The clock in our office is five minutes slow.
As a result, or maybe for reasons having nothing to do with the clock, we start late and end late.
Each morning we sit around the round table in the middle of the room, talking about the weekend or the sunshine or a recent trip or traffic or childhood memories or previous jobs or whatever. It’s morning prayer time that always starts with conversation. We can’t help ourselves. We like being together and sharing life.
Each afternoon, we sit at keyboards clicking frantically.
“Go home!” our boss calls at us as he packs up his bag.
“No!” we yell back and give him one reason or another that we need to stay.
One afternoon it dawned on me how ironic this exchange was. I’m sure few employees argue with their boss to let them stay later.
The clock shifts methodically beside us, it’s hands stiffly ushering in each new minute. Under its watch, we send out teams and we travel with them and we pray for teams and their funds and their unity and their impact, most of all. We process paperwork and make calls and write and set budgets and book flights and problem solve.
Time doesn’t seem to follow the methodical measured nature of this clock It wanes and waxes, speeds and slows. Draws in breaths and exhales.
The nature of travel, our livelihood, is strung to this clock, yet how arbitrary it sounds, in its constant ticking.
Someone is always turning on the AC in the rain. I am always turning on the heat on a sunny day.
It’s what happens when you put me in the same room with a pregnant lady. I have a comfort range of 75 degrees to 90. Hers is under 60. That’s a big difference.
When I’m basking in perfect equilibrium, others are sweating and propping open doors. When they find relief, the tips of my fingers begin to go icy.
You can’t make everyone happy, particular in the area of temperature.
I’m stopped at a green light.
There is something maddening about being trapped here, in a mass deadlocked cars.
The light holding back the oncoming traffic shifts. Lanes heave and release cars and trucks and big rigs into the intersection.
And so begins my day.
I never thought I would ever be here, one in a trail of traffic tracing my route to work. I belong on empty back roads in states where the each person has square miles of their own. I belong on crystal clear rivers or powdery slopes.
Somehow, one small step after another led me here. Yet I feel more purpose here, in masses of cars and among millions of people, than I ever have before. Like somehow I shifted my grip on a bat and found my sweet spot.
These two parts of me seem in constant opposition, pulling me in two parts.
When I’m on those rivers and empty roads and powdery slopes, I feel alive and refreshed. And yet, at my job here I feel inspired and excited.
I wish I could have both.
And so here I am, stopped at a green light.
There are many tiny flowers poking up through the parched cracks in deserts all around the world.
I meet one while in a rural village in the tiny, overlooked country of Swaziland, Africa.
She has a small frame with delicate features and a big smile. Her hair, like all of the other children, is swirls of coarse curls trimmed to her head. My guess is she is about five years old.
We are leaving to visit the many rock and stick huts that hunch along dirt trails in this area, called Matsetsa. She is standing next to several other children who are coaxing water out of the ground via a pump. She reaches for my hand as almost an afterthought. As we start out, I ask the pastor, “Can I keep her?”
A native Swazi, the pastor doesn’t sense my jest and tells me it will be too far for her to walk. So I say goodbye and tell her I will find her later.
I do, playing with other children near a swing set made of stripped trees and pieces of rope, the kind that would be ripe for law suit potential in America. As it is, each wild sway has me a little breathless on behalf do the children, who breeze by each other pumping their stick-thin legs energetically. I sit down on the ground near it, the grass pickling my legs through my skirt, and she gravitates to my lap.
We don’t speak the same language, but I am learning that in countries like this, where love is the only ready currency, it doesn’t matter. Children just want to be held, and love needs no translation.
That afternoon we sit by the soccer field as other children kick a ball across the expansive field. The bloated sun sinks into the ragged horizon and the winter air cools. She leans over my shoulder to watch me sort through my camera’s photos, as I look for ones to delete to make space on a disc packed with faces and smiles. Another child notices too and climbs in my lap. Then another. Then another, till my lap is full of little black heads tucked in a circle. They watched a video of children singing, then sing their own songs between chest-deep coughs and sneezes that shake their little bodies. Their colds don’t slow them down. They cycle through the ABCs. Ba Ba Black sheep. A song about a black mambo that creeps up while the singer is doing laundry, complete with mimes of them washing imaginary clothes between their wrists.
