by Aurora DeMarco
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday: An Autobiographical Collage
It happens all the time. Someone will ask me what my 23 year old daughter is doing with her life and I respond proudly that she is living in a commune down in Virginia. Many people take an interest and want to learn more about this alternative life path, but then there are those who will say something like, “Don’t worry. This is just a phase. She’ll go back to college.” Could it be that these folks cannot imagine that I truly respect her choice to live according to her values and more importantly, I love that she seems so happy with her choices?
When my daughter decided to join Twin Oaks, a long established, egalitarian income sharing community in Louisa, Virginia, I was not surprised, given her frustrations with college.
Up until then she had been following the script of pursuing a standard education as a ticket to a fulfilling life. She, along with many of her friends, had been a very good student. When she graduated from Edward R. Murrow High School, she racked up an impressive collection of awards and accommodations. The only problem was that she was not happy with her life and was not hopeful for her future.
It seemed like many in her generation were just burnt out. They were tired of the competition and ached for more meaningful connection. Many of her friends were suffering from anxiety disorders, depression and addictive behaviors. By the end of her sophomore year she ached to get out of the grind and engage in real world experience. Many of her older friends graduating from prestigious colleges were in massive debt with little hope of getting work that fulfilled their career aspirations. She was not enjoying the classroom experience and was frustrated with “the jumping through hoops” mentality, finding the academics subpar and uninspiring. So she decided to drop out of college. When she told me she was quitting school I could understand why.
All along I had a vague sense that we adults were not doing right by our children.
In his book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting, Alfie Kohn writes:
“When we set children against one another in contests—from spelling bees to awards assemblies to science “fairs” (that are really contests), from dodge ball to honor rolls to prizes for the best painting or the most books read—we teach them to confuse excellence with winning, as if the only way to do something well is to outdo others.”
In the affluent neighborhood where I was raising my kids, it seemed like life for children was a call to perform and one competition right after another. Parents seemed to treat their kids like hood ornaments that they could brag about. “Show us your grades, show us your accomplishments” seemed to be the ethos of my privileged Brooklyn neighborhood. I always felt uncomfortable with it, but since she did well (i.e she got good grades and racked up her accomplishments) I reluctantly went along.
Instinctively, however, I knew there was something deeply misguided about the New York City Education system. High stakes testing was emphasized and determined what schools she could apply to. She was also part of the No Child Left Behind Generation. This put enormous pressure on her teachers to churn out good test takers often at the expense of making learning uninspiring and meaningless to her and her classmates. She often felt frustrated by the skill and drill education forced on she and her classmates. Schools started to function more like corporations rather than bringing out each child’s individual best. There was a “show us your bottom line” mentality. Her teachers were visibly frustrated that they were not allowed to teach the way they wanted to and this instilled in her a general sense that the people in charge of her education did not know what they were doing.
It seemed like many of our systems from politics, to economics, to health care, to higher education, were more about making a profit than serving people. Corporate greed seemed to trump human need and this problem pervaded many areas of our society. She, like many of her peers, identified strongly with the Occupy Movements and she is among the many young people supporting the revolutionary themes of the Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
After completing two years of college, she set out to find a community that would support her commitment to living sustainably, connecting with the earth on a spiritual level, and supporting her egalitarian cooperative values. After a brief stint in a spiritual community in the Berkshires, she decided to become a member of Twin Oaks, an intentional community founded in the late 1960’s. Her initial reports were tentative, “Is this how I want to live my life?” “Can I imagine making my life with these strangers and their unfamiliar norms?” By the end of her 3 week visitor period, she decided she wanted to apply for membership. As I drove her down to begin her new life at Twin Oaks, she still was questioning her decision. When we got there she proceeded to cry sitting on what would become her new bed. “What am I doing here?” she asked.
It didn’t take long for her feelings of uncertainty to change. When we spoke on the phone a week later, she was enjoying herself, adjusting to her new community, forming relationships and exploring her spiritual connections to the land and community. Her desire to get out of the classroom and learn in more hands-on ways seemed to be satiated and the anxiety and depression which had plagued her since middle school lifted. She liked being part of a community that emphasized alternative sexualities and she fully embraced the importance of consent culture. This was in stark contrast to the many horror stories about date rape and sexual harassment that she had already witnessed by the time she was 20 years old.
She was learning a new way of relating and developing new skills, from gardening, to cooking, to making tofu, to child and elder care. She quickly took on planning positions and became the manager of food processing. Because Twin Oaks is income-sharing and egalitarian, at the age of 21 she was fully economically independent from her father and me. She had her own health care insurance and steady work. In a real world setting that depended on her to pull her own weight by managing the labor demands of a community of 100 people, she was learning how to work cooperatively. She is also learning many different things from many different people, both members at Twin Oaks and visitors from around the world.
When I visited her for the first time, she was solid in her decision and a true believer in simple, sustainable, communal living. I left that visit happy for her and more than just a little envious. I pulled out of the Twin Oaks roadway, passing the fenced in cows and lovely vegetable gardens, wishing that I too could find my tribe and live communally. I also wanted to live according to my values and to be part of a movement that challenged the wasteful isolation of the typical consumer-driven middle class lifestyle.
At the time, I was in graduate school studying for my Masters in Social Work and every chance I got I wrote and spoke about building community as the antidote to many of our social ills. Shortly thereafter I decided to move to Ganas, an intentional community on Staten Island, with my 12 year old daughter.
Ultimately we parents want our children to be happy. It always plagued me that I felt uneasy about the environment I was raising my kids in.
A great deal of lip service is paid to the idea that “it takes a village” to raise our children. However, when there is scarcity and have and have nots, this devolves quickly into looking out for one’s own and a feeling of isolation and emptiness. So many of my daughter’s peers seemed accomplished, but were unhappy. I wonder what it would have been like for them to have been raised in a more cooperative culture? I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that more time would have been devoted to learning how to build sustainable connection rather than collecting gold stars.