Years ago, when I started editing a writer who was new to me, he turned in a Carnival story that he thought summed up the celebration. It began with the line, “Tis the season of flatulence.” He had left the office for the day right after he met his deadline, so I couldn’t consult with him about a word change and merely switched “flatulence,” which he had used many times in the piece, to “excess” or “over-indulgence.” Not as fancy a word, but much closer to what I assumed he really meant.
(Next morning when the story was in print, he was furious. He didn’t complain to me, but hollered about it in the hearing of another editor, who burst out laughing and defined the misused word for him.)
If you’ve ever driven the Mardi Gras parade route — after Zulu and Rex and the truck floats have passed and folks are packing up their ladders and lawn chairs and barbecue pits and going home — then you know about the excess of Mardi Gras. You wonder how they’re ever going to get the mess cleaned up for business as usual on Ash Wednesday.
But for some people, it won’t be business as usual until after Easter.
I’ve told you about my first Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and how I was goggle-eyed at the parades and the balls and the general non-stop partying. But there was a third surprise in store for a newcomer. The day after Carnival was over, lots of people showed up for work at our office with dirty faces.
I noticed them on the streetcar on the way downtown, and it took me a while to tune into the fact that the “dirt” was ashes and folks had gotten that way at their churches. The very name of the day — Ash Wednesday — comes from the ancient practice of placing ashes on worshippers’ foreheads as a symbol of their humility before God. We Protestants don’t make much of Ash Wednesday, and Lent, which begins on this day, was something I knew about but wasn’t a time of sacrifice and denial as it is for Catholics.
Originally, Lent — which spans 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday until Easter — simply meant spring, in the German and Dutch languages — or the end of winter. In the fourth century, the church made it a time of preparation for those who were to be baptized, and since these new members were to be received into a community of faith, the entire community was called to preparation.
Lent is also a time for self-examination and reflection — and many of we older people know a lot about both. Has anyone discovered why it takes so many years — if you are fortunate enough to have achieved them — to view the events of your life with the clarity of which you were incapable when you were young?
Why does understanding come only after those who asked for it are gone? Why do we wish for just a moment to help them finish conversations they began, and to which we — with our busy young lives to lead — declined to respond?
Questions we should have asked, assurances we should have made, help we should have given — all of this roils in the mind.
Why, as the German saying goes, are we “too soon old and too late smart?’
For the religious person, Lent is a time to ask for divine forgiveness. I think that it’s also a time to try to forgive ourselves as well.
Bettye Anding is a former editor of The Times Picayune Living section, for which she wrote Silver Threads until her retirement. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.