Thursday, October 30, 2008

Nova Scotia

Many years ago, we had a family visiting Sandhill: a couple with a young boy, perhaps eight at the time. They were considering joining the community and their visit lasted a couple weeks.

One of the universal challenges of parenting, of course, is figuring out how to navigate adult topics with children present in the room. In the case of this particular family, they had worked out a rather unique solution, involving a code. Whenever the parents felt it was wiser to steer the conversation into less dangerous waters, one of them would say, “Let’s talk about Nova Scotia.”

While I don’t know the exact origin of this phrase, I suspect Nova Scotia represented something exotic, yet remote—and thus interesting, yet safe (or at least safer—are any topics completely safe?). As this peculiarity was already embedded in the family’s lexicon by the time of their visit, no one actually launched into an exploration of the Canadian maritime province, they only needed to offer the magic phrase, and everyone knew it was time to switch topics. It wasn't long before we Sandhillians knew that, too.

The funny thing about this was observing how well the child knew how to play the game. While the code was crafted to cleverly distract the innocent, more often than not it was the child who would speak up at an awkward moment in the conversation. While he may not have understood the content, the boy was sensitive to difficult energy and had learned that those were the times where it was appropriate to offer, “Let’s talk about Nova Scotia.”

While some adults were struggling to step back from the brink of awkwardness, others were struggling to not burst into laughter at the child’s precociously accurate reading of the dynamic. It was pretty amusing… unless it was your boat drifting into heavy seas.

• • •
I’m reminded about all this because today, I will actually be in Nova Scotia. I’m typing this chugging across New Brunswick on my way from Montreal to Halifax, traveling via Via (the Canadian counterpart to Amtrak). We’ll be picked up this afternoon by Jim, my wife Ma’ikwe’s father, who is hosting us for six days in the Atlantic Time Zone (where we’re four hours behind London and four hours ahead of Seattle), further east and north than Maine. Apparently the apple harvest is going full bore and I’m looking forward to brooding skies, wood fires, and walks along the beach.

While I don’t know yet whether Nova Scotia is “safe” (I will, after all, be visiting unknown in-laws for almost a week), it’s both exotic and evocative. The woods were traversing en route—where leafless birch commingle with yellow tamarack and green fir—are punctuated by small fields and single story white-trimmed cottages. This is terrain that knows winter, and reminds me strongly of northern Minnesota and western Ontario, geography familiar to me from my canoeing days. At the same time, we’re heading toward the Atlantic Coast, where the cold Labrador Current clashes with the upper outliers of the Gulf Stream, creating one of the richest fishing grounds on Earth.

Never having been here before, I’m looking forward to a week of fresh air, fresh fish, and fresh conversation.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Demand for Community in the Hard Days Ahead

Yesterday, at the last day of the FIC's fall organizational meetings, we spent a whole session exploring the market for community in today's troubled economic times.

We began the conversation by revisiting the work the board had done four years ago, when we devoted four sessions to a strategic process called scenario planning. In essence, we discussed where we were in 2004, and where we thought we were likely to go over the next five years—in broad strokes. At the time, we decided there were two main things to pay attention to, which represented forks in the road. One was whether or not there would be serious economic and/or environmental upheaval. The other was whether society would have a competitive or cooperative response.

By combining these two bifurcations, we had four possible futures:

1. Dog Eat Cat
This was the future where crisis occurred and there was a competitive response. It was the nightmare scenario and pretty bleak.

2. Boil the Frog
This future avoided a catastrophe, yet was a continuation of adversarial politics and no significant shift in policies or awareness.

3. Camel Latte
This was the future without a fulminating crisis, yet a definite shift to more cooperative and collaborative politics. There would be an increased awareness of the issues and constructive responses. (The name is a spinoff from the "Camelot" moniker given to the Kennedy administration in the early '60s, and the aura of hope that accompanied it.)

