Last week, I had the honor of being one of the poets giving tribute to Denise Low, the past Kansas Poet Laureate and dear friend of 35 years. She was celebrated at the Spencer Library as a new part of its New American Poetry collection at a special event that also happened to occur on her 70th birthday. While one poem, even while full of references to Denise’s splendid writing, doesn’t do her justice, I wanted to share the poem I wrote for Denise. You can see much more about her at her website, on her blog, on the Map of Kansas Literature site, at Poets.org, and at the Poetry Foundation.
You As a Poem
The poem would rise from fossils and columbarium
time-traveled from your memory or the continent’s,
through two ancient gates, rusting in the sun after hard rain.
You would watch the poem from behind a window,
your grandfather’s calm breathing behind you,
as you sipped a mocha from a chipped porcelain cup
painted with twining white clematis and one ruddy robin.
The poem would feed you a small butter cookie, shaped
like a shell to remind you of the inland ocean we once were,
while you listen as you often do for what the snow
or heat or first explosion of lilac sings now.
Later, the poem would take you and Tom to Wisconsin,
in January, in a near-blizzard of course, telling you stories
about the taste of bear or what dreams lived in ice.
There would be a woolly mammoth, but because Kansans
excel at elegant understatement, it wouldn’t be obvious,
but a silhouette of the great beast on the western horizon,
only visible when lightning strikes.
Like the sky, the poem would spin torrents of fish,
speed, and spirits breaking the drought tides into rivers,
many underground that your walking feet would trace
while you sip wine and regard the sky for what matters,
which once was a dog named Burroughs, low to the ground
but functional, and lately encompasses Jackalopes
and your granddaughter’s face turning toward you.
Maybe a martini would mosey into the poem, and certainly
trains at 3 a.m., leaving their whistles echoes as evidence.
There would be wind-leaning switchgrass, and a circular
silence below a solo cottonwood on a ridge of your childhood.
Mostly, though, there would be birds: stanzas of the quick
blue fire of Indigo Bunting, an exodus of wild geese,
a charm of goldfinch, and at dusk, a tunnel of chimney swifts
spiraling down to to a single word on each rooftop —
all the birds, you too, from so far away and so near,
“Show a little inspiration, show a little spark,” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings in her song “The Hard Way.” Kelley Hunt, one of my beloveds and my songwriting partner, happily obliged her by summoning up the inspiration and spark to strap ourselves into my peanut-butter-colored car so we can once again worship at her feet and replenish our songwriting well.
This year we trekked to Wichita for a long day’s night to the Wabi Sabi (beautiful, decaying, and full of soul and vibrancy) Orpheum Theater to see this shining soul sing some of the greatest songs we know, such as “Stones in the Road,” once the best songs I know of about America. Listen to it sometime, and hear what she says about all that’s on fire in our history and lives, including lines like these: “And now we drink our coffee on the run, we climb that ladder rung by rung/ We are the daughters and the sons, and here’s the line that’s missing.”
When Kelley and I write our own songs together, I like to think there’s always an invisible and palpable icon of Mary Chapin in the room, right on top of the purple piano where we compose music, occasionally nodding at us and always making eye contact. So many of our songs — such as “Love,” “You’ve Got to Be the Vessel,” and “Let it Rain,” — speak to some of the deep-river themes of hard-won love, healing, and courage flowing through MCC’s songs, such as her song “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” and “Jubilee,” in which she sings:
And I can tell by the way you’re searching
For something you can’t even name
That you haven’t been able to come to the table
Simply glad that you came
So it’s no wonder that we drive, drive, drive to be with MCC and her kick-ass, open-hearted band, including many bandmates she’s played with for decades. She’s someone I would leap over long highways and through 100-degree days to see, well, her and Bruce Springsteen, and you know what? This year, Mary Chapin ended her concert with a Springsteen song, “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Sitting in an ancient theater with one of my best friends, witnessing this moment and many others together — like when she sang “This is Love” — my heart overflowed and my being exhaled in pure joy. As she sang, “The wrong things aren’t supposed to last,” and “You would’ve thought a miracle/ Was all that got us through,” I realized how some moments, maybe all if I was awake enough, are the miracles that get us through, leading us to do and be all the rights that do last.
