Love, dirt, being of use, and why I wish “intuitive working” were possible

raised bed garden with green leafy vegetables

My friend Bethany recently wrote a beautiful meditation on transitions, rituals, and love. She argues that, contrary to our mainstream cultural narratives, graduation is not the only time when we can embark on new journeys and adventures, nor is marriage the only valid expression of love.

To illustrate of the many ways that people can express their love for each other and the world, she describes her current job on a farm:

Farming is teaching me more about patience and cycles and transitions than anything I may have ever done before. I see, almost daily, how the labor of my body—led by the love in my heart for the world and my place therein—interacts with the plants in the ground. On Friday, I pounded tomato stakes, hoed potatoes, weeded chard, broccoli and kale, helped uncover beds and beds of cabbage, ate the fruits of last year’s harvest for lunch with the farm team, hoed squash and cucumbers and basil, hand weeded dill, listened to the plans made for the coming weeks, and cleaned the tools at the end of the day.

When I read this, I could barely keep from crying.

This is the work I want, achingly, to be doing.

I know my body feels best when I’m moving around. I know my mind feels best when I’m engaged in meaningful work, work with tangible results. I want, as Marge Piercy puts it (in the title of a poem that I saw on the subway on my way to my office job), to be of use:

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

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A Scarleteen update, and thoughts on sustainable funding and “free riders”

Remember how Scarleteen was planning to go on strike on May 1st unless they received enough donations to make their work sustainable? Happily, they did receive more than the minimum needed to continue their services, so they can keep up the important work of providing comprehensive sexuality education to young people.

In her update post, Heather Corinna talks about how many grassroots, independent organizations are in the same financial boat as Scarleteen, and urges the reader to support them. She asks her readers to give a recurring monthly donation if they can, even one as small as $10, and to donate their time by volunteering if they can’t donate money.

This is all important, and I hope that many people do set up recurring donations to Scarleteen and other small organizations that provide services to marginalized people. I hope that people realize the value of their work and support it however they can.

But I can’t help thinking about the broader economic context in which these calls for donations take place: the one in which far too many people don’t have the time or money to support the organizations they care about. The one in which real wages keep dropping while the cost of housing, medical care, and education skyrocket. The one in which hard work and career success rarely translate into financial stability, inequality widens precariously, jobs are replaced with contingent labor, and more and more people who grew up middle-class find themselves downwardly mobile. The one in which the American dream feels like a cruel joke. (Although inequality in the US is particularly terrible, much of this applies to people in other countries as well–global capitalism’s winners are few, and its losers are many.)

This is the Catch-22 of sustainable funding: small organizations need more donations so their staff can make a living wage and keep doing the work, but many of the people who would donate aren’t making living wages either. Recurring donations are particularly hard, since so many jobs have been replaced with temporary or freelance work–these days, reliable monthly incomes are more the exception than the rule. And the people with the least money to donate often have the least time to volunteer as well, since they’re patching together multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet.

Corinna links to a post by Elizabeth Wood of the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Alliance, who analyzes the reasons why sustainable support is hard to come by and calls on “free-riders” to put their money where their values are.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this post as well; but it feels like a glaring omission to talk about all the reasons why it’s hard to get sustainable funding for small sexuality organizations without even mentioning the bigger economic picture. It feels like a glaring omission to complain about the devalued labor and exploitation of non-profit workers without even a nod to the devalued labor and exploitation of huge numbers of people, many of whom would support orgs like Scarleteen and Woodhull if they could.

Wood’s exhortation to “free-riders” feels, to me, a bit too much like shaming people for being unable to donate to every organization they care about. Her call to “put your money where your values are” erases the reality that it takes a certain amount of privilege to be able to do so.

I don’t know what the solution is. Obviously, calls for donations are necessary; obviously, as illustrated by Scarleteen’s recent success, they work. I do believe that we have a collective responsibility to support important work like what Scarleteen does; but in our current economic climate, so many of us are struggling just to get by. How can we pull each other up when we’re barely staying afloat?

It’s hard to imagine a sustainable future for independent grassroots organizations without imagining a completely different economic system. But they still need to do their work now, in the economy we have–which means they have to keep asking for money from the same pool of people who care about many types of service and justice work, and who don’t necessarily have the money to fund them all.

No more “deserving” vs. “undeserving”: why we need a guaranteed basic income (and a parallel to intuitive eating)

farm with ducks and chickens and barn in background

What would you do, if you could do anything? I have a few ideas…

David Graeber (of “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” fame) has a great interview on PBS about the need for a guaranteed basic income to replace our current system of complex, dehumanizing bureaucracies. He says:

The problem is that we have this gigantic apparatus that presumes to tell people who’s worthy, who’s not, what people should be doing, what they shouldn’t. They’re all about assessing value, but in fact, the whole system fell apart in 2008 because nobody really knows how to do it. We don’t really know how to assess the value of people’s work, of people’s contributions, of people themselves, and philosophically, that makes sense; there is no easy way to do it. So the best thing to do is just to say, alright, everyone go out and you decide for yourselves.

