Saturday, June 16, 2012

A Book Review, And Musings on the Journey Towards Work/Art Integration

A Book Review, And Musings on the Journey Towards Work/Art Integration

Last week, I downloaded an e-book from a volunteer management website I frequent. It turned out to be such a good book I read the whole thing in one sitting.

The Volunteer Shelf Life: A No-Fault Look at Volunteer Retention and the Reasons Volunteers Leave” by Meridian Swift is hands-down the best book I have ever read on the maddening, stressful, widely misunderstood, and deeply fulfilling profession of volunteer management. Rather than coming from a detached, management-theory standpoint, it speaks emotionally and with deep empathy about what it’s really like to oversee an unpaid workforce on a day-to-day basis. Since this profession can be very isolating, reading a well-written book by an author who truly “gets it” was cathartic. Swift lavishes the reader with true stories (some cringe-inducing, some heartening), about volunteers from all walks of life, their underlying drives and motivations, and how they directly impact the health of the organizations they serve. With cheeky chapter titles such as “You Did What?” and “Are You Leaving Already?”, Swift explores with depth, insight, and compassion the minefield of volunteer management in all of its messy, chaotic, occasionally transcendent glory. 

Some passages in the book brought me to tears and reminded me of why I persist in this definitively unglamorous profession. For example, after describing a situation where a volunteer reports to her beleaguered, overwhelmed manager about being excited and impassioned after a particularly successful visit with a patient, Swift continues:

“These moments are more precious than money, time, and routine. They define who we are and why we do what we do. There really is no other explanation for why we would endure the endless chaos and turmoil that make up our day-to-day jobs. We are not chaos junkies. We are not drama lovers. We are not prima donnas. We are driven by the deep sense that what we are doing is not only making a profound impact on our clients’ lives, but that we are adding a spiritual gift to the lives of our volunteers. We are sharing with them the secret we do not wish to keep to ourselves. Helping others is a noble, fulfilling way to live.”

I highly recommend this book for anyone who manages volunteers or anyone who manages those who manage volunteers. It paints a rich, honest and fully human picture of the world of volunteerism, and it has helped me re-connect to the joy and gifts in my work, not to mention the great relief of knowing that I’m not only one who is regularly flabbergasted by the range of human behaviors this profession will confront you with. 

Of course, me being me, I have more than one central passion, and in addition to volunteerism, creative writing is my deepest love. Because of this, I am constantly having what I think of as a battle between giving to my job and replenishing myself enough to find the mental and emotional energy to write (not to mention the time.) Lately, Mr. Typist and I have been have been deep in talks about money management and retirement planning and investing and all of that scary, heady stuff. After several weeks of reading “Investing For Dummies” and taking steps to park our modest resources in places where we might actually get a return, today the talk turned to dreams when I suggested that perhaps it was time to take down my workshop/creative writing website. At this point, it’s functionally a vanity site. Having a gig as a full time writer and creative workshop teacher is a dream, but not one that I can give full attention now, with a demanding job and that pesky need for health insurance. I’ve often thought that if I were a better, braver, more committed person, I would be willing to live on off-brand soda crackers and go into debt as I struggled to eke out a rent payment every month and take on freelance assignments for pennies a word, fully committed to living the life of a “real” artist.

But I also find that this job, which often makes me too worn out to write, is the same job that provides me with creative fodder for my art. My current resolution is to work towards integration, rather than setting my passions against each other; getting trapped in the black-and-white thinking that says one will always take from the other; that you cannot fully be a poet and fully be engaged in a career outside of writing. I am trying to shift from the “conflict model” into a model that gives breathing room for each one to feed, inform, and enrich the other. 

I am far from there, and I anticipate many failures in this venture, but I do believe that it's possible. In the months ahead, I’ll be sharing tales of this new mindset with you. I hope that if you too are struggling with this, you will chime in with your own stories in the comments section. I'd love to hear your thoughts and musings.

--Kristen McHenry


Jo-Ann said...

I couldnt agree with you more, Kristen. Although my story is different, there are some parallels. When I first took a part-time job to support me in my two passions: bodymind therapy and writing, I denied that part of my life: the hours and feelings that were tied to the "job". I hated it all and so kept it in the shadows. But in doing so, I locked up my creativity in both my passions. It wasnt until I embraced this survival job as part of my life (however temporary)that I could integrate all the feelings I had locked up into my writing. And yeah, its a process. I am continually wishing I had more time but integration not conflict is where I, too, want to go.

Kristen McHenry said...

Thanks, Joanne. That whole integration thing is not easy...I think it's more of culture failing than an individual one. Let's support each other in our quest.