A friend of mine recently asked what my thoughts were about groups establishing a quorum for the purpose of doing "official" business. It's a good topic.
For the most part, rules for quorum are created to protect groups from subgroups acting inappropriately. In particular, they guard against a subgroup who rushes an issue to conclusion to take advantage of others' absence from the meeting at which the issue is considered.
While crafting rules such as quorum are one approach, I think there's a better way. Let's unpack the problem. If you have a meeting at which key stakeholders are missing, why would those present proceed with decision-making in their absence? I can think of a couple possibilities. First, there's time pressure and a delay is perceived to be too risky. While I think this can occur, I suggest it's better to establish the conditions under which the process can be streamlined and only short-circuit normal process if those conditions obtain. (Hint: In general, it will be because of a sense that delay is either too dangerous or too costly.)
Second, there may be a substantial sentiment among those present that the conversation will be more difficult if the absent people were in the room—because it's anticipated that one or more of the missing folks are not likely to support the proposed course of action. If this is the case, why would those in the room proceed? Even if it's legal, it isn't smart. The group is essentially trading an easy decision in the short run for a fire storm later. Not much of a bargain. What's more, the eroded trust will make future decisions that much more labored.
If it's a tough issue (by which I mean the stakes are substantial and disagreement is expected), a group is almost always better off tackling it straight on, with all known positions adequately represented in the conversation. I'm not promising that this will be a fun meeting, but at least you won't be hearing cries of parliamentary manipulation.
If your group is big enough (more than a dozen?) that members are regularly missing plenary meetings, I think you'll be better served by the following set of process agreements about how to conduct business than by resorting to a quorum:
1. Cease making binding decisions on issues at the first plenary at which they are discussed. Instead, try to identify all the factors that a good response to that issue will need to take into account, and stop there (Note: this could take multiple meetings, depending on the complexity of the issue).
2. After the minutes from that discussion have been posted, identify a window of opportunity wherein the group is open to receiving reflected additional input about factors that should be taken into account. This could come either from people who were at the plenary, or from members who missed it and are relying on the minutes. (Note: in order for this to work, the minutes have be sufficiently detailed that readers can fully grok what factors were identified in the discussion.)
3. Once the window for reflected input is closed, the group is no longer obliged to work with input that comes afterward. (Note: the phrasing is significant here: the group, at its discretion, may choose to work with late input—there will be times when that’s a very good idea—yet isn’t required to. The point of this is to fairly limit the tendency of some mischievous members to come in at the eleventh hour with zingers that derail forward movement. This agreement defines “late” and establishes the limitations of the rights that members have that their reflected input will be taken into account.)
4. It may be attractive to assign to a committee (either standing or ad hoc) the task of drafting a proposal that balances all the identified factors. (Note: if you go this route, be sure to block out adequate time both to get the work done, and to post it appropriately ahead of the next plenary.) Or, the group, in its wisdom, may decide to craft the proposal in plenary. In any event, when the group next returns to this topic it needs to be disciplined about how it uses its time: at this stage the conversation should be focused solely on what is the best way to balance the factors and should not revert to an examination of additional factors (which ground has already been thoroughly plowed).
5. Once the group is satisfied that it has a solid proposal, it should stop again—short of reaching a final decision. Once again the minutes should be posted, allowing the folks who missed that second meeting to decide for themselves just how solid that proposal is. (Note: the minutes need to do a decent job of making clear the thinking that underlies the proposals, so that the underpinnings are laid bare. If this is not clear, you can be certain that at the third plenary (stage 6 below) you’ll go round the mulberry bush a couple times as people satisfy themselves that the conversation at the second plenary was sufficiently rigorous.)
6. If nothing significant surfaces during this second window for reflected input, you’ve essentially got a done deal and this topic will take no time at all to wrap up at the third plenary. If, however, there are substantive reservations, then the third plenary should focus on whether to adjust the proposal in light of them. You can repeat this last sequence as often as needed.
Friday, June 26, 2009
A friend of mine recently asked what my thoughts were about groups establishing a quorum for the purpose of doing "official" business. It's a good topic.
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
In the 2002 hit musical Chicago, John C Reilly sings “Mister Cellophane,” a song about what it’s like to be a nobody, overshadowed by his wife Roxie. In the song, he complains about being the kind of person people "see right through." Today I want to write about what it’s like to be committed to being transparent—which is similar, but different. While John C was talking about being the kind of person that people look past, I’m talking about the kind of person you can see into the heart of.
While John C’s character was safe from exposure (no one cared a fig), when you’re committed to transparency it can be tricky territory. How accurately are you describing yourself (as opposed to exposing your self-distortion)? What if you invite everyone to have a peek inside your soul and no one bothers to look (because they’ve got to walk the dog or collect the dry cleaning)? What if people are repulsed by what they see (and suddenly stop returning your calls or "unfriend" you on Facebook)?
