Monday, September 29, 2008

Working with Work

A couple blogs back I wrote about Untangling Hair Balls (Sept 23 entry), which was based on recent work I'd done with East Lake Commons (ELC) in Atlanta on the topic of Work/Participation. I got response froma reader that he'd like to hear more about what the starnds of that particular hair ball looked like. (I figure you gotta reward a person who leans into a hair ball for a closer look—mostly people just go "yuck!" and wonder why the cat couldn't have done that outdoors.)

Okey doke. Here's my sense of the key questions a group will have to address on the topic of Work/Participation. Note: while some of these questions are specific to residential communities, many are not, and the issue of Work/Participation can plague any group.

A. Should everyone in the group be expected to contribute to the well being and development of the group?
B. If yes, do you want to quantify that expectation (for example, hours/month)?
C. Do you want to record contributions? If so, how?
D. What is the point of this expectation? To get the work done, to build relationships among members, or both?
E. To what extent, if any, is it OK that dollars be substituted for hours? (Hint: the answer here will be highly dependent on how you answer Question D.)
F. Is it OK that one member donate hours to cover another who is working less? If so, are there any limits on this?
G. Can members "bank" hours (by working more than expected for one stretch, and then less in expected in another stretch)?
H. What flexibility will there be to take into account a person's limitations in their life, either permanent or temporary? (The diminished capacities of seniors, people who are infirm, perhaps a sick relative, economic pressure following loss of employment, etc.)
I. Do you want to establish a standing Work Committee whose job it would be to coordinate labor in the group? (Hint: for most groups. the right answer here is "yes." I'm talking about a committee who's job it would be to regulaly check in with folks, trying to figure out how best to match up needs with interests, skills, and availability; they would not be the Labor Police.)
J. If you have children in your group, are they expected to contribute? If so, in what ways?
K. In what ways, if at all, do expectations of contribution vary by membership category (renters, owners, non-resident owners, long-term guests, etc.)?
L. What work counts? Physical maintenance, governance, social organizing and enhancement, beautification, gardening, child care? Should some kinds of work count more than others?
M. How will you handle tensions arising in connection with Work/Participation (that is, the perception that there are martyrs or slackers in the group—and don't tell me that never happens)?

With respect to the hair ball of Work/Participation, the above list represents 13 strands of "hair." (There may be others, or some may not be interesting threads in your group, but you get the idea.) Next, following the plan I laid in my Sept 23 blog, you'd pick whichever of these questions seemed most potent and jump in, being disciplined enough to not talk about the other dozen until you'd finished work with the first one.

So what does this look like? Glad you asked. At ELC, the group selected Question A. Since that's fresh for me, I'll tell you what factors the group identified as elements that would need to be addressed by the community's position on this question (this may not be the complete list, but it's close, and representtative):

o Desire for flexibility about what's expected, taking into account people's physical limitations, skills, and life situations (
note the conection with Question H).
o Desire to be as encouraging as possible, and minimally punishing. Contributions should be made known and celebrated.
o Want contributing to the cmty to be fun.
o Need to get a certain amount of bottom-line work done (though it's yet to be determined what that is—note the conection with Question L).
o Some current residents don't seem to be in alignment with the community's common values; can the community create solid agreements about work expectations if there is not a firm foundation of common values?
o Desire that it be acceptable for members to do more than their share, to cover the shortage of others (
note the conection with Question F).
o Need equitable management (coordination) of projects and work areas.

After vetting this list (getting buy-in that everything was tied to a group common value), next came the heavy lifting—figuring out what responses would best balance these factors. While we didn't reach the finish line in Atlanta, we did get significant traction with the following statement, which wove togtether some of the factors into a unified statement:

"ELC intends to do everything it can to encourage members to contribute to the community's work and have a positive experience of developing and maintaining a vibrant cmty. At the same time, it needs a clear agreement about how to accomplish the work in the event that volunteerism is insufficient to get everything done that the community deems necessary."

