On being ... cloistered

Cloistered is one of those words I’d never really thought that much about. But, I guess somewhere along the way it entered my subconscious, where it unobtrusively lounged around – until other day.

At first I couldn’t imagine why the word came to me. I thought it might have something to do with a catchy old Todd Rundgren song – Onomatopoeia – that I’ve been listening to in my car lately. But, cloister isn’t really onomatopoeic, though I do find it has a neat feel when you say it (which, I think, is part of the appeal of onomatopoeic words).

So, my puzzlement grew. I decided to look the word up, thinking maybe I was wrong about the definition. Since it comes from the word cloister, which I’ve always thought of as a place nuns live, I couldn’t imagine how it could have any relevance to my life. (I’ve never so much as met a nun, much less ever thought of being one, though, alas, it’s not because the idea of being celibate is foreign to me.)

While there’s definitely a religious overtone to the word (the first definition of cloister in my dictionary is: “a place of religious seclusion, monastery or convent”), another entry is clearly more secular: “any place where one may lead a secluded life”. On reading this I realized the word popped into my head because my subconscious had already realized what my conscious mind hadn’t: the uncomfortable feeling that I’ve been leading the 21st century equivalent of a cloistered life.

Let me explain. (Don’t worry – I’m not going to talk about celibacy. I threw that in earlier just for fun – and to make my sisters squirm a bit.) I think most people who know me wouldn’t think I’m particularly cut off or secluded from the world or from others. I read two daily newspapers and I look to a variety of sources for news, information and opinions, as I try to get a handle on the different sides of issues, topics and social phenomena. On top of that, I swing in a pretty educated, articulate circle and social issues often come up.

And yet, the other day – from a most unlikely event – I realized how sheltered I am from the reality of what others are dealing with. The event was an information session at the local United Way office to learn about grants they’re making this year for projects aimed at immigrants. I went to the information session to see whether the food bank I’m on the board of might want to apply for such a grant.

Since I’m fairly new on the board, I’m still learning about all that the food bank does and about the population it serves. One thing I do know, however, is that we’re cash strapped, so there are very few funding opportunities we turn our back on. I had looked at the information available about these grants and I didn’t really think we would qualify. But, I was available so I agreed to go to the meeting, figuring I might gain some insights into grant writing (one of the tasks I’ve kind of taken on at the food bank).

I had some familiarity with the United Way because long ago, when I was employed at a large firm, I ran the campaign for my department. But, I never had any exposure to the funding side of the United Way. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about the meeting, but I was taken aback when I walked in and found at least 50 people of all ages, races and colours in the audience. I think my shock had to do with the realization that so many charities were chasing the same, very limited, dollars. (Not to mention that the United Way was expecting the same number of people at an afternoon session.)

It turns out that under this program, the United Way plans to fund grants ranging from $10,000-$50,000, with a total of $300,000 available. Please don’t misunderstand me: $10,000 is about 10% of the food bank’s budget, so we’d be thrilled to get that much. But as I was listening, I couldn’t help think about what a drop in the bucket $300,000 is in so many other contexts. (Just think, for example, about the value of stock options dolled out to execs, or the money spent trying to keep peace (much less to wage war), or money paid to professional athletes, or even corporate advertising budgets.)

And if those thoughts weren’t depressing enough, the second half of the meeting was absolutely humbling, as each person was asked to describe the work their charity does. There was a woman’s shelter that has a majority of clients from African countries, an organization representing immigrant nannies who’re taken advantage of by their employers, an organization focusing on helping Spanish-speaking teens because the drop-out rate for such kids is the highest of all immigrant populations, a group that helps immigrants who had professional designations in their home countries become qualified as professionals here, and many, many more important causes.

I left the meeting feeling I’d had a glimpse into the myriad of challenges faced by so many. I also left feeling unnerved, as I realized I hadn’t heard about hardships and problems faced by strangers half a world away; I had heard about the difficulties facing people who live in my own backyard.

I’ve always known I’ve been blessed in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that I live a comfortable, if sheltered, existence. But I’m coming to realize how much there is to be gained – by me and by others – by venturing outside my sheltered existence and by trying to help those less fortunate find a more peaceful, comfortable, cloistered life.

© 2006 Ingrid Sapona


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