We have started the Lenten fast (again!) In Orthodoxy if you calculate it, the year gets broken down the middle: 180 days of fast and 180 days of feast. “Oh you are a member of that fasting religion,” a co-worker at the corporate lunch buffet mutters when he sees me pile the plastic plate with all thinly sliced meager lettuce leaves, tomatoes, and green pepper rings and scrutinize the ingredient label on the “Classic Italian” salad dressing for any traces of Pecorino Romano cheese or any smidgen of butter. What can we do? My Catholic friends can get into heaven comfortably eating fried cod and tilapia on Fridays while we are mortified if we pinky pick into a dollop of sour cream or take a crumb of Feta. For 40 days we are to subdue the flesh by not indulging in any meat, dairy, wine or olive oil, except for a few stray feast days when the calendar allows it. It’s supposed to be a sacrifice, a purification, a way to get back to God by trying to subdue one of the greatest passions of all—eating. Eating, however innocent it sounds, is the reason why we got kicked out of Eden in the first place. “Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Eating got us into big big trouble. It led to death. So, as church logic has it, by not eating certain things we will try to gain back our favor with God. By curbing our appetites, we will get back into Eden, albeit a few pounds lighter. It’s not so much eating as it is obeying. Hey, the church’s thinking goes, if Jesus could fast (i.e. starve) without food or water for a fortnight, the least we can do is survive without meat and dairy for 40 days and nights.
Now, I’ll be honest out of all the passions that lead to the deadly sins, give or take a few, not eating, or controlling the stomach is one of the most challenging for me. You can lead me to walk through a football stadium full of naked buff Chippendale dancers, even throw in a couple of Kevin Costner, Brad Pitt look-alikes, and even the ultimate challenge—Robert Plant in his heyday with the Botticelli blonde curls pulsating his groin out to the riffs of the “Lemon Song”—and I swear, I would not touch a single body. I might shield my eyes now and then to avoid the sweaty, glistening six-pack of Vin Diesel or the Rock (what’s his name) but a subtle thought would not waft through my brain; an evil chord would not pulsate through my body. No sir, no unclean thought, no below-the-belt titillation, no um-um-um desire would move me.
BUT, put me in a room full of thousands and thousands of unopened packets of cheese puffs and I’m done. Ooooohhhhh! That processed cheesy aroma would emerge like in some Woody Woodpecker cartoon where you see the smell of the roast transform into the long-nailed hand of some seductress and float into the nostrils of Woody, putting him in a trance and slowly elevating him through dells and hills to the source of his pleasure—cheese doodles! The puffy, slightly stale kind. Irresistible! Tantalizing! Impossible for me to keep away.
Ever since I was a toddler, I was transfixed by the crispy cheesy texture, the whole edible experience of biting into their air-filled creamy saltiness, leaving the processed cheese pasty residue on my thumb and forefingers that I would relish licking and scraping off with my front teeth. Yum! Maybe it was my Aunt Dafne who got me hooked. When she would come and visit us as kids, she would bring a plastic bag filled with shiny orange sachets of cheese doodles, the ones that carried a toy wrapped in cellophane in every pouch. I would pounce on her like white on rice. Oh, that cheesy pleasure of hearing the crunch of each puffy doodle, the slow savor of the cheddar creamy consistency in my gums, the methodical division of each doodle into three bite-sized chunks. I especially like the doodles that were a day or two old; they had just that right combination of texture and staleness that made them ripe for chewing. Never liked the crunchy doodles, just the puffy ones. So help me god against the temptation of the Cheese Doodle.
Every day when I see first graders with Dora the Explorer backpacks munching on their packets of Wise or Utz, my mouth waters; my nose overwhelmed by that fresh cheesy fragrance. I look at the tiny cheese particles, the morsels that fall off the husks as they fly to the ground in grief. “Please, God, just a morsel; just a speck of the doodle detritus! It can’t be that sinful, just a nibble, OK?”
I have dreams of devouring entire rooms of cheese doodles. I see a slow motion clip of my falling into a pit (like the bright ball pit the toddlers jump into at the McDonald’s indoor playpit) of oversized extra-cheesy, extra-orangey cheese doodles and drowning in their heavenly richness. I can give up sex, money, even sleep, but God, please don’t, don’t take away my cheese doodles!
