Bricks for Pharaoh

I will never forget what one of my Jehovah’s Witness friends said to me on Saturday February 18, 2017, the first euphoric weekend after I made the decision to go part-time. My friends were really happy for me when I shared the decision I had made, and they confided that they too worked part-time so that they could devote more time to ministry.

“I like to think of my day job in terms of making bricks for Pharaoh,” one of them said. I think the point was that in this world, we are all slaves in a sense. Some of us are lucky and find a day job that is our dream job, but most of us have to work for “the man”, settle for jobs that don’t fit our true calling to earn money in this world. But by working part-time, my friends struck the perfect balance between the necessity of making bricks for Pharaoh, and yet still had time and energy to devote to their true passion which was ministry. They were so excited that I was about to experience this balance too.

For the next two and a half years or so, life was amazing. I didn’t do volunteer work like I wanted to. I really wanted to volunteer at Just Between Us magazine, a magazine that encourages women in ministry that is headquartered in the basement of my church. If this volunteer work never led to a paying job, I was fine with that. Maybe God inspired me to study journalism in college so that I could serve the kingdom by volunteering at this magazine, and my Paralegal certificate was how I would “make bricks for Pharaoh” part-time. But I did hope that with a few years of building rapport with the staff at this magazine, I could someday have enough experience to update my resume and land a day job writing for a Christian publication. But unfortunately, in September 2018 when I contacted the Editor-in-chief of this magazine, she said there were no volunteer opportunities available at that time, and I just never followed up.

I thought about volunteering as a braille mentor for children in response to my desire to do more earthly good while still being heavenly-minded. But I chickened out because I really don’t know how to work with kids. In college, I volunteered as a Big Sister, but there was always a volunteer coordinator in the room who was incredibly helpful when my Little Sister didn’t always want to cooperate with me. Now that I was a full-fledged adult, I feared I would be expected to manage a child on my own. As a blind person, I know I am uniquely qualified to assist and encourage blind children learning braille, but blind children are still first and foremost children, and what if I was matched with a child who didn’t like to read and couldn’t, or wouldn’t sit still? In March 2013, I was asked by the person who just five months later would be my supervisor when I did a paid internship at Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement, if I would be willing to volunteer as a braille mentor for just one day at the Badger Braille Games, an annual event in our community where blind children and adults participate in a day of friendly competition with games that involve braille. Recalling how much fun I had at these events when I was a child, and excited about the idea of participating in these games again as an adult, I agreed. All of the teachers that work with the younger children would also be in attendance at this event, so I knew I didn’t have to worry about managing wild children alone. We were all seated in rows of chairs in an elementary school gymnasium, and it was time to be quiet for the “opening ceremony” of sorts in which they always welcome everyone, thank sponsors and volunteers that made the event possible, and sing Brailling Signs Is Cool to Do, a silly song about the value of braille someone wrote to the tune of Neil Sedaka’s 1960s hit Breaking up Is Hard to Do. But one little kindergartner on my team would not be quiet, until he noticed I had a dog at my feet. When he got on the floor and started petting Gilbert, I should have used it as a teaching moment, explaining how he was a service dog, not a dog you can pet. But I opted not to take it because hey, at least the child was finally being quiet. But a few minutes later, his teacher noticed what he was doing, came over and did what I wasn’t sure how to do, calmly and firmly explaining that Gilbert was a service dog, and getting the child back in his seat.

But I digress. The point is, I wasn’t comfortable with the possibility of being expected to manage a child without backup, and it occurred to me I would only be pursuing this opportunity because I felt it was something I should be doing. For the sake of the child, and my rapport with the school and the blind community, I realized I shouldn’t volunteer for something for which my heart wasn’t yet in the right place.

