Finding Our Way Toward Conversation

I’ve been sitting by quite a few fires lately. There’s something enchanting to me about fire. Mesmerizing. It’s not really a pyro fascination. Just takes me into a very thoughtful state. Feels…, connecting. The picture above is from a fire a few nights ago that went late into the night. Embers and coals in the back yard chiminea that I have, just right to help with the evening chill.

Last night I sat by a fire earlier in the evening. It was light enough to read. The book in hand was one I’ve read before, yet kept on my shelf. Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, by a Utah writer and activist, Terry Tempest Williams. Her opening paragraphs from this 2001 book captured me again (just as they had before, which I remembered from my scribbled notes in the margin).

Home Work


It is a simple equation: place + people = politics. In the American West, the simplicity becomes complicated very quickly as abstractions of philosophy and rhetoric turn into ground scrimmages — whether it’s over cows grazing on public lands, water rights, nuclear waste dumps in the desert, the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, or the designation of wilderness. This territory is not neutral. The redrock desert and canyon country of southern Utah provokes powerful divisive opinions.


How are we to find our way toward conversation?


For me, the answer has always been through story. Story bypasses rhetoric and pierces the heart. Story offers a wash of images and emotion that returns us to our highest and deepest selves, where we can remember what it means to be human, living in place with our neighbors.

Ah…, “How are we to find our way toward conversation?” This gets to the heart of it, doesn’t it. How are we to remain in a kind of connection, even when feelings are hurt and identities are wounded? How are we to continue to turn to one another, rather than away? How are we to find our way?

Your conflicts might be different than mine or than that which Terry Tempest Williams names. The issues and passions may vary. Yet, I’m guessing, that there is common need to find our way to conversation. Story, even smatterings of story, open the doors. With self. With other. To know more of the inner. To know more of the outer.

I’m grateful for people like Terry Tempest Williams, for these thoughtful words, and for the ability to find the simple premise or practice — like finding our way to conversation.

I’m also grateful for fire. In a back yard. On a Sunday evening. Where I live. Slow burning into the night.

Pay Attention to Everything

(photo by KSL News)

I love the Zen phrase — “Everything is connected. Everything changes. Pay attention.” It guides me in my personal life. It guides me in work with groups. It guides me when I need to drive in a snow storm, which is what happened last night upon my return to Salt Lake City’s International Airport.

Truth be told, I kind of like the feeling of needing to pay attention to the whole system of things. I like it that it matters. And, truth be told, I kind of like the feeling of activating my Canada driving skills to carry me from the airport to my home, a 45 mile drive.

Fast forward — made it last night. All good. And to be clear, if I felt it needed, I would have stayed with a friend in Salt Lake City to wait out the storm until day light. I also feel that I should knock on wood — to continue to invoke providence and good luck in the circumstances in which there is no such thing as “control.”

Pay attention to everything — here’s a bit of what that looked like for me last night.

  • Wear my boots; not my shoes (which I’d packed with me knowing this storm was a likelihood).
  • Wear my coat; have my gloves and hat ready (vulnerability is great, but being without gloves is just stupid).
  • Check the weather app for forecasts at the time I land; yikes, it was 80-90% chance of snow (and visibility was very low, looking out my airplane window).
  • Notice how long it would have been snowing; did it just start or had it been going on for hours (new circumstance or old pattern).
  • In riding the “Economy Lot Shuttle” to get to my car, ask the driver who I am standing next to, what he knows about the roads (he was 60s ish man originally from Idaho, and spoke simply — “When you have trouble breathing, it’s cold. Same thing when it’s hot.” That wasn’t super helpful, but it was endearing. The snow was falling heavily as he drove. The cars in the parking lot had 4-5 inches of snow on them.
  • Check the current temperature. It is above or below freezing? It will make a difference on whether ice is forming on the roads or if we are just dealing with the snow.

Now I’m in my car. The wind is blowing slightly. Flakes of snow are large and remind me of Star Trek movies and what the stars look like moving at warp speed. It’s actually really beautiful, as is the quiet that only comes with snow.

Keep paying attention.

  • There remains slush on the road. That’s a good sign, as long as it doesn’t get to freezing soon.
  • Keep ample distance from others for extra room to do everything slowly. No sudden stops. No frivolous lane changes. When I say ample, I mean like 10-20 car lengths.
  • Watch others’ brake lights. If they brake, tap my own to learn from what I can’t see but what they may be seeing ahead of me.
  • Feel the road. Are my tires making good contact. (I do have newish winter tires for these purposes).
  • Watch extra for the highest elevation, “Point of the Mountain” where there is most often more snow.
  • Watch for vehicles pulled off to the side (do they need help, and, those might be extra tricky spots).
  • Listen to the radio report on road conditions; then turn it off so that I can hear the road more carefully.

