Finding My Work
Each of us must find our work and do it. — Audre Lorde
By the time I was fired from my role as the CFO of a domestic violence shelter, a role that the Executive Director did not want to exist, and I was never meant to be successful at, I was furious with nonprofits. Having spent almost 15 years working in them, in particular, ones that were created to support womxn and girls, I had come face-to-face with the reality that nonprofits are overwhelmingly staffed by womxn and rarely pay those womxn enough to support themselves. They reek of the privilege of the left-over relic they are — an homage to the days when white womxn needed something to do after their kids left home.
If you can only afford to work at a nonprofit because someone else is paying your bills, who are we excluding from the work of changing the world?
After this unsurprising firing ocurred, I started my first business. Like Pretty Womxn, I was determined to be in control of who, when, and how much. Over the couple of years preceding this, I had discovered the world of online business, specifically the Marie Forleo Run a Business that Changes the World, world of online business. I came to her via womxn whose work had changed my own life: Sarah Jenks, Kate Northrup, and Isabel Foxen Duke. These were womxn who where questioning everything we, as womxn, had ever been taught about beauty standards, dieting, managing your money, and who should get paid for what work. They were saying who, when, and how much, and they were getting paid well for it.
Needing to be sure there was money coming in for food and bills, I started with what I knew I could do: QuickBooks. I also hated QuickBooks. Running a part-time CFO business had all the ingredients for a successful purpose-filled business: I was good at it, it helped people who were changing the world, and it was easily scalable.
Did I mention I hated it?
I nearly had words from Danielle LaPorte’s Firestarter Sessions tattooed on me. In session 1, of this book about how to find your purose-driven work, she says, Be careful what you’re good at — you could end up doing it for years. Managing the books of small businesses and creative entrepreneurs did not feel like doing the work, it felt like plain-old-get a J-O-B work-work.
I tried to convince myself that supporting the work of people who were changing the world was also changing the world. And, two things can be true: It is also changing the world, and still, however vital to the success of a small business or solo-entrepreneur, bookkeeping did not feel the same as the important work of the womxn I wanted to emulate. There was no way this was the role that I was called to have.
I was birthed to move mountains and kill monsters.
Often one to try the literal route first, I attempted to emulate my sheroes by becoming a coach. I took classes, created a brand, and started looking for clients. It is hard to be a life coach when your own life is in shambles, for me, it was impossible.
One of the few things that I knew for sure; one of the things that was core to my system of beliefs, and still is, was that I did not want to be a snake-oil seller or charlatan. And yet, every time I coached my single client, that is how I felt. How could I coach her to live her best life when I was not able to pay my bills or support my family and spent most days hating my body and crying myself to sleep? Eventually I handed her off to another coach and hung up my coaching hat.
The closest I came to finding my purpose-filled work was co-launching The Perpetual You, a digital lifestyle magazine that put out content designed to remind womxn that everything they needed to have joy, ease, fun, & wealth, had always been part of them — the parts the world had tried to change. Finally I was doing work that was trying to change the same narratives as my sheroes. This was work I loved. Every article we sourced was life-changing — I knew this because they were changing my life.
Running through the checklist of ingredients necessary to run a successful, purpose-filled online business still came up short, though.
Yes, this was work I loved.
Yes, I was good at it.
Yes, the world needed it.
No, it did not have a revenue stream.
Magazines — digital and otherwise — are only profitable when filled with ads. And advertisers only pay when you have subscribers. We had neither advertisers nor subscribers. And our ideas about how to change either of those were much like Sarah Palin’s view of Russia: we could see each other, but the distance between us was long and dangerous.
To make ends meet, I continued doing QuickBooks for small business owners. In fact, I still do Quickbooks for two small businesses. During the days we were trying to get The Perpetual You off the ground, I traded doing someone’s QuickBooks for new websites and for courses — on copywriting, course building, podcast creating, and project management software. I also joined All. The. Groups. and kept taking All. The. Classes. All in service of my effort to find my work that would move mountains and kill monsters.
You could say that my work was actively participating in these groups. I commented on every post in the Facebook groups and attended in person events when they were close enough. I started my own networking groups and book clubs and womxn’s retreats, all with well-branded names and clear mission statements. And I never made any money. None.
One night I was standing by my mom’s pool, with a group of womxn I had convened, and I listened to them talk about how their business would not be where it was, if it weren’t for me — if I hadn’t introduced them to so and so or told them about such and such. One by one they tearfully thanked me for caring about their work and doing everything I could to help them be successful.
I cried too, but for massively different reasons. I had only forty-seven cents in the bank. I did not know where we were going to live at the end of the summer or how I would pay for it. I gave myself one basement day to wallow and feel sorry for myself and angry at the world, and then I went back to doing the work on myself.
You see, during this entire time, I had not only been looking for my perfect work and supporting the important work of others, I had also been following the oft-given advice to do the work on myself. Day after day, I was told that if I wasn’t making money, wasn’t finding clients, wasn’t scaling, wasn’t … successful, it was because I had blocks that needed to be removed. Or because I had undealt with trauma to my inner child — that I had some part of me that needed to be healed, and that the unhealed part of me was sabotaging my work. I was told to push past my comfort zones and boundaries and do the work to heal.
