I’m so busy I almost can’t breathe. I’ve added every deadline, book, project or homework assignment, class time, phone call, advisory meeting, and other school task to my calendar to keep up with it all. Getting home at midnight one day a week, and between 8-9 pm the other nights. On campus in Cambridge all day, either in classrooms, library or quiet work spaces.
And then there’s family life; that’s being “scheduled,” too, so that I can grab some time with Sarah while she’s home again before going off to her semester abroad in four more days. (I saw her Monday night between 10pm-midnight, when we picked her up at the airport, so far.) Or to make a date with my husband Chris while we’re both awake. Mostly I maintain contact with them via texts. * sigh *
Work life fits tidily into chunks of the day when I can plug in my computer. Sometimes on the train, or in the library. As emails exchanged between classes. Or on the weekdays when I’m staying on the North Shore.
Field education hasn’t started yet. That starts next week. (I’ve already had the interviews). I’ll be apprenticed or interning, so to speak, at a UCC church on the North Shore to gain professional experience in a parish other than my own home faith community. This works both as part of the educational experience at Harvard, but also toward my “discernment” process for ordination by my denomination (UCC/Congregational).
All in all, it’s a whirlwind time. I dream about school. I’m reading books about Christianity and Islam and pastoral counseling and philosophy and language, instead of suspense and science fiction novels. I pack a lunch and dinner. Carry a to-go mug for hot coffee, as well as a water bottle. Have external pockets with easily accessible student ID, T-passes and commuter rail ticket. Wear sensible walking shoes for the hike from train station to subway station, from subway to classroom, class to library.
In a way, this rhythm is familiar. I used to make the commute in and out of Boston to an office. Rise and go before the sun came up. Come home after it set. Rarely saw the sky, except through the office windows of executives in the buildings of the large financial corporation where I once worked. Made well-intentioned goals to get outside for lunch, walk instead of eat, but usually found that I needed every work hour to complete a project, so that I could make it home to pick up children from extended hours at daycare.
Even further back, I used to work full time, then attend classes at night. Took two courses a semester, for several years, to earn a Bachelors degree with Honors from UMass / Boston. Chris was deep in studies to pass his exams for licensing as an architect. So I’d work on my thesis until 2am, and walk home across the Boston Common at odd hours of the night, to our apartment in the city.
It seems like I’ve always been juggling a lot. All of us have been.
It’s happening to Chris now. He rises at 3-4am to start his work day. Volunteers, works, and makes time for his family when we can be here to connect. Fits in a bike ride now and then.
It’s happening to our daughter Sarah as she juggles saying good-bye to the few friends who haven’t left for college already, or makes trips to see them on campus in Boston. Then packs for her own adventures through Northeastern University’s international program next week.
Yes, it’s stressful. But I want to acknowledge that this is stress we choose, and in which we willingly participate. It leads to something more. Opportunity. Open doors. Education. Vocational shift. Personal transformation. Survival. Hope. Healing. Tangible change. Something we want. There’s incentive to take on this busy schedule, instead of remaining within the status quo.
This form of stress contrasts with situations that are out of our control. Circumstances that cause stress to which we also respond, not because we want to, but because we must. I have lived inside that pressure cooker, too.
In fact, I don’t have to describe much of it to you. Many of you knew us during those times.
Living inside a hospital as the levels of acuity increased over time. First, a shared hospital room with other cancer patients and their parents. Having roommates for weeks at a time throughout the cancer journey. Transfer into private rooms on the oncology unit, which might sound like a privilege, but was too often a bad sign. It was usually due to severity of infection, contagious complications, or more life-threatening conditions (beyond cancer, as if that wasn’t enough). Later, months of life on the transplant unit, inside a single room with changeable mood lights in the ceiling as a second-best attempt at environmental stimulation instead of being allowed to live in the larger world. Life reduced to one room, inside a HEPA-filtered unit with its own air and water circulation, and airlocks to control the environment and separate it from the rest of the hospital (though strangely, you could escape to the Prouty Garden if you traveled … you couldn’t share the elevator, wore a mask through the halls, and didn’t touch anything).
Finally, the most critical level of care. ICU. Where they have two medical rounds a day, and I woke up for each shift of consultations, regardless of the time of day or night, because events moved so quickly that even 24 hours wasn’t enough time to assess things; we only slept about 2 hours a night. Where the lights are always on, and the number of tubes and machines attached to the patients multiplies.
Through it all, Jessie just stymied everyone. If you looked at the reams of paper, she shouldn’t have appeared as perky as she did. She shouldn’t have transitioned once off the ventilator, sat up within hours to play Hangman with her primary nurses on the ICU team, and lured us all once more into hopefulness. But hey, that’s how she lived through every hour she was allowed to be awake. And even consciousness was taken away, at the end, because she needed to be sedated to stay on a ventilator. But she broke through the drugs from time to time, to try to whisper to us, to kick her feet, to squeeze our hands, to cry, to listen to books, to be part of this world and connect with us.
We have endured that other kind of stress. It escalated inexorably for years. Then months. Then weeks. Then hours. Final moments.
That accumulated stress seeped deep into muscles, bones, minds and spirits. It took years to work its way to the surface, and be released again. We’re still letting go of it, I’m sure.
So I acknowledge that these stressful circumstances may be different in every family, caused by different issues, but that many of us live with them. Unemployment. Mental health issues. Diagnoses of chronic or terminal conditions. Economic instability. Uncertainty about shelter or food: basic necessities. Lack of access to other resources. Addiction. Violence. Crime. Death or endings of many kinds. Loss. Isolation from community. Caregiving for a loved one with an extreme condition.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons I’m seeking this vocation: pastoral care. Stress is a universal experience. With many causes. We all share it at some time or another, in one form or another.
And I believe — I hope — we all have chances to experience a different kind of stress. The “good kind.”
Although my calendar is busy — my phone vibrates often, my computer pings with reminders and alerts and alarms to keep my use of time focused, my backpack is quite hefty with gear and books, and I’m always moving — I don’t mind. There are other sorts of alarms and appointments, meetings and conferences, phone calls and consultations, that lead to different outcomes.
Right now, this stress leads to transformation. So I celebrate it.