In 2003, a couple dozen people were invited by Doug Hitt of Lawrence, Kansas to watch and discuss Brian Swimme’s Canticle to the Cosmos, a video series about the connection of humans to the Universe and all living things. Hitt didn’t set out to do anything more than that. But now, 11 years later, that gathering has evolved into Kawsmos: 15 people who meet monthly to deepen our knowledge about life, to celebrate being part of the cosmos, and to understand our place along the Kansas (Kaw) River.
In March 2014, Kawsmos devoted an evening to participating in the Tamarack Institute’s conversation about community. The conversation fit neatly into our planning process for the immediate future: in fact we had just begun to discuss whether or not the term “community of practice” fit us. Our conversation revealed appreciation for the community we’ve gained from Kawsmos, as well as some resistance to any term which would define what we are. Resistance to definition is just one of the ways our group has avoided structure, guidelines, and rules so common in many organizations. But as we talked about community, it became clear that this resistance, as frustrating as it can sometimes be, is a key part of the organic structure that keeps us interested, connected, and coming back for more.
“Community” was not the goal
When our group first convened, some of us had known Hitt a long time, but others were relatively new acquaintances. Some of us knew each other, some of us knew no one but Doug. We knew we would meet once a month that year and be exposed to new thinking about science, ecology, and theology.
But we did not know we would decide to keep learning together after the first year ended, and that our gatherings would give new shape to our calendars with celebrations for each solstice and equinox. Nor did we dream we would sing together, write poetry together, dance together, tell stories and paint together, walk through woods and wetlands together, perform “science theatre“ together, sled together, and watch the sunset in the rain together. We didn’t know that we would bring food we had prepared to every gathering and break bread together before we began the evening’s activity.
The more we talked about our shared experiences during our community conversation, the more obvious it became that “community” has happened to us, whether we planned for it or not.
“No rules” was the rule
We’ve come to where we are today with no mission statement, no set goals, and no set rules. Why? A partial answer is that we are a diverse and rebellious lot—we wouldn’t be attracted to a new story about life if we weren’t! We range in age from 16 to 78, are married and single, gay and straight, humanists and scientists, members of faith communities and atheists.
We couldn’t talk about community without remembering the rebellious participants in our early years who felt strongly that even a name would lead us down a slippery slope to mission statements, formal rules, and obligations. As a result, our first years were name-free, leader-free, and expectation-free. We chose our yearly program by consensus. We took turns, voluntarily, planning program content. This planning process was, and is, extensive and time consuming, but it is not governed by rules.
Like the cosmos, however, we evolved. The name nay-sayers moved away, and at about the same time, we added new participants from a second group that Hitt had introduced to the Canticle to the Cosmos. Suddenly, the make-up of our group changed, and interest in a formal name grew. Up to that point, many of us had developed nicknames to write on our calendars—“cosmology,” “earth literacy group,” “eco-lit,” and creative combinations of the Native American name for our region, Kaw, in combination with the word “cosmos,” such as “beKAWS” and “Kawsmonauts.” But no particular name had stuck.
After six years of avoiding the issue, we were ready for a real name. We wanted consensus, as usual, which meant discussions about the value of names, along with the limitations. Why, we considered, is Echinacea called “coneflower,” but not “purple-petal thistle head”? Is “Mars” made less wondrous by its name? How could our group find a name that would be spot on tomorrow as well as today?
Rather easily, as it turned out. One of our new participants suggested “Kawsmos,” and right away, we loved how this name captured our reverence for the cosmos and our attachment to our Kaw Valley home. We said yes. And in a ceremony that was mentioned repeatedly during our community conversation, we took turns smudging the cheek of the person next to us with mud we had made with Kansas soil and Kaw water. We added glitter to represent stars. We joined hands and experienced unity like never before.
Unity, that is, until someone suggested we have a logo to go with our name! A banner was suggested, too, which led to T-shirts which led to mugs which led to…dissent! And, once again, we chose to back away from any more organized organization. A name was enough. Perhaps it still is.
Organic evolution deepened our connections
Openness and flexibility were mentioned again and again during our community conversation. We have proceeded from year to year in the same way that cells and more complex organisms have evolved—trying this, trying that, learning from failure, sticking with what works. After our initiatory year, Kawsmos embarked on exploring Water, The Sun (Fire), Air, and Earth, allotting an entire year to study each of the Four Elements. During each year, we engaged in activities which illuminated our understanding of these elements from the cosmic, planetary, and Kansas perspective.
During the Year of Water, we not only toured our local wastewater plant and took a canoe trip down our lovely and badly polluted river, but we also each created art expressing our need for and love of water. During the Year of the Sun, a Kawsmos artist allowed us to take over her studio floor so we could imagine in colors and design the creation of radiance. To study Air, we considered wind globally in mythology, poetry, and fans! We also discussed a video on wind farms and engaged a local dancer to lead us in breathing exercises and wind-tossed dances. In our year about Earth, we returned to the artist’s studio, this time seeing it as a cave and ourselves the first visual artists. This year also involved a trip, led by a professional geologist, to a beautiful local woodlands area, marked by a creek and stunning limestone cliff.
