Why I Don’t Volunteer Anymore

I have an extensive CV in volunteering – or at least trying to. But somehow things have never stuck in the long term, and recently I’ve been trying to figure out why that might be. After combing through my volunteering history, I’m starting to see something of a pattern, and I’m going to try to put it out here. Because sometimes you can attempt things, but for various reasons they just don’t pan out and these things tend to accumulate over time. I’ve already written about this in a blog post a few years ago but this time I have the advantage (?) of more experience and perhaps a better ability to see a pattern.
(I would’ve volunteered at school but I thought I had to invest all my time in my school work in case that got compromised – turns out it made no difference in my success or lack thereof upon graduation…)

Local Charity Store, 2005-2006
I enjoyed volunteering here at first, it wasn’t overly busy, I learned some new skills and I got to choose the music for the store. But I made the mistake of trying to find paid work elsewhere which I didn’t last long with because they kept picking on me to talk more and I quit out of stress, then I was made to treat going to the place like a full-time job “for the routine”, so I decided I had to look for a more full-time thing so that I wouldn’t keep being made to go somewhere for the sake of going.

National Volunteering Organisation, 2006-2007
It started out promisingly, getting a grounding in filming, photography and graphic design. It felt like a team effort and like we were bonding over something. It also occurred to me for the first time that I could actually learn some practical and transferable skills for the future. The first few months I felt like it was all going somewhere, but at some point it all started to feel aimless and like they were just struggling to find stuff for us to do. I had no idea how much my lack of initiative would affect my ability to self-start activities and I just kept waiting to be given things to do. I ended up spending most of my time IM’ing people and hanging out on MySpace (!!!) for which I was told off by the supervisor because it meant I wasn’t being productive (even though I hadn’t been given anything to do…), so it started to feel like a chore. I didn’t even know what skills to learn, or even if I did know, what to apply them to or where to take them in the future, so it all just trailed off. My placement was about to end soon and I started to panic in case I was forced to do an autism-specific course again which I’d found really unhelpful and patronising as they had far less of an idea of what autistic people are actually like back then than they do now (seemingly we can only do menial jobs and can’t be expected to aim very high in life…), so I scoured the internet looking for alternatives. That’s when I saw a course that might actually get me into uni (which I’d been desperate to do but had given up on by then) so I quit the placement, losing the few skills I’d learned before long. On my last day I remember being asked what I was still doing there.

September 2007-March 2009
I tried to volunteer with a gardening project at uni, but because I wasn’t given direct instructions and supervision I struggled, and because of health problems I couldn’t keep up with the digging. I ended up saying sorry but I can’t do this anymore. They said they “weren’t surprised” to see me go. I then volunteered at a bookstore in Canterbury, I can’t remember how that ended but somehow it did and I volunteered at a local charity store instead, which I actually liked but my condition (both mental and physical at the time) affected what I was able to do.
I also tried to volunteer at a homeless shelter but I went in for my induction and instantly felt intimidated, being stared at by lots of strange men, and not really being given specific guidance on what to do, and also fearing that I’d be thought badly of if I mentioned my intimidation, so I didn’t go back again.
Upon returning to Glasgow I rejoined the Glasgow branch of the charity store, which went ok at first but the manager who I liked stopped spending as much time there, leaving someone in charge who really took the job seriously, to the point that nothing I did was quite up to standard, so I ended up quitting.

September 2009 
I tried to start a book group, only got one session going then it fell apart somehow…

A Local Interest Library, Jan 2013

I applied to join a local special interest organisation, and volunteered to help catalogue things in their library. I came in for one session to do so, and then offered to write for their magazine. They said they would “be in touch to let me know” on both counts, I followed up with a request for an update and I was told the same. I never heard from them again.

Art Library, Jan-March 2013
I applied for a voluntary librarian position at an art library it seemed to go ok at first, I transcribed some handwritten material and was looking forward to becoming more involved, and although it was difficult to make small talk with the people there I tried to be nice and polite. At first they set days for me to come in but before long I had to keep asking if it was ok to come in, to which they said ok as if it didn’t really matter either way, then day they said they didn’t need me anymore and that they’d “let me know” if they needed me to come back. Not long after I saw that they’d put out an ad for the position from which I’d just been let go. Hint taken.

One of my better volunteering activities took place around now, doing social media work for a vegan website. I learned some basic SEO skills (which I’m *trying* to keep in my mind as they’re actually needed right now) and also got to add something to my CV, although I’ve found that with most of my placements I’ve struggled to know how to keep a good thing going.

City Specialist Library, June 2013-Sept 2014
I got a volunteering placement at a special interest library (one of few things I’m very interested in), which started out promisingly, and it would later help me secure my position in my MSc a year later. It was interesting at first but then it started to become quite disorganised, I never had a secure and quiet place in which to work and it was always as if they were just finding random stuff for me to do for the sake of it, and I wanted to feel as if I had a sense of purpose and actually belonged there. I kept up attendance for a year until I started my MSc then I didn’t feel like I was needed there anymore.

Local Historical Centre, April 2014
I applied to be a volunteer at a local museum and archive site, stating specifically that I wanted to have a research role rather than a tour guide one, because I felt it would be better suited to my skills.
I ticked the boxes for things I’d be happy to do, assured that I would have a mentor under which to work, but instead I was merely shown to a freezing basement room then invited to just start sifting through the mountains of documents, seemingly to no purpose. I was left entirely on my own the whole time with no supervision. I tried this for a few sessions but when I left on the last day, everyone else was chatting away near the entrance, as they were all tour guides and got along, and I tried to announce that I was leaving for the day. Instead of asking when it would be ok for me to come back in, they just said “bye then” and I took that as a sign that I was no longer welcome and they didn’t need me.

General re-entry into volunteering, May 2016 
I actually based my travel plans around this one, which particularly pisses me off even now.
I was told by my then support worker that they’d make a special effort to get me back into volunteering due to all the difficulties I’d had hanging onto placements, and signed me up for a taster session. The first one was for gardening, which I would have liked if it weren’t for being afraid of hurting the worms in the soil with the spades and forks, which I had a hard time explaining. Then there was a cycling track for disabled people but due to personal issues at the time, I was very upset at the time and couldn’t concentrate properly. I ended up dropping out of the final sessions but had no-one to talk about as to why this ended up happening. Ended up feeling angry and cheated that it had turned out to be such an anticlimax and that I actually thought it would make a difference.

A National Library, April-June 2016
I started volunteering with the a national library, the first couple of times it went ok as I was mostly doing data transcription but the last time I went I was expected to move around the library doing odd jobs here and there. I turned up late this time because I was still stressed from the personal issues which had taken place not long before, and the bright lights and creaking floorboards made me feel really conspicuous and I ended up leaving early. It was deemed to be a good idea that I not return again, at least for the time being, and I dared not go back again because I felt like I had made such a bad impression. I think they just didn’t think I wanted to be there but I really did, I just wanted to be less visible.

A City Theatre, September 2016 (a few hours long)
I was offered an interview for a disability-specific volunteering role at a theatre outside the city centre, I never liked to feel like I was taking advantage or making excuses for a disability but I wasn’t having much luck elsewhere so I tried to take advantage this time. I went in for one photography session, again feeling self-conscious and overwhelmed by how busy it was and the bright lights, but thought I did a good job with the photography. After that they told me that I didn’t need to come back in as they’d found “professionals” to take my place.
I also tried to volunteer with what I thought was a local vegan kitchen/organisation but it turned out to be something else. I still tried to roll with it and took photos of the setting up and food prep like they’d asked me to, although I was uncomfortable with the non-vegan stuff. I did my best though, and thought I’d be asked to do more events but they never asked me to.

