Laird's Blog

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.

To Be Young and 34

On Tuesday my son, Ceilee, turned 34.

I recall being told back in the '70s, by the older brother of a college friend, that the ancient Greeks considered the prime of life to be 34 (which just happened to be that guy's age at the time). Who knows, maybe it's true. In any event, I hope it's an auspicious year for my son.

Thinking back to when I was 34, a special memory from that year (besides being iconic for George Orwell fans) was my going on a major summer adventure, principally to visit a college friend, Peg Kehrer, (different than the one above) and her partner, Paul Otte, in Juneau AK.

My odyssey began with a short train trip from La Plata MO to Kansas City, where I spent the night with Everette Wright, a good friend of Sandhill's. In the morning, Everette dropped me off at the driveaway place where I'd arranged to take a Datsun Maxima (1984 was the last year before everything became Nissan) from Kansas City to the suburbs of Seattle.

En route, I stopped by a monument in central Kansas that claimed to be the geographic center of the continental US (which means that if all the land comprising the 48 states were of equal density you could balance the whole of it on the top of the monument and it wouldn't tip in any direction). Kind of an odd thing to erect a monument to, but I can get into geeky math stuff on occasion.

The next day, in the sparsely populated Sandhills of western Nebraska I witnessed a mile-long fully loaded coal train chugging south… only to encounter another fully loaded coal train headed north two hours later. (Do these people talk to each other?)

I stopped by Devil's Tower National Monument (Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind made a big impression on me in 1977), Mount Rushmore, and Yellowstone National Park (where I loved all the geysers and brine shrimp). After a weekend visiting Nancy Shrader (the sister of my partner and Sandhill co-founder, Annie) and her family in Missoula MT, I pressed west across Idaho (where I paused in picturesque Coeur D'Alene long enough to enjoy a serving of apple pie with chocolate ice cream—something I'd always wanted to do after reading about Clancy Sigal doing it in his 1962 road trip cum political memoir Going Away).

In the final leg I drove across the Palouse, visited the Grand Coulee Dam (think Woody Guthrie: Your power is turning our darkness to dawn, so roll on Columbia, roll on)—which I learned is still shedding heat from all the concrete pouring in the '30s and '40s—and sampled aplet (apple/walnut) and cotlet (apricot/walnut) confections in Wenatchee.

After turning in my wheels in the home of this year's defending Super Bowl champions, I spent the night on a park bench in downtown Seattle, and caught the morning sailing of the Princess Marguerite to Victoria BC. After a day of gawking at all the boutiques in that tourist town (where I scored a terrific deal on a used 105 mm Pentax telephoto lens), I caught a bus the next day that took me all the way up the east side of Vancouver Island and deposited me at Port Hardy, just in time to catch the once-a-week BC ferry headed for Juneau, via Prince Rupert, Wrangell, Ketchikan, and Petersburg. The best part was witnessing humpback whales skyhopping at dawn in Frederick Sound. Wow.

I had a lovely visit with Peg & Paul in Juneau, the only state capital inaccessible by car. Highlights included:

o  Hiking up Mount Roberts, just above Juneau. From the summit you can look west over the archipelago of a temperate rain forest. Turning 180-degrees in place you see an alpine desert, replete with marmots that will steal your lunch if you turn your back.

o  Noodling around the Mendenhall Glacier north of town. It was incredible witnessing color shifts in the blue and purple range when peering into deep crevasses.

o  Witnesses a salmon die-off at the end of their spawning run (the bald eagles were so thick that it was impossible to conceive of them as an endangered species).

o  Enjoying the gustatory pleasure of beer-battered halibut, which allowed me to grok why Alaskans consider that gargantuan bottom feeder a superior delicacy to salmon.

o  Exploring the ruins of the Treadwell mine on nearby Douglas Island—once the largest hard rock gold mine in the world, from which over 3 million ounces were extracted during 1881-1922. I managed to come away with a souvenir valve handle (suitably rusted) that we welded onto the air control of our blacksmithing forge back home at Sandhill.

o  A side trip to Tenakee Springs (on Chichagof Island, about 60 ferry miles west of Juneau), where there is only one street, four-feet wide, and no cars. In the center of town is a natural, sulfurous hot springs that alternates between men's and women's in two-hour intervals around the clock.

o  A solo ocean canoe trip between Hoonah and Tenakee Springs (in and around Chichagof). I did about 50 miles in two days. The sobering part was waking up the second day and finding the canoe right-side up and full of water. After two decades of lake and river canoeing in northern Minnesota and interior Canada, I had neglected to take into account the tide. In freshwater canoeing, the waterline stays put overnight; in salt water it doesn't. Having gone to sleep at low tide, I was damn lucky that high tide was only enough to flip my canoe over and not float it away. Whew.

When it was time to head home I advertised in the paper for a ride to the Midwest and caught gold. A person answered that he was driving his pickup straight through to within 10 miles of my sister's place in the suburbs of Chicago, and would be happy with a co-driver who would spring for half the gas. Hot damn! We rendezvoused on the ferry to Prince Rupert and off we went. Stopping only for gas, food, and bathroom breaks we covered 3000 miles in 60 hours. While one drove, the other slept. Though the pickup was equipped with off-road suspension (read bumpy), at a certain point you get tired enough that you can sleep in any conditions.

After a much-needed night of sleep in a bed that wasn't moving, I took the train home. My enduring image of that first day back was getting reacquainted with my three-year-old son. We went for a walk around the farm together and I still have the photo of him buck naked, trying to smell the big face of an eastern drooping sunflower head, growing on the edge of the north garden.