I’ve been a process consultant for 22 years and one of my strongest lessons over that time is that I cannot expect groups to be vulnerable with me unless I’m willing to be vulnerable with them. Given that it’s seldom possible to do profound work unless you wade into the tender spots, this has led me to a surprising conclusion: I do my best work with others when I’m working on myself.
While I used to labor under the mistaken impression that groups wanted their consultant to be a Rock of Gibraltor and unphased by whatever popped out of the closet when exploring impacted distress, I’ve learned that that’s only half true. While groups do want me to be able to ride the bucking bronco, they simultaneously love hearing stories about how I’ve been bucked off in the past (en route to learning the skills that allow me to stay atop the chaos they serve up).
When I started this blog 18 months ago, I wasn’t sure what the scope of my writing would be. At first I figured it would be an experiment to see if my observations about cooperative group dynamics and life in intentional communities would spur interest in FIC and my work as a process consultant. It didn’t take long however, before it started evolving into something more personal.
My blog became an online journal. While I wrote about the things I thought I would, sometimes I delved into much more personal realms, trying to establish the foundation for my views and beliefs. Basically, I became committed to sharing whatever was up for me, in the hope that the musings of a veteran communitarian might be consistently interesting to others. Over time, I came to understand that my blog was another way to be transparent. In addition to writing being a discipline that forces me to order my thinking (and thus deepen my understanding and the clarity of my insights), I got to practice my commitment to disclosure—at the convenience of my own keyboard.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, marrying the solitary art of journaling with public witnessing. I don’t have the instant feedback of a live audience to steer me in the right direction (helping me understand when my story is too cryptic, too obvious, or too labored). Lack of instant feedback is not, however, the same as no feedback. That became apparent recently when I started writing about my wife’s desire to take on another lover.
While I wasn’t looking for this particular publishing “opportunity,” there was no question about whether it was sufficiently engaging and I was eager to share with others what I was wrestling with. Further, I have an understanding with Ma’ikwe that our lives will be public, and each of us is allowed to use their own judgment about what aspects of our relationship we discuss with others.
Since I started writing about my own relationship with intimacy, I’ve had two friends—both of whom do professional facilitating and work with groups—contact me and inquire if I was fully aware of what I was doing. One suggested separating my blog into two parts, reserving the more intimate examinations for a separate, more discreet audience. The other wanted me to know that she was all in favor of transparency—just not that much.
As I value the opinion of both of those friends, I considered what they said. In the end though, I was persuaded to continue with one blog. First, how could I ask others to open up to me if I wasn’t willing to do the same? Second, I considered the possibility that I might lose clients who would otherwise be interested in working with me. I figured it was possible, yet how badly did I need (or even want) work with people who would not consider me because I wrote openly about my personal life?
(There’s an important distinction between my witnessing what’s going on for me and advocating that others make the same choices I do. In the realm of group dynamics I often advocate for certain points of view and practices; in matters of intimacy my aim is much humbler: to disclose, and let readers sort out for themselves what portions of my experience, if any, are applicable in their own lives.)
It doesn't take anything special to be willing to talk about your successes in public. I want to know if you can talk openly about the time swhen you crashed and burned. In my experience, the deepest learning comes from the times when I botched it, and I've found that I'm never as effective as a trainer or as a consultant if I'm not willing to the time I tripped with the soup bowl on the way to dinner table. Even when a group has hired me to help shape the greenware of their raw dynamics and turn it into fine pottery, they're ultimately intrigued more by my feet of clay than my feat of clay.
Friday, June 19, 2009
In recent months there's been an sharp uptick in inquires from reporters, wondering if interest in community living is on the rise as a response to the current economic hard times. The quick answer is a resounding "Yes!"
FIC has experienced a 25% increase in web traffic over a year ago—now up to almost 2000 per day. Fully 75% of those visits are to our online Directory, which is the #1 source worldwide for finding out who's doing what and where, in the world of intentional communities. This is our bread and butter, and a lot of people are stopping by our Directory snack shop for a bite of sustenance.
A deeper question is how close are we as a society to major economic upheaval? Who knows. I first started thinking seriosuly about the possibility of major economic collapse as a college junior in 1970, when campuses were on strike in response to Nixon's Cambodian misadventure, as part of our failed strategy in Vietnam (styled euphemistically as an "incursion"). Remember Kent State? I do, and I wondered that spring if colleges would be open for business again the following fall.
College classes did indeed resume that fall, and every fall since then. I've been listening to periodic predictions of catastrophic economic upheaval ever since: the OPEC oil emarbgo in 1973; the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991; the Battle in Seattle and WTO protest in 1999; The World Trade Center bombings in 2001, Now it's the sub-prime mortgage scandal, Peak Oil, and Transition Towns. I've been listening to forecasts of impending doom for nearly 40 years. Will it really happen this time? I don't know.
Yet I want to share a story that spurred me to write this blog. I had a phone conversation yesterday with Don Hollister—a long-term friend who was part of the collective that first conceived of Communities magazine in 1972. He lives in Yellow Springs OH and does organizing for the Democratic party. He's been a believer in community for decades and been touched by the writings of Arthur Morgan and his advocacy of Small Community as a foundamental building block of a healthy society.
