Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Group Works: Nooks in Space and Time

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Context segment there are eight cards. The sixth pattern in this segment is labeled Nooks in Space and Time. Here is the image and text from that card:

Incubate creativity and nurture relationships by encouraging unstructured time and semi-private space. Insight arises fruitfully during times of open-ended conversation or in solo musing at the edges of a group. Can be designed ahead, or may arise in the moment.

This pattern is more robust when considered in the context of at least an all-day event or set of meetings. If it's only a single-session meeting, there's not be a lot of wiggle room. When you extend to multiple sessions however, the possibilities and pacing get a lot more interesting. 

The main point to keep in mind is that productivity can flourish in the interstices between the scheduled activities. This includes side conversations during bathroom/stretch breaks, what happens during meals, the dynamism of spontaneous clumpings of participants who linger after a session is officially ended (as in the photo above), the digestion and creative flights that can occur during the evening social time, or even what people experience when they get up and do tai chi before (or instead of) morning coffee.

The key is that people can benefit unpredictably from a change of setting, configuration, size, structure, or time of day—and organizers are smart to take that into account (as opposed to fretting because people are enjoying the breaks so much that they aren't arriving in their seats on time for the next session).

The prize at meetings and events is connection and insights, not perfect attendance or a complete set of notes. This is why it's valuable to have easy chairs, coffee, and confections (or better yet, confessions) near the event bookstore or registration, so that people can sit and chat. They may not go buy a book, but neither are they going "by the book," and good things may incubate in that rich unstructured milieu.

One of the prime directives of an event organizer is not to try to dictate what people will learn; it's to create an environment (and flow) such that learning can flourish. Let the magic happen. Give adequate breathing space between sessions, encouraging lingering and dalliance over rushing and urgency. You want an atmosphere that conveys the message: relationships matter. 

As different people will have different needs for what best promotes relationship and connection, your job is to leave adequate room—in space and time—for people to find what works best for them. If you build it (into your schedule and configuration) they will come.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Rebooting My Marriage

Back on July 14 Ma'ikwe booted me out the door as her husband. Today we're rebooting our marriage. It's been an unusual and surprisingly productive six weeks...

After she reached the gut-wrenching decision to end our marriage, it triggered a sequence in which Ma'ikwe started putting our intimate relationship behind her and I entered into an intense examination of how I'd failed the partnership. With nothing to lose, I began the somewhat embarrassing and humbling process of unpacking how I approach relationship, intimacy, and life in general, which, ironically, led to some wonderful exchanges with Ma'ikwe (of the kind that she'd despaired of experiencing with me) and ultimately to my inviting her July 26 to try again. A month later she conditionally accepted my offer (which we cleverly refer to as the Offer).

Mind you, this was not an invitation to go back to what we'd been doing; it was not an attempt to save the marriage. Rather, we'll be starting over. We will begin with new assumptions:
o  That we'll live in a single household that we'll jointly manage.
o  That I'll leave Sandhill, my home of 39 years, and move in with Ma'ikwe.
o  That Ma'ikwe will not travel as much as she used to (conserving her energy for Lyme recovery) and I'll negotiate with her my travel commitments to protect our time together.
o  I'll phase out of my administrative role with FIC, and devote more time to writing (which requires no travel).
o  I'll place my relationship with Ma'ikwe ahead of other major commitments (rather than rotate through them as I've been doing).
o  I'll ask for what I want.
o  She'll tell me what's not working.
o  We'll both blow on the coals of our sexual relationship.
o  I'll work on my reactivity to criticism and my self-esteem as an intimate partner.
o  She'll take more pleasure in my company.
o  I'll tackle my issue of overcommitment. 
o  She'll share more regularly with me (or at least earlier in her process) what's she's thinking about.

In short, we're committing to being more present, more alive, and more joyous.

To be sure, this is a lot of commitment, and we're making the attempt without any certainty of success. (That's why Ma'ikwe's acceptance of the Offer was conditional.) Essentially, we're acting on intuition. I reached clarity July 26; for Ma'ikwe it took an extra month.

While there are all manner of reasons why this is a stupid idea, we're doing it anyway. Mainly because it would hurt too much to not know if we could make it work.

There have always been ways in which our partnership has been positive for each of us individually (we wouldn't have lasted nearly eight years together if it had been all dross and no gold). Yet more than that, there have been ways in which our being together has been synergistically great—where we have effected a quality of being that has inspired others and occasionally manifests transformative magic.

We are under no illusion that this will be simple, or non-tumultuous. But we think it can be great, and that's worth reaching for. It is an act of love.

Sometime after Thanksgiving, I will begin a year's leave of absence from Sandhill. I'll move in with Ma'ikwe at Dancing Rabbit, and we'll see what we can create from scratch(ing an itch). If we fail, at least we will have tried. If we succeed, then we will have pulled the baby out of the bath water after having pulled the plug—just as the whirlpool was forming over the drain. Whew!

If we succeed, it will give us an opportunity to formally recommit to one another based on our relationship having died and been reborn. I fervently hope to have the occasion to design that ceremony.

Friday, August 23, 2013

An Eventful Time of Year

A week from today I'll be arriving at Twin Oaks—the well-known 46-year-old egalitarian community in Louisa VA—for the start of their annual Communities Conference, running Aug 30-Sept 2. I've been attending this gathering for so many years in a row that I don't recall the last one I missed. Probably in the last millennium sometime.