All in all, it was a fine highlight to a perfect year.

Money in Community

With today's entry I'm plowing new ground: for the first time, I'm posting an essay written by a guest author. In this case, Beth Raps, who lives in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia where she operates her business, Raising Clarity: to cultivate abundance in noble causes, people, and organizations.

I first met Beth last October in the context of FIC's search for a new Development Director, which she has been helping us think about more clearly.

As both of us have an abiding interest in sustainable economics, we've been in dialog about right relationship to money, and this essay is the fruit of that conversation. I hope you enjoy it half as much as Beth and I did crafting it.
• • •I think about money a lot. As a fundraising consultant with groups and a money coach with individuals, I help people have more of it, in order to help myself have more of it.

Here's how I got there: I started with the intention of wanting more money flowing in my life. Then I researched until I found a spiritual way to accomplish that. In Creating Affluence, Deepak Chopra wrote:

Helping others make money and helping other people to fulfill their desires is a sure way to ensure you'll make money for yourself as well as more easily fulfill your dreams.

Like most, I had trouble accepting this at first. I was conditioned to believe that there are many obstacles to financial abundance. Scarcity and hoarding were part of my upbringing. It took me a long time to be at peace with even investigating this dubious legacy.

When I scratched below the surface of scarcity and hoarding, I found fear. As such, it is something we detest about money (and capitalism), and one of the reasons we create and join communities that are conscious attempts to move away from the competitiveness of capitalism and toward a more cooperative culture. In community, we intentionally interpose a protective, caring layer between the capitalist economy and isolated individuals.

In my search for something that would work better, I discovered that the Universe will pretty much support any belief. Thus, I sought one that would work for me. Along the way I learned the power of working inwardly (on my own conditioning about money) and at the same time working outwardly (with others' beliefs). Gradually, this purposeful shift got embodied in my experience—to the point where it gets easier and feels more natural all the time. This brought me to where I am today: experiencing money as flow.

But fear is present even then. It can be scary both when the outflow exceeds the inflow (which is not sustainable over time) and when the inflow exceeds the outflow (from whence the phrase "embarrassment of riches").

Money is never sitting still—it is always affirming some value. Too often, we let fear become that value. Then we run away from our fear into ideology, community, or self-chosen poverty. None of these choices lead to taking charge of the money we have, or making decisions with money that affirm our values. The rest of this post explores a few ways to begin doing that.
• • •Taking charge of money and shifting what value we give it does not depend on the amount we have. What matters is how we take charge of the money we have.

Each community has core values. These values are affirmed or negated by the group's choices, including choices about money. While money is not strictly necessary (communities could emphasize self-sufficiency and barter), as a practical matter communities use money because it facilitates fair exchange and provides access to goods and services beyond our ability to manifest or manufacture ourselves.

I invite all of us to become more conscious about the values we're expressing with how we use our money. What are we doing with it? How does it come in? How does it go out? What values would we like it to affirm?

Drilling down, I invite groups to look closely at their answers to these baseline questions:

•  What do you pay for?

•  What don't you pay for?

•  How much do you pay for what?

      •  Explore distinctions you make using money. Are these consciously chosen? Acknowledged by the community? Culturally imposed? Are there ways around those that are culturally imposed—for example, valuing lawyering more than trash collection or early childhood education—that the community can challenge and ultimately shift?

•  What do you receive money for and what do you trade for or give away?

      •  Look to see if what you give away has value you don't mean to be so free about.

•  What do you give (donate), to whom, where, and why (the amount is less important than the intention)?

•  What do you invest, how, where, and with what intention?

      •  Do you have an endowment?

      •  What special funds have you created, and for what purposes?

Notice that these questions all pertain even if money is taken out of the equation and you're trading cheese for shoes, or investing in the community's future by cultivating a wood lot.
• • •I tell clients that if they show me their annual budget (income and expenses) I can tell them what their mission or purpose is.

We have the chance to use money responsibly and in alignment with our spiritual, moral, ethical, and energetic compasses. Our challenge is to make those choices consciously.

I believe, ultimately, that none of our resources belong to us or come from us (which is why I like to view money as flow rather than as an amount). Jane Jacobs, in The Nature of Economies, correctly sources nature as the origin of all resources, and I recommend her book as a perfect place for communities to start seriously exploring these questions. Jacobs offers a beautiful thought experiment through the vehicle of a dinner party among intelligent, kindly friends who disagree on the real-world implications of the choices they make. The book is both poetic and engaging, and I commend it as an entrée to nourishing conversations about money. 

Bon appétit!

Saying No

It's one thing to respond negatively when offered illegal drugs. But just saying "no" isn't so simple when setting limits for what you'll tolerate.

In cooperative culture, establishing boundaries can be tricky. While this has a personal version (where a friend asks a favor) and a group version (where a member asks for group support or permission), I'm going to focus on the latter as the case that's more interesting (read complicated).

In the community that I helped start and lived in for 39 years (Sandhill Farm) we worked hard to say "yes" to any member request—while at the same time cultivated a norm that members use discernment in what they asked for relative to community resources. In consequence, we rarely fielded special requests and we rarely said "no." While this worked fairly well, it's hard for most people to turn down requests from people they care about (don't you love me?), and people are not uniformly shy about asking for what they want—notice I said "want"; not "need."