International Library (remote), Feb 2017
On Twitter I saw an open invitation from a US library and archive centre to transcribe some of their manuscripts and documents, which I would’ve loved to do. One day I went onto the site to have a go, but found that virtually everything had already been done. I checked back a few more times with the same result, so I didn’t know what else to do. I might still have a go at the Voynich Manuscript at some point though, if I have time…

 

**********

I guess it was round about this time that I gave up on the idea of volunteering altogether – twelve solid years of trying, not too bad IMO – especially as most volunteering placements require you to either work in a store (which I’d already done and probably wouldn’t feel up to doing again) or interacting directly face to face with the public (again which I tried a few times but realised was extremely difficult for me to do for extended periods of time), so I guess it’s safe to say that I’ve tried and that perhaps writing is the only thing I’ll ever really be good at, and I only get paid for a very small percentage of that right now. And nope – in case it comes as any surprise – I haven’t earned a single penny for this website…

But I think personally, what is notable about the particular examples of volunteering I’ve outlined above, is that one would normally expect such placements to be entirely “in line” with someone who likes alone time, to research things of interest, and generally to put what skills they have to good use. Being terrible at very pro-social placements would not surprise me in the least; what has surprised me, however, is that I have struggled even in such placements where I honestly thought I would excel and find my “niche” after years of trying.

These placements do not include the numerous unpaid writing assignments I’ve undertaken since my (first) graduation, as a certain amount of unpaid work is to be expected in that field of work until you develop a sufficient portfolio in order to command a paycheck. (Often one is expected to continue to work for free indefinitely but that’s a story for another time.) This sort of thing was done to a specific end, in order to further my career, if you can call it one. Nor am I going to include the times spent volunteering with animal sanctuaries, with which I’ve had very mixed experiences. That is something I’d do more often but as I can’t drive I’ve been unable to make it a regular thing.

Thus sums up my experiences volunteering, and generally trying to make the world a better place, in the best way I can. Looking back, I’m now almost entirely convinced that despite my work ethic and desire to learn new skills and better myself (and the world around me), my lack of ability to keep up small talk and network with the “right people” were all responsible for my being let go from positions and replaced with those who were more “their kind of people”, unless I’m strongly mistaken. In addition, my difficulties in planning and initiating multi-step and long-term activities, coupled with a lack of effective mentoring (with the exception of one or two), meant that I failed to fulfil whatever potential I might’ve had once. This has resulted in a long line of sporadic and short-lived volunteering stints which never really went anywhere.

**********

Study guide writing: the highs and lows of the Perfect Job (For Me)

On the surface of it, I have the ideal job situation.

For the past year and a half I’ve been writing literary study guides for an online publication company. What this involves is being assigned with a work of fiction, and basically writing about it from every conceivable angle. I have to write summaries and accompanying analyses, and outline themes, symbols, characters, etc, and provide a completely comprehensive guide to the book in question. It’s about as involved as one can get with a single piece of literature, I’m guessing, outside of writing a dedicated postgraduate thesis on it, so it certainly helps me to keep my skills fresh in that area. I send it in once it’s done, I get paid, then I can choose another book to work on.

This position ticks a lot of boxes for me, at least in theory – it’s the *only* regular paying job I’ve had basically ever, let alone since graduation, and I was incredibly lucky to encounter the ad, and be almost immediately accepted for it in the first place. I’ve struggled enough with finding suitable employment my entire adult life to know never to take such a stroke of luck lightly, so I’ve always worked as hard and as well on each guide as possible. Also, as an autistic* person, the absence of pressure to constantly interact socially on the job, and general office politics, is a welcome advantage. It’s done entirely remotely, meaning that I don’t run the risk of accidentally committing a social faux pas while getting the work done. This combination of advantages is still, in my experience, exceedingly rare in the job market, unless you happen to know someone personally who can fix you up with your ideal role.

The thing is though, the “autism thing” has also proved to be, in itself, a major drawback in certain aspects of the job. My strengths lie in analysis and comparison, and most definitely not, as I’ve learned over time on the job, in summarising. Each guide requires a chapter by chapter breakdown of everything which has happened, but at least for me, if this is a work of fiction – with all the nuances and tangents and inner narratives of the main characters, which often play out in a non-linear fashion – this is where I really begin to encounter my limitations. My brain is very poor at condensing and selecting large amounts of narrative detail and being responsible for judging what is relevant for the summary, because essentially I see *everything* as being relevant in some sense. After all, why else would such detail even be in the book in the first place? At least goes my thinking…

I can do almost everything else in the guide far more easily in comparison – in perhaps a deviation from the autism stereotype, I’m actually quite good at understanding and employing metaphor, analogy, subtext, all the interesting and sometimes confusing stuff of which literature is often comprised. I have the thick backlog of marked university essays to prove it – your 100% literal autistic stereotype wouldn’t even be capable of such a thing. Also, sometimes rather sneakily, I can slip in some insights of my own here and there. I’ve been known to draw particular attention to parts of a book where a character expresses vegan-friendly sentiments, for example. The rules don’t say you can’t, as long as you adhere to the guidelines, so 😉

But anyway. The past year and a half or so has been a unique opportunity, for me, to experience how my particular “wiring” can work both for and against me all at once. An internal battle rages every time I accept a new assignment, knowing that I will both love and hate the mission I am about to embark upon. Due to various reasons, I’ve not been able to assume as much work as I would have liked, or as I would even have expected in the beginning. I can be an infuriatingly slow worker when I have even one other preoccupation going on. A couple of health problems, and a general deficit in concentration, have slowed me right down, but I merely spaced out the projects I did, rather than risk taking on too much work and then risking disappointing my hard-won employer by failing to turn in on time. Lots of employers, despite growing “awareness” campaigns going on at the moment, simply do not or cannot fully grasp the complications of both the difficulties and the advantages of trying to shoe-horn a neurodiverse brain into working efficiently in a world where this type of brain is still in the vast minority. I fear coming across as incompetent, unintelligent, unmotivated or otherwise incapable of doing the job, which in fact I can do if the conditions are just right, or at least just right for me.

The solution I’d propose, if it were up to me, would be to work on everything except for the summaries, with someone more suited to the type of thinking that requires chipping in. Another solution, or at least a move towards branching out into other areas I might excel in, would be to assume more in the way of editing work, but given that jobs full stop are hard to come by, let alone ones you are actually qualified for and are related to your field of interest, I am certainly not about to quit completely anytime soon, as long as I am capable of reading and writing in a way which is useful and comprehensible to whoever might be using the study guide, when the product is complete.

I shall, upon completion of the most recent assignment, make another move towards other areas of freelance writing, building upon experience gained, and as a sort of refresher from the near-academia level of study required for the study guide writing, but first I think I will need another spot of recovery time.

*Using the clinical term for the time being, stay tuned for a post coming soon about my relationship to the name/label/diagnosis. It’s complicated so really needs a separate clarification.

