Time is running out, because, they say, you never know . . . and I want to do some good in my lifetime. In a lucky life, this lands in the realm of volunteering, but it has remained for me an ideal, a fixation, however excellent. The search has been conducted in, over, and around life’s demands, of course – work; the need to work; the struggle to find good work; making sense of all that in scraps and swaths of prose. Trying to volunteer is like trying to find a suitable house in the right neighborhood, and my search, believe me, has been far and wide.
Volunteering is not a poetic word. It is strictly utilitarian, connoting firemen in big boots and helmets, or grim halls with chipped linoleum. It’s such a should-bound word: I should give, give back; manifest my gratitude through action. It is noble; it is right. But my attempts are a dark comedy of trying to place myself in service. I keep trying. I keep trying to find my place. I keep trying to find a place that will accept my gifts.
My first experience was with an old, Pennsylvania Dutch man named, Bob Detweiler, who wanted help with gimp. “Help,” I would learn, meant gimp companionship, help with organizing his gimp accomplishments, and sourcing and schlepping for gimp. My role would never become entirely clear, as mostly what we did was sit across from each other on wobbly kitchen chairs outside of his garage in a bright alley. And what was gimp, even?
My early association had to do with Christian Science summer camp and requisite arts and crafts. One could choose among a bright plethora of useless things – felt medallions; bar soap carving; gimp, and of these, gimp seemed the most without point. With the felt, you could, at least, toss off a hot pad for Mom. But gimp? These stiff strips of plastic which could be woven in such a way as to produce dimension; you could braid a lanyard – another baffling word. The only thing, as far as I could see, that gimp was good for was to hold a life guard’s whistle – the plastic assured a waterproof status; the bright colors meant you’d never ever lose your whistle.
What earthly good was gimp? Bob Detweiler, notwithstanding, needed help with his, and so for a couple of days each week, I’d go sit on a chair in his alley, and “do” gimp. In looking back, I might have ended up with Bob, because a friend of my parents mentioned his wanting help with his art projects from someone arty. Thus, delighted to marry practicality, art and the social good, I answered the call.
Mostly, Bob would talk. This consisted of solemn, Pennsylvania Dutch “shares” regarding health. Bob was a big man with an enormous paunch, tucked roundly into overalls worn to a soft sheen. One of Bob’s “shares,” in particular, made me queasy. He opined on phlegm. He advised me, if and when I’d find a hunk of phlegm in my throat, never to expel it. It was natural body secretion; God might have gotten mentioned, as in “God created phlegm, so it must have a good reason from being there in the body and so keep it?” Bob’s advice was to swallow these God-given gobs of phlegm, because in some way there were an aid to digestion, and not just regarding the role of the stomach, but actually all the way down and around and ultimately out; that phlegm played a vital role in one’s entire system.
Things began to get weird with Bob. I became confused as to what I was doing; how sitting there fingering the brightly colored, shiny gimp was helping Bob – or me, for that matter – for I had a need, even at fourteen, to feel that my efforts mattered. Of course, from Bob’s point of view, the arrangement might have seemed perfect. He had a somewhat rapt, albeit wary, arty girl absorbing his Pennsylvania Dutch wisdom and plus he never had to move from his chair, because I would fetch everything for him – the rolls of gimp; the vinegar he favored for drinking. But I didn’t feel of use. I did not relate to gimp as a concept or a medium. It was as if I had positioned myself as an art therapist and ended up a squeak toy.
Because of Bob, I became confused about volunteering in the main. I so avidly wanted to help, to give, but could not surrender my firm ideas of what it must be to be helpful. The Perfect Volunteer would willingly give herself to the needs and wishes of the other, or so I thought, but Bob had become disgusting. If I could have surrendered to the gimp, what lessons of generosity and loving kindness might have been gleaned?
I can’t say exactly that it’s gone downhill from the old Gimp Days, but in the five decades that have followed, my hope for a fulfilling and exemplary volunteer experience remains unrealized.