We enjoyed remembering many of these activities during our conversation and we discussed the value of shared learning and celebrating community. We also became more mindful of how we have helped each other take action. In the Year of the Sun, for instance, we agreed to reduce energy in our individual homes. One of our group designed and built a stunning three-dimensional model, using miniature coal cars, so we could visually demonstrate our energy usage and its reduction, month-by-month. Naming our experiment “Lighten Up,” we brought our model to our city’s Earth Day celebration to demonstrate the impact of reducing energy consumption.
Our conversation also took us to memories of shared grief. One time, we gathered around an immense hole, dug on prime agricultural land ostensibly to create sewer facilities for an existing airport, but probably to initiate a development project. We brought bouquets of wild flowers, grasses, feathers, and bizarre debris found near the construction site and set up cairns of resistance as well as of repair, restoration, and reverence along the rim of the hole. We also grieved together in the Wakarusa Wetlands, a wild area seething with infinite animal and plant life within our city limits and under threat from the development of a massive highway project. In 2010, we met there to mourn the loss of life caused by the Gulf of Mexico BP oil spill and to honor the ongoing life in all watery places in the world.
Mourning together is just one of the ways that Kawsmos offers spiritual support to many of us. In learning a new world view, we have also been learning new ways of expressing that view. And to be able to do this with others has been illuminating and moving.
We once met at the wetlands for the Mirror Walk, in which one person guided another who was blindfolded into the breathing, sensual world. When the blindfold was removed, we “opened our eyes and looked in the mirror,” seeing ourselves in the prairie grass, cattails, red-winged blackbirds. On another occasion at the wetlands, we held a Council for All Beings, with each of us creating a mask of a beloved and respected fellow being.
Many of us also cherish the memory of our Cosmic Walk in the Hitts’ outbuilding. There we walked a spiral, illuminated by candles marking the significant developments in the cosmos’ 13.7 billion-year history, moving outward from the Big Bang in the center to our solar system and planet, cells, plants, animals, and humans on the periphery. The Cosmic Walk allowed us to experience, body and soul, the wondrous journey of creation.
Now, after two years of monthly meetings and intense engagement with Mary Evelyn Tucker’s and Brian Swimme’s Journey of the Universe series, Kawsmos continues to feel our collective way forward, examining and questioning in a mindful way. With a deep shared memory of journeys, rituals, experiences, actions, conversations, discussions, and celebrations, we are a community in process, a community evolving.
Flexibility has its downsides
We would be disingenuous if we were to pretend that Kawsmos has been all smooth sailing. The organic and flexible nature we love about Kawsmos, that which provides the glue that binds us, also makes us vulnerable to conflict. While we do invest much energy each year as a group in planning our topics for the next year, and we have a volunteer subset of participants who devote significant time and effort to prepare content for monthly gatherings, we do not have formal policies or procedures for governance, planning, hosting, and participation. As a result, we have had to rely on communicating often and well in order to address needs as they arise.
Several times we have had to discuss whether to add participants because we do not have a set policy for selecting new members. We also do not have an agreed-upon way to ask members to leave. Nor do we have a set rotation for hosting gatherings or for ensuring that work is shared equitably. While we sometimes use a talking stick at gatherings, we don’t have a consistent method that ensures voices are heard in equal measure. And as result, some of us have felt misunderstood or ignored at some point. Mostly, our hurts and misunderstandings have been processed individually or in small groups. Occasionally they surface at a full group level, usually on our email listserv. Yet we don’t have an agreed-upon method for addressing these issues as a whole. As a result, hurts have sometimes lingered.
Our absence of formal structure, then, both helps and hurts us. We are loath to formalize rules for fear of being constrained in our creativity and hampered in our pursuit of new ways of being. Yet our recent community conversation helps us see that greater attention to group process may be valuable—or even essential—to our future together.
Community is a journey
Our recent conversation about community was a new experience for us despite our 11-year existence. Somewhat paradoxically, discussing community allowed us to focus on each other as individuals—our wants, needs, and desires—in new ways. We learned that some members want more community in their lives while others have plenty. We discovered that many of us desire more group adventures and additional time for communal art and theatre. We found that one of us continues to have a deep need to grieve the loss of nearby wetlands. We learned that another wants gatherings of a more practical nature—how to parent, how to engage in financial planning, how to plan for retirement, how to plan for death. Several expressed a yearning for more shared silent time. Yet another wants more opportunities to eat together. In typical Kawsmos fashion, this discussion led to ideas for future programs and adventures together.
And so here we are, 11 years into a fascinating journey—a journey that has been about the universe and, unwittingly, about community. We are grateful to the Tamarack Institute for providing the impetus to explore what this journey has meant to us. Through this exploration, we see more clearly that our “no rules” approach is not why we come together. Rather, this approach allows us to change the “why” into new and different questions. It allows a group of individuals to retain a fair amount of that individuality, and at the same time, to come together in community to share knowledge, strengthen convictions, and discover new ways of being—not only with each other and other humans, but also with the much larger community of beings with whom we share this planet.
From being strangers to one another, through time, work, thought, disagreement, imagination, exploration, experimentation, Kawsmos now creates and mourns and celebrates together as a community, caring for each other, our bioregion, and our planet.
Mary Wharff writes short fiction. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas with her husband and their adopted four-legged family.
Elizabeth Schultz, retired from the Kansas University’s English Department, now enjoys life as a poet and an arts and environmental activist in her adopted community of Lawrence, Kansas.
Deborah Altus lives, loves, and plays in Lawrence, Kansas. She is a professor at Washburn University in Topeka and a member of the FIC’s editorial review board.