That night at a church service I find her again, in a puffy blue jacket, its hood circling her face in perfect symmetry. She sits on my lap as our team member, a pastor, speaks to a warm and gregarious crowd. I marvel at how still and quietly she sits for the hour. A team member leans toward and me and explains softly, “She’s asleep.” I peek around her hood and see her eye lashes laying on her cheeks. I feel the quiet draw of her breath and the warmth seeming through her jacket.
An unexplainable tenderness wells in my heart for this child, who I only met that day.
The next morning, as I paint her nails pink, I ask the pastor’s wife about her. Her name is Mela. She is one of 13 children in a household run by a single mother. Her father left awhile ago.
My farewell comes as I hold her in my lap awhile she eats a porridge of rice and meal the pastor’s wife has spooned out of a large metal pot. Meala scoops each bite into her mouth with pink-tipped fingers. I wonder if it will be her only meal that day. I wonder if I will ever see her again. I wonder if she will be OK.
But, like those many tiny flowers, I believe she will flourish in the desert against all odds too.
I had set each obligation up like a domino, tucked in side by side, nearly touching. I had put together the puzzle perfectly, each item snugly placed next to another.
The problem with that is when one domino falls, so do the others. The problem is, when you move one puzzle piece, the others move too.
It’s 5 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, just before I leave work for the day. I look down at my lap top bag. It looks heavy. And cumbersome. All day I’ve held the heavy weight of 1,000 details. I’m too exhausted to pick it up. I could just leave it for tonight, I think. I won’t need it. It seems like a great idea at the time.
Later at home, my coworker texts me, asking for information tucked away within the files of that computer. One simple little number that any other night would be at my fingertips. But instead, it’s across town, leaning on my file cabinet at work.
I sigh and work up a plan, setting up the first of a string of dominoes. I tell her I’ll come in early the next morning and text her the information she needs. Problem solved.
I’ve got this, I think.
That night I lay away late, blazing through the chapters of a book we are supposed to discuss early the next morning. It’s 11:30 p.m. by the time I turn off my light. It’s not an ideal bedtime, but oh well.
It’s OK. I’ve got this.
I run through the plan once before I doze off. Step one: Duck into my office and dig up that number my co-worker needs. Step two: Grab a chair with the rest of the staff, participating fully in the discussion, because, of course, I have read the chapters. Step three: Scramble to send emails and answer calls and finalize details on my five trips headed out in the next month. Step four: Conduct an interview during my lunch for a freelance newspaper assignment. Step five: More scrambling. Step six: Band practice after work. Step seven: Run home to write the freelance story.
I’ve got this.
The next morning, I am ready early. I’ve got my coffee. I’ve got my phone. I’ve got my book. I’ve got it together. I get in my car and turn the key.
Well, this is inconvenient, I think.
I sigh and send out a batch of mini SOS’s. I text my coworker the news. My car is dead. I can’t come in early. I call and walk her through the process to extract the information she needs herself, while stopping mid-directions to field replies and text my boss that I’m stranded. “You need help?” he asks. “Yes please!” I respond.
The minutes tick by with no confirmation. He’s probably driving, I think. He’s probably on the way. I look at my phone. “TEXT NOT SENT” my phone reads in red. I sigh.
A half hour later, I’m on my way. My car jumped, humming contently. I’ve got my coffee. I’ve got my book. I’m over a half hour late, but it’s OK. The plan is still salvageable.
I’ve got this, I think.
I walk in the door, breathless, only to hear music, not banter and laughter and the sound of discussion. We didn’t need to read the chapters, it dawns on me. I never looked at the schedule. We’re having a prayer and worship morning instead. I look at my calendar and notice another meeting I had failed to account for. And I remember that I haven’t even listened to the songs I need to play at band practice, much less practiced on my own. I haven’t practiced for a set I’m playing tomorrow night either. I haven’t cleaned for my mom’s visit this weekend. I haven’t told my roommate my mom is coming. I never wrote a friend that card for his birthday. Wait, isn’t it Father’s Day on Sunday?… The list of “I haven’ts” spills out in a rush of broken and failed intentions. The dominoes buzz by as they fall.
It’s then I realize: I don’t have this. A plan in shambles is what I have.
