By that I mean the intentional kind. Some of the coolest people in the area where I grew up live on an intentional community about 16 miles outside of town. They have an eco-machine designed by John Todd and built with him there as part of a workshop. It handles the graywater or effluent for 12 households while producing organic cut flowers as a cottage industry. When my son was an infant, he and my (ex) husband and I lived there for a while. We had been trying to start an intentional community with another group, on the other side of the county out in Penns Valley, when I was pregnant. But the land-owning couple ended up getting a divorce, and the whole endeavor dissolved. Turns out the intentional community idea was an attempt to save their marriage. Turns out living at the community with the eco-machine was an attempt to save my marraige. It didn't.
But I was already fascinated by intentional community. When I was a freshman in college, I dated a boy whose family was part of a sort of loose spiritual community called the "Sunflower School Community." Some of the families had purchased land around each other just to homeschool their kids together in a beautiful structure they built at one of their members' farms; the Sunflower School. They were homesteading, growing organic vegetables and living with solar panels hooked up to banks of car batteries to run simple things like stereos and computers. One of the couples have a market greenhouse using a wood-burning stove cocked to the side so you could feed fuel down into it, submerged in a large tank of water with irrigation tubes feeding out of it that run under the soil, so they don't have to worry about heating the air to grow food, they heat the soil instead and enjoy a hot tub together in the green house every now and then. Awesome. They let me stay in a loft in the Sunflower School building for a summer, when I was 19, just to absorb it all.
The spiritual part of their lives consisted of doing sweat lodges together once a month. They were very respectful about it. My first sweatlodge was led by a Mohawk elder, that summer at the school. It changed the way I thought about myself and my "kindred spirits." We had local gatherings back then, called "Kindred Spirit Gatherings," a group that was formed as "The West Branch Susquehana Bioregional Association." As a group, we found we were more attracted to the food, and the songs, and the opportunity to do a sweat lodge together now and then. The Kindred Spirits lingered on for many years as a gathering of friends, and the "bioregional group" idea eventually morphed into the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, or PASA.
That was many years ago, back in the 80s: the Reagan years.
That same summer I went to my first (and second to last) National Rainbow Gathering. It was in Cherokee National Forest. I ended up doing a sweat lodge with some Native American guys, two Cherokee brothers and two Ojibwa guys, also brothers. We left the gathering site and went to watch one of the brothers from Cherokee who was in a play they do at the reservation, called "Unto These Hills," which tells the story of the Cherokee -- and we were pulled over for "driving while Indian" on our way over to the reservation. The driver was Ojibwa; he had a condom in his wallet and the officer who wanted his license saw it and said he wouldn't need it if he didn't hang out with a slut like me. They were calling him "chief" the whole time. He also had a six pack of beer in the back, so they made him come back a month and half later all the way from Michigan to North Carolina to stand there in court and be told the charges were dropped, pay a fine.
My second and last National Rainbow Gathering was up in Vermont. I and my friends showed up early and had such a good time, everyone working together to build temporary camps and outdoor kitchens, making friends and taking care of kids -- I always spent my time at the "Center for Alternative Living Medicine," CALM, which was a MASH field tent with a core volunteer staff including at least one or two combat veteran field medics. I learned so much at CALM. If you go to one of these Rainbow gatherings early, you meet these people from an old community who are the first to set up, who come from all over the country but know each other well from years of doing this together. Lots of Vietnam veterans (back when I was going to them). It was such a wonderful experience and then as July 4th approached, 20,000 people suddenly descended on the camp. It was disturbing. At CALM we had to babysit a possible sex offender, he could not stop babbling horrible things he wanted to do to women, out loud, a constant stream of lunacy. He was a vet from the Korean war and had an awful bayonet wound scar all the way down his leg. It was sad... after the gathering someone would take him back to where he came from, the streets of Albany, and dump him off. (Reagan years: think "mental health crisis.") When I saw a CNN helicopter fly overhead one day, I packed up and left, and never went back. But I will always love and respect the Rainbow Family community.
That local intentional community -- the one with the eco-machine -- was part of an organization called The School of Living, a small land trust with a handful of intentional communities in the northeast as members. They have wonderful, weekend-long quarterly meetings at a different intentional community every time. The group is based on the philosophies of people like Ralph Borsodi and Henry George. I went to quarterly meetings regularly for years and eventually served on the board for a couple of years. It's a part of the Fellowship of Intentional Community and the Council of Georgist Organizations. I'm planning to go to the July meeting, if I can. That's more my speed.
