“I can’t go camping with you guys, Claire,” I stutter. “I don’t have any gear. I – I would just get in your way.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Jamie.” My older sister tosses her frizzy blonde braid and heads to my apartment’s kitchenette with a huge jar of chili. “Daniel and I will bring all the supplies and the food. We already have two tents, a big one for us and the kids, and a personal one for you. Literally, all you have to do is show up.”
She clanks the jar on the countertop and mumbles, “I swear, if I didn’t bring you leftovers, you’d live on potatoes and frozen pizza.”
“Yeah, thanks,” I say, halfway between sarcasm and embarrassment. “I’m sure camping will be a blast for you guys, but I still can’t join you.”
She squints at me suspiciously. “I know what the real hang-up is, you’re worried about work. Don’t. There’s plenty of time to put in your PTO request.”
“It’s not that,” I say. “My responsibilities at the office make the Magna Carta look like a dang memo! I can’t just drop everything.”
“Your job can do without you for one week, Jamie.” Claire wiggles her fingers like a magician.
“They’re called vacation days.”
“You don’t understand.” I snatch up the chili jar and chuck it into the fridge, smushing a furry loaf of bread. “You don’t have a career.”
Claire blinks, stung. It was a low blow. Years ago, she quit teaching costume design at the local college to raise her kids and was sensitive about being a full-time mom. I should apologize. Instead, I tug at my wrinkled suit jacket like a total snob. Stewing on the fact that she doesn’t understand the pressure I’m under.
Claire lets out a sizzling breath. “You’re right, Jamie. I don’t work a nine-to-five. But I am in charge of three kids’ spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical well-being. And you know one of the things I’m trying to teach them? Work-life balance. Something you obviously never learned.” She gestures at me, top to toe, “Stress is oozing out of you, Jamie. It’s not healthy.”
I lean back against the fridge, kick off my dress shoes, and cross my arms. “This is what it takes to be successful. You know, climb the ladder. Is that wrong?”
“If you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, yes.”
Her tone gets under my skin, and I snap, “What does that mean?”
She slides my junk mail into the trash and hops to sit on the kitchenette’s island. “Are you trying to succeed because you think it will add value to your life? That success equals worth?”
“I – no! I don’t think that. But success isn’t bad either.”
Claire shakes her head. “Lately, it seems like you’re . . . desperate for it. No, just listen, Jamie. God made you on purpose, in His image. You can’t achieve a better identity than ‘royal priesthood,’ no matter what you do. What Christ did for your salvation makes a Nobel Prize look like a gold sticker.”
“That’s not what I’m doing! I’m not trying to earn forgiveness or good standing or whatever.” I want to add, ‘or earn my identity,’ but can’t quite. I tell her, “I’m being responsible with the talents He gave me. Or did you forget the verse that says each of us will have to give an account of himself to God?”
Claire argues, “Rest isn’t a sin.”
“I never said it was. But look at Paul; that man didn’t sit still.”
“I’m pretty sure he took sabbaticals between missionary journeys. Anyway, is he really who you are emulating by working seventy hours a week? A traveling church planter, imprisoned, flogged, stoned, and shipwrecked?”
“That’s not fair.”
“You made the comparison, not me. Look, I’m not downing your job. I’m just saying you need a break.”
My brain rattles through my to-do list: meetings, schedules, emails, and projects. Each small enough on their own, but compounded, makes me feel like Atlas with the world on my shoulders. “I just can’t afford to right now.”
“You never can.” She chews her lip, watching me sulk, then says, “If Jesus took time to get away from the crowds, don’t you think you should too?”
I groan and rub my temples. Usually, I like a good Bible spar, but not when it infringes on my life. I need a minute to form a rebuttal. I cast around for a delay tactic. The mountain of dishes in the sink is as good an excuse as any. When did I get so behind on everything? Laundry, vacuuming, haircuts. One thing at a time. I start washing dishes casually, like it’s my after-work habit instead of eating cheese puffs and binge-watching Seinfeld. I can feel her eyes on the back of my head.
