Since leaving my job as a park ranger to move to Arizona for love at the tail end of 2014, I have been reworking and imagining anew the possibilities for my role in the world and how to blend my passions and skills with the need for financial remuneration.
This is no easy feat. In this world, success and progress are defined on a spectrum that lives within a tightly defined box, and I have always existed somewhere outside of the box.
As a naïve teenager, I used to joke that I would never make any money in my career. I always wanted to be a teacher, but I abhorred being restricted to the four walls and of a classroom. It too me a long time to figure out how this kind of work might be possible.
I did a lot of exploring for the first several years of my working life, volunteering for non-profits and federal agencies and working several seasonal jobs a year in the hopes of one day being hired full-time to teach people about our beloved planet and why we should protect it.
The dream of a year round employment, replete with health benefits, sick leave, and paid time off, finally came true when I was hired to work in a permanent position for Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. For several years, I did my best to fit into the pre-constructed mold of a National Park Service ranger. The pay was about as good as it gets for an environmental educator, and I did quite well supporting myself.
I can still remember an NPS colleague advising me to “be careful what you wish for” when I bemoaned being a mere seasonal and wished for a “permanent” job. It turns out permanence comes with both benefits and drawbacks.
For me, working for the government was a balancing act from the outset. Even as a volunteer, I was constantly weighing the challenges of the working for a government agency with the opportunities I was given to learn and share my passion for education in an outdoor setting.
The balance seemed to become increasingly out of whack the longer I worked for the government. It nearly tipped in my job in Alaska, during which time I had begun to study sustainability in a doctoral program at Prescott College. The more closely I studied the idea of sustainability, the more I began to reflect on this concept with regard to an individual life, my own in particular. It became increasingly clear that employees for a government agency did not in fact have their own “agency.” So long as I behaved like a member of a well-trained herd, everything was fine. I was beloved by managers and coworkers.
However, the moment I started behaving like an individual with individual ideas, the façade of acceptance and approval came down and the proverbial gloves came off. At one point in a meeting with my direct supervisor, he even pointed his finger at me and yelled, “YOU have lost your way, and we need to get you back in line.”
In this moment, the strong individual in me wanted to tell him where to go and get the hell out of there. This was not sustainable treatment of one human being by another, and I knew this at my very core. However, I was an adult with adult responsibilities like mortgage payments and student loans, all of which required participating in this sadistic “game” until I could create a feasible escape plan.
In hindsight, it’s remarkable to me that I endured such an inhumane environment for as long as I did. When you work for the government, particularly for individuals who are the epitome of the big fish in a little Alaska pond, you don’t matter. Your individual struggles, ideas, etc. are less important than your managers’ reputation with the head haunches in D.C.
I have always been a wild card in society. I have a wild personality and wild ideas to match my wild, frizzy hair. I learned the hard way that government work is not a good fit for someone like me. Most of the creative, idealists I had known over my years of volunteering and seasonal employment had quit after realizing this. While I do know of a handful of misfits who have managed to carve out a lifelong career with the NPS, they are the exception rather than the rule. “Yes” people who will dot their I’s and cross their’s and sit quietly without voicing their true opinions are the ones who last the longest, but at what price?
Well, it was not a price I was willing to pay. I finally was able to leave Alaska when I was offered another permanent position at Lowell National Historical Park. This park was the closest I came to being celebrated for the misfit idealist in me. Just north of Boston, Lowell has always been a city created by innovators, and the park continues this tradition. I was able to spread my government wings in my position. I wrote music from oral histories and performed them on my guided tours, inviting visitors to sing the stories of factory workers with me.
It was in Lowell that I learned that there was a world of entrepreneurs supporting themselves by creating companies that reflected their true passions. A friend suggested that I apply for an entrepreneur accelerator program with my songwriting method. On a whim, I went for it. I went in for an interview and explained my trade. I was shocked when I was accepted into the program.
An entrepreneur accelerator program is essentially a crash course in how to become a business owner. I was blessed to learn from incredibly knowledgeable and kind individuals who actively sought creative minds like my own. There are previous few communities I have joined in my life where I feel welcome and valued for who I am, and this was one such community.
I learned how to promote my ideas as a feasible business from David Parker, Lianna Kushi, and the many mentors they brought in during the 6-week program. I built my confidence and practiced giving a business pitch in front of an audience of business people. It was terrifying and exhilarating. I began to build a songwriting network in Lowell, performing at local venues, being interviewed on my trade, and writing songs from stories for clients. The possibilities for sustainability and balance in my professional life were moving toward striking it out as a lone wolf rather than being one of the sheep.
Note: Let me just say that I know some very independent, individually minded employees in the NPS who have managed to be as much their own person as possible within the confines of a government agency. It was these individuals, my direct supervisor and coworkers in Lowell in particular, who inspired me. in the end, this line of work just wasn’t for me.
