Sunday, January 4, 2015

Mildred Gordon Crosses the Bar at 92

Sunset and evening star,
         And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
         When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
         Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
         Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
         And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
         When I embark;

For though from out our borne of Time and Place
         The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
         When I have crossed the bar.

                 —Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1889

Mildred Gordon died peacefully in her sleep this morning, surrounded by family and friends at Ganas, the community she helped found on Staten Island in 1979.

I knew Mildred for about 30 years. We first met in the mid-'80s when she and others from Ganas came down to Twin Oaks to participate in a Federation of Egalitarian Communities assembly, to explore what other income-sharing communities were doing and the extent to which it made sense to make common cause.

While it would have been enough that we were friends for 30 years and both founders of income-sharing communities, I'm taking this time to eulogize Mildred because she was also a teacher and mentor to me in the field of group dynamics, and she counseled me through some poignant, difficult times. I recall three in particular:

a) When Elke and I broke up in 1989, she wound up moving at Ganas with our two-year-old daughter, Jo. Mildred, and others at Ganas, worked hard to help Elke see that there was no good thing to be gained by vilifying me and wrapping herself in victim's raiment. Thus, in a period of months, Elke was able to move through her grieving the loss of our intimate partnership and start to rebuild her life based on the positive things in her life—the things she had control over. In addition to making it far easier to be friends (instead of estranged lovers), this helped enormously for me to continue being an active father for my daughter—which has been precious to me—and for Elke and I to co-parent without ever using our daughter as a football. That was huge.

b) It happened that I was visiting Ganas when my father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in November, 1989. While plans were settling for the family to gather in South Carolina for the funeral, Mildred spent a lot of time with me one-on-one getting me to explore my feelings and whatever came up. It was the first time I had ever lost someone that close to me and I had no idea about grieving. Luckily, Mildred did. 

She knew I needed to talk, and the initial sorting I did with her (along with the reflective time I had taking Amtrak's Silver Meteor from New York City to Yemassee SC) enabled me to be clear enough to request a special, two-hour conversation with my mother and siblings, where we started to unpack the volatile and conflicted feelings we had toward Dad, taking advantage of the vulnerability and spaciousness unique to loss. 

This was, to be sure, something we'd never done before as a family, and it was a watershed experience for me in terms of how I related to family members from then on. Looking back, it's doubtful that I would have had it together to have made the request without all the work Mildred did with me in the first 36 hours after learning of my father's death.

c) I was visiting Ganas at some point in the mid-90s, when I had an important facilitation gig lined up, working with a sister community where I knew I'd be called upon to labor with a friend about founder dynamics. My challenge was how to get the issue authentically out in the open without it coming across as an ambush.

One magical evening I was visiting Mildred up in her room and we decided to role play the dynamic, where Mildred was me and I was my friend. For about an hour we had this freewheeling conversation where I got into being my friend and voicing how I expected her to respond.

This experience turned out to be terrifically insightful. Based on that preparation, when it came time to actually do the work I was able to establish to my friend's satisfaction that I understood and could empathize with what they were going through. I was able to demonstrate viscerally that they were not alone, and this proved to be pivotal in maintaining a constructive and pliable tenor to the examination.

It turned out that this experience was foundational for me as a professional facilitator and group consultant, and I've carried it with me the last 20 years whenever I'm in a situation where someone feels backed into a corner.
• • •
My relationship with Mildred was not that of peers. She was always the teacher and I was the student (who was sometimes enthralled by the lessons and sometimes repulsed); she was the facilitator and I was the respondent. While she enjoyed probing what was going on with me, she did not encourage that kind of examination in the other direction. While I chafed at this imbalance for quite a while, I finally came to accept that learning from Mildred was a gift and it was unwise of me (not to mention churlish) to push away the invitation just because the exchange did not flow both ways.

For many years Ganas went by the name Foundation for Feedback Learning, which was their educational nonprofit and very much the center of their social experiment. Mildred was keen on investigating the ways that people shoot themselves in the foot by limiting or distorting the intake of critical information about how they are perceived. (The idea here is not necessarily that others are seeing you accurately, but that it's never in your interest to not know how your statements and behavior are landing with others. In fact, it's highly beneficial to discover at the earliest opportunity any discrepancies between what you intended and how you are received.)

It turns out that most of us engage in all manner of shenanigans to avoid or insulate ourselves from receiving feedback, even when it's directly against our best interests to resist it. 

In the process of doing this work, Mildred was among the most adept practitioners I ever encountered at working a dynamic both emotionally and rationally, which approach had a profound influence on how I developed as a professional facilitator. After witnessing Mildred at the top of her game, I wouldn't settle for group work that didn't simultaneously engage content and energy, and I'm not confident I would have come to that understanding without Mildred's guidance.

Another reason I appreciated Mildred and my time at Ganas was the intensity of the engagement (it certainly wasn't for the coffee, which was every bit as weak as the conversations were strong). I've never encountered another group that devoted so much attention to group dynamics (and I thought I was a junkie). 

Ganas in the '90s—which was the decade when Jo was splitting time between there and Sandhill, and I was visiting regularly—held planning sessions every morning six days a week, and then had freewheeling after dinner conversations most days as well. On your birthday you could decide what personal growth topic you wanted to work on all day. In fact, they were into the process tank so spectacularly that I use Ganas as the poster child for one end of the spectrum on how-much-do you-want-to-be-in-each-others'-lives-by-virtue-of-being-a-member-of-this-community. (On the other end are communities that hold potlucks once a month.)

While most people who visited Ganas or heard about their strong commitment to group process found the attention they gave interpersonal dynamics appalling, I loved it.

The last time I saw Mildred was in October, 2012. I visited Ganas for three days and spent an hour sitting with her each afternoon letting the conversation go wherever it wanted. Though I'd been cautioned ahead of time that Mildred was starting to lose her cognitive abilities, I couldn't discern any loss of focus or relevance to her comments. They say that long-term memory is the last to go and I suppose I benefited from the vast majority of our common history falling comfortably into the long-term column. Or maybe she was just having a good week. 

In any event it was a touching and connecting final visit.

One of Mildred's foibles was the feeling that she was going to die young, which she was mildly obsessed about. I believe many of her immediate family had died young and she expected a similar fate. Well Mildred, having lived to be 92 it's hard to say you got cheated—and all those who knew you are the richer for your longer stay.


Anonymous said...

I worked for Ganas as their upstate resort caretaker from 2000-2004 and then saw Mildred again in Staten Island in the summer of 2012. Her way of encouraging deeper interpersonal connection through clarifying feedback...was a startling and new concept for me. And now that I am more involved with Intentional Community I can see how her contributions have influenced the ongoing very hard work of fostering better mutual human understanding everywhere. I feel honored to have known her and I offer my deepest condolences to all who loved her and were touched by her work for a better world. I just learned of Mildred's passing today in the context of a seminar on the history of Intentional Community during a visitorship at Dancing Rabbit in Rutledge Missouri. I will never forget this grand lady and her spirit will definitely influence my choice of a permanent IC home in the near future....Rest in Peace Mildred!

Anonymous said...

Hello Laird - You wouldn't remember me, but you visited Ganas a number of times while I lived there and I remember you quite well. I have a request to make of you which I wish I had taken the opportunity to ask years ago. I would be grateful if you would contact me.