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I Am a Writer Activist, and this is My Story

I Am a Writer Activist, and this is My Story

by Nathan G. Thompson

I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember. My grade school assignments frequently included little titles, poems, or stories, regardless of the original content. Some of the teachers thought these additions were cute, while others were annoyed by them. Later, in high school, I began taking creative writing classes. The near consistent praise for my writing skills started rolling in almost immediately. Given this boost, I soon learned to peddle my words for grade cookies. Instead of doing the assigned work, I’d offer up a pithy critique on some novel I had read, or hand in a stack of newly drafted poems. It almost always worked. I got straight A’s in every class where writing was a major component, and even a few where it wasn’t. When you don’t need to earn money to survive, living off your writing is pretty easy.

As a young adult, I became a political animal. Driven by a concern for the environment and a decidedly fierce anti-war stance that made me wonder about my past lives, I started writing elected officials and joining protests. In addition, the college tuition and student rights battles that continue today were just getting warmed up back in the mid-1990s, when I was an undergraduate student, and I enthusiastically joined our campus student senate to fight the good fight. In my English classes, I argued with gray haired, white male professors over the value of literary canon, and the lack of diversity in the writing they presented us. In one class, when it came time to write a term paper, I chose Jack London’s The Iron Heel because it was the most radical novel on the list, and I wanted to stick it to the conservative professor who barely gave the time of day to the brilliant Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and other African American writers of the early 20th century. When all you need is a good grade, the strength of your writing skills and research often is enough. I wish the same were true when you’re looking to get paid.

My parents divorced when I was young, and for several years, my mother did everything in her power to better herself and, in the process, make things better for me and my sister. She went into debt to give us a nice house to live in. She went into more debt to go to grad school, so that the skills she had didn’t go to waste in a low wage, dead end job. A few of those years, we regularly ate welfare staples like powdered milk, cheap pasta, and those big blocks of yellow cheese that don’t really taste like cheese. Even after she began to climb out of poverty, we were always the last kids to get the “newest, hippest” thing, if we ever did at all. I remember finally receiving a Nintendo game system for one of my birthdays, a good five years after it had been hyper popular. I was happy and depressed all at the same time. As I played Tecmo Football with a friend of mine one day, a little voice inside my head said, “This is how it is when you’re poor. You’re always way behind.”

The Buddha’s teachings provide some solace. Instead of considering money the root of all evil, or the sign that you’re one of the “chosen ones,” Buddhist teachings point to money as being empty of inherent nature. The monastic teachings around renunciation are helpful in letting go of desires around having lots of stuff I don’t need. In addition, the Pali Canon is filled with advice to kings, wealthy folks, and others to share what they have, warning that extreme material imbalances lead to societies of deep suffering. And meditation practice itself provides an always ready training ground, for facing fears around money, and lack of money, and for letting everything just be as it is.

However calm and stable I may be, though, there’s still a need for money. I haven’t yet figured out a decent fix in this capitalist society for going without money. Bartering is great when you can find a partner to do it. Growing your own food is great when you have a bit of land and decent weather. Dumpster diving sometimes brings good results, but certainly isn’t a long term solution for anything. Co-operative living has its pluses and minuses, but for the most part, you still need some money to that. Point being, like most of us radical types out there, I’m still working the dream of a healthy, liberated way of being beyond capitalism. It isn’t easy, and there seems to be a lot of impediments to it in place, including some from the very people who say they want a new world to spring forth.

Social activist circles are notorious for their idealism, and also their clinging fiercely to that idealism. Like the non-profit sector, there’s a strong ethos that says you should give, give, give to the cause. But that it’s usually wrong to receive much of anything in return, besides some of those praise cookies I so loved back in the day. Writers and artists in particular are put through the wringer because our skills are needed to advance the cause, and yet any expectation of pay or gifts of material goods for our work is frequently met with scorn and/or calls of being a “sell out.” Academics and professional pundit writers like Chris Hedges or Noam Chomsky are either given a pass because they have “day jobs,” or are used when convenient and tossed aside when not. Either way, the impact of this behavior on them is marginal at most, whereas the same behavior towards the average poor activist can be the difference between having a place to call home, and being homeless.

