Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Serendipity as a Change Agent

Last weekend I was at The Farm in Summertown TN, participating in a communities conference produced by my friend, Douglas Stevenson.

Even though it was 10 hours of driving each way (which is not my favorite thing to do) I got a chance to spend 48 hours doing many things that I love:

o  Talking about group process (I did an up-tempo workshop on how to work constructively with conflict). Laird as Process Junkie

o  Meeting folks who are hungry for connection and information about cooperative living. Laird as Yenta

o  Getting caught up with long-time acquaintances. Laird as Friend

o  Deepening connections with people I'd met before but didn't yet know well. Laird as Listener

o  Introducing folks to all the knowledge and resources that FIC has to offer in searching for community. Laird as Networker

o  Honoring Stephen & Ina May Gaskin with the public presentation of a lifetime achievement award as communitarians. Laird as Impresario

o  Generating half a dozen prospects for the next round of my two-year facilitation training (starting in NC in September if we get enough enrollment). Laird as Marketer

o  Exploring with two groups the possibility of my doing consulting with them to help them handle some explosive and impacted dynamics. Laird as Bomb Squad Specialist

While all of that would have been sufficient for my community cup to overfloweth, my most cherished moment of the weekend occurred Saturday night at a barbecue dinner open to conference attendees and Farm residents alike. We were outdoors on a beautiful and clement May evening, with music playing on stage and food grilling on the side, when a bright-eyed young woman walked up to me at the book table...

She was glad I was there because it gave her the chance to thank me personally for changing her life. She met me back in 2000 while attending the Twin Oaks Communities Conference in Louisa VA (she was sure of the year because she was pregnant at the time and it was easy to do the math based on her child's age). At the time, she was living at a small, struggling community in Kentucky located near the Tennessee border. 

After attending the front end of the weekend, she was poised to depart early to take advantage of a convenient ride home when someone urged her to linger long enough to attend the workshop I was offering on conflict, that happened to be among the last things on the program.

Because of what was going on in her home community she decided to stay, and her ride left without her. Afterwards, it happened that she was able to catch a different ride west with folks from The Farm (who were also at the conference). That led to an impromptu first visit to the well-known community in Summertown. 

As events unfolded, she fell in love with The Farm. When her Kentucky group fell apart—so much for the efficacy of my conflict workshop—she and her family moved to The Farm and have been living there happily ever since. According to her calculus she owes it all to me!

Hah! What a great story. I had no memory of this woman at all, or of her story, and I was reminded (again) that the Spirit of Community moves in mysterious ways, leaving plenty of room for humility about the idea that anyone knows the whole of what's going on at any given time—even when you're the workshop presenter who draws a big crowd. I think of it as the Wholly Ghost.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Event Circuit Rider

As someone dedicated to promoting community and cooperative living, I regularly attend a number of events where these values are central themes. I have five scheduled through the end of the year, all matching up with holidays of various sorts:

The Farm Communities Conference • May 25-27 in Summertown TN • Memorial Day

National Cohousing Conference • June 15-17 in Oakland CA • Summer Solstice

Twin Oaks Communities Conference • Aug 31-Sept 3 in Louisa VA • Labor Day

Art of Community • Sept 21-23 in Occidental CA • Fall Equinox

North American Students of Cooperation Institute • Nov 2-4 in  Ann Arbor MI • Samhain

It's a great line up, and I'm typing this from Douglas Stevenson's living room at The Farm, where I'm poised for Day Two of the first event listed above.

While my life is focused on community to the point where I'm in it or writing about it almost every day, the special opportunity of events is the opportunity for face-to-face contact with my core constituency—the folks I think I'm serving. As I see it, any endeavor (and this obtains for nonprofits just as much as it does for business ventures) should be obsessed with knowing all it can about its audience. I figure the best way to do that is to make it a priority to go where people interested in community gather, and to listen to what they have to say.

This is the opposite of why I've been invited to participate. That is, after 38 years of living in community and more than 30 as a community networker, organizers want me as a resource—as someone who can offer workshops, give public presentations, run the bookstore, conduct benefit auctions, answer questions, and even sweep the floor, make the coffee, or sing Kumbaya. 

While all this is an enjoyable social cocktail for an extrovert, my work at events is to discern trends among my constituency. What questions are people aching to find answers to (and how are these shifting from the questions most pressing last year)? What is the mix of people looking for a community home, folks ready to roll their own community, and those with the more modest goal of adding community elements to the life they already have? What's happening at the communities that have sent representatives to the event? What is the age spread of participants, and how far from the site are they traveling to attend? What books are they buying? How much are they interested in group process and communication? As much as I enjoy the role of raconteur—and I do—I learn more when my ears are open than when my mouth is.

Doubling My Pleasure
I'm on the road about half the time, which is a lot. One of the ways I've learned to make that work better is to Christmas tree other meetings and functions around my event schedule—stretching those gas (or train diesel) dollars as far as I can.

Thus, on this current trip to central Tennessee, I'm also making the public presentation of the FIC's 2012 Kozeny Communitarian Award to Stephen & Ina May Gaskin (that happens tonight) and will be working with the host community on how to handle smoldering tension among the membership.

With both trips to California (in June and Sept) I'll conduct a facilitation training the weekend before and be meeting with major donors prospects in support of FIC's capital campaign to fund a new office in Missouri. En route to the Golden State each time, I've scheduled a stopover in the Silver State to see my kids.

In August, FIC has scheduled the Oversight Committee's two-day interim meeting (we hold two each year, midway between our semi-annual Board meetings) the days right in front of the Twin Oaks event. If possible I manage to see my dear friend Annie for a couple days in Floyd VA while I'm in the area and have a car (a necessity whenever I'm schlepping books to and from the TO conference).

