Sunday, April 19, 2009

Stretching the Ties That Bind

Yesterday I got into tiff with my wife.

• • •
Ma'ikwe and I have got a somewhat unusual marriage in that we don't live in the same place. We live close to each other, but are still three miles apart (up until last July, we lived 1000 miles apart, so we're definitely gaining). I live at Sandhill Farm, an income-sharing community I helped start in 1974, and Ma'ikwe lives at Dancing Rabbit, a thriving ecovillage of 40+ that bought land nearby back in 1997.

I like Sandhill's small, family-like feel, and Ma'ikwe prefers the stronger environmental covenants of DR, plus its vision to become a full-fledged village. So we've accepted the challenge of figuring out the rhythms of a marriage where we don't see each other every day. When we're both at home, we have a baseline agreement to spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights together. The rest of the week is negotiable. However, in busy times—which for two active networkers, is just about all the time—Tues and Wed nights are more often than not our only nights together. I guess you could say were perfecting the art of using scarcity to bolster demand.

And it's more complicated than that. As both the main administrator for FIC and as a process consultant, I'm on the road about half the time. While I do gobs from home via email, the bulk of my community building activities are done in place, where I go to the client (or to the event). I like traveling, and I like what I do, so it's a mix that mostly works for me. The only down side is that I'm away from home too much, and often I'm away from my partner as well.

Some portion of my travels I do with Ma'ikwe—during which we enjoy the concentration of time together. The rest of the time, however, I'm not even getting Tuesdays and Wednesdays with my wife.

So that's the general lay of the land. This year though, things will be worse. Ma'ikwe is building a house at DR, and this major project has several implications for our partnership:

o The house will be Ma'ikwe's #1 focus for the year (and probably the next as well). As such, it means she'll need to be at home as much as possible managing things (her priority will not so much be pounding nails and or mixing earthen plaster for the walls; it will be securing the materials and the labor to make sure that work happens in an orderly way and in line with the design). This means she'll have minimal time for visiting me at Sandhill, and minimal time for traveling together.

o It also means that Ma'ikwe will not devote much time to earning money in 2009. Instead, she'll be spending it. After talking over how I could best assist in this project, it quickly became clear that I was more valuable going out and making money, then by coming over to DR regularly to help with construction. This, of course, is a double whammy in that it simultaneously means more time on the road, and a smaller percentage of trips that we take together. It also means we wont have the occasion to work together much on the house.

o Managing the construction of a house—especially when you haven't done it before—can be a highly stressful experience. Often, you have to live with your mistakes for years afterwards (literally). So on top of everything else, Ma'ikwe will need additional psychic support for this project, and there will be definite limits to how much she can reciprocate for the next several months.

To be clear, I've willingly signed on for all this, but foreknowledge doesn't necessarily make it easier. We had a first taste of this challenge yesterday.
• • •
I am about to embark on a month-long stretch where I'll be on the road all but three days, home just long enough to participate in Sandhill's 35th anniversary party May 9. While I almost always go through a rush of trying to wrap up as many projects at home as possible before hitting the road, this time my list includes a number of things in support of the house project.

Most notably, I told Ma'ikwe I'd supply the 16 posts she needs for her post-and-beam design. At Sandhill we have an abundance of black locust, a native species which grows relatively straight and is naturally rot resistant. As she needs to debark and trim the posts and this work can't reasonable wait for my return in a month, it was important that I deliver the posts before my departure on Tuesday. I'd finished felling the trees Thursday, and yesterday was the day I'd hoped to gather and deliver them, working with the front-end loader on our biggest tractor.

Though it was raining slightly yesterday morning, I was able to work and I wanted to get as much done as possible because the forecast was for more rain yet. While I started out OK, despite the wet grass, I hadn't been working more than an hour before the hydraulic lines needed to operate the bucket burst, and I was through for the day—with only three posts loaded onto the wagon. Uh oh. While I got help right away trying to repair the damage, it necessitated a trip to town for parts and I switched to other work, unsure whether I'd be able to complete the work on Monday—my last full day at home. None of this improved my mood.

When Ma'ikwe stopped by Sandhill unexpectedly yesterday afternoon, I was glad to see her. She took the news about the hydraulic lines bursting in stride and I was able to hand off some other things to her (J-bolts I'd made for the stem wall pour that will happen while I'm on the road, cash she'll need to pay for materials, and a draw knife to strip the bark off the posts). One of the reasons she came by (other than to see her husband briefly) was that she'd just erected a large army tent that she'll be using to support the contruction crew on site and needed to pick up some items for it from the boxes she has stored in our barn loft.

Because of the rain. Ma'ikwe was nervous about being able to get to the barn without getting stuck. I assured her that it would be fine and she drove to the corner of the barn (which is set back about 50 feet from the road). When it came time to leave, Ma'ikwe had a choice about how to drive out. Either she could go straight ahead on sod (up a slight incline), or she could back out, taking advantage of a rocked driveway. She chose to go ahead and didn't quite make it before the wheels spun out. I was able to do no better and when the car stalled, I decided to pull the car out with a tractor. (I was in a t-shirt without a hat and the rain had picked up while we were in the barn rootting around for her camp stove and other supplies; I wanted to get the car out qucikly and get back under a roof.)

Ma'ikwe was unsure what she wanted me to do while I towed the car, and when she asked, I was ingracious in response. "Just steer" I said. The car pulled out OK and Ma'ikwe had no trouble getting it started again. While she drove home, I put the tractor away and dashed for the house to get out of the drizzle.

To be sure, this was no big deal. We had an awkward moment, got through it, and were able to solve the problem relatively qucikly. However, both of us refleted on the difficult energy of the exchange and it's sobering to realize that we're staring at several months of minimal contact and above-average stress. This foretaste did not bode well for the relationship. (There's a terrific book written in 1975 about the dynamics of building a house and the strain it can place on relationships: The Owner Built Home by Ken Kern.)

It is, of course, a good thing that we're acknowledging it. But that's not enough. We also have to breathe through it, and be ever-mindful of the intent to build a house that enhances the releationship, rather than one that degrades it. I'll let you know how well we do.

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