Every single day is drudgery. There is comfort in the routine of it all, but little else. I get up with the alarm. I eat breakfast with David – scrambled eggs with ham and cheese. On really exciting days, we use goat cheese and add fresh chives and sautéed mushrooms. I clean up our breakfast dishes. I shower. I put on clothes. At 8:00 every weekday morning I walk into my office, turn on my computer, load my programs, and spend the next eight and a half hours answering the phone.
During my morning break, I lift weights. At lunch, David and I sit at the dining room table and eat our turkey sandwich. We hold hands. This is the highlight of my workday. On my afternoon break, I holler to Harriet, “There’s lappage available!” listening to the thud as she lands on the bedroom floor and the sound of heavy paws making their way across the dining room to my chair. I read my book while she settles in.
At 4:30, I shut off my computer, leave my office, and read into the evening until either David or I get hungry enough to make dinner. After dinner, I clean the kitchen and we settle in on the couch to watch Netflix. Some days I think I might die from the boredom of it all. I wonder if other people cry in the shower because they hate their working life so much. I feel guilty because, after all, I have a job, a home, a partner who loves me but isn’t sure he wants to spend the rest of his life with me.
On Saturdays I bake bread. I do laundry. I clean bathrooms. I hand wash the floors. I fantasize about taking up drinking as a pastime. I am much too responsible for that. On Sundays I use the egg yolks leftover from baking bread to make Hollandaise sauce and I serve Eggs Benedict for breakfast. I clean the kitchen. I go to church. I spend my Sunday afternoons reading and sometimes crying because I hate the thought of going into my office at 8:00 Monday morning.
“You should apply to CPE again,” David said to me one day. I had refused over and over and over again when he’d brought it up before. “You’d make an excellent chaplain.”
“How can you be so sure?” I asked him.
“You ask better questions than anyone I’ve ever met,” he tells me as he holds my hand.
I can’t do it. I have failed twice before.
I go to work every single day and while I love David and while I recognize how extraordinary it is that I have even survived this long and come this far, I hate my life.
“You should apply to CPE again,” David said to me again one day. “I know you said the UIHC isn’t doing a summer program, but you could apply to GMC. That’s a doable drive.”
“Why don’t you want to spend your life with someone who does service work?” I ask him. “I don’t care what the answer is. Anything is acceptable. Your reasons are your reasons and whatever they are, they’re okay. But I want to understand. Are you ashamed of my work? Are you afraid your colleagues will judge you? Does the idea of introducing your girlfriend who works in a call center to other college professors embarrass you?”
David takes my hand. He has a habit of doing so when we talk about heavy stuff. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life waking up next to someone who is wasting their potential. I can’t live with that.”
“What if I fail?” I ask him.
“It’s okay to fail. It’s not okay to not try,” he replies.
“I’ve tried twice,” I remind him. “I failed both times. First when Tim died and then last summer, in Tennessee. Maybe I’m just not cut out for it.”
“This time will be different.”
I applied for CPE.
“Hey, babe!” I yelled from my office.
“Yeah?” David answered.
“I got an interview. March 18th. 10:00AM.”
“That’s fantastic! How do you want to celebrate?” he asks with incredible enthusiasm.
I do not want to celebrate. I want to throw up. We go out for burgers.
“I wish the interview was sooner,” David says to me one morning.
“Why?” I ask him, thinking how much I’d prefer it were farther away.
“Because I want to know,” he enthuses. The week trudges on.
I take the day off from work. I drive sixty miles to the east. I feel ambivalent. I want my life to move forward. I do not want to do this.
I am early. The cafeteria is open and I buy bad coffee and sit at a small table working on a crossword puzzle. I have set the timer on my phone. When it’s 9:55, I get up, pack my bag and make my way to the Spiritual Care office. I introduce myself to the department secretary. She announces my arrival. I am interviewed.
‘Breathe,’ I say to myself over and over. ‘This is anxiety. It’s okay. You can clarify the question if you’re not sure what he’s asking.’ I breathe. Over and over and over again. I breathe. I ask clarifying questions when necessary. I am in no hurry to answer the questions. I search inside of myself for what is true. I speak with intention and care, not rushing to get through it but pausing to explore what I am feeling.