When people don't ask, the effective answer is always "no." Still, people hesitate to ask for what they want for any number of reasons:

o  Because they're unsure of their standing in the group (do they have enough social capital?).

o  Because they don't think they deserve it.

o  Because they don't want to be perceived as needy or selfish.

o  Because they may want to "save up" for a larger request later.

o  Because they don't want to place their fellow group members in the awkward position of anguishing over whether to say "no." 

Sometimes non-asking leads to people feeling as if they're earning psychic credit that can carry over and be applied to future requests (you should say "yes" because of all the past times I didn't asked for anything). As this accounting happens entirely inside the person's head and is invisible to others, it can lead to some spectacularly awkward dynamics.

What about folks who work hard to understand and internalize the group's standard of living and make few requests? Are they being punished for this relative to members who make few adjustments in what they ask for and wind up getting more of their requests granted simply because they have a thicker skin and can pump out requests guilt-free?

This begs the question, what is your group trying to equalize when evaluating requests?
—Percentage of requests granted per member
—Amount of group resources devoted to personal pleasure
—Degree of privation (all should suffer equally)

It doesn't take rocket science to see where applying different screens may lead to different results—all while presumably paying homage to the blind deity of Fairness. Has your group discussed this? Most haven't. They just bump along in the dark and hope for the best.

When you sift through this, I believe the safest harbor to steer toward has the following four features:

Step 1. Asking members to screen all requests for what they think the group should reasonably support regardless of who makes the request. Note: this standard implies an answer to how much group resources should be held in reserve for contingencies—which is a delicate issue in and of itself.

Step 2. Encouraging members to bring forward all requests that meet the above test (flattening cultural differences about stoicism or deferred gratification, and extinguishing phantom social credits for non-requests).

Step 3. Discussing and determining what the group is trying to equalize when treating member requests "fairly."

Step 4. Developing a culture in which there's minimal judgment about giving or receiving a negative response, so long as it's aligned with your answer to Step 3.

Done well, I think this strategy gives groups a decent chance of being in the know whenever they decide its best to say "no."

Defining Aggression

In cooperative culture, being aggressive is pretty much a universal clear no-no. Unfortunately, it's not necessarily clear where demonstrative behavior crosses the line into aggressive behavior, and this ambiguity can be tough to navigate with sure footing.

Here's a representative dictionary definition of aggression:
hostile attitude or behavior: threatening behavior or actions

The challenge with adjectives such as "hostile" and "threatening" is interpreting intent. It is not at all unusual for someone to receive words or actions differently than they were intended, and nowhere is that more likely than when it comes to negativity.

Let's suppose you are part of a cooperative group that has explicitly said it wants to embrace diversity (supporting each member to be their authentic self) and has established that aggressive behavior is unacceptable.

Let's further suppose that you have two people in your group named Kim and Jesse, and that Kim is a passionate ball of energy with lots of ideas and spontaneity, while Jesse tends to be reserved, thoughtful, and soft-spoken. While both are valued members of the group their styles and personalities are quite different. Suppose Kim speaks frequently in meetings, and Jesse not so much.

It doesn't take a great imagination to see how Kim's normal form of engagement may swamp Jesse's boat. When Kim gets energized, it will be tempting for Jesse to observe, "If I acted that way it would mean I was very upset; if that's true for Kim I'm under attack."

At its worst, Jesse may project upset onto Kim that simply isn't there. But even if Jesse is aware of that trap and refrains from projecting, the playing field is left unsafe for Jesse because it's unnatural and awkward to have to raise one's voice and barge into a fast-paced dialog to be heard. What's comforting and exciting for Kim may be aggressive and chaotic for Jesse.

Given that the group has promised to be non-aggressive, you can appreciate that Jesse may feel betrayed when it allows Kim to set the tone of meetings. Going the other, if meetings typically proceed only at the more deliberate pace that Jesse favors, Kim may feel betrayed by the promise to support members being their authentic selves. Uh oh.

The range of preferences I've described above can arise from a number of differences (while it's not hard to find counterexamples to the stereotypical tendencies I'm describing below, the tendencies still have validity):

o  Family of origin: Northern European stock tends to produce Jesses; Southern European stock tends to produce Kims.

o  Class: Blue collar culture tends to manifest Kims; white collar tends to manifest Jesses.

o  Gender: Men tend to be Kim-like; women tend to be Jesse-like.

Added to this multicultural stew is the likelihood that some members of the group may not be in touch with their feelings—aggressive or otherwise—and thus may deny, when asked, if their statements or actions are aggressive when they actually are. It can be a real train wreck.

What Can You Do?
Here are some ideas about what might help your group navigate this challenging dynamic—without jettisoning agreements about aggression:

1. Normalize the expression of feelings 
Aggression tends to be linked with upset or distress, and many groups struggle with how to work with upset constructively when it enters the room. While it's admittedly a challenge to develop group capacity to work with feelings, I think it's essential that we do. Not dealing with emotions doesn't work well at all (leading to denial, suppression, distortion, and volcanic eruptions when they can no longer be contained).

The hope is that by welcoming the expression of anger, hurt, and fear, these primal human responses can be uncoupled from aggression, and not so scary.

2. Get in habit of asking if people are upset if you perceive them to be
This will work best if it's an explicit group norm—not to put someone in the penalty box, but to better understand what's going on and help them move through it. Emotional distress is both a source of information and energy. Learn how to tap into it—not banish it to the dog house.

