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Monday, February 15, 2016

A Serious Post About Stuff

OK, listen. I volunteer at the local women’s shelter. I’ve debated about talking about this. On the one hand, it’s become a significant part of my life. On the other, it’s something I’ve made an effort not to talk about very much. The most important reason is because there’s confidentiality involved, and the stories I would have to tell are not my own. The second most important reason is that I know I have a tendency to present a distorted version of myself sometimes, one with flaws carefully swept under the bed and the trophies of my accomplishments prominently displayed. I’ve never wanted volunteering to be something I use to win an argument about how neat I am (I use my bowling high score to do that.)

So let me get this part out of the way right quick: though I’ve been volunteering since March for two hours a week (I know, where’s my medal), it hasn’t made me a very personable person yet. I am painfully aware that many interactions with me are probably awkward, because I am an awkward person. I’m getting better at just finding someone who needs help and helping, but you guys I’ve got a long way to go.

When I first started the training to volunteer, a guy who’d been volunteering for a year or so talked to us about what to expect. He talked about how in order to be a good volunteer you needed to get out of your comfort zone and talk to everyone. The shelter manager told us that when he showed up for his shift, kids would come running and mob his car, they were so excited. He said to knock on doors and ask how people are doing. I sat in the back in training and thought, nope. I’ve never been that guy and as much as I would like to be, I probably won’t.

What I’ve learned so far is that I don’t need to be that guy. I can be this guy. The one who quietly sorts books in the corner for two hours because I love to sort books. I will walk around the parking lot with a dustpan and clean up garbage. I’ll try to fix the doorstop and accidentally break it worse. I’ll pull weeds, or defrost the freezer, or rake leaves. I don’t sit across the table from a woman who has been displaced from every aspect of her life that has brought her comfort and stability and look her in the eyes and say “how are you doing?” That’s a person I’ve always been grateful for when I’ve needed them and one who I haven’t become because I’m paralyzed that they don’t want to talk to me.

I do better with kids. During my shift there is usually a meeting when the week is planned, and often I distract little kids from bothering their moms while it takes place. We play games, I read to them, I break up fights (a lot), I pretend I’m a monster, I pretend to fall down, I pretend to sleep when they play lullabies on the toy piano and dance when they play dance music, that kind of thing. The older they are, the tougher they are to engage with. I haven’t figured that one out yet. I have not yet taken on the role of cool youth pastor who turns his chair around to sit on backwards and gets down on the teen’s level. The best I’ve done so far is recognizing what band is on their shirt and getting a curt nod in response.

So believe me when I say I don’t bring this up to make myself look great. When it comes to volunteering, people kind of have to take what they can get. In this case what they get is someone who likes to sort canned food with his headphones on and who is getting better, though not quite there yet, at making consistent eye contact.

There are great moments and there are harrowing moments. I’ve had days where I’ve been shaking and kinda crying on the way home and others where I feel like I can’t be having more fun. Some shifts I feel like I did nothing and others I quietly tell myself that I just literally saved the world. It can be boring. I’ve had times when I feel like people are working around me and I’m just a big tall thing that gets in their way, or days where it seems like nobody is there and there’s only so many times I can alphabetize the VHS tapes. Sometimes I’m asked to lift something heavy just because I’m a guy and I think to myself please be strong enough to lift this.

Speaking of strength, can you imagine? Unless you’ve been through domestic abuse, I don’t think you can. I’ve been exposed to it on a 2-hour basis each week for months and I can’t even begin to understand. We’re surrounded every day by people who are in constant terror, and we don’t even know about it. According to the CDC, one in three women in Utah will experience domestic violence. That’s in comparison to the one in four nationwide average. If you think it’s not happening where you live, you’re wrong

Statistically you know someone who is being physically abused, emotionally abused, or both. Her husband may monitor all of her cell phone activity. Or write down the car’s mileage every time she comes home from work or shopping to make sure she only went where he allows her to. He might play her children against her, telling her that she’s worthless in front of them. Maybe he threatens to kill himself when she says she’s leaving. Or tells lies about her to her family so she has nowhere to go. It’s possible that someone you know has had the barrel of a gun pressed against her head in her own bedroom by the person she thought was going to spend his life making her happy. And then she’s had to make dinner for her family and smile and pretend it never happened. When her visiting teachers stopped by and ask how she’s doing, she’s said “great.”

Chances are I will never have to be as brave as the women who get out of these situations. Thank heavens. But I guess there’s a point where we can either unplug ourselves from the bad news that’s out there around us or we can do something about it. Even if it’s tiny.

Look, I was going to try to shoehorn this post into a book review about Jane Eyre, which is a book filled with unhealthy relationships, but that seems kind of crass today. 

Instead I’ll just say this: If you want to help, let me know. The shelter always needs staples: diapers, formula, toilet paper, paper towels, new dishes, canned foods, that kind of stuff. They're always looking for twin-sized bed sheets and quilts. They love gift cards and can always use them.  They always take clothes, but they don’t stockpile them, so whatever doesn’t fit someone who is currently there ends up going to thrift stores. New toys are great, too. If you want to help, let me know and we’ll work something out.

If you need help, Kristin and I are always willing to talk. Probably even better would be to contact the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

We get really generous around Christmastime, and that’s on top of all the crap we’re buying our families. You’re probably already spread thin. I just want to put it out there as an anytime thing. I’m there every week.