Swapping Classrooms for Flood Cleanup, Manual Labor, and Ice Cream

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here. Part of that is because I’m just tired. In body and spirit both, I think. I’ve been working a lot lately to try and pay bills, but it’s also draining when the place at which you’re working is a different landing point than you would’ve considered ending up at after graduating with a bachelor’s degree.

I graduated from college in May and moved the next day to Nashville, Tennessee. I really have no idea why I moved here other than some sort of compulsion I felt to come out this way. Almost two years ago I somewhat knew in the back of my head I would like to take a year off before pursuing more education. I don’t know if I believed I’d be burned out or what, but such a prophecy was somewhat accurate because by the time this summer rolled around, I felt like I definitely needed a hiatus from the classroom. However, now that the end of August is rolling around and many of my younger friends are headed back to college to begin another academic year, I can confidently say I wish I were doing the same. I’m not second guessing my decision to take a year off necessarily, but I definitely miss the classroom. It’s such a unique environment—one not easily replicated or found in any other discipline.

The main reason I’m not second guessing, though, lends to the second compulsion I felt for moving to Nashville, and that was I felt like God was telling me to go to this city for a year. I can’t explain why, but I just did. Even though home is where the heart is, I’d been in the Dallas metropolitan area for over nineteen years of my life and didn’t feel it was the place to go. I’d also been in Arkansas for four straight years and knew I wanted to get out of that state. Unfortunately that comes with the price of leaving many people you love, and trust me—there are many people back in nowhere Searcy, Arkansas, I miss terribly.

So when people ask me why I moved here, I don’t give them that long explanation laid out in the two previous paragraphs. Instead, I simply look at them and say, “I don’t know.” And I don’t say that despairingly or pessimistically. It’s just honesty. I really have no idea why I moved out here. I had no grandiose plans or expectations. I was incapable of having any of those, simply from the fact I knew very few people here ahead of time and didn’t have a job lined up. That right there screams unorthodoxy in terms of what people do post-undergrad, but I tend to do things by the seat of my pants anyway, so why be routine just because I walked across the stage?

After I tell people, “I don’t know,” I mention to them how I felt like God was saying, “Go to Nashville for a year,” enough so that I went ahead and got a twelve-month lease on my apartment, the likes of which will most likely hold me to keeping my commitment because I am too poor to break the two-month’s-rent penalty fee should I bail out earlier than next May. All of this while still jobless. Including the seven weeks of school in Arkansas and the first six weeks in Nashville, I’d filled out some eighty job applications and submitted just my résumé to another twenty businesses. Out of that I got about five interviews, one of which was sarcastically chronicled in an earlier article on this blog. Some of them were jobs I felt very confident I could get, which is saying something when you have an English degree and aren’t really qualified to do anything except read and write. I’m really not even qualified to teach since I didn’t get an education certificate, but I applied to private schools nonetheless.

One school got back to me because they were desperate for an English teacher with only three weeks before class started. I interviewed with the principal and felt that it had all gone very well. He and I were very much on the same page in terms of educational expectations for high schoolers, I came across as confident, and I thought I represented myself very well. However, I knew I never had a shot when I saw their application he wanted me to fill out, the likes of which had a loaded question on it (the very first question, mind you): “Are you a faithful member of the Church of Christ?” I instantly knew that upon filling that question out in honesty (which would be a resounding, “No, I am not.”) they would not hire me. Such is often the nature of private Church of Christ schools, whether collegiate or lower. I thought about lying on the application, but eventually decided against it. If this were a place God really wanted me, then he would work through the legalism and sectarianism. Apparently it was not where God wanted me, though, for a week later I got an e-mail telling me they were not pursuing my application due to the Board of Director’s policy against hiring people not affiliated with the Churches of Christ.

