Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Same Old Grind

Today is Day Three of this fall's deer butchering and my hands are sore.

I put in 5.5 hours Friday, 7.5 hours Saturday, and I'll keep at it today until I'm done—pushing 20 hours all together. We worked up six deer this season, yielding about 350 lbs of ground meat, roasts, ribs, stew meat, sausage, jerky, and soup stock. With the addition of occasional contributions from our poultry flock (chickens and turkeys) this is Sandhill Farm's meat supply for the year. It's one of the jobs I've learned to specialize in over the years, yet I don't do it regularly (or even every year) and I've been using muscles the last couple days that are not typically exercised by virtue of my routine three hours/day at a keyboard. And while I've successfully avoided any major slips with knives or saws (knock on wood), I nonetheless have an impressive array of minor nicks and scrapes on my hands that are souvenirs of my time in the abattoir that is otherwise our food processing kitchen.

Just before dinner yesterday I finished cutting and deboning the last carcass. I got the last of the bones into the stock pots, and all that remains is to complete the sausage making (half done when the dinner bell rang last night), to start drying the jerky (which was marinading overnight) and to grind up about 200 lbs of deer hamburger (which is the way we most prefer it). Monday I'll give the kitchen floor a thorough cleaning and put the equipment away until next year.

While Sandhill doesn't eat a no-meat diet, we do eat a low-meat diet (on average, we serve meat at a meal 1-2 times/week). We live in a climate with terrific deer habitat (the population has been steadily rising the entire 35 years we've lived here) and with topography that supports grass production (that is, most of the land is too sloped to farm in row crops without serious erosion). With modest stocking rates, grazing animals fit well into the ecology of our land and we believe that a diet that includes moderate amounts of grass-fed animal protein is responsibly sustainable.

My main challenge today will be coaxing the homemade meat grinder (a
hand-me-down from Stan's father, Jake, who passed it on to his eldest son when his butchering days in southern Manitoba were over) into working through all four buckets of meat chunks, converting the tougher cuts—plentiful in a deer—into lean hamburger. It'll take all day.

There are many tasks on the farm like this, that take hours to complete and require more perseverance than perspicacity. The trick to it is setting aside the time with grace and embracing it as a meditation, rather than as a burden. I am not butchering deer so much as I'm feeding my family and honoring the deer by using it as fully in the process as possible. The deer graze on our land, we eat the deer, and, ultimately, we will die and our bodies will nourish the land. It's a cycle.

While the gears of this cycle turn slowly, just as the auger in our homemade grinder, it's also inexorable, and I embrace my small part in it and accept responsibility for occasionally having my hand on the crank.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Perfect Farm Holiday

It's late in the year, late in November, and late in the day. A weak sun made a cameo appearance this morning before ducking behind the rolling banks of grey and leaden clouds that have been brooding over Missouri most of the month. Temperatures are in the 40s and should slide below freezing tonight. Most days it drizzles a little; some days it actually rains; tonight snow flurries are predicted. It's been a hard season for deer hunters. Yet for all that, it's one of my most anticipated times of the year and nothing can dampen my spirits: it's Thanksgiving week.

The larder is full, we have wood enough stockpiled to heat ourselves into 2011, and both of my children are coming home for the first time in three years. The agricultural year is over and the gardens have been put to bed. It's time to gather, cook, relax, drink, laugh, eat, and tell stories with loved ones. If you live on a farm, Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday to have others come to you. What better place to celebrate the harvest than where the harvest happens?

Late Monday night I got home from a week in Virginia. After a cup of coffee and some trip accounting Tuesday morning, Emily and I got to work butchering poultry—eight older chickens
culled from the flock, as well as the featured guest for Thursday's dinner: our biggest tom turkey. We spent most of the day on this ritual, carefully taking the life of each one, plucking, dissecting, and canning all the chickens. The tom, of course, was left whole (sans viscera), ready for the oven first thing tomorrow morning.

Thursday we'll be celebrating with a joint meal at the neighbors, Dancing Rabbit. I'll go over early to help my wife, Mai'kwe, make tamales, one of her specialties gleaned from five years of living in Albuquerque. My daughter Jo & her partner Peter will be timing their drive in from Toledo to arrive just as we sit down at 2 pm. After a blow-out meal, we'll repair to Sandhill for the remainder of the day, which translates to more laughter, game playing, and drinking, roughly in that order.

