Sunday, March 9, 2014

Lenten Grocery Penances for Bourgeois Outcasts

At the evening Mass on Ash Wednesday I sat in the pew realizing that, for all my pushing away the truth of the matter, I am a failure. The proof could not have been starker -- here I was, sitting in my coat in an unheated church in the ghetto of a once-thriving, now-crumbling Rust Belt town, far away from all the things that, to my mind, had long defined not only my own life, but even life itself -- the things that had nurtured my belief that I was special, out of the ordinary, made for something important.

My older son was with me, half asleep in the pew. I shook him awake to get in line for ashes, and when it was his turn, the priest -- a gruff, stern, socially-awkward west African man with a heavy accent and a hortatory preaching style, who is known to have conflicts with some of his brother priests in the diocese and who has been mostly benignly ignored by our parishioners -- murmured to my son, as he daubed the ashes onto his brow, "Remember that you are dust, my brother. And to dust you shall return." I was struck by this entreaty; after all, Father didn't call me "my sister" -- and I mentioned to my son that Father's words to him were special. And I believe that they were, because Father loves my autistic son, and I heard his words as not only an exhortation, but also a greeting cast out across the chasm of loneliness, from one outcast to another. I recalled Father hearing my confession a couple of years ago, when I was still wallowing in my own sense of exile and loneliness (well, I still am), and I mentioned it to him; he said, "Oh, my sister. I understand." In loneliness, I became his sister. As outcasts, we were next of kin.

Of course, I've mentioned my feelings of isolation in my new hometown too many times to count. They stem from the obvious: I'm far away from home; my friends and family are at a significant remove. I can go through a day hardly seeing another adult except through the glass of my windshield; driving, while making my life incalculably better, has increased my sense of isolation, and also, I fear, my complacency. When I was still walking everywhere, I was forced to confront the poverty of my fellow walkers in the city; now I am safe from them.

Not that this place hasn't also forced me to confront my child-of-the-utopian-seventies notions about poverty, too. I have reached out to a couple of poor mothers here, and found their lives and their children's lives to be hobbled by the kind of disastrous decision-making that right-wing pundits like to rail about. But I have made disastrous decisions too. I think I know something about the fear and despair that drives people to cling to even the most harmful and toxic attachments, and I have seen that the lives of the poor are shot through with a loneliness much worse than my own.

I see now how we hold ourselves back, apart, and away from people who are not like us, and how I have done this, too. My singing was the thing that I imagined could keep me safe from the misery of broken human promises and relationships, and of stumbling and falling attempts at human love. I had something I could use to put up a wall of protection between me and the lives of utter loss and failure that are common to the poor women I have known: a key, a tool, an instrument, a wedge.

To counter this still-prevalent attitude in myself, I'm doing grocery penance for Lent again this year. I'm going shopping at Aldi's instead of Wegman's, for starters, and putting the price-point difference in our Lenten sacrifice Jar to buy formula for medically-fragile Chinese orphans. This means that I have to forego the smug sense of self-satisfaction that Wegman's lulls me into, the sense of being with other people like myself: clean, bourgeois, well-educated, able to pick out the freshest and most beautiful groceries in a warmly-lit, expansive space. Instead, I must stand out in the cold waiting, along with the gray-faced night-shift workers, the toothless, tubercularly-coughing women, and the lank-haired young mothers of children in dirty coats who ought to be in school, for Aldi's to open its doors and let us in to its boxy cheerlessness, to fill our rented carts with foods in knocked-off packaging (the Benton's graham cracker box looks so much like the Honey-Maid one, but just isn't), with brand names, like Cattlemen's Ranch and Happy Farms, both vaguely euphemistic and reminiscent of Chinese communism. 

And it also means that I have to strive to stop exalting myself, my knowledge, my gifts, and trying to use them to pry open the world to give me the things that I want, and to try instead to accept and desire being forgotten.

In "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen," one of the songs he wrote to texts by the Romantic poet Friedrich Rückert, Mahler succeeded in creating a sense of stilled timelessness, of dying to self and to the world. The text says, in translation:

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

It is of no consequence to me
whether it thinks me dead;
I cannot deny it,
for I really am dead to the world.

I am dead to the world's tumult
And I rest in a quiet realm.
I live alone in my heaven,
in my love and in my song.

May it be so, eventually, for all of us.