Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Retreating Thoughts

We had that retreat we were talking about last post. According to Tim Harris we were 8 Real Change vendors plus 8 other participants such as myself of the Real Change Organizing Project, plus Tim and our facilitator, exploring class, class identities (our own and others), and cross-class organizing. Tim discusses the serious need for this kind of work in building an effective movement. As usual my own participation alternated between the serious and the frivolous and passed through every point in between and some points on Mars.

Before the memories dissipate I want to record some moments of the retreat that were special to me, in a purely Wes-centric account that in no way violates anyone's confidentiality.

We were car-pooled by the middle-class among us from the Real Change office to Dumas Bay Centre and Knutzen Family Theatre, at the end of freak-all nowhere off the coast of Federal Way, in a land that never learned to spell "center" or "theater."

We quickly found our new home for the next 28 hours, Banquet Room 2, maximum occupancy 49, next to Banquet Room 1, maximum occupancy 49 (already occupied by a convention of quilters who brought their own sewing machines.)

We sat in a circle (on chairs, thank you St. Giles, patron saint of the lame) and briefly introduced ourselves, ate lunch, introduced ourselves some more, checked in to our rooms, and introduced ourselves some more. I think we read a poem by Sherman Alexie, which made us think. It made us think we were all, underneath our underwear, basically the same. Then some of us thought exactly the opposite, just to show we aren't going to be clones of Sherman Alexie. Alexie says he and his girlfriend share 99% of their genes. I said, to Anitra, viva la 1 per cent.

[Above: A portrait of 99% of me. Especially the hands. Note how the left-hand is waving so hard it's blurred. Part of the 1 per cent difference: He has lots and lots of money.]

When we were to check-in I learned the place has no elevators so I limped as fast as I could to the main desk to beat everyone else there so I could get a room on the first floor and not have to go up and down stairs.

The very next thing we did after we rejoined in Banquet Room 2 was march DOWNSTAIRS to a BASEMENT room to select two photographs, one representing ourselves as we think others see us, one as we see ourselves internally. Then we climbed back UPSTAIRS, in agonizing arthritic pain. But I'm not complaining.

The picture I selected to represent myself as others see me was a shot of a crusty old fossil. It was a fossil of a fish. The picture I thought best represented my internal self was one of Machu Picchu just like this one.

The thought was that my real self is wheelchair-inaccessible, and even if you got there, there'd be no one there who could explain it to you, because no one knows how or why it got there, or what purpose it serves.

The next thing I remember that our facilitator, I'll call him "Alan", did to us was an exercise called [Class] Stepping Stones. You did this by wasting index cards putting notes about turning points of your life that related to your Adventures in Class and Class Identity and Perceptions, or things like that, then trying to assemble 5 or 6 of those in a nice presentation on 11"x17" sheets of construction paper.

I made about 15 cards, threw 9 away, tried to arrange them on paper and gave up in favor of little crude graphic representations instead. Then, we broke up into groups of three and each three shared their histories of careening through the class landscape. This was pretty cool. It was my favorite part of the whole retreat, and I don't just mean my fifteen minutes. Alan was one of my three.

Somewhere in the midst of this we ate dinner and Alan saw how much cayenne pepper I put on all my food. When I told him it wasn't the ordinary 35,000 Scoville-rated cayenne pepper you get prepackaged, but the bulk purchasable 90,000 Unit stuff, he asked to try it. I said I wouldn't stop him but urged him to be careful. In seconds he was at the other end of the room looking for milk or other fire-quencher. That was fun.

There was a social time. I didn't last long for that because I'm old and need to sleep 20 hours a day, and had already been up twice as long as normal. But before I turned in I got out some ginseng & ginger flavored rice wine I'd brought from home, heated it in a microwave and wound down with some of the rest of the gang.

One of the great things about drinking home-made rice wine is, soon as anyone smells it, they allow that you shouldn't share.

The rooms were all small rooms with single beds so Anitra and I had to sleep in separate rooms across from each other, which felt weird. On the other hand, it was very quiet, initially, what with the retreat center being located on the outer boundary of space. I set the alarm for 6:15 AM because our caterer had said there would be coffee ready at 6:30. I fell asleep quickly.

I woke up at 3:30 AM to loud snoring from the next room. Later, another participant who was two rooms away told me she heard loud snores, too. We compared notes and triangulated, and figured out it came from the room between us. That room was inhabited by one of our vendors. In the future I am going to ask that he get a room at the end of a hall, and no one have to stay in neighboring rooms, or we get to hog-tie him and duct-tape him to a wall at night so he can't sleep on his back.

Waking up at 3:30 AM had an up-side though. I was able to reflect on the fact that I had set the alarm for 6:15. Here I had only spent some 10 hours at a retreat with a bunch of other people, and all because of that I was all set to wake myself up a God-o-clock 6 fucking 15 in the A fucking M.

Only 10 hours at this retreat and I was already fucked up. This group-think stuff really works.

So I reset the alarm for 7:15 thinking that was plenty early enough for breakfast. Naturally, Anitra was banging on my door before that, wondering why I wasn't up yet. I expressed my great fucking joy that she would show such fucking concern for me in my hour of need to get the fuck up for a hot beverage, when I still had hooch to heat if I was desperate. Then we laughed. Ha, ha. We related all this to the group and gave Alan permission to use my sentiments expressed in the preceding paragraph as an endorsement.

We got breakfast. More cayenne pepper flowed. Then we explored class, using clumping. We clumped at different ends of the room according to different measures of class.

This led to the most frustrating experience I had at the retreat. Part of the goal of clumping was to figure out who came from the poor or working classes, and who from the middle and owner classes. I couldn't do it. I kept finding myself on the line of different measures. I ended up joining with the middle class just because that was the name of the state of my indecision at the moment of the final cut. Had the final cut been delayed just two minutes I would have landed in the working class group.

The two groups, the poor & working class group and the middle & owner class group, collected at opposite ends of the room and explored themselves. In a publicly appropriate way. Then the groups faced each other and revealed the results of our explorations. For instance we middle classers said how much we value education. Then each group got to list 5 or 6 questions we'd like the other group to answer. My fave was when the lower classes asked us upper classes if in all our efforts to "help" the poor, did we ever think the poor might resent any of the "help"? We had a long session where we all took turns answering the questions for our respective groups. Not being sure which group I was really supposed to be in made this awkward.

Finally we had a talk about defining leadership. As part of this we split into pairs and shared our stories of times we acted as leaders in our pasts. I told my partner about my experience trying to achieve peace on Fort Devens between the Anglos and the Puerto Ricans, and getting beat up, and my experience as a one of the leaders of the StreetLife Art Gallery. The two experiences convinced me of the need to always seek consensus and to work at making sure that the people working with you share your understanding of the undertaking. Don't lead people to negotiate peace if they think negotiating peace means beating up anyone who negotiates wrong, for example.

We finished by taking turns saying how we each would commit to be leaders of RCOP, and what goals we would take up. I committed to hanging in, "keeping in touch" as I put it. I spoke of my commitment to being humble, by admitting that I want to learn humility, but I am incapable.

All in all, the retreat was fantastic, and I am now a convert to this kind of shit, and will prove my commitment to it by coming to every other retreat we put together in the future. I got religion, baby.

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