“What about Solomon?” I say at last. “‘Go to the ant, you sluggard, learn her ways and be wise.’ Isn’t that what I’m doing? Being diligent? And Revelation says we’ll be judged by our deeds written in the Book of Life. We are supposed to earn crowns to cast at His feet. That doesn’t happen by sitting back and counting fireflies.”
Claire leans into my peripheral vision. “Do you think God’s concerned about the same things as your CEO? He cares about sparrows and lilies and yes, probably fireflies. But most of all, He cares about people. He cares about you, Jamie. And you’re burning out!”
I almost don’t hear her. I’m on a roll: “They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength.”
“Aha!” She waves her finger like a prosecuting attorney who has tripped up her witness. “Wait on the Lord.”
“Gah! You drive me bananas!” Frustrated, I fling a drying towel at her, and she hops down to help.
I scrub vigorously at a bowl to hide my shaking hands and say, “Here’s one: Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, something, something – can’t remember – you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.”
“You’re really whipping out the old memory verses,” Claire teases with such poise it makes steam come out of my ears. “I’ve got one too: ‘He makes me lay down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters.’” She gestures at the chaos that is my apartment. “Your waters are a vortex of shrapnel and doom!”
I start to argue, but Claire cuts me off with a look that would make Vin Diesel nervous. “We’re told to delight in the Lord. ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ You can’t enjoy anything at lightspeed; your best hope is to avoid motion sickness or getting hit by an asteroid. Do you really think that’s what God wants for you?”
I lick my lips and stare at the scalding plate in my hands as if it holds the answers, but the gloss of the honey-scented soap only reflects my haggard face. This year I got my first batch of wrinkles and thinning hair. I look pinched, exhausted.
What does God want for me? I gaze out my dinky kitchen window at the brick wall opposite. When was the last time I was surrounded by the hush of trees, the fresh scent of water and wind? My brain turns on me. I see Jesus’s compassion for children, His patience with the disciples, His empathy for the ailing. I hear Him tell Martha to calm the heck down and praise Mary for resting in His presence.
Peace be still. I will give you rest. Be still and know…
I see Him praying alone in a garden.
I know He didn’t die for me to run a rat race. But I don’t know how else to exist. I don’t know how to rest, not really. I always, always feel overwhelmed and . . . lacking. And I never ease up long enough to figure out why or how to fix it. Instead, I drown my doubts with more work. When I do go home, I distract myself with social media and TV until they lull me into a jittery sleep, only to start it all again a handful of hours later. Claire is right. I’m riding down a whirlpool of caffeine-fueled confusion.
It’s hardly living. But if I slow down, I’m scared of what I’ll find. Who am I if I’m not producing or achieving?
Claire’s voice reaches me as though far away, speaking gently, “We rented campsites near Seven Falls, where we used to go with Mom and Dad. Remember the trails, the cold spray of the waterfalls, wood smoke, and buttery pancakes? It’ll be early autumn, with the scents and crunch of changing leaves, the mountain vistas sweeping orange and yellow. There will be no appointments or deadlines or pinging phones. Just nature and nothing to do. I think it’s what we all need.”
She takes my half-washed plate away and lays her hand on my elbow. “It’s safe to rest, Jamie. It means you trust Him.”
My eyes sting. I turn so she won’t see. “Seven Falls, huh? When–when did you say we’re going?”
Molly Hopkins is a feisty individual driven to write due to a severe chronic illness. She won three short story contests through Johnson County Library and Tulsa County Library. Molly is a freelance editor, game scriptwriter, and budding novelist. For more essays and short fiction, visit http://www.goldinthegray.com.
Molly Hopkins, “Vortex,” An Unexpected Journal: Leisure 6, no. 3. (Fall 2023), 43-48.