Volunteer

To say things aren’t working out in Pittsburgh the way S. and I thought they would is a vast understatement. Our decision to move back here a year and a half ago took a serious amount of thought and consideration – when this particular job opportunity arose for me we looked at where I was working and considered the potential in Michigan versus the potential in Detroit and, hands down, Pittsburgh won. My current position is a big step up in terms of responsibility and pay, and, before the economy went down the tubes, seemed ripe with opportunity. Beyond those considerations, we knew if we moved back to Pittsburgh we could afford to buy a home, significantly decrease our car expenses, and generally have a much improved quality of life.

The plan went like this – I would move back to Pittsburgh to start my new position a few months before S. graduated from law school (check). He would then move here and take and pass the bar exam (check, check). When S. shared our plan with his boss back in Michigan, his boss offered to keep him on at his old job, with new responsibilities, working from Pittsburgh. This seemed like a fantastic opportunity to keep us financially afloat while S. looked for law jobs and, indeed, it has certainly done that. What we didn’t anticipate – what nobody  could have anticipated – was the complete and total nosedive the economy took and the shriveling up of any and all law jobs that might be available to a newly anointed member of the bar. S.’s current employer back in Detroit has been so supportive of the both of us, and so enthusiastic about S.’s work, that his boss now hopes to keep S. on indefinitely. While we recognize how very fortunate we are – in a time when people are losing their jobs and struggling with basic needs like food and shelter both of us have jobs, health insurance, great amounts of vacation time. What is hard for us is the amount of travel S.’s job now requires – he is on the road traveling the country about three weeks out of every month. Our relationship has always thrived the more time we spend together and this time apart, without the support network of friends and family we had in Michigan, has exhausted us both, physically and emotionally. It means the majority of the housework falls to me on top of my job, and it also means S. spends just enough time here to unpack, do a few loads of laundry, and pack again. He doesn’t have the time to invest in the city or make friends and since he returns to Detroit frequently for work, Detroit in fact feels more like home to him than Pittsburgh does. We both feel like we owe something to S.’s workplace – his employer cares more for us as a couple, as a family, than mine ever will, but is even talking promotion and additional grooming, but essentially this leaves us often muttering if only we knew then what we knew now…

We are muddling our way through this and I believe we will come out on the other side stronger and more sure of ourselves as adults than we already are, but I recognized within myself during this time an ability to be entirely consumed by the consumate unfairness of the situation, of feeling entirely alone accompanied by the fact of my marriage. And so I thought, really, I should volunteer. I am able to wrap myself up in my head to an almost staggering degree and using some of that energy to serve others seemed only appropriate.

I began quietly looking for opportunities in the new year. I wasn’t sure whether I should tutor, or become a neighborhood tree-tender, or what. And then, out of the proverbial blue, and old professor of mine started a group which I will not name here because it can be googled but basically it was for women who considered themselves feminists and wanted to lend a helping hand to our local NOW chapter, in addition to some other activities. I had adored this professor in graduate school, the kind of adoration I develop for anyone who pushes me much farther than I ever thought I could go, and to work with her again on an equal basis thrilled me.

And so I attended a meeting, the details of which I will perhaps share at some later date but during which one of the conversations centered around the idea that all feminism stems from some sort of personal pain – child abuse, bad marriages, coming late in life to terms with homosexuality – and I was encouraged thusly to share my own story of personal pain and when I didn’t have one – well, it was generally assumed my pain was so deep and I was so injured by existing as a woman in this world I just couldn’t even verbalize my story yet. While I was somewhat put off by this assumption I still hoped to engage with this group because the work they intended to do seemed right in line with my system of values and beliefs.  But what I didn’t realize is just how damn often this group would meet. They meet, like, every other day. And for once in my life I am not exaggerating. There are happy hours, weekend brunches, strolls through our city’s parks, poetry readings, documentaries to attend, books to read and then discuss, meetings of other organizations to attend – there are so many meetings! And I swear, every meeting falls on an evening when I have something work-related to attend, or when I am on call for the hospital system, or when the roof has decided to leak. I have not been able to make another meeting.

That’s the thing with more responsibility and more pay – while on the one hand it feels as though my hard work and dedication to my position is rewarded, on the other the requirements of my job bleed well past the required forty hours a week. Because my job ebbs and flows with what American news media deems important, my days and weeks and months are quite unstable. I could commit, say, to meeting with the group every Wednesday but then there is the week I would be on call and the week I stayed late for a pancreatic cancer meeting and the week I had a fundraising event and, well, you get the idea. I simply can’t be part of a group that meets in any kind of dependable way, let alone a group that meets for walks and talks and poetry slams. I mean, when would I pay the bills? Who would let the dog out?

I had hoped upon moving here that I could teach part time at the University I attended for graduate school, just to keep my toes in academic waters (note other resolution – to embrace my inner academic) but right now I don’t even see that as a possibility given my current routine. or lack thereof.

Sometimes, things just don’t work out the way you think they will. I had imagined upon moving back to Pittsburgh that volunteering on a regular basis would just be one of a thousand small ways I could engage in the community because, don’t doubt for a second, this is one damn beautiful community we have. I have never lived anywhere so full of generous people. Just yesterday my next-door neighbors came buy with a bushel full of fresh cherries. The neighborhood association has dropped by with a bag full of canned goods and literature about the history of our neighborhood.