The group liked this. It balanced two needs that otherwise might have been a tug of war: being positive and being responsible. While it was only a start, it was one solid step in the right direction, toward detente and away from acrimony. When repeat—over and over—that's the kind of thing that gets the job done, braiding a strong and resilient solution, one strand at a time.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sorghum Season!

At Sandhill today we cooked our first sorghum of the 2008 season. (Can fall colors be far behind?) It was a beautiful day, with temps in the lows 80s. We made about 50 gallons of satisfyingly light syrup, and have already filled several cases of the new crop in our distincive 1-lb and 1-quart jars. A good start.

Ten days ago
it was hard to imagine that conditoons would be so favorable. Our fields were totally saturated with the 6+ inches of rain that fell in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. For the first time in more than 15 harvests it was beginning to look like we were going to have to trudge through the mud to extract the cane, and that we wouldn't be able to drive on the fields. However (cross your fingers), that didn't happen. The skies cleared after the deluge ended Sept 14, we stop working on an ark, and it hasn't rained since. We've been lucky.

In addition, we have a crew of eager labor exchangers from Twin Oaks, our sister community in Virginia, who are helping us this opening week of the season—swarming the fields like locusts, pulling down the leaves, cutting the stalks with machetes, and stacking the cut cane in little piles, where they await the wagons that will collect it for the ride to the mill. Sorghum season is a social highlight of our calendar. Based on the notion that many hands make light work, this is the month when we most encourage people to visit, turning drudgery into festival. While it's a logistical challenge finding tent space for everyone and keeping the ravenous harvest crew fed from our community gardens, it's a labor of love. Our aim is to turn complexity into conviviality, and for the most part we succeed.

After more than three decades of sorghum harvests we've learned to trust the magic. We put out the call for help every year, and every year the people arrive when we need them. If we plant it, they will come. This is community at its best.

• • •
Today was also a day for working out the kinks in our systems. During the off-season, we've been tinkering. After limping along the last couple years, at the end of last season we bit the bullet and dsiassembled our ancient sorghum press. We had the giant rollers—gradually worn down by decades of pressing cane and the corrosive action of raw sorghum juice—re-milled, hopefully to last another 100 years. Today was the first trial with everything re-assembled, and there were some troubles getting everything seated properly. There was a lot of starting and stopping to tweak various nuts and bolts in our never-ending quest to extract every last drop of sweet juice from the stalks. When the mill is properly adjusted, the pith in the center of the stalk emerges from the last set of rollers bone-dry.

Meanwhile, down at the Sugar Shack (where we boil the juice) we also had some new features, most noticeably a foot-pedal-activated pump to transfer the finished sorghum into 55-gallon holding barrels (from which we bottle). We've been making sorghum since 1977 and, until today, we always transferred the finished sorghum from the cooking pans to the barrels in heavy-duty plastic buckets that involved heavy-duty lifting. Boy, is it nice to be done with that job!
• • •
There are still many hundreds of gallons of sorghum to make, and we'll be at for most of the next four weeks. The weather, of course, could deliver anything over that stretch, and who knows, we may have to deal with mud yet. Still, we've had an auspicious beginning, and for tonight at least, everyone on the farm is pretty happy about it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Untangling Hair Balls

Last week I was in Atlanta (at East Lake Commons) to deliver Weekend I (of eight) of the two-year training I’m offering with my wife—Ma’ikwe Ludwig—in Integrative Facilitation. In exchange for hosting the weekend, the home community had the chance for outside facilitation of meetings on real issues (I figure the students learn much faster facing live bullets than through reading, watching demonstrations, or practicing role plays).

In this case, East Lake Commons selected a community favorite: Work/Participation. It’s probably the single topic I have the most experience navigating as a process consultant. In fact, almost all cooperative groups struggle with this one.

In addition to being a volatile topic (one in which emotional distress is common), it’s also a complex topic. That makes it a double whammy, and it’s no wonder that groups struggle with it. While it was a tough nut for the students to attempt to crack in Weekend I, it also offered an abundance of teaching moments, one of which I want to share in this blog: a model for tackling a complex topic (aka “a hair ball”), based on the old military strategy of “divide and conquer”:

Step 1: Identify all the questions that need to be addresses (the interwoven strands of the hair ball).

