The first time I volunteered at Knox Prairie Community Kitchen’s twice-monthly free dinners I was nervous. We were given good instructions but I still felt unsure of myself and when the church basement filled with more than one hundred strangers, my muscles tightened and my pulse began to race. As the evening wore on I filled water glasses, cleared away plates, and relaxed enough to commit to returning in two weeks for the next dinner.
For several months, I showed up at 4:45 p.m. and listened to instructions urging us to treat everyone as we expect to be treated and to get all the food waste off the plates. I poured coffee, found extra napkins, brought dinners to those with limited mobility, and pushed all the food waste off the plates. When the last guest finished, I sometimes stayed to help clean up but most often I headed home. As I walked to my car, I would feel as if I was returning to my body. Spending two hours thinking only of the task in front of me, only of the people who needed my help, there was no space in my mind for my normally obsessive attention to myself. My ego was on a holiday. But our egos aren’t interested in time off.
KPCK is like a lot of all volunteer-run organizations—if you stick around long enough they put you in charge. Within a few months, I was the one providing careful instruction on how we treat our guests and how to clear a plate to satisfy the dishwashers. I arrive in early afternoon to help cook and I stay until the last dish is returned to the cupboard.
I enjoyed these responsibilities until I didn’t, until I became completely identified with my role in the group. When that happened, my ego became a howling chorus of complaints, blame, and criticism: volunteers leave too much food on plates, guests go to the dinner line before I’ve directed them to do so, another Board member disagreed with me. The time I spent with KPCK was no longer a respite, a way to get outside myself but just another manifestation of my ego’s need to be center stage.
I’m trying to remember to pause, to pay attention when the controlled chaos of dining room threatens to overwhelm my desire to make these dinners a joyous occasion for the other volunteers and especially for our guests. Many of our guests experience alienation and isolation because their presence in the world makes the rest of us uncomfortable. I have the opportunity to make eye contact with each person who walks into that dining room, to make sure they know I see and recognize our shared humanity. When I lose myself in that moment, I am found.