Saturday, December 29, 2007

Thinking of Geoph

Yesterday was Geoph Kozeny's birthday. He would have been 58. 

     Ordinarily he would have celebrated his birthday with me and my cmty at Sandhill (we were the regular year-end stop on his annual peregrination, right after Christmas with his mother in southwest Missouri). But pancreatic cancer cut his life short and he died two months ago in the San Francisco apartment of his dear friend and ex-partner Eraca Cleary. I got to see him two days before the end and treasure having had the opportunity to have been with him at the last. Writing this evokes the image of him rallying to squeeze my hand for our final parting. Though his body was wasted by the ravaging disease, his spirit remained strong and clear throughout.
     I miss him. 
     It's different going through the holiday season without Geoph. While not exactly a lump of coal in my stocking, it's certainly a lump in my throat.
     Right after Geoph passed away, I turned 58—the age he didn't quite live to reach—and it's been a wake up call, pulling the curtain back from the illusion that we have oodles of time to get around to the life we meant to live. Losing Geoph brought home the reality of our mortality and that we truly don't know how long we have.
     It has also help me step back and take a look at what hooks me, and my patterns of irritation. Going through the pain and grief of losing a dear friend offers perspective on what's truly matters and the ways one allows pettiness to obscure what really valuable—either because we become obsessed with the surface and miss the core, or because our heads are turned the wrong way, distracted by the glitter of some passing bauble or drama.
     Geoph was an optimist's optimist, and it buoys me to hold onto the kinship we had around our unflagging efforts to help build a more cooperative and fair world. While, like Geoph, I expect to die with a full In Box, I love what I do and have no intention of deferring engagement or enjoyment to an uncertain future. I'm not counting on another life to make up for opportunities I've inadvertently squandered or postponed in this one. As the bumper sticker says, "This is not a rehearsal," and I am a player.
     I am a better person for our having walked so many of the same pathways and for having had him as a friend. So it's fitting to take time in this season of long nights and reflection to feel again the ache of his absence and to raise a glass to Geoph and the wonderfully rich 22 years we had together.
     Though Geoph is gone, he is still with me.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Clash of Ritual & Diversity

Merry Christmas One and All!

Though I mean that genuinely, I know I'm taking a risk in expressing it.
Even though Christmas—for those who celebrate it—is typically treasured as a time of joy and family connection, in many communities it is a delicate negotiation. Most cmties value diversity and many feel that celebrating Christmas reinforces Christian dominance in the wider society, or pays homage to a culture of materialism. For some, erecting a Christmas Tree is being insensitive to the phenomenon of cultural hegemony, both because the Christians co-opted that symbol from the pagans, and because it has become so inextricably associated with gaudy displays of excess. 
It's ironic that the message of Christian charity and accepting people for whom they are has come (two millennia later) to be more divisive than bridging. And it's all the more poignant because ours is a culture that is starved for ritual and celebration. Instead of embracing Christmas as a time for the whole cmty to pause and rejoice in the year just completed, for some groups it has become a battleground, where common facilities are considered off limits for any kind of spiritual practice, for fear that some will feel excluded. 
To be sure, bad things happen in this world, and cultural imperialism is one of them. Rather than embracing sterility though (while fair, it's incredibly dull), I prefer to make room for the fullest possible enjoyment of all the cultural heritages that touch my life. Better, let's start creating our own rituals (or adapting the old ones for current needs—just as the Christians shoehorned the Christmas Tree into their cosmology).
When my son was a pre-teen (about 20 years ago) he became, as many young boys do, enthralled with fire. Going with the flow, we created a ritual called Sky Dragon that we celebrated every March 3. It was the annual burning of our brush pile, marking the end of winter pruning and the advent of spring. Some years the flames would leap so high that the volunteer fire department would call to make sure everything was OK.
Over the years, Sandhill has celebrated much more than birthdays and anniversaries. While it changes over time and we never do everything every year, we've taken time for New Year's, Birgit, Valentine's Day, Sky Dragon, Spring Equinox, Passover, Easter, May Day, Summer Solstice, Fourth of July, Lammas, Labor Day, Rosh Hashanah, Fall Equinox, Sukkot, Thanksgiving, and Winter Solstice—as well as Christmas.
Maybe we just like parties, but I much prefer the rich complexities afforded by a calendar dotted with many opportunities to cook a special meal and have everyone over for stories and laughter, for ritual and remembrance.
In whatever way you relate to this season, I hope your day was like mine—full of love and connection. And to all, a good night.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Poignant Parting when Dreams Diverge

I wrote a couple days ago about Ma'ikwe's frustrated attempts to establish an intentional cmty in Albuquerque. Cmties fail all the time (their success rate is similar to restaurants—most don't see their second birthday), yet there were was a special quality about the Albuquerque efforts worth noting.

