Good Letters

I live in Minnesota, where the new growing season starts in May. At our house, March and April are our designated months for emptying the freezer, when we try to eat all the produce we froze the summer before. Sautéed spinach, tomato sauce, diced rhubarb, ratatouille, chopped raw onions and bell peppers divvied into one-cup portions in plastic bags: everything must go. Much of what we started with at harvest time is gone, but one or two items always remain in ridiculous abundance. This year it’s twenty-two pounds of sour cherries, our backyard tree having produced a record crop. As the snow melts, we are eating cherry soup, cherry cobbler, cherries any way we can imagine.

It’s a problem we’re lucky to have. Before the era of freezers and supermarkets, people in northern climes like ours canned and pickled and stored in root cellars all they could in order to get through winter. My grandfather told me that during their first winter homesteading, they subsisted an entire winter on a barrel of flour and a few boxes of shotgun shells, eating nothing but jackrabbits and pancakes. My grandmother remembered the year tomato canning on their farm had gone awry, how one night the family heard Pop! Pop! Pop! as each jar exploded, one by one, in the fruit cellar. There went the tomatoes for winter. (Also: what a mess.)

Lent is meant to be a period of turning toward and refocusing on God; we’re meant to reflect on the inevitability of death. It falls at a hinge-point in the year, where the tail end of winter meets earliest spring. Historically, it’s also the point at which people were eyeing first the last rags of snow outside, then what was left of their bug-filled, moldy stores, wondering how long the remaining food would last, and when the asparagus might finally be up. Lent falls around the same time of year many North American indigenous people refer to as “Hunger Moon.”

How timely for us, then, that Lent makes fasting and deprivation into virtues. How fitting that some of our symbols for our gratitude for resurrection and new life at Easter, like eggs and lambs, were symbols of fertility or the first foods available to eat.

An Episcopal priest once told me that church attendance declines during Lent, for reasons that can’t be explained by illness or vacation schedules. It’s just not a joyful time of year, she said. Yet Lent has always been one of my favorite seasons, even its desperate and barren-feeling edge, perhaps in part because my life is secure. I know I won’t starve. Lent isn’t in spring, it is spring itself, according to the Saxons: the word Lent comes from the Old English word lencten, for spring and its Lenten fast, and the Germanic langitinaz, meaning lengthening days.

My love for Lent is similar to my love for Advent. Both are seasons of serious quiet and waiting, made for introverts like me.

It’s hard not to notice – especially if you live as far north as I do — that these two four-to-six-week contemplative periods in the year of the church serve to bookend winter. One falls at winter’s beginning, as the world gets colder and darker; the other falls at the end, when the food supply dwindles and patience runs thin. The church never asks me to be still and take a few weeks to think about hope or death in, say, June, when the lakes glisten and the days are so long that it’s hard to settle my brain for sleep. Or in September, when the tables at the farmer’s market groan with overloaded bushel baskets of tomatoes and cucumbers, so many it almost seems the farmers would be happy to give them away.

Even if I won’t go hungry, in early spring I can’t help but feel a bit grim and anxious. I remind myself that the weather will turn; it always does. And just when I feel I can bear the gray weather no longer, I am given a day of sunshine and giddy hope. In general, though, the air is raw, and half-frozen mud cakes the soles of my daughter’s sneakers. Like no other time in the year, Lent creates a space in which fundamental human brokenness, and our toughest questions about what it means to be a person and suffer, can be acknowledged. The more years I am alive, the more honest and counter-cultural that acknowledgment feels.

I left my childhood Episcopal tradition during college, then spent over a decade free-floating through various spiritual practices before I came back to the church to stay. But I will tell you a secret: for many years of that decade-long free-float, I always managed to find a church and attend it alone for a few weeks in the early spring. It didn’t matter how busy or preoccupied I felt. I would open a new set of red doors — doors that I’d never before entered and after that Easter would likely never enter again — for a few weeks of listening and contemplation. I sat in the back, and did my best to slip out before anyone could ask me questions. After I got home, I did not tell anyone where I’d been.

It was strange and furtive behavior, I knew, and the person I was really trying to hide from was probably myself. When I look back, this too makes sense. What better time of year to notice that my stores had been depleted? Whatever I had been using to sustain myself had been consumed long ago.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Katrina Vandenberg

Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two books of poetry, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas, both published by Milkweed Editions. Her poems and essays have appeared in Orion, The Sun, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she also serves as poetry editor for Water~Stone Review.

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