Friday, December 26, 2008

Silent Night (& Silent Day)

Later this morning Ma'ikwe and I will drive to the outskirts of Rockford IL and begin a 10-day Vipassana retreat. There will be no talking, no radio, no writing, no reading,… and no blogging. It'll just be me, my body, my mind, and my reality—such as it is. For ten days, the rest of the world will have to get along without me. For the rest of the world, I'm not worried.

Part of my partnership agreement with Ma'ikwe is that we'll try new things, and that extends to spiritual inquiry. During the last week of our honeymoon in Italy, we did six days worth of the introductory Avatar course, Resurfacing. Now we're doing a Vipassana retreat. Last night, at Christmas dinner, a friend asked what I was doing to prepare myself for the retreat. I answered: "Nothing. It's not that I don't think there will be challenges for me; it's just that I don't think that there's anything I can do mentally to prepare for them. Instead, I'm just going to surrender to the experience, and face the demons as they come, whatever they may be."

While Ma'ikwe and I will be going through the experience simultaneously, we won't actually see each other during the retreat. Our understanding is that the men and women are housed separately and sleeping will be dormitory style. Even so, retreatants are encouraged to not look at each other—this is meant to be a solitary experience, to the extent possible.

In college, I did a Zazen meditation practice in the pre-dawn for an hour every weekday morning of winter term (10 weeks). It's my only other taste of meditation and that was 38 years ago. I now have a different body, a different mind, and a different spirit. We'll see whether I have a different experience.

Regardless of what happens, I expect to have something to say about it. Look for it as the subject of my next blog, after I return home Jan 7.

Meanhwile, I expect to have one of the soberest New Year's in my life. Though it will be Jan 1 on the calendar, it will just be Day Four of my retreat (and probably a great deal like Day Three and Day Five). Instead of the football I'm used to on that day, it'll just be the footfalls I've grown accustomed to. Still, I note with curiosity that the last full day of the retreat will be Jan 6, which is Epiphany on the Christian calendar. Coincidence? I'll tell you when I get back.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tis the Season

It was my turn to cook today.

In my community, Sandhill Farm, all the adults—and even Renay, who is 12—take turns cooking. With six adult members on the farm plus Renay, that means everybody will have one day wearing the apron during the week I'm home between my last last road trip and a 10-day Vipassana retreat starting the 27th. This is the week of the year where holiday celebrations are most dense, with Solstice, Chanukah, and Christmas all happening in a five-day span. Kinda like sequential fireworks in the dark of winter.

Today started propitiously enough with the tail end of a 36-hour visit from my daughter-in-law Tosca, with her eight-month-old daughter (my one and only granddaughter) Taivyn. We'd had a lovely (if brief) visit and Tosca headed back to St Louis and Christmas with her mother and grandparents after breakfast and a diaper change. Being with an inquisitive, happy baby for a day-and-a-half put everyone in a good mood.

It's especially fun to cook during these days of reflection and socializing, where people linger longer over morning coffee, take naps in the afternoon, and play games after dinner. Today, in addition to cooking supper (steamed rice and Chlilean Squash—page 140 in Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook) I set up a holiday hors d'oeuvre spread at 5 pm, featuring double cream brie, baked garlic, French bread rounds, a coarse-ground salami seasoned with Chianti, Toasted Head chardonnay, and a bottle of tawny port. No one was all that hungry when supper was trotted out an hour later.

It was just the community—our family of friends—sitting around the kitchen table (conveniently near the wood stove) telling stories, laughing easily, and enjoyng each other's company. For my money, that's what holidays are all about.

What's more, tomorrow I get to double dip. My wife, Ma'ikwe, spent the day here and tomorrow morning we'll mosey over to her place at Dancing Rabbit—just three miles to the northeast—and gear up for the Christmas Day potluck by assembling tamales (a chicken version, one with cheese, and a vegan option featuring mushrooms), Russian tea cakes, mincemeat pie, lemon bars, shrimp cocktail, and plum pudding with hard suace. Does that say love or what? (I can hardly wait to see what others bring.)

As I suspend the bulk of my regularly scheduled work life to be present with some of the amazing people who enrich my life, my sincerest wish is that everyone else enjoys the same opportunity.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Role of Shepherd: Keeping Track of the Sheep

One of the most potent concepts in consensus is that of the neutral Facilitator. That is, the person guiding the plenary meetings should not be a stakeholder on the topics being discussed (or at least not a major stakeholder). The idea, simply, is that if the Facilitator is identified with a certain position, they'll likely slant things in the direction they favor, either wittingly or otherwise. If this is the perception, then participants will not experience the meeting as a level playing field, and it's much less likely that the topic will be examined cleanly.

In the context of plenary meetings, a corollary to this concept is the idea that the Presenter of each topic (the person who lays out why the group is talking about this topic and what the objective of the conversation is) will not be the Facilitator. It is relatively common for the Presenter (someone who knows the topic thoroughly and understands why it's coming before the group at this time) to have a definite opinion about what should happen. While you may want to be able to harness that passion in the presentation, you don't want their opinions to contaminate the neutrality of the Facilitator.

Even when the Facilitator thinks they can introduce a topic neutrally, beware! It is not always predictable what will trigger a reaction among participants, and if the Presenter inadvertently steps on a land mine, you'll be glad to have a separate Facilitator available to clean things up. The Facilitator's prime directive is helping the group move both inclusively and expeditiously through topics; they are there to safeguard the group's process and should be as disinterested as possible in the decisions.

Taking this one step further will get me to the primary focus of this blog: the role of Shepherd. It is quite common for a group to not complete a topic in the same meeting at which it is first introduced. When this happens there's inevitably a question of what will happen next. (To be sure, groups don't always address this question well, but they should.)

Sometimes a topic is advanced to the point where a person or subgroup is asked to work the topic in particular ways: for example, to conduct research, to craft a summary statement, to go door-to-door to solicit input from members who missed the meeting, or to draft a proposal taking into account all the factors that surfaced in the discussion. In addition to that, there is the role of Shepherd, the person or committee who:

o Collects and archives all the input from group members relevant to the topic.

o Sees to it that all assigned tasks are completed in an orderly way (by which I mean involving all the right people in a timely manner). Note: the Shepherd may or may not be the one doing these tasks.

o Makes sure that the topic comes back to plenary when it's ready to be taken up next—when assigned tasks have been completed, the presenter is good to go, and there's group energy for the tackling the consideration. This will involve collaboration with the Agenda Planners [see my blog of Jan 25, 2008 for more on this role].

o Answers inquiries about what's been happening with the topic.

o Tracks progress on the topic until all plenary aspects have been disposed of, at which point the Shepherd role is laid down.

In addition, at the discretion of the plenary, the Shepherd may be asked to:

Suggest the order and format in which subtopics are considered. It may also have recommendations about what useful work can be done on this topic outside of plenary.

As I am defining it here, the Shepherd is a coordinating role, and not a decision-making role. It is the Shepherd's job to make sure that the sheep (or threads, if you prefer a weaving metaphor) are not lost and that they are properly cared for and sorted; it is not their job to shear, breed, or butcher. The key here is understanding that Shepherds have a defined, limited role. Good ones can significantly relieve the workload of both Agenda Planners and Facilitators—two groups that tend to have overflowing plates, and which will greatly appreciate the pastoral assistance.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Taking Your Dog Out of the Fight

Recently I was doing phone interviews with members of a forming community that had hired me to help them work through conflicted dynamics. The phone calls were an attempt to establish background and connection leading up to a couple days of live work together. Toward the end of one particular call—with a man I'll call Chris, who was in deep mud with some others in the group—Chris confessed that he was thinking seriously about leaving the community and questioned its viability. I asked him if his mind was made up or if there was any hope for the possibility that the damage could be repaired and that his community dream could be salvaged.

Chris reported that the door was yet ajar, though he was deeply skeptical of the community's revival. In return he asked me how I was going to approach the two days of group meetings, based on all the phone interviews. I told him I'd be coming with the starting idea that the community could work and that no one needed to leave. While I might be persuaded by events to change my view, I'd begin with the notion that the hurts could be healed and that the reasons why people were originally inspired to attempt the community still obtained.

Chris did not like my response. Worried that my attitude was prejudiced against his position, he questioned me closely about my thinking. I explained that there were several reasons for my approach:

1. I didn't have a dog in this fight
That is, I was not a stakeholder and didn't need the outcome to go in any particular direction. While I was open to the possibility of dissolution—and was perfectly willing to have the question of viability on the table—I would not be trying to steer things toward a particular goal (aside from authenticity and inclusiveness). Thus, my attitude was not about advocacy for a particular conclusion; it was about what I felt wold be most fruitful. (It is one thing to end a group relationship in recognition of how badly you've been frustrated and hurt; it's altogether another to end it after you've made a good faith effort to attempt other members' reasonable suggestions about how to reconcile and found that it wasn't enough to continue. The former tends to promote bitter feelings; the latter tends to promote better feelings.)

