Saturday, January 28, 2006

Slow People

I'm a slow person. No, I don't mean mentally retarded, though some might argue that point. I also don't mean slow-moving, sluggish, or drowsy. By a slow person, I mean someone who takes life one thing at a time, someone for whom multi-tasking is as challenging as rappeling off the Empire State Building, and equally unlikely. A slow person leaves plenty of unstructured time between commitments, likes to hang out with the dog in the backyard, and even considers that a bonafide activity. Being a slow person doesn't mean not feeling guilty about leading a slow life, but it does mean persisting in it despite all guilty feelings.

I was introduced to the term by a friend. She used the phrase to describe herself and meant it in a modest and self-deprecating sense, by way of explaining her daily schedule, which includes power yoga and volunteer work with the blind. Like me, she doesn't over-program herself. Yoga isn't something she does before work, or after. It's her morning's activity.

As she explained her slow nature, I immediately saw in myself a kindred spirit. Putting a label on my modus operandi appealed to me, made it seem somehow more acceptable. Because mostly, I feel as if I'm out of sync with the world around me, a world of fast track, productive personalities. And thank goodness all you type-A's are out there. You're the ones who make the trains run on time (oops! bad example). But, while you're pulling out of the station, I'm probably still at home, tying on my sneakers and taking Cosmo for a walk.

I'm not suggesting here that everyone take time to smell the roses. Rather, I'm asking your understanding, even sympathy, for those of us who can't do anything but smell the roses. And please don't stop multi-tasking. Without you fast people, who would grow, ship, plant, fertilize, and water the roses for us slow people to smell?

Monday, January 23, 2006

Update - Waiting for a Sign

After my appointment at the Wellness Community was postponed by the director last Monday, I spent several days waiting and wishing for a sign to tell me whether I should keep the appointment we'd rescheduled for today.

I checked out the Wellness Community's online newsletter, which included photos of many staff and board members as well as clients, hoping something would click. It looked like a nice group of people and the programs and events sounded excellent, even inspiring. But I couldn't quite see myself in the picture.

I gazed out my window across Biscayne Bay toward the high rises of Kendall, where the Wellness Community is located, hoping a single ray of sunlight would break through the clouds above Kendall, signaling a divine intention that I volunteer for this organization. But nothing out of the ordinary appeared.

Eventually, despairing that a Deus ex machina would materialize to solve my dilemma, I took a long walk with Eric, during which I tried to get him to tell me what I should do. Actually, I hoped he would tell me what I wanted to do, since I couldn't figure it out for myself. After all, we've been married for over thirty years. Shouldn't he know my wishes better than I do? He didn't fall for that one, though, and wouldn't even reveal his own view about whether I should pursue the position. In fact, he claimed he didn't have an opinion.

So I was on my own. And just when I had stopped expecting it, a sign of sorts came along to help me decipher my mixed-up feelings. I received an email from a writer friend who wanted to hear more about an idea I'd mentioned to her casually over dinner a few weeks earlier--starting a small press. During dinner we'd also talked about an anthology she was working on and I'd secretly envisioned publishing it as my first book.

As I read her email, I felt calm, centered, happy. Here was a woman who, like me, understood the joy (and pain) of sitting alone in a room in front of a blank page. This was how I wanted to spend my time, involved in the writing life. No matter that I haven't published much other than some poetry and a local newspaper column. I'm still a writer. It's how I define myself. Before committing to volunteer work which would take me away from writing, I wanted to explore the possibilities of a small press, maybe look into putting together my own anthology, keep writing this blog.

Not that writing and volunteering need be mutually exclusive. But for a one-track perfectionist like myself, it seemed best to pick a single focus for the time being. Armed with my new self-understanding, I called the Wellness Community and cancelled my appointment.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Social Inaction

On paper, I'm the ideal candidate for a volunteer position. I'm an empty nester, my husband manages to support the family with no help from me, and I have skills that many organizations could probably use--typing, editing, filing, answering phones, designing web pages. Hey, I even speak Spanish! But guilty though it makes me feel, I've never been able to get on board the social action wagon.

Not that I haven't tried. Way back in the seventies, I worked at one of the first wholistic health centers in the nation--the San Andreas Health Center in Palo Alto. I acted as a receptionist several days a week, answering phones, greeting clients, fielding questions. I enjoyed the people and was very interested in the work the center was doing. In fact, my motives for volunteering weren't pure at all. I wanted to try out the various services and my volunteer status entitled me to discounts for such exotic fare as rolfing, biofeedback, and encounter groups. I was more like an indentured consumer, working off my various therapies by manning the front desk.

Later, after I had my first child, I was grateful to Warmlines, a networking organization for parents, so I worked for a while manning their phones. Being new to town when Aaron was born, I'd felt isolated and lonely. Through Warmlines, I connected with other first-time mothers who became some of my closest friends. I wanted to return the favor. But even with such altruistic motives, I didn't last long at the job. I've never been great at phone tasks--my answers to questions are always more complicated than necessary. And I began to resent licking envelopes and doing other grunt work. Before long, I bowed out.