Convert American Buddhists, on the whole, don’t seem to be much better when it comes to dealing with this kind of thing. First off, there’s the rather collective aversion towards social and political issues in the first place. It’s ok to “do that” on your own time but don’t expect any of us to support what you’re doing publically, especially in terms of financial support. Along these lines, the heavy middle/upper class bias prevalent in the vast majority of convert American Buddhist sanghas renders such issues mostly invisible. “Vowing to do good” – one of the Buddhist pure precepts – is something we are supposed to do our best with, but if you place it at the radical center of your life, you’re basically on your own in trying to keep the bills paid. Even living in a monastic community, where you may be able to reduce your material needs enough to focus on serving the broader world, is a privilege in this country. You usually need money to get there, money to stay there, and money to leave there.

A lot of folks in both of these sanghas, the Buddhist ones and the social activist ones, decry the increasing privatization and material wealth imbalances that plague the United States. And yet, many of the same folks fail to see how they very notions they have about what constitutes a “good activist” or a “good Buddhist” are privatized themselves. Activists routinely speak of solidarity, and yet gobble up the work of their writers and artists, often without so much as thought to how the person that created that work is keeping their bills paid, if they are at all. American convert Buddhists are fond of waxing poetic about interdependence, but when push comes to shove, are decidedly individualistic in how they approach both the dharma, and the world around them.

Something has to give. Someone has to give.

I write this article without expectation of payment. It’s like so many other things I do. Offering to the world a little liberation plea. Putting my words in service of anything and everything that might help wake someone, anyone up from the slumbers wrought by modern capitalism, and the colonial past from which it sprung. The dharma name my Zen teacher gave me several years ago translates to “Devotion to Enlightenment,” and that I am, however far I might be from it moment after moment. I love my fellow writer and artist activists, feel so immensely moved by their work sometimes that I’m stunned silent, with tears down my face. Have you heard of Ricardo Levins Morales? Amazing. How about Troy Amlee? Probably not, but I bet you will someday.

Sure, most of us could get “day jobs,” and do the rest on the side. Many do just that. I did just that for years, and might be doing just that again someday soon. Of course, the ever precarious nature of the job market these days means procuring work is that much more difficult. And once you do so, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have the time and energy left to do things like writing about injustice or painting murals to document the disappearing stories of indigenous folks. In some cases, the workplace you land in might be at total odds with both your true work, and the dreams you have for a better, more just world. They may even try to stop you from doing that work, from speaking of those dreams. People not in the know usually underestimate the power of corporate interests to threaten anyone that threatens their bottom line.

Where we put out money and material support is where the world tends to go. The story of the starving artist and starving writer is neither romantic, nor sustainable. We don’t, as a society, value the vast majority of our writers and artists precisely because they don’t feed the corporate bottom line. Our work has been deemed superfluous and extra precisely because it isn’t – except in rare cases – money making. Do you see how the loop reinforces itself? And actually, if you look a little closer, you’ll see that we do produce wealth. We are a money-making venture. Everyone from corporate giants to the little non-profit down the street make money off our sweat, blood, and tears every single day. They just don’t own up to it. We – the people of the United States of America – just don’t own up to it.

It’s time for that to change. It’s time for folks to put their money where their hearts are. I am a writer activist. And this is my story.

Nathan G. Thompson is a writer, social activist, and Zen practitioner from St. Paul, MN. He is the author of the blog Dangerous Harvests, and has numerous other print and online publications.

Read his other articles for Turning Wheel Media here, here, and here.’

If you would like to support Nathan’s work and other media activists at Turning Wheel Media, give a contribution to our Right Livelihood campaign!

Comments (25)

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Personally, I’d rather the division of labor be such that everyone has opportunity and time to be an artist or a writer (as Marx envisioned in the ideal society), among other things. Now in my late 50s, I’ve worked in an amusement park as a ride operator and cook, as a delivery driver for a medical laboratory and stationary supplies outlet, as a dishwasher at two restaurants and a retirement home (the latter also found me working as a cook’s helper and nighttime ‘security guard’), in the forest services as a trail crew worker and firefighter (the former also for a local equestrian association, while the latter also on a contract crew), as a laborer (for a landscaper and other businesses and individuals), a resident apartment manager, grounds maintenance for a condo. association, various kinds of construction work, eventually becoming a finish carpenter, to list the jobs and kinds of work that come quickest to mind.