So I didn’t do any volunteer work, but I did join choir again, an activity I loved since I was a small child, but which I had given up in the thick of anxiety and exhaustion working full-time. I didn’t do the kind of independent bible studying I should have done, and which my Jehovah’s Witness friends encouraged me to do, but I hosted a group of young adults every Monday night for almost two years for bible study at my house. Several of these people have become dear friends. Most Tuesday mornings during the school year, I also went to my mom’s bible study at our church. I loved the large group sessions in the chapel where we would start by singing a few hymns and then listen to one of the pastors give a message on the assigned chapters for that week, which often gave the chapters context and helped them make a lot more sense to me. On Thursdays, I enjoyed singing as I chopped celery and mushrooms and prepared a batch of soup to simmer in the crock-pot all day, after which Mom and I would go to the Wisconsin Athletic Club where she would participate in a water aerobics class, and I would enjoy singing along to the music of her class while swimming laps in the lap pool. In the afternoons, I enjoyed having time to write, and that is when I often did the assignments for the online memoir class I wrote about in January. At work, the crying at my desk was ancient history, and I felt like I was more genuine and compassionate with clients because I wasn’t so mentally burnt out. I was also much less infuriated when I occasionally needed to stay late to finish a call.

But gradually, I had started to notice my genuineness and compassion waning. Of course, I was polite to the clients, but in my heart I was thinking, “I am so tired of hearing about people’s back pain.” I also noticed that between calls, my mind was starting to wander as I prepared for the next appointment. I was scared to leave my job, as it took me so long to land it, and I loved the absence of anxiety, and the freedom it afforded me on Tuesdays and Thursdays. But at the same time, I longed for a job that was more intellectually stimulating. Last year after a particularly slow day the Friday before Memorial Day when only two clients picked up the phone for their appeal appointments, I actually started a graduate school application with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but never finished it.

I don’t want to make light of the living conditions for the Hebrews that had to literally make bricks for Pharaoh as described in the Book of Exodus. Not a lot of detail is given about their specific working conditions, other than to say they were treated brutally. I imagine the quotas they were expected to meet were unrealistic, even before Pharaoh forced them to find their own straw. They likely worked from early morning until late in the evening, seven days a week. The Egyptians were Pagans after all, so I am sure they did not allow the Hebrews to observe the Sabbath day. And of course, being slaves, they were not paid for this labor, at least not until God moved the Egyptians to give the Hebrews their silver and gold jewelry, back pay of sorts, before they departed for the Promise land. Even if I had to work full-time, and even if I was never offered this more suitable position simply filing appeals, my working conditions would still have been better than those of the Hebrew slaves. They would not have experienced the anxiety of not knowing how to do the job, as I experienced when I was a case manager. But they would have certainly experienced anxiety any time they saw the foreman, knowing they could be beaten if they weren’t working hard enough. My craving for intellectual stimulation probably pales in comparison to the emotions of Hebrew slaves. Filing appeals did require a little bit of intellect to follow a few legal procedures and broach sensitive subjects with clients. A Hebrew slave probably had his job mastered five minutes into his first day, but I cannot imagine how mind-numbing making those bricks in the hot, desert sun every day, year after year, without pay and with no hope of a better life must have been. So I don’t want to make light of slavery, but strange as it sounds, although I was starting to crave intellectual stimulation more frequently, some days, I relished the lack of it, and some days even dreamed of a less stimulating job like pulling a lever on an assembly line, or getting paid to chop celery and mushrooms for a restaurant, a quiet, friendly restaurant like Cafe Manna, a wonderful vegetarian restaurant near where I live, not one of our local fish fry restaurants where lines stretch out the door. Jobs with little to no intellectual stimulation can still be done even if I have a headache, which I appreciated as I am prone to frequent headaches. When I have a headache, I can usually function, but have no ambition or creativity, so having a job that just required me to go through the script, fill out a form I had seen thousands of times before, was wonderful. My only complaint was when my headache was made worse by a client that was upset about something, or had a complicated medical history. These clients were the figurative equivalent to making bricks on a brutally hot, humid day. But most days, the weather was pleasant, with the clients being friendly and their situations routine. When I was in school writing research papers, I had to turn off all distractions. Even background music on the radio was distracting when trying to read dense, scholarly material which sometimes required me to consult a dictionary every other word, and when I was a full-fledged case manager, the sheer number of things I was responsible for, and the anxiety of knowing I was missing something that would come back to bite me a month or two down the road wasn’t conducive to much singing or smiling either. But between appeal appointments as I mindlessly documented the appeal I just completed, and started the form for the next one, I could sing along to songs on the radio, and enjoy small talk with co-workers. At home, I also enjoyed being able to sing while chopping up my celery and mushrooms, or helping Mom with dishes. So in one sense, I longed for intellectual stimulation, but if I went back to school, would I regret giving up the peaceful life I had attained?