2. You tend to find what you're looking for
My years of group work have convinced me that people are profoundly influenced by expectations. If you go into a meeting expecting divisiveness, you're already 90% along the road toward manifesting it. Thus, for reconciliation to have a chance, it's extremely helpful to believe it's possible. As a professional facilitator who has learned to look for bridges between people who are standing in different places, I regularly find them. It's about that simple.

Caution: I am not talking about magical thinking where people "white light" critical differences or pretend to like each other until it's true. The bridge work I attempt only succeeds when all parties freely acknowledge its existence, its fairness, and its traffic-worthiness. This requires that each person is accurately seen and that their reality, their good intentions and their integrity have been validated (keeping in mind that reality, intentions, and integrity vary person to person).

3. The assumption that the dream that inspired the community is still valid, and that the investment of time, money, and energy into manifesting the community has value
While sometimes a fragile thing, a forming community is nonetheless a precious thing, and thus worth watering in times of drought. While there's no doubt that the seedling can wither beyond recovery—and soldiering on is little more than throwing good resources after bad—you want to make sure that the cause is hopeless before pulling the plug on the grow light.

Hint: While groups often focus on whether they have the skills to build community (assuming you have a good idea about what they are), you also must have sufficient availability and motivation. If you're missing any of these three key aspects among your membership, it's likely to be a fatal flaw. In fact, of the three, deficient skills is perhaps the easiest obstacle to overcome (as sufficiently motivated people with ample time can move mountains with teaspoons, and can often learn whatever skills they lack—providing only that they know: a) what they don't know; and b) the need to know it).

4. Few groups know how to work constructively through conflict
A lot of my consulting work is helping groups out of the ditches they've gotten into, and back onto the road of effectiveness. As there are few examples of vibrant cooperative groups who weather conflict well, it's easy to understand the miasma of despair that descends on groups once they're mired in non-trivial distress.

If you make decisions about viability before resolving conflict, it's relatively easy to give up on a project that could still succeed (after all, where would hope come from if you've never seen groups work through conflict well?). If you ultimately do decide to lay down a community, you'll sleep a lot better at night if you first clean the wounds and start the healing process, and make the decision from a place of wholeness, rather than brokenness.

• • •
Weeks later, at the end of my time with the forming group, I was rewarded with this evaluative comment from Chris:

"I came into these meetings feeling deeply conflicted with a number of people, and concerned that Laird's optimism might obscure a clean look at the community's viability. I leave these two days feeling fully heard, and inspired by Laird's repeated demonstration of how to approach conflict by focusing on relationships, and inviting each of us to take our dog out of the fight."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Orleans in December

Rumbling across the country from Los Angeles to Charlotte, Ma’ikwe and I had an overnight on Tuesday in New Orleans as we changed trains. We swapped the eastbound Sunset Limited for the northbound Crescent, and it gave us the chance for an evening out and a night’s sleep in a stationary bed.

It was the first time I’d been in the Crescent City since Katrina, and I was curious to see how it was faring (and eager to sample again some of the prized oysters that that Gulf jewel is famous for—I can personally recommend a charbroiled dozen at Drago's).

It’s been almost 40 months since the storm surge breached the levees, and much of the damage from that disaster has been repaired (or is out of sight of the tracks). While the population is still only 60% of what it was before the hurricane, the center of town seemed fully repaired and back in business. We were only in town for 15 hours and didn’t explore much beyond the modern urbanity of the Central Business District or the uniquely mixed antebellum charm and Fat Tuesday flash of the Vieux Carré—where sumptuous antique furniture stores stand chock-a-block with hole-in-the-wall emporia for Hurricanes, a frozen alcoholic concoction served in souvenir plastic to-go cups; all-night pizza joints share walls with soft-lit pedigreed restaurants where gentlemen are required to were suit coats to enter; and praline specialty shops rub shoulders with transgendered peep shows. There is really nowhere quite like N’awlins.

Though we were cautioned by the hotel concierge to not stray from well-lit streets in our after-dark stroll, everything seemed safe and (mostly) charming. It was a muggy night in the high 60s, and easy to get around in just shirtsleeves. We noticed fresh green leaves on some of the trees coming into town and it’s hard to credit that we’re midway between Thanksgiving and Christmas. (The sports page of this morning’s Times-Picayune was fretting on behalf of the hometown Saints, who must travel to Chicago to play the Bears Thursday evening in outdoor Soldier Field, where temperatures are expected to be about 40 degrees less than they were on Bourbon St last night. Talk about home field advantage!)

As an Amtrak aficionado I can tell you that there is only one way to cross the Mississippi by passenger train that doesn’t take you through Chicago, and that’s the route we’re now taking. While I typically enjoy excuses to go through Chicago (where half of my siblings live), it’s nice to have a change of pace, and enjoy some of the other routes. Understandably, the southern route is a standout choice in December, and we’ve been lucky enough to ride the edge of a storm front as we wind our way eastward, enjoying unseasonable warm weather all along the way—with forecasts of deteriorating weather right behind us.

I’m wondering though what the forecast is for New Orleans. As lovely as our overnight respite was, I’ve been told by Louisianans that most of the poorer sections of the city have not been rebuilt at all, and it’s unclear if they’ll ever regain their lost population. Due to the heavy silting of the Mississippi, New Orleans is no longer a viable deep water port, and the northern shore of the Gulf recedes steadily to the south as farmers continue to over-cultivate the cornfields of the Midwest and exports its topsoil downstream.

It may be December for the Crescent City in more ways than one.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Contrasting Spiritual & Secular Groups

Saturday I finished a couple days working with Lumbini Gardens, a forming community hoping to build a residential Dzogchen Buddhist community on 10 acres in La Ribera, a small village at the southern end of Baja California, facing the Sea of Cortez.

Mostly I was helping them sort out some hurtful internal dynamics which had seriously undermined the level of trust among members in recent months. While we did well together cleansing the wounds (which mostly means being able to validate everyone’s feelings and to explain to everyone’s satisfaction how no one’s actions or statements were done with intent to harm), it remains to be seen how much energy exists among the current configuration of members for a renewed effort to manifest the community.

Regardless of their future prospects, I was highly impressed with the courage and vulnerability displayed by the 16 Lumbinians who attended the sessions. As far as I could tell this was directly attributable to their joint Dzogchen practice and thus, their personal and collective familiarity with self-reflection.

While most of my experience as a group process consultant is with secular groups, by which I mean groups that do not ask for a commitment to spiritual inquiry—either in general, or with a specific path—as a condition of membership, I’ve had occasion to work with spiritual groups perhaps half a dozen times, and there tend to be some significant differences between those and secular groups.

Difference #1
When a group struggles (and let’s face it, I rarely get asked in unless a group is struggling), having a common relationship to spiritual inquiry can be a terrific benefit. It becomes a life ring in troubled seas, and a reason to hang in there when members otherwise might feel like giving up. It’s also a reason to continue to extend trust to someone you otherwise might be inclined to write off. That is, spiritual groups tend to be less brittle in the presence of conflict.

Difference #2
Most spiritual practices ask devotees to develop their capacity for self-reflection and make an effort to improve their awareness of how their actions land with others. To the extent that practitioners make progress with those disciplines, and are already habituated to that kind of humble inquiry, it’s gold when working through conflicted dynamics.

My experience with Lumbini Gradens was a good example of this. To be sure, there was still some defensiveness and deflection in the heat of the moment, yet, on the whole, there was remarkably little of that and the group was laudably sure-footed in finding its way through the prickly tangle of accusatory statements.

Difference #3
In spiritual groups you can typically count on a willingness among members to accept the help of others in finding one's way through this vale of tears. Thus, in spiritual groups there tends to be less ego attachment, or at least a greater awareness of one's susceptibility to ego attachment. As a consequence, people with a common practice tend to find it less embarrassing to accept responsibility in front of others for the inadvertent harm caused by their not-so-enlightened actions or statements, once that damage has been revealed with care and sensitivity. This can be very healing for the group, and a balm that is sometimes out of reach with secular groups.

Difference #4
When laboring with spiritual groups to unpack conflicted dynamics, I’ve occasionally experienced people reaching a point where they simply surrender to the idea that they’ve done something poorly (the psychic equivalent of a dog rolling over and exposing its throat)—not because they’ve suddenly “gotten it,” but more because they’ve reached a point where they can no longer tolerate being in struggle or having their behavior spotlighted. In such situations, I’ve had an uneasy feeling that the energetic shift has not been accompanied by a gain in understanding, and the dynamic is just as likely to happen again.