Coupled with my growing confidence as a musical entrepreneur was the fact that my heart belonged to a man in Arizona and the unpleasant reality of a long distance relationship. In addition to my big hair and big personality, it is my heart rather than my rational mind (or irrational, depending on who you talk to), which guides me. On October 31, 2014, I headed west with my beloved to begin a new live together in the Southwest.
In this new life, I had the time and space to reflect on what kind of life and career I wanted. With all of these choices, I admit that I experienced some serious self-doubt. I was overwhelmed and uncertain. I dappled in performance and did some songwriting with individuals and in workshop settings, but the cultural climate of conservative, small town Arizona was not the best palette for building a creative business. At least, it wasn’t for me. I missed the innovative, encouraging atmosphere of Lowell, whose motto was “The Handmaid for Human Innovation,” and I was lonely trying to go it alone as a solo artist. I went through a very brief and painful attempt at creating a business in earnest with my music partner, and my confidence was further destroyed.
My struggle and limbo continued when my husband suggested that we move to Europe so that he could realize his dream of earning a doctorate and living in a French-speaking country. Less than two years after moving to Arizona, I found myself en route to a new life in a foreign land.
In the past year and a half in Brussels, Belgium, I have slowly been creating a career where I am my own boss and which combines my skills and passions. My professional life has become three-tiered: editor, yoga teacher, songwriter. I am able to live in Brussels on my husband’s student visa, which means that I cannot seek active employment unless an organization is willing to be my promoter for a work visa.
With this limitation, I have begun what I refer to as a Karma Career. I do what I love, and I earn soul-enriching fulfillment rather than monetary compensation. It is challenging in and of itself to create a successful career as a musician and artist. It takes time and the creation of a support network. It is helpful to be rooted while doing this, and my migratory nature and propensity to uproot myself every couple of years exacerbates this issue.
So, upon arriving in Brussels, I reflected on how I might be able to pursue songwriting and my desire to bring songs from people’s real life stories into the world. I firmly believe that every single person has stories worthy of music and that every person will benefit greatly from participating in the creative process of sharing their story and shaping that story into a personal song. As I wondered how to write music in Brussels, I realized that there were people living in this city who might need this experience more acutely. The issue of immigration was clear to me from the beginning of my time in this city. It is the capital of the EU and is international and diverse in its human makeup. I decided that I might be able to offer my self and my songwriting as a way to give voice to the experiences of refugees, so I researched and wrote to as many refugee related organizations as I could find.
I was invited to visit the Fedasil asylum center called Petit-Château Klein Kasteeltje. The day I went, I was introduced to a woman who had been offering poetry workshops for the residents for several years. She invited me to join, and we began to work together. Every Monday afternoon, we guided residents in sharing their stories and poems, and we then created a song from their words that we could all sing together.
This experience alone has offered invaluable payment in the form of renewed confidence, friendship, community, and purpose. Don’t get me wrong; I would dearly love to earn a wage for my musical passion as well. The expat life of the unfunded graduate student’s wife has its own challenges. While karma may pay my spiritual bills, it does not extend to my Visa or MasterCard.
I think about this a lot, especially when I visit the world of the working people of Brussels. This past week, I went on a two-day field trip to the House of European History, where staff from Europeana Holland had organized an event to collect migrant stories and objects. I brought my baritone ukulele as my object and shared my story of coming to Brussels and writing music with refugees. The community of staff were incredibly supportive and invited me to return the next day to talk with reporters and perhaps sing one of the songs.
I returned the next day, ukulele in tow, spoke with several reporters, and was even able to lead a group of school children in singing my favorite song, “Never Give Up,” which was the very first song I wrote with the residents of Petit-Château. After the performance, a reporter who had been filming the singalong asked if I was being paid extra to speak to all of the reporters and work with the school group.
I laughed. I am not on staff here, I told her. I am just here, volunteering my time. She gave me a quizzical look in response.
I totally understood her response, too. It was very difficult to let go of my regular paycheck and to grow accustomed to earning a very sporadic income. I wouldn’t say that I am accustomed to it so much as resigned. I have realized, however, that if I wait for someone to pay me to do what I love and what I think is most important for making the world a more loving, empathic place, I may be waiting until my next go around on this planet. And who knows what shape my being might take in that life?
Since I am here now in the body of a very sensitive artist, I might as well do my best to bring as much music into the world and help as many people feel loved and valued as possible.
While I do have hopes of being able to find funding in the form of a grant or fundraiser, I intend to continue volunteering my time because there are some pursuits that are more important than padding one’s bank account. Perhaps, I will come back in my next life as a really grounded, centered hedge fund banker, but for now I am a struggling artist with a deep desire to sing the stories of the world into song.