Back to the Beginning

canstockphoto21954338Once upon a time, I had a business card with a job title. Over the years, I’ve saved each job’s business card, a potpourri of assistants and coordinators and managers. For a good portion of my working life, I did not have a business card and it felt meaningful when that first box arrived at my desk.

After my daughter was born, I spent two years trotting my wiggly baby to a daycare each morning and commuting downtown with my husband to a many-storied building of glass and metal. One year of hauling a breast pump and hunching over in the corner of a windowed conference room. And a breaking point – my misery seeping into the office. I left the job, got my baby, and came home.

I’ve been home ever since, spending some of the best and worst moments of my life without a business card. It was easy to justify. My husband has a decent job which has survived multiple layoffs. We have health insurance. The house and car are paid for. It didn’t make sense to pay child care, which had become increasingly worrisome with each developmental stage. I also had the big dream of establishing a writing career.

My daughter is 12 now and shaking off the yoke of an attentive parent. A writing career would be a surprise, given my work habits. And while I’m still chugging away at it, I’m not counting on it. I have a business card that says I’m a writer and every once in a while, I dust off the box, open it and then close it again. The genie stays in.

Today, I start a volunteer job. I volunteered twofold – to tutor high school English language learners and to help in the volunteer program office. Part of me dreaded the idea of data entry and filing, but I’m good at those things. I’ll have a boss and a system to learn. I’m sure there will be jargon and acronyms. Every job has them.

For a moment, I felt a twinge of despair. What had I gained by all these years at home? I volunteered, threw complex birthday parties (treasure hunts and crime mysteries – holy shit, what was wrong with me?). I grew gardens and taught my daughter the words to canstockphoto24937827Elvis songs and how to draw cats. She remembers very little of those years. All that effort and awkwardly conscientious parenting, just a figment of my imagination.

I talked not too long ago with a mother at the school where I’d been PTO president. All those hours planning fundraisers and staffing book fairs. Of talking with teachers and parents and doing assembly presentations. My name occasionally shows up on old documents, to be replaced by someone else. I was the uber-volunteer until I burnt myself to the ground.

canstockphoto1854942For years, I’ve helped take care of my mother-in-law. She lived two blocks and one phone call away. Running her to doctor appointments, taking her grocery shopping, writing note after note as her memory failed. Guiding her through daily physical therapy exercises. Doing her taxes and paperwork. Sitting with her until the paramedics came. Now she is in a nursing home. And no one, especially her, remembers all the years before.

My resume has a canyon in it. A vast expanse of about a decade, filled with dirty diapers and strollers and wheelchairs. Silly songs about dinosaurs, patient and impatient answers to questions about the remote control and the telephone. A filling in the sandwich generation.

When I interviewed for the volunteer job, I put on the only dress pants I own, Talbot suits long gone to consignment shops. I talked too much and laughed at weird times. I tried too hard. I realized that I’d been away from things too long, that I feel uncomfortable with small talk and I have to make a conscious effort not to use swear words.

Self-pity was in order. And boy, did I ever feel it. All of it was for nothing. There was nothing to show for my efforts, my time, my love, my exhaustion. Not even a business card.

As with all self-pity, my reasoning was severely flawed. My daughter is this amazing person – loved and loving, kind and funny. She fills our home with music and light. She may not remember how many times I sang silly songs to her, but her heart does. My mother-in-law spent many years in her own apartment, the last few only because she was protected and cared for and loved. She doesn’t remember my name sometimes now, but her face always lights up with recognition when she sees me.

As for all the school volunteering, well, the very nature of it is transitory. I did some good things, like filing for nonprofit status, which will lead to corporate donations. But it’s all like so much smoke, evaporating and invisible.

canstockphoto3210183This morning, I sat on my cushion and prepared to meditate. I’d been feeling a tad smug that I’ve managed this practice for the last few weeks, without fail, building up from 5 minutes to a shiny 13. As I settled in, our tom cat began his caterwauling. I focused on my breath. He yowled louder. I kept my focus, feeling a little proud that I’d managed to let go of my sensory irritation. Then I realized that I had forgotten to set the timer.

My perfectionist self was tempted to start over, but I decided to continue for a bit longer.  With a laugh, my eyes popped open. It was all about humility. A messed up meditation. Love without recognition. Not having a good answer to what do you do?

