Laird's Blog

Balancing Transparency and Discretion, Part II

Earlier in the week I received this compelling email from a friend:

I'm thinking of proposing a policy at our democratic free school where charges of misconduct will be handled at the plenary level—in a meeting of the entire school. (I'm writing you because I often look to intentional communities instead of other alternative schools for inspiration about good process, because other schools don't use consensus like we do, and don't have as high a degree of student involvement.)

Some people in the school community have concerns about my proposal because they believe that not every matter of safety should go to the whole school for consideration. Their main concern is in dramatic incidents like sexual or physical assault, where they are worried that a kid may feel afraid to go in front of the everyone to talk about what happened. What would you recommend?  


A counter-proposal is for a small conflict resolution group to make the decision, or to make a recommendation to the plenary, keeping information about the victim confidential. My hesitation with this approach is that we have used a committee for conflict resolution in the past and, in my opinion, it overstepped its authority and made big decisions without disclosing the details to the community.

What a good question! It's an attempt to balance due process (fairness) with confidentiality and the protection of both: a) the victim, from the potential embarrassment of having their experience examined in a public setting; and b) the accused, from the possibility of having their name smeared before it’s been determined if they’ve done anything wrong. In essence, this is another version of a topic I first wrote about July 31, 2014: Balancing Transparency and Discretion. It also touches on the dynamic tension between public and private: at what point is it the group's business to know about a private matter?

I think the priorities here are:

1. Having the lowest possible barriers to issues related to the group coming out, so that wrongs can be addressed and the innocent protected. You don't want: a) murky standards of accountability to undermine the group's resolve to address issues; nor b) your willingness to examine issues to be daunted by the prospect of volatility in the exploration.

2. Proceeding in a way that protects both authenticity and compassion. Thus, you want relevant information to be shared as widely as seems appropriate (trust is directly related to the dissemination of accurate information), yet at the same time you want to proceed in a way that seems least threatening and most accessible for the principal players.

Taken all together, I think what works best in this regard is a carefully selected Ministry Committee (the name is a traditional one in Quaker circles, referring to the task of laboring with members in tension with each other or with the group, and does not relate the relationship between individual and spirit). I like this approach because it tends to be less overwhelming than the plenary (supporting the concern raised by those uneasy with my friend's proposal), and because the committee members can be selected carefully to highlight the qualities wanted in this committee—which will hopefully translate into their being able to proceed more sensitively and sagaciously than the plenary.

Their mandate would be to hear and oversee the handling of complaints about member conduct that are not resolvable directly or informally.

In pursuit of its work, the committee would keep several things in mind:

A. Their first task will be to determine if the accusation places the school at risk such that the civil authorities need to be called in, or the rest of the school needs to be apprised immediately because of overriding concerns for endangerment to life or property.
 
B. If the danger or urgency of the accusation does not justify informing the whole school at the outset (Point A), then, at the conclusion of the investigation, the committee will discuss with the accused and the accuser what can be shared with the whole school, where the committee will try to secure permission to disseminate an even-handed summary of what happened as broadly as possible within the school community. 

C. Outside of what is agreed to be shared with the whole school or with the proper civil authorities (under Points A & B above), the committee is expected to not discuss details of the incident or its investigation with anyone outside the committee. This agreement notwithstanding, the committee may deem it prudent to keep sealed records of its investigations, against the possibility of future incidents of a similar nature, or involving the same players.
 
D. If Point A does not obtain, then the committee will conduct its investigation is such a way that is most comfortable for both the accuser and the accused, regarding matters of setting, timing, and support. (Note that the accuser and accused may have very different preferences in this regard, requiring delicate negotiations to resolve.)

E. If the committee recommends that punitive or behavior-limiting consequences are appropriate, then these will be discussed with the school’s governing board and ratified or adjusted as appropriate before they are implemented. That is, the committee is not licensed to impose sanctions on their own without review. This caveat accomplishes two things: 1) defanging the committee for those fearing its wrath; and 2) curtailing concerns about a runaway committee that exceeds it authority.

Group Works: Balance Process and Content

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. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Flow segment there are 15 cards. The first pattern in this segment is labeled Balance Process and Content. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Content refers to what you are talking about and the results of a session. Process is how the conversation happens. Like two wings of a bird, both are needed for balance, lift, and progress. My first thought, when looking at this captivating image, is whether the bicycle represents process or content. It's a Zen koan. Ordinarily the person is atop the bike, but not in this case. Also, I note that the seat is facing down and has no butt on it. While I'll stipulate that this graphic conveys a sense of flow and wonder, it's also rather chaotic, demonstrably ungrounded, and suggests only a tenuous through-the-handlebars connection between process and content. Meetings are not, in my book, a throw-it-all-up-in-the-air-and-let's-see-what-happens matinee performance featuring an acrobatic facilitator solo.
OK, now that I have that off my chest, let's work with the text. I understand—and fully support—the idea that the Group Works patterns are meant to illuminate and promote the development and nurturance of cooperative culture. This is in direct contrast with the competitive culture of the mainstream. One of the distinguishing features of cooperative culture is that it will tend to matter just as much how you accomplish a thing as what you accomplish. 
Thus, in cooperative culture, the way you go about things has been elevated to a higher status than in the value hierarchy in which the vast majority of us were raised. The way this plays out, as is suggested in the text for this pattern, is by balancing content and process.
Having said that, it's important to understand that this is not a tug-of-war between the two (product versus process). Rather, it's a dance—where attention to each enhances the other. When this is misunderstood, product-oriented folks may complain that "good process" simply takes too long, drawing out a foregone conclusion for the sake of form. Going the other way, process-oriented people may resent pressure to focus on solutions, fearing that cutting to the chase may risk cutting out input, or that asking people to agree prematurely risks choking down proposals (rather than enjoying a sit-down meal you are wolfing down fast food, with a concomitant risk of indigestion). In my work as a facilitation trainer, I prefer to style this pattern: balancing content and energy. I hold out the ideal of coming to agreement as expeditiously as you can without leaving anyone behind (or in a state of bewilderment, standing on the sidelines). Good meetings solve problems (or at least clear up ambiguities and identify a road map for next steps) in such a way that participants are energized and feel better connected. 
While this is not that difficult to achieve when there is no serious disagreement about a topic, I hold this standard even when there is. The primary challenge of cooperative culture is how to disagree about non-trivial issues and have that examination lead to both solid decisions about how to respond, and a sense that relationships among participants have been enhanced, rather than strained or degraded. While that may sound like a magic act, it can be done. (In fact, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that my 28-year career as a professional facilitator and process consultant is rooted in my ability to consistently deliver that result.)
One of the main skills I bring as an outside facilitator is the ability to work simultaneously with content and energy—making sure that we're making steady progress on the agenda, while at the same time bringing the group into closer connection and deeper understanding of one another. In the business world (where the bottom line is king) professional facilitators are often asked only to manage content, and success is measured by how quickly you can dispose of issues. In the cooperative world (which includes that of cooperative businesses), that's not good enough: you also need to be sensitive to, and able to work deftly with, undercurrents and the disjunct between a person's words and their tone and body language. In the cooperative world, you need to be able sense when a topic is completed, not just know how to manage a parliamentary call for cloture and tally a vote.  In short, you are not aiming to create flow simply by the speed with which you resolve issues. Instead, you are paying express attention to the flow of energy in the context of working content. Sometimes (for example, when a participant experiences a strong upwelling of emotion in connection with a topic) it's important for the flow that you purposefully slow things down. While bypassing the feelings might be quicker, you would do so only at the risk of compromising energy, which is generally a poor bargain. Good flow means creating a sense of purposeful movement that brings everyone along.
The bad news is that the skills needed to be good at working content are almost completely unrelated to the skills needed to manage energy. The good news though, is that both can be learned. (I know because I've been teaching facilitators how to do both for 11 years.) As far as I'm concerned it is foundational to cooperative culture that we learn to balance content and energy. Luckily, I don't necessarily think that means you have learn how fly through the air with your bicycle upside down.

Facilitation Trainings on Tap

A year ago I had breakfast with a friend in Michigan who had participated in my two-year facilitation training back in 2005-07, and she shared a story about how my program helped her professionally.

She applied for a job in a large city that would require her to bring together various stakeholders who were not used to talking with each to make common cause. That meant setting up and running effective meetings, building trust to where people shared openly, and then assisting them to come to a united understanding despite substantive cultural and political differences. After wending her way through the application and interview process she became a finalist for the position.

To determine who would be selected, each of the finalists was asked to facilitate an hour-long meeting of the hiring Board. Since facilitation was a key skill wanted in the job, the Board figured they could do no better than to observe the candidates facing live bullets.

At the conclusion of the segment that my friend facilitated, a Board member came up to her on break and confided, "Before today's meeting you had no chance of being hired, because you didn't fit the demographic we thought best for the job. However, after witnessing you in action, now there is no way that we won't hire you." And thus she got the job.

Her story sent goose bumps up my spine, as that's exactly the kind of impact I've hoped the training would have.
 • • •Since debuting the two-year facilitation training program in 2003, I have delivered the course in its entirety eight times (as each training consists of eight three-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart, that means I've conducted 64 training weekends—enough to fill a chessboard). While those eight are all water over the dam, I'm marketing three new editions right now—all of which I'm hoping will launch before the end of the year.

As a cooperative process consultant and group dynamics expert, it's the most fun thing I do. 

Below is a list of what's available starting in 2015. I'm sharing this with my readers because a primary focus of my blog posts has been about group dynamics and I'm hoping that some of you may be interested in signing up for an experience like that of my friend in Michigan, or otherwise are willing to help spread the word among those you know who hunger for more productive meetings and healthy models of cooperative leadership.

For these trainings to manifest, we need two things: a) a minimum of eight paying students (while a dozen would work much better in terms of the trainers' compensation, we can make it work with eight); and b) host groups for each weekend that will provide room and board for students, plus live meetings for them to facilitate, in exchange for which the group receives:
—outside facilitation (done by the students, yet guided by professionals)
—a professional report on what the host accomplished in the meetings and what it might work on in the future
—two free auditor slots in the training weekend that it hosts
—first-hand familiarity with other talented facilitators in the region, who become a resource whenever the group wants outside facilitation in the future

Who Would Benefit from Taking This Training?I'm glad you asked. Foremost, it's for people who aspire to learn the skills of high-end facilitation—by which I mean the ability to track both content and energy, as well as to develop a feel for making consistently good decisions about what to do with that information in the dynamic moment to create effective meetings that bring participants closer together. 

Yet the training is much more than that. It's also for:

o  Understanding what it means to create and sustain cooperative culture
This is the foundational linchpin of a world that works better—one that stands in sharp contrast to the alienation and isolation of modern life, that tends to be rootless, hierarchic, and adversarial. People crave a more connected, authentic, and compassionate life, and this course offers the tools needed to create that, both for yourself and the groups you work with.

One of the key differences in cooperative culture (in contrast with the competitive culture that characterizes the mainstream) is that how matters just as much as what. In the wider culture it tends to be much more about the bottom line—so long as you're not breaking the law (or at least don't get caught). In cooperative culture the how gets elevated to a higher status, and that's what good process is all about.

o  Developing the skills of cooperative leadership
While the principal learning environment for this training is the plenary—meetings of the whole—where we're focusing on delivering drop dead great meetings, it turns out that the qualities wanted from leaders in cooperative settings map exceedingly well onto those wanted from facilitators: good listening; ability to easily shift perspectives to see a thing through another's eyes; minimal defensiveness when receiving feedback; ensuring that everyone is heard; ability to inspire; knowing your limitations and how pair with others to achieve complmenetary results; well organized; ability to bridge between disparate positions; able to function well in the presence of distress in others. So it's a two-for-one offering: facilitation training is also leadership training.

o  Personal growth
Learning to be a good facilitator (or an effective cooperative leader) entails personal work. Even if you never facilitate, or never assume a leadership role, isn't it worth your while to learn to how to listen deeply, and how to give and receive feedback honestly and constructively? Participating in this class may be one of the most real experiences of your life, where you will be seen fully and appreciated for who you are without anyone blowing sunshine up your ass.

o  Learning when and how to work constructively with non-trivial distress
One of the scariest dynamics for most groups is how to respond when one or more members enter serious distress. One of the key teaching components of this training will be how to respond effectively to conflict—not just how to survive it, but how to recognize and harness the information and energy of the moment to promote deeper understanding and connection.

o  Not limited to people living in intentional community
While it often makes sense to seek hosts that are intentional communities (because it's easier for them to absorb the room and board needs for a three-day training) we are expressly inviting students from non-community settings to get involved. In the past we've had people take the course who were college instructors (who appreciated the link between teaching and facilitating); professional mediators; people aspiring to start communities; and even a volunteer fire fighter. Don't be shy!

Following is a description of the flavor of each of the trainings being offered. All are geographic specific, yet are open to anyone willing to travel to get there. While all three are partially subscribed, there are openings remaining in all of them.

Option #1: Portland OR
This training will begin either June 18-21 (if we secure a host for that weekend) or Sept 17-20 otherwise. My training partner will be Ma'ikwe Ludwig (with whom I've done four prior trainings). Ma'ikwe and I just did a one-day demonstration/promotion March 14 at Cascadia Commons, a cohousing community in the Rose City, which helped pique interest.

