Christiana Spens

Giving Up

I made no particular decision to observe Lent this year, mostly because, as I saw it, I had already given up everything there was to give up. My period of self-deprivation had started months earlier, in fact, at the end of a depleting year. I had started this Giving Up phase because I had to give up what I wanted, and then I didn’t want anything or anyone else instead — so I thought I might as well just keep giving up. Little by little, it all fell away; alcohol, sleeping pills, food, people, fun. I could give up nearly anything, it turned out. I could waste away and feel numbly virtuous about it. I could count my days of sobriety, I could accept the things I couldn’t change, I could wear black every single day.

I had not gone into this Giving Up phase with any real objective in mind; I was not being intentionally virtuous. I just wanted a way to think of the past as different to the present; I wanted a line in the sand, a way to know that the ‘before’ was truly over. It was a mourning period, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I wanted to mourn because I wanted the pain to be over one day. I wanted to do it properly this time. I wanted to feel everything until no feeling could hurt me again.

But despite all this giving up, after a couple of months, the ‘before’ did not feel so far removed. I became restless, as it dawned on me that I could not give up the past by giving up everything I associated with it. The pain had diminished, but not gone. And as the months went on, I found that the Giving Up was not just about mourning what I had lost. In fact, giving things up had become another sort of compulsion — a new distraction from the original pain. It was quite contrarian, really, and I began to take a sly pleasure in just saying no to everything I had once wanted. Instead of drinking a drink, I would rather throw it against a wall. Instead of listening to someone berate me, I would rather refuse and refute.

I just wanted to say no, over and over again. Why? Because I had not been able to say ‘no’ enough before. I had been bottling it all up, and now I had stopped suppressing what I felt and thought — which was ‘no’. All the times when I had not said ‘no’, when I had wanted to, now disturbed me. So I went to the other extreme. I was free to say no and I was making up for all the times I had not felt safe enough to do so before. Incrementally, these little resistances liberated me. And yet a restlessness remained.


I took my son to Hastings one weekend, to get away from it all. I booked us into an intriguing B&B in a Victorian house, and unexpectedly, we were greeted by a Russian Orthodox Priest. Inside, the walls were decorated with religious icons and antiques, a large gong by the foot of the stairs and shrines and candles at every turn. The Priest wore long black robes and a bright smile and showed us to our room upstairs. ‘Does this place even have plug sockets?’ my son asked. We settled into the old-fashioned luxury, the ornate patterns in elaborate wallpaper and textiles, the old hardback children’s books, fine china, gold framed Madonna and Child, prodigal sons returning. When he finally fell asleep, later on, I could see lights dancing on the sea in the distance, and we were up in time to see the peach-pink sunrise stretching over gardens and rooftops.

After breakfast, we were sitting on crimson-pink sofas when we met a little girl; she smiled at us and immediately asked, ‘do you want to see the chickens?’ She took us to see them through the garden, past a tiny chapel built into an outbuilding, with golden icons and mirrors covering every inch of the walls. There had been a lot of rain, so our feet sank into the mud in the garden as we walked back. ‘Do you want to see the new church?’ She asked. ‘What church?’ I asked. ‘This way,’ and she led us there. ‘They build it two years ago.’ Carefully, we edged around the corner of the house, towards a converted outbuilding, where a Sunday service had just started. ‘You can have a little peak,’ she said, and opened the door a couple inches so we could see a glow of gold and blue, her mother singing, and a waft of incense. ‘Come on,’ she said. She took us back into the house after that, after we feed worms to the chickens, their eggs in our pockets.

As we sat in armchairs in another room, she told us about some of her recent transgressions, as if we were in an informal confession, and that while it was Lent, she was not really bothering this year. ‘Come back for Easter though,’ she said. ‘Our Easter is later than yours. Ours is in May. When is yours?’

‘The end of March,’ I said, ‘I can’t remember exactly when.’ I took out my phone and checked for her. ‘Good Friday is the 29th, Easter Sunday is the 31st.’ I also had another date marked on my calendar: the day before Good Friday was the ten-year anniversary of my father’s death, I saw now. I didn’t mention this part. ‘Our Easter is the same weekend as my mum’s birthday,’ she went on, her joy synchronising with my sadness. ‘It’s a big weekend. You can stay for lunch.’ Just then, her grandmother appeared and in Russian, chastised her for missing Mass, and we went our separate ways.

As we walked down to the beach, I thought about the anniversary of my father’s death coming up near Easter, and how Lent this year had aligned with my amorphous Giving Up period. I had felt I needed to give in to the pain, rather than resist it with the usual coping mechanisms, and I had aligned with this big anniversary without realising. Is this what I had been mourning all along? My father issues, ever present. Had my giving up everything been a reaction to feeling given up on myself? Had I been trying to give up on everything and everyone else because first my father and then others had done that to me, and I felt I would be settling some score? It was as if I were punishing myself in absence of their punishment, withdrawing myself from the world as they had withdrawn from me. All at once, it felt nihilistic and misguided. I had been on this extended fast, but it was devoted to absent men and not any real god. As such, there had been no revelation or resolution, no peace.

After we left the house, we walked down to the beach, and my son ran ahead to play by the waves. I sat down on the pebbles and I was looking at the distant, silver horizon, when I noticed a man, a bit further along the shore than my son. He was wearing nothing but shorts, walking into the sea. Who would be mad enough to go swimming in this freezing cold? I thought to myself, but I kept looking back at him — he seemed so serene, out there in the waves.

After a while, he emerged, walking back onto the shore, luminous in the bright silver light. I looked back towards my son, who was still running around, picking up stones and skimming them over the surface. Then I looked back at the man, and he was walking towards me. I stood up, and called out to my son that it was time to go. As I waited for him, the man came closer and smiled. ‘It must be freezing out there,’ I said. He laughed, ‘I’m going straight home for a hot bath’. We talked more about swimming and Hastings. ‘It’s so beautiful here,’ I found myself saying, ‘I wish we could move here.’ His eyes seemed to reflect the silver and the blue from the waves. ‘Yes,’ he said. My son appeared, then, and we parted ways with the man. ‘I’m hungry,’ my son said. ‘Let’s have lunch then,’ I replied.

A few days later, back in London, I received an email from my landlord informing me there would be yet another hike in rent. Would I comply this time? No. Could I afford it? No. And could I find anywhere else in London? No. And could we stay in London? Probably not. And was it fair? No. I cried for three days after I heard this news, after the latest ‘no’ — our impending eviction — but then something different happened. After months of stalemate, this saying no and nothing changing — the pain lifted. Did I actually want to stay in London anymore? With all this pressure and expense and aggression? Maybe the answer was… No. Would we find another way? Yes. Could there be another life? Yes. It was the first time I felt ‘yes’ again. And it washed over me so powerfully. Yes.

I started giving in instead of just giving up, after that. I began to choose different and new things, gradually discovering what I really wanted, without the distraction of excess, and without the pain of not having enough, or being taunted — having things given and then taken away, given and taken, given just to be taken. The endless insecurity of it all, of these past few years.

I settled into the rituals and patterns that had been there all along — waves coming in and out, fasting and then celebration, mourning and then recovery. The rush of cool waves, sunlight on gold and flesh, bright blue eyes. And in these moments, I thought back to the long winter days, all that giving up, and being given up on, and I knew it had prepared me for this, for feeling all this bright silver expanse, the promise of something new, something resembling peace.
Christiana Spens is the author of The Fear (2023), The Portrayal and Punishment of Terrorists (2019) and Shooting Hipsters (2016). She has written for Prospect, The New Statesman, Literary Hub, The Irish Times and various other publications on politics, psychology and culture.

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