Disrupt the story of the land

A road trip is full of possibility. With the flexibility of time to take one of those turn-offs, there’s a chance to see something with fresh eyes. At the beginning of July, a friend and I drove from Portland, Oregon to Reno, Nevada in the United States. It was new territory — volcanic territory — that pulled us up to a lookout and down into a cave. 
In the northeast corner of California, just west of Highway 139, the Timber Mountain Lookout beckoned us off the highway. Wendy (waving in the photo below) toured us around her summer home, a place to keep an eye on things and send out the alert when there are ‘smokes’ — the evidence of fire. 
Wendy has all she needs in her lookout. It is a wee home with all she needs to look after herself and keep an eye on the land.

She has a kitchen, a bed, maps, cameras and lenses. 
It is a place of solitude, the quiet and peaceful kind or the solitude that comes with proximity of a surrounding storm. It is a place where there are few human and many animal visitors, but contact with fellow humans is the point. Wendy and her fellow lookout colleagues are in contact with each other and the wider emergency response system. In that location she is alone, but she is part of a larger endeavour.  
We created these lookouts to keep ourselves safe from fire. We chose to make these structures, at sensible locations, and create a means for the people working in the lookouts to identify clearly the location of smokes for their emergency services colleagues to investigate and, if necessary, fight fire that threatens homes and/or livelihoods. 
The lookouts come with a contract — the one who resides in the lookout is expected to see things we cannot see, to see on our behalf. And we who receive their messages trust what they name is worthy of investigation. 
The lookout comes with a contract — the one who resides in the lookout is expected to see things we cannot see, to see on our behalf. And we who receive their messages trust that what they name is worthy of investigation. 
I wonder, who are the people on the lookout for us all in other ways? And are we willing to receive their messages?
Who are the people on the lookout in other ways? And are we willing to receive their messages? 
I took this question to our next stop, nearby lava tube caves and a visitor centre at the Lava Beds National Monument. This second pause in our road trip shone a light on a story dominant culture does not like to hear: we settlers arrived to colonize North America and kill or displace people already here. 
A cave, for me, is dark and unfamiliar terrain,  a world that is unsettling and uncomfortable. Unfamiliar to me, yet intimately familiar to the Modoc people who have left evidence of having lived here for 14,000 years. 
When European traders and settlers arrived in the early 1800s there was displacement and a change in the way of life. Then displacement turned into state-sponsored extermination and California’s state legislature funded of a campaign to kill Native people: state sponsored genocide. 
A standoff between the colonizers and the Modoc people (who resisted ill-treatment and displacement to reserves and wished to be reunited with their homeland) involved the Modoc vanishing into the caves they knew intimately. Outnumbered 10-1, over the winter of 1872-1873 (the Modoc War), their knowledge of the land allowed them to resist and survive. 
The Modoc, who know the story of the land most intimately — where to find water, where to find food, what makes good shelter, the stories of the land and sky that sustain life and a thriving culture — were killed or forcibly removed from their homeland to a reservation in Oklahoma. The stewardship of the land changed dramatically.  
The Modoc were killed or forcibly removed from their homeland to a reservation in Oklahoma. 
The colonizers began a process to reclaim the land for homesteading. Between 1908 and 1930 Tule Lake was drained and converted to farmland. By lottery out of a pickle jar the land was given to homesteaders. A stunning map in the visitor center tells the tale. 
By lottery out of a pickle jar the land was given to homesteaders.
The vast majority of the lake was converted to farmland. What remained of the waterbody was labeled “Tule Lake Restricted Sump”. 
Our settler/colonizer language is fascinating: 
  1. retrieve or recover (something previously lost, give, or paid); obtain the return of.
  2. bring (waste land or land formerly underwater)under cultivation.
Our language reveals what we thought of the land and the people who lived on it:
  1. The land is ours to take. 
  2. Indigenous use of the land is unproductive. 
  3. Settler use of the land is more productive.
  4. Indigenous people are not productive.
  5. Settler people are productive.
  6. Indigenous people are inferior. 
  7. Settler people are superior. 
We had our idea of what the land could be used for and, deeming ourselves and our ideas to be superior, we occupied the land.  We killed and forcibly removed people to do so, and now we non-indigenous people call it our homeland. 
Deeming ourselves and our ideas to be superior, we occupied the land. We killed and forcibly removed people to do so, and now we non-indigenous people call it our homeland.  
I feel a connection to the story of the Modoc because it helps me see my family land lineage more clearly. In similar fashion, colonizers declared land open for homesteaders in central Alberta and my Norwegian great-grandparents arrived as homesteaders. In another family branch, my grandparents took advantage of others having declared land was available for purchase on a lakeshore. They bought lake property to serve as a recreational property, along with many others, surrounding an Indian Reservation. And me, I own land in my city that was claimed for settlement of non-indigenous people. There are Indigenous people who feel the land my city — and “my” land — sits on was stolen. My family lineage, then and now, benefits from the land we assumed to be ours for the taking. 
And here I have a choice about how far to go into this cave, and I have at least two stories to choose from. 
I could choose to believe that since my people were stronger and superior, then no reparations are needed. It is a story in which there is no room for weakness, especially mine. There is no room to accept that my people before me did anything wrong. (Or if I do accept they did, there is nothing I have done wrong.) This is a story about winners and losers, and when you’re a winner you enjoy the spoils and when you’re a loser you have to buck up and take it. This is a story that takes me to the entrance of the cave and causes me little discomfort as I continue to reap the benefits of living in a system works to raise my people and put others down.
A different story will take me into the cave, where I am uncomfortable and in the dark, unsure how to make my way forward. It is the settler/colonizer story where I take intergenerational responsibility for the actions of my people, decades and centuries ago, that were taken from a place of superiority and power. It is a story where I accept that I am part of the settler/colonizer culture that continues to benefit from having taken land. I am part of the settler/colonizer culture that experiences unearned privilege because of my ancestors actions. I am part of the culture that continues to propagate this old story: we settler people are better than Indigenous people. 
I am part of the culture that continues to propagate this old story: we settler people are better than Indigenous people. 
A part of this new story shows up in how we tell the story of the land we live on, whether the land of the Modoc, or the Plains Cree where I live. I grew up, and was trained as.a city planner, thinking about two things: 1) the geography and nature of the land (topography, water systems, plant life, geology, etc), and 2) the story of settlers on the land. I paid some attention to the Indigenous people who traverse these time horizons, but not an appropriate amount. Our pattern is to behave as though a group of people did not and does not exist. Further, we are conditioned to not take into consideration their existence. 
How we tell the story of the land is changing. The usual story I tell and hear, as a settler/colonizer, is the big natural story, and then the story of settling the land. We are conditioned to tell the story as though no one was here when we arrived. We tell the story as if there were no humans of worth here.
Yes, Medicine Lake is a volcano that has been active for over 500,000 years, with the last eruption 950 years ago. Yes the Oregon Trail and the Applegate Trail are significant stories of European “discovery” and settlement of western North America. Yes, the Lava Beds National Monument acknowledges, rather than hides, the story of the Modoc, but it is the stories of settler/colonizer triumph, the hardship, the hard work, the heroes, the defeated that thrive. And we avoid looking at the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. We avoid looking at the things that take us off the security of our superiority pedestal. 
We avoid looking at the things that take us off the security of our superiority pedestal. 
The new story will acknowledge this more widely. 
The new story will acknowledge this more widely.
My friend and I went into one easy to travel (and lit!) cave. There are many more deeper, darker and challenging caves to look explore. As i write, I imagine myself in a place of solitude up on Wendy’s lookout on Timber Mountain. I learn some peaceful things about myself, and I also witness the disturbance of stormy weather within myself.
There is a series of caves I have only begun to explore as a settler/colonizer of North America:  
  1. I do not understand and acknowledge my people’s role in the story of displacement and genocide and North America’s Indigenous Peoples. 
  2. I do not fully understand the implications of my people’s arrival and settlement, that it involved a desire to explicitly to “kill” and “terminate” the Indians”.
  3. I continue to live in a story of superiority over Indigenous Peoples.
  4. As descendants of settlers and colonizers, I have benefited and received the privileges that come with their actions and a story of superiority.
  5. I do not fully understand or acknowledge the explicit and subtle ways this story of superiority runs in my life.
  6. I am conditioned to remain unconscious to the ways the story of superiority runs my life. 
  7. I am threatened by the “loss”  I perceive if I lessen my hold on what I own.
The story of the land we live on is not singular. The story I grew up with, the dominant story, conditions me and us to believe in a superior people. And this story works very hard to maintain its position of dominance. The way to erode the power of that story: make room for others stories of the land, and our relationships with the land. This makes room for disruption.