4. Phoenix Rising
This was the future that included a crisis and a positive, constructive response.

Today, we are close to the five-year point we were trying to peer ahead to see accurately in spring 2004. For the most part, Scenario 2 prevailed. At the same time, we agreed that the following was also true today:
o The Presidential election just ahead represents a clear choice in competitive/cooperative paths. Obama is offering hope for a sea change; McCain is offering more of the same.
o We are significantly closer to the precipice of both economic and environmental crisis (and for those who have lost their jobs or their homes, the crisis is already upon them).
o There is significantly greater awareness of the challenges looming, and even pockets of positive local initiatives where citizens are taking control of their lives in hopeful ways (for example, City Repair in Portland OR).

What, we wondered, were the opportunities and challenges for FIC in this environment? As the conversation progressed, we found it useful to think in terms of four major ways in which people would respond to hard times:

A. Widespread despair and loss of hope.

B. Preservation of hope, yet without structural support or organization. People are unsure where or how to begin.

C. Some significant constructive efforts at building a positive future, yet efforts are noticeably incomplete and with self-awareness that more is needed.

D. Wholistic responses that manifest a vibrant, cooperative culture, with all the essential elements present.

While this is a simplistic sorting and it's obvious that people or groups could easily fall somewhere between one of these four nodes, it provids a useful framework. Wherever people find themselves on this spectrum, FIC's job is to help them move along toward D, as gently and as surely as we can manage.

There will not be much we can do for A's (where there won't be interest in what we have to offer). With B's and C's, there will be some willingness (even eagerness) for assistance in building capacity to better respond to challenges. This will mean bringing people together, offering links to information, providing technical assistance, and teaching skills. Some of this will best be delivered through events; some of it will be met through a more robust website, and responsiveness to email inquiries.

With D's, we can learn what others have accomplished and help make those lessons available to all the B's and C's out there.

FIC's specialties are two:
1) Distilling what's being learned in the cauldrons of intentional community about how to build cooperative culture; about how to make inclusive, energy-building decisions; about how to be real and effective at the same time.

2) Helping groups make common cause, without homogenizing everyone's identity or mission.

In the coming times, there will be plenty to do.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Integrating New Blood

Yesterday, at the opening session of the Fellowship for Intentional Community's three-day fall organizational meetings (a semi-annual event being held this time at Dancing Rabbit), a regular member of our circle brought up the tender topic of why we aren't attracting more people to the organization—especially younger people. After getting involved with FIC in a regular way in 2002, she reported, with tears in her eyes, that she didn't feel there was room for the passion she had for regional networking, and that she didn't feel accepted by the old guard of the organization. Today she's questioning whether to continue her involvement, despite her longstanding interest in community organizing.

It was a tender moment. All the more so in that it's a conversation we've had in some version many times in FIC's 22 years, and is something we've been actively working on. All groups need new new blood, and yet it's exhausting to conduct every meeting as if there is no history, or no prior decisions to build on. So how to navigate this tricky dynamic?

Here are some of the tough questions we (and any longstanding organization) must wrestle with:
o What is the appropriate amount of opening for long-term members to offer newcomers, that allows the fresh energy and ideas some room to percolate, while respecting that there may be a deep investment in creating what already exists? In particular, what is the guideline for when to reconsider old topics (things for which the newcomers have enthusiasm yet no sense of the organizational history, and which the old-timers have already gummed to death)?

o Just as for the woman I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the newcomer tends to be the last person to recognize their acceptance into the group. What, if anything, can be done to shorten this gestation period? I think the key here is for the established folks to understand what the new person recognizes as markers of acceptance; offering what you want
(everyone's default tendency) may not translate for the newcomer, who may wait for years for what they consider to be the key to the executive washroom.

o How much guidance/mentoring is appropriate for established members to offer new folks? If done too much, it may come across as micro-managing or mistrust. if done too little, it may be perceived as callousness, or an unwillingness to share power. It's a gauntlet, and the answer to this tends to be person specific.

In general, the naive dream is that the new blood will simply continue the programs and directions already established, honoring what has gone before through emulation. In fact, it rarely works this way. New people bring new ideas and different styles, and their excitement is generally not for maintenance or the status quo; they are jazzed about new ventures and alterations to existing programs that they perceive as enhancements, and provides them with a platform to strut their stuff.

