Laird's Blog

The Subject Tonight Is Love

Give yourself to love, if love is what you're after;
Open up your hearts to the tears and laughter,
And give yourself to love.


—from the chorus of Give Yourself to Love by Kate Wolf (1982)

I woke up yesterday morning with these lyrics on my lips… and with Susan Anderson lying next to me—the woman I have just given my heart to.

The Back Story
Susan and I met as classmates at Carleton College (1967-71) and first confessed a mutual interest in each other in 1970, but we were in other relationships at the time and didn't do anything about it—until this past month, when we tentatively started blowing on old coals and discovered, to our mutual delight, that there remained a considerable amount of banked heat. Today we have a merry little fire going.

There have been a couple other moments in the last 45 years where we checked in with each other, quietly affirming our continuing interest, yet we were never both available at the same time and it went no further. We've each been married once and played a significant role in the other's wedding (I was a bridegroom for her & Tony in 1979, and she had a speaking role in the ceremony that Ma'ikwe & I handcrafted in 2007), fully rooting for those relationships to last. Susan's marriage ended when Tony died of colon cancer in 2004; and my marriage tended when Ma'ikwe decided she'd had enough of me as her husband last February.

As I reflect on all the things that needed to come together in the right sequence for this tender flame to become so oxygenated—a seed that took 45 years to germinate—I'm shaking my head at the improbability of our story. Incredibly, we both hear the music and are ready to dance, with each other, at the same moment.

Nature BoyThere was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me:
"The greatest thing you'll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return"

—Nat King Cole (1948)
You may know this as the song chosen as the melancholy opening and closing of the movie Moulin Rouge (2001) that was sung by Ewan McGregor, encapsulating his desperate love for the character played by Nicole Kidman. Carol Swann (with whom I seriously explored partnership 15 years ago) offered to sing Nature Boy at my wedding in 2007. I told her the lyrics were excellent but the energy seemed unaligned with the up-tempo ceremony we desired. Not knowing how else to sing the song, she chose something else. While Carol's choice worked well (a musical improvisation of a Marge Piercy poem), I have not forgotten that Nature Boy, to paraphrase Robert Frost, was the song not taken.

Today, I've cycled back to the haunting truth of Nature Boy. Susan and I are in our mid-60s, which means the bulk of our living is behind us and the time remaining is uncertain. No one knows how much sand remains in their personal hourglass, and we have both lost contemporaries to death and illness—an inexorable trend that will only increase. 

Looking openly at where we are, we are not choosing to be careful; we are choosing love. Rather than wasting a moment on what might have been, we are choosing to dance with whatever sand we have left. We are choosing to be alive, and I'm all in.

He won't hurt you, will he?
This was a question recently posed to Susan by a couple of concerned friends, once they became aware that something was afoot (or afootsie, you might say). Not knowing anything of me, they are being protective of their friend, not wanting her to be taken advantage of—to get her heart opened and then broken.

While Susan and I have laughed at this—a choice that is artlessly easy when immersed in the first rush of a new relationship (who wants to be cautious when you're infectiously happy?), there remains truth in it, because you cannot fully open your heart without being vulnerable to incredible suffering if things later go awry. And you have to commit yourself to the rapids of love without certainty of where the rocks lie that can hole your canoe. There is risk.

Susan and I have both gone through the agony of loss and a broken heart, and yet are choosing to love again, with each other, because Kate Wolf and Nature Boy were both right and when you boil it all down, why would you choose anything else?

In these giddy early days we have little idea what this love means in terms of how our lives will intertwine going forward. All of those conversations are ahead of us. Yet our energy burns brightly and cleanly in this opening movement of our symphony—and that is sufficient to fuel our fire for quite a while.

What's Hafiz Say About It?
The title for this essay is taken from a book of the collected love poems of the 14th Century Sufi poet, Hafiz, translated with care and verve by Daniel Ladinsky (1999). I will close with this fitting selection from that book:

Never Say It Is Not God 
I taste what you taste. I know the kind of lyrics
your Soul most likes. I know which sounds will become
Resplendent in your mind and bring such pleasure
Your feet will jump and whirl.
When anything touches or enters your body
Never say it is not God, for He is
Just trying to get close.
I have no use for divine patience — my lips are always
Burning and everywhere. I am running from every corner
Of this world and sky wanting to kiss you;
I am every particle of dust and wheat — you and I
Are ground from His Own Body. I am rioting at your door;
I am spinning in midair like golden falling leaves
Trying to win your glance.
I am sweetly rolling against your walls and your shoresAll night, even though you are asleep. I am singing from
The mouths of animals and birds honoring our
Beloved’s promise and need: to let
you know the Truth.
My dear, when anything touches or enters your body
Never say it is not God, for He and I are
Just trying to get close to you.
God and I are rushing
From every corner of existence, needing to say,
“We are yours.”

Crunchy Cons

I recently read Rod Dreher's 2006 book, Crunchy Cons, subtitled [take a deep breath] how Birkenstocked Berkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).

It's a breezy read, where the author pays a bit too much attention to being witty and not enough to being thorough, yet is worthwhile nonetheless. What do I mean by not thorough? Dreher complains about how mainstream conservatives leave no room in their firmament for his minority brand of politics—environmentally and socially conscious conservatives who do not bow down to the idol of commerce as the highest god—yet turns right around and commits the same error in neglecting to recognize people like me: a thoughtful liberal who has gotten off the consumer horse long before Dreher did and has already been frequenting all the same stops he visits in his cook's tour of the thoughtful conservative: slow food, organic farming, homeschooling, buying local, preserving beauty, emphasizing the primacy of relationships, and buying houses with front porches. Where Dreher believes that only organized religion can provide sufficient moral support to sustain the personal discipline necessary to be a true conservative, I observe, that's not all how I discovered and have maintained a lifestyle that's remarkably similar to the ideal he espouses. And "conservative" is not a label I gravitate toward at all.

Nonetheless, I think it's a valuable contribution to the larger political dialog that tends to be limited to the simplistic, knee-jerk sorting-everyone-into-one-of-two-camps mentality: a) liberal Democrats who are obsessed with sexual freedom, a large governmental safety net, and environmental sanity; or b) conservative Republicans who are staunch defenders of the free market, minimal gun laws, and national defense.
Dreher makes the case—and I agree— that there has to be something better. He articulates what he thinks a thoughtful conservative (as in someone who wants to conserve what's valuable in life) ought to believe in. The term "crunchy" in the book's title comes, as far as I can discern, from his pro-environment stance (conserving the Earth rather than embracing the more common Republican spin that God's creatures and creations are here principally for man to consume, carrying capacities be damned), which is often associated derisively with "crunchy granola types." Besides, it's alliterative (an aesthetic I appreciate).

So here's Dreher's ten point overview (in italics) with my commentary (in Roman). Much of it I like:

A Crunchy Con Manifesto

1. We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

I agree both that Dreher's is a minority viewpoint, and that it's based on taking a longer view than is apparent in most conservatives (who gleeful discount the future by insisting on viewing it through the myopic lens of compound interest).

2. We believe that modern conservatism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

Amen, brother.

3. We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity's best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

Though I'm not ready to swallow the large frog that Dreher begins with, I like where he croaks with it—everything that follows after the word but. When it comes to embracing the free market system, it is not apparent to me that Dreher has looked deeply enough at how free market capitalism is inimical to environmental sanity—which he says he embraces.

4. We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America's wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk* identified as "the Permanent Things"—those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world's great wisdom traditions.

* [Kirk lived 1918-1994. His best known work was The Conservative Mind, published in 1953, tracing the roots of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition back to Edmund Burke.]

I'm good with this, and appreciate that Dreher has framed this in terms of "wisdom traditions" instead of "religious traditions."

5. A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

I am wholly on board with the need for a major shift in how we think of a healthy economy, moving away from relying on throughput as the main way we test for robustness (GNP) to one that rewards the conservation of resources (achieving the greatest good with the least consumption). You might look at economist Herman Daly's, Steady-State Economics (1977), for a thorough treatment of this concept.

6. A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global  and New and Abstract.

You the man, Rod.

7. Appreciation of aesthetic quality —that is, beauty—is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

While I think this principle is a slippery one to hold (given that much of beauty is individually defined), I like insisting that it should have a seat at the main table.

8. The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

I take this to be a call for each of us to develop our own moral compass, followed by an admonition to not let the fickleness of pop culture deflect the needle. While I'm good with this as a general warning, I don't believe that all truth and wisdom has already been discovered and is adequately described. I don't believe that the proper role of modern humans is simply to cleave to the North Star of ancient wisdom. I think it's worthwhile to keep panning for gold in the streams of contemporary thought. For example, in my lifetime there has been an amazing amount of progress in how society thinks about race, gender, sexual orientation, and right relationship to the environment. These are not trivial shifts, and it behooves us to be open to the possibility of profundity emerging from the dross of fad.

9. We share Kirk's conviction that "the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o' evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths… The institution most essential to conserve is the family."

I'm uneasy here. Right off the top, Dreher's pro-natalist position sends chills up my spine. How can a thinking person (remember his brave claim about seeing better in point #1?) not see the train wreck between population growth and environmental degradation? Any arguments about needing to outbreed the heathens contains the same fatal flaws as the discredited nuclear policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (which, not coincidentally, bore the acronym MAD). We need a lot more babies in the world about the same as we need a lot more nuclear weapons.

Beyond that, I'm nervous about each parent being the conservator of ancient truths because it promotes closed-mindedness—which the world is already plagued with in ample amounts without further encouragement. Upon closer inspection, a fair number of ancient truths are culturally specific rather than universal (for example, contrast the plurality of Native American cosmologies with one-size-fits-all Christian cosmology). Thus, there can be awkwardness (read jihads) over which "wisdoms" are true. This can be a real goat fuck.

