Saturday, February 1, 2014

Fred's Last Song

Last week I received in the mail a freshly printed copy of Fred Lanphear's posthumously published history of Songaia, the cohousing community in Bothell WA that he helped form in 1990. It brought back memories…



—September 1993
I first stepped foot on the Songaia property to attend the FIC's fall organizational meetings, immediately on the heels of our having hosted a six-day Celebration of Community on the campus of The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA. One thousand people had participated in our event and we were basking in the afterglow of that stupendous achievement. I recall sleeping in the barn that visit.

—September 2006
FIC again held fall meetings at the community—this time in conjunction with one of our Art of Community weekends (held on the campus of Bastyr University in nearby Kenmore). Long-time Songaia member Craig Ragland was the event coordinator and this gathering, too, was a big success. That visit I slept in one of the guest rooms below the dining room.

—June 2008
I was at Hummingbird Ranch outside of Mora NM for FIC's spring organizational meetings. One day our entourage was wending its way to the spacious yurt where the plenaries were being held when Fellowship Board member Fred Lanphear lost his balance and fell. 

Fred was in the early stages of suffering the irreversible neural damage associated with ALS. His balance wasn't what it used to be, and the thinner oxygen at 7000+ feet didn't help. Fortunately, Fred wasn't seriously hurt, but it was a graphic foreshadowing of the ever-increasing limitations he would be facing. In that instance, there were plenty of friends at hand to help him get back up and Fred was able participate fully in the meetings.

But that was the last time he was in our circle; 27 months later he was dead. While it was hard to see a compatriot suffer, Fred wanted no part of our pity. He came to the Board meeting because he liked what we were doing and wanted to be actively engaged for as long as he could.

We were inspired by his dedication and positive attitude. He had had a full life and was appreciative of having pre-knowledge about his limited remaining time: it helped him focus his attention of how best to use his final months. I still smile when recalling his commitment to continue singing for as long as he could, and to dance until all he could manage was to shake his body and move his eyebrows in time with the music.

—June 2009
FIC selected Fred as the inaugural recipient of the Kozeny Communitarian Award, honoring his lifetime achievements in building and promoting community. I had the pleasure of personally presenting this to Fred in a ceremony at Songaia, where I read the citation in the presence of the community that he loved, and who loved him in return. 

Fred was in a wheelchair then. While his legs would no longer sustain him, his vibrant spirit was undiminished. It was the last time I saw him.

—January 2014
The book I had in my hand—Songaia: An Unfolding Dream—is the main thing that Fred worked on in his final years.
• • •
The book is an easy read, which I'm sure was exactly what Fred had in mind. It's 189 pages of straight forward narrative interlarded with poignant and heartfelt vignettes from no less than 22 community members. This not only makes the story come alive (placing the reader in the events), it yields a product that's more of an edited collective story than just the-world-according-to-Fred.

While the editing is down home (it's "brussels sprouts" plural; not "brussel sprouts") and there's a fair amount of repetition, it should be read in the same spirit in which it was created: as a labor of love. The power of the book is that it's a success story about how dedicated amateurs succeeded in overcoming whatever obstacles came along to build a highly functioning community with treasured personal bonds that transcend age and income.

To his credit, Fred did not shy away from naming the things that have vexed the community. He let the chips fall where they may.

The things that stood out for me are:

o  How much Songaia has succeeded in manifesting the glue of community through frequent common meals (5x/week), Monday night songfests, and abundant ritual.

o  The lovely balance they've effected between practicality and idealism. They use principles as a guide, not as a straight jacket. They see the sacred in the mundane, yet have a day-to-day willingness to change things to suit new circumstances and a new configuration of who's in the family. They don't let precedent get in the way of good problem solving.

o  Proactive engagement with their neighbors. Residents do not see Songaia as a walled city or as an enclave; the community is a platform for activism, which starts at home.

While I found myself longing for details about some of the solutions they've cooked up over the years, that's quibbling. While my attention flagged during the sections devoted to the sequence of development and construction in the early 90s, the pieces about parenting, relationship, and end of life support are riveting. That is community at its best: helping everyone have a better life by showing up to go through it together.

The final chapter distills some of the lessons they've learned after 20 years:
—Shifting from "Are you getting your fair share?" to "Are you getting your needs met?"
—Discovering the Passion Principle: asking residents to only do work they enjoy in amounts they can sustain, effectively undercutting any incentive to martyr oneself.
—Being intentional about how far to shift one's personal boundaries from the "I" end of the spectrum toward the "we" end.
—Encouraging flexibility, but not to the point that it turns to apathy (or worse, cynicism).
—Embracing a wide range of parenting styles; not expecting there to be a "Songaia" style.
—Appreciating the leverage of different perspectives; not expecting homogeneity.
—Exercising discernment about what's appropriate for plenary.
—Using economies of scale; purchasing in bulk and sharing resources as much as possible.
—Investing in integration of people and ideas (rather than just hoping that it will happen spontaneously).
—Appreciating the value of being willing to engage when things are hard.
—Understanding how all of the above adds up to trust.

In short, this book will never be a success in the bookstalls at airports, but it's a delightful inspiration if you're thinking about starting a community or seriously shopping for one that's genuine and heartfelt. 

One of the joys of being FIC's administrator is both the opportunity to met people such as Fred & Nancy, and then to get to the first peek at their publications. It was a pleasure to have the coals of all those good memories stirred up by reading this book, and I can think of no better way to end this review than by quoting Carol Crow's memory from pages 10-11:

How Songaia Got Its Name
The time was late winter or early spring in 1991 and the place was the Residential Learning Center (RLC) in Bothell. Three youths were part of the RLC at that time, and that evening they had joined the adults living here for the express purpose of creating a new name for this beautiful 11 acres in Canyon Park. The RLC was coming to a close and the new vision was to create a cohousing community.

We gathered in the living room, youths on their bellies on the floor, and we agreed we would not leave until the job was accomplished. We first talked about what characteristics or images we wanted represented in the name. Music, sun, Earth were a few that emerged. Some combinations were in Spanish, as in Casa something. After an hour or so of thinking and stating many possibilities without success, in frustration we went to the kitchen where ice cream sundaes were served to crystallize the spirits.

Clearly, people continued thinking while they ate and upon our return to the living room, we resumed. Soon Bob Lanphear, on staff with the RLC, in a hesitant voice and obviously grasping for the right combination began, "How about Song… song… gaia…SONGAIA!" We each said it a few times, looked at each other and said, "That's IT!"

Within 20 minutes, everyone returned to their rooms, pleased as punch and firm in the realization that Songaia, which can be interpreted as "Song of the Living Earth," was who we were and how we wanted to be known down through the years. Our community had once again pooled its wisdom and crated a symbolic name for a new entity coming into being.

You can order a copy of Fred's book through Songaia, or looking for it soon at Community Bookstore.

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