Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Relationship of Relationships to the Group

Recently I was asked to facilitate a sharing circle for a group where there had been a shift in an intimate relationship among members. The change—an old partner out and a new partner in— naturally spurred a complex set of reactions among the other members and the group was undecided about whether to talk about it as a group, and if so, how. That's where I was asked to help.

On the one hand, the precipitating events were intimate decisions that the group clearly recognized as outside the group's purview. That is, no one was trying to make the case that the individuals needed any kind of group sanction to proceed. At the same time, it was equally clear that the shift was demonstrably affecting the group. In addition to the two people who were starting a relationship, there was a break-up of a longstanding relationship that resulted in a long-term member exiting the community. So joy and grief were commingled in a volatile emotional stew and it was anything but simple figuring out how to proceed with caring and authenticity.

To what extent is the group a stakeholder in this dynamic? To what extent is it helpful to create a group level forum to explore this tender territory? This is a great topic. Shifts in intimate relationships are not rare and groups often stumble over this dynamic, in part because groups seldom address how they want to handle it ahead of being in the tender situation that exposes the ambiguity.

In this particular incident, the pathway was further clouded by one member of the emerging couple wanting the chance to talk in the whole group, while the other partner dreaded it. The latter has never been comfortable sharing in groups, yet was willing to talk with anyone one on one. Why, this person wondered, couldn't that be enough?

While much might have been accomplished through one-on-one sharing, not everyone feels comfortable doing that when they're upset, and there is considerable power in everyone hearing from everyone else all at once. Not only does this cut down on speculation and gossip about what's happening and how people are responding, it gives depth to each person's knowledge of other members, and enhances the trust that you can build as a consequence of weathering a complex dynamic together.

By making the choice to create an intentional community, the group had made an explicit choice that members would be more in each other's lives than is the case in typical neighborhoods. That is, they purposefully chose to be closer with one another. That said, there was still substantial ambiguity about how close they wanted that to be, and the request to have a group conversation about how the group was impacted by intimate events begged that question. While some members definitely wanted this opportunity, others thought it was inappropriate and was inserting the community too far into member's private lives. Nonetheless, the group proceeded, and most members, to their credit, were willing to give it a try, with even some of the skeptical attending (for which I was thankful and impressed).

The sharing circle was an explicit attempt to help the new couple in their continuing relationships with others in the community—which everyone wanted to proceed in a healthy, authentic way—yet we established at the outset that no one was intending this session to encourage people to take sides between the new couple and the exiting member. In fact, one of the clearest benefits of the session was our ability to successfully establish that no one was asking anyone to choose between them, so that support extend to any of the principals should not be construed as an implied withdrawal of support for any other principal. Whew!

In this instance, the group did a terrific job of speaking from their hearts and listening closely to each other. This was all the more impressive in that a number of people had hard things to say.

Here is some of what came out:
o Anger that one member would make themselves available for a new relationship before the old one was dissolved. Some thought this violated a standard of morality, even though it was recognized that was a personal position and not something that the group took a stand on (though some groups do, but this one did not).

o Lament that the group was not able to find a way to better help the struggling couple work through their issues, with the hope that either they'd come through it with their relationship intact, or that it was possible for the old couple to separate without the group losing a valued member.
o Fear in the new couple that others were holding them in judgment and that they might be shunned.

o Anger that people might have been used by the new couple to create opportunities for them to get together—that the third party was asked to hang out not because the couple wanted to spend time with them, but so that their presence could make it "safer" for the new couple to spend time together without arousing suspicion.

o Upset that people were hearing "dirty laundry" about the old couple that no one was comfortable with, or knew how to respond to.

o Confusion about whether it was appropriate to express happiness for the new couple without coming across as callous and uncaring for the person losing their partner.

o Upset that the group was intruding on private matters, and that the conversation might lead to traumatization and polarization that would preclude or at least delay healing.

o Fear among single people in the group that their spending time with married members might be misconstrued as an attempt to seduce other people's partners.

o Relief that the group cared enough about each other—and the whole—to make this attempt to discuss what was going on, without judging one another for their individual reactions.

o Thankfulness that there was finally an opportunity to say openly how difficult it had been to try to befriend all parties and have no one to share that with because of an overriding commitment to confidentiality (the underlying relationship struggles had been going on for more than a year).

One of the most powerful things that emerged in the sharing was people witnessing difficult things from their past that strongly influenced how they saw this development, which included their personal stories around intimacy and the boundaries they have developed about what is private and what is suitable to be shared with others. When revealed, it made it much easier for others to understand their perspective. In the absence of such knowledge, we tend to assume that others have similar life experiences to ours, and this can considerably muddy the waters when trying to make sense of why someone reacts as they do. Often, these things don't emerge until such tender moments occur and people are given an unexpected safe forum to share their histories.

Note the power of the whole group hearing about all of this in one go, rather than trying to piece it together from a series of one-on-one conversations. None of what I've written here is meant to criticize one-on-one sharing—I'm all for it. I'm only trying to make the case why sharing in the group offers unique benefits. Done well (which is not a slam dunk, yet is demonstrably possible), it undercuts hearsay, establishes a common basis for moving forward, enhances trust, and accelerates healing.

