I’m giving up booze for lent. Rather, because I have a job that requires me to make and taste cocktails (recipe development and quality control–it’s real) and occasionally taste new booze that reps bring in, I’m giving up drinking whole drinks for my own enjoyment. Taking a break, just ’cause. Less of a total chemical break than a routine break–going to try to find some other activity on which to spend those nighttime hours. It feels important to change up the old routine now and again, and doing something to adjust my metabolism as winter slides into spring feels right.

Why now? Well, it’s somehow easier to explain to people that you’re taking some time off the sauce because of the 40 days and nights Jesus spent fasting in the desert, resisting temptation to make himself comfortable with his divine magic powers. Easier to say this than to say you just want to. Plus, it gives a solid time frame, and I always like a deadline.

If I really examine it, abstaining for lent feels appropriate for a more nebulous reason. A foggy sense of comfort located somewhere in my Catholic childhood. I haven’t been to mass outside of a wedding in probably 20 years (sorry Mom). I find it difficult to participate in a community that defends ingrained sexism and turns a blind eye to abuse to protect its own. I’ve always been bad at orthodoxy–any system that tells you not to question it immediately requires investigation. Not to mention the Catholic church hierarchy’s roots in the Roman imperial system, its role in various wars and genocides, etc. We all have our unsavory ethnic histories to contend with, some of us worse than others. The best we can do is keep our eyes open to history.

Still, as a kid, I loved my religion. Here’s what they don’t tell you when ex-Catholics talk about sadistic nuns and styrofoam-y communion wafers: the stories are magic. At eight, nine, ten years old, you’ve accepted that Santa Claus is a metaphor, that Narnia is fiction, that you’ll never meet a hobbit. But every Sunday a group of bona fide adults confirmed that once upon a time, an angel told a 14-year-old she was going to change the world. That a working class guy from a podunk town brought his friend back from the dead and told everyone that love was where it was at. And that in the ensuing centuries, saints miraculously survived mortal wounds, killed dragons (yes! dragons!), levitated and bilocated. We sang in a minor key about glory and honor and spoke invocations in unison. There were pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners. I was lucky enough to grow up in a parish with a very progressive priest, who allowed Altar Girls before Altar Girls were a thing and who loved the music of Godspell. Sometimes he would tell us to go outside and be grateful for the daffodils instead of listening to a long homily. The building itself was small, but ornate and full of fascinating statuary. It really brought that extra dimension of … whatever it was to our little town.

It wasn’t until I hit puberty and realized what the catechism’s teachings on gender and sexuality were REALLY saying that I fell out of love with it. The more I learned about the world, the less in touch the church felt. So I got confirmed, I sang in the folk group, but I did so in the spirit of obligatory participation. And pancake breakfasts.

I haven’t observed lent for years but now seems as good a time as any. As a kid I used to try every year to give up chocolate, a proposition that typically lasted about three days until I broke down in a pre-adolescent withdrawal rage worse than from nicotine. But I’m doing this, because I think ritual has meaning. I don’t know what that meaning is, but it does.

Like: How my best friend is Jewish, absolutely don’t-even-talk-to-me-about-Christmas Jewish, I’m-going-to-spend-these-holidays-with-the-family-I-can-only-sort-of-stand Jewish, because that is her culture. It’s her upbringing, an essential part of her identity. It is the fire she carries forward, and even the annoying rituals bring comfort. She has also been an Atheist for something like 20 years. There is no conflict. Maybe you don’t need a deity to have a religion.

I think it might be possible to be religious, but not spiritual.

It reminds me of how many wine sellers and growers talk about Biodynamic farming.  Some are true believers, others don’t swear by the power of the moon and the earth as a single organism, etc., but they know that if they follow the principles and rituals, plant on the right days, fertilize the right way, that their wines come out great.

As my non-believer doctor father told me once: even if it’s psychosomatic, it’s still working.



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