The Consultant's Time Warp
Tomorrow evening I board the California Zephyr in Ottumwa IA, westbound for the Bay Area. It's the start of a 41-day road trip. At home today it's rainy and cool. The sorghum seedlings are struggling with the low temperatures and Stan is anxious about getting into the fields as we slide past our frost-free date. The black locusts are still in bloom and the black raspberries are just about to flower.
By the time I return from this monster road trip, the days will be at their longest, the gardeners are likely to be looking for rain, and the black raspberries will be ready to pick. I am departing in the midst of spring, and will be returning with summer fully regnant. While it's a lovely time to travel (and I'll thoroughly enjoy my cross country treks—nine days of which will be by train, with their lovely observation cars sheathed in wrap-around windows), I'll nonetheless miss the unfolding of the growing season at home. I won't be here for the first peas and new potatoes (we just enjoyed the last of the 2009 crop at dinner last night). Everyone will have put their sweatshirts into the back of their closet by the time I return, while my shorts will still have winter dust on them.
While there's sadness for me in this, no one has twisted my arm. I travel because that's where I can best deliver the work I love and feel called to do. To be sure, the Internet allows me tremendous capacity for communicating inexpensively and in depth with folks anywhere, and from the comfort of a seat in my bedroom. Also, there are times when I can facilitate by phone. (I just finished a contract with a disbanding group, for example, where I facilitated a series of a dozen conference calls over 12 months, helping members gracefully disentangle themselves—I drafted the agendas, wrote up the minutes, crafted the buyout agreement, and handled escrow during the exchange of checks for people giving up their share certificates. I did everything but shine shoes, yet never had to travel once.)
For all of this though, it's often highly valuable to meet with people in person. Whether it's connecting with FIC donors, giving a workshop on consensus, or laboring with groups trying to get out of the mud, there is a richness and dimensional quality to face-to-face conversations that electronic wizardry cannot substitute for—though I'm mindful of the startling advances in video conferencing and webinar technology. There are times when it's important that people can smell each other and see the nuances in facial expressions and hand gestures. The world of community is built on the bedrock of relationships, and it rarely works to just mail it in or send pictures.
One of the ironies of my life is that it's built around community, yet half the time (or more) I'm on the road promoting it and offering guidance about it, rather at home living it. I think there is an essential and vital quality about my work that derives from my maintaining a living link to community (rather than coming solely from remembered prior experiences), yet I strain that link by being away so much. It's a delicate dance, having a foot in two worlds.
It's also somewhat lonely, in that it's hit or miss whether I've close friends at hand when I want to share what's challenging for me. Sometimes I have to wait, or rely on what possible with email or phone. Luckily, as my field is community, there is often a wealth of good people nearby—even if I haven't met them all yet. It's a world full of possibility and surprise, and I wouldn't trade my particular brand of craziness for anyone else's.