Sometime after dark, Trish, Joe, and their one-and-a-half year old son Emory will arrive from St Louis for the start of a five-day visit. We've been courting each other for most of the year, and Sandhill is hoping they'll move up as early as February, when the Earth quickens for the new growing season. Their last visit was Labor Day Weekend (a quarter turn of the calendar back, at the advent of harvest), and I'm pleased to welcome them into the circle on this occasion of wood heat and camaraderie; the days of toasting and being toasty.

Friday, my son Ceilee arrives with his wife Tosca and my granddaughter Taivyn—now a curious and highly mobile 19 months old, and a match for Emory. As Friday will be the only evening my family is all together (Ceilee has a flight back to Nevada Sunday morning to be on the job Monday), I asked to be assigned to cook that day. Cooking and eating together is one of my family's favorite recreational cum spiritual activities, and orchestrating an opportunity to do that during Thanksgiving weekend renders Friday
something akin to a high holy day.

Both of my kids grew up at Sandhill, so their coming this weekend is more than seeing Dad. It's coming home.

Cutting Up in the Kitchen
The last time both Jo & Ceilee were at Sandhill was three years ago, also at Thanksgiving. It was right before Ceilee moved from Columbia MO to Las Vegas NV, and he was happy to spend most of the pre-Thanksgiving rifle season on the farm hunting deer. Jo had spent the summer of '06 at Sandhill while she sorted out what she wanted to do after culinary school. Among other responsibilities she shouldered that summer, she raised two pigs, with an eye toward butchering them at the same time as we tackled Ceilee's deer.

All of this came together in the days before Thanksgiving, when the three of us spent three solid days butchering two pigs and eight deer. There are many choices to be made in how meat can be used and we love the art of catering to people's culinary preferences while making the fullest use possible of all that the animals have provided us. It is simultaneously joyous work and sacred work, as we have a bond with our food to honor it, just as it nourishes us.

This year, though the poultry butchering necessarily took pace before my kids arrived, there are still six deer hanging in our walk-in cooler and it's probable that part of the precious time I'll have together with my kids will be spent in the kitchen with meat and knives—where we'll be strengthening familial ties
even as cut up roasts and grind sausage.

On the farm, my children learned about the rhythms of seasonal cycles, about finding pleasure in work well done, and about taking time to savor fresh food, the smell of wood smoke, and the campanionship of others. In the coming hours we'll have together, we'll retouch all of these themes, weaving an ever-finer tapestry of connection and contribution—all of which is why I've found Thanksgiving to be the perfect farm holiday.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Child as Father to the Man

For three days this week, Terry O'Keefe (of Asheville NC) and I were visiting Acorn, an income-sharing community in central Virginia which operates Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a mail order business specializing in heirloom and organic vegetable seeds. We were conducting a preliminary examination of SESE operations with an eye toward seeing if we could offer them substantial help in improving both their bottom line and their member satisfaction. It was the initial field trial for GREEN EGGS—Guild for Relational Economics: Experts in Neighborly & Entrepreneurial Growth that is Green & Sustainable [see my blogs of July 26 & Oct 17, 2009 for more on this budding consortium].

Acorn is a community of about 23 members. It was started in 1993 as a spin-off of Twin Oaks, when that well-established income-sharing community was full to overflowing in the midst of the nation-wide surge of interest in community living in the early '90s (which was the last surge before the one that erupted in 2005 and continues today). Rather than build another residence, Twin Oaks decided to build another community—and Acorn was the offspring of that inspiration. Located just seven miles away, Acorn is an easy bike ride away from the mother ship.

Twin Oaks fronted the money to buy the land and create the initial infrastructure for the fledgling community. For its early years, Acorn's economic base was doing contract work for Twin Oaks' robust hammocks business (for decades, Twin Oaks had the main contract for supplying Pier One, which was the largest hammock retailer anywhere). Thus did the parent offer economic sustenance to its child.

Acorn has not had an easy history. Most of its 16 years have been characterized by high member turnover and a lack of clarity about what it wanted to be in the world. Throughout the uncertainties however, it was sustained by Twin Oaks' benevolent attitude toward the long-term debt and its steady offer of income work in Twin Oak's businesses.

Ten years ago, Acorn made a b
ig decision: they bought Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and committed to building it into becoming their main business. SESE was launched in 1982 as a sole proprietorship. Over the course of 17 years, the owner had painstakingly nurtured the business from a seedling (that had co-opted the homestead kitchen table for seed sorting), into a flowering business featuring heirloom seeds with about $100,000 in annual sales. Happily, when the owner wanted out, Acorn wanted in. Thus did the community begin to emerge from under Twin Oaks' economic skirts.

