Duck, duck, goose

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Since I decided I needed to focus less on myself and more on making a difference to others, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my ducks in a row. In the past I’ve served charities that didn’t hold my attention for long–not because they weren’t worthy, but because I thought I could do more elsewhere. For lack of a better expression, they didn’t speak to my heart.

In this new quest for meaning (I sound so cheesy), I knew it was important to serve an area where my passions lie. The problem was that I wasn’t sure what that might be. So I researched and self-examined and researched some more. I’ll spare you the details of my three-month odyssey toward enlightenment, but the result is that I feel compelled to help in ways that address the most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you need a refresher on that, it’s the purple segment of this diagram:

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To that end, I’ve begun volunteering at our local food bank, as well as with an organization that serves homeless families in transition. I was prepared to have to undergo training and work my way through some kind of hierarchical process of establishing trust. I expected documentation and lots of recordkeeping; after all, this is important work, so it must require an appropriate bureaucracy for organizing volunteers, right?

Boy, was I ever wrong.

The first time I arrived at the food bank, I listened to a ten-minute safety speech and then found myself being directed to a spot in a food line. When someone asked, What do we need to do?, the only answer that came before the doors opened was, You’ll figure it out. And I did. Within minutes I was elbow-deep in giant boxes of donated bread, stuffing it into bags held open by the outstretched arms of grateful, hungry people.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and a few miles to my interview with the volunteer coordinator for an organization serving homeless families. She only wanted to know what I wanted to do and when I could start–and oh yeah, had I submitted a background check, by the way? With her two cell phones and a steady stream of in-person questions continually interrupting our conversation, she didn’t have time to worry about org charts and personality fits; she just needed help. I said I could start next Saturday.

Silly, bureaucratic, play-by-the-rules me asked, Won’t I need some kind of training? 

Don’t worry, said the volunteer coordinator. The person working with you will show you what to do.

Not having all the answers up front and organized into neat little systematized packages sits well outside my comfort zone. I don’t usually dive willingly into chaos and just start doing. I need a PLAN.

Well, I’m discovering that’s not the way this stuff works. The needs are just too great. There’s too much to do. This work is about survival. They need people to jump in and DO, not sit back and contemplate. After all, when someone is drowning, that person needs someone to dive in and lend a hand as quickly as possible. Sure, there’s necessary preparation, but at that moment, it’s too late to prep more–you’d better have already had your swimming lessons.

I’m not saying these entities aren’t organized; I’m just saying that it’s not my job. In this case, my hands are more important than my head. The lesson I’m learning is that when people are in need, there’s no time to waste. They don’t really need me to have my ducks in a row–they just need ducks.

Okay, then. Let’s get this party started.

Idle minds

relaxationDecember 21. With twelve days of vacation stretched in front of me, visions of organizational grandeur peppered my thoughts. I had closets to clean, documents to organize, and rooms to conquer. I finally had time to attack the accumulating detritus of domesticity, and I would prevail!

January 1, 5pm. Still in my pajamas, I looked around my house, blinking as if just waking up from a long sleep. Except for a few newly added deposits of Christmas gifts littering the landscape, my house looked the same as it had eleven days prior. I hadn’t accomplished a single thing on my list–nor had I tried.

In the remaining hours of the evening, I managed to dismantle a Christmas tree; wash, dry, and fold three loads of laundry; make dinner; and resolve a couple of nagging work issues. I accomplished more between 5 and midnight that evening that I had during the cumulative rest of my vacation. I’m ashamed of myself.

I realized in hindsight that I had been exhibiting this behavior for quite some time. Although I would be appropriately productive during the work week, weekends would come and go with only a last-minute flurry of activity on Sunday night. It was as if, when faced with the looming prospect of a very real “something to do,” my brain would suddenly switch into let’s-get-something-done mode. When faced with a blank canvas of time however, it would retreat into limbo.

This isn’t a new concept for me (for proof, read Do something from September 2011). Even so, I continue to relearn the lesson which I conveniently push to the recesses of my mind until I trip over it on idle days and fall on my face. As much as I crave a life (or a few days) of leisure, I find that I need a little bit of pressure to keep me moving forward. I need not just a goal, but also a deadline. Margaret Thatcher knew it, too:

Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s when you’ve had everything to do, and you’ve done it. –Margaret Thatcher

Do something, Tammy. Do something.

Note: Thanks to Kayla Cruz for her post, Being Overwhelmed, which got me thinking about all of this again.