Finally, I'm uneasy defining family—the implication being nuclear family—as the fundamental unit of cultural construction. If (and it's possible that Dreher is OK with this, though that's not the way his book reads) we stretch the sense of family to include the concepts of extended family and even families of adults not related by blood or marriage—with which I am thoroughly familiar as a result of having immersed myself in the world of intentional community—then I'm OK. Having raised my two kids in the family-of-friends intentional community of Sandhill Farm you cannot tell me that that wasn't an excellent way to do it, so I object to Dreher's narrow-mindedness unless it embraces my experience as an option in this vein.

10. Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve is to create anew.

I'm fully on board with the opening sentence, then I get uneasy again. One of the fundamental lessons that comes out of my community experience is that we (as in healthy society) need to be more focused on Relationship as the prime directive, rather than Truth—and I expressly mean relationships across party lines, rather than relationships among allies as we strive to become a more effective united front against the unwashed. 

That said, Dreher's book is actually a mixed bag in this regard. While this tenth conservative insight speaks solely of Truth (which makes me squirm), his book is full of anecdotes that make clear his care and feeding of Relationships (which calms me down)—even to the point of repeatedly crossing the aisle to make common cause with neighbors and acquaintances with whom he shares some precious aspects of the good life, though not all. Bully for him.
• • •Taken all together, there is much to celebrate and be inspired by in the rich stew that Dreher has served up (with organic ingredients). I'm just not swallowing the whole bowlful.

Heart Goals and Hearth Coals

When my wife announced last February that she no longer wanted to be my wife, I went into a tailspin. It was not what I wanted to hear and it triggered a lot of grieving.

Even though I knew that I would still be able to carry with me the results of the personal work I had done in an attempt to make the marriage work, that seemed a very slim silver lining at the time. Mostly I just felt the loss.

To be sure, being less reactive (a specific area that I've worked on in counseling the last two years) was of immediate benefit. Instead if spinning my wheels unproductively in anger (at my partner walking away unilaterally), I moved through that, and I didn't get mired in shame at having failed to make the marriage work. I was centered enough to just let the grief and sadness wash over me. I didn't try to push it away or box it up; I just rode the rapids in a swamped canoe.

As the pain subsided, I started taking stock of where I was and where I wanted to be.

Question #1: Did I still want a partner? 

Yes!

Question #2: Was this urgent? 

No; I would wait for a good fit.

Question #3: What's a "good fit"?

Two weeks ago I came up with the following list of non-negotiables. I want a partner:
o  Who wants me (and welcomes my wanting her).
o  Who respects the work I do.
o  Who maintains her sense of self (and does not submerge her life into mine, nor expect me to submerge mine into hers).
o  Who will let me know when something seems off between us.
o  Who hangs in there to work out tensions and differences.

I've known for a long time that I needed to pair with a strong woman; someone who would not be knocked off center by my large bow wave. There have been moments in the past where I was not careful about that, and it didn't work well.

Question #4: What do I mean by "strong"?

Slowly, I've come to understand that strong comes in many flavors. In the past I've looked for a partner who was strong in the same ways I was: as a social change agent, a public speaker, an author, an organizer. But now, as a sadder but wiser man of 65, I can see nuance I had missed before. Instead of a firebrand (like me) I can find complementary strength in a keeper of the hearth; someone in whom the coals of home are enduring, though not incandescent. I don't need a mirror or a doppelganger if I have a partner with whom we create a whole (as opposed to a woman who, like me, can create a hole—with incisive body-piercing analysis that exposes the unworkable status quo).

In short, I could seek a synergistic relationship, instead of synonymous one. (Mind you, I am offering this analysis as a journal of my journey; not necessarily as a blueprint for others. Caveat emptor. What credentials do I have, after all, for advising others in this regard?)

Question #5: To what extent should I prioritize home in my search for partner?

In the wreckage of my marriage I also lost my home. It was a double blow. Having lived in the same zip code for 41 years I gradually developed a deep connection to place that turned out, to my surprise, to have powerful spiritual dimensions. I have come to know something of the sacred through connection to hearth and place.

This has been a complicated choreography for me. As someone who has dedicated his life to the exploration and promotion of community and cooperative culture, my calling requires that I'm on the road half the time—talking and teaching about community even as I'm not at home to enjoy it. With one foot at home and the other on the road, I was only partly in either, which strains the bonds of relationship that are the very lifeblood of community. It's been a longstanding dilemma. Home is at once a base of operation (a secure platform from which to engage with the world) and a refuge and sanctuary (which affords me much-needed renewal and groundedness).

So it's in that context that I'm unexpectedly starting over, trying simultaneously to reestablish home and to climb back on the partnership horse. For the last four decades home has been my North Star, with partnerships orbiting around its solidity, or budding from it. Now however, both elements have slipped their moorings at the same time and I'm adrift.

It's intriguing in this time of fluidity to shift how I think about my search—to contemplate a partnership that offers hearth as well as heart: to seek these two cornerstone elements as a pair. While I'm holding very different cards today than I was a year ago, there is still plenty of room for playing my hand well. Perhaps, it occurs to me now, I'll find the Queen of Hearts in the fireplace, instead of in the places of fire where I am wont to look.

On Being Out of Touch

Last Saturday I was at a potluck celebrating someone's 50th birthday (my first social event as a NC resident). Joe, Maria, and I all went. At one point in the evening, I sat next to Maria and spontaneously started giving her a foot massage. She hadn't asked for one, but she was grateful to receive one.

Later, on the drive home, we compared notes about the party and Joe reported being asked by a friend of all three of ours if Joe and Maria are polyamorous (open to having other lovers). Taking this in, Maria and I wondered where that question came from. Maria speculated that perhaps the friend was really asking if Joe, Maria, and Laird were a threesome. (We're not, but we could see how the question might arise: we're close friends, we have considerable affection for each other, and now we live together.)

For my part, I thought about the foot rub.

Although it was done fully clothed (well, Maria took her sandals off) in the middle of a well-lit living room, a lot of people automatically link touch with intimacy, and intimacy with sex. I think that chain of association is a societal train wreck.

It's my belief that we humans are hard-wired to crave touch from others of our species. This starts in infancy (there's solid scientific evidence on the importance of touch to the health and development of babies) and continues through adolescence, right through our senior years. Unfortunately, in a society confused about what constitutes appropriate sexual mores, we've fallen out of touch with the concept of healthy touch. 

In fact, the signals have been all over the map just in my lifetime, which spans this illuminating range of successful television comedies, all of which were contextualized in social commentary about the times in which they were produced: all the way from Father Knows Best (1954-60) to Sex in the City (1998-2004), with All in the Family (1971-79) as a wickedly ambiguous intergenerational bridge in between. 

As we've been wandering in the wilderness, touch has taken a lot of inappropriate hits—in no small part because a lot of women have been hit upon through inappropriate touch.

The problem, I maintain, is not the dangers of touch, so much as it's the taboo around talking openly about sexuality (sniggering in the locker room doesn't count) and what constitutes appropriate boundaries. Instead of an informed dialog, people have to guess what's going on, what it's OK to explore, how to discuss problems, and even how to discover their own sexual identity. It's a mess.

Further complicating this conversation is that sexual abuse is a very real and pervasive problem, though one that's far more linked to runaway power than it is to runaway touch. 

Let's be clear. Touching is a natural, integral part of lovemaking and sexual/sensual expression. But it's way more than that, including supporting, healing, relaxing, connecting, and assuring—all of which can be wholly asexual and essential to receive in regular doses. It's disastrous that we've carelessly condemned the innocent because it's sometimes associated with the questionable. 

Wouldn't it better to teach our children: a) to discern the difference; and b) that sex is a normal, healthy human function that can be misused? Wouldn't it be better if the baseline assumption is that when someone touches your arm or gives you a hug that it's simply someone trying to be caring, rather than carrying (a torch for carnal knowledge)? I'm not advocating naiveté; I'm advocating for an assumption of benign intent until a different line is crossed (such as patting someone's butt or nuzzling their neck uninvited).

Inhibiting touch of all kinds in social settings (for heaven sakes it might lead to dancing) is a spectacularly ineffective method of curbing sexual misdeeds. In effect, all it accomplishes is driving sex into dark corners (or back seats), while leaving in its wake a touch-starved society. We have to find a way to do better, or risk remaining out of touch.

Meanwhile, would you hand me your other foot? It feels like I've massaged the first one enough.

The Upper Limits of Consensus

A reader posted this comment in response to On Being a Fundamentalist, my blog of June 17:

What about larger groups and communities? I think of consensus as working well in smaller, focused groups. Could a group of a hundred or more use consensus to make decisions?

That's a good question. I don't have much experience with groups larger than about 60-75, but I know consensus can work at that size. Beyond that you're pushing against certain limits that are worth exploring:

A. Sensory Limits
In particular, there are questions about how well participants can hear and see each other. You obviously have to be able to receive information in order to be able to work with it.

As the group gets larger it gets harder to hear across the circle. Of course the acoustics of the room are also a factor, but even under ideal architectural conditions you need to account for the possibility of compromised hearing, the incidence of which increases greatly once you have members north of 50. And it's more than just getting the words right; it's also getting the tone and inflection right, as those have meaning as well and are part of the richness of live communication.

While the Occupy Movement did some notable work three-four years ago, where they used human amplification to have the speaker's words repeated to people outside of hearing distance, that's a stretch to sustain on a regular basis. The most common solution, by far, is using a PA system to amplify voices. The technology of this is sufficiently sophisticated these days that you can even get a system where the sound gets directly transmitted to people's hearing aids. Pretty nifty.

As a professional facilitator, I encounter an increasing number of groups of 40+ members that regularly rely on an amplifier and microphone to help members hear. While I think this is mostly good, there are some complications to take into account:

—You tend to need at least two microphones and maybe three to make this work, otherwise there's a constant time lag to move the microphone around. 
—Multiple mics means runners, which means the facilitation support team needs to grow in size, taking more people out of the conversation.
—You have to be careful that the mics don't get too near the amp to avoid squealing feedback.
—It usually takes a while for participants to get the rhythm of turning the mics on and off, and holding them an appropriate distance from their mouth.
 —For those who struggle feeling safe or comfortable speaking in large groups at all, adding a microphone compounds the issue: it's too much like a performance—about which they have anxiety independent of any nervousness about what they have to say. 
—Depending on the quality and location of the amp, augmented sound can sometimes be more difficult to hear than unaided voices.

