Time away 2, “a pair of eyes walking”

I look and look.
Looking’s a way of being: one becomes,

sometimes, a pair of eyes walking.
Walking wherever looking takes one.1

excerpt from “Looking, Walking, Being,”
by Denise Levertov

Long, meandering walks are one of the great joys of time away. Time for exploring with my eyes and ears, letting thoughts drift and ricochet against what I see, losing myself in the weather and the sounds of whatever’s around.

Walk 4-16-16 aerial 3.5 mi crop

Two walks, April 2016, drawn as remembered after the fact
Two walks, April 2016, drawn as remembered

When the itch to escape for a week struck this spring, Kathy and Mark offered their home in Port Townsend at a time they’d be away. My daily walks began there.

North Beach

Fort Worden2 is an easy walk from their home, and the park’s proximity was irresistible.

Path from beach to fort

Fort Worden battlements-1

In a recent New York Times piece, Teddy Wayne worries that we’re losing opportunities to be alone with our thoughts, both physically and mentally.3 We’re so distractible, and electronic devices that provide immediate gratification are so often close at hand. He provided data about our increasing use of these devices and brain science suggesting that they interfere with our capacity for introspection. He quoted Nicholas Carr contrasting a state of mind that values speed and quick answers with an “open-ended way of thinking where you’re not always trying to answer a question. You’re trying to go where that thought leads you.”

Path in trees next to Chinese Gardens

As I head out to walk, with my phone safely in my pocket, I leave my questions behind for a while and settle into simply looking and walking and being.

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References

1  Excerpt from “Looking, Walking, Being,” by Denise Levertov, published in 1996 by New Directions Books. I return to the whole poem frequently, and the book itself is a well-worn volume in my library.
2  I introduced Fort Worden in an earlier post, “Home – a confabulation.”
3  Teddy Wayne, “The End of Reflection,” The New York Times, June 11, 2016.


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A curse? An identity? A necessity? A calling?

Thinking about how we think about work matters

“Are you retired?”

In answering the friendly barista facing me with a smile, I stumbled a bit to find the best way to answer. You’d think, being well past traditional retirement age, I’d have a ready answer to such a straightforward question. My hesitation, though, had little to do with my age – I’m happy to be 71, lucky to be healthy in body and spirit, and always ready to acknowledge how old I am. The challenge was the meaning of the word “retire” and the assumptions it makes about work and jobs.

Am I working now? Well . . . “yes and no” or “on and off” or “it depends.”

Yes, I still need to make money beyond what I get from social security and modest savings. But even if I didn’t have to, I’m not sure I’d want to stop working, at least not as long as I can define “work” in the large, loose, multi-faceted way I’ve defined it over the years. Lines that might help me define my work have always been fuzzy – lines between my work and my social life, between work that pays my bills and work that I’m driven to do, lines between when I’m working and when I’m having fun.

The meaning of “work” as I’ve experienced it in my life doesn’t fit the conventions for it that typically surround us. In general usage the word is most often restricted to effort where money changes hands, and for many too many people that work is nasty and unsatisfying, especially if they’re at the bottom of the pay scale. But a whole world of real work is left out when it’s defined this way.

travail
trabajo
arbeit

John Budd, a university professor who studies and teaches about work, employment, and labor1, claims that the way we define work, the way we think about it, is deeply important to how work is structured in practice. A short piece on his blog “Whither Work?” considers the roots of our words for work and described the long history of negative associations with these words in our language.2 “Words indicating labor in most European languages,” he wrote, “originate in an imagery of compulsion, torment, affliction, and persecution.” The French word travail and Spanish trabajo are derived from the Latin, trepaliare, to torture, to inflict suffering or agony. “The German arbeit suggests effort, hardship, and suffering; it is cognate with the Slavonic rabota (from which English derives “robot”), a word meaning corvée, that is, forced or serf labor.”

oeuvre
opus
werg

But the meanings aren’t always negative. “While travail is rooted in torture, another French word for work, oeuvre, comes from the Latin opus relating to accomplishment and creativity. The word work itself is rooted in the ancient Indo-European word werg meaning, simply, “to do.” Budd concludes that words for work can be negative (to torture), neutral (to do), or positive (a work of art).

