Category Archives: Work

Supporting and Nurturing the Mother-Artist

Nurturing the Mother-Artist

When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I was a textile artist creating large-scale, multi-fiber installations. By the time my second daughter was born, my experiments with color and texture had expanded to include light, which led me to incorporate stained glass into my work, and later to abandon the textiles. For the next few years, I constructed lamps and panels in a variety of studios, including a storefront beside a motorcycle shop, a kiosk in a field that was part of a crafts village, an artisans’ co-op in a former fishing shanty, and later, our townhouse kitchen. None were ideal for a young mother with toddlers, especially since my chosen medium involved glass shards and soldering lead! What had I been thinking?

I began to realize that I was being called a crafter rather than the artist I aspired to be, and that some aspects of the art world were unfriendly to someone who was a mother-artist. And the logistics of shows and material-buying trips were getting complicated, even with my husband’s support. Even though he and I were equally sharing the parenting role and he was prepared to support my art in terms of income generation, I began to think a change was required, especially since our daughters would be learning without school. So, somewhat reluctantly, I opted for a safer and more flexible life of writing and editing. (And I do realize how privileged I was/am – at least I had a supportive partner and wasn’t a single mother trying to juggle everything by myself.)

I have never gone back to doing art. (At this stage, I’m struggling to re-learn how to knit!) And I can’t say I’ve ever really regretted the choice to switch my creative focus. My mothering has most definitely enhanced – even defined – my writing over the years. I also doubt I would have made any more money as an artisan than I have as a writer; artists and writers – like mothers and other caregivers, male or female – are marginalized in a capitalist world.

The decision, which turned into a home-based family publishing business, seems to have been a good choice for our life learning family too. We integrated the business into our family life fairly well, although we didn’t grow it as quickly as our ambitions wanted, in order to spend time nurturing our school-free daughters. (I don’t use the term “balance” because I don’t think there was any….) I loved working alongside our daughters. They learned a great deal about life and business – and creativity – from participating in our work. And our employees were hired with the understanding that pausing to help a child spell a word or play catch was part of their job description. So life has been good.

However, when the light shines through one of the very few smaller pieces of my work that have survived four decades and many moves, I find myself wishing that I’d been able to find a way to continue developing as a glass artist. On other days, I wonder if I would have been a more prolific and creative writer if I’d had at least some time to myself when my daughters were small…and been able to find a community of fellow writers. I wonder if father-artists change careers when children came along, or if people wonder if fatherhood has changed their work. And would my work (and, yes, my work as an unschooling advocate too) have been more accepted if I weren’t classified as a “mother-artist?”

Now, there is more support for the mother-artist. I recently came across this wonderful Artist Residency in Motherhood designed by Pittsburgh-based mother-artist Lenka Clayton to empower artists who are also mothers. I’ve often thought about how wonderful it would have been if one of those artisans’ markets or co-ops in which I was involved forty years ago had been dedicated to mother-artists so that we could have worked together to assist, support, and inspire each other. And this experimental creative space for mother-artists and their children in London, England seems like just that thing. The model is too late for me, but I hope it inspires other solutions for nurturing the mother-artist.

And, in the end, mothering is an art too, isn’t it?






Redefining Work and Money (and everything else in life)

Redefining Work and Money (and everything else in life)

Redefining work and money involves an examination of what’s important to us, how we educate ourselves, what sort of work we do, and what sort of world we want to live in.

“To find out what one really wants, and what it costs, and how to pay what it costs, is an important part of everyone’s life work. But it is not easy to find out what we like or want, when all our lives other people have been hard a work trying not just to make us do what they want, but to make us think that we want to do it.” ~John Holt, Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story

In those two sentences, from a book published in 1978 – around the time he coined the term “unschooling” – John Holt put his finger on a problem that people are feeling even more strongly today: How do we make enough money to live comfortably, how do we find work that pleases us, how do we arrange our lives to be able to afford to do that sort of work, and how can we ensure that our children won’t struggle with these questions? Those questions about redefining work and how they interrelate with the rest of life are also the basis for my life and my work.

For instance, in this 2010 article, I suggested that work is actually redefining itself. Then I looked at how kids who learn without attending school (“unschoolers”) are well prepared to thrive in a world that’s already quite different from the one in which their parents and grandparents came of age (and for which our school systems were designed). The very ideas of work and the value of money are changing in the face of social and economic upheaval, and ecological decline. Many unschoolers have quite a different – truly radical – outlook on those topics.

