Yes, it’s Thanksgiving week in the US, and while Thanksgiving is a very problematic holiday (where we give thanks for the land we stole from the native people and the prosperity we built on the backs of slaves), there is something very important about the act of giving thanks.
At Twin Oaks (and other communities) the highpoint of the Thanksgiving meal is going around the very crowded room and having each person say one thing that they are thankful for. One community I’ve been to starts every meeting with a time for appreciations.
Being grateful, thankful, appreciative is a very useful community building exercise. Just as there are vicious (destructive) circles, this is an exercise that builds upon itself. I’ve pointed out things that don’t work in community–this is something that does. Many long running communities do something like this and it makes the commune a more pleasant place to live. This attracts people and contributes to the longevity of the community.
We’ve had several posts here on what doesn’t work in community. Gratitude is something that does.
6 a.m. My alarm wakes me up and I roll out of bed, ready to start my day. The sun hasn’t quite come up yet, but there’s some soft light coming through my east-facing window. I don’t have to get up this early-we each set our own schedule-but I like being up before the hustle and bustle of the day really begins. Plus, since nine of us live in my building, I probably won’t have any competition for the shower.
6:15 a.m. I make myself breakfast (toast with homemade bread and an egg from one of our chickens) in the kitchen in the Courtyard, where I live. Lunch and dinner are served buffet-style at Zhankoye (ZK), our main dining facility and community center, but we also have a handful of smaller kitchens for breakfast, snacking, and preparing meals for small groups of people. As I eat, I read a novel I pulled from our public collection of several thousand books-no library card needed.
6:55 a.m. Since I like being up early, I signed up for a 7 o’clock tofu-making shift last week when all of our labor was being scheduled. I head to the Tofu Hut, a mere two-minute walk through the woods from my room-not a bad commute. It’s chilly out, but the Hut is warm and steamy. I put on boots, gloves, a hairnet, and an apron, and start pressing curds into big slabs of tofu.
10 a.m. My shift is over, and I head back to the Courtyard. I check my email on one of the public computers in the office. In addition to actually making tofu, I also do a lot of customer service for our soyfoods business. Someone has contacted us to find out where they can buy Twin Oaks’ tofu in their area; I respond, and also check out the orders that have come in locally from stores and restaurants in
Charlottesville and Richmond.
10:45 a.m. I see my friend Sabrina outside with one-year-old baby in a carrier on her back. She’s doing a “primary,” labor-creditable child care. We make tea and go for a walk together, the baby making cute faces at me the whole time.
12:05 p.m. It’s lunch time, so we walk up to ZK. Lunch is mostly leftovers, supplemented with a fresh salad and baked potatoes. We grow greens throughout the winter in our huge greenhouse, and we harvested enough potatoes in the summer and fall to last us through the winter.
12:50 p.m. I walk back to my room to put on work boots for my forestry shift, then ride a public bike up to Modern Times (MT), where Carrol, River, Purl and I will meet for the shift. MT is our main shop building, with space and tools to fix our cars, bikes, tractors, and vacuums.
1 p.m. We head out into the woods, where we’ll selectively cut trees and haul them in to be processed into firewood. All the wood we harvest is done so sustainably, and all of our buildings are heated with wood all winter long. It’s too hot to do forestry work in the summer, so during the off-season, I’ll switch some of my work scene indoors to do data entry and accounting work to monitor our communal
5:15 p.m. I hang out in my room a bit before dinner, finishing up a letter to my family and listening to music. I find it’s important to carve out alone time for myself–it’s very easy to get sucked into the social scene 24/7 here. There’s always something going on, someone to talk to.
6:00 p.m. Dinner is served! Tonight it’s my favorite–veggie burgers. (And, OK, hamburgers too. But I’m a vegetarian.) There are plenty of side dishes, like steamed spinach and sweet potato fries. A large percentage of the meal, both veggies and meat, is homegrown. I sit in the Lounge with about ten people and chat with McCune about his latest plumbing adventure. Sometimes at dinner there’s one main conversation but tonight several smaller discussions have sprung up. Besides copper-vs-plastic waterlines, people are talking about the new fruit orchard we’re planting, the latest news from our sister community 8 miles up the road, and trying to work out if people’s schedules will allow our belly-dance troupe to meet on the same night as the queer-theory discussion group.