To say I was upset at first would be true. But I soon saw the element of grace in the situation (which is an aspect always existing in every circumstance of life—sometimes harder to find than in other times, but there nevertheless). God will put me where I can thrive. He will not place me in an environment not conducive to my thriving for him. And so, knowing that this private school was not the place I needed to be and would have (most likely) been frustrated at it, he saved me from it. Does it lessen the sting of having the door shut in one’s face? No. Does it make it easier to not take the shun personally? Not a bit, but it’s okay. Time heals all frustrations.

I also had an interview with Thomas Nelson publishing, another one of the few jobs for which I actually felt qualified. That one-on-one with them went extremely well, lasting over an hour. You can’t tell me that’s not a good sign. However, nothing has come of it. As far as I know, they have me first and foremost in their mind if and when new job opportunities come up with them (publishing houses were hit very hard by the recession and are just now starting to recover and add positions), but as of now I have heard nothing.

I really couldn’t go any longer without a job and began to look places I normally wouldn’t. Here’s the problem with being a recent college graduate. Nowadays everybody wants experience. Granted, I’ve had a few internships here and there, but they don’t really speak to any sort of “experience” when you read my résumé. I’m not belittling those past jobs I’ve had. They were fantastic times of learning and stretched me greatly and were things I trust God somehow used for good. But in terms of getting a job they’ve amounted to diddly squat.

And so here I am while still at school and while still in Nashville trying to find a job, but everything I’m looking up I’m either way underqualified for or way overqualified for. A small handful of the jobs I applied for asked for a base bachelor’s degree, but they also wanted to see two to three years of experience in that specific field. But the majority of the jobs for which I filled out applications had base requirements of a high school diploma or GED. It made me wonder why exactly I went to college.

Don’t read that as indifference to the way I spent my last four years. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I highly value the education I received and believe I’m quite the well-rounded individual because of it. Studying literature is, in a way, the study of life. If Harding University felt it appropriate to throw me a second bachelor’s in anthropology, I wouldn’t fight it. I guess what made it hard about applying to jobs asking for a high school diploma was knowing some people believe I have “great potential,” as they put it. In the back of my head I could almost hear their comments if they knew the jobs I was throwing applications out to: “What a shame. There’s so much more he could be doing.” And I agree with them. But those are people who know me. These businesses receiving applications and résumés get me on a piece of paper which tells them next to nothing. Would I hire myself if I looked at my application? I don’t know.

But eventually I got an interview with an ice cream store here, and even that was because I knew somebody. It wasn’t because of any remarkable aspect of my life told by a form I’d filled out. At the end of that interview they were basically asking me, “When can you start?” and the week after that I began training.

So here I am. I have a bachelor’s degree. I did very well in school. I’m scooping ice cream. I’m making minimum wage. This is the part where I have to recant the statement that I had no expectations about Nashville. If that were true, then I would have been unbelievably ecstatic to have this job. But I wasn’t. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t thankful. I’m incredibly grateful for it. I’m able to buy food and pay rent (sort of). It is such a tremendous blessing to have work after being six weeks without it. But I wasn’t doing cartwheels when I knew they wanted to hire me. This very realization speaks to the existence of some sort of expectation I had before moving to Nashville. I’m still not sure what it was, but perhaps I really did believe I’d be able to get a job with a publishing house. After all, our English department always tells their students that most publishers look to hire English majors.

Thankfully I stopped listening long ago to the American lie that your dignity is tied to your job; that is such a crock. Otherwise, if I did believe that, I’d probably be suicidal right now. But I’m not. The phrase I keep having to come back to is, “You’re not too good to do this.”

That was a phrase I said routinely to myself during those six weeks while without a job. When I say without a job, I mean “steady employment.” I found a couple of manual labor jobs to help with costs and whatnot while I was looking for something more stable. The first round of that included doing flood cleanup, which Nashville is still doing more than three months after that flood (and will probably continue to do for years). A friend of mine owns a couple of rental properties, and it is common for houses to have crawlspaces out here. Both had flood water go above the crawlspaces on the houses and needed to have both the duct work and damaged insulation underneath removed. He asked if I wanted to do that for compensation while making it very clear as to the rather gross nature of the job, and I agreed to do it.

