Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Tightrope Is On Fire

Sometimes in life, you balance precariously. A couple months ago, I wrote in a journal a little piece called "Beggar on a Tightrope."

Sometimes, you wake up to find your tightrope is ON FIRE.

Then certain words start stringing together in your mind like crazy ropes of Christmas cranberries: Prozac. The edge. Hyperventilation. Faulty parachute.

You laugh at people who say they're stressed. Stressed was SO five months ago. You shake your head at people who are worried. Worry was SO last season. No, if you're not breaking out in hives of panic, you have not yet begun to fight.

So it feels when your tightrope is on fire.

It helps a little to know that other people have it worse. Their tightropes are growing thorns and sprouting Medusa-like tentacles to wrap around their ankles. And, of course, are on fire.

The beautiful, struggling non-profit for which I work is clinging to its own tightrope. I have gone from full-time to half-time with benefits, and from half-time with benefits to just half-time. You don't need a crystal ball to see where this trend heads.

So since last fall, when the smoke alarm on the tightrope began to sound, I've been churning out resumes and CVs, cover letters and emails. My sweet husband has sought for a better job. My brother lost his job and moved in to the guest room. Extended family dealt with side-by-side pregnancy announcements and layoffs.

Oh, and the dryer quit working. So I hang up wet laundry sock by sock on the rack. And my laptop - my laptop, which is my preferred writer's M.O. It resurrects for a few hours and then coughs a tuberculine hack and draws back into its shell. And my benefits expired the day before my allergist appointment.

So let's talk, boys and girls. A fireside chat, a pastoral word. Let's chat about practical living.

1.) No matter where you work, or how long you've worked there, update your resume or CV. If your company isn't laying off, it may join the ranks. And if it is, even if it hasn't come to your department - invest several hours in sharpening your resume, visiting the websites of companies, denominations, or organizations you're interested in, and scanning monster.com for the kind of employment available right now.

2.) Take the opportunity of number one to really examine where you are and what you're doing. Change may come to your life, painful, even, like it or not - so if you'd ever want to move, where would it be? If you'd ever want to get some extra education, or switch careers, or examine vocation, now is the time to prayerfully consider it.

3.) It takes a village. My brother is out of work and staying with us, but when I got home the other day, the fridge was arranged, the bathroom clean, the dishes done. Employment stress was relieved a bit by less to do at home. My good friend is a single mom finishing her college degree and preparing for her senior art show, so on Friday nights she crashes in our living room and relaxes from the week, and on Monday nights we watch her son while she's in class.

4.) You're probably spending more time in the kitchen. Either you're eating out less, or buying food that needs more prep work, because eating out is costly and buying pre-prepared meals is more expensive than the raw materials. Try to consolidate food prep time by getting a bunch done at once, and freezing extra stuff in Zippy bags.

5.) If I were working at a church right now, I think I'd host a marketplace day - line up a few mechanics in one part of the parking lot, a couple hairdressers in the foyer, a vet in the fellowship hall. Things like oil changes, hair cuts, and pet care could be given by your local church in service to church members and to the community. You could also swap services - exchange with a friend, an oil change for a couple hours of babysitting. Just make sure everybody thinks the barter is fair.

6.) Use changes in grocery shopping and eating out habits to examine your diet. It can take energy and work to try to pack as much nutrient into a low budget as possible - but it is possible. And if you buy cheaper, less lean meat, cut back on buying something high-fat somewhere else.

7.) Don't assume someone who's been laid off is in the same position as you are. They may have it easier, they may have it worse. They may have thought of the same resources to take advantage of, they may not have. Try to keep your advice emotionally timely: there's a lot of stress around. You don't want to be someone's last straw. A good example of wise counsel was recently given. A family member, on the phone, shared some ideas, but explicitly commented that it could be taken or left, that it was "for what it's worth" - and that was a good clarifier.

8.) Be self-aware of your coping mechanisms. My brother laughed at me last night, because at 10:00 P.M. I was baking cookies, biscuits and black beans (not together). "You look like Marge in 'The Simpsons's' when she's stressed out and is up at three in the morning baking a layer cake and basting a turkey." But when a lot is out of your control, control what you can. Apparently, baking to store up for the next couple days is one way I do this. That being said, if things are out of control in your life, also keep in mind unhealthy ways you have of control - addictions rear their ugly heads, eating disorders for some might gnaw at their minds. Be especially aware that things you thought were behind you might reappear under heavy stress.

9.) Indulge. Indulge in free or cheap recreation, escape. The past week I've been doing this without consciously meaning to - but it's been a lifesaver. I took naps Saturday and Sunday. In the evenings, I've played video games - video games, which I don't often do - and it's been a lifesaver to kill time with "Castle Crashers." Productive? No. Mental health saving? Yes. Movies, books, sci fi, whatever - allow yourself. A hobby a day keeps the Prozac away.

10.) Remember the oxygen mask principle. You know, those placards in the back of airplane seats exhort passengers to put on their own oxygen mask before putting it on a child, in case of emergency. Why? Because if you do what seems natural, and give the kid the oxygen first, you may pass out and become completely useless to help them further. Which simply means, you must take care of yourself in order to take care of others. Financially, spiritually, relationally, physically - protect yourself so you can more effectively help those around you. Even if you've never taken them before, it's a good time to visit your doctor about anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications. Your chemicals can get out of whack under stress. It doesn't mean you have a spiritual problem. It doesn't mean you're weak. It just means we have souls, and we have bodies. Use common sense caring for your body.

Give yourself some slack if your tightrope is on fire. What may usually be your best may be completely out of your reach right now. And that's okay. Give yourself permission to find comfort in a different set of expectations right now. This may mean you utilize a different set of resources than normal. Regular Bible reading may seem difficult; you might get a lot of comfort from classic devotionals, or Gregorian chants, or visiting a chapel during lunch time, or listening to Scripture on your iPod, or studying religious art, or talking with someone more mature than you are. Don't worry: there's a Psalm for you, or a Proverb, or a Lament. Around that, build a contemplative spirit - in the midst of your burning tightrope.

And check up on one another. Whenever there's a severe storm, local officials always request that citizens look in on their neighbors, to make sure they're okay. Keep tabs with people, let them know how you're doing, see how they're faring through the storm. None of us is alone.