Thursday, February 28, 2013

Facilitating Martians

Have you ever been in a situation where you're trying to collaborate with someone and they unexpectedly say or do something that makes absolutely no sense

This kind of dynamic is especially perplexing when the other person is someone you thought you knew pretty well. Perhaps you're in a group together when, out of nowhere, this weird thing happens. It's as if they were beamed into the conversation from Mars and clueless about context, objectives, and/or relationship. A bumper sticker bubbles up in your consciousness: What were they thinking?

As a professional facilitator I encounter this often enough that surprises of this ilk are no longer surprising. While I have not lost my capacity to be amazed at how people can be obstinately blind to how their message—or their delivery—is landing, or deaf to what others are saying, I've seen it too often to not understand it as part of the spectrum of normal human behavior. It goes with the territory.

While there can be all manner of explanations for what appears to you as a Martian invasion, the one thing you can be 100% sure of is that they won't think they're from Mars. They'll have a different story and it won't be that they're a sociopath, the victim of an alien probe, or Job's bane sent to test the faith of gentle-minded communitarians.

Let's stroll down the aisle and see what's on the shelf as possible explanations for the inexplicable:

1. Unusual Perspective
Not everyone sees the world the same way. On the one hand that's a blessing because it gives breadth to the consideration (other views, after all, may be more profound than yours). On the other, it's problematic because you have to understand it, assess its relevance to the situation, and discern how best to balance it with alternate perspectives—all of which take time (that sometimes you'd rather not have to take).

If you're not familiar with how the other person works with information their process may appear unfathomable. But that's not the same as their having no process, or no thoughts germane to the topic at hand. 

Suggestion: Try being curious rather than consternated.

2. Different Assumptions
Even when everyone is agreed that they're on the same team, it doesn't necessarily follow that you're playing the same game or by the same rules. All kinds of mischief can ensue from people working from different premises.

This could be the result of widely divergent prior experiences when faced with analogous conditions, or it could simply be unexamined bedrock for the conversation. When two people have different objectives and that difference has not been illuminated, it can be exhausting. Try running a train on track that's been laid with mixed gauges. 

Suggestion: Back up and check for common ground (a solid foundation) before trying to bridge the differences.   

3. Not Showing Your Work
Sometimes people draw internal conclusions that have not been revealed. While their progression may seem straight forward in their head, it's mysterious to you (and perhaps others as well).

For example, my wife has the view that I'm highly critical of her, to the point where it's seriously undermining our relationship. Because I'm a person with high standards, I know there's truth to my being labeled a "critical person." That said, I've been struggling for some time with the assessment that I'm exceptionally critical. With the help of a counselor, Ma'ikwe and I have recently uncovered that there was another mechanism at play (beyond the moments when I'm actually critical of her, which are a real thing).

Since childhood, I've had the habit of coping with unresolved tensions by having imaginary conversations with people I'm struggling with. In these moments I explore my feelings and try to process what I want to do them. I sub-vocalize and can be seen acting out the conversation to myself, lost to the world around me. While I've known for decades that I do this, I'm not always conscious of it.

Last week, Ma'ikwe reported that I do this about four times a day (I had no idea it was that often, but I believe her) and that whenever she catches me muttering she always fears it's about her. Yikes! Suddenly I was getting a much better picture of why she felt so weary of my criticism—she was adding to the total all the times I might be critical of her, and then not checking it out. Holy shit!

Suggestion: If you're not able to follow someone's train of thought, it should always be OK to ask for a route guide—whether you're enjoying the scenery or not.
4. The Relativity of Reactivity
There will be times when you'll encounter extreme statements that are fueled by reaction to something others said or did, perhaps you. (Isn't it amusing when the only thing you can agree on is that you both think the other is from Mars!) The water can get particularly muddy if you are unprepared for the reaction and you're thinking that what you said or did was perfectly normal and reasonable. The flavor of this dynamic (with cayenne added) can get ugly in a hurry.

Suggestion: If you suspect that there may be a non-trivial emotional response in the mix, it's probably a good Idea to check that out, and—if you find one—to learn what you can about what it is and what triggered it.

• • •
What all of this adds up to is that when you discover Martians in the room, you need an intergalactic translator. Thus, if you can respond with, "I'm not understanding what just happened. Can you walk me through how that makes sense?" it's almost certainly going to be more constructive than, "What the fuck was that all about?"

Mind you, asking for more information does not oblige you to be satisfied with their response or to support what the other person has said or done, but it does create some breathing room between you and a knee-jerk reaction, which tends to be more of an uh-oh moment then the aha! experience you were hoping for.

When you encounter Martians, what you need is not a space ship, just a space to shift.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Lilly in the Field

Life out of balance,
Carbon won't you please come home?
Grow trees; don't burn them.
—Laird's Sequestration Haiku (a somewhat obscure category)

I had a phone call yesterday with an old friend, Kip Lilly... We met our first year at Carleton College in the fall of 1967, where, in the way of clever freshman everywhere, we hung on him the moniker Young Eli—after the founder of the Indiana-based pharmaceutical conglomerate, with whom he shared a last name. Of course, neither he nor I are quite so young any more, but I reckon he'll always be younger than the guy with "Eli Lilly" on his birth certificate.