The first house had a crawlspace of about two feet (if that). In a country that glorifies buff manhood and rippling muscles, I’ve often found myself dissatisfied with and insecure about my beanpole physique. Not on this job. If I were any larger than I am, I think I would’ve had a conniption underneath the houses. Thankfully, I’m wiry, lithe, and not claustrophobic.

With no air flow underneath those houses, it didn’t matter that it’d been three weeks since the flood. Everything was still wet. And if it’s a two-foot crawlspace, it can be guaranteed you’ll be on your stomach crawling like a worm to get the work done. Since it was dark down there, the temperature was easily twenty or more degrees cooler than outside. The mud alone won’t make you cold, but all of the duct work contained three-week old water in it. Keeping it from spilling out everywhere when you remove the ducts is next to impossible, and so before long your entire body and clothing would be soaked through. In the scant light that would come through under the house, you can see your body steaming. As this three-week old water—full of God knows what parasites and bacteria—washes over you and you continue to army crawl from one end of the house to the next avoiding bugs, bricks, and metal shards, tempering any profanity coming out of your mouth is a challenge. I can’t say I met the challenge well. But upon realizing that I could hear the little kids above me through their bedroom floor, I decided to tone down the exasperated exclamations. Wouldn’t want little Juarez to start describing his defecation with four-letter words.

The entire time I’m down there I had to keep reminding myself over and over, “You are not too good for this. You are not above doing this. This is a blessing. This will help you eat later on.” And it’s true, no matter how much I didn’t want to believe it. I’m not above getting mud flung into my eyes. I am not above coming home with fiberglass shards all up my forearms. I’m not above crawling under somebody’s house in order to earn my keep. I am not “too good” for anything, and I never will be. This lesson in humility could not have come at a greater time, what with having just graduated from college.

Because we all buy into the sense of entitlement if we’ve been raised in America. I mentioned this idea briefly but didn’t really flesh it out in another post with this statement:

I am a white educated male living in America. This automatically means that I do not know how to trust God.

I emphasized the trust in God part more in that article, but the American aspect is more related to this post. Growing up here in the land of the free and the home of the brave creates opportunities for certain lies to be indoctrinated into your head, and that is specifically that you will reach a point where you’re too good to do certain things. That’s why we get an education and try to work our way up the ladder. I’m not sure all that effort is so much to make sure we get to a point where we can “do things,” but rather, so we can get to a point where we can have “things we don’t have to do anymore.” It’s a perspective actually based in negation from the outset rather than that of forward thinking, but we tell ourselves it’s really the latter and not the former.

We come to a point where we no longer feel the need to do “dirty work.” But this has never been the definition of opportunity. Opportunity simply means you have an opening presented to you, one you can either decline or accept. We typically assume opportunity is associated with things of benefit for ourselves, and I would say this is true. But there is a secondary underlying expectation, and that is that this benefit will not be overly difficult, that there will not be heinous challenges, and that—should there be a challenge—there will not be anything contained within it that will break us. But this is wrong. When opportunity knocks, it does so as a bludgeon.

The sense of entitlement will tell us that we somehow deserve something, and this is never the case. I have a four-year degree. So what? Doesn’t mean anything. Oh, sure . . . it means something, and it can be an accomplishment of which I’m proud I completed. But in terms of whether or not it dictates what I’m above doing and participating in, the answer is easy: it says no such thing. Fact of the matter is, I didn’t even deserve to have that work offered to me, but by the graciousness of my friend, such a helping hand was extended. It was true opportunity in that it contained sub-opportunities. On the surface it looks like a dirty job, and it was. But underneath each layer of mud was contained the opportunity to do something challenging, the chance to do something difficult, the occasion to do something that would break me, and the circumstances to learn lessons I needed to learn. And that lesson was humility, the likes of which came out after the first day of cleanup when I told my friend, “I can’t do this by myself anymore. It’d take a week to finish it.” And we didn’t have a week. We had one more day because the city of Nashville had implemented a deadline for when you could dump flood-damaged materials in front of your home.