Onward and upward to "meaningful" volunteer work. I decided I'd offer my help to Greater Boston Legal Services. After all, I had my J.D. and was a member of the Massachusetts Bar. Why not do something challenging and at the same time help indigent people? Plus, there would be something in it for me--I'd use my legal skills and that way keep them from deteriorating until I was ready to enter the real job market. GBLS greeted me with open arms, apparently thrilled to have me. I was assigned to work with an attorney who promised me lots of interesting work. So I eagerly signed on. No matter that I'd have to pay a sitter while I worked and also pay for parking in Boston. But each time I arrived at the office, my attorney never seemed ready for me, never had any work set out, never utilized my expertise. She'd scurry around looking for something to keep me busy after I'd arrived. More make-work. So I was paying for a sitter and parking in order to spend several boring hours a week in downtown Boston. No thanks.

After that, I stuck to more child-centered volunteer options, performing a variety of services at my kids' schools as they made their way through the grades. Again, my aims weren't exactly unselfish. Volunteering at school enabled me to form good relationships with teachers and staff while getting a firsthand glimpse of what went on in the classrooms.

My most recent attempt at social action occurred not long ago, when I was invited to help start a Restorative Justice project. It seemed like a great idea--working together, lawyers, social workers, and the local police would design an innovative approach to juvenile justice. Offenders and victims would meet in a supportive setting with other community members and the aim would be to find ways offenders could make meaningful restitution to their victims. We had a number of meetings, launched several pilot projects, and I even wrote a grant proposal to fund the effort. But the group seemed more interested in process than results, with meeting after meeting yielding little progress. Frustrated, I finally severed my ties. As far as I know, the project still hasn't gotten off the ground.

Fast forward to January, 2006. I called the Wellness Community in Miami, where Eric and I plan to spend a good part of the winter. The Wellness Community
helps cancer survivors cope with post-diagnosis issues. The director seemed delighted at my offer of help, though she warned me it would be mostly "administrative" (code for answering phones and licking envelopes). Still, I've heard that it's a terrific organization. And I've been feeling guilty. I should be giving something back to the community, here and up north. I made an appointment to meet the director.

In the days leading up to the appointment, I found myself thinking about the notion of volunteerism. In all my previous efforts, I never felt as if I were making much of a difference. I might feel virtuous, but I wasn't changing the world in any meaningful way. Maybe I didn't stick with it long enough. Maybe my expectations were too high. But sometimes it seems as if social action does more for the psyches of volunteers than for its recipients.

So when the Wellness Community director called me on the morning of our appointment to say she couldn't meet with me that day after all, I wasn't exactly disappointed. More like relieved. She hadn't realized it was MLK day, she said, and besides, the computers were down and she needed to attend to that. She sounded somewhat discombobulated. Shades of my GBLS experience?

We rescheduled for next week, which will give me plenty of opportunity to rethink the whole idea. At the moment, making a financial donation as opposed to volunteering my time is loo
king pretty attractive. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

A Common Language

Hablo espanol. Not fluently, but well enough to carry on a conversation with almost anyone. It's one of my proudest accomplishments. Sometimes, it helps me make a connection that would otherwise be impossible, an I-Thou moment between myself and another human being. I experienced such a moment the other day.

I had stopped at a supermarket in a wealthy suburb, a market I'd never been to before. At the checkout, I was told the bagger would accompany me to my car and load the groceries into my trunk. I always feel awkward about this type of arrangement and that day was no exception. I walked through an icy rain toward my car, feeling like an entitled matron with a servant in tow. He was a youngish man, painfully thin. I had heard him speak Spanish while in the store. I was tempted to say something, but I thought that might be presumptuous, so I walked rapidly toward the car.

When I lifted the lid of the trunk, I noticed that my ice scraper, which I would need to clean the windshield, had slid all the way to the back of the trunk. I thought I might strain an already inflamed shoulder if I reached for it myself, but this was just an excuse. Really, I wanted to say something to the bagger, to show him my good will.

"Me puede hacer un favor?" (Can you do me a favor?) I asked. "Puede alcanzar esta cosa que se usa para hielo?" (Can you reach the thing that is used for ice?) Not a perfect Spanish sentence, to be sure, but adequate, I hoped.

His reaction was all out of proportion to my hope. He bestowed on me an absolutely radiant smile.

"Habla espanol!" he exclaimed and praised my use of the word "alcanzar". He seemed amazed and delighted. I smiled back. I imagined that I might have been the first customer ever to address him in his own language.

We chatted a bit longer. I commented that it must be difficult not to be able to "platicar" (chat) with customers. He agreed. He wanted to know where I had learned Spanish. He seemed reluctant to leave,
utterly oblivious to the rain and cold. We stood for a moment, suspended, having transcended the formidable barrier of language. For one beautiful instant, we were real to one another, linked souls. Finally, I thanked him for his help.

"Feliz ano nuevo!" (Happy New Year!) he said, waving as he headed back toward the foodstore's bright lights. "A usted tambien," (To you, too) I called out, filled with good will toward men, or at least toward this one unexpectedly kind and friendly man.