08 March 2009


Today was warmer than normal for this time of year, as yesterday was. And both days passed under overcast skies that didn't so much threaten rain as it foreshadowed showers, which came softly and briefly late this afternoon.

In spite of the warmth, my skin tingled from the chill that tinged the dampness. It was enough to remind me that spring has not arrived yet; we will most likely have at least one more cold spell.

This sort of day, not belonging to either the winter nor the spring, is part of another season: Quinquagesima. It is more commonly known as Lent, but that term is too fraught with connotations of enforced religious ritual for my taste. However, "quinquagesima," as those of you who paid more attention than I did in Latin or catechism class know, is a period of fifty days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. In most years, that period more or less coincides with that part of the year when you can practically smell and taste the coming of spring but you know that there's still cold wind and possibly more snow to come.

It sounds like it might have been some sort of pagan season. Most of the church's holidays and celebrations are adaptations of their pagan counterparts. As far as I know, the ceremonies and observances of most organized religions are appropriations of celebrations and rituals of the religions and cultures that preceded them in their locales. For that matter, every surviving culture is a hybrid. So is every surviving human being. After all, you don't get to my age, let alone old age, by being a purist, whatever that means.

But I digress. Well, maybe not: This season, or whatever you want to call the period of time I've described, is also a kind of cross-breed of time. And so my emotions about it are mixed.

If I wanted to be even more self-absorbed than I already am, I could say that this time of year is a reflection of the way I've been living now: What I've looked forward to, and longed for, is within sight. But it's not here yet. What I have now is the hope that I have indeed made it through the worst of the winter, literally and metaphorically, and that whatever inclement weather may come will be temporary and somehow prepare me for what I'm looking forward to. My years of being "trans" are almost, but not quite over; womanhood--at least more or less as most people envision and define it--is so close but not quite arrived.

In the hip-hop class, one of my students started a discussion of sense-memories. I don't think anyone in that class has read A la rechereche du temps perdu, but I mentioned how Proust could recall a whole world through the taste of a madeleine. They all understood. Now I am having an equally poignant memory, although this one is olfactory.

Now I am--in my mind--in the Rosary Garden next to the church in which I served as an altar boy. Around this time of year, people would leave memorial bouquets around the figurines representing the Stations of the Cross that lined a stone walway leading to a sort of mini-altar with a statue of the Virgin Mary. People, almost all of them women older than my grandmother, would come after the morning and early evening weekday masses to pray at this shrine. I wonder whether any of them noticed the smell of those flowers.

Yes, they all mingled into one smell, one more intensely sweet than any other I have experienced since. Lilacs (then, as now, my favorite flowers), hyacinths, crysanthemums and lilies intensified each others' effervescence and poignance. In fact, I can recall no other scent that so combines those those qualities.

Of course, all of those flowers were cut. More than likely, they came from greenhouses. Even then I knew that, but it didn't diminish the sense that at that time of year, life itself (not to mention beauty of any sort, let alone anything one has that is entirely his or hers) comes at a price, and that its emergence into this world is not the end of death. Those lives, those meanings, struggle to grow from the soil that became of their flesh, and the flowers of their beings are irrigated by their blood.

I think that I was beginning to understand something that I would read much, much later: James Baldwin's declaration to the effect that any person or any culture that has a language of her/his/its own has paid dearly for it.

And I knew--even if I couldn't articulate--that I wanted to live with and by that smell in the garden, to the tune of the music (I didn't know it was written by Bach.) played on its organ and the drama, rhetoric and poetry of sin, atonement and salvation. Not of faith--even then, as desperate as I was to believe, I could but a little, very little.

I wanted Easter because I wanted the spring. But first there was the quinquegesima, which included at least a few days--like today--that , only after a lot of experience, one begins to discern as previews or precursors rather than prologues or preludes.