Sunday, November 29, 2015


I watched the first-run movie Brooklyn last night and was very touched by the portrayal of a twenty-something Irish immigrant named Eilis (pronounced AY-lis), played by actress Saoirse Ronan, who comes over to the land of opportunity in the 1952, when she accepts that there's no future for her in socially stultified and economically depressed Ireland, County Wexford.

Eilis is a good woman, caught between the Irish culture she grew up with and the American culture she grew to love. This is the story of a woman who endures hardship (both her father and sister die while she's in her 20s), finds herself, and then has to choose between returning to Ireland or continuing to stay in the US—with the added complication that she has decent job prospects and attractive suitors in both places. While there are many tears along the way, this is the story of how Eilis comes to make her decision.
Although it doesn't always work out so well in real life, in this instance the heroine's good character (modest, hard working, and kind) is rewarded by drawing out those qualities in those around her. As we all know of occurrences where it doesn't play out that way (who promised that life is fair?), it's refreshing and hopeful when virtue is rewarded. Witness:

o  Eilis and her suitor in America, Frankie Fiorello (James DiGiacomo) 
She's Irish and he's Italian, which right away creates a dynamic tension. Immigrants tend to be hyper-sensitive to ethnicity and West Side Story romances don't tend to end well, even if they're relocated to Brooklyn (just ask Tony and Maria). But you know you're in for a different treatment once you digest that the male lead is shorter than his romantic partner (when was the last time you saw that on the silver screen?). And unlike the prototypical oversexed Italian male ("all hands," as Eilis jokes), Frankie takes his time and courts respectfully. He's attentive without pressing, and in time Eilis responds.

Amazingly, Frankie masks his abiding love of his hometown Dodgers until it's accidentally revealed at the important first dinner when he brings Eilis home to meet his family (and she is put to the test of eating spaghetti in front of Italians). Baseball is important, but love and family come first.

He is an apprentice plumber, and it's clear early on that Eilis is the more intelligent of the two (in addition to her day job working as a sales clerk in an upscale women's clothing store, Bartocci's, she goes to night school to learn double entry accounting), yet they don't let that potential ego-deflater derail their romance. Eilis doesn't rub it in and Frankie doesn't get all ruffled feathered. They meet on the heart level, and they share the typical immigrant yearning to build a better life. They keep their eyes on the prize.

o  Eilis and her Bartocci supervisor, Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré)
Eilis' first job is already lined up for her before she lands in America, assuring that she'll have an income right away (whew). Yet she doesn't like the work, and quickly goes about trying to figure out how to improve her lot. Her strict supervisor is the stern-faced Miss Fortini, who constantly admonishes Eilis to chat up the customers in the never-ending effort to secure their becoming repeat customers.

Despite Miss Fortini's sacred attention to the bottom line, she also has a heart. When Eilis gets homesick for Ireland in the first few months, Miss Fortini doesn't crack out the whip. Instead, she asks in the parish priest, Father Flood, who guides her through this unavoidable, yet temporary sickness of the spirit. When news arrives that Eilis' dear sister, Rose, has died back in Ireland, Miss Fortini again joins with Father Flood to break the awful news. And when Eilis needs a "bathing costume" for her first trip to Coney Island with Frankie, it is Miss Fortini who personally fits her and advises about color.

o  Eilis and Father Flood (Jim Broadbent)
In this era of Catholic priests who have been systematically revealed to have misused their power, it is nice to exhale in the presence of the avuncular Father Flood, who evokes Fathers O'Malley (Bing Crosby) and Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) in Going My Way, which, not coincidentally, is set in New York in 1944. Father Flood helps Eilis through several rough patches—homesickness for Ireland, loss of her sister, and understanding the poignancy of the Irish elderly poor on Christmas, who are otherwise alone at the end of lives that have been exhausted by doing the thankless dirty work of building America.

o  Eilis and her suitor in Ireland, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) 
When Eilis returns home to say goodbye to her sister and to visit her mother (now all alone after losing both her husband and the one daughter to death and the other daughter to immigration), she unexpectedly rediscovers the charm of the old country and at the same time encounters opportunity where there had been none before. There is an immediate opening in bookkeeping, taking over the position that Rose held before her, and there is Jim Farrell, a landed local with prospects for taking over his parents tavern and who is clearly smitten with the now-exotic, fresh-from-America Eilis.

Paralleling the gentle approach adopted by Frankie in America, Jim swallows his pride and carefully builds his case for being a bona fide suitor. How often do young men of privilege grow up that fast? While there's no doubt that love can be a powerful motivator, this was nonetheless an inspiring transformation.