I agree, so hard, with his critique of bureaucracy. From personal experience with unemployment benefits, I can tell you it’s a little bit soul-crushing to have to keep proving, week after week, that you’ve done enough job-hunting to deserve to pay your rent; and that’s just the tip of the government-benefits iceberg. There are so many poor and working-poor people for whom navigating the bureaucracies of food stamps, housing assistance, heating assistance, welfare, etc. is a full-time job of its own. See, for example, this piece about the ridiculous, invasive, confusing hoops that food stamp recipients have to jump through in order to eat.

Let me be clear: right now, while there is no alternative, we need those bureaucracies. We need to defend them against attacks from the Right, and push to expand them when possible. Right now, food stamps keep people from starving.

But in the big picture, in the long term, we can do better. I envision a society in which a guaranteed basic income is considered a right. I envision a society in which no one has to justify themselves, a society that doesn’t divide people into “deserving” and “undeserving”–a society that doesn’t make people jump through hoops for their basic human rights. A society that recognizes that, by virtue of being alive, everyone deserves enough money to live. (For what it’s worth, there’s plenty of empirical evidence that giving money directly to poor people decreases poverty and has other positive effects.)

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Et tu, Girls Write Now?

If you don’t follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter, you should. Her tweets are always insightful and incisive, and I appreciate that she regularly calls out organizations that claim to empower people–or in some cases, even fight for higher wages and workers’ rights– while not paying their own interns.

Her latest example is, sadly, Girls Write Now, a non-profit that provides writing mentoring to at-risk and underserved girls in New York City. As Kendzior dryly points out: “Organization claiming to champion impoverished teens seeks unpaid employee to work 25 to 35 hrs/week.”

Girls Write Now is only one of many, many organizations that expect interns to do entry-level-type work, full-time or near-full-time, without pay. But it’s especially disappointing because I’ve always liked them (and probably even given them money, although I don’t keep track of my donations well enough to know for sure).  As someone who was once a girl and has always loved to write, I know firsthand how amazing it is to grow into your own voice with the support of mentors, peers, and a community. I want all girls who are interested in writing to have that experience.

It’s incredibly frustrating that an organization doing such important work would expect their interns to work 25 to 35 hours a week unpaid, especially in a city as expensive as New York. It virtually guarantees that most of their interns will be well-off–from backgrounds nothing like those of the girls they’re serving.

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We deserve better.

I keep coming across disheartening reminders that having a successful career rarely translates into financial stability.

s.e. smith, a writer whose work I’ve followed for years on XOJane and elsewhere on the social justice internets, recently posted a list of tips for freelancers. In the introduction, ou* admitted:

Alas, the fact of the matter is that while I have been freelancing for seven years now, I still don’t have what I would call a wildly stable or successful career, and it’s highly likely that will never realistically happen. The same is true of many freelancers, especially in an economy where intellectual labour is valued less and less, which translates into lower fees for your work or dreaded offers of ‘exposure’ in offer for your free work.

The same day, I came across Susie Cagle’s post Eight years of solitude: on freelance labor, journalism, and survival. And it’s just depressing:

More newspapers and magazines want to profile me and the strange work I do than hire me to actually do it. Other writers and illustrators chastise, how can you complain about getting that kind of promotion? The year I got the most TV and radio spots and magazine write-ups, I made about $17,000.

Even though freelance writing doesn’t appeal to me for a number of reasons–I do best with external structure and routine, I need to be around people, and I just enjoy writing more when my rent doesn’t depend on it–it hurts to see how little our economy values people with skills and interests similar to mine. It’s incredibly frustrating to see so many people doing such good work but barely making enough to live on.

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A realization

dark storm clouds looming over path in the arboretum

Sometimes I think, my generation is fucked.

And then I realize, in ten or twenty years, we’re going to be even more fucked: when many of us are raising children and caring for aging parents at the same time. So much shit is going to hit so many fans–and that’s not even counting the havoc climate change will be wreaking on the world. Or the civilizational collapse that’s hanging over our heads.

Sometimes it’s really, really hard to feel hopeful about the future–my own or the world’s.

The only thing that helps is enjoying the present moment: laughing with my friends, singing along to every song in Frozen, celebrating Pi Day with an apartment full of friends and pie, feeling my feet firmly rooted into the ground in warrior pose, petting my various furry neighbors, getting completely absorbed in a book, wearing pretty twirly dresses, taking in the silence that blankets the world when it snows.

Right now, that has to be enough.

Living in the post-employment economy: on permaculture, sex ed, and perpetually closed doors

During my senior year of college, I attended the Women, Action, and the Media: WAM! conference here in Boston, hoping to find career ideas and opportunities. Instead, I found there were plenty of people doing good work, but few making a living–and most of the latter had put in years of unpaid or barely-paid work to get there. Few organizations offered entry-level jobs with a living wage and a clear career path. The only way I could see to get into most positions was to work unpaid internships, or start your own project on top of working full-time elsewhere, and keep doing it until either it became profitable or you gained enough experience to apply for one of the few jobs available.

