A little love goes a long way

My friend Harriet is 86 the end of this month. She’s a member of a group of women friends who support one another’s spiritual journeys, stay in various levels of connection during busy schedules, and meet once a year for a week of council, informal conversation, great eating, hiking, and late night videos. We are women at camp in a large shared house, reflecting on where we’ve been and setting intention for the coming months.

That’s where I am this week, tucked into Willow Pond Lodge with this sisterhood. The first day is always consumed with hours of checking-in… one by one choosing what to say about how we are. As what is said in circle is confidential, I have Harriet’s permission to share this moment and her story and thoughts.

One woman had finished and self-published a novel, another had completed a first draft of her memoir; some women were busy at work, busy traveling, busy mothering and grandmothering. Harriet checked-in near the end of the round. “I don’t work anymore,” she said with a tone of contrition, “I don’t know what good I’m doing. I go down to Coffee Talk every day and just try to be friendly, make sure everyone gets a welcome as they come in the door.

“There was this young mother with a crying baby, came in for coffee. I could see she was at her wit’s end. We have a rocking chair by the fire and after a bit I convinced her it was safe to hand over the fussing child and she could just sit down and sip. Little Henry and I rocked and rocked and soon he was asleep in my arms. … She still comes in, bringing Henry, finding community.

“You know, people just need to be seen. Just need someone to look up and say hi; glad you walked into the room. Mother Teresa said the greatest disease in the world is loneliness, that if she could heal anything about being human, it would be to cure loneliness with love. I try to be like that, to bring a little love into the space around me. But I feel old. I don’t have the hearing, the energy, or the big ideas I used to. That’s all I got to say.” She passed the talking piece; we rang a chime to signify a space in the speaking.

Harriet is white-haired, vigorous, and humble. She was raised on a farm in Minnesota, worked for 3M in its early years, did graphic design and rode the wave from the drafting table to the computer, had a successful real estate career. She is the gentle matriarch to 3 children, 10 grandchildren, and 5 great-grandchildren, including a 3 year-old spitfire girl named Harriet junior. The deepest formation of Harriet senior’s character and the source of her stories, values, and wisdom remains her childhood grounding on the earth and how it helped her tap into spirituality. She carries a personal blend of Lutheranism, Catholicism, practicality and mysticism leading to the motherhood of God. And here she sat at the edge of the circle looking disappointed in herself, seemingly unsure how to take her place among other, mostly younger women, whom she assumed were doing more than she to earn their space in the scheme of things.

I asked permission to comment on her check-in and she nodded. “Harriet, you are doing exactly what the elder in the village is supposed to do! You are tending what’s right in front of you. This is the fulfillment of your days—the capacity to slow down, to see what needs to happen next, right here, right now—with the young mother, with the baby, with the barrista, with the regulars from town, with us in the circle.”

Christina and Harriet

Christina and Harriet

“Through these gestures of kindly attention offered into your daily surroundings you are a messenger of your deepest values. Every one of us who is moving faster, who is busy beyond managing, who is hooked into the necessities of technology, is counting on you being here amongst us moving at the pace of guidance and paying attention in the ways that you do.” We rang the chimes again—sat in the reverberating stillness.

In this moment Harriet saw her elder place validated and took it into her heart, and I saw my own elder place being prepared for me by Harriet and took it into my heart. Gift and magic. Sweetness among friends.

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 http://occupywallst.org. Google around the mainstream media. Look at the BBC. Read the progressive articles on http://www.commondreams.org 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.

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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: pollutionissues.com 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!

http://www.storyofstuff.com/blog/

http://www.facebook.com/planettrash