Monday, October 25, 2010

What I Signed Up For

I used to volunteer.  As part of my father's philosophy, I was obligated to as soon as I was old enough.  We weren't trying to change the world (he was a cop, an occupation which inevitably disabuses most of that notion in short order) but Dad was considered a leader in our small community.  So he said I needed to get out there and be a good citizen. I did a little work at the library and coached a couple of soccer teams.  Luckily soccer was considered kind of an odd sport in my hockey-mad town, and the season was mercifully short, so no parents howled at their sub-par volunteer help. I'm pretty sure I didn't get any of those kids on the track to Olympic gold, but I think they had some fun.  I am sure I had a better time than they did, since ten year olds are about as much fun as anything: they have energy and opinions but are basically oblivious to the opposite sex.  So there was a lot of potty humor and very little eye-rolling.

I did some community service of the Big Sister type when I was at university, and when I graduated I moved to Toronto and was a literacy volunteer.  Over my nearly three-year stint, I am proud to say, I helped two remarkable women become functional readers of the English language.  Both had grown up in countries where girls weren't granted educations, and both had been with men who were ambivalent about their learning. 

One was a shy Somalian, a very young mother of a beautiful little girl.  He husband was a Ph.D, and he was encouraging her because he felt she would be a better mother and wife if she could read. The second was a recently divorced mother of three, who had been born in the Middle East and had immigrated to Canada in her twenties. Now she was in her thirties but looked much older, evidence of  too much work and worry from living with a hard man. She was motivated by her desire to read with her daughter, who was in first grade at the time, but as she herself gained confidence, her grit showed through.  She was a gifted cook, so we worked on recipes---reading cookbooks, and then homework where she needed to write out her favorites, handed down through generations.  The act of articulating what her grandmother showed her every day of her girlhood was a huge challenge for her, but the look of triumph and pride on her face when she did so was as much an accomplishment for me as it was for her.  I admired her tremendously, even though I was not yet a mother.  Now I look back and know that her love for her children helped her walk through what must have been a lot of fear.  I often wonder where she ended up. 

When I moved to Texas, I immediately volunteered at a local non-profit dedicated to parenting and children.  I wrote a column for them in a local magazine (yes, they really make the questions up) and taught some parenting classes.  In addition to being an obvious case of the blind leading the blind, I now look back on my experience and remember the parents forced to go to the claustrophic little beige room by a family court judge as part of a divorce proceeding and cringe at what I might have said.  What the hell, they must have asked, does she know? 

Later I got what was considered a moderately important job and was asked to serve on the board of the same non-profit. I liked the people I served with, but found the monthly lunch meetings perfunctory and I was not, by a long shot, in a position to give money to the cause, which seems to be the chief purpose of a board.  Pretty sure I didn't help out many people then, either.  Even worse, it was my first step towards life in a rarified little bubble. 

Sure, I work a demanding job, co-parent two children and manage my own household without paid help or a significant other. I commute at least six, often eight or ten, hours a week.  And to be sure, I can summon up plenty of feelings of guilt and inadequacy without thinking about how I should volunteer.  I'll do that when my kids grow up, I reason, and am pretty sure I will.  The cost, of my non-volunteer world, then is not to those I might be "helping", but the blinders I wear around in my self-involved little universe. 

Everyone I work with, for the most part, is nice and well-educated.  I can afford a house in a good school district, and although I don't live in the prettiest part, I can walk there in three minutes.  I have a nice car, a luxury sedan that's a few years old.  I put money away every month and take my kids on a pretty nice, though not extravagant, vacation every summer.  What I don't think about on a daily basis, because I only spend time around people who are pretty much like me or often much better off, is that there is a whole world of people out there who not don't have these things, but whose lives are a constant battle against minor issues that morph into really big ones, because they don't have the few hundred bucks that make the little ones go away.

I have good friends who do well financially, much better than I, but they also have Real Jobs.  They have no choice but to see this other world, and in the course of their days they actually do help others less fortunate.  Yet for me, it's been a bloody long time since I've done a damn thing to pay my rent on earth.  So today when I went into Municipal Court to resolve a traffic ticket (late with my inspection) I was actually horrified at some of the people I saw.  That I was horrified is a distinct case of snobbery--okay, there were a number of elaborately tattooed busoms and calf muscles and an even greater sum of people testing the tensile strength of polyester, not something, to be fair, one sees typically at an AMLAW 100 Firm--but the fact that I can travel through life in such a way that I am shocked means I am sheltered indeed. 

So what to do?  My life is pretty packed, but I've got to figure out a way to at least take a stab at getting a broader view of the world once again.  In the meantime, I am preparing to work at my Firm's annual meeting, so at some point during the course of a 14-hour day I will soon be having drinks with a quite a few people who went to Oxford or Harvard or both, and will be enjoying a very good hotel and a twenty-dollar cheeseburger from room service.  At least, I hope, on this trip I'll remember just how spoiled I am, though that doesn't count for much, I know.

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