Wednesday, November 25, 2020

How to Feed Some Dream of the World’s that Wandered into your Heart

~A Recipe You Can Make, Revise, and Make Again

Liz Rog, Decorah, Iowa, June 2019

Time Required: don’t count or you’ll quit

Feeds: many and much, over time. (If recipe fails, please compost all ingredients so as to feed the ferment that helps the next dreams)

1)Preparation:  In advance, spend as much of your life as possible remembering what allures you. Even if you can’t hardly do it, even if it’s mostly just longing and dreaming, just don’t forget. Note: whenever possible, avoid exposing your ingredients to harsh light, sounds, and other environmental toxins such as judgement, violence, and belittlement. When this is unavoidable, restore them as best you can using the tools of compassion, art, and love. 

2) In a very large bowl, combine dream with 

    • 100 parts Imagination Beyond Imagination, and 
    • 100 parts Trust. 

Mix well; sprinkle in Patience and Forgiveness to taste. Cover, set aside to rest. Check for growth whenever desired; meanwhile feed abundant encouragement and praise in word, song, dance, or silence. 

Note: the preparation of this recipe requires of the cook tremendous endurance, training, and ongoing maintenance of body-soul through sleep, good food, community web, and prayer. 

3) Test mixture. Method: Offer small spoonfuls to close friends and family, painting word-pictures to fill out the vision. Watch faces and bodies for signs of recognition and engagement. Smiles, tears, shifts—any movement is worthy of note. Where there is none or there is doubt expressed, be curious but not discouraged. 

4) Par-Bake. Turn heat, and demand for any certain kind of success, to low, retaining expectation for surprise. Add 1000 parts focus, time, and the kind of work that you would have never signed up for but now this is your baby and even changing her diapers has a certain sweetness so be grateful for that wild truth. 

5) Cool on Rack. Rack should be sturdy, made of playfulness, compassion, and forgiveness. As it cools, dowse par-baked project with gratitude and prayer. Set aside; when doubled in size, prepare oven for second baking. 

6) Place in open-air oven surrounded by friends and strangers. While baking, offer witnesses refreshment made of trust and generosity. Encourage humor, song, and story-telling, which will greatly enhance the flavor of the project. 

Note: at this point it is crucial to watch for signs of weariness in the head chef, which will inevitably arise because remember that 1000 parts focus and work oh of course how could you forget now wipe your tears and be grateful for the signpost that weariness is and Get Yourself a THINK PARTNER!! This person has surely already shown up—you were just too shy or proud or busy to notice. This person is an angel sent by God. 

7) Watch for: Special techniques, finesses, ideas from each generation. Sometimes these are presented to you as complaints. Learn to look into the need behind the complaint, and see if it’s something that this project is or is not capable of satisfying. There are other projects, true, but a chef’s first question is whether this bacteria could enhance this project. 

Chef’s Self-Care Tips: 

  • Feeling like an automaton?  It’s ok to feel like a tool, like you’re being used. You are. But when the balance tips and you feel, rather than a chef working with ingredients, like a robot without free choice, it’s time to pause. 
  • If you’ve gone for more than 7 days without stopping in amazement and surprise at something magnificent in your path, it’s time to pause. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Celebrating Winter Holidays

My childhood winter vacation from school was probably typical for those who were raised in suburbia in the 60s and 70s by parents who had lived through the depression. We were surrounded by commercialism, the ubiquitous TV, and zooming cars that were taking people away from home, but we still had natural inclinations toward the slow and the simple. I remember going to the malls (I grew up across the street from the world's first Target store) and of course I remember the Santa Clauses in whose laps I was supposed to like sitting, but my real joy each year was that we were off school, there was no homework, and dad was off work—so it was like an extra summertime. But with a big bonus: those luxurious hours were all ours for making Christmas together. No sports teams, scout clubs, or homework called us. We made cookies, books, cards, ornaments, snowmen, drawings, sculptures, inventions. In doing this, we came to know ourselves as people who create and do. 

I don't mean to delude you, for if we could watch footage of the whole 2-week vacation, we would probably see that we only spent one or two hours a day doing all these wonderful things. I'm sure we watched TV a lot too. I know we spent days driving around the suburbs looking for the just-right gift for relatives. Sometimes we had to be dragged into making some of those cookies, not to mention the struggles over whose turn it was to clean the bathroom. We argued, certainly. That's not the point—or, perhaps that's exactly the point: it seems that if we can create an attitude and a setting for a free, creative, slow, and generous holiday, all the mistakes on the way will fade into their proper realm of unimportance. It's what we DO do well that will live on in our memories and inform our choices. 

Even as distant corporations have attempted to turn every aspect of winter holidays into a way to consume, many people have gone about preserving old customs that have nothing to do with commercialism, and many have been creating new ways that are simple and accessible. Families and communities set aside a week or two at this time of year to make things and give them away, to take joy in giving and receiving kindnesses both random and ritual, and to settle into timeless being-together. 

What does that look like? If you stepped into one of those homes you might at first notice only randomly dispersed people amidst degrees of disorder. You might not realize that there in the silence or the din ideas, gifts, and identities were being created. It would definitely not be YouTube-worthy, nothing that'll get into a book by what’s-her-name? MArtha Stewart? 

 My little family has gathered some simple winter holiday traditions that feel old and universal, even though we've only practiced them for 10-20 years. When we read or heard about a good idea then we adopted or adapted it, and within a year or two we couldn't imagine how we'd lived without it. That's how you know you've picked a good one: when you feel like it was always there even before you brought it into the light. 

To begin, a family or household might like to talk about the reasons behind whatever traditions they are choosing to practice. The conversation will be interesting for sure, and from that you could collectively choose a few goals. You could even make up something like a mission statement—for example, “We choose to slow way down during the winter holiday, stay home as much as possible, and make things with our hands to share with others.” Or, “Our winter holiday is dedicated to serving the poor and to gathering with far away family.” You could even go farther and note practices that fit in with your mission, having to do with anything from technology use to food preparation to daily walks. As long as you don't set goals too specific or lofty, and as long as you are flexible and understanding with each other about how things don't always go as planned, this could be a great way to help get everyone on a shared path. 

If you're wanting to settle down into a homemade winter holiday, there is one practice that can help a lot. It's just a mind-set, a reframing. It addresses the troubles that can arise over when to visit to which family, how to spend time at home too, and how to spend time with the friends who feel like family.   Each of these things is wonderful, but if you're from the Christian tradition as we were, all those eggs are supposed to fit in the basket of two days: Dec. 24 and 25. That's crazy and impossible and causes a lot of stress. 

My mom introduced me the idea of the 12 days of Christmas, in which as the story goes the child was born on Dec. 25 and then it took 12 days for the 3 kings to arrive with their fabulous gifts for the baby king. Mom insisted that all 12 of those days are actually Christmas, and no one could take them away from us. She tried to do something special on each of those days: invite guests over for breakfast or supper, go to a play or movie, open a gift that had been saved aside. 