    I’ve always thought if one chooses to write or make art for living, that’s an choice that includes all the risks associated with such choices. Indeed, I’ve always tried to find free time to write but thought that familial obligations meant I should find enough work to help provide for myself and family. I now teach part-time and try to write and publish a bit when I can, but I do not expect anyone to support me (the little compensation I’ve received for book contributions and articles could buy a nice bicycle, and that’s about it). All life-sustaining forms of work are equally worthy but I think “intellectual” labor/work is indeed a luxury when others must labor largely with their bodies and are too damn tired and exhausted at the end of the work day to read a book, let alone write one, or who work at mind-numbing jobs that push them towards deleterious forms of psychological denial, self-deception, and escape during whatever free time they possess, and no one should feel any obligation to support those who choose such a way of life (to freely give, well, that’s another thing, which of course those of sufficient wealth are best situated to do). I prefer to give whatever discretionary income our household brings in to organizations like Direct Relief International, food banks, Oxfam, and the like.

    The nature of our capitalist economy is such that there exists economic and social insecurity for most of us, not just writers and artists. Of course I’d be happy if my writing was such that it freed me for more time to write, and I’d be equally pleased if artists and writers who produce quality work were given financial support to continue their labors of love, but until we have a different kind of economic system, it strikes me as no less romantic and unrealistic (and a peculiar form of special pleading) to expect others in our time and place to give whatever little money they have to writers and intellectuals who have made a choice to live in this fashion in a society not congenial to a life of the mind or vocational arts for the few, let alone the many. Rather, let’s work toward a society that will one day enable everyone to have some time to write, some to make music or pottery, to paint, to sing….

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    erratum (last sentence): “some to time to make music or pottery, to paint, to sing….”

  • nathan

    Pretty dismissive commemt Patrick. As if I and others like me are not working towards a more just society. Your notion that our efforts are “romantic” and that this is a “special pleading” is a capitalist one, driven by the view that some forms of work are of utillity and value, while others are not.

  • Mushim

    I enjoyed reading this story by Nathan G. Thompson (Devotion to Enlightenment) and resonated with many of his thoughts. I do have one question — about the author’s statement “Even living in a monastic community, where you may be able to reduce your material needs enough to focus on serving the broader world, is a privilege in this country. You usually need money to get there, money to stay there, and money to leave there.” I’d like to ask which monastic communities he is referring to. I definitely agree that it takes money to leave a monastic community (which some monastic communities may help with, as they can, for very longtime residents who gave so much of their lives to building the community). However, in my own experience, it doesn’t take much money to get there, and if one lives under a vow of poverty, it doesn’t take any money at all to stay there because if you are a renunciant, you generally don’t handle money and you are given clothing (which you may not like, but it will cover your body), food (which you may not like but it will sustain you), toiletries (maybe not the brands you prefer, but will get the job done) and so on. I would hardly call it a life of privilege — Mahayana Buddhist monasteries are places where everyone works, and often works quite hard, to keep everything running and to serve the laypersons who come for services. There is little time or personal space to do things like creative writing, painting, etc., but there may be a little free time to do these things once in awhile.

  • nathan

    Mushim,

    It’s a fair question. I live in the midwest. The vast majority of American monastic communities are not located anywhere near me. So, there’s a travel cost first off. Secondly, I was thinking of a handful of sangha friends who have spent significant time in monastic communities over the past decade. All of them had solid, middle class incomes and savings upon entering and didn’t have much of a problem financially upon leaving. Furthermore, a few of them were paying some kind of monthly payment as past of their stay. We are talking several months to over three years ine case. I don’t know if their payments were required or not. I know places like Green Gulch and Tassajara have long term residents who have never had much financially and have devoted their lives to dharma and service. But I get the sense that the picture is pretty mixed in the US at best. It could be that my view is skewed by personal experience on this point though.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Nathan, I don’t doubt your working toward a just society but I’d be surprised to learn one expects to be financially compensated for such work: the notion that one should be compensated for whatever work one does rather strikes me as “capitalist” or at least one that accords capitalist-like economic utility to all work, indeed, all work then becomes labor and one is simply part of a labor market (and in competition with others in such a market). I don’t expect to be compensated for sweeping the street and sidewalk in my neighborhood, for giving a friend a ride to the airport, for attending community meetings or doing political work and so forth. I’ve been involved in anti-nuclear campaigns, Green organizing, anti-war demonstrations, volunteer work for tenants, etc., etc. Never did I believe or imagine I should be financially compensated for such things (it’s the contrary expectation that I find curious if not troubling). Some forms of work are of economic utility in this society, others not, not all work can or should be “paid labor.” If people want to voluntarily support such activity, so be it but there’s nothing privileged or special about such work: in that sense, all work is of (both extrinsic and intrinsic) value. Sometimes selflessly serving others, as in karma yoga, does not bring material compensation, sometimes we’re called on to make sacrifices for others in which there are no rewards, financial or otherwise. I hope your efforts bring you as much financial compensation as you desire but I shudder to imagine we should endeavor to establish a norm of such compensation for all those likewise involved in such activity: that’s money lost to the immediate relief of suffering.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    please read: “you’re working…”

