The Real Reward

I help teach English to adult immigrants. Recently, the teacher I work with asked what kind of gift card I’d prefer as a thank you gift for volunteering. I didn’t want to make a fuss—I know the gift card is well-intentioned—so I chose one. But the truthful answer was that I didn’t want a reward.

What’s weird is that if I were a volunteer coordinator, I would think it was very important to acknowledge and thank volunteers. Finding a suitable way to please a disparate group would be hard. I would probably land on gift cards, too. I’m not criticizing the gift options or the school’s impulse to thank me.

I think my discomfort has more to do with how I was raised. My parents set an example with their many volunteer activities—they did far more than I ever do. Their outlook was that you’re supposed to pitch in and help. It’s just what you do.

Another value that my parents conveyed was that it’s even better if you donate your time or money without any public acknowledgement. For years, they were secret angel donors for the parish grade school and the church choir. If kids didn’t have money for supplies or a field trip, or if the choir needed more funds for a tour, the principal and the choir director knew my parents would cover it. Hardly anybody knew my parents did this. My father mentioned it to me once, and the scope of their contributions only came to light when they died.

What I had trouble putting into words when asked about the gift card is that volunteering is as much about my needs as it is about theirs. The world at large can be dismissive of people who are 60 and beyond—assuming that we’re clueless, set in our ways, etc., etc. Volunteering is a way of reminding myself that I’m knowledgeable and have something valuable to contribute. I feel seen, useful, and appreciated. That’s what makes volunteering worthwhile.

I don’t think I deserve a medal (or a gift card) for putting in a few spare hours a week. Corny as it sounds, acknowledgement comes every week in the form of students who make a point to thank me at the end of class. Also gratifying are the students who return after completing the class to share their excitement about landing a better job—one requiring good English skills. Plus, the teacher often asks my opinion about her proposed lesson plans and always thanks me for coming. That’s good. That’s plenty.

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A Home for Everybody

In Door County, Wisconsin privilege, middle income and poverty share zip codes. Average annual income across the area is artificially inflated by a significant population of retired individuals, many with healthy pensions. Average annual median income is under $40,000 reflective of an economy dependent on tourism and agriculture. Thirty to forty percent of school kids  are eligible for free breakfast even with many parents reluctant to apply.Poverty may not be obvious like in disadvantaged city neighborhoods, but signs in gas stations offering free gift cards to those who can’t afford travel for doctor appointments tells the story.

I grew up in Door County’s neighboring county in a skinny old house on Main Street in one of those farming communities. My father had a good job, my mother worked seasonally. Our grade school didn’t charge for hot lunch. That tells the same story.

Affordable housing is a pressing issue. On an average annual median income of $40,000 minus expenses like healthcare or a car payment, ideal rent is $600. Traditional calculations for how much house a $40,000 income covers suggests less than $100,000. Good luck finding either of those. Homelessness is not visible, but people do live in buildings never meant to be housing, in trailers without water or power, in crowded apartments with too many roommates, or rotate through campgrounds from May through October.

At an informational meeting one township presented purchasing a land tract for about $2 million with intention to develop part into affordable housing. In the packed room emotion and fact clashed. A housing builder wanted first dibs on the space promising $340,000 “affordable” units. Neighbors shared what they were promised about the vacant land when they purchased their homes. More than one person asked why affordable housing was taxpayers’ responsibility.

A social worker and a skilled craftsperson spoke of their inability to find places to live or house their families. One thirty-something white collar professional said he has lived in thirteen places in about ten years, most of them crap holes. His employer often loses employees after they spend months looking for any kind of apartment. He reminded everyone that affordable housing does not only mean home ownership, but also decent apartments. There are jobs to be filled here, but not places to live. Business owners are nervous about being able to keep their doors open.

Privilege, middle-class, and poverty share this zip code. No telling who in the blue jeans and t-shirt crowd shared a two bedroom former cottage with five or more people, commuted one hundred fifty miles daily, or lived alone in 3,000 square feet. Dictionary.com defines community as a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage. If this township, rooted in European ancestry, cannot accept responsibility for the need to house its members, what is its future?

For someone whose primary home is in a city with homeless individuals living in tent villages, sleeping on mass transit, or huddled in too few shelters, this feels like a no brainer. Taxes support communities, communities are made of members residing in a specific locality, localities require teachers, shop owners, EMTs, shop workers, builders, children to have a future. And all those people need healthy places to live. This is why we live in community.

Blog May 2019

 

 

 

The Nature of Mother’s Day Gifts

Gifts I wrapped never looked this good–LOL!

