Balancing Self & Others

This month, we are living in South Carolina. It’s still kind of hard for me to get my head around it. Back in February of last year, I put on paper some of our life plans and dreams, which was exciting but also like standing at the bottom of a forty-foot rock wall with a bad case of vertigo and no harness: big, impossible, but pressing-against-the-tip-of-your-nose-close. In June, we spent every other night huddled around the laptop eating dinner from little bowls, looking at properties in the south that would bring us close to the beach; we wanted something that would be warm enough to walk outside in January, something near the ocean, which we could drive to from Philly with the dogs, and something near a real town or city so that we could still feel connected to civilization. One day Kevin excitedly emailed a listing on HomeAway, and the apartment was perfect. OK – maybe it was forty minutes from Charleston, instead of 15. And it was kind of in a retirement village. But it was still perfect.

And so I’m sitting here right now; here’s the view from the sofa.

sunbathers on the deck

sunbathers on the deck

photo (27)

sunset from the living room

While it’s kind of crazy to me to spend a whole month someplace away from home, it would be crazier if it didn’t follow our months of nomadic experimentation. Last fall found us rearranging our lives to try to accommodate the incubating dreams that are taking on more form and life each day. And while this rearranging makes more space for some things, it inevitably squeezes others; the man cave becomes a nursery, so to speak. One of those things which I worry is getting squeezed out are my volunteer commitments.

As I spend this month literally away from my real life, looking in on it, I’m constantly chewing on these questions – how can I balance civic engagement and my own needs? When am I spending too much time on one or the other? Am I turning into my neighbors, who say, “wow, it’s so great you do so much – I just don’t have the time; you’ll see when you have kids/time passes/you’re older”?

Funnily enough, I will be presenting at a conference at Temple next month on Civic Engagement & Leadership, and guess what the topic is? ” What’s Your Engagement Style? Planning Your Own Path as a Volunteer and Civic Leader.” Here’s an excerpt from the workshop description:

The workshop will look at volunteering “from a holistic manner‐how it impacts our professional work, social lives, sense of happiness, and identity – so that we can engage in volunteering that is sustainable, fulfilling, and will put us on a firm path to leadership.

As someone said to me recently, “we teach that which we most need to learn.” Well isn’t that some ish.

I’m incredibly excited to lead this workshop, but/and/because I am struggling with some of these very questions. Last night I was on a conference call with PhilaSoup, an organization I love and on whose whose board I sit; I tried my best to stay focused on the conversation, but it felt so far away – in part because every time I was asked, “can you make it to this event/meeting/happy hour/fundraiser?” I had to say no, because I won’t be in Philadelphia. And at the end of the call, I told my fellow committee members that I needed to step down from the Committee Chair position to which I had recently been elected. I am traveling a lot in the coming year – which is exciting and wonderful, and I want to tell you all about in an upcoming post! – but that means I will be missing every scheduled committee meeting until April.

On top of that, I worried that another month like December might happen, and four weeks would go by when I could barely reply to emails – which, as the chair of a communication committee, would be no so much goodski. I spent the month of December in bed. I had a flare of ulcerative colitis – a chronic condition I have had since the age of 12 – which made me sicker than I think I have been in nearly a decade. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or walk around without pain and illness. I felt like I was being erased.

I thought that, being in bed, I could at the very least catch up on emails like a champ; make plans and schedule things; write the great American novel – or at least some blog posts. But all I could do was lie there, blinking heavily, dry mouthed and hugging my knees, begging the universe to let me sleep, and finding all sorts of reasons to condemn myself for bringing this plague upon my own head. I hadn’t been taking my medicine. I had been doing too much. I knew that traveling two hours a day from my aunt’s house where we were staying into Philadelphia wasn’t good for me, but I agreed to it anyway.

Slowly over the past three weeks I have been coming out of the fog. And as I tentatively venture outside of the house for the first time in weeks – both figuratively and literally – I’ve been thinking to myself, “what can I learn from that horrible month? What is it telling me I need to change about my life, so that I’m not caught in a precarious undulation of flare/no flare/flare/no flare?” Again, the relationship between self-care and working-for-others comes up for me; I want it to be a “so that” relationship, not an “instead of” – but how that happens is still something I have yet to master.

So here I am; living the first draft of our fantasy; getting well; stepping away. I feel like an eighteenth century lady, convalescing by the sea. But you know what? It kind of works. I actually went for a run the other day, my brand new, hitherto unused sneakers getting soaked with salt water as I playfully jogged along the brim of the tide. All I was thinking about was the water; that my lungs felt cold but healthier than they do in the city; how I could see the moon and the sun plugged in to the blue sky at the same time; why the clouds were in stripes.

I am tantalized by nature; we’re like frenemies from summer camp who meet as adults and realize we’ve grown into people who could actually be close to each other. But will this new romance with dirt and sand and trees and clouds – which I feel is bringing me closer to myself – bring me away from the volunteer organizing, neighborhood events, and fundraisers with whom I also have a relationship?

I worry about over-focusing on myself and my health. Will I become one of those people who is constantly talking about what they eat and the toxins they’re purging and the foods around which they’re currently slaloming and the emotional state of their intestines?

But at the same time, isn’t learning about your limits and well-being what I’m suggesting others try to do in that conference, in order to make volunteering a sustainable part of their lives?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions – whether you’ve struggled with them yourself, or have opinions on either side of the fence!


2 thoughts on “Balancing Self & Others

  1. Glad you are feeling much better. Getting closer to nature can have healing qualities! But doing that and having a volunteer “life”or side are not mutually exclusive! You will find how to balance taking care of yourself (which is a de facto priority) and giving of yourself to others and the community you care for…

  2. This is basically my ongoing struggle. I launched myself from anger and apathy into hyper involvement. In the last two years, I have simultaneously felt more empowered and in purpose than any time in my life, but also more lonely and isolated than I have ever felt, paradoxically while developing deeper relationships than ever before based on shared values.

    Plus there’s this aspect: I’ve realized that the only difference between me and an award winning author or a Mayor or the President is 20-40 years of life experience. I have been waiting for the flip to switch when I’ve lined up all my ducks, I have it figured out, and then I’ll really be a real adult, instead of constantly feeling like there is some part of this that I’m faking. And as it turns out, I’ve been legally an adult for over a decade, and I don’t think the switch ever flips. I think that CEOs and Presidents struggle with the same things we are now. I think now we’re just learning to roll with the punches. And in a culture that values answers over questions, I think your Judaism will serve you well here. The struggle is probably far more valuable than whatever resolution you come to, if you ever do, and knowing that even then it will cede to new questions and new growth.

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