Continued from Chapter 20. Train wreck coming, part 1
“I’d won a few battles but the prognosis for the war was looking grim.”
* * *
To: Shedders; Robert
Subject: Boxing Day meeting
All right, then; we’re on for a Boxing Day session, starting at 10:00 am. Robert has graciously and generously agreed to facilitate. I’ve briefed him; he says if anyone else would like to speak to him, to feel free to call him.
The process will probably take three or four hours. I’ll buy a quiche for lunch.
Robert, we’ll supply a flipchart and paper, good coffee, and scotch for afterwards if required. Anything else you’ll need?
Michael, thank you for being game.
Robert, thanks for taking us on.
I’m trying to close with a quote of great wisdom, but will have to settle for: “See you all then.”
* * *
On Boxing Day morning, I woke beside Rick on Eve and Daniel’s guest bed, instantly engaged in a mental flurry complete with thumping heart. What a day we had ahead of us. There was so much at stake – a house, a future together – but even more, who we are and who we could be as a team. At stake was our ability to love and be generous.
Thinking about generosity touched a nerve. Could I put aside ugly judgements and opinions which had been simmering in a stew of righteousness for two adrenalin-filled weeks? Was I willing to give all that up? Was I willing to just love my friends again?
I looked at Rick, sleeping peacefully beside me. His solid belief that things would work out was written on his features. What a rock he was for me, and for all of us.
Fifteen minutes before our 10:00 a.m. starting time, Robert knocked on the door.
He looked perfectly attired, as always. Every hair of his #3 haircut was standing erect and impeccable. I could picture him in front of his closet mirror this morning, holding up a shirt and pronouncing it too formal, another not serious enough – checking the message that every square inch of him was sending. Today his ruddy features were even more flushed than usual. “Can I still turn around and run?” he asked. “I think my mother is calling me.”
“Your mother is dead, Robert,” I said firmly. “We need you more than she does. You belong with us today.”
“Well, when you put it like that,” he said, “I’ll just come in and make myself comfortable. But first, run the process by me once again,” he demanded, unclipping his pen from his pocket.
“No,” I said. “You’ll be perfect, Robert. Whatever you do will be just what we need. It’s time to let come what may.”
At 10:00 o’clock, Robert opened up the session in his usual quirky, self-effacing way – all the while letting us know he was taking this on as the most important day in his life. There was a joke: “I hope Boxing Day retains its traditional meaning about opening Christmas presents and not a new one about pulverising one another in the ring.” There was a serious statement of intention: “I know from years of experience you’ll come out closer and your friendships will grow as a result of our time together.” He explained a bit about the process and warned that we could expect some rocky spots. We all participated encouragingly: that is, smiled at the humour and nodded solemnly when he was earnest.
Well, except for Michael. He sat stony-faced, not looking at Robert or any of us. I wasn’t sure if he was in deep retreat or if he was punishing us for pushing ahead with this event. The part of me that can be unkind and ungenerous was saying, go ahead, make this as hard as you want. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any other part of the internal me saying much else at the moment.
From there, Robert led us into the process. He explained we would start with “The way it is” – a candid look at what was going on for us at the moment. Nobody was obliged to say anything, he said, but the more open we were, the more certain we were to get to the heart of what was stopping us and to a place where we could listen attentively and be heard by each other.
He set some firm ground rules, one of which was: direct all comments to the facilitator – “moi”. The idea was to not respond directly to what others said, but rather to speak only for ourselves and to Robert. And only one person at a time could have the floor.
Another bit of information was that he would be recording all comments on the flipchart. He would try to capture some of the words and the spirit of the comment, he said, but we were to let him know if we wanted something summarised differently.
We began slowly, with observations that were easy to say, for instance: “It feels like my timeframe might never match up with everyone else’s”… “This project might cost more than we can afford”… “None of us has any experience with building a house”… “I can’t stand the thought of starting over” … “I don’t want this to threaten our friendships”. The flipchart reflected our uncertainty about whether we’d be going ahead or not.
Gradually we worked our way into less comfortable territory. As we opened up more and more, I shared about my embarrassment at our on-again, off-again approach. I confessed that though it might sound stupid to say, I was mortified to have hired Dallas and then have to tell him we weren’t going ahead. I was embarrassed about all the neighbours, family and friends who I knew were going to say they’d always known it couldn’t happen.
