A matter of forms

21 Feb
Question Mark 2-21-14

Graphic by Lucie Lang.

Last month I began a one-semester research sabbatical from Assumption College. Eager to make the most of this luxury, I’m planning a community service road trip, north to south, coast to coast. All told, three months or more of  roving the hills and dales of this diverse nation, meeting people, recording their stories, and sometimes earning my lodging with random acts of volunteerism.

All of which is considerably less arduous than what I’m doing right now – filling out the forms.

Specifically, volunteer forms. Not surprisingly, non-profits that offer lodging in exchange for volunteer hours (and usually a modest rent) want to know if I can actually do anything.

I’m a 56-year-old tenured professor with three degrees and a directorship, so it seems quite likely that there are indeed things I know how to do. Let’s see. Being an English professor, I’m really good at irony – which is important, since a cynic is just what you need when rallying volunteers to a cause. I also can drop in a lot of five-dollar words. Finally, I can use these words in lectures to students, a process which drains their parents’ financial capital, but gives the students cultural capital – including the ability to use the phrase “cultural capital.”

Surprisingly, none of these things showed up on the two volunteer forms I filled out last weekend.

Sure, the one for Mo Ranch – a retreat center in the Texas hill country where, 33 yeas ago, I trained as a domestic missionary– did ask about degrees, certificates, and organizations. But then, even before I was asked to explain my skill set, I had to face the challenge of “Health and Medical Information.”

The scale ranged from “poor” to “excellent.” Even imagining a scale in which “poor” meant “deathbed” and “excellent” translated to “hey, he still gets around pretty well,” I honestly settled for “good.”

When it asked about disabilities that might challenge my work, I started to check “yes” because of my bad right shoulder. Then I remembered how my surgeon said that, given the state of things, my shoulder was “freakishly strong” – so I marked over the original check, a move sure to inspire confidence by the person evaluating my fitness for that boulder-lifting detail. But I resisted heightening their expectations by writing “freakishly strong” – which would’ve led me to toting much heavier burdens, seeing as how they would decide I was an ass.

Then came the actual “Skills, Interests, and Hobbies.” Real trouble. First off, there’s a hidden tension between the first two terms: What I’m interested in doing involves a departure what I usually do, a.k.a. things in which I have skills. Consider “Maintenance,” which is more fun that it sounds: Under a full dozen routine life skills many people possess to some degree, such as car repair, the best I could do was check “Carpentry” – but add “with guidance.”

As anyone who’s visited my apartment would agree, even “Housekeeping” offers its challenges – sure, I can clean windows, but there are always these drips I can’t quite smooth out. Scanning the other categories, pretty soon I was down to doing some “trail clearing” – if I were having a good back day – and the fact I know how to use Microsoft Word. (But not Excel.)

Mostly, I’d be good for “Greeting Guests” – hey, I’m real friendly.

As for “hobbies,” it turns out I don’t have any. I mean, I don’t think one can count TV or reading, on-line Scrabble or hanging at coffee shops. I do yoga in what my yogi landlord fondly calls my “own Mike way” – and as the “Mike Way” isn’t likely to assume a place alongside the exalted disciplines of Kripalu and Kundalini, I don’t think that’s, well, form-worthy.

Things got even worse when another agency gave me the chance to use my official  creative license earned in grad school fiction workshops. Such was the case for poor United Saints of New Orleans, whose open territory on the form allowed me to say I could “facilitate nightly discussions” and even provide “writing prompts.”

How could someone so old know how to do so little? I’ve volunteered a good bit over the years – how did I get by?

I finally decided to put myself in the shoes of someone listening to me (you, apparently) and imagine that person reassuring me (as I’m sure you would, given that you’ve gotten this far into the post) that surely I must be able to contribute something to the greater good.

Given that premise, outrageous as it might seem at the moment, why are all these forms provoking so many blank stares (as well as blanks)?

Slowly, I began to see the reasons for all my self-deprecation. For one thing, there’s the way that using a smattering of skills to actually serve others can, if you take the task too seriously, imply a level of expertise that intimidates you right out of perfectly valid volunteer endeavors. What’s forgotten is that part of so many acts of kindness is simply the choice to be there with other human beings, fumbling through the experience together, doing the best you can. (Shoot, maybe there will even be a moment of mutual frustration when the thing needed to diffuse tension actually is a prof with a healthy sense of irony.)

Secondly, there’s the familiar tension between what I’d love to learn to do – one reason people like volunteerism – and what I already do way too often. The part of me that wants to truly serve the cause, and not my own pleasure, went ahead on both forms and admitted that I knew a thing or two about writing and editing.

Third was yet another limitation – one peculiar to the nature of my road-trip volunteer project. Perhaps what I’m best at is building relationships, bringing people together, selling them on a vision. These things lose their relevance when you’re being a serve-‘em-and-leave-‘em volunteer nomad driving cross-country. People on service trips do make meaingful if fleeting connections with locals, of course, but having connected, I cannot then recruit people to attend next month’s meeting.

What I realized, ultimately, is that most of these obstacles are true for most volunteers. But if we simply choose to show up, and just wait patiently and alertly, supervisors  find a way for us to help. Certainly, the odds of us making a contribution are way better than if we don’t show up at all. Plus, showing up does matter, in and of itself. If, as the Rev. Sam Wells once stated at a conference I attended, the central problem of human existence is our isolation from one another, then being there with people as they face a challenge is important, even if you don’t have the means to solve all the problems for them.

When it comes to making a different, I just have to trust – trust the leaders, trust my experience, and trust whatever greater forces may be at work.

So when it comes to these forms, it seems the thing I need most is the thing the forms often don’t ask about.


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