That's the thing about a story: if you believe it, it is true for you and then everything rearranges to support it. And so even if we had to go back to school on Jan. 3, it felt different and special to be in school when it was still Christmas, and odd that others didn't know it. (There was one Jewish girl in my white suburban midwestern middle-class Protestant school, and I laugh now to remember that when we returned to school and it was still officially Christmas at my house, I felt I could relate to her experience of having her religion be invisible and uninteresting to the rest.) 

In the family I got to co-create here in Iowa, we easily solved the winter vacation scheduling problem by spreading out all the things we wanted to do among twelve days. We start our twelve on the winter solstice instead of the 25th, which of course we can do because it is our story and anyway we are sure Jesus wouldn't mind a bit, because Daniel and I were raised up with the story of how loving, kind, and accepting he was. When I was a little girl I got it firmly in my heart that Jesus was the best person a person could be, and that he loved and believed in me like a sister—and since I'm always doing the best I know how, I know he's cool with anything I do. 

It's not as organized as it may sound—please don't think we've got a 24/7 Parade of Magnificent Happenings going on here. As I said, it's mostly about the mental space that is created by designating it as Vacation Time When We Do Lovely Things, even if someone has to go off to a job during part of it; about the spiritual space that's created by considering what nice thing we might do for a neighbor today, even if we don't pull that particular idea off; about the memories we make when we set out to play a game together, even if we have a small argument during the 3rd round. 

I write these notes to add to the great body of resources that describe ideas for celebrating holidays in homemade and simple ways. Really this is just my contribution to the encouragement that we are all trying to offer each other, permission to call all this simple stuff not only legitimate but very special. In the end all that matters is that we take time to be together in way that is intentional, slow-paced, creative, and and generous. 

Some Winter Holiday Ideas for People of Any Age

20 years ago I set out to create some traditions for our family, browsing many books and making many lists of ideas. At what point did I realize that I had too many ideas, that they were overwhelming me, and that the simplest ones were already good enough? A person really could just take one part of each otherwise normal day and make it sacred by noticing it, thanking it, and doing it in service to others and the whole. Try doing that for 12 days. Or, here are some other ideas that are not fancy or difficult. 

  • Make food. Bring some to neighbors as a surprise, and stay and visit with them. 
  • Make gifts. Use the season as inspiration to collect new ideas for simple gift making. There are so many resources for ideas, and anything that appeals to you is a perfect idea.  Sound stressful? Then do the same kind of art they are making all the time these days. It feels different to make it as a gift, and it surely feels good to give it. Honestly, when these children are young you know that whatever they make will be treasured. It's all about the time they spend, short or long, with or without your help, that culminates in that moment of seeing their person open the present and be happy to have received it. When children are young, gift-giving is for the purpose of teaching them that they have something to give and it feels good to do it. 
  • Make small things for the animals and the fairies and leave them outside at night. 
  • Find some special things to do outside that you haven't often or ever done: go to a new park or forest, or make an annual snow person family. Make a bird feeder. Go sledding. Make a winter bouquet of dried plants. Visit favorite trees and sit with them. 
  • Make a secret window calendar each year—it could be an advent calendar, or it could be some other kind of countdown to a special day. This is one of our family's favorite activities, and we have such a great stash of them to admire from years gone by! We sit at the kitchen table for a whole evening, each with 6 variously-sized small pieces of white paper, in the realm of 2”x2”. Each person makes a barricade using books standing on their ends so that no one can see their work, and then they proceed to draw a picture on each slip of paper. Then, the whole family decorated a large piece thick piece of paper. Then their work is done, and the next part I did alone: cutting windows into the large piece and using tape to attach the artwork into each window. The last step is adding numbers for each of the calendar days in the countdown—ours went from Dec.1-25, thus 6 drawings from each of the 4 of us plus one more made by whoever wanted to. The final product is attached to a window or wall, and each morning someone opens the window of the day, and it is truly delightful to see what's behind that window. Even when it's your own art, it's such a surprise, that it's been hiding back there so patiently all this time, waiting to be seen again. Making a family window calendar is a really nice way to start getting into the mood for holiday creativity and slow-time. 
  • Choose some books that you'll only get out each year at this time. 
  • Decorate the house together. In our house we use the decorations of Christmas, which means that the first step is going to a neighbor's tree farm to cut a tree. We turned that into a celebration itself, going with another family and playing games in the field, choosing our trees together, and once we'd picked them, standing holding hands in a circle around the tree while we sang it some carols before we sacrificed it to our home. 
  • Make simple things that don't require the purchase of more stuff: string popcorn and cranberries to hang about the house or tree (and leave it outside for the birds later on), make paper chains out of colorful paper, cut snowflakes to hang from the ceiling or tape into windows, make gingerbread houses, shape bread dough or salt dough into ornaments. 
  • It's never too early to start walking around to houses at night singing songs on the doorsteps. They don't have to be from a particular religious tradition. They don't even have to be winter-related. They don't have to be in harmony. Singing songs as a surprise gift is just plain fun, and if you do it at this time of year the people inside the houses are more likely to get it (and open the door). Go back to the same places each year and you'll see what anticipation looks like! 
  • Light candles together around the house each night. Speak your reasons out loud, whatever they may be: having to do with your spiritual tradition, or as a symbol of the coming light after the solstice, or to remind us that we are each a shining light.
  • Dance in the house. Turn off most lights, add music recorded or homemade, and boogie down. At the solstice we do candle-dancing, which we learned from watching some Asian students perform at an ethnic arts festival.  Each person holds in each palm a votive candle holder with a lit candle, moving them around gracefully and carefully. The need to keep the candles upright, the dark room, the quiet music all help to create a sacred dance of light. The children understand that this is a rare and special time of using candles and fire in this way, to celebrate the returning of the sun's light. 
  • Switch up where you sit at the kitchen table. Switch around your sleeping arrangements—both which beds, and with whom. This is the darkest time of year just before turning toward the light, and you can turn things around to symbolize that. The main thing is, it's fun. 
  • You want to give a great gift to your family and friends? Plan a variety show. It doesn't take much, and every occasion is a good one for a variety show. People lack opportunities these days to offer their gifts in a safe and nurturing environment to people who are sure to love what ever they do no matter how rough. In Daniel's family the kids always presented something on Christmas eve before present opening; it was expected and they had fun preparing their simple songs or skits. It's amazing what people come up with, pulled out of their childhood or their imagination, when offered this chance. Try it a second year and you'll see the offerings multiply because once having seen an old-fashioned variety show, people can't help but want to be in it. 
  • Go caroling door-to-door. We hand-pick homes that we know to house people who we think especially love our coming: old people, people living alone, people who have been ill. If you truly just go door-to-door, know that some people will not open their doors to you, because they don't understand what's going on and don't know how to welcome you. 
  • When children are wee ones it is already time to start keeping them out of shopping malls, Santa's lap (because he will only ask what they want to HAVE), and multiple car trips that break up their days into small pieces and turn the landscape of these days into billboards, freeways, and bright lights that obscure the night sky.  And perhaps above all, don't let anyone allow commercial TV to pour all those images of buying and having things into their psyches. Maybe these are places and ways that for you are currently unavoidable; then use the special slow-time of winter holidays to protect them from all of that speed and commercialism. Maybe it can't be eliminated altogether, but if you start with an awareness about the value of protecting your child from all the images that tell them to want things, you've already come a long way. 
  • I sure like the idea of 'Secret Pals.' Each person in a group is secretly assigned someone to do something sweet for each day (or each week, whatever you choose) for a certain number of days. At the end, the identity of the secret pals are revealed and gladness is everywhere. The only risk is that, lacking ideas, people would buy unnecessary things for each other and thus it could just add to consumption of our earth. Instead perhaps an agreement could be made about not purchasing things, and an idea list could be generated, including simple things such as poems, passed-along treasures, and food. What fun, to make and to expect kind and creative surprises every day! 