 This post first appeared in the Nest City News on July 24, 2019.

Welcoming outsiders

At a conference welcome reception last fall in Canada, I stepped in to join a conversation in progress. The room was full of people I did not know, so I chose a group where there was one person I had met a few hours ago, and three others new to me. I did not interject and interrupt and overstep the unwritten rules for a new arrival; I waited for a sign that I would be welcome. The person I knew, gave me a quick nod and (appropriately) continued to speak in the conversation already underway. The others did not look at me, not even a glance. I thought to myself, “my, this is strange, to not acknowledge the arrival of a newcomer to a conversation at a welcome reception.” I discerned that it was not a private conversation and made the decision to not insert myself further and conduct a little experiment: how long would they continue to not acknowledge, let alone welcome, the presence of a newcomer?

I stood and listened, observing. I waited about 10 minutes then moved away to release the experiment. I allowed time for the conversation to shift and adjust, change its focus, find those moments of transition to bring in the newcomer. They did not do it. For 10 minutes they chose to not acknowledge the presence of a newcomer, let alone welcome and weave in the newcomer.

How long would they continue to not acknowledge, let alone welcome, the presence of a newcomer?

At a separate gathering last fall, I found myself in a conundrum: to participate—or not—in a North American Indigenous ceremony in Europe. I chose to not participate and begin to explore why it did not sit well with me (what I figured out can be found in this post: Colonial blind spot).

At this gathering we were not in the shape of a traditional conference, rather in the shape of listening, a circle, so I spoke what I was struggling with: that the use of an Indigenous ceremony by Europeans without the acknowledgement of the European colonial involvement in the attempted cultural genocide of North American Indigenous peoples did not sit well with me. A few others spoke of other forms of discomfort with the ceremony and somehow, despite being people good at listening and hearing and discerning, we did not know how to handle the uneasiness in our midst. The discomfort did not have a place to land and we who felt and spoke it were left sitting with our unease without the felt awareness or support of the wider community. We were left outside.

The discomfort did not have a place to land and we who felt it and spoke it were left sitting with our unease without the felt awareness or support of the wider community. We were left outside. 

Two yellow backpacks 

As I made my way through these two experiences, two women sporting yellow backpacks arrived to help me make meaning of them. Both are extreme explorers of the world, comfortable in their own skin and being their own self even it they don’t quite fit the ‘norm’. They both arrived when I needed them.