7:30 p.m. Mala has invited me to her residence (named Beechside) to hang out-there’s a really cozy kitchen/living room there that’s highly conducive to fun social gatherings. A bunch of people come over, and we sit draped on the couches and on the floor. Debbie and Trout play fiddle and guitar, Casey is knitting a pair of socks and Ezra makes a large amount of popcorn. It’s a festive atmosphere, though there’s no particular occasion; we just like to enjoy each other’s company.
10:00 p.m. I head home to my room. I record the work I did today on my labor sheet and write in my journal a bit to unwind before bed. I’m very tired, but happy. It’s been a good day.
It seems to me that Twin Oaks is thriving, but I don’t want to believe that Twin Oaks is doing well when we are not. The Farm in Tennessee went bankrupt in the eighties because they thought they were doing fine, when actually they were sliding deep into debt. So is there some sort of accurate empirical measure of the health of a commune?
Twin Oaks doesn’t have any debt—that’s significant—perhaps the most significant economic indicator there is. Twin Oaks’ Dun and Bradstreet rating is as high as it can be for a “business” our size. So Twin Oaks is unlikely to fail due to debt. Maybe that’s all we need to know. But I wonder…
Using other economic indicators, Twin Oaks is doing rather poorly. For instance, everyone at Twin Oaks lives below the poverty line. Twin Oakers could get food stamps since we qualify, but we really don’t need food stamps, we can grow our own food, thank you very much.
Twin Oaks is larger, at 500 acres, than a handful of countries; if Twin Oaks were a country what would our GDP be? [From Wikipedia: Gross domestic product (GDP) is the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a year. GDP per capita is often considered an indicator of a country’s standard of living and is one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country’s economy.] If Twin Oaks were a country, economically we’d be at about the same level of GDP as Armenia, Swaziland, and Guatemala. That’s not good.
Collectively, Twin Oaks’ bank account might seem large, but divided out among 110 people, it’s not that much. Why is it since Twin Oaks has no debt, we own 500 acres, have a dozen buildings, run a handful of successful business that we don’t rank better using standard economic indicators?
There are some other economic indicators that can be measured at Twin Oaks, e.g. Unemployment: current unemployment in the United States is just above seven percent. [This is actually falsely low, since there are many people who would like to have a job, but who have given up looking; they are considered employed, or at least, they aren’t counted as unemployed–OK, that’s bizarre] Twin Oaks has zero unemployment. Everyone works, unless they are elderly or sick. That is, if you can work; you work; if you can’t work, you don’t work. Twin Oaks has always had full employment. By that statistic Twin Oaks is doing great.
In the mainstream economy a worker cannot casually try out being a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic, an accountant etc. Students must pick a career path early, expend lots of time and money getting the required certification, and only then see whether the work is suitable. Additionally, it does not pay to be a dilettante in the mainstream culture. Work security comes from working full time, and work satisfaction comes (if it comes at all) from getting promotions.
Twin Oaks does not have protective barriers around jobs. Anyone can try anything that they want to try. The outcome is a labor scene that is far different from the mainstream labor scene—immeasurably different. No one works at one job at Twin Oaks; people easily switch jobs. People, we discover, are happier not having to work 40 hours at one job. And still the work of the community gets done. There is no work sabotage, or sneaking off with inventory. Twin Oaks wins on worker satisfaction.Because there is no unemployment at Twin Oaks, there is no class stratification. Because there is no class stratification there is no poverty, no crime, no need to hire a police force, or live in a state of constant fear. The crime rate is, essentially zero. Twin Oaks wins on crime statistics and, of course, income inequality.
Twin Oaks is hardly outside of the market economy in our businesses. Twin Oaks’ hammocks business has been thriving for over thirty-five years while other hammocks businesses in the United States have gone out of business. Twin Oaks’ tofu business and East Wind’s nut butter business demonstrate that a communal society can successfully start and operate a capital-intensive business.
When Pier One Imports dropped Twin Oaks hammocks, which accounted for 75% of Twin Oaks’ income at that time, there was no desperation or impetus to start making a shoddy product, do false advertising, or other strategies common for mainstream businesses undergoing stress. Workers switched to other work, the community expanded smaller businesses, and everyone took an equal pay cut, metaphorically speaking. The other businesses grew. Within two years, Twin Oaks’ income was back to where it was. And, of course, no one was laid off.