• • •
Movies like Brooklyn make me think about the prospects for effecting world peace through cross-cultural relationships. While not fast, I'm not sure there's a better way.

To be sure, both Eilis and Frankie are European and Catholic, so the distance to bridge is not as far as it might be. Still, as Frankie's eight-year-old younger brother declaims baldly at the dinner table—when Eilis is visiting for the first time—"We hate the Irish." Although the rest of the family was on good behavior for Frankie's sake, the fact is that in 1952 there were generally strict social limits placed on associations between first generation Italian and Irish immigrants. Frankie was crossing the line attending the Irish dance where he met Eilis, and she was bold to not dismiss his amorous attention outright.

There was a time when Brooklyn (the city) was at the very center of the American melting pot, when the torrent of post-World War II immigrants were being funneled through the portal of Ellis Island. Today, with the ports of entry much more diffuse, almost every urban center in America experiences some amount of in-migration. The challenge is welcoming cultural diversity without aspiring to homogenization (think mixed salad, not purée). Though not without bumps in the road (think Gangs of New York, showcasing Gotham's cultural intolerance in 1863), it remains America's strength that we know how to integrate immigrants and achieve thereby a certain hybrid vigor—which I note in sharp contrast to the anti-Muslim hysteria now gripping this country.

Brooklyn (the movie) is inspiring because it reminds us of our better selves—as humans first, and Americans second. If slow and steady wins the race (to understand race before we kill each other in our ignorance), then let's celebrate the power for good and understanding that arises from relationships that span cultural differences, one couple at a time.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Pitch Downward Divergent

In aeronautical parlance, "pitch downward divergent" refers to how a plane can get into real trouble if its angle with respect to the horizon is pointing downward too far. Essentially, it loses lift and the aircraft starts dropping like a stone. While that's a sure fire way to gain speed, it's accomplished at the risk of dying if you are not able to pull out of the dive fast enough.

I've used that as the title for today's blog because there's an apt analogy in group dynamics: once interpersonal dynamics start heading south, they're susceptible to getting locked into a negative feedback loop that reinforces the downward spiral. 

In short, the more that a group encounters interpersonal turbulence among members that doesn't get resolved, the more likely it is that future exchanges will land poorly. Current events are seen through the lens of past hurts hurts (resulting in questioning good intent), people start expecting a higher percentage of encounters to go poorly (thereby measurably increasing the likelihood that they will go poorly), and there's increased brittleness in how problem-solving unfolds (as people start associating flexibility with being taken advantage of). Yuck.

When there's unresolved interpersonal tension in a group it impacts the group negatively in a number of ways:

1. It distorts exchanges between the protagonists
Perhaps the most obvious way in which unresolved tensions are expensive is that the people directly involved are less likely to enjoy working together—either as members of the same team, or as members of the same group. While this may not be so bad in a group of 60, where the impact is diluted over a large number, it can be excruciating in a small group (or committee) where the two people are expected to be in regular contact and communication.

This greatly complicates the task of figuring out a good response to the issue in which the tensions first emerged, because trust between the players has been damaged. Grace has been diminished and even innocent statements or actions are more likely to be misconstrued.

2. When upset goes unaddressed, if changes the lens through which the players see future events
Where once there was openness and open-mindedness, there may now be caution and wariness. When in the grip of unresolved tension, a person will tend to feel isolated and uncared for. They will be quicker to assign bad intent to future exchanges. Misunderstandings that would have been easily corrected in the past, are now a constant risk. It can be exhausting.

Worse, players with lingering hurts will be less likely to even reveal that they have placed a bad spin on current events—because they do not expect a good outcome from revealing hurts (what good would it do?). Without knowledge that something has landed amiss it is nearly impossible to clear it up.

3. It can distract the group to the extent that it's aware of the ongoing tension
If two parties are known to be at odds with one another, others in the group will become sensitized to the dynamic and on guard for its reemergence. Especially if the group as a whole does not have a robust track record when it comes to working conflict constructively, there will be a tendency for group members to be watching for the needle going into the red instead of tracking the conversation. In fact, if the topic seems likely to be subject to the gravitational pull of the unresolved tension (perhaps because it's so dear to the heart of one of the protagonists), the topic may be avoided all together as too risky.

4. Prospective members pick up on the unresolved tension, even if they don't know where it's coming from
You want new members to be sensitive to group energy, yet the group is at risk of inadvertently selecting against this trait if it allows unresolved tensions to persist (the message being that the group is either oblivious to the tensions or ineffective in responding to them). Thus, the group presents as less attractive. Of course, that may not be a problem if the prospective member is clueless about group energy, but who wants clueless new members?

