A Conversation on Right Livelihood With Laura Packer: Everyday Magic, Day 931

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.

Unity Village

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.

To learn more about the Right Livelihood Professional Training, please visit https://www.tlanetwork.org/Right-Livelihood-Training.  Learn more about Laura here.

This except of a longer interview is reprinted from Chrysalis: A Journal of Transformative Language Arts, 2016. The full interview is http://www.tlanetwork.net/2016/10/a-conversation-on-right-livelihood-and-transformative-language-arts-by-caryn-mirriam-goldberg/

Swirling Distractions of Winter Birds: Everyday Magic, Day 926

A dizzy of starlngs

The starlings grabbed my attention while I was pacing the living room on a phone call. They poured diagonally down to the lawn, fanning out to bop and dip on the winter grass, then swooshed around to thread through the branches of Cottonwood Mel on their way to the bare mulberry branches. Meanwhile, a dozen or so fluffed-out-to-maximum-roundness robins rock on the branches of the cedar tree outside the kitchen window. When I return to the bedroom, it’s chickadees and junos all the way on our deck railing because of the bird seed I just poured there after filling up the feeder, emptied in record time this morning.

One well-fed flicker

There’s nothing like winter birds around here — the dizzying numbers of them emerging when the temperature drops and the wind pauses or picks up again, scattering them high into the trees or across the horizon until they return again. Everyone is fluffed out to perfection, whether the flicker wedded to the side of the cottonwood or the singular sparrow perched on the clothesline. Some days the blue jays rush in, bullying away the regular residents of our backyard, and usually by mid-February, the bluebirds return, dazzling me beyond measure. The cardinals float like candles in the tall stand of cedars, and the red-winged blackbirds flash fire as they go. One barred owl sways on top of a bare tree each late afternoon

Barred Owl

Working at home, I have the advantage of being in a ready-made blind, hidden from them by edges of window frames enough at times that they get close. I also have a bird alarm system through the cats although they get worn out by so many hours of high-definition Cat TV that they fall asleep just a few feet away from all that landing and tweeting. At the same time, it’s hard to work when so many flocks power past with the promise of returning on the other side of their swirl. But the older I get, the more I realize there’s little more important in this computer screen than what’s taking off and coming back into view in the world up close and personal, one window at a time.

First Lightning of the New Year: Everyday Magic, Day 925

Spring doesn’t bounce in for months as a long-term resident at the inn we call Kansas. Instead, it struts its stuff in flashes, quite literally right now, like a famous actress who does occasional cameos in February and especially March, and sometimes on rare evenings even in January before vanishing suddenly for the main actors of snow, ice, and mostly cold, dry wind.

The thunder comes rumbles to east, the lightning flashes irregularly in the southwest corner of my window, and the air is full. I open the door and inhale that sweet sense and scent, just on the icy edge of the cold front on the other side of these storms. Today, it was positively balmy, in the low 60s even with no hint of how the temperature would start is slow fall from grace tonight. Tomorrow, there’s snow on the hoof, and I’ll likely be shivering in my big, down coat while frantically searching for where I put the mittens.

That’s the way of Midwestern winters and weather. Earlier this month, we had days we were thrilled to get out of the minuses, and today as I walked quietly out to the compost pile to throw out all our old banana peels, coffee grinds, and carrot nubs, I marveled at the slim crescent of moon in air that could be imported from April.

Right now the quiet fills in the long space between winter thunder and the slim purple flash of lightning, the first such storm of this year, but one that will become a one-woman show held over for many spring nights, reminding us these supposed four distinct seasons are approximations of general curves on the wild wheel. Now it turns brilliant, now it turns to ice, always traveling us back to a moment that defies easy naming.

Hope on the Last Day of the Old Year: Everyday Magic, Day 912

I’m perched on this lovely porch on the last day of the year, at least the last day according to the Jewish year, which ends at sundown. The wind and crickets thread sound through the Osage Orange tree, leaning over the driveway with its heavy hedge apples (think lime green brains the size of grapefruit). A few hummingbirds dive-bomb each other on the aerial path to the feeder. I’m comfortable in a hideous chartreuse recliner with iced coffee within reach. It’s just another beautiful edge-of-summer day in Kansas for me, but for many it’s far more heartbreaking and threatening.

I think of people in central Mexico, working frantically to unearth possible survivors from collapsed buildings from the 7.1 earthquake yesterday. I’ve watched videos of people coming together in the streets, crying in each other’s arms, or staring at buildings that have sloughed off into big piles of concrete and steel.