When an intentional community operates a business (which most income-sharing groups do, but which most non-income-sharing groups do not), one of the trickiest challenges is finding a profitable enterprise that is a solid enough value match. Understandably, groups are chary about being associated with products or services that don't align well with the values they're espousing, and
recruiting members to rally around.

In buying SESE, Acorn had a winner. Here was a business providing the seeds and knowledge to help people grow their own food—a basic need if there ever was one. It was dedicated to protecting heirloom seed (varieties that had been established prior to 1940 and the genetic manipulation spurred by World War II and the Green Revolution) and genetic diversity. SESE sells only non-treated seed, almost no hybrids (only four in the 2009 catalog), and as much organic seed as it can find or grow. When it contracts with other growers to supply seed for them, they're offering meaningful income work at home for gardeners all across the country, helping to make it possible for them to remain where they love being yet struggle to find work. What's not to like? On value scale of 1-100, SESE probably scores about 99.

Over the past decade, as it turns out, Twin Oaks and Acorn have been moving in opposite directions
economically. Twin Oaks lost the Pier One account (as that giant of the leisure furniture industry abandoned the tried and true in favor of fresher products) and the community is still groping for a business mix that will replace lost revenues. Meanwhile, Acorn posted steady progress in building up SESE and was perfectly poised to benefit from the 70% jump in the demand for garden seeds that ensued from last year's economic nosedive. For the first time, in 2009 SESE's gross sales will top half a million dollars.

When Acorn scrambled to find enough people to grow seeds for them, they contracted with Twin Oaks, which is now growing as many of SESE seeds as Acorn is. In the face of last year's rocket ride in sales, Acorn turned to Twin Oaks to help them package seeds, and even has some of the senior community's veteran gardeners conducting germination tests and fielding customer queries about horticulture.

While Acorn is still paying down its mortgage to Twin Oaks and the older community is still asset rich, when it comes to income work today, it's Acorn offering steady work to Twin Oaks, not the other way around. The child is hiring the parent, and it's working well for both. It's a feel-good story about cooperation a grand scale. Now if we can only get Democrats to see Republicans that way, and vice versa…

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Walking into the Lion’s Den… and Getting Eaten

Tuesday I received one the angriest pieces of correspondence in my 30 years of community networking, and it’s shaken me up. One of my jobs as the FIC’s center fielder is to catch complaints about communities listed in our Directory. While I don't get a lot of these, the few I get are important to handle with sensitivity. This week I didn't do so good. 

There was a hot potato in my In Box last Friday, when a woman registered a formal complaint about her brief experience living with a forming community last September. She felt she’d been treated unfairly, that she’d been discriminated against as an older woman, and that the community had misrepresented itself as a place where everyone had a say in group decisions: her story was that one man decided things by fiat and claimed they operated by consensus.

Sunday I dutifully sent a note to the community passing along her complaint verbatim, and asked for their side of the story. I got a prompt replay on Monday in which the man in question denied the charges outright and leveled countercharges at the woman that were worse than what was had said about him. His story was that the woman was regularly abusive with her language and that on at least one occasion this spilled over into physical violence, leading to the community filing a police complaint against her because of an unprovoked attack on another member.

While she claimed that he had reneged on promises of work in lieu of rent; the man claimed that the woman did no work and took advantage of the community. Each said the other owed them money.

While it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that these two individuals had no future living together, I nonetheless persisted in working with the man in an attempt to accomplish two things:

a) To clear up to the extent possible any misunderstandings and hurt feelings between the complainant and the community.

b) To determine if there were any substantive inaccuracies in how the community describes itself in their listing, or if the group is otherwise in violation of the FIC's boundaries around advocating violent practices or interfering with members' rights to freely disassociate from the group.

From the man’s perspective, I was being grossly insensitive to the community’s situation. He reported their feeling violated by this woman and what was I doing questioning the victim? How could I even take this woman’s charges seriously? Was I really following the FIC’s policy about how we handled complaints or was I just picking on him because he was African-American, and trying to mask my racism behind bureaucratic bullshit? 

After another email where I tried to clarify what I was attempting to do and assuring him that I was following the same process we always use in working with complaints, he shot back an even angrier email demanding that he be allowed to talk with someone else, saying he wanted to file a formal complaint about how badly I’d treated him. Boy, did that go south fast. 

