Saturday, September 8, 2012

“Volunteering”



Life as an Air Force brat meant making new friends every few years. It demanded adjusting to new homes and schools. It required living with separation from my father during long TYDs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his tour in Vietnam. For many children, such a life becomes a hardship, but not for me.
            My parents worked hard to provide unconditional love and stability within the framework of continual change. I knew that the world wasn’t always a nice, or safe, place; yet I internalized the belief that people are basically good. Service to our country and to the community became an important cornerstone of my upbringing. My parents volunteered in our schools. My mother helped to establish the Helping Hand program in our neighborhood. My father coached football for the YMCA. Both of my parents volunteered for PTA functions and held offices within the organization. I learned from my parents  to measure success in life by the strength of loving relationships and not the amount of my monthly paycheck.
         At the age of fifteen, I began volunteering at Northeast Baptist Hospital in San Antonio, Texas. I spent so many hours at the hospital as a candy-striper that I won an award at the end of my first year for putting in more than one-hundred hours. I loved every rotation at the hospital. In the office, I answered phones and filed forms. One of my duties included going to each patient to discuss meal options for the day. I loved chatting with so many different people. I learned that even a person in pain and discomfort would put a smile on her face when I entered the room. Some days, my assignment found me in the gift shop. I learned how to run a cash register, do inventory, and help pick out the perfect card or gift. Eventually, my duties extended to the pharmacy. This much coveted rotation meant I’d earned the trust of the director of volunteer services. The summer I spent in service taught me valuable lessons about illness and caring. I learned what it meant to become a member of a team, and how important a simple hug can be when a family suffers loss.
         When I went to college at Texas A&M, I didn’t set aside my need to service others. It didn’t take me long to realize that many other college students wanted to volunteer within the Bryan/College Station area. With another friend, we established Student Volunteer Services. Given a small cubical in the MSC, we slowly carved out a reputation with various organizations and with Aggies. SVS became the liaison between the students and organizations. We helped place students into the Big Brother/Big Sister program. We lined up volunteers for different activities sponsored by organizations. We aided students in volunteering in local classrooms, at the library, and at the hospital. My experiences at A&M reinforced my belief that most people are kind and generous.
         “I’m a teacher,” one friend used to state matter-of-factly, “I already donate my time and money!”  And I’d have to agree. Teaching requires a commitment of time, energy, and financial resources. On my meager salary, I purchased additional supplies for my classroom. My extra time found me writing, typing, printing, and mailing out the PTO newsletter. I sponsored Student Council and the National Junior Honor Society. I coached UIL spellers. I went to work early every morning and stayed late every day. My experiences as an educator didn’t differ from almost all of the other teachers at my schools.  I may have received a paycheck every month for my “profession” but nothing repaid the vocation demanded within education.
         As a parent, I found myself a Cub Scout leader and Odyssey of the Mind coach during the school year. The demands of work and parenting meant volunteering for other organizations slipped into my summer breaks. Several summers I found myself at Lutheran Social Services, helping with office work initially. Eventually, I sat in on counseling with pregnant mothers as they struggled with decisions on adoption. Again, I found myself serving people during an extremely stressful time of life, and I rediscovered the basic goodness that resides within most people’s hearts.
         My life experiences help me hold onto the conviction that more people strive to do good than evil. Between volunteer work and my profession, I rarely heard a parent say, “I want to spend the rest of my life on welfare.” None of my students longed to stay in minimum wage jobs. No one planned to stay mired in drug or alcohol addiction. I worked with many people who admitted they’d made mistakes in life’s choices. They expressed regrets; often wished that they had the know-how or tools necessary to change. Some people try to tell me that I don’t know what people are “really like,” but I think their hardness prevents them from enjoying the best of life. I believe in the goodness of the human soul.       

Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Friday, September 7, 2012

"No Debate"

          I struggled to lug my books, my outfit for the day, and a poster for a history project. My car, parked in a space by the science building, stood lonely in the lot. Most of the other members of the dance team entered the school in the predawn hours from another part of the school, but I always used this isolated slot since it made leaving at the end of the day faster because my final class of the day was biology.
         I didn’t see or hear him.
         In seconds, he covered my mouth and began to pull me down while his hands pulled at my pants. My books and clothes flew into the air. Instinct kicked in, and my elbow connected with his stomach; my fist swung down into his groin. I heard him grunt as he shoved me away. My knees hit the cement, the impact causing me to gasp as pain shot through me. His footsteps pounded as he raced away. I kneeled in place, my hands against the cool concrete, tears splattering the gray surface. Cautiously, I eased back and scooted crablike against the wall. I closed my eyes, not wanting to see anything, waiting for my pulse to return to normal.
         Somehow, I collected my belongings, organizing them fanatically into a neat pile. I pulled out tissue from my purse and dried my tears. Once I could breathe again, I made my way into a nearby bathroom where I washed my face and smarting hands.
         I told no one of the attack. In my confusion, I felt that I’d get blamed because I elected to park in an isolated place, different from the other girls.
         I wasn’t raped, but I felt shame.
         I wasn’t physically hurt beyond bruised knees, but I felt damaged.
         In a matter of moments, I knew what it meant to be a victim of violence.

         And so my tolerance these days with men spewing mindlessly about women, rape, and choice brings to surface an experience I’ve neatly tucked deeply away. For four years, I kept my experience private. I confided in no one, not even my parents. I carried with me the haunting possibility of what could have happened that early morning. A different reaction on my part, a little more determination on my attacker’s part, and everything would have changed.
         My personal experience left me knowing that choices must always exist for women. Period. No discussion. No debate.  


High school me!

Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"The Best Laid Plans"

          I plan. As long as I can remember, I’ve set specific goals that I aim to attain. In my youth, I designed a year plan, a five year plan, and a nebulous “someday” list of possibilities. For years, I’d jot these objectives on the last page of my journals, sometimes including deadline dates. Many of these targets focused on simple things like to pay off a credit card in six months, plant bushes for Mother’s Day, buy a new chair for the living room, or replace the fence. I love that one since it’s been on my lists for the last five years!
           Then the years came where the lists shifted more to living goals: Harmony-not perfection, Count the good days, Listen carefully, Let it go. I imagine this shift came because I never crossed some items off the lists, never reached the goals. Or maybe I came to realize that some of those items never go away. There’s always something to buy or repair around a home. I like to think that my aspirations shifted into making myself a better person.
           During the last couple of years, the lists stopped altogether. I don’t want to remind myself that my washer and dryer approach year twenty-five and should be replaced. Also, I don’t want to shift into the future too far. Many days, I slip into survival mode where making it through the next twenty-four hours with grace and understanding seems enough of a focus for me. Those of you with elderly parents needing care understand this protective move. Planning ahead brings the possibility of too much loss and heartbreak. Instead, I’ve set aside my lists of goals because I know that within the next year, or even as little as six months, every plan could go awry.

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"The Cabin"



           Head straight down the Scenic Loop and take a right midway between Leakey and Camp Wood. A gravel road snakes between live oaks, cedars, and mountain laurels. After driving at a crawl over ruts and dry creek beds for about a mile, a cabin hides behind a row of plump cedars.
          The place, constructed from a metal office building, looks unassuming. A huge screened-in porch juts from the front, its lattice now gray with age. Directly in front of the building squats our fire pit where we grill steaks or build s’mores.
           Our hill country place rests on twenty-six acres of solitude. When sitting out front, the whispers of the wind fingering through leaves blend with bird song. No traffic passes by, and even a dragonfly’s wing beating the breeze creates a soft purr.
          Hills tuck the cabin into a protected pocket, and two dry creeks zigzag through the acreage, providing a safe route for spring floods. Trails, worn on the hills and down the gullies by deer and wild boar, offer private paths for the hiker.
           Every visit, we make our way gradually around the perimeter of the property, checking the condition of the fence line. We stop at the pinion pines, pause at the highest summit behind the cabin and remember our first camp snugged among the live oak and mountain laurel. Gratitude floods through me for the legacy of this land. Older memories than my own hide in fossils and formations, revealing the layered evolution of our world.
           For twenty years, my feet have walked the rocky paths. First visits, we pitched tents, living close to the land. Later, the cabin allowed us to ease in luxuries like electricity. Inside, always left ready for the next visit, reside quilted comforts and soft beds. With no television, radio, or cell phone reception, life’s pressures subside within hours of arrival. The seclusion of the cabin nurtures imagination and inspires reflection. It is my Walden Pond.




Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman