Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Four Agreements

Just as I was wrapping up last week's appointment with my counselor, she handed me a slim volume by Don Miguel Ruiz published in 1997, The Four Agreements, A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom.

The dust jacket gives an excellent precis of the essential advice, based on a distillation of Toltec wisdom:

1. Be Impeccable with Your Word
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.

2. Don't Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering. 

3. Don't Make Assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life. 

4. Always Do Your Best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.

• • •
What's eerie about this is how well this simple set of admonitions maps onto the issues that Ma'ikwe decided to leave me over two weeks ago. Here are some highlights (or low lights, if you will):

o  Overcommitment: saying I'll do a thing and then failing to get it done in a timely way. This is just another way of pointing how I've been less than impeccable with my word. Perhaps because I have a inflated sense of what I can do, or because I set poor boundaries on the claims I accept on my time. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, especially a loved one, there are times that I am sloppy about what I agree to do and I fall short.

Naturally, this has bad consequences. Not only is the thing not getting done in a timely way, but I've prevented another plan from being made that might have gotten the thing done on time, and I've undercut the trust people place in my word. To be sure, I'm hardly the only person with this issue, yet I'm the only one who can do something about my version of it.

o  Overreacting: the pattern here is my going into distress when she tells me what's hard for her about something I've done (or not done). When this occurs it can be the devil making reasonable progress on the triggering issue because of how I shift the focus to my distress. This one relates easily to the second agreement: not taking anything personally. By making her feedback devastating, I sidetrack the conversation and invite her to feel awful for bringing it up. Not good.

o  Shying away from stating what I want: this is another version of not being impeccable with my word because I am not voicing my truth (what is going on for me). Instead I try to accept Ma'ikwe as she is (which works some of the time) but doesn't give her a sense of being met. She pushes and I step back. While that may work well enough on the dance floor, it's not a solid basis for a partnership (she's comes across as a bitch and I play the part of the long suffering victim—yuck).

o  Lack of empathy for how my behaviors land on her: while I've done OK in recognizing when Ma'ikwe's struggling, I haven't consistently been able to demonstrate that I grok her reality—I've only acknowledged that it's been hard. In the end she hasn't felt fully seen, or even clear that I care to understand what she's going through, which reinforces her isolation and discourages her from speaking up (why bother?). 

I see this as another manifestation of taking her reactions personally. Instead of seeing how it lands for her, I've been focusing on how it lands on me. Not helpful.
• • •
OK, so I have issues (welcome to the human race). The question is: what am I going to do about them? 

Ruiz talks about three stages of mastery: awareness, transformation, and intent. The first is fully recognizing that there's a problem (or problems). The second is grasping the art of how to make lasting changes (don't keep doing the same thing and magically hope for better results). The third is seeing the power of positive intentions (AKA love).

Ruiz goes on to explain three pathways to effecting change:
a) Tackling fears one at a time. This strategy is slaying the dragons one by one. While this is possible and requires the least degree of sophistication, it can also take a long time.

b) Mastering one's emotions. The concept here is that you can starve your fears by denying them the fuel they need to flourish. This is not about blocking out one's feelings; it's about mastery of intense reactions such that you notice the tendency and make the conscious choice to not go there.

c) The initiation of the dead. This path takes the most courage, yet also is the quickest way through the swamp. It recognizes that life is precious and one never knows how long our life will last. If we can live each moment in full awareness and joy—as if it were our last day on Earth—than we can extinguish fear and not be subject to the worry that others will not approve of our choices.

In the last fortnight I've mostly been working with Door #2: mastering my feelings. With the considerable help of EMDR and my counselor, I've found the courage to notice my triggers and yet decline the invitation to wade into the swamp of my reactivity. While I undoubtedly have a lot more work to do, it's a start and the liberation from my old pattern is life-affirming.

What an interesting pearl to have recovered from the drowning of my marriage.  

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pride Goeth Before the Fall

I'm continuing a series of blog entries reflecting on the recent dissolution of my six-year-old marriage to Ma'ikwe Ludwig. (Interestingly, I got the ax July 14, which is Bastille Day, commemorating the overthrow of the monarchy and the start of the French Revolution, which bloody stretch was symbolized by the use of the guillotine... )

Today I want to explore my misplaced pride.

Going into my decision to marry Ma'ikwe in 2007 I thought I was bringing a lot of relationship awareness, skill, and dedication to the partnership. Further, my assessment was that Ma'ikwe would be an excellent match for me in this regard (by which I mean that she had all those qualities as well) and it was an explicit and major factor in my joyously agreeing to our union.

o  As a process consultant I pay a lot of attention to relationships and the patterned ways in which people misunderstand one another, trigger each other, and fumble their way ineffectively through tension and distress.

o  In addition, I get to see a lot of intimate partners interact. I get to regularly observe dozens of partners in the context of living in the tri-communities of northeast Missouri, where nearly 100 adults populate Sandhill Farm, Dancing Rabbit, and Red Earth combined. I'm also on the road half the time, where I frequently work with groups or participate in public events. While traveling, I typically stay in private homes. Taken all together, I get to see more partners interact than most, both because of my lifestyle and my profession. 

o  On top of that I've done a fair amount of personal growth work over the years to better understand who I am, how to recognize and interpret what I'm experiencing, the ways in which I'm difficult to be with, what my blind spots are, and how to work constructively with critical feedback. To be sure, I remain a work in progress (aren't we all?), yet I'm not a rank beginner.

o  Finally, I've also had available to me the accumulation of my personal history with intimacy and what I've been able to glean from my failures in the past, which include poor choices in partners, mismatches in desire, emotional immaturity… you name it. While scarred, I was also experienced, and never felt more capable of intimacy, or so well matched as I was with Ma'ikwe.

Thus, I was highly optimistic about Ma'ikwe's and my chances to make a lasting partnership when we said "I do" six years ago. Sadly, "we didn't."

Over the course of the last half dozen years, I rarely came across an intimate partnership that I envied. Almost always I would observe how other partners interacted and come away thankful that I was with Ma'ikwe. Not because Ma'ikwe and I never encountered hard times (we had plenty), but because I had supreme confidence in our ability to navigate them and get stronger. Right up until the last, I believed we'd figure it out; that our love and dedicatio to engagement would see us through.

Thus, the fall from grace has been long and hard. I am feeling deeply humbled right now, observing the surfeit of ongoing relationships all around me that I so recently disdained in my haughty sense of superiority. There's an important and embarrassing lesson about hubris that I'm still chewing on (the digestion of which is aided by my writing this blog).

While there's a part of me that understands that it's all grist for the mill—that I'll ultimately be able use this experience to enhance my personal growth and to widen the range of how I can understand and empathize with the pain and struggles of others, right now that seems a meager meal for six years of tending the garden of my marriage. Used pride doesn't really taste that good.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cracks in the Facade of My Potemkin Village

Yesterday I forgot my daughter's birthday, spaced out an FIC conference call (that I had primary responsibility for organizing), and flared into a heated exchange with a fellow community member over a casual comment—all in the space of three hours. When I shared this trifecta of embarrassments with my counselor today, she took it as a good sign. Huh?

How can that be, you ask? In a word: divorce. It's not for wimps.

While I've been doing a fairly good job of holding it together to teach the Ecovillage Education course with Ma'ikwe—since she told me July 14 that our marriage was over (nine days into the 37-day immersion training)—yesterday's uncentered behavior showed that I've definitely blown an engine gasket.

As the administrator of a national nonprofit, a process consultant and trainer, a member of an income-sharing agricultural community, the father of two, and the husband of one (at least until 10 days ago), I've prided myself on being about to manage multiple threads at high output. Unfortunately, that positive can-do image is a distortion. I'm not really that person. While I do get a lot done, my work is not always on time and I drop balls with regularity—sometimes important balls (just ask Ma'ikwe). 

Now, grieving the loss of the best intimate partnership I ever had—while simultaneously juggling a high octane teaching load—I'm slipping gears like never before. Last night was not my finest hour.

• • •
It all started tumbling downhill yesterday afternoon, after finishing the fourth and final day of teaching the Economic Dimension of the EEUS course with my good friend, Terry O'Keefe. After wrapping up class at 5 pm, he and I strolled over to the Milkweed Mercantile and enjoyed a celebratory beer. It didn't realize that I'd spaced out the FIC conference call until I got home 30 minutes later and checked my email. Oh boy. From there it got worse.
After scrambling to patch together an impromptu plan to recover from my botched call, I ducked into the kitchen to whip up a light supper. While frying potatoes and onions I got word from another community member that I wasn't going to get help finding a replacement for my Saturday cooking shift (so that I could attend a clearing called for Saturday afternoon), and I just lost it. Ordinarily these kinds of logistical issues are sorted out at our regular Thursday afternoon community, but I can't attend these while the EEUS course is in session because Thursday afternoons I'm overseeing student projects. Grr. In frustration I lashed out at the messenger. (That was mature.)

The capstone for my evening farce came an hour later when my daughter, Jo, called to find out how I was doing. We'd last spoken the night that Ma'ikwe had announced her decision and Jo was calling to see how her favorite father was faring. After about 20 minutes of listening to my litany, she casually mentioned that it was her birthday. OMG. How pathetic is it when your own daughter has to call to remind you that it's her birthday? (Don't answer.)

There was no doubt about it; I was leaking crankcase oil.

When I bravely related last night's misadventures to my therapist, she smiled—which was not the reaction I was expecting. She saw my misfiring as symptomatic of a breakdown of my old coping mechanism under stress: blame myself and wear a hair shirt. Instead, I was riding it out, keeping my heart open, breathing through my grief, all the time noticing the inviting swamp of misery close at hand yet declining the invitation to go skinny dipping.

In my effort to change patterns, I was breaking up—which the counselor saw as a solid step on the road toward developing a consistent healthy response. Chaos before healing.

Oy vey. I hope I get there soon… I don't know how much more good news like that I can stand.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Walking the Edge

As I reported Thursday, I obtained significant and timely benefit from getting EMDR treatment from my therapist last Monday—just 24 hours after learning from Ma'ikwe that she was ending our marriage.

While the relief I got from that session has sustained me through the week—which I figure has to be the hardest week in an unwanted divorce: the first week—my centeredness was sorely challenged Friday morning when Ma'ikwe and I started exploring how to separate financially. 

Even though we readily agreed on the disposition of most assets and liabilities there were still some sticking points, and we rapidly got sucked into tension that bogged us down. While we didn't get nasty (thank god), we did get tense and after an hour we agreed to stop. We weren't getting anywhere and it didn't appear that either of us had an insight that might move us past the logjam.

I was pretty shaky afterwards. Both because I didn't want tension over how we sorted out the money—frustration over which might linger for years, poisoning our chance for a warm and collegial post-married relationship—and because I was afraid that I might descend into the swirl of misery that I had heretofore been so successfully avoiding. Maybe I wasn't doing as well as I'd thought. Maybe EMDR just taught me how to whistle in the dark.

I took a break from being with Ma'ikwe over the noon hour. Though I needed to be back at her house for a 1 pm conference call as part of FIC's Development Committee, I needed a change of scenery. (Yes, Ma'ikwe and I have incredibly interwoven lives and that has never been more evident than this past week, when we've needed to function well together on multiple levels immediately on the heels of her decision to divorce me.) On the drive home I was able to back away from the repetitive loops of our dialog and recognize that part of what was infecting the conversation was that finances were a sore point with Ma'ikwe, and unresolved tensions around how we interacted around money was one of the things driving her decision to end the marriage. Duh, no wonder our conversation didn't go that well!

That gave me an inspiration about how to enter the dialog in a different place. Instead of returning to where we'd left off, it seemed more fruitful to attempt a summary of what I understood about what Ma'ikwe has found challenging about partnering with me financially. I figured that even if I got some of it wrong and needed to try more than once, it would be better if I first established to her satisfaction that I understood her frustrations before attempting to resolve the remaining aspects of our financial separation. There was no benefit to either of us if the underlying tensions were distorting our ability to hear each other, yet neither would it serve to pretend that our rocky history wasn't in play.

I told her about my plan when I returned for the Development call and she reported interest in seeing what I'd come up with. The next morning I wrote up my summary and emailed it to her right before heading over for a planning meeting with her to discuss how to handle our regular Saturday morning check-in and evaluation with the EEUS class. On her part, Ma'ikwe used the pause in our financial discussion to rethink what she was asking for in the way of financial support, and emailed me a revised request.

Thus, by the time we met Saturday morning we had both done work to shift what had been hard Friday morning. Ma'ikwe accepted my olive branch and we were able to reaffirm our strong intent to address our separation issues with as much care and grace as possible. Whew. From there we were able to work productively on planning for the Saturday morning class and we had a good session with the students. While we haven't yet returned to the topic of a financial settlement—which means there is important work yet ahead—we successfully navigated the tensions that arose around it Friday morning. 

It was notable how much I was renewed and buoyed to have gotten back to a caring and heartfelt place with my ex-wife—which is much better than the raw and triggered place I was headed toward, and the extended visit to the penalty box for the emotionally distraught that might have ensued. While I'm not so naive as to think there won't be hard patches still to come, I've been able to return to that place I had gotten to Monday afternoon, where my heart remains open and I can feel the hurt, yet I am not swamped by it. I can walk on the edge of the abyss without falling in.

P.S. I won't see Ma'ikwe again until Monday and Tuesday, when I'll be teaching on—get this—"economic sustainability" and she'll be in the classroom observing. It's a trip how life seems to unerringly know when to present us with a cosmic fortune cookie containing the not-so-hidden message: don't take yourself too seriously!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

EMDR to the Rescue

Tuesday morning at 9 am I was in the classroom standing in front of the students in the Ecovillage Education US course for the first time since learning Sunday afternoon that my marriage was over. In addition to the challenge of admitting in public that I had failed to be the partner my wife wanted and needed, Ma'ikwe is the lead teacher for the course, and I had major ongoing responsibilities as her second-in-command. 

When I woke up Monday morning I had no idea how I was going to pull this off—continuing to actively partner in the training right through the trauma of the breakup of our intimate relationship. Though Ma'ikwe suggested that I take Monday off from being in the classroom (which offer I gratefully accepted), I was still in major distress and wasn't confident I wouldn't break down or otherwise be triggered by being in the same room with her. 

Fortunately, I had an appointment Monday afternoon already set up with the couples counselor that Ma'ikwe and I had been working with, so I took advantage of the timing to get her help. It may have been the best thing I've done in years.

After talking for a few minutes about how I was doing generally—to ascertain how well I was functioning—the counselor suggested we do a session of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to work with the trauma I was going through. So that's what I did for the next 45 minutes.

EMDR was first developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro in 1989 to help process trauma, under the theory that people can sometimes get stuck in their distress when their normal cognitive and neurological coping mechanisms are overwhelmed. While it was too early to tell if I was stuck (we started our session a mere 24 hours after Ma'ikwe delivered the bad news), there was no question that I had undergone major trauma and the process can help move things along before you get stuck just as well as afterwards.

The basic concept is to give the patient brief periods of sensory stimulation, alternating on one side of the body and then the other. While this can be accomplished in a variety of ways, my counselor gave me hand-held buzzers, one for each hand. 

At the outset, the counselor asked me to focus on the clearest moment of trauma (Ma'ikwe saying the words, "I'm done") and to rate my level of distress on a scale of one to ten. I told her it was an eight. (The only reason the number wasn't higher was because Ma'ikwe had been telling me she was close to ending the marriage for weeks and thus I wasn't taken completely by surprise.)

I was given about two minutes of mild, alternating stimulation while I sat in silence. I could keep my eyes open or closed: it didn't matter. After the buzzing was halted, I was asked to take a deep breath and report anything that came up.

It could be a color, a feeling, a story, a sensation—anything. The counselor listened, perhaps asked a question or two and then asked me to be silent again for another round of stimulation whenever I finished reporting on the previous round. The counselor offered no direction or interpretation—I just went wherever I was drawn to go.

I believe the therapeutic concept is that we all know on a subsconscious level where we need to go in processing trauma, and what will be a productive sequence in which to do it. The therapist merely creates a container, keeps things moving with stimulation to alternative hemispheres of the brain and lets the patient find his/her own way through the maze.

As best I can recall, I went through 10-12 rounds of stimulation and reporting. Sometimes I would be in tears; sometimes I would be calm (accepting); sometimes I would remember a tender moment; sometimes I was angry; sometimes I would tell a story about my father; sometimes I would share an insight... In short, I was all over the map. If the therapist asked where the feeling was centered in my body (which she did about half the time) my answers varied widely. There appeared to be no logic or pattern to where my progression took me, and the counselor never suggested where I "should" go; she just accompanied me on the ride.

At the end, she went back the place where we started (Ma'ikwe saying, "I'm done") and asked me to rate my distress on a scale of one to ten. This time my answer was three or four. Wow! Was I really that far along in processing this awful thing??

To be fair, this was the one and only time I've ever done EMDR. I had never spoken to anyone else about it, and I had no frame of reference for understanding what had happened, how my response measured up to that of others (did I do well?), whether the movement I experienced regarding my trauma was temporary or permanent. All I knew was that I was as much less triggered afterwards than I was at the start. I could now imagine being in the same room with Ma'ikwe—this amazing woman whom I deeply love—and it would be OK.

Frankly, if this wasn't done under the supervision of a trusted therapist, I'd have been much more skeptical about that I was doing legitimate work with grief and loss (as opposed to indulging in some trick that allowed me to skip steps to bypass misery). In fact, if I hadn't experienced it directly, I doubt that the Laird I was Monday morning would have found credible the story that I'm realting today. I just wouldn't have believed it.

My intuitive sense is that I may have processed a month or two of hell in 45 minutes. I'm typing this Thursday morning, and my distress level when I recall "I'm done" remains at around three. That is, there has been no backsliding into the pit so far.

To frame this properly, tears are still close to the surface and I am still sad. I still have work to do. But Ma'ikwe and I have met once to start talking about how to unweave our lives and it went fine, we're now in the classroom together again (I taught all day yesterday with Ma'ikwe in the room and didn't get triggered by her presence or her occasional comments—which were cogent and appropriate, as they almost always are), and we've even hugged a couple times. 

I'm not over her, but neither am I feeling like road kill. I can look at the sadness and not be overwhelmed. I can function and am not wallowing in self pity. I'm going to be OK.

There's a student in the EEUS class named Marita who shared with everyone that whenever she puts out an intention, it always come true—though often it arrives in ways she never imagined. When I married Ma'ikwe back in 2007, my intention was that I be with her until I died. As I stood in front of the class Tuesday morning, I looked at Marita and it suddenly occurred to me that I'd just had a Marita experience: though my heart was still beating, over the weekend a part of me had died. I shared that insight with the class, and they seemed to understand.

While the dissolution of my marriage was definitely not the experience I had intended to have, with the help of loving friends, my caring ex-wife, and the miracle of EMDR, I am no longer dying.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

It Is Finished

About an hour ago Ma'ikwe told me she was done. Our marriage is over. 

It was a day I'd hoped to never experience. Ma'ikwe was close to ending it this winter, but stepped back from the brink when she had an initial positive response to our doing couples counseling. Things took a bad turn again in June, and this time we were unable to recover.

While my head knows that I'll survive this, my heart can't imagine it. Right now I feel broken and can hardly believe that I'll ever smile again—much less find the courage (or temerity) to consider trying another intimate relationship. I gave all I had to this partnership and, in the end, it simply wasn't enough. 

I loved Ma'ikwe as deeply as anyone I've ever known, and it wasn't enough. She has made her choice and I wish her the vibrant and joyous future she aspires to and deserves. It just won't be a future with me.

I took my wedding ring off this evening and placed it on the shelf in my bedroom where I keep my memories. Tonight, that's all I have left.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Group Works: Group Culture

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 fifth pattern in this segment is labeled Group Culture. Here is the image and text from that card:

Groups tend to develop their own culture over time, based on knowledge, beliefs, practices and behaviors their members hold in common. Awareness of shared culture builds trust, cohesion, and a sense of safety among the members, thus furthering collaboration.

I love the image for this card, both because the reflections off the glass in front of the party create an additional sense of motion (which life is often like) and because it's clearly a celebratory meal of the Red Hat Society (that I first wrote about last Dec 18, From Purple to Indigo to Green).

While there's no doubt that groups tend to accrete their own culture over time, the trick of it is to be intentional about that culture rather than just drifting blindly into replicating whatever habits are brought to the group by its pioneers.

This applies to meeting culture, dinner table culture, greeting people on the path culture, whether it's OK to knock on someone's door without an invitation after 8 pm culture, whether you pick up your dog's poop when you take Fido for a walk culture… you name it.

To be fair, a good bit of culture is minor and essentially arbitrary (like shaking with the right hand—so long as your bathroom hygiene ensures that both hands are equally clean—or even whether you shake hands at all instead of, say, head nodding or bowing when you greet someone). That said, if you lack mindfulness there's risk of slipping into us/them culture—such as laughing at inside jokes—that leave baffled those not among the Illuminati.

In a group dynamic this precious culture that reinforces cohesion and trust can be a barrier that's difficult and mysterious for newcomers to penetrate. If you're alert to how this can inadvertently happen, then members can pro-actively step forward to put guests and visitors at ease by explaining group norms and practices (such as whether you're supposed to be silent at the dinner circle and not schmoozing with your neighbor).

What is familiar and comforting to insiders may be off-putting (or even bizarre) to visitors and prospective members. Why not help them out before the newbie puts their foot in it?
• • •
I got into some tension recently when discussing community norms with respect to visitors who expressed serious interest in membership. My view was that we owed them a conversation toward the end of their visit during which we'd inquire whether they were still interested and, if so, we'd give them a read on:
o  How members had responded to them, making note of anything that seemed a concern.
o  Whether we wanted to encourage their potential membership.
o  A likely pathway that would work for us to continue that exploration (such as whether to visit again, when, and for how long), assuming that there was a positive response to the previous question.

Others preferred to leave all that open, so that members could spontaneously encourage prospectives to visit again if they felt so inspired, with the idea that new members tend to work out better if they have one or more champions in the community. If there was no advocate, then the invitation would not be extended and the members would be saved from a potentially awkward conversation where we dashed someone's hopes.

While I think there's truth in the analysis that new members are more likely to work out if they have internal support, I think it's brutal asking visitors who are self-identified member candidates to figure out on their own the subtle signals of whether the existing membership is interested in supporting their candidacy. Putting it on them (after having declared their interest before they arrived) is placing them in an awkward position with no cultural context to help decipher what's happening, and I think we owe them a straight answer.