  • nathan

    Patrick, the other point I want to make in response to your comments is that there has never been a successful social movement without the arts. Revolutions large and small have always been fueled by powerful images, poems, stories, songs, etc. Sometimes, the folks behind that work have remained mostly anonymous and other times not. However, it’s quite clear to me that artists and writers have been upheld historically during social movements, and that colonialism and its power brokers have done much to co-opt such work, including the mass disappearance of multiple generations of visual artists into the corporate advertising world. There hass been very little support for the arts in general in recent decades, and that has clearly trickled down to activist circles.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Incidentally, should I have intended to be dismissive, I would have resorted to one sentence, not several paragraphs by way of articulating my disagreement with some things you appear to be arguing.

  • Mushim

    Nathan, thanks for your response. I come from the Midwest too! (Born and raised in Ohio, grad school in Iowa, started Zen training in Michigan.) There are Buddhist monastic places in the Midwest. You can check out my original temple: Zen Buddhist Temple-Ann Arbor in Michigan — Rev. Haju Sunim is the resident priest; please say hi to her for me. Also, they are affiliated with Zen Buddhist Temple-Chicago, where the founding teacher, Ven. Samu Sunim, resides. Former priest of ZBT-Ann Arbor is Sanbul Sunim, who is now called Hwalson Sunim, and who founded and resides at the Detroit Zen Center, which has a monastic training component. You can do monastic training at all of these centers. They need to be sustainable, so you can inquire about fees. However, if you survive the training and can withstand the lifestyle (not much sleep, not a whole lot of food but enough, maybe not a lot of heat in winter, etc.) then usually you can apply to be a total renunciant and basically then you won’t have to handle money that much and your basic needs will be met. There are probably quite a few other similar places in the Midwest. This is just for starters.

  • nathan

    Patrick, my piece was written for Turning Wheel’s collective fundraising efforts. It’s not at all just about me. And secondly, I have personally “sacrificed” – not so into that term – thousands of hours to multiple causes. To the point where I can barely make monthly rent. What’s interesting is that if I were a fast food worker in the same position, you and many others would speak of such a “plea” as noble or righteous. You are not questioning their need to make a living under capitalism, even though you may not even think their work has any value. It’s very telling to me how commonplace the notion is that the arts are not important, are hobbies, are extra. That is a modern notion, coming straight from the colonialist doctrine of divide the world into sections of “value” and not value.

  • nathan

    Thanks Mushim. Yes, Michigan. I have heard of all those places. you mentioned. Glad to hear that they have such options built into their structures too. Gives me hope that some places are figuring out how maintain in this society and keep Buddhist values intact!

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Nathan, I’m well familiar with the history of arts in revolutionary times (be they successful or not), indeed, I often use such art as I can find online in my posts elsewhere. And I don’t disagree with your points here, but that seems to be a bit off topic: that art of any kind, whatever its subversive or revolutionary provenance, is subject to commercialization and commodification is no surprise, however lamentable (I moan and groan, for example, when I hear some of my favorite rock songs being used in commercials). I happen not to be in favor of indiscriminate support of “the arts” insofar as I find much of contemporary art not worthy of the appellation. I mention some of the reasons why here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2012/02/end-of-art.html here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2011/12/is-art-superstition-or-way-of-life-part.html here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2011/12/is-art-superstition-or-way-of-life-part_30.html here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2012/01/is-art-superstition-or-way-of-life-part.html and here: http://ratiojuris.blogspot.com/2012/01/is-art-superstition-or-way-of-life-part_21.html

