Theresa decided to hold a mycology camp this summer here at Glomus for Binghamton University students. The first step has been to build platforms for tents to house the students. Glomus members and visitors have helped Theresa build these platforms.
Here is a large tent that someone here had used last year that we just moved (piece by piece) to one of the new platforms. It will be used as a meeting space. Jules, who will be running the camp with Theresa, decided that the name of the new tent is “Calvatia” after the giant white puffball mushroom.
Here is a picture of the space where the tent had been before we moved it.
More additions to Calvatia include a kitchen space that Theresa and her main helper, Leo, built.
Here’s Theresa and Leo working on a foundation for stairs going into the back of Calvatia.
And here’s the stairs built.
Finally, here’s Theresa and Leo working on constructing an outhouse for the camp at Glomus.
Here they are again, with Dylan, a visitor, observing.
And, the final outhouse (with some Egg signs that were found around the farm we are on, tacked on).
There’s still more construction to go, but the camp isn’t until July.
Every community has a purpose. Sometimes it’s stated, sometimes not. And even if the community has a stated purpose, its actual purpose might be something different. And its purpose tends to evolve over time, intentionally or not.
Many communities are founded around a vision or ideology. For others the founding purpose is more simple, say, to be a close community of good neighbors. Either way, the founding and building of the community is an exciting time that brings people together, cultivates relationships, and in itself provides a sense of purpose.
At some point, successful communities achieve a certain level of stability and security, and the driving purpose of building the community falls away. In the absence of some other larger purpose at play, as communities become established, they have a tendency to default into maintenance mode. Even if there is a larger stated purpose, it tends to fall into the background. People start focusing less on the imminent shared project of building their community and more on living their own lives.
Now, you could ask, what’s wrong with this? Isn’t this kinda the point? Aren’t we trying to create places where people are able to just live their lives in communities that are based on a different set of values?
On some level yes, but this can’t be it. I mean, it can, but it tends to create some problems.
Also, to be clear, I’m making massive generalizations here. I’m certainly not saying this is true for all communities, but I do think it’s true to some degree for most communities, at least most secular communities. Religious communities, like the Amish, Bruderhof, and Hutterites have large networks of large communities that all together dwarf the secular intentional communities movement and don’t run into a lot of these problems. I think there’s a lot to be learned there.
So, what are the problems?
New people joining an established community tend to be attracted to the fact that it’s established, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. Starting a new community certainly isn’t for everyone. The problem is the tendency to start taking the community for granted. It’s difficult to comprehend what it took to get the community to where it is if you didn’t live through it. There isn’t the same motivation to give it your all in the way that creating a community takes. Maintaining a community simply doesn’t take as much work.
But maintenance is deceptive. On a physical level, infrastructure degrades slowly enough that it’s hard to perceive. And whenever you joined the community, that’s what’s normal for you. You don’t see how much things might have changed over the years. The tendency is for standards to slip as things get more run down, and this can become a feedback loop.
On a social level, relationships also require maintenance. But if you don’t have a big project drawing you all together you’re not going to have as much reason to do that work, and the sense of intimacy and cohesiveness will also tend to degrade slowly over time in ways that are hard to perceive, especially for new people.
In the absence of a clear sense of shared purpose groups start getting into what I call lowest-common-denominator politics. If we’re not trying to do something together, other than just maintain things, the tendency is to have a more divergent set of reasons for living in the community. This can create very different, potentially conflicting priorities. As time goes on, the only thing the group can really agree on is the status quo, even if no one is particularly happy with the status quo. And the group doesn’t even really talk about it because they know they won’t agree. So people start focusing more on changing things in little ways to suit themselves, seek to meet their needs in more individualistic ways, make little decisions bigger deals than they need to be, and are more prone to engaging in petty drama.
There’s also a moral imperative to not rest in simply maintaining a community. The world is burning. Business as usual is killing us. Simply doing more of the same, even if it’s a lot better than what’s happening in the mainstream, is not going to turn things around. There’s also the fact that it is a privilege to live in an intentional community. At this point in the world, any privilege we have is coming at the expense of an increasing number of other humans and non-humans. Not working to address oppression, injustice, and climate change is simply not a morally defensible position at this point in time.
So, why is having a shared purpose important?
When I say shared purpose, I don’t just mean something abstract. It may start there, as a vision statement, but it needs to get more specific. Mission statements take that a step further. But what’s the project? What are the specific goals and objectives? What are we actually trying to accomplish together?
Humans are very narrative-based creatures. We always have a story in our minds about what’s going on right now, in our lives, in the world. Having a sense of meaning is a basic human need, and we will always make things mean something. It’s what motivates us. We need to have some sense of why it is we do what we do, why we get out of bed in the morning.