The good news is that even if the group stumbles in trying to engage with conflict, a good faith effort is likely to be attractive to prospectives for whom this quality in the group matters. That is, you'll get partial credit for trying (as opposed to no credit for ducking).

• • •
To be sure, working constructively and accurately with conflict is a major skill and requires a significant investment of group time and energy to become good at it. My point though is that not learning to work with it well as also expensive. You can run, but you can't hide.

While there's no guarantee that engaging with interpersonal conflict will result in success, isn't it better to go down attempting to work effectively with whatever is in the room—the full range of human expressions—than to suffer the consequences of being too timid to try?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Giving Thanks

Today is a travel day (not that that's an unusual occurrence in my life as an itinerant group process consultant and community networker). Over the course of 11 hours I'll wend my way from Boston to Duluth, by way of Charlotte NC and Minneapolis MN. In addition to supplying me with a suitable block of time in which to craft this essay, the end result will be my arrival on the shores of Gitchi Gummi, where I will rendezvous with my sweetheart, Susan Anderson, in her local habitat—for the third time since our romantic adventure commenced in June.

This visit comes at an especially propitious time for me. I've been crazy busy the last three months, in the course of which I've donned pretty much every hat in my closet: process consultant, FIC administrator, workshop presenter, fundraiser, facilitation trainer, friend, book peddler, brother, and lover. Now, for the week of Thanksgiving, I get to enjoy a string of days where my priority is simply being with my partner, enjoying each other and exploring what we want our future to be.

To be sure, I still have some reports to write and planning to do for a facilitation training that I'll be conducting Dec 3-6 in Portland. But all of that can be accomplished while Susan works weekday mornings in the office of St Paul's, the Episcopal Church of which she's a member. When we're both in the house at the same time the emphasis will be on the dance of intimacy—cooking, laughing, eating, walking, and touching, not necessarily in that order.

Susan and I are both 66, and are happily surprised to find so much joy and vitality in each others company. We are at an age where it's hard to tell when will be the last time we're asked to dance, and we intend to make the most of the serendipity of our coming together. My life has gone through major upheaval in the last year, representing a jumble of loss, gain, and transition: the emergence of chronic torso pain, my wife ending our marriage of seven years, a loss of home in northeast Missouri after 41 years, relocating to Chapel Hill to live with close friends Joe & María, stepping down as FIC's main administrator after 28 years, and starting a partnership with Susan. It's a lot to digest.

Amazingly, Susan and I are not just dancing together: we seem equally willing to let the other into our lives and take a chance on the vulnerability of love in exchange for the chance at great joy and companionship. It is this feeling of being well met that seems especially magical to me, even more than the attraction. Am I seeing this with rose-tinted lenses? Absolutely. Yet I am also a manifestor—someone who has never let improbability stand in the way of taking a chance if the reward was sufficiently compelling (feint heart never won fair goal). I believe in the power of positive thinking, and I'm bringing that into play with Susan without apology.

Further, it seems uncanny that this possibility has emerged precisely at the moment in my life that is least settled going back to 1974 and the founding of Sandhill Farm. Just when many people are settling into the routine of their retirement years, here I am unexpectedly in the process of reinventing myself when this tantalizing possibility with Susan has crystallized in front of me. Well, you don't have to beat me over the head with a 2x4. I'd be an idiot to not see where something this good can lead.

Thus, above all else, this week I am thankful for the chance to not be an idiot.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Traveling on a Wing and a Prayer

My partner, Susan, has been enjoying a week-long whirlwind visit to Morocco. She got a good deal to fill out a tour group and is traveling with friends from home (the Duluth contingent comprises seven of the 40 spots on the tour). She's been having a blast, squeezing out one more week of mild weather in North Africa before the onset of winter in northern Minnesota (where many are cold but few are frozen).

She's in Casablanca tonight, in position to start her return journey at 5 am, when the bus is scheduled to collect everyone from the hotel and take them to the airport. What with crossing six time zones, tomorrow was setting up to be a long day anyway: three flights and 30 hours long.

Her day was only 15 minutes old, however, when Air France sent her a brief message indicating that her journey home was going to be more complicated than expected: her flight from Casablanca to Paris had just been cancelled. Presumably this is related to tightened security in the wake of Wednesday's police raid that resulted in a firefight and the death of Abdelhamid Abaaoud—the alleged ringleader of the Nov 13 terrorist attacks in Paris.

While Casablanca is a long way from Paris, it appears there will be no commercial flights through the capital of France tomorrow. 

While I'm sure that Susan will be rerouted through another European city and will ultimately get home safely, it's sobering to realize how far terrorism can disrupt lives. Of course, having your flight cancelled is trivial compared to the loss of 130 lives in the attacks of a week ago, yet it's instructive to understand how far the shock waves extend.