Don and I were discussing FIC fundraising and he wondered if the rising interest in community living could be characterized as a sea change, analogous to the surges we experienced in 1965 and 1990. I admitted that it might be, but that it's often difficult to discern clear trends in the early stages of change (and I related my caution about predicting major upheaval after becoming inured to such forecasts the last fours decades).
Then Don realted that his insurance agent was talking with him the other day and had asked him (apropos nothing that Don had said) if he'd seen the article on "Thrift and Shift" in the current issue of Yes! magazine—an alternative publication devoted to reporting on positive futures. It had got the agent to thinking about our cultural addiction to materialism and the need to get off the consumer merry-go-round. Don was impressed. He figured that if a life-long insurance agent in southwestern Ohio (Hint: this is not a hotbed of countercultural thinking and insurance agents as a class are not known for their forward-thinking attitudes about societal change) was starting to ask soul-searching questions about the meaning of life, that this might be a sign that the Humpty-Dumpty of consumption may be teetering atop a Berlin Wall with severe foundational cracks. And all of Madison Avenue's hoarse cries and admen may be unable to keep Humpty from being Dumptied. (Have I got enough matephors in there?)
While I can't be sure of what the immediate future will bring, I'm all together confident that community—and increased collaboration—will be the best response. It will be a good choice if the current recession is just a hiccup (and we're only talking about moving the flag pole 30 feet to the other side of the green); and it will be a great choice if it's much worse (and we're talking about a pole shift—civilzational change the likes of which no one alive has ever witnessed).
I figure if insurance agents in southwestern Ohio are talking, I'm listening.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
I just finished doing a weekend Introduction to Facilitation Workshop at Heathcote Community in Freeland MD. Friday evening through Sunday afternoon I worked and laughed with 16 participants as we explored a wide range of group situations and typical challenges that facilitators face. As a student of group dynamics and a teacher of facilitation, I am frequently in the position of describing the pitfalls that groups fall into by virtue of not having discussed and made explicit agreements about how they want to view to handle certain things.
By Sunday afternoon the workshop participants were all over me to give them a list of these questions, so here goes.
The main thing to understand about this is not there is one right way to address all of the questions (indeed, different groups come up with all manner of good answers). Rather, it’s to understand that having no answer is guaranteed to be a problem. Sooner or later, the ambiguity will to bite you in the butt, and it’s much worse to attempt to sort many of these things out when you’re in the midst of tension resulting from members proceeding from different assumptions—or guesses—about the group’s position.
Almost all groups have some basic agreements: for example, about common values, how one becomes a member, and how the group will make decisions. While that’s a good start, it isn’t nearly enough. Here’s a much longer list of things that groups should discuss—preferably before the water gets hot: Note that none of these questions is limited to residential communities: they are meant to apply to any group trying to function cooperatively.
1. What is the purpose of meetings? To what extent is it to solve problems, and to what extent is it to build relationships among members?
2. What topics are worthy of plenary attention? Absent clarity about this, groups tend to drift into working at a level of detail that is beneath them rather than effectively delegating. This is directly related to the phenomenon of meeting fatigue.
3. How do you want to work with emotions that surface in meetings? Hint #1: Ignoring them doesn’t work. Hint #2: You can allow expression of feelings while at the same time object to aggression.
4. How do you want to work with conflict? (This is the most volatile subset of working with emotions.) While asking conflicted people to “take it outside” can work some of the time, it won’t always. What’s more, at least some of the time progress on the topic that triggered the distress may be held hostage to resolution of the upset. It can be very expensive to not have an agreement about how to work conflict.
5. Under what conditions, if any, is it OK to speak critically of a member who is not in the room? Caution: Be careful here. You don’t want people to be able to control by their absence what gets examined.
6. How do you protect the rights of members to have an opportunity to have input on issues examined at meetings they missed? Conversely, how do you protect the right of the group to move forward on issues when members miss meetings? This is a balancing act, and a good answer here probably involves clear agreements about advance notification of draft agendas, advance circulation of proposals, and standards for minutes.
7. What authority do you give facilitators to run meetings? Hint: If they’re not explicitly allowed to interrupt people repeating themselves or speaking off topic, you’re in trouble.
8. What are your standards for minutes? What should minutes include? Where will they be posted? Are they indexed? Are they archived? Do the same standards apply to committees that apply to the plenary?
9. Do you have protocols for how email is used? Hint: Email is great for posting announcements and reports; OK for discussions; dangerous for expressing upset; and downright thermonuclear for trying to process upset.
10. What are the rights & responsibilities of membership? While groups tend to be pretty good at being clear about financial aspects, they tend to be less good at spelling out labor, governance, or social expectations. Hint: It generally works better if you think of these two questions as being paired.
