Practice (a Verb)

On Tuesday, I started editing the facilitation guide again, with the intention of refining and articulating my language now that I’m a year more practiced in this work. I wrote:

“Remind yourself that facilitation is a practice. A practice is the repeated exercise of an activity, skill, or habit to obtain proficiency; practicing, the verb of it. There is no other way to become a facilitator than to practice facilitation in a space with children. Our intention for this guide is to provide the theoretical and practical framework which structure our own practices so you can orient yourself in the work.”

And then I thought “Huh. I wrote it, and it feels true. When did that realization happen?” Frankly, I wasn’t always so hot on the verb “practice”. In fact, as a kid I had a really fraught relationship with it because I primarily used it to describe practicing my instruments (I grew up in a family of musicians and played piano and flute from a young age), which felt more like homework than a joyful standalone activity. But over the last few months I’ve realized that a necessary part of my growth as a facilitator has been shifting this relationship; one doesn’t get trained in ALFing and then poof! You’re done! There is no way to prepare a human for every imaginable thing that will come up in the course of a day with self-directed learners; one can have all the theoretical knowledge and still be taken by surprise when the conversation takes an unexpected turn and suddenly you’re talking about the nature of evil on the 7 train in Queens, or a child comes up to you, hands you a tooth, and walks away, or you walk by the water fountain where a kid is gulping water and sobbing because, it turns out, she ate a whole habanero pepper. (These are all real things that have really happened to me in the last almost-two-years of my practice. Only one of them happened this week…)

Facilitation can sometimes feel like traversing the parts of old maps labeled “Here Be Dragons”: you’re beyond the part of the world where you can expect clear mile markers, and you’re pretty sure that there aren’t actual dragons out here in the unknown, but you’re drawing the map as you encounter things and you can’t rule it out until you’ve explored it all. And if you do encounter dragons, you’ll figure it out. You recognize that you’re adaptable; you’ve found you can hold boundaries with your anxiety about the unknown. You’re armed with the tools of your trade. And then once you’ve practiced what to do when you encounter a dragon, the next won’t be so scary.

Outside the daily facilitation practice I do here at ALC-NYC, I’ve also developed personal practices that have been extremely helpful in supporting me through this work: I [bullet] journal, I keep a personal kanban and make mosaics, and I do work with an oracle deck. An oracle deck is a deck of cards (like a Tarot deck, which I sometimes use, though my preferred deck right now is the beautiful Animal Spirit deck by Kim Krans) with a spiritual aspect; they’re a powerful tool for focusing your energy and for self-reflection. For a long time, my work with my deck was private: every night before I went to bed, I would shuffle the deck and concentrate myself, thinking about my day or trying to release it, and pull two cards, which I would then draw and write about. It started, at first, as an aspiration to keep a journal and to find a (sorely necessary) private space to connect with my introvert inner self, but as I filled up one notebook, then another, and another, I saw the ways in which I was learning to take up more space, to take more risks, to be reflective not just on what I did, but how it felt, how I wanted it to feel. I still do that, and I’m still refining that private practice, will be for a long time (until it doesn’t serve me anymore…). But recently I’ve leveled up: I now pull one card in the morning and photograph it and put it on instagram! It feels a bit scary to make public what has been, until now, a deeply personal practice; I’m practicing sharing my self with the world (on this blog, in the art I’m making, and now this…) and finding that, while it is intimidating at first, the connections I’ve deepened by putting myself out there have been well worth getting over my fear.

There are all these ads on the subway recently that say “life happens while you’re waiting.” For a long time, I was waiting for things to be perfect before I shared them with the world; facilitation has pushed me out of perfectionism into practice in ways that have been deeply uncomfortable and profoundly transformative. Turns out, I like it here. Turns out, I’m much more free. Turns out the world doesn’t care if something is perfect; it would rather be a part of my practice.

Here are last weekends’ cards:

(I usually make boomerang gifs and wordpress is giving me a hard time about posting them here. Follow me on Instagram if you want to see them daily!)

This Week: Fruit Appreciation, Returning to “Normalcy,” and Chavela <3

First of all, I ate a mango today that was absolutely perfect. Can we all just take a moment of silence and appreciate that mangos exist?

Thank you.

This week was fast and slow, strange and homey, quiet and raucous all at once. Ryan, Chuck and a bunch of the kids were visiting Mosaic in Charlotte (actually, they’re probably back any minute…) and as a result the days still haven’t fallen back into their usual routine (as usual as a routine can get, at a place where everything is different all the time…) since it was interrupted by my visit to Australia (which you can read about here, here, and here…).