While no one wants people to suffer and go through deep hurt, such things inevitably occur. I'm excited when groups are willing to make the attempt to trust their ability to help each other through hard times by being real and vulnerable with one another, trusting in our basic humanity and desire to piece together our myriad and confused responses into a tapestry of authenticity and support when coping with crisis.
Relationships don't exist in a vacuum, and I think it works better when groups don't just look the other way and hope for the best. It gives me hope when communities are willing to extend themselves and recognize they can have a role in helping to create a healthy container in which relationships can manage struggle, and the individuals whose lives are affected can get support in finding their way to a constructive response. I'm proud to be a midwife of such moments.

As a group process consultant, this is as good as it gets.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Giving Good Weight

The title of today's blog comes from the lead essay in a collection written by John McPhee that was published in 1979. The story deals with greengrocers in New York City. When vendors give good quality produce in full measure, they are said to be "giving good weight."

Giving Good Eight
As a facilitation trainer, my teachings depend both on students eager to learn the craft, and on hosts who are willing to provide live meetings as opportunities for students to learn (in exchange for room and board for the students during the training weekend). I offer a facilitation training program that runs for two years and is comprised of eight weekends. Naturally, it's important that I deliver materials and guidance that build synergistically over all eight weekends, so that the students steadily improve and are able to deliver an increasingly superior product as the training progresses.

A weak spot in all this is the challenge to give good weight during the first weekend or two, when the students are especially green. During those opening weekends it's rare that the host group is receiving anything special in the way of outside facilitation. It helps balance the scale that I offer a professional report on what I've observed of the host's process and that I typically facilitate at least one session as a demonstration. Mostly though, we depend on hosts that are willing to believe in the long haul, in the hopes that their early generosity will be repaid down the road when their members in the training blossom into more skilled facilitators.

Giving Good Weight (this week)
We just completed Weekend II of my Integrative Facilitation Training in the Mid-Atlantic States (that I'm conducting with my wife, Ma'ikwe), where we were hosted by Heathcote Community in Freeland MD. While there was some frustration with our fairly deliberate start on Friday and Saturday, we picked up enough steam—and delivered enough valuable product—that by Sunday Heathcoters felt well rewarded for having the class facilitate their weekend retreat. Whew! It's always a relief when we cross into the black.

Everyone in the class who attended both of the first two weekends has now gotten up front to facilitate for at least an hour of live meetings, and this gives us a much better read on everyone's capacity (helping us trainers assess better who can handle what, and who to pair up with whom to make an effective partnership). After only two weekends, students can already see improvements in their facilitating and in their ability to discern what's happening in a meeting. It's thrilling to watch the students grow right before our eyes.

Giving Good Wait
Part of the program format is that Ma'ikwe and I, as trainers, reserve the right to step in and redirect or clarify in the moment if a student facilitator is straying or otherwise being ineffective in their offerings. While we do this rather freely in the early weekends (both to help guide the student and to safeguard the quality of work being given the host), by Sunday we were starting to get push back from the students who assured us that they could handle what was happening. Hah! We usually don't start seeing that kind of spunk and confidence until Weekend V! Already, they're starting to ask Ma'ikwe and me to wait a little longer before stepping in.

All in all, it's been an auspicious start.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Tuesday I lost my glasses.

I was trying to pick up saw logs (black locusts for the posts and beams of a house going up for Dennis & Sharon over at Dancing Rabbit) with the hydraulic forks of our big tractor (an Allis Chalmers D-17 if you're keeping score at home) and got a bit too close to our colony of beehives on a day threatening rain—and when the barometer plummets, so does the normally sunny disposition of our apiary.

Inconveniently, I got nailed on my right eyelid. In my haste to get the goddamn sting out (it can pulse additional poison into the skin even after becoming detached from the bee). I must have wiped my glasses off my face and never realized what I'd done until I had gotten back to the house (where there was a mirror), had carefully plucked the sting out of my eyelid, and had doused my face in cold water to help contain the swelling. Only after all that did I start to wonder where my glasses were, and couldn't find them anywhere in the house. Unfortunately, I couldn't find them anywhere near where I had been stung either—my brown frame glasses apparently blending easily in the field. Somewhere in the melee, my four eyes became two again.

Fortunately, it's not that big a deal:
I wear glasses mostly to drive or to watch movies. I've been nearsighted since high school yet my vision is good enough to function in daily life without optical assistance, so I generally do without. *
The prescription on my old pair (purchased maybe six years ago) was getting gradually out of sync with the shape of my eyeballs and I was getting close to needing a trip to the optometrist anyway.
c) I had a bad scratch on one of the lenses (I know this is a bit like saying it's time to get a new car because the ashtrays are full, but it all adds up).
d) Finally, when I told the story to Ma'ikwe the next day, her immediate response was joy—now she could help me pick up something more stylish (whatever that means).

* I had a inadvertent test of just how well I can function without optical assistance back in 1996. My son Ceilee (then 15 and not quite old enough for a driver's license) and I were canoeing in northern Saskatchewan and I lost my glasses when I flipped the canoe in a poorly executed attempt to run a set of rapids. While the only other loss I sustained in the mishap was a wounded ego, it was unexpectedly interesting threading our way through the North Woods lakes and islands for the remainder of the trip with a horizon that never got better than fuzzy. In addition, I had to drive 1000 miles home with Ceilee helping me discern road signs at 55 mph. Luckily, I didn't hit anything, or otherwise get pulled over for a traffic stop. Whew!