To be fair, this dynamic is compounded by my often being on the road and therefore not reliably on hand to manage the potentially awkward conversations that I'm advocating. Thus, people who are reluctant to make the commitment may well be the ones who will have to carry it out, and that's not landing well.

Fortunately, part of my community's culture is that we slow things down when we bump up against a clash in values interpretation like this. We keep breathing, keep talking, and keep believing that we'll eventually find an approach that all can accept. That's the part of group culture that I like best—even if no one has a red hat.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pedagogical Choices

I'm now immersed in the 37-day Ecovillage Education US course. It started July 5 and will run through Aug 11.

In addition to being a teacher for a number of the topics in the Social and Economic dimensions of the training, I have responsibility (along with my partner, Ma'ikwe, who is the lead teacher for this course) for helping to integrate what's being taught. Many of the teachers will not know what others have presented, and it will be up to Ma'ikwe and me to help weave the connections between sessions.

Quandry #1
Teachers develop their own flow and style. At least some of he time, that won't be the same as mine. Thus, there is a potential cost to my stepping in and interrupting their rhythm, and that needs to be weighed when I consider whether the point I have in mind making is sufficiently worthwhile. Tricky.

The comments I might make are of two general kinds: a) an amplification or more nuanced observation about what is being discussed; or b) an integrating comment, tying what was just said to what has been said before, which the teacher may or may not be aware of.

In general, I'm more willing to insist on the latter (which is likely to be missed if I don't speak up) than the former (which is more a question of style—that is, it isn't always obvious that my framing will be any better than the teacher's, or that my ancillary point is that edifying).

Quandry #2
There is a lively conversation among the teachers as to what constitutes effective pedagogy. While the prime directive is what is effective for the student, the answer is surprisingly complex.

Here are some of the nuances: 

 People have different dominant learning styles
While I don't know if this list is complete, I've found it useful to think in terms of three main ways people take in and digest information: aural, visual, and kinesthetic.

Of these, the default mode is aural, where hearing is the main input channel. In the context of meetings you rarely need to worry about this because speaking aloud is one of the main ways we communicate (though I don't want this glib statement to slide by the rich field of body language and facial expressions unnoticed).

With modest attention, it's typically not that hard to provide visual reinforcement for what's happening aloud. That includes posted agendas, scribed highlights of conversations, draft agreements written on a whiteboard, etc. Beyond that, it can be surprisingly helpful to have graphics that help evoke and maintain a productive attitude or mood relative to the topic at hand. Be creative!

The poor stepchild in this trio of learning modes is the kinesthetic, or body knowing. Some people work best through grounding information in their bodies, and the way most meetings are run means that little is offered in their comfort zone. To the extent that groups are aware of this need, it most commonly surfaces in the form of energy or stretch breaks, rather than developing movement options that solicit and massage information germane to the issue at hand. It can be done, but it's a rare facilitator (or teacher) who is savvy to the techniques and the potential that can be unlocked by employing them.

All of that said, the key concept is grokking the need to mix it up, so that you are not always relying on the same teaching techniques. Students benefit from variety and there is no single approach that works best all the time. As an evaluator, I'm coming face-to-face with the question of how to fairly assess the effectiveness of teaching techniques that I don't use much.

People have different paces at which they process informationOne the factors that needs to be taken into account when deciding what teaching style to employ (more on that below) is how much time it allows students to assimilate and process what's been presented. Not everyone proceeds at the same rate, which is not a question of inherent intelligence or ability to grasp complexities.

A more modest version of this question surfaces in the mundane matter of when to call a break. In general, 90 minutes is a serviceable upper limit, though kinesthetic learners will need them more frequently if there's been no movement, and people will run out of gas sooner if they've been working hard emotionally. Going the other way, an examination that's been uplifting or energizing can be parlayed into extended play.

People respond to the environment differently
—Diurnal cycles
Some people love mornings and are pretty much toast after dinner. Others don't hit their stride until the sun is west of the yardarm, and good until midnight. In our training, we meet every morning (except Fridays) and all evenings are free time. While that's not an unusual schedule, it clearer favors the chicken end of the diurnal spectrum: up at first light, and in bed by dark.

—Climate change
The context of the training is that it's happening in Missouri, smack in the midst of summer. That means a hot and muggy ambience. While our student from southern Indiana is doing just fine; the one who came from Oregon is sweltering and struggling to get enough sleep.

—Acclimating to community
In addition to the temperature and humidity, a number of the students are new to community and are experiencing culture shock. How should they greet residents on the path? Is it OK to swim in the pond au naturale? Do people drink coffee (and who do I have to bribe to get a cup)? When all of the teaching staff lives in community, we tend to forget how disorienting it can be to encounter it for the first time.

