Yesterday I got one of those social media generated “memory” posts. You know, the “You posted this 5 years ago today!” thing? Well, it was the sharing of a 5-year-old-blog post called “Living in Community: Part 1”. It was a sweet blog post, all about how we’d suddenly become a household of 10 in our old house in the city. I was adventurous but well-reasoned, enthusiastic, principled… so not much has changed, in that regard! And yet, here I sit with a drastically different looking life. Now we live in a roomy house nestled in the woods with, for the first time in several years, no one but our immediate family living with us. My farm endeavors are much smaller and less productive and profitable, although far more stable and sustaining at the same time. Things just look different now than I would have expected, but I can see now that the yield is just right. While I still hold the same values that helped create that environment back then, I think I have more understanding about what it is that we’re up against in working to create the culture and the lifestyle we want. I know more about the daily work involved in sustaining these things, and I know more about the mental and emotional energy it takes (as well as the risk) to create an intimate community that, simply by existing, rubs up against some of the more pervasive and corrosive tenets of the dominant culture. We are up against a lot.
I moved on naturally to read “Part 2”, which was written just slightly more than a year later. I was so heartbroken when that living situation fell apart. I felt so helpless to change anything, so raw and vulnerable in all of it. We’ve since rekindled a great relationship with those old friends, and it’s lovely. I see again the people I knew before, but I see the ways in which our parting was ultimately right, for us and for them. There’s no other way it could have been, so of course we work to identify with *what is*. We have all forgiven, and now it’s like it’s a part of our even bigger story of friendship. I am proud now to have tested the boundaries of my own heart in that way.
With Lindsay and Eli, we continued a very mutually fulfilling communal relationship. Both of them taught me really valuable lessons- mostly about tossing that idealized vision of the perfect community and just simply serving and growing in love and purpose where you are. They are part of my family. Even so, this past spring it just felt right to part ways, even without anything going “wrong”. It felt complex and was about the maturity of our kids, some energetic details and self-care that needed addressing, but mostly about my own family’s need to take space from these large commitments to people so that we can recalibrate and think about our purpose in all of this. And I’ve been pleased to see that the love and deep respect we have for each other has always remained intact, despite any discomfort and transition that came from no longer inhabiting that vision of “community” and choosing to be less interdependent.
Oddly enough, all this was swirling around my head when we had guests over last night. All new friends, two of whom we were meeting for the first time who are looking for a place to pop up their amazingly beautiful yurt for the winter and beyond. It became clear over the course of the evening that this was sort of blind-date style discussion about if we could work something out on our land together. Jeff and I hadn’t quite seen it coming, and so we found ourselves babbling in our living room about vulnerability and legal/zoning issues and “what the heck is community these days with the culture of death breathing down our necks?!” Jeff went on quite the rant about how in pre-civilized cultures people didn’t have a choice but to stay and work stuff out, etc., and… well, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were more deterred by our scatter-brained ranting than the fact that we politely said we just aren’t up for anything like that just now.
It’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened, and it won’t be the last. I think, while we weren’t entirely equipped to handle the proposition last night, we are actively thinking about it all. I remember the way it felt when we first realized we wanted to live a different way, and we eagerly sought out new communities and ways of living that could fulfill our vision. We looked at ecovillages and dreamed of a peaceful communal farm life somewhere nestled between mountains. We thought it was as easy as holding a vision and opting in. Funny where my mind has gone since then.