March 18 was the last day I went to work. At the time, I didn’t know it would be my last day. When I arrived and checked my e-mail, I learned that the law firm was shortening business hours until April 3 to allow for social distancing, so instead of working until 4:30, I would only be working until 2pm that day, and every Friday through April 3, the office would be closed. As such, I only had four appeal appointments to complete that day. My manager had already sent an e-mail to the other case managers asking them to reschedule the ones that were now beyond the firm’s business hours. But all four of that day’s appeals were difficult. All of the clients had long medical histories, and a couple had severely heightened anxiety due to the pandemic which made their circumstances, which were difficult in normal times, even more trying because they couldn’t see doctors as they normally would. This made getting the information I needed from them difficult. I had to hop from one appeal to the next without officially submitting them because there wasn’t time for me to find and attach their authorization to release medical records, and for one client, I still needed to look up addresses for doctors the person wasn’t sure of. I finally completed and submitted the fourth appeal with just twenty minutes to spare, and quickly found the missing doctor addresses for the one client. But when I tried to submit the appeals for my second and third client, the Social Security Administration’s website was down. I hate going home with loose ends from the day’s work untied, as it gives me anxiety for fear I will forget about those clients, and their deadlines will be missed causing all kinds of trouble for the client, the case manager, and the attorneys. But I had no choice. I made a mental note, and a private reminder on my braille computer to MAKE SURE to finish those appeals first thing Monday morning, March 23. When two dreams, conversations with family, and prayer made it clear I should not return to work that day, I sent an e-mail about these two clients to my manager, who completed those appeals for me, so all was well there. But as has been the case with many people during this pandemic, week after week at home with the usual routine of our old lives upended has caused me to do some self-reflection about what really matters in life. Through this reflection, it hit home how much I was just going to work to put in my time to make money. Maybe under the circumstances of that last day, both with regard to the complexity of the cases for my clients that day, and the palpable tension in the office as the attorneys tried to figure out how to adjust to this unprecedented crisis, my lack of genuine compassion toward my clients could have been forgiven. But in this time of reflection, it struck me that my lack of genuine compassion had been present for months, even on slow days. When I was at work, all I could think about was how much I wanted to be home, writing or pursuing a new career that offered more creativity.

One day in the summer of 2012, the summer after I graduated from Carroll University with my Bachelor’s degree, my dad and I were taking a walk, and I confided in Dad how I longed for a job that I was passionate about when I got ready for work each day. I didn’t want to be like so many adults I knew who were just counting down the hours until they could clock out each day, the number of days until Friday, the months until they could take a vacation, and ultimately, the years until they could retire. Sure I heard the adage that I could just find a day job that pays the bills, and pursue my passions in the evening. The problem with that was when I observed adults around me, they were so exhausted after work, and still had to manage household responsibilities. They didn’t have the time or energy to pursue hobbies, hence the countdown to retirement. In response, Dad pointed out that even if you find your dream job, after awhile, just the fact that you have to do this job to support yourself can cause the job to lose its luster. He had a valid point. As cool as I think it might be to have a star role in a Broadway musical, broadway actors have to perform the same exact show, hundreds of times, night after night with a smile on their faces. When I was in the Milwaukee Children’s Choir, we would occasionally perform a show three days in a row, and by the third night, we were often exhausted and found it hard to keep smiling. But the choir director reminded us that although it was our third time performing the show, the audience was seeing it for the first time. Mustering a smile is essential in show business, as the show would not get good reviews if the audience could tell we weren’t enjoying ourselves. My experience with choir deepened my appreciation for the talent of actors every time I go to a musical, both in terms of the character they are playing, but also in their ability to make me believe they are enjoying themselves when if I could ask them candidly backstage whether they really enjoyed performing that show, they might say they are so sick and tired of performing this show they could scream. Or perhaps they still genuinely enjoy performing the show all in all, but that night, like me they maybe had a headache, or didn’t sleep well the night before. But they are contractually obligated to perform, and so they must soldier through.

