Between the last two summers of my undergraduate career, I volunteered with the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s state chapter, NAMI Florida. There wasn’t much for me to do as a new volunteer it seemed. I spent a great deal of time playing with green Excel spreadsheets, blue Word documents, and sort of pink Access databases. I enjoyed the work all the same and I enjoyed being of assistance to Carol, my supervisor and NAMI’s only paid staff member. For those who have not yet come to face-to-face with the work of a struggling non-profit, allow me to assure you that “the struggle is real.” The office desperately needed help yet after a month with NAMI, I found myself as its only volunteer. Throughout my senior year, I worked hard to resolve that issue–my primary focus was reworking the system in which the office recruited and maintained volunteers. Overall, it was an exhilarating and soul-sobering journey. There is truly no experience like that of being completely unprepared to host volunteer orientations for persons both older and wiser than you. A strange, unwarranted yet inevitable, rush. However, 8 to 10 months with my proud title as Volunteer Coordinator/Office Manager did well to humble me; it wasn’t long until I felt calm and seasoned. The position gave me perspective.
I gave a great deal of volunteer orientations at NAMI. Carol and I constantly joked that we would respond to 30 volunteer interest requests, have 10 people agree to attend the orientation, 5 physically show up, 2 decide to actually volunteer, and maybe 1 who would stay. It wasn’t much of a joke considering the truth behind it. Nevertheless, we pressed on. I wasn’t without any luck though. By the end of the academic year, we had a group of somewhat steady volunteers and were casually accepting a couple newbies to fill the spots of students leaving town for summer vacation. Already, this situation was more favorable than being the lone volunteer. I didn’t believe that it was possible to find myself in an even more favorable situation at this point, though this was before I met Matt.
As previously mentioned, conducting a volunteer orientation has the potential to be incredibly awkward. In addition to said potential, there is little chance that the awkwardness pays off in the form of successfully cajoling others towards seeing the long-term value in answering the phones, dating the Microsoft suite, and fighting copying machines for a minimum of five hours a week. For whatever reason, Matt was able to sort through all the static that I imagine I output during his volunteer orientation (it was one of my earlier attempts). He was helping out at the office within a week or two’s time.
During my time at NAMI I trained my fair share of volunteers. The majority lost interest quickly. Granted, I couldn’t blame them. Most tasks were mundane, repetitive, and, without full perspective, appeared to be more a means to an end than anything else. I was delighted that Matt was somehow able to see what I saw; able to appreciate how our monotonous, seemingly meaningless office labor was able to lift an enormous amount of pressure off Carol. Ultimately, this allowed her to better serve the 25+ local NAMI affiliates across the state of Florida who, in turn, provide compassion, education, and support to thousands of families and individuals struggling with mental illness. Matt was able to visualize this potential—Matt cared.
It didn’t take long for us to get to talking, really talking. On many occasions, Matt and I found ourselves distracted from our duties in the office, immersed in conversation. It was the kind of exchange that for whatever reason feels imperative while it’s happening, demands a presence. On these occasions, Carol never stopped us. I like to think that she saw value in us. Eventually, we took this pressure off Carol and decided to meet for a beer after lots of beating around the bush and avoiding asking the other to actually “hang out” on multiple occasions.
Since that first beer (beers), our meetups have become regular, developing a sort of ritual to them. Each Sunday we meet at Tallahassee’s Black Dog coffee shop, 50 feet from the shores of Lake Ella, to speak simply about our weeks and, afterwards, about our lives as a whole. I think we both have realized that there is always a great deal to talk about if you’re willing to talk about it. Those first beers were finished within an hour or two. The same time frame applies to our coffees, only now we tend to stay a whole two to three hours after the ceramic mugs are emptied. In short, Sundays are wonderful.
I recall one of our early meetups in September when we met with a cloudy sky, light drizzle, and a slammed Black Dog that forced us onto the outdoor deck (also slammed). Somehow, we stumbled into claiming the last table. By noon though, the light rain had left the deck virtually empty with the exception of a woman reading to our left. Our small two-person was sandwiched between two larger circular tables with enormous umbrellas, neither of which were large enough to grace us with their cover. We carried on with conversation—a little rain was not enough to disrupt our coffee.
