The Sacrament of Ordinary Work

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I had no idea how much stock I put in prestige until it was taken away. For more than a decade I was Senior Editor at a large non-profit. It was a title that has prestige built right into it. When you say “Senior Editor,” people automatically have a pretty decent idea of what you do. They understand that you are educated, skilled and experienced. Senior Editor is a title that makes sense. It’s a title that often comes with congratulations.

My current title is receptionist. It’s also a title that is easily understood but also, often, casually dismissed. “Oh,” people say, “you’re the girl who answers the phones. Um, it must be a great way to get your foot in the door.” People assume that it is a quick step on the road to somewhere else. Six months ago I thought the same thing.

I work on a senior living campus. We have 700 residents in total and I am the receptionist for 222 of them. Just over half of them live independently and the other half are assisted. A few of them are living with dementia. I am the first point of contact for the residents and visitors to our campus. I answer the phone a lot.

I remember seeing the listing for this job and thinking, “Well it’s a place to start.” I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I did not expect to fall in love with three buildings full of senior citizens, but I have. I had no idea how intimate this position would be. Residents tell me about families, their problems, and their bowel movements. They come to my desk when they need to talk and when they need to cry. They tell me jokes, and ask why I’m not married and worry over me if I work late.

When I take a step back and look at my work I’m reminded of this G.I. Joe vehicle my brothers used to play with. It was shaped sort of like a tank with a foldable bridge that it carried on the roof. In the cartoons the tank would deploy the bridge across chasms and fast flowing rivers, drive itself across the bridge and then pack the bridge back up on the roof. It saved the day a lot by making impassable ground traversable.

These days I feel a lot like that truck—I’m building little bridges all over campus. Sometimes it’s simple things—fixing a TV, or booking a lunch guest—and other times it’s much more complicated. Earlier this summer a man came up to my desk and handed me the card of an undertaker, so that if his mom passed while he was away on vacation I could start the process of taking care of her body while he rushed home.

When someone dies or when a family member is getting stonewalled by government bureaucracy, I’m the one who answers the phone then, too. I am counselor, chaplain, advocate, and sleuth. I spend my days surrounded by people with no poker face and no capacity for BS. It is wildly refreshing and deeply sad and completely delightful and incredibly personal. It feels like living in technicolour after a long season of living in black and white.

I’m surrounded by people who know that they are in the final chapters of their lives. There is a wisdom and sometimes a sense of peace that comes with that. But I’m learning how important it is not to over romanticize seniors. They are still complex and complicated individuals. They get frustrated and confused. They are familiar with loss and well acquainted with grief. They have dreams they still hope to accomplish and dreams they have laid to rest. They don’t need to be coddled. Most of the time they just need a little bit of help and a little patience and they can do all of the rest of it themselves.

Traditionally there is not a lot of prestige inherent in being a receptionist. But if you asked my residents, they would tell you I am indispensable. Just last week one resident told me, “You take all of the worry out of my life.”

There are times when I wonder if the work that I’m doing is like parenting. I’ve never been a parent, but aspects of this work feel the way I imagine that would feel. I worry over residents when they don’t eat. I’m constantly reminding them to go slowly, because slow is safe. When a taxi driver refused to wait for a 90-year-old man to make his way downstairs I found my inner mom voice and I made him Get. Back. Here. Right. Now. These residents are not children but they are vulnerable and I watch the gates of this campus as if it were a castle.

Recently I helped a resident write her husband’s obituary. He was gone and she was heartbroken and while no words would ever be enough to capture his life she had to write something to put in the paper. What work could be more important than helping her find the words?

I am university educated. I could do more complicated work than this; but I’m not sure that holier work exists.

Prior to taking this job I never really noticed how much the narrative we’re given about work focuses on being the best. Now I am learning that all work is honourable, whether other people hold it in high regard or not.

Last year I applied to one of the top digital agencies in Vancouver. I made it passed the first few rounds and the portfolio and then was called into their beautiful downtown studio space for an interview. It would have been an incredible opportunity doing great work for fancy money. I think about it now and then and I wonder, would I have been happier there? It certainly would be more prestigious, but knowing what I know now about the village I spend my days in I wouldn’t trade places.

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Claire Colvin
Claire is learning to call herself a feminist. She has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. In 2013, her National Novel Writing Month entry was a science fiction story about a broken world where everyone was required to be as similar as possible. Claire wishes she could fold the world like a map so the people she loves weren’t so far away. She lives on a small mountain near Vancouver and writes at clairecolvin.ca.
Claire Colvin
Claire Colvin

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