In recent years I've started to joke with process clients or workshop attendees that I'm at a stage in life where it no longer matters much if people wear name tags, because I can't read them without glasses, and I can't read my notes with glasses—and on the whole they're better off with my being able to read my notes than their name tags.

Maybe my next pair will be—shudder—bifocals. Hell, I'm 60 after all, and it would be nice to be able to attend live performances and to both see the stage and read the program without taking my glasses on and off. Or to be able to both see the road and a road map. Or to shift more easily between reading a book and reading the landscape when on train rides.

Who knows, maybe this time I can get a pair that repels bees, or at least have enough foursight to beeware. Or maybe I need better beewear. Or learn how to spell better. Or to better protect readers from strained punnery. It gets confusing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Building Trust

I recently got this email from a friend who went through my two-year facilitation training and is testing her wings working for other groups in her region:

I'm still on board to facilitate a community meeting at Nirvana [name modified whimsically to obscure the identity but not the intent] on the topic of trust. I had originally been slated to go in August and had developed what I thought was a good start with a couple of well-placed community members who are familiar with what I can do and what the community needs. The plenary was postponed however, due to not having had enough publicity to be sure that it would be well attended, and to give the folks in charge of setting up meetings time to fire up some interest in the topic as well as to do more spade work ahead of time. I got an email today suggesting that rather than looking baldly at trust, that the meeting focus instead on issues of governance and questions about how they could work more effectively together. I'm going to be meeting with a different set of folks to discuss the agenda based on this new idea, but I'm curious... why not focus baldly on trust? Is this more effective focusing, to get at trust via how we work together? Or, is this a diversion from looking at the underlying issues?

It could be both! In my experience, people view trust in a variety of ways. While almost everyone will report that they want more of it, the path there is not the same for everyone. I imagine you'll get mixed responses about whether it's better to work it directly or to work it through example. In general, trust is built when people are able to fully disclose authentically and this leads to an enhanced sense of connection and greater insight about what to do together. Trust is also built by people doing what they agreed to do. Trust is eroded when people have the experience that vital information is withheld or distorted, when agreements have been blown off, or when the vulnerability associated with deep sharing has been used as ammunition rather than as an olive branch.

From where I sit, nothing builds trust (or a sense of group cohesion) as surely as successfully working through non-trivial tensions and disagreements with one another. You see a version of this when people pull together in a crisis, shedding their outer veneer of aloofness and the stripping away the everyday trivia that clogs our psychic arteries—getting real under pressure. It stands out because it's not the normal way people operate and is precious because of its rarity.

Given that Nirvana is a good sized group (50+), there are certain to be folks there who will see a direct discussion about trust as navel gazing, I suspect your best bet is to work with the topic of governance (or whatever hot topic will get good engagement), and look diligently for how to make your points about trust out of the specific. This has the power to please everyone (those who need problem solving as the output of meetings, and those who see relationship building as the prize in the meeting crackerjack), though it requires you to multiple track, so that you can see the openings for aha! generalizing. That is, you need to look for the moments when you can pull the group out of the specific conversation about governance, to make a general observation about trust. It's an advanced facilitative skill, being able to track the different levels of the conversation and knowing which is the most potent to focus on in the moment—never mind the skill needed to make it clear to the group which floor the elevator has stopped at before people start responding (people on different floors don't tend to hear each other very well)!

As a process consultant it's common for a group to hire me both to better understand a skill set (consensus, facilitation, conflict management, delegation, power dynamics, etc.) and to help solve a particular sticky problem that showcases their ambiguity about the skill set (participation, pet policy, safety, children in common spaces, etc.). I've found over the years that it typically works better if I start with the specific and work toward the general. If we begin with theory, at least half the group zones out and has Glazed Eyeball Syndrome within 90 minutes. By launching immediately into a hot topic however, everyone is better engaged. Then, when I lay out afterward the principles that I was employing in working the issue, it's much more tangible—they have a live application right in front of them to root their understanding. What looks like magic turns out to be a replicable approach, and everyone goes away feeling like they got what they came for.

Circling back to the question of trust, different people key off of different things. Words (authentic statements of commitment, and heartfelt reporting of feelings) can be pivotal for some; for others statements count for little until and unless backed by actions. Sometimes there's a great shift in trust (either up or down) based on how a person responds under pressure. Some go through life starting with the premise that everyone is trustworthy until they prove otherwise; some do the reverse, trusting no one until they've earned it.

The point of laying out this complexity is to stress the importance of asking the individuals involved what trust looks like to them, so that you don't fall into the trap of inadvertently assuming others see trust the way you do (which will only occasionally be right, mostly by accident).

Friday, September 17, 2010

How a Commitment to Clearness Can Inadvertently Lead to Fog

I just got this inquiry about group dynamics from a friend:

I have a format question for you. I'm part of a couple cooperative enterprises, and we've been doing something we call "clearnesses," which proceed as follows: First, we do a Go Round where people have the opportunity to share generally and personally about their experience being part of the group and the business. Second, each person takes a turn on the "hot seat," with every other person in the group getting a chance to share any withholds, to give feedback, etc.