3. Offer a range of formats for engaging on topics 
Once you digest that what works well for Jesse is not the same as what works well for Kim, it's only a small additional step to intentionally offering variety in the ways that the group engages on topics. The goal here is to accommodate the range you have in family of origin, class, and gender among the membership such that everyone gets something they're comfortable with some of the time. That should work much better than some segments of the group constantly feeling stifled or unsafe.

Group Works: Transparency

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 Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The tenth and final pattern in this segment is labeled Transparency. Here is the image and thumbnail text from that card: 
Be open about what's real: feelings, experiences, how decisions get made, finances, and more. Transparency arises from a belief that the free flow of information and taking action in direct and honest ways best serves group needs. Handled well, openness nurtures trust, collaboration, and authentic community.

The basic principle here is straight forward: let all stakeholders know what's going on. Think of it as a corollary of the Golden Rule: share information with others as you would have them share information with you.

Still, there are nuances.

A.  Transparency in Integrating New Members
How thoroughly do you integrate new members, especially about how the group functions?

How easily are new folks brought up to speed about how decisions are made, how proposals get generated, what factors were considered when this topic was previously addressed? 

When the group's process is mysterious (or opaque), it delays integration and reinforces the power gradient between old-timers and newbies—which is likely the opposite of what you say you're trying to do.

B.  Project Transparency
If the group is not diligent about establishing expectations for reporting (to whom, how, with what frequency, and with what level of detail), it can lead to group members not knowing what's going on if they don't happen to be on the project team. While this may not be a problem per se (that is, the project may be proceeding well), it tends to erode a sense of ownership in the project, which can bite you in the butt if difficulties emerge with the project and non-team members had no inkling that this was coming..

C.  Transparency and Bad News
While sharing information is a valuable principle, it turns out that some information is more valuable than others. In particular, it's more important that bad news be shared widely and promptly than good. Let me explain. 

Suppose you have a project that depends on garnering $10,000 in donations to proceed. If you don't learn until two months after the fact that your fundraising campaign actually netted $12,000, nobody's nose is likely to get bent out of joint. On the other hand, if it turns out that your major campaign only generated $2,000 and you didn't hear about it until two months later, there is likely to be a number of unhappy campers—both about the shortfall (jeopardizing the viability of the project) and about the time lag in learning about it. It's pretty hard to solve problems you don't know exist.

There is an understandable tendency to delay the dissemination of bad news (in the hopes that some counterbalancing good news may soften the blow), but this is very risky. When the group eventually finds out about the bad news (and it will), your problem is likely to be compounded: a) the original problem; plus b) the erosion of trust. Not good.

D.  Transparency and Minutia  
Going the other way, sharing information can be taken too far. How much detail is needed; at what point is the volume of reporting obfuscating (where the wheat is lost amidst the chaff; where the signal is drowned in the noise)? 

While the most common way that groups struggle with transparency is not sharing information enough, there can also be trouble if that info is not displayed clearly or the essence is buried amidst mind-numbing minutia. Thus, it's not enough to have regular reports; those reports need to be cogently crafted to make the main points clear.

E.  Honesty as a Weapon  
Finally, it's important to understand that stories can be told in multiple ways, and that sometimes sharing information can be more damaging than trust-building; more embarrassing than illuminating. 

For example, let's go back to the fundraising example I introduced in point C above—the version where the campaign falls short of its goal and creates a shortfall in the budget. Let's further suppose that the group's website was malfunctioning for three crucial days toward the end of their Kickstarter campaign and would-be donors were unable to contribute online. 

In reporting the disappointing news, the essential information is that the fundraising campaign missed its target. It might be interesting—though tangential—to add that the website malfunction probably hurt the campaign and that efforts are underway to ensure that such a thing doesn't happen again. However, sometimes you see reports that go further and actually blame the poor results of the campaign on the website crew (even though it was unlikely that the Kickstarter yield would have been five times higher if the website had been functioning perfectly).

By throwing the website crew under the bus, the fundraising team might be hoping to deflect blame from themselves for what happened, but at a dubious cost. Calling out the web team will almost certainly strain relations between them, to the point where it will be hard for those teams to partner again and have it go well.

Better, I think, is that groups hold themselves to a standard of transparency that's a balance of disclosure and discretion. Tell people what they need to know, yet try to be sensitive to how sharing information can damage relationships, instead of enhance them.

Acceptable Risk

In any typical group (let's say with a dozen or more members) it's nearly a lead pipe cinch that you'll have a spectrum of attitudes toward taking chances. That is, you will have some members who are risk tolerant and others who are risk averse. The challenge is recognizing this (without name calling) and figuring out a way that both sides can play nice together.

This is hard because the folks at each end of the spectrum tend to view those at the other end as their worst nightmare. If you're risk tolerant, the risk averse keep gumming up the works with hand wringing and doomsday predictions. If you're risk averse, then the risk tolerant are always inviting you into propositions that feel unsafe. It can be exhausting,

If you accept, in concept, that all risks are not appropriate to take, yet neither is it wise to take no risks, how do you navigate this dynamic? How does a group determine acceptable risk?

Here are key questions:

1. Do all parties feel heard?
This is foundational, and can often be trickier than it appears. In essence, it's making sure that each player—especially those on the other end of the risk spectrum—report being satisfied that their input has been accurately heard. Note that this is more than being able to parrot back the words—it's also understanding what the words means to the speaker.

It's common to stumble here when the listener thinks they've heard the speaker, but has neglected to affirm that with the speaker. Even when the listener is correct (about having fully heard the speaker), things don't proceed smoothly when the speaker has no confidence that they've heard.

