Happy In-Between Day, friends!
Now I know that today is actually Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. In normal years, on this day the world would engage in wild, colorful, extravagant carnivals. Streets would become pathways for parades of carefully-crafted floats, complete with riders in colorful, often risqué costumes tossing out beads and candy. Alcohol and the desire to cut loose would send people into the streets in places like Rio, New Orleans, and Venice. And friends and strangers, costumed and masked, would indulge in music, dancing, and, sometimes, all of the things that Baptists are afraid music and dancing lead to.
At the same time, Fat Tuesday exists because it provides the last chance to party before the world gets more serious. It’s the day before the church calendar turns to Lent, the season of self-denial and repentance preparing us for Easter. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. That’s a day where, in churches across the globe, ministers and priests draw sooty crosses on the heads of their congregants, reminding each person that they came from ashes and will return to ashes. Those ashes, by the way, are the charred remains of the palm branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday services. There’s a cycle there, a satisfying rhythm to this part of the liturgical year.
But lest we settle into the somber business of Lent too quickly, bear in mind that just two days ago we celebrated Valentine’s Day. This is no longer primarily a church holiday, but it is celebrated by millions of people all over the world. Valentine’s Day, of course, is devoted to love, and cards, flowers, candy, and other gifts serve as tangible expressions of that sentiment. Roses and hearts appear in store windows; street vendors sell teddy bears and balloons decorated with expressions of love. Even grocery stores get in on the act, displaying seemingly endless bottles of cava and boxes of chocolates on end caps. So today is a day set between the headiness of love and the dark solemnity of mortality.
Today’s odd in-between-ness seems even more profound than usual this year. COVID has caused most cities to cancel their carnivals. Streets that usually would be packed with revelers will be quiet tonight. Valentine’s Day was quieter, too; restaurants that normally would be packed with diners were closed or relatively empty as people stayed home to avoid getting sick. Even Ash Wednesday is changed. As a precaution against contagion, many churches are not holding in person services. Many more that are meeting in person are not dispensing ashes by means of one person touching another’s forehead. We are indeed in-between, not skipping our special days altogether, but finding offbeat ways to mark them in some fashion.
That’s certainly been the experience for Mark and me. Take Valentine’s Day as an example. We’re kind of disgustingly lovey-dovey on normal days (much to the chagrin of our daughters in their teenage years), so a celebration of love is right up our alley. In addition, we accidentally had our first date on Valentine’s Day in 1985. (That’s a whole other story.) We therefore typically go out for a nice dinner and splurge a bit. But this year, the restaurants are all closed in our part of Spain, at least for in-house dining. So we got a lovely takeout Italian meal at a small restaurant nearby that’s become a favorite of ours. The restaurant, fittingly for the occasion, is named Emilia Corazon. It’s fitting because “Corazon” means “heart” in Spanish. I don’t know who Emilia is, but the restaurant is run by Ilaria and Stefano, a couple from Italy. The place has about four tables inside and six outside, and the decor is anything but fancy. But Ilaria cooks fresh, delicious dishes, and Stefano welcomes patrons with a big smile and pours a generous glass of vino tinto. Mark went and got our meal, which consisted of a salmon and potato appetizer, risotto and a potato/apple/onion/ham bake for the entree, and apple/raisin crumble for dessert. We used our nice dishes and put the flowers Mark bought me on the table. So that was lovely, if not what we usually do.
Ash Wednesday also will be different this year. Instead of going to an in person service, we will use the liturgy our beloved church in Texas has provided. The service requires ashes, of course; we decided to try for authenticity and picked up a dead palm frond from one of the palm trees on the Paseo in front of our apartment. Finding the palm may have been easy, but turning it into ashes was tough. Apparently, palms do not want to burn. This is especially true when you’re burning them in a minuscule aluminum pie pan that a Tesco chicken and veg pie came in on a terrace that’s being buffeted by winds from the Mediterranean. And it’s particularly especially true when the only flame you have to work with is an ancient Bic lighter that some long-ago renter left in your apartment. Trying to huddle over the pie pan to block the wind and hold the Bic into palm bits is every bit as complicated as it sounds. But we managed to burn enough palm to get some ashes – see picture above – so our substitute Ash Wednesday will go on tomorrow, and we’ll begin Lent the best way we can.
So happy in-between, where the calendars of love and mortality collide and the COVID-improvised rituals move us forward in our year. May you find your own spaces for joy and reflection in the place where the pandemic finds us.