I think of thousands in Puerto Rico, right now, enduring Hurricane Maria, which hit the island as a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 mph. I imagine the terror so many must feel right now as the winds batter their homes or shelters, bending palm trees horizontal and tossing cars across flooding parking lots. At the very least, they might be worried about having enough water and food, knowing how likely it is that they could face weeks or longer without electricity; at the most, their lives might be danger because of storm surges, crumbling buildings, and mud slides.

I think of millions in South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Guam, and many other places living with the searing threat of nuclear attack due to two immature and reckless leaders, one in North Korea and one in America, talking trash about the other and escalating a historic conflict. With rhetoric about destroying these countries and many more, those within easy reach of missiles bearing nuclear warheads must be living with overwhelming fear as the war of words builds.

Meanwhile, the fires in the west burn millions of acres of forest and change the faces of many a gorge, valley, and mountain. Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar has led to hundreds of villages being burned to the ground. People throughout various chains of islands and many on our mainland are still without electricity, or are busy with the sad work of stripping out of their homes all the water-logged furniture and family treasures.

Fire, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria), and war rage on, sporadically or worse, and much of it (excluding the earthquakes) due to the worst of human behavior: ignoring or denying the effects of climate change, and escalating the conflicts between tribes or nations to the point of no return.

It’s the end of the world as they know it for so many, human and otherwise. It’s also, as seems to have been the human habit, a time for the best of our beings to come forth. People in Texas made human chain to transfer elderly people out of flooded homes, thousands (or tens of thousands) of people driving to Texas or Florida to help with feeding, clothing, rebuilding, and reconnecting electricity for those in need. People in Mexico worked in the hot sun for hours, then all night, and still continue today lifting shards of concrete, digging with their bare hands, and listening carefully for one trapped beneath. I think of my brother-in-law in Florida, an electrician, who has worked long hours in the heat along with countless others to restore power for many communities. I marvel at the photos of humans throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas who lost everything, but also gave every ounce of their energy to rescuing others. A cruise ship ended its trip early, giving passengers the option of staying on to help evacuate islands in the path of Hurricane Irma, and over 70 vacationers did just that along with many cruise lines that sent ships and cash to the islands. Firefighters in Montana, Oregon, Washington, and other states worked themselves to exhaustion doing dangerous work to save lives and places.

At sunset, we cross over into the new year, but millions around the world have been forced to do this already, leaving behind all that was lost in the old year. For them, and for the blessings we can be when we reach out to help those facing the end of their worlds, my deepest wish is that we find hope in action that shows us what we’re capable of. Let us mend what’s broken, lift who and what is fallen, and act always on a love for life, and all that being and staying alive entails. L’shanah Tovah — a good and sweet new year — for everyone.

Endings and Beginnings at Midnight: Everyday Magic, Day 906

It is 12:04 a.m., and I”m writing this from our back deck where I sit cross-legged in a chair and stare up at two enormous trees. The wind pours wave after wave through the tree to my right, Cottonwood Mel, and the moon rises through the the branches and thick leaves of the tree to my left.

I should be sleeping perhaps, but instead, I’m letting the wind bathe me free and watching the stars above and the lightning bugs below. It’s a time of big endings and beginnings for me, and the confluence of all, plus some misguided coffee in the afternoon, has landed me here, telling the field how much I love it, letting this land know how much it has healed and held me over many years.

Tonight, I had my last governing meeting for an organization I’ve been involved in deeply for 13 years, now on solid ground and blossoming, and me having realized close to a year ago that it was time to step off and make greater space for others. Following the Curve, a book of poems is at the publisher, another — one based on this very blog — is being proof-read, and my novel Miriam’s Well that I’ve been writing for 13 or more years, is coming out later in the year. Other endings abound, and all seem especially fortuitous. A chronic illness gig that has occupied me too often for many years seems to be, I hope I hope I hope, packing its bags and only making short appearances. The cars are almost paid off. The shed we wanted to build for 20 years is kinda sorta almost done. Bigger projects of the big dream variety in my life and work seem to be ebbing and flowing to new pulls of the moon.

But what is happening at this moment calls me attention: the wind suddenly surges like a standing ovation for the best concert in the world, an ovation that can’t stop itself. I think it’s over, but the fast air through my air and on my skin, the rocking branches of the trees, and the sound the sky makes tells me otherwise. Then, without warning, a few seconds of quiet before it starts all over again.

It’s a cliche, true that though, to say everything is beginning and ending at once, like the 19 minutes since I started this post, the moon climbing a few branches higher, a errant lightning bug sailing over the railing of the deck and back to the woods. While the endings are sometimes easier to see, at least in retrospect, the beginnings are especially mysterious, even tracking when the beginning begins. The chatter hum of the cicadas and the yawning roar of a distant plane tell me how little I know. Yet everything sings to and through me of how blessed I am to be here on a summer night with my best elemental friend, the wind.