When it was all gone, when there was no money, no accolades and no title, I still sought a sense of importance, even in the most mundane activities. To learn humility is to be grateful for the gift of starting over again. And again. And again.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Idealism and Expectations: The Pragmatic Volunteer

canstockphoto5319068Civic duty and volunteerism were concepts I embraced growing up. I sang at nursing homes when I was little, picked up litter, “adopted” grandparents in hospice care and collected canned goods. I was a Girl Scout, a Pathfinder, an earner of praise for being so good and so earnest. When I was 12, I even had tea with the state governor’s wife because of my do-gooding ways.

Lest you nominate me for sainthood, I lived a secret life inside. The people I helped weren’t always nice or clean or even grateful. I didn’t seem to be changing the world in the ways I had imagined. In my mind, I was a rescuer, a saver, a changer. I was able to raise my sense of personal value this way. It was all about me and when it didn’t proceed in the grandiose way I had envisioned, I became a little bitter.

The irony in failing to comprehend why people weren’t grateful was that I had been the recipient of charity as a child and I hated it. I hated being so poor that we couldn’t pay for food. I hated it that the girls at school would make fun of my weird hand-me-down shoes. I hated the looks of pity when we had to ask for a place to stay because of an alcoholic rage at home. I was afraid we’d be found out during those times when we didn’t have water or electricity or a flush toilet.

Many years ago, I helped during the holidays at a local shelter for abused women and children. I embraced this wholeheartedly, filled with wondrous plans to make the shelter a warm and welcoming place. These were my people – these people were trying to escape a life I’d left behind as a child.

We cooked a holiday dinner and helped sort presents for the kids. I did some cleaning in the dilapidated kitchen. I overheard conversations. Six kids later and still engaged in a soap opera with him. Bent on getting her next fix. Insisting that she didn’t need to do no chores. Smoking with a kid on her hip. I was young and judgmental – these were not my people.

I didn’t last long there. I also did short stints at nursing homes, depressed by the death of every adopted resident, overwhelmed by institutional smells, trying to convince myself that what I was doing mattered, but feeling like it really didn’t.

So often I read about the amazingly difficult work people are doing under miserable conditions with challenging populations. Surely their idealism was shed after two weeks with no shower or shoveling gravelly hard ditches for drainage or when they were cursed at for limiting amounts of food distribution. Some of these volunteers will do this kind of work for their entire lives – in the trenches, with little external reward.

Oh, but self-righteous, poor me. I was the worst kind of volunteer. I had expectations that gratitude would be my reward. That I would be seen as someone of value and import because I was doing good.

Years later, I’ve been through all the permutations of volunteerism, arriving at a milquetoast, middle class version. Most recently, I took a leadership role in my daughter’s school parent teacher organization. It’s a large school with a majority reduced lunch population. Needs are high for supplies and programs and volunteers. I thought, until this week, that I’d put aside idealism and that wretched volunteer of my younger years.

I’ve written letters to protest a school program change, tried to recruit other volunteers, attempted to connect with other organization leaders, addressed a school gymnasium full of kids and teachers, and done fundraising. I felt strong and decisive and filled with self-righteous zeal (the kind that I generally mock). I spent most of the week outside of my comfort zone.

The response has been a lot of silence, some bureaucratic mumblings and tepid conciliation. I felt defeated and deflated and discouraged. I had expectations that I wasn’t acknowledging and so disappointment caught me off guard. I was that volunteer again – seething with anger, swearing that I’ll never volunteer to do this or that again.

My grownup self has tempered my reaction. There is satisfaction to be found in being the kind of the person I want to be – someone who is willing to jump in, have uncomfortable conversations, take risks and recognize that not everything is going to turn out rainbows and puppies. On occasion, I just have to deal with that other person – the one who wants fulfillment and reward and most definitely, tangible results.

I still believe with all my heart that an individual can make a difference. It would be arrogant to believe that I can change the plight of humans with my small actions. But with all the need in the world and the fortunate life I live now, it would be unforgivable if I didn’t even try.

The Revolution of One, Step 4: Turning Beliefs into Action

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This post is the last in a series regarding volunteering. My intent was to walk myself (and my readers as well) through the planning process that would mean I could make a difference from where I’m at. Step 1 was identifying the causes for which I care. Step 2 was assessing what skills I could bring to the table (or not). Step 3 was brainstorming for concrete actions that I could take. This last post is the most difficult, as is this step – turning belief into action.