Yellow backpack #1 is Willemijn, who whisked me off to The Hague after the gathering in Europe. With a handful of compatriots, the Netherlands was revealed to me in the most beautiful fashion: by bicycle, by train, by bus and tram, by car; with guided tours of their favourite things; by sharing family and favourite food; and with time for me to explore on my own. Willemijn opened her home and her life to me, adjusted her schedule to fit me in. We got to know each other and appreciate each other. We had time to simply be with each other and talk about many things we found we shared in common. She coordinated the communication with her compatriots to help us find time together too. What she mostly did was share herself and it was beautiful and generous.

Yellow backpack #2 is Celine, who co-hosted a session with me at the traditional conference. We resisted the conference inertia and took our space in the conference to make room for participants to explore their own expertise. Afterwards, we decided to share a meal and found ourselves in an intense conversation about deep personal matters. After having revealed a bit of ourselves to each other with our conference session, we found in each other an instant trust and safety from having revealed. We both tuned in to there being more for us to explore with each other and we both said yes. It started with an unusual conference session where we were allowed to speak to each other. We were able to notice an interpersonal connection and then act on it. (Noticing interpersonal connections is not encouraged at traditional conferences by design, despite intention otherwise.) What she mostly did was share herself and it was beautiful and generous.

I met Willemijn first and had been feeling like she was a guardian angel sent to tend my hurting soul. We didn’t even talk about what was hurting; we enjoyed each other’s company and it was perfect. When I met Celine two months later, I first noticed her yellow backpack, just like Willemijn’s, and how they contain the essentials needed for the day, to serve its porter well. (It always amazes me what comes out of a backpack!) I also noticed how the cheery yellow backpack reflects the spirit of these two souls who make their way through the world with a happy confidence in doing things a bit differently than the norm. The backpacks are a bit dirty because they are well used; these are gals with practical life experience, around 30 years old, charting their unconventional paths with confidence.

What made me look more closely at the yellow backpacks and these two gals was the depth of conversation in which we easily found ourselves. 

What made me look more closely at the yellow backpacks and these two gals was the depth of conversations in which we easily found ourselves. Their openness to drop in and be honest and real about themselves and with another, was spectacular. As I listened to Celine, I could not stop thinking of Willemijn and her yellow backpack. I knew I had more to notice here when I heard Celine say that she is learning to play the cello – just like Willemijn. There just can’t be that many awesome yellow backback-sporting cello-learning 30-something-year-olds in the world, can there?

At 48 and recently single, these two yellow backpacks are a reminder of what I already knew:

  • I love that my life path is a bit unconventional
  • My body feels great when I wear a backpack
  • There are messages in the symbols of the wilderness of the human experience
  • There is more going on in a conversation than what we say, or the shape/form the conversation takes
  • Good conversation matters

Find and meet

Conference design has an energy that keeps the experts and participants separate from each other and, most importantly, keeps the participants separate from each other. Unconsciously and consciously, this is by design:

Whether there is one expert at the front of the room, or a panel, the effect is the same: expert and participants. Furthermore, in this format the participants are not expected or allowed to talk to each other. In an environment like this participants (and speakers too) might see each other across the room, session after session, but rarely speak to each other, and if they do it is more rarely substantial. We speak with those we know, lightly with those we do not know, and often not at all to those we do not know.

A loaded program of presenters and people sitting to listen to those presenters allows minimal community – the people in the room share a similar interest and do not talk to each other. The energetic emphasis on the design is on expert content, not creating the conditions for people to magically find each other. At this particular conference there was great emphasis on conversation in between conference sessions, and there is a significant limitation to where those conversations will go because they have little to build on from the conference itself – interpersonal connections are not cultivated. We keep our distance because we only, perhaps, see each other when we choose similar sessions, but we don’t ‘find’ each other. We don’t ‘meet’ each other. Even over coffee, we keep our distance.

We keep our distance because we only, perhaps, see each other when we choose different sessions, but we don’t ‘find’ each other. We don’t ‘meet’ each other. 

What I mean by ‘find’ and ‘meet’ is this: we share ourselves beyond a simple shared interest; we share stories and struggles and tap in to our collective wisdom; we give our ourselves and receive in return. It may be two of us or twelve or two hundred. But to do this, we have to let go of the sage on the stage—the expert outside of us—and trust the expertise within and among us as a community. When we don’t trust our own expertise we block our ability to access our own expertise.

Enable natural hierarchy 

When people find themselves in the same place at the same time a community of shared interest becomes visible, and because of this we can feel a sense of community, particularly when we are felling isolated. The mere existence of ‘people like me’ brings elation. There is more to community than this when we choose to consciously weave ourselves together, which amplifies our sense of community. And if that community sits in a circle, that shape itself is not enough if the field of relationships between us is not sufficiently nurtured.

If a community sits in a circle, that shape itself is not enough if the field of relationship between us is not sufficiently nurtured. 

Circle is form of meeting where leadership is shared and a diversity of perspectives is welcomed and accommodated. This is also an environment in which ideas in conflict can be difficult to handle if power imbalances are not acknowledged.

If a circle is flat, with no hierarchy or resistance to hierarchy, there is no room to acknowledge power imbalances—and diversity of life experience. A flat circle resists conflict because it wants to consider itself peaceful and welcoming no matter what, even if the opposite is the case. A flat circle, despite its claim to welcome diversity, remains shallow in experience, meaningful only for those on the inside. There isn’t room for those with an ‘outsider’ point of view.

A not-so-flat circle acknowledges the subtle and explicit hierarchies that naturally occur in human systems and explores them.

A not-so-flat circle acknowledges the subtle and explicit hierarchies that naturally occur in human systems and explores them. In doing so, conflict can be held, explored and resolved. This is a circle that endeavours to hear itself and the power dynamics within, and this accommodates more diversity.