I see this as the insidious side of “leaps of faith.” If spiritual truths are not required to make rational sense, then who’s to say that surrender to another’s analysis of how you’ve fucked up isn’t a prelude to the next spiritual leap? Perhaps, in some mixed up way, the crazier the accusation, the more appealing it is to surrender to it. While I don’t see this a lot (fortunately), it happens often enough that I’m alert for it.

Difference #5
Sometimes spiritual groups confuse emotional maturity with spiritual maturity. When this happens there can be terrific forces at play to suppress emotional distress for fear it will be viewed as a lack of spiritual accomplishment, and therefore lead to a demotion of stature in the spiritual community.

While I found no evidence of this particular malaise at Lumbini, I’ve run into it previously with spiritual groups and I’ve learned to be on guard for it.

Outside of therapy, North American culture has precious few models for working well with emotions in group settings, and it’s only fair to point out that secular groups don’t tend to handle this well either. However, at their worst, spiritual groups can actively suppress feelings of distress, where secular groups tend to simply be confused and nervous about it.

• • •
As I continue to ply my craft, I'll be watching for other patterned differences between spiritual and secular groups. Meanwhile, this is as far as I’ve gotten to date.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pelican Brief

A very strange bird is the pelican,
Its beak can hold more than its belly can.
—Ogden Nash

Dateline: Buena Vista, Baja California Sur

I flew into Los Cabos yesterday (don’t bother to pack pistachios for your next foray south of the border; Mexican immigration won’t let you bring them in) and got settled for two days of work with Lumbini Gardens, a forming community near the sport fishing village of Buena Vista, about an hour north of Los Cabos (and two hours south of La Paz), just up the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, on the Sea of Cortez.

As I’m not on stage until Friday & Saturday, I’ve been enjoying a morning of coffee and casual conversation with group members, and otherwise toughing it out in the 80-degree weather with a gentle onshore breeze.

Walking the beach for three hours (something I rarely get to do on the farm in Missouri), I came across a raft of brown pelicans, hanging out and occasionally snacking on Nature’s own sushi: raw fish seasoned delicately with sea water (a clever tamari substitute) and some bits of inter-tidal nori. It looked like they were having fun and enjoying the same nice day I was.

Used to touristas, a few of these prehistoric looking avians let me get within 30 feet out them. What an amazing bird! Though they look as if put together by committee, the parts seem to work together pretty well. With their large wingspan they can glide for perhaps 200 feet, only inches above the waves. Yet, when they spot a fish, they can knife into the water in a blink, and pop up like a cork to strain their piscean hors d’oeuvre from the bucketful of seawater they scooped into their expansive lower beak. Maneuvering their catch headfirst with a flick of their powerful necks, they release the excess water and it’s down the hatch. Quite a show.

While “elegant” is not the first word that comes to mind when looking at a pelican, they are nonetheless rather regal when posing on rocks, and unquestionably graceful in their gravity-defying glides. While I’m perfectly content to not have an accordion-like lower jar, I do envy their being able to glide like that. Whenever I have flying dreams, it’s always about gliding, where I just lean forward and float above the ground. You know, like a pelican.

Pelicans already hold a special place in my heart because some of them are champion migrators. White ones, for instance, winter in the Gulf of Mexico and summer in central Canada. As a kid learning about exotic animals (by “exotic” I mean ones that don’t live where you do), I was taught to associate pelicans with Louisiana. Imagine my surprise when I first encountered them in the wild while canoeing the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan. They come north to raise their young and congregate around rapids, where the fishing is better and the water is shallower (with that beak, they’re only going to go so deep). Just like a lot of the gringos around here, they follow the warm weather.

I saw a bumper sticker this morning that read “Work is for Those Who Don’t Fish.” I’m not sure, but it may have been distributed out by Bureau of International Groupings for the Betterment of Intertidal Lunching and Lounging. You know, the BIGBILL association, which most pelicans, of course, belong to.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Wisdom of Babies and Dogs

This past week I've been spending a lot of time hanging out with both my seven-month-old granddaughter, Taivyn, and my three-year-old granddog, Zeus—often at the same time. Both are happy to have my undivided attention, and sometimes they even get it.

As someone who's lived in community for 34 years and has been working with groups professionally for 21, I'm often wading through the jungle of convoluted interpersonal dynamics, looking for clear paths. It's refreshing to be reminded by Taivyn that life doesn't have to be so complicated. She can be crying her heart out one minute, asleep the next, and then all-forgiving when she wakes up, unencumbered by any grudges about how I wouldn't let her poke her inquisitive fingers into the electric outlets right before her nap.

Adults are rarely that straight forward with one another—either in terms of being emotionally artless (with babies, what you see is what you get) or willing to start each new interaction with
a ready smile and a clean slate. Unfortunately, we adults tend to keep score. Worse, we rarely use the same point system or even announce the standings. It's messy.

For his part, Zeus is the embodiment of unconditional love. Just like Taivyn, he's happy to interact with me whenever we make eye contact. Unlike Taivyn, he never pitches a fit. He just wants to lick my face, get his belly and ears rubbed, and go for a walk—in about that order. If he gets turned down, he either tries someone else or just lies down, slows his heart beat, and waits for the next chance. When you run into people like that, you tend to question whether they're hitting on all cylinders ("Why are they so happy all the time?). Canines set such a high bar when it comes to
loyalty and affection that you can understand why some prefer dogs over partners as housemates.

Tomorrow at first light I'm off to a weekend job with a troubled group. While my main motivation for this visit was to be with my son and his family for six days, I realize at the cusp of my departure that I got a bonus. In addition to nurturing family relationships, I also received an unexpected balm after basking for hours and hours in the unalloyed affection and availability of a baby and a dog. I experienced it as a massage for my psyche. Though I didn't know it when I planned the trip, I needed it.

Taivyn & Zeus, this jaded warrior thanks you for your therapuetic ministrations and loving

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Trial by Football

I'm in Las Vegas for six days, hanging out with my son Ceilee and his family and friends. The four days of the Thanksgiving weekend will be about as different from my homesteading life in rural northeast Missouri as it can get.

While we try to emphasize self-sufficiency and sustainability at Sandhill Farm, I think the main thing that sustains Vegas is an overweaning passion for the consumptive life. I guess you could say that Sandhill and Vegas both succeed pretty well at promoting a lifestyle based on core values—they're just very different values.

And yet, my son and his wife Tosca are happy here. He has a job as an account manager for Cricket, a national phone company. He likes technology and he likes management. While I'm neutral about technology, I certainly depend on it (I can't even imagine my current life without a laptop) and I'm fond of management also. Where I work the nonprofit side of the street, Ceilee's riding the coporate elevator.

The thing I keep foremost in mind when visiting Ceilee is that I'm visiting my son and his family, with whom I am highly desirous of an ongoing and affectionate relationship. While he's developed some values that are rather different than mine, I am determined to not recapitulate the tense relationship I had with my father when, as a young adult, I veered sharply to the left of the conservative values he attempted to instill in me growing up (in the Republican suburbs of Chicago).

I love my son, and I accept that he has every right to make up his own mind about the lifestyle and politics that suit him best. These were the same rights I tried so desperately to get my father to recognize should be mine 40 years ago, and the principle is no less valid today, even though I'm now the dad.

So, when I'm in Vegas I'm Ceilee's guest, and we do Vegas things. At Sandhill we don't own a TV. By the time the Bears & Vikings conclude their Sunday night game in Minneapolis (two nights from now) I will probably have watched a dozen football games in about 84 hours. As we're both sports fans, I simply enjoy the opportunity. We laugh, drink, eat, and I find out how he's doing—roughly in that order. I take turns holding Taivyn, his seven-month-old daughter (and my first grandchild), do some dishes, and help cook and clean.
Before I leave town early Wed, I'll also find time to change out all the electrical outlets in his kitchen (back home in Missouri I'm the community electrician, and it turns out that some homesteading skills are just as handy in the city as they are on the farm).

Today we played golf, as part of a foursome that included a couple of Ceilee's local friends (both of whom work for Patron, the high-end tequila manufacturer, with corporate headquarters here). While golf was a sport I essentially left behind as a teenager, I still play every now and then when Ceilee invites me. While I shake my head at all the water that's devoted to keeping the fairways green in this desert environment, I enjoy having my son give me pointers on the best way to hit a sand wedge.

What it distills to is that s
pending time with my kids is precious to me. When I visit them I try to fit into their life, rather than asking them to adapt to me. And besides, the lifetsyle I embrace in Vegas, stays in Vegas. It's only the relationships that need to transcend geography and politics. I don't ever need to hit another golf ball, place another bet at a casino, or even see another football game on TVbut I do need a loving realtionship with my son. Luckily, I have one.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Baja Boondoggle

Years ago I was short listed for a process consulting job in Hawaii. That's right, an expense-paid trip (in February as I recall) to a tropical paradise where I'd get paid to be there. Sadly, I had a scheduling conflict (a prior commitment to work in Colorado, I think) and had to take my name out of consideration. Sigh. I always figured that would be one of the ways to tell that I'd "made it" as a consultant, getting gigs like that.

