Lauren Levin grew up in New Orleans, lives in Oakland, and has worked/temped at/for: one SAT prep company, one university press, two law firms, three banks, four temp agencies, five schools, six nonprofits, Escada, and Manischewitz.
1. The Headless Woman
-Thanks to the organizers, presenters, everyone for being here. I’m so happy to think and talk together.
-So, I recently saw the movie The Headless Woman…It’s this amazing sort of detective story movie by Lucrecia Martel, about an upper-class Argentine woman who may or may not have killed someone (possibly killed a kid in a hit-and-run accident). She both does and doesn’t want to know what happened in the accident, it seems like, and her family (who’s also the power structure in the town) is gradually covering it up, “vanishing” the evidence. And eventually she seems to be colluding, or acquiescing (or maybe just distracted?) in that vanishing. She’s also a sort of strange diffuse fantasy object of projection for all the other characters, and there’s a Vertigo thing – anyway it’s a great movie. Cynthia is screening and talking about it on the 18th, we should all go.
2. Meaning is my Mystery/Crime
-There are lots of possible readings of Headless Woman: in reference to the disappeared in Argentina, the class/economics of the cover-up and family relationships, feminist readings. You can also look at it (like the movie The Conversation) as the search for an elusive center…both Vero (the main character) and her possible crime play this role of something elusive that attracts and repels, that the attention slides off, that’s always over your shoulder. Like, “I know there’s something wrong, how did I fuck everything up?”
-Well, to circle to a point, as I’ve been trying to think about my work life, I keep thinking about the Headless Woman. In my jobs, I’ve always operated by the basic principle of wanting to put poetry first – to have time for it – so I’ve mostly worked part time, to the extent I could afford it, or make an hourly wage that allowed it. But in addition to that, I’ve oscillated between wanting to care about my day jobs, and not wanting to. In fact, as I was tracking my job history, I realized I’ve really bounced back and forth between the poles of the job I invest in, and the job I don’t invest in (to use a money metaphor). And, as I spoke with Sara and Tony and other people about it, the term ‘meaning’ kept coming up. The ‘meaningful’ job and the ‘meaningless’ job, which sounds horrible, to judge in that way. But realizing I kept using that shorthand, I’ve become fascinated by the this search for something called ‘meaning’ in my day jobs, or this running away from something called ‘meaning’ in my day jobs. Why do I do this? What does it say about the choices I have and that other poets have? So, I’m fascinated by the search for something called meaning as my Headless Woman style mystery, or crime. The thing I want to look at and can’t look at.
-I do want to say that what I’m talking about is my own construction of this category, meaning, and the way it has affected my job decisions in different realms. Not to say, oh this kind of job is better than this kind, but more to ask you all if you have thoughts about why I have this problem, or if any of you share this problem with me. (I think it might be a Pisces problem.)
3. The “Meaningless” Job
-I’ve done a fair amount of temping. So in my mind that’s the paradigm of the job I don’t invest in. Those jobs have had their virtues; when I run toward them, it’s because, well, there’s no competition with poetry. No worries about putting down roots. Also, during the dot com era, I could truly siphon off money for doing nothing, and since I didn’t usually work at the most scrupulous places, I could say I was just diverting money that would have been spent on something worse than me.
-Temp jobs. Sitting at the back of some office at a desk with no work to do, and eventually getting fired for asking for work. Getting fired for making 300 copies for a binder one by one (because I didn’t know how to use the copy machine feeder). In my two poles of job life, the so-called “meaningless” job is I think about a fantasy of freedom; autonomy; the lack of responsibility for anything but poetry. And a love of getting fired, or at least moving on…
-When I’ve run away from those types of jobs, it’s for a couple of reasons. One, loneliness and isolation…not feeling rooted in a context. (At the time I was temping a lot, I was also writing by myself, deliberately isolating myself because I thought I would have a purer focus on poetry. That didn’t work very well.)
-A second reason was feeling guilty about how much that fantasy of autonomy really was a fantasy. I felt conflicted about the fact that I wouldn’t have chosen to work at an investment bank if I were actively choosing, but I was okay with it if a temp agency put me there. To put it in terms of Headless Woman, if my tracks keep getting erased, and if I very much don’t think about what I’m doing, is there no crime? I might not have felt serious about the work, but I kept washing up on these investment bank, law firm, etc, shores. (And this also became more of an issue as I got less incompetent at office work – these jobs were getting more value out of me.)
-Another reason the meaningless job was a fantasy – my class background gave me access to education, and my education gave me access to putting my education on a resume, and my resume gave me a way to explain away the fact that I kept moving around or getting fired. So the meaningless job was a fantasy even while I was working it, because I never really had to face facts – I could keep moving, keep circulating.