I had last seen (or even had a conversation) with Kip almost six years ago, when he attended Ma'ikwe's and my wedding (April 2007). He was one of about 10 college friends who attended, which was an impressive showing given that our connections were 40 years old and our lives had diverged considerably since those halcyon days.

Kip called because another special Carleton friend, Sue Anderson, is a consumer of this blog and had alerted him to my marital struggles. As good friends do, Kip called to see how I was doing. I was touched by his reaching out.

One special quality about my relationship with Kip is that he is every bit as much a word player as I am. Though I don't know how much he writes, you can't listen to him talk for more than a few minutes before you encounter the same kind of convoluted sentence structure—peppered with tortured punctuation, whimsical metaphors, and obscure cultural references—that I am prone to. I had forgotten how much he has been soul mate for me in that regard!

By way of example, his parting shot on yesterday's phone call was that I accept a homework assignment: a haiku on the topic of sequestration. Where does he get this stuff and what does it represent that it's rattling around in his head? Breathing through those existential questions, I reflected on how few people I know who would make such an oddball request (probably a good thing). Of course, being a player myself, I agreed with alacrity, and I led off this blog by turning in my original composition.

While this Lilly in my field can be, at times, pretty far afield, he's nonetheless precious to me.

Though Kip and I were once fairly close (we canoed a lot together in our 20s) and he's been to Sandhill a few of times, we've seen each other rarely in the last three decades and it was amazing how many deep references we were able to call up on demand and weave into our telephonic stroll down memory lane. Though our points of connection had mainly receded below the surface of consciousness through disuse, they remained in place and surprisingly accessible at need. Opening the door to that closet, I am suffused with dusty memories today.

My college years were important to me and formative. It was where I first examined the conservative values of my upbringing and started down the path of inquiry and personal growth work that (apparently) has no end—witness my counseling appointment this afternoon, as I continue my work to strengthen my marriage.

This morning I'm wondering about how the following observations fit into one sensible narrative:

o  I established a number of friendships in my four years of college that were valuable for me at the time and have remained so 40+ years later. Even though the points of contact are much less frequent today, I am invariably able to drop right back into depth and tenderness when with my old college friends. Even more impressive is that there are several people from my Carleton days that hold their friendship with me in high esteem.

o  I figure I've been working toward being a more complete, more aware, and more integrated person my entire adult life. While this pilgrim's progress has not always been linear and there have been plenty of bumps in the road, I have a definite sense of advancement the last 45 years—which makes the strength and steadfastness of my college connections all the more impressive, as these lasting bonds were forged at the front end of my journey, when I offered more relationship potential than accomplishment.

o  One of the central points of connection I have with Ma'ikwe is our dedication to an examined life. While we haven't taken the same paths in pursuing this, there is deep respect for the work we have each done, and we value a willingness to hang in there when we hit a rough patch. This expressly includes recognizing our own reactivity and working emotionally. (I'm not claiming that we always do this well; I'm saying that we recognize the need for it and have made a commitment to try.)

o  For all of our dedication to cultivating the garden of our relationship—which we have been doing for over seven years now, about twice the time I had in college with my friends there—Ma'ikwe and I are nonetheless in serious struggle, with the viability of our marriage in question. 

o  While taking into account the adage that familiarity breeds contempt, and that being a good friend is not the same level of commitment or complexity as being a spouse, I'm still scratching my head about how I manifested such enduring friends from college days—when my personal growth work was just getting started—while stumbling so badly in my marriage with a sophisticated partner and four decades of personal growth work under my belt.

Hmm. This humbling juxtaposition causes me to rethink just how much progress I've made over the years. That's the problem with an examined life: peeking in the mirror can reveal blemishes you'd rather weren't there.

Friday, February 22, 2013


Whenever I hear the phrase "whiteout," my first thought is correction fluid (and the smell of carbon tetrachloride). After all, I craft a lot of reports, proposals, and agreements, and spend far more time rambling at my keyboard than gamboling in winter weather. 

So I'm prone to associating "whiteout" with office supplies ahead of blizzards (and, in turn, to associate "blizzards" with Dairy Queen ahead of Snow Queen, but now I'm free associating… ). To be sure, most of my office work these days is drafted on and disseminated from on my laptop, and paper (either liquid or solid) seldom enters the equation—such that even small 20 ml bottles of Wite-Out are more likely to dry up before they get used up.

Still, I've always had a fondness for office supplies (as an impulse shopper, a trip to Staples is every bit as dangerous for me as a stroll down the aisles of Lowes or Whole Foods) and I've been associating with them long enough that I can even recall the alluring waxy smell of the stencils I cut (on a typewriter with the ribbon removed) in preparation for mimeographing minutes 30 years ago. We've come a long way, baby.