In the second part, there's a chance for response and some dialog, but the emphasis is on just hearing the feedback (clearing up miscommunications and misunderstandings as necessary). What it definitely doesn't allow for is group conversation.

Recently one of our members expressed a desire for that. She wanted a chance for us to engage in a more dynamic way to identify group issues or talk about instances where one person's behavior might be affecting multiple people in the group. Do you have any ideas for formats or exercises that would deal with that sort of stuff more directly?

For a little more background, each business has 6 people, and there's an overlap of 3 people in each. We're pretty tight and there's a lot of trust. While we don't generally have a problem addressing things with each other on an as-needed basis, the clearnesses have been great for making sure everything's coming out and going a little deeper.

I'm a great fan of continuing any practice that's working well. So if clearnesses have been getting the job done, I'll happily toast clearnesses. However, since there are at least some niggles about how a good thing can be made better (why else would you have written?), here are my thoughts...

The way I sort this out is by first checking to see whether anyone is experiencing distress sufficient to interfere with hearing accurately or working in present time with the information. This could be on the part of the giver and/or the receiver of the feedback. If that's in play then that needs to be attended to prior to any problem solving.

In my experience, where a group is not that skilled or confident in its ability to handle a volatile situation well, then there's a tendency to reach for structure to protect the moment (not allowing people to respond once they've received criticism is an example of such structure). Another way I've seen this play out is for people to use check-ins for launching criticism, where cross-talk is not allowed. I don't think this is a good approach because the distress doesn't go away just because there's no immediate avenue for expressing it.

Best, in my view, is to have a solid understanding about how you'll handle upset as a group, which includes how you'll unpack it and what flexibility individuals have around the format or timing of working on it. Once your group has established its ability to work constructively through non-trivial distress, then you're likely safe to explore a variety of formats.

The prize here is not consistency of format; it's consistently communicating critical information without eroding relationship.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Tamar

Sadly, I have another eulogy today. Long-time Dancing Rabbit member Tamar Friedner died Sunday, losing her battle with liver and pancreatic cancer. She was 32.

It was right at a year ago that we learned of Tamar's grim diagnosis [see my blog Bad News at Home of Sept 17, 2009]. With pluck and determination she had rallied from grave debilitation (she was severely jaundiced at one point and surgery was needed to clear an abdominal obstruction), and enjoyed several good months in the spring when her cancer was in remission. The thing that seemed to help most was a vibrational healing system called Tong Ren, developed by Boston acupuncturist Tom Tam.

While the hope of spring proved false, it was great to see the more vital Tamar once again after the shocking initial diagnosis. It seemed a miracle that her health could be restored so completely, but it was a mirage. The tumors eventually returned and she went into a decline from which she never recovered. She died in Massachusetts, near her family. Various DR members visited her there and Nathan Brown in particular did heroic service in support during the final weeks, including sending her friends much-appreciated updates on her status. One of the beauties of community living is that it is often possible for people to free up their lives to answer the call like this, and I'm sure it meant a lot to Tamar.

Tamar maintained a blog during the last year, and it's an amazing chronicle of her experience. She called it simply, The Journey. One of the things that touches me most about community living is that it often inspires the best in people
, not the least of which is heart-rending vulnerability. While there are paths that we can only walk alone—as Tamar has so clearly demonstratedwe are nonetheless in this life together and there is incredible power and solace in the companionship. Tamar let us all peek behind the curtain of her solitary journey toward death and we are all the richer for her courage and eloquence. It is, after all, a journey that we will all take eventually.

Our Last Exchange
My last communication with Tamar occurred less than two weeks ago. Aug 29 she had written:

Do you know how Geoph (Kozeny) knew when he was on the path to death? Do you think he knew before he got there? What did he do in relation to the illness after he got diagnosed? Did he do Western medicine? Alternative?

Did you know when Geoph was definitely on the path to death? How did you know?

I know these are intense questions. I hope that is okay with you. Sorry if you are not in the space to think about these things.
I responded:

It's certainly OK, and I'm happy to offer what I can.

I'll try to cover your questions with a narrative...

Geoph learned about having inoperable pancreatic cancer in late June 2007, and he died four months later.

Geoph was a highly optimistic person, and idealistic to the point of being unrealistic at times. Because I also am highly optimistic (though somewhat more pragmatic), this didn't bother me about him. Naturally enough, given his core nature, Geoph immediately set upon a path to recover his health through alternative treatments (since allopathic treatments had been ruled out as expensive and ineffective).

While he struggled to make sense of an avalanche of information, some of which was contradictory, he ultimately settled on a course of dietary changes and enzyme supplements (in particular, some product by Mannatech). His mood was generally good, even though he had to navigate a fair amount of pain associated with digestion problems.

My understanding is that he nearly died within a month of the diagnosis due to intestinal blockage, but then this cleared and he was able to enjoy about 10 weeks of relatively pain free living with decent energy and focus. Prudently, he chose to emphasize connecting with as many friends as possible, and essentially stopped working on projects. Fortunately, he had enough good days left to accomplish almost all of what he wanted to in that way.

I was in close contact with Geoph during his final four months, including three visits to the Bay Area. One of my roles was help him make arrangements in case he died, which included disposition of his assets and completion of his video. Given that these things would not have been needed if he survived the cancer, he was having conversations with me that he was not having with others. At the same time, Geoph almost never talked about death with me; it was more like he was preparing for the worst while still hoping for a miracle. As I believe in the power of faith, I was happy to adopt this view myself.

Still, after a brief period of cautious optimism associated with the flurry of experimentation with diet changes and supplements, I had the definite sense that Geoph was dying by August. He was not able to stop losing weight, and his energy was constantly drained (though his mood was often good and he was fully present). I had no sense how long he would live, but I knew he was not going to recover.

During the final two months it was hard to tell how much Geoph might have been in denial about his condition, versus how much he was simply working with what he had, to be open to the mystery of dying. Toward the end he became increasingly interested in spiritual questions and the meaning of life. Increasingly, he would be "somewhere else" when others were in the room.

I saw him for the last time only two days before he died, when it was crystal clear that his body was shutting down. I absolutely knew I was saying good-bye for the last time. But even then, Geoph wasn't interested in talking about dying, except indirectly by speaking regretfully about how he was learning so many interesting things with so little time to enjoy working with them.

While I was never clear about how much Geoph consciously looked at death, I had the definite sense that he met it at peace.

Tamar replied Sept 1:

Thank you Laird. Something that I resonate a lot with and have been saying is.... what a waste it would be if I died now that I have learned so much and my life in health would be more full and joyous.

What a great way to go out, still in wonder and curiosity!

We Build the Ritual as We Travel
Per her wishes, Tamar will be buried at Dancing Rabbit this Friday. It will be the first burial among the tri-communities (Sandhill, DR, and Red Earth) and it's a solemn occasion. Communities are good with ritual and this is a potent time. I'm confident that it will go well. Grieving is a highly individualized and non-linear process, so there will be lots of room for people to touch the third rail of grief in their own way, singly or in groups.
This afternoon, before our regular Tuesday potluck, there will be a ritual to start digging the grave. For me, it helps to have something to do, and I'm looking forward to grieving with a shovel in my hands, just as I'm grieving now at the keyboard.

Ma'ikwe is part of the group that's planning the burial ceremony, and she's taken on the concierge role, helping out with travel and lodging logistics for people coming from out of town for the funeral. There are supporting tasks for all who want one, to be pallbearers figuratively, if not literally.

As death is not something we tend to dwell on before it arrives, awkward things can surface when it knocks on the door (who, after all, is ever fully prepared?). One of those moments occurred for Sandhill yesterday when DR asked us if we'd store Tamar's body in our walk-in cooler between its arrival from Massachusetts Wednesday and the burial Friday. Because it will be a natural burial—very much aligned with the community's and Tamar's values—the body has not been embalmed. There are health regulations governing this and refrigeration is required. Dancing Rabbit is off the grid and doesn't have a refrigerated space large enough to handle this. We do.

On the one hand, this is a way we can help, and several of us felt honored to do this. On the other, this is the harvest season and we're moving food in and out of the walk-in daily. Some members feel queasy about this commingling of life and death and may avoid using the walk-in for the two days that Tamar will be in temporary residence. There is no right or wrong here; it's just one tender example of how death stirs things up, and not the same things for everyone. Breathing through the swirl of emotional responses, we came to a settled place about saying "yes." This was a request we never anticipated facing, but here we are.

Death Be Not Proud
This marks the fourth friend I've lost in less than seven weeks, the last three just in Sept: Al Andersen in July, then Margo Adair, Fred Lanphear, and Tamar in rapid succession. Yikes! Why are so many leaving at the same time? Are there more right around the corner?

While it's hard saying goodbye, it would be much worse if I didn't have the chance, or didn't make the time.

So long, Tamar, thanks for being my friend.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Celebrating Fred Lanphear's Life

Two days ago, we lost Fred Lanphear. He had been diagnosed more than two years ago with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease) and Thursday he lost the battle. Fred was an FIC Board member from 2003-2009, and, more importantly, a friend since I first met him in 1993, when his community, Songaia (Bothell WA), hosted the fall Fellowship's organizational meetings immediately following our six-day Celebration of Community held on the campus of The Evergreen State College in Olympia.

Despite his deteriorating health in recent years, he maintained a positive attitude throughout his final months and was an inspiration to all around him. He died at home, surrounded by his wife, Nancy, and myriad friends. He had lived a full life and went out with grace.

The last time I saw Fred was in June 2009 when I was in Seattle to attend the national cohousing conference held on the University of Washington campus. It was my pleasure to use that occasion to make a public presentation to Fred at his home as the first recipient of the Geoph Kozeny Communitarian Award, given to someone whose life's work promoted community in the spirit of our compatriot who died of pancreatic cancer in October 2007.

The last communication I had with Fred and his partner Nancy was just a week before he died. Nancy assured me that Fred was still reading email messages and they'd just ordered a copy of Rise Up Singing, the best songbook in the universe. Not surprisingly, Songaia (song of the Earth) is a name selected to celebrate both singing and Earth stewardship. Fred loved both and when he was in better health he regularly led songs as part of the opening ritual at Board meetings. When he could no longer attend meetings, we sang for him instead. At the spring 2009 meetings at Kimberton PA, we recorded our rendition of the Shaker classic, Simple Gifts and sent it to him on a CD. What we lacked as virtuoso singers we more than made up for in heart.