Step 2: Tackle them one at a time. Hint: while it’s likely that some strands will make more sense to tackle before others, don’t get hung up on the sequence. Expect many of the strands to be interconnected and for there to be complaints that the best answer to the current strand depends on the answer to other strands. Do not be dismayed! Just be diligent about keeping the focus on one strand at a time. If you allow multiple strands to be discussed concurrently, you’ll be at risk of getting swamped by the variables, which expand exponentially. (See Step 7 for how to navigate the issue of interconnectedness.)

Step 3: In working a particular strand, your first order of business is identifying all the factors that a good response to this issue needs to take into account. This is essentially a brainstorm, where you want to set aside evaluative comments—at least at the outset. Warning: Once you’ve determined that a particular strand is plenary worthy, make sure that this step happens in plenary (as opposed to in a committee).

Step 4: After you’ve completed identifying factors, go through a vetting step, where you establish that each factor generated in the brainstorm belongs on the list by virtue of its being connected with at least one explicitly held common value. The point of this is to separate legitimate group factors from personal preferences.

Step 5: Next comes problem solving, where you attempt to find the proposed response that best balances the factors that survived the winnowing of the previous step. Hint: the trick to having this stage go efficiently, is making it clear that you are looking for suggestions that connect and bridge the various factors; you are not looking for advocacy here.

Step 6: After crafting your best response for dealing with this strand, set it aside and pick up another. Repeat as needed, until all strands identified in Step 1 have been addressed.

Step 7: Last, take a look at the whole package, to ascertain how well the individualized responses hang together as a cohesive package, making adjustments as needed.

• • •
Note that in this model, problem solving (Step 5) does not begin until you have completed identifying (Step 3) and vetting (Step 4) all the factors that a good response needs to take into account. It is very common for groups to struggle with complex topics because well-intentioned subgroups attempt to draft proposals prior to the factors having been agreed upon in plenary. Don’t fall into this trap! For good results, it is important to keep one’s problem-solving cart squarely behind the criteria horse.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ernie Banks

I’m traveling en route to a facilitation training in Atlanta, and was in Chicago Sunday changing trains. (Maybe that’s why it’s called a “training.”) It was my first time in a major city since my laptop keyboard froze up Sept 3, and I had lined up a date at the downtown Apple Store to get the repair done the same day and under warranty. That meant a hike from Union Station to the Magnificent Mile—the moniker Chicago has modestly bestowed on the glittery ghetto of high-end retailers aggregated along Michigan Ave just north of the Chicago River.

It was about a two-mile schlep, made more challenging by a steady rain, the tail end of the Hurricane Ike. Nonetheless, Chicago is my home town—I grew up the western suburb of La Grange—and it was pleasure to walk along familiar streets. I got to the Apple Store at my appointed time, they swapped out the keyboard without a blink, and I was good to go within an hour. Retracing my steps to Union Station at a more leisurely pace, I wandered through the Theater District (which features noticeably different visuals than the ripening corn and beans amidst the bucolic rolling hills of northeast Missouri). By chance, I happened upon the Richard J Daley Center just south of the Theater District, on Dearborn.

Chicago has a lot interesting public art and one of its more striking pieces is showcased in the east-side plaza of the Civic Center: a two-story tall orange metal abstract sculpture by Pablo Picasso. It’s hard to miss.

Every time I see it, I smile… and think of Ernie Banks—the All Star shortstop of the Chicago Cubs in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Twice he was the National League Most Valuable Player, the one constant bright spot on a team that was perennially mired in the bottom of the standings. For a generation of sports fans (including me) he was the symbol of optimism in the face of adversity.