Acknowledging the natural occurrence of hierarchy is enabling, both from the structural support it provides, but also as a topic of conversation that allows us to see ourselves better. When we allow ourselves to talk about power, real and perceived, we see our relationships far more clearly. When we don’t, we block ourselves from creating community beyond the sharing of a common interest.

Community means belonging 

We feel community when we feel we belong. We can share a family bloodline, or share geography, in a neighbourhood or city. We can feel community in an organization of any size. We can feel community in social media as we find people with shared interests across the planet. This experience can be meaningful and superficial at the same time (this is often just the right thing!), or it can be meaningful and involve being deeply held as we make our way through the challenges of life as individuals and as communities. As we find ourselves increasingly challenged with the pace of change and conflict in our world, being deeply held and having the capacity to hold and examine conflict is essential. We need to do a better job of finding and meeting each other.

As we find ourselves increasingly challenged with the pace of change and conflict in our world, being deeply held and having the capacity to hold and examine conflict is essential. We need to do a better job of finding and meeting each other.

The conference participants shared an interest in building community sustainability and the standard conference design fostered surface belonging. Community resilience is fostered when a range of ways of being in relationship are activated in the community, ways that reach below the surface of a shared interest.

The circle gathering participants shared a way of meeting (in circle) that fosters conversation in ways that reach below the surface. In this case, when community struggles with noticing and acknowledging power imbalances, it resists the diversity needed to enable resilience.

A resistance to welcoming and accommodating non-expert or outsider perspectives was present in both gatherings in explicit and subtle ways. It manifested as a resistance to talk to each other and invite the outsider in. In both cases, there was a yellow backpack in the room, sitting there, waiting to be unpacked, waiting for its mysterious contents to be revealed and examined. And for the people who gather round to invent their way forward in the mutuality of community.

In your experience, what enables community to welcome and explore the outsider? 

ps – so far, I am resisting the urge to acquire a yellow backpack as I already have too many backpacks…

Recent and related posts

  • The unspoken – a poem on the question of what to do when you find yourself holding the unspoken.
  • Colonial blind spot – People of European lineage – if we are not accepting our story of attempted cultural genocide, we are causing harm. We are propagating the bliss of ignorance.
  • Care out in the open – Care needs to be out in the open or it isn’t happening. To care out in the open means I am willing to be changed by what I hear.
  • Harm happens, intended or not – A welcoming city examines how it defends itself from change, how it maintains the status quo by denying that others are harmed.
  • A welcoming city has transportation choices – All people, regardless of their chosen mode of transportation, exhibit care and look out for each other. That’s how it works: accommodation.

The target is not the direction

NestCity-BlogPostOver the holidays, my neighbour Bob told me about the January Minimalist Challenge he and his family are taking on to remove from their home the things they don’t need. On January 1, one thing goes. On January 2, two things. On January 3, three things, all the way to 31 things on January 31, for a grand total of 496. Continue reading The target is not the direction

Do it yourself leg-repair


Three weeks ago today everything changed, 12 km behind the largest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, on a steep slope of unstable shale. Broken and wobbly leg bones. A fabulous EMT on holidays to take charge, layers of splints, 8 volunteers to carry a big man down to a helicopter waiting to get husband Peter to an ambulance, then a small hospital, then a large hospital for surgery. Angels of water kept us hydrated on a hot afternoon. Angels of strength carried our packs down the mountain for us to collect later. Angels of friendship, with big eyes, gave high-fives on their way by.

At long last, Peter found himself in the warehouse – a nursing station that looked like the halls of The Home Depot. Shelves of supplies in the corridor, nurses who showed up to do the bare minimum and left him to fend for himself. Swelling that means a 5 day wait for surgery will be delayed? Well, get the ice for yourself. Motrin to keep the swelling down? Well, we’ll only get that for you if you ask for it. The trick is, as with all do-it-yourself endeavours, it only works when you know what you are doing.

When you can’t move, you sit and wait, hoping for the best. In Peter’s case, he laid on a shelf, and someone came to dust him off now and then to check if he still had a pulse. Mostly, he hoped that no one forgot he was there and needed attention.

Then the call on day 6, on a minute’s notice, for surgery. In the operating room, purpose is clear. Here, what will happen is explained in detail. There is even a laugh – will they find a nail long enough to fit the long tibia bone in his leg (he’s 6’6″). Then he’s asleep and they get to work with a big nail, a drill, mallet, screws and a screwdriver. The power and hand tools of The Home Depot merge with the technology of X-ray vision to guide the work of deft hands to put things back in place and set Peter up for the needed mending.

 Nail and screws

The next day, as Peter hobbled about on one leg, he was tentative. He’d spent 6 days on his back, and the last time he was vertical he violently twisted himself into this predicament. As I watched, this question came to mind:

It is possible to hobble with confidence rather than fear?

I thought of the warehouse nurses. I have no idea if their indifference to their work is endemic to the whole hospital, or to their unit, but their lack of care was startling. Among the nursing staff, the disconnect from self and work was palpable. The collective disconnect was even more palpable. In contrast, a custodian was friendly and careful to make sure an extra chair arrived to accommodate our family of four. An orderly attending to another patient made sure a wheelchair fit Peter properly to get him to our car and take him home. The nurses didn’t help send him home well or safely at all. They were hobbling with a lack of confidence in their purpose to care for people waiting, in pain and discomfort, in the unknown.

As I watch Peter figure out his relationship with crutches, more questions come to mind:

  • What crutches are in my life?
  • When are crutches needed, not needed?
  • How do I know when I am done with crutches?
  • What crutches am I still using unnecessarily? 
  • Do I even notice when I’ve gotten rid of them? 