But I digress. The reason "whiteout" popped into my consciousness is not because I've been huffing correction fluid; it's because northeast Missouri was just blanketed with our largest snowfall of the winter—somewhere in the vicinity of six-eight inches of white stuff, accompanied by artistically (if whimsically) placed drifts approaching two feet deep, that make it hard to tell where the road ends and the ditches begin. Although I was scheduled to make the shift from Dancing Rabbit back to Sandhill today (where I'm the scheduled cook), it appears my stay at Moon Lodge will be extended for another day because my Honda sedan can't navigate drifts that large and it takes a while to get the back roads graded. It's just good old country living.

Fortunately, the National Weather Service gave us plenty of warning and Ma'ikwe and I were able to restock seasoned firewood into the front porch, empty the compost and trash buckets, and reload on library books just ahead of the storm. There is something incredibly cozy about being snug in a warm house with the winter faeries dancing around outside, sculpting snowdrifts as a seasonal expression of ephemeral art. Last night, as the snowflakes swirled around us, we bravely trudged the 200 yards separating us from the Milkweed Mercantile to partake of Thursday pizza night (the enjoyment of which shall not be stayed by snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night).

I'm imagining that today the folks at home are digging out the cross country skis, scrambling to play in the fluffy abundance before the warmer temperatures expected Sunday turn it to slush. If you don't have to go anywhere, snow days can be a lot of fun. Even falling down isn't so bad, as you have a soft landing and freshly fallen snow hasn't yet had time to get dirty or icy.

I think of a late winter snowstorm like this as Nature's White Out, giving folks an unexpected chance to change their day entirely. Depending on what you had queued up and your temperament, you can either be frustrated or delighted. All things considered, delight is the better choice.

Oh the weather outside is frightful
But the fire is so delightful
And since we've no place to go
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
—lyrics by Sammy Cahn (1945)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Growing Pains: Challenges in Cooperative Leadership

My wife, Ma'ikwe, lives at Dancing Rabbit, a 15-year-old ecovillage with 72 members and residents on its way to hundreds. In anticipation of this growth, they will be making a transition this year from straight consensus to governance by an eight-member Village Council. While this body will still make decisions by consensus, community-wide decisions will no longer be made in plenary.

The Council will be selected by an open process where all people living in the community will have a chance to say whether they are willing to serve, and to give input about who they think is the best slate of candidates based on a recognized set of desired qualities. Council members will serve two-year terms, with half up for selection every year.

In addition to this important experiment in cooperative governance, the DR Board is advocating that the community work toward hiring two or three people to fill three administrative slots—all of which are new or have heretofore been difficult to fill:

o  Executive Director (overseeing the 501c3 educational activities of Dancing Rabbit, Inc, as distinct from the internal affairs of the intentional community—which is what the Village Council will have responsibility for)

o  Development Coordinator (in charge of fundraising)

o  Communications Director (getting the word out about DR's activities as a model ecovillage)

While these changes have been carefully crafted and there's a wealth of good thinking that's gone into what's being advanced, the aspect about these developments that intrigues me most is that the community is moving in the direction of creating internal positions of responsibility such that selected individuals will be getting paid to oversee their fellow members. In some cases, the new managers and coordinators will have the power to hire and fire. Oh baby.

This is significant for three reasons:

1. Cooperative groups are notoriously vague about defining healthy models of leadership. Mostly it's open season on people willing to serve, where mangers get all of the responsibility and none of the perks of their mainstream counterparts. Lacking clarity about what behaviors are wanted, people serving in leadership roles do the best they can and then try to survive whatever slings and arrows are directed their way from disgruntled members. It can be a real bloodbath, and a real damper on people's enthusiasm for filling leadership slots.

To its credit, DR has been diligent about creating job descriptions, defining limits of authority, and delineating the qualities wanted in managers. They've also been establishing the standards for staff evaluations. Hopefully all this good work will pay off in a more balanced mix of appreciations and ouches.

2. Once you start paying one member to manage another in a cooperative setting, you're purposefully moving into a certain kind of schizophrenia, where the same two people can be fellow members with identical rights in one context, and manager and subordinate in another. It can be the very devil navigating cleanly back and forth between the two, as the expectations around communication and how power is shared shift with the context. 

I know of examples where qualified people simply refused to accept leadership roles in their home communities for the express purpose of avoiding being caught in this dynamic. (They moved to community to get away from difficult power dynamics; not to walk into the lion's den!) It will be fascinating to see how well my neighbors handle this volatile stuff.

3. In addition to being skittish about the dynamics mentioned above, it can be hard to fill slots with good people because good people invariable have busy lives already. The old saw, "If you want something done ask a busy person" applies here, in that the most competent people tend to not have room in their lives to fill significant new slots. Their dance cards are already full.

So I'm interested to see how the community will shake down good candidates to fill this double handful of important new openings in community governance.

• • •
I feel fortunate to live so close to this experiment in cooperative culture, where I have a seat near enough to the arena that I can hear people squeal as they try to bootstrap themselves into their tight new toreador pants, so that they can bravely march into the sunlight to dance with the bulls of tough issues, hoping to avoid being caught on the horns.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Pause that Refreshes

No, I'm not writing about Coca-cola. I'm reporting on Sandill's annual retreat, which concluded Thursday.

It's been my community's habit (for at least the last 20 years) to carve out time somewhere in the first quarter to reflect on where we are, discuss where we want to be headed, and to work on any knotty issues or dynamics that have bubbled up and not been resolved in the last year. Think of it as a 12-month tune up.

