The last few days of July are truly Christmas for All in the Alleys. Because this is a college town with a whole lot of students, too-well equipped by their fretting parents with stuff they won’t use, and these students move out in a hurry when much of our rental housing turns over August 1 each year, you can shop the alleys for home and hearth this week. Sometimes I know what I’m looking for and I find it: a new vacuum, easy chair, throw pillows, or various electronic equipment which may or may not work (if broken, I return it to its alley).
Mostly, though, running the alleys means encounters with things I didn’t know I was looking for, such as new stools for our breakfast counter. The old stools, although painted and repaired numerous times, have largely disintegrated after 23 years of heavy use, one so much that we even turned it into a cat climbing tree. So when I saw big, well-made stools in an errant alley, home they went with me. They were peeling paint, dirty, a little wet from one of our only mini rains in months, and covered with spider webs, mud, and dust.
As I was scrubbing them, then after they dried, sanding and scraping them, I wondered if this was a stupid endeavor. After all, there’s Ikea just 40 minutes away with plenty of cool new stools, plus killer coffee and Swedish meatballs required for any shopper on a mission. Ever the optimist, I thought I could prepare them for painting in a jiffy, but that was far from true. There was also a crack in one of the wooden stats, but before I could talk myself out of this project, Ken showed up with wood glue, a drill, and those brace-holder thingies to repair the slat, so I kept scraping and sanding.
With Radio Bob doing my favorite weekly show, Trail Mix, in the background, I just immersed myself in the likes of Irish ballads and piercing folk tunes while whittling away specks of paint, smoothing edges, and trying not to gauge the wood too much. I have a lot of paint in our basement leftover from numerous projects and yearning to be put to use, but what was on my mind the most was the recent periwinkle and whatever color you would call light, bright blue-green delight my friend Pam and I used to paint the greenhouse this month.
Last night as the sun was going down, I painted those stools those colors, eventually needing to hook up a lamp via an extension cord, which didn’t really help me see what I was doing much better but gave me the illusion of not painting in the dark. I relied on hunches and lots of extra paint, figuring I would touch it all up this morning, but when I came out today to check on the chairs, I found them thoroughly painted with such a few drips and some opposing brush strokes.
There’s something immensely satisfying about adopting trash and training it to be something to park our butts on while we catch up on our days in between eating leftover white cherries and guzzling fizz water. These babies, caught fresh from the alley and reformed into pastel perches, will migrate to the kitchen, joining so much other recycled furniture, once hovering on the edge of destruction and now holding our books, tchotchkes, meals, and even us.
I’m in love with Lake Superior, and the more I visit, the deeper I fall. Not only is this the greatest of the Great Lakes, containing 10% of all the fresh water on earth, but it’s wildly ancient, mysteriously mutable, and stunningly gorgeous in all its colors and moods.
Having just perched on the side of the lake in a cabin for a week, once again, I saw this inland sea turn pink, gray, navy blue, baby blue, black, brown, orange at the edges at sunrise, and purple in the center at sunset. Always in motion, the waves incessant, this lake calms to a purr of itself at moments, then roars into hard slaps of water on the lava rock of the shore. The Ojibwe got it right in naming this lake Gitchi-Gummi, which means “the shining blue sea water” because it’s truly an inland sea that surely holds many, if not all, of the secrets of the universe.
But the macro sings through the micro too, especially in the rocks which, depending on what beach you explore, range from cobblestone of similar size and shape, black flat ovals artfully spread among themselves, or the rainbow of agates threaded through many beaches. I found milky white nubs, green slant-specked squares, reddish ovals, and dozens of other variety. Coming through these precious sweethearts of time, compressed and tossed back out by their maker onto each other, I found treasure upon treasure, some shining, some quieting, some rough skinned and speckled. No matter the rock, every edge tends to be rounded, smoothed, making each stone good to pick up and hold.
I love the sound, the light, the smell, the whole way of being there with this being of a lake that always seems more like a mythical animal, so alive and dynamic, hurting and healing, giving its all every direction across its 350-mile expanse and dancing in place. Every view is a good view, reminding me that this is usually true if we can open up our vision to see the periphery, depth, or height of our times and places. The gift of life, even and especially in these times of hollow-your-hope news, is so beyond what we think, and to some extent, do that we can only see a glimpse of ourselves, so look around, says the la
I look into the lake unable to fathom its average depth of 500 feet with its deepest point at about 1,300 feet. That it’s crazy cold (40 degree average temperature) and holds the bones of many ships and humans, not to mention other forms of life. That it cracked, yes, cracked, into existence 1.2 billion years ago because of the North American Mid-Continent Rift, an outlandish volcano, which left a half-moon-shaped scar from Minnesota all the way down to Kansas with all the lava-pressed rock to prove it. That it’s home to over 80 species of birds, thousands of birds, and so many other animals, like the three otters I saw swimming by some years back. That it’s utterly alive, alive, alive — a heartbeat of energy and presence.
