I am a reluctant woman of rituals. In the morning I run. Afterwards, I squeeze a lemon into a cup of hot water. In the evening, I spread out my yoga mat. After savasana and dinner, I pour two drops of essential oil into my tap water. And in the snowy, damp space of February and March, I give up sugar for Lent.
I was twenty three, in graduate school at St Andrews, Scotland, when I decided to observe Lent for the first time. Maybe it was because I was attending a Catholic church on Sunday evenings with my Catholic classmate Shawn, or maybe because I was surrounded by reminders that even in the secular community of St Andrews, ancient church rituals rarified the air. They were as old as the stone castle and cathedral ruins, the waves lapping at the beach, the wind shaping West Sands and the golf courses beyond. The boundaries had been set and the air moving through them told us to repent.
I decided to give up two things: sugary lattes, and music purchases. This was mostly connected to my bank account but also the knowledge that I had enough. My new drink became an Americano with milk and honey, then eventually just milk. I sometimes wondered why I made this decision to forego new albums and mochas when I hadn’t been raised on Lent, or on a theology of giving up daily privileges. If something wasn’t a sin, it was fair game. My family never talked about our indulgences, because we worked too hard, us farming people, to deprive ourselves of anything we had time for.
Three years later, when the daffodils and tulips were sprouting in lawns and grocery stores in Northern England, I returned to Lent, this time deciding to give up all sugar and most wheat and bread. My roommate from Oxford, Sarai, had told me once that giving up gluten was like being on crack, but in reverse. You feel amazing while you’re off it and you feel terrible when you go back on. I remembered this when I ran my fastest half marathon during my Lenten half marathon season, then threw up sugar, bruschetta and strawberry daiquiris the day after Easter.
For some reason that cycle of purging continues every spring, usually with less vomit and more Easter restraint. I wake on Ash Wednesday, push the cookie butter and Andes mints to the back of the cupboard, and kneel in front of a priest who marks me with ashes, saved. I come home and avoid stopping in front of the cupboard, or the freezer. I feel the absence in my tired heart and I hate it. And the next day I feel the absence, and still hate it, but feel something hovering in that space I used to fill with cookies and wine. Perhaps the Holy Spirit flutters when we aren’t covering her in sugar.
On Sundays, Lenten fasting doesn’t count though. It is a feast day, and this first feast days was also Valentine’s Day. My husband and I drove to Indy, eating chocolate chip cookies and almond croissants, sharing a package of Valentine’s M&M’s, then retiring to Bucca di Beppo for a feast. Over giant bowls of salad and pasta, I told him about traveling to Austria and Bulgaria. He told me about the marble floors in his first grad school apartment. Over Italian Cream Cake we toasted our goals for the year.
On Monday I scraped the ama of the feast off my tongue, slogged through my Insanity workout, slunk in my desk after class. Sugar, like alcohol, and most other vices, is no gentle mistress. She gives, and takes, everything. I am taking myself away for another week, so I go back to my rituals. I run in the morning and drink my lemon water. In the evening, when the emptiness groans at me, I spread out my yoga mat, drink tea, and pour another drop of oil in my water glass, because I have enough. I sit down, and in the space where the Holy Ghost flutters her wings, I wait for something to stir.