Over time there tends to be slippage of various sorts. Members can get out of sync with one another, or out of touch with nuances of each others' lives. We use this time to walk through the budget, reviewing the prior year's activities and planning for the next, and to map out major projects for the coming warm weather. We share how well our dreams are being met by life in the community, and what might be done to enhance our prospects.

While the flavor of our retreats can vary as much as the choices at Baskin & Robbins, it's been one of the community's best traditions. We pick the winter because we're a farm and that's our down time. We fit it in somewhere after the receipt of year-end financial statements and before we start ramping up for spring planting.

This year our three days together turned out to be heartfelt and connecting (always good), and not tense at all, which is a rarity. Most years our annual retreat, paradoxically, means advancing into some messy issues.

After long check-ins the first morning—which took all morning—we looked over the 2012 numbers, which was made easier by our having had a great year, finishing $40,000 in the black, half from earning more than we spent, and half from investments. Woohoo! When your trickiest financial issue is how best to invest surplus funds, you know you're in good shape.

In the coming year we'll start experimenting with two potential businesses:

a) Raising grass-fed, organic beef. Nearly half of our land is in grass, which cattle are wonderful at converting into usable protein, and we already have a decent barn that can be used for hay storage and weather protection. Besides, we'd love to have the manure as part of our field fertility program. Joe will take the lead on this.

b) Raising botanicals for tinctures and essential oil production. Sandhill has always been a place committed to growing plants and it's appealing to tinker with ways in which we can turn that strength into income. This year we'll plant quantities of four to six species that we think will do well in our climate and soils, and then see how the harvesting goes before investing in serious equipment. The appeal of this approach is that we can concentrate and preserve value through careful processing, making it possible to market the end products outside the area (and not rely solely on local sales to sustain a business purveying herbal medicinals). Trish will take the lead on this.

We also approved initiatives for the coming season, divvied up managerships leftover after having lost Sara at Christmas (reducing our adult membership from seven to six), and agreed on putting out the message that we're open to new members with the folowing privisos:

o  We will insist on a good energetic fit (not just a good values fit), which translates to decent social skills, such as the ability to: know one's feelings and articulate them; listen well; not freak out in the presence of conflict; assimilate others' viewpoints and shift perspectives; handle critical feedback without shutting down or getting (unduly) defensive.

o  We'll give preference to families with kids close to Emory's age (who'll be five in June).

o  We prefer to not have new members over 50. Stan and I are in our 60s and everyone else is in their 30s. We have a solid demographic now and don't want to accidentally become top heavy.

o  We prefer that our next adult member be a woman or a couple—with four men and two women currently, we don't want our gender balance too far out of whack.

o  We'd like new members to not be allergic to management responsibilities (we prefer distributing that widely among us).

o  We want to proceed organically, and not try to integrate too many new people at a time. After we've identified a bona fide candidate, we'll check back to see how open we are to more prospectives, adjusting our website and public message accordingly. We are not in a rush and the quality of member cohesion is precious to us.

We also identified two meaty topics that need further work in the weeks ahead:

1. How can we better distribute the load of emotional support for interns (we typically have three during the growing season, April through October). Trish, as Garden Manager, is OK coordinating work assignments for interns, but she's not that excited to be the go-to person for hand holding and/or interpersonal tensions—she'd like that part to be more broadly shared. While everyone knew what she meant and understood the reasonableness of her request, it's not necessarily easy for people who are less connected with an intern's work scene to be geosynchronous with their psycho-spiritual orbit. It'll be an interesting challenge.

2. What exactly is our commitment to supporting aging members? While our official line has always been that we take primary responsibility for members through end of life, we've never actually delivered on that promise. With both Stan and I in our seventh decade and counting, our presence begs the question. Though we're both currently in good health (knock on wood), it's time to start putting some flesh on the bare bones of that commitment.

All and all we feel replete after taking receipt of our heartfelt retreat.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

In Defense of Imbalance

For those who have been keeping up with the serial drama of my marriage, Ma'ikwe and I saw a couples counselor Monday and had a positive experience—good enough that we're going back next Tuesday for more. Ma'ikwe has taken a step back from the brink to give this a try and I am very grateful.

To be sure, there remains gobs of work to do, and it will likely be messy, but she's willing to try again, which is a huge energy shift and essential for us to have a chance. Whew!

• • •
OK, that's the news bulletin update. I received an outpouring of sympathetic responses to my previous posting (for which I thank all those who wrote), where I characterized my partnership as being on the edge of a precipice, and I want to say more about what my marriage blogs are—and what they aren't—so people don't have a mistaken idea about what I'm portraying.

For the most part (and this was certainly true of last Sunday's posting) I write about how Ma'ikwe sees me and how those observations land with me. Or, more accurately, I write about how I understand that she sees me. While sometimes that includes complimentary reflections, mostly I focus on what's problematic. This is intentional. In consequence, my depictions are not balanced at all. They are not a balanced description of how Ma'ikwe sees me, nor are they a balanced description of our relationship challenges. 