I swallowed hard and shared that I was angry at Michael and Judy, that I felt they weren’t taking their word seriously. Michael’s glowering seemed deeper than ever. Although I felt at great risk, there was freedom in expressing aloud the nasty thoughts that had been careening around in my head for so long. My judgements were being exchanged for something more authentic: vulnerability.
Judy shared that she was “scared shitless” about her employment situation and couldn’t conceive of taking on the extra responsibility of building a house. But she also acknowledged that her levels of stress might be inhibiting her judgement.
Daniel observed that even after all we’d gone through together, trust was missing. Clearly, we did not fully believe in one another.
Robert’s brightly coloured pens flew across the flip chart, creating a mind map that captured how we viewed our world. Every now and then he would pause to clarify or summarise. His methodical approach took the heat out of our more severe comments and prevented escalation. We were just describing things as we individually saw it. We were listening to one another, painful though it sometimes was.
Everyone participated doggedly – except Michael, who still had not said one word.
Trust the process, I chanted to myself. Trust the process. Trust Robert. Trust Michael.
Finally, Robert said: “All right, we’ll take a break in a few minutes. I want to say that you are going beautifully, doing excellent work. Now, Michael, you haven’t said anything yet. Nobody will force you to join in, but I think you have lots to say. Do you want to take this opportunity?”
There was a long pause before Michael spoke. But when he did, he laid himself open, building momentum as his rusty vocal cords got themselves lubricated.
“Okay, I will, then. Though I don’t know why I speak because I never get heard; I’ve never been heard about feeling rushed into this whole thing. I know I’m responsible for the commitments and agreements I’ve made, but things change and I am nowhere near ready to leave the city. I don’t want to retire, I don’t want to be cut off from the work I like to do, I don’t want to dotter around in the garden. And now suddenly we’re building a house that Judy and I are going to have to pay for with non-existent money.”
The anger softened into grief. He spoke again about feeling different from the rest of us. He said he didn’t have any cheery early-morning optimism, that he had a sadness in his soul that seemed to permeate all the way through. “You wouldn’t WANT me around, for one thing,” he said, looking fiercely at each of us. “You’d be nuts to want me around.”
It was an old theme. Belonging. I reflected that all of this was about belonging, that we were building our community in order to give us a place where we belonged; that none of us humans, not anywhere on earth, ever feels fully like we belong. Michael was not alone in his aloneness.
Eventually, Michael said all he had to say. Robert, who’d been recording key points the whole time, dispassionately summarised them, ran us through the whole map one more time, and called a break.
I felt as if somehow in the process I’d shed a protective lead-lined vest – that perhaps we all had. As we gathered around the jug to make tea, we were amiable, relieved, chatty. Michael in particular glowed, apologising to Robert for withholding himself and promising to stay active in the game from here on.
In the next part of the process, called “The Ideal World”, we succeeded in getting back in touch with our vision for the project. Rick in particular fought for his partners, in that way he had of seeming to ignore that there could possibly be any problem. “When we get to the country…” he would say, or “When the house is built…” Eve as well was matter-of-fact in expressing her belief that our wisdom and goodwill could solve anything that came up. We rebuilt the possibility of close friendships and strong support extending into our old age, of significant financial saving, of living in a beautiful part of the world.
So – two hours later we hadn’t solved Michael and Judy’s financial challenges. But at least we had clearly separated the financial issues from the other debris in our relationships that was contributing to the problem.
By the time we hit the final stages of the process – “Options we can consider” and “Action we can take” – it had become clear that the only real thing left was Michael and Judy’s financing of the new house. Rick observed that we’d been approaching the financial setback as Michael and Judy’s problem rather than as a challenge for the group. With a new approach, that is, all of us working on the problem together, we just might be able to solve it.
We agreed to reassemble later, when we had mustered the energy, for the specific purpose of tackling the problem – this time bringing to it our group intelligence.
Rick’s comment had pointed to a tremendous breakthrough we’d made. We had rediscovered ourselves as a team – or perhaps more accurately, finally discovered ourselves as a team. Both our respect and affinity for each other was higher than it had ever been.
Robert’s work with us was done. We acknowledged him profoundly and he went home without needing his double scotch.
We made plans to buy him a thank-you present but I reckoned he already felt he’d been well paid. How often to do you get to make such an intense contribution to people?
An hour or two later, I went for a walk with Michael. While savouring the warmth and beauty of a summer afternoon, we reflected on the process we’d just been through. We talked – as facilitators and as friends – about how it feels dangerous and counter-productive to say the ugly thoughts that are clogging up one’s head – but in truth, what is dangerous is to leave them festering unexpressed.