So my friend’s high-school-age son helped me out. Suddenly I was thrust in a makeshift position of leadership (if you want to call it that), which was odd. But it went so very well. The Ecclesiastes verse kept coming to mind, which I know is weird because usually the Church throws it around in the arena of accountability. But it really is true: two are better than one. And not just in the sense that my friend’s son and I were absolutely hauling the work like a couple of studs (although that is definitely true). Really, all it came down to was that it was semi-enjoyable down there. We were even laughing at times, making fun of each other even despite the fiberglass shards, shivering bodies, prevalent spiders and crickets, moldy mud, and uncomfortable body strain of a two-foot crawlspace. If day one was a lesson in humility, day two was a lesson in community, a reminder to me of how now that I was in a new city I desperately needed to be going through things with people around me.

At the end of both of those days I looked like a Swamp Thing of sorts, and even today I think there are still traces of mud in my green khakis (but at least they’re green again). But even if being under two flood-damaged houses isn’t the first place I would’ve chosen to go for work, I’m still not above it. And I think it was the grace of God to offer that opportunity to me through my friend about three weeks after I’d arrived in Nashville. If it’d been given to me within the first week of moving here, I probably would’ve declined it, expectant that something “better” would be coming along soon (because, after all, as a college graduate, that’s what I’m to expect). But by waiting until employment desperation had started to sink in a little, I was more prepared to submit and accept something that is truthfully not below me. Instead, it’s bathed in the grace of God that he would allow me to experience such a time of growth, even if it did occupy only two days’ time.

And I believe that enabled me to be more apt to accept manual labor work. About a week or so later, I met a woman at a small group Bible study I went to for the first time. She and her family are close with my flood cleanup friend, and she asked me if I’d found work yet. I told her no, and she called me a few days later asking if I would be open to doing some work out at her house. Her husband’s shoulder is in pretty bad shape; otherwise, he’d do the work himself. I instantly jumped at the chance, not really knowing what I was getting myself into.

By this time it was June in Nashville, and it was already blistering hot. I cut down tree limbs, learned how to use a riding mower (to which I am now addicted), moved wheelbarrows of dirt from the back yard to the front to fill in a low point in their lawn, and the penultimate task: realign the pavestones. That last job was difficult because I had no idea what I was doing. I don’t know if it was gracious or foolish of this family to let me (a perfectionist no less) do that because it is probably something a licensed contractor should be doing. But I will err on the side of optimism and say it was gracious of them because it ended up being another an education for me.

It was backbreaking work, and it was hot. The woman I’d met at small group was so kind. I lost count of how many times she asked me if I wanted water or needed to come inside to rest in the air conditioning. I explained to her I was born and raised in Dallas and mowed lawns all throughout high school and that I was well aware when heat stroke was about to bring down its brutal hand. It did not abate her concern, though, and her kindness overwhelmed me.

But the days after that just got hotter and hotter. At first it wasn’t bad, but summer really began to pick up. Before long this woman’s concern didn’t seem so unnecessary anymore. One day I drank some eighty-four ounces of water and didn’t urinate all day. Even having grown up in Texas playing little league with the Pittsburgh Pirates (which meant wearing black baseball pants), I don’t think I’d ever sweated that much.

But the job eventually was done, and they had me stay over for dinner the evening of the last day. She asked me what food I wanted cooked, which I found odd because they had been paying way more money than they should have and had been so gracious to me already. But this is where God used this woman’s family and their kindness to teach me another lesson: let others extend kindness your way if they want to.