Fred always saw the best in people, and it's only fitting that I close this eulogy by posting the good we saw in him. Here is the citation for the award we gave him last year:

The Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) hereby recognizes Fred Lanphear as the 2009 recipient of the Geoph Kozeny Communitarian Award, honoring the indomitable spirit of our fallen comrade, who devoted his adult life to creating community in the world.

FIC conceived of this award in October 2008, just one year after we lost Geoph to pancreatic cancer, at age 57. Fred is our inaugural recipient of this honor.

For the last four decades Fred has lived a life that was remarkably parallel to Geoph's, having devoted a substantial portion of those years to building community in a world that is fragmented and in desperate need of models of cooperative lifestyles, and of the hope that these models inspire.

Fred's community journey started in 1968 with the Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA), when his interest in ameliorating suffering led him and his wife Nancy to volunteer to do community development work. Over a two-decade period with ICA the Lanphears did stints in the US, Kenya, and India.

Ready for new adventures, Fred & Nancy left ICA in 1989, and helped launch Songaia, an intentional community which continues to be the Lanphears home today, and has proven to be a successful cohousing community in Bothell, WA. Using Songaia as a base, Fred devoted much of the last 20 years to the integration of community with wholistic thinking, alternative medicine, and spirituality.

Simultaneous with the founding of Songaia, Fred became centrally involved with the Seattle-based Northwest Institute for Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine (NIAOM), where he served as a top administrator for the period 1989-1999. Fred's tenure there was noteworthy for his nurturing a sense of community among students, faculty, alumni, and patients.

Also in 1989, Fred began an association with the Institute of Noetic Sciences, serving as a group leader and Northwest Board member until stepping back in 2008.

Expanding on his years residing in ICA communities and his early experience with Songaia, Fred helped create the Northwest Intentional Communities Association (NICA) in 1992. This ongoing regional network fosters connections and mutual support for intentional communities in Washington and Oregon. He has been a Board member since its inception and twice served as President.

Taking the challenge of integrative thinking one step further, soon after leaving NIAOM, Fred was inspired to create One Sky Medicine in 2000. The concept was to offer a health clinic that brought together several healing disciplines into one location, offering patients a first-of-its-kind menu of comprehensive options for wellness and health care. Fred served as the One Sky administrator for four years.

Fred first appeared on FIC's radar in 1993, when Songaia hosted the Fellowship's fall organizational meeting, immediately following our successful six-day Celebration of Community in Olympia that August. Because of the post-Celebration buzz, it was one of the highest attended meetings FIC ever had, and Fred and his community did yeoman service in making everyone feel at home, even though our surging numbers strained their capacity.

Though Fred remained active as a community organizer with NICA throughout that time, he didn't join the FIC Board until 10 years later, in 2003. He served two three-year terms on our Board, during which he distinguished himself as convener of the Regional Networking Committee, and as the author of several articles about community living. Of particular note are recent pieces he's written about the opportunities and challenges of aging in community.

In recent years, Fred has gotten increasingly involved in efforts to integrate religion, ecology, and eldering. In 2005 he started a three-year connection with the Greenbriar Seniors, residential care facility where he served in the unique capacity of maintenance man, horticultural "therapist," and song leader. His responsibilities afforded him an entree to regularly meet with residents and combine his passions for connection, gardening, and singing.

As part of the Kirkland Congregational Church since 2006, Fred has been active in the choir and as a deacon. Not content there, he pioneered the role of Earth Keeper, which has included such initiatives as Greening of the Congregation, and Earth Ministries in the Seattle area, where people explore the bridges possible between traditional Christianity and Earth-centered spirituality.

While these are only some of the highlights of a lifetime of service, they amply demonstrate Fred's core commitment to connection, curiosity, celebration, and community. At times he has been an initiator; at other times he has been an implementer. At all times he has focused on what was needed to enhance connections, to bring people together authentically and joyously.

Fred has led an exemplary life in developing and serving a variety of networks, in creating celebration and ritual among groups and individuals, and in uniting spirit and ecology. The FIC salutes Fred on his multi-faceted lifetime achievements.
Goodbye Fred.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Renaissance Homesteader

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and therefore had almost no relationship to practical skills or where my food came from. This persisted through college and a couple years working as a junior bureaucrat in Washington DC. When I moved to Sandhill at the ripe age of 24, things started to change.

While I still have plenty of the bureaucrat in me (I've been a community network administrator for since 1982), I am now somewhat handier than a person who can merely change a light bulb or boil water, and this competency has been a great source of satisfaction over the years.

What do I mean? Let me walk you through what I've been doing the last 30 hours, just as an example…

A. After checking email over my morning cup of coffee (no emergencies), I drafted a fundraising letter that I'll mail in the next two weeks to the 1000+ communities listed in the FIC's upcoming 6th edition of Communities Directory. I'll ask them to buy copies of the new book and also to help capitalize our Directory Endowment, the interest from which will allow us to pay for the labor needed to keep the data fresh and readily accessible. On average, I write at least one report or draft one proposal every day. The letter I composed in the morning allowed me to meet my quota for Tuesday.