As there is a considerable concentration of community activity in Portland we are expecting this training to be mostly concentrated in or around that city. However, we are casting the net as far south as Eugene OR and as far north as Bellingham WA, as there is strong interest in cooperative culture throughout this stretch of the Pacific Northwest, that Ernest Callenbach styled "Ecotopia."

For more information contact me or the program Coordinator, Janie Paige .

Option #2: New England
This training will start Sept 10-13, 2015, hosted by Mosaic Commons, a cohousing community in Berlin MA, a western suburb of Boston. My training partner will be Alyson Ewald (this will be our first time working together as co-trainers). We expect the weekends to move around within the six-state region, and possibly dip into nearby upstate NY. It all depends on where the offers are.

For more information contact me or Alyson .

Option #3: Southwest Colorado
This training will start Oct 15-18, 2015, hosted by Heartwood, a cohousing community in Bayfield CO. My training partner will be Betty Didcoct (with whom I've done three prior trainings).

While we are hoping to generate interest among other intentional communities in the vicinity (Taos, Santa Fe, Albuquerque), in this case we'll also be marketing heavily to cooperative groups that are not intentional communities in the Durango area—think food co-ops, progressive schools, and alternative healing centers—because they can benefit every bit as much as communities in becoming higher functioning in how they go about their business.

For more information contact me or the program Coordinator, Christine Maisano .
 • • •I hope to see you at one of the trainings.

My Health, According to Hoyel

The phrase "according to Hoyle" refers to Edmund Hoyle, 1672-1769, an Englishman who made a name for himself compiling into book form the rules for various card games—gambling games in particular. In colloquial terms, the phrase has come to mean "the proper rules or protocol for doing a thing."

I bring this bit of arcana into play because I enjoy word play, I enjoy gaming, and yesterday I had a productive visit with my personal physician, Neil Hoyel, who operates out of a clinic in Memphis, our country seat. While I don't see Dr Hoyel that often, I like his down-to-earth nature and clear explanations very much. Though I never play games with my doctor, it amuses me that my straight shooting physician's last name is a simple anagram of Edmund's homophonic surname from three centuries ago (I just love how life randomly deals out such divertissements from time to time).

In any event, I went to see Dr Hoyel yesterday morning and here’s the report.

1. Cognitive Degradation
Back in January Ma'ikwe expressed concern that I might be losing cognitive ability. It relates to my habit of talking to myself (which I've done since I was a young child) and her sense both that the frequency of my doing it has increased and that I am not remembering what I'm saying to myself.

Here's an overview of the incident that caused her to voice her concern. We had been working together professionally and came to a friction point about how to proceed at the end of a long day. After deciding how to handle the moment with the client, we retired to our apartment. While we both knew we needed to discuss the tension that had just occurred, we didn't get to that right away and in the interim I was processing the experience, as I am wont to, by having a conversation with myself. 

A few minutes later, when I was discussing the awkward dynamic with Ma'ikwe, she confronted me with a phrase she overheard me use while I was subvocalizing—something that was critical of her—and I reported that I had no relation to having said that. Mind you, I wasn't denying that I had said it (because I rarely have a clear memory of all that I say when talking with myself); I was only saying that I didn't relate to having said it. For Ma'ikwe this was evidence of cognitive loss. She was clear that I'd said it (and only moments before), so how could I possibly not access it? This scared her.

While I didn't like hearing that I might be losing cognitive ability, I also didn't trust that I would notice if I was, so it made sense to me to look into it (which idea was reinforced by our couples counselor when we shared the story with her). Because of my travel schedule, yesterday was my first opportunity to broach this subject with my physician.

Hoyel said the kind of test he could administer was aimed at people with clear signs of dementia which he could tell wasn’t what was going on with me after only a couple minutes of talking. There are, he went on to report, much deeper, more subtle tests available (the kind of things that take a couple days to conduct), but he said I’d be looking at around $2500 for those tests, which was more money than I was willing to spend (at least at this point).

I explained about my talking to myself, and he reported that it’s entirely possible for a person to subvocalize something that they’re not consciously aware of, and he thus didn’t take Ma’ikwe's experience of me not recalling what she’d just heard me say as necessarily meaning anything—all the more so in that I wasn’t getting any other data (so far!) regarding my dropping balls.

To be sure, this does not prove anything, and he understood my concern about not putting myself forward as a professional facilitator if I’m losing my ability to track well. However, he made the point that if the shift is so subtle that it’s hard to detect, then why worry about it, and that there’s not much I can do about advancing dementia anyway (if that’s what’s happening). Thus, he recommended keeping an open mind about watching for symptoms, because it will start getting more obvious if that’s what’s going on, or else it’s not happening—in which case there’s nothing to do.

That was good enough for me.

2. Sore Ribs
I explained my recent journey with back pain, going all the way back to Oct. When I got to the part about responding poorly to a recent chiropractic adjustment, followed by sore ribs near the top of my sternum, he felt my front ribs and it was clear to him that they were out of position (and therefore it was no wonder that they were painful). Knowing that I was tender, he tried a gentle technique to pop them back into position, but it didn’t work (rats!). He said he could have me to lie on my stomach while he “pounded them” back into place but I declined (I couldn’t imagine the pain).

Instead he gave me an exercise I could do myself (on hands and knees) to try to slide the ribs back in and recommended that I to do this 2-3 times daily until the ribs repositioned themselves. This at least I can do myself, limiting the pain to what I can handle. I realize that I have been walking somewhat hunched over because pushing my ribs out is somewhat painful, but now I know I should be breathing deeply and working more deliberately on good posture. (Having an idea what’s going on is so helpful.)

In any event, the rib pain has diminished and is less acute (whew). I can cook and tend the fire, but no roller skating or break dancing.

3. Cramping Feet
I’ve been noticing this on and off for months and it was on my mind to mention because I experienced it in both feet the night before the appointment. Hoyel recommended an OTC magnesium supplement so I picked up some 500 mg tablets on the way home and I had no cramping last night. So this may be a relatively simple fix. (Whoopee!)

4. Arthritis on my Spine
When Hoyel looked at the CT scan on my abdomen (done in early Dec when doctors were looking for kidney stones) he noticed that I have considerable arthritis on my spine. Uh oh. Although I am not aware of any symptoms relating to that, it’s certainly something to keep in mind. For one thing, I’m glad to have lost 30 pounds since Oct (less to pack around and less strain on my back, as well as my heart).

It looks like I'll need to be paying particular attention to range of motion exercises (needed anyway because of my prolonged inactivity since Oct), emphasizing good posture (do you detect a theme here?), knee-to-chest stretching, gentle spinal twisting, and cow-cat rotation of the pelvic girdle. I'm thankful that I've gotten the heads up about this from Hoyel, instead of from my back.

So that’s me as of yesterday. Now I'm ready to spring ahead. Merry Equinox everyone!

50 Shades of Consensus, Part II

The first 25 shades of dysfunctional consensus were posted March 2. This is the conclusion.

26. Putting a 20-Pound Meeting in a 10-Pound Sack
If groups are not disciplined about matching the amount of time truly needed to work topics with the amount of meeting time available, there's a tendency to try to get it all done by shoehorning, which leads to blisters. If you have five topics ready to go and you expect each to take 40 minutes, don't try to do all five in a two-hour meeting. Better to handle well the most pressing three, and set the other two aside for another time. Pressuring people to swallow food that has been inadequately chewed leads to indigestion and is a poor bargain.

27. Always Having Plenaries at the Same Time
While there's something to be said for regularity (if it's 2 pm Sunday do you know where your meeting is?), there may be no time of the week that works well for everyone. If you're struggling with some people frequently missing meetings and you miss their voice, consider mixing up your meeting times. Some people work hard and long and can only attend evening sessions; others are exhausted after dinner and unable to contribute well then; others religiously protect Sunday afternoons for family (or football). Offer a choice.

28. Filling Positions with Volunteers
One of the challenges with many consensus groups is that they depend substantially on filling manager and committee slots based on which members puts their hand in the air first. While this may work fine for who oversees the Thursday Night Bowling Club, there are key positions where groups need high trust and discretion from the people in those slots, and a call for volunteers is a chancy proposition. Being more deliberate will pay dividends.

29. Not Specifying the Qualities Wanted from Positions of Responsibility
If you take to heart the previous point, the careful selection of people to fill positions will be much more satisfactory if you can take the additional step of specifying the qualities you want from managers or committee members before you select them—so that you've established some objective screens to use in the assessment of candidates. Otherwise it tends to be a popularity contest.

30. No Term Limits
Sometimes members settle into a certain niche in how they serve the group as a volunteer (it could be accounting; cooking the common meal every Sunday evening; being the in-house IT expert; serving on the Steering Committee). While this is invariably meant well and the person may be fairly good at what they do, without term limits it can become virtually impossible to get that person out of the role to make room for new blood. Better, I think, is the expectation that after so much time (five years?) that the priority be given to new folks to fill roles—which means no change if no one else wants the job, yet otherwise provides for hybrid vigor and deals even-handedly with any tendencies toward entrenchment (where others are reluctant to join a committee because old so-and-so, who's difficult to work with, is on it and has been there forever).

31. No Evaluation—of Managers & Committees
Another way to get traction on managers or committees that are not functioning well is to become diligent about periodically evaluating (every two years?) their performance. I'm talking about all managers and committees—not just those deemed problematic. The last thing you want is for a request to evaluate to be seen as an invitation to a hanging. Evaluations should be a time to celebrate what's working well, not just a chance to poke at the sore spots. For this to work you'll need to establish generic objectives for the process (for example, are they accomplishing their work in a timely manner?; are they playing nice with others?; are they meeting our expectations for reporting on what they're doing?; if it's a committee, is there good morale among members?) and assign someone (Process Committee?) to oversee its administration. Most groups are poor at this.

32. No Evaluation—of Plenaries
Parallel to the last point is developing a culture where the group regularly evaluates plenaries, so that there's a feedback loop on how you're doing your business. Plenary time is expensive (in a group of 30 you're burning an hour of people's time every two minutes) and you want to be mindful about using it well. The point of evaluations (maybe five minutes at the end) is to reflect on how well (or how poorly) the plenary functioned while the experience is still fresh and the data can come from the head and the heart. Then the facilitators (or whatever group is responsible for running the meetings) can take that in and adjust as needed. You don't want to settle for so-so plenaries (that you're able to survive); you want great plenaries—where you're able to thrive!

33. Sloppy Mandates
One the things that undermines (or at least complicates) attempts at evaluation (Point 31 above) is the lack of clarity about what managers and committees are supposed to do. In the interest of effective delegation it's imperative that plenaries craft crisp and comprehensive mandates that spell out such things as duties, authority to act on the plenary's behalf, what values are expected to be reflected in actions and decisions, resources available, and reporting expectations. When mandates are sloppy, the work of managers and committees is often reviewed and second-guessed by the plenary. Not only is this inefficient (contributing mightily to the phenomenon of agenda overload), but it seriously degrades morale.

34. Undefined Leadership
All groups need leadership. While cooperative groups understandably are allergic to autocratic leadership, we still need people who are inspiring, who are wise, who can think strategically, who can organize, who are sensitive to relationships, who are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, etc. In most cases, cooperative groups (which groups using consensus strive to be) are looking for members who can be leaders in certain roles (such as the person in charge of organizing the winter solstice celebration; or the honcho for constructing a new cistern); they are not looking for someone to be "the leader." It can help enormously if the group actually takes the time to define what it wants from people taking on leadership functions, both so that people putting themselves forward will know what's expected, and so that you have some objective criteria with which to measure people against if there is tension.

35. Hot Potato of Accountability
A lot of cooperative groups struggle with the issue of accountability—holding people's feet to the fire when perceived to be coloring outside the lines. This comes in two flavors: a) behavior that does not align with group agreements (say, being aggressive and belligerent when advocating for their viewpoint); and b) failure to complete a task in a satisfactory way (you're late, went over budget, were disrespectful to co-workers, did the work poorly, etc). As it's inevitable that this dynamic will occur, you need to create an understanding and culture that addresses it, rather than one that allows it to fester and become anaerobic. You need, I believe, a known channel by which any member of the group can approach another about critical feedback they have about how they're functioning as a member of the group—all with an overarching goal of being constructive, rather than punitive or shaming.

36. Failing to Pair Rights with Responsibilities
When someone is upset it's relatively common for them to insist on their right be heard—which is a real thing—while forgetting that this is paired with the responsibility to listen and take into account the viewpoints of others. This dynamic can be further complicated by the person stating their upset in a provocative way (featuring "you" statements instead of "I" statements). On the one hand, listeners may be inspired in the moment to comment on the provocative way that the upset person is expressing themselves. This, however, does not land well for the upset person, who is trying desperately to be heard. Untangling this rats nest often requires that someone be able to set aside their distaste with the upset person's delivery to focus instead on their point and why it matters, with the intention of later—after the upset person reports feeling heard, which invariably leads to deescalation—getting around to giving that person feedback about their delivery and asking them now to extend to others the same respect and attention they demanded for themselves.

37. Defusing the Stalemate of Who Gets Heard First
Often, when someone feels outraged, they'll have a story about how they have been denied a right that has not been addressed (they were disrespected, their input was blown off, someone was allowed to dump on them in public with no consequences, the group responds in a condescending manner when the person reports uneasy feelings or discordant intuition). Because this slight may be unknown to others, it may appear that the upset person is the aggressor, and others will want to start to unpack the dynamic by focusing on how they have been dissed by the upset person. However, to the upset person, the roots of the dynamic start with how they have been dissed, and they naturally prefer that the unpacking begin with a focus on them. Even though, in the end, it doesn't make a whit of difference where you start so long as both sides get air time, it can be the very devil breaking the initial logjam.