Viewed with this understanding, embracing new blood requires some amount of letting go, and a willingness to see your work transformed under the management and implementation of the new. Wishing them only to be a younger you is the road to disappointment, and leads to no new faces in the room.

The woman I mentioned at the outset was afraid to bring this topic up, for fear that the long-term people would feel trashed. While that didn't happen (whew), it remains to be seen what relief she gets from having named the hard thing, and the extent to which we'll respond in such a way that she'll feel more accepted and more encouraged to align her FIC commitments with her passions.

While I doubt that FIC has any magic beans for integrating new blood, I know that if we can't talk about it openly, we'll die.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Sandhill's sorghum harvest ended today. Overall, the 2008 yield was average, yet the quality was superb—perhaps the best in our 32-year history. So there are a lot of smiles on the farm right now.

Even though we've yet to experience a killing frost, letting the boiler fire die out for the last time is a major marker in our lives. We can exhale. Though there will continue to be garden produce coming in right up until the first freeze, the pace will slacken off. The larders are full and the frost can no longer hurt us much.

• • •
Ordinarily, the rhythm of my life includes October at home for the harvest, followed by November on the road—for community networking and process consulting. It's about as reliable as the coming cold weather. Sometimes the transition is soft, with a week or more of wrapping up at home before I hit the road.

This year, however, the transition will be abrupt. It happens tonight, in fact. As I type this, I'm cooking down my last batch of pepper relish of the year. Tomorrow the agenda setters arrive for the fall meetings of the Fellowship for Intentional Community (for the first time in 22 years, the meetings will be within walking distance—at our neighboring community, Dancing Rabbit, just three miles away). Tomorrow I lay down my homesteading hat, and don my community networker chapeau.

Caroline Estes (Alpha Farm) is already in town (offering two days of consensus and facilitation training in exchnage for lower hosting fees). Tomorrow's arrivals include the rest of the Oversight Committee (which is responsible for drafting the board meeting agenda): Jenny Upton (Shannon Farm), accompanied by her partner and former FIC board member Dan Questenberry; Marty Klaif (also from Shannon); George Caneda (Ganas), with partner Julie Grieve; Harvey Baker (Dunmire Hollow); and Bill Becker, our Treasurer. All of these folks are long-time friends.

For the first time, I will have the pleasure of cooking dinner for my visiting friends in front of an organizational meeting. Although I've known Dan and Caroline for more than 20 years, it will be the first time either of them have been to Sandhill, and I'm looking forward to having them be our guests. With as much traveling as I do, I have the occasion to be hosted by others all the time (indeed, within the last nine months I've stayed overnight at every one of the communities listed in the prior paragraph). It's nice to have the chance to return the favor.

So tonight, after I can the last pints of relish, I'll read through the reports and start crafting the agenda for Thursday's Oversight Committee meeting. It'll be a bit schizophrenic immersing myself in the world of FIC without having left home or changed scenery (I usually have a long car ride or a train trip to serve as a psychic buffer), but I'll figure it out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Accountability & Punishment

One of the hardest things for people to handle well is critical feedback about their behavior. No one enjoys finding out that others are having a problem with something you've said or done, and there's an amazing array of things people do to keep feedback at bay—many of which are far more clever then the standard alliterative trio of defensiveness, denial, or deflection.

(Let me tell you of a great scheme I had working for a number of years, until a careful observer busted me on it. Whenever someone criticized me, I'd start beating myself up, often with more vigor than I was approached with. Horrified by how hard I was on myself, people near me learned to be careful about giving me feedback, for fear of triggering my next display of self-flagellation. Most people stopped giving me critical feedback, or at least curtailed it sharply. Then, of course, I couldn't be held responsible for not heeding feedback I'd never been given. Oh, it was plenty clever.)

And yet we need feedback—especially critical feedback—to understand more accurately how our words and deeds are landing. If you're not sure about this, think about how important pain is to maintaining health. If you step on a nail, it's a damn good thing that your foot hurts. I'm not saying it's good that you're in pain; I'm saying that it's good that pain alerts you to look at your foot, so you can take the nail out. There is as analog with behavior. While you'd prefer that people have a positive response to what you do, it's valuable to know when they don't because it's information you'll want to weigh before deciding whether to repeat that behavior. If you don't get the information, it's of no use to you.