Although the current edition of the Cubs have the best record in the National League with only 16 games left to go (and are a near-certainty to make the playoffs), the Cubs possess the unenviable record of having gone 100 consecutive years without reaching the World Series, and counting. It is a record of futility that is unmatched in professional sports. Although the ’69 Cubs had a great team in the twilight of Banks’ career (Don Kessinger was the regular shortstop by then, and Banks mostly played left field and pinch hit) and seemed destined to finally get off their World Series schneid (then a mere 61 years old), they stumbled badly in September and were overtaken by the Tom Seaver-led Miracle Mets, who not only got to the World Series, but had the temerity to win the thing in five games over a stunned and demonstrably more talented Baltimore Oriole squad (Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, et al).

Ernie was famous for his infectious joy of the game. He’d look at a leaden sky that threatened to rain out the day’s proceedings and say to anyone within earshot, “Let’s play two!” He never seemed to get enough. As I look back on it, Ernie’s philosophy generalizes pretty well as an approach to life. Each day, I try to remind myself (usually after my first cup of coffee), “It’s another day in paradise,” and everything seems to go a little better from there.

But wait a minute, you say. How did the Picasso statue remind me of Ernie Banks? Well, the Daley Center was built in the early ‘60s and there was a competition to determine what the plaza art would be. In the end, it boiled down to two choices, both of which had considerable support: the Picasso, or a bronze statue of Ernie Banks. In a close decision, the Spaniard prevailed (some say he had a better career, but then Pablo never had to hit major league fastballs). Of course, by then, Ernie was used to not winning and he accepted the loss with grace, as he did everything else.

The sculpture was installed in 1967, the same year I was installed in college. A good friend and classmate of mine, Kip Lilly, never quite forgave Chicago for selecting international erudition over the hometown hero. In protest, Kip started referring to the Picasso sculpture as “Ernie Banks,” which I found amusing.

While the sculpture competition didn’t matter any more to me than it did to Ernie, I nonetheless held Ernie the Ballplayer and Ernie the Person in high esteem. I grew up with him as a role model of the hardworking yet good-natured athlete (unlike Barry Bonds, say, or Kobe Bryant), who cared about his community and gave back to his city. However, that was 50 years ago, and time passes.

Ironically, as a sports fan, I still track the fortunes of the Cubs, yet can go months without my giving a thought to Ernie, even though he was the Chicago Cubs for me as a child. However, I cannot go by the Daley Center plaza, as I did Sunday, and not immediately think of Ernie Banks. And it always brings a smile and puts a little extra sunshine in my day.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Sometimes I Spend All Day Processing… Food!

Yesterday was one of those days where I'm processing from the first cup of coffee until my knees ache from being on my feet all day. I worked 15 hours, with only a 15-minute break for supper. (Boy, did bed ever feel good.)

For years now my niche in the Sandhill food scene has been processing—putting up what we lovingly grow. Food is a central theme of my community's life, and preservation for the months ahead is an important part of the agricultural rhythm. As it's generally easier to find folks who enjoy working in the soil than those who prefer time at the stove & sink, people are happy to have my support at the tail end of the cycle.

In the northern hemisphere September is harvest time, and every now and then there's a convergence where everything needs attention at once. Yesterday was one of those days. (We have a chalkboard in our processing kitchen where we coordinate schedules, so the space isn't double booked. Ann wrote for yesterday: "Lots of Stuff—Laird.") So here's what a busy food processing day looks like at Sandhill:

1. Tomatillos
We had one 5-gal bucket of fresh tomatillos, plus a 2-gal bucket of roasted ones in the freezer. I had pulled the frozen ones the night before, roasted the fresh ones, roasted some hot peppers & garlic to accompany them, and made up a batch of tomatillo salsa. Yield: 36 pints.

2. Tomatoes
Although it's been a disappointing year for nigthshades in general, we nonetheless had six buckets of tomatoes on the floor of our walk-in cooler, awaiting my minitsrations. This was straight-forward canning. Yield: 15 quarts of pulp; 15 quarts of juice.

