I was fifteen years ago and miserable when I first went to a youth group Havdalah service one winter evening. I was living with my very difficult father in a big house, so much bigger now that my mother and siblings had moved out, and I was the loneliest I had or have ever been, having lost most of my extended family and living in the ‘burbs where even the neighbors stopped talking to us.
My deep sadness along with some suicidal thoughts had led my father to bring me to the rabbi of our synagogue, who promptly put me in the temple youth group. Now we were gathered for the short end-of-sabbath service (Sabbath begins at sundown Friday night and ends at sundown Saturday night). This eight minute or so service is all about the senses. Our bunch of awkward teens held each other in a circle and sang, first lighting the braided Havdalah candle, then passing around a spice box filled with clove and cinnamon, then taking sips from a cup of wine. At the end, someone aimed the wild twining flame of the candle into the leftover wine for a satisfying sizzle that signified the start of a new week.
I couldn’t know then it was the start of a new life for me. That youth group and especially Phil, a youth group advisor who took me under his wing, saved my life, giving me a sense of belonging, listening to what was broken in me, and believing in my ability to fix myself in time. After each Havdalah service, we sat in a circle sharing our thoughts on a topic, often writing first on a moment that changed our life, what we value most, or what was hardest for us. We cried, even and especially the guys. We hugged each other. We wrote fast and furiously in our journals. Some nights we have lock-ins, unfurling our sleeping bags on the bema (little stage where services are led from), and talking on and off long into the night. We spoke things aloud we couldn’t tell anyone else. Together, we made a kind of mosaic of all our broken pieces, then had donuts and orange juice for breakfast.
It’s no wonder that a lot of my workshops, sans sleeping together on a carpeted stage, involve the same. We write and read. We speak our truths. We learn to listen to each other, and from that, to ourselves more. We discover what we most have and need to say, and where those words and callings lead us in our work, art, service, and purpose.
How I got from sitting in the dark with my youth group to facilitating workshops, coaching people on writing and right livelihood, and collaborating with wonderful co-teachers on life-giving projects followed a long and meandering river of time, intentions, jobs, gigs, and listening to what signs and wonders pointed the way. I now make a living doing things I couldn’t have imagined as a teenager, from facilitating writing workshops for two dozen people living with serious illness over Zoom to planning an online and Zoom-based intensive class with Kathryn Lorenzen on Your Right Livelihood.
But I still write in my journal, sometimes sharing what comes with others, sometimes even crying at the release of what needs to be said and what difference saying it makes. I still love and treasure what can happen when humans put down, to paraphrase Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved, their sword and shield, and come into the courageous, vulnerable wisdom we make space for together.
These defining moments are sprinkled throughout our lives, sometimes in unlikely places or at surprisingly young or old ages. We turn a corner, see something out of the corner of our eye, wake up in the middle of a January night with a start, meet the eyes of a stranger in the produce aisle, and something clicks into place. We might not know where that something is leading us, but we know we need to follow. As W.S. Merwin writes in his poem, “The Gift”: “I must be led by what was given to me/ as streams are led by it/ and braiding flights of birds.”
This braided candle of community, creativity, and meaning was given to me when I was fifteen and its light still shines and leads me on.
This is a cross-post I wrote for Your Right Livelihood (scroll down for more info.). With so many people I know grappling with the same issue, I thought I’d share it here.
I love my work but I have a tendency, to paraphrase the Oklahoma song, to be a gal who can’t say no. Yet when our mouths get us into trouble, the rest of our bodies can right the wrong, and that’s what happened to me. I would take on way too much work, all of it gleaming with promise when I said yes, but by the time I was driving six hours west to do a low-paying gig or staying up late doing a rushed editing project, the shine was gone, and I was exhausted. I was also sick often, which is over-commitment does to some of us to get us to slow down.
While I wouldn’t say I’ve figured it all out, I’m well on my way as a recovering workaholic. What’s helped me immensely is constantly asking myself, “Is this mine?” For a gig worker like me, this is obviously important, but even if you have a 9-to-5 job, it can help to regularly ask yourself, when faced with optional tasks or extra assignments, if they’re yours to do.
A friend recently told me about a time she was pissed off because a co-worker got a raise for putting in ample extra hours. After she looked at the facts, she realized the raise was minimal, and her time spent with her family, relaxing at home, gardening and getting together with friends was worth far more than the extra money. So a lot of what’s mine comes down to your values and priorities.
Here are six ways I determine whether to say yes to work I wasn’t anticipating as well as work I’ve been doing for a while but am questioning. Please feel free to tweak these questions to what speaks to you, especially if your work isn’t for income but for art and/or service (in which case these questions might be even more essential to ponder). As you ask each question, score yourself from 1 (no way is this true!) to 5 (this is the Nirvana of right work for me):
MINE: The biggest question of all: Is this yours to do? Is doing this part of what your life, your soul, your essence is calling you to do at this moment? Is it dyed-in-the-wool of your job description? Is it vital to your or your team’s goals.
TIME: Is the timing right for doing this in your life, or will you be just recovering from doing too many other things? Do you have enough time to do it the way you want to do it? If you’re being pressured to do something in short order that would compromise the quality of the work and your health, see if you can renegotiate the deadline.