While everything I've written so far applies to all human interactions, the stakes are higher in community, where people tend to be in each other's lives much more (which translates into more opportunities for friction). And this brings me to the point I want to write about. For a significant number of people living in community, they have combined a number of things about feedback and come up with a startling blind spot. It works like this:

1. Because their prior experiences with giving or receiving critical feedback have gone poorly (which is undoubtedly the background almost all of us have), they cultivate acceptance and tolerance as an art form (or at least as a coping mechanism). Within that practice, it is considered a loss of control to criticize another. They believe that everyone is doing the best they can, and that forgiveness will go further in building a loving world than holding people accountable for their shortcomings.

2. There is also a tendency to equate oneself with one's actions. Thus, critcism about their behavior is tantamount to critcisim about them as a person. An unwashed dish becomes a dirty soul. There is also a corollary to this, where criticism about a result is translated into an accusation that you meant the bad thing to happen. While I'm not saying that people don't accuse each other of bad intent, mostly this assignment happens without any direct statement about intent having been made. Amazingly, people just assume it, and they can have the missiles out of the silos and primed to launch before pausing to reflect that "I'm upset that you left the kitchen a mess last night," is not the same thing as "You left the kitchen a mess last night knowing that it would upset me."

3. There is considerable emphasis on positive reinforcement in intentional communities, as opposed ot guiding beahvior through limit setting. Thus, people would prefer to encourage and reward good behavior rather than focus on how to curtail and extinguish undesirable behavior.

What this trio of beliefs leads to is a bad reaction when someone attempts to hold that person accountable for their behavior. Because their acuser has spoken up (and therefore chosen to forego tolerance and aceptance), they must be intending to punish (dragging you into the arena of critcial feedback, where the bad things happen). Now, in addition to the behavior itself, you have to deal with the added distress associated with an accusation of intent to punish (which is pretty interesting coming from a person who advocates not judging others at all).

For people with this profile, accountability and punishment are interchangeable terms. Because "good" people don't punish others, asking for accountability is tantamount to an admission that you have it in for someone else. Trying to sort out how the other person got to that conclusion can be like trying to wade through a vat of jello—with just as much visibility.

I think the only way through this mess is to take the conversation all the back to definitions and find out which terms are loaded with what baggage. For he folks I've described above, "accountability" is a trigger word. For others it simply indicates what happens when boundaries are crossed and someone notices. Your group isn't going anywhere (at least not anywhere you'd willingly go) until you've been able to develop concepts and a vocabulary that bridges the various philosophies around feedback.

I wish you luck… or, failing that, the chance to pick the flavor of the jello.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Return of the Yogi

I did yoga tonight for the first time in five months… and I can feel the soreness right in the middle of my back. Actually, I was surprised I could settle into the asanas as well as I could, after such a long layoff. 

For some time now I've had the view that when it comes to an aging mind and and an aging body, it's essentially "use it, or lose it." Well, I haven't been using my body much lately (blogging calls for some dextrous finger work, but is hardly aerobic), and it felt good to do some back bends again (whether my back muscles currently concur or not).

I started doing yoga 12 years ago, when I was in a romantic relationship with Alex McGee, who was a yoga instructor living at Twin Oaks Community in Virginia. Though the relationship didn't last, the yoga practice did. Mostly I do it alone, either right before lunch or right before dinner.

For a time, I practiced first thing in the morning, relying on the stretching to awaken my body for the day. While that worked OK, I realized that later in the day worked better for me, for three reasons:

1. I was looser and could go deeper into the poses if my body temperature and metabolism were already in gear.

2. By picking a time mid-day, I could take advantage of 30 minutes of yoga to create a sharp contrast with the rest of my day—an island of calm and reflection amidst a fairly well-choreographed day. Thus, I'd get both the physical and spiritual/psychic benefits of the practice. I didn't need reflection time right after getting out of bed.

3. What I really enjoy first thing in the morning is a cup of coffee. Because I don't care to stretch after eating, it made more sense to do yoga right before lunch or dinner.

