Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Praying with Flannery and Angela

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell and I have been in the same room a few times, at a writer's festival that I haven't been to in a few years. It is through Facebook, however, that I feel like I've gotten to know her. It is also through Facebook that I learned that she's published a book called The Province of Joy: Praying with Flannery O'Connor. 

I think it's fair to say that just about any Christian who is interested in literature likes Flannery O'Connor. She was a writer that seemed to engage a religious imagination while also engaging the world around us. That is, she didn't sentimentalize the faith, she put it in the grit and pleasure of real life. If a Christian writer isn't at least a little bit envious (or even covetous) of O'Connor's powers in fiction, they're probably not paying attention.

So I was intrigued by Angela's book. I wasn't sure what to expect. I didn't really know what I was ordering when I ordered it.

What I found was a week's worth of devotions. The book is set up for two prayer times, morning prayer and evening prayer, with scripture readings and the innovation of readings from Flannery O'Connor's books, The Habit of Being and Mystery and Manners. After the actual prayer liturgies are completed, there is then a reflection on one of O'Connor's stories.

Last week, coincidentally the last week of the Easter season but I hadn't planned it that way, I set about the task of starting with Sunday morning and praying with Flannery (and Angela) for the whole week. The devotions are seasoned with the Roman Catholic faith of both authors, but not so much that this Protestant found it distracting. Each day had a theme and each day had repeated readings, mostly the scripture readings, for both morning and evening prayers.

I made a point of doing all the readings, repeated or not. I did my best to give into the rhythm of the prayers Angela arranged for us, and accepted the repetition as the gift that it often is. When I felt myself growing impatient with something I'd read that morning (or just a very familiar piece of scripture), I tried to slow myself down and read the text anyway, taking it all in as intentionally as I could.

What do I have to say about the experience? One, it did make me realize how much I miss the regular liturgies of prayer that I experienced in seminary, many years ago. Two, I found it a lovely thing to have a writer who was not writing scripture, not writing liturgies enter into the liturgy. I was struck by how much O'Connor wrote homilies, how she could have been a preacher.

And I found inspiration beyond the sort a reader of devotional material might look for. If I were to target an audience for this book, it would be the creative person of faith. As a writer and performer, I found what O'Connor had to say to be particularly worth pondering. I'm sure that people who don't write or otherwise engage in a creative endeavor will find much to engage their heart and mind in these pages, but from this point on, I'll be recommending this book to writers and artists of faith.

I realized late last week that I was "praying with Flannery" during the last days of Easter and that this was a fine transition into Pentecost. There were bits that felt renewing to my commitment to my creative endeavors, a stirring of the Spirit. But that's just an idiosyncratic experience. I wouldn't recommend that you wait a year until you pick up this volume. Far from it. In fact, I need to put on my calendar when I'll next spend a week with this book. It'll be well before next Easter season.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Mortality IV: Onward

It's been a month and two days since a very nice man cut into my abdomen and took out a big, heavy---but benign!---cyst.

I was not prepared for this. Maybe there was no way for me to prepare for this. I've not had anything like this before, and while I have been in the place of being around people who have and I hope I was kind, patient, and encouraging in those situations, I'm here to report that it's different when it's you, your own self, going through it. Empathy, compassion, only goes so far, it seems.

I guess that's one lesson to keep close to the surface.

Things I was not prepared for:

I didn't know how the brain gets discombobulated by anesthesia. I had this fantasy of laying up in the hospital and reading and writing. It's what I do otherwise, and if I was going to be laid up in the hospital, I was going catch up on those two activities. Except my brain couldn't process words so well. I tried a couple of entries in my journal while in the hospital, but putting pen to paper was nearly overwhelming. It wasn't even frustrating, it was just a fact. I couldn't read and write. And I guess it was more concentration than ability---I could certainly look at words and get meaning from them, I could certainly write a few words. It was just too much. A friend even brought me a couple of Archie comics (comfort food for the soul) and I couldn't quite manage that.