Even allowing for the plausible truth about his being traumatized by this woman, I’ve been struggling to see what the payoff for him was in putting such a negative spin on my motivations for attempting to discuss the matter. (After all, even if the woman was abusive, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he wasn't also. Nor does it mean that FIC should look the other way if there has been any misrepresentation on the community’s part in how they describe themselves.)

In my efforts to clear up misunderstandings (a more modest goal than repairing damage to their relationship—which I quickly came to the conclusion I had no prospects for achieving), I had asked a number of questions about the discrepancies between their stories. With the exception of giving me details of the woman’s attack of the other member (the basis for the police complaint), I noticed that in the course of his diatribe against me he did not answer the questions. In short, he deflected the examination of his part in the dynamic and was abusive to me in much the same way he was complaining that the woman had been to him. (And out of this clay we are attempting to mold a cooperative culture. Yikes!)

Today, sadly, I gave up on being able to inject any hopeful ray into my investigation of the storm clouds over this community, and I turned the matter over to two of FIC’s veteran Board members to pinch hit for me.

Much as I like the image of myself as a person who can make any situation better no matter how bad the damage, on this occasion I simply struck out.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Massaging the Medium

Have you ever noticed how people tend to make decisions about the attention they'll give to messages based on the mode of communication—rather than on the relative urgency or importance of the message? I have, and I'm not so sure it's a good thing.

In 1964 Canadian educator Marshall McLuhan published
Understanding Media, this was followed three years later by The Medium is the Massage. Taken together, these two titles comprised his seminal observations about the Information Age. The title of the latter book was a pun on his most famous tag line, "The medium is the message," by which he meant that changes in technology can have profound effects on how we communicate. (He did not mean that content is irrelevant; only that technological skews what gets communicated.)

At the recent Fellowship for Intentional Community
organizational meetings (held Oct 30-Nov 1 in Berea KY), we focused one session on the outreach opportunities presented by web-based social networking tools—Facebook in particular. It was a fascinating conversation. About half the people in the room were Facebook users. Some do it once a fortnight; some are in there four times a night. Some relish the breezy updates and easy camaraderie; others are turned off by postings that are mainly about what others are doing on Facebook (kind of like the media's rising tendency to report on what others are reporting—where's the meat?).

So far, I'm a Facebook virgin (where would I get the time?). My basic analysis is that social networking tools tend to be very broad and very shallow. While I like broad, I'm not particularly drawn to shallow. That said, my position is not immutable and I'm trying to sort out what it means to use the technology intelligently. Which is where McLuhan comes in. I'm wondering how much people are slanting their communication toward Facebook because its sexy and there are cool pictures—rather than because the people they want (or need) to connect with can be found there.

[As an aside, last month I received an invitation from a former client to become her Facebook friend. I hadn't heard from her in 18 months and was pleased to have the contact. I wrote her a personal email declining the link (after all, I don't do Facebook), yet affirming my interest in personal correspondence. Imagine my surprise when she responded by saying she was surprised to hear from me, and that she hadn't sent me an invitation. Apparently the Facebook program had rooted around in her email Address Book and blithely invited everyone there to become her friend. Perhaps she'd inadvertently given her permission for that (at least I hope so), but it's all a bit too 1984 for me, and doesn't incline me toward jumping into the Facebook conga line. In fact, that experience had me wondering if there was a self-help option
to join Aboutfacebook, for those who found themselves in too deep.]

My partner, Ma'ikwe, loves Facebook. I believes she now has in excess of 500 "friends," meaning people who have accepted an invitation to link their Facebook page to hers. Like a lot of folks, she's reported that she's established contact with long lost school chums and she appreciates how many people she can offer a first-level update on her life in one pass. I think that has merit and I can respect the value she places on re-invigorated connections. I also notice however, that concomitant with her upsurge in Facebook traffic there's been a diminution of her appearance on list serves we're both on. (The clock only has so many minutes in it each day, and that face time on Facebook has to come from somewhere.)

Because she lives three miles away and I don't see her daily, I have come to rely substantially on email traffic to stay current. While she subscribes to my blog; I don't see her Facebook entries. I now know a bit less about what's going on for her day to day because the email has been tapering, and I don't see the Facebook postings where she's keeping everyone else apprised of her goings on. This is not the result of a decision on Ma'ikwe's part to cut me off; it's a consequence of her communication choices.