Participating in community-related events like this is one of most enjoyable things I do. Typically I give a few workshops, perhaps facilitate a panel, often operate Community Bookshelf, sometimes run a benefit auction, and get to schmooze with a bunch of people hungry for more community in their lives. At Twin Oaks I'll get to do all of that. What's not to like?

As the main administrator for the Fellowship for Intentional Community, it's important that I'm in regular contact with our constituency, which includes both people living in community and those who would like to be. At gatherings like the TO Conference, I get to meet with folks from both sides of the aisle. With a projected attendance in the 200-250 range there are likely to be as many as 30-35 different groups represented. While it will be hard to have a conversation with everyone, I can try.

In some cases I'll be catching up with friends. In most cases though, I'll be meeting people for the first time, nurturing the seeds of community that have germinated sprouted in their consciousness. My job is to water the seedlings, to pull a few weeds, and perhaps to build a trellis to help guide the tender shoots.

I'll leave home next Wed for the drive east, and won't be home until October. With the Twin Oaks event on the front end of my trip, I won't head for the barn until after the Northeast Regional Cohousing Summit, happening in Cambridge MA Sept 28. In between I'll attend the biennial gathering Ecovillage Network of Canada at Whole Village in Caledon Ontario (about an hour west of Toronto).
In between I'll do a mixture of consulting & training for four groups from North Carolina to Massachusetts, with FIC's semi-annual organizational meeting thrown in for good measure. When I get back home it will be fall, and Sandhill's annual sorghum harvest will already be underway. 

After three weeks of recharge in the sorghum fields (and wrapping up the garden harvest), I'm back out for another month as a community circuit rider: first at The Farm (Summertown TN, Oct 25-27) for a weekend offering of Conflict Resolution and Consensus; then the annual NASCO Institute for student co-ops (Ann Arbor MI, Nov 1-3); and finally the Cooperative Communities & Sustainability Conference at Ananda College (Gaston OR, Nov 15-17).

• • •
Because one of FIC's main missions is to be a resource for building community, it's crucial that we spend time with the people we're trying to serve, so that we can fine tune our offerings. Do we have the right mix of books and videos? Are we able to demystify the community search process such that people know how to be discerning shoppers? What are the trends in new community starts? How many are looking to intentional communities for guidance and mentoring about how to build community where they are (in schools, neighborhoods, churches, and workplaces)? 

In this light, I think of my upcoming sojourns more as field testing than as a business trips. On the one hand, I'll be out there pressing the flesh. On the other, I'll be getting impressions from the flesh. Being a community networker is rather Taoist in that regard (I'll show you my way if you show me yours).

All and all, it shapes up to be an eventful fall.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Not Losing the Race

In the past week I had an thoughtful email dialog with a woman I'd never met before who came across something I'd written for the Diversity issue (summer 2012) of Communities magazine. The article was about the dynamics of racism in groups and she was moved to share her thoughts. As the topic is important and her comments were insightful, I'm using our dialog as the substance of today's blog.

She wrote:
I was just reading your article online, The Paralysis of Racism in Social Change Groups. I thought it was a great article, showing much more awareness about the minority person's point of view than I see in general from non-minorities. I'm African-American.

I wanted to make a comment, because I had such a strong reaction when I read this part of your article:

• If possible, try to acknowledge that for the minority person the dynamic feels like racism—something they’ve undoubtedly become sensitized to. Even better, try to acknowledge how awful this must feel. Try to connect with them emotionally, even if you don’t think you’re doing that bad thing. Note: I’m not pretending this is easy (authentically acknowledging someone else’s hurt when you feel wrongly accused); yet this can be especially effective at diffusing tension if you can do it.

Speaking only for myself, trying to connect with me emotionally would not be especially effective at diffusing tension in me. It would make me angrier. In this context, trying to connect with me emotionally, or acknowledging that what's happening feels like racism to me, would feel like a condescending pat on the head. I would prefer just this approach that you suggested:

• If you can manage it without a charge (coming from a place of curiosity rather than defiance), ask the minority person why they thought that racism was occurring (essentially, “What indicates to you that you’re being responded to differently by virtue of race?”).

Then I could state my case, what I'm perceiving, and we could go from there.

I was on your page, because I'm in process of forming a small urban shared home in the coming year. I know that good communication processes are going to be critical in the success of the house, so I'm getting as much information as I can about communication processes in the context of intentional communities. I'm a communication coach myself, so I hope to be a positive force in fostering good communication in the group.

I replied:
I'm glad to hear you found my article constructive. To be clear, I'm not an expert of race. Rather I'm a group dynamics expert, and much of my work is about how to understand and bridge differences without running anyone over. Much of that work (which applies equally well to racism, I think) entails getting out of one's perspective and seeing the world through the eyes of the person with whom you disagree.

Let me lay out my thinking about why I advocate trying to connect emotionally and see how it works for you.

In working constructively with dynamics, it makes a big difference if nontrivial emotional distress is part of the picture. Sometimes it is; sometime it isn't. By "nontrivial" I mean that it's great enough that there's significant distortion going on. The point being that a person's ability to hear accurately what's being said is compromised by their distress. People vary a good deal with respect to how much distress pushes them over the line, but everyone has a line. It's neither a good thing or bad thing; it just is, and groups are well advised to learn how to understand and work with that moment.

