When I worked in the PR department of a large manufacturing company several years ago, I suggested to the higher-ups that we sponsor a woman’s motorcycle ride across the U.S. to raise money for St. Jude’s Hospital. After some reluctance, the brass agreed and we hosted the woman during her trip to San Diego. The purpose – according to the corporation I worked for – was to generate good publicity for our company, but I had a deeper mission: I wanted to meet the do-gooder.
I’ve always been fascinated by people who go over and above, who are selfless, who do for others and not themselves. Mainly because I’m not like that in the least. When I volunteer I think about how I need to be working or grocery shopping or otherwise enmeshing myself in my life. It’s insanely difficult for me to rise above and get out of my head and into someone else’s shoes. But the other people – those that give and are of service, simply to be of service, fascinate me, and so it was those years ago when I met Catherine and got to sit on her motorcycle.
Of course I didn’t belong there, on the seat where she rode for mile upon mile, all sixty-seven years of her, wearing her helmet emblazoned with the names of the children she biked for, and the photos of those who were now watching from another place, pain-free and out of the hospital bed, guiding her as we both hoped from the clouds and the sun.
But climb upon that saddle I did, and imagined what it might be like to stop my own life and give it over to someone else because there was something I could do, and should.
Of course I know now that she didn’t stop her life; that what she chose to do with it was more enriching and enlivening than most who stay entrenched in themselves.
And then I went back to my life.
I started seeing Rebecca in early 2001. On a whim, I signed up for ElderHelp and committed to a “friendly visit” once a week with a woman who was 87 and alone. Every Sunday, I’d sit in a rocking chair in a small room in a ground-floor apartment in her active living complex. Many days, we would let long silences come between us because Rebecca said it was good to just sit with someone; that we didn’t need to talk to know we were there. Those were powerful silences.
Other times, I took her to the dentist or we’d take walks or visit her friends in the complex – a lapsed nun, a man who could barely walk due to diabetes, a woman who made aprons for extra money. Rebecca showed me the co-op garden and read me Bible passages and told the stories she wanted someone to hear. She’d been married four times, traveled across the country, and worked for influential people as a nanny and assistant. She had stories.
It was this that eventually took me out of myself. Rebecca looked forward to seeing me, she considered me like a daughter and I thought of her as a mother, she encouraged my writing dreams and had me read to her what I’d written. She told me to stop being a baby and buck up – and in so many words.
When I came to visit her one day, her neighbor told me she’d been waiting for me, that she’d asked for me, as she was rushed to the hospital for a broken ankle. I mattered to Rebecca. I was the person she had, the person who’d be there, the one who waited in the hospital and visited in the convalescent hospital and laid my head on her chest when she died. There wasn’t anyone else.
I still keep her stories.
I think of this as I wonder why I’m not more of service to others. How I so effortlessly slipped back into myself after I lost Rebecca and forgot Catherine.
It’s so easy to forget and go back to your head.
But moments like this, I remember that I did matter to someone who needed me, that I made a difference, that I was a changemaker.
Even to one person.
I was asked to write this to bring attention to extraordinaries who help like Catherine did, who inspire me to do more and reach beyond the one person. People like:
- Mama Hill, who started a home learning center for youth living in South Central Los Angeles.
- Alabama Chanin, who helped to revive her small town by starting a home-sewn apparel line.
- Malik Yakini, who started an urban farm in Detroit when his community hit a downturn.
- Ruth Lande Shuman, an architect/designer who is putting her skills to use in reimagining New York City classrooms.
This is a TakePart initiative that encourages us to be changemakers (Lord, I need that encouragement).
There’s a Community Action Kit, too that helps focus your efforts if you’ve been wanting to be more of service in your community. The kit includes a volunteer matching deal where you can find opportunities to help that move you, and a list of issues Congress is addressing that you may want to promote (or not). Check it out here.
It’s so damn simple to stay in our heads and forget we’re needed. And then even for one second, you elevate out of yourself to see beyond what you thought was there all along, and it’s life altering. So let the silence talk if you must, but then hear the stories. And if you can, do something about them.
(This post is commissioned by Linqia, who asked that I share my changemaker story, as paltry as it may be)