Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Pitching in

This was the quote from my daily inspirational email yesterday: "Penetrate the heart of just one drop of water, and you will be flooded by a hundred oceans." Mahmûd Shabistarî, The Mystic Rose Garden.

It’s certainly true, I thought to myself a touch ruefully, but I’m not sure I’d call it inspirational.

Though I know this wasn’t the intent, I felt that I was indeed being flooded by a hundred oceans for having penetrated one drop of water – if the drop of water was the statement “Yes, I’ll help with that effort” and the hundred oceans were follow-up requests to not only “help with that,” whatever the request may have been for, but to in fact lead the charge.

Last month, a friend was organizing a charity dinner for 100 guests. She emailed me to ask if I would make a dessert. At least that’s what I thought she said. But it turned out I misunderstood by one tiny yet critical word: “a.” Only after I’d enthusiastically agreed to do so – I love baking, and the flourless chocolate torte she had in mind for the menu sounded fun to make – did I reread her request and discover she wasn’t asking me to make “a” dessert; she was asking me to make dessert. As in, all the desserts. As in, flourless chocolate torte for 100.

At first I was amused by my misunderstanding, then a little appalled. Why had I been so quick to say yes, and how could I now explain that I hadn’t really meant I’d take on the responsibility for 100 slices of cake? But then I realized it was time to step to the plate and do my part to help. My friend was coordinating the entire rest of the dinner; surely I could find a way to crank out 13 cakes over the next four weeks.

Then yesterday I received a phone call from my friend Heidi who wanted to know if I’d help put together a memory book for a teacher who is retiring from our kids’ school this June. “I’m not very artistically creative,” I confessed to her, “but sure, I’ll help.”

This morning I got an email from the retirement party coordinator. “Thanks so much for telling Heidi you’d be in charge of the memory book,” it said.

If three times is the charm, I suppose it was inevitable that this would happen once again. Another friend asked if I thought my kids would be willing to help serve food at a church event. I checked with them and confirmed they would indeed be willing, and told her I’d help serve as well. “Great, then I’ll put you in charge of the serving,” she said.

I don’t really think I’m miscommunicating my intentions to all these people. I just think that everyone needs more help with whatever they’ve taken on, and if you don’t say “No!” in your loudest outdoor voice, it’s taken as a “Sure, sign me up to lead the effort.” I’m actually not that effective as a project manager. I’m much better at doing the grunt work than delegating. With the chocolate tortes, my mother offered to split the job with me, and then a few other members of the charity’s leadership committee said they’d make a cake or two as well, but I’m not great at telling people what to do, which might make being in charge of the church meal servers difficult for me; and I’m not good at making scrapbooks at all.

But oh well. I’ve come to realize that sometimes the biggest favor you can do someone who is herself already doing a good deed is just say the magic words “Yes, I’ll do what you need me to do.” There are other people in the school community who are better at making scrapbooks, but they haven’t offered. There are also other adults at church who are better at marshalling child labor, but they haven’t stepped forward.

So perhaps I have indeed pierced the heart of those particular raindrops, in the words of Mahmûd Shabistarî, and been deluged with a small ocean as a result. If there was something I really didn’t think I was capable of, I’d just say no. But this spring, everyone I know seems to be involved in various volunteer efforts, and if they’re going to participate generously, then so will I. We’ll make it work out together. And next time, I’ll be a little more careful to ensure that I’m signing up to make one dessert and not one hundred.

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