Overwhelmingly, my experience has taught me that if someone is in significant distress, you must attend to that first before discussing content. In many cases simply acknowledging it is enough to deescalate the moment to where the remaining distortion is tolerable. In some cases though, it takes much more. While I've developed a protocol for working that moment (when acknowledgment is not enough), I'll leave that aside for now. The main point I'm trying to make is that attempting to bypass nontrivial distress does not work. To be sure, many groups nonetheless try to do that (mainly because they have no confidence in being able to navigate distress accurately or constructively), yet I have rarely seen this work well and leads to brittle agreements.

Having said all that, I get it that you believe not addressing the distress would work better for you. While I question whether that's really true (providing the distress is significant enough--and I imagine where you feel racism has entered the picture that the distress would probably be nontrivial), I wonder if your conclusion is based more on the ham-handed ways that people (whites?) have tried to reach out to you emotionally and your lack of personal experience with that working well, rather than on a preference for keeping emotional distance.

I fully acknowledge that forced or insincere attempts to reach you emotionally are not going to work well, and will probably escalate the tension. Further, it is not a simple skill to learn how to do well. Despite that, I advocate for this approach because it's worked so well for me in 25 years as a process consultant. In fact, I don't think it's possible to build vibrant communities without doing emotional work.

She continued with:
You're right about this:

"I wonder if your conclusion is based more on the ham-handed ways that people (whites?) have tried to reach out to you emotionally and your lack of personal experience with that working well, rather than on a preference for keeping emotional distance."

It seems to me the key element is trust. I would only be angry to begin with if I thought there could be racists in the group.

I'm sure trust is the issue, because recently, a good friend of mine (non-black) said something to me that was highly insensitive to blacks. On a scale of 1-10, it felt like a 9.95 to me (only because nothing is a perfect 10). It hurt me deeply, and I was upset about it for two weeks. It's had a lasting effect on me, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my friend had zero intention of even bothering me. My friend was actually surprised that I was upset at all. This person may never "get it," and I'm okay with that reality, because I know this person well, and I know their intention is to be a kind and accepting person.

So, I agree that (if trust is there) it makes sense to deal with the emotions first.

Getting to the place of trust is the thing. I see how critical it is to choose members carefully and to establish these processes for handling emotions and decision-making.

I responded:
Trust is a chicken-and-egg dynamic. On the one hand you need trust to more readily see good intent and be less triggered. On the other, being seen accurately helps build trust. The heavy lifting here, in my view, is learning how to get good results (in this case, an authentic bridge to someone's emotional experience) when trust is damaged, or otherwise weak. Often, that's where skilled facilitation (or skilled group members who are sensitive to the need) can play a major role. It's damn hard to trust someone who has just done a grossly insensitive thing. Often, the exact same words—even said with the same tone and body language—will land differently if they come from someone other than the person who was the trigger.

I also want to make a comment about membership selection. While I am definitely supportive of being deliberate about it (especially with regard to social skills), no amount of screening will eliminate awkwardness or tension all together. Don't make the mistake of equating the volume of conflict with the health of the group. The test is not how much conflict you have, it's how you handle it.

She followed with: 
I'm not sure I agree with what you said about trust. I wouldn't trust someone just because they understand me and see my side clearly. They still may not have good intent. Any time I think I have good reason to believe a person doesn't have good intent, I will proceed with caution. If I have no specific reason to be cautious, if I'm neutral or I definitely trust them, then I'm quite open, as I am with you.

That would indeed be a heavy lift with me. If I think a person doesn't have good intentions toward me (regarding any type of issue), my emotional response to them isn't going to change unless that source of dishonorable intention is somehow removed. Maybe there's a misunderstanding on my part. Maybe they change their point of view—unless you're talking about learning to love someone who's working against you or who truly dislikes you. To me, that's a separate thing. Also, I could learn to work with anybody within a structure, like established rules in an intentional community, the same way I work at my job with someone I don't have a lot of rapport with (we just don't seem to like each other). 

I'd be able to cooperate with the person I'm upset with, but a facilitator or group member probably wouldn't be able to change my emotions.

Are you really talking about trying to alleviate my upset? To make me "not feel bad" about an upsetting incident? Maybe I'm unclear on the goal of the facilitation.

My reply:Often, though by no means always, bad intent is projected onto someone because that's the thing that allows you to make sense of what they've said or done. Overwhelmingly, my experience of working with groups in conflict has taught me that it's generally possible to uncover a plausible, innocent explanation (rather than that they're out to get you or believe you're inferior) if we take the time to unpack the dynamic and understand it from each player's perspective. (To be clear, I'm not saying the person did a smart thing; only that they didn't intend a mean thing.)

With that in mind, when I facilitate conflict I ask participants to suspend judgment to allow me the chance to explore perspective. If part of that exploration includes reaching out and holding each party accurately in both the their energy and their viewpoint, I can often get enough flexibility that people are willing to change their feelings and let go of the story that the other person acted from bad intent. This is huge.

To be clear, the facilitator only invites people to change their feelings (by which I mean anger toward the person, rather than upset with their action); there is no arm twisting. If it doesn't happen willingly, then it doesn't count. 

• • •
I just love it when people are curious about why things fall apart and what they can do to put Humpty Dumpty back together again—where no one has to be the bad guy or labeled an asshole. It gives me hope.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Going the Distance: Embodied Intimacy

This weekend Ma'ikwe and I are doing a workshop together entitled Embodied Intimacy for the Human Animal: Diving Beneath Language & Creating Embodied Relationships in Community (which is a mouthful and "embodies" twice). It's being led by Victor Warring & Elena Zubulake, who are from Colorado. He's a somatic psychotherapist and she's a bodyworker and dancer.

