Two years ago I started volunteering at Miriam's Kitchen, a kitchen for the homeless here in Washington, D.C.
I don't know what got into me. It happened because Miriam's is really good at social media community engagement and so it was Jennifer Roccanti who tricked me into coming in for a few hours to help prepare, cook, and serve healthy and freshly-made meals to about 130 homeless men and women.
And I loved it! I love it! In fact, if Ashley Lawson doesn't make a point of throttling my attendance, I am likely to come in way too often.
This isn't normal and I believe it might be the unfortunate results of growing up Catholic, not having parents who volunteered while I was old enough to notice, and pretty much thinking the people who volunteered in high school and college were a bunch of bleeding hearts and dorks.
Man, I might have been right but at what cost?
Miriam's Kitchen is in Foggy Bottom, 100 yards away from my university, George Washington. I could have been chopping vegetable, frying up salmon patties, browning sweet potato fries, and chopping onions for years; I could have been serving coffee and juice, refilling napkins and flatware and handing out numbers since 1988 instead of since 2010.
I think my problem was feeling that volunteerism was as onerous as cleaning my room. I thought it was only something faithful people did, or people with a lot of extra money or leisure time. Maybe I thought it was something one did just to benefit their college application.
But no! They were probably having an awesome time. And they had beat me by over 20 years to "getting over myself."
And it has nothing to do with being a sous chef. I am as happy swabbing floors, peeling potatoes, busing a table, or taking numbers as I do making soup or searing a chop. Weird, right?
My dear chum, Fay Johnson, is at least a decade my junior and has never suffered from the nihilism of Generation X. She might have been raised on snark and sarcasm but never herself became snarky or sarcastic. She's lovely. And while she may well be a bleeding heart and a bit of a dork, it looks great on her.
She just launched a new iPad-only magazine, DeliberateLIFE, "focused on inspiring people to live well and do good by making intentional choices about how they spend their time and money; engage in their communities; and understand global issues" or what I call it, which is the Martha Stewart Living for people who where never taught how to love and generously engage the beautiful world around them.
In much the same way that Living tapped a generation of women who never learned how to cook and craft from their mothers, DeliberateLIFE teaches those of us, like me between 16-40, who never knew how fun, fulfilling, enlightening, and accessible volunteering is and how much the world can change if each of us does even just a little towards making things better. To quote John Heywood, "Many hands make light work."
I guess we're always saying that the only way America will really turn around is when being a NASA scientist is way cooler than being an NFL quarterback, when there's cheerleaders and a crowd Friday night for the Mathlete regionals.
That may well be so, but I think it all starts with the softening and opening of one's heart. And, to me, joyful volunteerism that Fay's new magazine heralds is the first step towards an America -- and world, as Fay grew up in South Africa -- that is more generous, understanding, compassionate, accepting, and hopefully less cynical, than we as a culture have been since the 80s.
All I know is that I am a changed man. I am now a sous chef and dining room captain at Miriam's Kitchen, splitting my dinner between the kitchen and the dining room, and couldn't be happier.
And while I know that over the last two years I have personally inspired a handful of people to volunteer, I am hoping that DeliberateLIFE influences a generation, one first step at a time.