In many ways, the leg repair is do-it-yourself. Peter’s body will heal itself, but there are specific junctures where he needed the help and care of others. He couldn’t get off the mountain by himself. He couldn’t keep the swelling down by himself. He couldn’t get the bones in place by himself. In the weeks to come, he will test out his new leg, Mr. T he calls it. He will slowly put weight on the leg and see how he and Mr. T are going to get along.

He will slowly stop using the crutches.

Eventually he will throw the crutches away.

Then he will decide about going back to the mountain.

Mount Robson



The fiery gifts of the dragon

First – look the dragon in the eye

Two weeks ago, a board I serve on was brave enough to look the dragon in the eye and see the truth: it was time to let our organization die with dignity. Despite her fading spirit, we were expending excessive energy keeping her alive. Before it faded too far, we needed to find a new home for her spirit, a place to serve what she longs to be today, without the substantial, gloomy baggage that has been bringing her down and holding back her potential for years.

The people closest to her heart, the board of directors, knew the status quo was no longer possible. We named the decision to celebrate her dignities and wind down her current ‘home’ so she could have a fresh start in the fullness of possibility. As we started to talk to others, in confidence, to figure out how to do this with the greatest of care, a colleague and friend tweeted the news out to the world. We were chucked under the bus, unable to get up when battered with accusations of misconduct and hate mail. Our ability to respond well to reasonable demands for information were lack-lustre. We weren’t ready because we were just figuring out how to handle the news ourselves. Everyone was hurting.

But let’s pause here for a moment . . .

The dynamics in play are bigger than the people involved, including me and my twitter friend. It is a cultural norm to do whatever is necessary to deny endings, and in doing so we refuse to see the possibilities that come with an ending. An ending does not have to be an end. It is only a catastrophic birth – a transition from one stable state of being to another stable state of being with a messy, awful feeling in the middle.

Assume for a moment my colleages and I were accurate in discerning a diagnosis of “terminal illness” for our organization (I’m always open to a second, informed opinion). As we reached our decision that day, we realized that we had been experiencing the stages of loss and grief (Elisabeth Kubler-Ross http://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/) humans feel when facing death in loved ones. Our love for our organization and the loss and grief of its end are no different:

  1. We denied the reality of the situation. We found endless reasons and means to keep her alive. We blocked out the facts.
  2. We were angry. We looked for other people to blame for our situation.
  3. We were bargaining. We looked for excuses, recognizing that if we had only (insert action here), we would be ok now.
  4. We were crying. We were sad and low, full of regret. We wished it didn’t come to this, wished we could have done a better job. We wished the facts didn’t say what they said.
  5. We accepted that death was inevitable. This wasn’t a matter of giving up, but rather choosing to be in a good relationship with our organization – and her membership –  for her last days, enabling us to retrieve all her goodness to share with others. We no longer needed to know why, no longer needed an explanation.

This is what transition feels like, when we move from one reality to a new reality. A typical first reaction is that we don’t want change so we deny the transition is needed or we get angry. These are natural human reactions my colleagues and I recognized in ourselves, and we knew would be experienced by the members of our organization.  This is exactly what happened after the tweet and the ‘diagnosis’ spread: demands for facts, new facts, better facts, precise facts; anger and fury and frustration; and even bargaining to find a way to keep her alive.

My sadness in this whole endeavour comes not in the death of the organization, because I accept that it is the right thing to do, but in our inability to tend and care for the people affected by the diagnosis. We did not have an opportunity to figure out how to do the ‘ending’ work with care. In an effort to make me feel better, a friend said to me, “the band-aid came off quick and at least the band-aid is off now.” My colleagues and I feel like someone swooped in an punched us in the face before pulling the band-aid off. Mostly, I feel bad that there was no opportunity to care for people, even to feed them the facts they were looking for. We had just reached the realization ourselves and it wasn’t as simple as, “the cancer has spread throughout your chest cavity and is inoperable.”  It’s like the doctor’s friend took on sharing the doctor’s diagnosis because it seemed like the patient shouldn’t have to wait a day or two, even though the doctor had a role to gather the evidence in a way that would be helpful for the patient. It was the doctor’s information to share, not the friend’s.

Second – trial by dragon

I feel a dragon in my midst.

The ultimate dragon is within you, it is your ego clamping you down.
Jospeph Campbell

The dragon isn’t my friend, but rather the feeling of betrayal, swooping down on me each day, breathing hot fires of sickness and disappointment on me. Searing tears from a wound deep down in my soul come forth, rocking me, demanding a deeper-than-usual inquiry between my ego-self and my Higher Self. A Higher Self that is not from a ‘high’ place, but a deep place. I need new language to describe my Higher Self, but I’m struggling to find it. My Deeper Soul-Self?

… it’s not about what the dragon looks like; it’s about what the dragon activates inside of us that makes it so difficult to face.
Sera Beak

The metaphor, or symbol, of the dragon has shown up a few places this week, calling me to look at what is difficult for me to face inside me, not in the outside world. The friend that betrayed my confidence is a metaphorical dragon. What does the betrayal activate?

The important thing to remember about dragons is that they guard our buried treasure. When a dragon appears, it means gold is right behind it… if we have the courage to stand our ground and fully meet it.
It is Meeting time…
Sera Beak

Here’s the gold I met behind the dragon: the truth is I don’t believe I am good enough. Deep down, my ego-self believes I deserve to be taken out at the knees. Deep down, my ego-self believes I deserve to have 200 colleagues continue to kick me while I’m down.

The true betrayal is that I have betrayed myself.