11. What does membership imply about how much you want to be in each other’s lives? How much does membership imply a social connection beyond a business connection? Big gaps in answers (or assumptions) here can really hurt.
12. What are the expectations around giving one another critical feedback about their behavior as a member of the group? Caution: Is a member allowed to refuse another member a request to discuss their behavior?
13. What are the conditions under which a member may involuntarily lose rights, and by what process will that be examined? Caution: While it’s hard to get excited about tackling this delicate topic before there’s a need, it’s a nightmare to attempt to clear it up once the need has arisen.
14. How much diversity can you tolerate? While most groups aspire to embrace diversity (in fact—given that human cloning is illegal—some degree is unavoidable), there is always a limit to how much a group can tolerate and it’s important to have a way to talk about it.
15. How do you select managers and fill committees? Caution: Simply asking for volunteers can work fine for some positions, yet can be downright foolish in others, where a definite balance or skill set is critically needed.
16. How do you evaluate the performance of managers and committees? This includes how, how frequently, and overseen by whom? Hint #1: Have people self-evaluate before the group takes a crack at them. Hint #2: This will tend to work much better if it includes both a chance to identify what’s not been working well and a chance to celebrate what is.
17. What is the group’s model for healthy leadership? Absent an agreement, cooperative groups tend to be much more critical of leaders than supportive, suppressing members’ willingness to take on leadership.
18. Do you regularly discuss how power is distributed in the group? Do you have an understanding about how to discuss the perception that people are using power less cooperatively than the users think they are? Caution: Tackle the first question before the second. Absent a clear sense of the need to talk about power, and an understanding about how to go about it in a constructive manner, this topic can be explosive (think Krakatoa).
Thursday, June 11, 2009
I got involved with intentional community in 1974, when I joined with three others to start Sandhill Farm. Because I've found a lifestyle that has worked for me—providing just the right balance of stimulation, support, and authenticity—I've stayed.
Moving beyond personal support, I see my life in community also as a platform for social change work. It's about incorporating one's values into everyday life, and about control of one's time—having sufficient flexibility and support to be able to concentrate my attention on what's happening (to me and around me), so that I can learn, and then share what I'm learning.
One of the most important lessons for me has been the need to integrate one's thinking with one's feelings—about paying attention to both the head and the belly, honoring for the insights and compensating for the blindness of each. At its best, community is a nutrient rich environment, perfect for fostering the development of this special kind of indigo hybrid, replete with its promise of understanding and compassion—two fruits for which there is rarely a surplus.
As a process consultant, I teach that a good facilitator must be able to work both with Content and with Energy. While this entails completely different skill sets, both are important and need attention. Taking this further, I believe that World Peace will depend on our species learning better how to integrate these two primal energies: thought and emotion. They represent different ways of receiving information, different ways of knowing information, and different ways of sharing information. I am convinced that working successfully with conflict means learning how to work in both realms—often simultaneously and with maximal discernment and minimal judgment. While I won't pretend this is easy, it can be done.
I tell this story with sadness, and no small amount of humility, as it highlights just how far we have yet to go. I'll call these communards Dale and Terry.
When Dale and I first got together, I asked how things were going at home. I'd heard that they had recently lost a member to a drug overddose that was considered a suicide. Dale reported that it wasn't as bad as it might have been because the woman who had ended her life had been rather reclusive and a lot of people didn't know her well.
I told Dale that I had heard that:
o The suicide had occurred shortly after a difficult community meeting during which the woman's behavior had been labeled addictive and the community was discussing what, if anything, to do about it.
o There was neither agreement about the diagnosis nor about the best course of action.
o The woman was aware of the meeting and was upset by it.
When Dale agreed that that was how it went down, I wondered if there weren't serious feelings that arose from that sequence. Dale admitted that some members did have strong reactions. When I aked if the community was talking about it, Dale snapped back: "Not everyone thinks that we have to have a meeting about everything. We do things differently at my community."
Well, it didn't take a Ouija Board to figure out that I was being disinvited to ask more, and I let it go. Inside however, I was wondering how you could possibly not talk about it as a group. It's been my experience that pain like this does not go away on its own—especially when interlarded with guilt and anger. Rather, it festers and degrades trust and good will. When not dealt with openly, this kind of thing can become anaerobic and malignant. Toughing it out, in my experience, essentially translates into not facing the tough stuff out in the open. I'm worried about communities that don't have a way to grieve together.
Leaving the story of the suicide, Dale went on to share news of another member who had recently faced a near-death medical emergency, only this person survived. This second trauma had shaken Dale up more than the suicide because of a closer personal connection. When Dale finished, I turned to Terry, who had joined us while Dale's check-in was in progress.
Earlier that day, I had overheard Terry describing to a friend the challenges of parenting two young children. In particular, Terry was alert to the need for children to be able to develop their capacity to identify and voice their feelings, especially when the kids are young and they don't yet have sufficient vocabulary and are just learning the art of self-reflection. As a parent emeritus, I found Terry's overview sensitive and insightful. I was impressed.