I was introduced to Budd’s ideas about work a few months ago at the first Chat Room, a quarterly forum on art in the age of the internet.3  Subtitled, “Value and Labor,” this event also posed a more specific question: “What are the trade-offs for artists, creative freelance workers, and other independent contractors in an economy altered by the internet?” As an introduction to these more specific questions, Minh Nguyen, the forum organizer, began by presenting John Budd’s “ten key conceptions of work.” Many other strands of the evening’s discussion were also fascinating, but the range of his ideas definitely got my attention.

a curse
freedom
a commodity

identity
service

In his 2011 book, The Thought of Work,4 Budd elaborates on these ten views of work and in the process explodes the narrow definitions we commonly use, narrow definitions that reduce work “to a curse or to a commodified, instrumental activity that supports consumption.” Being a fan of lists, I include his list of ten ideas.

A curse.  An unquestioned burden necessary for human survival or maintenance of the social order.
Freedom.  A source of independence from the dictates of the natural world, a way to express creativity and build culture.
A commodity.  An abstract quantity of productive effort that has tradable economic value.
Occupational citizenship.  An activity pursued by human community members entitled to certain rights.
Disutility.  A lousy activity tolerated to obtain goods and services that provide pleasure.
Personal fulfillment.  Physical and psychological well-being that provides more than extrinsic, monetary rewards.
A social relation.  Human interaction embedded in social norms, institutions, and power structure.
Caring for others.  The physical, cognitive, and emotional effort required to attend to and maintain others.
Identity.  A method for understanding who you are and where you stand in the social structure.
Service.  The devotion of effort to others, such as God, household, community, or country.

a job
work
as commerce
as a calling

Budd differentiated kinds of work in a much more fine-toothed way than I did in “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value.”5 I made one main distinction, and it was bigger and more diffuse than any of his. Having learned from artists, I distinguished between a “job” and “work,” between work as commerce and work for the common good, between jobs that pay the bills and work that could be called a calling. And by calling, I mean work we’re compelled to do by something other than money – writing poems, composing songs, and making photographs, or teaching, neighborhood clean-ups, and caring for children. I’m grateful for the reinforcement I get from Budd’s multiple views.

Beyond simply identifying the various root definitions of work and his ten conceptions of it, Budd strongly believes that the way we think about work matters. “This should be more than an esoteric, intellectual exercise.” Our unstated views of work affect public policies and laws. When the unpaid work of artists, parents, and neighborhood volunteers is not viewed as “real work,” policies around compensation and benefits, for instance, don’t include them, and without money changing hands, the work and often the person doing it are less valued than wage-earners, not only by the world at large but too often by the people themselves. Budd writes:

“The linguistic features of work reflect the realities of human work… As a society, we need to re-connect with the deep meanings of work not only for individuals but also for democracy. We need to develop new norms that value work that is not rewarded by the labor market and create institutions for improving how work is experienced.”

I’ve thought about multiple meanings of work as I’ve gone from one sort of work to another, and I’ve done so right through my 60s without much of a pause at “mile marker 65.” While I’m sure our specific understandings of what we mean by work will keep changing, I suspect I won’t stop doing it any time soon.

It was ideas like these, bouncing around in my head as I stood in front of my barista friend, that made it hard to give a quick and coherent answer to her question about retirement.

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References

  1. John W. Budd, biographical sketch,
  2. Budd, “Whither Work?” blog site
  3. Chat Room, at the Northwest Film Forum, Seattle
  4. Budd, The Thought of Work, Cornell University Press, 2011
  5. Anne Focke, “Unpaid, in Spite of Their Value,” on this site

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Home – a confabulation

A “confabulation” provided one beginning point in a two-decade-long inquiry into what kind of space I want as a home and what relationship I’d like it to have with other people and the larger world.

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Confabulate: to talk informally; chat. [Latin confabulari: com-together + fabula, story, conversation]; informal, confab.

In June 1997 a group of friends received an invitation to a confab, a chance to spend up to a week together in a beautiful natural location an hour and a half outside the city to consider “Home: Arrangements for living and aging.”

The invitation included this about the theme:

Invite photo crop 2

The confab was a chance not only to be part of discussions that could spin out from these ideas about home but also to simply try out our individual ideas by living them, together, in a cluster of small houses. Everyone invited was welcome to stay for all or some of the time to . . .

talk together (the “confab” part)
have time for yourself
share a few meals
sing or play or hike or . . .

