Monthly Archives: December 2012

Homeward looking

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The Riverside Cemetery is a couple of neighborhoods away from mine, maybe a 30-minute walk from my place. Mom and Dad and I visited it on a recent Saturday. Despite the nice weather, the place was practically deserted, apart from the permanent residents.

bird girl

The oldest graves dated from the early nineteenth century. Some of the headstones were for vets of the Indian Removal Project, and some others were for Civil War soldiers. Mostly, though, the graves were for folks who died in the twentieth century. The most famous people buried there are William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry, and Thomas Wolfe, who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, which is not associated with this picture but ought to be. This is a photo of the Bird Girl statue in Savannah, made famous when it served as the cover of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. For some reason I think of this girl when I think of Look Homeward, Angel.

Because I have not ever bothered to read Thomas Wolfe, I can only offer here a weak segue to today’s main topic. I am going to assume that Look Homeward, Angel considers themes of home and belonging (and possibly also celestial beings, but I don’t want to lay claim to that without at least checking the wikipedia entry). With the working hypothesis that Look Homeward, Angel really is about home, I’d like to congratulate Thomas Wolfe on his final resting place. Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery, i.e. the one not represented in the photo here, seems like a really lovely place for an eternal home.

And I’d like to observe the irony of my new volunteering gig at the homeless shelter. I’m the one who’s supposed to be making the homeless folks feel at home, not the other way around.

I had just about worked myself up to embracing the idea of moving away from Asheville. Long-term readers will recall that I grew up around here, moved away for thirteen years, and then very deliberately moved back. The reasons for this were various, but the honest if incomplete truth is that I wanted to be home again.

My parents are nearby; I love Asheville; I love the scenery. I do not love the lack of job opportunities. I just got turned down for a job supervising volunteers because they were looking for someone with more direct experience supervising volunteers. I SUPERVISED VOLUNTEERS FOR FIVE YEARS! AAAAAAUGGGGH! But that’s quite all right, I don’t take it personally, I’ll just go beat my head against this rock here then shall I.

After a year of waffling between outright unemployment and severe underemployment, I decided there was no choice but to move in the coming year. And that is still my decision. Nothing’s changed. I still have precisely zero job offers going for me.

But these homeless folks are going to make it that much harder.

I’m volunteering at a day shelter. I have nothing to do with people’s overnight accommodations. (Some folks sleep at one of the nearby shelters; some crash with friends; some sleep outdoors, which cannot possibly be pleasant when there’s snow on the ground.) At 7 a.m., though, I am there to help out with various and sundry. I distribute toiletries and locate people’s mail and answer the phone.

I also provide a sympathetic ear. People come up to me and talk about whatever. The men, especially the older ones, like to flirt with me. If a strange guy in a store or a restaurant called me baby, I’d respond with a tongue-lashing, or at least I’d grouse about it to myself for the rest of the day. If a homeless guy at the shelter wants to call me baby, I just smile and ask him how he’s doing today.

Think of it this way: I’m not offering professional counseling, because I’m not advising anyone on how to cope with addiction, or where to seek low-cost medical services, or when to apply for food stamps. I am offering a friendly and good-humored conversation, free of judgment.

Let me be clear: I am not romanticizing my work as a volunteer. My volunteer work is not going to save the world. Nor am I romanticizing the homeless people. Some of them are assholes. Some of them could have avoided becoming homeless in the first place.   Some of them complain when they ought to be grateful instead.

But I am completely willing to serve a few bad apples, because the overall experience is so very worthwhile. I feel like I’m doing something useful with my time. I never felt this sense of purpose in libraries. Perhaps I am too dense to appreciate abstract concepts such as freedom of information and freedom of expression. Maybe I need my social good-deed-doing to hit me over the head with a club.