Over the last two years, I worked professionally (through CANBRIDGE, my process consulting business) with Ma'ikwe's forming group five times. In fact, until a couple months ago, I thought I was going to be living in the group part time as Ma'ikwe's out-of-state consort. So I was highly motivated to pay attention and I knew the group pretty well. While the mix of who was in the group varied, there were nonetheless some interesting themes to their efforts.
Over the course of my 30+ years in the field, it's my sense that the #1 cause for failure among forming cmties is insufficient social skills, by which I mean (listed roughly in ascending order of sophistication) the ability to:
—clearly express thoughts
—clearly identify what topic is being discussed
—minimize repetition in mtgs
—stay on topic in mtgs
—clearly express feelings
—hear accurately what others are expressing
—reflect accurately what others are expressing
—bridge between statements when people mishear each other
—work conflicted moments constructively

What was noteworthy about the Albuquerque group was that they did not suffer from a paucity of social skills. They were, in fact, unusually savvy. Many in the group are practitioners of Avatar, an international personal growth discipline that has helped many become more self-aware and self-actualized. So communicating well was not a limiting factor. 
In this case, the group had a problem coalescing on what kind of cmty to create together. There was enough skilled leadership in the group, but, in the end, not enough flexibility among the leaders to develop a model that all could enthusiastically support. Each had their own dream of cmty, and they didn't fit together easily. One was well defined, with clear boundaries around property and membership. Another was fairly loose, as in a vibrant neighborhood, where there was no common property and people moved in and out of participation as they were motivated and available. A third's vision was about supporting cooperative activities all over the city and region, and didn't want the scope of activities to be too narrowly focused.
The poignant thing was that all of these visions are excellent; all of them are well-rooted in a common value of promoting a more cooperative, sustainable lifestyle; and all of them are needed as antidotes to today's fragmented and alienating society. While no one was the "bad guy," in the end, no two of the three leaders were able to effectively combine energies to fully manifest any of the three models. It has been painful watching the three of them struggle so hard to cooperate in the service of Cooperation. 
While all three remain friends, their paths are now diverging, and they're seeking different allies to build their dreams. Because of their social skills, they all have excellent prospects. It just doesn't appear that it will be happening with each other.
As important as social skills are to a cmty's success, sometimes they are not enough.

Friday, December 21, 2007

When Is It Time to Let Go?

My wife, Ma'ikwe Ludwig, has been trying to start an intentional community in Albuquerque the last four years. We got married last April and the understanding throughout has been that she was committed to being in NM (in addition to her community aspirations and the friends she's attempting this with, the other parents of her two kids live there, and that's where her job connections are concentrated). This winter though, after her fourth attempt at establishing a cmty went down the tubes, she's letting go of Albuquerque and plans to move to Dancing Rabbit this spring. While DR is only three miles from my home at Sandhill Farm—which is orders of magnitude better than her living in another time zone—it was a gut-wrenching decision for her to make.

My response to this news is complex. While there is no question in my mind about her commitment to cmty or her commitment to our partnership, I am unsure of her commitment to DR as a home, and am unsure of whether she's through trying to start a cmty. Thus I'm unsure how excited to get about the prospect of my wife moving next door, because I'm unsure how long it will last and I don't want my heart to be broken.
There are still a number of powerful questions to answer before I'm convinced that Ma'ikwe will be in northeast MIssouri to stay: 
—How will Jibran (her 10-year-old son) fare splitting time between his mother in MO and his father in NM?
—How will Ma'ikwe make a living? While Ma'ikwe has been successful in many areas of her life, manifesting economic abundance has, so far, not been among them. While the cost of living in northeast MO is quite low, so are the prospects for making a living (two sides of the same coin). While I've no question about her ability to get by, where will the money come for building a home, discretionary travel, and Jibran's education?
—Ma'ikwe has been living in cmty for the last 10 years, yet that's included four places and she's never lasted longer in any of them than her tenure in Albuquerque. Why will DR be different?
—Finally, does she still have the cmty founding bug in her?