On Monday and Tuesday we Mega-Spawned in the office – it was such a surreal feeling to have the whole school in one room. Abby reminded me that there was a time where this was a regular occurrence but knowing that and doing it are two totally different things. Wednesday, we opted to split into two different Spawns because Mega-Spawn was taking too long – and I’m grateful for the reminder that we’re so practiced at speedy Spawns that a 15 minute meeting feels too long. It was fun having Saylor, Timo, Joaquin, Luca, Siena, and Serena join me and the Library Spawn crew. Also, routine human that I am, it was kind of a relief to be back in the Library, which is the only room I’ve ever Spawned in and also happens to be my favorite room in the school (maybe because I rearranged it just the way I like it and decided which books go in here??????). Thursday I was supposed to take a trip to The Cliffs to go bouldering, but since just Savannah and I wanted to go, we opted not to take a two-person trip. Instead, Abby and I spent a lot of the day re-arranging the back room so that the cooking space would be easier to use (e.g. running extension cords so we can run the microwave and the hot plate at the same time without blowing a fuse…) and in the hopes that it wouldn’t attract so much clutter. I’m hopeful it will help, but also aware that the space needs a good, deep “get-rid-of-it” in order to make space for people’s stuff and cut down on our clutter-culture. Today, we had the shortest-ever Check-in and Change-up, then I read Ancillary Mercy for an hour with Timo and Ash. After that I wrestled with some technology for a bit trying to screen a movie and ultimately wasn’t successful; I decided to walk away when I realized I was grumping much harder than was necessary due to dehydration and low blood sugar. I felt much better after tending my body, and then decided that I would tackle the tech again next week, when Ryan was back, since he knows the most about the project. I spent a bunch of the afternoon cutting out photos of macaws and then sharing a mango with some humans in the back room – I’m certainly missing the tropical beauty of Australia after the freezing-New-York-spring week we’ve had. All in all, a good week but I’m looking forward to everyone returning next week and swapping out the season-of-ALF-travel Aries fire energy for some everyone’s-home-let’s-settle-into-our-spring-routine Taurus earth energy (the sun moves from Aries to Taurus tonight at 10:13 PM EDT).

Finally, last night, I saw a documentary about Chavela Vargas and I want to end this blog post with a moment of appreciation for this unbelievably talented performer and queer icon. She was a Mexican ranchera singer who wouldn’t let anyone tell her what to do or how to live her life: she wore pants in her performances in the 1940s. She sang music written for men; she didn’t change the pronouns. She was a shaman. She loved Frida Kahlo. At one point, she disappeared from the public eye and reappeared 12 years later; she revived her career at 71 when she went to Europe for the first time! The documentary, called simply Chavela, was brilliantly put together and Chavela herself is the inspiration I didn’t know I was looking for. Some pics:

<3

Mel

III. Reflection: Narrative Uncertainty, Consent, and Gratitudes

I’ve come now to the point in my narrative where I’m unsure. So much happened after the journey and the landing – a whole week and a half’s worth of relationship building and conversations about boundaries and realizing that I had reservoirs of knowledge and strength that were invisible until I called on them and found them there, deep and steady, within me. Every morning the kookaburras woke me up, under the gauzy mosquito net in the round womb of the yurt, and it was a new adventure. Every day I learned more about my self and others, our work and our play. Every night I went to bed exhausted but satisfied, feeling all the ways I’d stretched and grown in the sunshine.

I’m not unsure about my self, or my experiences. But I am unsure that I feel comfortable writing a day-by-day description of the rest of my trip here, on a public blog, because I am not a human alone; my experience was interpersonal and this story is not just mine to tell. I’m unsure who will read this; I’m unsure if I have everyone’s consent to share their stories with the wild, wild west of the internet. And, because I spent a large part of my time in Australia talking about how discomfort is an indication that you’ve encountered a boundary, I’m going to respect mine and not write about it. Surprise!

So instead of writing the last of this narrative, I’ll instead share with you a few realizations and gratitudes from my trip – not all new, but newly strengthened.

ALFing is deeply personal work.
Facilitation is showing up, as the being that you are, and holding space with your superpowers. Mine include deep listening, empathy, the ability to intuit whole structures from discrete parts, and a faculty with language that is playful, flexible and meaning-full.
I am grateful for the ways my superpowers support me in the (inter)personal work that I do.
I’m grateful for work that plays to my superpowers.
I’m unspeakably, inexpressibly grateful that I was able to fly around the world and be held and hold a community that started as strangers and became something much more dear to me than that.
I’m grateful to everyone who fed me, and made sure I had a place to sleep, and made wifi hotspots for me, and drove me to the places I wanted to go, and showed me the out-of-the way beautiful places I wouldn’t even know to ask about, and shared their hopes and fears and vulnerabilities and experiences with me.
I’m grateful to be reminded that it’s okay to ask for what I need.
I’m grateful for the reminder that I can get the things that I need, if only I ask for them.
I’m grateful for the ocean.
I’m grateful for trees.
I’m grateful for sunrises and sunsets.
I’m grateful for mountains.
I’m grateful for bats.
I’m grateful for communities that take indigenous practices seriously.
I’m grateful to my past selves for doing the deschooling work of (re)learning that my boundaries are valid, subjective, and absolute, that setting and holding boundaries is ongoing and vital, that boundaries are the thing that make freedom feel safe and possible.
I’m grateful to Tom and Bex particularly, and their children.
I’m grateful for my body.
I’m grateful for dancing.
I’m grateful for kookaburras.
And I’m grateful for the excuse to take all these photos…

here for the passion-fruit-from-the-yard-and-muddy-feet vibes ✨✅🌺

A post shared by Mel Compo (@mel_icorn) on

They're braver tree climbers than I am…🌳🌳🌳

A post shared by Mel Compo (@mel_icorn) on

Edge of the world // leo moon 🌊🌔

A post shared by Mel Compo (@mel_icorn) on

donkeys r pals 🐴💚

A post shared by Mel Compo (@mel_icorn) on

🌊☀️🌊have I mentioned that it's idyllic here? 🌊☀️🌊

A post shared by Mel Compo (@mel_icorn) on

That’s all the travel missives for now! Looking forward to the summer and the opportunity to work with facilitators again (and wellspring of generative creativity I’m finding there…).

<3 Mel

II. Arrival: Trying to Make Art Out of Admiration

I arrived in Australia jet lagged with time-travel and revelation; I could hold boundaries with my anxious! Though my journey had already been momentous the work had not yet begun. Tom and I got in the car (the driver on the wrong side…) and drove out of Brisbane (and the time changed, yet again…) and proceeded to get thoroughly lost. I had surrendered to the journey, though, and so I trusted Tom would get us to the Garden and get me filled in on what to expect there. He did his best but, nonetheless, the culture shock was intense.

The final stretch of our journey was over a mountain, on a winding road, past the waving of verdant ferns and trunk upon trunk of strange, beautiful, tropical trees. I wanted to ask Tom what every thing was called – those violet flowers, that grey-trunked sapling – but their names slipped through my saturated brain. Instead, I held my questions and just marveled at the greenery, the lushness all around. Finally, we arrived.

“Take off your shoes!” Tom encouraged. “It’s a bog so they’ll just get muddy anyway.”

It was, in fact, a bog; each step I took across the sodden ground became a puddle, each footprint a small muddy lake. The grass was intensely verdant, thriving, and around us were rolling fields framed by green mountains; open blue sky and the long fingers of thriving trees reaching up, photosynthesizing. Gingerly, unused to my bare feet after a seemingly-endless New York winter, I followed him across the yard to investigate the yurt where I would be staying, meet the donkeys and the chickens. I felt like Dorothy; I certainly wasn’t in East Harlem anymore!

 

Tom picked up a passionfruit from the yard and handed it to me; I took it, dumbfounded, and he showed me how to break it open to get at its sweet, crunchy, pulpy interior. I had never held an actual passionfruit before. Until that moment I had suspected that they were merely a made-up flavor that beverage companies invented to sell a tropical flavoring. Sticky-mouthed, I was pleased to be wrong.

At the house, we assembled lunch from an array of farmer’s market goodness and I had my first slice of Tom’s heavenly gluten-free bread (the best I’ve ever tasted). Bex and the children arrived home after we’d eaten; at ages 6 and 3, they are younger than the humans I’m used to working with, but delightful nonetheless. I explained to Bex and Tom that I was trying to stay up until night to try and battle my jet lag; they suggested we go to the beach. Eager to submerge myself, I agreed and we all piled into the van and rode to the ocean.

Getting in the ocean always feels like a sacred experience; even when I am at the dirty beach at Coney Island (which is, in fact, next to a wastewater treatment plant…) I like to rush in alone, to have a minute to reconnect and say hello to the surging water. The beach at Wollumbum couldn’t be more different than Coney Island. It’s a cove – soft, pale sand and smooth tumbled stones, patrolled by bush turkeys – and the late afternoon light fell onto the pink and turquoise foam in bands of shining unreality. I was so jet-lagged, so culture-shocked, so tired in my body and boggled in my mind, I couldn’t even take a photo, couldn’t have recorded that beauty if I had tried. Even now, not even three weeks later, I’m grasping at the memory of it and I find I’ve got only the awe to hold onto. Even if I could go there now, stand on that beach at the same time of day, I could never recapture that moment.

There is lots of beauty here, in New York. The sunset behind the skyline, the view from the Q train as it crosses from one island to the other and you can see down the East River, past the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge and the towers clustered on the southern tip of Manhattan, to Governors’ island and the Statue of Liberty, distant, green, and dignified, presiding over the harbor. The parks – their rolling, manicured hills and plants and the people who lounge in them, a kaleidoscope of human faces. The art, everywhere; the treasures in museums and on street corners, graffitied onto buildings under the shadow of the elevated trains. It’s a different kind of beauty, and it’s all mashed up with the ugliness that we make as the inevitable by-product of living all close together, in a place that’s cold, cold, cold half of every year. It’s hard to see it when you’ve spent too long without getting out, when your eyes get cynical. I can see it now, because I’ve gone away and come back, but that first afternoon in Mullum I felt so saturated by the natural beauty I felt soft and pink and naive. I felt as though I’d been born.

That night, after dinner, the bats streamed overhead, hundreds of them, in the cool, dusky blue of twilight. Quiet, peaceful, their colony went out in search of food, harming no one, following the sight of the sound of their voices across the falling dark. And when the night came, I saw the Milky Way for the first time.

I. Flight: Holding Boundaries with My Self

I’m not great with uncertainty. I’m a Virgo. It’s not my fault. (Maybe it is, but we can psychoanalyze me later…) What’s relevant to this story is that I’m an earth-being who likes certitude and routine; that I am learning to tell the difference between when that’s powerful and when it’s hindering me; and that when I said “yes, I want to go to Australia,” and booked the tickets, I didn’t realize I was leaving on the first day of Mercury retrograde.

One of the defining characteristics of Mercury retrograde is that travel and technology get seriously wonky. Things that should be running smoothly don’t, despite our best efforts. A lot of the astrologers I follow frame it as the cosmos forcing you to slow down, teaching you the lessons you need to learn by going over the lessons you thought you’d learned already. The hardest part of my deschooling process has been getting comfortable living in uncertainty; I thought I had mastered dealing with my uncertainty, learned to live in it. And it’s true, in the past year-and-a-half I’ve gotten a lot better at it, and felt a lot better in the process. But when, on the morning of my flight, I woke up and saw it was really, truly snowing, the knot in my chest, the familiar tight, panicky feeling, told me otherwise.

We weren’t scheduled to take off until 11 PM, so I had the whole day to get really worked up in my anxious. I tried my best not to; I went to acupuncture, packed my bags, attempted to check in (and couldn’t, which didn’t help). I kept checking my flight – while the snow just kept piling on and flight after flight was cancelled out of JFK, mine remained “on time.” My mom, my acupuncturist, my friends all warned me it would probably be cancelled. But, improbably, when was time to head out, those little green letters hadn’t changed: “on time.”

I got to JFK and had to get in a massive line to check in – when I got to the front of the line, my generous buffer time had disappeared. Turns out the reason I couldn’t check in was a visa issue. I was flying to Australia via Abu Dhabi, where I had a short layover before my second flight, but I couldn’t get on either plane without my visa clearing Australian customs online. A frenetic man in red glasses behind the counter helped me (reapplying for the visa, waiting 15 minutes, realizing it hadn’t gone through, reapplying again, waiting again, panic mounting but trying to stay calm as the line dispersed through security and I watched my buffer time tick down and….) and finally, I was checked in. I had no bags to check, just my backpack and a small carry-on with my notebooks, so I dashed off to security and made it on board just in time.

So there I am, sitting on the most massive plane I’ve ever been on in my entire life, strapped into a window seat with 300 other people all anxious to get away from the raging first-day-of-New-York-spring storm, while the flight attendants fluttered about in pre-flight prep. The door is closed. I’m strapped in, my neighbors are strapped in. What’s happening, what’s happening? My mind is racing. Then, the captain gets on the intercom.