38. Learning How to Have Hard Conversations
The trickiest conversations are those where there's non-trivial disagreement and the stakes are high. However, within that class, there is a subset that's even dicier: topics that are known to also touch the third rail of personal integrity or the possibility that you (or a love one) will be voted off the island. Examples include: a) power dynamics (the perception that someone has misused their influence for the benefit of some at the expense of others; b) the limits of diversity (defining when the group is being asked to stretch too far); and c) involuntary loss of rights (the conditions under which a member may have their rights curtailed, perhaps by virtue of persistent non-compliance with group agreements, or an egregious act that endangers life or property). These are thermonuclear topics, about which groups are well advised to think ahead about how they want to handle them pre-need. Hint: ducking doesn't work.

39. Navigating the Boundary Between Public and Private
Consensus groups, almost by definition, are attempts to create a culture where the balance point between public (group business) and private (individual or household business) is intentionally shifted more toward the public end, by which I mean that some level of things that are considered wholly private in the mainstream are seen as group business in cooperative culture. The trick is knowing where the line is. Most delicate of all are those dynamics that are some of both. Take for example the case where two couples split up because the partner in one couple wants to get together with a partner in the other couple, and all of this proceeds against the wishes of the ex-partners. While there is nothing original (or even rare) about this script, it illuminates the issue. On the one hand, everyone will agree that the choice about intimate partners is a private matter, yet the outcome of a switcheroo like this has obvious impact on group dynamics and it can be paralyzing to witness this and have no sense about whether or in what circumstances it's OK to explore the feelings that come up. To be clear, the individuals do not need the group's blessing to proceed, yet the group needs a way to collectively process the shake-up or it undercuts the relationships that are the lifeblood of the group.

40. Failing to Define Emergency Powers… Until There's an Emergency
Groups can go a long time—even decades—without facing an emergency that requires a streamlined response. The problem is that you don't know if and when an emergency will occur and it's too late to establish a process once you're in one. (If the house is on fire you don't call a meeting, you call the fire department.) Thus, it behooves groups using consensus to define the circumstances in which it's prudent to have a small group make decisions on behalf of the whole for the duration of the emergency. This includes: a) the conditions under which emergency powers can be invoked; b) the specific powers granted to the emergency group; c) who will comprise the emergency group; d) the process by which invoking happens; e) the reporting standards by which the whole group is informed what is happening; and f) the assessment afterwards about how well that went. Don't wait for the common house to catch fire!

41. Email from Hell
In this electronic age, a great deal of communication happens via email. While some of that is excellent (making announcements, posting minutes and reports, sending background materials ahead of major discussions) it is not well suited to all forms of communication. In particular, it is an incendiary way to express upset. In the worst cases people will say provocative things in email they would not say face-to-face, which is toxic to relationships. Worse, there is almost unlimited opportunity to misinterpret tone, emphasis, hyperbole, and sarcasm in email—all things that are much more easily corrected when people are communicating in the same room. Thus, groups are well served by developing protocols for the healthy use of email. Leaving it all up to individual discretion is naive.

42. Falling in Love with One Format
While the spirit of consensus is that the input of all members is welcome, meetings are never a level playing field and wise groups take that into account. The default format for most groups is open discussion, where people speak on a topic roughly in the order in which they indicate that they are ready. While that approach is meant to be evenly accessible to all, not everyone is equally comfortable speaking in front of the whole group, nor does everyone digest information and know their own mind at the same pace. Thus, some people wind up talking a lot more than others, and some may rarely speak. To address this, some groups embrace Go Rounds, where everyone has a protected chance to speak, and air space is much more evenly distributed. Unfortunately, Go Rounds are slow and there's a fair amount of repetition. The point is that there is no single format that works best all the time and groups are well served by facilitation that mixes things up. Do your facilitators have the latitude to do this? Do they have a sufficiently large toolkit and understanding of the tools to pair formats with what's needed?

43. Creating Constructive Containers
One of the most important skills of the consensus facilitator is setting things up to succeed by establishing the right stage (narrowing the focus of the conversation to something small enough to be digestible, yet large enough to be interesting); establishing the right tone (constructive, creative, and compassionate; rather than critical, combative, or compromising); and then getting out of the way, letting the wisdom of the group bubble up in that favorable environment.

44. Bloodless Facilitators
For some reason, a lot of people think that being a neutral facilitator means a neutered facilitator. No! You can be passionate without having a dog in the fight, or letting your ego get in the way of progress. You can care deeply that we're getting to the heart of the matter and that no one is being run over, without taking sides or trying to peddle a solution. You can empathize when people are contributing heartfelt feelings, and cheer when a bridge is discovered between seemingly intractable positions. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, I believe the facilitator's mantra should be: If I can't dance it isn't my meeting.

45. Everyone Has a Role
I figure that for all topics that the plenary tackles, every member will have one of two relationships to each: either they'll give a damn, or they won't. If they do it's relatively obvious why that should be engaged—they care about the outcome and would like to influence it. More subtle is why to be engaged if the outcome matters little. The way I see it, you are perfectly positioned to safeguard the process, to help people bridge to each other and not get bogged down in the trenches of their positions. You can help people hear each other and remember to think about what's best for the group—not with judgment, but with compassion. It's not just the facilitator's responsibility to safeguard process; it's everyone's responsibility.

46. Failure to Invoke Common Values
The lode star for plenary agreements is how to sensitively balance the applicable group values to the issue at hand. Obviously, the first step is knowing what your common values are. The second, more nuanced step, is inviting them into the conversation at the earliest opportunity so that they can be on the table as active elements when crafting a response. It is not enough that your values exist etched on a stone tablet that rests in a trophy case gathering dust in the living of the common house (next to the portraits of dead founders). They need to be alive and in the room guiding your work and being adapted to emerging shifts in who the group is and intends to be. Lacking a rudder, there is a lot of drift and decisions influenced by force of personality.

47. Welcoming Emotions
Many groups are uncertain what to do with emotional input. Mostly they hope it goes away and doesn't cause too much damage on the way through town. There's a lot of holding one's breath and hoping for the best. We can do better. Emotions can be volatile, sure, and people can undoubtedly be hurt by their raw expression. Yet emotions are also a source of information (people can know things more deeply through their heart than their mind) and a source of energy. (Who says meetings have to be energetically flat?) If you think of emotions as the flow of water through a fire hose, I suggest preparing for those moments when the flow is high by learning to hold the hose, not by reaching for the valve to shut down the water.

48. Expecting New Members to Pick it Up By Osmosis
Consensus is an unnatural act—at least for those of us raised in the competitive, adversarial overculture, which is just about everyone. Thus, it's not particularly smart to assume that new members are going to take to consensus like ducks to water. They need help. Having new people watch plenaries and absorb it through observation is a start but you need more. Have an experienced member sit with the new folks afterwards and walk through what happened. Take the time to train new members in the culture shift needed for consensus to thrive; it will be time well spent.

49. Disinviting Don Rickles
One of the trickier aspects of cooperative group dynamics is knowing how to work with the two-edged sword of humor. While it can provide a much-needed leavening and ease, it can also be overdone (pulling people prematurely out of a tender moment), strained (forced humor tends to be worse than none), or even divisive (think sarcasm and put-down humor, a la Don Rickles, where someone is isolated as the the butt of the joke). At its nastiest, humor can be used to zing poisoned darts across the room, where criticism is voiced without attribution ("Oh, I was only making a joke; I didn't mean anything."). You want your facilitators to root this out, rather than unwittingly enabling it by letting it slide.

50. Faithless Consensus
Finally, a word about the power of expectations. Mostly people recreationally bash meetings like they complain about the weather, perhaps not understanding how outcomes are influenced by projections of dismal meetings (where the group will be inefficient, people will listen poorly, little will get accomplished, you'll get a headache, etc). For the most part your reality will be profoundly guided by your expectations. If you expect a poor meeting, you are already 90% of the way toward having one—even before the meeting has started! The good news is that this can be turned around. Fifty years ago the Lovin' Spoonful released their pop hit, Do You Believe in Magic? That question is completely contemporary when applied to consensus. There will be no magic unless you believe.

Dancing with Stars

[7 am] I awoke on the westbound Empire Builder this morning, running along the Columbia River, inbound for Portland. Today I will see Ma'ikwe for the first time since she told me she wants out of the marriage Feb 6. While I'm definitely looking forward to it, there's also wonderment at what will unfold. It's not as if I'm in control.

She's two weeks into her six-week sustainability tour, and is growing as a rock star in the burgeoning world of sustainability education, springboarding off her October 2013 TEDx talk ("Sustainable Is Possible") she's managed to line up speaking gigs like Rockettes. For the next two days we get to dance together—some on stage (giving a live demonstration of high-end facilitation at Cascadia Commons in Portland OR), but mostly in private, as we perform our minuet of intimacy with minor chords of sadness.

[10 am] As soon as I got off the train in Portland (six minutes early, mind you—go Amtrak) I sat on a bench in the Waiting Area, got connected via wifi and posted a long report while I downloaded the 40 or so messages that had queued up in the 46 hours I had been offline. I was just starting to walk through the messages when Ma'ikwe walked up and gave me a hug. It was great to see her (and to get her help schlepping luggage to the car sent to collect me).

[11 am] After settling in at Cascadia Commons, Ma'ikwe and I had a two-hour conversation about where we were, where we wanted to get to, and the best path for accomplishing that.

I was able to tell her that I still wanted relationship with her and had considerable latitude about what that might look like, so long as it was something that she embraced as well. Her answers in this matter, I felt, would have considerable bearing on the matter of where it made most sense for me to be living. On the one hand stood the litany of criticisms that informed her decision to ask for a divorce. On the other stood her genuine offer to continue as teaching partners, and the rekindled warmth with which she's been solicitous about my recent health challenges and her eagerness to swap observations about what we're noticing these days—a measure of how well we know each other and respect each others' insights. It's been confusing, and I wanted to check this out while looking each other in the eye.

Ma'ikwe was able to affirm a mutual interest in remaining close friends, yet she's clear that she wants to proceed with the divorce and cease our sexual relationship. That might be revisited in the future, but she cautioned me not to count on it. She is downright positive about teaching together and was promotional about our living together at Dancing Rabbit (in separate houses).

It felt good to express clearly and directly what I want. Though Ma'ikwe offered half a loaf and not a full one, there was nonetheless sustenance her response and I came away calm and with something to chew on. Retaining my best friend is a definite plus, and was enough to justify my looking deeper at cost of living issues as a data point in my search for where next to call home.

By confirming her desire to move forward with our divorce, it was pertinent to take a closer look at how to equitably separate our finances. While we have substantial areas of agreement (whew) there still remain some sensitive spots and it was awkward for both of us to steer clear of tensions relating to how we shared (or didn't share enough) financial decisions in the past and what constitutes generosity.

[2:30 pm] We took a break for 90 minutes and then repaired to a hot tub for another round of engagement in a more buoyant environment. While the precipitating financial questions are not all dissolved resolved, the gap has been considerably narrowed and I came away from the afternoon much relieved. The bottom line is that we'll be able to figure this out.

[8:30 pm] For two hours in the evening we ate Thai food and met with members of the Cascadia facilitation corps to discuss background on the topics we'll be addressing tomorrow. It was amazing how easily Ma'ikwe and I dropped into professional facilitator mode—like putting on a pair of old slippers.

As Ma'ikwe may need to leave Cascadia for another venue (to be in situ for a workshop she's leading Sunday at a different community) right after our work tomorrow concludes, she and I may not have another chance at our divorce minuet this visit. Having gotten off the train only this morning, it's a bit surreal to contemplate being back on board the eastbound Empire Builder Sunday afternoon. 

But today was worth it. I'm looking forward to sleeping on a bed that doesn't move tonight, and in the morning enjoying the rest of my unusual life.

Thomas Wolfe Was Right

In the four-plus weeks since Ma'ikwe told me she wanted a divorce, I've been sitting with the question of where is my home, or even, where do I want it to be. I had relinquished any claim to Sandhill (my home of 39 years) last summer, in the context of my recommitting to my marriage in July, and now I'm adrift.

And I moved to Dancing Rabbit (in November 2013) with the understanding that I was primarily investing in my marriage. While I liked DR, I wasn't planning to invest in it in the way I had Sandhill, in part because I was trying to husband time in my busy life to make more of it available to my partnership with Ma'ikwe—that being one of her points of dissatisfaction with me.

Now, inadvertently, I find myself with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to time. While this is unsettling and unlooked for, it is also opportunity—even if the ramifications are only now unfolding, like the petals of a flower that only blooms by the light of the full moon.

Here, in broad strokes, is the changing landscape of my life:

Partnership
It is both humbling and ironic that I have placed so much of my life force in my marriage—even shifting major commitments to devote more to it—only to have my partner unilaterally choose to go another way. I had meant for our commitment to be for life, yet it turned out be only for as long as I was able to retain my wife's interest.

Now, instead my marriage being a centerpiece of how I apportion my time, I am facing an immediate future completely devoid of that component.

To be sure, I have many precious relationships (which have been playing no small part in sustaining me through the emotional chaos of the last month), so I don't want to imply that I am friendless. That is not the case at all. I just don't have my partner and best friend—which is a very large hole in the bottom of my relationship boat.