3. Peppers
We had four buckets of hot peppers and one of sweet peppers. I pulled them all out and took advantage of the surplus labor available on a rainy day (we've had 5+ inches the last 36 hours with more expected; while we're completely soaked and the rivers are surging out of their banks, it's nothing compared to Galveston) to have them diced. By the time the tomatoes were done I had 22 quarts of chopped peppers ready. I plopped these in a pot with honey, vinegar, and salt, to start them cooking down on the way to becoming hot pepper relish—it's piquantly sweet and guaranteed to make your nose run. Because it takes hours to boil down, I needed to get that started by mid-afternoon to have any chance of completing it before midnight. Yield: 29 pints.

4. Peaches
Visiting ex-member Chris Roth had worked up some windfall peaches and wanted to know if I could can them (since I was in the ktichen anyway). So I brought them into the queue. As soon as a burner opened up, I got the pot on the stove, corrected the sweetening, added irish moss to thicken the consistency, and ran them through the hot water bath. Yield: seven quarts and one pint.

5. Grapes
Jacob, our newest member, had boiled down some Concord grapes (a good year for them, by the way) the day before and extracted the juice. He further cooked that down
in the main kitchen to make a syrup, and asked if I could can it for him. I took a breath, and told him to bring 'em on over. Yield: seven pints.

6. Horseradish
Sandhill has been making it's own prepared horseradish (for retail sale on the farm and at area fairs) for about 25 years. As I was grating the roots (which had been dug and cleaned the previous two days) I had a chance to reflect on how many times I've done this. As the main person who handles horseradish at Sandhill, I typically make 10-15 gallons per season. Since 10 gallons equals about 80 lbs, and I've been doing it for a quarter of a century, I did the math and was awed to realize that I've made about a ton of prepared horseradish. Now there's something for the Acachic Record..

There is no secret to making it—it's just grated root, mixed with vinegar (and a bit of honey and salt to extend the hotness). What you're paying for is for someone else to cry. On the homestead, there is nothing more noxious than the gases released from grating fresh horseradish. My eyes tear constantly and if I get too big a whiff at one time, it triggers my gag reflex. Peeling onions is only a mild irritant compared with prepping horseradish. Commerical workers wear gas masks; I just do it on the front porch and hope for a stiff breeze. Yield: 102 half-pint jars.

By the time we had the horseradish jarred and labeled, it was time to return my attention to the pepper relish. About 10:15 pm it was thick enough to put it into jars. Blissfully, it was my last canning for the day, and I was able to turn the gas off and extinguish the lights by 11:10. My last sight of the processing kitchen was the 30"x72" wooden work surface completely covered with my day's labor—and that doesn't count the horseradish, which isn't canned and was already safely stowed in the walk-in fridge.

Of course, I had a tremendous amount of help in getting all this done. There were untold hours involved in growing, harvesting, cleaning, and prepping various things.
And in a couple instances, I was only finishing off others' work (such as Chris' peaches and Jacob's grapes). In short, it was a team effort (which is the core feature of community life) and I love the choreography of sequencing the foods so that I can keep the pots and stove fully engaged—and still get to bed the same day I got up.

At the end of the season it's tremendously satisfying to see the root cellar shelves filled with food you've touched, in the fullest sense of that word.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sometimes It Gets Worse Before It Gets Better

Ten days ago I was working with Monan's Rill, a 35-year-old Quaker-based community near Santa Rosa CA. Started in 1973 (just one year before my community, Sandhill Farm) they were unusual in that the founders were mostly in their 50s, inspired to build an intentional community in their "retirement" years. (I put that in quotes because I can hardly imagine a more demanding and consuming endeavor than creating a successful community from the ground up—yet that's what they did. The founders were fireballs, who did not go gentle into that good night.)

In any event, now the founders are all gone. Either passed away or relocated to assisted living, where the daily demands of getting around are less physically rigorous. For the members who comprise Monan's Rill today, there's a question about who the community is and where is it headed, which is part of the reason they invited me in.

I was asked to focus on two main things: 1) getting greater clarity about what non-monetary contributions are expected of members toward the development and well being of the community; and 2) how to work constructively with conflict when it emerges among members and complicates an issue. I was asked to both get traction on the thorny topic of Work/Participation and to provide a model for dealing with complex and volatile issues in general. For the 24 hours I'd be working with them (about 10 hours of plenary meetings), there was no danger of running out of things to talk about.