I'm better disciplined about doing yoga at home, where I have more control over my routine, a dedicated space (my bedroom floor) where I can practice without disturbing anyone, and access to my sticky mat (nearly essentially for back poses). When I'm on the road—which is a lot—it's much more difficult to find a suitable space.

How important is yoga? All I know is that I feel better and am more alert when I practice regularly. I slid into the yogic doldrums last May when I collected five boxes of paperwork and memorabilia from my old friend Geoph Kozeny, who passed away a year ago from pancreatic cancer. He had left the boxes at Hearthaven, a group house in Kansas City, and I had picked them up en route to consulting work in Lawrence KS. The boxes got "temporarily" stored on my bedroom floor and I didn't get around to dealing with them right away—in part because the Lawrence gig started a run of 60 days where I slept in my own bed only three nights. 

Being away from my friendly confines, I slipped out of the yoga habit and when I finally returned home in July I had no trouble at all thinking of other things I preferred doing over sorting through Geoph's old papers. Thus, the boxes just sat there and I didn't do yoga. Until today.

In the end, it took less than three hours to go through all five boxes, and I'm a little sheepish about how easily I had talked myself out of dealing with them for so long—one month per box. What a sluggard! Now though, the boxes are all put away, my floor has been vacuumed, and I've shaken the dust off my sticky mat. What a liberating day!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Canning Brussels Sprouts

One of my favorite fall vegetables is Brussels sprouts—partly it's the incredible flavor after they've been kissed by a frost (they're much sweeter then), and partly it's because of their goofy name (there aren't that many two-word vegetables to begin with, and none other that I can think of where both parts end in "s"). Ordinarily, Brussels sprouts don't make it onto my radar until November, after the sorghum is all in the barrel, and a hard freeze has put a merciful end to the tomatoes, peppers, and sweet potatoes. But they're on my mind right now… because Jillian Downey put them there.

While the first freeze has not yet descended on northeast Missouri (nor is it's arrival even anticipated in the latest long-range forecast), I got an email the other day from Jillian, my friend and fellow gardener, who tills the earth at Great Oak, a cohousing community three miles west of Ann Arbor. Protected somewhat by the moderating influence of the Great Lakes, southern Michigan is in the same agricultural zone as Sandhill, even though they're two degrees latitude further north (zone 6 if you're scoring at home). While I think Jillian generally has a shorter growing season than we enjoy at Sandhill, it's not by much.

Apparently, this year she had stout crop of Brussels sprouts and—like all good gardeners—wanted to put some of her bounty by. As her freezer space was already fully subscribed, she inquired about the possibility of canning the little darlings.

That was a new one on me. At Sandhill we take food pretty seriously, which means we grow a wide variety of species, and have attempted to preserve almost everything over our 34 years of gardening. That said, I couldn't recall ever canning brassicas—of which vegetable family Brussels sprouts are a member in good standing, along with cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and even watercress. 

So I went to the food processing bible—the Ball Blue Book—and looked it up. Alas, there was nothing on canning brassicas. While that doesn't mean you couldn't do it (you can can anything), it did mean that it wasn't recommended, was not typically done, and probably wasn't smart. Canning means considerable heat treatment and in the case of Brussels sprouts, that translates into:
—intensifying the sulphur-flavor characteristic of all brassicas
—bleaching out the dark green color (think cooked-to-death grey)
—reducing the firm texture to mush

None of those things sounded like a good idea. 

While they freeze pretty well (blanch them first), I've always figured the best way to manage your crop of Brussels sprouts is to consume them fresh, preferably on a cool November or December day (we've even had them fresh for Christmas dinner, if we baby them a bit through the late fall), steamed and topped with Hollandaise sauce—what could be better than the queen of brassicas, bathed in the queen of sauces! Yum.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Poisoned Fruit

One of the most common issues I run into in group dynamics has to do with well-intentioned committee work—which could even be the product of one person's efforts acting alone—that gets trashed when it comes back to the whole group for evaluation and approval (or at least that's the committee's impression).

