JIM DODSON: Treasured Definition for Lent
The season of Lent, which begins this week with the observance of Ash Wednesday, commemorates the 40 days Jesus, not long after his baptism, spent in the desert rejecting the temptations of Satan and the ways of the world.
A wise old owl who happened to be a dear friend and an Epis-copal bishop once described Lent to me in a most intriguing way. We were having one of our regular Thursday lunches at the time when I quipped that I planned to give up giving up things for Lent that year. I was going through a crisis with an ailing mom, and spring felt very far away. George, who was pushing 90, only smiled.
"Lent, I sometimes think, is when we take off our shoes and walk barefoot through the darkness of our failed hopes and schemes to an empty tomb," he said -- "only to discover that something has indeed changed, a candle lit, and something risen. Despite our worst fears, we're more alive than ever, and now we have the chance to make a better world."
I always liked George's more hopeful description of a period of liturgical introspection that many see primarily as the darkest season of their faith, a time of trial and fasting and prayer and self-denial.
The word "lent" actually means "long spring days," a growing of the light, though most of the popular focus on Lent naturally revolves around the idea of making personal sacrifices that symbolize a believer's readiness to prepare for the passion of the Christ.
Improbable as it might seem, I was thinking about my late friend George Cadigan's definition of Lent the other night at supper when my neighbor Max, whom I affectionately call Grumpy, showed me his golf glove. Grumpy is really an old sweetheart. But please don't let him know I let you in on the secret.
"Check this out," Grumpy declared, handing me his battered blue golf glove. "This thing was ready for the garbage can. The thumb was completely blown out. But thanks to Myrtis, it's better than ever."
Frugality is to Grumpy what the arrival of spring in the swamp is to a lovesick tree frog. The very idea of it makes him profoundly happy. "Waste not, want not" is both his operational aspiration and his daily code of living. The Grump, as I sometimes call him, plays his best golf with BIFs ("balls I found -- they have experience") and maintains the finest home veggie garden this side of Mayberry with an economical ingenuity and grace that would impress a monastic order.
Fortunately, he is married to Myrtis, who owns a world-class talent for putting up vegetables and mending anything subject to the laws of physics.
Grumpy's favorite work pants may date from the early years of the Johnson administration, but they still do the job and look good doing it. His artfully mended golf glove -- the only one of its kind I've ever seen, probably the only one there has ever been -- was simply the latest in a long line of mended items that will outlast us all.
It's probably no coincidence, in any event, that Grumpy reminds me of both my late father and grandfather. My Grandfather Walter, whose name I bear, was a quiet, frugal, somewhat crusty fellow who worked and gardened and bass-fished his way through the Great Depression, never giving up hope that things would get better in time. He loved King Edward cigars and church hymns, though he rarely went to church with my grandmother. "She speaks for us both," he liked to say. "I just listen."
My dad, who came of age during those dark days, was a homegrown philosopher and the most optimistic and sweetly stubborn person I ever knew. He once told me that living through the Great Depression made America fearless -- and probably saved the world from Nazi tyranny. For a long time, I had no idea what he meant.
I see nice traces of both men in Grumpy, who is like having two for the price of one in a neighbor and friend, a role model in nicely mended pants. In more ways than I care to explain, he and his talented bride are a genuine comfort and inspiration to me in these uncertain times -- and probably ought to be for the rest of America too.
On the night I joined them for a simple pre-Lenten garden supper, wondering what else I ought to give up for Lent that I haven't already given up -- Vanilla Grape Nuts ice cream comes first to mind, as does sneaking an occasional expensive cigar in the moonlight (my grandfather's trick) -- President Obama was signing into law the history-making $787 billion stimulus plan aimed at placing some kind of floor beneath the sinking U.S. economy, hoping to bring relief and recovery to a global crisis some fools in the national media have actually begun to call "the new Great Depression."
As I sat eating Myrtis' delicious salad and admiring Grumpy's golf glove with the expertly mended thumb, it struck me that the real stimulus to America's economic recovery -- and maybe the most important message of this particular Lenten season -- probably won't be whether some bogglingly complex government scheme to save banks and Wall Street from their own greed and folly will restore faith in American capitalism and create millions of much-needed jobs, but rather what lessons we should take from this painfully introspective time in our national life -- how we might go forward, in other words, by returning to the timeless values of self-reliance, concern for our neighbors, and living within our means.