And this was before the global financial crisis of 2008.

It was intensely discouraging and disheartening to graduate into a world where there’s so little relation between work and pay, and it’s only gotten worse.

Throughout the nearly seven years (!) since I graduated, I’ve been constantly researching jobs and careers and alternative life paths, trying to find a good fit. Every time I come across someone doing work that sounds appealing to me, something I could see myself doing, I look at how they’re doing it. And almost always, it involves a superhuman amount of work, an amount of hustling that I just don’t have in me, an extra source of income, or all of the above.

One recent example: I read Paradise Lot, a book about the how the author and a friend built a permaculture garden on a small urban lot in Western Massachusetts. Permaculture appeals to me immensely, and I still hope to learn it someday, perhaps while WWOOFing if I can ever make it work. But through much of the time described in the book, not only was the author designing his own garden, but he was also working at a local grassroots organization and writing a permaculture encyclopedia–while also recovering from a traumatic brain injury.

Another example: Heather Corinna of Scarleteen, a site that provides comprehensive sexuality education to young people, recently wrote that the site will go on strike unless they receive enough donations to make their work sustainable. Corinna writes that she has been working for 15 years without a living wage, often while working multiple other jobs at the same time, because she cares so deeply about the work–but she can no longer keep that up. And, as she notes, she’s not the only one; a lack of funding and jobs is endemic in the field. I’ve seen this firsthand: one of my friends is trained as a sex educator, but she’s in the same position I am, taking whatever administrative/clerical temp jobs she can find to make ends meet.

I thought about going into sex ed, briefly, when I was interning in the media and communications department at Planned Parenthood (also during my senior year of college). And then I saw there were no jobs.

It’s easy not to realize how many doors have quietly closed, until suddenly you see them all.

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For our souls and communities: why we need a work culture of regular sabbaticals

Hanging out with a goat and chickens while visiting a farm last year.

For the last few years, I’ve been doing a lot of research into alternatives to the traditional job market that no longer offers much opportunity. Especially alternatives that involve either travel, farm work, or both–because I have both a terrible case of wanderlust and a strong urge to work with my hands close to the earth.

Last spring, I was seriously considering WWOOFing–volunteering on an organic farm in exchange for room and board–for the summer. I even visited a few potential farms, but in the end, I decided not to do it for two reasons: I didn’t want to be separated from Steve, and I didn’t want to come back to Boston in the fall with no job or way to pay rent.

Now that spring is around the corner, my dormant desire to sink my hands into mud and dirt is back. And are my fantasies about WWOOFing. But for the same reasons as last year, I don’t think I can make it work.

Through all of my research and yearning and fantasizing and facing hard realities, I’ve become more and more convinced that we need a national job culture of regular sabbaticals. Of stable, living-wage, permanent jobs that give employees the option to take a year off (ideally at a reduced pay rate, or unpaid) every x number of years, with the guarantee that their jobs would be waiting for them upon return.

The farm’s fruit trees and main buildings, not far from its solar panels.

This could solve so many disparate problems. Like reducing the workweek to 21 hours, it would spread out work among more people, thereby reducing unemployment. It would force employers to cross-train their workers more effectively, which would result in a more skilled and innovative workforce. It would have the potential to reduce carbon emissions.

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This is the world we live in.

Recently, one of my friends posted on Facebook that you know the economy sucks when people tell you you’re lucky to have a job. She went on to say how messed-up it is that, instead of employment being the default and unemployment meaning you’re down on your luck, people are considered lucky to have jobs at all.

The same day, Sarah Kendzior tweeted about a man who could only afford to eat one meal a day while working an unpaid internship–which was in human rights.

And then I read that my alma mater just gave eight million dollars to its former president.

This is the world we live in.

There are so many solutions–and so much money and power standing in the way of those solutions.

And it’s damn hard to work toward solutions, toward a better world, while still living in this one.

I am reminded of David Cain’s piece, Your lifestyle has already been designed. Cain writes about returning to a traditional 9-to-5 job after spending time traveling, and realizing that he became both casually careless with his money and too tired to exercise or do creative things.

He notes that:

Keeping free time scarce means people pay a lot more for convenience, gratification, and any other relief they can buy. It keeps them watching television, and its commercials. It keeps them unambitious outside of work.

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.

I know this dynamic too well.

I should note that working a 40-hour workweek makes both Cain and myself luckier than the many, many people who work far more hours, including those who string together multiple low-paid part-time jobs just to get by.  

But even still, I often come home exhausted, especially during the busy times when I’m on my feet lifting things all day. It’s harder to have energy for activism–including activism aimed at building a just and healthy economic system–especially when that activism involves putting on shoes and leaving the house.

It’s also harder to live up to my community-centric values when the last thing I want to do after work is go out to a local event or meeting. And it’s harder to support small local businesses–when I’m tired and don’t want to go out, it’s so much easier to buy everything from Amazon instead. 

It’s a vicious cycle that’s really, really hard to break.

On the policy level, I can think of plenty of things that could break the cycle.

On the personal level, it’s just a struggle.