Stage Four: Participation
by Steven Bonsey
The great room of the Bolinas bed and breakfast that Wisdom & Money rented for a weekend board retreat featured a panoramic view of the Pacific Coast from Stinson Beach to the south to Point Reyes up north. At the center of the vista, waves breaking on the rocks of Duxbury Reef were visible over the rooftop of my grandparents’ cabin across the way.
As a board we spent three nights together on retreat. We were a new board engaged mainly in orienting ourselves to our work and to the way that we would work together. The daily rhythm at our board retreats always includes times of spiritual practice and personal check-ins. In all of our conversations the Board Circle we practice the Be Present Empowerment Model™. This means that when a moment comes up, when one of us speaks or acts in a way that is out of alignment with what we say we are seeking together, then we take time to slow it down. We breathe, and we take time to hear all voices to fully know at what is happening among us.
My grandfather bought the cabin in the 1950’s as a retreat. He was the Dean of the School of Education at the University of California, and he came here from time to time to sit at his typewriter and to fish. I stayed here summers as a child when my family came to the Mainland from Hawaiʻi for my father’s furloughs.
The family story is that my Grandfather bought the cabin on the Bolinas mesa from a man who had purchased the lot in the 1920’s for $100 as part of a subscription promotion for a San Francisco newspaper. Sometime before that, the Miwok lived here.
The walls of the cabin display the fading archive of our family photos. Until very recently, my grandfather’s Sea ‘n’ Ski suntan lotion was still in the bathroom cabinet. I slept here for the Board retreat, and we gathered in the living room for our morning meditation.
The moment at that Board retreat occurred in the lead-up to the Treasurer’s report. In the previous year gina had stepped forward, in a splendid way, to accept the office of Treasurer. It was splendid to me because I heard her speaking of it as a step into greater freedom in her relationship with money.
In my role as Co-Director, I had worked with gina to plan the presentation at the Retreat. We agreed on a format: gina would open and frame the conversation, then I would step in to present a very important chart that I’d prepared. I felt good about our collaboration. I also felt anxious, without admitting my anxiety to myself at the time. I was anxious that it go right.
Things did not go as planned. As I recall it, the time came for the Treasurer’s presentation. But just as gina was preparing to speak, Bernard asked a question. It was urgently important, I felt, that Bernard should receive an answer, so I spoke up. And I was a bit excited because the answer to his question clearly lay in … my CHART!
We had a moment, gina and I. I interrupted her in a disrespectful way, and she stopped me. In the wake of that moment, the agenda of our board meeting became the opening up of what just happened. We had the tools we needed to do that; among our Board members we have a wealth of wisdom in the practice of the Be Present Empowerment Model™.
The construction of the cabin was a slapdash job; that was its charm. An architect told me that the chimney looked as if it had been put up on a Saturday by three guys and a case of beer. Shifts over the years had closed up the draft. Fires in the fireplace just smoked up the house. Not only was it unusable, but the next good earthquake could topple the chimney onto the house.
Over the decades the minimal foundations had settled, and the floors sloped away in every direction from the central floor beam. By the time of our Retreat, it was difficult to find a patch of floor in the living room even enough for us to sit in a circle for our morning practice of silence.
Someone moved to come next to gina to support her as she spoke. Lillie came to stand behind my chair. She would put her arms around my shoulders from time to time to support me as I listened and then spoke.
All kinds of feelings ran through my body when it was time for me to speak. Interestingly, I think I may have moved through all five of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.
Denial. What, me? Anger. Come on! Really? Bargaining. Let me explain. Depression: Oh, shit, I’m in for it. Acceptance. Oh my God, I see what I did.
The cabin’s great redeeming feature – what draws all of us in the family back to it, apart from sentimentality — is the view from the sun porch. The panorama visible over the rooftop of the cabin below us takes in the view of the white surf breaking on the great black rocks of Duxbury Reef.
The really nice thing about the sun porch was that, along with the view it offered, the space seemed to have a comfortable way of holding you.
I had felt a sense of urgency in the moment. I had interrupted gina in order to show Bernard my chart. Bernard, the only other white guy in the room, had asked a question, and I turned my back on gina, an African American woman, to answer him. With my chart of organizational growth.
Remorse washed over me. I saw gina blazing in her spirit before me. I do not want to lose sight of her again.
Soon after the Board Retreat, my family began discussions on renewing the foundations on the cabin. We had the assurance of civil engineers that, with a proper foundation and the removal of the chimney, we could enjoy the cabin for generations to come.
Because the Board Circle was able to hold both gina and me in that moment, and because the Model gave us practice in knowing ourselves outside the stress of oppression and listening to one another with conscious presence, I come out of that encounter with a deeper sense of partnership with gina.
I have also been given information about myself. I am now on watch for moments when that sense of urgency it arises in my body. I slow myself down before I react in some way that is out of alignment.
Last week my nieces Emma and Caroline were at the cabin putting a new coat of paint on the interior. We have a new wood stove, no small thing: fire-conscious Marin County regulations allowed this only because we were grandfathered in by virtue of the late fireplace and chimney.
In the aftermath of reconstruction, the ground around the cabin is bare. My niece Lani is exploring a variety of indigenous and sustainable grasses and shrubs to be planted.
I want to participate fully in work that unites all kinds of people. In order to participate in that work with my whole being as a member of a living Body, I need to retrain myself. The skills that served my ambitious rise within the dominant system will not serve me here. I need to retrain at the cellular level to work in effective partnership and sustainable alliance. For this I look to the Be Present Empowerment Model™ and the support of people like my Board colleagues who practice it.
In 2019 Be Present, Inc., and Wisdom & Money embarked together on the Trailblazing Partnership. Its aim is to co-create the “Be Present™ with Wisdom & Money Institute” in 2021. This 18-month training will offer the Wisdom & Money practices with the Be Present Empowerment Model™ to all kinds of people. I am excited to be part of the team.
And I hope someday soon to come back to Bolinas and visit my new/old family cabin.