In short, Facebook has drawn her attention away from regular email and I believe its having an impact on which relationships are getting juice—irrespective of which relationships are valuable or more interesting. While I'm not worried about Ma'ikwe's and my ability to figure out what communication we need to maintain a healthy vibrant partnership, I nonetheless find this impact noteworthy and somewhat disturbing in its unmindfulness.

Going the other way, I have a dear friend, Caroline Estes, who is an FIC Board member and someone I've known for 22 years. She was one of the early people helping to shape the Fellowship, and has been an important influence on how I learned consensus and facilitation. Caroline lives at Alpha Farm in Deadwood, OR, 2000 miles away from Sandhill. For the first 10 years of FIC, we talked regularly by phone and that sustained the relationship between meetings. Gradually though, email became the increasingly dominant mode of organizational communication and Caroline never embraced that technology (I name this in parallel with how I am balking at Facebook today). As FIC relied more heavily on email, postal letters went the way of the slide rule, and phone calls became more of a novelty. As Caroline participates minimally on email, our relationship has atrophied the last decade. To be sure, she remains an important friend (see my blog about her 80th birthday party March 19, 2008), but she's not swimming in the main channel with me any longer and our contacts are less frequent.

So I've told this story both ways. I don't think that email, the telephone, or even Twitter is inherently good or evil. But I do think they bend the twig, and so grows the tree. The Board's task as it faces Facebook right now is to make a thoughtful choice about which way we want the Fellowship's tree to grow, and then do our best to discern what level of participation in that technology will help us get there.

McLuhan is also remembered for a lesser-known quote that buoys me in these confusing times: "There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening." While I can't be sure he's right, I sleep better believing he is.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Sounds of Silence, Part Four: Silence on Email

Communication is a huge field, and obviously integral to understanding cooperative group dynamics, which is where I work and play. In this field, one of the trickiest things to accurately interpret is silence. I want to talk about what it means when people aren't talking, and I'm offering this as a four-part harmony, one blog at a time:

Part One: Silence in Conversation (Oct 1)
Part Two: Silence on the Road to Speaking (Oct 8)
Part Three: Silence in Consensus (Oct 29)
Part Four: Silence on Email

In this final installment, I'll zero in on the nuances of non-response in what has become the dominant mode of communication today: electronic. I think the first thing to take into account is that email communication is not equivalent for face-to-face communication, even though many of us pretend that it is. Instead, it's a fragment. When we're speaking to one another in the same room, there's plenty of non-verbal communication (or at least there is if you're paying attention). You have a decent chance of framing silence accurately because you have clues about pacing, facial expression, and other cues from body language.

With email, we have none of this to go by. Worse, some of us find it irresistible not to fill in the gaps with guesses. Here's a range of possibilities when your email correspondent doesn't respond (and there was no bounce message):

—Did they even get the message?
—Did they read it?
—Did they understand it?
—Are they having an emotional response?
—Do they not care?
—Are they ignoring you on purpose?
—Are they fine with what you've written and have no comment?
—Are they thinking about it?
—Are they preferring to discuss it with you live (in person or by phone)?

It could be any of these things, or even a combination. And guessing which it is—instead of asking—is about as smart as flicking lit matches out a window while driving through a drought stricken national forest. You might get away with it, but you also might start a conflagration.

As a free-lance consultant and as the main administrator of FIC—a national nonprofit with a geographically dispersed board and staff—I spend a lot of time writing reports, fielding inquiries, crafting proposals, monitoring tasks, and arranging logistics. In short, I send a lot of email where I'm looking for a response. One of the most challenging things for me is managing non-response.

Once I've gotten something out of my In Box and into someone else's, I frequently forget to stay on top of whether I've received a response (even when I've expressly requested one)—because my In Box is never empty and there are always others items clamoring for my attention. Thus, some portion of my time must be periodically given over to reviewing who owes me a response and is overdue. With as much grace and lightness as I can muster, I resend the original message, to stir the pot
with a nudge (as opposed to with a grudge). If I'm feeling the crush of many such items, it can take me more than a couple deep breaths to not feel resentful of having to ask twice (or three times).

The worst is when the recipient reports never having received the first email (and they're wondering why I'm so slow). Each of us is waiting on the other, progress is dead in the water, and the relationship is under strain (and technology was supposed to make our lives easier).