Charles Eisenstein wrote in his book Sacred Economics, “True wealth is sovereignty over your own time.” Control of their own time is something unschoolers develop, because their education has taught them to trust their own instincts about pursuing what is important to them. So it’s not surprising that an unschooling dad, Michael Fogler, borrowed from unschooling to coin the term “un-jobbing” and write a book about it in 1999 entitled Un-Jobbing: The Adult Liberation Handbook. He describes un-jobbing as “living the life you truly want to live without major, full-time employment and still making your ends meet.”

I’ve written about unjobbing (as I prefer to spell it) as well, since I have been doing it (while unschooling my daughters) since the mid-1970s (before either of those words was coined). One particular article prompted someone (who admitted that he dislikes his job) to comment to me that unjobbing seems to be a self-absorbed luxury. I pointed out to him that, in fact, a variety of motivations are at play for those who are trying to redefine work and income, most of them not about luxury at all:

  • Baby boomers are getting to retirement age and wanting to continue to work as a way of staying active and relevant.
  • Other people are still jobless due to the last recession or corporate downsizing, and are looking for creative ways to pay the rent.
  • Those with jobs find themselves working harder for less buying power.
  • Some people are convinced there is a need for a new type of economy and a move to things like green technologies, which are solutions for issues like climate change and resource scarcity.
  • Some people worry that more economic hard times are ahead and want to be prepared by developing greater self-reliance.
  • Still others are just plain burnt out and fed up, wondering if there’s more to life than the nine-to-five grind and are willing to trade some purchasing power and stress for a simpler, healthier, and more convivial lifestyle.
  • And then there are the parents who want to stay at home with their children or elderly parents.

Fogler identified the common ground among all these people who are redefining work when he wrote in Un-Jobbing that, “What we have going with our jobbing orientation is chronic national busy-ness (alias ‘business’), which has proven itself to be unhealthful for humans and our planetary home. We must look in another direction. We must put less emphasis on jobs and more on cooperation, simplicity, and serving one another. This may very well involve meaningful work, but that’s not the same as jobs.”

“Meaningful work” is the Buddhist path that says even the humblest job can have meaning; it’s also part of “Right Livelihood.” Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others … Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.” (The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Parallax Press, 1998).

In a letter to the editor published in The Progressive, author and philosopher Wendell Berry took that idea a bit farther by addressing the issue of work’s quantity and quality. He said that we need to ask a variety of questions about work before we suggest people are doing too much of it: Questions like whether or not we chose our work or feel compelled to do it to earn money; about how much of our intelligence, skill, and pride is involved in our work; if we respect the result of our work; and what are the ecological and social costs of our work.

The problem my friend alluded to when he commented that unjobbing is a luxury is that although there is much important work to be done that has positive ecological and social benefits, there is often not enough willingness to pay for it. And expressing one’s deepest self, redefining work, or even worrying about the consequences of one’s work is difficult when struggling to pay the rent. That is where simple living and minimalism come in, along with developing some self-sufficiency skills so we can create or mend some of the things we cannot afford to purchase.

Economist Juliet Schor figures we will all be living that way at some point soon – in what she calls the Plenitude Economy. She wrote about it in her book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (entitled True Wealth in softcover). The Center for a New American Dream has summarized it in this video. Essentially, Schor describes her notion of a post-consumer society as redefining work and money. It is one in which people work fewer hours and pursue re-skilling, homesteading, and small-scale enterprises that can help reduce the overall size and impact of the consumer economy.

But what about those whose mental or physical health issues preclude working at any sort of job (let alone redefining work), and performing self-reliance skills or homesteading? That’s where a universal basic income comes in – an old idea that also has caught people’s imagination again, with a number of jurisdictions announcing plans to test the idea in the near future.

Whether you think all of this is a prudent reaction to confusing times or a utopian (naïve?) luxury, I see a compelling convergence of ideas in economics, education, sociology, and governance. And I think that redefining work, money, and education holds the germ of a solution for a happier, more convivial, self-reliant, better educated, restorative, “civil” civilization. At the very least, it’s hard to deny what British author and popularizer of Zen philosophy Alan Watts once wrote:

“If you say that money is the most important thing, you’ll spend your life completely wasting your time: You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is, in order to go on doing things you don’t like doing – which is stupid!”

