This February, 24 years later, I gave Lent another go, and gave up driving.
No small thing, this, in sprawling Los Angeles. My partner, Amy, has been living here for a decade with no driver's license, so I knew it could be done. But that also meant that ours would be a non-driving household for 40 of the 46 days — I took one motorized day each weekend — between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
Lent is a tradition that has evolved over centuries in the Christian church, a ritual of fasting or penitence leading up to Easter. If I worried that my modern, urban interpretation was insufficiently spiritual, I got over it after doing a little reading. Historically, Lent was primarily about food, but the rules were fairly loose. Fasting a few days during Holy Week, or just going without meat, seemed to do the trick for most believers. Loopholes allowed for reprieves on Sundays and feast days (so don't scoff at my once-a-week driving), and there was leeway on choice of sacrifices. Church historian Socrates of Constantinople documented how some penitents in the 5th century abstained "from fruit covered by a hard shell and from eggs."
Sacrificing my Subaru was at least on par with eggs and pomegranates. But early reactions from some friends suggested that going without a car in Los Angeles would be akin to holding my breath for 40 days.
Only once did I actually have to hold my breath. On a rush-hour bus home, a man in a dingy silk smoking jacket with a Bob Marley hairdo subjected the back of the bus to an odor that I can only describe as rotting soft cheese doused in sheep urine. He sat right next to me. But so did Josh Kamensky, the pinstripe-suited spokesman for City Council President Eric Garcetti. Everyone on Garcetti's staff, I found out, has committed to commuting by alternative transportation — carpool, Metro, bike — at least weekly.
I'll confess that I started out with certain expectations. I thought I would read on the bus, but that rarely worked out. My 3.2-mile commute wasn't long enough to finish even a mid-length magazine article. Most often I rushed out in the morning and would forget to grab a book or magazine.
Surely, too, I would get more exercise — starting with a daily trip up the 101-step staircase between my street and the bus stop on Sunset Boulevard. As of Maundy Thursday, however, I hadn't dropped a single pound.
But I did eat better. With nothing but 7-Eleven and Leticia's Mini-mart within walking distance, our weekly grocery shopping became more sharply focused. Amy and I were shocked after two weeks to realize that we'd cooked every night — and hadn't even ordered take-out.
I worried about being homebound, but friends came over or picked us up. We took long walks and explored recent additions to our ever-evolving neighborhood. We got around to eating at the new Italian deli. I rode my bike to get a haircut, to the pharmacy, to the hardware store. I never felt constrained; L.A. never felt smaller just because I wasn't driving to Pasadena or the Westside.
Lent was, for me, a sort of shorthand. It was a way to tell others what I was doing without explaining why. People tended to fill in the blanks, most often with some fight-global-warming words of encouragement .
My motivations weren't so well defined, or even particularly virtuous. I wanted to try out a slightly different version of my life, see how it felt, test my ability to change.
But there was something more too. Amy, as she often does, put words to my thoughts this week. "It's useful to give up things — to not have every single thing we want at every moment," she said. "People think so much about what they can acquire and take on — not what they can shed or do without."
Shedding a car, it turned out, was easier than I'd expected, at least for a month and a half. I'm sure that one day next week, I'll slide into the Subaru and drive in to work like I used to. But maybe not every day. I still, on occasion, bite my fingernails too.