Imagine my surpirse when Terry stated—after listening politely while Dale described a gut-wrenching emotional roller coaster: "I'd rather just get down to business so we can get this over with. I have a lot to do." As a cooperator, I found Terry's choice insensitive and callous. Again I was impressed, though this time unfavorably.
How, I wondered, could someone see so well what children needed, yet fail to see that they needed it as well?
While I'll freely admit that neither of these two communitarians had ever been accused of being poster children for heart circles, this pair of tender, yet awkward chickens touched me as a profound example of how far we must still travel to find the integration I beieve to be so essential to waging peace. There's still a lot of pain out there.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Over the course of our 35 years as an intentional community, Sandhill Farm has had an incredible variety of visitors, and therefore, we've accumulated an equally incredible wealth of visitor stories. One of my favorite memories goes back about 25 years, when we asked a visitor for his impressions of the community after being with is for a week. After a moment of reflection, he replied solemnly, “I really like chickens.”
For a moment, no one spoke. After all, we had been living with poultry (and our own egg supply) almost from the beginning and most of us had a fondness for chickens, but we also knew that no one had ever considered that such a standout feature of our community life. Some of us were thinking, “Did he really say that?”
Well, it turned out he didn’t. He’d said that he really liked check-ins, and we’d all simply transposed the vowels. We had such a good laugh over it that we decided, on the spot, to start calling check-ins chickens, and have incorporated that malapropism into our local argot ever since.
Ma’ikwe and I set the tone by describing our journey around opening up our marriage to include the possibility of having other lovers [see my blogs of April 19, May 7, May 21, and June 1 for more on this], and we immediately had everyone's attention. That set the stage for sharing deeply with one another about what was going on in our lives, and here's an overview of what came out:
Person A: My marital challenges are getting better. My wife and I are now talking regularly about our relationship and it’s made a surprising amount of difference that I’ve learned (in this training) to raise my energy to meet hers when she’s upset. As you know, I’m a teacher and I’m missing graduation to attend this training weekend; I was really torn about having to make the choice, yet couldn’t stay away.
Person B: Work is totally chaotic right now yet I knew I needed to get away for a weekend. If I’d stayed home and worked, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference—it’d be just as crazy Monday morning whether I'd worked all weekend or not.
Person C: I’m visiting a nearby community on a trial basis and having a very positive experience. While I’m getting closer to being ready to facilitate groups, I'm not quite there. I’ve still got considerable performance anxiety.
Person D: I’m trying to enter the job market right now, but the timing is terrible. My marriage is shaky, but we’re doing counseling together and trying to save it.
Person E: I was discouraged by backlash at my home community to working on conflict. It took me a while to work through my feelings and see how much my pushing for this is not helping. On the other hand, I mediated a session between two people who’ve been at odds with each other for years and they achieved a breakthrough with my help. That felt great. I’m also struggling to decide between continuing to work at the college I’m at now, which is great but has no job security versus accepting a tenure track position at another college.
Person F: I'm struggling with diminished energy. While some of it may be aging, I suspect it’s mostly emotional turbulence, and I’m working on trying to control things less and trusting that things will work out well even if I’m not so directive.
Person G: I’ve recently joined a new clinic and I’m overwhelmed by the workload. I'm happy to take a break from it this weekend. Meanwhile, I’m inspired by what my partner has been getting out of the training.
Person H: I’m deeply involved in process work at home and am excited to be applying what we’re learning in the training. Already I’m seeing meetings more clearly and regularly have ideas about how to improve things. My growth edge is working with conflict. I’ve been clearing the decks in preparation for adopting, and am starting to look at which country I’d like to focus on.
Person I: I’m exploring life at a new community and it’s being very rich. I’m even experimenting with taking on a leadership role in my prospective home. In the last couple months I’ve gotten a chance to teach a consensus introduction, and that went well.
Person J: I’ve been exhausted by the task of shutting down a 6-year business with my husband. Though it was clearly the right decision, I got to see how much I want to be liked as a leader and how painful it was getting criticized by employees we had to let go. In meetings it’s become increasingly clear to me how crucial it is to have clear objectives. In recent months I’ve been able to get to a much better place about concentrating on learning and not getting distracted about looking good when things don’t go well. I also just ended a term on the local school board, where I was able to make a big difference in turning around the energy at meetings and finding good people to fill open seats on the board.
Person K: I just deposited my first payment as a process consultant! I’ve been teaching a group in California how to conduct salons and they love it! I want help this weekend with ideas about how to handle a difficult person in my community who drives me bonkers.
Person L: I used what I’ve been learning at meetings of the local fire department and people liked what I did so much I was voted Firefighter of the Month. I love what I’ve been learning about conflict, and was even able to apply it in a dispute with my ex-wife. After I stepped back from my own hurt and thought about how things must look to her, I was able to make a bridging statement and she stopped fighting me. It was a miracle!