What Dad found mattered more than the job itself was just getting into a good company with a manager that treated employees fairly, and kind co-workers. Being a naive, idealistic young person, I still tried to hold out for a writing job I would be genuinely passionate about, but by 2013, I accepted that this was unrealistic, and upon the suggestion of a friend, pursued a Paralegal certificate. I was never super passionate about law, never took an interest in shows like Law ‘n Order, but the friend that suggested the Paralegal program at Milwaukee Area Technical College was blind and had taken some Paralegal courses herself, which gave me confidence that this field would be more accessible, and unlike the career outlook for Journalism, the need for paralegals was anticipated to grow in the future. By that point, I was just so depressed, feeling as though my life had no purpose, I just wanted a job, any job. I also just longed to taste what it would be like to earn my own money, get a credit card of my own, make a few frivolous purchases with money I had earned, and maybe eventually earn enough money to live on my own.

I was blessed to have found a job at a law firm with wonderful managers and coworkers that will be lifelong friends. (The tremendous anxiety I experienced as a case manager was my fault as I didn’t speak up about the trouble I was having). I enjoyed having a credit card and making frivolous purchases with it. I enjoyed just being out in the world and feeling as though my life had a purpose, even if it wasn’t the job God created me for. Had it not been for this pandemic, I likely would have continued with this comfortable routine for years to come.

I don’t think the amount of time for reflection alone caused my change of heart, although I certainly have had plenty of that. If, for example, there hadn’t been this pandemic, but the law firm decided to pause business for a month to make major building renovations, and I knew the exact date I would be returning to work, I likely would have resumed my job, despite a month off to reflect. It would have felt no different than summer break when I was in school.

I am so blessed that the pandemic has not created the anxiety and uncertainty for me and my family that is being experienced by so many people right now, the uncertainty about where their next meal will come from, or how they will pay their mortgage because they lost their jobs in retail or hospitality, jobs that may never come back, at least not for a long time. My dad’s job has been safe, and it allowed him to work from home much of the time, even before the pandemic, so when he started working exclusively from home, it wasn’t much of a change for him, or for Mom and me. I am also blessed to be in a position where I don’t really need to work in the immediate term. Obviously, I eventually want to work again to be a contributor to society, to have my own spending money, and of course to build up savings for old age. But disability benefits cover my healthcare, and my parents are willing and able to cover everything else. If any of my siblings ever fell on hard times, they are always welcome to move back home too, and my parents would welcome them with open arms. But my uncertainty came from not knowing when it would be safe for me to return to work given my underlying medical conditions, uncertainty that has only been exacerbated by the reckless and irresponsible behavior of our majority Republican state legislature who insisted on holding in-person primary elections in April, and successfully convinced the state Supreme Court to overturn our governor’s Safer-at-home order, despite the fact that the coronavirus infection rate was still increasing. Just last week, I read an editorial arguing that the debate about when to re-open the economy is really an issue of class conflict, with affluent people who have jobs insisting we follow the recommendations of health experts, while poor, blue-collar workers feel as though these mandates are out of touch with their reality, that they need these jobs to feed their families and avoid losing their homes. Maybe I am part of this elite, but I think a smarter solution would have been for the federal government to not just send one stimulus check, but to put politics aside and provide steady support to these workers until health experts deemed it safe to re-open the economy. A pandemic is not the time to be quibbling over debts and deficits.

