Love's Labours

(Strap yourselves in -- it's another long one.)

I'll start with a story:

When my Beloved and I and others started working toward living in community (some six years ago, now), there was this thing that "happened" (well, actually, there was this thing that we did).

My Beloved happens to be a person of great attention, focus, and integrity. She is the one who will most often say: "I don't think that fits with what you say you want to do".

She would often pipe up with something like this when we were in the first formative years of our community -- assisting us to come to clarity on something that had been left muddy, asking us all to question how and why we were moving forward as we were -- whether it was a matter of avoiding an important process that might be uncomfortable, or of copping out on our basic values for the sake of appearance or expedience.

It was because of this that some of us (including me) began to refer to her (affectionately) as our "Cosmic Cop". (This wasn't an "official" title, nor did we ever cede the power of this role to her consciously, but I think that our choice of words indicated clearly that we were authorizing her, in some way, to serve in this capacity.)

Which was fine, in some ways -- and not so fine in other ways.

For one thing, I think that I began to "lean on" her for this service. I stopped paying close attention in some ways, relying on her unfailing discernment to point up dissonant actions and words, and counting on her somewhat legendary patience as we worked through issues.

To my mind, it's bad enough that I got intellectually and emotionally lazy in this way, but there was this other thing that started happening we did (probably about a year and a half into the process): Some of us (myself included) started to ever-so-slightly resent her for the very role that we had assigned to her.

There were conversations where she would quietly point out something which was absolutely true -- but inconvenient to our particular personal agenda or focus in the situation -- and then there would be resistance and argument (yes, I did it, too) -- the kind of fruitless, defensive, resistant argument you get when the arguer secretly knows that the person who has confronted them is completely, totally, and irrefutably RIGHT. (Isn't that infuriating?!?!?!?!)

The kind of argument which usually ends with you having to make a shame-faced apology for being such a stubborn ass and such a defensive twit. *blushing shame-facedly*

Fortunately, due to the good boundaries and sense of my Beloved, she perceived this pattern developing, and one day, in a community meeting, quite frankly told us all that she was resigning from the position of Cosmic Cop -- an official job for which she was receiving no remuneration of any kind, no modicum of respect or appreciation, and which she had come to loathe (due to that resistant, defensive, argumentative crap).

Her choice was very helpful to the group, and very helpful to me.

The moral of the story being: Don't invest someone else with authority (usually by handing them the responsibility), and then waste their time and energy, and yours, resisting and arguing and whining and moaning and complaining when they exercise the authority that you gave them -- this is a way of attempting to hand them the responsibility but keep the power (See: Shit Not To Do Because It Doesn't Work, Part IV).

I'm sort of a natural organizer -- of events, projects, opportunities, and people (when they want that from me). I seem to have a talent for initiatory energy -- while other people may tend to talk about things, I tend to move into action.

I think this is something I've always tended toward, but it may be a result of the gigantic number of deferred dreams that I've had in my life, and a deep understanding of my own rhythms and cycles that leads me to a certainty that, if I don't act on something fairly soon after talking about it, it will likely drift away into the ether.

So, when the weekly support group starts talking about wanting to have an online forum so that we can keep in contact with a member who has moved across the country, or organize car-pooling, I tend to be the person who goes home and sets up the prototype.

I'm quick to pipe up with "I can do that!", when some task needs doing before we can move forward. Sometimes, this is entirely unrealistic of me, given my schedule and existing task-list. I've learned to bite my tongue a bit more, but still, in most group-efforts that I've participated in, I have usually been one of the more active, contributing members. I don't resent this. I recognize that I'm the one who says "Yes".

I would say that, 70-80% of the time in my life, these type of tasks I have taken on have been unpaid -- things that I did because I had a passionate belief in a cause, or a deep love for the members of the group, or simply an interest in seeing how something worked (setting up an internet forum, designing a web-form, preparing a database for a tricky tracking system).