It aggravates me when one of my small group boys from back in Arkansas won’t let me buy him coffee when we meet up to talk. I suppose I should take a cue from that. But somewhere in the back of my head I feel like there’s a quota of kindness, and once people fulfill it they shouldn’t keep doing nice things. I know it’s not true, but it’s in my head somewhere. And upon being aware of how nice this woman and her family had already been to me, her asking me what I wanted for dinner just seemed too much. But she persisted, and so I relented.

Neither of these jobs was easy, but both of them were such a blessing. The people who gave me these opportunities are, I feel, friends for life (and beyond), and that is worth more than any monetary compensation they both could have given me (although it was nice to be able to grocery shop). The work at this woman’s house lasted two weeks, and during the final days of it I squeezed in that interview with the ice cream shop. And I’ve been working there ever since.

You would think that I’d be fine where I am now, what with the lessons I learned from these two jobs. And yet I have had to continue to fight the sense of entitlement while at the ice cream shop. Perhaps it’s because most of my co-workers are five or more years younger than me. Perhaps it’s because the ones who just left the shop to go off to college were saying things like, “Yeah, I’m going to college so I don’t have to work at this place anymore in four years,” to which I laughingly reply, “Ha . . . well, you might want to wait before you say that.” Perhaps it’s because it’s a job where I’m not using any of my main God-given talents and gifts—the likes of which would be more readily used if I were employed as a teacher or at a publishing house—and I’m frustrated by that “wasted potential” as it were. It’s not that I don’t like my job because I do. But I don’t love it. That bothers me.

When people ask me why I moved to Nashville, I tell them that I don’t know. But I also always follow that up with, “I just felt like God was saying, ‘Go to Nashville for a year.’ So I did.” And I continue to tell them, “So basically, I’m just waiting for God to show up. It’s not that I don’t think he’s here. I know he is. But I have no idea what he wants me to do.”

Almost every morning my prayer is, “God, what would you have me do?” and I don’t feel like I get an answer very often (if ever). It’s not that I’m searching for a neon sign. Deep down—if I’m honest with myself—I’m not even sure I would want a neon sign should he extend one to me. It’d make life too unsurprising. But right now I’m simply caught in the conundrum of wondering why I’m where I am. I have no idea what God is doing. I know he’s working. But I have no idea how. It may very well be that God wants me to stay working at this ice cream shop for the rest of my year here in Nashville. I don’t know. But if that is the case, then I have to be content with that and believe that he will teach me things and show me things he wants me to see through that job. He did in crawlspaces and with pavestones. He could do the same with ice cream.

If he doesn’t want me there for the entire year, then I have to find out where he would want me. Where that would be, I don’t know. I like to think he would make it clear, but he may not. And so now is a time of waiting on the Lord, and I’m trying to learn what that means—to wait on the Lord. Because when the Psalmist says that, I don’t believe he means it in a passive sense, as if we are to sit around. I’m trying to learn what waiting on the Lord means in a very active sense, as I would assume it’s supposed to be interpreted, but I don’t know. A friend told me, “When you do find out what that means, write about it, and that book will sell millions of copies.” Right.

So I don’t really have answers right now, but that doesn’t change the fact how in the meantime I will still treat any and all customers with love, dignity, and respect, and do my very best to give them the best possible day of their lives (or, at least, the small part of it they spend in our shop). Right now that may be all I can very well do.

And you know, just typing this has helped me see the grace of God in everything. Perhaps this has been more for me than for anyone else who may end up reading this, but if that is the case, that’s okay. That’s what writing can be at times. It’s often not for anyone in particular. It’s just for the sake of writing. Whatever magical, artistic, or therapeutic effects take place in the writing or reading of it are ambiguous and numerous, dependent on the position and perspective in which you reside.

And until my perspective and position shift again, I can’t really predict where God will take me. I simply know I’ll be in Nashville until May of next year. Such is my commitment at the request of someone who is outside of time, and I shall simply have to wait for further instruction, direction, or opportunity.

Much love.

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