Nothing like a brisk walk on the first day of spring in East Lawrence with a good friend. Along the way, we saw many more friendly sites, all illuminating the wonderful quirkiness of East Lawrence just on the cusp of leafing out and flowering forth.
First, there is a totem tree of sorts, complete with a glow-in-the-dark giant cricket, strange moppet-like figure living in the hole, and a kind of anime carving on top. It’s something new, I believe, just sprouted on a quiet street, and in the process, it reminds me of how the creative just a big plastic bug away.
As we move on, we find lots of gardens tumbling themselves into a few daffodils here, some hyacinth there, all happily unfurling because of the recent rain after too long a drought. Down Pennsylvania Street, we discover the cloudy days makes more than the vegetation pop. Here’s a lovely purple-to-electric-blue-trimmed home, still flying the flag of some Christmas lights, bringing whimsy and verve to a quiet street.
No East Lawrence trek is ever complete without stopping at the Wishing Bench, something that started with just a bench and a few ribbons, then carnival-Bollywood-exploded into all manner of color and texture. As we were sitting there, casting out our wishes to the air, a man with a colorful sign saying he was “homeless, not hopeless,” called out to us about how he sits in that bench wishing everyday. He’s even helped bolster some of the soggy wood around it, and he was now musing about improving his efforts with some nails. We didn’t have any nails or dollars to give him, but we shared the Wishing Bench magic, all of us affirming that the bench’s slogan — “You will not be disappointed” — is true. Adding to that truth are new items — a tea pot for one, plus many plastic, woven, knitted, and found critters from various dimensions of the galaxy. I already wasn’t disappointed.
Toward the end of the walk, we were taken by the peeling paint on the top of a stand-alone garage, almost iridescent in the cloud-light. Many shades of sky permeated the layers of time on the worn siding. It reminded me that this moment is composed of Wabi Sabi, the Japanese quality with no English equivalent that can mean the perfection of imperfection, or the beauty of passing memory, or simply, what’s alive and storied all along us as we age and change.
Returning, I remembered that we live in a Wabi Sabi world, and there’s nothing like walking through that world to remember that.
I love the prevernal season perhaps best of all: that space between the start of spring and before the leafing out of the big, green world. There’s such a brief series of moment between the last dregs of winter and first flush of spring, snow and daffodils, or sub-zero nights and thunderstorm afternoons. All show us that there is no line between seasons, just a two-steps-forward, four-steps-back, one-leap-forth, and a-crash-to-the-cold-ground dance.
Last night, I was acutely aware of this when we took a sunset walk across part of the field, up the hill, and through the woods, all the trees so dry that we were snapping off interfering branches as we went to make the trail more of a trail. Yet in the middle of this drought moment, there sky exhaled humidity, and for the first time in days, I didn’t feel so thirsty. The clouds cleared, the sky darkened, and over the horizon of time and weather, finally some rain arrived at 4 a.m.
Having woken myself up from a nightmare in which I was the entire KU men’s basketball team, rushing around my house to lock all the doors against impending danger, I sat up in time to see lightning in the distance. I stayed up, convincing myself I wasn’t fragmented in all those star basketball players but just one woman watching the world change to rain.
This morning, the deck and gravel drive held shallow puddles, the top of the car was wet, and the grass around our house was amazingly and suddenly greening up, as if someone crayoned a black-and-white drawing of this world while we slept. Cottonwood Mel’s branches are full of buds for the leaves to come. The one lone backyard daffodil, stunted but in bloom will soon have lots of company.
This prevernal time in Kansas is famous for bringing us all four seasons in a day, so I don’t hold onto what sweet, damp, and shining weather is given to us at this moment, but maybe that’s one of the great meanings of in-between times. Change is coming, following an old pattern but unfurling in its own mysterious way. It’s outside of my control, but at least, I can still keep going outside, the air — whatever temperature it is — remembering me to who I am beyond my ideas about myself, and helping me remember what’s real.
What does Right Livelihood mean in the context of TLA? How does it relate to finding and staying in conversation with our life’s work while keeping the cupboards and gas tank full as well as caring for our health, art, soul, and community?
