Stray observations, asking for a tap and the memory trap

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“Despite how open, peaceful and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” -Matt Kahn

But people are terrible buffoons, and will never listen. They must touch the hot iron.” -K Wolfe

Please forgive the desultory fashion in which I swan across a bunch of disconnected subjects. Just a clearing of the mind.

Remember

How much do I hate it when people begin statements in their stories with admonishment: “Remember”, e.g. “I went to Harvard. Remember: I didn’t get good grades!” or “I have been working and running around for 18 hours straight. Remember: I didn’t sleep last night either!” I don’t know if it is meant to be an invitation to pat them on the back for what revelation follows the entreaty to “remember” or literally a reminder, as if some detail they harp on constantly could be forgotten? Why does this bother me so much?

Similarly, we all have our favorite words and don’t necessarily notice we are using them constantly. “Similarly” is one of mine, probably because I love trying to make connections between disconnected things. When I go back over writing I see the way these words pop up again and again. I wonder if it’s deliberate when I see it in published books that should have been edited. For example, I noticed that Carrie Brownstein used some version of “sturdy” in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, more times than I bothered to count. Claire Dederer uses some version of “semaphore” far too many times in her recent book, Love and Trouble. How do we attach ourselves to these favored words and expressions?

Asking for a tap: Freelance distance learning – Sierra Leone

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way, though. The annual Sierra Leone Marathon takes place tomorrow (May 28), and money donated benefits the Street Child charity, which, since its founding, has helped more than 50,000 children to go to school and stay in education. During the Ebola crisis, Street Child helped over 20,000 Ebola orphans, providing emergency support and connecting thousands with families. Today, Street Child works in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nepal and Nigeria with a current emphasis on education in emergencies and girls’ education.

While you can give any time, of course, the fundraising drive for the marathon is a good time to make a big push for support. I happen to be supporting this small team of enthusiastic marathoners. I’m eager for them to make it over the top with their fundraising goal, but really I’m pretty keen for the charity to be supported in general. There are a lot of charities out there and loads of people asking for money; it happens that I chose to get involved in this right now. The results of giving are easy to see, and I guess it’s important to feel like you see some kind of result – or a direct line between what you do or give to some kind of improvement. Not just an “I will write a check to assuage guilt and not think about it again” kind of effort.

As I have written before, everything I learn about Africa is incremental… kind of one country, one obsession at a time. We all heard about Sierra Leone in the last few years because it was one of the hardest hit in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, but it’s easy for a country and its people to get lost in that kind of crisis. (Prior to the crisis, Sierra Leone was rebuilding from a prolonged civil war – and just when they were making some progress, Ebola hit.)

As part of my intro to Sierra Leone, I’ve become better acquainted also with Liberia and other bits of West Africa. Which maybe I will ramble about another time. For now, I am just thinking about drumming up money.

I have no excuse except that I let compassion have free rein. Which is often my excuse for everything. All those years not saying no to freelance work because I couldn’t. But then even when I was free of need, not being able to say no because I forgot how to say no. And even after learning to say no, I couldn’t because I thought, “I can’t leave money on the table when I could give it to a cause”. Whether that cause was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic in precarious recovery or a greater cause like Ebola orphans in West Africa.

After all, what else are we here for? I was listening to Sigur Rós’s Ágætis byrjun album for the first time in many years, and it was as though I was transported back to summer 1999 in Akureyri, northern Iceland. I was introduced to this by my friend Anna’s friend, R. R passed away long ago when she was really quite young, and listening to the opening notes of this album bring these beautiful people – who have either changed or completely ceased to exist – to life in my mind’s eye. This gorgeous prelude to the Icelandic chapter of my life, the beginnings of which were already like half a life ago.

While listening to the album, I happened to look through my college’s alumni news and saw that a former classmate had died late last year. She was in her 70s, so it was not as shocking as when people my own age or younger die (I was the youngest in my class by decades in most cases, so my cohort have reached normal “expiration dates”, but it’s still quite sad). Already flooded by the aforementioned memory plucked from me by the sounds of Sigur Rós, these fleeting moments of curiosity, asking myself, “I wonder whatever happened to X”, like today, are often followed by more nostalgia-filled grief, discovering the deaths of people who once populated life’s periphery.

Yes, of late, I see a pattern forming in, overtaking in fact, most of what I write. A lot of death and mortality to reflect on. Which is in the end why, as much as I complain, or poke at language I find annoying, I am much more inclined to think about and act on helping others, and finding meaning in the time we are here.