It also makes me wonder about our chances to resolve differences peaceably. Terrorists have given up on that possibility, even to the point of suicide bombers and sacrificing one's life to gain attention for their grievances. It is a terrible price to pay and it makes me wonder how people can get that angry and that desperate. 

A lot of this hinges, I think, on the question of how much people with privilege are aware of it and are willing to have that be on the table—how much we're willing to look at the advantages we have enjoyed by virtue of being born Americans, white, male, heterosexual, Protestant, to parents with money, etc. 

On the international level, the US runs the show, often to the detriment of other countries and other cultures (whence the bumper stickers, "How did our oil get under their sand?"). If we see this as God's largesse, then terrorist attacks will continue. (While I abhor violence, I can appreciate the frustration that leads to it when more peaceful methods consistently fail to get someone's attention.) If, on the other hand, we're willing to start talking about how there's only one Earth and we have to make the best of it together, then there's a chance for a different, less militant outcome. But I don't see much evidence at the national level that we're willing to give up our privilege, or even to question the outrageous assumption that we're God's chosen people.

On the community level, I run into this same dynamic when it comes to race, class, and sexual discrimination. It even shows up on the personality level—people who are soft spoken, good listeners, and patient tend to be more welcome and more successful in community then the demonstrative, outspoken, and let's-get-'er-done types. To be sure, I don't see suicide bombers in community, or even much threat of physical violence, but there is plenty of frustration with intolerance or the lack of a willingness to look within for signs of unconscious discrimination. There's plenty of room for all of us to get better at meeting people halfway, rather than insisting that conversations be held in our preferred mode—essentially requiring that others come to us as a precondition for meaningful dialog.

The truth is, we are not particularly good as a species at getting along with people who are other than we are. As a process consultant to cooperative groups I am regularly called upon to demonstrate what getting along with each can look like, helping people find bridges they couldn't see. Will the peacemaking that I'm undertaking in intentional communities ultimately lead to a world without terrorism? 

I don't know, but I think it could and I have to try. Meanwhile, I pray for world peace. And while I'm at it, I'll take a moment to pray for Susan's safe return.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Directory Campaign Starts Today!

Today the Fellowship for Intentional Community is launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise $6000—the funds needed to assemble a new print version of our flagship publication, Communities Directory. This will be our seventh edition, and first since 2010.

If this FIC resource—which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month—is important to you, I urge you to click here and help us reach our goal, and to share this blog widely among your friends.

While we've made our listings available as a searchable online database since 2004, there continues to be a steady demand for it in book form. Here's why:

o  You're not always near a wifi signal, especially when out in the boondocks trying to track down rural communities.

o  The book version contains an incredibly helpful set of cross-reference charts that sorts listings by the most commonly asked objective criteria (things like acreage, population, how long they've been around, economic model, decision-making process, etc). This chart is not available online.

o  It's easy to scan the maps for how communities are geographically distributed in the book. Online we offer maps telling you where each group is located, but not their proximity to other groups.

o  The book features a handful of key articles about how to use the information intelligently.

o  The book includes a thorough index. 

What's more, the money raised through the Kickstarter campaign will be used both to defray costs of producing the print version and to overhaul our online Directory at the same time.

Enhancements to the latter include:

—A complete rewriting of the listing questionnaire, so that the information collected better matches what seekers want to know (after 28 years in this business we have a solid idea what people want).

—A much tighter protocol for removing listings that have not been updated or verified in more than a year. That means removing the dead wood more promptly.

—Starting to post response rates so that inquirers will have a decent idea of what to expect from listed groups, based on the percentage of inquiries that that community has addressed within 10 days over the course of the preceding 12 months. (We have been fielding some complaints that listed communities are not getting back to seekers in a timely way and we want to shine the light on that phenomenon.)

—We will reorganize the information into three major groupings:

Established groups 
These are ones that have four or more members that have been living together for two or more years. We think of this section as the backbone of our Directory.

Forming (and reforming) groups
This category is a good deal more volatile than the preceding one and we think it's a substantial service to seekers to let them know this up front. On the one hand, attracting additional energy in the early years can make a life or death difference to tenuous groups—which is why we include them. On the other hand, new groups are inherently less stable and it's important that seekers understand that expectations need to be adjusted when trying to contact communities in this category. 

Groups that used to be listed but no longer are
As groups disband or become unresponsive we'll move them into this category—which we'll be making available online for the first time. Listings here will be "gravestones only" (name, location, and years of existence to the extent known). Because people often search for a particular group by name, it can be a big help knowing that they no longer exist. This data can also be important for research purposes, and who's in a better position to collect it than us?
So the money we raise from the Kickstarter campaign is intended to cover a lot—all of which is geared toward making the Directory a better tool, both as a book and as an online reference.