Laura Packer and Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, between them, have decades of experience. Laura has been supporting herself as a storyteller, writer, consultant and coach for more than ten years. They have teamed up to develop the Right Livelihood Professional Training, launching in June of this year. This 100-hour training kicks off with a long weekend at the beautiful Unity Village retreat center in Kansas City, followed by a 12-week online class, and weekly video conferencing with the likes of Harriet Lerner, Charles Eisenstein, Gregory Levoy, Patti Digh and other luminaries in the field. More about this comprehensive training to help you make a living doing what you love here.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: When I was growing up, I had no idea how a poet would make a living, and although people pushed me toward journalism and advertising, it didn’t stick. I was made to make things, especially out of words.
Now I make a living in ways that didn’t even exist when I was a teenage poet: I teach in a low-residency master’s program at Goddard College, traveling from Kansas to Vermont twice each year to work with students intensively in designing and implementing their individualized studies and facilitate community writing workshops for many populations, particularly for people living with serious illness. I love what happens when mortality is at the table, and we speak, listen and write from our souls. I give talks, workshops and readings through the Kansas Humanities Council and University of Kansas Osher Institute, and mostly on my own, conversing deeply with audiences on everything from poetry and wild weather to oral histories of people who survived the Holocaust. My work is a kaleidoscope of gigs and teaching, mentoring and consulting, driving across the plains in the bright light of early spring and occasionally flying over the green wonder of the mountains surrounding Lake Champlain to land again in Vermont.
What is your work, Laura, and how did you find your way to it?
Laura Packer: While I was pursuing my degree in Folklore and Mythology I had a lot of people tell me to practice saying, “Would you like fries with that?” I ignored them and persevered. Truthfully, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the degree, I just knew that I loved stories and that my work lay in that direction.
I met the man who would become my mentor when I was 19. He was telling stories and, as I listened, I knew that this was my path. It took me awhile to realize I would have to build the path myself. I worked part time for many years while I pursued my craft, but now I support myself doing a wide range of things that all fall under the umbrella of storytelling. I perform around the world to a wide range of audiences. I’ve told stories in pre-school, at festivals, universities, homes and so on. I teach, running workshops and coaching people ranging from storytellers to CEOs to parents to marketers to non-profit professionals and more. I work with organizations, both for- and non-profit, helping them understand and refine the stories they tell. I give keynotes and lead workshops at conferences. And I write, blogging about storytelling and taking on freelance assignments from a wide variety of clients.
It’s never boring. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of. I am always learning, hearing new stories and remembering that the work I do matters. Everything I do, as diverse as it is, touches upon story and the ways that our stories matter. I know that the work I do supports me both financially and spiritually. I also know that the work I do helps others. It is the right path and one it’s been fascinating to create.
Caryn, I’m wondering about the work you do with TLA and what that has to do with right livelihood. For that matter, could you explain what right livelihood means to you?
CMG: When I first heard about the term “right livelihood”—at Goddard College during a session on making a living true to ourselves—it chimed in me as something I had been seeking for myself and my community for a long time. After being thrown out of journalism school (the extremes we will go to so we can land in the right place!), I earned my BA in labor history, drawing on my concern since I was a teen about how our work lives infuse the whole of our lives. What we “do” colors not just our workaday life but how perceive ourselves, our communities, our world, and our potential to change. If your work entails saying, “Would you like fries with that?” on regular basis, it’s likely that being a fast-food worker shapes your identity, sense of self and what’s possible for you, and even your belief about what kind of work you’re entailed to do in your life.
Right livelihood is a Buddhist term, part of Buddha’s eightfold path (which also includes right speech, another TLA concept in my mind), and it connotes work that does no harm. Stretched out, the term points toward work (both vocation and avocation, for pay and just because it feels like our work) that serves, including conversing with our own callings as well as our community’s calling.
I didn’t realize when I was studying labor history, and later working as a labor organizer and reporter—all the time writing and reading and breathing poetry—that all would converge into my own right livelihood. As a transformative language artist, I draw on the power of our words aloud and on the page, solo and choral, to herd us toward greater health, vibrancy, liberation, and connection with the living world. My work—both at Goddard as a faculty member and coordinator of TLA, and as a working artist facilitating brave spaces for others to find more of their own voices and visions—is how I practice my right livelihood. All of this aligns me with the continual conversation with a calling, but it’s also work that, at best, helps others articulate more of their own truest work in the world. In the Brave Voice writing and singing retreats I co-lead with singer-songwriter Kelley Hunt, we fly on the assumption that opening your voice in one way cannot help but strengthen your voice in your whole life, and I’ve witnessed many people making courageous leaps into who they already were and what they now need to do.