I imagined my thirties as a time of giving back something of what I have been blessed with, and I still imagine they will be. I do believe the job I do makes a difference in the lives of cancer patients, and sometimes I wonder if a job I pour my heart into, if it effects change in health care communication, is enough. But I was raised by true activists, parents who found time in their lives no matter what else was happening to volunteer at the library, for meals on wheels, for groups determined to protect the rivers and tributaries that run through Michigan and I always envisioned that I, too, would concentrate more on giving back and less on my own little life.

But, and I have to keep reminding myself, sometimes things don’t work out the way we think they will, and this last year has definitely not worked out the way I thought it would.  It isn’t a bad year, per se, just not the year I thought it would be, and it means, for now, I have to remove regular volunteering from my list of resolutions and hope that somewhere in the not so distant future it can be added on again. It has taken me a long time to recognize my own limitations and one thing I am not good with is balancing the demands of too many different things all at once. Realizing this, in and of itself, is something I couldn’t do last year and I consider it an achievement of sorts, albeit a a somewhat bittersweet one.

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7 Responses to Volunteer

  1. Stefanie says:

    Hang in there! Things will eventually work out and get onto the track you had imagined. The economy will get better, S will find a legal job in Pittsburgh and suddenly you will have some free time to volunteer.

  2. appellationmountain says:

    Oh, I hear you! I remember working on a project about civic engagement – and realizing that I didn’t know my neighbors.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that it takes a very long time to shape our lives into something worth living. And while we’re just as lucky as you and S., there are frustrations built into even the best of circumstances. (Case in point: my husband had the flexibility to take two days off to hang out with our kids while their school took a break between the regular year & camp – but he’ll have to work late for the next week to make up for it. When did vacation days cease to be time off, and merely become time re-arranged?!)

    But back to civic engagement. I’ve found that what makes my life meaningful is often the smallest kindness. Civility is in short supply these days, especially with the current economic nosedive putting us all on edge. And you & S. are among the kindest people I know – so you might consider that sometimes it isn’t the formal acts of volunteerism that contribute to the well-being of the universe, but the mundane – holding doors, saying good morning, putting your spare change in the firefighter’s collection jar.

    At least here’s hoping so.

  3. litlove says:

    Hang on in there – you’ve got the right thought, just not the right structure. I do think you’d feel better if you gave back, but a high-input group isn’t the place (and not one founded on such a dodgy premise). You want something hands on – taking library books to elderly or housebound people is the one I want to do when I have time for it. But you run, don’t you? You could sign up for one of the many charity races and combine keeping fit with some good work. There are lots of options, and you just need one that works for you practically rather than just intellectually.

    I really feel for you in your relationship situation, though. That’s so tough. I’m sure you and S will get through just fine, but it takes planning. Would he write you romantic letters while he’s travelling, or can you ensure you spend a whole day together whenever he is back? I don’t know what the correct solution is here, but I know I always feel better with a plan.

  4. Cam says:

    A friend of mine, who is an MD, said the other day that most of his patients have problems with boundary-less jobs and too many demands. “How does anyone have time to take care of extra things like volunteerings, when they barely have time to take care of the daily tasks of just living, things like paying the bills? That is what stress is, and I don’t know what to tell people when I have a hard time myself”, he said. I, too, have porous borders between work and the rest of my life and I think that is the #1 problem when it comes to getting things done. I’m so overextended time-wise that it seems like I’m always doing things last minute and halfway, which makes me more stressed. What I think is the key is knowing when you are full, and knowing what needs to be jettisoned so that you can have some nurturing time, both for you & S as a couple, and for yourself. Forget about volunteering and don’t feel quilty about it if that is the thing that needs to be cut. There will be other points in your life when you can do that.

  5. Smithereens says:

    I can understand your frustration, but while you can’t commit to such a high-level volunteer work you still have time for other interests (namely your novel, which is great!). You can go to Volunteer.org to find other opportunities (local or virtual) that will suit you better. I did some virtual volunteering with translations and proof-reviewing and these are also great ways to give back when your professional agenda is quite demanding.

  6. Emily Barton says:

    My advice? Just concentrate on work and your family right now and don’t worry about volunteering. (Don’t join a church, either, which you will discover “meets” as often as your feminist group does and will have you feeling like you’ve taken on a second job. If you feel the need to attend services, just keep rotating among three or four you like.)

  7. Courtney says:

    Stefani – thanks for the support! I am sure you are right…
    A – your post brought tears to my eyes! You are right, I need to concentrate on the small gestures for now – those are often as or more important…
    Litlove – I really think you might be on to something there…returning to letter writing sounds so much more romantic than facebook messages…
    Cam – you are absolutely right. I need to NOT feel guilty that this resolution didn’t work out this year…there is time, and there will be time, to work on it in the future…
    Smithereens – I will definitely check out volunteer.org, although I have to admit the idea of doing proofreading/translating work sounds exhausting…
    Emily…hmm..the voice of experience re: the church? 🙂

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