Well, a week from Wednesday I'll be flying to San José del Cabo, at the southern tip of Baja California for two days of paid work with a forming community called Lumbini Gardens. It's fun just telling people about it.

I was in Baja California only once before, back in 1990 when visiting Krutsio, a small income-sharing community on the Pacific Coast near Guerrero Negro. It was isolated and breathtakingly beautiful. Although it was sering hot desert just a short distance inland, right
next to the ocean there was always a cool onshore breeze that kept tempratures in the 50s at night and in the 70s during the day. Krutsio produced all the water they needed (which included gardening) with solar desalination, and their power came from solar panels and a wind turbine. While the productivity of the land was meager, the pristine tidal zone was teeming with edibles—including such delicacies as abalone and nori—and the fish was never fresher.

Where I'm going in December will be different. It's a developed area awash with American ex-pats, where land prices have quadrupled in the last five years. Although the beachfront will not be wild, my fondest wish is to see whales (several species winter in the Gulf of California, including sperm, blue, fin, grey, and humpbacks). I'll have to get lucky for that to happen however, as I fly in Wed and depart Sunday (to catch a train that afternoon to my next gig in Asheville NC, where I'll be teaching facilitation with my wife Ma'ikwe and staying with my daughter Jo). Most of the time I won't be walking the beach casting hopeful glances into the Sea of Cortez. Rather, I'll be in meetings, trying to help the group sort out interpersonal dynamics and discuss the future of their project.

I've spoken with most of the members by phone in preparation for the meetings, and am optimistic about a positive outcome. For one thing, there will only be about a dozen people attending (smaller numbers=fewer permutations). For another, all share a Buddhist Dzogchen practice and accept Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche as their spiritual guide (it tends to be easier helping groups through rough spots when everyone drinks from the same well and has already embraced the notion that self-examination is worthwhile).

Although the work isn't until Dec 5-6, I start my journey this evening, boarding the Southwest Chief in La Plata MO, westbound for Las Vegas, where I'll arrive in the wee hours of Thanksgiving. There I'll have six days with my son Ceilee, his wife Tosca, my seven-month-old granddaughter Taivyn, and my favorite dog in the whole world, Zeus. The timing of the Baja work is such that I can combine it with a visit with my son and his family (encompassing a precious four-day weekend) at no extra cost.

All together, I'll be gone Nov 25-Dec 20. While that's a long stretch, I'll be visiting both of my kids as bookends to the trip, with back-to-back paid weekends in the middle (and did I mention the overnight stay that Ma'ikwe and I will have in New Orleans when we exchange seats on the eastbound Sunset Limited for ones on the northbound Crescent, as we amble along the southern US en route from Los Angeles to Charlotte?).

While I still can't tell whether I've "made it" as a process consultant, I have a pretty wonderful life, and am having a whale of time in the process, whether it actually involves humpbacks or not.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Losing Long-term Members

This week, Michael and Käthe announced that they'll be giving up their membership and returning to their homestead in southern Missouri at the end of the 2009 growing season. We'll be sad to see them go. They've been members of Sandhill since Feb 2002, and it always hurts when you lose people who are fully integrated into the family.

Over the years, we've noticed that two years is an important watershed for new members. If someone makes it that long they've gone through two growing cycles and probably have a pretty good idea about what life here is like and how well they fit into it. They also have had plenty of time to figure out what the friendship potentials are (as well as who's particularly irritating).

[Another key to someone staying or going is whether they find a partner, or how they perceive their potential for finding one—if they're in the market (which, incidentally, tends to be almost independent of whether they currently have a partner). Years ago, a visitor who had spent some time in Israel reported that in the
kibbutzim it was said that the two main reasons people leave are because: 1) they've fallen in love (and were afraid that in the nutrient rich environment of community the new relationship might be tested beyond its resilience); or 2) because they didn't fall in love (and would leave in the hopes of improving their chances of finding their soul mate).]

In our 34 years, we've only lost a handful of members who have lived here more than two years (not counting my kids who "graduated" through normal metamorphosis): Becca, Clarissa, and Lindsay were here for three and change; and in the 5+ category we've only lost Grady, Jules, French, Annie, Bekka… and now Käthe & Michael. To put this in fuller perspective, we've had 79 members (67 adults) all together in our history (I'm only counting those who "officially joined" in some sense). Through today, half of the people who have lived at Sandhill for more than three years are still living here. We six (five adults and one child) are the embodiment and articulators of the community's culture and the center of the gyroscope.

It is both fortunate and unfortunate that our nucleus evolves. Change is at once heart-wrenching, inevitable, and life giving—sometimes all in the same day.

While we'll have 12 months before it happens, losing two people is a serious blow when you only have six adult members, and it will be interesting to see what effect this has on how we view recruitment and our 2009 intern program. It would be really good to manifest one or two new members next year.

I am reminded that the Chinese ideogram for danger and opportunity are the same. We have the choice to be fearful in the face of impending loss, and the chance to be exhilarated by the unfoldment ahead. While it's true that one of the values we embrace at Sandhill is voluntary simplicity, luckily, I've never gotten community living confused with the expectation of a simple, predictable life.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

When Meat is Deer

I'm the community butcher.

Tough most years this is a busy time for that, there are currently no deer hanging in our walk-in cooler, and it's unclear whether I'll sharpen the knives this month or not. Even though we're four days into the rifle hunting season for deer, none of our three hunters have been successful yet. Northeast Missouri is about 10% wooded, and has a low human population, which combines to make excellent habitat for deer. Over the course of our 34 years here, the deer population has steadily increased—despite increasingly liberal regulations about hunting limits. (In fact, there are farmers in the county who net more annual income from renting their land to out-of-state hunters for the 11 days of deer season than they do from growing crops.)

While almost all of the omnivorous members of Sandhill have helped take part in processing our meat over the years, one of my homestead niches has been to take the lead on working up the meat from our homegrown animals when their time has come.

While I don't have a taste for killing, and I generally leave that part for others, I am drawn to the role of overseeing the transformation from carcass to food. I view it as part of a sacred trust between myself and what I eat, and I try to honor the spirit of the animal whose life I (and others) have taken by using the carcass as fully and as respectfully as possible. In addition to having the flexibility of cutting up the meat to suit our preferences (getting the right ratio of roasts to ground meat, for example), we make our own sausage, boil the bones to make soup stock, and preserve the scraps as a prized supplement to store-bought dog food.

Among other things, butchering is one of the bonding rituals I have with my children, and both Jo (21) & Ceilee (27) already have plans to be back on the farm for the 2009 deer season. We're looking forward to a fortnight of family time, culminating in Thanksgiving—which I consider the perfect homestead holiday. The larders will full and the agricultural cycle will be ended; it's a great time to kick back and celebrate the bounty of life with friends and loved ones.

In our first quarter century on the land, no one here had interest in hunting and we relied on the animals we raised domestically for our meat (culled chickens, males born to our milk cows, and sometimes goats, pigs, and turkeys). Steers comprised the lion's share of our domestic meat. However, that shifted when we let go of our dairy program back in the late '90s. Our lead cow contracted Johne's Disease—the bovine equivalent of Crohn's Disease in humans—and we needed to eliminate all cattle from our land for at least a year to kill off the contamination in our soil. After a year of not milking twice a day, people rather enjoyed the increased flexibility in their daily routine. When a neighbor switched his Holstien dairy to an organic operation, we started buying our milk from him and we didn't revive our own herd.

Without milk cows, there were no steers. Ceilee, then a teenager, developed an interest in hunting, and we made the transition from beef to deer as our primary meat source. As an organic farm, it was a somewhat tricky issue. On the one hand, we saved all the grain and pain of domestic care. On the other, we knew what our steers were eating, and we had no control over what the deer were eating. That is, the steer meat was organic, but the deer wasn't. While there are several of plusses to eating deer—the meat is local, lean, and sustainably raised & harvested—all meat is a known sink for environmental poisons and we're taking a risk.

Several years into incoporating deer into our regular diet (at Sandhill we tend to eat a low-meat diet; on average it shows up on our menus only once or twice a week) we haven't noticed any detrimental health consequences. Still, we're keeping an eye on it.

This fall, three different friends had approached me about helping with the butchering so that they could learn the craft. I enjoy teaching and was pleased that folks thought well enough of both my skill and my attitude to apprentice with me. However, there will be no lessons without successful hunting. As there's still another week of the firearm season, the carcasses may yet appear. We'll see.

