Don’t ever let go of the thread

Not everyone sees the thread. It goes among things that change. Don’t let go, grab a needle: a powerful question, a good-enough answer.

Time to get stitching.


It’s been awhile since I could muster a posting. Rejection has a way of doing that.

This poem by William Stafford pretty much tells the story:

The Way It Is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

There’s a thread I’ve been following these last few months. It’s been hard for me to explain about it, moving as it does among things that change. I imagine it’s been hard for others to see. So here it is.

The Way Its Been

There’s a thread you follow.

Most of my efforts lately have been directed at preparing three grant applications to support this project — this thing I’ve been calling The Mayfly Ecosystem (in this space, at least).

It goes among/ things that change.

Over this span, I was in a sensing mode. I was naming my assumptions about what changes the world is calling for — in the youth sector, the non-profit sector, the labour force, and the macro economy.

And I was meeting with others to expose these assumptions to scrutiny, so I could learn about which frame would best inspire creativity and transformation around the root causes.

But it doesn’t change.

I also kept getting called back to something. I was cultivating better awareness of my own and others’ concrete experiences in doing social change work: of burnout and over-work; of struggles to locate, express and negotiate our deepest purpose within the systems that govern our lives; of balancing community care with our individual security.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

There was lots of interest from all over the map: from foundations, academics, service providers and, of course, my friends and peers. They may not have been quite sure what I was up to, but they were reassuring me that I was onto something that mattered.

You have to explain about the thread.

And yet, I had difficulty articulating exactly what it was all about. Granters, of course, got a more technical orientation than ‘The Mayfly Ecosystem’; I tried weaving this thread into the form of their received wisdom — the dulling precision of jargon, the shunting of stories into methodologies.

I worked with many others to coordinate a plan for how we could convene a research and design team to better understand and improve upon the difficult work and living conditions facing young people who work for change at the margins of the nonprofit labour market.

Oh, they were wonderful plans. In one, we would hire a youth-led team of action researchers and designers. In another, we would create a sustainability plan for GYC’s existing and successful mentorship program and curriculum. Finally, we would produce a documentary to spotlight the essential work that young people do often despite the heavy-handed efforts of the professional-led non-profit sector.

I could tell you about these glorious plans sometime. But in all the contorting we did to match the grant guidelines, I suspect I got things tied up in knots. The thread got lost in the spotlight.

But it is hard for others to see.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, all three grant applications came back with rejection slips — two of them, without even being called back from the initial Expression of Interest phase.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

So here I’ve been, these last few weeks, trying to hold onto something that might orient me. I had to find my way back to what I knew when I started: my own story.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt/ or die; and you suffer and get old.

For awhile, I didn’t succeed. I swung back and forth between self-doubt and being a busy-body. I made some plans with one group, and then another plan caught my attention. And on and on:

Maybe the best leverage point is programming space, I speculated out loud.
(But are we energetically ready for the long slog of a political campaign? came the retort.)

Maybe it’s time for community care in the form of meal-sharing.
(But is that a transformation or a Band-Aid?)

Maybe it’s time for shared conversations about our inner purpose and gifts that we could as individuals contribute to a community of exchange.
(But will people have space for seemingly pie-in-the-sky conversations while they’re still on the daily treadmill?)

In this way, the collaborative energy that sparked the application and design phase just kind of scattered outwards in all directions.

I wouldn’t dare call it tragedy, but still — many are still getting hurt by the difficult conditions in the sector. And we’re all getting older. Many of us are fighting what feels like a senseless marching-on, motions leading to motions.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

What I realized is how my obsession with sensing and planning was rooted in my fear about how I assumed change must happen: that I must intervene in time’s unfolding. I must swim against some heavy current whose inevitability will crush me. I was trying to manage the flow of the process by sticking to one-on-one conversations whose frame I could carefully engineer.

I’m ready to let the unfolding direct my own, rather than the other way around.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

That doesn’t mean I won’t hold onto my purpose. I must.

And, of course, there has been movement, progress, momentum. The thread was there all along. This blog has been, above all, my exercise in not letting go amid time’s unfolding.

Now it’s time to act in an instant, rather than plan for the next theoretical leverage (graciously funded through grants whose pre-packaged work plans will stage-manage us).

At this particular moment — and this goes against my writerly nature — sense-making on its own stops making sense. The system needs a bigger signal than a series of conversations, or an extended period of research, analysis, reporting.

The thread: A powerful question

So what’s the thread-borne purpose? It’s only a slight tweak from what I wrote in my original application — a good-enough answer to the following powerful question:

What would it take for young people at the margins of our current economy to make a decent living and transform the conditions of isolation, conflict and injustice that stand in the way of purpose, harmony and balance?

The needle: A ‘good enough’ answer

The answer can be expressed, for now, as some ‘design principles’ — a little check-list of guidelines for what makes a good answer good. Based on my experience so far, these are:

  • Creating and preserving community connections , mutual aid and collective wealth.
  • Opening space to uncover and act from meaningful inner purpose and calling.
  • Starting from the inherent strengths of young people as they already exist.
  • Reframing the narrative around youth issues: from ‘youth are problems to be solved by benevolent experts (or resources to be allocated thereby)’ into ‘youth have inherent strength to overcome systemic barriers (including, most insidiously, those put up by benevolent experts).’
  • Honouring the past, including personal his/herstories.
  • Uncovering and undertaking ‘wise action’ together — that is, action that “arises from the personal choice to take responsibility for what you love” in such a way that it neither “over-extends nor under-extends the resources of a group.”

Stitching ahead

So here’s the thread poking its way once more through the eye of a needle. Things are changing. Not everyone even sees it. But it’s time to grab some tools that are good enough, with other thread-weavers, and get stitching.

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