We’re our own dragons as well as our own heroes, and we have to rescue ourselves from ourselves.
Tom Robbins

The betrayal has nothing to do with whether I was right or wrong when it came to ending an organization. That was right. The betrayal was my lack of confidence in trusting the decision we made, and feeling shaky about that decision in the face of powerful forces that work hard to keep change from happening, that keep improvements and evolution at bay. It was a much deeper betrayal.

It was a test of me, revealing that my ego-self does not trust my Higher Self, my inner authority, or my Deeper Self, my Soul Authority.

That is the power of the status quo – it works deep inside of me. Even when I feel I am immune to it, I am not. It is deeply at work, tricking me into feeling weak, tricking me into thinking that transition is not what I want. All along, it was lulling me into indifference, denial, anger, bargaining and tears. Then undermining even my acceptance of Me.


The powerful force in the world that does not want change works on my ego as much as it works on others’ ego.

Third – receive fiery gifts 

In unwrapping the betrayals I am experiencing, I have so far received 10 fiery gifts from the dragon’s mouth.

What I now understand about the world around me:

  1. There are unconscious energies running the show. Huge forces are at work, at every scale, to keep us where we are. They are all around us and all within us, at times healthy and at other times unhealthy.
  2. And they take whatever action necessary. The systems in which we work are attached to the status quo and will work hard against anything new that will cause upheaval. The systems, and the people in it, will go to great lengths to maintain the status quo.
  3. We spend vast amounts of human energy on denial and anger. We deny transition, often without even thinking about it. We hunker down in anger and join in mob-like defiance of realizations we don’t want to acknowledge. We are quick to fuel the status quo, often unconsciously, saying things we regret later. A friend and colleague was saddened by the sharp words he spoke in the emotion of the situation: “you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
  4. The words ‘this isn’t personal’ are code for ‘this is personal.’ When angry, we often say and think that our attacks on others are not personal, that we do not mean to hurt others. The truth is that the speaker is hurting and the words allow the speaker to deny the hurt within himself or herself. It is personal, just not where s/he thought. Transition hurts.
  5. Possibility for the new is more nourishing than the anger and denial that fuels the status quo. There’s a tipping point where serving the status quo, or some hybrid of it, takes more energy than switching gears to fuel a fresh start. But the myth of stability and the status quo will tell us this is not so, fuelling us with denial and anger and a misplaced investment of our energy. There is a point in the transition from the old to the new where there is more energy for the new possibility. The trick is in noticing when this happens.
  6. The birth of a new system is impersonally personal. Even though our reactions to change are personal – it hurts – the changes themselves are not personal. Perhaps it is the impersonal nature of the world around us that hurts us. The Universe is not conspiring to personally attack you or me, but it is sending us experiences from which to learn. Maybe it is personal; just not how we think it is.

What I now understand about me in the world:

  1. I am capable of listening to, and hearing, a great deal of anger aimed at me. While not fun, I am capable of sitting through hours of what a colleague named as a “public stoning.” I recognize hate mail as an expression of anger and denial – and hurt.
  2. My ego-self is hurting, but not all of me. The parts of me not hurt are able to listen to my ego-self and hear her story. My Higher Self and my Deeper Soul-Self are able to see the bigger picture and support and witness the agony of my ego-self.
  3. I do not need to ‘fight’ to make my ego-self feel better. I do not need to hunker down into anger and denial of my own feelings and fight back. That makes it impossible for others to begin to hear themselves.
  4. The friend is not the ‘enemy’. I am just as capable as others of making decisions that hurt other people. My twitter friend is as human as I am. The trust is gone, but not the human I know and recognize as part of a powerful game bigger than the decision to share confidential information. If I put my personal energy in conflict with the friend, I give my energy to the forces that demand the status quo and suck the life out of anything new.

From a short distance of time, I see that the essential kernel of truth is out there – that the status quo of our organization is no longer possible. While sad we were unable to share this realization in a healthy way, I trust that this is how it needed to happen. An effort is underway to renew life support, and perhaps this long absent cry for life will embolden her spirit, or, better yet, fuel the fresh start that is waiting for our energy.

My fresh start is elsewhere.

This is my next discernment.

Fourth – the catastrophe of birth

These words of Joseph Campbell – the catastrophe of birth – help me see that what feels catastrophic is a flag for transition in me.  I am letting parts of me die off, and welcoming deeper, truer parts of me.

A calling may be postponed, avoided, intermittently missed. It may also posess you completely. Whatever; eventually it will out. It will make its claim. [It] will not go away.
James Hillman

I am engaging in extreme – but humane – self-inquiry, and I have a choice to make. Will I midwife myself into being more Me?

… there comes a point in your path where you need to fiercely embrace that which you are still in the process of becoming.
Sera Beak

There is a fiery Beth emerging. In dancing with dragons, she will shed her skin over and over again, renewing and regenerating, ever finding ways to live from and embody her Soul.

Every ending is a beginning.