“It’s about your intention,” Michael said. “If your purpose in speaking is to create value for yourself and others, it’s okay to say that stuff. You HAVE to say that stuff.”
I nodded. “I know, but I find that so hard. I can be judgemental but I’m not good at communicating those judgements in a responsible way. Mostly I just bottle it up and go on as if nothing’s wrong.”
“That’s how we lose trust in each another.”
“I know, I know! So, as an essentially private person with a lot of judgements that I have a hard time communicating, what am I doing taking this journey toward living my life surrounded by people!?”
“A rhetorical question. You know you love us all.”
I smiled. “That’s the problem all right. Anyway, I keep learning from Eve. When she says, ‘Can we have a talk?’ I shake in my boots! But then she communicates what’s troubling her in that way she has of taking full responsibility, and we get to work it out. Will I ever get good at that?”
“You did okay today.”
“Yes, I guess I did, but it’s hard. I’d have rather been the facilitator and not have to take part in the conversations. That’s what everybody suggested at first, but it would have really been a cop-out on my part. I knew there was stuff I needed to say as a participant, no matter how bad it made me look.”
Michael chuckled. “Well, as you know, it wasn’t easy for me either. Looks like we’re on this journey together.”
As we drew towards the house, we checked with each other that nothing hurtful had been said that was still rankling, then drifted into everyday conversation. It was a wonderful time together, and I had remembered that Michael was one of my favourite people in the world.
* * *
That evening, refreshed after a paddle around Tambourine Bay in the kayaks and a good dinner, Michael said, “Why don’t we finish this sucker off now?” So the six of us met again, to discuss Michael and Judy’s finances. Was there any way they could afford to participate in the building that we had just reaffirmed we all wanted to do?
As the family financier, Judy took her turn in the hot seat.
We applied ourselves to the financial problem, analysing and asking questions. As we probed, it became apparent that there really was no insurmountable difficulty. If the worst case happened and Judy didn’t get a new job quickly, we could see how their existing funds and cashflow would allow them enough money to build the house, while still leaving a reasonable nest egg for retirement. If she got employment more quickly, it would simply speed up the process and leave them with a higher level of retirement income. Even if Judy never got a high-paying job, there was plenty of money in their city home, which they still owned, and in Michael’s earnings, to fund their share of the new house and give them many years of careful retirement. We also saw ways that the other four of us could help with the financing until some of Michael and Judy’s investments matured in a few months, thus keeping cashflow uninterrupted.
There were no serious impediments. Judy had lost her job but the family was in adequate financial shape. Privately, I thought they were in at least as good a position as Rick and I. Glass half empty? Half full? Who’s to say?
Eve turned to Judy and gently asked, “So, Judy, where does this anxiety come from? The funds are there, the allies are here; why the panic, then? Are you really sure you want to do this thing we’ve been planning?”
Judy’s resistance – and her equanimity – collapsed. She shared about what it was like to be nearing sixty and wanting to get a high-level job in an economic downturn. Eventually she shifted gears and revealed feelings of not belonging or deserving to belong, of always lagging behind and trying to catch up, of not being good enough. She shared that she seemed to have inherited the concept “migrant” from her parents, that even with family around, she was at her core a refugee. She described her recipe for life, her “Greek tragedy” as she called it, as not ever being able to have what she really wanted. And she really wanted this community, this partnership, this house.
“I might have a home now,” she said, sounding incredulous.
My own eyes stung with tears as she spoke. I thought: there is a deep-seated part of me in this friend. I can relate to this world-view.
Maybe everyone can.
We were a team. We had been truly vulnerable, and trust reared strongly behind it.
We were on again.
* * *
I phoned Dallas the following day. “Guess what?” I said. “We’re sorted. We’ll come around at the end of the week to sign the contracts.”
I could tell he couldn’t believe his ears. “You’re a miracle worker,” he said. “I’ll have to be on my toes, working with you.”
I laughed. “Well, let’s start as soon as you’re ready.”
Dallas mulled that over. “The guys have a couple projects to tidy up…how about two weeks?” His voice was rich with enthusiasm. With the economy in meltdown, to be going ahead with a project like this – the better part of a year’s work for himself and his crew of three – was almost too good to be true.
“Sounds good,” I said. “See you then. At the building site.”