Meanwhile, it's amusing to realize that as a proess consultant and experienced communitarian, I consider the opportunity to meet to be dear. As a homesteader in northeast Missouri, I also have the opportunity for my meat to be deer.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Intersection of Community and Economics

This morning I got off the westbound California Zephyr in Denver amidst a snow shower. Scrambling to get away from the wet, heavy flakes, I scooted over to the Tattered Cover Bookstore at 16th & Wynkoop, and ordered a triple latte. Fifteen minutes later, a friend collected me for a ride to Loveland, where the skies, amazingly, were a cloudless cerulean blue. Welcome to Colorado winter weather.

I'm visiting Sunrise Ranch this weekend, sitting in on a meeting of the Sunrise Credit Union Board. It has been about a decade since I was last here (over the years FIC has held two board meetings at this long-time headquarters of the Emissaries of Divine Light) and seeing the place again, in the red rock country of the northern Colorado Front Range, brought back a flood of powerful memories. We established the mission for Communities magazine here in spring 1995, and then held our first-ever Art of Community weekend conference in fall 1997.

SCU is the only credit union in the country located in an intentional community—and they specialize in personalized service and helping groups trying to build cooperative culture. Anyone who becomes a member of FIC is automatically eligible to join SCU.

This afternoon they asked me to facilitate a brainstorm on what aspects of the SCU mission were precious to the board, and what would be the components of their ideal program if unconstrained by budget limitations or government regulations. While afternoon sessions are often the sleepy portion of all-day meetings—because the blood tends to be more actively engaged in the stomach (processing lunch), than in the brain (processing agenda)—no one was falling asleep for this topic, and it was a challenge to capture and sort all of the ideas on flip chart paper.

The program inspirations that most captured my imagination were:
o Offering property insurance for cooperatives
o Helping communities establish credit
o Providing
entreprenurial financial advice to cooperative businesses
o Packaging loans to cooperative groups
o Advising groups about fundraising
o Bridging innovative funding sources with traditional ones
o Providing the financial componenet of consulting teams providing techinical assistance to struggling groups
o Delivering everything with a commitment to relationship building and training people to be better at managing their own finances

While it remains to be seen what actions will come from all this juicy conversation, I'm excited to be honing in on how to provide financial services with high integrity; to be building a cooperative world and net assets at the same time.

While it's possible for activities that lose money to be a solid fit with one's values, they can hardly be sustainable if they aren't profitable. The SCU Board wants to build a more cooperative world and make money. It will be very interesting to see what manifests from this energy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Jokes as the Canary in the Meeting Room

Last weekend at the NASCO Institute in Ann Arbor I got a chance to pioneer a workshop on the role of humor in meetings. I styled it: "But Seriously Folks… " Though I had sketched it out years ago, this was the first time I got to do it.

The best part was that in the process of delivering it, I got a new insight into what humor represents. I already understood that jokes are sometimes a terrific tension breaker; sometimes a distraction; and sometimes an unattributed criticism (think sarcasm). My new idea was the extent to which humor is an indicator species.

That is, excepting only when things are rolling along smoothly (by which I mean the group is loose and on topic & productive), humor is mostly a pressure relief valve, and suggests that there is some level of discordance in the room. If the meeting culture does not provide a reasonable way for people to examine tensions, or participants don't know how to articulate their discomfort, attempts at humor (or else shutdown) are likely to result.

If you're aware of this—that jokes are a symptom, rather than a cause—it suggests a different strategy when you encounter people offering up inappropriate zingers. Rather than focusing on extinguishing the behavior ("… and the beatings will continue until morale improves"), you can root around for the underlying tensions. You can think of the oddly placed joke as a cry for help.

While you still need to be alert to the damage that can ensue from put-down humor, you can also look for ways in which the meeting is not working for the people sniggering in the back of the room. It might be the topic; it might be the format; it might be that you've gone too long without a break—but something isn't working. You could be more curious about what that might be, rather than more diligent about keeping the comedians on a short leash. At least that's my insight.

I'm eager to test drive this in the meetings I have coming up (luckily, there are always more meetings) to see how much it helps me sift through the complexities of dynamics to better understand what's happening and what opportunities it presents. Uncovering a nugget like this is exactly why I love trying out new material. Teaching forces me to distill my experiences into articulate patterns, and whenever the information is organized in fresh ways, there is the chance that I'll see deeper patterns still.

I think of it as the fractals of group dynamics.

Monday, November 10, 2008


Ma’ikwe and I just finished up a weekend in Ann Arbor MI, where we participated in the annual Institute hosted by the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO). It was my 12th consecutive year as part of the faculty for this event, and as much fun as ever.

NASCO is an umbrella organization for student co-ops, and the 300+ participants come from all over the US and Canada. While the strongest co-op systems send a raft of folks (Berkeley CA, Austin TX, Madison WI, Oberlin OH, and the locals in Ann Arbor), there are representatives from all corners of the continent and it’s a great mixing ground. These are the co-opers who are excited about group living—as opposed to those drawn mainly by the lure of cheap rent. They are The Next Generation of community seekers, happy to swap stories about how to do group living better and to explore their post-graduate community options.

This year I did five workshops:
—Stump the Chumps (where Ma’ikwe and I field questions about knotty issues in group dynamics)
—Essentials of Meeting Facilitation (where I go over the highlights of the facilitator’s skill set, trying to get folks inspired about what’s possible and why it’s a craft worth learning)
—Conflict (where I try to sell folks on the idea that conflict isn’t bad—doing conflict badly is bad—and it’s a very good idea for groups to discuss how they want to work with emotional input and constructively address distress if and when it enters the room)
—But Seriously Folks… (where I examine the complex nature of humor in meeting dynamics)
—Should You Start a Community or Join One? (where I give participants a close look at the gauntlet of challenges that community pioneers can expect to face and how they morph into something else as the community makes the transition to the settler phase)

In short, I get to share information and perspectives about my life’s work with an eager audience. How much better can it get?

• • •
Well, four years ago, with a little help from my friends, I did figure out a way to make a good thing better.

I was sitting around with my Ann Arbor friends lamenting that my heavy travel schedule (I’m on the road half the time) had the unwanted consequence of sharply limiting my opportunities for celebration cooking. No doubt thinking foremost of my psychic well being (it’s bad for a person’s health to have their creativity stifled), my friends spoke right up: “We can help with that. How about you cook for us Saturday night of the NASCO weekend? We can make it a dinner party for 12-14 people. You cook and we’ll buy the ingredients.”

I accepted this offer with alacrity, and thus was born the annual Ann Arbor Slow Food Extravaganza. While I worked solo to produce the inaugural dinner in 2005, Ma’ikwe joined me the second year and it’s been a husband-and-wife tag-team performance ever since. We commit to selecting the menu and manifesting an ingredients list by Oct 1, and the supplies are dutifully awaiting our arrival in town in November.

I used to think my NASCO weekends were fully subscribed if I was teaching workshops in every slot. Hah! Now I’m prepping for Saturday night in every moment I’m not prepping for a workshop. Our routine is to drive to Ann Arbor Thursday and start cooking first thing Friday morning. The biggest crunch occurs Sat afternoon, when I race back to the kitchen (at Sunward Cohousing, three miles west of the Michigan Union, where Institute happens every year in downtown Ann Arbor) and try to add the finishing touches to all the dishes that cannot be completed the day before. Luckily, Ma'ikwe tends to not have as crazy a workshop schedule as I, and she can usually don her apron earlier in the afternoon.

Two nights ago, Ma’ikwe and I produced the 4th Extravaganza, featuring Greek cuisine on this occasion. People started arriving around 6:30 pm for cocktails and antipasto and everyone stayed past 11, by which time we’d made a serious dent in the baklava, port, and ouzo. As intended, participants took their time, lingering over the presentation and enjoyment of four courses and innumerable conversations.

Thus, there are myriad reasons why NASCO weekends have become firmly established as one the highlights of my annual calendar.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes We Can

Tuesday night (actually, early Wed) I watched Barack Obama first address the nation and the world as the President-Elect—to a wildly enthusiastic crowd in Grant Park, in unseasonably balmy Chicago. In the audience, the cameras showed Jesse Jackson crying. In Nova Scotia, so was I.

Finally, we have a chance to do it differently. Now it’s up to all of us to make something of the opportunity. They say being the President is tantamount to getting up every morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Well, it isn’t just Obama’s Herculean labor to muck out the Aegean stables of politics as usual; we all need to get a hand on that fire hose and figure out how to direct that stream of water usefully—lest we drown in a flood tide of teary regret and spilt milk.

We are on the cusp of hope, and I didn’t know how much I thirsted for it until I got so choked up as Obama remind me of my commitment to optimism. While I don’t really know whether we can or cannot, I know there is no advantage to thinking we can’t. I’ll have my oar in the water, pulling in concert with Obama, doing what I can to help build a world that works better for everyone.