Person M: I wrestled with two big challenges the last two months: a) I discovered that my family owed the IRS about $20,000 and I knew my husband was going to pitch a fit when he found out; and b) my husband and I have been trying to adopt a second child for about three years and we just learned that our application has been rejected. There are now new rules for international adoption and we’ve been told we have to start over. We’re devastated. Meanwhile my home community has been very appreciative of my growing skills as a facilitator.
Person N: I’ve had no room in my life to prep for this weekend, and haven’t read the handouts. At work I’m finding myself in a dissociated state, as I’ve realized I’m not doing what I want to be doing with my life. I’m exhausted at the end of each training weekend and am terrified of doing emotional work. Still, I keep coming back...
Person O: I’m just an auditor and this is my first time in the circle. I get it that people in this training are working on themselves and not just here to learn rules about how to run meetings!
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
Though I’m hardly a hermit, and I try hard not to be crabby, I nonetheless have no qualms whatsoever about taking inspiration from the hermit crab and traveling through life in the raiment and accessories of others. Some have been passed on to me; some have been procured for me; some have been crafted for me. I carry reminders of my relationships with me all the time, both for economy and connection.
Let me enumerate:
The Traveling Man
—When my dad died in 1989, all of my siblings congregated in South Carolina to be with my mother. I lingered after the wake and helped her sort through his clothes. In consequence, I schlepped his sock collection home (it lasted more than a decade) and 20 years later I'm still using his olive drab canvas suitcase.
—One of my dearest community friends was Geoph Kozeny, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2007. Geoph used to live in San Francisco and sometime back in the late '80s he passed along to me a canvas tote sack with a wood-block image of a devil who had purchased a monster at auction (think Maurice Sendak). Long years ago it had been a fundraising premium for KQED, the NPR station based in San Francisco. As a process consultant for 22 years, I can't recall ever traveling to a job where I didn't have my "little devil bag." When the straps started showing serious signs of fraying last year, my daughter, Jo, surreptitiously made a template of the design and presented me with a replacement facsimile for Christmas—with reinforced straps. Is that love, or what? With any luck, it should last me another two decades.
—With rare exceptions, I carry my Mac laptop with me wherever I travel. Back in the early '90s my brother-in-law Dan gave me an L.L. Bean carrying case for my computer and I can't imagine a road trip without it.
—I carry my passport, train tickets, and business cards in a handsome leather wallet I bought on whim in 1967 in London, when carousing around Europe with my brother Guy after I'd graduated from high school. That wallet had been gathering dust in a box in the attic for 30 years until I'd stumbled upon it about 10 years ago. I've since cleaned it up and now have a piece of my brother with me everywhere I travel.
Down on the Farm
In sharp contrast with the mainstream culture's slavish devotion to fashion, I strive to wear clothes out (the next stop for a t-shirt after after I'm done with it is as a floor rag). In some cases that can take a while.
—For more than two decades I relied on a down vest made from a Frostline kit by my sister Kyle. It was one of the best Christmas gifts I ever got. After I finally wore enough holes in the ripstop nylon shell to rertire the vest from active duty, I gave it to a friend to recycle the goose down.
—Once I had a pair of sneakers that had been given to me by my son, Ceilee, as he outgrew my size 9 feet en route to his ultimate size 11. (When I think about my substantial investment in his clothes over the years, this modest return was a nice surprise. And unlike his father, my son bought high-end gym shoes, so his hand-me-ups lasted pretty long.)
—Just when I was about to exhaust what first appeared to be a limitless supply of socks from the wardrobe of my deceased father, my sock collection got a timely replenishment from the dresser bureau of Jack Leigh—Susan Patrice's ex-partner, whose footwear passed on to me when he passed on in 2004.
—T-shirts come into my life even faster than socks. Often I haven't the slightest remembrance of their provenance.
Specialty clothes are unique and tend to be simpler to track:
—I have an a-line skirt from Kelsey, ex of Twin Oaks.
—My favorite auction vest (how I attire myself for conducting benefit auctions) traces to Alex McGee’s ex-brother-in-law, when he moved from St Louis and needed to lighten his load.
—I acquired a floor-length pink cotton dress (hecho en Mexico) when it was donated to an FIC benefit auction in 2001 and the crowd (egged on by the same Susan Patrice mentioned above) insisted on seeing me model it. After all the whistling died down, I rather liked it.
—I possess a Ukrainian officer’s hat procured for me by Alyson Ewald, when she was on a trip to Russia in 2002. (It replaced a cherished black lambs wool cap I had gotten from Bud—my ex-partner Ann Shrader’s father—when he died in1989).
—I've got a Chicago Cubs’ baseball cap from my deceased canoe partner, Tony Blodgett. I acquired that momento from his widow, Sue Anderson, when I was helping her clean out her basement in '05. While the Cubbies were unable to reach the World Series in Tony's lifetime, I like to think I'm carrying the torch for underdogs everywhere by keeping his "lucky" chapeau in circulation.
—My favorite fair shirt (the upper half of my "costume" when attending area festivals to peddle Sandhill food products) was handmade by my ex-partner Jules, circa 1992.