One of the tricky management issues with email is how you set the default. Can project managers, committees, or boards assume agreement if people with authority have not responded by a set deadline, or must they wait for all counties to be heard from? In other words, is the default understanding that non-response=assent? As you might imagine, it's important to be clear about this, especially if you make decisions by consensus, where it only takes one downward thumb to quash the deal.

If silence equals assent, then the danger is people not reading or responding to their email in a timely way, and decisions might be made or actions taken without thorough consideration. If however, you do not allow silence to be interpreted as agreement, then the danger is bogging down progress and demoralizing staff who have to keep sending out horses to round up the strays. What constitutes time enough to move ahead, and when are you rushing things? You have to pick your poison.

In the nonprofits I work with, we've adopted the protocol of adding "RSVP" to the subject line if a response is expected. Somewhere in the text, the question(s) will be spelled out and a deadline given for when answers are expected. This helps time-sensitive topics stand out in the flurry of email that most of us download daily. However, even though this helps, it's hardly foolproof.

I tracked response rates for one group I was doing staff work for last year. In a six-month period I posted 16 RSVP messages to the governing board and only once received a response form all eight members by the deadline. Every other time I needed to send out a reminder. Often I had to send the reminders more than once. Sigh.

There can be no doubt that we're in the Information Age. Unfortunately, that does not necessarily mean that all the information that crosses our bow has come of age, or that all the people we're trying to communicate with are under way and tracking. Beware the Shoals of Silence.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Partnership & Individuality

Ma’ikwe, my wife, has been building a house this year. For anyone who has attempted this, you will be able to immediately relate to how this can be a wholly consuming project, and not at all simple (see my blogs of July 29 and Aug 1). She essentially set aside or downplayed all other threads in her life to focus on house building the last eight months, with the goal of having a livable space (meaning enclosed and weathertight) before winter.

I’m happy to report that she reached her goal, and Halloween night she slept in her house for the first time. She was understandably proud of her achievement, and has been enjoying exhalation and a certain post-finish-line euphoria these early days of November. She undertook this project with no background in construction and had to perform within the stringent environmental covenants of her home community, Dancing Rabbit, where there are serious restrictions on what building materials can be used and how they can be delivered to the work site. She was simultaneously the lead designer, construction manager, in charge of material procurement, labor organizer, bursar, main grunt, and chief cheerleader. Whew.

While there is a substantial amount of interior work remaining and house completion will still be a major part of Ma’ikwe’s labor landscape in 2010, the rush is over.

Naturally enough, Ma’ikwe has already been turning her attention to What’s Next—which is a question that has my attention also. As Ma’ikwe and I don’t live together (Dancing Rabbit is an hour’s walk away from my bedroom at Sandhill Farm) it is not a slam dunk figuring out when we’ll spend time together. This calculus is further complicated by my work as a community networker and process consultant, which has me on the road about 60% of the time (which means there’s considerable potential to not be together regardless of whether we share the same mail box).

Like most couples that are happy in their partnership, we like spending time together. Our challenge is figuring out the right mix of together and apart, keeping in mind that we both have diverse interests and already had full dance cards when we launched our intimate relationship four years ago. In some ways, or course, this is an embarrassment of riches, where we need to make selections from a menu replete with worthy choices. As much as we’d like to do it all, we can’t.

Thread #1

When Ma’ikwe slimmed down her other commitments to tackle the house, one of the things she let go of was involvement with FIC, which is a major area of commitment for me and one of the venues where our lives intersected leading up to our courting one another in 2005. Much as I’ve enjoyed her involvement in the Fellowship’s work (especially as an Event organizer), it’s not at all clear that she’ll return to any FIC role post-construction.

Thread #2

While she’s continued to be my teaching partner in facilitation training throughout construction—and that’s something that both been thoroughly enjoyable and nurturing for our relationship—she’s now questioning whether that’s a calling for her in the same way it is for me (to be clear, she loves teaching; she’s just not sure that group dynamics is where she ought to be plying that pedagogical talents). Ma’ikwe and I are committed to completing the training we’re doing in NC. After that’s completed in June, it’s not clear if we’ll do other trainings together (or consulting gigs either, which we’ve done a few times).

Thread #3

The first thing that bubbled up for Ma’ikwe when she contemplated what might be most satisfying for her as an underfed interest was Art: creative writing, painting, music, ceramics, and ritual—pretty much in any combination. As her partner, I want to support her having the life she wants. When you connect the dots however, this desire to explore her life as Artist may translate into my needing to make more money, to make sure there’s enough flow to meet her household budget. That, in turn, probably means my being on the road more, which is where I’m able to make serious money.

