What is one to do when one finishes school, having gotten a degree that no one can find in their hearts to tell you is worthwhile, and feels like a pretty shoddy world citizen? Go volunteer, of course! This is not the only answer that is possible to give: one could imagine that working would be the right answer, or traveling But few things are much better than volunteering, as you get to do both, at the same time!
Two summers ago, I spent the season in Vancouver, for the multiple reasons of trying to keep a new relationship alive, and trying to keep my place with my delightful roommates, and also just trying to be a real adult for once, and spend a summer working and living without parents. Half of that fell through: I couldn’t find a job. Work is scarce in the world anyway, and I am a fool and wanted to work at Whole Foods, or at a used bookstore. I also had essentially no work experience – I’d been a dishwasher for four months before that, and I was just beginning to think about starting a job as a lab technician in the Linguistics department, working with an old TA and one of my professors, but that job wouldn’t be starting in earnest until the fall. Come the end of May (the first month of summer at UBC), I had no job, no prospects, and was terribly bored. In response, I signed up for a couple classes, but one was distance and the other was Phonology, so I just spent my summer feeling a little pathetic on top of the very real depression that was brought on by the fact that all my roommates and Ian (i.e. all the friends I had in Vancouver) were working, and I was alone. All day. Every day. Almost all the time. Stupidly, I did not think to go volunteering in Vancouver, didn’t think to try starting a garden, didn’t think to try applying for work at any other kind of company…essentially, I was an idiot about it all. As a result of the whole experience (which has kind of scarred me for life, I was so depressed), I awoke one October morning at 2 o’ clock, in the middle of an enormous panic attack that I might have to stay in Vancouver again the following summer. Dear gods. Talk about high-strung. While I was busy freaking out, some part of my brain (a bigger, stronger, smarter part of my brain) said, “Kate, get a grip on yourself. Think. What can you do besides stay here? You could go to Colorado, spend the summer with your dad.” “And do what?” I sobbed, “Sit on my ass just like here? I’d rather die!” “How about Boston? Stay with your mum?” “Same diff.” “Well…” The strong part of my brain thought a minute. “Why don’t you go WWOOFing? You know, go work on an organic farm. That could be really neat.” I dried my eyes, and looked at that put-together part of my brain. “Yeah. Yeah! That…yes.” I grabbed my computer, and started looking up volunteering with WWOOF. And thus!
The following summer (last summer to you) I spent in Ireland with my dear friend Willow. We arrived in the middle of June, and left in the middle of August, and over the course of the two months, we dug ditches, cooked gourmet meals (at least, Willow did. My gods, her potatoes! Heavenly), wrassled ducks, goats, geese, horses…cats…dogs…everything, really, trimmed hedges, milked a goat (Willow did it better than I did), tended gardens, and about a hundred other things that I don’t have time to talk about. My favorite thing I did was planting 17 holly bushes in an old stone wall. We also had the privilege of partaking in perhaps the most Irish thing one can do: harvesting blighted potatoes, and eating them for supper. (They were delicious. The thing to remember about blight is that it starts in the leaves, and so it’s possible to harvest perfectly edible potatoes if you do it before the blight passes all the way through the leaves, the stems, the roots, and finally to the potatoes themselves.) All these activities were accentuated by wonderful company and (for me) playing my harp at sessions. I even got to fulfill a dream I’d had since I was 14: of hiking across the Irish hills with a harp on my back.
So, are you convinced to sign up yet?
I was so enamored with the whole thing that I thought I’d die when I returned to cities (even though the city was Boston!) and I learned to appreciate one thing about Vancouver at least: that it has an enormous amount of parks everywhere. You can’t turn around without bumping into a tree. Though I wanted nothing more than to go back to Ireland, I thought I should branch out a little, and go to France or something. So here I am, in France. This time, I chose to volunteer through Workaway, because it’s worldwide, and so you only need to subscribe to one site instead of many, and it costs far less this way if one wants to travel. (But WWOOF has the virtue of generally being in the native language of a country and English, so you stand a better chance of staying with locals, rather than expatriate British people. That said, with both organizations, I’ve only stayed with expats, and only one of those sets of hosts wasn’t at least partially British. What to do.) The best thing about this kind of volunteering is that not only do you get food and lodging in exchange for work, you also get experience. Lots of it. When I returned from Ireland, I updated my resume, and all my useable skills were ones I’d picked up in Ireland. Not only that, but the life lessons one learns are endless. (Granted, the point of this blog is to hopefully impress on your lovely minds the fact that you can learn life lessons anywhere you are, so long as you pay attention!) And you will (not can, not might, but WILL) make very tight friendships with people from all over the place – which is excellent, because then you can go visit them! When you’re just traveling, you don’t make the connections that you do when you volunteer. Travel can be a one-time thing: you go to Paris and see the Louvre, and that’s that. Volunteering, however, is a beginning. Because you make so many connections, you can’t help but go back.
Ultimately, though, the reason I volunteer is that I hate to be useless, and I love to be active. School was a long haul for me, even though I enjoyed a lot of the classes and am rather academically-oriented, because there’s always that existential dread that you’re doing something utterly and undeniably useless. In this day and age, being useless feels nothing short of sinful, and not like chocolate. We’re talking sinful like incestuous adultery. Man, it’s bad. When you volunteer, particularly with WWOOF, you can feel confident that your efforts will go towards making the world a greener, cleaner, and more lovely place. It is supremely satisfying. Plus, you get to go outside and use your muscles in a productive way. My ass has never looked better! (However, my arms are a little imbalanced – my left arm looks about the same as it did two months ago. My right arm, however, could punch the lights out of a rhinoceros (not that I’d want to). I’ve gone from being a willowy slip of a thing to being a buff, buttsy lady. The only downside is the boob shrinkage. You work hard, and all of a sudden your breasts are half the size you remember them being. Annoying, but it’s satisfying to know that every bit of my food (and you eat a lot when you do this kind of thing) goes to my muscles, and then some.
So: when you find that your life is meaningless, and you decide that it’s time for a change, go volunteer. Have an adventure! My final advice on the topic is to remember that you don’t need to pack nearly as many things as you think you do. Lay out everything you think you’ll need, and then put away two-thirds of it. Take good socks, comfortable waterproof boots, and your favorite underwear. Take clothing you don’t mind getting dirty and that is durable enough to survive, but also that you like well enough to stand using for the months that you’re gone. And remember that you really don’t need much. Because there’s little worse, when traveling, than resenting your luggage.