—My wedding shirt (which also blends well with my vest for auctions) was handmade by my daughter Jo. Only two years old, I'm expecting a lot of life out of those special threads.
Monday, June 1, 2009
I have a problem asking for what I want. In fact, I hate it. Probably the only thing harder is asking for what I need (not that I'm particularly good at discerning the difference).
Requests in the Group Context
I’m much more comfortable offering assistance than requesting it. My basic strategy as a community member—and as a partner—is to maximize what I can offer as support, while at the same time minimizing what I request. In general, giving more than one takes creates a certain amount of social lubricant that eases group dynamics. (As a relatively minor example, I often forego taking portions of popular dishes at common meals unless I'm confident that the quantity available will sate everyone; if I have any sense that there might not be enough to provide everyone all that they want, I'm apt to take none. Instead, I try to make a wholesome meal out of what's plentiful. Luckily, on a farm, that's not difficult to accomplish. What's more there's plenty of hump to this camel, and missing an occasional meal is no big deal for me.)
As someone who has a considerable amount of privilege in my life—I'm a well-educated, able-bodied, articulate, older white man—this is one of the ways I cope with the demonstrably uneven power gradient that exists within my intentional community (just as it does in all intentional communities), where the explicit goal is to create a cooperative culture that attempts to provide equal access to power and influence. Knowing that I have a lot of power, I try to be vigilant about how I exercise it. Where possible (such as the choices I make about what food to eat), I have worked to automatically screen my personal desires against how they may impact the options available to others.
To be sure, this practice does not always lead to happy results. Sometimes people can be irritated (even insulted) by my insistance that others go first [I one time had a friend who was an accomplished baker and would mail me a box of assorted delectable homemade cookies every Christmas, but stopped the practice as soon as she learned that I shared the treats with everyone else in the community, instead of eating them myself.] Trying to focus on the group impact, I sometimes come across as holier than thou, and "too good" to eat what others eat. I cheat people out of the pleasure of pleasing me. It can get tricky.
Sometimes people refrain from making requests because it will be too awkward for them to hear "no"; they'd rather do without than risk a potential embarrassment. Going one level deeper, sometimes people suppress requests for fear that it will be too hard for the person(s) receiving the request to say "no" and will thus be trapped into saying "yes." In this dynamic the would-be requester is silent because they don't care to put others in such an awkward position.
Those who have less trouble hearing "no" find it eaiser to make requests, and thus tend to get more of what they want in the way of support. It is not unusual for this to lead to a certain amount of subterranean resentment from those who are substantially withholding or editing their requests, because of the imbalance of support that results from the imbalance of requests. Note this can be true even when the group explicitly ecourages everyone to put out their requests! Having the stated ideal of equality and fairness is not nearly enough to ensure its manifestation.
Although most group's have a common value about members being supportive of one another (which essentially translates into being available to hear and satisfy a certain amount of requests from fellow members) it's not often made explicit what the limits of that are. Nor is it commonly discussed how far someone can "go in the hole," by which I mean how much they can be perceived to be receiving more than they are giving and have there be no tension around deficit spending.
As a practical matter, most groups would prefer that all members run a positive balance when it comes to how much they give support and how much they receive it. (If you have doubts about whether this is true for your group, think about how badly you don't want to be labeled a "needy" person by others.) Upon reflection, of course, it will be obvious that this is an impossible standard. If one member is running a positive balance, then some other member must be running a negative balance. Uh oh. Worse, people will not always have the same perception about how much someone is running ahead or behind, and there will predictably (as is the sun will rise in the East) be tension around the gap in perception of people's contributions to one another. It can be damn hard to have a constructive conversation around the sense that someone is being selfish and not doing "their share" of supporting others when the group has not established a standard for what's expected and, in fact, is likely to be adamant about not doing so.
This can be a large hair ball.
Requests in the Intimate Context
While the group context is plenty messy, it can get even murkier when you drop down to the intimate level. For this, I'll retrun to my own journey.
I have trouble asking for what I want with my wife, Ma’ikwe. In reflecting on this extensively the past week, it has dawned on me that I expect her to intuit what I want and offer it without my making a request. That way, I can have my cake (the thing I actually want) and eat it too (not being at risk for appearing selfish, or at risk for being turned down). How messed up is that? Unfortunately, it's plenty messed up, and occasionally (when I'm really into embracing me Inner Asshole) I even have the temerity to be irritated with Ma'ikwe for not guessing right about what I want and haven't articulated. This is really embarrassing.
Ma'ikwe and I live in neighboring intentional communities three miles apart—she at Dancing Rabbit and I at Sandhill Farm. While we'd have this issue (about how to handle requests of one another) regardless of where we lived, we have the chance to test these waters regularly on the question of how much time to spend together. While we're both committed to the partnership and take this seriosuly, we're also busy people with plenty of other commitments in our lives. Lately we've been examining the consequences of how our limited time together is putting a significant strain on our intimacy [see my blog entires for April 19, May 7, and May 21 for more on this]. While this is something we’ve created together (and therefore need a joint response to) I hadn’t realized—until she recently pointed it out—that she was initiating almost all of the contact that happens between us outside of the times that we routinely set aside. More embarrassment.