The weird world of executive dysfunction

Articles like this one have started to click with me in a way that few others do. It has inspired me to do something of a stream-of-consciousness-style ramble on the issue of executive function. Or executive dysfunction.
**********
I’ve written about my tendency to procrastinate in at least a couple of my blog posts, which from a cursory glance in the wider “blogosphere”, seems to be a trait which is almost fashionable to “fess up to” these days. A specific level of hipster-ironic “I so can’t even right now (but actually I can and in fact have proven that I can merely by writing this article to my huge social media fanbase AND have been paid with my very own by-line on a trendy website like Buzzfeed about how much I like tattoos and drinking tea (and drinking the latest speciality locally grown tattooed tea brewed in a shed in the back garden)…” is almost, in my view, the thing to humble-brag about and come off as quirky, and even endearing.
Far be it from me to remotely judge the capabilities and difficulties of someone else upon the basis of an online article, but sometimes I can’t help wondering how much of it is mere self-depreciation, or even just the glorification of the “meh” attitude to life. The “too cool to care, or at least appear to” attitude which can be found in ample supply in digital publications like Vice. I realise I might be encroaching upon hypocritical territory here  -I am after all writing a blog post about essentially the same phenomenon – but when you “honestly can’t even and I’ve no idea why even after all this time and it’s not getting any easier as time goes on and it’s driving me slowly but surely insane” then… well, that can be harder to articulate, and to differentiate from the multiple claims of “I can’t even” which seem to be so popular now.
 296ed64a53c8c78ee598a892ca0a8140(Image courtesy of pinterest.net – well what do you know, there is such a thing as tattooed tea. Or at least tattoos of tea.)
**********
It’s ridiculous how long it’s taken me to realise just how big a problem this has been for me throughout life. Had I known that this was a DEFINING characteristic of autism, rather than merely written off as a co-morbidity lurking in the shadows of other more well-known symptoms – many of which don’t even apply to me – then perhaps I could have recognised a major part of myself and dealt with it appropriately a lot earlier on, rather than wondering why the hell I was being likened to Rain Man or little boys who are obsessed with train timetables and just having it all… not connect with me.
(I’m going to write a blog post, at some point when I’m able, about my long and complicated relationship with the whole “label” of what is currently known as “high functioning autism/Asperger’s Syndrome” – I’m still not fully comfortable openly identifying with it in *every* situation, but that would take a fair amount of explanation which would take a while.)
I wasn’t like that – I was just a normal girl, albeit quite awkward and reclusive and desperate to fit in, with a lazy and stubborn streak who just needed to get her shit together like everyone else and then everything would be fine.
Who turned into, as one tends to do, into a normal woman, albeit quite awkward and reclusive and not-quite-so-desperate-but-would-still-find-it-nice to fit in, with a lazy and stubborn streak who just needs to get her shit together like everyone else and then everything will be fine.
Right?
Right…?
Hello…?
digitalcamerapics016copy

Actual footage of me trying to get something done

In fact issues with executive (dys)function are often not even mentioned at all, and if they are, it’s just within a few words, “cannot complete tasks on time”, etc, with zero elaboration as to WHY this might be, the implication being that it’s just one more mysterious tragic failing of the autistic persona, which one need not delve any deeper into – as if there is simply no depth to even be found within.
We Just Cannot Do Things Like Others Can.
Such a pity I know… but what can you do eh? *sigh of resignation*
move-along-people-nothing-to-see-here-move-along
(Image courtesy of memegenerator.net website)
**********
It’s basically the reason I take a really long time to do seemingly simple things, why I find it very difficult to prioritise tasks, and often why I’ll find excuses to avoid them completely. It can take me several days, weeks, months, and even years to do things which need not take up that much time. I’ll KNOW what I need to do, in a very broad sense, but actually putting things into action in an effective way, to the point of completion, is something else. I’m trying to accept this aspect of myself more these days, to try not to see myself as just slow, lazy, lacking in initiative, etc… but I still see myself that way. I still feel very much like a lazy and ineffective individual merely in need of a good kick up the arse, and often feel like punishing myself accordingly, resenting myself for not even being entirely sure whether I *can’t* or whether I *won’t* do any given thing. I’ve been told repeatedly by many in life that I’m just not trying. As if I’m CHOOSING to constantly flounder and struggle with the simplest things in life.
**********
This might sound ridiculously petty but one of the quotes I hate most in the world is the one by Yoda:
download
 (Image courtesy of starwarsbloggers.wordpress.com fansite)
Yoda may be a tiny wise green creature, widely revered throughout the Galaxy Far Far Away, and much of the other stuff he says is very spot on, but I’m going to have to respectfully disagree in this instance.
In my humble opinion, there is a metric fuck-ton of “try” involved with pretty much everything in life. And what makes things even worse is when you ARE trying *in your own way* but cannot prove to others that you are, you just know, somewhere, that you’re doing things to the best of your ability. At least you think you are. Some of the time.
Then you’re told – informed, rather – with the sheer self-assurance of their own knowledge that only a barely qualified so-called professional government employee can convey, that you’re Not Trying. That is a truly maddening experience which can take its toll over the course of time.
Simply being told, in a bright and blase tone, to “get on with it” or “have a word” or “be productive!” just isn’t enough in isolation, without a solid plan with clearly outlined steps in a rational sequence in place.
It’s becoming something of a challenge to remind myself, constantly, that perhaps it’s down to a particular wiring of the brain that causes me, and many others, to approach tasks, and indeed life in general, in a different way. It’s still a work in progress trying to find a way to function in a world not designed for you.
**********
(I realise there is probably a certain degree of contradiction in the fact that I even managed to compose this semi-coherent ramble-ette in the first place. Although it just sort of happened – I was going to write a social media post about the article which inspired this train of thought, but then it just sort of took on a life of its own.)

Culture Vulture: The On-going Effort To “Put Myself Out There”

Today it came right home to me just how peculiarly I tend to occupy my own segment of public space.

I went to see a local exhibition a few days ago, and ended up only being able to stay for all of a minute. While I enjoy the activity of going to see a show or an exhibition, in and of itself – seeing what new and potentially inspiring works of art or other type of creativity has just been borne into being – I struggle with the inevitably social side of doing so. Even in a relatively quiet setting, if someone – even one other person – comes in, it changes the entire ambience for me. Indeed it’s even worse for me if it’s only one other person, because then it becomes a Potential Social Situation. You know, where it feels dangerously close to being a thing which feels like a thing you’re Doing Together, rather than simply Doing In The Same Place At The Same Time…
Albeit one that’s not immediately apparent but still, essentially, one.

**********

20170813_175909

Pictured: a surprisingly busy normally relatively quiet area in Edinburgh. Mind you it was during the Fringe.

In quite a few posts on this site I’ve made reference to the notion of missing out on something which I can never quite pin down. It just hovers over me, tormenting me in the form of the elusive Idea That Everyone Else Is Doing Some Amazing To Some Extent And Which You’re Kind Of A Big Loser And A Bit Of An Idiot For Not Doing Or Even Knowing About In the First Place.

In a bid to quell this feeling as much as possible (ignoring the infinite regret of having missed out on lots of these things much earlier on in life) I’ve been making more of an effort to do cultural things and expand my mental landscape in the process. When you are only sporadically employed at most, and find that you have an ongoing obstruction to creativity, a chronic inability to prompt yourself into action AND a tendency to magnify niggling worries until they end up being far bigger and more intrusive than they originally were, you start to realise the importance of keeping yourself occupied in a somewhat healthy way. Some of the time, reading a good book can divert and alleviate these encroaching thoughts/feelings but it has to be a really good one. (Few books really draw me in enough to make me forget myself completely but it’s well worth continuing the search for that odd one.)

I try to venture outside what I know every so often, and also to stay in touch with “what’s happening”, which is all too easy to do. Luckily, between Glasgow and Edinburgh there are frequent cultural events which can be attended without too much practical difficulty, many of them showcasing upcoming art and literature. From poets with a profane edge, to niche photography exhibitions, to open questions concerning the meaning of “fake” (very popular in 2017), it’s easy to just “drop in” here and there to check out whatever rouses one’s curiosity. The latest exhibition I went to see had a library theme: it was basically a small special collection of history, travel, art, etc themed books in a communal sitting area, with a smattering of books in the adjacent room suspended from the ceiling.

As someone who trained to be a librarian not too long ago, this felt like one of the things I had to go see at least once. It has been the motivating factor for many of the slight detours I’ve made on recent trips (basically any renowned public library or collection in the city I happen to be in (with the personally infamous inclusion of the Library of Congress – the librarian’s pilgrimage site – which it never occurred to me for a second would be closed on a Sunday…)) because what better way to delve into the psyche of a place – if places can even be said to have any kind of collective psyche – than to meander through the written collections of its literary representative, and even also some up and coming voices from the region. So… a library collection serving as an art exhibition near where I live? Alright then!

