I am in my mid thirties. 35 is just a few short hot summer weeks away. God, it's trite and predictable, but that's a hard number. A good number, a well earned number, but a sobering number. Rounding the corner to this mid-point has turned my already overly analytical brain into a marshy, saturated hot bed of quizzical musings, deep philosophical wonderings and curiosity about who I am some days.
What am I doing with my limited time on this earth? No, I'm not dying, at least not anytime soon, I hope. But these questions nag at me; who am I at my core, what are my values, my contributions, my weaknesses and more importantly how can I winnow those weaknesses away. I look at my life, my needs, my desires, my plans, evaluating who I want to be in the next ten years. And determining what I need to do differently today to get there. I have that mouthy voice in my head that questions my actions, upbraids me when I decide to watch The Real Housewives of New York instead of reading Faulkner. The voice that says why didn't you try harder? Why are you lazy today? Why aren't you more ambitious? That niggling pushing little voice that probably speaks to me too harshly. Probably as it should be. That bitch is motivating.
So I come back around to where I was six months ago. I want to get out of my own head and out of my way. I want to do more for other people. I want to participate more in my community, enhance my connection to my neighbors, friends and people in need in my city. I want to give my time. Because it feels good and it makes me feel like a part of something bigger than weak, self-indulgent me. I'm not alone in this renewed desire to connect and feel useful. Volunteer rates are at their highest since 2003. The economy and job losses haven't forced people to simply sit at home dejectedly digging through the want ads. Americans are out there, contributing for each other and improving their own outlook in the process. So joining the 63 million other volunteers in the US, I'm getting out there and giving back, or engaging in a little selfish do-gooderism.
I've been volunteering off and on for most of my life. I have an innate desire to help other people. And also just as innate, I want people to like me. I want to be thought of as a giving and helpful person. Probably because I'm pretty sure I'm a shallow and selfish person most days. And volunteering makes me feel good about myself. I admire people who choose to give up or change their safe, pretty lifestyles for a cause they feel passionate about. Men who sell it all and move to Pakistan to open a school, or college grads who sell back their books and then pack a bag and join the Peace Corps, or the family that sells their mansion in order to donate the proceeds to feed the hungry. But those brave people also make me feel like shit. They make me feel like I should do more, get my hands dirtier, give up my luxuries, really feel my sacrifice. But I choose not to. Does that make me a weak person? Do I lack the capacity to give back on that scale? Or do all the little kindnesses and choices throughout my life have value too, though not on the massive Dateline story scale of selling my $1.8 million mansion and downsizing to a $500,000 house to feed hungry African children?
When I was ten or eleven I used to go with my parents to all of my younger brother's various soccer, baseball and football games. It felt like there were three or four a week. And I've never really liked sports. So instead of actually watching the games, I wrangled all the little siblings of the athletes and babysat and entertained them during the never ending soccer matches. We ran around and played tag, Red Rover or hide and seek, made daisy chains in open soccer fields. I was in charge of my own little tribe. I kept them occupied and amused. And their parents were so grateful. I drank up all that glorious praise from the adults. I was giddy to be able to help and enjoyed it, too. Plus bossing people around comes naturally to me. I think of that as my first volunteer experience. It set the stage, along with my parents' influence, and from there I was hooked.
I worked as a volunteer at vacation bible school. I volunteered with Big Brothers and Big Sisters in college and had a three year relationship with Rita, my little sister. I took a 40 hour crisis counselor training class and worked for a year with Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence. I briefly worked with the Alzheimer's Association as a Memories in the Making art therapist. Each of these experiences gave me something, other than just the glossy satisfaction of feeling like a good person. I know I helped people. I helped the vacation bible school teachers keep their cool so they didn't feel like locking rowdy kids in the supply closet. I helped Rita learn how to bake sugar cookies and appreciate Shakespeare, as seen through the eyes of Baz Lurhman and Leo DiCaprio. I held the phone to my ear and listened to many sad, lonely, scared, worried, anxious people and tried to comfort them in the middle of the night. I kept latch key kids, home alone after school, company over the phone, watching Saved by the Bell together and laughing at Screech's antics. I helped an old woman paint a picture of her favorite quilt and listened as she told me the story of how her grandmother had made it by hand for her as a gift on her sixteenth birthday.
Next to world traveling and a college Intro to Philosophy course, volunteering has probably had the most impact on my life in those times when I've been seeking answers and clarification about who I am, my place in the world and what is important to me as a human being. So I'm volunteering again. For a multitude of reasons: To try to answer some of these mid-thirties crisis questions. (I refuse to call it a midlife crisis, I plan to live past 70.) So that when that nasty little voice in my head starts to berate me about my contributions, I have a snappy retort for her. To make sure that you, dear reader, operate under the illusion that I'm a kind and generous person. And so you'll like me. And finally and most importantly, to use my gifts, education and skills to help and benefit others. I have been helped and supported by so many, many other people, that it is my lucky obligation to give something back in return.
After finishing my tutor training in January, I'm now volunteering with Literacy Kansas City. I've been matched with three students in the last four months, and all three have either moved away or dropped out of the program. Bummer. And it really pissed all over my entirely idealistic image of the joys of teaching someone to read. Where I magically help them learn to read Steinbeck overnight, when countless other teachers just failed. I exaggerate, but this was probably for the best. Now that I'm a little more hardened and realistic, I might actually be a decent tutor.
I just got matched with a new student. John is a warm, funny, 67 year old man. Born in Arkansas, he worked for 40 years at a local plant and is retired. His wife passed away recently and John's niece encouraged him to join the Literacy Kansas City program, just to get him out of the house, she said. John wants to learn to read so that he can read the Bible, read his own mail and bills and be able to read any book he wants from the library. We met last week and had our first tutoring session last night. It was hard. It's hard for John because he has always struggled with reading and it's simply difficult to learn something new like this. And it's hard for me, too. Reading is something I've done for thirty years. It comes as naturally to me as breathing. So I have to sloooooow down. I have to break down those ingrained patterns and skills that I do without thinking and find the best way to explain them to John. I have to take a word like "giving" and explain how that feels different in your mouth than when you say "getting." Did you know that your lips vibrate a bit when you say "giving"? I didn't really until yesterday. And mostly it's hard because I'm worried that I'm not a good enough tutor for John. That I will get more out of our tutoring sessions than he will. But I'm meeting him every week, I'm studying lesson plans and taking notes on bits that John struggles with, brainstorming new ways to help him remember to not drop the endings of words, and seeking advice from those great teachers all around me. I can't wait to see where we both are this time next year.
Volunteering is one of the core experiences of my life that has always been a good use of my time, has pushed me in new ways and altered and broadened my perceptions of the world. And I think we can all agree, it's a hell of a lot better than watching another episode of The Real Housewives of anywhere!