Laura, is that how it is for you too as a performer, teacher, mentor, and writer as well as someone I would call a fellow transformative language artist?
LP: Caryn, you hit the nail right on the head. Right livelihood means work that enlivens and enriches us thoroughly, from fiscal health to spiritual health and beyond. It’s work that nourishes our spirits as well as our bodies and allows us to function as contributing members of a larger community, which is what artists are.
When I remember the value of my work in that larger picture, as someone who brings something powerful to a community as well as enriching my own life, it’s easier for me to be able to charge appropriately, advocate for myself and remember that what I do, as well as all other artists, matters.
CMG: Absolutely! I think part of this work, to really put the “right” into “right livelihood,” entails making paths for and sometimes with other artists. Little makes me as happy as seeing someone I helped mentor come out with a first book or start giving writing workshops in their communities.
Laura, you’ve talked with me before about the importance of charging what we’re worth as a way to honor those who come after us. The whole issue of what to charge, and how to ask for what our work is worth, is challenging and variable for me. I’ll do some things for hardly anything or for free, and other things for a livable stipend, yet negotiations can encompass lots of gray areas. I find our system of working this out to be awkward: an organization will often not say what it can afford until I suggest an amount. I often present what I charge as a range from the lowest I’m willing to accept to the highest I believe I should be paid, and if it’s something I really feel is mine to do, I try to convey that I’m open to negotiation.
Of course, all these issues speak to our cultural tendency to soil our money relationship with shame, privilege, hurt, defensiveness and other difficult guests to host. I’ve had a lot of help along the way to ask for what my work is worth, even and especially as a poet. Once a representation of an organization I was working with told me, a few hours before my gig there, that they didn’t have enough in the budget to pay me what we agreed on, so would I take a cut in pay? The musician I was collaborating with wasn’t asked to take a cut, so we talked this over, and together told the organization, “no,” but it was eye-opening for me, re-affirming my bias against myself that poets don’t get paid or paid much. Having someone stand tall with me helped me to challenge my self- and poet-destructive thinking, and hopefully, as time goes on, may have some effect for others too.
How do you navigate all this?
LP: Oh, this is a hard one! I feel like I don’t navigate it well much of the time, but I do the best I can, which is all any of us can do. Money is such a taboo subject, I try to understand my own prejudices and fears as well as talk about it, so it becomes less taboo. I use several tools to help me think and talk about money.
First, I talk with my colleagues about what they charge. If we remove some of the secrecy, we can all charge a living wage AND put a dent in the cultural idea that transformative language art should be cheap and that those who hire us should pay us less than they would their caterer, organizer, musician or others. It’s related to your experience with being asked to take a pay cut when your musician friend was not; if we charge a reasonable amount and know that we aren’t pricing ourselves out of range of our colleagues but in alliance with them, it can be easier to ask for. Additionally, by talking about it with my colleagues we get to remind ourselves that we are charging for far more than the 30 or 60 minute event, but for all of the time and experience that lies behind it.
Second, I do what you do. I often give the representative a range of cost and then remind them that this is how I make their living. I also tell them that I am open to negotiation (if I am).
Third, if I give work away for free or at a greatly reduced cost, I always give an invoice that reflects what I would have wanted to be paid. This helps lay groundwork that what I, and other TLA artists do, is valuable and worth paying for.
Fourth and last, I remember what a wise friend said to me, when I asked him money questions. He told me, “You can always negotiate down, you can’t negotiate up. Think about what you want and then ask for double.” I don’t do it quite this way (asking for double feels too bold for me) but I do ask for what I want and a little more. I can lower my rate, shorten the event, barter for other services but once I’ve set a price I can’t really come back and ask for more unless they ask for more service first.
When I remember to financially value my own work I am not only telling myself that what I do is worthwhile, I am also telling the rest of the world that art matters.
CMG: That’s very wise advice, and I love the idea of the invoice for what this is worth. There’s something magical about saying on paper “this is what my work is worth” when it comes to inviting in more lucrative work to balance out what we feel drawn to give away.