**********

 

More often than not, due to repeat experiences in crowded, noisy, bright museums and galleries and other cultural venues – where the distractions all around by far cancel out any potential enjoyment or appreciation to be had from the actual artefacts on display – I’ve started to try to go to these things less and less, and only occasionally now. Yet as a trainee librarian, one thing which was made very clear was the collective bid to encourage the general public’s patronage and attendance, including measures to make venues more accessible to those with special requirements and/or disabilities. In short, they really want lots of people going to these things, which in and of itself is really no bad thing. Furthermore, as someone who finds that the more personalised and exclusive a place feels the more enjoyable, I realise that I am most likely very much in the minority. There have been occasions, however, when the conditions have been, if not ideal, then perhaps as close to ideal as is possible.

The British Museum in London ran an open evening a year ago (not sure if that’s a regular thing) which held an instant appeal for me as I was alone and didn’t feel like either going on a “night out” alone or, well, going back to my hotel room alone. However it seems that almost everyone in the area had the same idea; cue one of the noisiest and busiest sessions at a museum that I think I’ve ever seen. Although this time, I had a secret weapon – earplugs. Along with a resolute will to make the most of a rare free activity in London.

Earplugs made a huge difference to the ability to appreciate objects of antiquity such as the Rosetta Stone and the personal collection of, arguably, the world’s first librarian. It was then that I was able you appreciate what a cool place the British Museum is, especially during an open evening, when you can (almost) imagine that things in there are about to come to life…

More recently, there was an exhibition at the nearby Tramway Theatre involving a special and now-obsolete type of film being used in the photography of a visiting American artist, which required the entire room – the size of a warehouse – to be almost completely blacked out. In fact, here’s the bit I liked – you needed a torch to go in there, because any exposure to light would have been damaging to the type of film being used. Wandering around in an almost completely dark and empty place was intriguing and a bit good-scary, but of course I was unable to take any photos, even if it was allowed nothing would have been properly visible.

The examples above are, as far as I’m currently aware, exceptions to to the general rule. Due to increasing (over)population and the competing need for everyone to be everywhere at all times – and to take the appropriate selfies to prove they were there – very few places have an ambience of retreat and escape. Yet this is perhaps all part of the challenge of modern living, to find a way to both co-exist with fellow people and to create a way of being both original in and true to oneself whilst sharing an experience which, essentially, was designed for the very purpose of being shared by and amongst people.

It is an ongoing challenge, and I’ve no idea how that will work out for me personally in the future.

Books I’ve Been Reading Recently Which Have Made An Impression

Books can be – from time to time – exactly what you need to press the re-set button on your life.

Over the past few months I’ve entered a weird sort of limbo, feeling quite low and not having any particular direction to go in – and then acquiring a lot of additional anxiety to add to the mix. Indeed I originally aimed to write this post two months ago, hence why it is dated to two months before I actually got round to finishing writing the entire thing.

**********

For a brief period of time I tried to re-imagine myself as a travel writer, as one might ascertain from my past few blog posts. Having plenty of spare time, and nothing in particular tying me down to my current residence, I jaunted pretty much wherever I was inspired to go. However, after my most recent trip down to London to volunteer at an animal sanctuary, it was unofficially “the plan” to put another plan in place.

However… one thing I did not account for was the possibility of my mood taking a very sudden downturn – previous existential issues which had been humming in the background of my brain for as long as I can remember suddenly got a lot louder and more urgent, and long story short, I’ve really not been in a very good place recently, brain-wise. Indeed, perhaps it is a good thing that, by this time, I hadn’t acquired any greater commitments to any third parties than a remote part-time gig as a freelance literary study guide writer, with no deadlines set in stone. Because I was about to spend at least a good few weeks getting reacquainted with my old regular companion, anxiety – and its bigger and meaner cousin, existential dread. The extent to which I had failed, repeatedly, to “establish” myself in the greater world’s society and culture, and even just in everyday life (by failing to meet many of the milestones which are normally expected of someone my age), was beginning to weigh heavily upon me. For a good few weeks I could do little other than stay in bed numbing myself with Netflix and Youtube re-runs in a bid to silence the ever-growing voice saying, let’s just say, rather scary things to me.

Whether this would have happened anyway, or whether it was a result of a recent change in medication (which can make you feel much worse in the beginning) I’m still not entirely sure, and I still suffer from recurrent depression and anxiety, only now I can (usually (eventually)) leave my bed, and even the house, at some point during the day. There’s no apparent reason why the very things which had been playing on my mind for a long time should have bothered me so much more but there you go. In a bid to cope, one thing which I ended up doing, which I didn’t realise I was doing all that much of at the time, was reading.

Some of this was work-related, which kept my brain somewhat active, and delayed the spiralling of the thoughts I was beginning to have. But most of it was a bid to seek an escape, and some hope. Below are the books in roughly the order I read them in, except where grouping them together makes better narrative sense.

*For now, I will not apologise for the fact that almost all of these books were acquired via Kindle – when you can’t even get round to renewing your library card and don’t want to risk having to ask someone for books you might be interested in (what a terrible would-be librarian I’ve become!) but still need to read things, then you’ll do things which are normally not quite in line with your principles: for me, that’s giving lots of business to Amazon.*

 

The Humans – Matt Haig

16130537

from the Goodreads website

This author has started to have an increasingly greater influence on my outlook on life. “The Humans” was the first of his books that I read, as part of my study guide writing project, about an alien being from a faraway part of the universe coming to earth with an order to destroy  the main character, Andrew, and take his place while completing the rest of his mission. Initially a coldly rational being who is puzzled by the strange-seeming ways of humans, he begins to slowly adapt and even to come to love his “family”, and ends up protecting them from the very mission which he was originally assigned to. Various aspects of the personality of “Andrew” – the alien – emerge through interactions with the humans around him; he is baffled as to why people eat animals and refuses any meat dishes offered to him (could he be an alien version of a vegan?), why people wear clothes and make certain facial expressions, and otherwise do things for no clear logical reason. The detached perspective on the ways of the human race cast a new light on how people find meaning in life. “Andrew” begins to find it in seemingly small things; music, wine, the poetry of Emily Dickinson (the author and I seem to share a bit of an obsession with Dickinson) – and ultimately in a newfound love for his family. The “rules for life” at the end of the book, which “Andrew” writes for his son, are full of deceptively profound pieces of advice, and it’s quite difficult to be honest to not try out at least a few.

 

The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore

28363972

from the Goodreads website

Another book read for the study guide writing project, “The Last Days of Night” chronicles the dawn of the era of electrical lighting, and the resulting legal war being waged by proclaimed light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison on his immediate rival George Westinghouse. Precocious young lawyer Paul Cravath, attempting to make a name for himself far away from his humble beginnings, is tasked with defending Westinghouse, which seems like an increasingly impossible task given the ruthlessness with which Edison is prepared to defend his patent. Meanwhile New York has become, literally, a beacon of light in the new world of America as Edison’s bulbs, despite their dangerous direct current electricity, begin to adorn the streets, bringing new light – and resulting new possibilities – to the people. Paul rises to the challenge, and soon encounters another major figure from the era, Nikola Tesla, who has developed brilliant and unprecedented visions for scientific progress, including the safe harnessing of alternating current which would see safe and reliable lighting being brought to everyone in the country, and eventually the world. Paul’s attention is soon waylaid by the appearance of actress Agnes Huntington, who seeks his legal assistance for another case and is soon shown to be hiding a secret past life.

The main thing which drew me into this book was the portrayal of the characters, who have dialogue almost exactly of the style which would be used today, and indeed the author has a knack for making the world of late nineteenth century New York feel just as vivid, relevant and contemporary as it is today. The secret desire of Agnes to shed her stuffy facade and cut loose into the less reputable corners of New York high society shows a flicker of rebellion which contradicts the flat and lifeless image which many have of that era. Another key detail which gives the narrative an additional relevance is the use of quotes from key modern figures in science and technology, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the internet (at least as we know it today)), which effectively foreshadow the events shortly to come. As a fan of historical fiction (when done just the right way) the juxtaposition of old and new automatically catches my interest and creates the feeling that the past is not so much a foreign country as a thing which is often overlooked and misunderstood by many, and takes a skilled writer to bring back to life.

