Today is Ash Wednesday, the traditional start of Lent. Many of my friends from a Christian background use the Lent period as a bit of a time to reboot their lives. This may be in the form of giving up alcohol or sweets or cream cakes. Over the years I've done all three. When I was seven, I gave up sugar in my tea for Lent. I remember that for the first couple of weeks it tasted disgusting. I would emit a loud, demonstrative Yuck with every mouthful. I recall that it tasted like drinking raw sewage. I couldn't wait for the end of the 40 day Lent period. On the allotted day, I excitedly got my mother to make a cup of sugary tea and took a giant gulp. To my horror it tasted disgusting. I have never taken sugar in tea since. It was an interesting life lesson. What we enjoy is often just what we are used to.
About 30 years ago, I gave up beer for Lent. I was drinking a little too much of the stuff, I didn't particularly like wine or spirits and I rationalised that it might do me some good. It coincided with a very quiet period in my life, the band was dormant, I was working at a day job with people I wasn't really that keen on and not drinking beer was a great way to not have to socialise with them. I would have given up alcohol completely, but I wasn't enjoying the job, so needed something to help me relax after stressful days. At the time there was a very good Italian restaurant in Mill Hill that did a half price earlybird dinner offer. It was as cheap and far less hassle than eating at home. I'd recently started my first IT contracting job so I was pretty flush with cash. Every day we'd nip in, have a starter, some Penne Arrabiata and a bottle of Red Wine. It all seemed very civilised. At the start of Lent, it was just myself and Clare, but buy the end it seemed that we'd be joined by enough people to fill half of the restaurant, pre kids every day seemed like a party. What started out as a way of cutting back ended up being a very social event and usually we'd adjourn back to my house for another bottle or two of Red. I thought I'd lose weight for Lent, but by the end of it, I'd put on two stone. I learned an important lesson. Humans are very adaptable and we will always find a way to enjoy ourselves, given half a chance. That episode gave me a lasting love of good red wine and Italian food.
I have given up Alcohol a couple of times, but Lent is at a rotten time for such abstinence. It occurs just as the football season starts building towards its climax and I love apie and a beer on the terraces. It encompasses St Patricks day, a key day for those of us of Irish backgrounds. Most years, it would encompass my Mothers birthday and she hated it if I wouldn't drink Guinness with her for both her Birthday and Paddy's day. My Dad and one of my sisters birthdays also occur on 1st April, which is usually also in the period (Easter can occur on any Sunday on a date between 22nd March and 25th April based on the lunar cycle). If I've got nothing to do, I don't mind not drinking, I currently don't drink Monday-Thursday at all, but I hate missing out on parties etc.
As to chocolate and cakes, I gave both of these up as child. My mum would very much ration these anyway, and I found that I really didn't miss them. I probably buy myself one cake a year. I am not a chocoholic and I found that I'd prefer to eat crisps anyway.Funnily enough the concept of giving crisps up has never occurred to me. I always felt a fraud giving up things I didn't miss.
A couple of years ago I asked Clare what I should give up for Lent. She suggested that 'being sarcastic' would be a good place to start. She wasn't being sarcastic either. I once asked her what was my least endearing feature and she said that it was that I gave hugely sarcastic answers to the most reasonable of questions. I was quite shocked because I'd never even realised I was doing it. When pressed, the example she gave, was to me a question that I thought had a blindingly obvious answer. I said "Does that really bother you?" She replied "Yes". It got me thinking. Often we are not even aware of our annoying habits. Often what someone else may think of as Sarcasm, we think of as jolly humour. If someone asks if you want a cup of tea, you might think replying "How long have you known me" is witty, they might find it rude and unappreciative. Often we are so accustomed to such behaviours that we are completely oblivious to the fact that it may not be quite as witty as we think. It might also be far harder to 'give up' than beer, coffee or cakes, as it is ingrained.
In a year when we've given up far too much already, giving up anything (unless you need to for health reasons) may not be the best thing for your wellbeing, we all need some sort of solace. Maybe a postive thing would be a better way to approach #Lent2021. Over the last three months, it has become absolutely clear that some of my friends need a little more help and support than they have previously. Maybe what we should be giving up is putting off that call to a friend until tomorrow. We have little to do, so use the time wisely. If you text someone and say "Are you OK?" they will probably say fine, even if they are not. If you ring them up, you will have a chat with them, you will feel better, they will feel better. I believe we live in an age that is suffering a tyranny of Zoom calls. Zoom is great to get a family together, but if you want to really find out how someone is, it won't happen on a Zoom call. A one to one call will give your friends a chance to open up to you. You aren't going out, most of us have TV's with catch up or Netflix that you can pause. You lose nothing making a call to a friend. You may find that it is you that gets most out of it. You don't have to be of any faith or persuasion to do it. You don't need the excuse of Lent to do any of this, but it does provide a reason to reflect. Ask yourself this. In five years time, when you look back on all of the enforced free time you had in these strange times, will you be able to take anything positive from it? The answer will only be yes if you make a positive decision to do something worthwhile. We are emerging from the darker times of covid, so now is the time to start building to the future.