“Do you have any questions for me?” the supervisor asks toward the end of the interview.
“This might be inappropriate to ask, and you can certainly tell me it’s none of my business, I’ll understand. But what was it like,” my voice breaks. I begin to tear up. I clear my throat. “What was it like to work at Columbia Presbyterian that year?” The supervisor answers my question. I know I am in the right place. I want to finish CPE. I want to be this supervisor’s student.
When I get my acceptance letter, I tell David. We rejoice. I am afraid, but I am convinced that this was providentially ordained. It will not be easy, but I will not fail. I send my response and my tuition deposit. I pee in a cup and have blood drawn. I quit my job and have no regrets. I do not miss the paycheck.
At the same time, I wonder how I will make it through. The companions I thought I would have will not be there. My pastor just quit the church and I’ve been asked to serve as the interim. It is scary and very alone behind the pulpit. David will be gone for two of the ten weeks.
I will be alone with the cats and my fears.
My mornings are more harried while he is out of the state, while he is out of the country. By the third day of his absence, I come to realize that I cannot do it all. With the addition of cat cares in the morning before I leave the house, I can only have two of the following three things: breakfast, coffee, a shower. More often than not, I have coffee and a shower. I am thankful for the hardboiled eggs two days a week.
My summer is fraught with fears and frustrations. I do not know how to be angry. I am filled with terror of one of my colleagues. There are anxieties and defensiveness all around. No one but me seems to want to be here. I am the only one who isn’t required by an institution of higher learning or an ordination board to take CPE. I can walk away at anytime and find something else to do with my life.
This is worthwhile. This is important. This is transformative. I pursue it doggedly and feel very alone in doing so. This summer is all about saying goodbye to Tim. It’s all about moving forward with my life. It’s about completing what was left undone – not just CPE, but grieving. I cry every single day. I love my life. I begin to learn to recognize and manage my anxiety.
Two weeks before the internship is over, I am in the backseat of a car, one of my fellows is in the front passenger’s seat, a resident is driving. Someone cuts us off and a string of profanities bursts forth from my lips. Everyone in the car indicates they feel some degree of road rage. Mine has topped them all. I’m not usually this angry. My heart keeps racing. I want to run away. I can’t do it. I can’t finish it. It’s too much.
I’m driving home from my clinical site a week later. I am going to finish the unit at the end of the week. Suddenly I understand the anger and the fear. I am going to finish my first unit of CPE on Friday. And the people I started this journey with are not going to be there. The people who are supposed to be there finished their CPE journeys eight years before. Or, in the case of Tim, died.
When I get home, I sit on the floor of the shower, the hot water running over me. I cry and I cry and I cry. Death. I have seen much of it over the course of the summer. I feel like some part of me is dying, too. Going forward isn’t all rainbows and daisies. There are unforeseen costs. I have to feel the pain of Tim’s death again and hope it doesn’t swallow me whole again or leave me staring at a wall for six months straight.
Graduation comes. My parents come to the ceremony. David cannot be there. He is at a job conference in Chicago, looking for a position at a university that is within driving distance of a CPE center that offers supervisory training. This limits his options. He is willing to sacrifice various possibilities to make this happen. Now that I know what I am doing with my life, David wants me to keep me in his.
After I complete my first full unit of CPE, I say goodbye to my cohort. I tell my mentor and supervisor I will see them again. I walk my parents to their car. I go home. The next day, I join David in Chicago for the rest of his conference and a few days more. We enjoy the respite. We dally in the calmness of these final summer days. Life will be busy again soon enough.
The following week, I start my first CPE Residency. A new cohort. A new assignment. Still more to learn. I find myself more completely. Somewhere deep inside, I find a kernel of truth that allows me to separate myself from the whole. I discover my observing ego. I find stillness in the center of my being.
I know who I am. I know what I believe.
Creation is the juncture where love and imagination intersect.
I am fortunate to love and be loved by a man who allows me to encourage him in the creation of his own life, who encourages me as I create my life, and who has invited me on the adventure of creating our life together.
I am imagining great things.