I was shelving books in the library at my daughter’s elementary school yesterday, something I do every week, when an older student, probably in second or third grade, asked me why I was there.
“I’m putting the books back on the shelves,” I told her.
She eyed the cart which was still relatively full of books. I had only just begun the afternoon’s work. “That’s going to take f-o-r-e-v-e-r,” she moaned in the way little kids can believe that any task of longer duration that five minutes can last an eternity.
“Maybe an hour or more,” I said matter-of-factly.
She turned her head to one side. “Do you work here?” she asked.
“I volunteer,” I told her.
To this girl, whom I have known for about a year, I said, “Because the books have to get back on the shelves so you can find them.” Inside, though, I began to look for a better answer, one closer to the truth for myself.
Last week the librarian, a sweet woman who will retire at the end of this school year, invited me to read stories to the children as part of Read Across America day. I put on my best reading voice and read Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, and The Sacred Banana Leaf. The children sat before me enraptured as I put as much animation into my reading as I could muster, being goofy and wild and reading not only with my voice but with my whole body. I would stop and ask the kids questions about the pictures, or about the story, or about the words. One little girl began a long tale herself about one of the creatures in the Dr. Seuss book. I finally said hers was the kind of story I’d like to read and that she should write it down.
When I returned the next day, my usual volunteer day, she asked me to read again. I was honored and eager to share my love of words with even more children. If found it calming and strangely relaxing to have an audience of a group of children. As I read the stresses of my life outside of the classroom seemed to vanish. For just a short time there was only me and a book and a room full of eyes soaking up my the words I spoke.
As I went back to shelving books after the little girl walked back to her classroom, I thought about that day reading to the kids, and thought about the calm I feel when reshelving the books. They are somewhat the same. For two hours every week I enter that building and become nothing more than a man who puts books on a shelf. I feel calmed by alphabetizing and ordering and restocking those shelves. I’m not just putting the books back, but I’m also making the books available for the children, putting them where they belong so they can be found again. It may seem rather Sisyphean, but so much of life is. We clean the dishes only to dirty them again. We wash the car only to drive it through dirty streets. We make the bed only to sleep in it again.
I volunteer because I enjoy giving something back to my community. Because I enjoy being part of this community. Because doing this helps ground me and center me and reminds me that so much of life is full of the mundane, and that if I don’t enjoy the mundane I might not enjoy life. As a friend told me just last night, “No one told me life wasn’t supposed to be fun.”
What about you? Do you volunteer? Do you make time for “down time”? Do you make your life fun? Comment below.