I tried to foist myself on PAWS. Working with injured possums and raccoons; the occasional eagle; infant squirrels – who wouldn’t want that? Actually, I’d like to take back what I said about possums.
On my volunteer orientation, we were shown one, sleeping in its tiny cage. It had its back to us, but even so, I could see there was nothing cute about it. Our coordinator indicated that among our tasks would be handling such creatures. My gaze stayed fixed on her as she stretched her arms into the cage, a towel draped between her hands, and grabbed it. This was meant to demonstrate how to approach a sleeping possum. It was then that I developed a perhaps disproportionate respect for the handlers; I, myself, would have to overcome some atavistic terror of wildness in order to do that. This was a possum with teeth, a rank smell, and bristles – gray, unkempt, they erratically covered a pinky-gray, mottled skin. Its jaw made a hideous grin that transmogrified into a grimace. The eyes suggested neither wit nor intelligence. The tail, rat-like and scaly. By no means, cute. If I were to suffer the two-plus hour schlep there and back, the least that the wounded and the injured could provide me with the “Aww factor.” The possum did not qualify. And then it began to thrash in a slow and slovenly manner.
She offered it around. We might practice holding.
Getting a feel for the work all right
We could get a feel for the work.
I declined. I could not bring myself to bridge the gap between my cravenness and up-close wildness. Even had it been cute – a raccoon, say, or a baby cougar – I would have flinched, and turned away. I could not be here. I did not have the fortitude to overcome my aversion; with time and practice to become one of those volunteers who say, “It is not glamorous. At the end of the day, I’m covered with dirt and feces. But it is the most satisfying work I know.”
Then there were the baby squirrels. So young, as to appear fetal – hairless and a blood-darkened shade of pink; the size of small fingers. They were in a special room, very warm, with hanging lamps, a room of baby squirrels, as odd, in my imaginings, as a room full of onions. Why ever would you save baby squirrels? Squirrels are pests. In my yard, they dominate. They waste no time. Anyone who has, and loves, a garden is relieved when the squirrel population diminishes, as it does from time to time. The squirrels eat my garden – oh, not as heartbreakingly as the slugs, who ravage all emerging shoots – dahlias, ligularia, anything tender and chartreuse with youth. The squirrels maraud, ever on the look out for buried treasure – bulbs. No bulb is free from the threat of their assiduous, concentrated digging.
I have struggled to outsmart my squirrels – to discourage them away from the newly planted bulbs. I have lain chicken wire, for example, over deep troughs. I have tried to rig the bird feeders so that they can not get at the seeds. In the end, the squirrels triumph. They are smarter than I, when it comes to the culture of the garden. They are superior. So I had to give up the illusion that I could manage mine, and began to think of them as entertainment. I provided them with a toy – a Squngee. This consists of a dried corn cob screwed into the end of a coiled wire. A bell is attached. Hang this from a tree, and soon a squirrel will figure it out, as they can all things; they will leap onto the cob. The bell sets up a clatter. They ride the cob like a bull, bouncing while trying to dislodge the kernels. Often, the squirrel will get tossed, somersaulting, and the garden will have acquired a circus feel. I figure if you can’t control them, turn them into clowns.
When, at PAWS, I encountered these fetal marauders, I had to ask, “Why?” Why rescue squirrels? Is it some Mother Theresa principle? Directing loving kindness to each and every one who is dying, whatever the sins and regrettable commissions? Mother Theresa and her fleet, the ultimate volunteers? This is what you do. You save what comes before you, in this case, baby squirrels, but what would you do if you came across a nest of baby rats, abandoned.? Bring them into the home; feed them? To what ends? Why?
And so I had a little philosophical twinge regarding PAWS. I mean, do not ask me to eliminate their fingerlings, but do not ask me to find their rescue worthy. The possum was different – an established individual, intending harm to no one, and reminding me a little bit of Bob. Something around the eyes.
