A life and Lenten discipline
Instead of giving something up for Lent two years ago, I opted to “take on” contemplating my death. I had just been diagnosed with breast cancer (I wrote an essay about that experience here) so it sounded like a helpful Lenten discipline. Then a friend died (wrote about that here), the world and church shut down due to COVID-19 (article about the effect of the pandemic on church here), and I was diagnosed with lung cancer with only a 35% chance surviving five years (still too painful to write about so no article link). After my lung cancer diagnosis, I set aside that 2020 Lenten discipline, using expletives in my journal.
Then Lent 2021 felt like a year to take something on instead of giving more up, so I took on reading Heidi Haverkamp’s excellent devotional for this newsletter.
In 2022 church is open to in-person worship but fasting from something in the third year of pandemic still feels like too much. As I prepare for Ash Wednesday next week, I’ve pondered what I can give to God in Lent.
I know that I need to slow down. A few evenings ago, I made stew for dinner and cut my thumb peeling sweet potatoes. I’ve sliced off a piece of my fingernail at least twice before when peeling potatoes and each time think oh! I need to be more careful. Chemo caused neuropathy in my hands and feet and while I take medication for it, I still need to slow down and pay attention. Instead, I hurried and cut myself. In the same theme of carelessness, I bought the same two books just two days apart. I’ve done this many times in past seasons of Epiphany, and then always decide to give up buying books for Lent; but I want to go deeper this year.
I want to reframe Lent as gift to God. Self-denial is a Lenten theme, but after two years of giving up things we love due to the pandemic, I want to frame Lent positively. After prayer and reflection, the word that came to me Monday morning on my walk was savor.
I want to savor life this Lent, in contrast to two years ago when I tried focusing on death.
I want to pay attention to the meals I make and savor the privilege of preparing food for my husband and having enough to eat instead of hurriedly peeling potatoes into the trash, cutting myself, and then remembering that we compost so grabbing a handful of peels with my non-bleeding hand to toss into the compost bucket.
I want to savor books and immerse myself in them instead of buying them twice because I read two different good reviews about them.
I want to savor the experience of writing a book instead of feeling overwhelmed by rushing to meet a deadline alongside all that is going on at my beloved parish of St. David’s as we try to emerge from the difficulties of the past two years.
When writing my book, sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in research. I love all of the subtopics but keep wanting to go back to books I’ve admired to see how other writers wove personal anecdotes with research. In between my church work and writing and research I have trouble making time for re-reading. I’ve also started to realize how little I retain, so I need to reread some of the books that have inspired me, paying better attention this time.
I need to savor them.
I’ve started listening to a book I’ve already read: At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life by Fenton Johnson. This book came out in 2020 and I devoured it but didn’t savor it. Fenton was recently on the podcast Contemplify and I was riveted by what he said, then was surprised when he said that what he had just described was in the opening of his book. I thought I was hearing it for the first time.
I decided to reread the book by audio. After listening to a chapter each morning as I walk or drive, I make marks in my physical copy (a tough habit to form since I used to sell rare books, which are more valuable when pristine). I’m embarrassed by how little I remember from my first reading. I loved the book, but I didn’t savor it and didn’t retain much beyond the glow of “that was great.”
Savoring that podcast and the book again led to an exchange with Fenton, who was one of my MFA mentors. I reached out to him to say that I had heard him on Contemplify and updated him on my book’s progress, which he had encouraged me to write years ago. He reframed my experience of starting the last lap of my book: “In many ways, the closing days of a ms. are the best—the project is not, perhaps, the Taj Mahal of one’s imagination, but will do.” Another invitation to savor this experience. Had I not set out to savor Fenton’s book again, I would not have had that exchange.
This month in BLESSED ARE THE BARREN I’m researching and writing about women in medicine, specifically Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell and Florence Nightingale. I’m learning so much and can’t help but read about them with my own experience as a cancer patient in mind. I’m grateful to savor this experience.
Are you giving up or taking anything on for Lent? What about savoring: does the word resonate with you? What do you want to savor? Drop a comment!
What I’m Reading:
Rosa Parks: A Life. This was the only adult Rosa Parks bio that my local library had. (Last month I wrote about activists so am revising that work this month in addition to drafting the chapter about medicine.) I’m so grateful to Vincent Williams from my seminary library (the Bishop Payne Library at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria) for helping me with other sources. Librarians are the best.
These Precious Days. I didn’t finish this but loved some individual essays.
Cost of Living: Essays. I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway! I was so surprised that giveaways work. This book brings to life how messed up our health insurance system is, which became aware of in my own cancer experience because I am privileged to have excellent insurance through my husband. I cannot believe the price differential between what various surgeries and hospital stays cost and what my insurance paid. Staggering and scary.
Indexing, A History of. This is one of those books I accidentally bought twice because have been so excited about it. I used to index as part of freelance work before I went to seminary.
On Reading Well. I rescued this from an old TBR pile under my writing table, towards the bottom of the stack underneath Best American Essays 2019 after hearing about it on a podcast (linked below). I’m excited to read it again and to study “virtues” during Lent.
I am rereading Keys to Bonhoeffer’s Haus in anticipation of my church’s book club meeting tomorrow night (Thursday February 24th), at which author Laura Fabrycky is going to join us via Zoom!
The Doctors Blackwell: Fabulous and fascinating bio.
Oh William! A novel recommended by my friend Dana. Loved it.
Lost and Found: Excellent memoir.
The Seeker and the Monk by Sophfronia Scott. I struggle with Thomas Merton, but I think Scott finally cracked him open for me. I think this will be my church’s next book club book.
And I cannot WAIT to get my hands on my dear friend Teri Ott’s book Necessary Risks: Challenges Privileged People Need to Make. I encountered Teri’s work through a proposal-writing workshop and was fascinated by Teri’s experience in a men’s prison that she referenced in a sample proposal that the instructor, Allison Williams, used in the class. Allison then “e-introduced” us, and now Teri and I are in a writing group together. So, I have been anticipating this book for well over two years. And Teri is moving to Virginia, so maybe I can get her to come talk to the church about her book for a summer book club meeting!
What I’m Writing:
Lots of sermons this month. Lots of epiphanies:
What’s In My Earbuds:
A few favorites that I’ve savored recently.
Old Books with Grace: How I rediscovered the Karen Swallow Prior book as well as the one by Sophfronia Scott.
Small Churches Big Impact. I cannot express how helpful this podcast has been to me.
Contemplify. The one that featured Fenton!!