Anyway, between uncertainty as to when I could return to work, to just the cumulative shock of big things like the cancellation of everything including in-person worship, to small things like having to search several stores online just to find toilet paper, a basic necessity, in the modern era at least, that I never used to give any thought, has caused a sort of spiritual awakening for me. Before the pandemic, I talked a good talk about trusting God, but really, I took my comfortable life for granted. Toilet paper was never out of stock, and frivolous treats I bought myself on Amazon rarely were. Life ran like a well-oiled machine: work Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, bible study on Tuesdays, swimming on Thursdays, church on Sundays. This well-oiled machine I thought would never, and could never break down. But this pandemic has shown me that nothing in life is certain, at least not the worldly comforts of routine and convenience I had centered so much of my life around. And although much of life was lived via social media before the pandemic, this pandemic woke everyone, including me up to how much in-person connection, something I think we all took for granted until it was no longer permitted, is integral to our well-being. My mom and I both felt compelled to reach out to friends we could tell were lonely and not handling social isolation well. When my sister who lives in New York City called on March 17 to say she and her husband were discussing evacuating the city due to rumors of a pending shelter-in-place order that could plunge the city into chaos and disrupt delivery services making it difficult to obtain food and supplies, I was excited at the possibility they may come and stay with us, even though I knew it wouldn’t be under happy circumstances like when they come home for holidays. They would have to drive as her husband was exposed to coronavirus at a medical conference and I think their quarantine had only ended a few days earlier, and even if he hadn’t been exposed, they wouldn’t have wanted to risk being exposed on a plane. So they would arrive exhausted, and we probably wouldn’t have been able to give them hugs as they would want to protect us if they were carriers. They likely would have socially distanced themselves in the lower level of our house, and to be honest, I worried that we would have difficulty getting food too since unlike the usual holiday weekends characterized by multiple carefree trips to the grocery store, going to the grocery store would now be fraught with risk, and back then, we didn’t know if delivery drivers might be forced to stay home as well. So I knew there could be tension, but I loved the idea of them getting out of the city that was quickly becoming a hotspot for coronavirus and coming to the relative safety of the suburbs to ride out this pandemic and our federal government’s mismanagement of it, with us. (They ended up staying with my husband’s parents, which was a lot less of a drive for them.) I developed a renewed appreciation of the fact that I live with my parents, and relished in a deeper way our meals together around the table as I saw the effects of anxiety and depression in family and friends who live alone. I used to get so furious when I was captive in the backseat of the car, and Mom and Dad decided they wanted to drive down some side street or explore some little town they had never seen before, but now after two months of quarantine, I actually understand and appreciate the pleasure my parents get from this simple activity, driving slow listening to the radio, rolling down the windows now and then if we are passing fragrant flowers or a waterfall. And it is an activity perfect for the new normal that necessitates social distancing. There was no Memorial Day parade this year, but we all wanted to get out of the house and get that holiday vibe, so I voluntarily agreed to go with my parents for a long sight-seeing car ride, and I hate to admit it, but I really enjoyed it, and I hope when this pandemic is history, I will look back fondly on car rides like that and not be so hot-headed with regard to what I used to think was such a waste of time.

I felt compelled to figure out how to use a free teleconferencing service to start a bible study with some of the young adult friends that used to come to my house. The fellowship over the phone, and the words from the bible were comforting for us. Unfortunately, things came up for my friends and our bible study kind of fizzled after a couple weeks, and I am ashamed to admit I haven’t been holding myself accountable and continuing the bible study lessons since then. But I was comforted in hearing that a decrease in productivity, despite having all the time in the world to be productive at home has been a common phenomenon experienced by many during this pandemic. But I have actually found in the past that although I am not an outdoorsy person, beautiful weather outside makes me more productive even indoors, so this summer I am going to rededicate myself to some daily bible study time.