Ma'ikwe suggested doing this as a way to explore intimacy issues between us, that are part of the puzzle of whether she wants to renew a partnership with me. To restart our intimate relationship, she needs a clear picture of how we can address what's been hard (or not in the case of my inconsistent erections) about how we relate to each other and is hoping that this workshop will provide helpful insights—all of which sounds good to me.

Nearly 20 people turned out for last night's opening session, which was a gentle introduction to body awareness through movement with some light (non-sexual) touch. We spent some time in dyads and fours discussing what intimacy meant to us, both individually and in the community context.

I liked that it was protected time to step out of my routine, to set aside most intellectual considerations, and to simply be in my body. While many of the movement exercises were awkward for me (running, jumping, crawling on the floor) because I'm still recovering range of motion in my right knee after hyperextending it last September, I just stayed within what I could do and that seemed OK with everyone.

A large emphasis of the evening was developing a body language that was independent of words. While we do this all the time on some level (just notice how much richer face-to-face conversations are than email exchanges), Victor & Elena taught us to use touch (or at least body expression) to intentionally create "primate moments" where conversation (especially where there is emotional strain) was purposefully suspended to reconnect (reboot?) at the we're-all-of-the-same-species psychic level. It's a simple tool to redirect energy more productively. They also gave us an opportunity to express unconditional love and caring for a fellow human being with eye contact and gentle touch.

While we're only through the opening sequence of a workshop that will have four or five more parts, Ma'ikwe had an "aha!" moment last night when Victor described how the physical distance that feels appropriate between two people can vary widely—even (or especially) between intimate partners. He said there are times when 10 miles apart from Elena seems right, and other times that they want to be right on top of each other. From Victor's observation about physical distance, it was an easy step to broaden it to psychic distance—to the question of how much engagement with your partner feels comfortable and appropriate in the moment.

Ma'ikwe was excited about viewing the dance of intimacy through this lens, as it helped explain a confusion she's had about how much her answer varies and what that might mean (is there something wrong with her; is there something blocked about her ability to open up to her partner?). She came out of last night's session feeling better about herself (always a good sign), and we talked briefly about how we could work with that. I reported that I didn't need her answer (to how much engagement she wanted) to stay constant, yet I needed help from her to know what her answer was. On the one hand, she could just tell me. On the other, I need her to be OK with my asking what she wants. 

While this may seem obvious on the surface (it being OK that I ask her what she wants), in practice my posing that question has not gone well. She can be frustrated because she's unsure of her answer and I've put her on the spot. She has, at times, expressed irritation because her answer has not changed from the last time I checked and why aren't I paying better attention. She can feel trapped in that she "should" be available for engagement when her intimate partner requests it, and now I've outed her in her uncertainty or lack of desire in that moment

For this to work better in the future, it needs to be OK for Ma'ikwe to turn me down (by which I mean requesting distance from me in any particular moment). It also means Ma'ikwe has to state her truth (even her ambivalence), and I need to deal gracefully with "this isn't a good time." Fortunately, a lot of my personal work the past month has been around my tendency to spiral down when criticized or rejected, and I now feel much better able to handle her telling me "not now" without dropping into a funk. So this seems hopeful. I'm expressly asking Ma'ikwe to not protect me by softening her truth (because she can't bear to see me go into the whirlpool).

This was a good one to unpack, and an immediate reinforcement of Ma'ikwe instinct to do this workshop together. Already we've gotten a shiny new tool.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wants and Needs in Intimacy

Yesterday, Ma'ikwe sent me a link to the Good Men Project, a blog written by Noah Brand. The particular entry she highlighted was styled, "Men Must Be Needed Because We Can't Be Wanted."

She sent me this reference because I've had an enduring issue with low self-esteem as an intimate partner, never really understanding why any woman would pick me (though profoundly thankful that some have). Here is the essence of Brand's thesis:

The core issue is this: many, many men in our society feel they have to be needed, because they can’t imagine they could ever be wanted.

Being needed can take different forms, all of which resemble traditional male roles. Brave protector against danger. Breadwinning economic provider. Indispensable handyman. Problem-solving leader. We get any more macho stereotypes in here, it’s gonna look like a Village People reunion. This is what being masculine means in our culture: to be necessary.

One of the most common complaints about feminism, all the way back to the First Wave, is that feminism seeks to make men obsolete or unnecessary. “If women can [fill in anything about female agency] what will they need men for?” runs the line, in every decade, in response to every advance. And while nobody is arguing that that’s a legitimate criticism, it’s important to understand that it arises out of a real fear. Look at the key word in that sentence, need. It’s always the same concept, however that objection is phrased. Plan A, for men in our society, is to be necessary, to be needed, to be indispensable. There is no plan B. If plan A doesn’t come off, we are lost, we’re adrift, we have nothing. This is an existential fear, on a very deep level.

This writing hit very close to the mark for me. Though I was surprised to hear that the author thinks it's so widespread, it makes sense.