While the casual observer might think poorly of a community in struggle, I have a different view. On some level all communities struggle, and the key question in assessing health is how well they're dealing with their issues—not whether or not they have any. And in my book (which I haven't quite written yet, but I'm getting to), Monan's Rill stood out as a group with excellent prospects for three reasons:

a) They asked for help. Most groups don't. I don't know whether it's stubborn pride, myopia, or some misbegotten idea that progress doesn't count unless you do it all by yourself, but most groups simply don't ask for help. They could be on their last breath and still telling the world they just have a head cold.

(One of the most important developments in the maturity of my community was getting it that sometimes the perspective and neutrality of a community-savvy outsider can lead to a breakthrough in stuck dynamics. Today, we regularly ask outside facilitators to help us navigate difficult issues. Of course, Sandhill was nearly 20 years old before we got smart enough to realize how stupid we'd been, but at least we finally got it.)

b) The group has a stand-out depth of connection to the land and to the community's heritage. There is a palpable reverence and preciousness that most members report from being connected with Monan's Rill and social capital of that caliber is gold in the bank. It sustains people through hard times, making it clear why laboring with one another is worth the attempt.

Of the 22 adult members, every one of them attended the meetings (excepting only that one person missed the Friday evening session). To frame how unusual that is in my experience (as a process consultant who has worked with perhaps 60 communities), a majority of the groups I have worked with have never had a single meeting where all the members were in the room at the same time past the early founding days when the group was very small. This was obviously a community where members were "all in" and this touched my soul.

c) They hung in there—both physically and psychically—when the going got tough. One of the legacies of the culture established by the founders was that plenaries (meetings of the whole) would focus on business, not feelings. This is a choice that many groups make, mainly because there aren't a lot of good models for working constructively with feelings (outside of therapy) and groups want to contain how much time they devote in meetings.

Feelings, however, don't go away just because you don't give them oxygen in plenaries. In fact, they tend to get more virulent in an anaerobic environment. After 35 years of this, Monan's Rill had a pretty lumpy carpet (due to all the stuff that was being stored under there instead of being cleaned up as it occurred). My job, in part, was to demonstrate how to clean the carpets—working both with what was on top and what was underneath.

Not surprisingly, that was the bulk of what we did during my time with the community. Because I have the firm belief that you cannot make solid progress on substantive issues until you first address cleanly any non-trivial distress related to the topic (and the group had purposely selected Work/Participation as the main topic because it was known to be fraught with unresolved tensions), we didn't make as much headway on Work/Participation as we did on cleaning the carpets.

One of the ironies of this kind of remedial attention is that when it goes well, things tend to get worse at first. And that's what we experienced at Monan's Rill. (It's kind of like deciding to clean an overstuffed closet: when you first open the door, shit falls out everywhere.) Perhaps the pivotal moment of the weekend occurred right out of the box Saturday morning when I asked if anyone was sitting on any lingering distress about another member's non-monetary contributions to the community.

A woman going through a painful divorce launched into an angry criticism of her ex-partner's participation in community life—with him in the room. Here was the key moment. It wasn't remembered upset; it was active distress. It wasn't just about participation; most of the hurt was fueled by a long and complex history, the intimate details of which were well beyond the scope of plenary attention. It was messy, it was incendiary, and it was what I had invited. Many were holding their breath. Would the weekend go down the drain, or would this be different?

Fortunately, this was familiar ground for me (not the details; but the pattern), and I did what I've learned usually works in that situation. I didn't freak out because someone was upset, I got curious. I listened carefully to the story and the feelings, and acknowledged both. I carefully named the scope of the upset and distinguished what we'd tackle in plenary (we'd look at the top of the iceberg—the perception that the ex-partner was not doing his fair share of community work—but not the bottom part, the full range of unresolved hurts about the failed partnership). Once the woman reported that she felt heard about all this, I gave her ex-partner the same attention. Eventually we got to what each might do differently that would address the problem (steadfastly limiting the scope of the examination to community participation, without pretending that there weren't many other factors in play regarding their dynamic), and we went from there. The tension was defused, the weekend didn't get derailed, we didn't duck the issue, and no one died. People exhaled.

