This post has been re-written like twelve times so far. I’m wrestling with the post because all I can think about are cupcakes. True story.
When I went to Panera Bread this week the sign on the door informed me that all of their ingredients were now “clean.” I thought to myself, “I hope they have cupcakes and I don’t care how ‘clean’ they are.” I do care, though, a little.
If you know about “clean eating”, then you might think that “clean” ingredients in a cupcake mean you get to eat more cupcakes and that’s good, huh?
Yeah, not always.
“Clean” cupcakes might not mean that I will automatically want to eat more of them. Like my well-documented love of donuts, cupcakes hold a special place for me. They signal some remembrance of my childhood. It was almost always a special occasion when we got them, maybe a birthday for someone at school, or a party for an anniversary. I’d eat them no matter what flavor because, well, cupcakes, am I right? Cupcakes! Yay!
Now that I’m a grown up and cupcakes are pretty much everywhere, I’m more particular. They must be vanilla, and they must have buttercream frosting. Buttercream frosting isn’t generally “clean” as many would define “clean.” (You can see more about “clean eating” here if this is all lost on you.)
But my post isn’t really about the popular eating trend of “clean eating. Sorry (not sorry.)
This is all on my mind today because it’s almost Lent and during Lent, I stop eating cupcakes for a little while to keep the fast. I could eat vegan cupcakes, but it’s not quite the same. I mean, if I’m going to eat cupcakes then I want real, full on cupcakes and I said, they must be vanilla, and they must have buttercream icing. I feel as though I need to get “one last cupcake” on the books before the fast starts. I start to feel greedy about what I feel I’ll be “losing” for this next forty days. That can’t be good.
In all the talk of cupcakes and being “clean,” I’m brought back to the practice of “Clean Monday” in the Orthodox tradition. And when I think of Clean Monday I think, again, about the loss of Ash Wednesday in my becoming Orthodox. I loved the feel of the priest’s thumb on my forehead making the sign of the cross in the dusty remains of last year’s palms from Palm Sunday. I wore those ashes proudly. It is one memory that returns to me every single Lent.
I value the experiences of my Catholic upbringing. It’s more than nostalgia, it’s history, it’s family. Being brought up Catholic was bedrock for me, and I am forever grateful for that bedrock. I would not be the person I am today without it. I count that all joy even though I am no longer a practicing Catholic.
Years ago, an Orthodox friend offered some consolation about my grief for Ash Wednesday with the explanation of Clean Monday in the Orthodox tradition. And I love this, I cling to it– knowing that we do not withhold the “Alleluia,” that we are accepting joy with the pain, beginning clean once again because every day is made new. It fits with advice that I have given as a personal trainer when people ask about creating new, better health habits. Every day is new. Every day is day one. It’s never too late to begin clean.
Still, the lament for Ash Wednesday continues to rise up in me each year despite the revelation of Clean Monday. I’m coming to accept that I will always have that mixed bag of lament and joy as the cycle of the seasons continues. I am the sum of all these parts, all these pieces. So, the act of beginning clean is not a substitution for whatever I feel I’ve lost, but something added, some new piece of this puzzle of human experience.
Perhaps, though, there is a lesson here from cupcakes. Perhaps the elements of my human experience are less like puzzle pieces but are more akin to a list of ingredients– natural or man-made, organic, clean or otherwise. Each ingredient has its effect, each interacts with another, but it’s all a part of the whole picture, the whole enchilada, the whole cupcake. Everything fits. Everything belongs.
So, with that in mind now, my focus this year as I draw closer to my next Great Lent as an Orthodox Christian is to embrace all of this, the new and the old, my past and my present, the lament along with hope and joy. I hope to embrace the act of forgiveness, and the task of accepting forgiveness, as well the feel of beginning clean even as (metaphorical) ash remains on my forehead.
I’m going to have my cupcake today, on the verge of Great Lent and eat it too. I’m going to have my moments of lament for those things, those pieces, those ingredients that feel long gone or lost, and I’m going to chew on those and remember how delicious and how life-giving and how important they have been, and will continue to be. And then Clean Monday will come, and Lent will progress, and Pascha will bring with it the redemption and restoration of all things (including cupcakes.)