Ash Wednesday Fish

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I wrote this summary of our Ash Wednesday three years ago, and for some reason, never posted it. Posting now, because I still need to take to heart what we experienced.

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, and Dolce and I discussed the readings of the day over breakfast. We'd taken our time getting out of our warm bed and so breakfasted late. I sliced thick slabs form a lovely loaf of fresh sour dough bread and fried a couple of eggs each. I slathered butter over the crusty toast. Dolce made yummy sounds the whole time she at it. Toast is one of her favorite things. We compared how Jesus' instructions to keep pious actions on the down low seemed to be in contrast with the very public sign of a dark smear of ashes across the forehead. Dolce talked about the practice of giving up chocolate or other favorite vice, wondering if it would be more in keeping with Christ's instructions to just go out more fully into the world as carriers of God's love? And so off we went to our church's Wednesday fee lunch program for the hungry. We'd been planning to attend for months, to see if we might volunteer here as we have once a month at our previous church's meal program. When it is our night to cook we consider ourselves the hosts of an extended family dinner party. We choose a menu that is special, balanced, and contrasting in textures, colors, and flavors.

We walked in to the fellowship hall and saw full tables and faces of mixed complexions and ages. Most people were men. Two women were there with two girls who looked to be five to seven years old. We chose a table and sat between a group of three deaf men who stayed busily engaged in conversation through the meal, and a twinkling-eyed, middle-aged Hispanic guy with a service pit bull at his side. A smiling volunteer greeted us and quickly brought plates heaping with food. The air was redolent of fish and we saw a floppy brown rectangle, a mound of suspiciously glossy smooth mashed potatoes, a tiny bump of coleslaw, and a pile of grayish peas mixed with soft, soggy carrot rounds. A dense under cooked biscuit rested atop the whole thing, earning pride of place perhaps because it was homemade. I looked at the food and dug in, forcing my foodie proclivities down as I lifted fork after fork of the bland mush into my mouth. A young Hispanic man joined us a few minutes later, calling our neighbor Papi and chatting animatedly with him in Spanish. Papi entertained us throughout the meal with stories about the dog. Her toenails were painted bright red. He fed her from his fork, starting with a bite of coleslaw. He scrolled through photos of her on his phone. One showed her dressed in a camouflage tutu, in another she watched TV, and in a third she sported sunglasses. Her name was Tanya, and helps him when he has seizures. He said she was his wife.

A youngish man behind me stood up to take care of his garbage. For the next five minutes he berated the room at large. "Who threw that fish away? There's nothing wrong with that fish!" His dark eyes flashed as he looked around, while pulling up the sleeves of his snow coveralls, and pulling a knit cap down over his tousled black hair. His skin was sun and wind darkened, his lips chapped. "That fish is good food! Who would throw that away?" A female voice muttered in response, but he merely stomped away in disgust. Dolce hates fish but she'd dutifully eaten a few bites in solidarity with the group. I took the abandoned remainder, scraped off the soggy coating and ate the thin flakes of flesh that were revealed.

Papi continued chatting with us and with he newcomer. He told us about a place around the corner called Common Ground where you could get free donuts and coffee. He said you could hang out and watch TV, maybe watch a movie. He recommended it to us, explaining that it was open every day from 12:00-4:00.

By this time the moms were getting in motion. One said "Come on! It's time to go!" and a little voice responded "I want to stay a while and get really warm!" My heart clenched at the thought of the girl needing to stock up on heat calories, wondering if they'd be spending the afternoon outside. But mom didn't want to hear it and she bustled the girl to the bathroom, and eventually toward the door. As she passed by, the littler girl called out her friend "Come on! We're going to Common Ground!" And so I relaxed, picturing her continuing to be warm at least until 4:00.

I continued working at the pile of gluey food in front of me, hating to wast it but full to the point of nausea. Eventually it seemed like we'd stayed long enough and so I threw away our disposables and thanked the folks in the kitchen who had cooked and served us. They wished me a good and day and we went back out into the sparkling snow, saying goodbye to the woman we see on Sundays, who's face looks like it is caving in in the center, so eventually her forehead and chin will meet in the center. I'm not sure how she manages to push her walker through all that snow and slush outside. It must be exhausting.

As we drove home I thought about the contrast of the simple, beautiful breakfast we'd eaten and the Styrofoam pile of calories placed before us a lunch. I thought about the fasting called for as a Lenten practice, and wondered if becoming overly full during this meal could somehow be a form of that practice. I thought about how much we would like to bring our own style of serving into this setting once a month. How we would like to host a family party for this group of womenless men and single moms with kids and gumming old women and middle aged black ladies with red sequined hoodies, and half frozen young men who know the value of a flat greasy block of fish, and friendly, fatherly guys who want to help two middle class women know where to find free donuts.

So tomorrow I'll hunt down the contact information for the program's coordinator. Hopefully she'll let us throw that party once a month.