I've always identified strongly with my output—with what I can do for myself, for others, for the world—and I've only just begun to tease apart (with the help of my therapist and Ma'ikwe) the ways in which that undercuts any inherent sense of self worth. This deeply ingrained habit (of identifying with one's product) is problematic on many levels, and leads directly to:

o  My limited ability to handle criticism well (to be clear, I'm not a disaster in this regard; I'm focusing though on the ways that I stumble and slip into deflection, defensiveness and overreaction—all of which undermine relationship and communication). If my worth is tied to my output and my output isn't any good, what worth am I? It gets too scary to let the feedback in. In short, I keep conflating my behavior with my essence.

o  It tends to devalue someone loving me as me, as I constantly discount something I can't make sense of (why would anyone want me, excepting as I can provide?).

o  It distorts engagement in that I'm constantly (if sometimes subtly) trying to demonstrate my worthiness through contribution, which can mask or obscure just being together and enjoying each other. When my partner wants to be seen, I can be so consumed with showing her that I see her that she experiences my absorption with performance as distancing. Ugh!

o  It creates an upper limit to what's possible in intimacy, because I have no confidence in the foundation. On the one hand, I've failed at every intimate relationship I've ever attempted. If I let that be the dominant story then it doesn't take long before I bump into the low ceiling I've set for what's possible in the relationship. 

On the other hand, as a professional facilitator I know that seeing the glass half full (this relationship can be different) has a powerful influence on outcomes—that if you can imagine a positive result you are far more likely to achieve it. So what's the payoff for low expectations (read low self esteem)? I just manifest the crappy result I project. While it makes me right, it's pretty stupid.

I'm starting to see how I've unintentionally shackled partnerships to my fear of being rejected and have thereby crippled the potential of what's possible. My work is to learn to give unconditionally—for the joy in giving and the magic of what can occur if the offer is freely accepted. For that to work, I need to take full responsibility for managing my self esteem if my offer is not met. All I need from my partner is presence and an honest answer.

• • •
Brand postulates that most men can't imagine being wanted, and that's not quite the box canyon I've trapped myself in. I've been around long enough and had enough partners that I know there are women who have wanted to be with me intimately—I just don't understand why. That said, I've definitely struggled with low self-esteem, and that matches well with Brand's picture of how men flounder in intimacy. I'm excited because I think I'm finally getting traction on my self esteem issues and my tendency to downward spiral when presented with intimate criticism.

Here's what I wrote Ma'ikwe this morning, after letting Brand's article percolate overnight:

I don't have the view that you need me. (Actually, I don't think I ever had that view.) While I'm hoping that you'll want me (as an intimate partner, not just as a work partner), and I think I can be good for you (I have that much of a positive image of what I can bring to intimacy), I have every confidence in your ability to have a vibrant full life without Laird if that's what you choose.

Going the other way, I think you're good for me and that I'll have a more joyous and stimulating life by partnering with you. That was what the Offer was about
[to get back together, though on a markedly different basis than the one we started with back in 2005]. At the same time though, I don't think I need you either. I'll be OK and have other options if you turn me down. I haven't spent that much time imagining that path (the road that diverges from you), but I've worked a lot on accepting that that future can be good also.

While I don't know if I've articulated anything new, I wanted to share it because the Good Men Project blog spoke about men being in the trap of not knowing how to be anything other than needed, and I think I've made progress on that. While I still like to be useful (and don't imagine giving that up) I see my work as shifting away from defining myself by what I do, and focusing more on
being when I'm with you.

Despite all the anger I've triggered in you, I see myself as a fundamentally good person and worthy of love.

There is something deliciously congruent about:  

a) The deep sense that coalesced in me July 26 that being with Ma'ikwe is profoundly good for me and that spurred me to make the offer to try again to make a partnership work, differently constructed.

b) Ma'ikwe sending me the Brand blog link (thereby demonstrating that she's actively considering my offer).

c) The benefit I've gotten out of the blog entry (in just 12 hours, some of it sleeping) to further delve into my issues, providing a graphic affirmation of the prime conviction that was the basis for the offer.

I love it when it works like that. And the kicker is that I benefit from doing this work no matter what Ma'ikwe ultimately decides about my offer. 

Today is the one-month anniversary of Ma'ikwe's decision to end our marriage. While I felt like I was dying that first night, overwhelmingly, my experience of the past month is that I've never felt more alive. What an unexpected and wondrous thing has arisen phoenix-like from the ashes of my marriage!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dating My Ex-Spouse

Last Thursday Ma'ikwe and I had a date. It was the first time we purposefully spent time together that was not work-related since she ended our marriage July 14.

It started the way most Thursdays evenings do: by ordering a pizza at the Milkweed Mercantile. After picking up our hot pie, we stopped by Moon Lodge (Ma'ikwe's home), collected a jar of Kalamata olives and a bottle of wine (interestingly, it was a pinot noir produced by Irony Wine Cellars in Monteca CA—how perfect was that for a date with your ex-wife?) and walked down to a shaded bridge on the path between DR and Red Earth, the neighboring community to the west.

There we shared stories. Some were things from our childhood that we didn't think the other knew. Some were poignant revelations about the tenderness and uncertainty of what we were doing together. Some were about the impossibility of our situation because we couldn't fully know what we'd create unless we committed to the attempt—and Ma'ikwe is in anguish at the possibility of making the same mistake twice.

Afterwards, it occurred to me how appropriate it was that we our date mostly occurred on a bridge, as that's the metaphor that I'm holding around where Ma'ikwe and I are in our evolving dance of intimacy. After Ma'ikwe sundered the bridge between us that we'd consecrated in our wedding ceremony back in 2007, I was more or less got dropped on my head and my heart cracked open.