Worse, if this is a familiar dynamic (say where a risk tolerant listener is hearing the same old song from a risk averse speaker), there's a marked tendency to close one's ears after the first few bars—because it sounds so familiar—prematurely closing off the possibility of taking in nuances that are different this time. Hint: eye rolling does not help here.

2. Does the proposal address the concerns that have been raised; does it recognize the opportunities?
There is a much greater chance of successfully bridging the two ends of the risk spectrum if the proposal does a fair job of specifically addressing reservations surfaced by the risk averse. Obviously that means those reservations need to have been solicited and accurately taken in.

Going the other way, if the risk averse insist on placing a governor on operations proposed by the risk tolerant, does that suck all the air out of the balloon? Are there too many restrictions or so much red tape that there's no flavor left in the broth? If addressing concerns is tantamount to shackling or emasculating the initiative, it can be the same as a death sentence.

People need some room to experiment and test new ideas, just as much as they need to feel that risks are within bounds. In short, there needs to be something for everyone.

3. Does everything have to go well in order to succeed, or is there room for some setbacks without sinking the ship?
If there are several components to the proposal, does it require that each one be successful for the entire proposal to succeed, or is there wiggle room such that a few may fall short and there's enough resilience that the main objective can still be met?

Suppose there are six components to the proposal, and that you can reasonably project a low, average, and high outcome for each one. If the only pathway to overall success requires that you achieve high outcomes for all six components, then success is wildly improbable. One the other, if you can succeed by achieving only average outcomes for all six components, then you might reasonably argue that low outcomes in some areas may be compensated for by high outcomes elsewhere.

4. Do you have the personnel to execute and manage the initiative?
Even if the group buys the general concept, there may be questions about whether your group possesses the skill necessary to execute and manage the project. Or, even if you have the internal capacity, the key people may not have sufficient interest or availability to devote to the project. If so, do you have financial wherewithal to hire this work out?

Caution: If there are a number of key roles being assigned to people inexperienced with what the project requires, have you budgeted for fool's tax—taking into account the likelihood that first-timers will make more mistakes and take longer to complete tasks than veterans?

5. Is there an adequate commitment to transparency? 
Sometimes groups make the mistake of limiting (or not making explicit the expectations for) access to information about the project—especially bad news, like cost overruns—for fear that it may mire the group into grueling conversations about whether to scuttle the project, or that the time it will take the project team to explain how best to interpret the news is better spent on doing the project, rather than defending it. There is considerable danger though in delaying the release of this information. It's rolling the dice. 

If some corresponding good news does not surface before this bad news comes to light, you will then have two problems instead of one: a) examining whether or not to continue the project given the impact of the bad news; and b) dealing with the erosion of trust that will surely follow from the discovery of the cover-up.

In almost all cases, it's a better policy to see that the whole group is regularly informed of developments, especially if the news is bad. In fact, standards for frequency and what detail will be covered in reports should automatically be addressed at the point that the project is approved. This is in everyone's best interest.

6. How much does success depend on successfully navigating virgin territory?
There is inherently more risk in a project that has no parallel in the group's history, or occurs on a  scale that dwarfs what has gone before. It's harder to know that you've done enough research; it's hard to know how sound your estimates are; it's hard to assess whether you possess adequate internal skill to carry it off.

I'm not saying this adds up to never attempting things you haven't done before; rather, I'm saying that the unknown increases risks and that this needs to be taken into account.

7. How do potential gains stack up against potential losses?
If you've done something approximating the above it should be possible to place all the risks in one column and all the potential benefits in another. How does it look?

Unfortunately, I can't promise that this will be a magic moment. That is, the risk tolerant may look at this chart and see a green light, while the risk averse may be seeing red. Even when everyone agrees on what the data is, that doesn't guarantee that the data will be interpreted similarly. Some, for example, simply require a greater contingency fund in order breathe normally.

At the least though, you'll be discussing this as the sum of measurable parts, instead of on the basis of prove-that-you-love-me-and-just-say-yes gut checks. Hopefully, a (well-researched) chart will provide you with opportunities to test claims for favorable outcomes of discrete components (such as fundraising) before you're irrevocably committed to the whole megillah. • • •To be sure, navigating risk is tricky, but it can be done. In fact, it has to be done, and done in such a way that everyone feels their input has been incorporated in a balanced response. It helps me to remember that when people disagree with me in a cooperative setting that we get the opportunity to produce hybrid vigor (rather than vigorous rancor). It also helps me remember that we all want success for the group, and that were all on the same team—even if some people wear glasses that have more rose-tinted lenses than others.

Riding the Energy Rollercoaster

This past Wednesday I was able to buy six gallons of regular gasoline for less than $10. I was gobsmacked.

For years now I've mostly been hoping to see prices at the pump begin with the number two instead of three, but for some reason there must be a glut right now. On top of that, Missouri and Oklahoma lead the nation in low gas prices. While I get it that Oklahoma is an oil producing state, why Missouri—especially northeast MO, which is the corner of the state that's most removed from OK oil wells? It's a mystery.

To be sure, I don't drive much these days (the last time I bought gas was Thanksgiving) so this precipitous decline caught me completely off guard. While the pumps in Kirksville MO (my destination Wed evening) were offering regular at $1.92/gallon, I was able to further press my advantage by doing some food shopping at the local HyVee, which offers gas discounts based on what you buy. My grocery purchases that evening resulted in a further discount of 32 cents per gallon, bringing my actual price per gallon down to $1.60. It was like winning the lottery.

