Friday, October 28, 2022

My Senior Moments

This year I've had the opportunity to be part of a team of instructors delivering a five-week webinar (10 hours in total) entitled Aging Gracefully in Community, being produced through the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC). The second incarnation of this webinar will happen over five consecutive Wednesdays. It started Oct 26 and will run through Nov 23.

I'm teaching the first and third classes, and preparing for them has provided me the occasion to reflect on where I'm at with my life as a senior—something I strongly advise other seniors to do. I also crossed the threshold of my 73 birthday this past week, which is as good a time as any to step back and take stock.

I stepped down as the main administrator of FIC at the end of 2015, retiring from one of my two careers after a 28-year run. As it happened, I discovered immediately afterwards that I had multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer, which knocked me back for a time. After spending the bulk of 2016 in treatment (I benefited greatly from excellent care at a local hospital, and from a stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic), I have been able to manage the cancer and recover sufficient strength and stamina to resume my other career—the one I haven't retired from—teaching and consulting about cooperative group dynamics.

This ongoing passion is something I've been doing since 1987, specializing in working with intentional communities and working with the whole person (not just the rational part). When I got a second chance on how my senior years might play out (I was pretty far down the well when the cancer was discovered in early '16 and might not have made it back), that served as a wake-up call. Colors were a little brighter, and there is nothing quite like near-death to sharpen the concentration and appreciate the preciousness of what you have. It's an opportunity to strip away the drek and prioritize the joy.

Well, continuing my career in group process was an easy call (so long as I retain solid cognitive skills, knock on wood), as that definitely brings me joy, It's my main venue for social change work, and it's simultaneous my main impetus for personal work. A hard to beat combo.

That said, my relationship to this work has evolved, and never more so than in the last three years. Let me count the ways:

(Actually everything evolves, though we are not always paying attention, or willing to reconsider things in light of new information. I have a good friend who once shared the insight, Don't you sometimes just long for the unexamined life? Hah! Personal work can be grueling! And it's sobering to absorb that it never ends—you never actually reach the top of the mountain.)

• Marked increase in divisiveness and the breakdown of cicil discourse—not just at the macro political level; I'm talking about the dynamics in communities as well.

• Social impact of the pandemic and the strain on cooperative groups as people weathered a long stretch of limiting how much they saw one another in the same room. (This has been especially hard on extroverts.)

• Discovering that Zoom can be an effective delivery tool for teaching and consulting. Not the same as working in-person, to be sure, yet more.nuanced and potent than I suspected at the outset.

• Increased opportunities to teach.

• Balancing immediate needs with strategic planning (it's hard to complete long rang projects when I manage opportunities on the LIFO inventory system).

Here's how all of this had impacted the various segments of of my work:

—Blog and articles

While I've spent markedly less time writing for public consumption the last three years, it's not because I've run out of things to say. It's because I've run out of time to write them, in deference to crafting handouts, client reports, slide shows for Zoom trainings, agendas, professional evaluations, and treading water with email (which includes a sharp up tick in student correspondence). Some of this is remunerative. Most of it is not. In any event, I'm not writing less; I'm writing differently. (Although my blog postings have been way down, I still managed to get four articles posted in Communities magazine this past year.)


Not counting conference workshops (I've done more than 100 in my career) I've been actively teaching since I pioneered my signature two-year facilitation training in 2003 (see below). That said, the pandemic gave a rocket boost to online offerings, and I'm along for the ride. Since 2019 I've tripled how much time I spend teaching. Fortunately, I love it, and it aligns well with my desire to be an agent for positive social change. Unfortunately, it means there's less time for everything else. (I'm even teaching an 8-part series, Learning to Play Bridge, through a local community ed program, and I love that, too!)

—Writing books about group dynamics

This is getting the short end of the stick. I don't prioritizing it, because it's anguishing for me to turn down client requests to protect time for books. My motivation is further undercut by the knowledge that pretty much everything I want to say in a book has already been captured in my blog—it just isn't organized as well as a book would be. Though I haven't given up, I'm definitely noticing that I'm not getting to the work.

—Integrative Facilitation Training (IFT)

I started this course 19 years ago and have now delivered it 16 times. It's the most fun thing I do on a regular basis. The teaching emphasizes an experiential model, where two-thirds of each weekend is devoted to students preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings for a host group, who provides real issues for the students to cut their teeth on, under professional guidance. Students get practice facing live ammunition, and host groups get free outside help with sticky issues—everyone benefits.