The Problem of Gifts at Holidays

Gift-giving can be very challenging for the loving grandparents of kids whose parents are choosing intentional simplicity. As the parents of the children you need to address this right away, before something is purchased that you don't want to have in your home, because it's not very nice to 'disappear' it after it's been gifted. Maybe you can have the first conversation even before the child is born or adopted. Begin with an attitude of gratitude for the kindness of these relatives, and with the belief that they want to do right by the child as well as you. How can they know what your ideals are unless you tell them? You may need to be specific: 'we are keeping all newly-purchased toys out of our home—how about taking Jenny on an outing to the second-hand store to pick out a toy?' Or, 'We are choosing to have only wooden toys—would you like to see a catalog that sells Fair Trade natural toys?' Or, 'We won't need clothing because we have so many hand-me-downs, but maybe you and Jonny could have a sewing project together and make kitchen towels out of old bath towels.'

In our family this went pretty well. Mostly the grandparents choose toys the girls had identified out of a catalog. We did not succumb to the pressure to have many presents for the kids. Daniel and I gave our gifts to the girls, very simple and small by comparison, at home during our family Yule (see below). And instead of gathering as many presents as possible to put under the tree at the grandparents', we urged the aunts and uncles and cousins to open some of their presents at home. Even still there were years when we watched as young Sophie and Ida with their one present sat for hours watching as others opened many in a row (sent by other relatives from another family), and I wondered if there might be another way...but I knew the way for us wasn't to be found by buying them more presents, nor even adding the pressure and stress of making more. I also knew I couldn't make choices for my dear extended family. Ours was only one way, and the only thing that complicated it was this having to place it aside the others. We trusted that our children would learn to accept the different ways of others and still uphold our own. 

I have known people whose parents insisted on giving their grandchildren gifts that were not in keeping with the choices of their grandkids' homes. The parents of those children have a difficult job then, for the children need to see their parents uphold their respect for the generosity and different world view of the older generation. I did not have to deal with this, but if I were in that situation I hope that I would talk with the child about how nice it was of their grandparent to give this, and also talk about how since it was (name it for yourself: electronic, loud, plastic, sexist, etc), we would only enjoy it for a few days before we let it go elsewhere. In that way it seems we could help the child hold both truths at once: kindness and gratitude, and earthloving ideals. It's honest, and kids surely can hold those two birds in one hand. I suppose some families might need to keep that certain item in the closet to pull out next time grandma comes to visit...

My family of origin, with whom we gather each year at Christmastime, has gone through many iterations of present-giving agreements. Everyone authentically loves to give, but in my opinion that instinct is tampered with by the expectation of giving. We have experimented with the ideas of name exchanges, where each person only gives to and gets from one; but all the adults still chose to give to all the children, so we still had a multiple-hour gift opening session with lots and lots of stuff around afterwards. We tried only giving to the kids—same deal. We tried giving to charities instead—and that is great but people still gave gifts to each other. We tried letting everyone choose whether or not to give, no guilt attached...but it's hard to be the only one who brings just one or two gifts to the tree when others are bringing boxes full. We've talked about trying to have all presents gifted 'on the side'--in the hallway or in the kitchen, one-on-one, rather than all at once sitting at the tree for 2 hours. Not enough people liked that idea. 

My wish would be to make a clean slate by holding a few years of gift-free gatherings. Then we could each re-enter the realm of gift-giving to our family with a new perspective. We would have seen Christmas flourish without the gift time, and we would believe each other that gifts are not expected, and we could each ease back into giving just what felt authentic to us. 

Our Family Yule Tradition
Daniel, Sophie, Ida, and I choose the winter solstice, near December 21, as the beginning and the most special night of this holiday. The four of us have a lovely tradition of spending a long evening together practicing some simple rituals to mark the season, and as long as we have that night together,  no matter what happens or doesn't happen during the next 12 days we still feel that all is well. 

In the preceding days the house has been decorated with pine boughs, tiny lights, a bedecked tree (not yet lit), hanging paper snowflakes, and the like. On this night the kitchen table is decorated too, most importantly with placemats made of a piece of square black construction paper and on top of that a yellow sun-shaped colored paper. Lots of candles to light, and nice smells in the air from the aromatherapy lamp. Our place

This holiday is about the balance between dark and light and the turning of the wheel of the year as the sun begins to come back to us. Our food and rituals are symbolic of the sun and the turning. We all shift our places for sitting at the table one to the right, and it's amazing how that shifts and freshens our perspective. It is the only time of the year when we eat breakfast foods at suppertime: sunny-side up eggs (the sun right there in front of us) and hash browns, oranges sliced into rounds just like the sun, carrots sliced into rounds and steamed, and cinnamon rolls (my notes say: don't forget to frost them!). For dessert we make yellow sunshine custard in round cups. We thank the sun! 

We eat by candle light, the house dark all around us. We share toasts to the dark and the light, we read some favorite poems about the sun and about balance. We are jolly and not over-serious. We are easing into our night of ritual. 

After supper the plates are cleared and we have before us the black and yellow placemats. Some pens and a small bowl of honey are placed on the cleared table and we begin in silence to write our fears on the yellow sun. Some write in code, some in drawings, some in English words. Sometimes there is a lot to write, sometimes very little. It is all private and anything is perfect. (I admit that one year I sneaked my gaze across the table to Ida's paper. I was so very worried about her because she had been ill with Lyme disease for a few years and had grown weary of reporting to be about it, and I thought I might learn something important from her paper. What I saw was 'fear of mom dying.') It is easy and liberating to write these things down because we know what's coming next: we will use our fingers to smear honey on the paper, adding sweetness to our fears and then using that sweetness to feed the fire that will help show their temporal nature by consuming them. Once everyone is ready, usually 5-10 minutes, we fold or roll our papers and walk over to the woodstove where the door sits open waiting for each paper to be offered to her flames. We watch each paper burn and smile to think of how fears come and go, how they may or may not be connected to real things. 

