Angel in the woods

Madrone in Whidbey woods

Madrone in Whidbey woods

The day was gloomy and these woods in particular, standing on the north side of the hill, do not get sun in winter and were muted into half-light. The trees grow tall or snake through one another, reaching for light. Winds blow off Puget Sound and all those that stand are strong trunked.

We—my beloved and I and our perky paced corgi—are making our way through this loveliness—polished green shine of salal bushes, the last yellow leaves falling off the salmonberry bushes, grey skeletons of alder and maple mixed among fir and hemlock and Madrone. Alone. Such stillness when we come to rest, only the forest breathes. We are not drawn to talk much, just finding our way, with occasional exclamations of wonder at the mushrooms or pointing out the flight of small grey bush birds.

IMG_7419Our dog’s head goes up, attention on the path ahead, and here come a man and woman wandering our way. They turn out to be dear island acquaintances Mary and Robert, and we are all happy to stop, to make a little circle in the middle of the path and inquire into this happenstance of intersection. We plunge into the heart of conversation—about our travels, dreams, health, work, and families. Like boring through the growth rings of the tree, we tap into story-glimpses of our lives. After awhile we release each other with another round of hugs and move on our ways through the meandering afternoon.

A question then rises in me: What got transferred between us in the guise of a “chance” meeting on the trail that is, in fact, exactly the message Spirit was trying to transmit this afternoon into our minds and hearts?

With this inquiry in mind, I drift back over the conversation. “Just do something for 30 days—make a month commitment and see what happens…” They are reporting on a seminar they attended, a challenge from a webinar—I don’t remember the source, just the message. This is what I needed to hear: to choose one thing in the New Year that I commit to, and give it a chance to become integrated into my life.

In the week between Christmas and New Year’s we have made a commitment to walk the woods, trails, and beaches of our island every day—to get re-grounded in our home after a year busy with travel.  And on these walks I formulate a vow to write in my journal every day in January— to re-establish connection to my own life narrative as we head into 2012 and all it portends.

This encounter on the trail leads me to consider how often  “spiritual guidance” seems to come through the apparently chance remarks of other people. We are, indeed, angels in the woods to one another—delivering insight, challenge, guidance, inspiration, often without knowing it, or even meaning to.  Everything is reciprocal—for we have mutual impact on each other in these exchanges. A niece calls for “advice”—and what we say to her, we say also to ourselves; what she says to us is meaningful across the generations and different situations.

With Gracie on the trail

With Gracie on the trail

In this portal time—when contemplating the year past and the year coming, I practice listening for guidance in ordinary conversations: to set out into the day with a question and to notice how, in the jumble of the day’s big and little events, a hint, or even an answer, emerges from the patter of our lives.  One day at a time—for 30 days.

Rebirth of the Village

Upon our arrival in New York on November 1, our friend Nancy Fritsche Eagan, a circle and Art of Hosting colleague, took us over to visit Occupy Wall Street. It was a stunning experience, particularly from a group process perspective.

Zucotti Park, now dubbed Liberty Park, was doing its best to operate as a self-organizing “village.” It was a tent city, one block long, 100 feet wide, with council-based governance, a multi-faith chapel (Sikhs were chanting there when we walked past), their own security team, library with hundreds of books organized in plastic tubs that could be closed up in rain, a cook-tent for serving the community free food (which had just gotten an A-rating from the NY Health Department), and wired for the world of the Internet.  The local “newspaper” was cell phone tweets. At that time police presence had pulled back to a presence that seemed nearly normal for a big city neighborhood.

This statement, from their website states their sense of identity: Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.”

There was a general assembly starting. The person hosting a topic stands on the steps that rise up at the end of the park, anyone attending gathers either behind the speaker (think very eclectic and randomly organized choir) and others gather in the clearing—the commons space—in front of the speaker. No amplification is allowed so the speaker says a line, “We need to talk about (whatever real topic is being brought forward)…” The chorus, known as the “Human Microphone” repeats the sentence and, if needed, another line of speakers about 50 feet deep into the crowd passes it back down the block.