• • •
Visiting my in-laws in Nova Scotia, for the first ever I watched a US presidential election from a foreign country. I never fully appreciated how arcane our politics are until I attempted to explain the meaning of what CNN was reporting to a group of intelligent, but mystified Canadians (whom we had invited over for the evening of Americana and to watch the returns—we served chicken wings, pizza, campaign trail mix, and apple pie).

No, it didn’t mean much that McCain carried South Carolina, or that Obama got Vermont; but Obama being declared the winner in Pennsylvania was a big deal.

In Canadian federal elections, they vote for the party (not the leader) and the party determines who will ascend to become the premier. Our Canadian friends liked our system of voting for the person—if only they could understand it.

Is each state’s allotment of electoral votes proportional to population? Answer: sort of. I explained that a state’s number of electoral votes equaled the sum of its Senators and Representatives, which is never lower than three. While the assignment of Representatives is proportional to population (one person, one vote), the assignment of Senators is independent of population: everyone gets exactly two (one state, two votes). I may as well have been explaining the mysteries of matrilineal descent in Swahili.

Finally, in near exasperation, I stated, “I can explain the US electoral system; I just can’t defend it.”

How could they project one candidate the winner as soon as the polls closed, before even one percent of the vote had been tallied? We waded into the arcane world of exit polls, statistical analysis, margins of error… and their eyes glazed over.

In the end, I realized how decades of US elections had trained me to know how to sort wheat from chaff when watching returns (on Tuesday the key markers were the presidential race in Virginia, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana; or the senate races in NH, TN, LA, MN, and OR). I was not surprised that Latinos were voting much more for Obama than they had for previous Democrats; I was surprised that race did not seem to be a factor (among those who reported in exit polls that race mattered to them; 55% voted for Obama; among those who reported it didn’t matter, 53% voted for Obama). It was, thankfully, a neap tide for the Bradley effect.

I knew the Presidential race was over when Obama carried Ohio, yet it mattered a great deal that Obama also won some southern states (Virginia, Florida, and finally, North Carolina), demonstrating strength in all regions. He was going to get a mandate to lead; not a house divided. When Republican analysts lamented the unfortunate timing of Wall Street’s recent free fall, it was the same old song (and time to get another beer).

But when John McCain gave his concession speech in Phoenix, I held my breath. How would he spin it? To his credit, John rose to the occasion and spoke graciously. He gave Obama credit and offered an olive branch (after watching some of the debates, it was far from obvious that he would make this choice). I exhaled. Give McCain credit, he went out with his head held high and he pointed the way to the bridge we'll need in the days ahead (resisting the impulse to dynamite the abutments on his way out the door). The people had indeed spoken, and in his final speech on center court, McCain responded as an American, not as a Republican.

I want the civility and optimism that emerged Tuesday to be nurtured into a future that’s like that every day. I am hopeful.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

From Ceilee to Ceilidh

When my first child was born 27 years ago, my partner Annie and I faced the age-old opportunity of what to name him. One of the advantages of a nine-month gestation is that there's a fair amount of time in which to ponder ones' options. As it happened, during this period in our lives Annie was getting together regularly with a group of neighbors to play Irish music, and she was inspired by the Gaelic term for those gatherings, ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee)—which equates to an informal congregation to play and enjoy music together.

Figuring the Gaelic spelling was too much of a burden with which to saddle our unborn son, we anglicized the ending to something a bit more straight forward, finally settling on "Ceilee."  While it's hard for first-time observers to intuit that the "C" is hard, we were enamored of the unique and festive qualities of this improvised name.
• • •
Vacationing with my wife Ma'ikwe in Nova Scotia this week, imagine my surprise when her father and step mother suggested we spend the weekend at their Cape Breton cottage (located in East Skye Glen; if you're keeping score at home, that's between Whycocomagh and Mabou, straight west of Lake Bras D'Or) and attend ceilidhs Saturday evening Sunday afternoon. That's right, real ceilidhs. (Or, as they say in Nova Scotia, the real MacDonald.) While we scored a few points for knowing what a ceilidh was (and even more for knowing how to spell it), the truth was I had no idea what kind of music to expect.

As it turned out, it was Scottish step dancing—which thrives on Cape Breton, thank you very much. While some hoofers indulge in a fair amount of bouncing, for the most part it's all done from the knee downward, and the very best dance "close to the floor."

The prime tourist season there is June to mid-October. During that stretch, there is music and step dancing six nights a week (all but Sunday) in the heavily Roman Catholic western part of the island. Traditionally, the instrumentation is a fiddle, accompanied by a piano. Sometimes, there's a guitar on stage as well, though that's a semi-heretical modern concession. The fiddle player—who is just as likely to be a woman as a man—is key, and they maintain a strong beat by bouncing a leg percussively on stage as they play, which is a style I've never seen in bluegrass. The evening ceilidhs start at 10 pm and go til 1 am. 

While that may make sense in Madrid (where Spaniards are just starting to think about dinner), or even in the summer months where the higher latitude of Cape Breton (46 degrees and change) translates into a night sky that has just started to reveal its stars by that late hour, it was hard to make sense of the 10 pm start in November, which seems the middle of the night. Nonetheless, people were streaming into the parking lot by 9:45 pm to ensure good seats at the tables next to the dance floor. It was perhaps the quintessential Canadian experience: snow flurries outside, fiddlers warming up on stage, and Saturday night hockey on the television in the back of the room.

On Sundays, there's a matinee in Judique (JUH-dick), at the Celtic Music Interpretive Center, running 3-6:45 pm. Perversely, the Saturday evening show in Mabou (MAH-boo) was billed as a family night—and yes, there were children under 10 in attendance, waiting patiently for their turn on the dance floor—where nothing harder than ginger ale was served; Sunday afternoon you could buy beer, wine, or that uniquely American bastardized brewed beverage, Smirnoff Ice. Go figure.

The music is played in predictable sets of three pieces: two jigs, followed by a reel. If you're asked to dance for the first number, you stay on the floor for all three before it's kosher to sit down or switch partners.

The featured fiddler this Sunday was Marc Boudreau from Cheticamp (CHET-i-camp), an Acadian (think Longfellow's Evangeline and the rootstock of today's Louisiana Cajuns) enclave up the western coast of the island. From his boyish looks I'd guess he's still on the sunny side of 30, yet he really tore it up. In the middle of the afternoon (after things had suitably warmed up) there was a special guest appearance on spoons by local legend Gerry Devoe, also of Cheticamp. He only played for one jig, yet displayed a flair and fluidity that I'd not seen before, either with spoons or bones. Rhythmically alternating between his thigh and the palm of his off-hand, he'd improvise down his calf, off his elbow, or even against his forehead. It was quite a show. In contrast with the diminutive Marc, Gerry was on the north end of 70, a silver-maned man with a bulbous nose and the honey-tongued voice of a raconteur; he spent most of the afternoon agreeably socializing and cajoling ladies onto the dance floor—including Ma'ikwe.
• • •
One of the most impressive aspects of the music was how it's become a glue for the local culture. This is community at its best. A melting pot from the outset, the First Nation people of Cape Breton are the Ma'qmaq (MAC-muh), and most of the villages names come from that language. In addition, there were waves of French (who settled Louisbourg on the south coast) and then the Scots and Irish. Though the island has been steadily losing population since 1960 (then over 130,000, it's now down more than 10%, mainly due to the collapse of the cod fishery), the rural population (at least on the west coast) has maintained its identity and flavor through a strong adherence to its two traditions: faith and music.

While there's no doubt that skill is prized on stage and on the dance floor, it is a very accepting society. In addition to the featured musicians, aspiring fiddlers were given a chance to perform when Marc took a break. It was noteworthy that in the two ceilidhs I attended, the main fiddlers were under 40. While there are no doubt many accomplished older musicians who are still plying their craft on Cape Breton, the young are picking it up and being celebrated for their virtuosity. While a majority of the crowd was over 60, the young also dance, and the step dancing culture encourages partners to switch regularly, often mixing the generations 

The dancing is done with partners and traditionally that means a man and a woman. Yet when two women partnered, no one skipped a beat. While the basic square requires four couples, dancers seamlessly expanded to accommodate a fifth or sixth couple. If you wanted to dance, there was room for all. Whenever the numbers would swell to eight couples and beyond, mitosis would occur and the one square would become two.

Fancy steppers would dance right next to those with two left feet, and everyone would be have a good time. The more experienced would gently correct the befuddled and there was always enough patience and music to finish the prescribed steps. While some had more breath than others, and some had lighter feet, the smiles were ubiquitous.

I had a warm time at the ceilidhs and was inspired by how the Cape Bretoners have relied on music to not just retain their culture; they have learned to become one with their music, and use it to enhance and celebrate their community. It was an inspiration. And made me proud to have stumbled into naming my son Ceilee.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Nova Scotia

Many years ago, we had a family visiting Sandhill: a couple with a young boy, perhaps eight at the time. They were considering joining the community and their visit lasted a couple weeks.