In November, the FIC's fall Board meeting has been carefully choreographed to occur in Ann Arbor the three days immediately preceding NASCO's Institute. The weekend afterwards, I only need to drop down to Yellow Springs OH for a facilitation training weekend.

If you haven't already connected the dots, my having committed to a life of promoting community (in contrast with a life of living community) has translated into two major life consequences that were not obvious to me at the outset:

a) Because promotion is best done where the people are, and because promotion about community living is most authentically done by people who live in community (rather by those who remember living in community), an ironic consequence of my choice is that I'm constantly straining my community connections in pursuit of promoting them. The fact is, weeds grow when you're not home to tend the garden, and I pay a price for that.

b) I spend an unbelievable amount of time on logistics—not the least of which is figuring out how to shoehorn into a packed event schedule the time needed to compose and post a once-every-three-days blog entry!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Easy as Pie

A few weeks ago Kathryn, an intern at Sandhill this summer, was thinking ahead to a visit she was going to make to St Louis. Anticipating that she'd be seeing a special friend on his birthday she wanted to honor his request for a real mincemeat pie, but was despairing of where to she'd be able to find filling that actually contained meat. Not expecting a response, she was gobsmacked to discover that I had some in the root cellar—which underscores the potency of the adage, if you don't ask, the answer is "no."

One the many benefits of living on a farm is that a person has the time and ingredients to work with old recipes. It's the original slow food. Part of my personal legacy is an association with traditional English cuisine that I was introduced to by association with my mother's older sister, Aunt Hennie. Through her, I learned to appreciate plum pudding, fruitcake, mincemeat, and red currant jelly with roast beef. 

Inspired by her example, I've maintained a bucket of homemade mincemeat for the past 30 years. As it takes about a decade to use up a batch, I keep the mixture well-preserved in the cool temperatures of the root cellar, sitting quietly in a bucket with a tight lid. Every time I take some out, I liberally dose the remainder with brandy, port, or sherry. Bugs and/or putrefaction never have a chance.

When Kathryn thanked me profusely for producing a few pints of this precious aged concoction—to which she only needed to add equal parts of fresh chopped apples to have a delicious mincemeat filling—I told her it was my pleasure to share. It's all part of the simple country life, or at least my version of it.

When Kathryn returned from her visit, I asked how the birthday went and was dismayed to learn that she encountered yet more challenges. She was unsure of her footing with pie crust from scratch, and had a balky oven to boot. Uh oh. The crust was tough (too much water and/or overworked dough) and they burned the top on the first attempt because the oven didn't heat evenly. While they eventually got some edible forkfuls out of the deal, they had to persevere to get there.

After commiserating with Kathryn over her travails, I let her know that I could have helped with the pie crust as well. As I told her at the time, I take pie rather seriously. (For example, I know that my favorite pie crust recipe is on page 520 of Craig Claiborne's classic, New York Times Cookbook, one of my culinary bibles.) While I no longer make pie as often as I once did (my craving for sweets has diminished with age), after listening to Kathryn's lament I reflected on the years I spent in my 20s learning how to make a decent pie crust.

It turns out to be trickier than most people realize. You want the shortening (I prefer butter, though lard is terrific) to be cold; the water to be just enough for the dough to hold together (and not a tablespoon more); and the kneading to be minimal (as it develops the gluten—a good thing in bread, and a bad thing in pie crust and pancakes).

Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Bill Boy?
Can she bake a cherry pie, charming Billy?

This back and forth with Kathryn put me in mind of pie, and I had no trouble connecting the dots when it was my cook day yesterday and Mica delivered to the kitchen more than a gallon of fresh-picked sour cherries from our orchard. While it's work removing the stones (whence the phrase, it's the pits), I slowly got that accomplished in the interstices between other kitchen tasks, and was able to crank out two pies that popped out of the oven around 8:30 pm. While their late arrival meant that they featured more as a bedtime snack than the final course for dinner, they were no less delicious.

Even if though I'm happily married and am thus not interested in auditioning for the role of Billy Boy's partner, it's nice to know I could make the grade.
 • • •
While I'm on a culinary theme, I'll close with a libational vignette from yesterday morning. First let me set the stage.

I was over at Ma'ikwe's for a staff meeting during which we pulled the plug on the Ecovillage Education course at Dancing Rabbit this summer. We just didn't get enough enrollment to ensure that staff would make at least $10/hour. As we knew this in the works, yesterday's gathering was part wake (the official end of a dream for this summer) and part planning session (the official start of thinking ahead to offering the course again next year). The course is dead! Long live the course!

While cancelling was disappointing, there's a silver lining—the training won't kill my wife. Ma'ikwe was going to be the lead teacher for the course, yet she's battling the debilitating effects of chronic Lyme disease and her energy is sharply limited. We were both concerned about the possibility of Ma'ikwe pushing herself to do more than she could reasonably sustain—given how important this opportunity is to her—and then paying the piper afterwards with further damage to her constitution. It was a scary prospect and one I'm glad that we now won't face.

As people starting gathering for the meeting, Alyson Ewald was the first to show up, and I asked her if she wanted a cup of coffee. I was about to make a French press for myself and it was no extra trouble to make a cup for her at the same time. She gratefully accepted and after five minutes of steeping I inquired how she preferred to drink her java. She replied, "Sugar, no cream." 

I followed that up with a choice between sugar or honey, to which she responded, "I'll take sugar… unless you have maple syrup." Though not nearly as spectacular as my being able to produce mincemeat for Kathryn, it happened that we had an open jar of maple syrup on hand, allowing me to give Alyson exactly what she asked for—a simple thing that gives me considerable pleasure as a host. 