4. The “Meaningful” Job
So, predictably, I always seemed to find myself swinging to the other side, of the job I can invest in. The “meaningful” job, by which I don’t mean a professional job, but the one that tempts me to put down roots, to care. Right now I’m about as far to that side as I’ve ever been – I work 30 hours a week as the Development and Marketing Manager at a Berkeley nonprofit. I have benefits. I’ve been there 3 years, so I’ve had to take a good hard look at my crime.
-When I’ve fled meaningful jobs in the past, it’s usually because of the competition with poetry. The loss of my vocation, either to a competing emotional involvement, like with kids in a classroom. Or the loss of my vocation to a creeping professionalization that leads me to speak in nonprofit jargon and wake up in the middle of the night worrying about board development.
-I also worry about a type of fantasy that goes along with the meaningful job, a very Pisces, spiritual pride type fantasy of wanting to help people, or do good, but in an insulated, abstract way. I worry that that fantasy is a mask for accruing cultural capital – amassing tokens for a resume, or wanting to be branded as a ‘good person’. (Unfortunately all the jobs I’ve had involve sitting at a desk, not sudden transfigurations into goodness.)
-My current work is basically nonprofit fundraising. So I’m in a position to see how the sausage is made – how nonprofits are hooked into the money system at various points. That can be disillusioning, and leads me to the biggest problem with constructing this binary around meaning, then jumping from one side to the other: that the whole thing collapses. Everything, from the nonprofit to the temp agency, becomes a big capitalist blob. I can get myself into despair that way – that I’ve spent all this time worrying about what meaning is while I could have been making rent and writing poetry. The gold of time past turns into dust in your hands.
5. Not About Meaning At All, but Structure I Found Myself In – Isolation vs. Community
-Luckily while I’ve been spending all this time freaking out about meaning, something else has been happening in my work life and poetry life.
-Right now, I work with a bunch of people who are incredibly passionate about bringing what they care about into their work. Whether that’s about new definitions of family, about opening up access, about art education. And I’ve seen that passion have an impact, even on the relative conservatism and don’t rock the boat-ish-ness that nonprofits/institutions can have. It’s had an impact on me. Every Friday like clockwork I have an unplanned but intense conversation with my coworker Hilary about some aspect of our work and I go out vibrating from those talks wanting to change what I’m doing. My organization does have hierarchies, but it’s also small enough that my coworkers and I can have some impact on how things are done, especially if we throw our weight together.
-So, I don’t work by myself. And I don’t think that I write my poems by myself anymore, either. And investing in these groups of people – with whom I work, with whom I write poetry – has done more than anything to change my thinking about work and about meaning.
-As I’ve been putting this together, I’ve been thinking that, it’s not really about meaning. That’s not the mystery. Despite all the turmoil meaning has caused me, I can’t believe in it in the same way, because I don’t believe anymore that one person makes meaning through his or her choices and judgments. In Headless Woman, Vero’s actions were given meaning through the context of the group and through class structure. So, the question I’m left with is, what the group means, what taking responsibility also for my role in the group means.
6. Group Character
-I thought I would end with a few questions about that issue of group character, and gift economies, and two quotes that are in the process of being helpful for me.
-How do the small groups I belong to by choice, and feel I can affect, fit into larger structures? Do they affect larger structures? Do they help us imagine what larger changes would look like?
- I’ve been trying to think about the two communities I’m invested in, the small organization (nonprofit or collective) and the poetry or arts community, as two types of gift economies. This is probably too schematic, but I think of the small organization as less of a community, because there’s a separation between those who give gifts, usually, and those who receive them. Also a separation between those raising the money and those doing the field work. The organization is more anonymous, but on the plus side also might have an easier time reaching toward an idea of access, of permeability.
-I think of the arts community as tighter-knit – because the work is of and for the same group. Gifts circulate through the whole group. Love and tension are not idealized and abstracted, but involve actual people.
-At the same time, arts group could be seen as more closed, less permeable, more inward-looking. Zealously protecting access – all those questions (or maybe clichés?) of coterie.
-I’m wondering if it’s possible or even desirable for the characteristics of those different groups to interpenetrate. Could the organization become more a community, less transient, less abstract, not separating out givers and receivers, planners and actors?
-Can or should the poetry community be more permeable, outward looking? Could it do that and remain personal?
Here are the quotes I want to end with. From Lucrecia Martel, director of the Headless Woman:
Q: Are you saying that individuals refuse to engage with large-scale social problems because they feel overwhelmed?
A: I think that in the film I show a social mechanism, which in itself could be really beautiful and fascinating, but at the same time is really frightening. And that’s the mechanism whereby a social group as a whole tries to alleviate the suffering of one of its members. They gather together and cover up what happened in order to protect one of their own, even though it is possible that the person has committed a crime. On the one hand, that is beautiful in terms of human support, but it also contains all the roots of what’s evil about a social class: hiding facts…
Quote from David Brazil:
“It may be the task of the present to recognize imagination as the place out of which we build responsibilities, which are after all sympathetic engagements to others…”