And a few more things.

Pay attention — everything is connected.

I made it last night. Grateful. It was a trip of 20-40 miles per hour rather than 70-75.

Judy Brown wrote a poem that I often use, called “Fire,” in which she includes an invitation to learn about groups the way we learn about tending fires.

“When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.”

I feel something similar about learning about groups (and self) from what we learn about paying attention, exquisitely, to snowy road conditions.

When we are able to pay attention
to each other and to groups
in the same way
we have learned
to connect everything
when driving in a snow storm,
then we can come to see how
it is connection, and more nuanced connection,
that make wholeness possible.

Pay attention to everything. I hope to continue to learn to both give myself to this connected reality, and to surrender to it, skillfully, to the much greater unseen that requires us to be in connection, and attention, and change.




I loved the beginning last night, working with staff from the Ohio Organizing Collaborative. Twenty-five have gathered. They valued their time together. Their friendships. Their stories.

These are people involved on the frontlines of organizing people in social justice initiatives and reform. In churches. In incarceration policy. In young people on campuses. They are fierce. Yet kind. They are building capacity to insist on democracy for many that are underrepresented.

Our start included a fire ceremony, to create letting go so that the new could come. Biggest fire I’ve been part of in a long time, at Franklinton Center at Bricks. And some big letting go.

I’m glad to be with people to share the journey. I’m glad to contribute to the journey with Quanita Roberson.

What, How, Who

One of the most common reference points I hear in working with groups is the desire to give full and immediate attention to the “what.” This is the “doing” part. It’s the church that wants to create in two hours it’s next five year strategy. It’s the university that wants to grow its prominence. It’s the non-profit that wants to host a community awareness event. “What” is the implementation part. It’s so often perceived as the accomplishment part. It’s noble. It’s needed.

One of the most common interjections that I offer to the “what” conversation is the equally important focus of the “how.” It’s not just “what” we do, but “how” we do it that matters a bunch. People get the need to be smart. They even get, kind of, being smart together. But it’s less common to get the orientation that is “how” groups work together. This is process stuff, not just content. It’s leaning in to questions together. It’s seeking shared wisdom through listening and telling stories. It’s slowing down. It’s going deeper. It’s deliberate use of participative methodologies to create encounters of learning and connection. The “how” is for many, a revolutionary step.

With a few colleagues, lately we’ve been talking a bunch about not just the what and the how, but also the “who.” This is focus on the individuals in relation to the group. It’s a focus on the inner world, not just the outer. It’s maturing thought and emotions. This is the kind of language that tips into what some perceive as therapy and counseling. Fair enough. However, the “who” is mostly being honest enough to go another layer deeper into the sense-making that goes on within, that then shapes the what and the “how of how is going.” This has some neuroscience to it. It’s got a pile of self-awareness in it.

What. How. Who.

I recently enjoyed reading Larry Dressler’s book, Standing In The Fire. I think I met Larry once, briefly. He’s connected somewhat into the Art of Hosting body of work. His writing is thoughtful, invoking in this book, the metaphor of tending fires, as much on the inside as on the outside. It’s the clarity, calm, and courage part from his subtitle. Larry tells the story of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana, a raging blaze that was overtaking fire-fighters. Vast forests were consumed in that fire. People died in that fire. However, some people didn’t by taking an unusual chance. Burning a patch to lay down in, so that the forest fire, moving as fast as 30 miles per hour, would “jump” over the firefighters. It worked.

Larry invites a narrative that many of us are invoking — being smarter together. And being transformed by fires of contemporary life and leadership. I liked what he shared about “what” so often being associated with knowledge. Yes, knowledge matters, but it isn’t enough on it’s own. The “how” is associated with skills. I’d suggest that the practices and methods of participative leadership and engagement are really important skills. It matters to know circle. It matters to be able to host an open space format. The third area of “who” connects to self-awareness, which of course, is on-going. Without self awareness, the “how” and the “what” are too devoid of context. It makes a difference. It’s the ability to know one’s own relationship with grief in order to host others in their processing of grief. It’s being able to encourage a group to dwell in its fear, to find the medicine, because you are in your own process of relating to fear.

I love the awareness that comes with attention to “who.” It’s so much in the work that Kinde Nebeker and I convene around The Inner and Outer of Evolutionary Leadership. It’s so much in the Humaning retreat space that Quanita Roberson and I offer, QT, to get to more of the foundation layers. It’s so much in the work of circle and other participative forms that helps us dance the space between the interior and the exterior.

What. How. Who.
Knowledge. Skills. Self-Awareness.

It’s so much the conversation, expanded, that groups are needing, and I believe, looking for.