Hand signals were employed to show approval/question/disapproval—and voices of dissent invited to speak first, along with women and minorities—white males, even these disenfranchised versions of often scruffy and dread-locked young men—spoke last. There were signals for question, and point of clarity. Someone was making a “stack”—taking names and order for speaking… We were watching the next generation of group process come into being. And this level of radical democratization has been common in the Occupy Movement in all the major cities I’ve been hearing about.

With Nancy, we walked over to an indoor courtyard, during the day the kind of place that, ringed with deli stalls, provides affordable lunch options for office workers. This evening, about a dozen small circles of quiet and intent conversations were occurring. Working groups seated on the floor or around planters, were engaged in developing structures to keep the movement evolving and the “village” organized.

In our PeerSpirit work, Ann and I often find ourselves proclaiming that circle is the basic unit of democracy. It is a great treat to actually witness this so clearly. Circles. Self-organizing. Civility in public group process. Earnest young and mixed ages, mixed races—doing the hard work of discovering what to be “for,” not just what to be “against.” We were standing in the midst of evolution. In the midst of something happening—the determination to OCCUPY our lives in radical ways. I’m for that!

Is it clear? No, but becoming more so.

Is there a plan? Only for the next step, then sitting down and understanding the implications and complications and deciding what the next step is, and then the next.

At 1:00 AM on the morning of November 15, the neighborhood cops turned back into storm troopers and cleared Liberty Park, 2 days before a large protest march commemorating the two months anniversary of the movement was planned. The reports are varied as to what will happen next. In terms of the physical requirements, the “villages” in New York, Portland, Oakland, Seattle, and other major cities is not yet sustainable—deliberately so, with authorities refusing to install sanitation sites, and other basic necessities of human habitation. Winter is coming—and living in tents without heat is nearly impossible. Police have said that protestors may gather in the area, but not live in the park. It’s complicated… and it’s too late to stop it. OCCUPY has gone global, gone viral, and become a marker in time, in action, that we will look back on and say, “finally—we the people got going again…”

I heard a young man speaking from within the Seattle group on the radio. He was preparing to meet about their reaction to potential eviction from Seattle Central Community College and said, “Well, we’re a leaderless group… so we’ll have a meeting, listen to each other, take a vote, and decide what’s next. That’s how we are—“ I’d only change one thing—it’s not a leaderless movement, it’s an ALL LEADER movement, with every participant taking responsibility for their own interactions.

If you’re not tracking—get online and start reading. Go to Google around the mainstream media. Look at the BBC. Read the progressive articles on and watch the Livestream videos.

Does it make sense? Sometimes—and perhaps that is how a new world begins.

Now, collectively, it’s our work to believe that OCCUPY is an emergent action whose time has come.  Now, collectively, it’s our work to figure out our ways to engage and support and challenge and shape the conversation.

The circle invites us to sit down, share the stories, clarify the patterns that emerge, and rise to take up wise action. Let’s go.

The wisdom we need is in the room!

I wake at 4:30 AM from a dream in which a film crew is taking down the Europe “set”— dismantling canvas facades of the streets of Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam, carefully putting the architecture into storage.

Ann and I have just come home from three weeks teaching circle practice within the European Commission, the Art of Hosting and community leadership groups, and German consultant network. The dream seems to be my mind’s way of letting go of “there” and getting “here,” though those are concepts that blur in the midst of our current teaching schedule. “Here” is wherever the circle is, wherever people sit down and gather around a question and a form that fosters speaking and listening from heart-integrated space.

While I watch the film crew in my mind dismantle the cityscape, I am remembering the people of this trip and the delights and challenges of language and culture in the global circle.

Working first in Brussels, with internal facilitators at the European Commission, and then with a broader group, we often had people from 8 or 9 countries in the room, each of us filtering our learning and conversation through the common language of English. Because English is the official tongue of the European Commission, and Belgium is a country with two resident languages and now thousands of people working at the EC, those who came to the Circle Intensive expressed gratitude that we could learn together and hear each other’s stories.