Seeing the world differently I was able to behave differently (at least some of the time), and suddenly the prospects of what Ma'ikwe and I could create looked differently. Rather than accepting the inevitability of our separation, I made her an Offer: I would change how I saw our partnership and how I organized major parts of my life, if she would make also make commitments to being with me differently. Essentially I walked halfway out on a new bridge and asked her to meet me there. She's thinking about it.

Our decision to date was a response to my Offer. Understandably, Ma'ikwe isn't sure she can trust that I can do things so differently, and she's not sure that she can meet me in committing to be different. So there's a lot to think about.

On top of which she's angry that I'm making this Offer now, when she went through considerable agony to reach the decision to give up on the marriage because my progress on what wasn't working was too slow. She's angry both because she went through hell to try to get from me what I've now packaged together after she gave up, and because she had finally reached a decision to move on and now she's back in the what-to-do-about-Laird soup. Ugh!

Ironically (would you care for a glass of wine?), it took my losing her to crystallize:

o  What the partnership means to me.
o  What I'm willing to give up to make it work better.
o  My willingness to make my relationship with Ma'ikwe central in my life.
o  The work I need to do to get a grip on self-esteem issues (that my worth is not the same as my productivity) and the ways in which I undercut critical feedback (mainly through the crafty device of beating myself up).
o   The need for both of us to quit finding excuses to not say hard things to each other.

• • •
Today is the final day of the Ecovillage Education training at DR. We'll do an extensive heart-centered circle process involving every student, plus Ma'ikwe and me. In turn each person will offer a self-reflection about what the last 37 days have meant to them, and then receive reflections from everyone else in the room. 

In the afternoon there will be a graduation ceremony that includes brief video clips of student interviews when they first arrived, paired with another interview from the last few days. Then the fledglings leave the nest.

Starting tomorrow, Ma'ikwe and I will no longer have the excuse of teaching the course to spend regular time together. The many other things in our lives—that have been mostly held off the past five weeks—will flood back in to claim our attention. It will be up to us to choose to spend time together, or to let the new bridge languish, unused.

Today, I'm standing on that bridge, observing the chasm beneath me, the gulf that separates our hearts, wondering what my ex-spouse will choose. I am still breathing.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Ego and I

When Maikwe asked me recently how I'd describe my relationship to spirituality (which has been a central pursuit of her adult life), I figured my journey might usefully be described as a personal exploration in relationship to my ego, which put me in mind of a movie that's older than me... a 1947 comedy starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert entitled The Egg and I, that features the humorous adventures of a couple of city slicker newlyweds who naively buy an abandoned chicken farm and try to make a go of reviving it. Supporting roles in this bucolic romp include Marjorie Main & Percy Kilbride, as Ma & Pa Kettle respectively.

I remember thinking as a pre-teen that this was a fairly clever movie, but I realize now that impressing 10-year-olds a rather low bar. In any event, it gave me an inspiration for the title of today's blog.

My spiritual sojourn has not been so much about me and God, as about me in relation to the rest of the world. Let me walk you through some checkpoints in my spiritual evolution, mostly laid out chronologically:

o  I recall going to confirmation class every Saturday morning during seventh and eighth grade, culminating in my confirmation April 7, 1963. (I still have the silver dollar given to me as a memento of the occasion.) Officially this marked my acceptance as an adult in the eyes of the church, but as a lukewarm Lutheran (according to Garrison Keillor, there may not be any other kind) I felt no closer to God, and my attendance at Sunday services fell away rapidly afterwards. 

My father never showed much interest in religion and it was only a modest pursuit for my mother. Going away to college I considered myself an agnostic.

o  During my college years I remember going through a phase where I was drawn to attend the midnight service at my old church on Christmas Eve, where the emphasis was more on joyous hymns than on moral lectures. To this day, I've always found Christmas songs uplifting. It was a foreshadowing of an interest in celebratory ritual that I embrace with exuberance today.

o  In the winter term of my senior year of college I took a course in Zazen meditation, overseen by a Buddhist monk from Kyoto. It required my getting up in the pre-dawn five days a week and sitting in silence with about 20 others for an hour. That was the first time I came to grips with how hard it is to empty one's mind.

o  When I moved to Sandhill Farm in 1974, spirituality was not in my consciousness. Slowly though, over the years, I've come to identify a spiritual connection to place. Part of it is a sense of stewardship with the land; part of it is that I know myself in relation to this piece of land—it is a sense of place and connection with my natural world. I was surprised to learn (when I recently read How It Is, the collected cosmological writings of Viola Cordova) that this attitude is a common characteristic of Native American spirituality. How did that happen?

o  I started my career as a process consultant and professional facilitator in 1987. Somewhere in the late '90s, I recall visiting Twin Oaks and weaving a hammock with a new member when she asked me (out of the blue) what my relationship to spirituality was. I was about to offer up my standard line about being an agnostic, when it occurred to me that I had a different answer: when I'm in front of a group facilitating and the energy is flowing well, I enter a shamanic state and my work requires no effort; I achieve an egoless state where I shed all awareness of myself and nothing sticks to me. What an interesting insight to have connected that to spirituality!

o  In 2004, I was walking leisurely along the quiet Sunday morning streets of downtown San Francisco when my companion and I chanced upon a playing card lying face down on the sidewalk. On the spur of the moment, I held out my hand to stop my friend. After concentrating briefly, I announced, "It's the three of spades." As she bent down to turn the card over, I recanted, "No, it's the six of diamonds." When she turned the card over, it was the six of diamonds. I just knew.

o  In 2005 I started my dance of intimacy with Ma'ikwe. Two years later she completed writing the book that she self-published, Passion as Big as a Planet. As one of the readers for her first draft, I was happy to give her my thoughts on what might make more powerful writing, yet I felt awkward advising her on a subject that I didn't consider myself well grounded in.

o  Over the course of 26 years as a process consultant I've worked with perhaps 100 cooperative groups, many of them multiple times. While the overwhelming majority of these are secular groups (by which I mean they do not screen prospective members for alignment with any particular spiritual viewpoint or attitude), occasionally I've gotten to work with spiritual groups and I've always enjoyed the experience. 