    And for the record, I have a Platonic (see his last book, the Laws; unfortunately, Plato’s critique of the arts of his time is often not well understood, for he had a rather interesting view on the value of ‘good’ art) and Confucian view on the value of the arts (especially music and dance) in the education of children, believing them to be as, if not more, important than the traditional curriculum.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    (My last comment is awaiting moderation, as I linked to posts I’ve made elsewhere on art.) I’m not against fundraising efforts, only to the kind of argument being invoked here on their behalf (incidentally, your argument was narratively framed in highly personal terms (hence the nature of my response on that score as well), so I was responding to that feature of the piece. And, again, I don’t doubt you’ve sacrificed (I do like that word, as I’m rather fond of Indian tradition and the meaning of ‘self-sacrifice’ in the Gita) countless hours to myriad causes and didn’t mean to imply I thought otherwise. Yes, everyone must struggle to make a living under capitalism, the point rather being that no one person or group’s struggle in that regard is privileged above others and if a nonprofit organization seeks money from its members and followers that is all very proper, well and good: it’s just that I don’t believe in supporting the proposition that one is entitled to expect financial compensation for such work (if it occurs, all the better for those involved, if not, so be it).

  • nathan

    Patrick, you’ve demonstrated your disagreement. I am all too familiar with your views. I have nothing more to offer you in response right now.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    I might (and this will end my part in the conversation) have mentioned I’ve been strongly influenced by the Gandhian conception of the satyagrahi, who Gandhi argued for several reasons should volunteer his mental and manual labor on behalf of others. I appreciate that others might not find his model of the ideal nonviolent revolutionary leader attractive, as it is rather demanding in what it asks of the individual and it assumes a certain level of agreement with much of his moral (if not spiritual) and political philosophy. And I hope Turning Wheel is successful in its fundraising efforts.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    [Nathan, I'm rather flattered that anyone is familiar with my views, let alone "all too familiar"--which suggests I need not comment here as that would entail an unwelcome redundancy.]

  • Katie Loncke

    Thank you to Mushim, Patrick, and Nathan (plus Jeff on yesterday’s post!) for engaging with the issues here. These are questions I wrestle with, and I appreciate getting to talk them through with others — especially Buddhists who value both renunciation *and* the ‘living wage’ (even if it is a transitional demand toward a society free from the wage-labor system!). Mushim, I see you as someone who holds those two elements really beautifully and in a down-to-earth way in your life and writings. Thank you for that!

    Given that you are also a wonderful writer, Mushim, I wonder about your thoughts and experiences on artistic and media effort being valued or undervalued? Would love to hear what you’ve noticed on that score.

    Patrick, I share your desire to live in a society where everyone could be free to make art if they wished, and not be chained to meaningless and dangerous work, as so many are under today’s economic and social systems! As soon as possible, please! If we agree that we are supporting mass movements to try to make this a reality, that’s great.

    At the same time, when it comes to systematically devalued work like art, reproductive labor, and service-industry labor (some of which, like nannying and customer service, of involves so much emotional work that I wonder whether it really fits neatly into the labor theory of value), I personally would like to practice *more* of the type of social relations that I would like to see on a large scale (though of course it’s limited). I ask myself whether I want to support an artist in continuing their work. And not only support that particular artist, but also (a) the venue featuring their art, or the community in which the artist is speaking, and (b) a consciously reformulated collective habit of recasting art and media work as valuable. Often, I give because I feel grateful, and I would love to let others experience some of that which has benefited me.

    This is part of what I find so marvelous about dana models that I’ve seen (in Theravada and Vipassana centers like Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, East Bay Meditation Center, and the Vipassana centers of S. N. Goenka). Rather than a commodity relationship, which attaches a price tag to the teachings, many of these places offer dharma on a sliding-scale donation basis, *after the fact* — meaning at the end of the evening, day-long, or multi-day course. These donations are not emergency relief, but like disaster relief efforts I find that they can help de-mystify the social relationships and labor behind the ask for material support.

    (By the way, I’m not trying to back-handedly criticize the dharma centers that do charge for courses or retreats. I’m just speaking to experiences I’ve appreciated — though I know these institutions have their own challenges, as well!)

    We’re not trying to put up a paywall for content, and ultimately the point isn’t to tell people what they should believe or value, but to share some of the stories behind the mediamakers who give life to Turning Wheel. Folks trying to make a living, like me.

    At the same time, I actually agree with you, Patrick, that merely adjusting our own donation habits will not change larger systems that keep people struggling materially. I think the divisions in mental and manual labor that you mention, and the class and wage systems more broadly, are huge questions with which it’s our responsibility to reckon. And I don’t really expect to be paid for reckoning with it, either, though the political group I’m in does have a sliding-scale dues system to cover the cost of materials, travel, etc.