Why was I doing so little to cultivate the relationship? I suspect the answer (or at least a good part of it) is as simple as my being uncomfortable making requests. So what’s going on?
It’s easy to understand that Ma’ikwe wants to hear my requests—after all, I want to hear hers. Why do I balk at reciprocating? There are some things that aren’t so hard for me to ask for. One of those is honesty with one another. I also have no trouble asking her opinion about something I've written or the way I've handled a complicated situation. I enjoy asking her to help me prepare a celebratory meal.
These bright spots notwithstanding, I have great resistance to asking for time alone with me, or for her to come over to Sandhill for the evening. I struggle to tell her when I’m in struggle. It’s hard just asking her to hold me. While I easily offer her massage, I never request it. When we make love, I keep score, making sure that she climaxes more often than I do. None of this is helpful.
Why do I do this? I think that my fundamental fear is that I may need her more than she needs me, and I operate under the ridiculous idea that if I ask for less then I’ll need less. Being afraid of losing intimacy, I sabotage what we have. Now there’s a plan.
Ma’ikwe has made it clear to me that she wants to be partnered with me and is fully present when we’re together (she's doing a stellar job of allaying my fears in this regard). Yet lately I’ve been in distress over not being sure what I want, or being OK with asking for anything. I’ve been in a kind of paralysis about this the last couple weeks, and now I’m second guessing the time we spend together. Instead of simply enjoying those precious hours, I’m distracted by attempts to step back and see what I’m doing. In short, I’m lost, and often appear to be doing no better than chasing my tail.
I'm now admitting my utter confusion at the deepest levels of intimacy. (And for someone who works hard to understand what's happening in the moment, and has built a national reputation as a fearless takes-on-all-comers facilitator who never loses his cool in th heat of the dynamic moment, this is a tender admission.) Ma’ikwe has characterized this as being “cracked open” (subtly distinguished from being “cracked up” I suppose) and I think this is apt. My hull has been holed and I’m leaking clarity. I’m also closer to my emotional core and the terrain is unfamiliar. I trip a lot—both in the stumbling sense and in the hallucinogenic sense—and there are moments lately where reality seems pretty elusive.
Looking over at Ma'ikwe's part of the intimacy equation, my wife is riding a rogue wave right now (though it’s a rare and mighty thing, and perhaps dangerous, it's also exhilarating). She’s integrating into a new community (she’s been at DR less than a year), she’s developing a new locus of work (applying life skills where they're wanted and appreciated), she’s building a house for the first time in her life, and she has a new lover. Life is pretty damn exciting for her right now, and I totally support her joy. I have fears that this wave may carry her away from me, yet she’s doing a terrific job of contradicting that by being consistently attentive to both herself and to our Relation Ship, determined to keep it afloat in the high seas she's navigating.
While neither of us is at all sure where this wave will land us, we’re agreed that it’s a potent protean force that is likely to be highly growthful. Best of all, we have a similar intuitive sense that we should trust the journey, and that’s huge. (We both picked the category marked “great” rather than “safe” on our relationship menu, so here we are.) Of course, it’s all very exciting to have Scottie beam you up and get all your molecules scrambled. However, this is more than a carnival ride and the stakes are as high as the seas. Though I know I won't get it, I ache for assurance that I’ll rematerialize afterwards on the same planet as my wife.
When I went to college in the ‘60s the political street phrase was, “Seize the Time!” My latter-day equivalent is “Ride the Wave!”
Battle of the Bands
In some ways, it comes down to whether you believe more in the philosophy of Mick Jagger or Jimmy Cliff. Mick, the realist, warned in song, “You can’t always get what you want,” while Jimmy, the optimist, countered with, “You can get it if you really want.”
While I’ve learned that expectations profoundly influence outcomes, I notice that I tend to approach requests from Ma’ikwe much as a trail lawyer might—rarely asking a question I'm not sure of the answer to. If I suspect the request might place Ma’ikwe in an awkward spot, I’ll tend to not make it. Though she doesn't want me to edit, I do anyway. Where do I find the courage to turn that around?
So here I am, getting the goddamned growth opportunity I said I wanted, and I'm squirming. I hate this. I suppose the good news is that, in the end, Both Mick and Jimmy offer hope. For Mick it's about surrender. A little later in the same song he offers:
But if you try sometimes you just might find that you get what you need.
For Jimmy, it's about perseverence, even (especially?) in heavy seas:
But you must try, try and try, try and try, you'll succeed at last.
So here I am, 59 years old and still a work in progress. The only thing I know for certain is that Ma'ikwe, bless her, won't let me off the hook (which, of course, is why a I married her). I'll keep you posted on how it goes.