I've noticed recently that it's becoming harder to reconcile the active needs of the host with the pedagogical needs of the course. It happens like this: hosts, understandably, want to get maximal benefit from outside help and typically select difficult topics—things where they have struggled on their own. While that is useful training for the students (coping with the nontrivial), topics that are freighted with tensions (often the most troublesome kind) require dealing with the tensions first, before moving on to problem solving, and often it's hard to effect the relationship repair and get deeper into the topic in the time allotted. Thus, students get a fair amount of practice working with tensions (good) but not so much with problem solving (which is a problem).

Most groups are poor at working through tensions, understanding how to productively work issues, or how to use plenary time effectively—all which are things I know how to do and try to emphasize when I teach. In an effort to have the group work where it needs the most help (for example, learning how to use plenary time well) the students don't get as much practice using formats that enhance inclusivity (but come at a cost of slowing things down). It's a dilemma when host needs doesn't align well with what the students need. So this is on my mind right now.

The Next Round of IFT

Incidentally, if you're interested in my thinking about cooperative group dynamics, there is no single better way to absorb (in both your head and your body) the breadth of what I and my fellow trainers have come to understand about this field than by enrolling in one of my two-year trainings, where you'll get to be in a special learning milieu for eight 3-day weekends, spaced approximately three months apart.

While the surface focus of the training is how to understand and make good decisions (as the facilitator) when responding to the complexities and complications of plenaries trying to make inclusive decisions, the utility of the training is much broader than that. 

• The context of the IFT course is understanding the secular dynamics of community, and we are committed to doing that both by discussing and analyzing community, and be being a community for the two years we are together. That means we speak from our hearts as well as our heads; we speak transparently and we speak with compassion. When stuff comes up in class—we talk about it. We teach the moment as much as the curriculum. We strive for a level of engagement and authenticity that is rarely found in this vale of tears.

• We expect everyone to be doing personal work in relationship to the materials. Good facilitation is not just learning formulaic responses, or memorizing scripts. While we offer templates, we don't teach paint-by-number facilitation; we teach heart-centered facilitation where practitioners learn to integrate thoughts and feelings, and to identify and trust their instincts.

• It turns out that facilitation training is also leadership training, as the overlap in skills and mind set are nearly identical. Thus, students can benefit from the training even if they never facilitate meetings, because it will help them fill leadership roles—in community, at work, or even in their family—with confidence and clarity. It also helps students be better followers, and better meeting participants (because they have a better sense of what the facilitator is trying to do).

Note: While I expect to continue training facilitators for as long as I can, there's no telling how much sand I still have in the upper half of my hourglass, so you might want to sign up sooner than later if you think IFT might be a good fit for you. My next training, which will be Zoom-based, will start Jan 12 and there's still room for more as of today. If this tickles your fancy, send me an email ( and I'll give you the full picture.

• • •

I get it that seniors use their latter years in a wide variety of ways, and I respect that this is a very personal choice. It's not for me to tell others what to do. Nonetheless, for what it's worth, I am offering this overview of how I'm spending a significant portion of mine.

Note I have not written about the other major components of my life: time with my partner, Susan; staying connected with family and friends; indulging in my recreational pastimes of celebration cooking, duplicate bridge, solving the daily NYT crosswords, and travel (tonight I fly to Anchorage for two weeks with a community on the Kenai Peninsula—a place I've never been to before—marking the first time I will have traveled to work with a client in person in 31 months). 

While the pace of my life has changed considerably (remember, I'm half retired), I see no reason to ship my oars and drift off into the sunset. I believe in an engaged life, and that generally means sailing close to the wind. The challenge is how best to do that as conditions around me shift, as well as my capacity and physical limitations. With all these parts in motion, there is a constant need to reassess and make adjustments. It goes with the territory. For all of that, however, there is no question about whether or not to try. I still get up every morning wondering how I can get best into what the late John Lewis characterized as "good trouble."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

All of that sounds great, Laird!

I wish you skill, strength, and luck in helping the Alaska community —which is dear to my heart. I lived with those folks from 1983 to 1989 when the community was just forming. And I met you when I visited Sandhill in the fall of the year 2000 as a friend of Rebecca Bloom.

—Paul Gerzon