Switching over to sight, sometimes eyesight degrades with age, just as hearing does (and sometimes participants forget to bring their glasses). Some of this can be addressed by giving careful thought to chair alignment that supports good sight lines, avoiding back lighting, and securing decent illumination in the meeting space.

The key things to protect are the ability to see adequately any visual aids (such as power point projections or flip chart pages) and to see people faces and body language, as there is considerable nuance conveyed through non-verbal expressions.

B. Squeezed Air Time
With more people in the meeting, it's a mathematical surety that there will be less time for each participant to speak.

Thus, great care must be exercised in determining what topics come before the plenary, and how to structure the consideration so that they're handled efficiently, as well as inclusively. In general, larger numbers translates into fewer topics that can be covered in the same amount of time.

The other dial available to groups for adjustment is increasing the volume of delegation—pushing more work down to managers and committees, so that less needs to be handled in plenary. You might reasonably require subgroups to make decisions in open sessions by consensus, where the number of participants will be a good bit smaller than in plenaries.

C. Participant Discipline
Just as larger numbers put pressure on agenda planners to be on the ball, there will be pressure on participants to be that much better disciplined about when to speak. I advise that the Participant's Mantra be: What does the group need to hear from me on this topic at this time?

That sentence contains a wealth of checkpoints where a thoughtful participant might realize that it's prudent to refrain from speaking, because the thing they thought to say is not on topic or at the right place in the conversation. If group members get proficient at applying that set of screens I believe they can accomplish a lot even with high number turnouts. [For more on the mantra, see Consensus as an Unnatural Act.]

D. Representative Consensus
Last, it's worth considering what can be done with the concept of representational decision-making, where the final authority is no longer the group as a whole, but rather a special enclave comprised of representatives.

Some interesting work was done in this regard in the context of the anti-nuclear demonstrations of the '70s and '80s (such as the Clamshell Alliance). As I understand it, the fundamental political unit was the affinity group, which everyone at the demonstration had an affiliation with. I'm not sure what the size parameters were for affinity groups, but I'm guessing it was something in the 12-18 range: small enough that everyone could be heard, yet large enough to have a decent diversity of viewpoints. 

Each affinity group would select a representative to the decision-making council, and that person would be authorized to speak for the affinity group and make decisions that would be binding on it. In turn, the council of reps would make decisions by consensus.

While I don't know of an intentional community today that works with this form of government (there are not that many groups with 100+ members), there is an interesting variation underway now at Dancing Rabbit (Rutledge MO). That community made the switch two years ago to a Village Council in anticipation of getting too large for all-skate plenaries (the community, an ecovillage, aspires to a final size of 500-1000). 

In DR's configuration there are seven councilors with staggered two-year terms. There is a careful election process once a year where the whole community discusses slates of candidates to fill all the vacancies (councilors are permitted to succeed themselves once and then must step down), and then the slates that emerge from that consideration are voted on by all members in good standing, using instant run-off voting. The Village Council makes all of its decisions by consensus and all councilors are expected to represent the best interests of the entire community, not just to speak for a subgroup constituency within the village.

As Dancing Rabbit only has around 50 adult members now, they aren't yet pushing the triple digit ceiling that I was suggesting might be something of an upper limit for day-in-day-out consensus. Also, having lived there recently (November 2013-June 2015), I'm aware of some interest among members in tinkering with the Village Council set up. While it's too early to tell how well this concept will function for larger groups that want to maintain a spirit of consensus, this is a work in progress that's well worth tracking.

On Being a Fundamentalist

A couple weeks ago I was attending the National Cohousing Conference in Durham NC when someone came up to me on the last day and asked, "Are you the fundamentalist?" I double clutched.

No one had ever asked me that question before and I was at a loss to understand where they were going, and why they thought that I might be their destination. More amazing still, it turned out that I was the fundamentalist. Apparently someone had described me as a consensus fundamentalist, and I didn't have to think very long before I could see the aptness of that label.

Consensus is the most common form of decision-making among intentional communities, and interest in community living is on the rise. Thus, consensus is getting more attention these days—all the more so because many groups struggle to get good results with it. 

Most problems with consensus boil down to a small list:

—Too much power in the hands of each individual. It only takes one or two contrarians to gum up the works for the entire group.
—Too difficult to work through complex issues when you need everyone to agree.
—Too many things need to be decided by the plenary; plenaries are bogged down by too much minutia.
—It takes too long to hear everyone's viewpoints on everything.
—Participants are not good at staying on topic, or avoiding repetition. Thus, meetings are not efficient.—Committee work is often trashed by the plenary.
—Paralysis in the face of a threat to block.

In general, groups respond to this package of unpleasant results in one of four ways: 

1.  They get so frustrated that they abandon consensus and try something else, perhaps majority rule.
There is an increasing call for trying to hold onto the spirit of consensus (a collaborative attitude) while relying on a different decision rule (some form of voting being the most popular alternative) to sidestep susceptibility to logjams.

2.  They keep banging away, essentially accepting that results aren't any better than they are. 
For many groups, even so-so results with consensus are seen as superior to the power dynamics and factionalism characteristic of majority rule.

3.  They find a work around. The two most common are:

—modified consensus (which allows a super-majority vote to decide a matter if concerns are not resolved after x number of meetings)

 —sociocracy (which is a highly structured approcah aimed at keeping the momentum going once the plenary takes up a topic, and at emphasizing solutions that are good enough, rather than laboring to find something optimal)

4.  They get motivated to learn how to do consensus well.

While I strongly favor Door #4, I want to explain how I got there. 

I've lived in intentional communities using consensus since 1974, and have been integrally involved in community network organizations (which also use consensus) since 1980—the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, 1980-2001, and the Fellowship for Intentional Community, 1986-present. On top of that, I've been a process consultant and consensus trainer since 1987. 

All of which is to say I've been to a lot of meetings and have tons of experience with consensus in the field. I know what it is and how to consistently get good results with it. As a consultant I am regularly asked to help groups navigate tricky waters using consensus and I repeatedly get positive results. 

Overwhelmingly, my experience tells me that the main problem with consensus is that groups seldom prepare well to use it and are then disappointed with what they get. The problem is not with the process; it's with practitioners not understanding the personal work needed to function cooperatively instead of competitively.

In fairness to the detractors of consensus, it takes hard work and a personal investment to unlearn competitive conditioning. Not everyone understands that when they join a cooperative group, nor is everyone up for the challenge when they do. But it can be done. I've done it myself, and I teach it to others.

Fortunately, you don't need everyone to do that work, just enough of the group to set a tone and to consistently steer the group gently, but firmly back onto a constructive path if dynamics turn tense or combative.

If you are a group that wants to learn how to use consensus well, you have two main leverage points at your disposal:

A. Understanding and committing to culture change
This means taking in at a deep level that the group does its best work only when all input is welcome, which means creating a container in which disparate viewpoints are not just allowed; they're encouraged. The members of the group need to energetically (not just intellectually) embrace the advantages that different ideas bring to the consideration. When the expression of doubt or disagreement is quashed or punished (think eyeball rolling, withering looks, and tightened voices), the whole group loses. Think of it as hybrid vigor.

Creativity and collective magic do not thrive in a battlefield where a tug-of-war mentality obtains (every inch in the direction of someone else's idea is an inch away from yours). When you are a stakeholder on an issue, the challenge is shifting from a sense of combativeness (to promote your idea above those of others; let the best idea "win" in an environment of vigorous debate) to one of curiosity (hoping that others can enhance your idea, or advance your thinking)—because the prime objective is a good decision for the group; not that you look good. If you are not a stakeholder, then you are well poised to safeguard the process, helping bridge among factors to produce the most balanced proposal.

While it is not so hard to describe the theory of cooperation, it's serious business learning to act that way in the heat of the moment, especially when the issues cut close to the bone.

B. Investing in skilled facilitation
An alternative approach is to develop a cadre of facilitators who are able to remind the group of the way it meant to function whenever it strays, bringing all parties back from the rigidity of bunkered positions into the softer place where everyone is on the same side, trying to uncover the best plan forward in light of all that needs to be taken into account.

 Skilled management of the process can address many of the bugaboos about consensus that I mentioned above:

—Outliers are worked with by making sure that their right to be heard and taken into account is paired with the responsibility to extend that same respect and courtesy to others. It's not OK to insist on the right and neglect the responsibility.

—Good facilitators are able to break down complex topics into digestible smaller chunks. While the group may not be able to get the whole thing in its mouth in one bite, eating smaller portions usually does the trick.

—On the ball facilitators will make sure the group is deliberate about what work is attempted in plenary, insisting that topics be handed off to managers or committees once all the plenary-level considerations have been addressed. They will also encourage the group to delegate authority to subgroups so that minor, routine items need not require the plenary's rubber stamp.

—While everyone has the right to speak, that does not mean everyone has something to say. Further, if another member has already said what you intended to, it is enough to add, "So-and-so speaks my mind," which takes less than five seconds. Good facilitators will encourage people to speak on topic, to the point, and to add their input just once.

—Skilled facilitators will not allow work to be handed off to subgroups prematurely; they'll insist that the plenary provide clear guidance for what's wanted, so that the work that returns is more likely to be honored.

—Savvy facilitators will know how to handle blocking concerns. Instead of backing away from them, they'll lean into them—to make sure they understand the interests that underlie that reaction, to check to see that they're a reasonable interpretation of group held values, and to work with them as a key factor that a solution needs to take into account.
 • • •If advocating for old-fashioned consensus as the best way for cooperative groups to make decisions makes me a fundamentalist, then bring on the long frock coat. I already have a beard and a steely visage.