Not for me the rank smells; wet concrete floors; feces. I am not proud of this. Nor could I possibly approach the possum in this frame of mind. It would not be a kindness. And there’s another issue: when I think about working with animals, I get guilty, believing that to be an indulgence in the face of so much human suffering. So, who shall have my gift?
A couple of years ago, I called Children’s Hospital, thinking I could offer some precious time and attention to sick kids, holding, reading aloud, playing. I was met with cool incredulity. Over the phone, it was made clear to me that my motives were selfish; that I had no skills; besides, there was a waiting list of possibly thousands.
Once I volunteered at a soup kitchen in Providence, Rhode Island. It was Thanksgiving. I don’t remember much about the place, or the people – just the surge of joy in giving, and I thought, “Uh oh, I could get hooked on this, the ‘look at me I’m doing tremendous good’ flush.” I began to distrust my generosity, its underpinnings, anyway, and my friends and I – we who gave our day to the poor and disadvantaged – all felt aglow and virtuous, and the one friend took a turn into self righteousness, and the other, into a kind of bird-brained good will.
The other night, I was chopping onions, making dinner. I began to wonder how many onions I had chopped in my life.
This reminded me of chopping vegetables as an aspiring Macrobiotic while living in Boston, Massachusetts a very, very long time ago. I was taught then, as an aspirant, that chopping vegetables was, according to the venerable wife of our venerable leader, the highest calling. Highest Calling! Mrs. Michio Kushi made washing a pot look like a higher calling, because she was the perfect Macrobiotic wife – obedient, fastidious, a virtuoso of the domestic arts, and forgiving of marital peccadillos (that would be adultery). Mrs. Michio Kushi wore brilliant, Japanese vestments and moved with somber authority around her kitchen. I had recently graduated from college, a Fine Arts major, seeking to place my gift for ardent appreciation . . . somewhere . . . and thus it landed in carrots and burdock and onions. There was a rigor and an esthetic to macrobiotic chopping. Status was accorded those who did it right.
I worked in the macrobiotic restaurant on Newberry Avenue and continued to aspire. I would be a vegetable prep person, entrusted with chopping precise shapes and thicknesses for the vegetarian macrobiotic dishes. If nothing else, the food was beautiful in a pure and austere way. Mere color and texture accrued to beauty, because it was the essence of each food that emerged. Smothering sauces and obscuring blends had no place on the macrobiotic plate.
I can imagine – or could, were I younger – chopping my way around the world. This requires no particularly complicated skill. It does, however, require patience and loving attention. I endow my chopping with love on behalf of my wish to nourish. Anyone can throw chopped bits into the omelet pan, but it takes love to chop them mindfully, and in order – onion, zucchini, mushrooms – and to toss them in the pan in that same order, making sure that the oil is heated to the right temperature, the garlic joining in at the last, when the heat has calmed down, and evened.
I have been chopping onions in this manner for at least half a century. I am trying to imagine a space large enough to accommodate all of those historic onions – the slices and mincings and chop. And the very many layers, and, of course, my tears.
I will happily volunteer to spend time with you, to bring discussion topics to your home, to listen to fine music. I will have washed my hair; made my appearance pleasing, and we can sit warmly in a room of your choosing, and talk about many things, particularly those customarily avoided – depression; death; the darkness of childhood sorrows. I will bring lists of books that must be read; films that must be seen; plagues and genocides to ponder; gratitudes that we will bring to bear. I will accompany you for some hours; I will happily inflict my gift, because at the root of my urge to volunteer is, I believe, a desire for social life, for engagement laced with meaning.
And if you do want me to come chat, visit, or sauté, there are requirements. As Mother said, ad nausea, regarding everything from hamster care to menstrual management, “there are rules and regulations.”
1. under no circumstances suggest that we “do” arts & crafts.
2. should our visit include refreshment, please offer nothing that involves lo or no fat items.
3. I ask that you in no way resemble a possum .
4. I ask that nothing about our encounter is redolent of Bob.