Brussels circle

Brussels circle

We detoured by Paris—just to enjoy ourselves a few days and to visit Ann’s cousin and her husband—and Paris shone in the late summer weather. Then we went off to Oberusel, a small town outside of Frankfurt, Germany, where we spent a week at the Akademie Gesundes Leben (School for Healthy Living).  It was our second visit to this very pleasant retreat and conference centre, and the second time we have worked with Matthias zur Bonsen and Jutta Herzog who called in a group of 20 German and Swiss consultants—all native German speakers—except us.

When we checked in with the first round of talking piece at the beginning of our 4.5 day practicum, two things were obvious: one, that we had a marvelous, competent, sophisticated group of facilitators with a broad range of experience hosting circle and other collaborative processes; two, that we had about 1/3 of the group not very facile in English, and another 1/3 managing, and the final 1/3 able to offer some translation, at least to speak the essence of what was being said from English to German or German to English.

Forty years ago, Ann took German in college, as it was a standard in her botany major. She can still read and spell at a rudimentary level, but not speak. Forty-two years ago, I lived in southern Germany with an American professor and his family serving as research assistant to him and au pair to their children and picking up enough aural German to get around the village, shop at the local stores, trade a few pleasantries. Very slowly, and clearly, we spoke to their waiting faces. “It is wonderful that every one of you is here. We are honored at your courage and trust to enter this learning time. We will work together with the challenges of the language.”

World cafe notes in German

World cafe notes in German

That night my mind swirled for hours in a verbal jigsaw puzzle, piecing together every bit of German phrasing I could recall from the life of my 24-year-old self. And somewhere pre-dawn I realized that even if I recalled my entire vocabulary, it wouldn’t help. Knowing how to ask the vegetable stall frau, “How much costs the cauliflower?” is not useful when trying to explain the subtleties of circle energetics, the teamwork between host and guardian, the creative responses to shadow—all topics that deeply inform the practicum.

What we needed—and what we created—was an energetic field within the orb of the circle that helped us have insight and learning in whatever language that could occur. We simultaneously struggled with the challenges of the language, and bypassed language with a sense of direct transmission that was awesome. The practicum became “tri-lingual”—German, English, and energetic.

Ann and I taught in English, corralling our vocabulary into a narrow bandwidth that honored the sophistication in the room (we didn’t want to sound simplistic, to ourselves or others). People listened, helped each other with translation as needed, and when we turned the group into small practice Circles, World Café, and Open Space, Ann and I stayed out of the process so everyone could dive into learning in German. These small sessions were dynamic, thought provoking, hugely insightful. And we didn’t understand a word that was said.

Small groups speaking in German

Small groups speaking in German

On the third night of the practicum, once we are deep into the process of learning and experience, we traditionally hold an evening Story Council. The lights are low, the guardian rings the bell after every speaking, and the talking piece goes around three times. The purpose is to experience directly the power of story when it is offered in the listening container of circle and community. This night, half the stories were in German, half in English. Ann and I didn’t understand all that was said, and neither did some of the others. And it only intensified the sense of “ultimate reliance is on wholeness,” our third principle of PeerSpirit Circle.

Weeks later, we are still processing this experience: the balance of holding space and letting go of managing content, the chance to practice our belief that “the wisdom is in the room,” and our work is to help unleash it. We hear that the participants in this work, both the Belgian and the German sessions, are remaining in deep dialogue, supporting one another in opportunities to use what they learned. We move on in our autumn schedule with a profound sense of ongoing harvest.

Ecology & Travel: Thoughts from the Beach

A week after the earthquake and tsunami, in the midst of the nuclear crisis at Fukushima power plant, we left for vacation, an exotic trip funded almost a year earlier by a little financial windfall.