It turns out a little time with God in prayer is exactly what I need.
This is what happens when you tuck in those dominoes too close together. This is what happens when you piece together a puzzle on a card table with broken legs. This is a taste of a life with no space allowed for the unexpected. No back up plans. No buffers.
This is a life without margins.
There are 175,000 miles on this SUV. They are a patchwork of youth services and conventions and district councils and meetings. They are small measure of my boss’s commitment to his work.
I have spent 100s of miles in this back seat, my shoes kicked off, my feet tucked underneath me, nestled in the leather upholstery.
Tonight, the heater hums and indicators on the dash glow in warm orange tones. From the each overpass we cross, I watch as the roofs of buildings coast by, the lights pinned on their corners blurring together.
This is one of those times that the structure of our organization becomes less hierarchical, and more like that of a family. My boss’s rich baritone voice adds harmonies to the Beatles songs lilting from our CD player. My co-worker giggles and asks questions she knows will lead to stories. My boss teases me at the unexpected chime of my phone. I close my eyes and tilt my head against the door jam, listening to the murmur of their voices.
Somehow, this doesn’t seem like the typical job that requires obligatory travel. Instead, each trip is an adventure. Each journey is a chance to dream. Each highway is doorway to our future growth.
The miles tick by, one after another, clocking the first of another 175,000.
It started with one singular ant, so harmless and unassuming, navigating between my calendar and stapler.
Later another joined him, with the nerve to stroll across the screen of my lap top.
From there, they popped up intermittently.
Where are the coming from? I wondered, twirling back and forth in my chair to peak at the wall next to my desk. I expected to see a trail of them coursing up the chipped paint.
For most of the day, I pretty much ignored them, blotting them off my desk here and there. The onslaught came after lunch, in the midst of rolling over my 401K.
On my third phone call, after ping ponging back and forth between two financial institutions, I saw it.
“Ma’am, can I get your social security number?” he said with the token customer service representative accent.
They were streaming out of a hole made by a dip in the carpet against the wall.
I followed the line with my eyes, bent over in my chair with the phone cord taunt across my desk.
Finally I was able to spit the number out.
“What’s your mother’s maiden name?” he asked calmly.
I was anything but calm. The trail of ants was marching from that hole, across the carpet. Leaning closer, I spotted their route. Their little bodies were a mass of motion amid the blotches of tones in the carpet.
Then I spotted the ladder they were using to ascend to my desk. They were flooding up my lap top’s power cord.
Those little brats…
“Your mother’s maiden name, ma’am.”
This guy’s going to think I am trying to break into this account, I thought. I tore my eyes away from the ants, then spat out the information.
He began to talk me through financial decisions I was not prepared to make in the midst of an ambush. I kept trying to come up with he wise questions, the ones about taxes and timing. I used words like “liquidate” and “pre-tax status.”
All the while I was watching them troop across the carpet, like soldiers on their way to war, fearless. I tossed the lap top cord off my desk and onto the floor in between filling out the fields of an online form opening an IRA account. That should slow them down for a minute.
Suddenly it dawned on me. My soup bowl from lunch. It still had the traces of tomato soup on it that must smell intoxicating to a colony of ants, drawing them like bees to a flower. I peered over the bowl’s edge. It was crawling with them.
My stomach turned.
“Will that be all?” he asked with all the customer service bravado they had trained him with.
“Yes! Thank you!” I chirped and slammed the phone into its cradle.
“OH MY GOSH!!” I yelled and pushed back my chair from my desk.
The two other girls in my office looked up surprised.
There was no bug spray under the kitchen sink in the break room. The supply closet only had hornet killer. I’m not sure what that entailed, but I wasn’t going to take the chance.
I stormed back into my office armed with a spray bottle of Windex, with all the indignation of a pageant mother whose child had just been named second place.
I’m not one to get squeamish over a few bugs. I’ve shared bucket showers in Africa with spiders the size of quarters. I’ve hovered over scorpions that I found under bricks I was hauling in Ecuador. I’ve rescued beetles from indoors and once ushered a mouse from my office.
But this was different. They were invading my territory by the hundreds, possibly thousands.
It’s safe to say, a little Windex and a vacuum assured I won the war.