That said, there was still one hurdle to jump. The quart of syrup had a layer of mold growing on the top. (Maple syrup, unlike honey or sorghum, is a sweetener that cannot be cooked down to a low enough water content that it won't mold because it will crystallize and you'd never be able to get it out of the jar.) 

Fortunately, Alyson wasn't squeamish at all about my lightly skimming the mold with a spoon and then proceeding straight away to doctor up her cup of joe—knowing that a few stray spores would inevitably get into her cup. As a 40-something who grew up in Vermont, she's ingested plenty of maple syrup mold in her day, and it didn't daunt this homesteader a bit. I figured that for her it was the equivalent of New England penicillin. Or perhaps a more creative way to reach her pound-of-dirt quota that we're all expected to consume in our lifetime.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pace in a Meeting

Today is the last day of a facilitation training weekend at Dancing Rabbit. One of the recurring challenges that facilitators face is when to depress the accelerator, and when to take your foot off the gas. I want to explore four examples of meeting dynamics where you might be well served to change the pace—two in each direction.

1. Braking for Distress
When you have a topic that stirs up deep feelings—which could be rage, tears, frustration, fear, churning, or a wide range of emotional responses—it's generally prudent to go slower, the better to make sure that the person(s) in distress have been fully heard. 

If you continue blithely at highway speed, there's considerably risk of those folks feeling run over. Distress tends to affect both a person's ability to hear and their processing time. Think of it like the colored flags used in  motor racing. Full speed is fine with green flag. Once non-trivial distress is evident, switch to yellow and slow down. If it gets bad enough, bring out the red flag and stop all work on the topic to attend to the distress.

2. Not Belaboring Non-issues
It's not unusual for there to be uncertainty going into a meeting about where participants stand on a proposal. A diligent facilitator will prepare for a topic by anticipating a range of responses and planning ahead how to deal with that range.

It's important, however, that facilitators not fall in love with their careful plans for handling complex responses to the point where they don't first check to see if they're needed. Sometimes, there's easy agreement on a proposal. If so, identify it early, claim the low hanging fruit, and move on to the next topic. Just because you've reserved meeting time against the possibility of disagreement doesn't you have to beat the bushes looking for it when it isn't in the room.

3. Making Sure Everyone's on the Bus
In most groups, there's a natural, imbalanced distribution of who uses air time. There are many reasons for this: some are more comfortable speaking in group; some are more comfortable speaking about that topic; some are quicker at knowing their mind; some care more about what happens on that topic. 

It's not unusual for there to quickly develop a growing sense of momentum in a certain direction after hearing the first flush of comments on a topic. Even assuming you're accurately reading what's been voiced (not a sure thing), it's dangerous assuming everyone's on board. Silence may be golden, but it's damn awkward to interpret accurately. If there is a significant number of counties who haven't been heard from (participants who have not spoken yet on a topic) it's generally a good idea to slow down and check with the quiet.

4. Testing to Flush
In the previous dynamic I cautioned against assuming that an early direction will carry the day. One way to accelerate the examination is to offer something like, "So far the wind on this topic seems to be blowing in favor of x. I'm wondering if those who haven't spoken so far agree with that direction."

This does a number of good things all at once: 
a) It calls out the quiet, explicitly inviting them to speak up and protecting air time for them to do so.

b) It explicitly asks those who have been talking to sit on their hands for the next stretch.

c) You get the chance to see if you've been accurately hearing the thrust of the comments voiced so far. (If you have it wrong, you may as well know that early.)

d) If there isn't solid support for the early direction, this test can serve to flush out the nuances or concerns that yet need to be addressed, sharpening the conversation and accelerating how quickly you can get to the heart of the consideration.
• • •
If you take a step back and digest the whole of what I've laid out, it should be apparent that skilled facilitators need range if they're going set a pace appropriate to the moment. For the phlegmatic, that means they'll need to find a higher gear; for facilitators who normally operate at the pace of tobacco auctioneers, they'll need to find inspiration from the patience of tobacco farmers.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Infruition: waking up in the morning with the feeling that ripening fruit is somewhere near you.

Strolling by the south garden today I noticed color in the black currants. Looking more closely, I examined a dark berry on the first bush, to see if it was black at the stem, as that's the last part of the berry to ripen. It was. Yikes! 

Black currants are ordinarily picked in June in northeast Missouri. This year there may not be any left in June. Instead, spring 2012 is shaping up as will be the berry month of May. We're already well into strawberries, with raspberries just behind and gooseberries on deck. Our sour cherry tree looks like a holly bush in December, it has so much fruit turning red. All of these events are about 3-4 weeks ahead of schedule. Yum!

How Sweet it Is
Walking over to Dancing Rabbit last Sunday I noticed that the sweet clover is starting to bloom in earnest. This is one of our strongest honey flows and a happy time for our bees—long hours of daylight and plenty of nectar. The queens have been busily laying eggs nonstop since the weather starting warming up in March, just so that the hive population of worker bees would be at full capacity for this flow. Whence the phrase, "buzzing with energy."

For the most part, sweet clover is a weed these days. Few farmers plant it anymore as a green manure, or use it in rotation as a natural way to replenish the nitrogen rapaciously withdrawn from the soil to feed the corn monkey. Excepting us organic revisionists, most ag folks rely on anhydrous ammonia for their nitrogen—never mind that it kills the earthworms.

Fortunately, sweet clover is a hardy plant that thrives along the roadsides and in drainage ditches. In fact, it has an enormous range and I doubt you could find a two-mile stretch of back road from here to Yellowknife that didn't boast a patch of sweet clover. 

The largest of the clovers, it doesn't make good hay because of its woody stem, yet it's unsurpassed as a nitrogen fixer, and it blooms for weeks. For some reason, the blossoms come in two shades. Invariably, the yellow ones emerge first, followed about a fortnight later by the white. (When you think about it, it's just the opposite of snow, where you always find the white before the yellow.)

