• One Minnesota Writer

52 Ways to Shift Your Focus: Renewed Perspective in 40 Days

Shift #40: Renewed Perspective in 40 Days

Happy Fat Tuesday. On the eve of Ash Wednesday, I’ve been thinking about a tradition from my childhood: the practice of giving up something for Lent.

When I was a kid, my traditional Catholic family observed Lent by giving up something with the dawn of Ash Wednesday and sticking with it until Easter Sunday. In my memory, it seemed that it had to be something that we loved. I would spend the entire preceding week considering exactly which thing I would take away from my daily life. There was a balance. It had to hurt, but it couldn’t be unbearable. One year while in elementary school, around second or third grade, I gave up watching television. That was far worse that the candy I gave up the year before since my parents had a nightly habit of watching programs beginning right after supper, around 6:30. The television stayed on until the 10 p.m. news was finished. I decided I could be in the same room with a book or something else to do and I would just avert my eyes. The alternative was to hang out alone in my room since I wasn’t old enough to go anywhere else. I didn’t have siblings near my own age, so that was a long, lonely Lent. I was determined to finish my vow because I was proud of being considered by my parents as old enough to take part in the Lenten observance. And, except for a few furtive peeks and the relief of Sundays (days off from Lenten practice), I stuck to it. Not quietly, I’m pretty sure, since Saturday morning cartoons were part of the temporarily banned activity.

But whether I gave up candy or television, I unwittingly learned that I had tenacity. As a kid, Lent was the agonized anticipation of the Easter basket, overflowing with sugary treats (Peeps! Chocolate bunnies! Malted milk eggs!). That basket rewarded me for my good Catholic girl behavior. I learned about waiting for the payoff, finding alternatives, and developing a sensitivity for people who always lived without that which I gave up for a mere six weeks.

Those kinds of lessons are easily taught when a family practices religion, participates in social justice causes, or has to count their pennies. As a young adult, when I had zero money for anything beyond food, rent and child care, I called upon those old lessons of patience and delayed gratification. I had to give up going out every weekend once I became a parent. I had to give up buying so much music or going to concerts with any regularity. My priorities shifted. A happy kid who still had a roof over his head was the payoff.

Today I’m thinking about those lessons as a writer. I’m thinking about the way a renewed perspective evolves from giving up something. What is it that I could give up for a while to renew my focus on my work?

Lent is 40 days long. That’s enough time to gain a new habit by virtue of eliminating a not-so-great one, deepen a journaling practice, take a caffeine break, kick my sugar addiction, stop piling up things for submission and send them out instead, make a vow to read something new for a half hour each afternoon, or [fill in your choice here]. It’s enough time to shift the way things get done and stumble over a new insight.

Even though I no longer practice Catholicism, I am grateful for those universal lessons that I carry forward. I might even observe another old tradition today by whipping up a batch of Fat Tuesday pancakes. Here’s to the next 40 days.

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