In early April I was biking from Washington DC to my hometown of Greenville, SC, on an old mountain bike with all my belongings tied on to it with paracord from Walmart. At the end of the third day I was 150 miles into my journey, in the middle of nowhere Virginia. The sun was setting and I was loudly dying of exhaustion as I pedaled slowly past a pointed sign, ‘cyclists welcome.’
I looked at the place, looked at the sign, looked at the road ahead, looked at myself, looked at the sign.. I was indeed a cyclist and all signs pointed to a place that I would be welcome. I didn’t even notice the giant, suspended boat with a deck built around it, or the huge wooden tricycle immediately to my right. I didn’t notice much other than an old house and a rumbling in my tummy. I hopped off the bike, walked past another welcoming sign, and knocked on the door.
I never got back on the bike.
I had arrived just in time for dinner. Gil, who had let me in, was cooking, while another dirty man, woman, and child smiled at me from the bed in the kitchen. I was sweating so much it looked like I had pissed myself. My first impression was suspicious, but after a shower and being shown the composting toilet I felt mostly safe with my new hippie friends. We laughed a lot at dinner and I decided I would stay a day to rest and see what this place was about.
5 weeks later I was driven to the bus stop to complete my ride into South Carolina.
Cambia is a small egalitarian community comprised of nomads and a small central family. They build everything on their property themselves, live in harmony with the natural world around them, and work as hard as they play. I have never known such immediate, unpretentious warmth and love. We lived together, worked together, and played together. I’ve probably never had so much fun, like, ever. Can’t wait to see them again.
This Spring a team of colorful communard builders convened for a secular barn raising. Even though everyone came for different personal reasons, the shared goal was clear, make an old sheep barn more hospitable for commune members. One would assume that a simple, tangible goal would lead to a predictable week, but jumping to that conclusion would skip all the flying fish and cornucopia of magic that happened in-between.
Within the Federation for Egalitarian Communities (F.E.C.) this type of trip is called a LEX, and it’ as culturally far from the norm as East Brook is from any major city. With each turn down another unmarked country road, you are taking another deviation from the cultural norms around work, leadership, and purpose. Officially a LEX, short for Labor Exchange, is a time based currency used between participating members of the F.E.C. through which community members can help their fellow communities, and expect equitable hourly return of help at their own community Yet, the culture of LEX goes far beyond any quantifiable market exchange, and unlocks a culture of radical generosity that questions cultural norms most people take for granted.
While driving down Country Highway 22, the first intersection I had to make a turn at was “Construction projects need clear blueprints in order to be productive.” It seemed obvious that would be a right turn, but I was wrong. On the first day of the build, the travel weary crew was introduced to a small warehouse of materials and an even smaller dilapidated barn, with the general guiding principle being, “The more of these new building materials that we can refurbish the old dilapidated barn with, the closer we will be housing more communards.” One week later 1,000 square feet of insulated flooring was installed, two new walls were built, two doors were installed, and the ceiling was made watertight with a glistening new roof, and yet I didn’t see a single blueprint drawn. Not even a back of the envelope sketch was made. This whole project was a streaming interplay of experimentation, action, teaching and rethinking.
The next crossing on the road was across the train of thinking that says “successful projects need leaders”, which I expected to be a mandatory stopping point, but instead we rolled right passed it. While gaining labor credits through LEX was a periphery benefit to some of the builders, the majority of us came with the intention to gain more confidence in our building skills. Keenan and Nina have decades more building experience than the rest of us, but I’d be surprise if an observer would have been able to discern this. Both of them held space for learning in the egoless way a graceful mentor let’s you flourish in the skills you already have while opening the door for you to lean into your learning edge. It wasn’t that we were leaderless, but more accurately it was that each of us lead ourselves to show up the responsibilities we could fearlessly accomplish.
Now that the previous turns had lead me to unfamiliar territory I knew to turn the other direction when I arrived at the assumption that “efficient productivity needs schedules”. One of the experiences of commune culture that has profoundly changed my life is the experience of abundant food, beauty and friendship without the sweaty palm anxiety of fiscal scarcity putting you a couple paychecks away from being homeless. This separation of work from pure fiscal survival, to making work a voluntary choice to celebrate ones gifts within their chosen commune family, is rarely more alive than at a LEX build. From 6 a.m. till 7:30 p.m. there was a steady stream of workers gracefully picking up the hammer where the last person left off. Slipping away for a nap or meandering down to the stream to get lost in the glistening water where so common that announcing you were taking a break felt unnecessarily formal. We all trusted that everyone was giving as much as they felt called to, and our love for each other dwarfed the importance of renovating a barn, so we skipped planning our day in the morning, and instead celebrated our accomplishments in the evening.