Directory History
Here's our production history:

Year                 Number of North American communities listed
1990                 304
1995                 565
2000                 585
2005                 614
2007                 908
2010               1055
2016                     ?

Over the course of the quarter century that we've been chronicling the intentional communities movement, every time we've published the book the number of North American communities listed has grown. Though we don't yet know the final number for the edition we release next spring, we're expecting something around 1400.

Partly this is because there's been an actual rise in the communities extant; partly it's because it's easier than ever to report a community's existence; and partly it's because FIC has established itself as a trusted network that will fairly display the information.

The Directory was FIC's first project. We committed to it in 1988 and we published our first edition two years later. At the time—still ahead of the tidal wave that would become the world wide web—a book was the way to go and we sold 18,000 copies of each of our first two editions. For the first 10 years the Directory was our cash cow that enabled us to develop all our other programs, such as becoming the publisher of Communities magazine, creating Art of Community weekend events, and taking over Community Bookstore.

By 2000 however, the web had made substantial inroads into the bookselling market and there was a growing sense that reference material ought to be free—never mind that it took thousands of hours to collect, compile, and display the information.

As our commitment to providing the information ran deeper than our commitment to the business model, we swallowed hard and started offering the information online at no charge in 2004. While this has worked well for meeting our mission to disseminate the information broadly, we've had to scramble to make up the shortfall in income via advertising and donations.

It's a measure of our faith in this approach that we're relying on our supporters to be our partners in making the next evolution of Communities Directory a reality. If this incredible resource has been an inspiration in your life—or that of a community dear to you—we're asking you to take a moment to pay it forward for all those who will follow in our footsteps, seeking cooperative alternatives.

Together, we're making a difference.

Monday, November 16, 2015

What It Takes for Groups to Be Less Conflicted about Conflict

About half the time, when I get hired as a cooperative group consultant, I'm asked to work one or more embedded conflicts—things that have been festering for a while and the group doesn't know what to do with them. Sometimes I know that going in, and sometimes I don't. The group may be hiring me to look at something else yet the conflict intrudes into the conversation and then we're off to the races. While it's better when I know ahead of time, conflict goes with the territory, and I'm no longer surprised when it pops up. I just deal with it.

I have a reputation for this, and it's often an element of why I'm hired: either to help a group extract itself from deep mud, or to demonstrate why it's valuable to learn that skill, or both.

Even though all groups experience conflict (by which I mean non-trivial distress in response to something another group member is perceived to have said or done), only a small fraction of groups have sufficiently invested in developing their internal capacity to handle it in the flow of everyday life. Here are the steps I think it takes to get there:

1. Recognizing that conflict is going to occur and learning not to pathologize it. In other words, moving away from the mistaken notion that the incidence of conflict is a metric of the group's health (low conflict=health). Groups need to develop an understanding that conflict is naturally occurring, and the main challenge is working with it well; not trying to extinguish it.

2. Accepting the necessity of the group providing support for people who struggle to find their way through conflict on their own. While I think it's a great idea that groups encourage members to learn to be less reactive and develop their ability to work through their own distress (Nonviolent Communication, for example, can be good for this), it's naive to think that everyone will get good enough at this to never need assistance.

3. Identifying one or more methods for engaging constructively with conflict. There are a number of decent ways to productively approach conflict, but it is not enough to have only a general agreement that there will be help—you have to spell out what methodologies are on the menu, so the would-be user can have an inkling of what will be asked of them. Expecting people in distress to step forward to be black box guinea pigs is not a good plan.

4. Developing the capacity to consistently deliver positive results with the methods selected. Beyond agreeing on how support will be extended to members, the team needs to demonstrate that it can deliver in the clutch. This goes beyond being able to explain the theory of support; you need to show that you can manage the dynamic moment. For the most part the acid test is functioning in the presence of fulminating rage—though for others, rampant tears may be the litmus test.

5. Orienting all members to the availability of support and how to access it. It won't work if the team is hiding its light under a bushel. It has to actively make clear to members what the team offers, how support works, and how it can be invoked.

Beyond that, there are a few forks in the road that you need ot be aware of when setting this up.

Key Question A: Is the support group authorized to be pro-active? Must it wait for conflicted parties to agree to ask for assistance, or can it initiate inquires on its own judgment, or at the request of third parties?
Best answer: All too often, conflict resolution teams are underused (see my blog of Nov 24, 2014: Why Conflict Resolution Committees Are Like Maytag Repairmen). In part because people are reluctant to ask for help (or to admit that they need it); in part because there is a lack of confidence in the skill of the committee; in part because we come out of a culture that considers it meddling to insert yourself into other people's tensions. In recognition of that, it can make a big difference if the committee is authorized to initiate inquiries when there's the appearance that dynamics are stuck and starting to leak into group business. The bottom line here is getting out of the mud, and it's painful to watch stubborn people tolerate longstanding feuds because they're too proud to ask for assistance.