In my 30+ years as a cmty networker I've become personally acquainted with untold numbers of people with aspirations to start a cmty. Some were dreamers with no practical idea of what they were getting into; some had no social skills and you knew from the get-go that their ship would never leave the dock; some had no money and clung to the naive expectation that the world would provide (because, in their view, their concept was so strong and their intent so pure); some had the people and no land; some had the reverse… and a select few had enough savvy and experience to have a really solid chance. Ma'ikwe was among this last group and I respected her choice to start a cmty in Albuquerque—even though I mostly try to dissuade people from the attempt (it is so much easier to get one's cmty needs met by joining a cmty than starting one).
There's a paradox about the Communities Movement's need to have people start new cmties and the difficulties of succeeding. It is not for the faint of heart. Yet cmty is needed everywhere and the world is unquestionably better off with 50 solid groups of 20 people than a single vibrant cmty of 1000. We need choices and widespread models of how to live together cooperatively; not just a few isolated examples. So there's the networker part of me that doesn't want Ma'ikwe to give up on starting a cmty (even while there's the husband part of me that does).
As much as anything, Ma'ikwe is an organizer (and a good one, too). It's no small part of why we're together, and we both know she's in this world to do stuff, even though it's not always clear just what that should be. In the end, I think her satisfaction with making a home at DR will come down to whether Ma'ikwe will find it a sufficient base for social change work. The ultimate question will be whether she can make her greatest contribution to a more positive, cooperative world by living at DR. And that's a question that can't reasonably be answered before the attempt. Luckily, when signing up for this marriage, I didn't check the box marked "uncomplicated."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Meeting One's Meat

I am the cmty btucher. While others do it also, I do it most. 

Yesterday morning, Gigi and I cut up the final deer of the season, providing one last chance to get acquainted with next year's roasts and hamburger. I had missed most of this year's harvest because I'd been traveling Oct 15-Dec 7, and was glad for this opportunity to have my hands on our meat.
(Northeast Missouri has proven to be a so-so habitat for people and excellent habitat for deer. During Sandhill's one-third century tenure in the area, the human population has been in steady decline while the deer population has been on this rise. Though the hunting season definitely endangers the deer in this part of the state, there is no danger of running out of them.)
Like most of us at Sandhill, I'm an omnivore. Because we are a homesteading cmty, we do all we can to raise our own omnis. That is, we try to have the same up-close-and-personal relationship with our meat that we do with our grains & vegetables. We also place a high value on a healthy diet and being environmentally sensitive about what we eat. Both of these values have led us to a low-meat diet (at least by US standards)—we serve meat perhaps once or twice a week; more in the winter, less in the summer.
While I have no interest in hunting, I enjoy butchering. It's a ritual for me, honoring the animal that will be sustaining me and my family. In addition to deer, I've butchered steers, pigs, goats, and all manner of poultry and fish. Regardless of the species, there is always reverence for me when taking a life and I consider it a sacred trust to make the fullest use of the animal. For me, time in the kitchen with a carcass is akin to time in church.
While many people I know are squeamish about the idea of butchering, or having a personal relationship with with one's food (how can you eat your friend or pet?!), I was influenced in this regard by Robert Heinlein's classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land, which included the extraterrestrial concept of ritually drinking the fluids of the dearly departed. This was a way—literally—of having some of them inside you and of honoring the relationship. That turned my conditioning inside out and helped me down the path to where I am today—wanting to know my food as fully as possible.
Yesterday there was the added pleasure of passing on to Gigi some of the art of butchering: which muscles are too tough for anything but ground meat; where to look for the glands buried in the fat which imparts an off-taste to the meat if not excised; how to muscle bone a leg roast; the value of cutting bones in half to expose the marrow before consigning them to the stock pot; how to fillet out the major tendons so the ground meat won't be so sinewy; how to hand sharpen the blade on the meat grinder; how to wrap the meat for an airtight seal that will retard freezer burn; the secret of not using water to remove stray hairs from the meat. There's a lot to it.
Cutting up in the kitchen brought back fond memories of the year before, when I was home for the entire season and I worked up seven deer and two pigs with the help of my two adult children, Ceilee & Jo. Working with food is a bonding experience for us, and that's especially true when we butcher together. In addition to the regular cuts, we also prepared varieties of sausage and jerky, and specialty items with particular menus in mind (corned deer leg for a wedding dinner, crown rib roasts for holiday meals, sirloin cubes for grilled shish-kabobs or stroganoff).
Growing up on a farm that emphasized self-sufficiency, my kids learned skills that were altogether different than I learned in the suburbs of Chicago. This was highlighted for me two years ago when Jo was in culinary school in San Francisco and it came time for the butchering intensive. When word got out about Jo's background, for some of the techniques the chefs wandered over to watch how Jo did it, so they could learn from her.
A proud papa moment.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Weather or Not

