More volunteering, and the Tao Te Ching: Verse 76

This morning I travelled into the city to see my dentist for perhaps the sixth time this year (mainly for my bashed in face, but also for general check up/cleaning. I really don’t think I need to see her every six months, but I can never say no to her because she’s just so darn cute). After the appointment, I had about an hour to spare before I needed to head off for another appointment. I contemplated doing some shopping, but I decided I’d go to PAWS and do some casual volunteer work instead. I got there about an hour and a half before opening time, but they let me in anyway. The only people that were there were the dedicated/employed staff who were setting up for the day- there were no other volunteers yet. I helped out by folding some tea towels, making a green juice (Bethwyn would be so proud) and decorating a raw pizza. It all took a surprisingly large amount of time, but it was fun work with great company. I think Hadley, the manager, is getting more used to me being around, and he didn’t seem to mind that I was helping Carly prepare the food behind the counter. I hope that maybe he’d be okay if I helped prepare and serve food more often- I think there’s more joy in that than washing dishes (though they’re both important tasks).

I talked to Carly about the sort of people that volunteer at PAWS. From her observations, many of them were court-ordered into some voluntary community service, or needed to work in order to receive welfare payments. Most of those people tended to be unhappy, hanging around the back, trying to do as little as possible and still get away with it. It was really unpleasant being around such people, but working with Carly and Hadley in the kitchen felt great! It was so wonderful to open my heart and embrace the work, given out of love of service to others. Plus, I got some free cake to go with it! I’ve decided that, despite how delicious and vegan PAWS cake is, it really does make my stomach hurt. I’m just not used to eating so much processed sugar, so a few bites is plenty for me. I look forward to more early mornings and late evenings, when the company will be more enjoyable.

 

Now, onto the verse I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for. This verse reminds me of waves crashing upon the rocks; in order to survive, they disperse their momentum and dissolve into mist. If they tried to solidify like chunks of ice, they would be shattered. Instead, their momentum allows them to withdraw with the waning moon and try again eternally. In a very basic martial sense, there is a notable difference between meeting an attack head on, and melting out of the way at the moment where it would impact you. For instance, if I was soft and yielding as someone punched me in the arm, the impact would be negligible and the effect would be like trying to punch leaves off a tree (as opposed to being rooted and solid like the trunk). In a philosophical sense, I see little point in being argumentative, obstinate or dominant. So many of life’s problems can be weathered by bending like grass in a storm, without giving up what we believe in. How senseless it is to try and be a hard ass!

 

Verse 76 [my interpretation]

Humans are born soft and gentle,
and when they die they are hard and stiff.
All things in nature are soft and pliable in life,
and dry and brittle in death.

Thus it might be said that stubbornness and rigidity lead to death,
where flexibility and adaptability lead to life.

An army that cannot yield will be defeated.
A tree that cannot bend will crack in the wind or be uprooted.
The hard and inflexible will be broken;
the soft and yielding will prevail.

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PAWS

There’s a small vegan cafe in Perth called PAWS (People and Animal Welfare Society). I’ve eaten there many times, thoroughly enjoying their vegan products, hot food and amazing raw cakes. One afternoon as I was having lunch with my friends, the man who was serving the food handed us the green juice we’d ordered with a smile and an utterly sincere wish for us to have a nice day. His love and kindness radiated from him like a beacon, and it suddenly struck me that he was a volunteer. I instantly saw myself in the same role, able to provide the same service with warmth and kindness in my heart. I talked to the manager about volunteering, and after a slight hiccough from forgetting about gashuku, I organised to come in this morning!

The day didn’t start off that well. I once again underestimated how long I can dawdle, and by the time I left to catch the train Mum had to drop me at the station so I wouldn’t miss it. Twenty minutes later when I got to Perth, I realised that I’d left my umbrella at Kenwick. I talked to the transit guards and they sent someone to look for it, but the search turned up negative. I left my contact details with TransPerth so they’ll call me if it turns up, but I think it rather unlikely. That’s okay. I know that umbrellas get lost all the time, so you might say it was inevitable, or that it’s in the nature of umbrellas to get lost. Just like every glass has a crack in it that will one day shatter it, I think every umbrella is destined to either be lost or broken. Besides, the next few days are going to be rainy, so it’s good that I was able to pass on my quality umbrella to someone who needed it. It also gives me an excuse to use my ninjato umbrella more, so no harm done really! And perhaps I might even be able to justify purchasing that dream umbrella I’ve wanted for years…

Arriving at PAWS late, Hadley, the manager was already preoccupied interviewing someone else. At his signal, I headed inside the cafe, sat on a couch and started writing tuide drills in my budo no hon– the journal I keep about the martial arts. About an hour and a half passed as I busily scribbled away, surprised at how much I had to write and how much more I had yet to go. I figured Hadley would call me when he had a moment, so I ordered a delicious raw lunch with some exquisite raw tiramisu (though after enjoying the first bite, my stomach started hurting from the sugar and coffee- I think I’ll just have to stop eating cake entirely T_T). It seemed Hadley never had a spare moment so I finally decided I’d take the initiative and see if he still needed me. He said “Yeah man, you’ve filled out the form?” I answered in the affirmative, and he said I could start right now, leading me into the kitchen to dry dishes.

It wasn’t glorious work, but I was grateful to be helping an organisation I loved for values I supported. The tiny kitchen had four other people in it, and though I was nervous, I made myself as useful as possible. I I got to know them all over the two and a half hours I washed dishes and cut up beetroot. My idealism quickly began to fade as I realised that, apart from the awesome serving staff, the other volunteers were not good-hearted vegans who wanted to give back to the community. They are all “obliged” to volunteer in exchange for government income support, and PAWS was an easy place to work. Two of the ladies spent an extra twenty minutes on lunch and snuck back in, hoping Hadley wouldn’t see them. They then hung around the kitchen watching us work, and when told to find something to do, walked out into the cafe, pretended to look for dishes to wash, and then came back down to the kitchen. I felt like turning to them and saying “Well, you’re here now, and you have to be here, so you may as well enjoy opening your heart to the work and serving others. You might find it much more pleasurable than complaining and counting the minutes away.” I thought it would be pretentious to come into a new environment where they’d been working for months and tell them what to do. Plus… They didn’t seem ready to hear it. I think they (and everyone else in the kitchen) would have just turned on me, because while they were at different levels of servitude and humbleness, I don’t think any of them were doing it because they enjoyed it. Plus I learned about their trouble in high school, their teen pregnancies, their opinions of the police and other such gossip. It was quite disheartening.

I haven’t lost all hope though. No, the company isn’t great, but I’m going to go back and volunteer on another night of the week when no one else wants to work. I imagine that the remaining staff will be dedicated and loving and enjoyable company, though I’m open to the idea of being proved wrong.

I’m a little worried that I’ve made a mistake in working for a place I love. It’s like the error of meeting your childhood hero- when you learn their flaws, you lose faith in the ideals that you saw in them. I fear that by overexposure to the smells and tastes of the food I’ll appreciate it less. And that by creating negative associations with the staff there, I’ll end up not enjoying being at the cafe. We’ll see how things go, but for now… Fingers crossed!