I’m a great planner. I can break down a process, determine the steps and find solutions. Where my weakness lies is in NOT planning for those unmotivated or crazy busy or “I’ve got the flu” kind of days. You know – life. I can easily get derailed and am a classic procrastinator. I could meet all of the goals I set for January on the 31st, but one of the points of this whole process is to integrate that sense of belonging to a large community and doing things that make a difference on a regular basis.

Goals for Volunteering/ Donating for Children’s Issues in January

What steps are required to bring each goal to fruition? What are the obstacles? What are the tools I need to overcome the obstacles?

Select an organization which works on children’s issues and make a financial contribution.

  • This is relatively easy and perfect for next week, as I’m tired and have a busy week ahead. No obstacles, barring an internet crash.

Using grocery money saved by cooking meals and purchasing fewer processed foods to purchase food & needed items for food shelf.

  • Cooking meals requires planning. I have to plan family meals for the week before getting groceries. The obstacles? Not having time to plan or cook. I need easy standbys like fresh fruit and veggies, pasta or my favorite – breakfast for dinner (pancakes, eggs, fruit).

Teach my child more about charity by helping her to sponsor a child through the Save the Children organization.

  • Another relatively easy task for next week. Obstacle? Following through beyond the actual financial donation: exchanging correspondence with sponsored child. I am hoping my daughter will be enthusiastic enough to carry this particular goal and I’ll encourage her.

Continue volunteer work through my daughter’s school.

  • I have to meet with other volunteers and school officials in the next few weeks regarding the walk-a-thon I’m chairing. Obstacle? Meetings and I can get ugly. My personal goal is to stay focused, polite and attentive. I might need copious amounts of caffeine.

Research the issues affecting children and write my state and congressional leaders regarding current legislative actions.

  • This will take some time and writing skills. Obstacle? Time. I need to take the time to carefully read and digest the issues. Emotions. Some issues are painfully difficult to take in. I need to break this goal down into weekly manageable segments, with letter writing planned for the last week of January.

Lastly, planning for the next month has to happen. February is my month for the elderly. I will post an update of how I did in January and outline the February plan in a few weeks.

The point of this series was to walk through the process of determining what you can do to make a difference. Your choices, abilities and financial status may all be different, but the process is essentially the same.

Decide what you care about most. Think about what you are able to do and what you like to do – your skills, your income, whatever it is. Brainstorm for concrete ideas by looking for the opportunities around you: in your neighborhood, community, schools, churches and online. Think through your lifestyle, time constraints and the steps required to make something happen. Look at the obstacles and decide what tools you’ll need to counter them.

My intent for 2013 is to be more deliberate in my contributions, both financially and as a volunteer. I have a plan. Now, time to take action.

Wishing you all a generous new year!canstockphoto1085167

Tune in tomorrow for the 1st Prize entry to The Green Study Holiday Humor Contest!

The Revolution of One, Step 3: What to Do? What to Do?

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In Step 1 of The Revolution of One, I identified the causes that were important to me. Step 2 was an attempt to assess the abilities that I could bring to the table. Step 3 is brainstorming.

As I lay in bed last night thinking about this, I realized that this is where a lot of us give up. We look around us and there are a million opportunities for volunteer work. When I started to write this series, I got quickly off track – readers let me know about the great things they were doing for their communities and I got swept up in big ideas, but my initial intent was to start with small, incremental and manageable changes.

The question I sought to answer was “How can I make a difference from where I’m at?” My intent was to change how I put into practice kindness and charity and generosity of time and spirit. How can I best use the limited time and resources that I have and make it a habit?

On a day like today, when I’m worn out from the holidays and feeling less than ambitious, it’s hard to have a vision, a plan or a desire to come up with creative ideas. Like a workout, I need to have a scaled back plan for days like these – ones that mean I do something, but that don’t require my all. Today is a perfect planning day.

My plan is to go by month – take a subject/cause off my initial list and focus on it. I’ve decided that the month of January is for children. It seems appropriate to focus on where it all begins, during the first month of a new year. While I may continue to volunteer or donate on behalf of children throughout the year, I am deliberately using the month of January to educate myself on the issues and determine what I can manage to do on their behalf.