—Fan noise
I'm not talking about too much cheering (or jeering) when someone's at the free throw line; I'm taking about how hard it can be to hear someone's heartfelt statement with an air conditioner or ceiling fan whirring in the background. We have a handful of students who are naturally soft-spoken and it can be a delicate matter asking some to speak up when sharing a personal tragedy that you didn't quite catch.
 Teaching formats
While there is a rich array of choices in this rgeard, let me walk through four basic choices:

—Small groups (emphasizing student-derived input)
While this tends to take longer to generate useful product (which also tends to be less profound), and limits sharply how much you can cover, it generally results in solid buy-in, and rarely results in anyone falling asleep.

Group discussion
This is more engaging than a lecture, and less diffuse than small group work. It can, however, take considerable skill to draw out the points the teacher wants to emphasize.

This can be riveting (if you select powerful stories that are on point), yet is slower and less direct than lecture and only involves the students to the extent that they can place themselves in the story.

You can cover a lot of ground; yet this is the most tenuous format when it comes to rapport with students. This approach can be highly effective with students who have sufficient familiarity with the territory and the motivation to learn the topic, yet you cannot count on that condition.

—Focus on problems or assets?
One school of pedagogy is that it's better to build on what works (generating and maintaining a more positive atmosphere); another is that it's more effective to focus on issues such that breakthroughs lead to an immediate sense of accomplishment. Which way to go?

In short, it's a puzzlement.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Write Stuff 2.0

A couple days ago it arose in my consciousness that I had something to say about writing, and I hit upon (what I thought was) a clever title, The Write Stuff. Then it occurred to me that I may have already used it, and I'll be damned if I hadn't. I employed it almost four years ago, for my July 20, 2009 blog (on the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's moon walk). Oops. At least I caught myself in time to label this entry as a sequel.

• • •
As a process consultant and as FIC's main administrator, I see a near-constant flow of emails, reports, proposals, and monographs. Over the years I've developed enduring respect for the power of clear and concise writing to inspire, to bring people together, and to be a record of the moment.

As someone who labors diligently to be an effective writer, I'm aware of the benefit that clients get from my ability to pathfind a solution to a knotty issue and then to write it up before I go to bed. (I can hardly count how many times I've seen genuine agreement slip away for lack of its being clearly captured in writing while the energy was aligned. It is a dangerous practice to rely solely on memory and oral tradition to see you through.)

As near as I can tell, public education is not doing a good job of teaching students to write well, nor is it developing in students a good attitude about learning to write. While I don't have a sense of whether teachers themselves are below-average writers, it's not hard to speculate on why students are getting so little practice at such a basic skill (it is, after all, one of the three R's—reading, (w)riting, and (a)rithmetic—even if you have to butcher the spelling in order to force the mnemonic): classes are too large for teachers who are underpaid. 

Under pressure of time, it must be all but irresistible for instructors to reach for true/false or multiple choice options for tests and homework assignments, rather than using essay questions, which require much more time and thoughtful analysis to review. With lack of practice or encouragement in school, youngsters are left with parental guidance or individual initiative as a source of motivation to develop their writing muscles. It doesn't appear to me that it's enough.

The Demise of the Art of the Letter
Making matters worse, today's young are overwhelmingly immersed in communicating via mobile devices, instant messaging, and social media, where the breeziness of Facebook stands out as spacious and loquacious when set aside the 140-character hard limit of Twitter and what people can accomplish with thumbs via texting on their smart phones—where the emphasis is on acronyms (WTF?), abbreviations, and sentence fragments that make a joke out of the concept of syntax. 

When email caught on as a major form of communication in the early '90s, it led to a standard of briefer and less carefully created messages, undercutting epistolary skills. With the surging dominance of mobile devices, attention spans are shorter and so is the average length of messages and the amount of care that goes into crafting them. Who writes letters any more?

Who works at writing clearly today? It's not as if the need is disappearing; just the practice of it.

Dissecting the Craft
Writing is not a single monolithic skill, any more than facilitation is. There are several components, and a person can be good at one and not so hot at another:

This is the ability to present main ideas in an understandable sequence, so that the reader can see the forest and not get lost in the trees.
Evocative phrasing
This is part creativity (so that the melody will stand out and be memorable); part composition (so that the images and concepts flow); and partly word choice (so that your meaning is precise). Good writing entertains and engages, not merely elucidates and edifies.

Copy editing 
To be fair, English is a brutally complicated language with spelling and grammar as complex as Balkan politics or voting rules in Florida. While it's not easy to master all the nuances and the ultimate test is clarity—not how well you colored between the lines—inconsistencies, sloppy punctuation, and poor word choice all erode meaning. 