I don't do this because I enjoy high drama or self-flagellation in public. I do it because:

a) Articulating Ma'ikwe's concerns forces me to be clear about what her issues are. I focus on the problems because that's where the heavy lifting is done, and I don't want to dilute their significance with sugar coating. I have a strong sense of self, and believe in my ability to solve problems and build healthy relationships. In order for that to work well it's important that my aura of self-confidence not become a protective armor that repulses feedback, thus dedicated myself to being transparent about what I hear.

b) Articulating Ma'ikwe's issues (if I do it well) demonstrates that I'm listening and at least have gotten off to a good start on the road to resolution (the point being that if you don't understand accurately what your partner is saying, it seriously undercuts your ability to have a productive response).

c) I am highly suspicious of relying solely on my own judgment in assessing what weight to give criticism of my actions and patterns. By sharing the criticism with a wider audience, I get the benefit of other perspectives on my not-so-great tendencies.

d) Dark corners are less scary when you shine the light on them. By openly admitting how bad issues can be, they become more tractable.

e) It generally works much better if I can prioritize understanding ahead of being understood. I'll still get my chance to say what's bothering me, or the ways in which I think Ma'ikwe criticisms are unfair or off base. First though, let's make sure I've heard them right.

f) Even though Ma'ikwe often feels that I hear her criticisms as more extreme than she means them, my aim is to lay them out as they landed with me. If I've overamped it, fine, let's dial it back. In my experience this is a lesser problem than the danger of underplaying the criticism. To be clear, I don't strive for exaggeration—I strive for energetic accuracy (articulating how Ma'ikwe's statements have landed with me). If I've missed the import (blowing it out of proportion), this gives us the chance to make the correction in real time.

g) Talking about the ways in which I get into trouble tends to be far more useful to readers than my writing about my relationship successes. Not only does it make me more human, but it's easier for people to connect with me. While I am loathe to make shit up for this purpose, it turns out I don't have to—I get into hot water often enough that I'm sufficiently illuminating and entertaining just reporting on the Best of Potholes as I stumble into them.

h) While it may well be interesting and instructive if I also wrote about my issues with Ma'ikwe (the other side of the story, as it were), I have a standard of not writing critically of others in my blog unless I have their express permission, and that definitely includes my wife (I first articulated this in my April 19, 2010 blog, Writing About My Life, But Not My Wife). While I sometimes choose to intentionally obscure attribution when I want to write about others critically, that is hardly a viable option when talking about my marriage ("I was in a conversation with one of my wives the other day…" would not mask anyone's identity).

i) I believe one of the greatest challenges to personal growth and robust relationships is our inability to welcome and hear accurately critical feedback. By focusing in my blog solely on the ways in which I'm perceived to be contributing to the problem—while resisting the urge to slop tar on others at the same time as a salve to my ego—I am trying to witness my ongoing efforts to handle feedback better.

In Defense of Imbalance
In working through tough issues it is my style to first probe criticisms to understand their underpinnings and the context in which they are experienced. If I'm having a significant reaction to receiving the information (which, luckily, doesn't happen every time, yet is always a possibility), there is a danger of my jumping into this probing step too abruptly—before admitting (either to myself or the other person) how their criticism is landing. This can come across as brittleness in my voice or a sharpness (lack of grace?) to my questions, which can then take on an inquisitional tone. At its worst, I can be flat out defensive, essentially punishing the speaker for their "temerity" in voicing concerns. When this happens the whole exchange goes south in a hurry.

Next I tend to go through a period of catastrophizing, where I imagine the worst and feel through the awful things that may ensue if the analysis is correct and I don't address it. While I don't tend to stay in this dark place for long and it helps me gain perspective on what's at stake and how my behaviors may be inadvertently damaging relationships, it can be awful for Ma'ikwe to witness my transit through this phase, which tends to include double doses of self-incrimination and remorse for bad things, many of which have not happened yet and probably never will. Ma'ikwe, I think, finds this a colossal waste of energy and painful to observe, yet it's part of how I get to center, how I demonstrate that I'm taking criticisms seriously, and how I prepare myself to respond without shying away from touching the tender spots.

Fortunately, Ma'ikwe and I have made considerable progress over the years in navigating this step better together: I indulge less in beating myself up, and move through this phase more quickly (sometimes minutes instead of days); in turn, Ma'ikwe has learned to give me room to go through this, trusting that I'll come out the other end, where we can begin constructive problem solving. 

The keys here are that I know I'm not being balanced, that I take full responsibility for my reactions, and that I then reengage with open ears and an open heart. Essentially, I am reporting here just my end of the work of tending the garden of our marriage. Ma'ikwe has her part in this as well. If she wants to write about that, that's her business.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

On Being a Poor Partner

I. Embracing the Past 
We come together both wounded and wise, tentative and sure, enriched by the Fool's taste for the fullness of Life. We offer each other the salt of our tears, the song in our throats, the wrinkles of experience, & an exuberance for Life.

II. Embracing Who We Are

We stretch to see each other as we are, without the illusions of who we'd like the other to be. Our marriage is marked by the passionate and reverent care that comes from loving deeply, not backing away from struggles, and enjoying each other, faults and all.