I’ve been thinking of what I do for free lately because in the last few months. I have one project that I’m grappling with because it’s sort of a “closure” project with a group of people, a way to share some social capital after working with this group for many years in the past. In the long run, I know this project is what I should be doing, but it’s sometimes difficult to balance the volunteer work with the paid work and still have time (not!) to write.
I’ve also been editing a book for a wonderful poet in his dying days, and that’s a sweetheart labor of love through and through. It’s an immersion in grace to be able to do this for someone I love and whose poetry is so important to share with others who can find a lot of sustenance in what he has to say about death, dying and life.
Often though, it’s hard for me to know the impact of my work and if I’m making the best decisions about where to put my time. My husband, also a writer and grassroots organizer, and I often joke as we’re falling asleep that we won’t know the impact of our work until after we’re dead, and I think that’s true. We don’t know, and this makes think of a stanza in one of my favorite Rumi poems:
If you are here unfaithfully with us,
you’re causing terrible damage.
If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,
you’re helping people you don’t know
and have never seen.
So maybe all we can do is to try to be faithful in being here with our people, which also means being faithful to ourselves, and through our work and being, open our hearts (whether we use phrase like “God’s love” or not in describing this) to dropping our pebble in the pond and hoping for the best for what ripples we make and receive.
TLA involves bringing together people to make greater meaning and unearth greater vitality in how we live. It helps us find—through our words, images, rhythms—our work in this life. Mary Oliver said in one of her poems, “My work is loving the world,” and I feel the same. What I actually do for a living and beyond is just a form of that ritual: practicing how to love the world.
Okay, a confession: I wander through my days with great anticipation for the next meal. Even if it’s just a hot cup of strong tea and bowl of brown rice cereal, envisioning what I get to eat next is a great motivator for getting out of bed in the morning and getting off the computer in the evening. I just love food and always have, and eating is surely one of the most fun things a person can do sitting down.
No surprise that food looms large in all my memoirs and novels, whether it’s the hunt for the best fried chicken in Kansas (in the memoir, Poem on the Range), or a vivid description of the magical rotating dessert case in a New Jersey diner (in
About a month before the manuscript was to mosey on over to my publisher, I couldn’t sleep at night because the idea of including recipes kept waking me up. Luckily, Steve Semken, owner of Ice Cube Press, said yes, and then so did some marvelous food geniuses in our community: Nancy O’Connor, educator director of our long-standing food co-op, The Merc, and author ofThe Rolling Prairie Cookbook; Jayni and Frank Carey, who have gathered and created many quintessential Midwestern recipes, particularly in The New Kansas Cookbook;Janet Majure, not only my weight-lifting coach, but a cookbook author with an eye for good dishes; and Lauren Pacheco, Kris Hermanson, and owner of the Ladybird Diner, Meg Heriford, who happens to make some of the greatest pie in the cosmos.
Close to 40 pages of recipes later, the cooking and baking in Miriam’s 40-plus-year journey through America becomes recipes for some of our journeys too. Here’s a sneak preview of two recipes, each named for a character in the book: Batty is Miriam’s mother, originally named Matilda, nicknamed Matty, and then called Batty for reasons you’ll see in the novel. The Acadian Dream Inn is a resort on — where else? — Mount Desert Island of Maine where Miriam and her sister-in-law Cindy commandeered the kitchen to the delight of guests.
Batty learned this recipe from her parental grandmother, who died before Miriam was born. It was a dish the whole family, especially Miriam, loved, so Batty made it often. The smell of this baking filled the kitchen with such warmth and comfort that Batty was drawn to keep making on a regular basis long after she moved to the Southwest, and she even brought it to various potlucks, where others fell in love with the dish.
1 large green cabbage
1 lb ground beef
1 cup uncooked rice
1 large onion chopped into large slices
2 large cans stewed whole tomatoes
1 cup water
1/8 cup lemon juice
1/8 cup honey
1/2 cup golden raisins (optional but highly recommended!)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Boil or steam cabbage until soft enough to roll. While the cabbage is boiling, combine the rice and beef, and season with salt and pepper as desired. Lay out cabbage leaves, and roll in the meat/rice mixture, placing the meat at one end, rolling, then tucking in the sides. Place seam side down in casserole dish. For the sauce, brown chopped onions in pot until softened, add in stewed tomatoes and water, and mix well. Coat the bottom of a casserole pan with sauce mixture, place the cabbage rolls in, seam side down, and add in the rest of the sauce and water. Cover tightly with lid or foil. Bake for approximately three-four hours until done to your desire Add in lemon juice and honey and raisins in last half hour of cooking. Note: this dish can also be prepared in a crockpot.
