Monday, September 21, 2009

Snapshots from the Sector

My entire adult life, with one short-lived exception, I have worked for not-for-profit organizations.  For fifteen years, I have gone to work in places that struggle to make ends meet financially, depending on the kindness of strangers through donations and volunteerism.  I have worked in places where we joked (in a laugh to keep from crying sort of way) that we would make more money working for the donut shop across the street, places where we brought office supplies from home, where people (myself included) have lost their jobs because the Canada Council for the Arts cut an operating grant, or a sponsor decided to go another direction, or not enough lottery tickets sold, or because it rained on the day of the outdoor event.

I knew getting into the sector that I was never going to make a lot of money, and made my peace with that a long time ago.  Never having made a big salary, I guess never got used to the perks that that may bring, and so I guess, most of the time, I don't miss them.  I have definitely had times when I wished I had more money, but by and large, I have comforted myself with the mantra that I go to work every day in a place that has a "higher ideal" than swelling the numbers on the bottom line, and that in my own way, I am working towards leaving the world a little bit better than I found it.

Lately, though, I've been questioning this a little bit, as Love of My Life and I have started to shop for a house.  I know that I'd have made much more money by this time in my life if I had chosen another path, and that it might be a bit easier. That it might be nice to have a job that I didn't care about as much, where I could just put in my 9 to 5 and forget about it at the end of the day.

But I had an experience today that reminded me that there are other benefits to working in the sorts of places that I do, and that is the extraordinary, weird, lovely little moments that happen in our sector that I'm pretty sure don't happen - at least on a regular basis - in a standard office environment. It got me thinking about the experiences that I have had may just rival things like dental plans and pensions and paid overtime. Like:

I have stood beside the stage of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, exhausted and covered in mud, as thousands of music lovers ran onto the site that we built, eager to get the best spot in front of the stage.

When a two-time breast cancer survivor crossed the finish line of a two-day, 60km fundraising walk, alternately limping and skipping, I got to be her first hug. "Thank you for making me do this", she said.

I have been in the room when the following conversation took place, every bit as serious as any boardroom exchange I've ever witnessed:
Wardrobe Mistress: I brought the fairies' wands to show you - what do you think?
Ballet Mistress (in thick Bulgarian accent): These two, good. Ya. This one for boss fairy. Need be more MAGICAL.
Wardrobe Mistress: More magical.  How do you mean? Bigger? More sparkles?
Ballet Mistress: No! No more bigger, no more sparkles, more MAGIC!

After accompanying a ballet performance at an inner-city school, I was approached by a girl who could have been no more than 7 years old.  She was rumpled, but smiling hugely.  When I asked if she enjoyed the show, she didn't say a word.  She just threw her arms around me.

I have looked into the eyes of an otherwise typical thirteen-year-old girl and seen nothing but complete sincerity as she said, "But Miss Jennifer, when you leave, who's going to take us to the opera?"

And today, I saw a boy of about 7 or 8 in - I kid you not - a full Batman costume walking down the hall of the hospital, reaching for his little brother saying "Adam, come on, hold my hand. I have to protect you!"

I'm not vain enough to think that I caused any of these things with my small part in working in the not-for-profits I have, far from it.  I love and am humbled by these moments as I reflect back on them, because they make me realize how privileged I am to work in the environments that I do.  Places where things like these happen every day, moments of utter strangeness, and honesty, and beauty, and humanity.

It may not be financially rewarding, but it suits me just fine. I'll take superheroes in the halls over a company car any day.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

You Want to Like A Good Yarn Store

A fellow musician and I years ago were talking about a colleague who was a truly gifted pianist; great technique, beautiful tone, tremendous sensitivity.  Great player, no question about it.  He was also - not to put too fine a point on it - a jerk of truly epic proportions.  After philosophizing for a while on how these two seemingly contradictory states of being could co-exist in the same human, my friend hit the nail on the head when she said, "The real problem is, you want to LIKE a good pianist."

That was exactly the dichotomy we faced as musicians: we recognized talents that we admired in him, and spent years of our lives devoted to cultivating in ourselves.  We did this in large part to become better artists, but a small part of us also believed that this made us better people, too, I think.  To see these precious abilities resident in someone to us seemed so dispicable rankled because, frankly, we took it sort of personally. He was letting down the side.

I thought long and hard about whether or not to tell you this, but friends, I'm feeling the same way about the older, larger of my two LYSs (Local Yarn Store, to the unknitterly reader *cough Dad cough*).

It's a good LYS (which shall remain unnamed), and I've been going there since the day I bought my first giant needles and bulky acrylic for my first project almost ten years ago.  I took my first and only knitting class there (where my first-lace-project induced profanity was tolerated with relatively good humour, considering), I learned how to do a long-tail cast-on standing at the checkout counter, I was on a first name basis with several of the staff after the many hours spent there on fairly regular Saturday visits.  The store has survived the slings and arrows of the big box stores that wiped out pretty much every other little place in town.  They have responded to my polite requests (a.k.a. regular begging and offering of theoretical first-borns) for more sock yarn, bringing in a wider variety of fibres and even the work of some indie dyers.  They stock a good variety of the standard workhorses, and have gradually phased out the novelty yarn.  Best of all, they've recently become a co-op run entirely by women, some of whom are even of the new-generation-of-tattooed-young-knitter variety, and moved into a storefront right downtown.  I love and respect all of these things, and have really, really done my best to support them.  I want them to succeed for all of these reasons, I sincerely do.

But here's the thing.

I was there a couple of weeks ago with my knitting friend Miss K.  They were having a lovely, brazen sidewalk sale - freaking out the muggles with baskets of yarn on the sidewalks, pierced attendants, balloons, and public displays of knitting and crochet on the patio.  Miss K and I planned our whole day around the sale, going for a leisurely breakfast before and planning a run to the farmer's market after.

While the baskets outside were not my favourites, we headed inside undaunted, credit cards at the ready.

I hadn't yet found anything that called to me, but this is not unusual: a yarn store trip for me usually falls either at the "Actually, I have some really good stuff in my stash" or the "credit card melting through my wallet" end of the continuum, rarely anywhere in between.

The problem came because of that leisurely breakfast. Having just consumed in the neighborhood of 17 cups of coffee and being the owner of a newt-sized bladder, I approached one of the staff (the one who taught that knitting class), addressed her by name, and asked her where the washrooms were in the new store.

She barely even bothered to turn around to address at the likes of me when she said "There isn't a public one.  Maybe try Dairy Queen next door, I dunno."

"Public one"?! "try the Dairy Queen"?!

I didn't realize that up until that moment, that very moment, I had never felt like "the public" in that store.  I felt welcomed, I felt at home, I felt like a member, like one of the Company of Knitters.  It was my LYS, a place where I sent many friends and newbie knitters, a place I planned my Saturdays around, a place where they knew who I was and cared about what I wanted (the fact that I'm fairly sure my sock habit and referrals put someone's child through dentistry school notwithstanding).  I wasn't "a customer", I was... well, just another knitter, I guess, one like them, that we were all part of the same team.  Until that moment, I felt like a friend.

I get that it's a business, I get that this was one incident in a long customer-service relationship, I totally get that I'm being over-sensitive, that she might have been having a bad day.  But it's amazing how that one moment of impersonal treatment from someone I've known for so long changed how I feel about my relationship with this store. 

I'll get over it, but this year, I'm pretty sure I'll be buying my Christmas knitting yarn down the street.  Where I don't just have to want to like them because of their beautiful yarns, but because of who they are. I like them too, I'm just sad about the other.