What Is It Worth?

We went to Jamaica for our honeymoon. I had never been there before and didn’t know much about it other than Bob Marley called it home. I was amazed by its beauty. And stunned by the stark poverty of so many alongside the splendor of resorts and wealth. That was the first impression.

Then we went to Dunn’s River Falls on a bus with other tourists. It was a beautiful, interesting time exploring the waterfalls with everyone. In the area outside of the falls were native people selling their creations. The approach was moderately aggressive and in your face. A british man ahead of me took particular offense at this, sharply admonishing a man selling necklaces. The man selling the necklaces told the pissed off british tourist that this island is his inheritance, his home; his crafts are his bounty, and that it is his right to sell them or to give them away. He then told the british man he would give him one for free. The british man took this, for some reason, as a horrifying and unbelievable insult. He wouldn’t accept, in disbelief, and stormed over to the bus, still irate.

The man with the necklaces turned to me, as the angry tourist stormed off, and said he wanted to give me a necklace for free. I said I couldn’t accept. He insisted. I saw something in his face and eyes that told me this was important and deeper than what it seemed. I relented, and chose a beautiful necklace of nuts and seeds native to Jamaica. I thanked him and he smiled kindly. I returned to the bus and the british man was sitting behind me. He demanded, still sounding angry, “Did he give that necklace to you for free?!” I smiled saying, “Yes. He did.” Then I turned around and took in those words the Jamaican man had uttered with such calm passion and rooted knowing.

He had said that their wealth was the island. Their inheritance and abundance was the beauty of the island and what he made and sold came from that. He went on to announce that it was his right to sell what he had made at a price worthy of his labor and the bounty that it comes from or, if he so chooses, to give it away. I took that necklace and that lesson and kept it close to my heart, not knowing exactly why. It seemed profound.

That was 15.5 years ago.

I now have a keen understanding of what it means to create or give things from my own hands and being, freely, and to sell them. I know the toughness of it, the vulnerability and the lively challenge of what to charge for the work. I have a sensitivity to those who are financially challenged, who deserve what I offer as much as those who are financially more stable. Also, I need to live in a way that is sustainable for me and my family.

About 7 years after my honeymoon I had been doing reiki in my home for friends and wanted to expand to acquaintances and begin charging across the board. I had been giving my work away for free for many years. And that was appropriate for the time of learning and growing. I now had the highest level of training possible, had practiced for several years and had a dedicated practice to the work and to research and continued learning.

Even so, it took all the confidence and self-esteem I could muster to begin asking for $60 for an hour of reiki. In a small business class they told us that men rarely hesitate to borrow money or take risks in small business, and that women rarely take the risks. Part of this hesitant nature to claim worth is based on gender and class. No doubt about it. Gender and Class are two ways we are continually divided and preyed upon. Nevertheless, the hour of reiki with me included my rapt, gentle, hands-on attention to every joint, energy center of the body as well as to the spiritual and energetic needs that emerge, intuitive work and processing. It is a fairly demanding practice, on my feet, reaching and holding positions. And, it is not just about being paid for healing work, as massage therapists, reflexologists, or counselors do, for example. It is also about being valued for one’s skills, gifts, talents, experience and time. It is about making a living using one’s talents and skills. All of this, I realized at the time and was seeking to fulfill.

It would be great if we could honor each other’s time equally. We could all get paid equally, and a living wage to boot, based solely on time being of equal value to each of us. You are a teacher? You are a plumber? You are an artist? A surgeon? Great! All paid a living wage for an hour’s time. Everyone’s hour is worth the same amount, right? Because isn’t our time all equal? As long as people are doing what they love and really doing their best, that would be a just answer. But, so far, this is not the case. Being dedicated to what I do, my clients could tell you, I give as much for the time and money that I possibly can. I believe in abundance and sharing tools and positive energy for the better.

So, back to when I first began charging full price. An acquaintance came to my house, who provides spiritual services for others. The session went well and this person was really thankful and comforted by the work.

When this client asked about price, I answered, “$60.”  The acquaintance/client audibly gasped, clearly revealing an issue with valuing the service and my time.

