The Church of Rest

I was 10 years old when I began throwing newspapers for the Kansas City Star. Two days a week, my intrepid mother loaded her five energetic kids (of which I was the oldest) into our minivan and we drove, for hours, up and down the suburban streets of Liberty, Missouri. With our officially-issued blue bags stuffed full of the free Food section of the Star, my siblings and I ran from doorstep to doorstep, reveling in the work and undeniable grown-up feeling of having a "real job."

Running a seven-person household is a seven-person job. On big cleaning days, we had one rule: when a task is completed, run back to Mom and ask "what next?" From our earliest ages we could do laundry, keep a clean kitchen, and make simple meals. All hands on deck. What next?

My siblings and I knew we had a leg up on our friends, many of whom didn't have jobs through high school, or even do all their own laundry, as we had since childhood. It became a point of pride, how hard we worked. We grew into adulthood at lightning speed, taking on responsibility and obligation only real adults in our lives had.

By 14, my sisters and I were regular sitters for a handful of families in our neighborhood. By 15 I was taking on my first piano students - all children eager to take on the new instrument the same way I had in first grade. By 16, we were full-time nannies and (as homeschooling gave us incredible freedom) I also accepted a position at a nearby food assembly place, where they made me night manager after two weeks. I drove a car my parents financed, and made payments to them every month. The rest of my earnings went toward college.

Go to the ant, sluggard. Consider her ways, and be wise. Ants don't take days off.

Later in my junior year I took a second full-time job at Joann Etc, where I was quickly promoted to overstock supervisor. The day before my first official day on the job, I was in a car accident that totaled my beloved Toyota and left me with whiplash. I showed up to work anyway, high on Tylenol with Codeine and smiling through the pain. I was a Clemons. We didn't call into work for minor stuff like that. I had all my limbs and my senses worked fine. Why wouldn't I go to work? What's next?

Through my junior and senior years of high school I worked 60-80 hours a week, maintained my 4.0, babysat, and took and taught piano. Somehow in the middle of it all, I wrote stories, broke up with my first boyfriend, went thrift store scavenging with my best friends, competed in piano and acting competitions, and cried a lot. What's next?

At 17, I had my first burnout.

It started with the stomach cramps, a sign, I would (much) later learn was a symptom of undiagnosed OCD and high anxiety. Despite hydration and power naps in my car between shifts, I was constantly fatigued and often dizzy. When people commented on how thin or pale I looked, I would laugh it off. "I'm a Clemons," I would say proudly. "We are powerhouses."

In my senior year I gave myself a - mercifully shallow - slice across the lower belly when I tried to move a four-foot section of metal shelving and my knees buckled. Later that night I sat on my parents' bed and cried. I was exhausted, barely keeping up. I desperately wanted a break but knew I couldn't just take one. Breaks were earned. Breaks were gifted, only after it had been determined that your work was enough.

"If you think you're doing too much," my mom said, "drop something." But that wasn't permission to my ears. It was a challenge. If my parents weren't demanding I pare back, I clearly hadn't hit my limit. What's next?

I went to college and immediately enrolled in 18 credits worth of classes, then walked across to student life to get a job. By the end of my first semester I was working two: one in the dish pit and the other as a custodian, keeping me out and active from 6 am to midnight every night. I maintained my grades, was given my own set of buildings to clean and manage, and adopted two extension ministries working with children and building websites.

Then suddenly it was play season. My tiny thespian heart couldn't resist the call of the stage, and I auditioned for everything I could. I got two parts - one minor character and one lead - and my days clicked into strictly regimented segments of homework, running lines, windex, class, vacuuming, group projects, dishes, library study sessions, Sunday School lesson plans, and energetic, emotional performances.

I began to take my coffee with a lot of sugar.

Finals week, we held our final performances and tore down sets. I carried armfuls of old painted foam core to the dumpster, threw it all in, and don't remember much after that. I do remember the sensation of shaking, like a violent vibration through my whole body, and wondered if I looked like a McDonald's toy, wound up and released to buzz its way across a table and onto the floor. I know at some point I was back inside the theater and being wrapped in a sleeping bag. I couldn't hear any of the words being directed at me, and vaguely wondered if I was having a seizure or a stroke. Then came the school nurse and some food, mumbled instructions to my boyfriend's sister, and I was in bed.

I walked around the next day in a haze. It was a potassium deficiency, everyone concluded, and I ate a banana for breakfast every day after that. I took trips to the local chiropractor to have him pop back in a dislocated rib. (He told me not to carry so many books in my backpack anymore. I did anyway.) I got permission to drop one of the extension ministries and felt like a failure. The nurse told me to drop a class or two and got angry when I couldn't explain why that wasn't a possibility for me.

I got a D in World History. My dad called me for the first time in a while to say he was disappointed I couldn't stay on top of my responsibilities. The stomach cramps came back.

I left that school after my freshman year and my life swept into a whirlwind again. I bounced around the country, got married, worked one entry-level job after another, never unemployed, always working up the ladder. At Starbucks I decided to go for a supervisor position after a few months as a barista and my manager told me no. "Get your health under control," he told me. "You'll be a great supervisor, but not if you're in danger of burning out." I promised him I would and then I reenrolled in college.

I got the supervisor position eventually, and then a second full-time gig at a film studio in Atlanta. I worked 80 hours weeks, and I kept my 4.0. I learned sign language. I took on pastoral staff positions at two churches in succession, and got hooked on Vicodin.

And the wheel turned. Another break. Another tearful week of self-loathing. Another move, another job. 

I'm barreling toward 30 now. I've done the same thing, in a sinister cycle, for nearly 20 years. I did it until I broke, ending up in the hospital. I did it in isolation, emerging gaunt and distant to the shock of my friends. Sometimes I did it in a partnership, tuning out the gentle suggestions or frustrated pleas of someone who loves me, telling me to slow down, to take a break, to rest. Sometimes I did it alone, running from one job to another with an infant on my hip, crying through my sudden divorce and endless sleep deprivation as I cleaned apartments and taught yoga classes. Sometimes I've been offered help and was too proud to take it. Sometimes I've asked for help and had no one come. 

Go to the ant. The exhausted, hardworking ant. The little queen of an empire who can't sit back and let the workers do their work. The skinny, pale, hollow-eyed ant whose brain screams from overwhelm on a loop. The smiling, social ant. "Everything is fine," she says. "What's next?"

Today the pastorate is behind me and will stay there. The reaching for my parents' stamp of approval is too. But the pride lingers, watching for its moment. "Why are you sitting down? I said to come back and ask what's next."

When I hear the whisper in my ear and the cold fingers on my shoulder, I go to church. 

My church has candles. Tealights, mostly. I line them up on the cool white porcelain and light them one by one. My church has incense too, a gentle lavender scent. Sometimes the speaker at my church is John Oliver, or Leslie Knope, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, speaking to me from the lectern of a computer screen perched on the bathroom sink. My communion is a glass of wine. A bath bomb is my offering to myself. And my worship is rest (and these days, this song.) 

Quiet. Peace.

It only lasts so long before the fiery-headed three-year-old needs another granola bar or the cats start to fight. But those moments are more real to me than any of the manic, desperate work I do during the week. I study my skin and feel my breath. I trim my nails, and refresh my hair color, and apply face masks. I exist without the list, without the weight, without the blaze of productivity and the rush of adrenaline. 

And in my church, I am whole. I am allowed. I have permission. Whatever comes next, it can wait.