One of the universal challenges of parenting, of course, is figuring out how to navigate adult topics with children present in the room. In the case of this particular family, they had worked out a rather unique solution, involving a code. Whenever the parents felt it was wiser to steer the conversation into less dangerous waters, one of them would say, “Let’s talk about Nova Scotia.”

While I don’t know the exact origin of this phrase, I suspect Nova Scotia represented something exotic, yet remote—and thus interesting, yet safe (or at least safer—are any topics completely safe?). As this peculiarity was already embedded in the family’s lexicon by the time of their visit, no one actually launched into an exploration of the Canadian maritime province, they only needed to offer the magic phrase, and everyone knew it was time to switch topics. It wasn't long before we Sandhillians knew that, too.

The funny thing about this was observing how well the child knew how to play the game. While the code was crafted to cleverly distract the innocent, more often than not it was the child who would speak up at an awkward moment in the conversation. While he may not have understood the content, the boy was sensitive to difficult energy and had learned that those were the times where it was appropriate to offer, “Let’s talk about Nova Scotia.”

While some adults were struggling to step back from the brink of awkwardness, others were struggling to not burst into laughter at the child’s precociously accurate reading of the dynamic. It was pretty amusing… unless it was your boat drifting into heavy seas.

• • •
I’m reminded about all this because today, I will actually be in Nova Scotia. I’m typing this chugging across New Brunswick on my way from Montreal to Halifax, traveling via Via (the Canadian counterpart to Amtrak). We’ll be picked up this afternoon by Jim, my wife Ma’ikwe’s father, who is hosting us for six days in the Atlantic Time Zone (where we’re four hours behind London and four hours ahead of Seattle), further east and north than Maine. Apparently the apple harvest is going full bore and I’m looking forward to brooding skies, wood fires, and walks along the beach.

While I don’t know yet whether Nova Scotia is “safe” (I will, after all, be visiting unknown in-laws for almost a week), it’s both exotic and evocative. The woods were traversing en route—where leafless birch commingle with yellow tamarack and green fir—are punctuated by small fields and single story white-trimmed cottages. This is terrain that knows winter, and reminds me strongly of northern Minnesota and western Ontario, geography familiar to me from my canoeing days. At the same time, we’re heading toward the Atlantic Coast, where the cold Labrador Current clashes with the upper outliers of the Gulf Stream, creating one of the richest fishing grounds on Earth.

Never having been here before, I’m looking forward to a week of fresh air, fresh fish, and fresh conversation.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Demand for Community in the Hard Days Ahead

Yesterday, at the last day of the FIC's fall organizational meetings, we spent a whole session exploring the market for community in today's troubled economic times.

We began the conversation by revisiting the work the board had done four years ago, when we devoted four sessions to a strategic process called scenario planning. In essence, we discussed where we were in 2004, and where we thought we were likely to go over the next five years—in broad strokes. At the time, we decided there were two main things to pay attention to, which represented forks in the road. One was whether or not there would be serious economic and/or environmental upheaval. The other was whether society would have a competitive or cooperative response.

By combining these two bifurcations, we had four possible futures:

1. Dog Eat Cat
This was the future where crisis occurred and there was a competitive response. It was the nightmare scenario and pretty bleak.

2. Boil the Frog
This future avoided a catastrophe, yet was a continuation of adversarial politics and no significant shift in policies or awareness.

3. Camel Latte
This was the future without a fulminating crisis, yet a definite shift to more cooperative and collaborative politics. There would be an increased awareness of the issues and constructive responses. (The name is a spinoff from the "Camelot" moniker given to the Kennedy administration in the early '60s, and the aura of hope that accompanied it.)

4. Phoenix Rising
This was the future that included a crisis and a positive, constructive response.

Today, we are close to the five-year point we were trying to peer ahead to see accurately in spring 2004. For the most part, Scenario 2 prevailed. At the same time, we agreed that the following was also true today:
o The Presidential election just ahead represents a clear choice in competitive/cooperative paths. Obama is offering hope for a sea change; McCain is offering more of the same.
o We are significantly closer to the precipice of both economic and environmental crisis (and for those who have lost their jobs or their homes, the crisis is already upon them).
o There is significantly greater awareness of the challenges looming, and even pockets of positive local initiatives where citizens are taking control of their lives in hopeful ways (for example, City Repair in Portland OR).

What, we wondered, were the opportunities and challenges for FIC in this environment? As the conversation progressed, we found it useful to think in terms of four major ways in which people would respond to hard times:

A. Widespread despair and loss of hope.

B. Preservation of hope, yet without structural support or organization. People are unsure where or how to begin.

C. Some significant constructive efforts at building a positive future, yet efforts are noticeably incomplete and with self-awareness that more is needed.

D. Wholistic responses that manifest a vibrant, cooperative culture, with all the essential elements present.

While this is a simplistic sorting and it's obvious that people or groups could easily fall somewhere between one of these four nodes, it provids a useful framework. Wherever people find themselves on this spectrum, FIC's job is to help them move along toward D, as gently and as surely as we can manage.

There will not be much we can do for A's (where there won't be interest in what we have to offer). With B's and C's, there will be some willingness (even eagerness) for assistance in building capacity to better respond to challenges. This will mean bringing people together, offering links to information, providing technical assistance, and teaching skills. Some of this will best be delivered through events; some of it will be met through a more robust website, and responsiveness to email inquiries.

With D's, we can learn what others have accomplished and help make those lessons available to all the B's and C's out there.

FIC's specialties are two:
1) Distilling what's being learned in the cauldrons of intentional community about how to build cooperative culture; about how to make inclusive, energy-building decisions; about how to be real and effective at the same time.

2) Helping groups make common cause, without homogenizing everyone's identity or mission.

In the coming times, there will be plenty to do.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Integrating New Blood

Yesterday, at the opening session of the Fellowship for Intentional Community's three-day fall organizational meetings (a semi-annual event being held this time at Dancing Rabbit), a regular member of our circle brought up the tender topic of why we aren't attracting more people to the organization—especially younger people. After getting involved with FIC in a regular way in 2002, she reported, with tears in her eyes, that she didn't feel there was room for the passion she had for regional networking, and that she didn't feel accepted by the old guard of the organization. Today she's questioning whether to continue her involvement, despite her longstanding interest in community organizing.

It was a tender moment. All the more so in that it's a conversation we've had in some version many times in FIC's 22 years, and is something we've been actively working on. All groups need new new blood, and yet it's exhausting to conduct every meeting as if there is no history, or no prior decisions to build on. So how to navigate this tricky dynamic?

Here are some of the tough questions we (and any longstanding organization) must wrestle with:
o What is the appropriate amount of opening for long-term members to offer newcomers, that allows the fresh energy and ideas some room to percolate, while respecting that there may be a deep investment in creating what already exists? In particular, what is the guideline for when to reconsider old topics (things for which the newcomers have enthusiasm yet no sense of the organizational history, and which the old-timers have already gummed to death)?

o Just as for the woman I mentioned at the beginning of this blog, the newcomer tends to be the last person to recognize their acceptance into the group. What, if anything, can be done to shorten this gestation period? I think the key here is for the established folks to understand what the new person recognizes as markers of acceptance; offering what you want
(everyone's default tendency) may not translate for the newcomer, who may wait for years for what they consider to be the key to the executive washroom.

o How much guidance/mentoring is appropriate for established members to offer new folks? If done too much, it may come across as micro-managing or mistrust. if done too little, it may be perceived as callousness, or an unwillingness to share power. It's a gauntlet, and the answer to this tends to be person specific.

In general, the naive dream is that the new blood will simply continue the programs and directions already established, honoring what has gone before through emulation. In fact, it rarely works this way. New people bring new ideas and different styles, and their excitement is generally not for maintenance or the status quo; they are jazzed about new ventures and alterations to existing programs that they perceive as enhancements, and provides them with a platform to strut their stuff.

Viewed with this understanding, embracing new blood requires some amount of letting go, and a willingness to see your work transformed under the management and implementation of the new. Wishing them only to be a younger you is the road to disappointment, and leads to no new faces in the room.

The woman I mentioned at the outset was afraid to bring this topic up, for fear that the long-term people would feel trashed. While that didn't happen (whew), it remains to be seen what relief she gets from having named the hard thing, and the extent to which we'll respond in such a way that she'll feel more accepted and more encouraged to align her FIC commitments with her passions.

While I doubt that FIC has any magic beans for integrating new blood, I know that if we can't talk about it openly, we'll die.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Sandhill's sorghum harvest ended today. Overall, the 2008 yield was average, yet the quality was superb—perhaps the best in our 32-year history. So there are a lot of smiles on the farm right now.

