The next morning, I called Naima to tell her I’d emailed my essays—all five—and she called me back and said two were ready to send in and the third was terrible and should be started over from scratch. She gave me page by page feedback and suggestions on the final two, the longest ones, and typing continued; also glancing at my work computer frequently and doing, with lightning rapidity, whatever needed to be done.
F. left early each morning and stayed away all day, sat in the other room when he was here, and ate dinners alone. It was a weird several days. I get some exercise every single day, except for when I’m visiting my parents, but I went four days without stepping outside. I wore the exact same baggy pants and t-shirt around the clock. My shoulders got more and more tight and I got more and more stressed out. F. came in for a certain amount of impatience, despite doing everything he could to support the process.
A rather jolting thing occurred about six feet from my bathroom window, which is where the bathroom window of my young neighbors is located. They have lived there for two years or so and it must be the world’s most harmonious relationship, because that space is identical to mine: a one-room studio. At all times, they have kept their bathroom window closed, or open no more than an inch. But all of a sudden, this window had been thrown open two feet or more, making it impossible not to see in.
For a while, I wondered if they had moved out and two other people had moved in without my noticing it, but no, I saw the exact same things on their windowsill. And now I could also see the back of the tall young man’s bald head as he perched upon the toilet. All this was fine, but isn’t bathroom window aperture preference a hard-wired personality trait? What could have happened?
Speaking of harmonious relationships, F. and I have done a much less good job of cohabiting in a small space than (as far as I can tell) my bathroom window neighbors. At first he was here just a couple of days a week, but it has crept up over the months. We are at opposite extremes of the orderliness spectrum and there have been many ill feelings on both parts these past 11 months, though not quite enough to overwhelm our fondness for each other. In many ways, he’s a wonderful boyfriend—loving, affectionate, accepting, hilariously funny—but that is hard to remember when I find, for what seems like the millionth time, a kitchen cupboard not quite closed, or specks of coffee on the floor, or a food container unsealed, or stuff that should be in the fridge sitting on the counter, not to mention a burner that is still lit long after cooking has ceased, or the refrigerator or the freezer door not quite closed, or sometimes four or five of the foregoing at once.
It is astounding what he manages not to notice, and I’m sorry to say that he has been the recipient of many a complaining or even shaming utterance. (Don’t worry, he does not read my blog unless I print an entry out for him.) For his part, he does not understand how three or four fresh scratches in someone’s hardwood floor, let alone a not-quite-closed plastic container, could be more important than the feelings of an actual human being, and he has a point. On the other hand, I do kind of feel I’m entitled to have things the way I want them in the space for which I’m entirely financially responsible.
And so, back and forth, back and forth. We have gotten better at moving speedily through a conflict and putting it behind us. He’s much quicker to say if something is bothering him, and things appear to bother us both for a noticeably shorter time. However, every time I criticize him, I feel like the world’s worst person. My mental health professional, Deborah, creased her brow over this: “If you don’t feel good in the relationship, you need to get out of it.” She added that if I wanted to stay in it, I’d have to practice more acceptance and less criticism.
Now that I have embarked on the path toward chaplain certification, my failures have become even more painful: how could a mean, terrible person like myself be a good chaplain? Thanks to Ezra Bayda, I was able to notice, “Having the thought such-and-such,” and thanks to Rob Burbea, I could remind myself that I also can be kind and accepting, so I need not paint myself with such a monochrome color. And of course I know that one’s most intimate relationship is the most challenging proving ground. As Ezra Bayda says (this might be a paraphrase), “We don’t have to travel far to find a relationship guru—our guru is the very person who pushes our buttons. Relationship difficulties are a valuable opportunity to learn about our expectations, judgments, anger, fear.”
I am lucky to have a top-notch relationship guru around on a regular basis, also perfect practice for the aspiring chaplain, keeping in mind that I’m likely to fail often in this most challenging situation. This (I hope) is harder than most moments of being a chaplain will be, though I’m sure that as a chaplain I will be angry or frustrated or full of sour judgments from time to time, so I am very lucky to have all this practice right in my own apartment. If I can reduce even ten percent of my reactivity in the domestic situation, I’ll be a top-notch chaplain.
Before I had fully decided to pursue certification as a chaplain, I was thinking aloud one day: what should I do? Should I do this? Should I be a chaplain? F. answered, “You are a chaplain,” which was kind of him—I told you he was a good boyfriend.