Doing the route

Back when I was a kid, I had a paper route. It wasn’t very large: seventy-some houses, fifty-five of which got the newspaper daily, all in our immediate neighborhood. Unusually for many jobs, there were no days off. Though the route took less than two hours on a bad day to get done, I worked seven days a week, and especially holidays. Weekdays were done in the evening, but on weekends and holidays the paper had to be delivered by 7AM. Thanksgiving was the worst. The ads were stinkin’ huge, and holiday papers had to be delivered to everyone. And when I hear the famous postal worker’s creed about “neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night,” I kinda want to laugh. The mail got called off before we did.

Seeing as how Nebraska is prone to extremes in the summer and winter, doing the route could be pretty uncomfortable. Plus, our neighborhood was hilly. In July and August, I’d come back from the route with my shirt and the canvas newspaper bag soaked with sweat. In the winter, I’d be buried under layers. There was one street the wind absolutely howled down, so that the small bit of my face that showed between my scarf and my hat would ache with cold. Rain was a nuisance, but ice was treacherous.

And then there was snow. Now, I love snow. I still think it’s gorgeous. But the worst ever was a heavy snowfall that’d had the chance to melt slightly and then refreeze. Especially on a Thursday, when the newspaper ads were particularly thick. (Sunday’s paper was the largest, but my dad helped me then.) I’d set out on my route, bundled up as far as I could go, top-heavy with newspapers, and face the wonderful prospect of having to a) stomp through the layer of ice that was on top of the snow, then b) drag my feet out of those unyielding footprints, and c) navigate the ice that had invariably formed on any and all bare patches of concrete. For two miles.

But there was another side to this. It came at the end of the route. As I walked along, delivering papers, my bag would get lighter and lighter. The last leg of my route usually involved a long, steep climb up one street, and once I got to the top of it, it was level all the way to our house. By then I would be tired but warm, and my bag would hang loosely off my shoulders. And our lane was gravel, so I could walk on the icy patches without fear. Our house stood at the end. It would be dark by then, the sun having just gone down and the long winter twilight turning everything blue. And I could see the windows of our house lit golden and bright. The ones in the kitchen might be steamed up from cooking. I have a very clear memory of walking home one evening thinking that the best thing ever would be to have baked macaroni and cheese casserole for supper. When I got in, guess what we were having?

I don’t have a paper route anymore, for obvious reasons. Yet the images stick with me. That route didn’t take long to do: two hours, tops, and only half of which was walking. Now I find myself going on much longer journeys, not always out into the snow. There are projects to do, and long-term issues to solve, things to be taken up and worked on for months or years. Stresses enter my life that don’t end at 5 o’clock with an empty bag and supper waiting. I have embarked on routes that may not end until I do. When I walk them, it gets very easy to keep walking, to take up a new one before the last one’s even done, going and going and going even when I’ve said no to a dozen new directions. Some days it’s like those gorgeous spring afternoons when the first fresh breeze would lift the budding branches above my head, and other times it would be like that one Saturday morning when a thick fog and a heavy frost left inch-long crystals on the south side of every surface, turning the naked trees into sculptures of spike-edged glass beneath the amber streetlights. And these journeys show me things I might never have noticed: doing the route both mornings and evenings meant that I saw more sunrises and sunsets than many people, and spent hours out under the moon.

But other days, it’s 100 degrees and miserable, or the dew has soaked my shoes, or every driveway is ice. Some days that horrible little dog on the corner is out on his leash and there is no way I’m going up to their porch. Some days there’s sprinklers. And some days it’s Thursday with six inches of re-frozen snow on the ground and a wicked north wind blasting into my eyes. Those are the days that I need to go home.

I feel guilty about it. I feel bad about saying “no.” But I’ve been doing the route for so long, even if the weather’s been good, that I need a rest. I need the day where it’s just me and my tea and a good book. And music. And I need to know that there is nothing wrong with this.

And why not? God rested. After six days of creation, he took a whole ‘nother day to do it. Who needs rest less than God? Why should we be afraid to take a day off? The world keeps telling us to run and run and keep up with how fast things are changing – why? “It’ll still be there when you get back,” are the wise words of people much older than me. They’ve been doing the route longer than I have. And I’m human. I’m small. There’s only so much I can do. With all that God has laid before me, it’s arrogant to think that I can keep doing the route without ever going home. We need the time to rest, and regroup, and heal. We need the sanctuary of friends and family – and we need to be that same sanctuary for them. “Be still and know that I am God.” Lay aside the bulky canvas bag for a moment and let the weary shoulders rest. It’s not 5 o’clock yet. I’m running out of strength. If I want to climb that last hill – climb it, and know that I can climb it tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, well and whole and strong, I need to take the time to rest.

I’ve been doing these essays weekly since the end of August. I’ve skipped one week so far, because it was Quarter End and my brain had melted. And this coming week I’m taking Friday and the following Monday off because I’ll be singing three concerts that weekend.

Because I want to do my job well, and for that, I need to take a rest.