Yet this is what we are called to do. To give up the stuff that most keeps you pinioned to the earth. The fast is excruciatingly difficult because of my penchant for cheese puffs. It is supposed to make you hold fast. Stick fast to the rules. I suppose it is supposed to make you strap the reins on your chariot of passions and not let them drive you into the abyss of your drives. It is paradoxically supposed to set you free by siphoning you into a very rigid scuba suit of rules. Only when you are able to follow the rules to a “T” will you finally be able to be free of them. It forces you to turn your insides out. And even though not impossible, it seems a fairly do-able endeavor—“stay away from meat, things of the flesh, vain entertainments, sex for 40 days so that you can realign your focus on the things that really count, the things that are eternal, heavenly, spiritual. Fat chance! It is incredibly difficult. There is something in the world, in your inner self (some call it resistance, gravity, the “devil”) that keeps you from changing, that keeps you from obeying a simple rule. “A little chunk from the chocolate bar, OK? Not a chunk, OK, then how about just a lick?”—your conscience’s excuse generator kicks into overdrive. “If I only have the potatoes around the baking dish, but not the chicken itself, it’s not like I’m eating the chicken. I’m still fasting, right?” “Oh Jeez, it’s been such a hard day. I’m allowed a bit of milk in my morning coffee.” Father says,”It’s your ‘but’ that’s gonna park you into hell.”
The smallest of sacrifices is a Sisyphian task during Lent. The winter get-away all-you-can-eat cruise, your best friend’s wedding, NYC Restaurant Week, all seem to get scheduled just around the fast period. It’s during the fast, dabnabit, that I quite unexpectedly bump into that long-lost friend who invites me for dinner and offers my favorite Indian dish, saag paneer, cooked to creamy perfection, only to have to decline because I cannot break the fast. Then quickly my “make-excuses-with-excuse generator” fills my mouth with, “Oh well now, can I really offend this very good, good friend? How can I not eat her homemade cheese with spinach in a cream sauce so lovingly sautéed with just the right amount of spices?”
I don’t know why it is so hard to change habits except that humans are habitual animals. The same way it is so hard to keep a fixed rule of prayer—I am supposed to pray morning and evening with a 15-minute Akathist here and there squeezed in. But I find as soon as I make a rule to keep an extra practice of prayer during the day, the sooner I break it. It’s like I go from walking on a flat plain surface to climbing up a steep sand cliff, losing footing with each step of the way, the minute I resort to follow the fast and true way of the fast. To stay still, to stay fixed and resolved on what I set out to do needs the resignation of a saint. It requires heavenly help.
You have to deal with the enemy from within. Instead of relinquishing power of food and flesh, I find obsessing more about it. “What am I going to have for lunch? Veggie burgers, creative salads? A juice shake? What am I going to have for dinner? Shrimp with pasta? Sorbet?” When will I stop by GNC or Trader Joe’s to stock up on the smoked tofu, capers, and soy ice cream?” I find myself flipping through arcane webpages listing vegan recipes, scouring the exotic spice racks at the gourmet shops for unheard of foodstuffs such as sharkfin dust, moonfruit olive relish. I am driven to devour things I would not have before had it not been for the fast: the ugly fruit like a face with a mean case of acne, smelt bread, quionoa spaghetti, crab crackers. I even attempt squid-flavored puff sticks—a far, wanna-be cry for a cheese puff. I eat artificial foods that harken to the taste of the real thing—fake bologna, fake milk, fake butter, fake chicken; things whose ingredient label sounds like the toxic inventory list of a nuclear reactor plant on Shelter Island.
It’s the same resistance when it comes to giving alms, something else we are supposed to do during Lent. I have been deliberately for two weeks already whether to deliver a sympathy card to the family of the local sanitation worker who was killed in a hit-and-run. “Oh I have to give that card to the secretary collecting donations,” I keep prodding myself. The will is there but walking that flesh to the corner is weak. I want to give, really I do, but time, logistics, bills get in the way. It is so easy to spend $40 on boots but so hard to write a check for that much knowing full well it will go to feeding orphans or inoculating infants against malaria. A better bargain than gracing your toes with sheepskin or at least buffing them with pumice stone (better yet having someone else buff them). It seems such an easy choice, yet there is something that makes it so hard to make. The sneaky splash of frothy milk into the Cappuccino (it wouldn’t be cappuccino without it). Is it the selfishness bastion at the center of human essence? The “me-me-me” mantra unconsciously underlying everything, even the good things you do. “Let not the left hand know what the right hand is doing.” I have to trick myself into doing something good for goodness’ sakes!
And those damning cheese curls! They beckon with the bend of their puffy little orange arms—“Come, eat us! Let us take you to that cinnabar land of lusciousness lubricated in just the right amount of processed cheddary-cheese bliss!” Just one puff, just one puff—PUFF! And you are there! Cheese puff heaven where you float on a giant cheese puff cloud with an orangey-rosy complexion and eat puffs from an ever-replenishing bag of cheese puffs to your heart’s content.
But in an instant you fall into the 3/4th ring of hell. You float in a giant Utz foil bag with all the other cheese-puff damned souls, your belly bloated, your fingertips and lips cracked in that tell-tale color of shame forced to gorge on buckets and buckets of cheese curls for eternity. “Be wary, my son,” the poet-parent will caution. “Be wary of the dangers of the flesh.” All your forebears will say, “She traded her God for a cheap, air-filled puff of processed cheddar.”