As it came time to pack we were still glued to video images of destruction nearly beyond comprehension and the possibility of nuclear meltdown hung in precarious balance. We found it decidedly difficult to pull out of the story and head into a week of isolation and relaxation. We were headed to a small island—more of a sandbar, really, 35 miles off the coast of Belize at the point where the atolls of coral fall away to 2000+ feet (610+ meters).  It took us two days to get there and two days to get home: we bid the last CNN feed goodbye in the Houston airport, and let go…

It was impossible, upon arriving, to avoid thinking of our vulnerability—the high point of land being about one meter above current sea level. And it was gorgeous… azure waters, amazing fish swimming around coral patch reefs, and lots of athletic opportunities we could practice at whatever level of competence we brought.  And, we were completely unplugged: didn’t think about filling seminars, book-sales, or who wants to “friend me” all week! I prayed for the people of Japan, for the people of Libya, for safety to prevail in the world, and surrendered to a week of awesome fun in nature.

The last day of our visit, the camp staff gave everyone a large capacity garbage bag and the challenge to walk around the edges of the island and collect whatever needed picking up. There would be contests for “most useful, most unusual,” etc.  As a group of about 20, this meant we filled 20 bags with gifts from the sea—Styrofoam of every shape and size, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic picnic forks, fast-food containers, more plastic water bottles, old running shoes, ruined snorkel gear, fishing line, more plastic bags. Prize for most useful, a condom, still sealed in its packet; prize for most unusual, a front grill for a Honda car. And then what?

What do they do with 20 bags of plastic garbage? Well—they burn it in a tucked away clearing in the midst of the sea grape and coco-palm trees, down near the Osprey nest.  They will send the Honda grill back to mainland, where it may be tossed into a landfill—or just into a ditch on the road into Belize City. We’re not talking about high-tech incineration with careful gasification and attempts to neutralize noxious and poisonous off-gases (still a debatable success): we’re talking about a campfire of unsorted chemical formulas, minus the marshmallows, lit when most the guests are off frolicking in kayaks and snorkeling over a nearby reef—grateful that the coral is still alive and the fishes seem healthy.


I loved the week away: and realized—there is no away. We are always “here,” living with the problems we have created for ourselves and our little blue planet.

So, back home, and back on the Internet, I have spent some time this week trying to understand a bit more about the challenges to the use, mis-use, recycling, and attempts to unmake plastic. One good source is the site: This site declares that, “More than a hundred billion pounds of plastic were produced in 2000. Their increased use has resulted in concern with (1) the consumption of natural resources such as oil, (2) the toxicity associated with their manufacture and use, and (3) the environmental impact arising from discarded plastics.”

One can presume that this is an annual production amount—enough to make reefs of plastic off the shores of many countries—as well as the floating islands of plastic now viewable from space. Look for plastic heaps on Google Earth—they are everywhere.

The point is: every gesture in our daily lives matters. Everything is connected to everything.  The radioactive seawater that was pumped into the reactors to prevent one disaster is now back in the sea where it will create some other kind of disaster.  We are facing a huge learning curve concerning the consequences of what we have “made”—plastic, nuclear waste, the ingredients to face cream and over the counter drugs. “Better living through chemistry,” a DuPont corporation advertising slogan from the 1950s, is absolutely embedded in modern life.

The difference between Whidbey Island where I live and Glover’s Reef in Belize is that we have more systems in place that make our attempts to put our garbage “someplace else” appear to work. We recycle, there is garbage truck pick-up, we take cloth bags to the grocery store, my own cup to the coffee shop– and it’s all still here. Somewhere around here…

I have increased my awareness of what I bring into my house, how I treat it once here, and where I put it when done. And I’m talking about garbage, thanking every restaurant and public place that serves food on cardboard or china—practicing as radically as I can little slogans, such as, “Just say NO to Styrofoam…” and refusing to accept things offered to me in plastic—foam, bottles, non-recyclable containers. For efficient—and entertaining– education about this, go out to Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff Project. Her cartoon videos make great family, neighborhood, and church conversation starters and her science, based on 20 years working in environmental health, is sound.

We talk a lot about making a new story… part of that story is what we will do with all the stuff that sustains and threatens modern life. So, let’s be bold and talk about garbage: what to do with what’s already here and how to prevent more and more garbage being made. Raise awareness in the social networks and media in your lives–and share some of your stories here.

And thank you!

Question of the week: What Just Happened Here?