    So, no easy answers, but as I said I’m grateful to be working through some of these thoughts on paid and unpaid work, for political causes and not.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Katie, I appreciate your “middle way” reckoning here and, at the risk of boring folks already familiar with my views, let me implore you and others not to hesitate to criticize those who charge for retreats or anything associated with the Dharma for that matter. Spiritual teachings, be those of the Buddha or others, have always been free (Confucius was notorious for going against the grain of some of his contemporaries, pointing out that if one felt compelled to pay for his ‘teachings,’ he’d be content with a dried piece of meat, and Socrates, unlike those who taught rhetoric, would speak freely to anyone in the agora who would listen, and so forth and so on). I strongly believe any teachings associated with the Dharma should be free, which doesn’t mean we cannot ask or suggest people give donations (perhaps explaining the precise reasons for such needs). It strikes me as plainly wrong that one should require money for instruction in the Dharma (the sangha/lay community relation can still be quid pro quo: teachings for material and other lay support, but freely given on both sides in dana terms). I think the dana models you refer to should be the normative practice and we should vote with our feet, hearts, and pocketbooks in that regard, refusing for reasons of principle to support any teacher or organization that makes access to the Dharma a matter of strict commodity exchange.

  • nathan

    I just want to offer my emotional experience to this conversation. Patrick – I find my wanting to avoid these discussions. Because I have had them in many activist circles and there seems to be no breakthrough moments. I can agree with every broad point about structures and divisions of labor you made. I usually am on the same page with my fellow radical activists on that kind of big picture stuff. And yet nothing I say about my experience and struggles as a writer tends to elicit any desire to make even the slightest change that might benefit me or those like me. (Many of whom are toiling away in those very same jobs Katie mentioned above and also trying to make their art. I have been there myself plenty, and even now am doing other work to make ends barely meet.) It feel exhausting. I don’t feel like the suffering I or my fellow artists experience is apprieciated. Because we are constantly told we are being selfish, that we should give freely and give more. It doesn’t matter how much we already give. Furthermore, as much as I want to believe that many of us are working towards a future world wherr we’re freed of the capitalist bonds around creativity, conversations like this tend to leave me wonder if that’s really the case. Human creativity and many kinds of service work are two of the greatest assets we have and also two of the most unvalued and cared for, even amongst radical circles. Art, food labor, child care and family support – all seriously lacking support over and over again. So many folks will get behind supporting certain “realistic measures,” like minimum wage increases. But other efforts to negotitate the capitalist reailty we live in are deemed unworthy or unimportant. If I had a dollar for every complaint I have heard from activists who wanted food at rallies, for example, but who also couldn’t be bothered with figuing out a way to support folks who made food – I’d be wealthy. Art may not be as vital as food, but judging by how much people both crave it, and are inspired by it, it’s clearly a pretty damned important human activity.

    So, I am aware of a need to loosen up a bit on the identity construct. On the other hand, I am aware of the need to take care of the relative world. And also really wishing that the struggles people like my circle of artist-activist friends here in the Twin Cities would be given most respect. That maybe efforts like this, however incomplete, might be seen as attempts to shift the status quo in some small way. It tends to take a lot of small shifts in order to open the floodgate to systemic change.

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Nathan, Thank you.

    Re: “I don’t feel like the suffering I or my fellow artists experience is appreciated. Because we are constantly told we are being selfish, that we should give freely and give more. It doesn’t matter how much we already give.”

    I’m sorry to learn that you (and perhaps others) are constantly told you’re being selfish: that’s a patently and egregiously absurd accusation. On the other hand, I think you and your fellow artists should ignore the fact that you’re not appreciated: at least it’s my experience as an old fart that much of what we do, no matter how much effort is involved and despite our sincere and best intentions, is frequently not appreciated (or it may be appreciated in ways unknown to us or the appreciation may come sometime after our death!), a question Jesus spoke to in the Beatitudes, even if we may not be happy with his particular answer to the question. This is where the Hindu and Buddhist value of non-attachment becomes paramount. We have to do what is right and not be attached to the “fruits,” be they sour or sweet (virtue is its own reward as we used to say) of our efforts. Perhaps a discussion of precisely what this means can be a topic for extended treatment another day. The most important kind of respect is self-respect, and there’s nothing we can do that will assure or guarantee others will respect the work we do. All the same (or ‘as you are’): persevere! We simply have to have faith that our efforts will come to fruition, even if other fail to appreciate them or that takes place long after we’re gone.