III. Embracing Community

Our union is rooted in community. We are nurtured by these connections, and commit to nurturing them in return. We commit our marriage to a path of Service in the world and intend our circles of community to be the well from which our work will spring.

IV. Embracing the Magic

We commit to giving our lives to each other, with respect and humor; with curiosity and steadfastness. We commit to living an examined life, working with our bellies and our hands; our heads and our hearts. We draw strength from Spirit and Mystery in times of need. We commit to acting for Good, and believe that we are better together than apart. Above all, we commit to showing up—to being courageous & joyous in the face of the Unknown.

—Ma'ikwe and Laird's Wedding Vows • April 21, 2007

Ma'ikwe and I made these promises to each other in front of 175 friends and family almost 70 months ago in the Sandia Mountains overlooking Albuquerque. It was one of the happiest moments in my life.

Now Ma'ikwe is feeling heart-weary and worn down by the attempt to intertwine her life with mine and she is on the verge of breaking her commitment to the marriage. Standing on this precipice, my heart is on the verge of breaking as well, and I am in anguish. This is a blog I'd hoped to never write.

Tomorrow we are going to see a couples counselor—someone new to us who has been recommended by friends—to try even at this eleventh hour to find hope and reason to continue working on our relationship. If something significant and positive doesn't happen in that hour, I believe Ma'ikwe is ready to end the marriage.

Standing on the edge, looking at the abyss, it seems appropriate to outline what I understand about why Ma'ikwe despairs that I can be a good partner for her. While we've unquestionably both played a role in getting to this unwanted place, and Ma'ikwe has her own culpability for how we got here, in this blog I'm only exploring my side of it; the ways in which Ma'ikwe has helped me to see my shortcomings as an intimate partner…
o  I don't work with feelings the same way she does, and some significant fraction of the time when I'm try to connect with her emotionally she feels pushed away—the exact opposite of what I'm intending. Ma'ikwe has reported that when she's in a state of heightened emotional energy, she prefers to experience it as purely as possible, without contamination of thought. In trying to bridge to her in those moments, I have either made statements or asked questions that have drawn her back into thinking mode and she's repeatedly been frustrated by my lack of sensitivity in this regard. While this articulation is only a week old, it's nonetheless a powerful deterrent for Ma'ikwe when she thinks about staying with me.

o  Our rhythms for sharing are different. Where I can often jump right into intimate sharing (downloading what's been happening for me since we were last together, and my reflections about it) as soon as we're together, Ma'ikwe needs a day or two to synchronize orbits well enough to dock with me. When our visits are less than 48 hours, there's a risk that she won't be ready to share before it's time for the next separation. Not good.

Thus, when we're both in Missouri and alternating between our homes three miles apart, she's come to prefer fewer, larger chunks of time together, in contrast with our typical pattern of my coming over to spend the night at Moon Lodge (her house at Dancing Rabbit) two or three times a week. We have recently been trying to work on this pattern (which was first articulated in December), but hadn't gotten too far along in our experiments before being overtaken by our current crisis.

o  Ma'ikwe feels worn down by my criticalness—not just of her, of everyone, including myself. I have high standards for how things should go and can be outspoken about it when actions fall short of ideals. By virtue of my being largely unguarded with Ma'ikwe—both a blessing and curse in intimacy—she tends to hear more of my frustrations and criticisms than most, and she's tired of it. She often catches me muttering under my breath and wonders if I'm being critical of her. It's been exhausting, even to the point of making her feel unsafe from judgment in her own home.

While I make no apology for having high standards, It's abhorrent to me that I'm driving away the person I love above all others by indulging in an unmindful pattern of speaking critically, a bad habit I picked up unwittingly at my father's knee. I certainly witnessed how hard it was for my mother, and now I've recapitulated my father's error. What a disaster!

o  Ma'ikwe has lost sexual interest in me. To be sure, some of this—perhaps even all of it—may be the debilitating effects of her battle with chronic Lyme disease, but as Ma'ikwe succinctly put it last night, it doesn't matter why, only that it's true. The point is that she's rarely interested in sex any more. Something that once had been vibrant and bonding for us has disappeared.

She trusts her body knowing more than her mind knowing, and her body is telling her that I'm no longer the guy. As I've not lost any ardor for her, this is a poignant point of imbalance.

o  My life is too booked for her. With my marriage as one leg of the table upon which my life is supported, the other three are: a) my home community (Sandhill Farm); b) my work as FIC's main administrator; and c) my group process consulting work. Ma'ikwe finds it too crowded sharing access to me with my other three commitments. The sense I have is that Ma'ikwe wants a partnership where the couple maps out their time together and the rest each partner's interests divvy up what's left—not the other way around.

