Sunday, October 11, 2009

Community Ties

Last week I walked a mile and a half with my fourth grader for a Walk-A-Thon for his school. All six hundred kids donned their red school shirts, and they, their teachers and a good number of us parents did the same. It was one of those fall days in North Texas when the sky is so blue it hurts, and we walked through a neighborhood of houses with graceful lines from the 1920s and 1930s. As has happened to me before, I felt like I was in a Norman Rockwell painting--with multicultural bent, I must mention--because we have a very special place in a school where a good many kids can walk there, and because the event reminded me that the school is part of the broader community. Given that on four days out of five someone is parked across my driveway (I live across the street from the school) when I need to leave for work, it's a good thing I love the place so much.

At any rate, it didn't just feel good: the school raised more than twenty thousand dollars through donations, and we all went out and enjoyed a bit of exercise. It reminded me that once upon a time I was really involved in my broader community: I got to Fort Worth and, having been gainfully employed and now finding myself at home with a toddler, I immediately sought out a non-profit that I might do some things for. I found The Parenting Center and went on to write a monthly column in a local parenting magazine, taught some classes, and then, when I became a full-fledged professional again, ended up serving on the board.

Then I went to work in Dallas. In addition to the distance--about 40 miles--there is a huge cultural difference between Fort Worth and its fancy pants Big City counterpart to the east. Finding volunteer opportunities there is an unpalatable option to say the least. The time commitment has made it easy to pass off my lack of engagement in my home city as a natural thing, and since I am a single mom I can easily beg off, but I still wish I could find the time to be involved. And yet not really.

Being really, really involved in community projects means you are incredibly engaged in your local world. When I was a teenager, my father was adamant that I do something the community, because in his volunteer experience, he got much more than he gave. Happiness studies tell us that we are better off when we feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and of course doing communuity work takes us out of our self-involved little minds. But here's the rub: once word gets out who we are and that we can be effective volunteers, the requests keep coming.

So what's better, from the standpoint of personal happiness? If we put ourselves out there, we get that nice feeling that we belong, that maybe as part of something bigger we can make the world a little better than how we found it. But then we find ourselves in the position of saying no an awful lot, which makes most of us feel badly, even if we understand intellectually that there is only so much we can do. I do what I can for my children's school, although clearly the bulk of the work there is carried out by the parents (and let's face it, they are mostly moms) who don't work outside the home. Guilt is a useless emotion, yet there it is again.

When that voice in my head tells me I'm not doing enough, I respond in the following way: when I get past the intense years of child-rearing and that my work life is ramping down rather than up I can find a way again of making a contribution and engaging in a world beyond my office walls.

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