If you encounter sweet clover that's been knocked down with a mower, it produces a distinctive, cloying smell. Once you've experienced it, you no longer need to see the field to know that there's sweet clover wilting in the windrow. I think of it as summer perfume.

While the night's are still dependably cool (think 40s), now that the sweet clover is blooming, my infruition tells me that summer is nigh. You can take it to the bank; no need to wait for the film at 11.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Blymey: on Being a Public Couple

Last week I received an email communication from a friend in Sweden, Stephan Wik, in response to my blog of May 9, The Lemon and the Lyme. He wondered about my discretion in disclosing intimate information about my marriage. (I figure the viewer rating on my blog is somewhere between PG and R—that is, I'm occasionally too graphic to be G; yet not nearly risque enough to be assigned an X.)

Stephan wrote:
In your latest blog you write:

Low libido
As Doctor Annette explained, when your immune system is compromised, your sex drive is one of the first things to be parked (as the body deems it nonessential relative to other hormone functions). While touch and tenderness never go out of vogue, it means we're working with a more limited vocabulary in expressing our love right now.

I was just wondering, does Ma'ikwe read your blogs before you send them out? Is she OK with the level of detail you divulge about your relationship? On the one hand I find it interesting to read how you're grappling with your situation—so it makes good reading. On the other hand I sometimes find myself feeling uneasy for Ma'ikwe—if I was her I'd not want to have so much info about myself spread to a worldwide audience!

Of course, this may be none of my business and you're welcome to say so.

I riposted:
Good question! Ma'ikwe and I have been together now for over six years and it only took us about 15 minutes to sort out that we're both public figures and for her to understand that I have low boundaries about what I share in public. I've now been doing my blog for over four years and she's fully aware that I'm willing to disclose personal information at a level that most others would decline to do. It's just who I am (and I think it makes for more compelling writing).

At this point, Ma'ikwe understands that being partnered with me necessarily means a certain amount of being at risk of having information disclosed in public that many would consider better left private.

All of that said, I almost never disclose information that I believe will put someone else in a bad or embarrassing light unless I have their express permission to do so. If I think it will land poorly and I don't have permission (or don't want to delay posting long enough to ask for it), I tell the story without attribution. This policy does not, of course, guarantee that I will stay out of trouble, or that I will always make an accurate assessment, but it works pretty well.

In this particular instance (writing about Ma'ikwe's libido), I did not check with Ma'ikwe ahead of publishing, so I've cc'd her on this response and she can answer you directly. We'll see together how much hot water I may be in!


The next day, Ma'ikwe chimed in with:
Stephan, the funny thing is that I didn't even blink at that one. Laird has been doing me a real service in being willing to blog about my illness issues... it keeps a lot of people who care about me informed about what's up with me, without me having to do a whole slew of emails to folks. And it also reassures me that he is indeed paying attention and doing good work learning about what's going on with me. The truth is, my libido is shot, and like a lot of Lyme couples, we are struggling with it. My general policy is that if our struggles can help others feel seen, or understood, or not alone, then we should be as open as we can about what is actually going on. This, too, is a kind of social change work.

I think the times when it has felt hard for me (and Laird has indeed, gotten into hot water with me) are more when I feel like I look selfish or reactive. You are right to think that it isn't always smooth sailing between us, but Laird is also right to say that we've talked about this in general and that I'm also fine with being publicly exposed, so long as it has a good purpose behind it. Sometimes we have moments where the lines that he draws aren't the same as the ones I've drawn, and then we get a chance to refine our understanding about what's OK.


To which Stephan continued with:
I applaud you for this. It's not easy being public about things which, for many people, are deeply personal. I speak from personal experience...

If you forward me your snail mail address I'd be happy to arrange for a copy of our book, Beyond Tantra, to be sent to you free of charge.

I don't know if you have been exposed to Chinese energy work at all, but it can be a powerful tool. I'm just getting over Borrelia myself, and I find that managing my energy (qi) consciously is crucial.
[Laird's note: Borrelia burgdorferi is the spirochete that causes Lyme disease.]

By the way, did you ever have a look at the Cowden Protocol? It has made all the difference to me when it comes to getting rid of borrelia.

> more when I feel like I look selfish or reactive.

I've never met you, but I certainly have not received that impression from what Laird has written. Just the opposite, he has made it clear that you are quite an amazing woman to be in a relationship with a man that has such a, ahem, strong personality and a peripatetic lifestyle.

What a great exchange! Not only did we get a chance to articulate why we we're dedicated—both individually and as a couple— to transparency as a component of social change work, but we were immediately rewarded with both a specific suggestion to consider in our quest for the best way to treat Lyme and a book that may help our sex life (which at the very least is bound to be compelling reading). I reckon that's as clear an affirmation as the universe can give you that you're making good choices.

When I spoke by phone with another friend over the weekend and filled her in on the Lyme journey that Ma'ikwe and I are on, she advised me to write a book about how relationships can cope with the emotional, psychological strain of chronic Lyme when one partner has it and the other doesn't. While it's gratifying to be encouraged to be transparent, and I do think that Ma'ikwe and I are staying afloat in the storm tossed seas that are buffeting our relation ship, I wryly note that: a) it's premature to summarize what we've learned; and b) we're still at sea, rather than reporting about the journey after our hoped-for safe arrival in the port of Ma'ikwe's recovered health. I think the book will have to wait at least until we reach shore.

