This past week was the start of Lent, the six-week run up to Easter Sunday when practicing Christians are traditionally expected to atone for their sins and wayward habits by prayer, alms-giving and acts of self-denial.
In other words, we’re asked to give up things we love.
The more I think about this, the more I realize I have a small problem in this department. I’ve already given up almost everything I love or used to love.
Let’s take, for example, my hot gold Camaro.
In the late summer of 1970 I paid for this car — well, the gas and insurance — with my own saved-up money from years of mowing lawns and giving guitar lessons. My grandmother Taylor, a Southern Baptist who knew the Scriptures cold, took one look at it and sniffed, “Oh, Lordy. Sin on wheels.”
In truth, she wasn’t far from wrong, though I don’t think she was directly quoting the Gospels. That car was a guaranteed make-out session at the Piedmont Drive-in.
But after one year of high school and four full years of college, alas, I gave it up — the car, that is, not the making out.
It simply had to go. I was working my first job as a serious cub reporter, after all. So I bought myself something I thought a suave and sophisticated grown-up like Peter O’Toole might drive — a used Triumph Spitfire — which turned out to be a guaranteed breakdown every 50-so miles.
My Piedmont Drive-In years abruptly ended, too; it’s hard to make time in a car that small, especially when you’re having to push it by hand to the nearest garage.
Luckily, the newspaper job provided me with a super DayGlo orange AMC Pacer to drive about the countryside in search of interesting stories. This car was like driving in a radioactive orange through a nudist camp. Country folk called their small children out to the front porch just to wave, snap Polaroids and laugh out loud whenever I rolled by — atonement for my hot gold Camaro years, I suppose. By the way, I think this exact phrase appears somewhere in the Book of Revelation.
This was also about the time I gave up long hair.
It was the early 1970s and hippie girls in college liked long hair, you must understand, and well, I really liked college hippie girls a great deal. They were such free spirits and often insufficiently clothed.
I didn’t do pharmaceuticals, though I did once foolishly try smoking pot for a few weeks just to prove to a certain pretty hippie girl named “Dawn” (real name Doris) that I was a peace-loving hippie-like guy. Unfortunately, smoking pot just made me go to sleep.
In fact, I was merely posing — or rather, sleeping — as a hippie guy. The true hippie girls could quickly sniff out flower-power imposters. When I woke up, Dawn had broken and was long gone. She’d found my golf bag hidden in a closet. So I gave up three things simultaneously: the long hair, pot smoking, and trying to woo pretty hippie girls who hated golf. Saint Augustine talks about this very thing in his famous Confessions. Page 212, I think.
During my roaring 20s, I lived in Atlanta and thought I was a journalism big shot because I interviewed semi-famous people or bullet-headed crazies and worked on the same magazine where Margaret Mitchell worked when she wrote “Gone With the Wind,” a book I never bothered to read. The movie was enough for me. I gave that up even before I moved to Atlanta.
After my first year there I got engaged to an anchorwoman who loved to attend chic parties after her midnight shift. When it was clear I was neither chic nor a night-owl, the engagement ended by mutual consent. We gave each other up, and I started going to bed early. St. Jerome advised exactly this cure for Lent.
I also played on three different fast-pitch softball teams, coached a little league team, and loved going to Braves baseball games after work. The Braves were the worst team in Major League Baseball during those years, but I loved sitting in the stands with drunk and obnoxious fans and a shirtless Ted Turner yelling terrible things at both the home and visiting teams.
This ended when I took a job in northern New England and the Braves started to win games. By then, my aching knees forced me to give up playing softball for Lent. Somewhere I read that Charles Wesley did exactly the same thing, if you can believe it, shortly before he founded the Methodist church.
In northern New England I fell in love, got married, built a house, had children, ran the church summer auction, played golf with former hockey coach-buddies and learned to love shoveling snow. I started writing books, too. Margaret Mitchell would probably have been proud as peaches of me, or maybe not, since I didn’t read her book. In any case, almost overnight, my children grew up and I had to let them go, if not give them up — which, if I’m not mistaken, according to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, is not exactly the same thing.
Anyway, the little scamps grew up and went off to very expensive colleges (at which point I gave up being financially solvent), and my wife and I decided to come home to the South where I no longer had to shovel snow during Lent or the Fourth of July. That was awful nice to give up.
On a down note, I gave up my hockey coach golf buddies and the dream house I still have dreams about. I think one of the lesser known apostles — St. Bob — talked about this very thing in his just-discovered memoirs.
On a brighter note, since that time we’ve enjoyed a rewarding life here in my old stomping ground, though it must be said that I’ve given up a succession of things since we arrived — most notably my carefree 50s, chocolate ice cream, a full night’s sleep, interest in most televised sports, belief in anything a politician says, Italian food after 7 p.m., and the crazy hope of ever having a 34-inch waist ever again.
So when I started running through the possibilities of what I could give up this year for Lent, well, as Mrs. Noah said to her husband after 40 trying days at sea, there isn’t a whole lot left in the cupboard. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t even think about pretty hippie girls who got away anymore. My surviving vices are laughably few.
I could, I suppose, give up my ailing golf game, but I probably won’t. Besides, every round now is a form of spiritual penance.
Perhaps I could give up reading tabloid magazines for free in the grocery store check-out line. Except how would I ever really know what’s going on in the lives of Hollywood celebrities I’ve never even heard of?
Come to think of it, maybe it really is time to give up making fun of poor Donald Trump and his hair. I keep doing that in this column space, a classic cry for help. Please stop me before I sin again.
Nah, that’s going too far. Besides, I think the Book of Ecclesiastes has something important to say about people with prematurely orange hair making graven images to themselves. Look it up and see for yourself.
Oh, right. How about this? I’ve had a nasty head cold and hacking cough since Groundhog Day. My birthday is on Groundhog Day. Does that seem at all fair?
Then again, life’s not fair. So I should probably just let that go, as Job was wisely advised by his wife.
Still, I wouldn’t mind giving up the sound of my own whining voice for Lent.