Japan. We watch the ordinary present disappear in moments.  Whole towns become archeological digs–not pretty, not yet historical. Real people wandering through real-time chaos, horror and displacement. Earthquake. Tsunami. Radiation. The character of a people is shown to the world through the words and images streaming out of Japan. I bow a bow of deep respect. We are being given many lessons here–the world watching itself learning something.

And this evening comes this email–from someone I don’t know, my name on a list among names I don’t recognize, and the writer identified only as “…from a friend of a friend – from my cousin in Sendai, Japan where she has lived for the past decade teaching English.” This letter from the heart of a stranger says it all: the boldface emphasis comes from me–as I am so struck by the universality of the message the writer is sending.

Hello My Lovely Family and Friends,

First I want to thank you so very much for your concern for me. I am very touched. I also wish to apologize for a generic message to you all. But it seems the best way at the moment to get my message to you.?? Things here in Sendai have been rather surreal. But I am very blessed to ?have wonderful friends who are helping me a lot. Since my shack is even ?more worthy of that name, I am now staying at a friend’s home. We share ?supplies like water, food and a kerosene heater. We sleep lined up in one room, eat by candlelight, share stories. It is warm, friendly, and beautiful. During the day we help each other clean up the mess in our homes. People sit in their cars, looking at news on their navigation screens, or line up to get drinking water when a source is open. If someone has water running in their home, they put out sign so people can come to fill up their jugs ?and buckets.

Utterly amazingly where I am there has been no looting, no pushing in ?lines. People leave their front door open, as it is safer when an ?earthquake strikes. People keep saying, “Oh, this is how it used to be in the old days when everyone helped one another.” Quakes keep coming. Last night they struck about every 15 minutes. Sirens ?are constant and helicopters pass overhead often.??We got water for a few hours in our homes last night, and now it is for ?half a day. Electricity came on this afternoon. Gas has not yet come on. ??But all of this is by area. Some people have these things, others do not.

No one has washed for several days. We feel grubby, but there are so much ?more important concerns than that for us now. I love this peeling away of ?non-essentials. Living fully on the level of instinct, of intuition, of caring, of what is needed for survival, not just of me, but of the entire group. There are strange parallel universes happening. Houses a mess in some ?places, yet then a house with futons or laundry out drying in the sun. ??People lining up for water and food, and yet a few people out walking ?their dogs. All happening at the same time.

Other unexpected touches of beauty are first, the silence at night. No ?cars. No one out on the streets. And the heavens at night are scattered ?with stars. I usually can see about two, but now the whole sky is filled. ??The mountains are Sendai are solid and with the crisp air we can see them ?silhouetted against the sky magnificently.??And the Japanese themselves are so wonderful. I come back to my shack to ?check on it each day, now to send this e-mail since the electricity is on, ?and I find food and water left in my entranceway. I have no idea from ?whom, but it is there. Old men in green hats go from door to door checking?to see if everyone is OK. People talk to complete strangers asking if they ?need help. I see no signs of fear. Resignation, yes, but fear or panic, ?no.

They tell us we can expect aftershocks, and even other major quakes, for another month or more. And we are getting constant tremors, rolls, shaking, rumbling. I am blessed in that I live in a part of Sendai that is ?a bit elevated, a bit more solid than other parts. So, so far this area is ?better off than others.  Last night my friend’s husband came in from the ?country, bringing food and water. Blessed again. ??Somehow at this time I realize from direct experience that there is indeed? an enormous Cosmic evolutionary step that is occurring all over the world ?right at this moment. And somehow as I experience the events happening now ?in Japan, I can feel my heart opening very wide. My brother asked me if I ?felt so small because of all that is happening. I don’t. Rather, I feel a ?part of something happening that much larger than myself. This wave of ?birthing (worldwide) is hard, and yet magnificent. Thank you again for your care and Love of me. With Love in return, to you all,

I don’t know who this writer is: the gender, nationality, or any particular of his/her life: but I know our connection. I know s/he is living through something with awareness on behalf of us all. For those of us watching from our relative comfort, it is our job to receive, to mirror, to bear witness, and to celebrate this wave of birthing. It is our job to prepare ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually for when it is our turn to be “the teacher” stumbling through the media eye of the world, stunned with chaos and starlight and the kindness we set out for one another like food and water.