 

 

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind – Yuval Harari

 

23692271

from the Goodreads website

 

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Harari

31138556

from the Goodreads website

*I’ll get round to reviewing these two books shortly. They require quite a bit more dissection than I feel capable of right now but trust me – they’re quite something*

 

How To Stop Time – Matt Haig

33590076

from the Goodreads website

The most recent release by the author, “How To Stop Time” is a story about a man called Tom who has lived for over four hundred years, due to having an extremely rare condition – “anageria” – which delays ageing and vastly prolongs life. Over the most recent years he has been starting his life over every eight years in a different part of the world under a different identity, and this time he has chosen to be a history teacher at a school in London. He carries the unimaginable emotional burden of hundreds of years of love, grief and strife, having personally known some of the figures who we consider to be icons today, such as Shakespeare. He meets Camille, a fellow teacher at the school who bears her own emotional burden and with whom Tom begins to fall in love, a thing which he never felt able to do ever again. Almost continually on the brink of having his secret identity uncovered, Tom attempts to come to terms with his past and his condition, and tries to find a way to seek meaning in an unnaturally long life.

In contrast to “The Humans”, “How To Stop Time” casts a new perspective on the significance of the human lifespan by provoking thought on how we experience the passage of time. As the former invites you to imagine landing on Earth from an unfathomable distance, the latter invites you to imagine living several consecutive lifetimes, and what such a life would do physically and emotionally to a person. Also, it has a way of making even the oldest-feeling person feel young, which is something which would benefit me seeing as I feel old all the time.

 

Reasons To Stay Alive – Matt Haig

23363874

from the Goodreads website

This is a book which I put off reading for quite a while, but one day recently, decided that I needed to read as soon as possible. “Reasons To Stay Alive” is the personal account of the author’s struggle with severe depression, recalling the worst of the time with emotional clarity, interspersed with thoughts and musings on the nature of depression and how it is perceived and treated by society at large. As someone who has done battle with anxiety and depression on and off (mostly on) throughout my life, this is a deeply reassuring – and of huge value to many more people – book to have to hand when things feel particularly rough and unmanageable. At first worried that the book would contain mere platitudes on the “meaning of life” and how “life is a precious gift and we must live every day to the fullest extent possible” (which to me is not so much helpful as demoralising because if it really were that easy why is not literally everyone doing it by now?), it instead contained a gently but unrelentingly honest examination of the various nuances in mental state which the author experienced on a day to day basis, when simple tasks seemed impossible and the world took on an intimidating hue. It also recalls how the “cure” for depression did not appear suddenly, or indeed even be really a cure; rather the good days eventually began to outnumber the bad ones, small but memorable steps towards the light were made and the author found solace, primarily, in writing. The resounding message is that depression is a common part of the human condition and that it is up to ourselves to find out what gives our own lives meaning. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on for quite a long time now…

 

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

23903751

from the Goodreads website

Having watched the show “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” in my teeny-bopper years, I was intrigued to find a “re-imagining” of the show in graphic novel form whilst quite urgently seeking out more reading (i.e. distracting) material on Amazon. The instant download option – and the resulting instant gratification – is just too irresistible for someone who now, more often than not these days, does not leave the house. This was… quite a departure from the TV show.

This version is basically an R-rated version of a very PG-rated show, in which Sabrina is a member of a satanic coven of witches who are not averse to casting terrifying curses on, and even killing, those who interfere with them in any way. An initially innocent high school romance turns rapidly into a murder mystery, and Sabrina as a young novice witch must try to navigate this world. Exactly how this will be done remains to be seen.

 

The Little Mermaid – Metaphrog

31451140

from the Goodreads website

Metaphrog are a Scottish graphic artist duo who produce rich and vibrant illustrations, often to accompany traditional fairytales. Their latest, “The Little Mermaid”, tells the original Hans Christian Andersen version (quite different from the Disney one), of the mermaid who gave up her entire life (at first figuratively then eventually literally) for a young man she rescued at sea. Of course I did not read the book for the traditional tale but rather for the evocative imagery accompanying the narrative. For a while I considered a move into graphic novel writing but I never felt confident enough in my illustration skills – once upon a time I was quite adept at using Photoshop but I’m living proof that if you do not continually maintain your skills they will quite rapidly deteriorate until it is as if you never had them in the first place. I consider myself a fan of Metaphrog now and I feel like they will inspire me in the future.

**********

Neil Gaiman once dubbed the humble book as an “empathy machine”, through which anyone can experience another perspective simply by reading. As someone who, more often than is desirable, misses out on the opportunity to flex and exercise my empathy muscle in a more obvious and active way (say by contributing more creative output via actually writing fiction, as I have long aimed but somehow felt unable to do) I settle for absorbing whatever I can, in terms of literature, and trying to write (or photograph, or compose, or something) about my own perspective, in the hopes that it will have any resonance to anyone out there.

Reading – if and when I cannot write, which is the case an embarrassing amount of the time – at least helps me to feel tangentially involved in the wider world (I think the closest term I can think of is the “zeitgeist”  but that sounds unbearably pompous but hopefully you get what I mean) and as if the spark which will finally kick me into action is waiting on a random page – that it’s just a matter of keeping going. Sometimes that really seems to be all you can do because… well, just because.

 

 

 

 

 

 My Foreign Volunteering Experience (well my most recent one)

After attending the TBEX conference in Jerusalem and going on a tour of Jordan, I started a week of volunteering, via an international volunteering organisation, at an animal shelter in Tel Aviv. Once I saw the ad online a few months ago – and saw that a private room (albeit at an extra cost) was available – that was it for me – I had to seize this opportunity. It was the perfect excuse to stay longer in the country, and to make a positive contribution.
I’d heard stories about the “hit and miss” nature of voluntourism, of volunteers paying through the nose to merely have a taster of a volunteering experience without actually making any real difference. I didn’t have a huge amount of money and wanted to be careful, but I also wanted to be open to experiences, as making the effort to do so had paid off before. I’d had a taste of volunteering abroad a year ago, at a vegan animal sanctuary called Pig Village, or by its other name, Jacob’s Ridge, in Spain, which was the perfect volunteering experience. I got to interact with lots of lovely rescue animals, join in with other volunteers mucking out in the sunshine, go for leisure trips in and around the area, camp out in a tent under the stars and enjoy copious amounts of vegan food every day. There was a certain amount to pay for the experience but it was more than worth it, and every penny was going towards the wellbeing and upkeep of the sanctuary. I believe in money well spent, and this was just such a case.
SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

This was one of my first impressions of the place and it only got better from there…

