Magazine article The Christian Century

My Lenten Fast: Giving Up Anxiety

Magazine article The Christian Century

My Lenten Fast: Giving Up Anxiety

Article excerpt

I WORRY THAT avian flu is finally going to hit this year and I will get into my car and head west to my stepmother's remote farm, but I arrive too late for the quarantine, or my stepsister will pull up the same moment I do and there will be enough food for only one of us, and my father and his wife will be forced into some 21st-century blended-family Sophie's choice.

I worry that my identity is being stolen by someone right this second and every cent drained out of my bank account and a Lexus bought with a credit card in my name.

I worry that I have forgotten a crucially important appointment, or maybe that I've forgotten that I'm supposed to be giving a lecture in Saskatchewan right this second and there's a small group of people sitting in an auditorium somewhere, angry and wondering where I am.

I often think I've lost my driver's license. Driving to the airport, I pull out my license five times, ten times, just to make sure I wasn't somehow deluding myself when I last checked, three minutes ago back near exit 57.

It's breathless, compulsive behavior, behavior that makes no sense, that has no reason. It feels like diesel fuel is coursing through my sternum, and there is no focusing on anything other than the object of my panic: avian flu, my lost driver's license, suddenly empty checking accounts.

Or I boil water for tea and as the tea is steeping I check four times to make sure I've turned the stove burner off, and even after I leave the house that afternoon I worry that the stove is on, that the house is burning down, and I call my neighbor and ask him to go check. The stove is always off.

For as long as I can remember, anxiety has been my close companion, having a long time ago taken up residence in the small, second-floor bedroom of the house that is my body. Sometimes my anxiety takes long naps. Sometimes it throws parties. But I don't imagine it will ever tire of this neighborhood and move out for good.

In the ecclesial calendar, we are edging toward Lent. We will open each Sunday service with a long, somber litany of repentance. We will try to go with Jesus into the desert, to devote ourselves for 40 days, as the prayerbook puts it, to "self examination and repentance ... prayer, fasting, and self denial; and ... reading and meditating on God's holy Word." Some of us, as a token of this self-denial, will abstain from something during Lent: we won't eat sugar, or chocolate, or drink anything caffeinated or wine. One year, I gave up cheese for Lent. This year, I am giving up anxiety.

Left to my own devices, I find that the most challenging Lenten offering I can come up with is salt-and-vinegar potato chips or exercise, so most years I wait to be instructed by some angel in my life, like the priest who once told me to give up reading for 40 days, or the colleague who looked at me over her plastic flute of Prosecco at a Shrove Tuesday pancake party and told me that for Lent, I should give up saying yes.

This year, though, as we are inching toward Ash Wednesday--the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the transfiguration--no angels are turning up with my annual instructions. And so it is that as Lent approaches, I am sitting here at the island in Brandon and Lynette's kitchen, complaining that I don't know what quasi-fast to take up this season. "Maybe I should give up gummi bears," I say, popping a green one in my mouth; Lynette always keeps a small bowl of gummi bears on her island, and I always bypass the small bowls of healthy things like almonds and sunflower seeds and cranberries (dried) and eat all the palest yellow, pineapple-flavored gummi bears and then all the greens.

Brandon picks up his wine, in a blue pottery goblet that looks like a communion chalice, and says, "Maybe you should give up anxiety." He is probably joking, but it seems serious to me, it seems exactly right.

"Brandon," I say, "you're an angel. …

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