The Ultimate ride for me isn’t about losing any part of my Self; rather, it’s about coming into conscious alignment with every part of my Self.
Sera Beak



A spring of cosmic carrots


I have to laugh – a fork was in the road on the street in front of my house, recently released with spring’s warm embrace. It is not my fork; it is a found fork, a little worse for wear. It symbolizes the cosmic carrots floating around me at the moment.
Fork in the road
Over the course of the winter, like my city planner friend Nola, I have been pondering my desire line – the path I want to be travelling in my work. In January, it was perfectly clear. My book is nearing completion and it is time to prepare for its release out into the world. For seven years, I have enjoyed a wonderful balance of time to write, and time for paid work with wonderful people, in the form of small contracts. This has been wonderfully nourishing and I long to merge what I have learned in writing with my work out in the world.
 I long for two things:
  1. to tangibly and practically put Nest City into action 
  2. to work with a team of great people
Of course, I have been putting into practice, and working with great people; I long to put these two things together for the long term, for larger contribution to the well-being of cities and citizens.
In response to these longings I extended an invitation to 13 local, wonderful people with whom I want to step out into the work world, to be a team of some sort. We quickly met to begin our dive into an evolutionary purpose I sense we serve for cities: to create the conditions for cities to serve citizens well, and for citizens to serve cities well. We to discern the work we are called to do for the city. We called it the carrot of potential.
And no sooner does this process begin and the Universe taps me on the shoulder to test my resolve. A cosmic carrot.
It came in the form of a phone call from a headhunter inviting me to apply for a job. I surprised myself and said yes to exploring the opportunity. I went for coffee with the bigwig to see if he and the organization were a fit for me, then had a first interview, and a second interview. I am now waiting for word.
And while I wait, another laugh as another cosmic carrot emerges. This time in the form of a tingling, an attraction to a big idea, to a way to serve my city and cities everywhere.
Invisible thresholds emerge to test me. Like the fork in the road, they are emerging as the snow melts. And because they emerge, my destination is changing too. I am emerging to a new destination. It may be a big job, or a big idea, or some combination of both. The discernment I have in front of me is to figure out which destination will move me in the direction I want to go. For now, I sit in the unknown, nourished by these cosmic carrots.
And yet another laugh. In this fertile ground of carrots volunteering themselves for my nourishment (including a fork to eat them with??), I find a post I wrote 2 years ago today, the spring equinox. As I made the transition from writing Part Two of Nest City, to Part Three, I noticed that I had no idea what I was going to write. I had no idea what would come next. The helpful tips I found for myself in Focus, learn, emerge, for life while emerging to new destinations, apply as well now on 2015’s first day of spring:
  1. We learn consciously and unconsciously, spurred on by persistent practical problems.
  2. We chaotically reorganize ourselves by exploring our in-tuition.
  3. We take a step back from the edge, as needed, in order to choose the right leap for the context.
  4. We are learning how to let a scary idea warm us up first, then explore the inner struggle, recognizing that each struggle is powering us up for something bigger and more challenging.
  5. The more we consciously explore the thresholds before us, and their nature within us, we will make wiser choices, to either go forward or turn away, as appropriate.
  6. It is in each of us to reach the places we wish to go.

The possibilities before us are known and unknown. The cosmic carrots, the thresholds, play an essential role as we chaotically reorganize ourselves to move in the direction we long to go.

What carrots are nourishing you? 



A change in perspective

retires one

for another

perhaps unknown

a journey of surprise

deliberate or not

either way it calls

for unguardedness

to allow

shadow to light

to allow

flow and movement

for which I can

(not) prepare



A poem caught while spending time with my community of practice last night.


Rewire the reptilian


In a month’s time I will be going on a vision quest. My intention is to recalibrate my reptilian being.

I wrote last week about citizen superpowers and two parts of our brains: the part that serves as our deeper, higher Self (the middle prefrontal cortex, what Shirzad Chabine calls the Empathic Circuitry (mirror neuron system, the insular cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex) and the right brain; and the  fight-or-flight parts of our brain (brain stem and limbic system). The former generates what I call our citizen superpowers, our passion to improve, while the latter is the source of Chabine’s ten saboteurs (see citizen superpowers).

The brain stem and limbic system is also known as our reptilian brain. It is in survival mode at all times, but in  my life, I do not need to be in survival mode at all times.  I have reliable shelter. I have a good food supply. Far more than my basic needs are met. Yet this old part of my brain tells me that there is never enough, that it will never last. I puts me on the defensive and the offensive. It feeds my behaviours that sabotage me and my ability be my best Me.

The reptilian me is focused on scarcity.


When it comes to food, I have engrained habits that are based in deprivation. I eat whatever is in front of me because it feels like it is my only chance. A few years ago I tried my first diet and it worked wonders. I lost 30 pounds, was physically active and felt super fit. I felt wonderful. I even learned some good habits in the process – I now crave vegetables and fruit.

Inevitably, I started to gain weight back because I lacked the willpower to deprive myself of the foods I want. And when I have access to the food I want, or when I find myself super hungry, I eat like I will not have an opportunity to eat for a couple days. After depriving myself, the reptilian part of my brain takes over when it has a chance. Depriving myself of food I like/want is a pattern of scarcity.

The reptilian me is focused on scarcity.


I can feel a shift underway.  I long to trust my body and its signals about what I need to eat and when. I want to fully appreciate what my body is and what it looks like. I want to shift to appreciate my body from  within, rather than external measures (weight, people’s comments, the mirror).  To pursue this exploration, I am embarking on an experience that will involve true deprivation: a fast.

In June, I will be heading out on a Wilderness Quest on a mountain in the Eastern Cascade mountains with the support of Ann Linnea, Christina Baldwin and Deborah Greene-Jacobi. It is a rite of passage that started when I chose to do this, though I can not better describe what I am moving from, or moving to. That will come. What I learn on this journey could be entirely different from what I imagine. I know I will ease myself into life on the mountain for a couple days, then head out alone, fasting, for two days, then circle up with my fellow questers to “digest” our learnings and prepare to re-enter the world.

My only expectation is time to explore and discover. And I may discover nothing right away.

There is a bigger ME that sees abundance.


My intention is to rewire my reptilian brain, to awaken my whole being to what real scarcity looks and feels like. My intention is to experience what the reptilian me sees, and bend with it to more fully see and appreciate – and embody – the abundance in life.

My quest is my abundant Self. 