“Well,” he says, “we’re all loaded up and ready to go. We’re just going to wait for it to stop snowing a bit.”

My heart is thumping. I look out the window. It’s snowing so hard I can’t even see the plane next to us.

And that’s when I realized: I have no power over any of this. I can’t control the weather, or how long it’ll take to shift. I can’t decide when it’s safe for us to take off. I’m about to fly around the whole world, further than I’ve ever been, to go to a place I’ve never seen, to meet people I’ve never met, and do work to support them in some way that I don’t know yet. I said yes, and now I’m here. I don’t know if I’ll make my connection and I don’t know what will happen if I miss it. There’s only one choice I have in this moment: I can panic, or I can choose not to.

I chose not to panic.

We sat on the runway for 2 hours, which meant that by the time the plane took off, I already knew I would miss my connection. I held my panic in check with distraction, and sleep, and focus on my breathing. None of the flight attendants could tell me anything about what would happen when we landed, just attempt to reassure me that I would get to my destination.

When I landed in Abu Dhabi, got in a shuttle and drove across the strange, sleeping desert city and stay in a luxury hotel, courtesy of my airline. And on the way back to the airport the next morning, I got to see the sun rise over the desert – red in the sky like a bloody yolk, like a burnished ruby – and as we flew over the country I saw endless undulating desert, then rocky, fractal mountains, and then the blue sea. I had an empty seat next to me on the flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney. I wrote and drew and reveled in the liminal space of the journey. I traveled through, traveled outside of time. I landed in Sydney, got on a final plane to Brisbane. And when I got off the plane in Brisbane, there was, in a sun hat and ALC shirt and no shoes, a human grinning at me.

“You must be Tom,” I said.

“I am! Welcome!” he said, and we hugged. I had arrived.

On Boundaries, Travel, and Sharing Facilitation Practice

I figured out who this blog is for! WHAT A TIME!

It’s interesting (and clear to me, reading back through it) how my lack of intention in audience has left my posts feeling disconnected and meandering – some are clearly written for the children I work with, some are appeals to parents, some are unspecified rants, some a messy combination of all of those. In the last edition of this blog, I wondered aloud who this writing is for, and asked the wide, wide internet to tell me. And I heard back! (Truly, I wasn’t expecting it.) Nicole and Grace, from Wildwood ALC in NC, told me that they’re not only reading this blog but that they want to read more!

It’s been nearly a month since that post. It’s been a long month, a strange one; Mercury went into retrograde and I traveled through time and space around the world to meet a wonderful, magical group of strangers who are doing this work in Mullimbimby, Australia (a place that couldn’t be more different than East Harlem, NYC!). We talked about boundaries and how the proper verb for facilitation is practice; I found that I’m much more confident and experienced than I knew and they found (I hope) some measure of stability that comes from talking to other people who do this (unusual) work, who can say “don’t worry, you’ll be talking about cleanup and keeping agreements ad infinitum because that’s what we do in ALC communities!” I felt a deep connection to those facilitators (<3 shoutout to Bex, Tom, Bia, Talia, Christopher, Shell, and Lynn!) and to my own identity as a facilitator. As I was leaving, and we were having the keeping-in-touch-conversation, someone asked if I have a blog. Bing bing bing!

Then, finally, last night, I got on the regularly scheduled Monday night call and chatted with Amber, of Rivers and Roads ALC in OK – it was just the two of us and we talked a bit about what’s present for us in our facilitation, our travels, our history, and it felt so good! We talked more about boundaries – a conversation that’s been echoing around more than just the facilitation parts of my life but that is vital to this practice, this work. Turns out, I love talking about boundaries (yes, I see my Virgo self…)! I want to do it more! And so do other facilitators!

In fact, there are lots of conversations I want to have with other facilitators – on boundary setting, on travel, on our collective experience – and I’m just realizing (slowly, perhaps, but in the right time) that this blog is a place to start them. Language is an imperfect tool. A blog is an imperfect medium. But I am a writer, and I write to manifest, and this is (currently) the only place where I make that process/practice visible to other humans. So if you’re reading (if you’ve been reading this whole time, or if this is the future and I’ve been prolific and you’ve scrolled back far enough to encounter this post) here is my intention: to hold a space to talk about what it feels like to practice facilitation, for other facilitators, from my own words and experience.

<3
Mel