What just happened here?

I cannot even name it yet, but my vow to Japan is to stay awake to what their suffering teaches, and to stay connected to our common needs. This is not fast recovery and the tale is not fully told.

Question of the week: What is trying to happen here?

February 17-22, 2011, Ann Linnea and I drove over the border into southern British Columbia in order to work with two Presbyteries of the United Church of Canada. We introduced PeerSpirit Circle Process as a way to conduct their church related business and support communities of faith in times when especially the rural congregations are more and more reliant on active lay leadership. The people were wonderful, the circle well-received, and the drive much longer and more strenuous than we anticipated—both in sheer distance, and in making our way over mountain passes in winter.

I think we were better “consultants” to these folks because we drove. The scenery was gorgeous, with sheer cliff faces sheeted in frozen waterfalls and forests of Ponderosa pine and Doug fir covered with shawls of snow.  We drove and drove, arrived and interacted with authenticity and depth, deposited the circle as a life-skill and storycatching space, drove on, and eventually turned toward home in a swirl of snow that followed us all the way back to Whidbey Island. That’s where we were when a new story broke loose in the United States.

We arrived home after five days of being entirely locally focused to global news of a severe earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, a city on the lovely south island where we had worked and vacationed in early December; to revolt in Libya where another population is willing to put their lives on the line to free themselves from dictatorship; and to Madison, Wisconsin, where a recently elected “Tea Party” governor finds his citizens in revolt against a bill that would strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights.

Dare we notice that a stolid, stable, predominantly Caucasian and Christian, largely rural, blue collar, and farming state in the middle of the US of A has possibly been inspired to reawakened activism by the uprising of a Muslim nation?

Dare we notice that the principles that underlie the work of collaborative leadership that PeerSpirit offers through the medium of circle process are being expressed and lived in the occupation of the state capitol?

Yes. We notice—at least I’m noticing.

In a Reuters piece written by James Kelleher and published on 2/22/11, the reporter notes, “Like the people thousands of miles away in Egypt who set up a tent city in Tahrir Square…the protesters participating in the state capitol sleep-in here have quickly set up a little organized society—complete with its own simple rules…. Our principles: 1. The Capitol is our house! Treat it as such and clean up! 2. Non-violence: stay away from debates! Don’t hurt others. 3. No drugs or alcohol. 4. Keep noise down past 1am. 5. Have fun.”

The words transport me to dozens of times when I have participated with circles of people fashioning into their own words variations of the basic PeerSpirit agreements: 1. Respect each other’s stories—confidentiality unless permission to share. 2. Listen with compassion and curiosity—transform judgment. 3. Ask for what you need and offer what you can. 4. Choose a way to halt to the action and reflect, re-center, and then go on. We often refer to these as the “ancient laws of respect,” and when I read the similarities in the principles between circle and sit-ins, the commonality of respect absolutely delights me.  Wow—the global conversation movement and the methodologies of collaborative leadership are having an impact! The connection may be untraceable, yet emergent and self-organizing.

Twenty years ago, when Ann and I started formulating circle process out of the intuitive ways we had been teaching, we had a dream: that in moments of crisis when things were on the verge of breaking down or breaking open, someone would shout out—“hey, let’s circle up!” and others would know what they meant and would agree to this kind of dialogue, to “non-violence, staying away from debates and not hurting each other.” I know that cultural shift is made up of many complex factors, but it sure is a delight to feel a sense of connection between what we’ve devoted our lives to and what’s happening in Wisconsin.

May this truly be a turning point for our country. May we find in each other allies we never expected to meet. May “we” be entering an expanding experience of breaking out of the lies and lethargy that have bound us. May we awaken to radical activism on behalf of what serves the common good.

A local pizzeria in Madison volunteered to take orders on-line for pizza donations and deliver them to the protesters and orders came in from as far away as Cairo.

What is trying to happen here?