I knew I was close to my destination when I was faced with the assumption that “hot tubs are expensive indulgences for wealthy people” and I turned the other direction to arrive at East Brook. Communes tend to be wealthy in “resource yards”, sometimes called junk piles by other Americans, which are often stocked with a variety of metal tubs. These bulky containers are as hard to find a use for as they are to get rid of, so they tend to become vernal pools for mosquitoes. However a few of us had experience turning these treasures into fire heated hot tubs, lovingly referred to as Hippy Stew pots. With juvenile enthusiasm we tinkered and toiled until the old barn was outfitted with the makings of a hot tub. Granted it took a few kettles of water boiled in the kitchen to nudge the temperature up to the point of indulgence, but the sensation of winning at life was authentic.
Now that all my assumptions on people’s relationship with work had been inverted, I was hardly surprised when fish began raining from the sky. We were cautiously enjoying a hot afternoon, after a couple days of snow in late April left us suspicious of the order of the seasons, when an epic toil of prehistoric ferocity began in the sky above us. An osprey resolutely clutching a fresh fish catch from the adjacent brook was blindsided by an eagle that mistook the osprey for a food delivery service. The two toiled hundreds of feet above the ground, claws and feathers rolling through the sky in defiance of gravity, until the still squirming fish slid out from the talons and came plummeting towards us. With a crash it landed gasping for water on the metal roof. Maximus and Rachael swiftly collected, gutted and fried it. That night I ate flying fish, and when I tasted it, I realized that to be abundantly wealthy is to be grateful for all that I have already been given.
Gossip gets embellished as it travels. Things heard second hand should be verified with the speaker. Beware words taken out of context, even if the context is the room next door. Good communities practice all that.
While this is true as far as it goes, it misses the tremendous complexity around the issue of gossip and how important it is to both the culture and success of a community venture.
What is gossip? It is certainly more than an opinion expressed about someone who is not in the room. “Trump is a misogynist racist,” isn’t gossip, unless you are close to him. It is just an opinion. “Cindy is gifted at fixing cars,” almost certainly does not qualify either, as most people think gossip is a negative opinion.
“Paxus is a poor driver.” What if this is something I have said myself and you are simply repeating it? Is it gossip if the target is the source?
Let me propose a harsher definition: Gossip is a critical judgment shared about a person or group, often in conspiratorial or secretive tones, while not directly communicating with the subject of the gossip.
Using this definition one might reasonably be concerned that gossip would have an acidic effect on the fabric of the community. One of the common anti-gossip norms that exist in the communes is if you hear something critical about someone you could ask, “Have you told this to them?” This is the antidote to gossip; being transparent with the subject of the rumor.
Back in the 80s, as I was just becoming aware of community living, when I was making a critical comment about gossip, my dear friend and mentor Crystal replied “Gossip is the fabric of the community,” and it took me a couple of decades to understand what he was talking about.
Even when using the negative it turns out gossip is important for a community to be healthy. Members need to confide in confidants about their frustration with others in the community. Ideally, this is less about spreading rumors and more about seeking advice. “How do I deal with this headachy circumstance?” or “Do you understand their motivations for this strange behavior?” or “I was so upset and they were clueless, what is really happening here?”
In the best light, gossip is the flow of self-critical and self-correcting messages which members share in the lead up to actually addressing the problems. [Where the “self” here is the larger collective one, rather than the individual personal one.] You talk about things which are on your mind with the people who you live with and they help you reflect back on what you should do about it. Recognizing that if you are being critical of another member of your community, you are obligated to get back to them with your concern.
In this way, gossip within a community is different from what happens in the mainstream. If I am being critical or concerned about another member, I have a larger obligation to do something about it than I do if it is a co-worker or random stranger. If you have a substance abuse problem and we live collectively, not only can it blow back on me in a problematic way, but I have made some level of commitment to take care of you. If we are part of the same intentional community and I am worried about your mental health, I can’t casually gripe about it to another member, we have to be considering what our course of action is regarding this problem. Even less dramatic problems other members are experiencing a poor choice of romantic partners or headache with a boss are much more shared in a community setting than when living independently. Gossip in community has more obligation to it.