    As to your feeling of exhaustion, please trust me when I say I well understand and that this is actually quite common among “activists,” Dick Flacks, a sociologist (emeritus) in my town has written a bit about this and it has something to do with the nature of activism and accounts in large measure for its ebb and flow (and phenomena like ‘burnout’), as most individuals cannot sustain a lifetime of activism of the sort they engage in while they are young (which merely means their activism may assume a new or different form). Perhaps you’re familiar with it, but Jack Whalen and Dick Flacks discussed such things in their book, Beyond the Barricades: The Sixties Generation Grows Up (Temple University Press, 1990).

    I confess my experience in “radical circles” may be a bit different than yours, but as the women’s movement intimately and later quite emphatically informed the New Left, radicals have their own peculiar set of problems and they’re often not immune from the ills that afflict the surrounding society even while they are struggling to overcome them. Still, we should be, as a teacher once said to me, as soft as the meat or fruit of the avocado on the shortcomings and failures of others, but as hard as the seed at its center on our own shortcomings (that ‘mote and beam’ thing in the Gospels).

  • Jay Garces

    Some of us here are starting to sound grumpy, like teachers in the faculty lounge trying to have the last word in an argument. Voices getting louder and louder and nobody ever wins. It might turn other people off from speaking if they’re always worried about heading into a fight. Not saying we shouldn’t be fired up, but maybe save the harsh words for something really WRONG.

    Since most of y’all are college professors, I’ma donate my shekels like grades. Add $1 for words or pictures that stirs my soul or gets me thinking and subtract 50 cent for snide remarks or getting me confused, sayin’ what does THAT mean? I’m learning, though.

    Your story was pretty good, Nathan. Writin’ ain’t easy. Peace

  • Patrick S. O'Donnell

    Just curious: who are the college professors?

  • nathan

    This is the current article by Ricardo Morales, who I mentioned in my post. He’s managed to create a life that is mostly about his art and writing, which in my opinion is exactly the kind of work that rewires, motivates, and inspires us. It can be done, but he wouldn’t be able to do what he does without people buying his art, and paying him for other things he does (like workshops and mentoring). I know for certain that he gives much of what he does away for free. this article is the 3rd in a series and I’d encourage anyone interested to read the other two as well. http://opineseason.com/2013/05/15/tecumseh-in-the-time-of-monsanto-a-voice-in-the-wind-part-3-of-3/

  • Mushim Patricia Ikeda

    Thanks, Katie, for inviting me back into this discussion, and thank you to everyone in this little pocket of cyberspace. I’ve been part of artist communities all of my adult life, and my original training was as a poet and teacher of contemporary literature in English. I was accepted into what has been called the most famous writing school in the world, the University of Iowa Graduate Writers Workshop, in 1979, and earned my MFA in poetry. I had already published my poems, had teaching experience as an undergraduate and beyond, and was well-positioned to apply for teaching jobs at universities and colleges, try to get grants, and have medical insurance and a pension fund but just couldn’t make myself do it — a spiritual emergence/emergency whirled me off into Zen training under a vow of poverty in1983 and I lived and practiced in dire poverty for a lot of years, including as a single mother on State aid when my child was born in 1989. From the perspective of my experience, it is good to financially support our artists because art makes the impossible possible, and is a human activity that is quintessentially human, manifesting our power and our potential as living beings in ways like no other. It is also good to financially support low-income parents, single parents especially, who are often sacrificing for their children in a way that makes ascetic life in a monastery look pretty plush. It is also good to advocate for higher (much higher) wages for childcare workers and those who teach our children, because children who are abused and neglected grow up into adults who may find it more difficult to contribute to GNH (Gross National Happiness).

    Although each of us must discern if and how much money we wish to give to support the many worthy causes and beings, I also advocate for spending (notice the word) time and energy on spending time in seeking out and listening to the stories of people who are struggling to get by financially and who I can see are also trying to be kind and wise. Mirroring back each person’s beauty and greatness, saying “I see you doing this and that, and I appreciate and admire you,” might be part of the life raft that helps to get our struggling artists and struggling everyone to the other shore.

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