Then it's back to the kitchen table, where our black place mats await us. Now comes the other part, the balance for our fears: we set out our dreams for the new year that this wheel is turning toward. Again it is private, and this time we only think them silently as we reach into a common bowl and pinch some salt between our fingers. Then we direct that salt as we release it so that it makes a spiral shape on our black paper, as we are thinking over our dreams. You can call it so many things: setting intentions, manifesting our hopes, praying, being present. Everyone knows how to do this, how simple and important it is; this is just one way that we do it, at one particular time of the year. I'm sure I read it in a book somewhere. 

When all of us have made our spiral we gently pick up our placemats and go outside into the dark. We stand in the silence for a moment there together, and then someone says “1-2-3!” and we fling the salt out into the world, we plant the seeds, we let them go away from us to do their thing. Another light moment, another way to both realize our power and let it be in its proper place with everything else. 

When we go back inside it is to a dark house. We feel our way upstairs to a different space where pots and pans are set out with metal spoons, and a tray of candles, and a small bowl of macadamia nuts. We stand in a circle holding hands, and we move slowly clockwise as we slowly sing “We are awake, awake in the night, we turn the wheel to bring the light. We turn the wheel to bring the light.” We sing it again, slightly faster and a just little higher, moving our circle a little faster too. Again and again we sing and move, higher and faster. We are the darkness, and we are part of bringing the light. Just like for real, we are dark and light! Just like for real, we are the changers and the changed! 

When we have gone as fast and as high as we can, when we are dizzy and it is more than we can take (Sophie went though years when she sat in the corner and plugged her ears), then we take up the pots and pans to clang and bang them together, making a ruckus and a roar. We trill and screech and ululate “Happy Yule!” “Welcome Sun!” We hug each other and hug the dog. We light candles, because the light has now returned. It's very theatrical, just like it sounds! 

Once we've quieted back down a bit we settle back down on the floor in our circle for a few more songs: Light is Returning, and Round and Round the Earth is Turning, favorite sun poems by Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder and others, and then the sharing of the Oblatek. This is a variation on a Polish Christmas custom, in which a flatbread is broken and shared by each family member with each other, offering forgiveness, pledging to move on from the old arguments and resentments of the past year. We use macadamia nuts instead, and we use it as a time to offer blessings and gratitudes to each other. 

There we sit, our hearts enlivened by the dancing and the energy of the returned sun, our bright faces soft in the candlelight. There are 12 nuts total, 3 for each of us to give. Someone begins, taking up a nut in her fingers and holding it as she faces the one she will thank and bless. We look intro each others' eyes as we speak and listen. In this way we practice the art of offering blessing, and of graciously receiving it. Some years some of us are bubbling with words, some years we say simply “I thank you for all that you are and I love you,” or we offer our nut-gift with silence and a kiss. This is how we have practiced knowing that all ways are good ways. 

There is no hurry but whenever it is time to leave that space we go down to the Christmas tree and light it for the first time of the season. By that special light we snuggle on the couch and sing a few carols. We get out a two favorite  children's Christmas books which Daniel reads aloud to the girls for old-times' sake. 

Then it's time to give our gifts to each other. We have a very laid-back way of presents: we hope that they can be homemade, or found, or used, or biodegradable. There is no expectation that everyone gives something to everyone. No one wants obligation-presents, and we know that absence of a gift is not a sign of anything. Group gifts are great.  Mended bluejeans, certificates of back massages, original songs, transcribed poems...all of these kinds of things, and each year too someone 'breaks' the rules and goes out and buys something because it was just too perfect and too needed, and that is celebrated too. Because of all this, the gift-opening time is slow and sweet. With so few gifts, we can drag it out as long as we like and we still don't have to wait too long for dessert. 

There was another tradition that we used to have, one of my favorites but one which had to take a break when the girls got older. Maybe we'll see the return of Nutcracker Dancing someday when young children live here again. Here's how it went: we put on the recorded music from the Nutcracker Ballet and the girls dressed up in dance clothes and danced for us. They danced the whole thing, changing costumes multiple times. It was magical of course, and Daniel always feel asleep but that was part of the tradition too. Nutcracker dancing was the last thing before bedtime, the slow dragging out of the hours until we couldn't find anything else to do but sleep. Then the girls settled in to bed next to the lit tree and our night was over. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Leaning into Yes

October 2018

This weekend Daniel and I went to the University of Iowa City Hospital where surgeons removed his prostate and the cancer within. Everything was provided: medical professionals, sterile equipment, pain killers, heat and water, food, and a truly caring staff. As Daniel’s advocate I was glad to provide the rest: love, attention, caresses, water refills, songs, encouragement, a second set of ears, and a ride home. 

This was our first foray into this realm of hospital care, the first overnight stay, the first surgery. Surely we had all that we needed, so there was no need to reach out to friends. Our daughters and his brothers were keeping in touch, and anyway isn’t this kind of surgery supposed to be private, with all of its indignities and risks? Why burden anyone else with even imagining the details, when there was nothing they could do to change anything?

And yet, I try to practice noticing and resisting that cult of privacy, that notion that independence is our goal. It creates our fear of being seen in vulnerability, times of sadness, brokenness, loss, darkness.  How many times have we learned of a friends’ suffering too late and wished we could have reached out in some small way?  So as the surgery began I sent off some texts to friends asking for thoughts and prayers, not because we needed anything (or so I believed), but just out of love for the collective us that wants to help.

Oh, how grateful I am for what came next! 

You know about it: those caring replies, those phone calls, those offers for help, and how powerfully these simple gestures spoke to us of the love all around. I knew about it too, for when I was young my mom had told me about the power of such things. She said that the cards she received in the mail after my 5 year old brother died helped her keep living. Her teaching through this story has guided me, and though surely I have missed more opportunities to tend community in this way than I’ve caught, I keep trying to serve that truth. 

Upon learning of our presence there, our Iowa City friends offered to come sing for Daniel, to bring healing massage, and to deliver nutritious food (one thing lacking in that hospital). Thank goodness for their gentle insistence, for I was not as able as I would have expected to give a clear ‘yes and thank you’ to their offers. We were doing ok, weren’t we? Why drive all the way across town to sing for 15 minutes? Why come at 10pm to give healing massage to Daniel? Really? We’ve only known you for a year or two, and here you are acting like family…And we live so far away, how would we ever have a chance to repay the kindness…

Yes, friends, these thoughts crossed my mind. I watched them all, surprised, curious, and finally suspicious of myself. 

