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Midland, Texas, United States
I write. I make stuff.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Being of Service

As we creep slowly into winter, I look for ways to keep myself on an even keel. Oh, things are fine right now, and they may continue to be. But you can never tell. Last year the holiday season was sad, and with my father now gone, too--well, it never hurts to be prepared.

One of the most successful holiday seasons was when I first joined the Unitarian Universalist Church, back when I was impressed by the level of involvement with the community. We delivered food at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I spent those two days serving meals at a community center. It felt really good, of course, as these things always do.

The church has moved away from that, and I've moved away from the church. "Church" is such a foreign concept to me, anyway. But I crave that sense of being useful during The Holidays, which I don't much like, anyway. I mean, really: if you hate consumerism and you're not religious and you're one of the pickiest eaters on the planet, what, exactly, is there to recommend The Holiday Season as it's commonly celebrated? But I digress (and aren't you surprised?).

One more thing that struck me in The Way of the Peacful Warrior--and, yeah, I realize that, for a movie I said didn't have a lot to recommend it, it certainly seems to have had some food for my own thoughts--was the idea of Being of Service. The Nick Nolte character works in a gas station, and Millman mocks him for having a low-level nothing job. He responds that he's being of service, serving people and filling a need.

Today I when I sat down with my afternoon homemade latte, I read an article in the UU World magazine about dignity and rankism. You can read it here.

And I started thinking about how the jobs we hold in least esteem are those that provide a service, the ones that take care of or pick up after other people. Quick: what's one of the lowliest jobs you can think of? (I've had one of them: kennel assistant. Cleaning out animals' cages. It was a nasty job, but it was an important one. It wasn't something I did when most people who have this job do it--during high school. I did it as an adult, and I did it as well as I could because the animals needed clean cages. But a job with a lot of esteem? Um. No.)

But that's not a job we usually think of when we think of common, low-level jobs. How about the guy who picks up trash, the one in the park with the bag and the pole with the pointy end, the guy who goes around spearing up all the detritus that people drop on the ground? How about that job? Don't we pity the people who do it? And if we make eye contact with them, which we hardly ever do, don't we feel a little odd? Kind of guilty he (it's usually a man) is cleaning up after us, but also so glad we're not having to do it?

It's a vital job, though. We produce so much trash that, if it were all left to blow around and pile up, we'd be buried in it. Thank goodness there are people who pick up our trash, right?

No one does it in neighborhoods, though. Oh, there's the old man who goes around picking up aluminum cans, sure. He gets those off the street and out of the alley and out of the dumpsters (The EGE saw a family at the recycling bin the other night: the adults put the kids inside the aluminum bin and had them hand out all the cans. But that's another thing entirely. . . .)

So tonight when I took The Second Walk (the earlier walk today was to the gym, so I can go three days in a row without driving, if I'm lucky), I took a plastic garbage bag and a pair of disposable rubber gloves and picked up trash along my walk. Granted, this isn't an area very much filled with trash; but there was still about half a bag full of the stuff people toss out of their cars as they drive through. I picked up everything I could see along the way and then put it all the dumpster, along with the gloves.

Does it really make a difference? Probably not. Oh, sure: every little bit helps. I don't litter. Not ever. I signed an Anti-Littering Pledge in the 5th grade in Ponca City, Oklahoma; and apparently it's one of those lessons that actually "took," as I've never--that I can remember--intentionally littered in the 41 years since. Whoa.

But here's what I hope: I hope I continue to do this regularly. I hope people see me and ask what I'm doing and think, "Well, that's not so bad," and maybe pick up a little trash themselves, even if just in front of their own house. I hope that I tell about it here and maybe someone out there thinks, "Huh. I walk a lot. I can afford some rubber gloves and trash bags. Maybe. . . ."

It's not a lot. There are all kinds of other ways to be of service. I'd like to explore more of them, but I know myself well enough to know there are some things I probably will never do. Still. Here are some ideas:

--pick up trash
--offer to pick up groceries (dry-cleaning, library books, etc.) for a neighbor, someone who can't get out for whatever reason (health, little kids, no gas money)
--volunteer: library, hospital, SPCA, food bank, Goodwill
--give blood
--read for books for the blind--if you have a good reading voice, this might be for you
--are you bilingual? Offer to translate.
--are you a licensed massage therapist? offer free massages at nursing homes, hospitals, hospice, a battered women's shelter--somewhere where a kind, gentle, healing touch will work miracles
--like kids? volunteer at afterschool programs, pre-school programs. Community centers need coaches and referees (women, too!) for their neighborhood programs. Don't forget arts and crafts (I used to take paper I collected from the print shop to a couple of the community centers for their craft programs)
--think of things you could collect from one place and distribute to another: there was a big re-sale shop that got a lot--a LOT--of donations. They couldn't use all of them. I'd pick up a big load of good-but-not-groovy clothes and take them to one of the community centers where they kept a closet of clothes that people could have if they needed them.
--if you love to bake, double your recipe and take something to someone who'll appreciate it: the teachers' lounge at your closest school, a nursing home, women's shelter, Salvation Army, police department--the list of people who would love a treat is endless, indeed. Read this for inspiration. Pino was featured in Artful Blogging a while back. You don't have to do things for just the very neediest among us, although that is wonderful. You can choose to do things that will make life brighter for almost anyone, esp. if that person is working to make life better for others (firemen, garbage collectors: imagine how they'd love to have homemade cookies delivered).

If all of the above sounds trite to you, like something you've read a million times and gone, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," then think about what you might enjoy. Something that allows you to do something you like to do anyway (taking a walk) and feel useful (picking up trash) at the same time. Making aprons and giving them to ____. Making cards and giving little packets of them to _____ (people who might want to send a card to someone but not have a card to send).

Don't push it. Don't feel guilty if you're not inspired. I'm not going to check up and ask you what you've done. You don't have to do anything at all. Just put the idea in your head. If something comes to you that feels like "Aha!" then you'll know what it means. It's giving you a chance to Be of Service, and that will feel really, really good.


Amy in Austin said...

Thanks for the mental meal. I was a mentor for BBBS until my mentee decided that being a teen-ager meant she didn't hang out with adults. I haven't worked up the energy to get engaged in volunteerism again, but I have picked up the trash that seems to blow down the street on trash day - today - and maybe I'll convince myself to pull the bike out of the garage, go down to the hike and bike trail by the creek and pick up trash.

I also volunteered to bring groceries for Thanksgiving. My parents have been pretty hard hit by the rising prices and, although they would never think of not hosting Thanksgiving, the extra food, electricity, TP, and water really set them back. So, I'm bringing as many groceries as I can. I'm staying in a hotel this year (no room at the inn, and it saves my sanity) so I won't contribute to the water bill. And, while I'm there I'm going to figure out a way to hide some money in spots that my parents will think they just left it. They wouldn't take it if I offered it, but since I'll be there, contributing to the drain on the resources, I'll see if I can't put some of it back in their meager piggy bank.

Another thing I've been thinking about is going through my fabric stash and getting a big pile of it together to go to the local retirement home. I have more than I could possibly use and it's taking up space. Seems like it would be better if someone got some use out of it.

Ricë said...

wonderful ideas, amy. and so thoughtful of you to try to figure out how to help your parents without their knowing that's what you're doing.

purple said...

I remember doing that when I was younger. My dad would take my brothers and I down the street with a wagon. We'd throw recyclables in there plus had an old box for trash.

I feel now that I should start doing things like that every once in a while. I guess I do nice things for people, though they tend to be smaller gestures.

see you there! said...

Good topic. There are lots of opportunities to be of service. Our 11 yo GD volunteers at the local animal shelter. Usually they don't take volunteers that young but she has pets, is used to chores, and had an avid interest. She cleans cages among other things. She does this one Sat. a month and is learning at an early age that life isn't all "take" and no "give".


Cat Skoor said...

I've been holed up in my house feeling utterly dejected and useless. I was laid off a few weeks ago and can't fathom finding another job in my field.

In my dream life I'm an artist and was looking for something, something, anything to encourage me and give me just the teeniest push into doing what I love without the guilt and with the joy art should bring, and somehow during this search I found YOU!

This piece of lovely writing spoke right at me and I wanted to thank you for your generous spirit. I am SOOOO GLAD you shared. Instead of me wallowing in whatever this malaise is, wouldn't it be better to do something helpful? Shouldn't I look for ways to be loving? helpful? giving?

Maybe the art will flow from this lesson, thanks to you.

Suella said...


On a lowly level I take a wide range of materials and often-considered-useless objects to my college for the various art students to use. These include broken toys from my friend's nursery, display materials no longer wanted by my local museum service, as well as discarded and damaged books.

Never mind the fact that I am a "Thing Finder" inspired by Pippa Longstocking. With Found Objects as adornments and garment embellishment I enjoy the repurposing of unconsidered trifles.

My volunteering consists of a small amount of helping out at my local animal sanctuary doing TTouch and filling the feeding containers for birds I also am working on a local history project at my local museum which has a growing lveel of community and academic uses.

I love the suggestions re. being a secret donor to those in need, thus maintaining their dignity.