I’m not quite sure I can say the same about my most recent experience. In terms of how much I spent, and in being unsure precisely where that money ended up going – not in what type of volunteering I did, that’s for sure. I always like to interact meaningfully with animals wherever possible and I got such a chance on this occasion.
I did have one or two tiny niggling doubts in the beginning, but the prospect of caring for animals in a place I’ve always wanted to visit was enough of a lure, and being able to do it for just a week was ideal, so that I could see how I liked it before potentially extending the placement. Those niggling doubts began to increase slightly as the significant and non-refundable down payment was made, only for communication to become intermittently mixed up and confused, with different people emailing me through different threads asking for forms which I’d already said several times that I’d sent. A couple of other niggles made themselves known when the travel insurance – included in the price – turned out to basically not cover anyone taking medication. For anything. This essentially rendered the insurance useless, leaving the only outstanding cost being for the price of accommodation for a week. Then the single supplement was quoted, and shortly after, quoted as being even higher – $300 higher – than a dorm room. But this was one thing which I simply could not compromise on – I needed my own room, especially for an entire week of what would most likely be hard but enjoyable volunteering.
Because everything was non-refundable at this stage, I tried to be optimistic and give the benefit of the doubt. I thought, well for that amount of money they’ve probably got a very integrated and involving placement lined up for me. With everything paid up, and hoping for the best, I embarked upon my trip proper, first going to Europe, then to Jerusalem for my conference, then undertaking a three day tour with Abraham Hostels, where I was staying. Then came the induction day, where I’d be joining my fellow volunteers and having a fun day in the city (or one more fun day in the city, in my case) but it was at this meeting that the volunteer coordinator informed me that I was the only one on the placement. I found this very jarring, as it was entirely unexpected, but what made it even more awkward was the still-standing offer to show me round the city, and at this stage my reluctance to be entirely responsible for conversing with someone at this stage in my travels won out as I was pretty damned tired by that stage in my travelling, and  I was also reeling from the disappointment that I’d have no other volunteers with whom to share the experience, as this was a big part of the reason I’d wanted to volunteer in the first place. So I ended up having another aimless wander in the steadily growing heat of the day, first to Damascus Gate, then back for lunch at a veggie cafe, trying to figure out how to best proceed with the placement now that things were very different from what I was expecting.
They say to expect the unexpected – presumably, I’m thinking, as in, a challenge during the programme, an animal which perhaps needs more intensive care than the others, for example, a challenge which I’d try to rise to. But this here – this sudden… what could only be described as a very expensive awkward situation, was truly unexpected. The type of unexpected which I had most certainly not been expecting. However, after a day spent alone, reflecting upon the situation, I decided to take a deep breath and approach it with a good attitude. I thought, when I get to the shelter, I’ll be taken good care of, it won’t matter, surely, that I’m the only one on my placement, I’ll be absorbed into the fabric of the place regardless. I was looking forward to meeting the animals and getting to show them some much-needed care and attention.
The next day, we travelled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to check in to my hostel, and the co-ordinator asked if I wanted to volunteer that day and to be shown around the place. This was something I was definitely up for doing, as I felt that an induction to the organisation was a good start. But it was the phrasing of it as a question – as an option – which puzzled me. The co-ordinator told me that some people choose not to volunteer on the first day and, considering I had only a week on the placement, I found this extremely odd. Why wouldn’t anyone want to go ahead with the induction and tour of the facility? I found it hard to believe that others would willingly forgo a crucial part of their training, especially when they’d paid a fair amount to be there…
**********
We reached the animal shelter and there, the co-ordinator introduced me to the receptionist, one other person (who I never saw again afterwards) and pointed to a guy outside saying I could ask him questions about the animals if I had any. It was at this point that I’d assumed that at least one of the staff members would chip in and start talking to me directly, building a supervisor-volunteer relationship and showing me around the place themselves. But communication would be extremely sparse for the rest of my time volunteering there. I would end up talking to almost no-one else who worked there, and I’ve no idea why, even now. I was then asked to fill in a form ticking the boxes for things I wanted to do, including dog walking, caring for the cats (and other animals), admin, etc. I wanted to appear as flexible as possible.
20170402_133525

One of the dog kennels at the centre

The co-ordinator showed me the main area where the animals were kept and said that I could pick a dog to walk, for twenty minutes, on the leash the entire time. Any dog. Out of like a million. All the dogs started barking manically, desperate to be taken out for a bit of fresh air and exercise. I started welling up inside as I saw and heard the dogs who wanted so little, but so badly. They all looked so imploringly at me, and most of them seemed friendly, if excitable. I could scarcely choose one. We went into the kennel to choose a dog which the co-ordinator recommended, and it was then it was pointed out to me that some of the signs on the kennels were warnings, saying not to take this or that dog out for a walk that day, that they were likely to bite, to treat with extra care or caution. The warnings were entirely in the local language. I expressed my concern that I wouldn’t be able to understand the warnings but the co-ordinator told me to ask a member of staff if I didn’t understand anything. I was worried about how unprepared I’d I’d most definitely have taken the time to learn more of the language had I known how crucial it would be.
Now to take one of the dogs out for a walk. This was the part which I did genuinely enjoy. The overwhelming excitement of the dog I chose to take out for a walk gave me a feeling of joy and satisfaction which I rarely experience, in such concentrated levels, anymore. Saying hello to the dog was fun, having them sniff me out and wonder who I was, if I was worth getting to know. We’d have twenty minutes of fun together, for which I was all game.
So I chose a nice friendly seeming dog and we went for a wander around the yard. The coordinator also chose one and wandered out of sight from me, basically leaving me to it. When encountering another dog walker and their dog, the two dogs started getting very excitable and, before long, difficult to manage. They got their leashes tangled up and I tried to call for help but it took quite a long time for any assistance to arrive. I didn’t know how to manage dogs in this situation, whether to allow them to play fight or not, as I was unable to understand the specific requirements of the dog due to those requirements being written in a different language. But I was told by the co-ordinator, regardless, when I finally got their attention, that I was “doing fine” and when I expressed concern at not knowing what to do, they simply said that I just had  “spend time” with the dogs. Well in theory, spend time with all the animals, but this was going to turn out to be a very dog-based placement for me.
This was a wonderful arrangement in theory, and something I genuinely wanted to do, but due to the circumstances- that I had flown (literally) VERY far outside my comfort zone, taken a major leap of faith and paid a lot of my savings just to come here – it seemed all so… Lacking in structure. 
At this point I’d like to give credit where it’s due. The shelter where I was placed clearly does the very best it can for its animals and is a much needed asset to the city, and indeed the country, for the work it does. It tries to rehome every animal it possibly can, cares for the animals it cannot yet rehome, and relies heavily upon volunteers to give the animals companionship. I certainly felt the sheer weight of emotional expectation, through the intense gaze of each dog in each kennel, the moment I set foot in the place. However, this ambiguity of expectation was, for me, precisely the problem. The very thing which the volunteer co-ordinator, in particular, seemed to be “selling” to me as the main advantage of the placement – its easy-going, laissez-faire, “come when you want to it doesn’t matter either way” nature – which felt entirely misplaced to me. 
Basically I felt that far too much was left entirely up to me, when my predominant expectation, gathering from what I’d learned from the volunteering material I’d been given, was to prepare for a more structured experience. I was certainly no expert in what those vulnerable animals needed (besides a bit of company every now and again) – I’ve interacted plenty with dogs in the past, but not ones with highly volatile and unpredictable natures who, for all I know, could start mauling me if I didn’t know the local lingo for “sit!”, “stay!” or “down!”, where not even Google translate could come to my aid, as there was no app, as far as I could find, which would aid phonetic pronunciation with languages which have an entirely different alphabet structure to the Roman one.
Of course, there is every possibility that this is simply the Tel Aviv attitude. It is renowned worldwide for its laid-back party atmosphere, and perhaps that extends to every facet of life here.

**********

In between my all too brief stints of volunteering, I made the most of exploring Tel Aviv – at least the the greatest extent as was possible while afraid of trying to navigate the local transport system and also with it starting to grow too hot to do too much walking around, as is my usual method of transportation. The problem was that, now that I had rather more spare time than I was expecting, contrary to what one might expect, I actually had far less of an idea of what to do with that time, so much of it was spent aimlessly wandering. Granted, there are far worse places to wander in.

There was definitely a particular ambience about the place, which seemed to finely stride the line between relaxed and frantic, between calm and chaos. It was a marked contrast to Jerusalem, where every second or third person on the street is dressed in traditional Jewish clothing – the young people were pretty much all in the same types of beach-ready clothing you would find in any other cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. Two primary motives were at the forefront of my mind: culture, and vegan cuisine. This search took me through the main market street, which made me realise that I’m probably no longer cut out for marketplaces (and haggling), given the sheer throngs which began to build up as the day went on.