During this time , a well-established and well-known leisure goods company approached Twin Oaks to make cotton hammocks. Twin Oaks had, at that time, slack production capacity. The offer sounded very profitable for Twin Oaks. but we turned the offer down. Why? Because cotton rope is hard to work with; the rope is heavy and would have contributed to wrist injuries. Also, cotton hammocks don’t last as long. We would be selling an inferior product at a higher price. None of the workers wanted to work with cotton hammocks. If the order had been accepted, it is likely that workers would have found work elsewhere in our community.
Health, happiness, and ethics won out over mere profit. How do you measure that decision? Literally, how can you measure happiness? How to measure an un-hurt wrist, or a happier workplace? Doing work that is aligned with your own ethical compass? Those considerations don’t have much of a place in the mainstream economic model.
The goal of mainstream economics is to atomize society into individual consumers and to monetize every transaction so that they can be more accurately measured. People re-using stuff, and people sharing stuff all lower global GPD. Growing a garden lowers GDP. Sharing a car with a neighbor lowers GDP. The goal of Twin Oaks is to bind people together in a strong, mutually-supportive group. The by-product of these structural decisions is that lives at Twin Oaks are de-monetized; being de-monetized, Twin Oakers lives don’t measure up.
Boom and bust cycles, unemployment, class-stratification, planned obsolescence, poverty, crime—these are the logical, predictable, and inevitable outcomes of mainstream economic measures. Not the system, not inefficiencies in the system, not poor implementation of capitalism; the very yardstick itself causes these bad outcomes.
Maybe the yardstick itself is wrong.
Maybe the yardstick itself is wrong…Imagine that building materials weren’t measured in inches and feet (or centimeters and meters), but, let’s say, by weight. So, the only thing we would be able to measure on a building is its weight. Obviously, a bigger house would weigh more. Wealthy people would want to live in a house that is massive. The wealthiest people would compete to have “the heaviest house in the world.” Building trades would quickly adapt and start using materials by weight and clamoring for heavy materials. Developers would want to appeal to the upper class by advertising how much heavier their homes are than other similar homes. You can run this bizarre fantasy out yourself, everything in the building trade would get distorted, and, more to the point, houses would not be better in any sense of the word, in fact, many houses would be worse.
Mainstream economic measures give rise to a fundamental short-sightedness that we at Twin Oaks would do well to avoid. At Twin Oaks we are not bound to an irrational economic philosophy. When asked what ideology or philosophy Twin Oaks uses in guiding our decisions we can only gesture vaguely in the direction of our collective judgment.
Mainstream economic models measure something, but that something is not really relevant to Twin Oaks. Twin Oaks uses a more nuanced—human-centered, ethics-based, long-range decision making model. This makes the comparison of Twin Oaks as an economic entity with other economic entities essentially impractical, if not impossible. What Twin Oaks does doesn’t often make “economic” sense, but it makes “sense”–sense in the human-scale, ethical, sustainable way that people typically mean when they use the phrase “makes sense.”
Each year Twin Oaks is doing better at being communal, that is, we put up solar panels, develop hydroelectric power, share more with each other, and provide more of our own entertainment. Each of these steps in the direction of more communalness makes us slide ever downward in our economic indicators. Until there is a widely accepted measure of happiness, of sustainability, or of ethical living, Twin Oaks won’t be able to come up with an empirical analysis to demonstrate to the world how effective and sensible what we are doing is.
I’m Ok with that.
Fifty years is a long time, and we know life is change. Here are some aspects of life at TO that have not-changed and changed; how we’ve remained “True To Our Roots” and how we’ve “Embraced Change”.
“True To Our Roots”
What’s Stayed Essentially The Same Over 50 Years
Egalitarianism and Income-Sharing: We have stayed true to these original values. This (combined with our size of 100 people) sets us part from most intentional communities. We continue to have a communal economy and non-hierarchical decision-making and access to community financial and other resources. We still share the profits from our businesses, as well as our houses, cars, bathrooms, a checkbook and the joys and challenges of living so closely together.
The Planner-Manager System: Taken straight out of B.F. Skinner’s book “Walden Two”, this model of self-government has served us well over our 50 years. Each work area (Garden, Kitchen, Office, etc.) has a Manager who organizes and keeps that area functioning smoothly, while issues that affect the community as a whole are facilitated by a rotating group of 3 Planners.