This time of year, I recall standing in Herberger’s, a store that no longer exists, searching the clothes racks for something that would delight Mom. If I were on a roll, I’d buy several outfits and relieve my sister and one of my brothers of their anxious search (my other brother usually had his own plan). Not that Mom was so hard to delight, but more that we were striving so hard to convey a love that was too big to be contained by a gift.

My system was to try on the clothes in my size (several sizes larger than what Mom wore.) We had the same build, and if the clothes fit me, I’d buy them in her size and mail them (life before Amazon was a reflex). If they didn’t suit her, she could return them to Elder Beerman, the Ohio branch of Herberger’s.

I was curiously detached about the possibility of the clothes being returned. I’d tried my best and I knew that even if my gift didn’t work out, Mom saw the effort and recognized the love. She’d done the same anxious ritual for her mother and mother-in-law for years, too.

Mom has been gone nearly five years, a fact I still can hardly believe sometimes. When my sons ask me what gift I’d like, I often have no suggestions (none of us thinks purchasing clothes is realistic!) I suggest outings and time spent together, and that suits us. The real gift is that they care enough to ask, that they want to show their love.

Message received.

 

Procrastination—I haven’t lost my touch!

I used to be a pretty good procrastinator. Not a champion, but definitely a contender. My peak performance was from my undergraduate years into my early thirties.

Paper due Monday morning? I’d get jacked up on coffee and start work by 9 p.m., telling myself, “I work better under pressure.” More accurately, it was the only time I worked. But I’d better have a draft by 2 a.m., because after that my brain would fizz out and all the coffee in the world couldn’t bring back coherent thought. Unfortunately, that system worked well enough to regularly give me B+s, which only reinforced my procrastinating ways.

By the time I was in my 30’s, I was married, had two sons, and was working full-time. Way too many chores and too little time! If I didn’t attack a distasteful task like putting away holiday decorations, they would stay untouched for weeks, a constant depressing reminder. I learned to slog through scutwork more promptly because the alternative was worse.

Fear of failing my clients and losing business kept me from procrastinating too much when I had my communications business. I’d learned that I had to build in time to write a draft, let the piece cool off for days (or at least hours), and then revise it before sending it to the client. When I had a particularly tedious project, say catalog merchandise copy or highly technical training materials, I might suddenly feel an acute need to do something I never do like alphabetizing spices or organizing my sock drawer. At very least, I’d clean the kitchen and switch loads of laundry (something! anything!) to postpone the icky project.

When our sons were little, unwelcome tasks were constant: their toys were scattered everywhere, and they drizzled on their clothes so there was more laundry. Seeing two days’ worth of crusty sippy cups and soggy cereal bowls piling up made me want to run away from home. I realized that sometimes it’s better to tackle the work right away and get it over with. After all, I’m never going to wantto do dishes. They only get more gross the longer they sit.

These days, I’m more inclined to get chores out of the way. Sort of. For at least four weeks the special tile cleaner I bought sat in the bathroom while I put off using it. Today, there’s a tricky part of an essay I meant to revise. Instead, I cleaned out my file entitled, “Blog Ideas,” and decided to write this!

London Showers, April Flowers

Winter has been difficult in the Midwest. The snow missing at Christmas came around New Year’s Day and frequently thereafter. Cold, damp weather set the stage for too many sweeping bad storms. Record-setting snowfalls kept kids out of school, wrecked weekend plans and created terrible trials for those without financial, physical, or emotional resources.

Two weeks ago, after a stretch of melting temperatures uncovered winter mold and dirt, I flew to London. Red-eyed and tired from losing a night’s sleep my traveling companions and I perked up during the drive from Heathrow. The weather was cool and misty but tulips, daffodils, forsythia, crabapple trees, and other flowering plants showed off their colors. Spring. Not the semi-tropical greenery of Florida, but the blooms we treasure at home.

The weather was typical of London at this time of year. Most photos have that look of normally proportioned people wearing too many clothes. I left heavy sweaters and gloves at home so I wore layers of everything else in my suitcase. If the flowers weren’t enough to forgive the lousy wind and rain, the sight of baby lambs running and jumping in fields along the roadways had us smiling. Nothing like a pasture of all those fluffy ewes and their lambs to charm city dwellers.

Twenty-two hours after unpacking extremely wet snow began falling in our hometown. Whatever progress spring had made in claiming its place disappeared under ten inches of the stuff before wind gusts and icy rain mucked up the place. To add insult, the storm was so strong that it carried dust from Texas creating yellowish-tan ‘snirt’. The media loved telling the story. Untangling the dog’s leash from a bare branch tree I slipped in the stuff ending a personal record-breaking season of walking about outside without a fall.

That awful mess is mostly gone. We won’t have flowers in our yards this weekend for Easter egg hunts, but at least we won’t need to wear parkas and boots. The blessing of daffodils and tulips is still to come. If not I’m heading back to London.

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