbor will be talking to me about underachieving. As if the concept is floating around me like dust and they can’t help but breathe it in and sneeze it out.

Anyway, all this Catholic talk is a bit surprising because the Church and I parted ways some time ago, and I wouldn’t have guessed that it still lingers in my dust-thought cloud. My husband, after sitting through one of these Catholic conversations between myself and one of my best friends, an old friend from college who visited me recently, concluded that being Catholic (and all the “should”s and “shouldn’t”s that go along with it) was this big thing that she and I shared and continue to share, a big part of what ties us together. That seemed absurd initially, but after thinking about it, I figured he was probably right. (It makes sense; if something big defines you, you can reject it, but even then the rejection of it still defines you. It’s been out there, floating around me, my whole life: being Catholic or not Catholic. And the two may not be as different as I once thought.)

I was aware that Lent began recently, but only because someone was lamenting this fact (and that it was National Margarita Day or something equally ironic) on Facebook. Catholicism gets many things wrong, its built-in misogyny for one, but of course it also gets some things right, or at least is earnestly trying to. I think Lent is an example of one of these attempts. Lent used to be my favorite of the Catholic seasons. There is a quiet beauty in its solemnity, and the rituals seem more poignant during this time. Or maybe it’s just because it’s a time of reflection, and reflecting is one of my favorite activities.

You may or may not know that Lent often comes with a challenge to give something up, often chocolate or something ridiculously painful like that. I used to look forward to this challenge in a weird kind of way. What is that, male-run institution? You want me to deprive myself of pleasure to prove my goodness? I may suck at basketball, but restraining myself out of fear of external disapproval is something I can do with one eye closed while whistling Für Elise.

This morning I found myself doing some Lenten reflection of my own—in particular, over my tea leaves and this recent winter season. Before I go on, I must back up, just the tiniest of bits. Some months ago, my husband bought a new car, then there was Christmas, and then we changed health insurance plans and had to pay some months in advance, etc., etc., and all these things conspired to produce several months in our household with zero dollars. When we have zero dollars, as long as this is a temporary situation with an end to the deprivation in sight, I can sometimes get my brain in the proper place to view it as a fun challenge, an opportunity to hone my skills in the art of thrift and thereby attempt to prove my worth by masquerading as Homemaker Extraordinaire.

One of my favorite zero dollars coping strategies is to simply let things run out. As the household’s Chief Shopper, my usual job is, when something runs out, to make sure a replacement is waiting at arm’s length so that the harmony of consumption is not interrupted. Need a new bar of soap? It’s under the sink. Used the last bit of half & half? Look in the back of the fridge. But when we’re dealing with austerity measures, I restrict my shopping to the essentialist of essentials only. And so it was that when my honey (and by that I mean actual honey, not my sweet husband) had to be turned on its head and the last drop had found its way into my morning tea, I held myself back from buying another $15 bottle at Central Market.

When the honey ran out, I switched to a half-used bottle of agave nectar I had shoved in the back of the cabinet. But agave nectar has a bit of a funny aftertaste (or maybe just taste), so I dealt with this by using less sweetener, just a bit to take the edge off. I was surprised by how acceptable this was to my sugar-loving self. Not horrible at all. But then the agave nectar ran out, too, so I started drinking my tea, two cups in the morning and one in the afternoon, without any sweetener at all. And it tastes fine. So fine, in fact, that I see no need to start adding the honey back, even though austerity measures have lifted and I have resumed shopping at normal levels. It is a small change, but not insignificant to my health, when you think about it in the aggregate: three cups of tea per day, stretching out into the future.

I can’t help but compare this to so many Lenten seasons, and the similar paces of self-denial I went through then. But none of those exercises in restraint ever produced any permanent changes in me. Forty days with no candy, chocolate, soda, alcohol, or cigarettes, but on day forty-one, back I went to my so-called vice. So what is different this time? Why did this deprivation stick?

Before, when I was Catholic, the restraint was imposed upon me by a hierarchical figure who judged my worthiness through my performance, trying to control my development using a punishment and reward system. Thus, the exercise, which was designed to teach me something about doing without, only served to incentivize me to deny myself so that I might please others. One more voice in a chorus telling me to behave in a way marked as acceptable by others. One more message to look and listen outside myself for instructions, rather than simply learning to trust the voice within.

In contrast, this winter’s season of doing without arose organically from the natural rhythms of life. No imposed human-made structure, simply life, as it is: moving through its seasons, sometimes richer, sometimes poorer; sometimes lush, sometimes bare. No external voices offering praise or threatening condemnation, just the silence of a winter’s day and a cupboard that is slowly emptying.

This morning, contemplating my tea leaves, it occurs to me that while the exercise of doing without was the same in both cases, the teacher was not: a human-made organization, the Catholic church, in the first example, and nature herself in the second. As I’ve mentioned here before, the term God often leaves me shifting in my seat because it means different things to different people, and yet it is often used casually, as though only one meaning applies. In this case, I would think most people would link the idea of God to the first teacher, the Church. But who’s to say? Who’s to say someone’s version of God is not teaching more directly through the second?

© Amy Daniewicz

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