While happy about my good fortune, I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, I love benefiting from a bargain, and I'm pleased that drops in the price of crude oil are being passed along to consumers (rather than resulting in windfall profits for gas refineries).

On the other, it's crazy that gas is this cheap. I figure lower prices now presage higher costs tomorrow, resulting in amplified peaks and valleys—all of which make it harder to budget and give us false hope about oil reserves relative to energy consumption.

I believe we desperately need to be on a diet—especially in the energy profligate US—and it's hard to make headway when we experience these enticing troughs of cheap gas, encouraging us to put our collective heads back into the sand (and I don't mean tar sand). We need to learn to drive less, ride share more, and buy cars that get better mileage. Cheap gas undercuts the momentum to support these lifestyle changes.

Transportation costs have a profound impact on markets. When gas prices are low, it's easier for distant manufacturers to compete locally (giving an advantage to both bigness and wage differential). When gas costs are higher—which is surely our future—then there's an advantage to locally produced goods (which are shipped shorter distances) and you can pay better wages without losing market share. So higher gas prices tend to help locally owned businesses that produce goods, as well as companies whose services must be delivered live as opposed to digitally or virtually.

In addition, stronger local businesses are directly linked to greater resilience when buffeted by the vagaries of economic booms and busts, because neighbors are the bread and butter market for local businesses and that personal link is broken (or at least compromised) when corporate headquarters are several states distant and are managed by faceless executives for whom you are consumers, not people.

So bring on the higher gas prices! At the least we might go as high as Europe, where prices average 2.3 times what we pay in the US—not because crude oil is any more expensive there, but because they tax it that much more to encourage conservation of a dwindling resource. To be sure, I get it why it's politically expedient to suppress taxes and that politicians tend to be notoriously short-sighted (seeing no further than the next election), but how prudent can it be accelerating into a brick wall?

Feminism in Community

I was recently in a discussion at home where about eight of us were shining our collective light on the topic of feminism. While there was ready agreement that Dancing Rabbit aspired to be a feminist community, it wasn't so easy defining what that meant, and even some resistance to making the attempt.

Actually some parts were easy. We want the community to be a place where:
a)  Objectifying, sexist humor is discouraged.
b)  Opportunities for members are not limited by gender or sexual orientation.
c)  It's encouraged to call out sexist statements or behaviors when you encountered them.

Less solidly—though probably strongly supported, at least as a near-term strategy—it's a place where:
d)  We're willing to selectively practice reverse discrimination in a thoughtful (as opposed to knee-jerk) attempt to level the playing field for the discrimination that women typically encounter relative to men in the mainstream (such as glass ceilings, or unequal pay for equal work).

Thinking more broadly, to me it means a place where:
e)  We purposefully create and nurture cooperative (relational) culture, in contrast with competitive (adversarial) culture. 
f)  The ultimate aim is gender blind engagement.

When it comes down to what we've actually created and support, it gets complicated. While I think there would be wide acceptance with the general notion that we do not intend a commitment to feminism to translate into pro-women attitudes (as in women being favored over men as policy), in reality we tolerate—even celebrate— a degree of assertiveness in women that would be labeled aggressive and intimidating if done by a man. This is an example of support for d) above, and is, in my observation, so pervasive in community culture (not just DR culture) that women tend to fill a majority of leadership positions (because they're given more latitude to do their jobs).

Mind you, I'm not saying good or bad; I'm just calling it the way I see it.

My sense is that in the mainstream culture girls tend to be conditioned to be more relational and boys conditioned to be more problem solvers. Yes, I'm shamelessly stereotyping and it's easy to think of counterexamples, but this difference is significant. In the mainstream culture, problem solving tends to be more revered (and paid better) than relationship building. In cooperative culture though, both qualities are deemed valuable, and what women bring to the table tends to be every bit as honored—so long as it's functional. That is, if a person can prove themselves to be reasonably competent then communitarians don't care what their gender is, and communities are more likely to be gender blind when making manager assignments.

(When I think back over my 27 years as a process consultant, and all the challenging folks I've wrestled with in group settings, I don't see a pattern of one gender being more difficult than another. That is, women, men and queers are equally likely to be jerks and no one gender monopolizes assholery.)

Where It Gets Hard
One of the (mostly) hidden aspects of this consideration is whether the people comprising feminist-identified groups are willing to do the personal work needed to understand their own conditioning, which tends to operate below the level of consciousness. That is, the fact that you don't think of yourself as gender discriminating has only a casual relationship to whether you are. This is going to be especially true of men—the segment of mainstream society that is the beneficiary of most gender discrimination. The haves are far more likely to be oblivious to their advantages than the have-nots. 

Thus, women (as well as those who identify as LGBTQ) tend to be significantly more sensitive to gender discrimination than men, and it can be delicate work sorting out what's happening when the group seems to respond much more enthusiastically to something said by a man than to a similar suggestion made earlier by a woman.

•  How much is this unconscious gender discrimination?
•  How much are women projecting gender discrimination when there's resistance to their ideas (perhaps because at the point that the woman spoke the group was not ready to come to agreement; perhaps because the two statements were similar, yet different in crucial ways)?•  How much of this is the group simply coming to agreement at its own pace and the fact that a man spoke last isn't significant (the last speaker is going to have a gender, but that doesn't mean that's significant)?

This is very murky territory, where the observations of any party can be discounted as biased. All can have a piece of the truth; some can be off base.

