Not to do, but to be.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese
What is a mid-career professional doing volunteering in Georgia? Not to do, but to be.
Almost 20 years ago, on a summer night in Minneapolis, you would have found me sitting in my car. I was waiting to pick up my boyfriend. At that time I was earning a degree in International Relations, was already hired at an international Fortune 500 firm working full time, plus I had a part-time job working at my state’s House of Representatives. My days, nights and weekends were filled with obligations and here is how people described me:
- Serious: another word for not taking enough time to enjoy the moment.
- Determined: another way of saying I spent too much time working.
- Reserved: another way of saying I was distant, aloof, and hard to get close to.
This was also how I saw myself. These traits aren’t terrible but as I sat waiting my mind asked the question ‘How do I start being someone with traits I admired? How will being different allow me to contribute differently to this world? I thought about who I wanted to BE…not what I wanted to DO. I was twenty-two years old. The doing was easy. Setting goals and reaching them was something I did well. I was fortunate to grow up in a loving and nurturing family that produced confident, determined adults. The being and creating was the challenge.
Don’t we owe humanity our own best person?
I grabbed some paper (a bag that held my dinner) and I started writing. Who do I want to be? What traits do I value? I suppose that meant loosing the restraints that kept me from being truly authentic. I suppose those restraints could be labeled as issues, hang-ups, inhibitions. I wrote until I had nothing else to write. What self-challenges were on this list? Fourteen things ended up on the original list. A sampling: Being comfortable being completely alone, being more forgiving, being forthright and not feeling vulnerable sharing emotions, being autonomous, being concerned with the communal, being continually intrigued by life…
I’m a deliberate person. To accomplish being, I let people into my life that afforded me the environment to change. I’ve broken down boundaries. So why international volunteerism now? It wasn’t for the travel. I travel when I want and have been to 20-30 countries. It wasn’t for work experience. I had a successful career with 18 years of expertise and a Vice President of Marketing title. It wasn’t just to give back to society. I’ve done volunteer work. The answer came down to two simple reasons that tied back to my list which I continually revisit. I believe in responsibility towards humanity…communal concerns. Volunteering internationally allowed for this in ways different from domestic volunteering.
The second reason: leaving the US for a year now was a challenge – before it wasn’t. Now I was a successful executive. I made a very comfortable living. I had balance between work and play. I was well established in my community. I loved my neighborhood. I had incredible relationships. I lived in the same neighborhood for almost twenty years. It was now a challenge to walk away. I wasn’t sure I could do that and that’s what made it a challenge.
With nearly 200 countries in the world, where should I go? What type of volunteer work? How long? This was not something I mulled over a few weeks, nor a few months. I looked at programs on-and-off over the course of many years. The fiscally responsible person in me wanted to minimize risk, maximize rewards. Find a program that is fully funded. A stipend would be great. Find an intriguing region. One that immerses me into the community. All this brought me to Georgia.
Emotional. Leaving a city and community I loved. Coffee shops I spent hours in. Separating from my favorite happy hour locations. Leaving an established career. Parting from my friends and family and leaving my cat. I reached a point when letting go was more rewarding that hanging on. I was going to miss my family and friends but my treasured, long-term relationships were always going to be my treasured long-term relationships. They made the transition easier. At first some people thought I was crazy to give up my job, some were sad I’d be leaving, some said they were envious. So began the transition…. moving sales, donations to Goodwill, closing accounts, opening accounts, shopping for a year away. It was unsettling. It was liberating. One extraordinary friend, Jenny, let me store my more important worldly goods in her basement. Tom, who I admire and cherish, let me live with him rent-free while I transitioned, sold, moved and prepared. My brother Paul and sister-in-law Amy promised me a roof over my head upon my return.
I didn’t really have anxieties. I have a high tolerance for change. It wasn’t difficult to quit my job but I miss co-workers. It wasn’t difficult to get rid of belongings except for my books. It was, and is, however a bit precarious not knowing what I’ll do when I return…but it wasn’t going to stop me.
After the research, choices were made. Greenheart Travel was very transparent which helped manage expectations. Teach & Learn Georgia was very organized and facilitated a comprehensive orientation. Georgia is wonderful. The teachers are professional and my host family is respectful, generous, thoughtful and fun. Georgia…it’s exactly where I should be.
My To Be list is now quite ragged. Thirty more things have been added and all but seven are accomplished. I continually add and continually accomplish. It’s a working list and will never be completed. I will never be completed and that is a great thing. Thank you Georgia for helping me to be.