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March 8, 2000

Revelation Through Deprivation

Last weekend was the first that truly smacked of Spring, but Iím withholding, on this Ash Wednesday. Itís still Winter, despite a crocus giving notice. Winter for a little while. But Lent? Iím not so sure.

If Iíve vouched for asceticism, itís probably been to rationalize my own difficulty in managing my humanity. I find it a valuable perspective, notwithstanding. It crops up in just about every culture, and is, in fact, uniquely human: you wonít catch plants or animals fasting, if they donít have to.

You might say the practice mirrors the seasons; Summerís indulgence earns Winterís want. And vice versa. Thatís a cycle, but thereís another vector in ascetic practice; away from cultural norms, and into the mystic.

Isolation, abstinence, even self-inflicted damage, can realign consciousness. Todayís wan religions are more concerned with conscience than consciousness, but a look at Shamanism reveals the practical application of asceticism. By resisting the common mode, one gains the perspective of the outsider. A position of extremity, but one from which Mystery may be effectively approached.

So Lent is the Ascetic Holiday, to be observed, rather than celebrated. Or say that its lesson is that observation and celebration are the same, even if we must behold that which we would rather not.

Let me tell you then, (in keeping with the theme, I will resist the temptation to show you), let me tell you how in Central Park I have observed things squalid and disturbing. Things that confound me and appall. Things that break my heart. And all these are like the squirrels and sparrows; anyone can see them with little effort.

The homeless are there. Men and women of who knows what sad circumstance; many of them mad. Some appear cheerful, others wail in lunatic agony. Like birds, they are most evident at dawn and dusk, inhabiting the margins of the dark, as of the public conscience.

There are the party spots, used at night, after the Park is legally closed. I do not resent so much the activities, as the disregard for the landscape that the participants evince. Not just trash, but trash thatís foul in bizarre and perplexing ways. Always some odious, oozing, hog-tied, half burnt mystery bundle, perhaps hanging from a tree. These places have an unwholesome air about them, exacerbated by the fact that they are typically the most inviting spots in the vicinity. From time to time some lurid crime brings one of these sites into the public eye, but only for a moment.

Trysting is another problematic activity, and one youíre more likely to run into in progress, notably (though hardly exclusively) in the Ramble, with its famous cruising scene. Asceticism aside, Iím not out to manage anyone elseís sex life, but Iíd rather not have the same thrust on me, so to speak. Used condoms are just a nod and a wink, but the forensics of discarded clothing patterns provide more suggestive details. Powerful passions leave their mark, and itís not necessarily pretty. And just how did they get home without putting that back on?

Other sorts of wantonness abound as well. Mountain bikers ride off trail, and dog walkers ignore leash rules, accelerating soil loss and plant damage, while destroying animal habitat. Even my own forays off the path, if not technically illegal, are damaging to some degree, no matter how careful I try to be.

Thereís plenty more, from banal garbage to evidence of cruelty to animals. There are inexplicable discards, and mere literal shit, but I do not dwell upon it. Ignoring things is also a technique of asceticism. Neither do I write much about the pigeons and the rats, though they are as representative as the flowers and the hawks. To further Lenten humility, let's note that the most successful local species are those best adapted to the human dominated environment. That we disdain them, despite our contiguity, is an index of our own character.

That said, enough of mortification! Soon it will be Spring; just cause for celebration. I will not temper my regard out of some Christian obligation. Confounding the circuit of Earthís seasons with supernal deity is an attractive temptation, but it may blind us to necessary observations. This year, Iím giving up asceticism for Lent.