The shovel rings as I thrust it into the ground. “Great”, I think, “another *%$@!! tree root.” I stop for a moment and rest against the spade. Its handle has become soft with age; the lace tracery of the ash tree’s rings still visible in the muted gold of the handle. It’s a beautiful thing…a fact I’ve forgotten during my single-minded assaults on the soil.
Spring has not yet sprung, but she rustles beneath leafy carpets: crocus buds burst and jonquils jostle. And here I stand by our new statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, listening to the breezes rattle the remaining winter leaves and watching wayward waifs bicycle by.
“Whatcha doin’?” asks the little girl from next door. Isabella is about eight. She has Talia, age 3, in tow.
“Planting roses,” say I.
“That’s the biggest hole I’ve ever seen!!” Isabella says. “Why is it so big?!” Talia looks wide-eyed at the hole; it has clearly taken on added import with Isabella’s proclamation.
“It has to be big so that I can fit the rosebush in it.” I point to the peat pot on the ground beside me.
“Can we help?” Isabella asks. She reaches for the axe I’ve been using to chop up the tree roots.
“Not with that,” I say, “That axe is pretty sharp. But, maybe you can help me water the roses once they’re planted, OK? Maybe a little later….”
“OK! I’m good at watering!” says Isabella.
The girls wander off. Talia looks back wistfully at the axe.
I return to hacking tree roots. “This would be a great penance for someone”, I think. I wonder how many tree roots would take the place of a single Hail Mary in the economy of Elysium? Or would it be the other way ’round? Would a single tree root be the purgatorial peer of divers devout prayers?
I know why I’m thinking this way. Lent approacheth. Ruminations will arrest and musings manacle me during the whole of the coming desert season. I’ll ponder angels on pinheads and the significance of sacramentals throughout these forty days, trying to make sense of a deliberately-chosen dearth.
Rather like the process of producing a painting, Lent always presents itself to me as a journey. It has settled start and stop times, and you know that you’ll likely, God willing, get to “the other side”. But the passage is the thing…the actual movement of the self through a sieve of solitude, even if that solitude is sacramental and cerebral rather than spatial.
This is what it means to be in the desert.
When I work on a painting, I leave a scattering of studies and sketches in my wake. They are like breadcrumbs strewn on a forest floor; like the thread given Theseus by Ariadne to help him escape the labyrinth. The sketches, and even the paintings that result, are what I have to show for all of the toil, all of the trouble that I take.
But what will mark my passage through Lent? And what is the point of it all, really?
I return to the tree roots. Large root links like bratwurst pile up beside the hole. Finally, I get past the worst and the hole becomes deep enough for the rosebush. I press the plant’s root ball firmly into fragrant loam. I wipe the sweat away from my eyes and notice that the thin sunlight is now warm on my face. Birds are singing everywhere…robins roar and cardinals croon. They’ve been kicking up a real fuss for the last two weeks…ever since the last freeze, I guess. But I’m just now really noticing….
“Maybe things are getting better,” I think. “Maybe the worst of winter is finally past.” I rake black earth around the root ball and sit down to catch my breath.
This rosebush may be blooming by the time my Lenten journey is over, but only if it gets the care it needs, and only if I watch it and protect it from the slugs and the spring thunderstorms. And I guess that’s as close to understanding what Lent is all about as I’ll ever get; it’s got something to do with protecting what is precious inside of us so that it, too, can blossom.
The two girls return. “Is it time to water the roses yet?” asks Isabella.
“Yes, I think it is,” I say, “High time.”