Work
For decades my work scene has divided into three parts: a) as the main administrator for the Fellowship for Intentional Community; b) as a group process consultant and trainer; and c) and as a homesteader living on an organic farm. I have cherished all three roles and was very happy with that mix (not the least of which was the variety and spice it added to my life).

In deference to my advancing age and my wife's urging that I divide myself among fewer things so that there would be more available for the partnership (believe me, the dark humor in this has not escaped my attention) led me to exit Door C (my homesteader role at Sandhill) and to prepare for getting out of the center of FIC (Door A). 

This year we are replacing me with a new Development Director (we hired Aurora DeMarco last month and I'm training her now) and a new Executive Director (likely to be hired this spring). By the end of the year I expect to have all (or at least most) of my administrative tasks handed off, which will make an enormous difference in the time I devote to FIC, dropping it from 25-30 hours/week to less than five.

Door B is the one I'm retaining, along with writing.

Home
For the last four decades I've mostly taken this as a given: my home was Sandhill Farm. Then, at a crossroads in my marriage in 2013 (the crossroads before the current one), I chose my marriage over my community, and started a new adventure at DR. Though that hadn't lasted very long (15 months) before Ma'ikwe opted out of the marriage, now I'm a stateless citizen—since my main motivation in coming to DR was my partnership.

In the last four weeks I've been sitting with the novel question: where is home, or where do I want it to be? Here's a current overview of the possibilities:

—Dancing Rabbit
To be fair, Ma'ikwe is not asking me to leave DR, nor has anyone else at the community. Rather, it was my knee-jerk reaction to Ma'ikwe's decision. DR is her home and it didn't make sense to me to live under her shadow, especially with the critical things she had to say that led to her decision that I wasn't a suitable partner. I didn't need to be reminded of that.

Since then, however, there's been a shift and DR has been rehabilitated as a possibility. A big part of that is that I believe Ma'ikwe to be gracious and I don't think she wants me out of her life all together; just out of her bed. We have a dynamic and constructive teaching life together and we both want to continue that. Naturally, this would be facilitated working out of the same home base. Further, I feel confident that Ma'ikwe and I will be able to rescue a substantive friendship if aided by proximity. I'm confident that we can suss out that distance that still celebrates the attraction without engaging the repulsion.

Another attraction for me is ongoing participation in the Men's Group that meets weekly at DR. I've been part of that every Sunday evening that I'm on campus and ambulatory, and have come to highly appreciate the depth of caring and honesty that characterizes our time together.

—Sandhill
One thought I had early on is that I could try to recross the bridge I walked over in November 2013, to see if my old community would have me back. Sandhill has the advantage of known people, known land, and known rhythms, making it easier to plug in after forays to distant communities. Plus, Men's Group would be just as accessible from Sandhill (only three miles from DR).

For many years I was convinced that I'd die at Sandhill and was comforted by the thought. I would be going back to the Place where I had the most profound sense of home I've ever experienced. and that has a spiritual quality for me. The members there already have a good sense of the work in my life and what it means to me, and I could exchange my income for a room from which to write, read, and meditate. It's a cozy image.

But I had relinquished all claims to membership at the time of Ma'ikwe's and my recommitment ceremony last July, and the community was not obligated to have me back. From the road, I wrote and asked if I could meet with the community to discuss this when I was next in town. I turned out that there was no time in the March 4-10 window when everyone would be home, but Stan offered to get together with me and let me know what the group was thinking.

That happened Sunday. While assuring me that the community would absolutely be there for me if I had no other options, Stan gently let me know that the community felt it would be better if I didn't return. Sandhill has always been small and intimate, and since my departure there has developed a flow, ease, and camaraderie that is precious and that several members felt might be jeopardized by my coming back.

While sad, I accepted the news, appreciated the honesty and caring with which it was delivered, and knew right away that I did not want to impose myself on my old community. The energy would be all wrong. It evoked for me Thomas Wolfe's novel, You Can't Go Home Again, that was published posthumously in 1940. In it there is this dialog:

You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time—back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
 
Though I had only been gone 15 months, the community had moved on and the bridge was closed. It was the risk I took in choosing Ma'ikwe.

—Near My Kids
It happened that I visited both my adult children in the days immediately following Ma'ikwe's announcement, and my daughter, Jo, reached out to me, suggesting that I consider finding a place to live in Las Vegas (where she and her husband, Peter, live happily). The point being that I could be nearer both of my adult children (Ceilee lives in Los Angeles, with my two grandkids) and it would be just as easy for me to travel from Las Vegas as anywhere else. 

Though Amtrak doesn't stop in Vegas any more, and trips to the East Coast (where over half of my work has been centered in recent years) would be a slog, I was both touched and attracted by this offer. I want more contact with family, and I never have too much time with my kids. Also, as a consequence of dating Ma'ikwe while she lived in Albuquerque, I discovered that I enjoy the desert climate (who knew?), so Jo's offer has merit.

—With Close Friends
Throughout the past month I've received a considerable outpouring of support from friends, which has been a balm on my bruised psyche. Included have been a number of offers to have me live with or near some of these folks. Perhaps in the same community.

My sister, Alison, offered me temporary sanctuary in her home in Chicago. My dear friend Annie (Ceilee's mother) offered her home to me in Floyd VA as well. I've been deeply touched and honored to receive these offerings.

In addition, I've been thinking about speaking with some of my closest friends to see if there'd be interest in forming a community together (a non-residential version of which is featured in the current issue of Communities: "Time for Tribe: Boomers Get Connected"). I haven't made any inquiries yet, but it's on my mind.
• • •Taken all together, my life has undergone tremendous upheaval this past month (shaken, not stirred). On the one hand I'm sitting with terrific uncertainty, which may not yet be done unveiling itself—witness Sunday's conversation with Stan. On the other, I have unparalleled opportunity (something my Men's Group helped me see two nights ago). It's an interesting place to be, and that's what I'm concentrating on right now: just being and letting all the feelings and energy flow through and around me. It's fascinating, for example, that in all the swirl of emotions I've been experiencing, fear is not present, and anger only a little bit (thank you, EMDR).

I am not rushing to decisions, and Ma'ikwe is giving me room to sort things out, for which I am thankful. The work immediately in front of me is sorting things out with Ma'ikwe: where are we now, where are we headed, and how to get there as gracefully as possible. She is, after all, still the love of my life.

In the pre-dawn tomorrow, I'll board a train for Chicago, and then switch to the Empire Builder, bound for Portland OR, where I'll be with Ma'ikwe for two days. It will be the first time we'll have been in the same room, or even heard each other's voice, since her decision (all communications from Feb 6 to the present have been by email). In addition to doing a workshop together (planned well in advance of the divorce), we'll have the chance to delve more deeply into the questions I posed above.

I'm looking forward to it very much. 

P.S. I selected the title for this blog intuitively, and with no conscious thought of Ma'ikwe when I did. Rather, I was thinking about my relationship with Sandhill, which has been powerful in my life for a long time. I have realized only now, with amusement, that the wolf is Ma'ikwe's totem animal. Make of that portent what you will.

Laid Low Again

For the second time in four months, I'm laid up in bed with debilitating pain. And I'm getting really tired of it.

For the last five months I've been trying to recover from straining my lower back unloading heavy cases of food products from the back of a pickup while attending a fair in St Louis. At first it was just being careful to not lift anything heavy. Then, after three weeks of that I went on the road for a month and had to cope with secondary pain from muscles that had become sore from holding my body so protectively (a phenomenon that my friend Harvey refers to as "self-splinting"). My body was clenched in pain a lot and it was often excruciating getting in and out of bed.

I made it home from that trip right before Thanksgiving and pretty much collapsed into bed rest for three weeks. I just wasn't well enough to carry on normal functioning, even though I was studiously avoiding any serious lifting. As my mind was still active I read 10 books in December, which was a stimulating consolation prize.

As the pain gradually relinquished its grip, I slowly became more ambulatory and could start to work for stretches at a time sitting at my desk (instead of propped up in bed, as I am now). I was well enough to travel with Ma'ikwe mid-January to NC to conduct a facilitation training weekend, and felt better at the end than at the beginning. I was gaining!

Then I embarked on a month-long sojourn in early Feb. While the secondary pain in my back had mostly migrated to my ribs, I suffered a major emotional/psychic blow three days into the trip when Ma'ikwe announced via Skype that she had decided to end the marriage. While it's mysterious to me how the emotional body interacts with the physical one, I have no doubt that they do and Ma'ikwe's decision was decidedly a complication in my continued recovery. 

I arrived in Los Angeles for a six-day visit with my son (Ceilee) and grandkids (Taivyn & Connor) and immediately contracted a cold. I may have gotten it from Connor's sniffles or I may have picked it up on the train ride out, but either way I got it. The cold was run-of-the-mill and not particularly draining in and of itself, but a cold invariable leads to my getting a lingering cough, and that was aggravating for my sore ribs—like a knife being jabbed into my torso.

The cough went on for two weeks (about average for what I experience with a cold), during which I dreaded coughing and could do practically nothing to stop it. It was awful and my sore ribs persisted.

Fortunately the cough finally relented about a week ago, as I was finishing up facilitating a community retreat in Colorado, and I thought I was seeing light at the end of the tunnel… but no such luck. I had a bad reaction to some body work done last week that left soreness in my sternum (breastbone), and the minute I stepped off the train in La Plata MO Wed afternoon, it flared up into something so tender that I could barely lift anything. It was all I could do to get home and go to bed—where I've been the last three days, riding out the inflammation at the center of my top ribs.

On the good side, I'm being wonderfully supported (with fire tending and meals) by my caring neighbors (thank the goddess for community!) and I'm getting more reading in again (I'm deep into A Story Like the Wind by Laurens van der Post). 

That said, I've been wracking my brain trying to figure out which gods I pissed off last fall and what it will take to finally to expiate them. It's been as trying a five-month stretch as I've ever experienced.

Knowing Your Passion

Occasionally people ask me for advice about what they ought to do in life. When they do, I typically tell them to look for the intersection of what they're passionate about and what they're really good at. While the exchange often ends there, the other day I got a follow-up question about how you know where your passion lies.

Though my first response was "Huh?" (how could you have trouble knowing whether you're really jazzed by something?), upon reflection I realized that it was a more sophisticated question than I first thought. For people who are highly relational, who adapt easily to what's going on around them, or who have many interests, this can be a confusing determination—because they have to distinguish exterior voices from interior ones, and that's not so easy if everyone's singing in the same choir. Even though being well appreciated (or well compensated) for something can have a definite influence on how much you enjoy doing it, what you're good at hinges on how others assess the quality of what you do; determining your passion, however, is solely up to you.

Here are some visceral clues that tell you that you're at (or at least within spitting distance of) your passionate core:

1. What gets you out of bed in the morning, raring to go?

2. Does the work energize you (rather than exhaust you)?

3. What puts a smile on your face just thinking about it? 

4. What do you dream about doing (nightmares count against it)?

5. Is there a spring in your step as the work approaches (good) or foot dragging (not so good)? 

6. What are you reading about recreationally? Hint: curiosity and passion often live in the same neighborhood.

7. Listen to your body. What's your immediate emotional response when someone brings up the topic of the candidate activity?

There are two main reasons this search is important. When you are acting in alignment with your passion it can profoundly affect: 

a) Your energy balance. Simply put, unaligned work is a slog and is delivered at a high psychic cost. You have to budget time for recovery and renewal just to get back to even. Conversely, aligned work is generative and sparkles. You start looking forward to the next day as soon as it's quitting time.

b) How your work is perceived by others. People know when someone is acting in alignment with their passion and they feel blessed by that energy. They pay more attention and they let it touch them at a deeper level. It's infectious in a positive way.

To be sure, passions can morph over time. That which floated your boat in your 20s may swamp it when you're in your 50s. Tastes change as does one's wisdom base, capacities, and sensibilities. So it's a good idea to occasionally (once a decade?) recast the net and see what comes back. Maybe the thermal vent to your soul has migrated to a new hot spot.

50 Shades of Consensus, Part I

I facilitated the annual retreat for Heartwood, a cohousing community in Bayfield CO this past weekend, and Saturday night they had a no-talent show after dinner. In listening to some of the ideas for skits, I was inspired to write today's essay, as a take-off of the current box office hit, 50 Shades of Grey—only I'm going to focus on the dysfunctional nuances of consensus instead of the hidden eroticism of a successful businessman. (If you think this is amusing, you should have seen the group play Cards Against Community.)

I'm presenting this in two chunks of 25. Here is Part I.

1. Decisions Made by the Clock
It's late and everyone is tired and ready to go home. Out of exhaustion, you agree to the last proposal.

2. The Person with the Strongest Bladder Wins
With time running out and a decision needed, sometimes the views of the person most able to maintain focus (read least distracted by the need for a bio-break) prevails.

3. Conversations Derailed by Reactivity
When a group is unclear or lacks confidence in its ability to work constructively with strong feelings, they learn to steer clear of them—effectively allowing the person in reaction to control what gets considered.

4. Lukewarm Decisions
When groups are unsure of their footing in working with passion, or bridging between strongly held disparate views, the resulting agreements may lack pizzazz, decisiveness, or unifying energy. This is often the result when the overriding strategy is to minimize reactivity rather than maximizing excitement.