[As an aside, and to sustain my seafaring metaphor, I note that British seamen have long been referred to as "limeys," derived from their reliance on citrus as an antiscorbutic during the long sea voyages characteristic of the 17th and 18th Century. Blimey if that doesn't make Ma'ikwe and me "Lymeys."]
From my perch in the crow's nest, I expect to gain (in)sights from time to time as the Lyme journey continues. No need to wait for the book, however, whenever we encounter something interesting you can expect a report here, in the captain's blog.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

Power: the Over/Under Dynamic

A close friend of mine recently participated in two days of meetings focused on power dynamics in her residential community. As someone who is active in leadership roles in that group she spent a portion of the two days on the hot seat listening to people complain that she has misused her power at their expense.

While this is a complex dynamic, I want to focus today on one part of it: my friend was told that she's condescending to those with less power and that she has used that as a tactic to suppress the weak. I want to zero in on this because, in one variation or another, I think it's common and damn hard to deal with.

As you might imagine, this criticism was not easy to hear, and she struggled when presented with this critical feedback (which was new to her). While it was hard enough hearing that her actions had landed poorly, she was gut shot by the accusation that this was being viewed as a deliberate strategy.

Listening to her anguish inspired me to write this essay. First I want to establish some ground work.

Premise #1: "Power" (in its social sense) is the ability to get others to agree with something, or to do something. I define "abuse of power "as the perception that power is being used for the benefit of some and at the expense of others. This is in contrast with using power for the benefit of all, which people appreciate (mostly).

Premise #2: The mainstream culture is demonstrably not cooperative. The vast majority of us were raised and acculturated in a society steeped in competition, hierarchy, and adversarial dynamics—and I'm not even talking about manipulation, duplicity, and outright lying! This reality is a key reason why people are motivated to create intentional communities—to build an alternative culture based on cooperation instead of competition.

As such, most of us come into cooperative experiences with damage from prior experiences (whether those experiences were ostensibly cooperative or not) that has taught us to be suspicious of people in leadership. It's important to appreciate that most of us have learned this lesson the hard way, from direct painful experiences. While that doesn't necessarily mean that future leaders will misuse power, it's rational to have learned caution (which I'm distinguishing from a paranoid tendency to automatically brand every leader with the tarry brush of tyranny).

The operative principle here is the famous quote by Lord Acton from the 19th Century: 

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Premise #3: If you ask the members of a cooperative group to sort themselves into those More Powerful and those Less Powerful, it is overwhelmingly common for there to be a small number of people who will self-identify publicly as More Powerful, and a much larger segment who identify as Less Powerful.

One of the more enlightening (and occasionally amusing) exercises you can do at this point is to ask folks whether they agree with how people have sorted themselves, and observe people urging some of those who self-identified with the Less Powerful majority to reassign their position. You can also watch pairs argue with one another over who is less powerful, as if that were the more desirable label. (I have a friend in Ohio who refers to this, with a twinkle in his eye, as "the race to the bottom.")

In essence, most people in cooperative groups are uncomfortable with their power. Not so much because they think they have poor judgment (fear of making a mistake) as because they're afraid that donning the blouse of power will draw arrows from the bows of the disaffected.

Premise #4: In most cooperative groups there is a significant segment of folks who do not identify with wanting leadership roles (even if they serve in that capacity on occasion, they are uncomfortable with it, or at least make widely known that they didn't seek the job). For the most part this segment maps well onto to those who identify as Less Powerful.

It is useful to further partition this segment into two components: those who prefer to leave leadership to others; and those who prefer that leadership be rotated among everyone, in the name of fairness and as a guard against entrenchment.

This sorting is important, because the former will tend to accept that they have opted out and not make waves. The latter however, tend to be vocal when things don't flow their way, and that's where I want to shine the spotlight today. For the remainder of this essay, I'll be referring to this active, second component when referring to the Less Powerful.

While it's an interesting question why these attitudes about leadership persist and what can be done to encourage everyone to be more comfortable with leadership, for this essay I want to simply accept that this occurs and examine what it leads to.

• • •
Taken all together, you can expect there to be a recurring dynamic among cooperative groups where the More Powerful will tend to draw criticism from the Less Powerful about how they're using their power.

Returning to the specific incident with my friend (that I related in the opening paragraphs), the interesting case is when a More Powerful person disagrees with a Less Powerful person. How can that proceed without the Less Powerful person pulling the power abuse card?

—From the Perspective of the More Powerful Person
If you think the group is better served by going in a different direction, you feel obliged to speak up and make your case. As someone who has some degree of comfort with the leadership role, you know that you have an obligation to listen carefully to opposing views and that you need to try to weave a path forward that acknowledges the tensions points encountered along the way. For you, it is automatic that you'll need to take minority views into account.

—From the Perspective of the Less Powerful Person
When you encounter a More Powerful person disagreeing with you, there's a natural tendency for Premise #2 to be actuated. The dynamic starts to smell like wolfish power entrenchment, cleverly disguised in the woolen raiment of "what's best for the group."  It's the same old shit.

Now we're sitting in the fire. In the tension that ensues, how can individuals (or the group, for that matter) sort out: a) whether the More Powerful person is blind to the ways in which they've been missing the interests of a caring minority (that is, that there is a basis for the claim that they're culpable of misusing power); or b) whether the Less Powerful are projecting power abuse onto others without discernment (because it's easier on the ego than accepting that your viewpoint is simply not persuasive)? 

While this would be a tough examination all by itself, the likelihood of being able to explore this with clarity and compassion is complicated to the point of near impossibility when you factor in how triggering the dynamic is likely to be. You can take it to the bank that the More Powerful will not welcome the observation that they are blind to how cleanly they are using power, and the Less Powerful will not embrace calmly the suggestion that they are projecting. In short, this is predictably a highly volatile dynamic.

When there's tension in the group and work needs to be done to bridge differences, it's the leaders (the More Powerful) who are expected to take the initiative in inviting dialog—that's one of the reasons they're leaders; because they understand the need for this role and can rise to the occasion.