Meaningful Work

Meaningful Work

At a time of high unemployment and world-wide financial instability, the idea of meaningful work may seem frivolous. On the other hand, increasing job instability, contract employment, and self-employment are trends that will likely continue for the foreseeable future. So perhaps meaningful work can be an opportunity to make ourselves happy and prosperous, while contributing to larger change.

Secure, highly paid jobs are becoming the exception rather than the norm. As I wrote in an article for Life Learning Magazine in 2010, those jobs, for the most part, belonged to a pre-climate change era of expanding profitability, corporate greed and fraud, stable markets, cheap goods, and abundant natural resources. In a new era when currency systems and markets are volatile, climatic conditions are uncertain, and environmental costs will be accounted for in the costing of goods and services, smaller scale, sufficiency-based economics flourishes.

Since we are having to reinvent production and consumption systems to be more ecologically sustainable and convivial, why not explore the idea of meaningful work? What I am referring to is the sort of life-affirming and non-exploitative work that is sometimes referred to as “ethical livelihood.” You may also have heard to term “Right Livelihood” – a traditional Buddhist teaching and one aspect of the eight-fold path taught by the Buddha.

I first came across Right Livelihood in the mid-1970s when my husband Rolf and I were starting the business that publishes our magazines, beginning with Natural Life Magazine in 1976. I read about it in the book Seven Laws of Money by Michael Phillips and Salli Raspberry. (A decade before the book was published, Phillips was a young vice president of the Bank of California and responsible for creating the modern universal multi-bank credit card Master Charge, now MasterCard.) His explanation of meaningful work provided us with some good start-up advice, albeit not of the conventional sort.

The first Law of Money according to Phillips was: “Money will come when you are doing the right thing…Worry about your ability to do it and competence to do it, but certainly do not worry about the money.” In our society, where money worries are the cause of everything from suicides to divorce and fraud-fueled jail time, that principle is hard for many people to accept. It could mean something as simple as offering the right product, or as complicated as trusting that your right effort will somehow be noticed and rewarded, or putting ethics and service to others before profit. But that is the basis on which we built our business.

We bootstrapped our start-up, trusting that it was the right thing to do, and it’s been a good life. We regularly receive positive feedback from those who feel their lives have been enriched by our forty years of work, and we can sleep at night knowing that we operate ethically and honestly.

In addition, I still enjoy what I do, which is key to meaningful work…and to mental and physical health. The joy of finding our Right Livelihood it is that what others may see as duty or sacrifice is seen as pleasurable, and even the most difficult and demanding aspects of our work will not sway us from our course. Commitment seems to come more easily when your work is your Right Livelihood, whether you run a business or hold a job.

I feel grateful that my work has allowed me to live authentically, doing what I’m most passionate about. As I used to tell my students when I taught micro-business start-up courses, life and work are intertwined. So why not try to choose work that reflects the whole of your person? When our work misses that connection, we can become easily disenchanted with it, and with ourselves. And that’s not good for our personal productivity or the broader economy within which we work.

“He does nothing with haste and drudgery, but as if he loved it. He makes the most of his labor, and takes infinite satisfaction in every part of it. He is not looking forward to the sale of his crops or any pecuniary profit, but he is paid by the constant satisfaction which his labor yields him.” ~Henry David Thoreau

But there is more to Right Livelihood. For those who practice Buddhism, Right Livelihood is part of their spiritual practice. In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others …Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.”

No matter how we make a living, we can make many choices and changes in our workplaces, and there are many instances where we can not only engage in meaningful work but be of service to fellow workers and to the world. We can be honest and conscientious. We can perform our work mindfully and have compassion for our fellow workers. And perhaps we are (or may be later) in a position to make or influence ethical purchasing choices.

Those changes that an individual can make in his/her workplace are the theme of the book Work as a Spiritual Practice, by Buddhist writer and teacher Lewis Richmond, who uses the term “conscious livelihood” to illuminate the principles of Right Livelihood. But Richmond has more recently noted that conscious livelihood should not be limited to individual awareness and action. He believes that society at large also has a responsibility to be conscious of the consequences of its economic and employment policies. That means we all need to be responsible for thinking about how we deal with issues of unemployment and under-employment, of workplace exploitation, and of how corporate decisions influence the health of Nature and our climate. All of those and more are factors in making meaningful work a part of our economies and our lives, while thriving in the newly decentralized, creative workplace that writers like Seth Godin (Linchpin) and Richard Florida (The Great Reset) tell us is our future.