Lighting a Local Economic Fire

Consider these trends:
 
1. There has been sustained, increased interest in community living the last 25 years
Since 1990, with notable spikes in 1990-95 and 2005-07, the Fellowship for Intentional Community has been tracking the volume of inquiries about community living and the number of new community starts. Interest is up and has remained so for a generation. While there are many factors that combine to make this happen, one in particular is affordability. People are worried about how to make their lives work on their own (or as nuclear families) and are increasingly interested in experimenting with the sharing characteristic of community, to create a better quality of life without having to chase as many dollars.

To be sure, what this looks like is all over the map. For some groups it's how to leverage assets to have access to an even better range of amenities by virtue of joint ownership (things like a swimming pool, hot tub, woodworking shop, exercise room full of barbells and equipment, or even a space to entertain 20 in one sitting. 

For others it's how to minimize their carbon footprint and pioneer models of high quality living on a shoestring budget (read low resource consumption).

For others still, it's about being able to age gracefully in place, without counting on your children or the government to provide a safety net.

2. Marketplace turbidity
It is much harder than ever to predict the health of the economy, which means uncertain job security, as well as uncertain retirement funds. Here are three sobering factors that contribute to this:

a) In the global economy, more and more jobs are being outsourced overseas, where wages are much lower. There is no reason to think that this won't continue, unless energy costs get high enough that overseas transportation of goods is prohibitively expensive. Given that it's considered political suicide to allow energy costs to spiral upward, don't look for this mitigating circumstance to save domestic jobs any time soon.

b) We are going through unprecedented automation of jobs as we enter the age of robotics. This is not just about spot welding on automobile assembly lines, robots are expected to soon make inroads in traditional low-paying service jobs such as flipping burgers at fast food restaurants. Fewer and fewer people can expect to find decent full-time employment, or perhaps employment of any kind.

c) In conditions where it's an employer's market (too many workers lusting after too few jobs) wages and benefits are driven down. I have a close friend who's a philosophy professor. Recently he got bumped off tenure track—not because his performance reviews were poor,  but because the university could get away with it. Now he's employed as adjunct faculty, where they pay him half as much for the same work and can avoid offering tenure. His future as a professor is murky.

3. Boomers are retiring
Social Security is running out of money, and it's scary contemplating if the government will be able to accommodate the bulge of Baby Boomers entering retirement age with fewer younger workers contributing to FICA. Can we count on that money being there when it's needed? As a Boomer myself, I'm questioning that.
 • • •So what does this add up to? 

If we want to get ahead of the curve (rather than just take our chances on surviving being buffeted about by macro-instabilities) we need to be thinking about what we can do to take care of our own economic needs at the local level. We need to be thinking about how we can create fair exchanges that meet real needs and about which people feel good in the delivery.

I think this is going to mean:

o  Local resilience
We need to be engaging on this at the level of people we know, who understand that we are in this together. When economic exchanges are not faceless (such as buying a book through Amazon), it matters that both parties feel good about the exchange, because everyone depends on good relations and a solid reputation for repeat business. (Hint: it doesn't matter whether it's barter, working for wages, or offering a service—the principle remains the same.)

o  Value-based part-time work
People don't necessarily need full-time employment if commuting is minimized or eliminated, and barter substitutes for cash purchases. What people need is enough work, and work that they feel good about delivering—because its aligned with who they are, and what they want to be known for. Work like that is not so draining. People get out of bed in the morning looking forward to it.

o  A little help from our friends
We need to be thinking about how to help people start and succeed at local businesses—not just for their own economic viability, but to create jobs for non-entrepreneurs as well. Everywhere there are people who have learned to be successful in business and we need to harness that skill to help guide others in developing sound business plans, and to be savvy about managing money. We need to make the shift to think of additional local businesses as a strengthening of the local web, rather than as competition for limited local dollars. We either succeed together, or go down together.

In short, we need to be real communities.

Tarheel Transition

As a process consultant, almost all of my work involves traveling to the client and engaging with them in situ (much better than asking the group to travel to my situ).

Since hanging out a shingle as a process consultant in 1987, I've called Missouri my home the entire time, which afforded me the witty opener, "I'm from Missouri, and I've come to show you." OK, maybe it's not the funniest of one liners, but it was serviceable… until today.

I'm now a North Carolinian.

I piled what I could fit into a compact one-way rental Tuesday afternoon and drove away from Dancing Rabbit and into a new adventure. I'll be trying to reinvent myself in the coming months. Here's what I have in front of me:

1. Consulting/Teaching Transition
Though my work has been steady in recent years (unlike almost everything else listed below), I'm increasingly interested in handing off to others what I've learned, which means shifting purposefully from doing to teaching. The tricky part is that demonstrating what I can do is the main way I generate students, so there's a balance point. [For details about the facilitation trainings I'm offering currently, see my blog Facilitation Trainings on Tap from March 22, 2015.]

The context of my work has always been nurturing cooperative culture, as distinct from the dominant, competitive culture. Increasingly, my work comes in two flavors:

a) Process ConsultingFor the last 28 years my main focus as a consultant has been cooperative group dynamics. Mostly I've worked solo, but occasionally I partner up. Now, moving in with Joe and Maria, we'll be discussing whether it makes sense to form a process collective. They have both parlayed their experience (which includes being students of mine in the two-year facilitation program I run—but don't misunderstand; they were already the main facilitators in their respective communities before I met them—I was polishing diamonds) into occasional facilitation gigs in the region and would like to do more. Though neither has left their day job (yet) it may be a way to accelerate their facilitation careers and at the same time accomplish more of the handing off that I'm seeking.

Auspiciously, Joe & Maria worked with me to conduct sold-out pre-conference workshops (one on Facilitation & Leadership, and another on Conflict) at the recent National Cohousing Conference in Durham (May 29-31) and both were well received. In the days ahead we'll discuss what more we might do together.

b) Economic Consulting
In recent years I've gotten steadily more interested in opening a second front, turning my attention to the poor stepchild of sustainability: cooperative economics. For this, my primary partner is Terry O'Keefe, who lives in Asheville NC. While still 3.5 hours away by car, that's a helluva lot closer than Missouri.

We also did a packed-room workshop at the cohousing event, and it also was well received. Flushed with that experience, Terry and I need to cook up what's next in our efforts to light a fire among cooperative groups to take a pro-active interest in supporting their members having more economically sustainable lives.

While we're not sure what the business model is for our being fairly compensated for this work, we're both entrepreneurial by nature (read risk tolerant) and can't help ourselves from testing the market.

2. Home Transition
One of the casualties of Ma'ikwe's decision in Feb to end our marriage was that I no longer had a home. To be sure, I could have remained at Dancing Rabbit—both the community and Ma'ikwe were fine with that—but DR was Ma'ikwe's home before it was mine and it's too tender for me right now to be operating under her shadow. 

So I'm trying something new. I'll be experimenting in the coming months with what I can create with Joe & Maria: three people who care deeply about community, social change work, right livelihood, and leading an examined life. It's a great foundation. While I went through a period of wondering what the existential reason was for my being tested in this way, I've now worked myself around to being eager for the chance.

One of the larger unknowns for me is what I'll be able to manifest relative to connection to the Earth. Slowly, over a process of decades, that became an essential element of what made Sandhill Farm (a food-centered community) my home, and now I've moved into a house that does not include a garden. Maybe I'll wind up doing some canning from farmer's market surpluses in July and August. We'll see.

Chapel Hill is a great location for securing locally grown wholesome food, and there's a great local co-op (Weaver St Market) but I haven't been so removed from my food in over four decades. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

3. Partnership Transition
Obviously a huge shift happened for me when I lost my partner. I think being away from DR will make it easier for me to process my grieving to the point where I can again be open to a new relationship. I don't feel any hurry, yet I also don't want to be afraid to get back on the horse—despite suffering a nasty fall.

Among other things, I am blessed with many good friends (who have provided wonderful support for me the last four months) and I don't feel lonely or lacking in emotional depth in my life. My scars will heal and I'll get to the place where other women will be interesting again.

4. Health Transition
It has been an incredibly long haul trying to recover from back strain that originated in early October and persists to this day. But I'm determined to recover all that I can of my health and mobility. 

One of side benefits of my new digs is that I'm on the third floor and climbing two flights of stairs after pouring a cup of coffee is both aerobic and good for my right knee, which is still not 100% after I hyper-extended it in September 2012.

I am just about well enough to restart a regular (if gentle) yoga practice, and I'm looking forward to that.

5. FIC Transition
The year is about half over, and that also marks the halfway mark in training my two main successors in Fellowship administration: Aurora DeMarco as our Development Director, and Sky Blue as our Executive Director.

The trainings have been going well and I'll be ready to turn over the reins at the end of the year as planned. While I'm sure I'll still be involved in FIC affairs in the years ahead (I represent an enormous investment in relationships, after all, and it would be a shame to squander that asset), I don't know yet what that will look like.

In fact, there's a lot about my life right now that I don't know about. It's an interesting time.

Getting Comfortable with Authority in Cooperative Groups

In the context of group dynamics, I define power as the ability to get others to do something or to agree with you. In essence, it's influence. It can come from good or dubious sources, but it necessarily involves the cooperation of others. You don't have power in a vacuum, nor can you "empower" others (you can't give someone influence).

That said, you can (and arguably should) develop the leadership capacities of others so that they can grow into having more influence (by virtue of their having demonstrated that they know what they're talking about, that they'll do what they say they'll do, and that they take into account the views of others). In cooperative groups it makes total sense to invest in developing the leadership capacity of your members.

Today I want to focus mainly on the relationship of power to authority, which is when the group has explicitly delegated to someone (or some group) the ability to act or speak on behalf of the whole. [In this essay I'll use the terms subgroup, committee, and manager interchangeably.]

It's an important feature of effective delegation (which cooperative groups tend to struggle with) that groups make a clean handoff in this regard, which entails spelling out clearly (in writing, please) what the subgroup can decide on their own and when it needs to consult. When the handoff is fuzzy, there are problems. If the subgroup decides to be proactive (either because it believes its mandate can be legitimately interpreted to include the action, or because it cynically believe it's simpler to garner forgiveness than permission) there is the risk of push back from people who feel that authority was exceeded and power misused—especially when they don't like the decision.

