One of the wonders of this world are mountains of maples at the peak of fall foliage, and I was lucky enough to dwell among recently at the Power of Words conference at Goddard College. The big picture mind-blowing expanses are all around, from a distance golden variegated hazes that upon closer range become crazy quilts of red, rust, orange, yellow, and green. But what really grabbed my heart was the more narrow and up close light in action of the trees and sky, especially when driving up and down curvy and lilting country roads.
The aptly named Bliss Road, near Montpelier, Vermont, is one of those, but so is John Fowler Road, just east of Plainfield, and several other roads that led me up mountain sides and across stretches of brilliance near Marshfield. I followed color and light through dizzying beauty that kept eclipsing itself after days of rain and clouds that showed a more color-saturated side of fall. Heading up one mountain and turning down a long road, supposedly a dead end although I didn’t reach the end of it, I lost the road to the leaves. It was Bliss Road no matter where I went, particularly on paths I walked throughout central Vermont.
There’s plenty to do on a personal, local, national, and global scale, and while the articles I cited share some of the big-picture needs and dangers, back home on the small scale, I’m realizing how I can no longer be silent when I encounter climate change deniers, figuring — as I did in the past — that eventually they’ll “get it,” because while they and all of us will, in horrendous ways that multiple human and more-than-human species suffering beyond what many of us imagine, it’s clearly past time to speak out.
So I’m saying here that if you also love traversing blissful paths or roads — wherever that is for you — and want to keep marveling and moving through this beautiful life; if you love your or others’ kids and grandkids; if you believe in the sanctity of life, then let’s have these hard conversations, draw on real science and deep love of each other and life. Whatever we can do for the big picture (writing congress people, joining and contributing to groups, supporting initiatives such as carbon taxes and other ways to make sure cooler heads and temps prevails) and for the intimate picture of our daily lives (reducing our carbon footprint, conserving water, diving into the hard dialogues with family or friends who deny what’s happening), we need to do for our endangered and illuminated lives.
Long live Bliss Road, and may we be wise and strong enough to keep walking it.
Usually, April, what T.S. Eliot called the cruelest month, is, but it’s also stunningly beautiful, a paradox for a working poet and a gal who, all too often, couldn’t say no. Because I make a hunk of my living from gigs — readings, workshops, talks, projects — and a good many poetry gigs are often ghettoized into April (aka Poetry Month), my Aprils were often overbooked. Not so coincidentally, I often was rocking a sinus infection that wouldn’t let up, a bout of migraines, and a heavy dose of insomnia during this time of the blossoming world ecstatic with life, the same world that inspires me to write poetry (and other things) in the first place.
For a good many years, I’ve been working hard at not working so hard, not just in April but in other months prone to get over-laden with too many yeses and not enough common sense. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at my calendar and realized that when I said yes to a three-week class, a half-day writing workshop, an online class, and a 600-mile round-trip talk (not to mention several volunteer gigs), I didn’t realize all happening within two weeks. “Stop hitting yourself,” we would joke as kids while repeatedly hitting ourselves, but the joke loses its humor when a woman is downing antibiotic, strong coffee, herbal wellness tabs, echinacea, and despite the trouble I have with sugar, a donut because “just fuck it” kicks in at such moments.
This year I’m pleased to report that April, as well as March and May, are spacious with time for 10 minute naps, perusing the New York Time, watching James Corbin’s crosswalk theater production ofThe Sound of Musicthree times (once while on hold with AT&T),and covering the bases of my work. I’ve also had the luxury and necessity of being outside more with the glimmering Redbuds and the dew-shining fields.
How I got here drew on the same obsessive planing that got me into this mess in the first place. With my therapist, friends, and on my own, I talked through, made charts of, analyzed late at night and too early in the morning, and fretted over what to say yes and what to say no to. Some of the no’s hurt. Some of the yeses were hard-won. In addition to my usual scheme of questions about how to make a decision based on if it’s mine, there’s a great team involved, it doesn’t hurt my health, and other factors (more of the advice I doled out for years without following it so well here), I worked the numbers. I vowed to keep myself to a certain number of events each month, and I looked at the actual income I would make versus the time involved in making it. I was astonished at how little some things I love doing actually bring in to pay the bills once I factor in preparation, arrangements, driving to and fro, and actually doing the thing itself. I also looked at how many free or nearly free things I do, none of which I regret, but which I need to cull to keep peace in the forest of my health and life.
Did I mention I’m also beginning the book tour for Miriam’s Well? Having driven myself crazy with things I’ve done to promote past books, I spent ample time studying what actually worked in the past and didn’t work. Driving to Oklahoma City and back was fantastic for seeing some beloved family members, who were the only ones who showed up to a reading I had booked. Paying some hundreds of dollars to do a blog tour for which I had to write 15 long posts or interviews with myself only to find a bunch of them posted on sites promoting romance or sci fi novels? Not such a great choice. I also decided to spread out my tour over 18 months since this book is heavy on the Jewish content, the number 18 (which is also the letter Chai) means luck and life in my religion, and mostly because such a wide swath of time means less at once. Because of not overbooking myself, I’ve been able to really focus on the launch events this Saturday without feeling too harried.
The work is just started, and as my friend Stephen reminds me, the road goes on forever. Also, there’s June, and let’s just say I didn’t do such a good job not overdoing it for June. Like making any change, it’s cha cha steps forward and back, plus some Marx-brothers-type tumbles into the ground. As I get older and realize I’m not so good at playing out the energizer bunny without having to pay the devil big-time, I’m committed to show up at the dance with more presence and health, and to stay home marveling at the ordinary a whole lot more too.
Every March, I seek the magnolia trees growing recklessly in Kansas where it’s almost guaranteed that their tree-full of pink blossoms will meet Mean Old Mr. Winter with a fury. These trees are meant to grow in warmer climes, but they seem to survive okay here despite an annual attack (or two) of icy temperatures, turning those fragrant and curvy blossoms sad and brown-edged.
I love magnolia trees. Let me be more honest: I really and deeply love magnolia blossoms, and it’s one of my recurring nightmares to miss them in their prime, especially since those prime weeks can be reduced to a few days, depending on the mood swings of the weather. Today is such a cusp: it was in the low 60s, windy with a particular kind of cold wind that announced far more cold was coming. Tonight? A low of 23 expected. So I set out to be with my people, I mean, trees.
Here is the one I cozied up with the most because I was ill-dressed for that cold wind. It’s a twin, accompanied by another magnolia on the other side of the front of Central Junior High School. These trees guard this bastion of changing hormone levels like statues of golden lions, except without the gold or the lion. Looking up through the tree, once again, I was enthralled, and grateful. Some blossoms aren’t able to last nearly long enough, so when it’s time, it’s time.
As someone who also hasn’t mastered much of the art of holding back, I resonate with these trees, growing in a different climate than were they were native, but homing in to beauty and exuberance none-the-less. Here is my poet about these friends:
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.