Even though we've yet to experience a killing frost, letting the boiler fire die out for the last time is a major marker in our lives. We can exhale. Though there will continue to be garden produce coming in right up until the first freeze, the pace will slacken off. The larders are full and the frost can no longer hurt us much.

• • •
Ordinarily, the rhythm of my life includes October at home for the harvest, followed by November on the road—for community networking and process consulting. It's about as reliable as the coming cold weather. Sometimes the transition is soft, with a week or more of wrapping up at home before I hit the road.

This year, however, the transition will be abrupt. It happens tonight, in fact. As I type this, I'm cooking down my last batch of pepper relish of the year. Tomorrow the agenda setters arrive for the fall meetings of the Fellowship for Intentional Community (for the first time in 22 years, the meetings will be within walking distance—at our neighboring community, Dancing Rabbit, just three miles away). Tomorrow I lay down my homesteading hat, and don my community networker chapeau.

Caroline Estes (Alpha Farm) is already in town (offering two days of consensus and facilitation training in exchnage for lower hosting fees). Tomorrow's arrivals include the rest of the Oversight Committee (which is responsible for drafting the board meeting agenda): Jenny Upton (Shannon Farm), accompanied by her partner and former FIC board member Dan Questenberry; Marty Klaif (also from Shannon); George Caneda (Ganas), with partner Julie Grieve; Harvey Baker (Dunmire Hollow); and Bill Becker, our Treasurer. All of these folks are long-time friends.

For the first time, I will have the pleasure of cooking dinner for my visiting friends in front of an organizational meeting. Although I've known Dan and Caroline for more than 20 years, it will be the first time either of them have been to Sandhill, and I'm looking forward to having them be our guests. With as much traveling as I do, I have the occasion to be hosted by others all the time (indeed, within the last nine months I've stayed overnight at every one of the communities listed in the prior paragraph). It's nice to have the chance to return the favor.

So tonight, after I can the last pints of relish, I'll read through the reports and start crafting the agenda for Thursday's Oversight Committee meeting. It'll be a bit schizophrenic immersing myself in the world of FIC without having left home or changed scenery (I usually have a long car ride or a train trip to serve as a psychic buffer), but I'll figure it out.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Accountability & Punishment

One of the hardest things for people to handle well is critical feedback about their behavior. No one enjoys finding out that others are having a problem with something you've said or done, and there's an amazing array of things people do to keep feedback at bay—many of which are far more clever then the standard alliterative trio of defensiveness, denial, or deflection.

(Let me tell you of a great scheme I had working for a number of years, until a careful observer busted me on it. Whenever someone criticized me, I'd start beating myself up, often with more vigor than I was approached with. Horrified by how hard I was on myself, people near me learned to be careful about giving me feedback, for fear of triggering my next display of self-flagellation. Most people stopped giving me critical feedback, or at least curtailed it sharply. Then, of course, I couldn't be held responsible for not heeding feedback I'd never been given. Oh, it was plenty clever.)

And yet we need feedback—especially critical feedback—to understand more accurately how our words and deeds are landing. If you're not sure about this, think about how important pain is to maintaining health. If you step on a nail, it's a damn good thing that your foot hurts. I'm not saying it's good that you're in pain; I'm saying that it's good that pain alerts you to look at your foot, so you can take the nail out. There is as analog with behavior. While you'd prefer that people have a positive response to what you do, it's valuable to know when they don't because it's information you'll want to weigh before deciding whether to repeat that behavior. If you don't get the information, it's of no use to you.

While everything I've written so far applies to all human interactions, the stakes are higher in community, where people tend to be in each other's lives much more (which translates into more opportunities for friction). And this brings me to the point I want to write about. For a significant number of people living in community, they have combined a number of things about feedback and come up with a startling blind spot. It works like this:

1. Because their prior experiences with giving or receiving critical feedback have gone poorly (which is undoubtedly the background almost all of us have), they cultivate acceptance and tolerance as an art form (or at least as a coping mechanism). Within that practice, it is considered a loss of control to criticize another. They believe that everyone is doing the best they can, and that forgiveness will go further in building a loving world than holding people accountable for their shortcomings.

2. There is also a tendency to equate oneself with one's actions. Thus, critcism about their behavior is tantamount to critcisim about them as a person. An unwashed dish becomes a dirty soul. There is also a corollary to this, where criticism about a result is translated into an accusation that you meant the bad thing to happen. While I'm not saying that people don't accuse each other of bad intent, mostly this assignment happens without any direct statement about intent having been made. Amazingly, people just assume it, and they can have the missiles out of the silos and primed to launch before pausing to reflect that "I'm upset that you left the kitchen a mess last night," is not the same thing as "You left the kitchen a mess last night knowing that it would upset me."

3. There is considerable emphasis on positive reinforcement in intentional communities, as opposed ot guiding beahvior through limit setting. Thus, people would prefer to encourage and reward good behavior rather than focus on how to curtail and extinguish undesirable behavior.

What this trio of beliefs leads to is a bad reaction when someone attempts to hold that person accountable for their behavior. Because their acuser has spoken up (and therefore chosen to forego tolerance and aceptance), they must be intending to punish (dragging you into the arena of critcial feedback, where the bad things happen). Now, in addition to the behavior itself, you have to deal with the added distress associated with an accusation of intent to punish (which is pretty interesting coming from a person who advocates not judging others at all).

For people with this profile, accountability and punishment are interchangeable terms. Because "good" people don't punish others, asking for accountability is tantamount to an admission that you have it in for someone else. Trying to sort out how the other person got to that conclusion can be like trying to wade through a vat of jello—with just as much visibility.

I think the only way through this mess is to take the conversation all the back to definitions and find out which terms are loaded with what baggage. For he folks I've described above, "accountability" is a trigger word. For others it simply indicates what happens when boundaries are crossed and someone notices. Your group isn't going anywhere (at least not anywhere you'd willingly go) until you've been able to develop concepts and a vocabulary that bridges the various philosophies around feedback.

I wish you luck… or, failing that, the chance to pick the flavor of the jello.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Return of the Yogi

I did yoga tonight for the first time in five months… and I can feel the soreness right in the middle of my back. Actually, I was surprised I could settle into the asanas as well as I could, after such a long layoff. 

For some time now I've had the view that when it comes to an aging mind and and an aging body, it's essentially "use it, or lose it." Well, I haven't been using my body much lately (blogging calls for some dextrous finger work, but is hardly aerobic), and it felt good to do some back bends again (whether my back muscles currently concur or not).

I started doing yoga 12 years ago, when I was in a romantic relationship with Alex McGee, who was a yoga instructor living at Twin Oaks Community in Virginia. Though the relationship didn't last, the yoga practice did. Mostly I do it alone, either right before lunch or right before dinner.

For a time, I practiced first thing in the morning, relying on the stretching to awaken my body for the day. While that worked OK, I realized that later in the day worked better for me, for three reasons:

1. I was looser and could go deeper into the poses if my body temperature and metabolism were already in gear.

2. By picking a time mid-day, I could take advantage of 30 minutes of yoga to create a sharp contrast with the rest of my day—an island of calm and reflection amidst a fairly well-choreographed day. Thus, I'd get both the physical and spiritual/psychic benefits of the practice. I didn't need reflection time right after getting out of bed.

3. What I really enjoy first thing in the morning is a cup of coffee. Because I don't care to stretch after eating, it made more sense to do yoga right before lunch or dinner.

I'm better disciplined about doing yoga at home, where I have more control over my routine, a dedicated space (my bedroom floor) where I can practice without disturbing anyone, and access to my sticky mat (nearly essentially for back poses). When I'm on the road—which is a lot—it's much more difficult to find a suitable space.

How important is yoga? All I know is that I feel better and am more alert when I practice regularly. I slid into the yogic doldrums last May when I collected five boxes of paperwork and memorabilia from my old friend Geoph Kozeny, who passed away a year ago from pancreatic cancer. He had left the boxes at Hearthaven, a group house in Kansas City, and I had picked them up en route to consulting work in Lawrence KS. The boxes got "temporarily" stored on my bedroom floor and I didn't get around to dealing with them right away—in part because the Lawrence gig started a run of 60 days where I slept in my own bed only three nights. 

Being away from my friendly confines, I slipped out of the yoga habit and when I finally returned home in July I had no trouble at all thinking of other things I preferred doing over sorting through Geoph's old papers. Thus, the boxes just sat there and I didn't do yoga. Until today.

In the end, it took less than three hours to go through all five boxes, and I'm a little sheepish about how easily I had talked myself out of dealing with them for so long—one month per box. What a sluggard! Now though, the boxes are all put away, my floor has been vacuumed, and I've shaken the dust off my sticky mat. What a liberating day!