From back home in Decorah Janet offered to organize friends to deliver meals to our home for a few weeks, and I saw it all rise up in me: ‘Oh, I can cook!’ ‘We’ll be fine.’ ‘This isn’t THAT big of a deal. Just a little surgery. It’s not cancer or anything’ (whoops) ‘How can I broach this idea with Daniel? Why even try?’ 

I watched this familiar storyline unfold between us, watched myself back away from something that sounded so good. I recalled my own past experiences of perplexity and frustration when I’ve been on Janet’s side of the story, offering some gift of community-tending to one who refuses it—‘No, no, I’ll be fine, thanks anyway, it’s not that bad.’ I’ve felt the hurt of that refusal, the lost opportunity to be our best for each other. I’ve wished that this person would think of themselves as part of us,  give us a chance to strengthen our muscle of giving and connection,  say Yes. 

So... I said ‘maybe’ to Janet, told her I’d get back to her the next day. And overnight I found a conditional ‘yes’— only meals for one week, for heaven’s sake, and maybe don’t send the inquiry out to our big list serve! I found this ‘yes’ from within my commitment to serve community: ‘yes’ for the learning, ‘yes’ out of principle. I believed that I was submitting myself for the good of the whole, even though we didn’t really need it…

What a surprise it all is, this learning. Because what came back was far beyond some intellectual ideal. 

The first surprise was the pleasure of the release of the tension of ‘no.’ Once I said ‘yes’ I saw myself leaning into the mystery of whatever was next. Rather than close a door, I felt love released to flow freely toward us, felt even a vague awareness of whatever was beginning to unfold because of Yes. Something was brewing. Perhaps I felt the energy of some email Janet was composing, some menu that Courtney was dreaming up…

When we returned to our home there sat on the counter and in the fridge not one but two nourishing soups and other dishes, delivered by 2 beloved neighbors the Brinks and John Snyder, along with sweet notes. Next to those, a container of chocolate-covered walnuts from our neighbor of 38 years Ted who we don't see nearly enough, with a 6-word message scribbled in pencil on the store label. All of it so simple, so perfect, so everything-that-matters. What a homecoming. We were alone in the house and surrounded by love. 

And I knew right then, in a way I had not known when I reached beyond my self-conscious ‘no’ and instead gave a ‘yes’ out of principle, how much more I had to learn about community. I remembered, in a way I must have forgotten or perhaps never known, that it’s not about whether you’re capable of cooking or not, of singing a song for your loved one or not, or anything else. It’s truly about the gift of opening to receiving in humility (even when some of us have to trick ourselves into it!) 

The food, the songs, the kind words, and the offers of help are the way we humans have of manifesting our caring. They are our prayers made tangible as gifts, and their nourishment is holy. I looked upon those containers of food, prepared or gathered by loving hands and delivered to our door, and I remembered it all, this ancient wisdom that had been waiting to be renewed. My soul, fed. 

As we age, as our wounded earth cries out, as our old systems of civilization crumble, we will have many chances to renew and strengthen of the web of community caring. I pray for the grace and wisdom to play any of the parts when my turn arises—the giving, the receiving, the teaching, the learning. I pray for humility, for the softness to learn beyond what I thought I already knew. 

Thank you, dear community. 

Thursday, May 3, 2018

How to Build a Village Using What's Already There

Liz Rog, Decorah Iowa 2018

We already know how to be independent, needing nothing from anyone, paying for whatever we want or need using hard-earned money that we spend our lives to get. For we were born into this society and taught that  this is what was normal and right.

But we’re lonely, depressed, and anxious, and our communities are falling apart, and people are shooting each other, so we’re ready to try something new. How do we begin to dismantle the illusion of independence and to shine the light on all that we have to offer to each other, all that we need from each other, all the things that we can only do if we are together? 

Here's one way: start a nonhierarchical community networking group like we did. It’s so simple and accessible, so locally-flavored and free, that at first it’s almost hard to believe. But we’ve been doing it for 25 years and I can tell you that it is solid, good, and true. And it turns out that there are a lot of these kinds of groups around the world, calling themselves ‘Freeskools.’ Though we are not connected to Freeskools nor their political philosophies, it’s good to know that, as always, good ideas are sprouting up in many places, each with their own local flavor. 

We call our group Pleasant Valley (PV), after a now-defunct neighborhood schoolhouse that also served as a community center until the 1950s. We don’t have a building but we just call everywhere our community center.  I’ll tell you what PV people do for each other, and it might seem impossible to imagine this happening where you live. But I promise you, I live among human beings who are made of the same stuff as yours where you live: longings, hurts, passions, insecurities, gifts. Wherever we live, whoever we are and whatever life has dealt us, it is our birthright to connect, serve, and be cared for. 

Our mission statement reads: 
“Pleasant Valley is an intergenerational gathering of people who spend  time learning together in the spirit of a small village: sharing interests, resources, energy, and the gentle passing of time. We look to show the next generation a model for community involvement, intentional living, and homemade happiness.”

I’ll show you the bones of our group, and then I’ll share five simple steps for starting such a thing right where you live. If reading about what we do seems too good to be true, remember: we’ve been at it for 25 years and at the beginning it looked nothing like this at all. Also remember: times are different now. Our need to connect with each other is clearer and deeper than ever before, and we who realize the urgency are many. Here’s a shovel. Join the crew. 

A Look at Our Group
We are comprised of about 100 households, all local within about a 30 mile radius of our town. We are of all ages, partnered and single, parents and not. We are lucky to have a number of elders among us, as well as young adults, teens, and everything in between. We have an email list-serve that is very active, because what people post there is so danged intriguing and inviting. We gather in real-time for potlucks, celebrations, camps, walks, and living room conversations about topics that interest us. Always, just the right people show up: the ones who saw the invitation posted to the group and wanted to come.  Always, we’re amazed by the simple power of being together. Nobody had to get certified, nobody gets graded, and nobody can’t afford it because there’s no money needed. 

In regular life it can sometimes be hard to ask even your best friends for help, or to invite them to join you for an event, because you might not want to put them on the spot or to risk rejection. The listserve (or whatever group messaging platform is used) is magic because it casts out a broad invitation or request, putting no one on the spot. In this way we can know that those who do step up were personally compelled to do so. 

Though our connections are initiated by the internet, they are all about facilitating local in-person connections. In this way it is quite different from many of the online engagements that pull us into relationships around the world. Of course those can be important too, but we’re realizing how important it is to nurture friendship among people right where we live; to share time, space, food. To meet eyes in real time. 

What do people post on the listserv? 
1. Needs
for stuff: borrowing a bike for a visiting nephew…crutches for a broken leg…an axe…a candy thermometer….
for services: rides…house sitting…pet care….
for help: to trap a squirrel stuck in the basement…to move a heavy couch…to bring meals, childcare, companionship, or songs to a someone who is ill or in some time of transition….
When I was responsible for desserts at my dad’s funeral 3 hours away from home, I asked my group if anyone would be willing to make something that I could bring up. I got an overwhelming response and filled my car with it all, some from folks I still barely knew. For the rest of my life I will be paying back my community for the love I knew through those cookies and bars.  