A couple months ago Ma'ikwe asked me to give up one of the other three legs (probably Sandhill) in order to manifest greater room on my dance card for our marriage. I balked at a "legectomy" without first getting a chance to try meeting her needs without losing a leg. Two weeks ago Ma'ikwe realized her frustrations had grown to the point where she wasn't at all sure that having more time would be enough, and that she was effectively asking me to leave my home of 39 years for the chance to save the marriage, which was an especially heavy card to play.

o  Similar to this last point, yet not the same, is how Ma'ikwe sees my life as too rigid. My commitment to the other three legs predates the marriage and are too longstanding and too immutable for her to feel hope of meaningful shifts in priorities. She wants a life where she can change directions when it suits her (an Enneagram 7) but mine is not set up that way (as an Enneagram 1)—so how can we partner? What might be viewed as bedrock by some—a stable partner with reliable, value-based work—has become a sea anchor for her, tethering her to outmoded interests.

Ma'ikwe is ready to try some new directions in her life and doesn't see where that will leave room for her and I to connect enough to maintain a viable partnership. She no longer wants to travel as much as we did before chronic Lyme started to flare up in fall 2009, and time together on the road had been an important element in our relationship. While she hasn't recovered enough from Lyme to test yet what she'd like her new direction to be and its consequences on our marriage, she's concerned enough about it going poorly that it's another nail in the coffin.

• • •
Despite all of this, I emphatically do not want to lose Ma'ikwe. That said, it makes no sense to try to hold her against her will and if the fire for our marriage goes out in her, then we are done. Fool that I am, I hold out hope that after tomorrow's counseling session there will yet remain a glow in the embers of Spirit and Mystery sufficient for us to blow on and requicken the pulse of our Love. For ours is a partnership worth drinking of down to the bitter dregs, and I'll not count on having another chance this good again.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Tile that Binds

Given that Ma'ikwe and I are working seriously on our relationship—and throwing everything into the effort—I reckon it's only fitting that this week we added the kitchen sink.

More precisely, the two of us have worked hard since Tuesday to install a tile countertop around her kitchen sink. We're using 4"x4" Talavera Mexican tiles, which are soft fired with vibrant glazes. While mostly we're using a mixture of solid colors (we especially love the orange ones), we have half a dozen tiles with a lizard design interspersed randomly in the field, and it makes for a very up-tempo kitchen vibe. Andale arriba! The energetic Latin colors help brighten a sink area that is otherwise tucked into a dark northeast corner, away from natural light.

One of the special challenges of tile work is cutting pieces to fit the layout, which mostly needs to be done ahead of time (so that you're not racing to and from the tile cutter after the mortar bed is combed and good to go). While the counter is a simple L-shaped design, we inherited a 3/4"-plywood substrate that wasn't not quite square, and one leg that features a natural black locust post (read round) that pops through the middle of the counter, requiring custom nibbling (fortunately, as an experienced—if amateur—tilesetter, I own a tile nibbler). 

More challenging still is that the 4"x4" dimensions of each tile are "nominal," which is the manufacturer's hint that any relationship between the listed dimensions and the actual ones is casual. While the tiles for a given color are (blessedly) uniform, it turned out that the deep red ones are only 3-7/8" on a side, while the metallic orange ones are a proud 4-1/4," with other colors falling somewhere in between. As you might imagine this makes for some quixotic spacing. Once we were able to embrace it as "artistic expression" and managed to let go of the rectilinear imperative, we were fine.

Fortunately, Ma'ikwe's neighbor Bear loaned us his Makita grinder with a 4-inch diamond blade and it was just the ticket for free-hand cutting the tiles that needed trimming. By laying the tiles today (in thinset mortar with a latex admix), we'll be able to grout tomorrow and show off our handiwork just in time for Ma'ikwe's big 43rd birthday bash Saturday night. (Her actual day of nativity is Feb 6, but we can draw a bigger crowd on the weekend.) It's always fun to have some show-and-tell at a party.

Best of all, Ma'ikwe and I enjoyed working together and we didn't force the work faster than it was ready. Though we had originally hoped that the tiling would have been finished yesterday, we never lost sight of the prime directive: do quality work and enjoying the journey. Whew. 

Now if we can only learn to do our relationship like that… deliberately crafting something useful with vibrant features and enduring bonds.

Monday, February 4, 2013


Last weekend I drove from northeast Missouri to south-central Tennessee and back—a hair over 1100 miles—to participate in two days of FIC Oversight Committee meetings. That meant a lot of hours listening to sports radio, which is the easiest way for me to stay awake on long distance drives.

Today's blog will feature highlights gleaned from my radio adventures...

Best Quip
Sunday morning, en route from Dunmire Hollow to Fenton MO and a Super Bowl party at my son's house, one announcer breezily reported from New Orleans (site of the big game and a destination renown for serious partying) "I've been in town all week and my check liver light came on 72 hours ago."

Ads That Double Clutch
Unless you're listening to NPR, commentary is inextricably commingled with commercials. I was particularly amused by these two:

o  Since 2004 there's been a popular energy drink on the market called 5-Hour Energy (it's virtually impossible to find a truck stop these days that doesn't have this product prominently displayed at every checkout counter). It grabbed my attention that they've now adopted the tag line: "5-Hour Energy—it lasts for hours." Perhaps… five hours?

o  My other favorite is a PSA for Age-related Macular Degeneration, or AMD, which is an eye disease that compromises a person's ability to see what's in the center fo their field of vision. It starts out with a dude who reports that he thought his gradual loss of vision was the inevitable (if sad) result of growing older, but was surprised to learn that it wasn't: he "only" had AMD, and early diagnosis meant that he could do things to delay its progression.