5. Arm Twisting Outliers
Sometimes groups put considerable social pressure on reluctant minorities to allow what the majority favors to prevail. Rather than trying to find a workable bridge between the majority and outliers, the majority gets impatient and starts leaning on the minority to cave in. While this may get you across the finish line, the cost in trust and indifferent implementation may be high.

6. Paint by Numbers Process
In any group there is a normal spectrum of those favoring less structure and those favoring more. If the high structure folks are ascendent, the process can be very formulaic. While this can provide a known pathway (read reduced confusion about what to do in any given moment), it can come at the expense of nuance and or the flexibility to adapt to emerging energetic needs. At its worst, the primacy of adherence to the process can become the enemy of the product—even though no one had that in mind.

7. Competitive Behavior Poisoning the Well
You don't tend to get good results from consensus unless you grok that it's based on a commitment to cooperative culture and that that's a fundamental shift from the way most of us have been raised. If people inadvertently bring competitive dynamics to the process, they'll battle over differences instead of being curious. Not only will the magic be lost, but the engagement can be draining and discouraging.

8. All Decisions Made in Plenary
When groups fail to delegate authority to committees and managers, all work has to come back to the plenary for review and approval. In addition to bloated plenary agendas, this often leads to the committee's work being second-guessed, which is very demoralizing. Subsequently, it's hard to get members to serve on committees (why bother?).

9. Separating Heart Work from Business Meetings
When groups are uncomfortable working with feelings, there can be an impulse to shunt emotions into special meetings (heart circles?) that are distinct from business meetings—where members are expected to participate rationally. This practice doesn't help the group navigate business topics that trigger strong feelings.

10. Hobbling Progress through Strategic Absence—Version I
If the group is not clear how to work a topic while still protecting the rights of members who miss the meeting to have input, it can lead to postponing engagement when key members are absent. Worse, members who miss early meetings on a topic may be allowed to monkey wrench progress with 11th hour objections. These disagreeable dynamics are fallout from the group not being clear about the rights and responsibilities of members who miss meetings.

11. Hobbling Progress through Strategic Absence—Version II
Sometimes a person who gets crosswise with the group will purposefully miss a meeting at which the challenging dynamics involving them are scheduled to be discussed, hoping to avoid the hot seat. While not easy to do well, it's important that there's a way to have that conversation even when the person in the spotlight tries to duck it. You don't want agendas held hostage to individual attendance.

12. Skipping the Opening
When groups are not in alignment about how to work with energy, it's not unusual for some portion of the membership to be uncomfortable with ritual or openings that are an attempt to align energy and provide a clear marker between informal social space and meeting space—where there are different standards of behavior. Voting with their feet, those ill at ease may develop the habit of arriving late to meetings, to purposefully avoid the woo-woo part. In consequence, the energy of the group is not aligned and there can frustration all around.

13. No Clarity about the Facilitator's Authority
When groups are vague about defining the facilitator's role, it's much harder for that person to interrupt repetition or to redirect people speaking off topic. The facilitator needs explicit license from the group to hold participants to its operating agreements. Absent clear authority, the facilitator's role tends to devolve into the impoverished position of simply deciding who will speak next.

14. Weak Minutes
Groups that do not do a decent job of capturing and archiving decisions regularly get in trouble recalling accurately what their agreements are. However, even if agreements are well-recorded, if the minutes do not also include a sense of what factors went into the decision, it can be hard knowing when requests to revisit a decision are warranted.

15. Block Paralysis, Version I
There are three essential process agreements for a consensus group to be able to work with blocks effectively: a) defining the grounds for a legitimate block; b) defining the process by which the block can be validated (does it meet the standard for legitimacy?); and c) defining the process by which the group will try to resolve blocking concerns, and being clear about the rights and responsibilities of all members in that process. When any of these three are absent and the group is unsure of its footing, there can be high anxiety about how to work with a block, resulting in a heavy overlay of fear when it appears that might be where the group is headed.

16. Block Paralysis, Version II
A different version occurs when members take advantage of the group's uncertainty and anxiety about blocks to threaten one when they don't like someone's proposed initiative or viewpoint. This can derail a conversation at the front end, long before it gets to the proposal phase and is a misuse of the concept. When you have a negative response to a suggestion or an approach it means there's something to work out—it indicates a need for more talking, not less.

17. Tyranny of Time
Meetings can take up a fair amount of a person's vital life energy, and it makes sense that people want that time used effectively. They want meetings to be efficient and productive. So far, so good. Unfortunately, some topics don't fit easily into the boxes into which they've been placed. Despite the best efforts of agenda planners to estimate the time a topic will take, sometimes they get it wrong and you have to choose between running long, tabling the topic as unfinished, or trying to push for a conclusion before its fully ripe. These are not necessarily great choices, and there are times when people will demand a decision based on the clock rather than because you've reached a unifying conclusion.

18. Starting with Proposals 
Some groups ask that items come to the plenary in the form of a proposal (at once identifying an issue and offering a solution). The motivation for this is to save time (in case the proposal works) and to force the people bringing the issue forward to have thought it through. The problem is that it asks presenters to invest in a solution before the group has had a chance to identify everything that the solution needs to address, and this can be a train wreck.

19. Commingling Discussion with Proposal Generation
In general, the two most important phases of tackling an issue in plenary are Discussion (where you identify and prioritize what factors a good response to the issue needs to take into account) and Proposal Generation (where you do your best to manifest a response that balances that factors that have emerged from the Discussion phase). They need to be done in the that order, and groups tend to be more productive if they're diligent about completing Discussion phase (which is expansive and can invite advocacy and passion) before moving into Proposal Generation (which is contractive, and features bridging and compassion). If groups are sloppy about this, the identification of a factor can be immediately followed by someone's well-intentioned offer of a solution. This often leads to considerable confusion about where the group is at in the conversation—not only are you jumping between phases, but it's damn hard to be expansive and contractive simultaneously (try it).

20. Facilitator Roulette
Some groups assign plenary facilitators well ahead of time, which helps settle people's individual calendars (think vacation planning, for instance). The problem is that it's crucial that the facilitator have sufficient neutrality and appropriate skill to be able to handle the proposed agenda and you can't assess that ahead of knowing the agenda.

21. Consensus Versus Unanimous Voting
When groups get it that consensus only thrives in cooperative culture they will nurture an attitude of collaboration (looking for ways ideas can work for everyone) and curiosity (in the face of different viewpoints on non-trivial matters). People are oriented toward saying "yes." This is completely different from problem solving in competitive culture where the model is that the best idea will be the one that emerges after being tested through vigorous debate. If you try to use consensus in competitive culture, you're really talking about unanimous voting, which is a very high bar.

22. Not Screening for What's Plenary Worthy
When groups fail to be clear about what kinds of topics are appropriate for whole group attention (with the assumption that lesser matters can be handled on the committee level) there tends to be quite a bit of topic material that wanders into plenary that doesn't belong there, which contributes significantly to the phenomenon of meeting fatigue. If you haven't clearly defined the boundary of what's appropriate it's damn hard for the facilitator (or anyone else) to know when you've crossed it and are working on a level of minutia that should be handed over to a manager or committee.

23. Working Complex Topics as a Whole
Some portion of the topics that plenaries address are multifaceted. Not only can it be hard to figure out where to start, but you can end up chasing your tail when a member is reluctant to agree to a proposal about one facet until they know what the group is going to do with another. Groups need a protocol for how to handle hair ball topics in a piecemeal approach. Lacking that there's a tendency for the plenary's energy to be exhausted on the shoals of complexity (because it's too hard to find a unified field theory with everything on the table at once).

24. Blowing by Distress to Get to Problem Solving
When groups are paralyzed (or at least lack confidence) in their ability to work constructively with emotions and reactivity, there's a tendency to try working around it and hope for the best. While you can sympathize with where that comes from, it may be a false economy. If the emotions are directly related to the topic at hand, you're better off getting those out in the open and worked with at the start, rather than trying to cope with their leaking into the considerations, distorting and distracting how information and viewpoints are being understood.

25. The Identified Problem
It's not unusual for groups to struggle in a patterned way with particular members. Perhaps the person in question has an aggressive style, a fearful nature, or a victim attitude. Maybe they rarely follow through on commitments, yet have a self-image of being under-appreciated. Whatever it is, if the group does not meet with early success in laboring with the person about their challenging behavior(s), there's a marked tendency for the group to label the person as an Official Problem, which leads to marginalizing them as a member of the group. The ugly side of this is the potential that the group can then get smug in its analysis and stop looking at how it's actively contributing to trapping the outlier with a pejorative label. By failing to see the aspects of the dynamic that are a system failure—where everyone is playing a role in sustaining the dysfunctional dynamic—no movement is possible yet the group blithely lays full responsibility at the feet of the Identified Problem.

Aging in Place in Community

Increasingly, I've been asked to facilitate community conversations about coming to clarity about how much a community can stretch to accommodate members aging in place.

While most intentional communities are careful to not make the claim that they'll provide full end-of-life service (no matter how beloved someone is), there remains considerable nuance and delicacy about determining exactly where the limits of support lie. That is, when is it time for an aging member to move to a nursing home or assisted living in another setting?

Like a lot of hard questions, this one is typically put off until the community is in the situation where it needs to apply the answer, and the conversation is skewed by all the feelings associated with the particular person whose failing health begs the question. This can get messy.

To be sure, some people die in their sleep or get hit by a truck and the question of long-term support never enters the equation. Also, some aging members decide on their own that it's better to shift where they live (perhaps moving in with their adult children), obviating the need for the community to wrestle with this question. So it's an occasional need and doesn't apply in all cases.

Still, it applies in some cases, and it's prudent to be ready for it.

In addition to it generally being less expensive to continue living at home for as long as possible, it's what's most familiar and comfortable—two important quality of life factors. Further, in most cases there is the opportunity—which tends to be peculiar to community—for seniors to contribute meaningfully to the lives around them even as their overall capacity to do so diminishes. This too, contributes to quality of life and you can appreciate why people who have enjoyed the connections and sensitivity of community living are reluctant to leave it for institutionalized facilities.

As if that weren't enough, there is ample evidence today that living in community is itself healthier beyond the claims above. Witness what gerontologist Bill Thomas discovered when developing the Green House Project as a radical alternative to long-term care.

And yet, for all of the reasons that it makes sense to keep people in community as long as possible, the time may come when the community can no longer handle the load of support. How far is the community willing to go to support people aging in place? What are the markers that indicate the community may be at the edge of what it can do and it's time for the aging member to get additional support outside the community? Following are some things to discuss:

o  Deteriorating cognitive abilities (can the person follow conversations and contribute thoughtfully and constructively in meetings; is it safe for them to drive).

o  Personal care needs that exceed the capacity of volunteers to handle (bathing, dressing, laundry, shopping, grooming, feeding, cleaning, incontinence). To some extent these things can be covered by part-time professional assistance (which may or may not be provided by a member of the community), but there are limits.

o  Deteriorating physical capacity (can no longer walk, is susceptible to bed sores, can't lift anything more than a glass of water, can't climb stairs, shaky balance).

o  Compounding health concerns (diabetes, obesity, Parkinson's, loss of hearing, loss of sight).

o  For how long is it anticipated that assistance is needed (helping a 55-year-old recover from a broken leg is demonstrably different than an open-ended commitment to a 70-year-old in frail health; on the other end of the spectrum, the community may be willing to rally for a two-week stretch of concentrated hospice care—something that is only possible because it's short-term).

o  Special challenges (for example, is the person becoming belligerent, or prone to violence?)

It's important that volunteer support (perhaps organized by teams, so that it doesn't fall too heavily on too few) not be extended beyond what can be given freely and without resentment. Propping one person up while the quality of life for several others degrades is not a good long-term choice.

I recommend that communities establish a Special Needs Committee who's job it would be to:

A. Discreetly explore with members (or the loved ones of members) their need for assistance to continue living in the community. Note that this is not limited to seniors—it's open to anyone needing assistance. This would include both what the member might need in the way of support, as well as how that member can reasonably continue to contribute to the maintenance and well-being of the community. For this to work well, it's essential that the committee receive accurate, current information about the member's health and capacities, along with a commitment that the committee will be apprised of any significant changes in the member's condition.

B. Based on guidance established by the plenary (in answer to the above questions, defining the limits of what the community might be willing to offer in the way of support), the committee will see if they can put together a support team of volunteers in the community to meet the requested needs. Any team created for this purpose will exist for a specified length of time. If needs extends beyond that time, an extension may be considered, or another team may be put together—though this will be considered on its own merits and will not be granted automatically.

C. In consultation with the member (and perhaps the member's family) the committee will craft a communication to other community residents letting everyone know what's happening.

D. The committee will be available to receive information or complaints about how this support is going, troubleshooting and adjusting as appropriate.

E. If the committee believes the member's needs are exceeding the community's capacity to provide support, it will be their task to inform the member (and their loved ones) of that limit and the possible suspension of support.

F. Throughout, the committee will be expected to hold information about a member's condition and needs in confidentiality, excepting as it's appropriate to complete C above.

G. If the committee believes there needs to be any adjustment to the limits of what the community can offer members in need, it will see that this is brought to the plenary's attention for consideration.

As is implied in the job description above, it's important that care be taken in how members of this committee are selected. While the Special Needs Committee will (hopefully) not have a lot of work to do, when needed the committee will be well positioned to handle a sensitive task with discretion, dignity, and decisiveness.