Note: Authorizing the team to be pro-active will not work unless there is a concomitant agreement that all members will to make a good faith effort to resolve tensions if they are named as a player in a conflict—regardless of whether they think they are.

Key Question B: What are the standards for transparency, in tension with confidentiality?

Best answer: Lean toward transparency as far as you can. Learn to describe distress even-handedly in minutes and reports, and then let all group members know the outline of what happened: what the tension was about and what the resolution was, including any agreements about how things will be different going forward. The flow of information is directly related to trust in the whole group. Thus, while it may be unintentional, a consequence of keeping information confidential is that trust is eroded. This is not what you want.

If you keep information confidential for fear that it will be misused, you are helping to create the environment  where that very thing will happen.

Note: I am not advocating that transparency be rammed down people's throats. I think it's best to allow protagonists to set their own limits about what is shared with others. That said, I'm encouraging groups to purposefully work toward an atmosphere of wide sharing within the group, with the clear expectation that individuals will use appropriate discretion when it comes to sharing beyond the group.

Key Question C: How are new members made aware of what the committee does and how to access it? If you are relying on osmosis, that's not a very good answer.

Best answer: Conflict teams should take it upon themselves to help create the culture in which they can thrive. This means regularly educating members (both new and old) about how to be better communicators, how to employ the methodologies for working conflict that the group adopts, and how the committee can help.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Winning the Holidays

Now that Halloween is in the rear-view mirror, I suppose it's only natural that retailers will have their full attention on Black Friday and the visions of sugar plum receipts that are dancing in their heads.

As a full-blooded American I thought I'd become inured to the annual full-court press that constitutes Xmas marketing, but a recent internet ad slipped through my defenses. It was a video clip from a big box store exhorting listeners to buy something expensive (that would come in a big box) and thereby assure that you'd "win the holidays."

It made me want to puke. 

I get it that we live in a competitive culture and that it's considered fair game to manufacture demand, but who needs to "win" Christmas? Don't get me wrong. I am not a Scrooge about giving gifts, and I'm not writing to defend the role of Christ in Christmas. The holidays are precious to me for family time, and for reflection. It's precious as a fortnight when less work is expected and we honor more the relationships that should arguably be the center of our lives year round.

This year I will be with my two kids and their families in Las Vegas (at my my daughter Jo's house) and I am wholeheartedly looking forward to it.

I love the rituals of the holidays because they help renew ties among the people, and evoke common memories. Some things have been continued through the generations (in my case it's opening presents Christmas morning, rather than the night before; making pinwheel cookies and plum pudding with hard sauce) and some things have to be adapted to the situation—I won't be looking for a white Christmas in Las Vegas (there may be a dip in Jo's backyard Jacuzzi instead), yet I'll be blessed to be with both my kids and our extended family that day—eating, laughing, and playing games together.

My revulsion is over the notion that: a) Christmas gift-giving (a ritual I enjoy in moderation) has morphed into a competition; and b) you need to outspend everyone else to achieve satisfaction. Relationships among loved ones should precisely be the place where competition has no play. You don't buy love. Nor do you acquire your way to happiness.

While I'm OK with Green Bay battling upstart Minnesota at Lambeau Field for the NFC North title on the last game of the regular season Jan 3 (still comfortably within the 12 Days of Christmas), I draw the line at competing for love around the Christmas tree. It's a sad commentary on how far our culture has drifted when contributing to the GNP has become the reason for the season.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Morning After

As you might have expected, the sun rose in the East today.

The thing that's different is that for the first time since May 1987 I am no longer occupying a central role in FIC. At the close of yesterday's fall organizational meetings the torch was officially passed to my successor, Sky Blue. Oh, I still have a number of loose ends to wrap up, and I promised everyone that I wouldn't just start watching day time soap operas or reading vampire novels to while away my idle hours. 

Though I'm officially retired as FIC's main administrator, my days remain populated with compelling choices:

Concurrent with my time serving the Fellowship, I've been developing my career as a cooperative group process consultant. Both started in 1987. In that capacity I've never been busier and I'm happy to continue that work going forward. 

By way of illustration, I have four jobs between now and Thanksgiving, plus one more in December. It's my hope that this work will create the economic flow I need to make ends meet (now that my paid work with FIC will be drawing to a close), while at the same time providing a suitable platform for my ongoing social change work. 