Going the other, the subgroup may become timid in the face of ambiguity, risking irritating the plenary when it comes back repeatedly for permission in a CYA maneuver aimed principally at forestalling criticism, rather than emphasizing problem solving or efficiency.

Authority can be specific ("Examine the options within x price range and select the one that is expected to last the longest and have the least deleterious environmental impact.") or general ("Make decisions about managing the commonly owned physical elements of the community such that you are doing your best to balance three factors: a) benign ecological impact; b) least cost; and c) positive aesthetic value."). Sometimes subgroups have no authority to decide; they are only asked to propose.

In cooperative groups, authority resides with the plenary. However, the plenary is free to delegate as much authority as makes sense to subgroups or managers. The nuance is knowing where to draw the line. As a long-time observer of cooperative groups, I favor stretching to delegate to committees, either ad hoc or standing, as much authority as the group can stand (so that plenaries don't get bogged down in the minutia of what color to paint the Common House bathroom), but this only works well when the mandates are clear and complete. [See my blog of Feb 8, 2010, Managing Management, for a mandate checklist.]

I suspect that the reason cooperative groups tend to have trouble with delegating authority is that they suffer from a mistaken notion that because power ultimately rests with the whole (which is true), that the whole needs to decide everything (shoot me now). Concomitantly, they are cautious about trusting that members will wield power well, and are thus reluctant to give managers a long leash, or to authorize subgroups to act, excepting under very limited and well-defined circumstances.

Groups can get this wrong in two ways: 

a)  By being parsimonious in delegating authority, everything has to be run through the plenary and that gets exhausting (especially when it gets down to details that most members don't care about, and they feel trapped in conversations they'd rather skip).

b)  By distributing authority so widely that nothing of consequence happens in the plenary. While this is less common than a), I've seen it happen that the plenary gets weak (why bother to come?) and the committees become fiefdoms run by conveners. Not good.

The trick is finding the sweet spot in the middle, which requires being clear what plenaries are for and then being diligent about using them only for those things. [See my blog of Jan 25, 2008, Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas, for details about that.]

In conclusion, I want to briefly narrow the focus to a subtopic dear to my heart: the way that facilitator's are authorized to run meetings. Done properly, the facilitator should be allowed to direct the focus of the group in moments of confusion, but it is an abuse of power to push the group against its will, or to tell the group what action it should take in response to an issue. The facilitator can suggest—based on what they've heard—but they should not try to sell.

Drawing a Lines in the Cooperative Sand

In cooperative culture, it's important to cultivate flexibility and curiosity (in contrast with rigidity and combativeness). That said, this does not mean being infinitely malleable, or spineless. When does backbone properly get invoked?

While it's all well and good that you intend to work things out, what happens when that fails? When have you tried enough to reconcile differences and it's time to move on? When does the cost of continuing to labor with outliers exceed the benefits?

These are nuanced questions. 


Unfortunately, based on my experience working with groups in heavy traffic, there is a tendency for cooperative groups to both give up too soon and not soon enough. Let me explain.

Why Groups Give Up on Working with Outliers Too Soon
Probably the biggest obstacle that cooperative groups face is that almost all of their members have been deeply steeped in competitive culture and are, at best, at varying stages of unlearning what that means. In consequence, competitive dynamics have a way of infecting what happens in cooperative groups.

In the dynamic where the main portion of the group favors moving in one direction and a distinct minority (perhaps only a single person) is resistant to going along, I've observed a decided tendency for the group to respond in one of two ways (neither of which works very well): 

1. Easing off to let the minority sit with what they're doing (essentially, frustrating the will of the majority), figuring that one of two things will happen: a) the obstinate minority will do the math, figure out that they're being selfish, and accede to what the majority favor; or b) they'll continue to dig their heels in, squandering whatever social capital they have—ultimately resulting in it being easier to work around them in the future.

As an insidious follow up, the majority often carries this a step further, developing a story about how dysfunctional the people in the minority are being (which, left unchallenged, can progress to the person being labeled dysfunctional—not just their behavior). From there it is only a small step to giving up on the people because they are so problematic.

In this sequence, I frequently find, as an outsider with considerable experience in group dynamics, that the majority has gotten lazy and fails to see its role (inadvertent though it may be) in pigeonholing the outlier and not allowing for a different outcome. In essence, the group has given up on the individual(s).

Keep in mind that this analysis does not negate that outliers can have challenging communication styles.

2. Increasing the pressure on the minority to get them to cave in. Not because the viewpoint of the majority represents superior thinking (which they may also believe), but because it's unreasonable, even "uncooperative," for a few to hold up the many. I'm telling you, our conditioning in the essential justness of "majority rules" dies hard.

Why Groups Give Up on Working with Outliers Too Late
As groups actively work toward developing cooperative culture, there is a mistaken belief that this should translate to a lower incidence of conflict. Thus, when it appears likely that conflict might erupt, there is a tendency to move in the opposite direction—even to the point of placating someone whose emotional state is moving into the red zone.

Unfortunately, the outlier can take away from this experience the unintended lesson that working oneself into a tizzy can give you additional leverage in stopping unwanted developments. Yuck.

The group may have swallowed whole the ideal that anyone is welcome in the group (it's hard to say "no" and we value diversity, don't we?) and all views will be respected. While a good deal of the spirit behind such sentiments is admirable, it is a mistake, I believe, for such openness to be unbounded. I do not, for example, believe that all people are meant to live together (or be in the same group together). Some simply don't have adequate social skills to make it work.

Neither do I think that all viewpoints can be worked with. One of the reasons that groups go to the trouble of identifying common values is so that they can discern what kinds of differences the group is obliged to work through, and which they can set aside with impunity. While I'm not advocating for ignoring personal preferences (as distinct from group values), I am trying to make the case for cooperative groups not feeling obliged to accommodate them.

In fact, I think it's perfectly reasonable to be firm about not degrading a common value in the interest of satisfying a personal preference—even to the point of losing someone from the group over it. That said, drawing a firm line (whether in the sand, on the chalkboard, or in concrete) is almost never a good idea as one's first response. It should be a thoughtfully considered step, justified by the clarity of the value that undergirds it, and informed by a lack of progress after negotiating in good faith to find a mutually satisfactory resolution.

Whenever you are thinking that it may be time to get firm about your position, you should pause and ask yourself if:
o  You have been able to demonstrate to the opposition's satisfaction that you understand their viewpoint and why they hold it.
o  You have taken ownership of your part of why things have become polarized.o  You have made reasonable efforts to get help.
o  You have reflected on your own reactivity in the dialog and are proceeding from a centered place.
o  You are truly at peace with all that you have tried to unblock the stalemate.
o  You care enough about the principles that you are willing to suffer a potential loss of relationship.

If you can answer "yes" to all of the above, then proceed. Otherwise, there may be more work to do. Keep in mind that if you ultimately decide to draw a line in the sand, that you want others to view your action as coming from a place of integrity, not stridency. Give some thought to how you can set it up that way.

No Regrets

I've just returned from a whirlwind four days in North Carolina, where I attended the National Cohousing Conference (in Durham) and got a sneak preview of Joe & Maria's third floor apartment in Chapel Hill, where I will be moving in a week. I'm excited.

After half a year of trying to figure out how to cope with a series of curve balls (first lingering back pain, then my wife's decision to divorce me, followed in short order by costochondritis and the realization that I needed to start looking for a new home), it felt good to be proactive—to be taking a positive step instead just trying to stay afloat emotionally in storm-tossed seas.

I'm going to try building a micro-community with my housemates (both community veterans) and see what comes of it. I don't have a timetable; I just have curiosity and a clear sense of what it means to be in close connection with people—a fundamental building block of resilient community.

The three of us—Joe, Maria, and I—had fun together delivering two pre-conference workshops in Durham. One on Facilitation & Leadership; and another on Conflict. It was an auspicious start. If we can generate enough interest in the Southeast, Maria & I will conduct a two-year facilitation training there.

As I type this, I am back in Missouri for a one more week, to select a carload of clothes, books, paperwork, tools, and stuffed animals to bring with me to North Carolina, and to place the remainder of my stuff into storage so that Ma'ikwe can rent out a room in Moon Lodge.

While I'm still somewhat shaky from all the recent, unexpected changes in my life, it's now been almost four months since I've been served notice that my marriage was over, and the amplitude and frequency of my grieving is tapering off. Incidences of anger and/or shame have both decreased substantially, and I'm starting to imagine a positive life ahead. While it's far more conjectural than substantive at this point, it's nonetheless a start.

While there remain parts of what happened to my marriage that I still don't understand (and perhaps never will), I'm happy to report that I look back on my last 10 years with Ma'ikwe with no regrets. While it was devastating to have her walk away (I had never invested more heavily in a relationship than I did in my marriage, and it's been excruciating to see that founder), it wasn't like I wasn't trying, nor do look back over the last decade and wish I'd held anything back.

In the end, whenever you commit to creating something with another, the only thing you get is the opportunity for relationship—there's never a guarantee that it will last or go the way you're hoping. What's more, you have to commit to the attempt before you know the outcome (and there's a non-trivial risk of the attempt failing if you decide to hold something back as a reserve against things going poorly—this can be a tricky calculation).

In my marriage, I was all in, and even though it ultimately failed, I'm glad that I made that choice. Not because I enjoy misery, but because it would be awful to be wracked with doubt about whether the outcome would have been different if I'd only committed all that I had. This does not mean that I didn't make mistakes, or have no thoughts about what I might have done better; only that I have the satisfaction of knowing that I was trying as hard as I knew to be forthcoming and constructive, moment to moment.

Further, I'm far enough removed from the initial pain to begin to see how this experience may make me a better facilitator, as there will undoubtedly be times ahead when someone will be struggling as a result of having been unilaterally cut off from relationship, and I'll now have something parallel to draw from in empathy.

