I’ve been so stressed about semester’s-end duties my hair’s turning gray, I’m pulling it out and it burns when I pee. That last symptom might not be connected.

I know I’m not alone, so far as semester’s-end stress goes. Start with deep breathing. Be your breath.

Then come sit on your Uncle Tom’s knee. Oh! Not there. Oh, god, get off! Shift! Shift your weight!

That’s better. Just make yourself comfortable by the fire. I’m going to tell you a story: a sort of spiritual tunnel. You may find some peace when you come out the other side.

I was crossing the snow fields in front of the capital building. It was Christmas, and I was alone. Strange city. Strangers forfriends. And I was broke.

All around me, people were gathering gifts, small packages showing their love for family, friends and lovers in big ways. I overheard conversations: “Can’t wait to get home so we can watch… ,” “Want to get some coffee?”, “… Then we’ll put on the Nat King Cole and have a little hot chocolate.” I saw people gathered around the Christmas tree in the market square. The lights went up. They cheered and hugged, and I kept walking.

No time for lights, or cheers. No money for gifts, no time to find them even if I had the cash. Too busy to listen to Nat King Cole, too busy to boil the water for hot chocolate, too busy to imagine sitting down and watching anything that wasn’t a test prep tutorial. I was walking across the marketplace’s cobblestone path, but I was running inside: running from my obligations, running toward the finish line.

Would there be any of me left? No time to think of that, either.

I made eye contact with a man on the street corner ahead, a thin man. He gave the impression of physical frailty, but spiritual strength. The writing on his small wooden sign hinted at Tibet. Smoke rose from a kettle at his side. It was 30 degrees, and he was smiling.

I felt I’d found a shortcut on my mad dash, a quicker, easier route toward the finish line. This would save me time. This would save me stress. I was running every which way but loose, trying to finish my work — and here was a wise man, sitting on the corner and smiling in the freezing cold.

As I approached him, the lights of the freshly lit tree glinted in his eyes. He gestured toward me and I walked faster. I was so moved, I knelt before him on the cobblestone, smelling the exotic, smoky scent of the elixir brewing in his kettle.

“Can you help me?” I asked.

He said, “Tell me your problem,” still smiling.

I told him I had no time for anything but work: work in the morning, work through the day, work at night; a mental list of work for tomorrow; dreams of work with no end in sight.

He laughed. “Let me see what you are working on,” he said.

I pulled out a test prep sheet for my probability and statistics class. He took it, looked it over, nodded.

Then he rolled it up and bonked me in the head with it.

“Relax,” he said. “Just relax.”