Arriving, I sat on the deck of the cabin and watched. Middling, I watched and walked. Leaving, I stood on the deck and took more photos of this beauty in action being, this freedom and depth lighting up with the sun and moon. I’m deeply grateful for my time there, and already, and just a few days past, I dream of returning to where the Iron Range tumbles down to the sea, and the power of the life force sings in harmony and dissonance, waking us up to what is.
With temperatures rising to summertime and good rains falling last week, everything is speeding into growth around this house. The hostas look like they’re on steroids, and all blossoming things are exploding into petals until they’re spent to thin, brown paper. Within the house of this human, a whole lot is growing exponentially too, coming to fruition at 80 mph. A bunch of projects that seemed maybe-ish are definite, meaning my days are full with finalizing an extensive online class with Laura Packer on our Right Livelihood Professional Training, watching clips of pre-Holocaust Jewish life in Europe for an upcoming Osher class, working with students on thesis projects and coaching clients on books, and many manner of other soon-to-harvests in the works.
The downside of such explosive growth is how behind I am on weeding — the garden and my mind, which is overrun with tendrils of this issue to solve or that decision to make. As I make my way through a lot of lists and a pile of work, I find — no surprise — that my mind spins with how to get through the mountains of work beyond this mountain in front of me. So instead of counting sleep, I’m counting tasks and hours ahead late at night, planning how to do justice to the work I love when it’s in such a state of overgrowth. There’s also some fearsome and stressful edges in my work to navigate, trying not to get myself into such a state that I can’t navigate the wild waters well.
This is old hat for most of us dwelling in a state of overgrowth, yet sitting on this porch sipping iced tea, I’m reminded, as always by this beautiful world of greening presencethat my little worries and plottings are just the tiny picture shows playing in my frontal lobe. Beyond that is the vastness of this: a late spring morning, the hummingbirds zooming toward the feeder, the dog suddenly up from his long nap to watch a carpenter bee floating toward the walnut tree, the tired car, mud-splattered, napping on the pavement, the delicate wind winding through all that’s opening, doing its thing, then collapsing back again. Like me who will soon close this computer and take a nap on this porch while the world whirls in place.
Did you know you can sing “Weeding in the Rain” to the same tune as “Singing in the Rain”? In a sense, both songs are about falling in love, at least for Gene Kelly and me. After weeks of not getting to the garden for a garden variety of reasons — book release stuff to organize, too cold, too muddy, too dry, more book release stuff to do, too tired, third winter arriving, yet more book release things to check off the list, and oh, why go outside when I can lie on the couch and watch Netflix? — it was time.
I felt that call of the garden as soon as Ken and I stepped out for our evening walk around the edges of the fields. “Let’s just stay here and weed,” I reasoned, but no, he felt we just had to walk, so walk we did — taking in big vistas of elegant displays of great could verticality. By the time we got back, I headed straight for the raised beds where I should have planted stuff back in mid- to late-March. I sat on a ledge of one of the beds, started pulling out invasives and falling back in love with gardening.
Although you wouldn’t know it if you look at our gardens in, say, July when the heat and chiggers make me throw up my hands and use the word “fuck” numerous time as my people (New Jerseyans) are prone to do, I actually like weeding the best. I like it more than that fussy, get-it-right planting. I even like it more than harvesting although it is a luscious thing — quelle surprise! — to lift a leaf and find some nestling cucumbers. Weeding — the daily bread of a keeping a garden — is extraordinarily satisfying to me for many reasons.
I get my hands moving rhythmically in and out of dirt, which is one of the things cheap cialis and levitra hands are made to do.
If, like me, you imagine each weed as a pesky worry — everything from what to remember to buy at the grocery store or why someone won’t return my call to whether I’ll ever get over being too much of a people-pleaser — there’s great catharsis to be had. Pulling out invasions works well for the mind as well as the garden. Each weed is another niggling bit of anxiety, fear, and dread tossed out of the vacinity.
It feels really good to work hard in concert with plants, dirt, light, wind, and in tonight’s case, water. My body chimes as if beautiful music just swept through me. There’s something deeply cleansing about getting down and dirty on ground level.
Then there’s the artistic accomplishment: when I finish weeding a bed, I feel like I just revised a poem (which, incidentally, is the same process). Or I feel like I just made my bed (loyal readers know about how the “Clean bed, clear head” advice has helped me and some of you).
Weeding also allows what we want to grow the necessary air time and space to actually grow — another satisfying symbol of reality!
Now weeding in the rain is all this and more as the drops fall on the my back and the backs of my hands while the wind and rain thicken up. I sat on the dirt, turning increasingly to mud, deep in my groove of reaching, pulling, tossing. By the time I finished, I was about 80% soaked, and walking to the back deck, eyeing the flower beds, I thought of squatting and beginning it all over again, but I figured I’d save that for another day because I got too busy singing, “I’m weeeeeeeding in the rain, just weeeeeeeding in the rain! What a wonderful feeling! I’m happy again!”
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.