B. After circulating that draft for review, I emailed a number of friends and acquaintances in Massachusetts, inviting them to attend the FIC fall organizational meetings, to be held Nov 12-14 at Mosaic Commons in Berlin (about 30 miles west of Boston). Failing that, I'll try to get together with folks one on one (as someone who is on the road 60% of the time, I spend a hefty portion of my time on logistics, and it's good to have my oar in those waters every day).

C. Finishing my electronic work by 11 am and I had some free time until lunch. Thinking I might do some food processing, I checked the walk-in cooler to see what needed attention. There were three buckets of tomatoes calling out to me, but I didn't want to dive into them until I had a large enough block of time to finish them in one go (it's tacky to leave the food processing kitchen tied up with a project half done). Instead, I tackled a partial bucket of cucumbers.

Emily was the cook that day, but I knew she was in the garden managing a weeding party. So I cleaned up the stray morning dishes (so that her kitchen would be in better shape when she rushed in to slap lunch together) and made a cucumber salad (which she was more than happy to have available to augment the leftovers that normally comprise lunch on the farm). Practical Skill #1: how to prepare a delicious dish quickly, using what you have on hand.

D. After grabbing a bite to eat, I went down to the FIC Office (located in a funky 1970-era house trailer, squatting less than a 100 yards from our main house) and kept a phone date with Daniel Greenberg of Living Routes in Amherst MA. His organization offers accredited college programs for students wanting to experience intentional communities through immersion study in place.

Daniel has been in FIC's outer orbit since 1989 and was interested in attending the fall meetings in Berlin to talk about inter-organizational collaboration. It was fun connecting with an old friend and we cooked up an idea to invite Living Routes alumni living nearby to attend a special evening session: a) to hear from them how FIC might help Living Routes offer more robust programs in the US; and b) to see if we could entice any of these young veterans of community study to get involved in FIC.

E. Next I headed out to the woods with (fellow Sandhillian) Apple to start harvesting black locust trees for a house that Dennis and Sharon are building over at Dancing Rabbit. Our neighboring community has strict environmental covenants that only allow the use of wood that has been recycled, sustainably harvested, or locally cut. Our trees qualify for two out of three, and this marks the fifth time we've cut locusts in support of DR projects.

We worked near our main bee yard and it required some skill to make sure we felled the trees into an open area (to avoid getting the timber hung up in other trees) while also missing the beehives (hitting one would have put a rapid end to the day's cutting). Practical Skill #2: how to use a chainsaw skillfully enough to fell a tree where you want it to fall, as opposed to where gravity might be most inclined to direct it.

After dropping a couple trees and working them up into logs of the length that Dennis had specified, we paused. Our logs looked great, yet were slightly smaller in diameter than what Dennis had asked for. We want him to look them over and confirm that he still wants something bigger before we take down any more trees.

F. Done by 3:15 (even after sharpening my saw, so it will be good to go as soon as Dennis has had a chance to check our work), I now had time to tackle the three buckets of tomatoes. While I might have waited until Thursday, when there would be three additional buckets, Emily (one of the garden managers) was worried that some of the earlier picked fruit might be going bad. So I dove into the three loads of love apples, converting them into nine quarts of juice and seven quarts of pulp. Practical Skill #3: how to can tomatoes quickly and safely.

G. I got done just in time to do yoga before dinner. Every Tuesday night is a joint potluck with DR and Red Earth, and it was our night to host. After dinner I planned to return with folks to DR, to spend the night with my wife, Ma'ikwe. I finished eating and socializing with enough spare time to take the canning rings off the tomatoes and schlep them down to the root cellar for winter storage. Then it was off to DR and an early bed time with my wife (the practical skills applied during this interlude will go undescribed).

H. Waking up this morning at Ma'ikwe's house, we first enjoyed our morning ritual of coffee and a New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle. Then I resumed work on wiring her house. I've been devoting about one morning per week to this task and it's slowly getting done. Today I completed a whole circuit, resulting in five outlets going hot, plus three lights. Ma'ikwe was very happy. Practical Skill #4: how to safely wire a house.

I. Then I walked home, picking up a dozen aluminum cans that had been strewn along the roadside by our less-than-conscious neighbors. [For more on this source of aggravation, see my blog No MO Trash, from April 9, 2009.] It felt good to get those cans out of the ditch and into a recycling bin, and then it was time to come inside and write my blog. I just wish I had learned Practical Skill #5 in school: how to type with ten fingers. Amazingly enough, I make do with two.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Why I Only Comment on the Weather When It Rains

I had a phone call from a dear friend yesterday who confided that she's stopped reading my blog because it was too painful. What she meant was that is was hard to see me reporting on the criticism that comes my way as a one-sided conversation. She ached to see more Laird-friendly perspectives on the dynamics that others found troubling and was worried that I was beating myself up too much (which was part of her motivation to call, to see how I was doing).

While I was able to assure her that I still liked myself, I told her that no one's that interested in reading press releases about how wonderful I am. People want postings about reality, not realty listings, and reporting on my struggles is part of my commitment to transparency and makes me—and my work—more accessible. (And I assured her that I didn't hold it against our friendship that she no longer reads my blog.)