The Labor System: Although we’ve tweaked it a few times over the years, the Labor System is still at the core of our self-organizing. Every Tuesday, each member hands in a Labor Sheet for the coming week. The Labor Assigner essentially has a list of all the jobs that need to be done that week, and they work their magic to match up the open jobs with the people who sign up to do that type of work. At once flexible enough to allow members to do only the work they want to do, and structured enough to fill several hundred workshifts a week, the Labor System is a thing of administrative beauty. In a significant way, it is the backbone of the community and some people believe what kept us from folding like so many other 60´s communes.
What’s Changed Over 50 Years
Technology: Like the rest of the planet, this is more present here than ever before. Along with much of humanity, we have cell-phones, social media, websites, and our long-term ban of commercial television is somewhat moot in the age of online streaming video. However we do have some communal limitations on when, where and how much members can use some technology.
Child-Care: We long ago abandoned the 100% communal child-raising that Skinner favored and we practiced for a time, although we do still do some group childcare shifts.
Community Income Streams: During the “Pier 1 decades” (roughly the 70´s – 90´s), making hammocks comprised up to 80% of our communal income. When Pier 1 dropped us in the early 2000´s, we had already begun to diversify our businesses. Today, Hammocks makes up about 20% of our income, Tofu/Soyfoods about 30%, with the remaining 50% divided among various smaller collective businesses including Book Indexing, growing and packaging seeds for our sister-community Acorn’s Southern Exposure Seed Exchange company, doing administrative work for the Fellowship for Intentional Community, and more.
“No community is an island”: For many years, Twin Oaks was the sole intentional community in Louisa County where we are located. Beginning in the early 90´s when we helped start Acorn Community 8 miles from us (to accommodate our Waiting List of 25 people), every few years another new community has sprouted up, with appropriate tree-themed names to boot-first Acorn, then Sapling, and now Cambia (as in tree bark cambium) and Living Energy Farm (shortened to LEF, pronounced “leaf”). There is a high degree of interconnectedness among the Louisa communities, from Labor Exchange agreements to cross-community friendships and romances.
by Valerie (with commentary by her as well)
Twin Oakers have been known to make some very “creative-tasting” desserts. We also dumpster-dive a certain amount of food. Between those both, you never know what might make an appearance at dinner, or if you might find it to your taste….
The “O&I” Board (Opinions and Ideas) is where people can post a proposal to change something in the community. Proposals are written on clipboards on a big board, and any member who wants to can add their comments, expressing their enthusiasm or concerns about the proposed change. If you’ve written a comment, and someone else agrees with your perspective, instead of writing their own repetitive comment, they can just “ditto” what you wrote.
We have a system where any member can leave any other member a note for business or personal reasons. The system is getting somewhat less use now, since most (but not all) members are online and can message each other, but it still does get some use.
We have our own in-house (“in-commune”) All Request Dance Band (ARDB). A few months before every big holiday, the band asks people to suggest which songs they’d like the band to perform. People make requests, the band chooses some, they rehearse them, and at the next holiday, we dance the night away to those songs. New Year’s Eve (NYE) is one of our bigger dance parties.
Every month we have a new group of visitors, and inevitably, some members and visitors are interested in each other. We discourage intimate connections between members and visitors, since members have a power imbalance in that dynamic and we want to avoid that impacting any potential membership process (hence the “un-PC”).
The sign of a healthy community is not whether or not there is conflict–since conflict is an inherent part of living together–but rather how the conflict is handled. Ideally the two parties will talk about what happened and find resolution, but sometimes it’s just a relief to be able to let something go if someone leaves.
We have members whose job it is to go shopping in town for the group. To order an item, you fill out a “Twin Oaks Requisition”–T.O.R. for short. Ideally people put their TOR in a day or so before the town trip happens, but sometimes you have a very last-minute craving for your favourite junk food or you just have forgotten, and you can try to catch the town trip before they drive away.
Keegan and adder are joined by commune mom Megan Lebda to discuss a listener question about baby sleep habits. They also cover the news on a kidnapping and a commune, pagan rituals on the farm, and picture books with no words.
opening music: Commune Dads Theme – Nick Paoletti
closing music: Thingamajig – Audionautix