Family Renewal

Back on Feb 6 my wife told me our marriage of seven-plus years was over. While I knew from mid-Jan onward that she was wrestling with the question of whether to continue with me or give up, it was a unilateral decision that I deeply didn't want her to make. My wishes notwithstanding, it was what made sense to her and the die was cast.

As you might imagine, the reality of her rejection and my loss have never been far from my consciousness since her announcement. While I've experience waves of sadness as I picked my way through the boneyard of our marriage, it has been a balm to me that I've spent the last 12 days with my two adults children: first six days with my son, Ceilee, in Los Angeles; followed by six days with my daughter, Jo, in Las Vegas.

While I thought I'd made the strongest relational commitment possible to my wife (both when we first married April 21, 2007, and again when we re-committed to the marriage July 14, 2014), I realize now that the bond I was able to create with Ma'ikwe was not nearly as strong or elastic as what I've created with my children. The potency of a relational bond depends on what each person contributes and, in the end, it was clear that the Laird/Ma'ikwe commitment did not have the resilience that I was looking for. While I am the same flawed guy for everyone, my kids have stood by me even when my wife walked away.

To be sure, Ceilee and Jo have their own households today and have long since stopped living with Dad. While they both welcome me for visits, it's not the same as living with me every day—which Ma'ikwe grew weary of. Nonetheless my kids' love for me has never been more precious than now, as I cope with Ma'ikwe's rejection. Ceilee and Jo's loving care for me have been two oases of nurturance in a desert of rawness.

A friend of mine (who had his own experience with being left by his wife), asked me what I was doing for self care right now. A good question. 

o  I'm taking full advantage of the time with my kids to just be with them. That means doing less work and immersing myself in their lives for the time we have been together.

o  I'm not overindulging, whether that means eating, drinking, watching television, or surfing the internet—I'm doing all of those things sparingly. And shopping doesn't interest me at all.

o  I'm getting plenty of sleep, but am not using it to escape.

o  I'm still focusing on recovery from back strain, which (unfortunately) means dealing with the ongoing aggravation of sore ribs as I work through a cough associated with a cold I contracted last week in Los Angeles. (It's like someone is gouging me with a knife every time I cough.) While it's just a run-of-the-mill cough, the pain is exhausting.

o  I'm not rushing to decide what's next for me (where I'll live, or with whom). I'm not trying to open up a new romantic relationship.

o  I'm giving myself full permission to grieve, while steering clear of the cesspool of major reactivity (wallowing there is not helpful). I'm sad a lot, but not particularly angry, and that feels good.

Does all of that add up to adequate self care? I'm not sure. But I know I won't die, I know that I have useful things to still do in the world, and I know that I yet have joy for living. Maybe that's as good as I can hope for this soon after losing my wife.

The Essence of Home

For the first time in over four decades, I'm unsure where I'll be living next month.

When I moved in with my wife in November 2013, I left Sandhill (my home since 1974) and thought I'd be with Ma'ikwe for the rest of my life. But it didn't turn out that way. She decided the marriage was no longer working for her and I got my walking papers. 

In the past fortnight I've been thinking a lot about where it makes the most sense to walk to—which has gotten me thinking what "home" means to me as a single man of 65.

To be sure, I have possibilities, including a number of friends who would have me as a neighbor in their community or who might share a house with me. But what do I want? What matters to me most when I contemplate home? Here, in no particular order, is what I've come up with:

1. Near friends and family
As I have friends all over the country, there are many locations that would meet this criteria. And given the amount that I travel, I have reasonable expectations that I can get to those friends I don't live near.

There is a deeper level of this though: how important is it to me to live with close friends, not just near them? What I've discovered, for myself, is that the essential challenge of shared living is that the group is sufficiently: a) clear about common values; b) committed to creating cooperative culture; and c) skilled in communication. I've discovered over the years that housemates or group members don't have to all be best friends to meet these standards. To be sure, I'm not saying that living with close friends would be a drawback; only that it's not essential.

2. Shared living
I travel 40-50% of the time and expect this to continue at least into the near future. Home needs to be a place where I can leave for long stretches and I can come back to. That suggests shared housing—both because it doesn't make sense to pay full boat for housing that is only needed half the time, and because it's much easier to keep day-to-day operations humming along when people cover for each other (you never have to worry about the pipes freezing or the dogs being fed).

Also, with shared living it's easier to plug in usefully for short stretches between trips. While it's hard to take on management responsibilities, there are any number of maintenance tasks and special projects that can be handled by people only in residence part time, and I have a good idea distilled from my prior decades of shared living how to be minimally disruptive and maximally contributive.

When you live alone you have full control, but along with that goes all the domestic chores and all of the cost of maintaining the household. Yuck.

3. Suitable place to read and write
I need a room where I can do these things comfortably in any season and at any time of day or night. I need a comfortable chair, a work surface that is mine to control, a reliable high-speed internet signal, close access to support materials (such as books, files, and implements), and with a modicum of acoustical control (I can tune out conversation or background music in the next room, but fire alarms, children in pain, or headbanger concerts are over the top.)

Quite a bit of my time these days is devoted to writing (and it's only likely to get more that way): blog essays, reports, magazine articles, proposals, correspondence—you name it. Recognizing how central this is to my daily routine, I want to be doing this in a congenial setting.

4. Values alignmentBeyond creature comfort is soul comfort. I want my home and the way I live to be a manifestation of my core values around resource use and cooperative culture. Given that my favorite two-word phrase for what I've been doing with my life is "community builder," it makes a lot of sense for me to live in community, where I get the opportunity to try to walk my talk every day. 

Mind you, some days I'm more successful in achieving that goal than others, yet there's high resonance for me with making the attempt. It's important to me, for example, that I try to consciously live a life that is within the means of anyone else to replicate, if they desire it. It's hard to picture satisfying that test in any way excepting through community.

5. Aging in place
While my health is generally pretty good (despite my slow recovery from lower back strain last fall) it's prudent to think about my home being a place where people support each other through the trials of health challenges. While this can touch a person at any age, we expect to face more health issues as we age.

While my physical capacities are unquestioningly in decline, I am not decrepit and am still highly productive. I also possess a wealth of practical skills that I can make available to guide or teach others even when I am no longer able to do a thing myself.

Though I have been purposefully divesting myself of some significant responsibilities over the last decade (it's time to give others a turn behind the wheel, and it affords me more time for reading and writing), I am still enthusiastic about my work as a process trainer and consultant. Fortunately, this work also happens to be the most remunerative thing that I do and what I believe to be my best avenue for social change work—my efforts to make the world a better place.

Thus, immediately in front of me I have decent prospects for generating more income than I consume. Though this won't last indefinitely, at least I won't be approaching a group living situation with hat in hand.

6. Familiarity
I was born in the Midwest and (excepting two years after college when I lived in DC as a junior bureaucrat for the US Dept of Transportation) I've always lived in the Midwest. It is a climate and culture I know and therefore feels like home to me. 

I know the rhythms of the seasons and the unpretentiousness of the people. I know the trees; I know the lay of the land; I know when flowers bloom and when vegetables are ripe. I know how to layer my clothing for comfort when splitting wood amidst the gusting North Wind in January, and how to function in the humidity of August when canning tomatoes by the bucketload.

Sure, I could learn a new culture. But I'd rather not.

Price Setting & Income Inequality

I recently had an exchange with someone who objected to my offering facilitation training for a set fee, and the conversation raised issues I thought worth exploring.

My critic was concerned about income inequality—which I am as well—essentially making the case that people ought to pay more equally in terms of what they could afford (the idea, roughly, being that someone making $25,000 annually should pay half of what someone making $50,000 annually should pay). In his view, sliding scales do the trick and he strongly advocated that I adopt that approach.

While I try to be sensitive to the social change implications of my work in the world, I'm not so enamored of sliding scales as the solution.

My critic pointed out that setting fees at a fixed amount effectively offers well-off folks a discount at the expense of those less well off, since a set price is axiomatically a smaller fraction of assets for those who are better off. While I follow this reasoning and agree that a sliding scale offers some redress, I've come to favor a different approach. Following are various considerations that led me there.

1. In my experience, sliding scales tend to suppress net revenues. That is, the amount offered above the target average does not tend to cover the deficit of those who are paying less. And it complicates knowing when I have a enough students to have a viable class. (That is, the amount I pay Amtrak to get to and from a training location does not vary by how many students I have, but if the amount each student pays is variable you cannot equate a certain number of students to an income-projection.)
2. I like setting the price for my services such that I think it's serious money yet still a clear value. There's nuance in doing this that gets watered down with a sliding scale. (My critic was advocating for a slide where the top is five times the bottom; if I went with that, the top would be embarrassing for me to ask for, while the bottom would devalue what it's worth.)

Part of what I'm concerned with is being a market-maker in my field—setting a standard for the value of high-quality process consulting. A generation ago, when I first got started, there were few practitioners and no common understanding of the value of the work. In addition to establishing a viable business for myself, I've been increasingly interested in making it easier for my students and those who follow to be able to make decent money. With a sliding scale, you are leaving a smear; not a clear mark.

3. I've found it valuable to encourage students to get organizational support for facilitation training, and I believe a sliding scale undermines the motivation for participants to seek this out. (If a person gets a price that's acceptable via a sliding scale, why bother to ask others for support?) 
To be fair, my critic points out that the extra work of enlisting organizational support falls unevenly on those with less income, as the better off are less likely to need help. Still, I prefer this for two reasons: a) it secures support for those with less income other than by my accepting discounted compensation; and b) it enrolls more parties in the investment of process training. If organizations subsidize the training they'll be more inclined to us it, helping to impact the whole organizational culture—which is a prime objective for me in offering the training in the first place.

4. I've worked hard to create a facilitation training model that keeps costs to a minimum (food and lodging for students are exchanged for outside facilitation) and fees go solely to compensate the trainers. In addition, we offer thinking and assistance for students to get financial support from cooperative groups with which they are affiliated (perhaps in exchange for a commitment to practice their new skills or to teach others what they've learned). If that's still not enough, I try to work out a barter in exchange for lower fees.

This mixture maintains the integrity of the price, while creating a viable safety net for those who truly want the learning yet find the price beyond their means.

5. My observation is that people tend to value a thing in proportion to what they pay for it. While I wish this weren't so (and I get the opportunity to work my side of this equation by paying no attention to how much a student or client pays when giving them my attention as a teacher or consultant), I have encountered this too many times to ignore it. People who get a thing cheaply, tend to value it cheaply, and I detest working hard for a client only to have the group respond indifferently because they paid little or no money for the offering.

Thus, I prefer establishing a clear non-trivial marker for value, and then creating numerous ways for people strapped for financial resources to be able to bridge to the opportunity. Does this make it possible for everyone to have straight-forward access to what I offer? No. My approach requires a certain baseline ability to be self-motivated, and an ease in asking others for support (because is is not just handed out), and I'm OK with that.

6. Sustainability is a major catchword these days. For most of my professional life I'd say my work fits under the subheading of social sustainability—what does it take for people to live together closely and happily in cooperative culture, given that we've been raised in competitive culture? In recent years, however, I've expanded my focus to embrace various aspects of economic sustainability—how do we fairly and honorably exchange goods and services such that people are operating in integrity yet are not expected to be wholly self-sufficient?

In this vein, I want to operate as a process consultant in such a way that encourages people to do personal work in relation to the meaning of money in their life—which, I believe, many of us have not done. If I offered a sliding scale for my services, people would have to determine where they fit on the scale, yet I'm not convinced that that examination would go much deeper than comparing their bank account with their sense of fairness. While that's not a bad thing, I want something deeper.

I've been doing that work on my end, and I'm OK asking that others meet me there. If they want my services and don't see how they can afford me, I'm willing to roll up my sleeves and be an ally in helping them find a mutually acceptable solution. I'm just not willing to start by offering a discount.

Marriage Aftermath

Have you ever pondered the oddness of the term, "aftermath"?

I reckon you can conceive of it as what happens after you've totted up the pluses and minuses of a situation—which is a tender calculation I've just been going through with Ma'ikwe, after she announced eight days ago that our marriage was done.

As you might imagine, Ma'ikwe went through her own calculus in determining whether it was time to move on—and I believe she did this carefully and with sensitivity. While I'm not happy with her conclusion, I fully believe in her right to make this call. Good things don't happen from someone staying longer than they think is good, say because of guilt, obligation, or pity.

After I rode the first waves of emotional response on my own (and with the support of friends; I got a lot of email), Ma'ikwe and I began an email exchange that has been invaluable to me—which, ironically, showcased just how good our relationship can be—where we each got to explain how we related to events of the last month and the final sequence that led to the demise of our partnership. This was important because, right up until the end, I was viewing our challenging times as difficult, yet constructive—while Ma'ikwe was convincing herself that it was time to pull the plug. While painful, it was instructive to plumb the information buried in the gap between our perceptions.

I was grateful that Ma'ikwe was willing to frame the larger picture of her frustration and analysis with me, and to take the time to point out how my behaviors didn't work for her. After four days of this back-and-forth I was able to write:

As I sit with what you’ve experienced as my criticality, my narcissism, my resistance to your ideas, my inability to provide empathy when you're struggling, my failure to follow through on commitments, my inability to honor requests that matter a lot to you, and my competitive one-upmanship it’s a fairly grim picture, and makes me wonder at the folly (even irresponsibility) of presuming that I’m capable of being anyone’s partner. Looked at from this perspective, I’m humbled that you hung in there with me as long as you did. Thank you. Your loving me has been a precious gift.