I was not prepared---and I admit this is kinda dumb---for how long an 8" incision on the abdomen, into the body cavity takes to heal. People keep reminding me I had major surgery and it is a bit of a reminder each time they say it. Oh yeah, bits were removed from my body and so this scar down my belly is actually deeper than the average cat scratch. My surgeon says that an incision of this type takes about 6 weeks to get to 90% of the muscles' previous strength. I still have 2 weeks to get there, but I'm annoyed how much this cut dictates how I move.

I didn't expect my appetite and general gastrointestinal system would be affected like it has been. My appetite is still weird. Eating is not fun. I'll save you the details, but I'll just add that the word "irregular" has specific meaning in this context. It's uncomfortable and I grow weary of it.

I could go on. I shan't.

Because, as per my previous posts on the subject, I remain grateful and in awe of my good fortune. This remains, as I may have said before, the happy ending to the story that begins with, "you have a mass on your pancreas."

And I'm surrounded by a good many gifts of people. I'm talking about Celina, who organized a group of people to bring me food the first week I was home, I'm talking about Lura, who came and fed my cat while I was in the hospital. I'm talking about the friends who visited in the hospital and walked with me to my mailbox after I got home. The nice man who brought me the Eucharist one Sunday. I dare not start naming too many, as I'll offend by omission, but my blessings involve more people than I (a bit of a loner introvert by nature) might have predicted or guessed.

This is another lesson I need to keep close.

But those are the people I knew before surgery. There were all the people who took care of me in the hospital. The nurses---can I sing their praises loudly enough? I've sent the 25th floor nurses station a thank you note, but it's inadequate. For example, there was one nurse who was particularly playful. When I was taking my first shower, she had put a rubber glove on my hand, over my IV ports, taped it up to keep water out of it, and said, "Okay, oh gloved one, you're ready." I responded with my best high pitched "ee hee hee" and three steps of a wounded moonwalk. We laughed and it became a running joke the rest of my time in the hospital. How do you thank someone for her willingness to play along? Really, I had a bunch of nurses who made being cut open the most fun it probably could be.

I also have had great luck in my surgeon. My base requirement for a doctor is that he talk to me, that he be present to me, answering questions. I fired a cardiologist over this. I now have a primary care physician who is wonderfully talkative (he has apologized for talking to much, which amuses me) and I appreciate him because he obviously loves being a doctor and making sure his patients understand what they need to do, what's at stake. I feel the same way about my current cardiologist. And I hit the jackpot with my surgeon. I remember one of his visits to my room in the hospital where he was doing his rounds, doing his surgeon things, and fairly business-like, all appropriately so. Then I asked a question and his body language did this remarkable thing. He relaxed into a conversation. It wasn't---or at least didn't read as---a heavy-sigh-great-he-has-questions sort of slump. It felt like a human being who was relaxing into a conversation. In my follow up visits in his office, it's been the same. He doesn't appear rushed, he doesn't appear to have more important things to do. He's there, talking to me.

As I said, I fired a cardiologist for not doing this. I won't have an ongoing relationship with this surgeon. Maybe another year with him? But I'm so thankful for him.

I had a conversation with a friend up in Chicago this week. She and I talked about this health scare, how these things can hit and be scary and change our lives. I think it's true that there is no "return to normal." There is no going back from here. Mortality has been highlighted for the last three months here. So has been grace. I ponder how I escape to much bad stuff, even as what I'm going through might be considered bad stuff.

I think of the hospital neighbor whose pain would not be managed. I think of people who suffer months and years of treatment for cancers. I think of friends with debilitating, degenerative diseases. I think of people without friends to lean on, who suffer illness and misfortune without visits and gifts of meals.

I have the abundant life. Going forward, I can't forget this mystery. Going forward, I have to watch for ways to respond to this mystery. There's no going back to not knowing how blessed I am.

Really, it's a knowledge to knock you to your knees, if not flat on your face.