One of the reasons that the Less Powerful don't have more influence (power) is because they may not understand or have not mastered the skill of reaching out to those with whom they are in disagreement. 

Now imagine how it unfolds once you get into a pattern of being a More Powerful person who is hearing a familiar claim that you have misused your power when in substantive disagreement with someone who is Less Powerful.

It is difficult to be 100% devoid of stress or resentment when you're expected to take the lead in reaching out to the Less Powerful in the face of being unfairly (from your perspective) accused of abusing power. It's almost certain that some of those feelings will leak into the conversation—perhaps coming across as condescension.

[When I have a history of tension with someone, I'm on guard when I'm around that person and change my normal boisterous demeanor to adopt an attitude that is more cautious and measured. The other person picks up on that and interprets it as my being closed to them. It's not hard to see how this leads to a downward spiral that is the very devil to reverse—all without either party thinking that that they're encouraging negative thinking!]

For my money, the litmus test in this dynamic is whether each party is as interested in hearing, as they are in being heard. Whenever I encounter a stuck dynamic (where each party is accusing the other of behaving poorly) I look to see who, if anyone, has demonstrated care in acknowledging what the other is saying.

All too often, I see the Less Powerful asserting their right to be taken into account (which is a real thing), while making no effort to acknowledge their concomitant responsibility to listen to the viewpoints of others (the very thing they are accusing the More Powerful of not doing). Accustomed to the More Powerful taking the initiative around dialoging about tensions, they cry foul and then sit back and await the More Powerful coming to them. Meanwhile, the More Powerful grind their teeth over the unfairness of being harpooned and then expected to call upon the harpooner with hat in hand. Nice mess, eh?

My friend is wrestling with the challenge of finding the energy needed to attempt to clear the air, by reaching her hand out cleanly—by which I mean, without condescension—to those who have just bitten it. I assure you, it ain't easy, and it isn't clear to me that the Less Powerful have a clue what they're demanding.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Lemon and the Lyme

Ma'ikwe, Jibran (her 15-year-old son), Marqis (Jibran's father), and I traveled to the Chicago suburbs yesterday for the second visit to see Ma'ikwe's Lyme literate doctor. While her condition is not substantially different than it was at our first visit, back on March 20, both Annette (the doc) and I could see some good signs.

First, Ma'ikwe was able to raise her energy for the appointment. After a quiet six hours in the car to get there (which she was dreading) she was noticeably more up-tempo for the 60 minutes she had with her doctor. While I've seen Ma'ikwe raise her energy on demand before—as all good facilitators can—six weeks ago I don't think she could have done that. Thus, I observed at least a modest uptick in her resilience.

Second, she had introduced a new protocol about two weeks ago: working with a Rife machine, which emits electromagnetic waves in specific frequencies aimed to be disruptive (even lethal) for Lyme spirochetes and other tick-borne parasites (such as babesia). For the last fortnight she has done daily sessions of about 30-45 minutes where she is bathed in a series of frequencies targeting the bad guys. She typically conducts these sessions right before bed and the most notable immediate result is that her sleeping has improved dramatically. Since good sleep is an important component of healing, this is definitely hopeful.

Based on her progress with the Rife machine, and lack of demonstrable benefits from her other treatments—doxycycline (an antibiotic), raw garlic tincture, lauricidin (a coconut oil derivative), grapefruit seed extract, green clay, and lumbrokinase (an earthworm-based enzyme)—Annette advised that Ma'ikwe take a break from the first four listed above while continuing with the Rife machine, the clay (for detoxing), and a variety of dietary supplements. After another four weeks we'll see if there's any more improvement. 

Ma'ikwe is happy to comply. In addition to possible stomach irritation caused by the garlic, Ma'ikwe is uneasy about taking antibiotics for weeks on end and doxycycline carries with it the side effect of making her hypersensitive to sunlight (and it's hard staying indoors now that the weather is so nice).

For all of that though, Ma'ikwe remains sick. She still has good days and bad days; she still has almost constant muscle and joint ache; she still has significantly diminished energy and stamina. So she's not nearly out of the woods yet. While her night sweats and hot flashes have decreased, her emotional irritability and mood swings are ascendant.

Last night, despite an immediate bounce from digesting Annette's cautious optimism, she was exhausted by the long day and even a hot bath was not enough to soothe her aching body. Awake late, she starting fretting about how hard it is to ask others to support her when there's no clear sense of how long it will take her to recover, or when she'll have the energy to pay back the kindness that others extend to her. How long will she be down?

While I did what I could to reassure her that together we'll get through this challenge, she reported this morning that her anxiety persisted after I went to sleep, and she was borderline nauseous the whole ride home today. Yuck.

These days, one of the mainstays of Ma'ikwe's emotional support—in addition to family—is a Facebook group dedicated to people who suffer from chronic Lyme disease. (I reckon these days you can find anything online: from left-handed French horn players to one-legged bocce balls jugglers.) For the most part this has been a godsend. Whenever Ma'ikwe experiences a new symptom—no matter how weird—she can immediately go online and post a note about it to her support group. Virtually any time day or night she'll get 10 responses within 15 minutes. It's amazing! (Both that there are always that many people available to read her postings; and that they actually have relevant stories to share.) 

Ma'ikwe's Facebook support group has been a decided help in helping her to stay grounded and to not feel so isolated in her healing journey. Whenever she's having a bad day, the support group reminds her that others have it worse, and that some have succeeded in going through her same symptoms and coming out the other side. Her misery has definitely been ameliorated by having company.

That said, it's also true that the Facebook support group skews things toward the stories of people who are not getting better; toward the folks whose energy is only sufficient to type (or to type cast). Those who are recovered—or well along the way—tend to move on with their lives and leave the chat room behind. [For more on the complexities of my wife's reliance on Facebook, see my blog About Face from March 12, 2012.]