Makes 6 servings.
Recipe by Lauren Pacheco, based on a recipe from Caryn and Lauren’s grandmother, Molly Prusak.
The Acadian Dream Inn’s Chocolate Zucchini Cake
Miriam and Cindy together created this recipe one year at the inn when they had too much zucchini. It turns out that the zucchini made for an especially rich, even sinful-tasting, cake that everyone loved so much that they kept it on the menu until the inn went under. Both Miriam and Cindy continue to make this on a regular basis just because.
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups unsifted, all-purpose flour
1/4 cup dark cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups zucchini, finely shredded
1 (10-ounce) bag dark chocolate chips, divided
Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees.
Place the butter, oil, and sugar in a large mixing bowl, and beat with an electric mixer until well blended. Beat in the eggs, vanilla extract, and buttermilk. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, dark cocoa, pumpkin pie spice, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the batter, and blend until well combined. Stir the shredded zucchini, and half of the dark chocolate chips (5 ounces) into the batter. Spoon the batter into a greased and floured 13” x 9” baking dish. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Transfer the cake from the oven to a wire baking rack and, while still hot, sprinkle the remaining chocolate chips over the top. Let them melt and spread evenly over the cake. Variation: dark chocolate frosting can be substituted for the chocolate chip topping.
12 to 16 servings
Recipe by Linda Wilson, from Jayni and Frank Carey’s The New Kansas Cookbook
Yesterday was an in-between day taken up with driving, flying, walking long underground vortexes of color and sound, flying some more, and a whole lot more driving to go from Lawrence, Kansas (aka Center of the Universe) to Plainfield, Vermont (aka Another Center of the Universe).
On such days, I try to be present for what sweetness might lurk in travel tensions, plus I’ve learned a few tricks from making this trip back and forth to Goddard College residencies over 40 times in the last two-plus-decades. I pack high-quality apples, a sturdy supply of magazines, a few good books (this time I’m re-reading Elizabeth Erdrich’s marvelous memoir, Miriam’s Kitchen), some energy bars (the kind that aren’t exactly candy bars but don’t taste like dog food either), antibacterial stuff to wash the seat-back tray in the planes, and a tiny Ipod-thingie with soothing music I can blast at 30,000 feet. I also have all manner of sinus remedies because planes can shake up a gal’s face some, and candied ginger for too much turbulence.
When the announcement at the airport says crazy things, like yesterday’s “Sorry, folks, but we’ll be delayed boarding the plane because the heater is broken, and it’s only 2 degrees in there,” I sigh, eat my salad early (having learned it’s a bad idea to eat too-rich food before being flung through space at 500 mph), and catch up Facebook. When my pal picking me up is so engrossed in conversation with me that he drives down beautiful country roads instead of aiming for the route to get us toward the college, I take photos of what I see along the way, including the most daunting sun dogs (my photos don’t do them justice) I’ve ever spied.
Once unloaded in the dorm, back out to the Wayside Diner for down-home goodness, and back to the dorm room, I morph into old routines of putting the socks and underwear in this drawer, piling the two mattresses in the room on top of each other for a higher and firm bed, and draping scarves here and there to brighten up the big blank room. Most of us who teach here have our assorted furniture-moving and, for the ones who drive, rug-unfurling habits to make our home for the next 10 days homey.
But in the middle of it all — a middle that extends from leaving the house at 8 a.m. and trying to shake off the dim or sparkling travel dust at 1 a.m. when I’m still friggin’ awake — there’s that in-between time, still potent with its varied nuances of color, light, temperature, and texture.
Truth be told, it’s always this way: we’re in between who we are and who we think we are, where we imagine we live and the real earth and sky we actually inhabit, the meaning of the work or relationships we inhabit and the greater mystery beyond meanings we label and box up. Landing is a continual process in travel and in life.