Today—at a deeper level than I ever imagined—I get the power of the old adage:

It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Collateral Healing

I was working with a group recently where I was demonstrating how to work with conflict by facilitating the examination of a stuck dynamic between two members (who had volunteered for that purpose). I did this as a fishbowl, where the two protagonists and I pulled chairs into the middle and everyone else sat around in the outer circle observing.

Afterwards, I asked the outer circle (who were not allowed to speak while the demo was in progress) for their reflections. One of the more interesting ones was from a member who observed that many others in the group had either been directly impacted by the unresolved tension between the two in the middle, or otherwise were a player in a parallel tension where it was easy to see something of themselves in what they had just witnessed (there but for the grace of God go I).

The commentator spoke of there being many in the room who had suffered collateral damage as a consequence of the blocked energy between the fishbowl participants. The upside of that was that those same people experienced considerable release by virtue of seeing the energy flowing again between the protagonists, which phenomenon I dubbed "collateral healing," the focus of this essay.

Often enough, people in tension prefer that attempts to address it happen in a controlled environment—by which I mean as few variables (and witnesses) as possible. This is both a function of finding it awkward speaking in front of large numbers, and some degree of embarrassment about how many know the full details of how they behaved. What people often fail to take into account is the way others can be touched positively by their example of walking through the fire to get to the other side.

To be clear, the prime directive when working tension is to give the players whatever you reasonably can, to help them feel safe. Thus, I do not advocate cajoling anyone into working through conflict in plenary if it scares them to death. Rather, I'm asking both individuals and groups to reflect on the collateral good that can come from making that choice when people are willing.

I feel the same way about that as I do about transparency: take it as far as you can stand—all the while recognizing that there are circumstances under which people can't stand very much.

While working out conflict privately (or with the help of a third party) still counts, it is all together a different experience for the group if they witness the relationship damage being repaired, or they hear a report about it. The former becomes a collective memory that is bonding not just for the protagonists, but also for the witnesses with the protagonists. The latter is just a data point.

To be sure, doing this kind of work at all takes courage, and that's doubly so when attempted in group. After all, focusing on conflict does not guarantee a happy ending. Thus, if it blows up—which it sometimes does—there is the risk of spectacular failure. That said, the reverse is also true. Almost nothing has the same potential to heal damage like working conflict successfully to resolution in the group. While I think there needs to be sensitivity about how far people can reasonably be asked to stretch, do not lose sight of the sweet promise of collateral healing.

From 130 Carbrier to 130 Hunt

As most readers of this blog know, I'm a moving target. I'm on the road about half the time—both as a process consultant and as FIC's main administrator—and I'm typing this from Carolyn Kroll's dining room table at Durham Central Park (DCP), where I have just arrived and am being graciously hosted for the National Cohousing Conference this weekend. In fact, I can see the downtown Marriott where the event will take place just by looking out the window to my right. I'll easily be able to walk to the venue from here.

It's taken me two-and-a-half days to get here from Rutledge, driving solo in a rental car that was packed to the gills with boxes of books (this weekend, FIC is operating the conference bookstore both for the cohousing event in Durham, and for the Building the New World Conference happening concurrently on the Radford University campus in Radford VA (which will be staffed by long-time FIC Board member Marty Klaif).

I had spent last night at Shannon Farm—where I'd stopped both to break up the drive and to hand off several boxes of books to Marty—and was the house guest of dear friends, Jenny Upton & Dan Questenberry. Getting in the car this morning, I noticed their beautiful handcrafted sign (constructed in colorful mosaic tiles) at the edge of Dan & Jenny's walkway and right in front of my windshield, proclaiming their address "130 Catbrier Circle." With a rush of realization, laughed. I was about to drive south for three-plus hours down to the Tarheel State, only to arrive at DCP, located at 130 Hunt St in downtown Durham. How unlikely was that? (I checked my rolodex and these two are the only addresses out of 756 that have 130 as their street number.) Pretty weird.

Maybe I should buy lottery tickets featuring the numbers 1, 3, and 0.

By the Numbers
To be clear, I'm not a superstitious guy (I didn't, for example, count to see if it took me 130 steps to get from my car to the door of Carolyn's apartment), but I do like to play with numbers (almost as much as I enjoy playing with words). Though I noticed that these identical addresses start with thirteen, I am not triskaidekaphobic. 

The upcoming event will be my ninth consecutive national cohousing conference (I haven't missed any this century). It will be one of seven community events that FIC will sponsor this year. Here are the other six, in chronological order:

The Farm Communities Conference, May22-24, Summertown TN
Building the New World Conference, May 28-31, Radford VA
Twin Oaks Communities Conference, Sept 4-7, Louisa VA
Power of Community Conference, Sept 25-27, Yellow Springs OH
West Coast Communities Conference, Oct 9-12, Yorkville CA
NASCO Institute, Oct 30-Nov 1, Ann Arbor MI

I figure it's going to be an eventful year, no matter what your favorite number is.

Catching Lightning in a Bottle

My primary imprinting in sports metaphors came from my father. In fact, it was one of the few things that we consistently enjoyed doing together throughout our tempestuous relationship—watching sports and talking about sports. 

[As readers of this blog will know, I love metaphors, and this entry will be my semi-annual indulgence in the fathomless richness and depth of sports metaphor. I have a few dedicated readers who tell me they can't understand a single thing I'm saying when I do this. If you are among them, hit delete now.]

Catching lightning in a bottle refers to some improbable achievement (the biblical equivalent is getting a camel through the eye of a needle). Like Joe DiMaggio hitting safely in 56 straight games in 1941, or Wilt the Stilt burning the New York Knicks for 100 points in 1962.

It comes to mind because, for the second time in three years, my beloved San Francisco Giants swept the dog-ass Dodgers three games at home, without allowing them to score a single run. While it's borderline amazing that I saw this happen once in my lifetime, it absolutely boggles the mind to grok that I've seen it happen twice. (See They Could Be Giants for more on the first time.) In fact, it's the second time this month that their pitching staff has served up nothing but goose eggs for three straight games. As Harry Carey would have put it, "Holy cow!"

(As an aside, the finale featured the third dream pairing this season of last year's World Series MVP, Giants ace Madison Bumgarner, going against last year's National League MVP, Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw, and the Giants have won all three contests. How sweet it is.)

What does this all mean? Hard to say. The reality is that the Giants lost their popular third baseman, Pablo "Kung-fu Panda" Sandoval (he of the roly poly physique, nimble hands, and freewheeling swing) to free agency and the Boston Red Sox in the off season and haven't been able to manifest a serious bat to replace him in their light-hitting lineup. Plus, it's an odd year and the Giants' good fortune has (so far) only aligned for post-season success in even years (having won the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014). So, as auspicious as back-to-back-to-back shutouts are, who knows where this will lead. Even after the sweep, the Giants were still a game-and-a-half back of the Dodgers in the National League West, so plenty of work remains and we're only at the quarter pole.

To illustrate how quirky the vicissitudes of baseball are, picture this: immediately after the sublime performance by the Giants' pitching staff that held Los Angeles to oh for Baghdad by the Bay, the team traveled to Colorado and prevailed 11-8 and 10-8 in back-to-back slugfests in the bandbox that is Coors Field, where shutouts are as hard to come by as potato seed. It's a strange game.

I wish my father were around to share this with, but at least I have my son. Like my father before him, Ceilee is a dyed-in-the-wool Cardinal fan (who are doing well in the NL Central, thank you), but we can unite in our love for baseball, as well as our distaste for the dog-ass Dodgers.

Conflicting Views about Conflict

Over the course of my 28 years as a process consultant, I've had plenty of time to observe and develop my thinking about what conflict represents in a group context, and how to respond to it constructively in the dynamic moment. In fact, I'm called on to bring that skill into play in about about half the jobs I get as a process consultant. So I've had a lot of time in the saddle riding that particular bucking bronco.

Recently I had an exchange about conflict with an experienced communitarian who maintained that it was possible for conflicted parties to simply agree to stop brooding over unresolved past hurts, put it behind them, and start from scratch. I was gobsmacked that anyone could think that would work. In my 41 years of community living, I'd never seen that happen (In fact, I was thinking it was for more likely that protagonists would continue to scratch each others' eyes out).

The key piece of data in the last paragraph is that the parties were still brooding, and that it was leaking into current interactions. I accept that it's possible for a conflict to not resolve well when it occurs, yet both parties can independently work through it to the point of accepting partial responsibility for what went awry, and truly put it behind them. But I've never see that approach work when both parties were continuing to feed the monkey, keeping the negative stories alive. (Brooding works fine for hatching chickens, but not so well in people hoping to put conflict in the rear view mirror.)

How could this happen? It's not unusual for two parties who are deadlocked to view the other party as wholly at fault, and the stalemate exists mainly because both are too stubborn to admit their role in where things went south. In the worst cases, both sides may think that their actions were fully justified as a matter of high principle, and you can wait until hell freezes over before anyone makes a first move. 

This is, in my experience, where outside help can often make a big difference. Both sides feel misunderstood and object strenuously to the assignment (by the other) of bad intent. Each is eager that their view of events be recognized by the other as a precondition to listening to the views of the other side, and the protagonists never get out of the starting gate.

The advantage that outside facilitators (or mediators) have is that they don't have a dog in the fight, and are thus well positioned to listen to everyone. (In the end, it won't matter who went first; only that both felt heard.) Further, if Person A is conflicted with Person B and there's low trust between them there's a tendency for Person A to be suspicious of Person B's motivation in asking about their experience (do they really want to know, or are they just looking for me to expose myself for further attack?).