"Living small," as a friend likes to say, "is the new big."
The generation that emerged from the Great Depression, without a doubt, got a boost from many of the reforms and economic policies President Franklin D. Roosevelt put in place in 1933 to try to stimulate a stagnant economy and initiate a national recovery. But the more important impact on this country was what the hardships of those years -- a quarter of the population unemployed, the heartbreak of breadlines stretching around the corner -- did to fire up the psyches and self-determination of millions of Americans.
To borrow an old Yankee woodcutter's maxim, hard weather sure made good timber.
Though none of the media today bother to mention it, perhaps because bad news sells and studying history is pass, technical and scientific innovation -- much of it taking place in independent labs and garage workshops -- actually surged during the bleakest years of the Great Depres-sion. Major banks and corporations failed right and left, but small, homegrown businesses and entrepreneurs became the primary forces that put America back on its feet.
Radar and color television were perfected. The miniaturization of electrical components set the stage for winning a World War and creating the consumer revolution of the 1950s. FM radio was born. The radio telescope was invented. So were jet engines and helicopters. Ditto Scotch tape, frozen foods, fiberglass, tape recorders, Teflon, canned beer, cellophane, ballpoint pens, freeze-dried coffee, photocopiers and nylon.
On the home front, comic book sales and stamp collecting soared. So did bicycles and board games. During the first week of its introduction in 1936, Monopoly sold more than 20,000 sets. The drive-in movie theater debuted, as did the first colorized feature film and animated picture. Hollywood movies, in fact, enjoyed a golden age of box office hits. It was the salad days of Gable, Garbo, Bette Davis, Jimmy Stewart.
With a boost from the WPA, which built thousands of highways and dams, employing millions, the arts in general also flourished. Mount Rushmore was completed, the Empire State building was finished. The number of civic operas and symphony orchestras in America almost doubled. "Porgy and Bess" was first performed. "The Star Spangled Banner" was officially designated our national anthem. Aaron Copland, Woody Guthrie, Cole Porter, the Gershwin brothers -- all burst onto the scene and shaped the sound of America's heartland.
America lived by radio shows and fireside chats. Baseball ruled. Millions danced to live Big Bands -- Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington -- or read crime thrillers by Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, and Dashielle Hammett, giving rise to the modern mystery novel.
Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Thornton Wilder, Carl Sandburg and Robert Frost -- all did some of their best work in those darkest days. Dr. Seuss published his first book. Dick and Jane taught millions of American schoolchildren to read.
In 1936, a former soap salesman named Dale Carnegie published a book about how to win friends and influence people that became a monstrous bestseller and popularized the notion of "self-improvement." Church attendance soared.
"When I was a kid in 1930," George Cadigan remembered one day at lunch, "we didn't have anything to play with. So we just went outside and made up things. Life was rather wonderful in that way -- only as limited as your imagination."
A Dark Night's Walk
As is almost always the case, I walked home in the dark from Grumpy and Myrtis' house, feeling better about whatever challenges lie ahead as America struggles to find its way out of this deep recessionary winter.
Given my affection for Grumpy and old Bishop George Cadigan, I was half tempted to take off my shoes and walk barefoot over the darkened ground of my own failed hopes and schemes until I realized it wasn't Ash Wednesday yet and, besides, it was bloody cold outside.
Instead of an empty tomb, I arrived home to find an empty house. Everyone was away for the night. But a thoughtful neighbor had left a gardening catalog on the doorstep for me to read before bed. I have a major hankering to start a new veggie garden this year.
Apparently I'm not alone. Seed merchants, I've since discovered, are reporting an unprecedented surge in seed sales, presaging an explosion of backyard gardens. Attendance at public libraries and church services is also way up. Locally owned banks report a steady stream of new customers. Local farmers expect to have their busiest summer in years.
Across the dark and somewhat scary landscape of Lent, these long and uncertain days of coming spring, something may be changing. Something may be rising. We may have the opportunity, as old George might say, to make a better world.
The ice cream I can do without. But like the Walter before me, I just ain't giving up my cigar in the moonlight.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be reached by e-mail at jasdodson @thepilot.com.
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