It's wonderful being able to make a living doing heart work and I hope to continue that for a long while yet.

Paired with my consulting is teaching the art of facilitation in cooperative groups. I have a two-year program I started in 2003 and that I've delivered eight times (each iteration involves eight three-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart). In 2016 I will be running three versions of this training concurrently: one in New England; one in Portland OR; and one in North Carolina.

I also offering a variety of one-day workshops related to various aspects of group process, including consensus, delegation, membership, conflict, and power dynamics.

I've been authoring this blog for nearly eight years now, and am also a regular contributor to Communities magazine (FIC's quarterly periodical). In addition, I write lengthy reports for all of my consulting gigs.

One of the things that I'm looking forward to in the months ahead is having the time to regularly devote to reviewing my writing and organizing it into one or more books about cooperative group dynamics. That should go a long ways toward keeping me off the streets.

Dancing with my Partner
I'm happily at the front end of a highly promising intimate relationship with Susan Anderson, and the shift in work load offers excellent chances to enjoy a good deal more time with her. Instead of seeing her once every six weeks, I'm going to try to reconfigure my life to have her be a regular part of it (instead of an exceptional part of it—exceptional though she is).

I'm thinking that some of that will be traveling together; some of it will translate to our being on the same couch together; some of that will be in the same kitchen together. I'm looking forward to all of it.

Cultivating Relationships
Over the course of my career as a community member and community networker I've met an incredible variety of people, a good number of whom have become friends. I'm hoping to create sufficient spaciousness in my life to make visiting friends more of a destination, rather than what I can squeeze in between work assignments and public appearances.

Building Community
In the last year I lost my community base in northeast Missouri. While that wasn't what I was hoping for or expecting, that shift also created an opening to build community elsewhere, and the good news is that community is needed everywhere—so you can hardly pick a bad spot.

When I explained to a friend recently that I was anticipating strengthening a sense of community in a neighborhood setting, she got all excited to see what I could do. I was touched by her faith in me. 

While it remains to be seen what I can deliver with respect to all this, I can promise you that "retirement" will not be dull.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

What Happens at FIC Board Meetings

I'm at Liberty Village (Union Bridge MD) this weekend, for the FIC's fall organizational meetings. These will be the last set of meetings at which I'll be the main administrator. Starting Monday I'll be offloading the lion's share of the executive tasks to my successor, Sky Blue of Twin Oaks.

As is common, we have a lot on our plates:

2016 Budget
Our essential challenge is keeping our appetites in line with our menu. We have no trouble whatsoever thinking up good things to do faster than we can manifest the money to accomplish them. That means we constantly need to rein in and prioritize our ideas, funding only the most important and most promising over the next 12 months.

In particular, we'll be creating the new position of Social Media Director in a better attempt to stay active and topical in those newer communication channels. We're also boosting the size of our travel subsidies to get Board and staff members to meetings.

Relations with Sister Organizations

The Global Ecovillage Network is headquartered at Findhorn in Scotland, and operates worldwide. After many years of operating as parallel yet mostly independent entities, communications between us have picked up in the last two years and we're exploring ways to collaborate, including the possibility of a unified directory of communities, and more regular participation in each other's activities.

The Cohousing Association of the US is a network that covers one of the vibrant subsets of the intentional communities movement. As such it behooves us to think about ways to strengthen the lines of communication. Coho/US recently announced a conference on Aging in Community for May 19-21, in Salt Lake City—but that's awkward for FIC because we've scheduled our spring organizational meetings for May 20-22 in Oregon, making it hard for us to have a presence at their event. We're looking hard at whether we can reconfigure our spring meetings to avoid this conflict.

Coho/US is also encouraging all cohousing groups in the country to hold an open house this coming April 30. This seems like a good idea to us, and we'll be checking closely to see how that goes.

—School of Living
This Mid-Atlantic network has roots that go back into the 1930s and Ralph Borsodi. It includes a community land trust that holds six pieces of property in three states (PA, MD, and VA), and they approached us to discuss the possibility of joint events, joint grant applications, partnering on educational programs, and youth initiatives.

—Goddard College
This Vermont-based school has been a leader in developing online courses, and we discussed the possibility that students might find it appealing to get college credit for hands on learning in intentional communities.

Overhauling our Directory Listing Questionnaire 
Last spring we made the decision to publish a new edition of Communities Directory (our seventh), and we're busily at work trying to get all the ducks in line. We took advantage of several key players being in the same room to overhaul the Directory listing questionnaire for the first time in 20 years, and coordinate the timing of publicity associated with next week's launch of our Kickstarter campaign to raise production funds for this effort. (I'll blog about this again next week, when we actually start the campaign.)