**********

I went in later that day on my own and there was no-one at reception, where I was told I could leave my bag for security, as there were no lockers in the place. I then reluctantly left my bag in a cupboard by the main door (very insecure) and started walking a few of the dogs. I supposed, then, that this was basically the idea – clocking in and winging it. So I determined to make the most of the dogs’ company. One dog in particular I tried to take out walking, as s/he seemed very happy at the prospect of being let outside, but when I entered the kennel, s/he immediately changed his/her demeanour, quivering on the spot, as if terrified of me. After a minute or so of attempted coaxing, I decided the dog wasn’t ready to go out that day. So I tried another one, who seemed far more confident, and it was before long that I realised how different each dog was personality-wise, despite being confined to a shelter and having endured an unknown past. There were shy dogs and outgoing dogs and active dogs and chilled dogs who just wanted to chew acorns while I stood at their side. Every single one of the dogs simply wanted to be happy and to do what came naturally, to be themselves just for a little while. It was always difficult to choose a dog but I just tried to choose one which looked both physically manageable and the most keen to go outside.
20170330_091005

The entrance to the centre

20170330_100330

Too nervous to go out for a walk that day 😦

However, conversing with the other volunteers was an entirely different issue. The other volunteers were all entirely local, and my lack of local language skills was beginning to become painfully apparent, and embarrassing. When the dogs would inevitably start to sniff one another, occasionally escalating into play fighting (and a couple of times, real fighting), this would also, inevitably, bring their respective walkers together for that time. The few volunteers who spoke to me did so in their language, and my sense of social inadequacy was all the more heightened as I had to, repeatedly, ask if they spoke English. I feared that, in their view, I was that typical “entitled foreigner who expects everyone to speak their language without every bothering to learn the local ways of life” – which, I guess in a way I was, but certainly not intentionally. Had I been more aware of the localised, almost grassroots-feeling nature of the organisation, I’d have invested a good few weeks, at least, in a crash course in the language. I always do like to learn the language of any place I’ll be going but, as my levels of concentration are so poor these days I really need to know, in advance, whether it’ll be worth the time and effort (and most likely money) I end up putting in.
I went in the next day, and then the next day, and it was much the same – but again I got the overwhelming feeling that there was just somehow MORE I could, and should, be doing. I was still struggling to choose which dogs to walk, knowing that every single one of them deserved love and affection and companionship and, simply, a reliable friendly face. I realised that this, in itself, was the very thing which I would have appreciated more structure in place in order to cope with – the emotional aspect of the role. Especially being the sole foreign volunteer in a land where I only knew a few words of the language.

 

However, just like the previous time, the animals were what it was all about for me. The same dog who trembled at my approach the day before was confident enough to come out for a walk and, amid bouts of random howling at nothing in particular, liked to gaze out at the greenery outside…

Then there was this little fella here who just wanted to chillax…

20170331_121650

… and yet another dog who seemed to like nothing more than munching on one of the acorns the entire time. I wonder if the acorn tree has some magical properties or something?

 

It was then that I also wondered if maybe I was the one whose expectations were somehow different to what they were supposed to be. Whether I merely needed to check my privilege, pull it together and carry on, whether I was just inventing things to be bothered about, like I tend to do. But I felt compelled to say something, in order to take as much advantage of the opportunity I’d been given as possible.

I emailed the volunteer co-ordinator after one of those days, outlining my concerns, saying that I was becoming increasingly embarrassed that I couldn’t speak the language, that I was expecting them to be more prepared for international volunteers such as myself, that there was no-one at reception when I got there. They agreed to come in with me the next day, promising to resolve the issues, and what happened was that they approached the reception with me, and said something to the same person they’d introduced me to before. And not even in English this time. It was then that, with a sinking feeling, I realised that I was not getting across whatever it was that, deep down, I felt was out of place. And it was then, at the risk of coming across as extremely rude, that I said that I’d be fine just taking it from there on my own. This was the best I could do from then on.

In between these stints I continued to wander aimlessly around Tel Aviv, admiring the overwhelming amount of both cats and graffiti which was to be found everywhere. I even attempted to go for a swim in the sea a couple of times, both times thwarted by how shockingly cold it was, considering how hot the area around the sea was becoming, so I settled for paddling. I began to grow increasingly frustrated with both the almost-anarchic style of driving and the constant pavement cycling, having bikes veering up rapidly in front and behind you all the time. It made walking around a more “jumpy” experience than I would have liked, and somewhat detracted from the otherwise relaxed vibe. I went to the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art, the old town of Jaffa and the only vegan cafe which was open on the Sabbath (which is a big thing in Israel), and the photography opportunities were once again ripe:

Although right here I have to ask something:

20170401_165310

What –

20170331_141940

– is with all –

20170403_111352

– the graffiti?

Not that I’m complaining, quite the opposite. I’ve just never seen the streets used so much as a creative canvas anywhere else I’ve been. Or maybe I’ve just been to all the wrong parts of town…

I attended the centre a couple more times – missing a day (which was extremely guilt-inducing) because I felt, that day, that the stress I would experience from all the disorganisation (and the embarrassment at allowing that stress to become so visible to everyone there) would do more harm than good for the dogs, who rely so much on the company. That’s not even to address the fact that I was supposed to be doing more than walking the dogs. I was supposed to be looking after the other animals there too, but it looked like there was now zero chance of that happening. It seemed as though I was not going to have the chance to talk to anyone, or exchange more than a few words which were something other than a mumbled “I’m sorry I don’t speak the language”, as I continued the rest of the placement not knowing a single person’s name. Or rather, I was told the name of one person who I wouldn’t see again.

Perhaps selfishly, I wanted to feel slightly different than all the hundreds of times I’d signed up for a volunteering placement at home. I wanted to feel something just… more, for making the effort to do such a thing – which I could never quite articulate. In a way, the placement itself had an all too familiar feel, and perhaps I was partially projecting that feeling from those times before, when I’d ended up feeling equally disappointed in my inability to make a meaningful contribution, but either way I’ll never know for sure.
After spending a bit of extra time bidding the dogs goodbye, trying to imprint their faces and their personalities upon my mind for posterity (there was no chance of me doing so with all their names as only one of their names was ever disclosed to me), I took a few photos of the place, walked inside, retrieved my bag, signed out, and walked out of the building for the last time.