Financial Contributions to Charity

I’m reviewing organizations to plan my financial donations. I’m working middle class and I don’t have loads of money – where it goes and what it’s used for really matters to me. There are several great sites for evaluating the effectiveness and efficiency of organizations:

Good Intentions are Not Enough – Fantastic way to educate yourself on the art of giving. I took the quiz, only to discover I had a few misconceptions. If you haven’t donated financially before or have habitually done it with no real plan, this is a great place to start.

Charity Navigator – I find their top 10 lists less relevant (“10 Celebrity-Related Charities”), but the financial breakdown of charities is very useful. I use this to cross check charities with Charity Watch, which requires that you pay for specific information beyond its initial top-rated list.

Seeing the Opportunities

Beyond charitable planning, I can make a plan for the next day or week or month in terms of doing. It’s important to look around you and actually SEE where there are opportunities, locally and globally. As I’ve been brainstorming, I have to take into account what I’m doing as ongoing work for the elementary school, organizing the spring fundraiser walk-a-thon and showing up for weekly volunteer stints in the classroom.

Let’s start with the fact that I have a child. She gets an allowance and a portion goes into a charity box. Last year, she bought school supplies for the kids at her school who couldn’t afford them. She had a special glow on her face, being able to drop bags loaded with pencils and crayons and glue off at the school office. In January, I am helping her to sponsor a child through the highly rated Save the Children organization.

Locally, in the metro area, we have some great food shelves. 50% of those people visiting the food shelves are children. In my efforts to cut our grocery bills by doing more cooking and buying fewer processed foods (you don’t know how it pains me – cooking does not come easily), we can use the savings to make weekly purchases based on the local food shelf’s current needs and drop them off at their facility.

Educating Myself on the Issues

We all have a general idea of the issues facing children and it is so often heartbreaking, that I dread the thought of digging into it all. However, this is part of my month’s commitment: learn more about the issues. Here are some resources that I’ve found useful:

Voices for America’s Children – Succinctly describes the issues and has a list of actions to take.

Children’s Defense Fund – Some states have an office location and website as well, in order to read about issues specific to a state.

Once I have read up on the local and national issues, I am committed to writing to my current state and national congressional representatives one letter each, expressing the concerns I have about ongoing legislative issues affecting children.

So there it is, my friends. The plan for January. I believe I can do it – next is turning beliefs into action.

Tune in tomorrow for the last post in this series, The Revolution of One, Step 4: Turning Beliefs into Action.

The Revolution of One, Step 2: Identifying Your Strengths

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One of my major goals for the next year is to realign my life, so that it is reflective of my priorities and belief system. I have a mishmash of donation/volunteer meanderings that put a bandage on my guilt about not doing enough. I’m ripping off that bandage, shedding the guilt and figuring out how to better give of myself, my time and my money.

In Step 1, I listed the basic causes for which I would like to do more. Step 2 involves being honest about what my strengths (and weaknesses) are in regards to what I can do. Unless I am honest with myself about my capabilities, I will not effectively spend my time or money supporting the causes in which I believe.

Charities and volunteer organizations will tell you any help in any form is useful, but we know that we are more likely to do what we enjoy, what feels like helping to us. There have been many volunteer events that I’ve shown up for, where there were too many people and I stood around for hours doing essentially nothing. Yes, it’s better to have more than less, but I used up my time and energy and contributed nothing.

Bureaucracies, unfortunately, tend to waste a lot of resources and I can’t wait for them to get more efficient before getting down to business. I don’t suffer fools lightly, which is problematic, given my history of being a fool on numerous occasions. However, as an introvert with a developing rebellious streak against authority and organizational bloat, I have to set my own course and find my own options.

STEP 2. What can I contribute to the causes that are important to me? What are the skills and strengths I bring to the table? What brings me joy to do for others?

I volunteered to chair a fundraiser walk-a-thon for 600+ students at my daughter’s school in the spring. While having several “what was I thinking moments?”, this volunteer opportunity plays on my strengths – organization, multitasking, hard work, coordination.

I know that if volunteering requires chatting or standing at a booth or table promoting something, I’m going to be irritable within the first 10 minutes.

If volunteering requires that I sit around in meetings while people try to aimlessly get things done, the cussing in my head will shortly be showing up on my face and in my body language (arms folded tightly across my chest, sprawled out in my chair like I’m at home on the couch, pained and twisted expression on my face). I’m the jerk who pipes up “Are we about done here?” Yeah, I’m a real prize in meetings. Not a strength.

