For a string of years, near the beginning of March, Deb and I would pack up and go to Whidbey Island. It was a way to shake off winter’s habits—habits of hunching under the heavy coats, burning house lights against inviolable nights, ceding to the numbing comforts of couch and screen, and the lethargy of never feeling properly hungry.
More than this however, the change of scene broke old patterns of thought. No, this is not exactly true. Patterns of thought, brought on by what, I suppose, could be called the metaphysical side of winter, were not really broken. It was more like they were unearthed; and that, through a shift in geography and the sudden arrival spring.
And on Whidbey Island, in March, spring was booming. Grass Widows and Tomcat clover coloured the hills around Ebey’s Landing. And on the misty rises above Parego’s Lagoon, Pacific wrens sang in elderberry and evergreen huckleberry. It’s not like they could stop themselves from singing. And it’s not like I could refuse to listen.
For two weeks, it was almost impossible to take anything for granted, nothing, it seemed, was lost on me: the ocean-view cottage, the Olympics floating above the horizon, the shell and gravel beach, the heavy-scented surf, the lagoon’s alien life, the pairs of bald eagles spiralling, gloriously close, overhead, and too, and more, my wife.
We spent the days with our walking sticks close at hand, marking the distance along paths high above Puget Sound; where the long curve of earth draws into view, then draws you in into its arms. By late afternoons, we’d be leg-weary and windblown, sea-sprayed and deliciously hungry.
Slowly, daily distractions lifted. Abstractions lifted. And with it—upsetting and unexpected—came a sort of crisis of conscience, a kind of negative epiphany. In the midst of all this beauty and natural solitude, the reality of my own death somehow crystalized within me. And all those things that I employed to avoid the fact of my own mortality swung heavily into view: all that well stowed, self-exonerating, self-referential crap; the pious inner prattle, the preening of my overweening self, the flinching then fawning of comparing, in short, everything I did to make myself more real.
Then, somewhere along the weeks’ path, this too lifted and I found myself walking in a kind of innocence. Found myself light and in love again, with, well, God.
And in the ray of this outward gaze I caught a glimpse of the astounding weirdness of selves. That in truth, we don’t really have a “self,”…apart from other selves—more profoundly, apart from a beyond-this-world-and-intimately-within-this-world, Self.
In this oneness I was invaded by well-being and happiness. And it seemed deeper, more immediate than, say, seeing the extraordinary within the ordinary, which in the face of this, almost seemed cliché. Instead it was like finding myself in subjection to a wordless thing, a voiceless Being, which the word real is truly meant for.
And how I wanted to hang on to that reality, that innocence. I arrived back home resolute, and while making the vow (as you inevitably do), to keep it alive—it left. Spring stumbled. The singing grew faint. Spiritual innocence, apparently, did not abide the entombment of self-determination and analysis. It could not be owned, only, I now gathered, relentlessly released. Neither did it allow for mistaking the moving for the mover.
But now, if this was the final word, fate and death would rule (which is often exactly what I think), interrupted only by obscene bits of transcendent teasing. However—and this is gift—we are left with a few live coals: the knowledge that we have, still have, the capacity for innocence; the memory of dying into life, of living outside of death, as though all of life was dawning before our eyes—if only for a moment.
This, then, is all I know of Lent. Lent is fanning coals in the dark of night. It is faith in the movement toward God through the absence of God. It is keeping alive, throughout winter, our extravagant capacity for wonder, born in the flare of spiritual innocence; which itself, is a restless and reckless purity of heart that has nothing to do with sinless piety.
St. Benedict says that all of life should be considered as Lent. To be fully conscious of our ashes to ashes, our contingency, the suffering of our essential mutability, is to be in the spirit of Lent. And Lent, finally, is the acceptance of the winter inherent in joy, which makes it possible to be ready, at any moment, for the Easter dance.