In my younger days, when I had some part of me that was motivated to volunteer in these ways so that people would "like" me, I sometimes felt resentment if I wasn't appreciated for these acts, but as I learned better boundaries, and more about my own cycles, and how far I could extend myself without burning out, I found that I didn't actually need the appreciation of others as much.

It was nice if I got it, but if I didn't get it, I made sure that there was enough satisfaction in the work itself for me to keep enjoying it, and enough clarity in myself to quit when I wasn't enjoying it anymore.

However, I found that there was something that did bug me.

Now, when I'm doing a job and being remunerated for it fairly, I figure that the payment IS my appreciation, in some way. If I get extra appreciation on top of that, I consider it a bonus (and true enough, that does tend to fuel my eagerness and motivation, as anyone who has been an employer knows) -- but I don't consider that appreciation is part of the required exchange that I make with my boss/client/purchaser.

In the case of doing something on a volunteer basis, I have found that appreciation is sometimes in scant supply -- especially if you make the thing you're doing look pretty effortless (and doing things in an easeful way for myself is one of my biggest goals, especially in terms of volunteer work).

In the days when I really "needed" appreciation for the hard work I was putting in, I often put myself in a Catch-22, because I really liked wearing the identity of the wunderkind who could pull stuff out surprisingly quickly and seemingly easily -- and that necessarily made it very difficult for other people to appreciate just how much fucking work I'd put into it.

Realizing that I had this potentially conflicting desire for wunderkindishness and yearning for appreciation, I started to make realistic adjustments in how much I took on, and why, and when, and made a conscious decision to take the same attitude that I did in most of my paid work -- that my satisfaction level while volunteering had to be high enough that appreciation was simply a bonus.

I managed this in a lot of different ways: Doing things I wanted to do anyway, volunteering in situations where I was able to observe that I was somehow making a direct difference for an individual or a group, and turning down tasks that I suspected wouldn't actually go anywhere.

That has worked pretty well for me, but there is still this one thing that can actually bug me. Here it is:

Doing work for nothing, and not only not getting any appreciation, but getting several things that I consider the antithesis of appreciation:

  1. Non-constructive criticism (aka complaint -- defined as: "bringing up your problem about something with absolutely no intention of moving toward, or contributing to, a solution").
  2. Continually escalating demands for more, with absolutely no demonstration of awareness of what fulfilling those demands would mean in terms of my time and energy, and no willingness to contribute anything to mitigate that increased energy-output from me -- and --
  3. Attitudes (sometimes directly expressed, sometimes subtly indicated) that I somehow "owe" this additional contribution of time and energy that benefits the person who is asking for more -- even though it is a contribution that they themselves would not consider making (usually, if I pointed this out, they were offended, or defensive, or both).
That bugs me.

Again, I think that this boils down to the inseparable power/responsibility issue.

When they complain about (rather than constructively criticize) what I am doing, they are asking me to shoulder additional responsibility, they take no responsibility (beyond lodging their complaint), and yet they want to retain the power of having input into how I carry out that additional responsibility.

It's sad to say, but it's true -- although this is a situation which I would never tolerate in an employer/employee relationship (or at least, not for long), I have put up with it in volunteer situations more times than I care to describe -- in fact, it's come up far more often for me in volunteer situations than it ever has in employment.

I think that one of the reasons for this may rest in how we value transactions that are considered culturally "valid" (iow, transactions in which money or material goods change hands) as opposed to how we value transactions where "only" time and energy is exchanged. (The intricacies of that subject are fodder for . . . . . yeah, yeah, you've heard it before . . . a whole 'nother post.)

If I thought that going into minute detail on the roots and causes of how volunteer work is devalued would stop people from devaluing it, I'd go in with my fine-toothed comb and tease it out right now -- but I don't, so I won't.

Instead, I'm going to go to something that's much more visceral -- something that will, perhaps, help you stop devaluing your own volunteer work, or the volunteer work of others.

When someone gives something away or provides something without a demand for remuneration (although they may request a donation) --for example: an amazing piece of software, the rights to their words or art, or an entire blog community -- we often call it a "Labor of Love" -- we generally assume that the person provides it because it serves them to do so -- however esoterically -- and we usually forget that this labor of love is still just that: Labor.