I’m astonished at how much my volunteering experience has elevated my mood. And I am surprised — though maybe I shouldn’t be — at how much it has reigned in my aspirations of globe-trotting. If I seek my fortunes elsewhere, I’m going to have to leave behind my homeless folks. I realize that homeless people exist in other communities, but I already have a particular attachment to these homeless people, for reasons that Thomas Wolfe described with compassion and insight, or so I’m going to assume until someone tells me otherwise.

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Unemployment benefits

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Unemployment is better than employment in nearly every respect. I’m into my second week of joblessness, and I cannot recommend it enough. I can count the drawbacks on one hand, with fingers to spare:

1. No income

2. No health insurance

3. No paid leave

The perks of unemployment, in contrast, are plentiful. Here’s just a sampling of things I’ve done with time, now that I have more of it:

1. Volunteering. I am the newest volunteer at Homeward Bound of Asheville. This is a day shelter for the homeless in Asheville. Their goal is not just to provide temporary shelter but to actually end homelessness. They’ve housed 454 people since 2006, with an 89% retention rate.  I’ll write about them in more depth in the future. For now, suffice it to say that I’m volunteering with a program called A HOPE. I’m helping out at a busy public service desk, answering questions and doing my best to be friendly and professional. Which sounds an awful lot like a job I used to have.

Open every day of the year!

Open every day of the year!

2. Walking to and from the homeless shelter. Quite apart from my own misgivings about the carbon footprint of driving, the price of gas is steep, particularly for those of us who are unemployed. But the homeless shelter is a 30-minute walk, which is just about perfect. I get exercise on the trip there and the trip back. I have never acquired the knack of exercising for the sake of exercise. Every time  I try to establish a regular exercise routine, I fail. I start thinking about things I’d much rather be doing, and then suddenly it’s all Oh-hey-there’s-a-book, and it’s over. Exercise disguised as a commute is a different matter entirely.

3. Sightseeing. The hour of on-foot commuting allows me to walk through downtown Asheville. I never get tired of seeing its buildings and its people and its dogs being walked by people. And the return trip, for variety, takes me through some lovely neighborhoods in northern Asheville, filled with houses that were built before cookie-cutter developments came into vogue. Many of these houses are home to kitties who come out to the sidewalk to demand attention.

4. Reading. The hour of on-foot commuting also allows me to listen to audiobooks. I would rather read a book than listen to it (and I would rather read a book on paper than on a device) but I’ve slowly learned to accept certain types of audiobooks. This is particularly important, since I still can’t carve out enough time to read for pleasure, unemployment notwithstanding. I’ve got a ton of books left to read this calendar year.

5. Hiking. Mom and Dad took me to the arboretum this weekend. There’s not much garden to see at this time of year, but there was a lovely bonsai exhibit, and the weather was just perfect for hiking on the trails. According to Dad’s app, we hiked about six miles. Without all the leaves cluttering the trees, there were some pretty scenes to take in, and the smell was divine: rhododendron and pine needles and decaying foresty stuff. Rotting animals smell awful. Rotting forest floors smell like Narnia.

6. Yoga practicing. I do not have the discipline to practice yoga with any kind of regularity at home. It is too much like exercise. But there is a donation-based studio that’s an easy ten-minute walk from home. I have an on-again, off-again relationship with yoga. I don’t know that I’ll ever become a dedicated yogi, but unemployment seemed like a good opportunity to start hanging out with yoga again. We’ll see if it lasts.

The irritating thing is that, even without a real job, I still don’t have enough time. In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned, I’ve got lots of duty reading (in preparation for the Foreign Service exam in February) and I’ve got lots of pleasure reading (because pleasure reading is roughly as important as breathing) and I’ve got contract writing, because the articles and synopses I write for the NoveList database constitute the only money I’m earning. It’s not enough to pay the bills, but I hope it’s enough to keep the bills at bay until the Foreign Service or the Peace Corps or the indeterminate Plan C kicks in.

Or until I get a job in Asheville.*

*hahahaaahahahahahahahaaahahahaahaha