After decades of witnessing and participating in conflicted group dynamics, I believe that the largest hurdle to overcome is admitting that you're stuck and being open to accepting offers of assistance. I believe that resistance is due to a number of factors, any combination of which may be in play:

a) Lack of clarity about whether you're stuck
When in the soup, it can be hard telling whether you're entrenched or just embattled—where a modest amount of additional effort might lead to a breakthrough. Hint: if you notice that one or both parties are starting to cycle through the same statements or stories, it's probably time to put the shovel down and quit trying to dig yourself out of the hole.

b) Pride
Many people (or groups) hold the view that either they don't get hooked by conflict (very much), or that they they're perfectly capable of working through it on their own. In that environment, admitting that you need help can be a serious blow to one's ego, and there's a tendency to suppress it.
 
c) Embarrassment
For a number of us, admitting you need outside help can be like airing dirty laundry—something you'd rather do only in the privacy of your own backyard. Showing outsiders where you've stumbled might not match up well with your mission statement. (Remember that part where you told the world that you'd be a model of sustainable social dynamics and creative problem solving?)

d) Lack of history with conflict going well
Most of us have had precious few personal experiences of conflict work going well. Cooperative theory notwithstanding, it's not easy to gear up for the possibility of volcanic venting or no-holds-barred teeth gnashing if your belly is doing flip-flops.

The good news is that there a number of ways to approach conflict that can help you out of the ditch—but none of them are very effective if can't admit that you're off the road when you up to your knees in ditch water.

Facilitation That's Neutral Enough

Today's blog comes from the mailbag. A reader wrote:

I've been struggling quite a bit living in the housing cooperative that I've been a part of for the last five years. While the group means a lot to me—I have been shaped by and have shaped it in big ways over the years—I've been experiencing a cornucopia of feelings that sum up in, "I just can't live here anymore." It's not good for my mental health. That said, I'm a process and co-op junkie. I want to fix everything and save the world through co-ops and awesome meetings, and I think I'm one of the better facilitators in the group. Because my community is struggling through a cultural shift and turnover of members and important officer positions, I feel I need to be there to help.

While working through my own internal conflicts a friend said to me yesterday: "You can't put on your skills hat when you're trying to deal with all your emotions hats." While I initially wanted to correct that to, "It's hard to put on the skills hat and emotions hats at the same time," I suspect I might just be pushing myself too hard or neglecting self care.

I was hoping you might be able to help me out by talking about navigating those times when our co-op badassery is overlapping with our psychological and emotional needs. Can a person honestly try to be the leader/facilitator of an issue that is so very close to home and possibly directly triggering to them?

I want to answer this differently for someone engaging as a leader and someone engaging as a facilitator. While there is overlap, they are not the same thing.

How Leaders Relate to Cooperative Group Issues
Leadership comes in many flavors, some of which include advocacy (for what you think is in the group's best interest) and transparency (demonstrating that you—just like everyone else—are a human being with feelings that you are willing to express and own).

That said, good leaders are able to both articulate their views and their reactions (if they have any) and then make room for the views and reactions of others. To be sure, this calls for a considerable degree of self-awareness, and may call for the leader, on their own, to find their center again if reactivity has knocked them off it (which is no small skill).

Beyond that (safeguarding the full and open expression of all relevant viewpoints on a topic—especially if those views diverge from theirs), leaders are also expected to help the group find solutions that balance all the input.

In short, leaders are expected to simultaneously care about the direction of the conversation (what the group decides) and the quality of the conversation (how the group decides). At any given time, one of those two concerns may claim more of the leader's attention than the other, yet both may be in play.

How Facilitators Relate to Cooperative Group Issues
While no doubt you can "honestly try" anything, I dis-recommend attempting to facilitate any issue where you identify as a major stakeholder or know you are likely to be triggered by what comes up in the examination. That's because it's important for the facilitator to be acting from a content-neutral and participant-neutral place, the better to be everyone's ally in speaking their truth. In addition, the facilitator needs to be present and connecting to people when they are in distress in a meeting, and it's damn hard to reach out to others when you are in distress.

The facilitator's role is all about how the group does its work, and they need to be as egoless as possible in service to that objective. That does not mean being passive, but it does mean being scrupulous about being even-handed and careful not to exceed their authority when being firm.

In the ideal, the facilitator is disinterested in the outcome of an issue, and their work is wholly focused on efficiency, inclusivity, completeness, and connection—all of which may be compromised if an issue is "very close to home and possibly triggering."

If Superman Doesn't Live in Your House
Now let's take this another step. What is neutral enough when assigning a facilitator to a particular agenda? After all, it rarely happens that a candidate is completely neutral. Essentially, the test is in the performance. Do meeting participants feel that the facilitator is manipulating the conversation in a certain direction, steering things toward a viewpoint favored by the facilitator (and perhaps undisclosed)? Do participants experience the facilitator misreading the group by virtue of being in reaction?

Fortunately, some modest amount of preference or reactivity related to an issue can often be acknowledged and set aside, allowing the person to be a fair and effective facilitator. So it's a judgment call when bias is acceptable and when it isn't.

Now let's add an additional complexity. What if you recognize that you're not neutral on an issue yet don't think there's anyone else sufficiently skilled or neutral that's a better choice than you? 

Here are three options for how you might proceed:

a) Get an outside facilitator, perhaps someone from a neighboring cooperative (where they do a meeting for you and then one of your facilitators does a meeting for them).

b) Facilitate with a buddy who is not a stakeholder on the issue and is poised to take over the reins if they sense you're drifting towrad advocacy or going into reaction.

c) Volunteer to facilitate, owning your bias up-front, asking if the group is willing to try it. If they decline the offer, step back gracefully. If they accept, you've at least alerted them to the slant and will help you watch for signs of slippage (because you're coming across as biased against people with views that differ from yours) or misreading the situation (because you're distracted by your reaction).

Remember: the prime directive here is not that the facilitator be superman (or superwoman), where they do it all themselves and never make a mistake; it's that you have a good meeting.

Group Works: Balance Structure and Flexibility

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention2. Context3. Relationship4. Flow5. Creativity6. Perspective7. Modeling8. Inquiry & Synthesis9. Faith

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The second pattern in this category is labeled Balance Structure and Flexibility. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 

Structures, such as a clear agenda, time limits, or raising hands before speaking, can create safety, focus, and a form for the group's energy to pour into. Yet to sustain the life of a group, this must be balanced with a great openness to change, dancing between the two as needed.

I find this to be one of the more profound patterns, because it calls upon groups to be self aware at a deep level. Many cooperative groups start out with the bright hope of equality and everyone having an equal voice, but it's more complicated than that.

This pattern hinges on understanding how there's always tension between structure and flexibility. What is liberating to high-structure folks (because they know where they stand and what's expected of them) is a straight jacket to low-structure people (who want to emphasize what's best under the circumstances and avoid pounding square pegs into rounds holes).

The image above combines the flexibility and flow of a river with the structure of stepping stones. That said, the image unfortunately suggests that structure is crosswise with flow (as opposed to operating in concert with it) and that the structure is what defines the way ahead, with the river as an obstacle. Perhaps a better image would be a portage where structure is relied upon to safely bypass turbulence—where the flow is dangerous, or at least unnavigable—with the clear understanding that you'll get back in the water and the end of the portage.

In mature groups of 12+ members there will be sensitivity to the reality that both high-structure and low-structure people will be present, and you need to find the balance point. The low-structure folks will need to be brought along to embrace some structure, both because it's hard on the high-structure folks to be working constantly without a net, and because experience makes clear the cost of ambiguity. The key here is that the structure is put in place by the people expected to operate within it—that is, you're doing it to yourself, rather than having it done to you.

In turn, the high-structure people need to settle for a workable outline, where the t's are not all crossed and the i's not all dotted. This allows for individual discretion about how best to apply the spirit of agreements. As the text says above, it's a dance.

Now let's drill down on other portions of the text: 

Structures, such as a clear agenda, time limits, or raising hands before speaking
I squirm a bit with these examples, which are all relatively lightweight. That is, you can be excellent at all three and it won't guarantee passage to heaven (by which I mean a great meeting). In the context of plenaries, deeper structures would be how you tackle issues, discipline about the relationship between the plenary and committees, how you work with emotional distress, and sophistication about mixing up formats to help make meetings more accessible.
 
Time limits
This is a subset of the prior point. While I'm all in favor of developing a meeting culture that respects time and expects participants to speak concisely and on topic, I worry about being a slave to time assignments. Too often I've seen groups chop off a conversation prematurely simply because they were at the end of the allotted time—not because they were at a natural pause point. Better, I think, is for the facilitator to keep a close watch on the time overall, but not belabor whether a particular topic or phase of the conversation is running long. Providing only that the group is being productive, inclusive, and efficient, at the end of the day it will not matter whether a particular consideration took 30 minutes or 40 minutes; it will only matter whether the group felt good about the product (in relation to the time spent to get it) and that the meeting ended on time.

 —To sustain the life of a group, this must be balanced with a great openness to change.  
I'm concerned that this advice may be misconstrued to favor the less structured, where readers are admonished to be open to experimenting with process agreements regardless of how well the old ones are working. Or to be open to the wonder of a solution chosen once being changed on the next occasion that similar conditions arise. Rather, I prefer the interpretation that both high-structure and low-structure people need to be open to change: the high-structure in the sense that precedent may not count for much (because no two sets of circumstances are ever exactly the same); low-structure in the sense that operating underneath general agreements about behavior may be anathema to their anarchistic and/or creative bent. In short, it requires that all members grok that decisions about the relative degree of structure must reflect a balance of what's best for the group—which is not necessarily the same thing as adding up everyone's personal preference and then plotting the arithmetic mean.


This balancing act is not so much a science as an art form, where you'll know you're in the right territory when everyone feels the stretch, yet everyone can still breathe.

Love That Survives Divorce

The last three months I've written quite a bit about the end of my marriage with Ma'ikwe, reporting on my journey through anguish, sadness, grief, and even some hopefulness. Today, I'm turning a page and starting a new chapter, where I chronicle developments as Ma'ikwe and I work our way carefully and tenderly toward reknitting precious aspects of our relationship, while respecting her decision to no longer be partners. In contemporary parlance, you might think of it as friends without benefits… yet close friends.

On Sunday I sent Ma'ikwe a Mother's Day email, and it led to the following sweet and healing sequence the last 48 hours (I've edited out the extraneous references to the weather and such):

Laird #1:

I hope you have a wonderful day.