In some ways, this parallels how I work with feedback. When I get a complaint in public (an occupational hazard when you're the administrator of a national nonprofit and do consulting for groups in four time zones), my policy is to respond in private, directly with the complainant, and try to address the problem there first. Starting a pissing contest in print, or in front of microphones may be good theater, but it rarely helps build relationship or solves problems. (Reflect on the ineffectual bull elephant posturing of politicians if you're questioning that claim.)

If an FIC staff member or volunteer falls down on the job such that the organization looks bad, I may chew their ass out in private, but in front of non-FIC folks I try to take the heat as the face of the organization. It's about loyalty and grace. Throwing people under the bus promotes neither.

All of that said, if taken too far it can be become habit forming in a way that can be addictive in a self-flagellating way (thank you, sir, may I have another please). My tendency to expose the stains on my laundry can lead to a subtle martyr syndrome, where I attempt to engender sympathy through posting excoriations on a regular basis. That's not what I'm aiming for.

Rather, I see it as an attempt to witness my journey as a human experience, making sure that I chronicle the spine-jarring potholes and goddamn broken axles as well as the glorious vistas and enchanting wayside inns that I encounter in my sojourn down the yellow brick road to enlightenment (as if I'll actually ever get there). It's about having the courage to attempt the trek even knowing I have flawed equipment and holes in my umbrella. Though I am committed to trying to help others even as I help myself along the way, from time to time I get caught in a thunderstorm, and flash floods obliterate the road. I want people to know that there are hard spots (adversity tends to make for compelling narrative), yet I also want them to know that I get back up after being knocked down and get back on the road. A little sorer, to be sure, yet hopefully a little wiser. I'm writing about the adventures of an optimist, not about the woes of a masochist.

Just like Annie, I believe that the next day's weather will be better:

The sun will come out, tomorrow

Bet your bottom that tomorrow, there'll be sun
Just thinking about, tomorrow
Clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow,
Til there's none.

—the opening stanza from "Tomorrow" in the hit musical, Annie

Thursday, September 2, 2010

And When the Music Stops...

One of the main reasons people are attracted to community living is because it's a nutrient rich environment that stimulates growth. Sometimes you get more than you were looking for.

I just got this heart-wrenching letter from a friend, writing about her community's struggle to navigate the vicissitudes of a recent intimacy shake-up (names have been changed to mask the identity of the group and the individuals):

Our neighbors, Peter & Arlene, have just split up because Peter is pursuing a relationship with another community member, Mary, whose husband died a while ago. Mary is pursuing a relationship with Peter right back, and the upshot of all this is that Peter & Arlene's marriage is over. Last weekend, many of us helped to move Arlene into a rental unit in another city. Now, we are left with Peter & Mary, and we're not sure how to handle it.

Most people in the community were very shocked when they learned the news about Peter & Mary, myself included. Peter & Arlene had been married for 29 years, and Arlene had made a big effort to support Mary after her husband died.

I am writing because I wonder what we—as a community—should do, if anything. There is a lot of anger toward Peter & Mary, though most folks are pleasant toward them at meals, meetings, and other social interactions.

What do you think?

This is tough. On the one hand, it is not community business who members take as lovers, providing we're talking about the actions of consenting adults. From what you've reported, it seems that this liaison is something that both Peter and Mary want, so you'll have to live with it.

Probably uncertain is the extent to which couples want or desire help from the community to support relationships in trouble (this was something that Ma'ikwe and I explicitly thought about and included in our marriage vows: both that our relationship had a responsibility to the communities in which we lived, and that we wanted the communities to be available to us in hard times to help us get through it). To be clear, I don't blame your community for not having tackled this—few communities do—I'm just pointing out the poignancy of the ambiguity when it might have made a difference. The idea here is that intimacy remains primarily a choice among individuals, yet the group may still be a stakeholder.

But enough of my soap box, whether the members have previously discussed this dynamic or not, the community is nonetheless affected by this relationship shift (among other things, you've lost Arlene as a member), and I think it's worthwhile to get that out in the open—not for the purpose of passing judgment on Peter & Mary's choices (that's not your business), but to talk about what's hard and to clear the air.

Included might be any or all of the following: a) grieving the loss of Arlene as a member; b) perhaps expressing fears about the stability of other marriages in the community; c) maybe hearing what Peter & Mary have gone through in making the decision to get together despite Peter & Arlene's 29-year-old marriage; d) possibly others voicing fears that Peter and/or Mary may next be interested in their partner.

The point here is that intimacy shifts definitely have an impact on the group dynamic (the camaraderie, the trust, the sense of stability) and that it will ultimately be much better for everyone if there is a carefully crafted opportunity for all parties to get their feelings out in the open—instead of keeping them in the dark, where they can fester. I suggest a sharing circle format, where people speak from their hearts, and where you are not expecting to entertain proposals or to make any agreements. The object here is to be real and to simply hear each other deeply. While it may be scary, I know you can do this.

Back in 1999, I lost one of my fellow founding members in a squeeze like this, where her long-term partner chose another woman member as a new lover and she couldn't stand to stick around. It hurt like hell. While I didn't expect anything to change as a result of my feelings, it helped me to be able to express my anguish in a group setting.

I'm guessing that the trickiest part may be getting Peter & Mary to agree to attend (they may fear that it may be an invitation to a necktie party). You may have to do a little work to convince them that the point is to cleanse the wound; not to rub salt in it.