I know for a fact I have never made as much money in my life as this person who gasped at my hour fee does/did. I was aware of this, but didn’t have it at all in my mind at the time. It was realized in hindsight. At the time I simply responded at the heart level to this client appearing appalled at my asking for a living wage and tried to make it right. The last thing I wanted to do is create stress in the midst of healing work. I felt that visceral gasp reaction as a slap, and quickly tried to make peace by saying I would of course thankfully receive whatever was affordable in their particular case. The answer: $40. Ok, I thought. I am not worth $60. I must be wrong. That was how I felt then.

It was a steep hill to climb to get up to my worth after that. It didn’t take much to knock me back down. Because I had grown up in great stress of hardship for an extended period of time, I know what it is to be in need and to depend on opportunities, deals and breaks. So, I decided to offer fees on a sliding fee scale. Win/win, I thought. People can pay what is appropriate for them and I don’t have to be slapped in the face by a gasp that says I am worth-less. And I can serve more people in need.

I found most people want to pay a fair price. And they simply won’t come when they can’t afford it rather than pay the lower price. I also found clients who assured me I am definitely worth $60 an hour and more. It took a few years, but that happened. But then the situation of work changed from having low overhead that supported the sliding fee scale of $30-$60 for folks, to being in a situation where overhead kept gradually increasing. And, recently, I found myself not making it and needing to find another avenue of work. Thus, the last post on this blog, “Give Up!”.

I had erred on the side of ensuring sustainability for clients while ignoring my own needs for sustainability. When I receive $30 for an hour of work, since I am self-employed, after expenses and taxes it becomes $15-$20 per hour. It breaks down further when time is considered. When I reserved an hour for someone, that hour actually is 2 hours of prep time, service and clean-up time, as well as over-time in processing with the client. Most of my clients would actually get 1.5 hours with me and pay the hour rate. So, if I had 3 clients in a day, that would mean 6 hours in total, yet only getting paid for three hours time on a sliding fee scale. Since I was paying sublease that only allowed me to have room time for 8-9 hours per week, options for time were limited as well as very part-time. In addition, the requirement of working in that space was providing sliding fee scales and being “affordable”. It was a matter of integrity to let go of that space, instead of increasing my prices, staying and insisting I was still “affordable”. Affordable is a subjective word, though, isn’t it?

I did up my prices to what was sustainable for me for a short time before I left, and I got many incredibly supportive and affirming responses from clients. At the same time, my business there was at an end. Right now, as we speak, I am re-configuring and starting over. I have learned a lot! And being a part of that holistic health collective was so important and good. I am thankful for it and the people I shared it with.

Anyway, during this and, after I left the collective, a colleague and friend of mine became very ill. I gave her a reiki session as she was recovering. We had often done exchanges, supporting and helping one another. I let her know that I would love to provide her with free sessions for a time as she recovers. She knew about me needing sustainable fees, and balked at the idea of me giving work away free. Even though she does the same whenever she wishes, for those in need.

I told her that I have the ability to give her free sessions as she needs them. She asked in wonder, “You do?” And I smiled warmly and said, “Yes!”.

That moment I was reminded of the man selling necklaces in Jamaica over 15 years ago and how proud he was to state that he had a right to give away his work if he so chose. I felt the same at that moment. Like a light had gone on. I felt it to my core. It is my choice. It is right either way as long as I am consciously choosing. Yes, I need the money. However, I still have the freedom to give freely when it is right and good. That is a true feeling of abundance and wealth that comes from within. I may not be able to reconcile reality with my ideals as yet, but I can do this for a friend.

Another friend I don’t see often visited me a few days ago. She makes amazing lap quilts. She makes them, often hand-sewed and praying over them, creating them in a way that feels like they are her children she is birthing. It is a sacred thing. And, in the past, as I did with my reiki for many years, she gave them away. Now she is selling them. Her time and attention to them is impeccable. They are beautiful. Several people she knows told her she must sell them for no lower than $150. So, she is. They also told her she could charge much more for them. Which is true. But she wants them to be accessible, so she is not going the exclusive route with the price.

She spent countless hours making them. And if she wants to sell them or give them away, that is her right and her choice.