TEAM: If you’re working collaboratively, will you be part of a team aligned with your own values? If you’re just showing up to do something with others, is it organized with integrity and thoughtfulness, and good communication between the organizers or supervisors and you?
HEALTH: Does doing this bring you home to yourself in body and mind or further out to field? Does this compromise your physical, mental or emotional health? Does it come at a time when you’ll be more vulnerable and need to take better care of yourself (such as after organizing a big event)? Also, does this add to your health in a positive way? Or does considering it make your stomach hurt?
LIVELIHOOD: Does this add to your right livelihood — the Buddhist term of making a living without doing harm (and by extension, contributing to your community and living out your life’s gifts)? Even if it doesn’t pay money, does it enhance your livelihood in other ways, or does it distract from how you live out your vocation and avocation?
LOVE: Do you love doing this? Are you working with, visiting with or playing with people you love? Is it in a place you love or would love to get to know?
Now add up your scores, and aim for at least a score of 20 before you say yes. Big caveat: If you get a lower score than 20, but your heart drops because you want to do this so much, then see if you can change some of the elements involved to make it a higher score (get people to help, stay in a nice little Airbnb on the way, travel with a bag of chocolate, dark chocolate so that it’s good for your health).
Learn more about the work that calls to you and the upcoming Your Right Livelihood class I’m teaching with Kathryn Lorenzen by contacting me for a free Discovery Call. You’re also invited to join Kathryn and me for Life & Livelihood Small Group Coaching, a 90-minute session 7-8:30 p.m. CST on Tues., Jan. 4. It’s only $9.99, and it allows you to ask a question about the work that intrigues or call you, plus learn more about possibilities for growing and discovering your true work. More here.
As many of you know, I’m leaping from my day job of college-level teaching to creating more transformative writing, community-building writing workshops, and a podcast series on the power of words. I’m also asking for your help in supporting this leap. Here are nine reasons to consider being a patron through Patreon, a great online platform that helps writers, artists, innovators, and others do cool stuff in the world. You can see more here.
1. Perks: You get a signed book of your choice, gorgeous greeting cards with Stephen Locke’s photography and my poetry, and even a poem I write for you for a beloved.
2. Weekly Inspiration: All patrons get a post every Friday with something to spark creativity and magic in your life, art, and work, such as “The Care and Feeding of the Artist,” a podcast poetry reading, and tips on inventing your own inspiration.
3. Poetry Party!: Every time I cross the $100 mark each month (and we’re really close to another crossing), patrons get to call out (via the Patreon site or emailing me directly) words you want me to weave into a spontaneous poem I make up on the spot, record, and share with you. You can also watch the often hilarious and sometimes moving past poetry parties.
4. Satisfaction: Doesn’t it feel good to help someone live their dreams? Patrons get the satisfaction of knowing they’re helping me follow my calling.
5. Making Good Things Happen: Your contributions help me create new writing, workshops, and a podcast series (to launch this fall) on the power of writing and witnessing our truest stories.
6. Ease: Becoming a patron is simple: You just click here, follow the directions, and within a few minutes, you’re in.
7. What a Deal!: For as little as $3/month, you can be a patron. Also, those little payments are easy to swallow each month.
8. Your Fellow Patrons: I’m not exaggerating when I say my patrons are exceeding passionate, innovative, and soulful change makers in this world. Come hang out with the cool kids;
I’ve been passionate about how the way we make livings speaks, argues with, or sings loud and proud through our lives. My first degree was in labor history because of how I was innately drawn to the often messy dilemma of work and life, and no surprise that over the years, I’ve returned to this question, especially when, decades ago, I stumbled across the Buddhist term “Right Livelihood.” I just wrote a piece on this along with callings and some ways to follow the work we love into fruition, published this morning on Medium — “Six Ways to Find the Work the You Love,” that I’m sharing the link to right here.
What I wrote and what I’m living and learning is also very related to the Right Livelihood Professional Training I led for the first time last year with Laura Packer — the photo here features some of the cohort group in that training, meeting at the end of our intensive four months at the Power of Words conference at Goddard College in Vermont. This year, we’re doing it again, and I’m sharing the Medium article to help get out the word because of how much I believe in aligning ourselves with the work that calls to us.
Speaking from too much experience, I keep learning how not following the path we need to make (often by walking it) can lead to all kinds of soul chaos. I’ve left jobs and careers that didn’t work for me or made me sick or just felt all kinds of crazy-wrong, from working as a reporter to grassroots organizing to leaving volunteer positions that went against my values or wiped me out beyond exhaustion. I keep returning to the drawing board, literally lately as I’ve taken up drawing again (but that’s another story for the future) to find the what of the what, and I’m guessing this is a frequent-flyer endeavor for life. A calling, as I wrote about in the Medium article, is a lifelong conversation with lots of surprising dialogue behind and ahead.
Whatever our work is — whether a paid job, a bunch of gigs, volunteer and service work, making art or home or something of meaning — runs through the core of why we’re here. So let’s keep recovering, uncovering, and discovering that big and beautiful work of the soul!
P.S. Laura and I are doing Life and Livelihood Small Group coaching on March 23 — just 10 bucks for 90 minutes of asking your questions, discussing the curves and angles of how we find and make our best work, and meeting new friends. Details here.
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.