20170403_190309

**********
I’ve had some time to reflect on this whole thing, and am still trying to figure out whether I was taken in by a voluntourism corporation, requesting a disproportionate fee in order to do relatively little and leave pretty much everything up to me; whether I was unlucky with the timing, and that if I’d had more of a sense of “community” with fellow volunteers, that I’d have been able to better replicate the positive experience of something like Pig Village a year ago; whether I simply had the wrong attitude, and that I didn’t know how lucky I was to be there and to play such a fleeting role in the lives of the animals, that I should have just shut up and kept my niggles to myself and proceeded with a smile.
Or whether I had, for the millionth time in my life, fallen prey to my own AS, struggling with the “unexpected unexpected”, rather than the Unexpected Which I Had Already Been Expecting, with being entirely responsible for my own schedule, with being entirely in charge of making the experience. Assuming I’d manage far more easily than I ever tend to actually do.
Whether it was a case of being the right place – but the wrong placement – for me.
In any case, it’s been another experience, another “thing I’ve done”, which I can add to my list of things I’ve tried at some point in my life. A thing which has given me pause for thought many a time since coming home, turning over and over in my mind, examining from every angle, wondering how I managed to end up feeling this way about something which was meant to be positive Yet Again.
It makes me wonder how I’d cope with future volunteering – which has become an accidental hallmark of my life, in such a way as it does when you do reliably secure regular employment for quite a long time. Volunteering, by its definition, means giving up one’s time for a good cause, and to, incidentally, gain something which does not have monetary value. But again circumstances have a far bigger role to play than one might assume. If I’d approached this placement – and indeed any of my other placements in the past – with the attitude which, in retrospect, I can now say I should’ve done, I cannot help wondering if I’d had “The Experience” which I hear and read so many travellers, on so many blogs, proclaim to be the best thing they’d ever done. To have been, for all the right reasons, unforgettable. To actually rely on being welcomed back at the place at some point in the future.
Such experiences for me are rare, to the point of being uncertain that any of them even exist, even the ones which I consider to be the most positive. Even placements which I look fondly upon now give me the vaguely uneasy feeling that there was some aspect, some detail, which I neglected to notice at the time, which was all too apparent to anyone else there.
Now I am no longer convinced of the benefits of voluntourism. Volunteers whose skills really are badly needed will usually either have their food and accommodation paid for them or even be given a living wage, and of course I was under no illusions that I was going to make such a significant difference in my short time volunteering. I most definitely wasn’t expecting to be paid for my piffling contribution, or anything. I’ve since read and watched material online of the potential harm that voluntourism can do if done wrong, that it is not uncommon for young people on their gap year (who at least, unlike me, have the excuse of being too young to know any better) to look for a “gap year with a difference”, to add a little something extra to their CV. Volunteering abroad is very “in” right now, as the guilt of complacency and affluence, which many middle class westerners have begun to feel en masse, has begun to set in. Thus the perfect marriage of the holiday, and of benevolent contribution, was born. People will pay extortionate amounts of money in order to be placed in a situation which one would normally assume would require those with some amount of expertise. People are let loose in classrooms of children, a run-down village, a parched landscape, a wildlife sanctuary, and basically left to improvise. Some of these people even recall being told that once they are gone, their work is simply undone, as if it never happened, until the next batch of people come in to do the exact same thing. The sheer weight of emotional responsibility to their charges was in direct inverse correlation to the amount of actual skills and experience required for the position.
If the potential volunteer is anything like me, the sheer investment made before even travelling to the place raises a certain amount of expectation, lending the impression that more will be expected of me than your “average” stint of volunteering. However, the odds are most likely that the potential volunteer is not like me, that they simply want to go on a holiday with a feel-good-factor thrown in. Not a bad intention, for sure, everyone wants to feel like they’re doing something good while feeling good all at once. I certainly do. I still do. Yet one has to carefully weigh up exactly what they want to do, and the consequences of that desire, in as far as they can anticipate those consequences reaching.
I want to volunteer with animals again. I want to make a much better impression the next time round than I did this time. But I will have to better manage myself, check myself, prepare myself for the unforeseen nuances of reality. For how things actually tend to be. I will have to try to expect the “unexpected unexpected” next time.

 

FOMO vs YOLO

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

 

*This post was originally totally different, but I’ve had something of a turnaround in opinion in the past few weeks or so, for reasons which I won’t bore you with right now. It was originally meant to be a critique of the pressure to go travelling without regards to personal circumstances which may hinder someone’s ability to do so, but having read even more on the subject since publishing, I’d done something of a 180 and would like to present the new post here.*

FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) has been plaguing me for many years now, for at least half my life, and a lot of the time I feel like I’m always in the wrong place at the wrong time, having *just* missed out on a life-changing opportunity by the skin of my teeth, and that if I’d only done this or that thing everything would’ve been different and awesome, and that it’s all my fault for not trying hard enough – “don’t you know it’s SO easy now in this eternally connected world so you have NO EXCUSE!” – and generally not being “savvy” enough to what’s hip and happening.

In recent times I’ve tried to combat this by applying for endless jobs (many of which I know deep down I’ve no chance in hell of getting), going on trips here and there (within the limits of what I can afford) because I do like to every so often, but also often just to prove to/remind myself and everyone that I can, and following/tweeting people constantly and obsessively on social media. But even then it feels like the “party” is always just around the corner – somewhere – and only just out of earshot, and that if I just stay alert and accessible at all times then I won’t be the person I once was, who used to miss out on so much and who didn’t even have the privilege of realising this until it was too late.

Somewhere along the line, I got the message that as long as I showed up, looked interested, and was ready for the action at any time, then the rest would follow, even if my head and my heart were a million miles away, or didn’t even want to be close by. From my earliest days spent actively attempting to socialise and to fit in, what I wanted and what I was interested in, the things which I never even got round to really sharing with anyone else, eventually gave way to an abstract idea of how to do things the right way. After all, if everyone else is managing to do the things you love doing even better than you, then you must be missing a trick somewhere…

After half a lifetime slowly neglecting what truly interested me, in favour of the *chance* to be what mattered to everyone else, it’s a long way back again. A long, vague and lonely trail, barely discernible in the ground below and before me, leading and tapering into the distance. Not even definitely going anywhere.

How to get the mojo back again, however, of what I really want from life – which I only have a vague memory of now – that is something which I may need to embark upon a whole new journey to find out if it’s even possible to recapture. But I am (very) slowly but surely attempting to piece together some semblance of the person I was before FOMO started kicking in and kicking everything about me out of my life.

One thing I do love these days – and don’t have to force – is photography. I love going to a new and interesting place (when I’m in the right mindset to do so), taking a great picture from an unusual angle, and revisiting the scene on my screen later at my leisure. Presenting, arranging, contextualising and – urgh – *promoting* said photography, on the other hand, is the current challenge.

Also, I’ve found that whenever I try my hand at anything new, I find that I fall into a pattern of starting out with a fresh enthusiasm, albeit tempered with an increasing apprehension of learning new things as I advance in life, and before too long becoming so frustrated with my sense of ineptitude and inability to “get into the flow” that it just becomes one more thing to add to my Quit Collection. More recently, as I’ve attempted to stretch my wings and venture further from home, travelling is becoming the latest Thing where I start to feel that old familiar apprehension. Just when I feel like I’m “onto something”, the feeling that I’ve missed something crucial and major starts to creep in – that I could’ve had the “true experience” if you’d only done all the things which make you extremely uncomfortable – until you end up feeling that you might as well not even try.

However recently I’ve started to “chance” upon the odd website where I’ve started to see a more heartening attitude which hints at the possibility that I might not be doing everything completely wrong. The message – if it can be called one – appears to be that, while there is so much to be said for going “off the beaten track”, it becomes problematic when it reaches the stage of condescension of those who don’t do everything the hardest way conceivable just for the “true adventure” – travel snobs, if you like. For example, I love to travel (when it’s a good time for me) but due to my particular circumstances – my need for my own space, for example – would struggle to forgo a private room, even just a tiny one, for an extended period of time. Or indeed, frankly, any length of time. However, on pretty much every travel blog I’ve encountered the praises are duly sung of hostelling and “mingling” effortlessly with others there, likes bees to honey. (I’m pretty sure that’s an acceptable vegan analogy, no honey being stolen by humans here!)

However, not all experiences are going to be the same for every person, and indeed what would even be the point in travelling if you did literally exactly the same thing as everyone else. The whole “beach party in Goa” and “yoga on top of a fjord in Norway” and “being at one with the trees in a place where the writer clearly drove to while denouncing all forms of technology while tweeting and clearly having someone taking their “selfie”, while undeniably a positive experience for whoever enjoyed it enough to shout about it from the rooftops, is becoming just a sufficiently recurrent theme to give momentary pause, in which to reflect as to whether this is really what one wants to do, rather than what they feel like they have to do, in order to have that truly Instagram-friendly lifestyle.

What I find especially encouraging about the article is that it dispels many of the myths which women are faced with all too often, and which I’ve allowed to permeate my perception of the world – that it’s simply not safe out there. That I’m at risk of making a fool of myself at best, and at worst… well, in a pretty bad situation. With or without my life. In the end, it seems to be a case of discerning the difference between inspiration and pressure – between the voice inside and the demands coming from outside. That can be a challenge in itself a lot of the time.

For now, FOMO and YOLO (You Only Live Once, for those not up to date on their annoying lingo) remains an act of delicate balance, one which with my lack of co-ordination, will require significantly more practice.