For a few weeks now I’ve been volunteering at a homeless shelter, leading a play group for two hours so the parents can attend classes. I signed up for it last summer when the Planned Parenthood videos were breaking, not as a political statement but as an attempt to do something other than talking, writing, and debating. My Facebook feed was thick with posts that mostly demonized the other side, as well as calls for people to take a vocal position on the matter. I didn’t want to choose between the labels “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” If I had to be labeled, I wanted it to be, “person who works with kids at a homeless shelter.”
When I signed up last summer I had Wednesdays off, but by the time I did the training and received my placement I had started working Wednesday afternoons. So now I nanny Monday afternoon, then for ten hours on Tuesday, volunteer with kids Wednesday morning, pick up kids from school Wednesday afternoon, work another ten hour nanny day on Thursday, and then a six hour nanny day on Friday. It’s a lot of kid time, and I wonder if it might be too much. The wonderful woman who co-leads the play group with me called it “a Busman’s Holiday,” that wonderful old-fashioned expression that means that you do the same thing on vacation that you do for work. I love the kids — all of my kids — but I definitely find my blood pressure is a bit higher, the tension in my neck and shoulders a bit tighter both during and after my shift.
I struggle with it, because I’m good with kids, and it seems right to offer my best skills as a volunteer. But to be honest I’ve been wishing I could do some volunteering that involves lying in a dark room with my eyes closed and no one talking to me. Maybe medical testing? Donating a kidney?
Glennon Doyle Melton says that people often ask her how to find their life’s purpose, and she asks them, “What breaks your heart? That’s your purpose right there.” Whenever I ask myself what breaks my heart, the first thing I think of is old people. Except, I think they break my heart too much for me to be helpful to them. I think too deeply about how sad, lonely, and confused they must be, their bodies giving out on them, maybe their minds as well, not being able to go out and do things like they used to, being stuck at home or in a home. I feel it too much, and it doesn’t energize me, it makes me sad and depressed.
But I have figured out one way to channel that particular heartbreak into good. When I’m driving in Boston, and people cut me off, swerve, make weird lane changes without signaling, or generally act as if they don’t understand how driving works — or how 2000 lb vehicles crashing into each would work — I try to imagine the drivers as little old ladies or men, nervous and confused, maybe having trouble seeing over the dashboards. And I tell myself that my job is to help the little old ladies across the street, providing as safe and encouraging an environment for them as I can. If someone cuts in front of me, I step on the brakes carefully and avoid the instinct to honk. Poor Gertrude, I think, she is just trying to get to the store to get half and half for her coffee. If we can see each other I give a smile and an encouraging wave. Here, dear — let me take your arm and help you across.
For now I’m going to keep going to the Wednesday morning play group for as long as I can. I’ve seen the dangers of pushing myself too hard, so I want to be aware of my energy level and my limits. But I’ve quit so many things in my life, and it would feel so good to see this through. So I drag myself out of bed Wednesday mornings, have my coffee with low fat milk and hop in the car for the half hour drive to the other side of the city. I can’t really do it, but I’m doing it anyway, for one more week at least. And while I’m driving to my Busman’s Holiday I step on the brakes whenever someone cuts me off, smiling and waving when I can (the coffee helps with this) and helping dear old Mathilda to get safely to her bridge game.
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