Saturday, November 19, 2011


This morning a couple of friends of mine ended 18 years of marriage in a divorce ceremony, followed by a reception. As you might suspect, they live in an intentional community—I'm not sure where else you'd see that.

One of the most exciting aspects of the culture building work being done by intentional communities is around ritual. I believe modern society is ritual starved, and I'm happy to be part of an effort to create oases in the desert.

For most of us there are only a few moments in our lives that are marked by high ritual: birth, graduation, marriage, death, and perhaps confirmation. in addition, there are more garden variety annual rituals such as birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and perhaps an anniversary. For all of that, I think we could do a lot more to mark the passage of key moments with reflection and intent.

When Ma'ikwe and I got married four years ago, we planted a stake in sacred ground by having a four-day wedding. In addition to marking our commitment, we wanted to make a statement about ritual. Along with conspicuous eating and drinking, it featured a dawn sweat lodge, a scavenger hunt, a raucous roast of the bride and groom, and a roll-your-own ceremony replete with batik silk banners and a best dog dressed in tux. And while it's easier to imagine pumping up the calliope in times of joy, there's also a need for noting passages that are tinged with sadness. In addition to Irish wakes, how about ritual to mark the dissolution of a partnership—highlighting the yin of divorce as the underrepresented complement to the yang of weddings.

I wasn't thinking about the break-up of intimate partnerships when I started Sandhill with my then-partner Ann Shrader back in 1974. Yet one of the ways I've been most proud of what we have been able to accomplish at Sandhill was that we could ease out of intimacy after the birth of our son, Ceilee (in 1981), and neither had to leave the community or stop being an active parent. What a blessing!

Back in 1969—coincidentally the same year Ann and I got together—Dolly Parton had a hit country & western song called D.I.V.O.R.C.E., that plays off modern society's discouragement about discussing sad times openly—which iconically establishes the trend that my separating friends were deliberately bucking today. Here are the lyrics:

Our little boy is four years old

And he’s quite a little man
So we spell out the words
We don’t want him to understand
Like t-o-y, or maybe s-u-r-p-r-i-s-e
But the words we’re hiding from him now
Tears the heart right out of me

Our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today
Me and little j-o-e will be going away
I love you both and this will be
Pure h-e-double-l for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this d-i-v-o-r-c-e

Watch him smile
He thinks it’s Christmas
Or his fifth birthday
And he thinks c-u-s-t-o-d-y
Spells fun, or play
I spell out all the hurtin’ words
And I turn my head when I speak
Cause I can’t spell away this hurt
That’s dripping down my cheek

The way through hard times is by going through them, not by tiptoeing around them in the dark, or whistling by the graveyard.

Of course, it takes more than a party. Just like the singer in Dolly's song, my friends have kids and have been agonizing over the question of separating or soldiering on for a long while. Ma'ikwe and I have been spending time sitting with them the last few months, helping them figure out what's best. This couple has been doing brave work, looking into the mirror as well at each other, trying to tease out the lessons interwoven with the pain. They know each other well and still care deeply about one one another, yet it's no longer working to be partners—there proved to be some gulfs that were too large to bridge and they were bone weary of the attempt. It was time to let go.

They are no less committed today to jointly raising their children than they were to each other when they marched down the aisle 18 years ago. Intentional community, at its best, can be a container of compassion and honesty that's large enough to hold that hurt without taking sides or requiring anyone to move away. Wow.

With Ma'ikwe's help, this couple deliberately crafted today's ceremony that openly acknowledged a formal shift in their relationship—turning simultaneously toward the love and the pain, rather than S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G it out, one platitudinous conversation at a time, alternately dipped in acid and treacle.

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