Joys and Challenges: A Dancing Rabbit Update

Trainer Tom (left) speaks passionately to Ted and Tereza about improving connection using "Matrix" methods during a Retreat break. Photo by Dennis.

Trainer Tom (left) speaks passionately to Ted and Tereza about improving connection using “Matrix” methods during a Retreat break. Photo by Dennis.

Hello from a swiftly chilling Dancing Rabbit!

Tereza here, with an update in the midst of retreat— as of this writing we have two and a half days to go. Weather-wise we’ve had a number of pleasant sunny days, but now the forecast says it won’t get above freezing again until the end of the week. As someone who dislikes the cold, I’m putting my usual happy spin on things (ha!) by feeling more ready to embrace days spent sitting in circle in toasty warm rooms, talking with my friends and neighbors.

But first, the biggest news in my personal arena: after years of study and practice, dear friend and kitchen-mate Sara passed her exam and is now a CPM, a certified public midwife! Just kidding, she’s a Certified Professional Midwife. (I always forget what the P stands for, and my brain fills in from CPA – oops!) It’s been a long journey and I’m so proud of her for this accomplishment! Now we have two CPMs on farm, so if you or someone you know in the local area is in the market for such services, be sure to check out their website for more information.

Other big news is that a new family, the Gils, arrived. Some of us have been following their journey on Facebook, and an adventure it was! We welcome them to Dancing Rabbit!

Pretty much everything else is retreat. Ah… retreat. Loved by many, dreaded by some, retreat is that stretch of time we take each year to dig into issues, get updated on what’s been going on in the community, and connect with each other in ways that seem less easy to manifest in the busier, more outward-focused times of the year.

So far we’ve had two days of plenary (full-group) meetings and two days of Matrix group work, and we have three full days of Open Space in process now. We generally begin the plenary sessions with a round of deep check ins, when those who want to participate share with the community about what’s up for them. It might be about the past year (joys and challenges are common themes), plans for the upcoming year, or even how they’re feeling right then. I find it a great way to feel connected and aware, ready to head into the rest of retreat.

We also had a number of sessions about the village/nonprofit dynamic. In recent years the nonprofit arm of the project (formerly called Dancing Rabbit, Inc, but now known as the Center for Sustainable and Cooperative Culture at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage) has become more professional (ooo, there’s that word again!), with more programs and paid staff, including an executive director. Much about this new reality has been worked out and formalized. But as with so many experiments, no matter how much you figure out ahead of time, there’s still plenty of tweaking to do.

So we’ve found some areas of confusion, lack of clarity, or tension. Some of the issues and questions that have surfaced include what does each entity (village and nonprofit) gain from their relationship? What does each sacrifice? Are we OK with the answers to those questions? What are the current roles and responsibilities of a CSCC member? How best can CSCC provide villagers with the information they want about what’s happening with the nonprofit? How can villagers support and/or help direct the work of the nonprofit, especially if they aren’t on paid staff? How can CSCC best support the Village?

All in all, much fertile ground for discussion. Of course we didn’t figure it all out in a few sessions, and I doubt we’ll be finishing this topic anytime soon, as there’s always more to understand and figure out in our complex reality.

Also during plenary time we had sessions on village strategic planning and long-time crowd favorite committee reports! If you don’t think that last sounds like a boatload of fun, you’ve clearly never been at one of our retreats… This is where committee folks report to the whole village on what kind of shenanigans they got up to in the year that was.

EcoProgress had a low-tech “slide”show, where each slide was a piece of recycled cardboard with hand drawn graphs and pictures showing what they’d done. The best part was how Ben presented it. If you are a regular reader you can probably imagine how much laughter happened during this bit. (Hint: A lot.)

Other committees used more traditional digital pictures, graphs, charts, and numbers, giving us the highlights of a year of new residents and members, outreach presentations, land use policy, visitor sessions, and so on.

After a day off, we then moved on to Matrix training and group dialogue. Last year we had a Matrix Leadership Institute training and many Rabbits found the dialogue process very connecting and helpful, and wanted both more training in the process, as well as a chance to use it on a live issue with trainers to guide us. Tom and Ann came to offer both.

An essential part of Matrix group dialogue is called “ground of health”. I admit to not caring much for the name, but I’ve come to see even more clearly how crucial it is for healthy functioning of a group. The basic idea behind ground of health is to find positive or enlivening connections with others and to nurture those connections. It’s common sense, really: if I have a connection with someone that feels good, then when a disagreement arises, or they do something I don’t like, it’s way easier to deal with the challenging thing than if I don’t feel connected to them. Focusing on the creation and maintenance of connection between all parties in a group leads to working with conflict in a very different way.

A second important part of Matrix group process involves seeing difference as a gift. Instead of judging an area of disagreement as bad, you can choose instead to be curious about why someone holds a different perspective, and how it might help you be more creative in resolving the disagreement.

Seeing difference as a gift, as something very precious, is a resource that the group can rely on to make better decisions. This is (for me at least) a massive perspective shift, but from the glimpses of it I’ve received in these two trainings, I do believe they’ve got something there. When I can see the (in my judgement) annoying thing someone else is doing as a completely reasonable and useful response to reality the way they experience it, I can reduce or eliminate my irritation, begin to see the value in their perspective, and find more creative ways of approaching conflict that work better for everyone involved.

These Matrix practices, while simple on the surface, are really fairly radical (and nothing the mainstream culture does at all, so far as I can tell) and have the potential to transform the way we live with one another. It is my certain belief that cooperation is one of the few things that can save us from ourselves. And cooperation can be hard. Really really hard sometimes. The culture most of us come from doesn’t teach us how to live and work and play together very well— mostly it trains us to be competitive, selfish, and greedy. So anything we can do to work on living together in a better way is a step in the right direction, but it’s not easy.

During this retreat there’s been a great deal of laughter and connection, but there have also been plenty of raised voices, anger, sadness and tears. Trying to stay in connection, and to understand one another when it gets hard, when we all come from a culture that teaches us that our way is the right way, and everyone else is crazy, bad or wrong, can be amazingly difficult. Sometimes I fear I’ll never get better at this “being a decent human” stuff. What helps? Having hope.

And what gives me hope? Today I can say the children do. When the Gil family arrived, the moment their vehicle pulled up the Rabbit kids were there, welcoming the two new children into their midst. The pack took off, and you couldn’t tell which of them had been born and raised at Dancing Rabbit, and which had just arrived. But they work their conflicts very differently, these young ones we have raised to be different.

I often find myself asking whether it’s really worth it, living so differently for so long. And I admit to sometimes feeling sick of it all. Maybe I just want a little apartment in a big city where nobody knows me and I don’t have to deal with anybody else’s…, er, stuff. But then I wouldn’t get to spend time with these kids, who I get hugs from and offer perspective to and learn from. And I wouldn’t have all these people who have known me for so many years, and still somehow accept and love me even when I mess up (which happens a lot). And I don’t blame myself (much). I wasn’t raised for this new culture either, but I’m trying to learn, trying to change, and most of all trying to model it for others, especially the kids. So that they get to live in a world in which difference is a gift, in which connection and care of each other is a given.

That is what I can do. And for now, today, that has to be enough, because it’s time for me to head back into retreat. May you all stay warm and well, readers!

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Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is an intentional community and nonprofit outside Rutledge, in northeast Missouri, focused on demonstrating sustainable living possibilities. Find out more about us by visiting our website, reading our blog, or emailing us.