I think the most hopeful thing to strive for is an atmosphere where you can hit the pause button and frankly discuss the dynamics—where everyone gets a chance to weigh in. If it's dangerous to bring this out in the open, it'll be damn hard to get to the deeper levels of gender dynamics—making it that much harder to establish a solid foundation for feminist culture, however you define it.

Mildred Gordon Crosses the Bar at 92

Sunset and evening star,
         And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
         When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
         Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
         Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
         And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
         When I embark;

For though from out our borne of Time and Place
         The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
         When I have crossed the bar.

                 —Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1889
Mildred Gordon died peacefully in her sleep this morning, surrounded by family and friends at Ganas, the community she helped found on Staten Island in 1979.

I knew Mildred for about 30 years. We first met in the mid-'80s when she and others from Ganas came down to Twin Oaks to participate in a Federation of Egalitarian Communities assembly, to explore what other income-sharing communities were doing and the extent to which it made sense to make common cause.

While it would have been enough that we were friends for 30 years and both founders of income-sharing communities, I'm taking this time to eulogize Mildred because she was also a teacher and mentor to me in the field of group dynamics, and she counseled me through some poignant, difficult times. I recall three in particular:

a) When Elke and I broke up in 1989, she wound up moving at Ganas with our two-year-old daughter, Jo. Mildred, and others at Ganas, worked hard to help Elke see that there was no good thing to be gained by vilifying me and wrapping herself in victim's raiment. Thus, in a period of months, Elke was able to move through her grieving the loss of our intimate partnership and start to rebuild her life based on the positive things in her life—the things she had control over. In addition to making it far easier to be friends (instead of estranged lovers), this helped enormously for me to continue being an active father for my daughter—which has been precious to me—and for Elke and I to co-parent without ever using our daughter as a football. That was huge.

b) It happened that I was visiting Ganas when my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in November, 1989. While plans were settling for the family to gather in South Carolina for the funeral, Mildred spent a lot of time with me one-on-one getting me to explore my feelings and whatever came up. It was the first time I had ever lost someone that close to me and I had no idea about grieving. Luckily, Mildred did. 

She knew I needed to talk, and the initial sorting I did with her (along with the reflective time I had taking Amtrak's Silver Meteor from New York City to Yemassee SC) enabled me to be clear enough to request a special, two-hour conversation with my mother and siblings, where we started to unpack the volatile and conflicted feelings we had toward Dad, taking advantage of the vulnerability and spaciousness unique to loss. 

This was, to be sure, something we'd never done before as a family, and it was a watershed experience for me in terms of how I related to family members from then on. Looking back, it's doubtful that I would have had it together to have made the request without all the work Mildred did with me in the first 36 hours after learning of my father's death.

c) I was visiting Ganas at some point in the mid-90s, when I had an important facilitation gig lined up, working with a sister community where I knew I'd be called upon to labor with a friend about founder dynamics. My challenge was how to get the issue authentically out in the open without it coming across as an ambush.

One magical evening I was visiting Mildred up in her room and we decided to role play the dynamic, where Mildred was me and I was my friend. For about an hour we had this freewheeling conversation where I got into being my friend and voicing how I expected her to respond.

This experience turned out to be terrifically insightful. Based on that preparation, when it came time to actually do the work I was able to establish to my friend's satisfaction that I understood and could empathize with what they were going through. I was able to demonstrate viscerally that they were not alone, and this proved to be pivotal in maintaining a constructive and pliable tenor to the examination.

It turned out that this experience was foundational for me as a professional facilitator and group consultant, and I've carried it with me the last 20 years whenever I'm in a situation where someone feels backed into a corner.
• • •My relationship with Mildred was not that of peers. She was always the teacher and I was the student (who was sometimes enthralled by the lessons and sometimes repulsed); she was the facilitator and I was the respondent. While she enjoyed probing what was going on with me, she did not encourage that kind of examination in the other direction. While I chafed at this imbalance for quite a while, I finally came to accept that learning from Mildred was a gift and it was unwise of me (not to mention churlish) to push away the invitation just because the exchange did not flow both ways.

For many years Ganas went by the name Foundation for Feedback Learning, which was their educational nonprofit and very much the center of their social experiment. Mildred was keen on investigating the ways that people shoot themselves in the foot by limiting or distorting the intake of critical information about how they are perceived. (The idea here is not necessarily that others are seeing you accurately, but that it's never in your interest to not know how your statements and behavior are landing with others. In fact, it's highly beneficial to discover at the earliest opportunity any discrepancies between what you intended and how you are received.)

It turns out that most of us engage in all manner of shenanigans to avoid or insulate ourselves from receiving feedback, even when it's directly against our best interests to resist it. 

In the process of doing this work, Mildred was among the most adept practitioners I ever encountered at working a dynamic both emotionally and rationally, which approach had a profound influence on how I developed as a professional facilitator. After witnessing Mildred at the top of her game, I wouldn't settle for group work that didn't simultaneously engage content and energy, and I'm not confident I would have come to that understanding without Mildred's guidance.

Another reason I appreciated Mildred and my time at Ganas was the intensity of the engagement (it certainly wasn't for the coffee, which was every bit as weak as the conversations were strong). I've never encountered another group that devoted so much attention to group dynamics (and I thought I was a junkie). 