I saw energy healers and shamans and therapists. I read every self-help book anyone recommended. I meditated. I swamp-danced. I Quoya danced. I lit altars for the full moon and new moon. I let go. I called in. I prayed. I surrendered.
After reading Big Magic and thinking that maybe Elizabeth Gilbert was on to something with the whole, putting too much pressure on your art will kill it, I went to work at an accounting firm. I hoped to find stability in my bank account and the freedom to let my work come to me. Instead, I realized I had made a deal with the devil. I had traded moving mountains and killing monsters for pushing papers. Only a few weeks in, I texted a friend that every minute I was there was sucking a part of my soul out of me.
The day after tax season ended in 2018, desperate to never work another tax season, I launched Champagne Hippies. I wrote about social impact business and how it was possible to make money + do good. I interviewed 70 small business owners, digital entrepreneurs, and startup founders who were doing — or trying — to do just that.
I declared 2019 my year of doing Whatever It Takes to finally get my business to a sustainable place — to finally figure out how to make money + do good. I had over 100 get-to-know-you phone calls or email conversations and attended every single networking event and conference I could get to. I was invited to join prestigious consulting groups and participated in industry-changing working groups. I crowdfunded to go to the annual Conscious Capitalism conference in Phoenix, Arizona.
One night at that conference, the person on stage excitedly congratulated everyone in the room for the movement that they were part of creating, exclaiming “We have 264 businesses represented here this weekend.” I stared in shock and said to the person next to me, “There are 34 million small business owners in the U.S., 264 businesses is not a movement — it’s a fraternity party — and they are just slapping each other on the ass and saying job well done instead of doing the work to actually create a movement.”
After six years in the world of social impact business, it was clear that this was a horse of the same color as nonprofits: the only people who could afford to launch social-good-startups were people who could afford to go without getting paid for an indeterminate amount of time. And everyone was looking for free labor, while they preached the need for more economic opportunity and diverse voices. The deeper I got into it, the clearer it became that the only people making real money were the members of that white-man fraternity building the movement of Conscious Capitalism, while our planet burned and Trump became President.
This was far from my only rude awakening that year. In July, my mom was aged out of her job. She had been helping support us for the past year, because she, too, believed that I was birthed to move mountains and kill monsters. And now, that would end. She was 70 years old and unemployed, with very little savings. Three months later, my dad died. To say I was untethered would be like calling Hurricane Matthew or Katrina or Sandy, a frustrating storm.
Grief can be a powerful motivator, and it motivated me to take inventory.
For all of my doing the work, for all the times I had shown up, for all the times I had spent my last dollar to go to an event or take a course or support a fellow creative, I was still barely making ends meet and only if I took on bookkeeping clients, work that I still hated.
Overall, the ROI on my year of doing whatever it took was infuriating.
# of increase to my email list and/or Instagram following: 25
# of pounds gained: 25
% of total money brought in that was from anything other than bookkeeping: 15
% of get-to-know-you phone calls or email conversations that resulted in paid work: 15
% of life paid for by my mom: 85
% of days I meditated: 85
$ of debt increase: $30,000
$ put into savings: $0
And the number of times a white man asked me to
do something for free,
argued with me about the price I was charging,
or didn’t pay me what they had agreed to pay me:
In my grief over losing my dad and despair over the state of my life, I spent two months sitting on my front porch. I listened to music, wrote essays and prose-poetry and letters, and I spent time with my original shero, the womxn I found the most inspiration from and connection to, in my early days of activism: Audre Lorde.
I read her speech, Learning from the 60's, over and over again and slowly it became a guidebook for what it actually should mean to do the work. She gave this speech at Harvard’s Malcolm X Weekend in February of 1982, the same month I turned 7.
The first time through, it was depressing, and it added to the depths of despair I was setting up shop in. All of the actions she called for; all the warnings she gave; all of her admonitions to not repeat the mistakes of the 60’s in the 80’s were clearly ignored, as evidenced by the literal truth that any one of them could be applied to the world we are currently living in.
She called for us to stop stop letting the media define the messages that are most important to us, to move against the forces that work against us from the outside and the ones we have internalized, to understand that unity doesn’t mean unanimity, to stop fighting each other and, instead, fight our common enemy, and to learn that revolution is not a one-time event, and it is also not something that happens around us, but inside of us.
She said all the things I had been saying on back porches, with the people who let me preach revolution to them.
How could I have any chance of creating any sort of change — any sort of better future — if no one listened to the wise words of the great Audre Lorde? There are some who might have found solace in this. It might seem plausible to accept that if Audre couldn’t do it, there was no way I could, and to stop trying so damn hard.
But there was that voice inside of me that kept saying, You were birthed to move mountains and kill monsters. There’s a section of a different speech, on silence and visibility, where Audre talks about sharing the topic of her speech with her daughter, who encourages her to tell the attendees that there’s always that one little piece inside you that wants to be spoken out, and if you keep ignoring it, it gets madder and madder and hotter and hotter, and if you don’t speak it out one day it will just up and punch you in the mouth from the inside.