Seeking and Sharing Resources. (And when useful lists are co-created through our listserv, we compile them and someone puts them on our member-only website for future reference.)
help in finding local connections: to a plumber…a tailor…a childcare provider…an AlAnon group…a good place to find mushrooms in the woods….

ideas for how to do stuff: when to start seeds…how to trap a squirrel….

giving away of things: size 7 children’s boots…queen sized bed…leaf mulch…extra tomatoes….
It’s so fun to play in the gift economy! As you can imagine, this is a very active aspect of the group, and members saying ‘yes’ to an offered item are asked to ‘reply all’ so the rest of the eager crowd can know it’s nabbed up already! Then, people find their way to each other’s homes to pick up their item, and in this way new friendships can begin. And the next time any of us sees the lucky recipient of the item that we too had wanted (or not), we can say ‘you lucky dog!’ and ask what the heck they’re going to do with that box of quilting magazines….

giving of services: people getting certified in some practice who are looking to put in hours for their practicum and are looking for willing ‘clients’…elders willing to read to children on a weekly basis….

to small gatherings at homes or public places, either just to hang out, or to make something together, or to talk about something: making weighted blankets to help people sleep better…making crackers…talking about end-of-life issues…a disco dance party in a living room…to share a home-cooked meal that’s ready tonight, space for 3 at the table….
We also gather monthly for what we call a ‘Gather-All,’ a potluck at some home or public space. This is a laid-back chance to meet or reconnect with each other. 

to seasonal celebrations: Halloween..Valentine’s Day…May Day….
Ours are non-commercial, simple, mostly oriented toward children and those who love to be with them. 

to other cool ideas that occur to people: barter fair, food swap, all-ages show-and-tell day, a spontaneous trip to the river to see the migrating pelicans….
These are just a few of the infinite ideas that are flying around the world but in order to land anywhere need people who will gather. Because we have this landing place, we dare notice the ideas and imagine that that they could happen here. 

2. Announcements  
of new members: they are asked to submit a photo of themselves so that we can recognize them when we next see them somewhere, and also 3-5 sentences about themselves so we know what they’re interested in and up to and where we might run into them about town. We want to know who’s out there on our list-serve, and doing this is a sort of initiation rite for new members that helps them to know that they are not invisible, that who they are matters to us. 

about projects or businesses that our members are involved with: teens looking for odd jobs…new business owners wanting us to know what they’re dreaming and offering, because, if we know about it then we can consider supporting them. We might have been waiting forEVER for a local source for squirrel bait—now it’s here!  We do not have a rule saying that folks can’t tell us about the way they are making a living and invite us to help support them. This is all about helping each other’s lives to be good. 

about goings-on in the wider community.  A meeting at the library on depression and anxiety, which had been a recent topic on the list-serve…a community open gym at the high school…a county-wide forum to support local entrepreneurs….
When we notice an event that we think others in the group might want to know about, we send it along. We trust each other to not overdo it. 

3. Ideas
about books, podcasts, films we’re loving: often these posts hit a tender, alive spot and turn into long threads wherein we learn much about each other’s life experiences, and the conversation continues in both informal and random places around the community as well as in formally organized gatherings to explore further. Recently this occurred with the book Lost Connections by Johann Hari. 

related to real needs felt: after a death in their family, someone posted a question about why we do death the way we do, and that lead to a many-years’ group exploration into the history and practices at times of death. Another time, someone posted that they wanted to learn more about ritual for life transitions, which caused conversations both online and in-person that have slowly led to more ritual in many lives. 

As you can see, anything goes. Well, not exactly: our group does emphasize a desire to step away from mass consumer culture. There’s so much beautiful life to be lived together outside of that shopping mall of the mind. 

How to Help This Happen Where You Live 

I am certain that such a group can begin in any community. It can be any size and grow at any rate, slow or fast. The thing is, to begin. Here are five steps you could take. 

Gather and Talk. Invite two or three people to gather to converse about this idea, or gather with folks from a group you’re already part of: a house of worship, a neighborhood, a school group, a club.  Invite them to join an experimental internet-based format for building local connections. Make sure it’s a format that they actually regularly look at. Explain that there is no obligation, no judging, no guilt! (How badly do we need places like that?) Different people will have different levels of participation that change over time depending on their life circumstances. What and how much the group does will evolve according to real needs, all in their own time. It’s truly all good. 

Invite and Ask. Then, use yourself as the seed to plant the concept in the others’ minds. Use the group to make invitations to easy and fun things: to come for tea, to go out for a beer. When only one person can make it, call that perfect and amazing. Use the group to tell people about a little-known event that you noticed is coming up. Use the group to say that tonight is a full moon and you’ll be watching it from the bridge. And here’s the bravest thing: use it to help people begin to rediscover the reality and beauty of interdependence. Begin by asking for simple things that you’re pretty sure someone can help with: to borrow a hammer, to borrow some eggs. Starting there, you might just find your group a few years down the road group-sourcing some way bigger needs, like a months’ worth of childcare for someone whose husband just went in to treatment. Because We. Are. Amazing. And we love to serve each other, if only the walls can come down so we can see into each other’s lives. 

Notice and Remember. Once you’re ready, start inventorying your own interests and curiosities. What had you forgotten that you loved to do because it seemed that no one cared? You loved to make kites and fly them? You had wanted to learn to knit? You once were part a book group, back in another city? You’ve caught an idea from a book, radio, or screen and you wish that happened where you live? Send out an offer or an inquiry to your group. By now your friends who initially joined might have invited a friend or two more, and there might just be someone among them all who has been waiting a long time to teach someone to knit. There might just be someone who wanted to have a place to offer their gift without having to organize a formal class, take registrations, figure out a fee and a venue and insurance and taxes and all of the other requirements that can prevent so much sharing of skills. This is grassroots learning and sharing, the way it can always be if only we give ourselves permission and a community to do it with. 

Be Simple and Slow. At some point you might choose a name for your group, and you might make a mission statement, but don’t rush it.  Just begin by being together, and if those other things need to happen you’ll know because you’ll want to do them. Don’t become a non-profit or buy insurance or make rules. Keep it simple, deal with issues directly if they come up. Don’t call anything a failure; it’s all just for learning what works and doesn’t. Create a culture of YES: yes that was hard and we learned from it, yes to that crazy-seeming idea, yes let’s try something else, yes people are welcome even if they don’t know what they have to offer. to And though you are the one taking the first steps, keep in mind that unless you actively encourage the empowerment of each person, you could end up being seen as the leader in a way you’d never intended. Keep your ear out for things to suggest that others might offer or organize, to help encourage those less accustomed to asking, offering, inviting. ‘You need a ride to Minneapolis? How about posting it to our group?’ 