New snow this morning. It's like turning to a new page in a journal. A fresh start, all clean and blank. Full of promise and possibilities. A good rain can produce the same effect, but the winter palette is so much more spare. Just a few colors to work with: nuances in white, with contrasting edges of black, brown, and gary. The Earth sleeps under this white blanket, recharging for the next cycle. A good time for reflection.

This fine morning I have thoughts about food, which I'm offering as food for thought.
As homesteaders in the temperate climate of northeast Missouri, Sandhill has gradually learned ways to extend our access to food even into these days of dormancy. The key—both to four-season gardening and living sustainably in general—is to figure out what Nature allows you and to create a diet that matches the seasonal possibilities.
Even in winter there are choices. The snow, for example, is an insulating blanket over our Remay-protected Brussels sprouts. This hardy brassica can handle a good deal of cold and during the next thaw—and there is always a thaw—we'll be able to gather tender buds & leaves of incredibly sweetness. The high sugar content begins an inexorable fade to starch as soon as the buds are picked and it's a race to get them steamed and onto one's plate. (The same is true for sweet corn, lima beans, and beets. Most people have no idea how good fresh food can be because they have never actually eaten any.) 
Aside about the modern disconnect with natural life: Years ago we had a young woman join the cmty who was raised in New York City. It was her first time living on a farm, and right away she noticed how often conversations would start with comments about the weather. Having experienced plenty of this kind of banal conversation growing up, she was disappointed that people at Sandhill seemed to have trouble finding their way into topics that really mattered. She was hoping people in cmty would be more direct. By degrees, it eventually dawned on her that the problem was not with the other members; the weather was important. Growing up in the city, the weather mostly impacted her choice of clothing or whether to attend an outside event. On the farm, it dictates what makes sense to do, or even what's possible. You learn to do things when the weather is right. 
So, for example, we know we'll harvest garlic in early July, but we can't be sure which day, because we don't know ahead when we'll get the rain that will make pulling the bulbs easy. If we don't get the rain, we'll have to dig them out with garden forks. We can do it that way, but we try to find the natural opening where the work will be simpler, and keep our lives flexible enough to take advantage of what the weather offers.
We also have parsley and fall-planted spinach protected by Remay. Once winter releases its grip, these darlings will shoot up (maybe that's why they call it "spring"), providing new greens faster than anything you can plant. And there is nothing quite as good as that first spinach salad. 
Perhaps in late February or early March, when the frost leaves the ground yet the landscape is still all browns and grays—we will be hunting carefully for last year's parsnips, just breaking their dormancy with black-green shoots emerging from the cold soil in a distinctive starburst pattern. If you catch them early, they are like eating candy, delicious fried in butter. If you wait too long, they're all woody and the sweetness will have migrated into the tops to support luxurious leaves.
To be sure, in winter we eat more food that stores dry: potatoes, onions, winter squash, sweet potatoes, turnips, and wide variety of dry beans. Often we're able to nurse our late supply of carrots and beets until solstice, and we just turned our last fresh tomatoes into a soup three dinners ago. We also start to draw down on the larder of frozen and canned goods that we've carefully stockpiled during the growing season. The root cellar and walk-in freezer are jammed to capacity in November, and now we're starting to—literally—eat away at our surplus.
Throughout the winter, Michael regularly sprouts alfalfa to provide a steady supply of crisp, green nourishment—a welcome contrast on dinner plates dominated by well-cooked browns, mushy whites, and baked oranges. Winter is also the time when our fermented foods come more to the fore: sauerkraut (combined with the last of the unprocessed tomatoes to make that soup I mentioned above); sourdough bread; kimchi; crock pickles; yogurt; and tempeh (both for ourselves and for sale).
We are also building a greenhouse, which will substantially augment our winter food capacity—think salads in January. Though it's rather amazing (and humbling) that it has taken us 33 years to get around to it, we're excited about Gigi's work to create a 20x30 strawbale-insulated building, smack in the middle of our orchard, conveniently between our two main gardens.
So even though it's winter, here on the farm it's not just eating time, it's still food producing time. And that's a comforting thought. While the pace is slower, we're still at it; just like Nature. 
All this ruminating has made me hungry. I'm the cook today, and it feels like a perfect day for baked beans and steamed bread—much of which I can do on the wood stove. Time to stop typing and start cooking...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Getting Started