That’s what was happening. I was being punched from my insides.
And then, as I read her words over and over, I started to have a dialogue with her. She starts this speech by saying that she is standing there — Black, Lesbian, Feminist, doing her work and then asks, with the ghost of Malcolm X on her lips, Are you doing yours?
But Audre, I want to do my work. I’m trying. I haven’t found anything I can do that helps create the world I know we need. It’s hopeless. We are still fighting the same fights.
She answers, To refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up. Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.
Each. Of. Us. Must. Find. Our. Work. And. Do. It.
Don’t you know that has been my hero’s journey? I have been searching for my work. I wish it were the 70’s, and I could join the Black Panthers or the Symbionese Liberation Army or …
She interrupts me, Militancy no longer means guns at high noon, if it ever did. It means actively working for change, sometimes in the absence of any surety that change is coming.
Actively working for change — in the absence of any surety that change is coming.
Had I been actively working for change or had I just been talking about how much I wanted to work for change?
But, Audre, that’s what I’ve been trying to figure out — what can I do? What is my work? It must be more than speaking truth to power — especially if no one is listening.
And she replies, Each one of us must look clearly and closely at the genuine particulars (conditions) of his or her life and decide where action and energy is needed and where it can be effective. Change is the immediate responsibility of each of us, wherever and however we are standing, in whatever arena we choose.
Well shit. Decide where action and energy is needed AND where it can be effective…wherever and however we are standing, in whatever arena we choose. She did not say, “decide where action and energy is needed AND start a business.”
I had chosen to be in the arena à la Brene Brown and to dare greatly in said arena, but what had I done besides declare in a blog post that I was choosing to be in the arena?
Lately I haven’t even been publishing my work because I find it so demoralizing to speak truth to power when no one is listening. In this, I have missed a key ingredient to finding my work — one that is not modern or innovative or fancy or tech-based.
The call to take a stand, take action, and to do it because it is our responsibility has been urged long before writers like Audre Lorde or activists like Malcolm X.
In 1841, Emerson wrote, My life is for itself and not for a spectacle. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain, so it be genuine and equal, than that it should be glittering and unsteady. Emerson also warned against letting the media tell you what was important, by the way, and conformity based on expectations, over a hundred years before Audre Lorde.
Is this what it means to keep vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make a genuine change in established, outgrown responses, as Audre commands? Is this what is needed for revolution?
Like Audre, Emerson also knew very clearly which arena he was standing in. In that same essay on self-reliance, he said, I will stand here for humxnity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true. Many times Audre wrote and spoke of ending silence and speaking the truth. I’m sure you can think of a few of those quotes now.
One of my favorites — and the one that sprang to mind as I was processing her speech on the 60’s, was from that speech on silence and visibility, which she gave, in 1977, called The Transformation of Silence into Action.
In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences…My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other womxn while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.
I had spent all these years searching for my work; looking for that magic thing that was going to finally prove to me that the world I believed was possible existed. Over and over I had been discouraged when someone disappointed me or spoke from the oppressive values society had forced on to them. And I had been judging my work by the rules created by men with full stomachs, who live in comfortable houses, even while I admonished others for doing the same.
I had chosen silence over speaking because I didn’t think anyone was listening. And, like Audre, I had made contact with other womxn, while we examined the words to fit into a world we all believed was possible, many times bridging our differences. I had been doing the work all along.
I asked the question that had been laying heaviest on my heart. Audre, if I am doing the work — the important work — of moving mountains and killing monsters — if I am speaking truth to power, as I am called to do, why can’t I make a living?
Instantly I remembered her poem A Litany for Survival, and the final lines, which I have wanted to have tattooed on my arm for many years:
So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive.
And what chalenging work it is to survive in a world that was never setup for you to do so. My mind goes to the lyrics of Strange Days by the Struts,
But we don’t talk about it
But isn’t it good to be down here alive?
Something money could never buy
It’s worth more than a million roses
There is a victory in doing the work to survive. I think that is the revolution that Audre referred to — the one that happens, not around us, but inside of us. I still think that people should get to make money + do good. That is part of the vision of the world I want to help create. I don’t know if I’ll live to see it, and, as Maggie Nelson says, I am not interested in longing to live in a world in which I already live.
I am simply focused on doing the work and surviving in a world that was never set up for me to survive, let alone succeed.
I wrote the following in a letter to a friend this week:
I keep on because I have yet to be presented with a viable alternative.
I do not know how to “strike” against injustice and simply refuse
to participate until those in power negotiate
and meet our demands.
And I cannot entertain such luxuries, as I am, instead, focused on simply surviving.
As I seal it in the envelope, I think back to Audre’s speech one final time and how she ends it: We have the power those who came before us have given us, to move beyond the place where they were standing…Malcolm X does not live in the dry texts of his words as we read them; he lives in the energy we generate and use to move along the visions we share with him.
Which makes me think of another writer — Voltaire — who advocated speaking out and standing for humxnity, over 100 years before Emerson and 200 years before Audre — who said, To the living we owe respect, to the dead we owe the truth.
And so it is the truth I will speak, in honor of those who have spoken it before me, and in service of those who will come after me.
I am a writer.