"Pillows of Support"

A question I’ve been struggling to answer lately, one that inevitably comes up in conversation with fellow students at Harvard Divinity School is: What do you do then, if you’re part-time? The truth sounds somehow too self-indulgent, requiring in itself another explanation, something apologetic, something to explain why I can’t carry a full load, why I don’t, in my spare time, build my resume with an enviable internship or write a novel, something big and beautiful, something to justify this open space that I’ve created.

I am thankful for the opportunity to study at HDS. It is a privilege and with this privilege, there is great responsibility. But we need a space wide enough to hold all of us and rich enough to nourish the many colors and shapes that make our life paths so unique. As my husband tells me when I’m feeling crazy or “too” different, “it takes all kinds to make the world go ‘round.” What works for some of us doesn’t have to work for us all and when I experienced a debilitating depression toward the end of my first year at HDS, it didn’t take long for me to realize that if I wanted to complete my degree, healthy and satisfied with what I had learned, I needed to incorporate some supports for my overall health into my everyday lifestyle.

I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for as long as I can remember but it had never before been so intensely physical. My body felt tired and heavy and I was often short of breath, fatigued and unable to focus. For several weeks, I was unable read; the words blurred and my brain simply could not put them together in any meaningful way. Gradually, I began to read 10 minutes at a time, then fifteen. But in the meantime, because I couldn’t focus on my work, I started to walk, not far but often. Several blocks from our apartment, there was a pond where a pair of swans nested. I visited them every day. I made soups and baked breads. I filled our home with plants and found a farm where I could volunteer.

It was during this time that I began to really understand what Patricia Lynn Reilly meant when she wrote about “pillows of support” in her book, Words Made Flesh. These “pillows of support” acknowledge and respect the things we need to stay healthy and active, the things we need to participate in life. I had spent my first year at HDS reading, days, nights, weekends, going to classes, writing papers, and doing little, if anything, else. My body was letting me know, LOUD and CLEAR, that I had neglected it, that it was suffering, and that I couldn’t survive like this.

So now I take two classes instead of four. And with my “extra” time, I play with Lily, I hike, I volunteer on a farm once a week. I pick blackberries and make jam. I collect apples for applesauce and apple butter. I spend more time with my husband, laughing, cooking, occasionally fighting. I go to therapy. I journal. I watch silly comedies and catch the Daily Show and the Colbert Report when I can. I write, just for myself. And, of course, I study. I don’t have any ready answers when people ask what I’ll do with my degree. My husband and I intend to move back to Pennsylvania, my roots. There, I intend to write and to garden and hopefully in the near future, to become a mother. While none of these things are specific to a Masters in Theological Studies, I have no doubt that they will be (as I am) richer because of it.


Elizabeth Harper said...

That was so well said!

It's sad that we sometimes feel as if we need to
apologize for living a life that works best for us.

Congrats to you on living life by your design.

I really enjoy your posts.

Meadowlark Days said...

Thank you for your honesty. I am glad that you have found some pillows of support. I am blessed to stay at home, even though we don't have children yet, and I am sure that some people wonder what in the world I do with all my time and why I'm not doing more. Hopefully I'm learning how best to take care of myself, like you are!

Thanks for stopping by my blog!

Rowena said...

This is very interesting. I find myself sometimes near the "edge" doing all that I do. I stay at home and take care of two little children and write when I can and paint when I can. I feel a lot of guilt because, frankly, I am a terrible housekeeper, and what else is a stay at home mom supposed to do? And why am I so tired? I don't seem to be doing anything.

I know it's something about valuing "women's work" and I know it's something about my own perfectionism issues and productivity and a little left over puritan work ethic. Being an artist seems indulgent, somehow, especially if I can't keep the floors swept.