It is worth pointing out that Twin Oaks does not embrace this culture. In my large commune, if you don’t want to deal with someone you can completely shut down communication with them. This is terrible for clearing gossip but might make it possible for some people who really do not see eye to eye to be able to live together. And because the community is so large these estranged members (including me) just try to avoid each other.
It is worth pointing out that when ex-Oakers founded Acorn with financial assistance from Twin Oaks, this was one of the most important things they wanted to do differently. Acorn (and many other communes) have a communication covenant which makes it the community’s business when members are failing to communicate. When you are designing communities one of the thorniest issues is when do you give power to the collective over the individual members. And gossip is one of the few places you should seriously consider it.
I found a book in the library calledThe Five Dysfunctions of a Teamby Patrick Lencioni. It was focused on business executive teams, but I found a lot of it applicable to communities. His five dysfunctions were Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. To put it in positive language, I would say that in creating a team or a community you need to build trust, be willing to disagree, be able to make commitments, and also be held accountable, before you can achieve results.
A friend of mine pointed out that every group, including communities, has to deal with power dynamics. It may be especially true in the commune world.
If we want to build diverse, inclusive communities, we need to deal with these dynamics. We need to deal with anyone dominating conversations, and ignoring or disregarding the contributions of others. While white men are the prime offenders, we need to call out anyone with these behaviors. And it’s not just women and people of color who get trampled on, but queerfolk, people with disabilities, and working class and poor people. In fact, the whole community is often being trampled on.
To return to what I began with, when you have a person or a few people dominating in a community, it’s impossible to build real trust. People become afraid to disagree with these folks and have no desire to give real commitments to the community. Accountability is at least difficult, if not impossible, under these circumstances, and what results happen are usually not what the group wants.
Patrick Lencioni claims that what gets in the way of teams achieving results is a focus on people’s status and ego. Well functioning teams do not have stars; they have a group of people willing to listen to each other and work together. If that’s true in the business world, how much more so with communes. Having dominating people makes true community impossible.
Changing all this is not easy. If you are dealing with strong people, you will probably need a cohesive group to confront them. The more the group can be clear about what it wants and needs, the better the chances of getting it. And that goes back to the need to build trust among this group.
It’s difficult work, but if our communes are going to be truly egalitarian, it’s work that needs to be done.
Cotyledon is a egalitarian, income-sharing residential community in Queens, New York, dedicated to environmental and food justice, radical sharing, personal growth and accountability, clear communication, and simple, cooperative living.
The outside of the building we are in.
A view of the living room
Another view of the living room
The Cotyledon members:
And the three of us together
This is Smiling Hogshead Ranch, one project the three of us are involved with.
We are staying in a 4 bedroom apartment in Astoria, but we have a plan to eventually grow and move into a larger home, staying close to Western Queens.
Donald’s View Intentional Community, Eagle Rock, Virginia
“Where we are” geographically is the rural area near Roanoke, Virginia. But, at Donald’s View Intentional Community, thinking before doing is really where we are. To us, location is important in terms of connection to the land. And, as important as this connection is, what is also important is the state of mind we are in: questioning. Questioning everything: reality, “diversity,” our own lives and experiences, the importance of information vs. the importance of intuition in establishing a grounded interspiritual (including secular) community in the mountainous rural South. While this may seem idealistic and impractical, we feel it is more impractical to lack a heartfelt connection to our surrounding community. So that has become one of the important things we are thinking about. After researching many intentional communities, we found that the communities that lasted–as we hope ours will–have a visionary inspiration at their core. So that is another thing we are thinking deeply about as we form.
A third thing we are thinking about is purchasing the land. While we do not currently own it, we do have an option to buy it at a very low price and we have some money that may be set aside for this purpose.
What we want right now are people to think with us. Thinking-with is underrated in our culture. Thinking possibly for a very long time before doing is underrated and often confused with procrastination or inaction. Forming an IC requires practical work but any long-lasting IC requires a well conceived foundation. If we want a long lasting structure of heart, we must start with a foundation of heart.