While it's always possible that the committee just missed the boat and failed to reasonably work with the group's known concerns, the more common explanation is that the group either: a) never asked the committee to work on that issue; or b) simply assigned the work to the committee without giving it adequate (or even any) guidance about what to take into account. In both cases, it can lead to a train wreck.

Let's suppose the committee gives the issue serious attention (by which I mean lots of hours of research and proposal crafting) and does solid work in coming up with a proposal. If they have a blind spot and miss one or more key factors that need to be addressed, the proposal may unravel on the plenary floor. The committee members feel deflated (instead of the celebration and appreciation they had been anticipating, they instead get criticized for moving too fast, or pushing a personal agenda!), the issue remains unresolved, and nobody particularly wants to pick up the hot potato. Worse, who'll want to serve on a committee next time an issue pops up?

It's not unusual to get asked as a consultant to help a group deal with an issue that has this dynamic as part of the package, and often there's poisoned fruit involved. (It looks nice, but don't eat it!) Let me explain how this works.

In my most recent example of this, the topic was Work/Participation. There had been numerous attempts to clarify the community's position on what work needed doing, yet none of them had gone smoothly and it was a rancorous issue. Understandably, some members of the group wanted to preserve the hard-earned fruits of those past labors, and avoid starting back at Square One. (The topic had never been that much fun to discuss, and they wanted to maximize the use of prior work and minimize what it took to get to the finish line—which is pretty understandable.)

However, once I'd determined that other members of the community had foundational concerns with how that prior work had been generated (by which I mean the community had never established an agreed set of factors that would be used to screen what work went onto the list of what was needed), then I knew we couldn't take a bite of that prior fruit. As tempting as it was, it was poisoned by poor process. Better to take the long way around and do it right. In such cases, it's actually quicker to go back to Square One. (Just as building a new house from scratch is often easier than adding on to an old house.)

When doing an energy audit on what it takes to make an effective decision, you don't just count the person-hours devoted to discussing the topic in meeting; you also have to take into account the quality of implementation and buy-in with the decision. It's no bargain if the group grumbles about the outcome. Once you've determined that an issue deserves whole group attention, it is a penny wise and pound foolish to attempt to save time by shortcutting the process. 

Eating poisoned fruit just gives you indigestion.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Why We Make Pure Sorghum

We're in the midst of our sorghum season at Sandhill (today is our fourth cooking, with perhaps 4-5 to go), and we got this letter in the mail today, from Francis Baumli in St Louis—whom none of us have ever met, to our knowledge—written on a typewriter (remember those?):

"Dear People,

I prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla, but there are times when that familiar (one might even say nostalgic) taste of vanilla ice cream is what I crave, so that becomes my choice over chocolate.

Similarly, I prefer the taste of molasses to sorghum, but sorghum has that unique sweet-sour taste, and sometimes this pure sorghum taste is exactly what I want.

For years there had been a problem. I could not find pure sorghum anywhere. Any jar labeled "sorghum" was actually mixed with molasses, or corn syrup, or that well-camouflaged culprit called "dehydrated cane juice." Born in 1948, in rural Northwest Missouri, sorghum was a constant part (almost a staple) of my youth. But I had done without it for years, and when I would describe its unique taste to friends and family, I think they began viewing me as a sentimental old fool imagining things. So I wanted to buy some pure sorghum and share it with them, partly to convince them that I knew what I was talking about, but mainly to give them a taste of something delicious they had never had.

Then lo and behold! I found your product in a health food store, and all skepticism on the part of friends and family has been put to rest. Their gustatory response to it has been initially tentative but always subsequently enthusiastic.

So thank you for making pure sorghum again available! And for making an old-fashioned food over into a modern-day choice!

P.S. Should it ever behoove your advertising purposes, you can feel free to use this letter, which is nothing less than an enthusiastic endorsement of your product."

Well, we're behooved. What a nice letter! It's been our experience that there is always a market for high-quality food. And today, there is an ever-increasing demand for unadulterated food as well. This is our 32nd year making sorghum. While we've tinkered with our methods of production over the years, we've only made pure sorghum and only grown it organically. And we always will.

Thanks, Francis.