Ma'ikwe had a complex response to this. On the one hand, it showed I was hearing what she was complaining about, and she wholeheartedly endorsed the idea of my continuing to do personal work in an attempt to address these behaviors.

On the other hand, she encouraged me to soften what I did with her rejection because she was only saying that I was a poor partner for her. Well, this is tricky ground to navigate with sure footing. While Ma'ikwe and I agree that we both could have been better partners, I think it's dangerous for me to slough off responsibility for what went awry (laying it at her feet instead). Better, I think, is to try to own all that I can and see what I can do with it. (Ma'ikwe will have her own version of this, but that's her business.) So I'm facing a large hill to climb.

While there are ways in which it's only possible to work on intimacy dynamics in an intimate relationship (and I'm not seeing a clear pathway to that given all the barnacles on my hull), I am hopeful that most of Ma'ikwe's issues are tractable in the context of friendships and relationships with clients—both of which I have in abundance. So I'm holding onto the idea that I can continue my work without necessarily putting another partner at risk.

I intuit that my main challenge will be remaining open for engagement, and not playing it safe. It's the work I need to address after doing the math. We'll see how it goes.

Traveling from Wet to Least

The past two days I made the journey from LA to L.A. It took me two days just to expunge two periods. The vehicle for this odd odyssey was Amtrak train #1, the Sunset Limited, which I enjoyed end for end—all 1995 miles from New Orleans to Los Angeles (half of it traversing Texas). Although the route nominally runs from East to West, it can also be viewed as running from Wet to Least—if you think in terms of rainfall instead of longitude.

I offer you a play in five acts.

Act I: Louisiana
Monday morning we pulled out of the rain-washed streets of Carnival-besotted New Orleans (think king cake, pop beads, and street-grade sippy cups filled with watered-down daiquiris), and began to chug across southern Louisiana, where spring is already quickening as evidenced by the chartreuse yellow leaves of willows, and the gaudy red blossoms on a swamp-loving something-or-other tree that doesn’t grow in the Midwest. My eye was also caught by the vibrant lemon yellow of wild mustard in full bloom.

Traveling orthogonally to the drainage, our advance was periodically punctuated by estuaries and boat channels featuring huge derricks capable of managing the cargo of salt-water container ships. Often there would be an egret standing sentinel atop a piling as we lumbered by.

We rumbled through small towns sporting steeply pitched spires that marked the location of a brick-built Catholic church beneath. Rural housing was most often characterized by rusting metals roofs covering single story bungalows with pastel clapboard siding build on concrete blocks. The dominant greenery of February was alternately supplied by the waxy, dusty leaves of live oaks and long-needled pines.

While there was no sign of farming activity, the unplanted fields revealed the vein-work of deep ditches used to manage heavy rainfalls.

Before boarding I had fortified myself for the 46-hour sojourn with a muffaletta to go and a two-part dinner where I downed three dozen fat oysters in the prime of the season. I was so full of bivalves that I passed (reluctantly) on both shrimp étouffée and red beans and rice seasoned with tasso. You just can't do everything.

Act II: Texas
Our first stop in the Lone Star State was Beaumont, hard on Port Arthur (the birthplace of Janis Joplin), where the grass was greening up nicely and it was a beautiful day for after school soccer.

The pastoral scene featured black Angus cattle, sod farms, and the sinuous beauty of laser-planed rice fields. Along the tracks there were still swampy sloughs.

We eased into Houston at sundown (the first sunset on this limited-to-two journey). So endeth the wet day.

Somewhere in the dark, about halfway to San Antonio we fell for the old broken-down-freight-train-in-front-of-you trick, necessitating backing up and wyeing the train to find some alternate tracks (that didn't contain a broken down freight train). Perhaps that's why they call this route the Sunset Limited.

By first light we were chugging toward the flag stop of Sanderson, and already we were in country too dry to farm. It was all scrub vegetation and rock—not a tree in sight. In the night, somebody pulled the plug and all the moisture that we had traveled through the first day had been drained away.

The ground was not necessarily desert flat. Where it wasn't, there are numerous washes, or arroyos, that indicated where water flows on those rare occasions when it rains. The colors were muted: the gray/green of sagebrush, the white/tan of fractured sandstone, the yellow/green of prickly pear.

Just east of El Paso, we rolled by miles of nut tree orchards with geometrically precise plantings and completely barren soil (during the growing season water is supplied via concrete-lined irrigation ditches). Weird. It's scary to think what chemicals are used to eliminate any trace of green—even in February.

Act III: New Mexico
The Land of Enchantment is sparsely populated, and most of that is in the north (Albuquerque and Santa Fe). The train had flag stops in the sleepy little towns of Deming and Lordsburg, bypassing Las Cruces, Roswell, and Alamogordo.

There was still not enough water to spit.

Act IV: Arizona
Clacking along into the afternoon, it was on to Benson and copper country. Almost as soon as we crossed the state border mountains started replacing hills, as we threaded our way through the southern remnants of the Rockies.

Our second (and final) sunset occurred in the desert. The sun was spectacularly framed now and then in the notches between peaks. Auspiciously, the first clouds of the day (I'll bet there was moisture there) appeared in the western sky, offering us a rosy band above and alpenglow on the hills behind us. The mountain ranges on the western horizon turned to blue before we lost the browns and greens of the near foreground. Lovely.

We followed the last light into Tucson, where we gassed up, changed crews, and paused 90 minutes in front of the Maynard Market, a local watering hole.

So endeth the dry day.

Act V: California
This all unfolded in the dark. We glided by Palm Springs, Ontario, and Pomona, passing wraith-like among the palm trees and neon, stealing into Union Station before dawn. As we crawled through the city on our final approach, we crossed the completely canalized Los Angeles River. It's trickle at the bottom of a huge concrete causeway was the first running water I'd seen since Houston.

I'd worked up a powerful thirst traveling through so much dry country. The first thing I did when I got off the train was buy a cup of coffee.

Divorce 2.0

Ma’ikwe told me Friday evening that she wants a divorce. This is the second time I've had experience in the last 19 months and I didn't enjoy hearing it any more the second time. It's like getting kicked in the stomach.

One of my first thoughts was how clearly this development points out that I am only in control of my part of the partnership, and the commitments I make do not bind her. While I readily agree that we've had to handle some tough challenges on the way to death do us part, I've never found divorce an attractive choice. Yet Ma'ikwe can opt out—and has done so twice—regardless of where my heat is on the matter.

Here are some high and low watermarks of our relationship:
Oct 29, 2005             We became lovers
Nov 18, 2005            We decided to get married
April 21, 2007           We got married in a blow-out four-day wedding in Albuquerque
July 11, 2008             Ma'ikwe moved to Dancing Rabbit 
spring 2009               Ma'ikwe broke ground to start building Moon Lodge
2010                          Ma'ikwe discovered she has Lyme disease and had a debilitating year (a lot of pain and a lot of bed rest)
2012                          Ma'ikwe relapsed with Lyme and had another debilitating year
Feb 11, 2013             We had our first appointment with Kathy, our couples therapist, which continued for the next two years
July 14, 2013            Ma'ikwe announced that she wanted a divorce
Aug 26, 2013            Ma'kiwe agreed to try the marraige again
Nov 29, 2013            I moved out of Sandhill and started living in Moon Lodge with Ma'ikwe
July 14, 2014            We held a recommitment ceremony for our marriage
Oct 3, 2014               I strained my lower back lifting heavy boxes improperly
Oct, 2014-Jan 2015   I had restricted mobility (with a lot of bed rest) as I recovered from back pain
Feb 6, 2015               Ma'ikwe announced that she wanted a divorce

Our marriage has enjoyed many sublime and beautiful moments, and it's also been a gut-wrenching emotional roller coaster.

In this latest round of turmoil, Ma'ikwe first told me that she was again frustrated to the point of thinking about ending the relationship three weeks ago. Having reserved time with our therapist for Feb 3 (the day before I left on a four-week trip) I had understood we were waiting to work on her concerns with Kathy's help—which has frequently been a good idea. After one 90-minute appointment last Tuesday, Kathy was able to make another session available to us the same day. In trying to decide how best to use that opportunity I said my highest priority was using the time to give the best chance for us working through the issues that had brought Ma'ikwe to the brink again. 

With that request on the table, Ma'ikwe decided to meet with Kathy alone. While I don't know what they discussed in the second session, three days later Ma'ikwe announced that she was done. In retrospect, I reckon by the time we got to Kathy I was essentially a dead man walking and just didn't know it yet. 

I outlined in my previous blog some of the concerns that have been troubling Ma'ikwe lately and it all unraveled incredibly fast. The thing that hurts the most is that there was never much of an opportunity for me to address Ma'ikwe's concerns between her articulation of the issues and her unilateral decision to end it all.

I reckon staying with me represented too much slog for too little hope; she weary of trying to make it work and just needed to move on. 

One interesting pattern I noticed is that both times Ma'ikwe got to clarity about wanting a divorce, the sequence started right after one of us came out of a long stretch of compromised health, where the person in recovery wasn't capable of doing serious relationship work. Both times I was caught off-guard by the build-up of negativity and critical analysis. I don't know if that's merely a coincidence or a smoking gun.

When weathering the localized storm of emotional turmoil that was triggered for me by Ma'ikwe's first decision to end the relationship in July 2013, I got enormous help from EMDR therapy with Kathy, which has permanently helped me be less reactive. This benefit, fortunately, is still available to me today (thank god) and helped both to stay afloat with my feelings and to not spiral down into a very dark, and blaming place. I know Ma'ikwe has been doing the best she can and I know that I will not die.

Oddly, it has also helped that I'm currently reading Wyvern (a semi-obscure 1988 novel by A A Attanasio). It contains a fantastical exploration of being alone while at the same time being in relation to spirit, in relation to other humans, and to the universe. The protagonist is an illegitimate blond blue-eyed boy of mixed Dutch/aboriginal stock who is raised as a sorcerer (or soul catcher) in the jungles of Borneo, and the book is full of cosmological and existential questions as explored through the eyes of “primitive” culture. This story is powerful medicine for me right now.

The bottom line is that Ma’ikwe no longer saw her future as fruitful with me and acted decisively to move on. Loving her, I support her getting what she wants—even if at the extreme of leaving me.

Having gone through this particular hell once already, it’s not so devastating the second time. I know I'll survive. Though I've been rejected, I'm not beating myself up.

Yet whither now? Fifteen months ago I've walked away from my community as part of my recommitment to the marriage. Can I go back? Is that what I want? Is that good for Sandhill? I don't know. I was mainly at DR to be with Ma'ikwe; now what?

Ma'ikwe and I have to navigate our professional relationships moving forward and to what extent, if any, it makes sense to try to work together. It's confusing for me to know how much I can trust her commitments at this point.

I went all-in on my relationship with Ma'ikwe, and still got rejected. While not an ending I was looking for, I knew at the time that it wasn't a guarantee and I don't regret the attempt. I am not bitter.

In addition to losing my wife, I'm losing my best friend—the person I'd been sharing my daily observations with. This is highly disrupting and I have no idea how I'm going to replace the comfort and groundedness that I derive from that level of subtle sharing.

Right now there's a large hole in my heart and it will take some time to figure out what it all means and how to adapt to my suddenly wifeless life.

Happy Birthday Ma'ikwe, Annie, and Ronald

Today I'm composing a paean to three people who have been influential in my life—all of whom claim today—Feb 6—as their birthday. In descending order of age:

Ronald Reagan (born 1911)
While it's unquestionably impressive that he overcame associations with Bedtime for Bonzo (that 1951 standard for cinematographic anthropoid high jinx), and shilling for Twenty Mule Team Borax as the host (1964-65) of television's syndicated Death Valley Days to become the 40th President of the US (1981-89), I associate him mainly with the dubious distinction of championing the ill-fated Stars Wars defense system (otherwise known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was based on technology that didn't exist) and gutting the federal government's social support system—which was a kind of Star Wars-inspired magic act of its own ("These sick people are not really sick, and no longer need our help... ")

With the Gipper, I'm reminded of the Tom Lehrer lyric about movie star George Murphy, after he ascended to the US Senate from California in 1965 (predating Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger's electoral success in La La Land):

At last we have a senator who can really sing and dance.

I suppose, indirectly, that I owe Reagan for helping create the environment in which groups need to turn to professional outside help when overwhelmed by challenging internal dynamics. The fact that people are drawn to community for the right reasons does not necessarily mean they have the capacity to be productive members. Helping groups successfully navigate this kind of delicate territory has become bread and butter work for me as a process consultant. So thanks, Ron.

I reckon there's no amount of mean-spirited slashing of the federal safety net for disadvantaged segments of the population that can't be turned into an entrepreneurial opportunity of some sort. While I'd prefer that groups didn't need so much help, here we are.

Ann Shrader (born 1950)
My lifelong friend, Annie, is eligible for Medicare today.

She and I go back a long way—to before Broadway Joe Namath delivered on his brash promise to lead the New York Jets to victory over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas in Super Bowl III. We overlapped for three undergraduate years at Carleton College and then went on to start Sandhill Farm together in 1974. Along the way we had Ceilee: on a clear and cold morning in January 1981, she pushed out our vernix-smeared son and I caught him in the middle of our bedroom floor. It was a very powerful moment that bonded us forever.

