A frozen December evening in 2014 found me and my roommate Kimmy sitting in our living room. I was on the floor, using our coffee table as a desk so that I could spread out my books and papers more fully, and Kimmy was curled up in our “pancake” (one of those giant circular nest chairs), drawing. It was fall semester of our senior year. I was taking 22 units, getting 1-2 hours of sleep per night, and had been sick since Thanksgiving with a pesky cold which, I found out during Christmas break, was actually pneumonia. Kimmy usually went to bed long before I did, but this evening she was sitting up with me in a kind of masochistic solidarity. Every few hours, she would yawn and say, “Laura, you need to go to sleep,” and I would say, “In a bit” without looking up.
Around 3 am, Kimmy got the hiccups. She had stopped drawing by this point and was now alternating between tapping buttons on her phone and staring into space. And, of course, hiccupping.
I’m not sure if it was this new development that caught my attention, or just the fact that she appeared to be awake and suffering for no reason, but eventually I looked up at her and said, “Kimmy. Go to sleep.”
“No. *hiccup* I’m going to sit here and hiccup at you until you go to bed.”
I went a few minutes later. Kimmy did, too.
That evening pops into my mind every once in awhile, usually prompting me to think about how much I miss living with a friend who cared enough about my well-being to annoy me into healthy decisions. This month, though, it’s been popping up more frequently – and this month, it’s prompting me to think about my longstanding M.O. of always needing to be busy. Sure, in college, breaks were hard to find. I was assigned easily 600+ pages per week as an English major, I lived full-time in the theater, and I worked between 10-20 hours per week in the college cafe. I was busy, and the work never stopped. But in the years since then, I’ve wondered if I should have looked for more opportunities to choose something else, even just for an hour, over homework. More sleep, maybe. Or more time cooking meals for lonely underclassmen. Did I always need to be that busy? On that December night in 2014, I did need to be doing that homework; I was leading a class period on East of Eden the next morning and I hadn’t planned the lesson or even finished the book. But I had also chosen to do busywork for other classes instead of prepping until that evening. Why? Because I get a rush from being busy. It makes me feel important.
My last job gave me lots of room to delve deeper into this M.O. As a church leader, missionary and administrator, the work was quite literally boundless. I worked from home (so I was always at work) and I interacted with people not only across the city of Chicago, but across America, and across the world. Work hours didn’t exist. Work days didn’t exist – they were just every day. (Here I need to give a disclaimer that this was in no way due to my superiors being too demanding. I was frequently reprimanded for not taking time to rest. I just didn’t listen.) There was always something to be doing, someone to be talking to, somewhere to be thinking of. I loved it, and I’ll never complain about that job or wish I hadn’t done it. But, I was busy and exhausted, almost always rushing, and always fighting the urge to believe that I (even I only!) was needed or the work would not get done properly.
Strangely, moving to Texas seems to have caused a hard reset.
It took a few weeks for it to really manifest. For awhile, the new settled feeling seemed fleeting, like when you go on vacation and are able to relax for the first time in months, but you also know that in three or four days it’ll be business as usual. (In fact, for the first two weeks after our move, Galen and I both kept accidentally remarking about how nice it is here, and “oh, when we get home” this or that.) And then it morphed from relax-mode into “what am I forgetting” mode (also known as It’s Been Over Three Years Since I Graduated But I Still Have Dreams About Forgetting To Turn That Final Paper In mode). For a week or two, I would stare at my calendar and To Do lists, wracking my brain for that mysterious other task I ought to be doing. Sometimes it would almost make me panic. I began saying the words “You only need to be here. You only need to do this” to myself over and over again.
As the dust cleared and the moving boxes got broken down and thrown away, the settled feeling gained substance. For over a month now, I’ve been waking up at 6 am, driving to work with Galen at 7:15, and either teaching, assisting or working at a desk until 4 pm. At that point, I leave whatever work I didn’t do until tomorrow. We go home, drink tea until we feel up to making dinner, eat, and read or watch something until bed time (which is now hilariously early because I can’t do the 1-2 hour thing anymore). Sometimes we’ll go out for drinks or go to my brother’s house to see the family, but that only varies the routine by a small amount. Life here isn’t complicated yet. Having a routine is awesome, and having a space for work and a space for rest is the best. For the first time in my adult life, I am doing one thing at a time.
This isn’t just good for me, I’m finding; it’s good for my students. Young kids need simple, clear direction and leadership. If I gloss over three steps at once and expect them to keep up, I lose them. If I get flustered because things aren’t going according to plan, I lose them. If I am not quick enough on my feet to direct the flow of the conversation that is happening right now, I lose them. Focusing on one thing at a time isn’t just a way for me, personally, to be a better person. It’s required of me if I want to be a better teacher. And I can actually feel myself learning how to do it.
I’m not naive enough to think that my need for busyness (by which I mean, I am sure, my desire to feel Important) is completely conquered. Busier seasons will come. Our social calendar will get more intricate. We’ll have more commitments pulling at us as we get more involved in our community. And even without those added things, even if things stay exactly as they are right now, I think that busyness will always be a temptation of mine. I will always have to work at being humble enough to rest, to take things as they come, to trust. Like anything worthwhile, it will come through hard work and small steps.
Our school has a House system (like Hogwarts, except we have saints instead of ghosts), and at the beginning of every year, all new students and faculty are sorted into one of four houses. I was placed in the house of Saint Anne, mother of Mary, whose house motto is Nihile Sine Labore: “Nothing without labor.” I don’t know much about Saint Anne (actually, it doesn’t seem that anyone does, due to a profound lack of primary source information), but I do love those words. Over the past year, I’ve told Galen many times that I have constantly felt like I’m wrestling – with God, with life, with the world, with myself. It has mostly been frustrating, and it will probably continue to be. But I’m beginning to see tiny bits of evidence that somewhere in the midst of all that wrestling, there is growth.
I only need to be here. I only need to be doing this.
Header image: Saint Anne and Mary by Angelos Akotantos