It must be fun having Jibran back: the official reason that today’s your day.

You should be proud of how well Jibran has turned out and how well you did giving him considerable latitude to find his own way in relation to education. I’m glad the mother in you gets these precious days with him now, all to yourself, before his California adventure this summer. [Jibran has a summer job in Mill Valley.]




Ma'ikwe #1:




Thanks. It means a lot to have you celebrate this part of me, as the main witness to my mothering for the past decade.

Yesterday turned out to be a hard day for me. Being at Sandhill was bittersweet. [It was Sandhill's 41st birthday cum May Day party.] After a couple shots of whiskey, I found myself wandering around, doing a kind of melancholy tour of the nearly two decades we've known each other. Some of my best memories of us are contained at Sandhill. I was feeling both the loss of you in my life and the loss of Sandhill in yours, and they were both weighing heavily. Some combo of straight of pain of loss and self-recrimination and joyful memories that were nonetheless coated in a kind of haze of sadness. I came home early in part because I was running the risk of just getting caught in it. I clearly am working my way through my own layers of mourning us.


Laird #2:

Thanks for sharing from your heart. That’s the part I love the best, even if I didn’t always handle it well.
 

I wrote my blog yesterday afternoon in a state of melancholy, thinking about not being at the party, and as I stared out the window (on the train) I was trying to figure out how I’d handle it if I were in Rutledge. I’m not sure I could have handled it at all, and might have not gone. I suspect you were braver and more together than I am capable of right now.

While sadness does not dominate my life (and never has) it’s definitely close to the surface right now, and I’ve made a commitment to not fight it. Harder, I suppose, is knowing whether I’m wallowing in it.

The cold gray fog outside my window exactly mirrors my mood right now.



Ma'ikwe #2:

You're welcome. That's true of both of us, you know. Not handling it well. As I'm into this new connection [with a potential new partner] I've been thinking a whole lot about what I did well and not well with you. We both have responsibility for it not working. And I'm sad about that.
 

I think the stakes are really different for us, honey. I was walking around [at the Sandhill party] with one (major, important, but still one) thread of my life laid bare. For you, being at Sandhill would have been a whole tapestry. My bravery and yours are apples to oranges in this case.
 

Laird, you've gotten so much better at not wallowing [in reaction]. And this is huge, this break up. It's worth giving space to it emotionally. So I'm glad you aren't fighting it, but I'm not worried about you getting stuck in it. You've moved past that in your life, and I'm really proud of you for having done that work.
  

Yeah, it's [the cold, gray fog] been suiting mine some days as well.

Laird #3:

I’m sorry about your sadness, yet you've seemed clear in your choice to end our intimate relationship, and I’m holding that you know what’s best for you—that the predominant feelings are release and liberation; that you are no longer held back and can proactively seek a more joyful life. I wish you only the best with [future relationships], or whatever you choose.

Ma'ikwe #3:

Thanks. Your well-wishes mean a lot to me.

Laird #4:

To be sure, I’ve found myself in many swirls the past three months (not all of which have been productive), and tenderness is always close at hand and easily triggered. Throughout it all, however, I have never lost sight of a foundational sequence:

o  I love you
o  I have no regrets about having tried as hard as I knew to make our partnership work (which represented the biggest investment in relationship that I’ve ever made; I’ve never tried harder or opened myself up to as much personal work as I have in pursuit of a great marriage)
o  Even being rejected by you as an intimate partner, I still love you (repudiating that love would be soul shriveling for me and self-destructive)
o  Love is not about possession or control; it’s about connection, celebration, and being there as support in hard times; it’s about your partner thriving in all senses of the word
o  In loving you, I wish you happiness and success in whatever you choose (the ultimate test of which is that I can truly mean that when your choices have nothing to do with me)

So you see, it’s not that hard to hope your budding relationship is joyous and successful.



Ma'ikwe #4:



Thanks, love.

I have a similar list with you.

1) I still love you. It's been there a long, long time and will continue.

2) I still think you are doing some of the most important work in the world I've ever been privileged to be a part of, and our mentor/mentee relationship is enduringly valuable to me. It was always part of the attraction: your brilliance, your dedication, your fearlessness.

3) I also have no regrets about all the work that went into us for all that time. It was really a decade long journey for me, because I knew where it was headed long before I worked up the nerve to tell you that. Our relationship was the most powerful one I've ever had. I had more fun, more learning, and more growth with you than anyone else.

4) It is abundantly clear to me as I'm exploring with [someone new] how much our time together has turned me into a far better human than I was when I went into it. If this next relationship is a success (and I'm hopeful about that) it will be in no small part because our time together matured me immensely. I feel a lot of gratitude for that, and also a lot of hope that you'll have a parallel experience at some point where love is more possible because we did us.

5) And I feel incredibly grateful that you've never been run by jealousy. It's making this much easier. I really get how rare it is for someone to be able to celebrate their ex-partner moving on, and I have no doubts of your sincerity with that. I'm grateful you are mature enough to be able to tease apart your hurt (which I know is real and runs deep) from any resentment about me being happy. You're a remarkable man, Laird.

6) And did I mention that I still love you? Because it is worth repeating. Whatever I can do to support your return to peace and moving on for your own good life, I will try to do. I know there's serious limits on that, because you can't really lean into me to heal from the loss of me, but please tell me if I CAN do anything.


I feel truly blessed to receive the gift of these healing words from my estranged wife.

Sandhill Turns 41

Today Sandhill Farm is hosting its annual May Day party, which is a tri-communities all-skate gala marking the anniversary of its birth in 1974, the pagan holiday of Beltane, and the fullness of spring.

Last year, I was on a leave of absence from Sandhill, exploring living with my wife at Dancing Rabbit (though we’d been married since 2007, we had not ever lived together, and my willingness to make that move was an integral part of her decision to rescind her request for a divorce the previous July). As Dancing Rabbit is only three miles distant from Sandhill, I had no trouble making over for the May Day. I remember last year’s festivities for all the storytelling on our 40th birthday, which included a number of ex-members returning for the occasion. It was a happy day.

Today, I think back on a year ago with wistfulness, sadness, and wonder. So much has changed. I’m typing this on board the westbound Cardinal (Amtrak’s train #51) as it limps toward Chicago more than eight hours behind schedule. I’ve long since missed my connection to the California Zephyr, which pulled out of Chicago at 2 pm without me. As I look outside the window, the green in the trees is right (spring is here!), but I’m missing the party back in Rutledge. Sandhill set the date after I’d made plans to visit Annie in Virginia and Betty in Denver with no stopover in Missouri in between.

I let go of my Sandhill membership when Ma’ikwe and I recommitted to our marriage last July, on the one-year anniversary of her first decision to end it. Though that represented a big change (letting go of Sandhill after 40 years) it felt right at the time and I have no regrets choosing love over home. And then it all unraveled. Ma’ikwe decided this February that ending our marriage was the right thing after all, and Sandhill decided it would be better for all concerned if I didn’t return.

So on this May Day I am reflecting on all that I have left behind in Rutledge, and find it somewhat amusing that while everyone else is celebrating, I’ll be alone in a hotel room in Chicago, courtesy of Amtrak because of the botched connection to my second train. Last evening, in West Virginia (somewhere between Thurmond and Montgomery, alongside the banks of the New River) our engine hit a tree that had fallen on the tracks and managed to burst an air hose. That meant no brakes, which, in turn, meant no movement. It took many hours to manifest a replacement freight engine to effect our rescue, with the result that everyone’s connections in Chicago had no chance today.

Once out of our designated time corridor, we were subject to additional delays to let freight trains pass, and we even had a stop at a crossroads for a medical emergency, where a passenger having trouble breathing was met by an ambulance. It’s been quite a trip so far and I’ve still got an 18-hour sojourn to Denver awaiting tomorrow.

For as far back as I can remember, on the night of Sandhill’s May Day Party it would be my job to tend the fire for the sweet lodge. But not this year. Instead, I’m sweating how to make it up to Betty, whose time with me will be almost cut in half by my missed connection.

I tell people they shouldn’t take the train if they’re in a hurry, and today I get to learn that lesson one more time. Tonight, at my hotel, at least I’ll have the time to raise a glass to toast Sandhill in absentia. I wish them well.

Hasenpfeffer!

When I was in high school, I took German as a foreign language. Though I've never lived in Germany I've gotten to visit it twice over the years and I've always had a fondness for German culture as the dominant cultural element of my parental lineage.

Being a foodie, I also have an affinity for German cuisine. Think sauerbraten, wienerschnitzel, sausage and sauerkraut, spätzle, and spätlese—not to mention beer. I also grew up in the '50s, and that meant untold hours in front of the television set watching Saturday morning cartoons. In addition to the Road Runner and Tom & Jerry, there was plenty of Bugs Bunny & Elmer Fudd.

If you'll recall, Elmer was always trying to protect his garden and Bugs was invariably successful in finding a way to extract the carrots despite Elmer's best efforts on defense. In some episodes a big deal was made of recipes for hasenpfeffer, which is a German dish featuring rabbit (hasen=hare + pfeffer=pepper; essentially rabbit stew). Of course, Elmer was thinking of featuring Bugs as the main course. Though that never happened, "hasenpfeffer" entered my working vocabulary at an early age.

Tonight, for the first time, I'm actually going to eat it. I'm visiting my good friend, Annie Shrader in Floyd VA this week and she pulled a rabbit out of the hat freezer for the occasion. It was my job to figure out how to cook it. We quickly agreed that the crock pot was the way to go, and the rabbit is stewing even as I type.

As I understand it, any dish comprised of rabbit, onions, spices, and a marinade qualifies as hasenpfeffer. Tonight's culinary concoction relies on tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, tarragon, pinot grigio, and plenty of fresh ground black pepper. Yum!

It's fun pioneering a new recipe, and I can't wait for Annie's next rabbit, when I can try a hasenpfeffer variation that incorporates, cabernet sauvignon, currant jelly, and bacon. (How can you go wrong?)

Bon appétit!

Pages