While spiritual groups can fall into all the same pitfalls that secular groups are susceptible to, there is the advantage that their members tend to have no difficulty understanding why it's important to hang in there with one another in heavy traffic—because they're fellow travelers on the same spiritual journey.

o  In the fall of 2007 I said goodbye to my dear friend Geoph Kozeny two days before he died of pancreatic cancer. I knew I was seeing him for the last time and I broke down in tears walking out the door.

o  Straddling New Year's Day of 2009, Ma'ikwe and I did a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation at the center in Pecatonica IL. (It's still hard to quiet the monkey mind.)

Over the years I've come to appreciate that to be an excellent facilitator, you need to develop your sense of the intuitive. As an adult and as someone living in community, all of my main work has been to better understand and work with energy (rather than content). How to read what's happening, name it, and be able to make sensitive and effective choices about how to work with it. Isn't that touching spirit?

• • •
Today I think of spirituality as knowing myself. That includes knowing what I don't know. It includes cultivating curiosity as a response to someone saying something that's surprising, or challenging. It includes ego management, not being so concerned about how much my contributions are recognized, and not being attached to having things go my way.

When the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) first developed the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) curriculum they labeled the four dimensions of the training: ecological, social, economic, and spirituality. However, after encountering considerable push back with the label "spirituality" (ostensibly because it was too evocative of religious dogma) they renamed it "world view." 

Circling back to the tensions between Ma'ikwe and me regarding how we each related to spirituality, it wasn't hard to imagine why GEN decided to change labels. Even with the alteration, she and I did not see eye to eye with regard to the purpose of the world view segment of the curriculum. I saw it as overarching (as in mind set or weltanschauung), yet not in the same plane as the other three practical aspects of sustainability. Going the other way, Ma'ikwe liked having it as an essential ingredient in the mix.

We maintained an uneasy truce around that until Ma'ikwe was serendipitously gifted a copy of How It Is and we both read it this spring. Voila (as opposed to Viola)! Suddenly we had a break through. Here, at last, was a framework that we both liked, and just in time to start teaching the EDE curriculum together in the Ecovillage Education US course, which we both needed to be working with the whole shebang.

Spiritual inquiry has never interested me more than it does now, and it's clear to me that Ma'ikwe and our relationship have both been significant spirit guides for me on my journey. Though I'm not at all clear where I'm headed, I sense that it's the right path—for both me and my egg.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Actual Victuals; Virtual Auction

Today starts the final week of the 37-day immersion Ecovillage Education training at Dancing Rabbit. 

While it seemed like forever getting here (the course started July 5, but we first began promoting it back in late 2011), and it appeared as a huge expanse of time four weeks ago; now it will be over in a blink. Time bends like that.

After our final classroom experience Wednesday morning, we'll be in wrap-up mode. The students will have the remainder of Wed to complete their student projects, Thursday morning to prepare their presentations, and that afternoon to deliver them (15-20 minutes each). Here's what we'll get to hear about:

o  Manasi has focused on what it will take to start a federation of worker cooperatives in Kerala, in the southwest corner of India, where she intends to move and carry out her plan after the course ends.

o  David & Natalia have worked with a community neighbor (Frank) to figure how to use the local waste streams to create a viable product. Frank calls it "upstreaming" (better than recycling) and our students cooked up the idea of using kiln-dried white oak scraps (from a furniture manufacturer in the county) to create musical instruments. We'll get to hear their marketing plan Thursday—as well as a performance on their prototype xylophone.

o  Josi is developing a business plan to help a Dancing Rabbit member bring an entrepreneurial idea to market. So far it's all hush hush.

o  Myung-Ja is articulating the vision statement, common values, decision-making process, and membership requirements for the senior cohousing project she intends to develop when she returns to South Korea.

o  Miguel has designed an outdoor kitchen and dining area for the newly built campground at Dancing Rabbit. He was asked to keep the budget under $1000 (for both materials and labor), to employ permaculture principles, and to work with the design parameters established by the community's Inreach Committee. 

o  Marita & Erin built a two-burner outdoor rocket stove for one of the food co-ops in the village. This required cutting and welding a metal framework for the firebox, and then making the body of the stove out of cob (a mixture of sand, clay, and straw). It's an extremely efficient burner that can be fueled entirely from wood scraps.

With Saturday set aside for an arts & celebration festival that the students will design and execute (staff isn't allowed to peek), and Sunday is reserved for a good-bye ritual and graduation ceremony, Friday is when we'll be cutting up in the kitchen.

That day the class is cooking a benefit dinner ($18/plate, or $50 for a table of four) featuring an international menu full of student favorites, including dumplings from South Korea, caprese from Italy, palak paneer and curry from India, and summer pudding from Australia. Yum! The doors open at 6:00 with dinner served at 6:30. After a leisurely four-course meal, we'll hear brief testimonials from the students, leading up to the conclusion of the EEUS Silent Auction hosted on Facebook.