It was only the previous Sunday when the serenity of Lake Ella was shattered by the overtone of an alarmed automobile. Without going into too much detail, the car’s performance was extensive and the conductor, nowhere to be found. Most people on the deck grew suddenly angry or distracted, looking around for an explanation. Our conversation however, remained untouched, without disruption. I hadn’t experienced anything quite like it before. In similar situations, I find myself tending to my partner in conversation, who is often aggravated by the unexpected intermission. Personally, I’m not bothered; I spent 6 years playing on drumlines. I understand why it can be frustrating for most though, and usually allow the situation to play itself out.
In both situations, I found myself comforted. Knowing that Matt’s and my words were immune to distractions that, ultimately, had no impact on the quality of our conversation was oddly touching. We kept talking; it was that easy. This was a small observation, sure, but it gave me the impression that our time together was significant, at least more so than loud noises. That next week, our clothes got wet, the deserted coffee mugs began to pool with water, and we hardly paid the rain notice.
Before our meetups became truly regular, I remember finding myself hesitant, sometimes eager to leave towards the end. What were we doing here? Talking? About what?… There was something that kept bringing me back to Black Dog each Sunday, I couldn’t help it. Those conversations out on the deck finally put it all together for me though. I can refocus in class if I need to, listen to my friends vent for hours, none of that has ever been a problem for me. I’ve even been told on occasion that I’m a “good listener.” That being said, Matt puts me to shame. Never have I been in the presence of a person so distant from distraction and so tethered to the person in front of them. Even in a world free of technological interference and social media mental billboards, Matt still wins this game ten out of ten times—his focus is unparalleled.
Since our casual talks at NAMI and our regular Sunday rendezvous, Matt and I have discussed a wide variety of topics. We’ve spoken in depth about subjects that make me squint and look around with tug-at-your-sleeve wonder and we’ve shot the shit for hours when we should’ve been doing homework. Many of Matt’s words stick with me as I’m sure many of mine may with him. “You need to find your ‘must’s’ in life,” he often reminds me.
I’ve never been to Los Angeles yet I’ve heard stories about a population that deals out kindness like an worthless currency. In an effort to build connections and succeed, it reminds me of crabs in a bucket, mindlessly piling atop one another, grasping for something better. Regardless of whether or not there is any reality behind the supposed LA paradigm, I think it’s safe to say that we all fall victim to it from time to time. Matt’s and my relationship feels like the opposite of this scenario. I have never felt like less of a distraction. I feel like a ‘must.’
Recently, I started a project entitled The Little Picture. Though it’s not yet ready for the public, the goal is to shine a spotlight upon the sparkle and glow of the ordinary—the ordinary that occurs all around us, each and every day. I believe that we all find ourselves occasionally too caught up within the future of what ‘could’ or ‘will’ be. After all, the big picture can be terrifying. The small stories we share amongst our close friends after a long day at work, the moments that embellish our life and paint the canvas’ gaps in vibrant color are what I consider “the little picture.” While my project focuses more on specific moments and less on individuals, I’m excited that The Last Word has encouraged me to speak more to the latter for their publication in particular. I believe that a large portion of all of our little pictures are made possible through interaction with others.
Matt has played a large role in fostering my creation of The Little Picture, giving up countless bits of our study hours to help tweak my project. When discussing those who contribute fineness, embellishment, and meaning to my own life and the world in general, there is no better individual to open conversation with than Matt.
So a special thanks to my good friend Matt who shares his little picture with me, even in the rain.
By RYAN ALEVY / Columnist
Ryan Alevy attends Florida State University as a first year Masters of Social Work student. In addition to school, Ryan enjoys spending his free time with friends and crying over the closing of Tallahassee’s Midtown Pass, a restaurant formerly home to the city’s best 50 cent wing Wednesdays. A frequent player of Super Smash Bros., a Nintendo fighting style game, he enjoys getting leveled by his roommate and close friends. In regards to macaroni and cheese, Ryan prefers boxed Kraft with little to no water added to the pasta/powder mixture.