Personally, I don't think that I "owe" them recognition or appreciation for their labor -- their offer is, I assume, given freely, and any request for a contribution of my energy is just that -- a request.

But --- and -- because I do happen to believe that "what goes around, comes around" and that treating others as I wish to be treated is just good Karmic economic policy -- and because I've experienced that sticking to these precepts has generally resulted in a more satisfying existence for me -- I tend to contribute when I can to those who request monetary contributions for their offerings.

If I don't have something to contribute monetarily at a given moment, I try to show my appreciation in other ways -- by expressing appreciation to the offerer directly, by referring people to them, by providing them some of my energy as a volunteer, and, most importantly, by valuing what they offer.

When I see a true Labor of Love, and I partake of its benefits, I tend to cherish it as if it were my own.

What I don't tend to do is to shit on it. Because I think that shit on a Labor of Love is thrice-shitty.

Once shitty for the devaluation of the real time and energy of real beings that went into it.

Twice shitty for the willingness to benefit from something, and then shit on it as if you never benefitted from it.

Thrice shitty for the ability to dissociate from the deep pain that is caused to beings when the children of their hearts are disparaged and demeaned.

I make a distinction between bringing constructive criticism to a Labor of Love and shitting on it.

Constructive criticism is motivated by, and accompanied with, an intention to find a solution -- to make the child stronger, or wiser, or more capable.

The Open Source movement is a perfect example of this -- people find a bug in a program and bring their critique with the intention of making the program better. Often, they will also bring their abilities and experience directly to work on the solution. That's not shitting, in my opinion. That's joining the Labor of Love.

Shitting on someone's Labor of Love is expecting them to do something you aren't willing to do, or to even help with, and when/if they refuse or fail to do what you expect, complaining that they have somehow failed you.

Shitting on someone's Labor of Love is letting them take all the responsibility and still demanding power.

Shitting on someone's Labor of Love is constantly asking them for more, and more, and more, when you already admit that you've received a pearl beyond price -- because in that moment, you are admitting that you're quite willing to have that person be your servant, rather than acknowledging them as your benefactor.

Personally, I believe that all of this applies pretty globally (if you want to just take that global lesson away and not get specific, just skip down to the last two lines) -- but from here on out I'm going to get specific:

This week, I've been attempting to breathe deeply and be of support to a friend and much-admired blogger -- the blogger, in fact, who was the direct impetus for me starting this blog: Melissa McEwan.

Melissa has been a direct and daily inspiration to me, and she has taken daring steps to create what I believe is a revolutionary space on the internet -- a virtual space that is truly a community -- a community that thousands visit every day.

She long ago took the difficult step of releasing control of her own personal blog to a diverse group of contributors. She lost her job because she had the temerity to speak her truth, and now, can't find work in her chosen field because a potential employer googling her name from a resume would find her in the center of a scandal that she didn't create. She has endured both physical and internet attacks on her property because of her writings, and has weathered criticism from the blogosphere for clinging to her own ethics and principles. She has refused to run ads containing sexist and demeaning materials that other blogs run, because she cares more for the integrity of her blogspace than the dime in her pocket, and she has daily, constantly, consistently brought her perspective, wisdom, and vulnerability to create a safe space for thousands of people.

I believe that she's done this as a Labor of Love.

She's also said, recently, that she doesn't think she can continue. She's tired of being asked to do "more" by people who don't step up to contribute to that "more". She's tired of funding, out of her family's single income -- out of their small collective pocket (with little-to-no financial support from the community that she has created and nurtured) -- a venture that benefits thousands of others but which is draining her dry financially, emotionally, and physically.

She's tired.

That's not surprising to me, after four years of daily writing for, moderating, and managing an enormous blog community.

What is surprising to me is that readers of that blog, after saying things like: "This blog is so important to me! It's the first thing I check every day!"-- can follow this up with things that read to me, essentially, like this: "Rest up!" . . with the lingering, unspoken " . . . so you can get back to serving us!"