Matching tone with context
The extent to which you slant your composition toward the formal and away from the colloquial depends partly on the medium and partly on the audience. There are different standards for blogs than for scientific magazines; a speech written to be delivered before the House of Commons will be structured differently than a sketch to be performed before a live audience at the House of Comedy Theater.

Lean of expression 
How concisely can you make your point(s) without compromise of clarity or depth? If brevity is the soul of wit, how funny are you?

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.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Peace Bridge

Peace Bridge.jpg

In the summer of 1927, a mile-long steel bridge was opened spanning the Niagara River, connecting Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Ontario—about 20 klicks upriver from Niagara Falls. Commemorating the achievement of 100 years of (mostly) cordial relationships between the the US and Canada, this structure was dubbed the Peace Bridge.

Building on that heritage 86 years later, I want to celebrate a new partnership between the Fellowship for Intentional Community (the US-based nonprofit for which I serve as Executive Secretary) and the Tamarack Institute (dedicated to eliminating poverty in Canada). Think of it as a virtual peace bridge.

Our partnership with the Tamarack Institute started with a couple of phones calls in the spring of 2012, and ultimately led to their sponsorship of the summer 2013 issue of Communities magazine, on the theme of Community Wisdom for Everyday Life. It was a good fit for Tamarack because they’ve come to appreciate that you cannot end poverty without the engagement of healthy communities, and Communities magazine accepts as a central part of its editorial mission chronicling what is being learned about how to build and sustain vibrant communities. (It’s not accidental that the subtitle on our masthead is Life in Cooperative Culture.)

It was a good fit for FIC because part of our mission (since 2005) has been Creating Community Where You Are, taking what is being learned in the crucible of intentional community about how groups can function well, and making that available to the widest possible audience. We realize that the number of people hungry for more community in their life—a greater sense of connection, safety, and belonging—is vastly larger than the number of people interested in jointly owning property with others to create intentional communities.

As a lever for social change, the impact of the intentional communities movement will not be so much about how many people live in them, as how many people are able to lead better, more connected lives inspired by what intentional communities have pioneered about sharing and manifesting a high-quality life that isn’t founded on the bedrock of material acquisition (he who has the most toys wins).

1,000 Conversations of Light

In pursuit of their mission to end poverty, Tamarack has conceived of a national effort to promote community. They reason that if they can advance caring about one’s neighbors, that’s the key to gaining a purchase on eradicating poverty. In line with that they have launched a three-year Seeking Community campaign to host 1,000 conversations across Canada on the topic, “What are we learning about being in community?”* Think of it as dialog about how to move toward the light of cooperation, and away from the darkness of isolation and alienation.

The point of these conversations will be to enjoy each other, to care for one another, and to work together for a better world. To the extent possible Tamarack will record the conversations and make them available on their website. As the results come in, they will sift through the recordings to identify themes and lessons that can be distilled into guidance about what people want and what’s been successful in manifesting it. The concept that undergirds this initiative is the radical notion that people already know what they want, leaders just have to pay attention and help midwife its arrival. Community, after all, is something we do together; not something we do to or for others.

Inspired by the synergy of our collaboration on the summer 2013 issue of Communities, Tamarack and FIC have decided to double down and do a second joint issue next year. On Tamarack’s part they’ll help put together a set of articles for our fall 2014 issue based on what emerges from the recorded conversations.

On the Fellowship’s part, we’re inviting our constituency to join the party and host conversations as well (it doesn’t matter whether you’re Canadian; everyone needs community). If you’re inspired to play along at home—and I hope you are—ask friends and neighbors (which, by the way, are not meant to be mutually exclusive groups) to join you for an afternoon or evening of conversation about community.

Here's a template of questions to consider posing (feel free to use whichever of these inspire you, or to make up your own—this is a participatory sport; not a test to see how well you can follow instructions):

After introductions you might ask:

—What has been a memorable experience of community in your life?

—What does community mean to you?

—Why is community important to you now?

—Where do you experience community today?

—If you’ve ever had a negative experience of community, please describe it.

—What would deepening your experience of community look like?

Toward the end of the session, you might ask:

—What did you hear today that stood out for you?

—What were the new ideas or perspectives that you heard?

—What ideas and feelings resonated with the whole group; what themes emerged from the conversation?

—Are you interested in continuing this exploration of community?

—Are they any specific actions you’re inspired to take based on what happened in this conversation?

If you can swing it, I encourage you to record your session and send the results to Tamarack. Who knows, maybe you’ll see something from your group quoted in Communities a year from now.

While it’s rare for a single voice to be strong enough to change the world, I believe that collectively our voices will be substantial enough to bridge from where we are today, all the way to Peace.