Two weeks ago, the dark side of the support group was partially illuminated when Ma'ikwe innocently asked what toll chronic Lyme played on partnerships. In reply, someone stated that this tends to fall into one of three categories:

Category 1) Relationships tend to survive when both partners have chronic Lyme. They can support one another and have deep empathy for what each is experiencing. 

Category 2) Relationships tend to do OK when they're started after the chronic Lyme has manifested, so that both parties have a fair idea about what they're getting into. (Think Florence Nightengale.)

Category 3) If not in categories 1 or 2, relationships tend to fail.  

That particular sharing did not improve Ma'ikwe's mood, and led to a tender conversation with me in bed one morning. (Don't miss the importance of Ma'ikwe's being willing to discuss this with me—that was a good thing.) Naturally, Ma'ikwe is concerned about the lopsidedness of our relationship while she battles Lyme disease:

A.  Financial support 
She's too sick to do much right now to earn money, so I need to be the bread winner for both of us.

B.  Work together 

We are both deeply involved with the Fellowship for Intentional Community and we enjoy working together as process consultants. However, Ma'ikwe has been so sick that she canceled coming on the last two trips. This is a double whammy: not only does that mean I lose her input on the work; I also lose our time together.

C.  Low libido

As Doctor Annette explained, when your immune system is compromised, your sex drive is one of the first things to be parked (as the body deems it nonessential relative to other hormone functions). While touch and tenderness never go out of vogue, it means we're working with a more limited vocabulary in expressing our love right now.

D.  Irritability

Along with compromised stamina goes diminished resilience. Things that Ma'ikwe could tolerate with grace in the past, are now grating. Things that bothered her before, now bother her more. Knowing that this is happening helps, but only so far. She wants me around to be a help (see E below), yet not so much as to be irritating. This is a delicate dance.

E.  Extra domestic burden

Ma'ikwe and I maintain separate households: she at Dancing Rabbit; I at Sandhill. In consequence of her low energy, it's hard for her to keep up with normal domestic chores, such as cleaning, cooking, washing dishes, recycling, emptying the compost, etc. When I'm at DR, I try to do as much of these routine tasks as I can, to lighten her load.

F.  Visiting each other

It's much easier these days for me to go over to DR than it is for Ma'ikwe to travel to Sandhill. In consequence, there's a gross imbalance between the amount of time we spend at her house compared with the amount at mine, and I'm the one that mostly needs to sort out the logistics of the commute.

G.  The burden of imbalance
Ma'ikwe is fully aware of these imbalances and it weighs on her that things are so lopsided. Yet what can she do lacking the energy to turn things around? Pushing me away (to not further run up the "deficit") can't be the right answer. We need to keep talking, to keep cultivating our emotional garden, and to concentrate on her healing. Restoring balance will have to wait.

H.  The burden of initiation
Even the dynamics of discussing our dynamics work against us! Knowing that Ma'ikwe has a limited budget for engagement, I am circumspect about when I initiate "heavy" conversations. I tend to wait for her to indicate when she's chewing on something and has the juice to tackle it. Unfortunately, by taking this course I increase the chance that Ma'ikwe will find that irritating in and of itself and we may immediately find ourselves at D. Ufda.

• • •
These last few months, Ma'ikwe's had be extra careful about her diet, paying close attention to both what her body can handle and what is the right relationship of ingestion with the wide range of treatments she working with (some need to be take on an empty stomach; some need to be taken with food, but not dairy; some irritate the digestive tract if taken alone… it's complicated). 

About the only thing she's been able to tolerate well and has proven compatible with all treatments is lemon water, and we've taken to buying yellow citrus 8-12 at a time. Stepping back, it's amusing to reflect on my wife's steady reliance on lemon as a basic strategic element to contain the complications of Lyme. Can't you just hear Geoffrey Holder—The Un-cola Man—chuckling resonantly over the paradox?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Happy Birthday Sandhill!

Today's a party day. I have to use my whole hand to count the ways…

1. Cinco de Mayo
On the hemispheric stage, it's Cinco de Mayo. While that holiday is nominally a celebration of Mexican pride and heritage (marking the anniversary of the unexpected defeat of French forces at Puebla in 1862—as opposed to a unified effort to get an even amount of Hellman's on every sandwich at the picnic), in the US it's mainly an occasion to break out tortilla chips, salsa, and pitchers of margaritas. Olé!

2. Kentucky Derby
On the national sports scene, today's the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, dubbed the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports (unless you count a couple of first round knockouts involving Sonny Liston). Held every year in Louisville KY (where motel rates go up by an order of magnitude for the weekend), two weeks of pageantry (and imbibing mint juleps) culminates in a 1-1/4 mile thoroughbred horse race at Churchill Downs. 

The Derby is also called the Run for the Roses and is the first jewel in the Triple Crown, where three-year-olds (mostly colts and geldings, but now and then a filly will make the field) vie for everlasting fame and gobs of money (not the least of which are the stud fees if the winner is a stallion) if you can win all three.

You get extra credit is you knew that the next two legs of the Triple Crown are: 
a) The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico in Baltimore (the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans), which is a 1-3/16 mile race (one gets the impression that a committee was involved in establishing the length) contested two weeks after the Derby.

b) The Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont NY (the Run for the Carnations) which is a 1-1/2 mile marathon (for most contestants this will be the first time they will have been asked to run that far and it's not unusual to see a horse gas out the last furlong) held in June, three weeks after the Preakness.

