Thursday, July 4, 2013

Bombs Bursting in Air

Today is a national holiday, celebrating the 237th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. While there won't be mail service and we can expect more noise and bursts of bright light in the night sky than usual, my attention is mainly focused on my marriage and a 37-day educational adventure that starts tomorrow, for which I'm serving as Ma'ikwe's main assistant on the teaching side.

Tomorrow starts the Ecovillage Education course at Dancing Rabbit. We have 10 students (which was the magic number that we'd established in January as our must-have minimum to produce the course; below that the budget doesn't work), including six from the US (Josi, Ted, David, Natalia, Erin, and Fiona) and one each from Canada (Miguel), South Korea (Myung), India (Manasi), and Australia (Marita). 

[Alliterative aside: Interestingly, the last member of the matriculation pool to drop out (because he was unable to manifest the money) was Medoune, a male from Senegal—which mentioning makes possible the metaphysical observation that we have mainly been a magnet for foreign students whose monikers begin with "M." What do you suppose it might mean? Meditating on this for a moment, my mischievous mind suggests a mystical connection between the year (2013) and M being the 13th letter in the alphabet. Mmm, maybe.]

For Ma'ikwe this is big: she has dreamed of doing the course at Dancing Rabbit ever since she joined in 2008 (right on the heels of her participation as a member of the four-person organizing and teaching team in Albuquerque that first delivered the full Global Ecovillage Network's Ecovillage Design Education curriculum in the United States).

While we tried to get this going last summer, we only had four students register by late May and reluctantly we had to cancel the course. This year we made it!

Understandably, in the last week both Ma'ikwe and I have been devoting an increasing fraction of our attention to preparations for the course. While exciting, working out last-minute details has also been frictional, exposing ongoing concerns Ma'ikwe has with me as her partner.

In particular, I failed to meet deadlines she set for when teachers were asked to turn in course outlines and handouts. By not respecting her guidelines I squeezed the time she had available to review materials and make adjustments. She was not happy. Instead of the final prep week being a buoyant time for us a teaching couple, Ma'ikwe was experiencing me as a sea anchor. 

While that wasn't good, it got worse. After we got snarky with each other about my being disrespectful about deadlines, another challenging pattern of mine emerged. Here's how Ma'ikwe describes it:

M: "I don't like that you did X."
L: (hears X plus mentally adds on top of X "she thinks I'm not good enough" = L experiences M's feedback as a much bigger problem than just X; L's sincere attempt to reflect back feels exaggerated or overamped or universalized to M and sounds something like): "You just said you hate working with me," or "You're saying I never do it right," or some other globalized catastrophe.
M: "That's not what I said."
L: "That's what it sounded like. I think that's what you meant."
M: Grrrr... (feels discouraged to bring anything up)

On the one hand, this is an unfortunately accurate description of the pattern (because this isn't a helpful thing that I do). On the other hand, it's a fortunately accurate description (because we can agree on what's happening and because it excited our therapist when she heard about it).

On the conscious level, the good thing I think I'm doing is being diligent about not dismissing critical feedback just because it's uncomfortable. Instead, I tend to dive in and explore how bad it can be. After a time (which used to be days, but with Ma'ikwe's help has now more commonly been shortened to hours, or even minutes), I emerge from the dark side of the moon with a sense of what I can own and what I can do about it. Mind you, I'm not saying I'm always brilliant at this; just that I always come back into the light.

However, even if you agree that there may be a useful side to my pattern (and maybe you don't), there is also an unhelpful side which Ma'ikwe's generic dialog above captures pretty well: my reactivity and exaggerated responses tend to undercut a person's willingness to give me feedback (why bother if I'm just going distort it and use it as a flail?). And when that person is my wife, it's a real problem. 

Essentially, I have a deep groove within me that automatically translates non-trivial feedback into "I'm not good enough." Having been in the presence of this pattern for seven years now, Ma'ikwe has learned to be careful about playing her cards when it comes to giving me feedback. It takes a build-up of steam to trigger her pressure relief valve, which point was reached last Saturday. Then, once the valve has been opened, all kinds of stuff comes spewing out. 

While I experienced this cascade of problems as overwhelming evidence of my unworthiness, our therapist (who we saw on Tuesday) heard something else that totally took me by surprise. She heard Ma'ikwe's complaints as a request for more of me, rather than pushing me away and judging me as unworthy. Wow! I never saw that coming. 

While it's still possible that Ma'ikwe may decide I'm not worth the effort, she's continuing to give me a chance to make meaningful progress on this debilitating pattern. Part of that work will be done by me alone; part will be done by my working with our therapist; and part will be done together (with and without the therapist).

As we're about to embark on a 37-day journey together as teachers and partners, Ma'ikwe painted this picture for me of the request that underlays the anguish in her critical feedback:

What I want more of is the guy I have fun with, and the ways you contribute to my life, whether that is getting projects done, sex, or your simple presence. I want more of our really positive creative juice in teaching and contributing to the world. I also want a deeper sense that we are in our lives together, rather than operating mostly in separate domains and then coming back and reporting on our lives out there. I want more of a sense of making decisions together, and just having more time together period. 

While I doubt I could have ever found my way to that translation on my own, it's enormously helpful for me to hold onto as a buoy in stormy seas. It's the message I want to rely on as my mantra whenever there are bombs bursting in air—even if I'm the one who lit the fuse.

I don't expect there to be anything dull about the next 37 days.

1 comment:

Lotus Allen said...

Dear Laird, I understand and also work with the underlying pattern (or propensity) that you are speaking of. As I am beginning a Practicing Peace Retreat today with beloved teacher Pema Chodron(at distance) for her 77th birthday, I feel very grateful for her accompanying dharma talk, as it is very useful in working with these types of triggers:
Peace and Happiness, Lotus