Ganas in the '90s—which was the decade when Jo was splitting time between there and Sandhill, and I was visiting regularly—held planning sessions every morning six days a week, and then had freewheeling after dinner conversations most days as well. On your birthday you could decide what personal growth topic you wanted to work on all day. In fact, they were into the process tank so spectacularly that I use Ganas as the poster child for one end of the spectrum on how-much-do you-want-to-be-in-each-others'-lives-by-virtue-of-being-a-member-of-this-community. (On the other end are communities that hold potlucks once a month.)

While most people who visited Ganas or heard about their strong commitment to group process found the attention they gave interpersonal dynamics appalling, I loved it.

The last time I saw Mildred was in October, 2012. I visited Ganas for three days and spent an hour sitting with her each afternoon letting the conversation go wherever it wanted. Though I'd been cautioned ahead of time that Mildred was starting to lose her cognitive abilities, I couldn't discern any loss of focus or relevance to her comments. They say that long-term memory is the last to go and I suppose I benefited from the vast majority of our common history falling comfortably into the long-term column. Or maybe she was just having a good week. 

In any event it was a touching and connecting final visit.

One of Mildred's foibles was the feeling that she was going to die young, which she was mildly obsessed about. I believe many of her immediate family had died young and she expected a similar fate. Well Mildred, having lived to be 92 it's hard to say you got cheated—and all those who knew you are the richer for your longer stay.

Culture Change Versus Lifestyle Change

In the last month I received this inquiry from a follower of this blog:

What is the minimal critical mass of emotional/interpersonal intelligence necessary for a group to actually manifest the spirit and process [needed for community to succeed]? My ten-year experience in cohousing resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and a real cynicism (not yet misanthropy) regarding our species current capacity to pull this off. 

That's a good question. In essence, what is our maturity and our capacity to grow in the ways needed for community to succeed?

I think the key lever in this equation is not so much maturity (degree of sophistication in communication skills, and depth of familiarity and facility with group dynamics and different systems of governance) as openness to self-examination and change (ability to be curious when faced with divergent viewpoints, commitment to looking for blind spots when challenged, and willingness to try something different when people or circumstances shift). If you are accomplished at the latter, you can derive the former.

So let's focus on change, which can be both exhilarating and unsettling.

It is common for those of us active in the field of intentional community to be discussing change. As in change from the mainstream; change in the way we communicate, change in what we eat, change in how we raise children; change in how we build homes; change in how we respond to distress; change in how we run meetings; change in how we make decisions; change in how we define leadership; change in how we relate to material wealth; change in how we view mental health; change, even, in how we relate to change.

We speak both about lifestyle change and about culture change—sometimes interchangeably—but they aren't the same thing. In this essay I want to focus on the difference between them, and why the heavy lifting is done under the banner of culture change.

People make lifestyle changes all the time. Some are relatively minor (such as giving up wearing blue jeans, neckties, or pantyhose; or when my father switched from smoking cigarettes to cigars in 1964 when the Surgeon General announced that cigarettes were detrimental to one's health). Some are a bit more serious (switching from a sports car to a Volvo, opting for safety and mileage over acceleration and flash). Some are downright major league (moving from the city to the country; or changing one's diet from fast food to vegan).

Culture change, however, occurs on a deeper level. It requires thinking about what you would ordinarily do without thinking at all—challenging baseline assumptions. We have all been steeped in cultural conditioning that creates a context for how we experience the world and how we tend to respond to it. It is the water we swim in. Culture change requires stepping back from that conditioning and consciously choosing to shift something: like leaving the water and starting to breathe air. It's not just breaking habits; it's breaking molds.

Thus, culture change is much more difficult to achieve than lifestyle change, which is important when considering what it takes to be successful at creating vibrant intentional communities. Here's why:

1. Many intentional communities are attempts to purposefully create a quality of connection among members that is ordinarily not available in mainstream neighborhoods. (I'm not saying it couldn't be; I'm saying it isn't.)

2. Intentional communities are founded on the idea that we can all have a good quality life at a lower cost per person if we share assets.

3. In order to achieve 1 & 2 above, you need to live more closely with fellow members (both physically and psychically) and that requires either: a) surrendering to a leader (or leaders) who will tell you how to behave; or b) creating a more cooperative atmosphere in which to manage jointly owned assets and to successfully navigate the tensions that will naturally result from people with different styles and personalities needing to work things out together.

4. When you digest that the vast majority of us have been raised in competitive culture that is both hierarchic and adversarial, you understand that it takes a sea change to shift to cooperative culture. For one thing you have to start valuing relationships more than truth (or who's right). This is a big change.

One of the things that makes living in intentional community hard is that some people come to it ready to effect culture change, while others are only open to lifestyle adjustments. As a result, there's considerable variance in the degree of elasticity among the membership. Some are prepared for far more stretching than others, and there's more than a little poignancy to the tensions that can result from culture changers who are pleading to get everyone on board with a commitment to that degree of shift, being resisted (and resented) by lifestyle changers who feel they're being bullied into conversations and considerations they never signed up for.

Caution: In laying this out, I do not want to be understood to be favoring culture changers over lifestyle changers. Both have their place. While culture changers may be better equipped to make seminal shifts in what it means to be a human being in this world, both culture changers and lifestyle changers can create successful communities—by which I mean communities where everyone is happy with what they've created and they've developed functional ways to make collective decisions.

That said, I am trying to make the case that people trying to establish successful intentional communities are going to be far more likely to succeed if their membership is strongly slanted one way or the other: all culture changers or all lifestyle changers—because strong advocates for one side don't tend to play well with their counterparts championing the other.