Though it's taken me awhile to embrace it, finally, at age 58, I see myself as a writer. For the past 15 years I've authored a regular column for Communities magazine, and I've written dozens of handouts for trainings and reports for meetings and clients. Now, apparently, I am also a blogger. The weird thing about this venue is that, for the first time, I'll be creating for a medium I have no familiarity with. That is, I don't read blogs (who has the time?). Kinda like groping in a dark closet, hoping to find your favorite boots while knowing there's a chance you'll come out with something the dog has mutilated. We'll see what we get.

I recall when the idea of doing a blog first popped into my consciousness. It was in 2005 at the conclusion of the FIC's spring organizational meetings. Board member Raines Cohen was suggesting a variety of Web-based options for promoting community, and blogs were among them. I had an inkling then that sooner or later this might be a pool I'd need to dive into. At the fall FIC meetings in Austin I took the plunge. Fellow Board member Tony Sirna (our in-house geek) set me up here at and here we are.
It's mid-December and my cmty, Sandhill Farm, is iced in. I'm home only for 10 days (after being on the road for 7+ weeks) and am thoroughly enjoying this slower pace of the farm in winter. It's a more contemplative time. The workload is low, and there's time for reading by the wood stove and getting to some less urgent projects that have been waiting patently in the queue (does the queue ever empty?).

As the temperatures outside creep up to 32 and the possibility of a thaw, which will relieve the overloaded branches of their icy casings, I reflect on how safe we felt Monday when the ice storm was forecast and the radio warned of potential power outages. It turned out we never lost power, but neighbors did and the schools closed for a day. But we were in pretty good shape anyway. Our biggest concern was that Stan (a long-term member) was away on vacation and expected to return right after the ice was due. Luckily he scooted in early and just ahead of the worst of the ice. With everyone home, we all felt more secure.

Sandhill has been here 33 years and we made choices way back in the beginning about how much we were willing to be dependent on outside utilities. We have vulnerability, but an acceptable amount. We are connected to the regular power grid for electricity, yet our space heat comes from wood stoves. We use propane for cooking, yet would be able to cook on the wood stoves at need. We are connected to county water, yet the water flows without electricity on the farm and we have our own well and ponds (twice in the early years, our water pipes froze in harsh winters and we had to haul water from our ponds for a couple months—a nuisance to be sure, but doable). If we lost electricity, our biggest vulnerability would be our walk-in freezer, which is chock full of the bounty of our previous growing season. (There is some solace in knowing that the most likely time of power outages is in the winter, when the freezer would thaw at a much more leisurely rate than during an outage in July.) Of course, today, a prolonged loss of electricity would also mean a loss of internet service—something we may have become more dependent upon than refrigeration!

Still, in all, we're not that vulnerable. When it comes right down to it, we don't really need to leave the farm all that much. A wag once said that the veneer of civilization is only about three meals deep (by which he meant that after missing three meals in a row, people are prone to be much less civilized with one another). At Sandhill we are very secure when it comes to food (we're likely to miss showers long before missing meals).

And so, the ice storm was a chance to slow down a bit more and ride it out. I have the image of Sandhill as an especially buoyant cork in these turbulent times, and I like that.

Now, for the first time in a week, the sun has just appeared and the explosion of refracting light off the creaking, swaying iced branches is better than rolling around inside a kaleidoscope. (And our neighbors at Dancing Rabbit are rejoicing at seeing some power gain from their solar panels, to replenish their cloud-drained batteries.)