We will also always have problems. Partly this is just the uncertain, uncontrollable nature of life. But it’s also because of our need for narrative. What are the struggles that define us and give us a sense of purpose?
The question becomes, what story are we choosing? What are we choosing to make things mean? What problems are we taking on?
It’s entirely possible to exist without any of this being anything particularly inspiring, but if it isn’t, then people aren’t likely to be particularly inspired. They’re less likely to want to extend themselves and put in effort beyond what is required. Having a shared purpose flips this. It creates an inspiring context that will be more motivating for people to engage and invest themselves. It will create deeper bonds. It will bring out creativity and innovation. It encourages us to look for collective solutions to individual problems and needs.
On a mundane level, having a shared purpose creates a context for our collective actions and decision-making. It makes lots of decisions easier because everyone has a shared sense of how they fit into the larger picture. It also gives us more motivation to work out conflicts and issues.
Having a shared purpose can also help satisfy the moral imperative. But to do that, I don’t think the shared purpose can be just anything. Specifically, I think the shared purpose needs to involve building and leveraging collective capacity to correct injustice, decrease the harm we’re doing to others and the planet, extend the privileges that we have to others (to the extent they are sustainable, and give them up where they are not), and work towards cooperative governance, equity, and local resilience, not just on our particular piece of property, but in our local areas.
Of course, building, maintaining, and developing communities has to be fun too. I know I can sound very doom and gloom. But I think we have to be willing to face the tragedy and crisis in order to really have the depth of joy and satisfaction that living in community has to offer. Even if it’s hard work with huge implications, getting to do it together, with people you enjoy and care about, building a vibrant culture is what makes it all possible and worthwhile.
So, for established communities that might be stuck in various ruts, how do they get out of this? There’s not an easy answer. Institutional self-evaluation does not tend to be a strong suit of mostly communities. Which is kind of ironic, because it seems like that should be a core aspect to being intentional as a community.
There are lots of processes groups can engage in, and lots of people groups can hire to help them run these processes (myself included, though I promise this isn’t just an elaborate sales pitch). But there has to be a critical mass of people who want to come together to do this work, who recognize that even though it feels overwhelming and impossible and will be intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually challenging, it’s worth it. And there has to be a sub-critical mass of people who are checked out or actively opposed to doing this work. Because fundamentally this is about coming together. The process has to reflect the outcome or any result won’t really be a shared purpose and you’ll be in the same place you started. For many groups I think the reality is that they are simply unlikely to be able to take this on short of some kind of crisis that forces them, and this is part of why we need people trying to start new communities. Groups that do want to do this kind of work probably won’t know they do until some number of people in them are brave, vulnerable, compassionate, adamant, and persistent enough to start the conversation.
Because on some basic level, that’s how this happens. Through conversations happening in caring relationships.
For me, as someone interested in helping start a community, the question is, can we foster the relationships and design the DNA of the community to be ongoingly self-reflective, to keep renewing it’s sense of shared purpose, and to keep showing up for each other and the world. I don’t know, but I’m excited to try.
Twin Oaks is finally getting some acknowledgement for their language use of many years. What I wrote on Facebook was: “Gender neutral? Twin Oaks Community was way ahead of the curve on pronoun use:” And Twin Oaks wrote: “TWIN OAKS in THE ATLANTIC. Gender-neutral pronouns are much used and discussed at our commune these days. An article in the June Atlantic refers to Twin Oaks’ early use of co.”
Sumner continues his interviews with ex-East Wind members–in this case, Tara and Reishi, who lived in the community around 2013-2016. This is the eighth in a series of his interviews. The others are: Macie, Warren, Zan, Jim Adams, Joston, Cayli, and two interviews of Boone.
Nevermind. I will assume that most of the folks who read this at least have heard of both of these guys.
Lenin became a Marxist in 1889. He believed strongly in Communism. What differentiated his way of thinking from Karl Marx’s was that Marx thought that people would spontaneously revolt and form a communist state. Lenin said, instead, that a “network of agents” could agitate and guide people to create a revolution. He started the Bolshevik Party which eventually seized power in Russia in 1917. He thought that a communist society could be formed this way.
The Soviet Union could be thought of as an experiment to see if you could create communism from the top down. We now know the answer to this. I suppose it might have been a useful experiment, but it involved several million participants, many unwilling. In most experiments with human subjects, participation is voluntary and there are ethical protocols to protect them. Hopefully, now that we know the outcome, this particular experiment won’t be repeated.