Gather and Play. Every once in a while, make an invitation that entices the whole group to gather. The best idea is often a meal together in a home or park. This might be the first time that newcomers who had so far just been watching the listserv dare step into real-time with the rest. Introduce everyone to each other. Make sure everyone is seen and welcomed and identified. Maybe this is a monthly gathering, rotating locations and hosts. Encourage the use of home-spaces, because seeing each others’ homes helps us know each other. It’s truly ok if they’re not fancy or clean, and you know it. Model that knowing by inviting others into your home, letting it be not-perfect. 


That’s all. What it becomes is what You are, there where You live together. It arises from Your collective needs and dreams and gifts. You have made a container that’s just the right size and shape for what You are now, and it will organically expand to hold whatever is borne next of Your people, Your place. Once You make the container, anything can happen. 

Think of a few people you can imagine asking. Make a little pool together, and trust each other to take a dip now and then. Then start opening your collective arms a little wider, and a little wider, to hold more people, ideas, dreams, needs. 

We need something to happen. Make the vessel that can hold the many possibilities of You All. You have what it takes. You need what it gives. We need it, every one of us. 

May our neighborhoods, towns, cities, and country be a-buzz, abundant, pollinating our need and our passion for belonging. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Art of Opening the Circle

The Art of Opening the Circle 
(the Food Can Wait a Bit) 
Once you’ve attended a gathering that begins with an opening circle that’s held by someone who knows its subtle and joyous power, you’ll never again be satisfied to just begin the meal, just get down to business, just start having fun. You’ll long for the moment of all-together focus that an opening circle brings, and you just may find that you’re the one who has to make it happen. Whether it’s a neighborhood potluck, a staff holiday party, a congregational meeting, or a family gathering, coming together creates a perfect opportunity to shine a light on our wholeness right there in that moment. Make use of this chance to pause together and create connection right here, right now. Opening the circle in an intentional way—be it playful, tender, reverent, brief, luxurious—creates the container of ‘we’ that ripples out for the rest of the gathering and well beyond. 
From what I’ve learned so far, the essential pieces seem to be: 
Calling people to the circle
Greeting each other
Offering gratitudes
(Perhaps some other little piece)
You need at least one person who will gladly hold the space.The host of the event might like to invite someone else to do this, for they might have been cleaning, cooking or taking care of children all day, or they might not like speaking in front of groups. Whomever it is, ideally this person will have thought about the pieces ahead of time, even if only in the bathroom 5 minutes ago because you just remembered at the last minute to ask them. This person will be comfortable—or at least willing to keep stepping toward comfort—with their own voice, and they will also know that the circle is fed by the sounds of many voices, so they will invite others to be heard. They might have given the heads-up others in advance, asking them to offer a poem, song, trick, or prayer. They will have been watching for special offerings or people to thank, special connections to point out to the whole group. They will want to set aside self- consciousness and step into their role as a servant of the whole. They will speak loudly and slowly enough so that they can be heard. 

Yet, I have led many opening circles even though I felt nervous that people thought I was taking too long; that I was speaking too fast; that I would forget this or forget that. I have looked at the floor the whole time, have gone off to cry with regrets afterwards. Nonetheless, I’m still here, alive, loved for my vulnerabilities as much as for my skills. I couldn’t have learned but by those mistakes. So maybe it could be you, tender human, who stumbles in and gives it a try for the team, who learns out loud. 

