I heard about Maureen McCarthy and the State of Grace Document about seven years ago, and I quickly knew I wanted to connect with her. The bold claim that we can create and maintain a state of grace in our relationships intrigued me. The simplicity of the tool – a few essential questions that help spell out nakedly and gently what it would take to maintain a state of grace between two people – won me over. I wanted to learn more, and to explore the parallels and complementarities I saw between this work and Nonviolent Communication.
To cut a medium-size story short, Maureen and her partner Zelle just left my house a few hours ago, after visiting the Bay Area for nine days, including teaching a workshop that BayNVC hosted this past weekend. Meeting them has been one of the most delicious and unexpected treats that have come to me because of starting this blog. Knowing Maureen and Zelle has been full of surprises, deep engagement, learning, and inspiration.
Here’s a picture from the workshop last week:
Left to right, top to bottom: Ruth, Smita, Cindy, Kathy,
Zelle, Miki, Maureen
As you look at the picture, bear in mind that Maureen – this vivacious, smiling, vibrant woman – is operating on 10% lung capacity from a rare and ultimately fatal lung disease she’s had for 22 years. Which doesn’t prevent her from saying, with a big smile on her face, that she has a better life than anyone she knows. I believe her. As I see it, the qualities that make this possible are the very building blocks of the tool she and Zelle live and teach: simplicity, authenticity, clarity, and self-responsibility. As a main feature, they are committed to asking for everything they want without ever making it a demand, and they are committed to telling the truth, including in response to requests. I could almost smell the freedom this generates between them. Being with them, whether during the workshop or while hanging around my house, the love and ease between them were completely palpable to me.
A telling moment happened one evening when I heard Maureen make a request. With a light, easy, and fresh tone she simply said: “Would you do me a favor and bring me a glass of water?” It sounded as if this was the very first time she had ever asked him for a glass of water, without any weight, expectation, or the possibility of being disappointed if he said no. What made this exchange particularly dramatic was knowing that Zelle attends to most of the common daily tasks of living for both of them (they are hardly ever apart from each other) because Maureen is on oxygen whenever she moves and exertion is challenging for her. Despite years of offering and receiving this level of support, neither of them is taking this arrangement, or the relationship as a whole, for granted. Each day for the twelve years they have been together they explicitly choose each other again.
While they were here, I asked lots of questions, with utter abandon, like a small child, like I always want to with everyone. I wanted to know everything about the disease, their relationship, and their work in the world. I was delighted to learn how far and wide this tool has spread, including in corporate settings. Maureen and Zelle no longer sign contracts – they only do State of Grace Documents with their clients, and so far no one has refused to hire them.
In case you are curious, their website contains enough free resources that you could create documents even without a workshop. I am only beginning my own journey with this tool, and my first document is with Maureen and Zelle. Being at the workshop I could see that there is a definite art to creating these documents, it is also strikingly simple and doable. All it takes is to know and articulate answers to a few key questions: What draws you to the relationship? What is your interaction style? What are the warning signs when you are stressed (I sense this part is one of the most important aspects of the document) and what helps you in those moments? What do you expect, want, and hope for in this relationship? What could help you come back to peace? How long will you take before bringing up an issue? If the unimaginable happens, how long will you take before coming back to a place of peace and letting go? Then you ask the person you are doing the document with to do the same. Even if you are the only one doing it, and there is only one half of the document, having you offer the level of transparency and self-responsibility that these answers provide may in and of itself change the terms of relating, open possibilities, and create more trust.