The auction is live now and people can bid until 8:30 pm sharp (Central time) Friday, Aug 9. Both the dinner and auction are an excellent example of class synergy: simultaneously playing together, making a delicious meal, and at the same time raising seed money for next year's course. What's not to like? Though the EEUS program has been a resounding energetic success in its first year, we only had the minimum number of students (10), and that means there will be nothing left over after compensating staff. Friday's fun(d)raising activities are meant to refill the cistern in preparation for an even bigger and better experience next summer.

I'm looking forward to an enjoyable last week, not the least of which will be Friday's sumptuous dinner. You can help make it extra special by visiting our auction site and putting in a sumptuous bid (or two) while the rest of us are noshing on delectables and raising a glass (or two) to the future of EEUS.

Here's to high times and high bids. Bon appetit!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Sitting in Limbo

I woke up this morning with Jimmy Cliff singing to me. 

While I don't recall having extended an invitation for him to be there, these stanzas from Sitting in Limbo were floating in my consciousness while I lay abed: 

Sitting here in limbo, but I know it won't be long
Sitting here in limbo, like a bird without a song
Well they're putting up resistance
But I know that my faith will lead me on

Sitting here in limbo, waiting for the dice to roll
Sitting here in limbo, got some time to search my soul
Well they're putting up resistance
But I know that my faith will lead me on

Sitting here in limbo waiting for the tide to flow
Sitting here in limbo knowing that I have to go
Well they're putting up resistance
But I know that my faith will lead me on

I don't know where life will lead me
But I know where I've been
I can't say what life will show me
But I know what I've seen
Tried my hand at love and friendship
But all that is passed and gone
This little boy is moving on

These days—19 days into the dissolution of my marriage—I am residing in a state of dynamic stasis, where I know that I am about to embark on a different path, yet I don't know which. For now, I am simply breathing and being in the unknowing, allowing the way to become clear in its own time.

I am in a place of wonder and softness where many futures are possible. My humpty dumpty marriage was cracked open by Ma'ikwe's thoughtful decision to push it off the garden wall three weeks ago. While it is clear that the pieces of that which was before will never be put back together again (a future I'd hoped fervently to avoid), in the ensuing free fall of my soul I have found sadness and grief (which were expected), yet also grace and tenderness (which were not).

In reaching her decision to end our marriage, Ma'ikwe was deliberate and kind. She thought long and hard about our partnership and explored the key questions from many angles. Then, when she reached her answer, she was straight forward and gentle in its announcement. This quality about her—thoroughness, courage, and compassion—is something I have always deeply admired in her, even when it led to a conclusion I didn't want.

The Teacher Becomes the Student
At first, I was dismayed that the decision was announced on Day Nine of the 37-day Ecovillage Education training where Ma'ikwe and I shared primary responsibility for teaching and coordination. The thought of going through the pain of separation while continuing to answer the bell and daily share a classroom was overwhelming to imagine. How were we going to handle being in the presence of each other on a nearly constant basis? Would we be weepy and an emotional dishrag for 28 days straight? No one in their right mind would ask for this assignment, yet that was the hand we were dealt.

Amazingly, I didn't die, and neither did I dissolve. In fact, I got better. With the invaluable help of my therapist (and EMDR), combined with Ma'ikwe's incredible wellspring of compassion, it turns out that teaching together has unexpectedly helped me accelerate through my grief and help me access and the lessons of my failed marriage.

Two things are key here. First, Ma'ikwe and I have always enjoyed teaching together and we have a lot respect for each other in that capacity, which helped us access some of the more precious aspects of our relationship at a time when we might otherwise have been dwelling on our failures and our hurts. In short, teaching called out the best of us, and that live experience has been a balm on our open wounds.

Second, Ma'ikwe and I share a love of teaching and a common approach to teach from love, by which I mean bringing our whole selves and our passion to the attempt. We made no effort to hide from the students what we were going through, and our vulnerability and transparency enhanced our effectiveness in the classroom, rather than compromised it. Because we both come alive when we teach (not that we're dead otherwise; I'm talking about being in a state of heightened awareness), we had that available to us in grief management as well. In short, there was minimal crawling into a corner to lick ourselves.

Better still, with nothing to lose (all the kings horses and all the kings men will never put our marriage together again) we became more honest with each other and less defended. We have, for the first time, been able to lay out fully the ways we have each contributed to why our partnership became so brittle—something neither of us ever intended. Incredibly, and against all odds, over the last 19 days we have been able to interact and be with each other in the ways that consistently approximate what we always had in mind. What irony that it should take the death of our marriage to birth a healthy depth of intimacy!

A week ago, Ma'ikwe and I tentatively started exploring where this might lead. While we've been clear throughout that we intend to continuing our working relationship as teachers and process consultants, to what extent would we remain friends, confidantes, and playmates? We're thinking about dating to see what this tender young sprout might grow into. While we're not considering a return to the path we were on before, there might be a different path that the two us ex-married folks might take together.

Our chance of success will hinge largely on how much we can change, and there's a lot to do. At the same time, we also have a lot to work with and we're highly motivated. It's an experiment in intimate gardening unlike any I've tried before, but I have faith in what love can till when placed in harness to will.

How could a Raggae classic from the '70s have captured so accurately the essence of where my soul had wandered in the summer of 2013? While it passeth all understanding, I know that my faith will lead me on.