Our cities need us

Nest City News Overall Small

When you follow your passion in your work to make the world a better place, you create the force that generates and regenerates our cities. You are what our cities need. We are what our cities need. A Habitat Manifesto explains why.

I have just published the latest edition of the Nest City News – A Habitat Manifesto. The special feature of this newsletter is a link to what has come of the first series of posts from the Nest City Blog. As its own publication now in draft form, A Habitat Manifesto explores our evolutionary impulse to build, organize and thrive in cities. I am inviting folks to review this document before formal publication.

Only subscribers have the first chance to explore A Habitat Manifesto and explicitly feed and nourish each other in our work for cities and citizens.

Leave your name and email address to the right to stay in touch.



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This post is part of Chapter 8 – The City Making Exchange. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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Focus, learn, emerge


Organizing for emergence means actively engaging in our individual and collective learning journeys, stopping to notice where we wish to go, and trusting that thresholds we face (and cross) along the way allow us to emerge in that direction. We reach not quite the destination in mind, but something that still suits us, something that somehow makes more sense.

I am concluding Part Two and moving on to Part Three at just the right time. Today is the Spring Equinox: the light of day is waxing and I am leaving behind the darkness I felt, and struggled with, three months ago. Yet that darkness was productive, for I explored the essence of Chapters 4-6, each with a focus on a facet of how we organize for emergence (journey, destination and emergence) and Chapter 7, their relationship with the city’s habitats – our nest.

Destination venn

Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey explores the notion that cities are meant to feel uneasy. In fact, they are itching for improvement. The tension we feel in our cities is an evolutionary driver. In itchy patterns, I reach these two conclusions:

  1. If we welcome and seek deeper knowing, we invite uneasiness.
  2. As we work to organize ourselves, in cities or at any scale, we must develop practices to explore uneasiness.

Our social habitat is key to the journey we face in cities, for it is where we see, acknowledge and respond to the our habitat: the development of cities – new work – is a survival skill. Explicitly acknowledging our learning journeys, as individuals and as cities, is a survival skill that allows us and our city habitats to evolve.  I conclude Chapter 4 with 10 practices for the uneasy city journey and the notion that cities are a platform for our never-ending learning journey.

In Chapter 5 – Destination Alive or Adrift, I discerned destination as some kind of improvement. At every turn, that is our work in cities, to improve something. And what we choose to improve always changes, so the very purpose of evolution is evolving. For cities particularly, this means that their purpose is both for our survival and improvement. Our work moves us in a direction, even if we can’t quite see it in the moment. As I explored nested, or scaled purposes, I found that the more immediate the purpose, the more specific the destination. The more ‘expansive’ the purpose, the destination becomes a direction: improvement.

A city’s destination is our evolving purposes, where each citizen is a building block for the larger, whole, city. As we pursue our improvements and purposes – our passions – our city enables us to do so. It does, however, require us each to ask: what is my intrinsic purpose, and how is that instrumental to the intrinsic value of the city? In other words – if we are the building blocks for our city, what sort of building blocks do we choose to be? What are we choosing to build together? What is our destination?

We know what we are building and we don’t know what we are building at the same time. I wrote this in destination is both alive and adrift:

Destination is simultaneously alive and adrift. It is most alive when we work from our passion, our inner drive to improve. When we catch glimpses of bigger destinations,for both self and the city, our direction, through short-term destinations, is discerned for fleeting moments. Between these fleeting moments, we fell adrift, which is to feel alive. 

Chapter 6 – Emerging Thresholds begins with the acknowledgement that we stand, at each moment, at the threshold of a new age, with a choice. Emergence is defined as order out of chaos, the new and novel understandings we reach as more complex systems form. At each transition there is a threshold, across which we see with fresh eyes. As I wrote, I found many helpful tips as we emerge to new destinations:

  1. We learn consciously and unconsciously, spurred on by persistent practical problems.
  2. We chaotically reorganize ourselves by exploring our in-tuition.
  3. We take a step back from the edge, as needed, in order to choose the right leap for the context.
  4. We are learning how to let a scary idea warm us up first, then explore the inner struggle, recognizing that each struggle is powering us up for something bigger and more challenging.
  5. The more we consciously explore the thresholds before us, and their nature within us, we will make wiser choices, to either go forward or turn away, as appropriate.
  6. It is in each of us to reach the places we wish to go.

Our exploration of thresholds allows us to emerge to new destinations, to see and reach new possibilities. Chapter 7 – (Un)known Possibility wraps up Part Two, noticing that we shape our physical habitat (neighbourhoods are up to us) and our social habitat (neighbourhood soccer fields), both of which, with practice, allow us to serve possibility in our lives.

The possibilities, known and unknown, emerge when:

  1. We look at our cities from a different perspective (stand on the city’s river).
  2. We follow what we are courageously smitten with step into the unknown.
  3. We grow antennae to look for and explore thresholds.
  4. We actively seek ways to find possibilities unknown to us.
  5. We chaotically reorganize to reach toward what we long for.

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As I was struggling with darkness at the Winter Equinox, I latched onto the words Focus, learn and choose. Since that time, as I continued to explore destination, journey and emergence in Chapters 4-6, I see that it is really the same thing. Here’s how I see Part Two – Organizing for Emergence now:

Focus learn and emerge nest 2.044

As I head into the Part Three, I realize that I don’t know what will be written. The writing to be done  is murky and unclear, but with focus, searching for ways to learn and exploration of emerging thresholds, it will come. A Nest City of (un)known possibility.

I continue to focus, learn and emerge.

My work continues to focus, learn and emerge.


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This post summarizes Part Two – Organizing for Emergence. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities, the book I am sharing here while I search for a publisher:

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