Five cabins at Fort Worden State Park served as our home base. Located on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula on a high bluff overlooking Puget Sound, the park covers 434 acres with over two miles of saltwater shoreline. Originally designed as a military base in the early 1900s, it never saw active fire, and many of its historic buildings and battlements remain. In the early 1970s, it became a state park and a home for Centrum, a center for arts and education.

Fort Worden map1 cropWe occupied five of seven buildings that are collectively called, for reasons still mysterious to me, the “Suds” houses. Over the course of the week 21 people participated, including four children of participants. A few of us were able to stay the entire time, others were there for as many days as they could manage. I was given use of the houses as part of a deal I made with Centrum in exchange for services I’d provided in planning and reshaping their artist residency program in the Suds.Fort Worden, suds map crop,jpg

A focused time for conversation was scheduled each day, with many of us taking turns identifying talking points. Our discussion ranged widely: the relationship between the place where you grew up and the place you make for yourself later in life; balancing time alone and time with others; asking ourselves who we want to live with; distinctions between private and public space, or maybe better put, between private, public, and social or shared space. For some, work is an important part of “home,” as it is in artists’ live/work spaces. Would common spaces be too distracting for concentration? For some “a shared space should begin with a stove!” but others felt 50 years of experience would make sharing a kitchen really difficult. We need new language – “commune” doesn’t work; perhaps proximity rather than communal better describes the aim.

Photo of suds houses 1 (fm above) crop

We considered city/country and urban/rural preferences and getting beyond the stereotypes; the importance of wildness; relationships between home and landscapes; the desire for a long view and for close-up views and a sense of enclosure.

Ideas about “a place to age and keep on living” from the invitation wove in and out as a theme (and we were 20 years younger then!): the anxiety about how we’d sustain our lives after “retirement;” our dissatisfaction with the isolation of today’s retirement communities; our role as the advance guard of the baby boom; the desire not to segregate ourselves according to our age; the value and importance of connections with the “larger world;” the importance of a place being “kid friendly” as well as questions about how a single person would fit in a multi-generational setting. We heard both of a desire not to be a burden to others as we age and also of the joy generated by caring for an older friend.

We described individual fantasies about what this might look like: a lodge; a hotel as a place that’s inviting not just to its residents but to outsiders; spas, resorts, and other escapes; sustainable eco-resorts; Buddhist retreats; taking over a whole city block that faces outward on the street fronts and inward into more private central spaces; W.S. Merwin’s description of a region in southern France.

Photo of suds house 260

Specific examples and stories added to our ability to imagine the possibilities: the Western Front in Vancouver, BC and its rural extension, Babyland; Chevy Chase on Discovery Bay; the Linger Longer Lodge in Quilcene; the Mountaineers’ lodges; Project Row Houses in Houston; and examples from co-housing projects and Seattle’s Anhalt apartments to clusters of homes built of a shipping containers.

Over the course of the week we also shared at least one meal together each day. Notes from the week refer to: “a wonderful dinner of David’s fish soup,” “a special meal of Laura’s cabbage rolls,” “Lynn and Rita’s salmon dinner,” “pasta from Jim,” “soup and sweet potatoes from Marcie,” “Norie’s pasta and Anne’s roasted vegetables,” and pizza from a Port Townsend cafe. In addition to solitary walks, time for reading, and pick-up games on the lawn, shared experiences punctuated our time: “a walk on the beach and sitting around a bonfire,” “Hillela’s banged up knee,” “Tomo playing nearby on the beach as it got dark,” “a sunny morning at low tide and a rainy afternoon visiting Port Townsend’s Secret Gardens.”

By the end of the week it felt as though we’d only just begun. We didn’t reach a conclusion about a specific future direction and didn’t resolve the many, often contrasting thoughts and stories. The week’s experience, however, did spawn more confabs that included more people and continued for four years until mid 2001. During this time, interest in the idea spread, and my mailing list for notes from the confabs grew and stretched across the country.

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That first confab marked the beginning of a conscious exploration of the meaning of “home” – the particular configuration of physical, social, emotional, and creative space that altogether means home for me and for others. Deep in my interior somewhere, home has always been both a private and a social place, shaped as I was by the first home I knew.


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