R. Buckminister Fuller was an architect and philosopher who was best known for designing the geodesic dome. He was expelled from Harvard University during his freshman year, but later received 44 honorary doctoral degrees. He wrote lots of books. My favorite quote from him is “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
In other words, instead of overthrowing a government and trying to impose communism on the population, if you want to create a communist society, you build a model that works first. And, if you view this as another experiment, try a small scale model that’s completely voluntary. Twin Oaks might be an example of that. Unlike the Soviet Union, Twin Oaks is still around. Everything about it hasn’t worked, but it’s an experiment and we can learn a lot by observing it. I know that Keenan Dakota doesn’t believe that Communal societies will defeat capitalism but give it time. We are still trying to build the right model and as we create new communities, we are learning what works and what doesn’t. Building from the bottom up takes a lot more time (which is why Lenin tried to use a shortcut), but it may be the only way to create something new.
I want to end with two other quotes from system designers:
“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work.” ― John Gall
“The way to build a complex system that works is to build it from very simple systems that work.” ― Kevin Kelly
I think of communes as simple systems that work–at least some of the time. If we want to create an alternative to this capitalist society, we can’t do it by starting from the top. We need to do it by building small scale models that may eventually make corporate capitalism obsolete–communes for example (and probably other things as well). I think that it’s the only way to go and I think Buckminister Fuller wins this round.
Meanwhile, here at Glomus, here’s Cicada of East Brook Community Farm (our communal business) bringing out the greens and veggies for our first weekly CSA of 2021. Farming is our business, and it’s a lot of work, but this is the payoff.
There are things Twin Oaks does reliably well and funerals are one of them.
I dislike most funeral formats. Too much religious singing or scripture, often reflecting the wishes of the minister rather than the person who passed. Too much waiting around for people who are not skilled at public speaking struggle to prove they really cared in oft too long and pained presentations.
Ex-member Kate facilitated the funeral in a Quaker style where people shared what they were moved to say. Almost everyone was funny in an appropriate way because we knew it would take powerful joy to cut the tragic sadness of losing this person with incredible potential. Very few prepared remarks (though Carly penned this amazing piece), lots of short heartfelt memories.
As an event organizer, I evaluate this from two perspectives: First is “What would Gwen think?” And I think she would have been very pleased at all these people from her life saying these comic and amazing things about her. She would have felt seen and celebrated.
But the other perspective is what it must be like to be one of Gwen’s girlfriends in attendance. What would it be like to be among so many people whose principal connection with my partner is that they raised her? Would they be like that relative who does not see how embarrassing it is to show these old photos?
No, we are better than that. There were some endearing stories of young Gwen, like the one Tigger, her father, told of Gwen at 4 years crying:
But this is a story of Gwen in control and defiant and it reveals perhaps the most important not-quite-secret ingredient in what makes commune collective child raising so great. We teach defiance.
We teach kids how to hide from their parents when that is appropriate. We teach kids how to know when to break any rule. But more importantly, we teach how to be a conscientious rule breaker. How to know when you’re breaking rules and which rules are silly and should simply be ignored and to know what rules matter and why.
Gwen was the closest thing Willow (my daughter) had to a sister. But in some ways commune life made them much closer than most siblings would be. For almost a decade they were in every class, preschool or play activity together. They ate most meals together, hung out together at most parties and celebrations. And they shared approximately 2 bazillion hours of various video game chats together. Most siblings a year apart in age spend much less time together.
Gwen’s coffin surrounded by family and clan
Understandably Willow is pretty broken up about it. She was crying often during the funeral. I don’t consider myself a particularly great parent. But one thing I feel our family did well with Willow was encourage her to cry things out. No shame in tears, they are expressing needed emotional release. Let them flow.
But I am not worried about Willow though she is clearly hurting. Because emotional resiliency is another not-so-secret ingredient.
Editor’s Note: Though it is a bit old fashioned, i try pretty hard to run blog posts past people who are featured and named in them, to make sure they are comfortable being represented this way. Willow gave her blessing and happily thought i was actually a fine parent. Kate who facilitates sacred ceremonies, was happy to be called out. And Gwen’s dad Tigger approved this text before it was published. Carly shared her letter and amazing pictures. Thanks to Summer for more pictures and Kelpie for edits and tech support. Thanks to all of them for quick turn around on this recent event
These snippets from the Commune Life and Twin Oaks Facebook pages say it all:
Things are very somber at Twin Oaks right now. A teenager, raised at Twin Oaks, was killed in a tragic accident. She was buried at Twin Oaks yesterday and there is a memorial service today in Charlottesville, a nearby city, where she was also raised.
FAREWELL GWEN. Almost 200 members, ex-members, family, and friends, gathered on Memorial Day to remember, share, grieve, and say farewell to much-loved Gwendolyn Tupelo.Gwen was buried in Twin Oaks graveyard. All who wished to speak did so, Quaker-meeting style. All who wished to do so helped fill in her grave. A candlelight vigil was held there late into the night.She will live on in our hearts. @ Twin Oaks Community