I find myself wondering -- have any of them ever volunteered for four straight years, working 70-100 hour weeks? Do they have any idea what kind of "rest" would be required to replenish that effort? Especially when the teaspoon-wielding that the blogger in question performed (and inspired) was in the midst of the greatest tidal-wave of Constitution-bashing, human-rights-inhibiting, devolution of democracy that our nation has seen in at least 30 years?

OK -- so there's my rantish portion of this entry -- now, for some actual action suggestions about how to stop devaluing volunteer work (wielding the teaspoon, this time, in the direction of one of our own):

1) If you are concerned that you haven't seen a post from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville for the last five days, and you're wondering if she's leaving the blog, and you don't want that to happen -- email her or leave a comment at the blog -- and ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP.

2) Make a contribution to Shakesville. There's a Donate Button at the website -- just scroll down and look on the right side-bar. Make a commitment to making a contribution to Shakesville every month -- go on -- you can do it -- $3-$5/month? Yes, there are a few people who truly cannot afford that -- but most can. For many, even if it meant a sacrifice, it would mean giving up a couple of beers or a latte, or purchasing a copy of a magazine every month. (Those for whom this would mean not eating, or paying your rent -- just ease up on yourselves -- I'm not talking to you.) But seriously, if you love Shakesville, buy Melissa a latte and a bagel once a month -- if you met her in real life, wouldn't you take her to lunch? I would.

3) Listen when she tells you that she's overloaded. Do something to help. (Hint: "Go get some rest," is helpful when rest is all you need.)

And you know the old saying don't you?

4) Never shit where you eat.

(Post-note In Which Portly Anticipates Some Human Being's Responses: You might read this and say: "Well, you're just coming to the aid of your friend." Yes. That's exactly right. I'm coming to the aid of someone that I admire and cherish. Want to make something of it? And my response to you would be: "Why aren't you?")

Posted byPortlyDyke at 8:55 AM  


Anonymous said... November 13, 2008 at 11:35 AM  

While we are on the subject of appreciation: thank you so much for your posts on Shakesville. I find them incredibly insightful. I appreciate and cherish the thoughts and time that go into them. Thank you so much for being there. :)

Anonymous said... November 13, 2008 at 11:43 AM  

Great post. And, donation made. :-)

Shannon Erin said... November 13, 2008 at 12:09 PM  

You are absolutely right. Thank you very much for bringing it to our attention. Going to make donation right now.

Jamie Bougher said... November 13, 2008 at 12:29 PM  

Thank you for this. I had, of course, noticed the lack of Melissa posting, and the general slow-down on Shakesville, but I've always felt that sending emails to the blog was just one more thing added to the to-do list (oh, here's another crazy fan who wants me to reply to her email. I don't have time for this!) and I didn't want to make an off-topic comment on someone else's post - I respect those posts, too.

So I am very happy to see this post from you and Petulant's post back at Shakesville. Now I feel okay sending an email and I know exactly what I'm going to say.

So, thank you again. :)

sinclair said... November 13, 2008 at 12:37 PM  

hey, thank you for this. I'm a few circles removed from shakesville and from your own blog - this is my first time visiting you - but what you say resonates deeply with my own experiences of running and being a part of communities online. thanks for your articulation and for working through some of the resentment issues that come up from these Labor of Loves - very well said. I feel like I'm coming away from this with more of a vocabulary to describe what's been happening for me lately, and I so appreciate that.

Rana said... November 13, 2008 at 1:58 PM  

Thank you.

PortlyDyke said... November 13, 2008 at 2:05 PM  

You are all quite welcome, and thanks for your comments.

Melissa McEwan is not only an amazing blogger -- she's one of the best people I know on the planet -- which is saying something.

I hope my words are a support for her, and for anyone else who is putting their heart, soul, mind, and body into a Labor of Love.