Thread #4

Ma’ikwe’s resurgent interest in writing coincides with my commitment to starting work on a book about cooperative group dynamics that has been rattling around inside me for several years. In fact, we have fantasy about renting a cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula this summer to do a three-week writing retreat together. While it’s unclear how concurrent dates with the same Muse adds up to time together, I figure there’s something precious in there about connecting with the ebbs and flows of inspiration and written expression.

Taken all together, these threads may weave into a tapestry where the weft of my life intersects less with the warp of my wife’s, not more. I have my personal pursuits and she has hers. I have my callings and she has hers. While this wasn’t how I was hoping our lives would entwine, I’m nonetheless dedicated to her having every bit as much choice as I have, and living the life that seems most promising to her. I have no image of our partnership thriving if it’s based on constriction and my limiting her choices. While it’s not yet clear how we’ll be able to pull this all off, that’s the challenge in front of us.

It’s early days, and Ma’ikwe has not made any decisions yet about what she’ll choose. Our marriage is still young and we’re testing the resiliency of the weave, and what partnership ultimately means to each of us as individuals. While I’ve never felt closer to her than I do at this moment, it’s ironically less clear than ever how we’ll nurture and extend this precious weaving. It’s uncertain how much time we’ll have together at the loom, with one hand on a shuttle and the other in each other’s.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Funding Community Where You Are

Last Wednesday I was in Yellow Springs OH. For a couple hours in the evening I was the featured presenter at an FIC House Party—which is a gathering of folks interested in community, where everyone gets to hear from me what the Fellowship is up to, hear my pitch for why that's important in the world, and is then asked to write a check in support of our work. At the end of the night I had garnered about $800 and had fun in the process, getting folks pumped up about our efforts to build a more cooperative world.

It's the third House Party I've done (the other two were in Seattle and Ann Arbor) and it's one of my favorite activities as the Fellowship's chief fundraiser. In addition to help balance the budget (we can always think up good ways to use money faster than ways to earn it), I'm building personal connections with our constituency, learning first-hand what's exciting for them and how community touches their lives. In short, I'm building community in the process of promoting it. How good can it get?

In Yellow Springs, before I gave my 20-minute spiel about FIC's history, its current program, and the opportunities for everyone in the room to take up an oar on the Fellow Ship, we did a Go Round where I invited participants to speak briefly about their connection with community. The answers were touching—both to my heart, and to other threads in my life:

o Many lived in Yellow Springs, and connected with community that way. Though a small bedroom village in the outer orbit of Dayton in western Ohio, Yellow Springs has always had a special feeling of community by virtue of being the home to Antioch College since 1852 and the residence for many years of Arthur Morgan, author of the seminal work, Small Community, which advances the premise that small communities are the essential building block of a healthy society. While Arthur did not limited his focus to intentional communities, he was definitely promoting the idea of developing local communities with intention. Since 1940, Yellow Springs has been the headquarters of Community Service (CSI)—now styled the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions—a nonprofit devoted to the promotion of Arthur's thinking. The House Party was being held in the home of Faith Morgan & Pat Murphy. Faith is Arthur's granddaughter, and Pat is the current Executive Director of CSI.

Yellow Springs has developed a rich community heritage by virtue of a citizenry motivated to Create Community Where You Are (which has been part of FIC's core mission since 2005). This reputation has attracted others who have been Finding Community Where You Are. In both cases—whether one is a community pioneer or a community settler—residents are cherishing what they have.

(Faith, incidentally, is my age, and it's awesome for me—who has lived in community for 35 years—to have a contemporary who is not just a fellow lifer; she's third generation community.)

o One participant had attended the Arthur Morgan School a Quaker-based boarding school for grades 7-9 in Celo NC. My daughter had gone there in 1999-2002.

o Three people in the room (Ray & Pat Olds, and Don Hollister) had been part of the founding of Communities magazine in 1972. FIC took over operational control of Communities in 1992, and I'm the publisher of that periodical today.

o Faith, in conjunction with CSI, produced the video The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peal Oil, which is a terrific example of a society responding with creativity, dedication, and optimism to the challenge of drastic changes in their access to energy. It's the inspiring story of how one culture built community in response to crisis. FIC is a purveyor of hope as well, especially when anchored by community building.

o One attendee lived for years in Argenta BC, an alternative community enclave nestled in the Kootenays of southeastern BC. I have a dear friend who owns land there and used to be on the staff of the Argenta Friends School. She has been regaling me for years with stories of life there.