All this is to say that given how much the pandemic has changed my perspective on life, and shaken the foundation of certainty and control I thought I had established, I felt it would be an injustice to try and return to the old normal, to go back to a job I had no passion for just to bring home money for frivolous things, to settle back into a life of relative ease and ignore the longing for intellectual stimulation, a longing that has possibly been God trying to tell me it is time to explore a new road. What better time could there be than this pandemic, a time of uncertainty and plenty of time for reflection that has given me moral clarity, to finally listen to this small voice. So on Friday April 24, I sent my manager an e-mail with formal notice that I wished to resign, citing uncertainty as to when it would be safe for me to return to work given my underlying medical conditions. It warmed my heart when my manager replied indicating they understood the uncertainty and they were willing to hold my job until I felt it was safe to return. I have to say for a couple days after receiving that reply, I agonized over whether I was being foolish. Should I take this chance to recant my resignation? Was I being an idiot by voluntarily giving up my job when as of this writing, 40.7 million Americans involuntarily lost their jobs due to the pandemic? Was I setting myself up again for years of depression and feelings of worthlessness? After all, I had an incredibly difficult time finding a job because of the great recession, and the recession this pandemic is projected to cause will be worse. But ultimately, I decided I am up to the challenge of finding employment again. I have matured and thus, I am not the same person I was i 2012-2015, the years I struggled to find employment. This struggle, and some difficulties I had in my first job, taught me a great deal of patience and humility. I know now that I am not worthless. God has a plan for everyone, including me, and if I struggle to find employment, it is only because of economic conditions out of my control in this fallen world, and I just need to be patient a little longer. Also, in 2012, having never held a job in the real world and earned my own money, I was like the toddler whose older brother or sister went to school all day, and you longed to go to school like them because it seemed exciting, even though you didn’t really have a clue what school was all about. It was exciting to get my first credit card and to purchase things like nutrition bars from Dr. Fuhrman that satisfied my sweet tooth after breakfast, or dehydrated onions and peppers which were really convenient for my weekly batches of soup, but definitely in the frivolous category, and something my parents thought was silly to buy when chopping up real onions and peppers really doesn’t take that long. I will miss the banter with my coworkers between appeal appointments, and I actually enjoyed talking to many of my clients as well. But with all the time in the world at home, I discovered an easy recipe to make healthy breakfast bars myself, and they are actually yummier than store-bought bars, probably because they are fresher. My mom is awesome and has been chopping up onions and peppers for my soup. I am a slow, cautious person, so dicing my own onions and peppers small enough for soup would probably take me all day, but if Mom ever couldn’t help me, I do have a salsa maker that I think would work well for that task. I actually think my soup tastes yummier with real, fresh onions and peppers as well.

So given how much I enjoy writing about topics related to religion, as regular readers of this blog have likely noticed, my plan is to pursue a Certificate in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a seminary in Illinois that my church has ties with. This certificate is the recommended course for people just like me discerning if ministry is something they are being called to pursue. A certificate can be earned entirely online, so I will spend the school year of 2020-2021 taking online courses. If I enjoy these courses, then hopefully by September 2021, the pandemic will be behind us and I could take classes in-person toward a full-fledged Masters of Divinity, which the program description indicates will prepare students for a career as a writer and/or teacher. I have no teaching experience, but given how much I have enjoyed just doing presentations on blindness, I think teaching is something I could learn and enjoy, and an outlet for getting out into the world, interacting with people and hopefully making a positive difference in their lives. Outside of the classroom, I envision myself blogging or writing essays for religious media much like what I enjoy doing now, but with education, my words would carry much more credibility.

Taking such a leap of faith in this uncertain economy is scary, I’ll admit, and I recognize that there will always be days when my job will feel as oppressive as making bricks for pharaoh was, even in a job I love, because in this fallen world, I will still have to work through migraines. There may even be difficult days when I pine for the good old days, over-romanticizing my old life as a case manager in my mind, just like the Israelites who had been wandering in the desert with no meat to eat grumbled that they should have stayed in Egypt where they sat around pots of meat every day. But perhaps my observations about home-made nutrition bars and soup made with real onions and peppers can be a perfect metaphor for life. In the same way making my own breakfast bars and chopping up my own onions and peppers (eventually) requires putting forth more effort, a life with more intellectual stimulation will require more effort on my part, but will ultimately lead to a life far richer than the life I was living before.

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