Anonymous said... November 13, 2008 at 2:20 PM  

this is a wonderful post, portly. your posts always seem to speak perfectly to happenings in my life, and your words always help me sort out things or see something in my behavior i've been ignoring. thank you so much.

and though i've never talked to her (and i think this might be the first time i've ever commented on a blog in my life) i've grown to love melissa's blog and i read it every day, and you've inspired me to donate to her. tomorrow, as soon as i get paaaayed!

lots of love from jamaica plain, MA.

Anonymous said... November 13, 2008 at 2:20 PM  

Thank you, Portly, for enlightening me regarding Melissa. Much appreciation to you. And to Melissa.

Anonymous said... November 13, 2008 at 2:59 PM  

Thank you PD!!!

As always you speak to my heart!

Chris Clarke said... November 13, 2008 at 3:30 PM  

This is a wonderful post. I've been out and away from internet connectivity over the last six months or so, and dipping a toe back in the nastiness seems to have ratcheted up a couple of notches. It's such a relief to see people who consciously try to limit their own contributions to that nastiness, as seductive and short-term gratifying as it can be.

And what you said about the expectation of coming back. A couple years ago when I was taking a lot of crap online and contending with the looming loss of my beloved dog, I took a month off from blogging — and the well-meaning, kindly intended people whose response was "noooooo! hurry back!" made me want to toss my computer out a window. Add to that the guilt at feeling that way — they were being nice and warm and affirming and complimentary, after all — and the burnout just gets worse.

So thanks. Excellent post.

NameChanged said... November 13, 2008 at 8:05 PM  


Thank you for shedding some light on the situation. I also have felt that Liss wouldn't want to hear from me. But I think that I might start sending some notes here and there asking for a task, or some way to help.

As for a monthly donation, I think we can swing it.

Nia said... November 14, 2008 at 7:58 AM  

I read comments on Shakesville very rarely, so when I noticed Melissa wasn't posting I assumed she had taken a holiday after so much pre-election blogging! I'm so sad to hear she's not doing well. And yes, I've made a donation.

Anonymous said... November 14, 2008 at 9:03 AM  

I read the list you posted about a day in the life of ... some re-prioritization and outright delegation would ease those burdens, but labors of love are hard to delegate.

Scheduled sabbaticals for QCoFM and an annual fundraiser could work, too!

Awesome post, PD. Yes, I already donated.


Dio said... November 14, 2008 at 8:09 PM  

This is a wonderful post, Portly. I found your blog just recently, following links from Shakesville - have not commented here before, but I have gotten a lot of worth from your posts that I've read, and I've linked them to friends who have also enjoyed them. I've done the same with many posts of Melissa's.

I always assumed (as others have mentioned) commenting with nothing particularly worthwhile to contribute would be adding to Melissa's burden - but after donating earlier today and then reading your post just now, I went over and did comment, just to let her know how very much I appreciate her work. (Though I was so reluctant to be wordy, it turns out I've taken much more space here.)

You are right - $5 a month for a site as beneficial and unique as Shakesville is not too much. Thank you for reminding us.

Anonymous said... November 16, 2008 at 12:32 PM  

In the days when I really "needed" appreciation for the hard work I was putting in, I often put myself in a Catch-22, because I really liked wearing the identity of the wunderkind who could pull stuff out surprisingly quickly and seemingly easily -- and that necessarily made it very difficult for other people to appreciate just how much fucking work I'd put into it.

I hope this isn't off topic, but this reminds me of something my father used to say in high school when I would get a good grade on something: "I'm not surprised, but I'm impressed."

I say this a lot to people because I just think it's the nicest way to affirm to someone that of course they inspired in you high expectations, but also that you still find wonder in how well they fulfill them.

For both you and Melissa, I'm not surprised, but I'm impressed.

liberalandproud said... November 25, 2008 at 8:13 AM  

I was out of town on business when all this seemed to come to a head. Yes, I had internet access, but no time to use it. Now that I have (a little) more time, I'll be sure to be more vocal with my appreciation. I am grateful for both Shakesville and this space every day, even if I don't say it that often. I think a Thanksgiving tip may be in order for Liss!

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