Even after Annie left for Virginia in 1999, we have remained close friends. Partly, of course, because of the continuing Ceilee connection, but more than that we've traveled a lot of life together as fellow communitarians, homesteaders, and political progressives. I usually manage to get out to see her in Floyd VA for a visit a couple times of year, where we catch up on each others' lives, do some crosswords, cook together, do a home improvement project or two, and laugh a lot—while her yellow furball of a cat, Otis, deigns to tolerate me as an overnight guest on the floor of the solarium.

Annie is the active friend in my life that goes back further than all others, and is precious to me for that.

Ma'ikwe Ludwig (born 1970)
When I first met Annie, Ma'iwe had not yet been born. To put this further into perspective, Ronald Reagan died before Ma'ikwe and I become intimate partners. So there's some serious spaciousness between the eras in which today's celebrants have been operating.

While Ma'ikwe and I toasted her 45th birthday a couple days early (with an overnight stay involving a hot tub Tuesday night), today she's set aside a contemplative day of seclusion at a neighbor's intern hut (because I'm on the road and she's at home).

Ma'ikwe has been special to me for many reasons. That the least of which is that nobody challenges me like my wife when it comes to doing personal growth work. While that's certainly been awkward at times—and it's an adventure in the jungle of my subconscious figuring out how well I can meet her concerns—I'm dedicated to trying to be the best partner I can and appreciate the caring for me that her surfacing concerns represents.

In that spirit, she gave me some homework Tuesday, right before I hit the road:

A.  Mumbling on the Rise
Since childhood I've had the habit of talking to myself (sotto voce). I'm most aware of doing it when I'm trying to work through unresolved tension with others, yet I also do it when proofreading articles (or blog posts), when running through my To Do List (reminding myself of what's on tap for the day), and replaying impactful exchanges with others.

Ma'ikwe has observed that I'm doing this more these days and is concerned in two ways. First, does it indicated that I'm checking out more from the world around me, perhaps presaging cognitive deterioration? While I don't have the sense that that's happening, neither am I confident that I'd be able to detect it, so I've agreed to get some neurological testing done when I'm home next.

Second, although we have an agreement that I'll bring to her things that need processing between us (when I'm upset and working on it alone does not untie the knot), she's always found it hard to believe that more of my mumbling isn't about her, and now that the frequency is increasing it's even harder.

This is tricky to unpack cleanly, both because my orientation is to first try to resolve tensions internally (rather than starting by expressing my upset to Ma'ikwe and making a request) and because part of my process for determining what I want to do with my feelings is to explore them internally first (during which I don't need to be so careful what I say). I think I'm being respectful and Ma'ikwe feels left out. But then, am I being respectful? To what extent am I fully aware of the feelings I'm mumbling about? How sure can I be that I'm keeping my end of the bargain to bring forward my issues?

B.  Unsure that I Have Her Back
When Ma'ikwe is struggling with something that I'm not involved with (for example, when she runs into bumps in the road as Dancing Rabbit, Inc.'s nonprofit executive director) there's delicacy about how I offer support. While I have clarity about emotional support being a higher priority than advice about nonprofit administration (which she may not be interested in anyway), I have a tendency to move too quickly into what I imagine to be the emotional reality of the other players, and how there might be an innocent explanation for how the matter looks to them.

Commonly enough, Ma'ikwe simply wants me to be present for her emotional experience, and not so damned concerned with what others might be going through. Sympathy should start at home.

C.  How the Spirit Moves Us
For the entire time I've known her (especially the last decade), Ma'ikwe identifies as having a strong spiritual side, especially in relationship to the Earth. While this is something that has slowly been growing in me as well (though I'm not necessarily touched by the same literature or the same rituals in the same way) I've come to understand that it's disappointing for her that we have not bonded more strongly over spiritual inquiry and expression.

D.  Avoiding a Hearing Aid
Starting somewhere about 20 years ago, I've been gradually losing hearing (especially in the high frequencies) in my left ear. I've had this diagnosed by audiologists as irreversible nerve damage, and mostly I've learned to cope by being careful about room acoustics.

It has, however, been a steady source of irritation for Ma'ikwe that I regularly mishear what she says and I have to ask her to repeat statements. Certain environments with high ambient noise, such as parties and most restaurants, are brutal for me and I just steer clear of them when I can.

What I haven't been doing is taking into account how hard (and disrespectful) this has been of Ma'ikwe, who has to constantly deal with my disability when it would be a relatively straight forward thing to minimize it with a hearing aid.

I made a promise to get a hearing aid in the context of moving in with her 15 months ago, but I haven't yet done it. Part of this is money (the little boogers are expensive and need to be replaced every three-five years), and part of this is vanity. For a while we thought the cost of a hearing aid would be covered by Obama Care, but it turned out we were wrong, and we need to get serious about budgeting for this.

You might say, I'm finely hearing how much this means to her.

Long Distance Intimacy

When Ma'ikwe and I first got together in October 2005, she was living in Albuquerque, where she was trying to form an intentional community, and I was living in Rutledge MO, where I had been living in community (Sandhill Farm) for 31 years. While it took us less than a month to decide to get married (which happened in April 2007), we didn't agree to live in the same time zone until 2008, when Ma'ikwe let go of trying to build community in Albuquerque (after five years in the attempt) and joined Dancing Rabbit.

Suddenly, our commute between bedrooms shrunk from 900 miles to three. Much better. We continued that way for five years, until I left Sandhill in November 2013 and we tried the novel idea of living in the same house. 

While this overview presents as a rather deliberate courtship, where we've been circling around intimacy in an ever tightening spiral more evocative of Chekhov than People magazine, it's more complicated than that.

When Ma'ikwe and I first moved into the gravitational field of one another, I was already established as a community networker and national process consultant, and she was on the front edges of moving into a similar career (though more slanted toward sustainability education). It quickly got to the point where a significant fraction of our time together was spent at neither of our homes, attending community functions or collaborating as trainer/consultants.

Thus, while we've gradually come to live together, I'm still on the road about 40-50% of the time, and I don't see that changing any time soon (as long as my health holds out). So there are two patterns here that don't particular nest together easily. On the domestic scene our lives have become ever more intertwined over the course of the last decade. Concurrent with that, my travel patterns—both what I'm doing and who I'm doing it with—haven't changed much at all over the same interval. 

All of which brings us to the reality that I'm typing this blog from the first leg of a month-long sojourn that will ultimately add up to Ma'ikwe and I not being in our Moon Lodge bed together from now until mid-April—a whopping 10 weeks. I'm scheduled to get back home circa March 3, four days after Ma'ikwe starts a six-week speaking tour, where she visits university campuses across the country offering an array of workshops and an expanded version of her popular TEDx talk Sustainable Is Possible (from October 2013).

Both of us will be doing work we love, but mostly not together. While we just completed a winter stretch where we were at Moon Lodge every night for 70 days (hooray!), we're turning right around and spending the next 70 days apart (ugh!)—excepting a 5-day island in the middle where we'll be teaching together in Portland OR (yippee!).

While there's a yin and yang symmetry about this, it's an odd mix, and contributes to strain on the relationship. When one or both of us are on the road (which will now be the case until after federal taxes are due), it's not easy making connections when we have to factor in time zone differences and a wealth of client commitments. While the phone has not been a great medium for Ma'ikwe and me connecting, it turns out that Skype is much more satisfying, where we can see facial expressions.

We'll see what Kyre and Leo (our two Maine Coon cats) think of all this, where Ma'ikwe's and my extensive travels will interrupt the all-night cat valet service they've become accustomed to—where all they have to do to is scratch on the door or the mattress in order to get one of us out of bed at all hours to let them out or in. I'll keep you posted.
• • •Though my first stop on this peregrination is Dunmire Hollow in south central TN (home of FIC Board member Harvey Baker), I have to go north (read Chicago) in order to go south (I make the intermodal switch from train to bus in Memphis tomorrow morning). This means heading into the swirling aftermath of the 20 inches of white stuff that was dumped on Chicago last weekend. 

Fortunately, I needn't stray far from Union Station today and can mostly appreciate the prowess of Father Borealis from the comfort of the train windows. And after today I'll mostly be in the southern latitudes (taking, I hope, and early leave from icy roads and pathways). 

I have a lot to look forward to on this trip:

o  Gathering with old friends in the context of FIC's Oversight Committee meetings Feb 6-7 at Dunmire Hollow, to effect mid-course corrections for organizational affairs between Board meetings.

o  An overnight stop in New Orleans this Sunday as I switch trains from the City of New Orleans to the Sunset Limited. I believe it will mark the first time I've traveled on Amtrak's train #1 end for end. This train operates just three days/week and is the only way to cross the Mississippi River other than via Chicago—of which I see plenty. I'm looking forward to 46 hours en route, fully half of which is crossing Texas east to west.

o  I'll spend six days each in Los Angeles and Las Vegas visiting my kids, Ceilee and Jo, respectively. I haven't seen them since last March, which is the longest I've ever gone between visits and I miss them a lot—along with Taivyn & Connor, my two grandkids; and Zeus, Yoshi, and Zelda, my three granddogs. It should be 12 days full of social time with my kids and their charges.

o  The relaxed time in granddad mode will allow me plenty of opportunity to read and work on my book (which is has not been easy to manifest amidst the various distractions of home).

o  The last weekend of Feb I'll be working in Bayfield CO, facilitating the annual retreat for Heartwood, a well-established cohousing community working on revitalizing itself. While it's possible I'll catch some ice there (at 6900 feet in southwest Colorado that's certainly a possibility), I'm confident that all the meetings will be indoors. In addition to the excitement of the work itself, one of the more promising of my facilitation students, Brent Levin, will be traveling from northern California to apprentice with me and I'm looking forward to that as well.

o  At the tail end of this trip I'll get in a visit with good friends, Peggy & Earl Loftfield. It's been convenient to stay at their house in Albuquerque ever since Ma'ikwe left in '08, but that era is coming to an end as they sell their house in the coming months and move to Hawaii—where I have yet to figure out how to connect with via Amtrak.
• • •As a final note in passing, my mother, Val (who died 12 years ago), would have been 98 today. When she was born the US had not yet entered World War I. What an incredible stretch of time! I'll enjoy taking some quiet moments today remembering her and celebrating her life.

Homes for Community Veterans, Part II

About a week ago I got an email from an old friend wanting advice about where she might look for a community as she approaches her golden years (actually, in terms of hair, it'll be more like her silver years). She spent more than a decade in community in her 20s and 30s and now wants to return to it as she contemplates retirement. 

This is not the first time I've fielded such a request—people deeply familiar with community wanting to return after a long absence—nor do I expect it to be the last. Yet it's challenging to provide a satisfactory answer.

Back in October 2013 I posted Homes for Community Veterans where I explored why it often doesn't work for experienced community folks to return to community after many years away. In this revisiting of the topic I want to take a more optimistic slant and focus on how it's possible—though not necessarily easy—to return.

For the most part these folks are remembering the connections and stimulation of their community experience—not the chaos and stultifying group dynamics. Often people leave in frustration, to pursue a business opportunity, a personal growth path, or perhaps a romantic relationship that was judged to be non-viable in the hot house scrutiny of community. Often they crave the entrepreneurial freedom to set their own course without justifying it to a risk-averse committee that controls access to community resources.

I'm talking about competent people who look around and see that they're alone too much of the time and hanker for a life that again emphasizes companionship with like-valued friends (around whom they don't have to worry about wearing a shirt with a hole in the sleeve).

These are more or less successful people who realize, as they reflect, that they've come to miss the laughter, the dinnertime conversation, and the satisfaction of an everyday life that more closely aligns with one's values. 

That said, how suitable are they for community living today? While they may have gotten wiser over the years, are they more patient; are they more accepting?

They want, naturally, a group that's socially mature (who wouldn't?). Part of that is how well people listen to each other; how readily they find an elegant balance point between values in dynamic tension (say, ecological purity versus affordability); have they learned to be less reactive (or at least less mired in it)? But it turns out to be more subtle than that; "social maturity" in others is actually a code phrase for "people seeing things my way." People may miss authenticity or even vigorous debate, but no one longs to have their viewpoints seriously challenged at home.

To be sure, people age differently. Some get more expansive, which can lead to being easier to get along with and more valued for their balanced perspectives. Some get more contractive, which can translate into increased feistiness and diminished tolerance—neither of which are traits that groups are particularly seeking. You may have gained wisdom over the years but don't count on age automatically translating into being sought out as a mentor.

If you want to be a player again—if you aspire to be recognized as a wandering sage returning from the wilderness—you'll have to earn it, just like a twentysomething does. But if your desires are more modest, and you just want a home—an island of sanity and comfort in a world that's sold its soul to Walmart, Whole Foods, and reruns of Friends—you have a better chance.

If you're pickier now than when you left community, you're likely to encounter friction wherever you go, and living alone may offer a buffer you didn't realize that you (and those dear to you) have come to rely on in order to maintain peace and sanity. If, on the other hand, you're more accepting and have an LTD (low threshold of delight) then there's hope. Three-year-olds are not quieter now than they were 30 years ago, and adults still leave tools out in the rain and blow off work days. Do you have a suspension system now that allows you to bounce graciously over those Utopian potholes, or will you be grinding your teeth at night trying to cope with the other people's thoughtlessness?

It isn't just a question of whether community is good for you. Are you—the person you are today—good for community? You need an affirmative answer to both questions to have a decent chance for a triumphant return.

My wife, Ma'ikwe, is found of saying that community would be easy… if it weren't for the damn people. It's something to think about.

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