Someday soon I think that it will once again be felt so natural to open gatherings in skillful, connective, ritualized ways that anyone hosting an event will either plan on holding the circle themselves or will ask someone else to. But at this moment it can sometimes be awkward: perhaps a host does not think of it, but one of their guests does. Does the guest offer their services? And if a guest is deputized by the host, does the community accept that, or do some start making stories about how this leader is always insisting on taking the stage? On the other 
hand, does the community start to think that it is always the job of that one leader to hold space, so that unless that leader is there nothing happens? It’s a tender spot. 
When I’ve been asked to lead a circle or some songs at someone else’s gathering, I’ve found that it helps ease the transition if the host publicly invites me into the leadership role, saying to the whole group ‘I’ve asked Liz to....’ This can really help me to let go of the old story that someone might be thinking I always insist on making things happen my way. Ah, this is community! 
Calling People to the Circle. This might seem obvious and not worthy of mention, but if you’ve ever tried to herd 10 or 100 happily chatting people into a central space and get them to start listening, you know that it can take some skill—especially if you’re hoping to do it in a more inviting, pleasant way than your 7th grade teacher might have. One of the best ways is to use Call-and-Reponse song or chant, because it immediately engages everyone’s voice and draws them toward the caller. You can make up something simple on the spot using 2 or 3 words and just as few notes, and ask one friend to help you get it started by repeating what you do: ’Hello my friends!” ‘Hello My Friends!” “Come to the circle!” ‘Come to the Circle!” Some people call in the circle using call-and-response clapping, and though it works because the clapping cuts through the din, for just that same reason it can sometimes feel a little harsh. Other ideas: start singing a song that you know most people know, or invite someone who likes to drum to use their drumming in a calling way. Or, ask the children to run around and tap people on the arm. Use who you’ve got in a creative way. 
Form the circle so that ideally everyone can see everyone else. This is how we begin to live as though everyone mattered. A sloppy circle with some people standing in the middle unaware that folks are behind them, or with some standing around the corner invisible, makes the whole rest of the opening circle harder to weave. Even if you can’t have a perfectly round circle where everyone can see each other, you can have an intentional circle that feels like all are in. If there are more than 30-50 people, depending on how sound carries in the space, you might need to ask people to get much closer to each other, or to make a double concentric circle, or a more random-looking clumpy circle. And though they might be having a great time playing nearby, bring the children into this circle too! Later on they will surely find their way back to play, and in the meantime you’ve given them a chance to be seen as part of the whole. If you’re outside, the leader needs a big voice for a big circle. If you’re inside and sitting in an auditorium or at tables in rows, it’s trickier but you can still pull off a feeling of circle-ness by inviting people to turn and greet those in the circle right around them. The point is, put intention into the form. Make a place for everyone. 
Standing is better than sitting. Of course you’ll make a way for those who need to sit—perhaps the best way to do this is to ask a teen or young adult if they would offer that to the elders—but overall the energy is bigger if people are standing. 
How long will this circle last? If there is food waiting to be eaten, ideally it’s covered so that people who love their food hot don’t feel stressed. But even then, 5-10 minutes is about as much as people can handle. Find a few ideas to put into the general framework, and then go for it. If after the circle you reflect that it went to long, you’ll know that for next time. If there isn’t food waiting, then you can have a much more luxurious circle, maybe 30 minutes or more if you’re including a game. 
Greeting each other. This is the perfect moment, early on in the circle, to bring people fully in by enabling each to use their own voice as part of the whole. Sometimes you are gathering a group where you think most people know each other and you might therefore think that greeting is unnecessary. Why not take this opportunity to share the peace, look in the eyes of friends old and new with no other purpose than welcome? This might also be a good opportunity to engage bodies through moving, hand-shaking, clapping, or dancing, which helps even more to create a stepping-in. Depending on the size of the group, you might use this moment of arrival to invite folks to: 
greet the 2 people to either side of them with a handshake (naturally some will hug, but in most groups I think it would be too pushy for the leader to suggest that). Expect a sudden cacophony of sound and energy, and know that you’ll need to call them back in after 2-4 minutes (but don’t use your watch,use your heart). If you wait until the sound has died down, you might have waited too long.
find someone new to meet from anywhere in the circle, which will cause people to walk around. When you re-form the circle and behold those smiling faces, you might see a sparkling web.
while the whole group watches, each person says their name along with some quick movement of their body that the whole group then imitates as they repeat the person’s name together.
same as above, but also when the person is announcing their name they use voice inflections that can be copied. Some might do something that could be called ‘singing,’ and others might just tone their name simply. Others might clap their name to a rhythm. All ways are good ways.
say your name and then, rather than telling something about yourself which is a common way of introduction but is uncomfortable for some people, say the name of one person in the circle that you’re connected to, and why. ‘I am connected to Sandy because she was my mom’s art teacher in Minnesota!’ ‘I am connected to Kaj because he is my next-door neighbor.” ‘I am connected to Kristin because last week at the co-op she helped me pick up my groceries after my bag ripped open.” Start it off yourself to set an example of simplicity or brevity, as you wish. Ideally by the end of the circle everyone would be named as a connection, but that doesn’t always happen and it seems to be ok because it’s so very delightful to hear the various random connections that each person feels part of the Big Story. Depending on the rest of your plan, this activity could get too long if you have more than 20 people.
In my community we tend to see many generations together at events, and I love to shine a light on that. I ask who the youngest person is, and we give a cheer for that person. I ask who the oldest is and we cheer for them. I want to to celebrate the people in the middle, and one way to do that is to do some quick group math to find the median between the oldest and youngest, and see who’s closest to that age. Linden is 2, David is 76, 2+76=78, 78 divided by 2 is 39. Both hands in the sky if you’re 39! A hoot and a holler for them!
Another way to celebrate the many ages that we are is to ask who’s in under 10 and cheer for them, who’s 10-19 and cheer for them, who’s in their 20s and another big cheer! And all the way up to the oldest decade. If there’s no one in their 70s or 80s I still name the decade and we notice together how we’re missing those people, and I know that that acts as a little prayer calling them to us the next time.
If it doesn’t make sense to do introductions of each person, either because you are a group that knows each other well or because the group is too large (in which case you probably invited people to just meet their neighbors), still don’t miss the opportunity to celebrate as a group any special guests. Maybe someone’s grandparents are visiting, or there’s someone from another country, or whomever it may be. If you as the leader know who those people are, you might just introduce them yourself. But better yet, open the floor for people to introduce their own special guest. The more voices the better. 
• a note on sharing names and including last names. Sometimes it seems that introducing by name would be unnecessary, since so many of the people already know each other. Yet it is often the case that there are at least a few new people to any circle (and isn’t that what we’re hoping for in an open circle?) which makes name sharing worth the time. And, why not share first as well as last names? If we’re really planning to keep track of each other, aka build community, then it matters which John you are, which Kristin you are. 
Offering gratitudes and the host/s, to the children who made the muffins, to the person who shoveled the walk, to the ancestors, to the Creator, to the soil and rain and seed... to much and many! This could take the shape of celebration and include hooting and clapping, and/or it could be more contemplative, like a prayer. The point isn’t to thank everything possible —for then we would literally be there forever—but rather to point our gratitude in a number of directions, near and far, so that we carry an attitude of gratitude to the whole gathering. This might be led by one who delights in offering prayer or in the group-sourcing gratitudes. If you open it up for anyone to add their gratitudes and you have set a precedent that anything goes, then you might learn about some really beautiful things that were hidden in people’s hearts. This is also a time when silence will feel natural and delicious, as we wait for another to speak their words. 
Other possible pieces, depending on the occasion: a playful group game; some short delightful skit or song that someone prepared in advance; a group song led by someone who can make it comfortable and easy for all; prayers, a poem or a reading; a demonstration of some skill that would intrigue and delight the group; the celebration of a milestone in someone’s life, whether or not it seems connected to the purpose of your gathering.. etc! Once you start looking, you will see that any group is rich with passions and skills to harvest and celebrate. There are people who know how to do stuff and never get the chance to share it: people who love writing limericks, who can do weird body tricks, who craft beautiful prayers from the seeds of the moment; who just moved or had a baby or returned from a trip. How about holding silence for a minute? Giving back rubs or hand rubs to each other? 
Announcements. Here’s the spot where the host can explain how the potluck line runs, where someone tells where the bathroom is, etc. Also you can ask for other announcements and then an instant audio-bulletin-board pops up where we can learn about a concert next week, the need for a ride somewhere, the give-away pile over in the corner, etc. Sometimes the group embraces this opportunity so enthusiastically that you have to watch out for too-muchness and give the ‘one last announcement’ warning! 
This is probably brief, since the circle has already found its center. Tell the circle that you are about finish so that they stay present for this last little piece. Maybe it’s a cheer, or a singing dinner grace, or silence, or a prayer. Maybe you pass a kiss around the circle, each kissing the one to their left after the kiss comes to them. Maybe everyone puts a hand the center for a go-team cheer. Maybe the whole circle turns and faces the outside and on ‘3’ yells ‘thank you!’ However you do it, take it out with intention and joy. 
A Note to Holders of Space 
If you have your antenna up, you can almost always sense someone in the circle who seems to be wishing you’d shut up and sit down, who seems to think this is too touchy-feely, who needs to eat and get home and didn’t come for this other connect-y stuff. 
You might be right, and you might be wrong. They might be thinking about something entirely different. They might come up to you in a day or a year and tell you how much that circle meant to them. Or they might forever take issue with group gatherings that include such together- moments as these. 
Either way, why would you forsake offering something that you know to be important to the many? Here’s a chance to keep your senses open, and at the same time let go of the ego that needs to be liked by everyone. Here’s a chance to be bold and creative, and be willing to compromise, to listen to the group energy and call enough just-right when the moment hits. Here’s a chance to cooperate with the reality of your community in this moment, and also to push against the edge to introduce something a bit bigger. Here’s your chance to be coyote, making being together in this way so appealing and delightful that it’s irresistible. 

And here’s your chance to once again accept the fact that you’ve got more to learn, that you don’t always get it right, and that more chances are around the corner.