Martin Swinger, a virtuoso singer and songwriter, died suddenly in early July, leaving behind his husband (and partner of 35 years) Brian and many broken hearts in his Asbury Park, N.J. home community, and prior to that, central Maine, where he was a mainstay of the music scene for years. But when I think of Martin, I see him at my kitchen table, serenading the then-coordinator of the TLAN, Deb Hensley, volunteers Nancy Hubble and Laura Ramberg, and me as we stuffed folders for the 2014 Power of Words conference.
He was like this: always bringing joy, humor, and the power of music to wherever he landed. He was gifted at helping in multiple other ways too: for the conference, he coordinator participant transportation, helped Deb with many pieces of the conference coordination, and generally brought a sense of peace and homecoming to all of us.
Then again, Martin knew how vital hospitality and art are to this world. He grew up gay in the South, falling in love with music and books of all kinds. In recent years, he went on to be quite decorated as a songwriter, winning many notable big-time contests and performing across the country, even to the delight of the late Pete Seeger and very-much alive Vance Gilbert and John Waters. His seven CDs won lots of well-deserved awards, including from American Song Competition, SolarFest, Rosegarden Coffeehouse and more. Audiences have adored him for decades for his warm and vibrant voice and eclectic blend of Americana, swing and jazz, traditional music, show tune, Klezmer music, and improvisation. Deb and Martin sang together like angels from an enchanted land, including in the group Brio.
Deb says of Martin: “Martin was a true prince of friend to me and to so many others who knew and loved him. He had a heart the size of Mars and talent to match. Frost says, “Nothing gold can stay.” But Martin’s songs will stay. Oh yes they will. And so will his love.”
His generosity extended in other ways: when one of our keynote performers for the conference didn’t show up, Martin graciously volunteered to perform on the spot and for free (although we did extend to him a small stipend anyway). When he performed, he lifted a full house of conference goers, who had been waiting a while for the keynote, to their feet with original songs such as “Betty Boop and Buddha,”“Consider the Oyster,” and my favorite, “Little Plastic Part.” That song, about how breaking a tiny part of a vacuum that “makes the whole thing work” speaks to having a little part of our heart broken so that it doesn’t work anymore.
I can’t help thinking about how Martin himself was a little vital part with a big impact himself.
Arm-in-arm, Vicky, Eduardo, Ralph, and I walked down the snowy country road, belting out “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and doing wheelies backwards and forward in the heavy-falling snow as we laughed. It was well past midnight, probably around 1997, and I was in love with my colleagues, students, and teaching at Goddard College, where students designed their own curriculum based on what they felt compelled to learn for their communities and souls. I was sure that I would teach here until I was well past retirement age.
A few days ago, I signed, scanned and sent in my final paperwork to be formally “separated” from the college, and although I had been planning this leap from what I loved for many months, I was surprised by the panorama of emotions that engulfed me in sadness, strangeness, and something beyond naming.
Last January, insomnia took me up the mountain of making this decision until I realized it was time to come down on the side of leaving. The urge for going began over a year ago when an economic crisis at the college, coupled with my exhaustion from teaching for 64 consecutive semesters, led me to go on leave. Then the dreams, as some of my readers know, began: dreams of following retired faculty into the woods, dreams of walking away from the college in the middle of the night, dreams of saying goodbye to staff and faculty while wearing raccoon make-up. I would wake up, argue with my dreams that I loved Goddard too much to leave, then the next night, another dream kicked my butt.
The dreams didn’t come out of nowhere (as dreams rarely do): my body had been singing, signing, and whispering its leaving song for a while. I rarely went to a 10-day residency, bracketed by 12-hour travel days (and that was only if everything went according to plan) without coming home sick, then struggling for a month or two to reach equilibrium. I grappled with living mostly in Kansas but, close to four weeks each year and longer in my dreamscape, in Vermont also.
I also heard something else calling my name: growing Transformative Language Arts, the MA concentration I started and coordinated at the college since 2000. I believe in paying attention to signs and wonders that nudge us toward our real work, and although I had been able to balance teaching half-time plus doing administrative tasks at the college with facilitating writing workshops, my own writing, and coaching and consulting work, that balance was changing. I felt compelled to develop new ways to help people write and witness the guiding stories that showed them their real work, truths, and strengths.
So I made the leap. The timing was good as the college needed to reduce faculty in alignment with student enrollment, an unfortunate problem facing multitudes of small colleges lately. As I told people and amplified my wishes and ideas for evolving work, I found some new inroads and a whole lot of support. I also tripped into new ways of seeing my work and life by virtue of — surprise! — being diagnosed with eye cancer in late April, then going through treatment, and now recovery. Nothing like a whole lot of illness and healing to land a person in a new place in life!
As I move forward, regaining blurry but increasingly larger windows of vision in my right eye and in my sense of what’s next for me, I look forward to what I’ll see and be called toward. At the same time, I wanted to pause here to honor all that I love about Goddard: sitting with a student at twilight in my office as we puzzle out her study plans until she bursts out laughing and crying at once in relief because she now knew what she wants to do in her life as well as semester. Or singing “Salaam” though the thin walls of our offices with my colleague, the Rebbe Lori, before we scooted out to swim in the freezing-cold waters of the quarry between meetings and dinner.
I loved rehearsing with the faculty for our cabaret act, the Goddard College Dryland Sychronized Swimming Team, while fellow faculty member Katt kept calling out, “Now remember. We don’t want to over-rehearse” although we only had one 10-minute rehearsal.
I loved walking the wooded road from the dorm village to the library alone or with students, joking about how the wind in the trees was transmitting magic. Or those solo walks across the now-gone (due to a storm) the forest’s Wabi Sabi bridge after a long day of faculty meetings.
I loved the Wednesday morning field trips each faculty member could take with their students, especially the one where Ruth, our program’s director, joined my six students and me in the Goddard van for a wander day in which we simply aimed ourselves whatever direction we felt compelled to go. Of course, we ended up at a remote Buddhist center where we fell under the enchantment of the bells.
I loved the quiet moments in the residency cabarets when someone got up to sing, tell a story, dance, or play the piano publicly for the first time, took a breath with all of us, then began.
I loved the summer meteor showers even when, lying on a bedspread next to a dorm with a bunch of faculty, we could barely see the sky through the trees. I loved the winter nights when the snow sparkled in kaleidoscopic ways I’ve never seen anywhere else, and I adored the ways the firs and pines dropped snow from their branches in seemingly slow motion.
In the here and now of this Wednesday evening when my former colleagues are at the college for a residency, I watch my shadow self sitting in a dorm room, as I would be doing if I were still a faculty member, a stack of student papers to read and a day of meeting ideas still swirling in my head. I tell her it’s time to cross that Wabi Sabi bridge of love and memory to the here and now of where I live. The rich Kansas night air — packed with the music of katydids, cicadas, crickets, and humidity — stirs me home. I am grateful for all of where I’ve been and for wherever I’m landing.
To see more of my new work and perhaps even jump in and support me — you get cool perks, a 40-page writing guide, and weekly inspirations in return — please see my Patreon page.
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.
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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.