The House Party happened because two local people—Faith Morgan and Don Hollister—agreed to put it together. They sent out the invitations, they promoted it locally, they provided the refreshments… they took time out of their busy lives to make it happen. While FIC provided the names and addresses of people in the area with a known interest in community, all I had to do was show up and make the presentation. It was a partnership, and successful House Parties—not unlike successful communities—aren't possible without partners.

Inspired by Faith & Don's example, Raines Cohen & Betsy Morris have signed up to host a House Party in Berkeley next year. Does anyone else care to put their hand in the air?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Feedback on Giving Feedback

Last weekend I got valuable information from friendsagainabout how I don't always pay enough attention to my audience when offering reflections about what they're doing. It's humbling to reflect on how many times I've had the chance to digest this lesson over the years, and still haven't gotten the job done.

There's a certain irony here in that I'm getting feedback about how effective my communication is about how effective I think others are in their choice about how to communicate their thinking. Talk about chasing one's tail (not to mention the pot calling the kettle black)…

Here's how it played out. Back in August I was the overnight guest of two married friends and I inquired about what the man had been up to lately. He's an interesting guy and he had an interesting answer. He's concerned about sustainability and energy consumption, and has been focusing in particular on how this relates to residential housing—decisions about which tend to have longer lasting consequences than most energy choices, such as diet and transportation.

I was stimulated by the conversation to think about how to apply his conclusions to Sandhill, and got excited about the idea of embracing the concept of a passive home (one so carefully constructed that the heat from occupants and appliances is sufficient to meet space heating needs, obviating the need for a furnace or wood stove) to construct my community's next building, perhaps as early as 2011. This technology has the potential of reducing the energy usage in homes by 90% and could make a real contribution in efforts to build a world that works sustainably.

At the same time, the man was troubled by what he felt were misleading claims by architects and builders relying on LEED certification to reduce energy consumption in the construction and use of buildings. He was concerned that the savings claims were specious and giving the public a false sense of progress.

Without making an assessment of about whether the facts were accurate (I'm in over my head in that regard) it caught my attention that he was making the choice to spend a significant fraction of his energy on challenging LEED claims, rather than on promoting his alternate solution. This strategic choice was what I was trying to give him feedback about (not about the importance of the topic or the soundness of his conclusions), but the conversation didn't go well. Worse, I persisted in trying to give my perspective (mainly by saying it
repeatedly, with increasingly greater animation). Not surprisingly, this was not an effective tactic. (Why does anyone think that saying the same thing louder and/or faster is ever an effective choice in the face of resistance or misunderstanding?)

Worse, I came away from the August exchange thinking that at least things had ended on an up-note, because I had concluded our conversation by focusing on how impressed I was with his ideas about passive homes. Last week, when I spoke with the woman, I found out that the man felt I'd "chewed him out" in August. Yikes! That hadn't been my experience at all. The woman then proceeded to recapitulate the man's position about the LEED problem, working from the understanding that I hadn't heard what her partner had said two months ago. This was depressing. Apparently I hadn't been clear with either of them. When you take into account that I teach communication and how to constructively navigate moments when there's a significant difference in viewpoints, this bordered on embarrassing. How did I misread what was going on so badly?

As best as I can reconstruct it, I was attached to having the man hear my thoughts about why I thought it was a better strategy to emphasize positive alternatives rather than dwelling on what he didn't like about others' suggestions. For his part, the man had a considerable investment in his analysis and probably felt threatened by my critique. In retrospect, I realize that I had assumed he'd be interested in my reflections, and hadn't bothered to check that out before launching into my analysis (Mistake #1).

That error was compounded by my insistence on restating my "insight" when he didn't seem to get it. Never mind whether I was right or not about what he understood: I had ample evidence that he wasn't finding utility in what I was offering, and I kept hammering away anyway (Mistake #2).

Topping it all off (third time's the charm), I didn't bother to check out how the man felt afterward. Since I was doing OK, I assumed he was also. (Apparently, I was determined to make a hash of the exchange.) That was Mistake #3, the dimensions of which only got revealed to me last week when I got reports from two different sources about how hard the August conversation had landed for the man.

As hard as it was to hear all that, it was important that I ultimately got it, and thus have a chance to do it differently in the future. Stephen Covey encapsulates this lesson in the following nugget: Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.

Maybe someday I'll actually live that way.