Our aim is that all our community’s founders enjoy developing our core values with us. These core values are: diversity, consciousness, bridging and communication. In more detail, we express these core values as:
Diversity is a core value in part because of our history: a slave (Michael’s great-great-grandfather) bought the property that was the main impetus for Donald’s View from his “owner” after the Civil War; the land Donald’s View is on was the less-valuable, harder-to-farm “Negro area” where Blacks were allowed to live during Reconstruction. This land was also part of the homeland of the Monacan people before they were chased off of it, due largely to European invasion. The history of the land has a primary place in our thinking about how to build our IC. It is maintained and respected by making diversity a formal component of the community.
Consciousness, in the dominant culture and a good number of intentional communities, is an afterthought, or an assumption that either a shared religion will lead to consciousness, or that values suffice to ensure we increasingly develop conscious awareness. An active effort to grow in consciousness is important to heal the wounds inflicted by the dominant culture. It is not enough to acknowledge that the dominant culture has wounded almost everyone. Instead, we should actively work to heal in part by working with others in a community who are doing the same. Active consciousness work is a necessity for our community to be strong.
Bridging is reaching out, and extending ourselves to different others, on purpose. At Donald’s View, this means reaching out through service to our surrounding geographic community. Humans are communal animals. Attempting to live in a vacuum is a resolution to staying wounded.
Communication is the glue that binds all our other core values together. It is through communication that we will have success in diversity. It is through true communication that we may help each other grow in consciousness. Communication is the building material of social bridges.
We get guidance through structured intuitive sessions with the non-visible but sentient energies associated with our community and its land who have proven themselves helpful many times over. We do a lot of listening to our higher guidance and the spirits of the land and intentions we’ve set. We have a mission statement not only for our community but for the process of creating our community.
These meetings–and thinking itself, as an activity–may look like procrastination or inaction. But they are very different from them. We seldom talk about this quiet level of our activity. But we are “coming out” in this piece, especially to people who get thinking as a kind of doing. Especially thinking that takes its inspiration from the land. Thinking that takes the highest rather than the lowest common denominator as its guide. In the confidence we can not just hear, but converse reliably and actionably with energies perceived outside what is considered normal awareness but prove to be practical.
We realize our process may sound strange, weird, or excessively “woo-woo” to some readers. We don’t expect anyone to believe the things we do. We don’t expect anyone reading this to start listening to non-visible energies. We do want co-founders who will use their rational minds to think with us. For us, integration between the rational and intuitive is possible.
If anyone else is interested in our process, of course we’ll share. And if others have intuitive processes they use that work, we are interested as well. Our purpose in this article is to enrich the discourse around what “counts” as forming and allow others to join in it with us.
Examples of the things we have wondered in our meetings and gained guidance on:
Are we waiting too long to develop Donald’s View? (No).
Should we present at the Communities conference this year? (Yes.)
Can we get Superfund clean-up money to help remediate some rubber dumped on the land? (No.)
What does it mean that we are taking this long? (Others are starting to put in the infrastructure we will want without our ever having anticipated this would happen, for one thing.)
What does the timing mean of learning about about the rubber dumping right after our first Founding Meeting when no one present but us wanted to move onto this land? (One thing it means is integrating the rubber into our building plans. Another is to change our direction enough that we will have an entirely different Founding Meeting when our new direction is clear.)
What does it mean that so many obstacles arise in our path yet nothing ever seems to say, “Stop”? (It means: keep listening, keep taking one small action, take good notes, keep your word to each other, keep your meeting schedule, keep listening. It means trust yourselves and trust your guidance. Don’t let the world reframe what you are doing as procrastination or inaction. It means trust that every single thing that arises in this “lab” is important, and useful, and meant to be used in developing according to your intention.)
One of our favorite insights about Donald’s View came not from the non-visible but from our very visible human sister, Courtney Dowe, who has this post and this one too in the Commune Life Blog: the shape of the land we hope to build on looks like the human development process itself: flat, perhaps, and not very interesting, then rough as you climb, and then the most stellar views at the top. As the saying goes, the best views come after the hardest climb.
If you are interested in learning more about Donald’s View or in thinking more about it with us, here is our community description in the Fellowship for Intentional Community Directory, and you can contact Beth at firstname.lastname@example.org or (304) 410-2612.