While that's a good story and an important message, I was shaking my head at the double speak of implying that AMD isn't connected with getting older when it clearly is. It's much more prevalent among people over 65.

Most Questionable Public Relations Choice 
On the ride south Thursday, I heard the first day scores from the Waste Management Phoenix Open. No, it wasn't a contest to see how many dump trucks you could haul to a desert landfill. It was a golf tournament.

While I understand that Waste Management is a serious name if the field of, well, waste management, I'm questioning this as a marketing choice. Who could possibly have thought it was a proud corporate moment? Were they reclaiming the term "waste," so to speak?

I'm aware of the marketing adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity, but please.

Back in 1958 I spent four weeks at a boys camp in Ely MN called Camp Easton. Naturally enough the camp was owned and operated by Bill Easton, best known as the track coach at the University of Kansas from 1947-65. The next year he sold the camp to the athletic former Michigan State tight end, Doug Bobo, who had the good sense to not change the name to Camp Bobo (lest people mistakenly think they were offering clown training in the North Woods).

Not every name is meant to be in headlines. Not every name conveys a sense of lilt or elan. While the terms "waste" and "management" may connote a sense of cash, neither has cachet. Hearing those terms I think offensive lineman; not golfers. I think missing links; not linksters.

I figure the Waste Management folks could at least have gone for whimsy. If they were bound and determined to be up front about what they do for a living, why not make a special pitch to invite the golfers with the biggest swagger and style their event the Trash Talk Open? How about marketing their tournament as the Recycling Invitational, where you can watch the world's best golfers going for the Green on every hole? Perhaps they could partner with Weight Watchers and offer up the Waist Management Classic, with Phoenix Rising. I'm thinking there are ways they could have worked with this, instead of just bludgeoning their way forward like, say, a garbage truck.

I don't find trash compaction and golf courses a compatible image. Though I thoroughly appreciate the hippopotami in tutus in Disney's Fantasia—a whimsy classic—it's hard to conjure up garbage trucks and the balletic follow through of Tiger Woods in the same image.

Most Shocking Stat
The news flash of the weekend was the Caltech baseball team, which achieved a moon-from-the-bottom-of-the-sea come-from-behind defeat of Pacifica, 9-7, in the second game of a doubleheader Saturday afternoon. This mercifully ended a mind-numbing 228-game losing streak that stretched back to Feb 15, 2003, when the Beavers edged Cal State Monterey Bay, 5-4. 

Think about that: losing every game for a decade. Talk about a standard for futility! Caltech makes the Chicago Cubs look like all stars and gives hope for underdogs everywhere. Go Beavers!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Lion Taming in Relationship

Ma'ikwe and I are struggling with our partnership, to the point where she has one foot out the door. (The good news is that she still has one foot in the door.)

As I drove to Tennessee yesterday for two days of FIC Oversight Committee meetings I had several hours alone in the car to chew on what's happening and what I can do to help right the ship.

As part of my journey I first went through a stage of telling myself stories about how it's mainly Ma'ikwe's fault—none of which was helpful (except as a cheap salve for my bruised ego). Sigh. I'm glad I went through this part alone, where my flammable petulance was not available as an accelerant for our smoldering tension. The real work I need to do is understanding as much as possible about how I'm triggered, and how I can do a better job of sharing what's going on for me in ways that are less provoking for my partner.

Learning to avoid sharing is not likely to be helpful; I need to learn how to share in ways that are less threatening. That means learning more about what's problematic for Ma'ikwe about how I share, not what I share.

Why is this so hard? Why do I want to be right so much? Why do I insist on being understood as a precondition for listening closely to her observations? Why do I punish Ma'ikwe for giving me critical feedback (while that's not my strategy, it is nonetheless depressingly often the outcome of how I respond)?

While I'm skeptical about my chances of learning to be less reactive, I believe it's possible to learn to be more aware of my reactivity and to learn better how to be intentional about what I do with my reactions. (Hint: simply allowing my irritation to leak into my interactions, or worse—pretending that I'm fine when I'm not—are spectacularly ineffective choices.)

My challenge is: a) to fully experience my reactions (my desire to roar in pain or anguish); b)  to resist any urge to dampen my passion for the relationship (by walking on eggshells around what I share—there's an important distinction between being mindful and being cautious); and c) to use discernment (and no small amount of love) when choosing how to show up in difficult conversations.

The Lion in Winter
As an active guy with a strong sense of self, it's not much of a stretch to see myself as a lion. Given both my age (63) and the season, I'm a lion who can't count on seeing the spring of another intimate relationship. So I'm highly motivated to make the most of the one I have.

Though I try to keep my pride of pride under control, there's no doubt that I can roar. That said, I'm trying to digest that a desire to roar is not the same as a command to perform—that is, I have a choice. And just because I feel like roaring does not mean it's a good idea to give Ma'ikwe the sensation that her head is in my mouth.

While I'm not likely to ever be prrrfect, surely I can learn to keep my claws retracted… and my heart extended.