When I think about how my thoughts have shifted around this finding-community thing, a few things come up for me:
This is still something to seek, something to pray for and work towards and risk ourselves for. My heart is still wildly in love with the idea that we could decolonize our minds and start building a community and a culture that breeds health and love, just like that. I yearn to be fully loved and to have that group of people I imagine my ancestors had, in right relationship to each other and the land. I believe we are really disconnected and we are missing out! Those instincts are right on, and I relate to everyone I talk to who dreams of a better way. I get swoony thinking about the work Dorothy Day did- hospitality houses and all that. I love to make huge pots of food and just enjoy people, I love to work hard, find purpose in the simplest of things. I don’t tend to shy away from conflict or tough situations, I always try to lean in and let it build muscle. In my various living situations over the past dozen or so years, I really engaged, as did Jeff, and we didn’t come out weaker. We are built for something, that’s for sure, and I don’t doubt we can try for and achieve something better than we inherited. However…
I no longer believe this is something we can opt in or out of, we have to reckon with what we’ve got and build from there. I remember in my early environmentalism truly believing that we could revolutionize our way of living by simply changing what we consumed. I changed all kinds of things about how we lived, and while all of it was valuable and worthy of doing for its own sake, the realization that the things I was doing weren’t actually doing much of anything to meaningfully address the real issues was a painful, although extremely important, realization for me. Over time I have adjusted my tactics to reflect that belief. I chose to trade out a consumerist and dishonest vision of sustainability for an honest one that simply attempts at a step in the right direction. And I think it’s the same for these other areas of life. I believe our culture is so saturated in hierarchy and consumerism- it gets tricky to create anything outside that paradigm, especially the things that are inherently opposed to those mindsets. We can’t consume our way out of an environmental disaster any more than we can people-shop our way into meaningful healthy communities. These things are made from our mourning, from picking up our messes and taking responsibility- not by abandoning it all to someone else for a fresh clean ideal, borne out of the same colonization that got us here to begin with. I know, it’s depressing, but it’s real.
Loving your neighbor and committing to a place. It’s definitely the least aesthetically dreamy scenario I have come up with, but it’s what I’m thinking for now. I still hope for a new way of living and being together. But I’m not going to bank on it or push a design for it anymore. Last night I was sharing my thoughts about a documentary I watched. I was so excited- it was a bunch of like-minded strangers embarking on a year long eco-village experiment. There was a lot of focus on the aesthetics: cob buildings, tiny houses, community spaces, gardens, etc. It was lovely, and there were plenty of interesting looking people. But by the end it became clear that several folks had abandoned the project and a few people remained. That was when I straightened up, anxious to hear more about what went wrong, what their process was, etc., but they glossed right by it, kind of shrugging and saying not everyone could communicate well. I felt cheated. The social design is the only thing I feel truly interested in at this point. We can build anything, we can garden, we can store food and decorate everything with handmade garlands, we can make everything smell like incense and never use VOC paint again, but will we stick together? Will people communicate honestly? Will we be trustworthy with each other or will we succumb to unjust power structures? Will we clean up any of our cultural messes and not just opt out? I realized that the reason those folks probably didn’t go into depth on all of that is because it’s just not that exciting. They’d rather focus on the cool building they did and the successes. No one wants to whittle away their year of hard work to be like “basically our motives aren’t enough and we are too culturally impoverished to succeed in this regard…” But you know what, that’s kind of what I want people to say! Then we can start to figure some of this out.
So right now I’m not closing the door on any possibility in my life, and I definitely want to share what we have and continue to activate around community. But I am also doing some important work on assessing my values and thinking about what work actually needs doing. I think about the kind of deal I have with my kids as their mother, and I see that they basically don’t need to be any kind of perfect for me to love them and serve them. There’s no audition, I did no shopping for the perfect kids- they are what I have, I am what they have, we belong and we struggle and it just so happens to be the deepest, most awe-inspiring love I’ve got in me. To commodify it away from pure acceptance and organic relationship is just horribly cheapening to me. I think there’s some primal wisdom there.
Isn’t that the model we want for our communities and for our landbases? A network of people who serve and are served out of mutual respect for just being in the world? And then together we create a home that is safe and healthy and affirming of our life together? I’m realizing that it’s important to really define my values here apart from what I want it all to look like and, step by step, create the world I believe in out of what it is now. A life made up of the forcing of some vision is just more green-washed consumerism. I’m beginning to believe the happy form will follow, the aesthetic will develop, provided we all put ourselves into the work of it. A life made up of a bunch of small humble “right actions” has to be a well-lived life, yes?