Ritual of any kind, really. Daily, weekly, annual, sublunar. Doesn’t matter. I’m just a total sucker for it all.
So things like Lent, even though I’m not really fully signed on with the whole church project, as it were, are pretty darn appealing to me.
I quit smoking during Lent. When was that, like ten years ago now? Amazingly enough, I was still working in restaurants and nightclubs back then. And hoo boy howdy did I smoke too much. Everything I did back then, I did too much, really.
Can’t say I’ve ever been signed on for the whole moderation project, either. True story.
So this was right around when it was becoming really unacceptable to smoke in public. Which you youngsters might not remember, since this brave new world of thoughtful concern for other people’s lungs is all you’ve ever known. But it wasn’t that long ago that there were ashtrays on every table in restaurants, people smoked in between the appetizer and the entree, and matchbooks were the most common form of marketing collateral around.
It’s kind of wild to think about it, now.
I smoked for about ten years, all told. From college through my restaurant worker years. Then I became sufficiently disgusted with the whole thing — and sufficiently aware of my own mortality, let’s be honest — that I made the decision to quit.
I was kind of going through hell that year. Everything, it seemed, was spiraling beyond my control. Money was a huge problem. Work was not going well. Most of my friendships were dissolving under the strain of all of the insanity that was going on. And I just had these huge, awful, crippling anxieties about pretty much everything.
You know that uniquely chilling brand of anxiety, the kind that you know is unfounded and completely unsuitable for a sane and rational adult — like thinking there are monsters under the bed — but you still sprint across the room and jump up under the covers after you turn out the light, knowing that they will get you if you go too slow? Even though you totally know that’s just insane?
That was kind of my life for a while there.
So it sounds like the perfect time to smoke even more, right? Time to treat all of that dreadful anxiety with some form of semi-socially acceptable self-medication, and tough it out until things turn around, right?
Not so much.
Thing was, I felt like this was the one area of my life that I could actually exert some control over. The one thing that I could decide for myself. I won’t smoke any more. There. That would be my own pathetic little flag of defiance against the forces of chaos. My own inadequate way of flipping the bird at all those monsters in the closet.
And the funny thing is, it worked.
I mean, I’m not going to sit here and tell you it was easy. I smoked. I smoked a lot. I was into it. And I still spent all of my time with smokers, people who knew me as one of them, who totally didn’t buy this whole I’m not smoking anymore game of mine, who sort of shrugged and figured I’d be back among them again soon enough.
But the other thing that had happened around the same time was I’d started going to church again. I think this was another one of those wee little acts of defiance on my part. There I was, living a moderately to deeply disreputable life in restaurants and nightclubs and bars. But then I would secretly wake up early on Sunday mornings, drag my sorry ass on to a bus downtown, and walk for a few hours amongst the living and the well groomed.
It was kind of a weird kink I had going on there for a while. But it really worked for me, at the time.
Of course part of the attraction was that I had discovered the most desperately gorgeous gothic revival Victorian church downtown that you could possibly imagine, all heavy wooden scrollwork and thick leaded windows and altar rails stained dark by the sweaty Sunday morning palms of the ages.
There was a massive pipe organ in this church, too, that thumped and throbbed and groaned with every deafening note, and we’d all gather our hymnals and stand up together and belt out the songs of our people. All of those crazy awesome old hymns of my doughty Anglican forbears. I’ll tell you, there are few tribes of lustier belters of grand old tunes than us Old Timey Episcopalians. Especially when backed by the heavy metal pounding of a fearlessly wielded pipe organ.
Goddamn. That’s some good stuff, right there.
Anyway, it did what I needed it to. I didn’t make many friends in that congregation, for the brief time that I counted myself among their number. Mostly because of that whole crippling fear and anxiety thing I had going on at the time. But I always stayed for tea and cakes after the service, and breathed in the well starched normalcy of these lovely, welcoming people like the heady aroma of a half-forgotten land.
God, but I’d missed normal, respectable people. I just wanted to lick them.
Just before Lent started that year, they laid out a box of tiny wooden crosses on leather cords at the back of the church, free for anyone who wanted one. I think they were from Ecuador, or some other far-off place where they’d been hand carved and fairly traded and eventually made their way to our heavy metal gothic steampunk church.
I grabbed one and put it on, and I wore it all through Lent. Even though I wasn’t entirely sure how far I was signed up for this whole thing, I needed something to hold on to. And I wanted to quit smoking. So I quit smoking for Lent, with my little cross as a talisman, secretly hoping that I was quitting smoking forever. And every time I wanted a cigarette, I reached up and held on to my little Ecuadoran steampunk cross.
I’ll be honest — I didn’t think about Jesus when I touched that cross. And I still wasn’t too sure how I felt about God, and his whole thing. But I did think about those nice ladies at the coffee hour in their boiled wool jackets and slim tweed skirts, and about the very kind youngish priest who passed around the plate of cookies, a cup of tea curled deftly in his other hand, the thick smell of incense still clinging to his clothes.
And thinking about those nice, welcoming people, who every Sunday morning very politely ignored the smell of cigarettes and stale beer that still clung to me, who gently forgot to ask what I did for a living and what brought me to their shores, who held their teacups steadily in their clean, cared for hands while my cup and saucer chattered nervously away in my own, the thought of them kept me going.
Mind you, I wasn’t ready to quit drinking at the time. Not yet. That would come several years later, and with a fair bit more angst. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I don’t remember any of their names, I’m ashamed to say. And by May, I was gone. Gone from that church, gone from that town, gone from that life for good. Fled for my own safety and sanity back to Cape Cod, the land of my birth. Where I remain to this day.
But for all that winter and spring, from Shrove Tuesday right on through to our lustily welcomed Easter Sunday, those people were there for me. Whenever I managed to bob up to the surface and take a few desperate, gulping breaths of air.
Each Sunday, we’d get together and we’d belt out some tunes amid the gargoyles, and everything would be wonderful, wonderful for that one short hour.
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