Bonus song: You’ve got to hear “Jericho,” a song that inspired Kelley to write a song and me to write a poem of the same name. Here is Kelley performing this live on Kansas Public Radio (and you can support Kelley writing even more amazing songs by supporting her Patreon campaign here), and here’s my poem:
How long have you been lost? All your life?
Then you’re getting somewhere.
The walls don’t fall for those who think
they know where they are.
It takes music, low and from the bottom of pain,
like what I sang out in childbirth, each call
a plea to open and let the new one come through.
Or the sound of the handful of dirt the new widow releases
slowly quickly the long way to the top of the wooden casket
where a thousand hands hit the same drum at one moment.
Or the breaking laughter of a two-year-old running for the first time,
about to trip. Or the inhalation of surprise and verve on the cusp
orgasm in a cold room where all the blankets are kicked off.
Knowing the path has always been overrated
although washing the dishes and cleaning the counters helps.
Loving and looking for clues is all we have–the slant of the sun
across the dusty wooden floor, the ache of leaf toward earth,
the weary smile of the stranger who gives you his parking space.
When the big wind knocks you down, look carefully
for what’s ready: the horizon suddenly flashed by the brilliant
wings of an Indigo Bunting vanishing into the future
in a stand of cedar where you’ve always lived.
Jericho was never forgotten and never forgets.
His feet remember how to follow the outline of the city
ready to unmake itself into something better. Let yourself
stop trying to hold up all that weight. Come and sit
on this beautiful, cold ground. Be as lost as the rain
making its way, through the veins of the universe, home.
As I was leaving the house for our trip to Bentonville, Arkansas — a weekend of r & r, and excuse to visit the amazing Crystal Bridges museum — I ran back inside to grab a copy of Miriam’s Well, my new novel, because I sensed I needed to give it to someone. Who I would find out later.
We stopped at Crystal Bridges Friday night about 7:30 p.m., figuring it was closed but wanting to scope out the place. It was open until 9 p.m., and it turns out, that is the perfect time to visit one of the greatest art museums in the world. Hardly anyone is there, and the staff are very happy, after a long day, to chat about the art they love. After striking up a good many satisfying conversations in the older-art galleries, we headed downstairs to find a wide hall painted with climbing leaves every which way. Ken, being a plant man, needed to study them to figure out what kind of leaves (lilac, he believes), but among the leaves, we met a wonderful man who works there.
“What is happening here?” we asked him.
“Magic,” he answered, telling us the painting wasn’t finished, and laughing easily with us about the thousands of leaves someone carefully worked days making so vivid.
Within minutes, he escorted us to the next room, which contained a small room within a room where Georgia O’Keefe’s moon flower shone like a beckoning God to us (actually, it’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower #1“), Beholding that painting and so many others, we talked through the nuances and beauties (particularly one of a trash man in which the decaying vegetables are sensual wonders) with this man.
At what I thought was the end of our time together, I noticed his name tag said “Moses,” and said, “You know, I just finished a book about the Exodus, but in our time, and as Moses, you should meet Miriam.”
“You are a writer?,” he exclaimed, cialis generic 20 mg then had me quickly pull out my iphone and look up his website because he was a writer too. Maybe it was the exuberance of the the O’Keefe, but in short order we were jumping up and down and hugging, and I was promising to bring him the copy of Miriam’s Well tomorrow. He told us some of his story — coming to this country from Liberia, getting his to-be wife out of the country just before the Liberian civil war, working for the Wal-Mart corporation for many years, teaching, writing, raising a family, and of course we compared notes on the the follies of having 20-something children.
“Let us take our picture together!” we exclaimed, which had to be in front of a work of art, but which one? The O’Keefe of course!
The next day, we returned with the book, but finding Moses again took some wandering. The people who work the galleries never where they’ll be assigned to until they arrive, so we retraced our steps, even visiting the O’Keefe again, and eventually found Moses among the modern abstract art. He was talking with some young men, but upon seeing us, screamed and laughed, and within moments, we were hugging again.
A few hours later, after Ken walked me hard on many outside trails, we had to cross through the museum to get to the parking lot. Each step was a tender adventure for my feet after 5-6 hours of walking, yet when we had to choose which direction to go, I got mixed up and sent us on the long-cut back. It led us right to Moses again, who had started the book on his lunch break.
As we said goodbye again, I looked at this beautiful face and remembered how last night he told me, “My life has been a series of miracles.”
“Mine, too,” I told him. May it be such a life for us all.
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.
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.