That was a success. The prize for which was that we got more. Having seen that it can work, people were more willing to name other unresolved tensions connected with Work/Participation. We had lifted up one corner of the carpet, and there as enough courage in the room to get out the brooms (instead of entertaining proposals to trim the legs of the furniture to better fit the lumps).

Having found the resolve to start the process and to not blink once they shined a light on some of the dirt, I am wholly optimistic that Monan's Rill can look forward to a future with cleaner floors.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Testament to the Viability of Community Seeds

Two days ago I returned home from a two-week West Coast trip and I wasn't in the house for 30 minutes before the phone was handed to me—someone was calling from Florida trying to track down an intentional community in Missouri that was making sorghum in the early 80s. Well, I figured, it had to be us.

"What's your name?" I asked. "Steve Imhof," came the reply. No bells were ringing. OK, I reasoned. We're talking 25 years ago and I can't remember everyone. It's even possible he visited while I was away. "Tell me more about your connection to Sandhill," I invited.

"Well," he said, "my wife and I were midwives living near Canton... " and then it all rushed back.

"Oh, my God! You're wife is Joy and you delivered my son! As a male midwife, Ann's and my child was the first birth you attended solo." He had found who he was looking for.

"How well do you remember me?" he queried. Not sure where he was going, I paused. I recalled an awkward conversation we had on the topic of abortion. I favored it being treated as a woman's choice; he and Joy were part of a fundamental Christian religion that viewed abortion as murder. Having committed to Steve & Joy as our midwives, it was tricky navigating this emotionally volatile issue. To both our credit though, we successfully backed away from an awkward moment and Ann & I went on to have a terrific experience of Steve's support as the midwife for our home birth.

"I recall some of your story," I replied cautiously. "Well," he said, "At the time my wife and I were caught up in a weird religious trip that took us almost 20 years to get untangled from. That was about eight years ago and and I've been doing a lot of soul searching ever since, trying to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. While Joy and I left the church at the same time we didn't follow the same path thereafter and we separately five years ago. We just weren't interested in the same things. Throughout this time I was sustained by the memory of Sandhill and how you were living a life where people were happy. You grew your own food, and everyone took part in child rearing. It was such a positive image I wanted to see if I could find you again."

I was blown away. My son, Ceilee—whom Steve had helped birth—turned 27 in January, and we had had no contact with Steve & Joy since a post-natal check-up right after the birth. That's a long time to keep an ember alive, hoping eventually it can be used to rekindle a flame. It did his heart good just to hear that we were still here, still making sorghum, and still happy.

I told him that Ceilee was doing well (and that, in fact, he had his first child last April, making me a grandfather for the first time), and that while Ann was now living in Floyd County VA (having left Sandhill in 1999) she and I remained quite close. I gave Steve Ann's email address.

Steve explained that he tried to ferret us out by doing a web search through the Communities Directory. Imagine his surprise when he learned that the FIC—publishers of the Directory—was headquartered at Sandhill, a mere 200 feet from where I was talking to him on the phone. (Back in 1981, I was barely started on my career as a community networker, and the FIC didn't even exist. Not only had I offered him an important inspiration more than 27 years ago, but I had subsequently pursued a life path that provided the essential tool that made it possible for him to find me again. It sent chills up my spine.)

I told him that I'd be down his way in two weeks, in Atlanta doing a facilitation training Sept 15-18. He promised he'd try to get up to see me, but if not then we'd try to get together another time down the road. Small world, eh? Having gotten this far, I feel certain our meeting again will happen, and that it will be a good thing for both of us.

The best part though was not his overcoming the long odds to find me; it was learning that in some small, yet powerful way, Sandhill—as a living breathing community—sustained Steve through a hard time in his life, like a life ring in a stormy sea. While I'm sorry about the rough weather, I'm very proud to have been a beacon of hope. As a person who has dedicated his life to community and social change, that's as good as it gets.