Give! Give! Give! More! More! More!

Volunteering

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The idea of volunteering may exist to some degree everywhere but, in the US, volunteering seems to be in the blood. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics even publishes an annual report on the state of volunteerism in the US. It reports that more than 25 percent of Americans actively volunteer in one capacity or another. A 2013 Gallup poll puts the numbers even higher, with 65 percent of Americans claiming to volunteer and more than 80 percent practicing some form of charitable giving. The tendency to think that voluntary organizations/charities will take care of everything seems to be a uniquely American (and sort of puritanical/conservative) way of looking at things. I suppose it comes down to the American obsession with doing things for oneself and the desire to pay the least amount of tax possible as well as the tendency for Americans to be quite active in church/religious activities, which are often charitable in nature.

Volunteer organizations and efforts spring up as a result, and there is a value placed on volunteer experience. Not just internships that are often required when a person goes to university – but just volunteering as a separate endeavor from one’s work or personal life. The volunteer mindset and philosophy is ingrained. When I was in school and later when I was just living and working, the idea of volunteering time at organizations that needed unpaid help somehow appealed to the part of me that obsesses over continuous learning.

Many of the volunteer functions that are seen as voluntary or charitable matters are not seen that way at all outside the United States – many of the services provided sit squarely on the shoulders of the government (what else are taxes paid for?). Americans are apparently a “nation of givers” (an article that’s a few years old puts some statistics on it, comparing charitable donations and volunteer time Americans give against the money and time other countries’ people give). Sure, the US tax code makes charitable giving a way to avoid paying as much tax as one might otherwise, which is why corporations often give so much. But for individuals this is not a driver of their giving (only about one-third of Americans apparently itemize their taxes, meaning they don’t get the deductions to which they are entitled).

I had this discussion many times in particular with French people. My ex-boyfriend (a Frenchie) could not comprehend why I was volunteering spare time – my own free time – to basically donate labor to organizations that should be supported, in his mind, by public funding. While I might have agreed with him about what functions governments should provide, in the absence, I saw nothing amiss or “wasteful” about giving my time to further some cause or help someone else. Granted, some volunteering is not necessarily a tangible “help”. Being a volunteer art-museum docent does not have the hands-on, immediate value that cooking in a soup kitchen or building housing for low-income families does. But it’s not always about that kind of obvious help. It’s also about education, culture and getting something from what you give. When I volunteered at an art museum, for example, I gained experience, knowledge and skills that I would never get elsewhere. In those situations, the volunteer is not just giving – aside from the general sense of “doing something good”, there is always some kind of payoff.

Volunteering for Americans encompasses a kind of pride and mutual promise of giving and getting. A nation that has major federal programs, entirely based on volunteering, such as the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, must be at least somewhat driven by the idea put forth by John F Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.

It’s not only in America that volunteering exists – it’s just not woven into the fabric of everyday life everywhere else. Recently I applied to be a volunteer board member for a few public entities in Glasgow, Scotland. This is yet another kind of volunteering – I thought the experience would be quite valuable and I knew I would provide a very different perspective to the boards to which I applied (I was invited to interview for one of them but then my situation changed, and regrettably I could not attend). This was not a lowly “scrub-the-floor” kind of volunteer experience but instead one in which experienced professionals were expected to bring expertise and ideas to the table – and still voluntary (with some travel costs reimbursed). I regret not being able to do it because I actually thought it, like most of my past volunteer experiences, would be enriching.

On a similar note, in a relatively recent Forbes article, Baby Boomers were in focus as not volunteering as much as they should or could – or as much as other parts of the American population. Volunteer organizations, apparently, are finally starting to catch on that they need to target the retired and retiring Baby Boomers to capture their experience and skills. The contention is that Boomers want to do something meaningful and results-oriented with their volunteer time rather than something like stuffing envelopes or making phone calls.

“According to the Volunteering in the United States survey, “providing professional or management assistance, including serving on a board or committee” is the second most popular form of volunteering for Americans over 55, after “collecting, preparing, distributing or serving food.”

I suppose, aside from that stubborn “we can do it ourselves” kind of attitude, there is also a “we’re in this together” attitude that leads to volunteering and the types of people who put themselves out there as volunteers. We don’t have to wait for some official entity to qualify our idea as worthwhile – we can start our own initiative (or join one we believe in and want to give our time to).

Nine Inch Nails – “We’re In This Together