—The Power of Eleven
Although all three races were being contested by 1875, there have only been 11 horses able to win all three, and no horse has pulled it off since Affirmed in 1978. The current drought of 34 years is the longest stretch without a Triple Crown winner since Sir Barton first accomplished this feat in 1919. Interestingly, there have been 11 times since 1978 that a horse has won the first two legs, only to falter at Belmont and see the brass ring slip away. It's tough to do.

3. Sandhill Farm's Anniversary
Moving down in scope from national to local, today we celebrate Sandhill 38th birthday. (Oddly enough, we're exactly 100 years younger than the Kentucky Derby—the cosmic meaning of which escapes me for the moment.) We try to do this on whatever Saturday falls closest to May 8, which was the actual day in 1974 that the four founders (Ed Pultz, Wendy Soderlund, Ann Shrader, and me) arrived on the land as callow and starry-eyed 24-year-olds.

Our tradition is to have an all-skate party where friends, family, and people passing through on their way to Los Angeles get together for merrymaking starting after lunch and continuing into the night. While the noshing and drinking start right away (we may bust out a round of both margaritas and mint juelps, as a nod to #1 and #2 above), we'll do a maypole ritual mid-afternoon, followed by a massive potluck. Somewhere after the meal there is likely to be live music and dancing, and down by the pond there will be multiple rounds in the sweat lodge starting around dusk.

For years now I've been the one who tends the sweat fire and it's come to represent an elemental ritual (fire, water, earth, and sky) that I protect as an opportunity to slow down for a day and enter an altered state (noticeably augmented by high gravity beer) to reflect on what the last year has wrought as well as what the next might bring.

It's amazing to realize that Sandhill has now reached an age where it's been on earth longer than most of today's celebrants. It's been a long and incredible run.

Though it has rained every day this week, the sun shines as I type and it looks like we're catching a break with the weather today. Our anniversary comes at a propitious time in the cycle of the seasons—it's warm enough to enjoy being outdoors (predicted high of 88), yet the first mosquitoes have not yet hatched. It's going to be a good day.

4. Tosca's Birthday
Moving from the local to the personal, my daughter-in-law turns 32 today. Happy birthday, Tos! 

Back when Ceilee & Tosca first met (in Columbia MO) it was occasionally awkward to get them to come up for anniversary because celebrating Tosca's birthday trumped driving 150 miles for a potluck and the chance to dance around a maypole. 

This year Tosca and family are at home in Las Vegas and I'm sure they've planned a lovely day there to mark the occasion.
5. Beltane
Finally, on the widest possible scale, it's a pagan cross quarter day: Beltane. While this is generally celebrated May 1, we shamelessly fold it into our anniversary (and was the inspiration for our maypole ritual). 

It's roots are mainly Gaelic and Scottish, marking the advent of summer (just as Samhain, or Halloween, marks the end). It is halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice and ushers in the arrival of heat and the departure of frost. It is a time of fertility and hope—when anything can happen. Even a party in northeast Missouri celebrating the possibility of ascendant cooperative culture. 

I invite you all to take a moment to pause today and join with me in raising a glass and drinking to that prospect. L'chaim!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Eau de Vie

It's raining today in northeast Missouri. In fact, it's been raining for days and there is a non-trivial probability of rain every day for the next five (beyond which predicting the weather has as much chance accuracy as reading chicken entrails). In short, it's May in the Midwest.

While the weather complicates all manner of things that we'd like to be doing on a farm in spring—we're right on the cusp of our frost-free date, when it's safe to put things in the ground that cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing—we're short on subsoil moisture and we need the water right now more than we need sunshine. In the hot, dry days of August we'll be plenty thankful for the rain of May.

Rain brings an unexpected holiday to Sandhill. Poised to do all manner of garden work, that won't be possible today. Instead, there is game playing, guitar strumming, story telling, reading, coffee drinking (and blogging). Yesterday, between showers, I was able to harvest about 15 pounds of shiitakes from the collection of inoculated oak logs we have clumped in a maple grove about 100 yards from the house (fungi love the rain). 

While a period of soaking rain will render the garden soil too wet to work, it can be just right for eradicating deep-rooted vegetation that's growing where you don't want it, such as elm sprouts and all manner of weeds. If there's a break in clouds today, I intend to put on boots and gloves and tackle some invasives encroaching on the front door of the FIC Office trailer.

The rhythm of farming is learning how to synchronize one's work with what the weather is good for. The uncertainties of it make farming challenging enough without trying to force the issue in unfavorable conditions. While patience can wear thin when you're itching to get crops in the ground and the soil is too wet, fretting about things you cannot control (or worse, cursing a rainy sky when you want sunshine) will not dry things one minute quicker.
• • •
It was by going with the flow (so to speak) that it occurred to me to focus today's blog on the rain. Dwelling on what rain represents, I contemplating the life-giving necessity of water, and how it's recognized as a primary spiritual element in all earth-based religions. This led me—through the process of free association, and my natural joy in word play—to the connection between water and spirits…  

Eau de vie is a term used to refer to clear, colorless spirits that are distilled from fruit brandy. Interestingly, some version of this is produced wherever alcohol is part of the culture—which is tantamount to wherever people live. In Scandavia it's called aquavit; in Slovakia it's slivovitz; in Bulgaria it's rakia; in Germany it's schnapps; in Italy it's grappa; in Sri Lanka it's arrack. Even the roots of the words vodka and whiskey derive from variants of "water." We're talking ubiquitous.

Traditionally, eau de vie is double distilled to produce a high octane potable that can make you go blind in small quantities. The name comes from the French, literally meaning "the water of life." I reckon it got that moniker by having the appearance of water (being clear) and because it has long been valued for its ability to relieve the tedium and brutishness of agrarian workloads—thereby giving life more "life."

As old as this alcoholic tradition is though, the real eau de vie is actually water itself. While life without adult beverages may be less spirited, try living without water. I say, let it rain.