Now, this isn’t to say that I don’t do volunteer stints that challenge me. I regularly volunteer at my daughter’s school. I’m not really a little kid person. I feel like Frankenstein, but those cute buggers keep handing me metaphorical flowers – smiles and hugs. I’m not good at it, but it’s such a lovely experience that I keep going back.

Many years ago, I volunteered at the Special Olympics, escorting one of the competitors around. I hadn’t spent any time with this person, nor they with me. It was awkward and I ended up feeling like the one with special needs (what a euphemistic phrase – don’t we all have special needs?). It was too brief a time to understand what they needed or to connect to feel useful.

When I was in college, I went to a nursing home and wrote out Christmas cards for those who wanted to send cards, but found writing difficult. And just like when I was a Girl Scout, doing the same thing, my “people” would depart this world on a regular basis. I stopped going because a lady I’d grown particularly fond of passed away and I didn’t know until I happily showed up to read her a book the next week.

As I hit middle age, I have a higher level of acceptance of mortality, so helping the elderly is back on my radar. I am able to imagine being isolated, my peers and family gone or living far away. I can empathize more effectively and my experiences with my own elderly relatives have made me more comfortable.

These are the keys to me effectively volunteering – developing relationships and having time with individuals.  I’m good at organization, problem solving, public speaking. I have writing skills, bread baking skills, literacy skills. I enjoy these things and some of them, I’m very good at doing. Small talk, sales, meetings, quilting – not so much.

Take a moment.

What volunteer experiences did you really enjoy? Or dislike? What are your particular strengths and weaknesses?

How do we translate these skills into helping others and supporting the causes we find important? Tune in this weekend for the remaining posts in this series The Revolution of One, Step 3: What to Do, What to Do? and The Revolution of One, Step 4: Turning Beliefs into Action

On an administrative note, this is the last day to submit an entry for The Green Study Holiday Humor Contest (by 12:00pm US CST). There have been some wonderful entries and I’ll be announcing the winners in tomorrow’s post!

The Revolution of One, Step 1: Identify What is Important to You

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What does it take to make a difference? When I was younger, I believed that I had to be in charge of people or organizations or be wealthy to make a difference in the world. Most of us won’t make a mark that way.

This series of posts is for those of us who aren’t in charge of anyone but ourselves, aren’t wealthy, aren’t even the sharpest minds of our generation. We’re nobodies but the masses, consumers, residents, audiences, crowds, fans, likes, the polled, the Nielsen ratings. We’re the nameless, faceless focus groups. And we all have the potential to be heroes.

Life is very busy these days – I don’t have time to lead a movement, but I’m not comfortable just focusing on my little world. There is a larger picture for all of us and we delude ourselves with thinking that we are somehow safe from the ills of the world if we stay in our shells, our homes and our routines. If the events of the last years have shown us anything, it is that security is a prison unto itself and clearly an illusion.

I am angry. I am angry about pointless death when there are so many other struggles we deal with as human beings. I am angry that I am afraid – afraid of what will happen to my family, to myself, to my home, to our future. Fear erodes compassion and kindness and produces nothing.

We have been made to feel small and powerless and useless by deranged individuals, corporations and politics. I believe in levelheadedness and that sentiment must lead to action. Like myself, many people are so overwhelmed by causes and outrage and pundits, that most of us don’t know where to start.

It starts here, my friends. With me. With you. It starts now.

It’s time for a plan. I’ve been content to shove money in random pails and jars, volunteer sporadically, send off occasional missives to my political representatives and voice my outrage in conversation. It’s not enough. It’s not a difference I can feel in my gut. Like any goal, I must set measurable, doable action items. I can’t solve the world’s problems, but I can be part of the palliative, the counterweight against evil, part of the light that battles the dark. I can be an everyday superhero.

STEP 1. Knowing that I can’t fix everything, I need to define the causes that mean the most to me.

Children – How we treat, feed and educate them.

Elderly People – How we treat, feed and care for them.

Victims of Crime – How we treat, heal and protect them.

Animals – How we respect their habitats, how we eat them as part of our diets and how we treat them in our homes.

Planet – How we develop sustainable living: water, foliage, air, food growth.

Take a Moment.

What are the causes that mean the most to you?

Tune in tomorrow, for Revolution of One, Step 2: Identifying Your Strengths