This has always been an important component of FIC's mix of programs, even though we haven't always had the staff to be active. Our essential challenge is how to keep the costs of events affordable while at the same time generating enough income to fairly compensate staff for the substantial investment it takes to pull off a quality event.

In the discussion this weekend we've been looking at some far ranging ideas for approaching this differently, including videos tours of communities that are offered online (a virtual event); Earth Day open houses; a music tour where name artists give house concerts at intentional communities, followed by workshops; and a robust webinar series where people are brought in initially by free content.

Strategic Planning 
This work is a continuation from the spring. Starting with something we drafted six months ago, we're devoting time this weekend to polishing a revised vision and mission statement that we can use to assess program elements and new ideas.

In addition we got clearer on the relationship of staff to Board in light of how things have been reorganized following my stepping down as the main administrator.

In all, FIC meetings can be regularly relied upon to keep several of us off the streets for three days every spring and fall.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Día de los Muertos 2015

This is my annual post, taking a moment to remember people impactful in my life who have passed away in the last 12 months. I enjoy this seasonal ritual far more than an orgy of candy consumption.

Mildred Gordon (Jan 4)
While I wrote a eulogy to Mildred when she died 10 months ago (Mildred Gordon Crosses the Bar at 92), I'm happy to salute her again here. She was one of my two main mentors in my work as a process consultant, and special to me for her efforts to integrate the rational and the emotional—something this culture tends to do badly.

Mildred worked with others in one of two ways:

a) One-on-one (or one-on-two in the case of couples), where she'd be more flexible and patient in helping people find their way through conflicted thoughts and feelings. She was adept at saying things in multiple ways, so if her first approach didn't work, she'd simply try another. For example, if a direct exploration didn't land she might try a role play. Her door was always open for community members seeking advice.

b) In open group discussion, where she was the facilitator and impresario. In this role she was more directive, and would often pause to make a teaching point. While anyone could speak and raise a concern, she would never relinquish control of the conversation. It was a weakness that she couldn't share the center spotlight.

Her stamina was legendary, willing the group to remain with her through the examination of dynamics—sometimes for hours.

One the things I admired most in Mildred was her ability to speak plainly and to convey difficult concepts in easily understood words and metaphors.

Though Mildred tended to be obsessed with the possibility of dying young (as many others in her bloodline had), she reached the exalted age of 92 and enjoyed life in full measure.

Marshall Rosenberg (Feb 7)
While I never met the man, I read his book and listened to his audio tapes, and his seminal work on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) pervades the field of cooperative group dynamics. 

One of my consistent messages to groups is that they need a way to recognize and work constructively with conflict—that not having any agreements in this regard doesn't work. Once groups recognize the need, NVC is one of the most common choices made about how to proceed. Partly its appeal is its gentle language; partly it's because trainers are everywhere, so it's easy to get support.

While I approach conflict somewhat differently than Marshall, you have to tip your hat to someone who's body of work has become so widely known.

Bigger than life, Marshall's work was successful enough that it suffered from getting codified and ossified (which is probably an inevitable consequence of success), with practitioners latching onto the structure instead of the underlying compassion, with the unintended result that "certified" teachers were applying an NVC formula regardless of the audience or the application—to the point where sometimes expressions of anguish were being discounted because they we're not delivered as proper "I" statements. I can only imagine that this was painful for Marshall to observe.

Still, you have to love a man who devoted his life to the active pursuit of peace, and who sought out conflicted dynamics in which to insert the balm of his approach.

Marshall was 80 when he died.

Alma Hildebrand (Feb 13)
Alma was the mother of my friend and long-time fellow Sandhill member, Stan Hildebrand. In all the 40 years I lived at Sandhill, Stan was the person who lived there with me the longest: 34 years.

Over those decades, his parents, Jake and Alma, came to visit a number of times. When Jake's health failed to the point where he could no longer travel, they stopped coming. Yet Stan would religiously head north to Manitoba in early Dec, both to miss the Xmas craziness and to celebrate Alma's birthday, Dec 4.

Alma and Jake were Mennonites and Stan was their eldest son. They were farmers in the Red River Valley (that forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, and flows north into Lake Winnipeg). The homemade meat grinder that Sandhill uses during deer season was donated to us by Jake and Alma, and we always enjoyed the connection of both being farm families: there's was traditional and ours was new age, but the carrots and chickens couldn't tell the difference.

After Jake died, Alma moved to an assisted living facility in nearby Altona. Fun loving and social, Alma always had a jigsaw puzzle going or wanted to play cards (canasta and Uno were equally big).

I can only imagine that they have multiple deck cards games in heaven, too, and that Alma is playing still. She was 92.