Thursday, March 6, 2014

Group Works: Breaking Bread Together

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 Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The third pattern in this segment is labeled Breaking Bread Together. Here is the image and text from that card:
Gathering over a meal is one of the most ancient forms of community process, as people sharing food appreciate each other at a profound level. Nourished bodies and relationships pave the way for better collaboration and higher quality work.

I resonate strongly with this pattern, yet the first thing that bubbled to the surface when I digested the poetic text above (think of it as process reflux) is that referring to "gathering over a meal" as a community process stuck in my craw. I conceive of it more as a ritual—which is often quite casual, yet can also be incredibly nuanced or elaborate. In the image above, it appears to be some of both.

On the one hand, the tablecloth, candles, place settings, adult beverages, and focused attention on the center of the table suggest preparation and a purposeful energy. On the other, the dress is casual, the assembled are drinking from paper cups, a roll of paper towels substitutes for napkins, and the adjoining room features jumbled junk visible through the window (not exactly a high brow ambience). It's a mix, and I like that there is something for everyone here—pointing out that ritual need not be stuffy or black tie to be potent.

Ruminating further, I prefer to cast the quality of the experience of eating together somewhat differently. While profound is no doubt possible (even desirable), I believe it is better described as visceral. There is, of course, the obvious way in which the stomach is engaged in the act of eating (It's alimentary, my dear Watson), but I mainly mean that eating together is more a body-centered sharing more than a mind-centered connection. It is a communion of food with people (Take eat, this is my carrot, which was prepared for you); of love from the cook to the partakers; of people with people (eating concurrently, in the presence of one another). It is a prototypical moment of conviviality.

Eating also represents a pause in the daily routine, where the prior activity has been suspended to attend to nourishment. Just as the body is sustained, the mind is refreshed (or has the opportunity to be—one can always gnaw on the bone of a vexing problem while eating, undercutting the salutary effect of the change of pace, and possibly compromising digestion into the bargain). I have found a daily yoga practice offers this same kind of benefit, and is something I cherish for the same reason.

All of that said, I have a caution about relying on meals as a setting for any heavy lifting (serious problem solving or emotional clearing). Eating necessarily requires blood to be in the stomach, which means there is less available to oxygenate the brain. I have learned, for example, that when I'm about to go on stage to facilitate it's prudent to not eat immediately beforehand, as I want all of my attention on the work ahead—rather than dividing it with breaking down the arugula or potato-leek soup I just ingested.

For all of that, there is hardly anything more basic among humans than eating together, telling stories, or having sex. I figure when you combine two out of three you're really cooking. Thus, it is with pleasure, and in the spirit of this pattern, that I protect certain opportunities for breaking bread with others in my peregrinations:

o  Ever since college days I have often been able to participate in seders, the Jewish secular holiday of liberation, keyed off the remembrance the let-my-people-go Exodus from Egypt under Moses. I love making haroset (for which there are almost no set rules) and grating fresh horseradish for this meal.

o  Since entering into a intimate partnership with Ma'ikwe, it has become our habit to hold a birthday celebration each Feb 6 (the anniversary of her nativity) which is centered around my cooking a special sit-down meal for whoever is on her guest list that year.

o  For the last decade I have prepared a gourmet meal for a slow food extravaganza in Ann Arbor MI the first Saturday of November. (Don't count on doing anything else that evening.) Shortly after the turn of the millennium I was in town as faculty for the annual NASCO Institute and was lamenting among friends (Elph Morgan, Jillian Downey, and Michael McIntyre) that I did not get to cook as much I liked when on the road, They had a solution. In all but one year since then I have come up with a special four-course menu for which my friends buy the ingredients and I start cooking as soon as I hit town on Thursday. Anywhere from 10-14 people then gather at Michael's for a savored celebration of food and friendship Saturday evening. While the guest list varies from year to year, the four of us are very dedicated and this ritual has become a highlight of my annual calendar.

o  Ever since my kids were kids I enjoyed cooking with them, and part of the rhythm of our reunions is that we spend time together in the kitchen as well as at the dining room table (we also enjoy restaurants, but that's not as distinctive as preparing our own feasts, replete with hand-me-down family recipes). Although Ceilee is now 33 and has his own kids, and Jo is 26, I know that when I get out West in a few weeks that we'll figure out some creative ways to mess around around with food, and I can hardly wait.

At its highest expression, eating is a participatory sport that lubricates all interactions, providing an invaluable foundation for weathering the inevitable bumps that all relationships are asked to endure.

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