There is care in every aspect of it. It is an art. Someone whom she had gifted a lap quilt to many years ago, asked what she was selling them for. She answered, “$150.”

Much like my experience years ago, this friend gasped at the price of the lap quilt.

Maybe she gasped at realizing that the gift she had received years before was worth so much. Maybe she gasped because the price shocked her. I don’t know. The funny thing  is, I know who that person was, who gasped, and she is a good friend who was the first to tell me that I was worth the $60 when that first paying client gasped at me! This friend had told me I was being undervalued and that maybe in our area, (8 years ago) at the time, that $60 was a bit high.

Prices can shock us. It happens. To the best of us. I am shocked that there are $300 backpacks for sale downtown. And I am shocked that handmade bras downtown cost $300 and up. It is true. And even if I had the money, I wouldn’t choose to buy a $300 bra or backpack. Even us artists, freelancers, small business people, musicians…we might want to get the handmade craft for free or we may want to go see live music for free or to get a quality bra for cheap and we don’t realize that we are living in a society that undervalues some of the best gifts of life…..beauty, imagination, vision, well-being.  At the same time, I don’t think that exclusive prices are the answer either. I opt for balance, choice and freedom.

Some spend a small fortune on Halloween decorations and costumes, going out for dinner often, movies, junk food, video games, beer, wine, pop, vices…. oh yes, all the random things we first world people throw our money at and then say we can’t afford something else that is priced by its preciousness, artisan quality and depth of experience and value. Why is that?
We have been lulled into thinking we deserve things cheap, not realizing what a violent notion that can be. Are we not seeing how much money we easily throw at things of less quality or lasting value, without so much as a flinch, let alone a gasp?

For me, my work, whether it is writing, art or reiki or something else  – it is about the healing, the love, the presence, the ideal, the vision, the passion, the dream, the need to do the work! I just need to be who and what I am and to do my work.

We have been lulled into thinking that we deserve things cheap, not realizing what a violent notion that can be.

When my quilting friend first told me she was selling her quilts online for the first time, I quickly looked at the link. I saw one that I instantly fell in love with and bought it then and there. I didn’t want anyone else to get the gorgeous lotus quilt! It was a quick and true gut feeling. It was meant for me. And, I was her first customer!

When I got it, my daughter asked how much it was. I told her and she raised her eyebrows exclaiming that was a lot for a small blanket. I then held it out from end to end and said to her, “If this were a painting of this size that I had painted, I would charge more than $150 for it! It is an original irreplaceable work, hand sewed. She put the same, if not more, time into it as I would for a painting.” My daughter exclaimed, “Oh! I never thought about it like that!” She caught on pretty quickly. We didn’t even have to discuss the cost of buying designer materials in addition to 8+ hours of creating the quilt and how much per hour that would amount to after the time and expenses are figured in.

My cat Abigail sitting against the lotus quilt.
My cat Abigail sitting against the lotus quilt.

I don’t know that I could necessarily afford the $150 for the quilt, but it was something deeper that I had to act on and choose. It was a choice filled with trust and a sense of abundance. I recognized the beauty, meaning and value; it spoke to me. In valuing it and buying it, I was doing the same for myself as an artist/writer – self-employed person. It felt good and right. It created great joy for both of us. And I get to be kept warm by a gorgeous meaningful lotus quilt, made by a friend and fellow artist, each time I am at home and need it.

What are we worth?
What is your price?
What is your choice?

I love what artist Kiki Smith has to say. This is how I am going forward:

Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn’t, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink. That is the grace I’m given. Because when one can control things, one is limited to one’s own vision.   -Kiki Smith

Chandra Sherin 2014 ©


4 thoughts on “What Is It Worth?

  1. Thought of this post today as I just got told my rate is “a little steep.” Ouch. I held my ground, though, because I’d feel pretty crappy doing the work for less money.

  2. Hi Beth, yeah, that can sting a little. That is what it comes to, though, is knowing how much goes into it and what is needed to get by and, hopefully, to thrive. I appreciate hearing about your experience and love your blogging courage. In solidarity and friendship, Chandra

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