There's a book I found when I was a freshman in college, called American Communities, an interesting collection of essays by a man who traveled around to communities like Onieda and the Shakers, I think it was in the year 1889, writing about their economies; what works well, what doesn't. It's a bit like George Orwell's sociological studies, something like "The Road to Wigan Pier." I've visited at least a dozen intentional communities in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic US, and have lived at two well-established communities for a time and two attempted start-ups. I've always wanted to write a version of "American Communities" myself.
Boy, do I have stories.
Some of the lessons I've learned about community over the years stand out in my mind:
♥ Look for a community that produces or at least, attempts to produce, more than half of its own food. If they order bulk grains and other store-bought groceries together, group seed orders, that type of thing, it's a good sign. Extrapolated to an online community, look for one that embraces diversity and produces and respects original ideas and content (like this one here at Daily Kos).
♥ Look for a community that has some regular social activity they do together: a weekly potluck dinner, for example, that everyone attends. The community that drums together once a month on a full moon with a nice local micro-brew, stays together.
♥ How many community business meetings do they have, and how often? Do they get things done together well? If a community has several "issues meetings" and conflict resolution meetings per week or per month, run.
♥ For myself, if the community has a spiritual leader or common religion, run.
♥ Every community has at least one mentalist who controls everyone else. They can be good, sort of like Gandalf, or evil, or chaotic, but they are there. You'll know who they are because they will be the first to volunteer to be your personal sponsor, or they'll be eager to give you a tour and show you the ropes. Meanwhile, your sponsor's closest personal friends and followers will act like they hate you. They do. Depending on the emotional maturity of the entire community, that may or may not last. But you have to eventually be accepted by the mentalist(s) and the rest will follow; that or walk away.
♥ In a community based on consensus decision-making, three people alligned together can control every single decision the group ever makes, no matter how large the community.
♥ "Consensus minus one" can sometimes resolve that issue. However, sometimes, one person is right and the group is wrong. At least be aware of that.
♥ Use Robert's Rules for any important group decision-making.
♥ Beware of gossip. There is always a prima donna, male or female, who wants to deeply confide in you right away and fill you in about everyone's back-story. These people have an agenda. They are looking for allies to take sides with them against their enemies; they are reinforcing a lie; or they might be planting a message they want you to repeat to someone else. I was brand new at an intentional community and asked one of its members to please stop gossiping so much, it was making me really uncomfortable. Thereafter, I was her mortal enemy, in her mind, simply for calling her on it. Gossip, no matter how trivial, is almost always vicious.
♥ Beware of TMI. If you are trying to get to know someone and they immediately inform you about some horrible childhood incident or history of sexual abuse or some deeply disturbing personal story that is too intimate for someone to share with a person they just met, it's a set up. They are trying to win a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card. Some people deserve one. But generally, male or female, this person is Blanche Dubois -- they have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Secretly, they are desperate but expert manipulators. They want to latch on to you and make you their personal servant and mascot.
In an online community, "TMI" can be somewhat different. Reading text lacks emotional content. Tone of voice can be opaque. You have to read into it. As we all know, online communities can be wonderful to address how severed we all can feel at times from real, caring, personal connections. Online, a piece of TMI can be one of the only ways to "be real" together. Plus, it's difficult to cultivate personal servants online (wink)... it's usually more about being brave to make a "real" connection. If it feels manipulative, or "way too soon," question it. If it doesn't, maybe it's an honor that you're being trusted as a confidante.
♥ Talking therapy is overrated. The best way for two people to resolve a conflict is to build something together or do some necessary chore together. Patch a roof, or plant a field together, or build a wall as Robert Frost suggests.
♥ "Talking therapy" is not the same as telling someone what's bothering you. It's important to be clear, and matter-of-fact, even about feelings. Give people a chance directly to say their piece and keep the grapevine out of it. Then go can twenty bushels of peaches together.
♥ The grapevine can't actually be avoided. It's everywhere and we all use it from time to time. Everybody needs some way to vent or they will explode someday. So, it's everyone's personal responsibility to see the grapevine for what it is. Never believe anything you hear that you haven't confirmed directly. Take a moment to ask yourself if the talker or the listener has an agenda, and put it aside until all relevant information is confirmed. Be independent, but aware. And don't shoot the messenger.
♥ I have heard communitarians suggest recording every phone call. Look out for fascism and spying. Run.
♥ People are afraid to get close. Sometimes this results in pushing people away before they can hurt you. This isn't just "in community," this is everyone. Be open, be yourself, and let people earn your trust, don't just give it away. But, at the same time, you have to spend love to make love. We all know that.
♥ People in community tend to use the word "family." Red-flag, might have to run...
I recently had a huge fight with my brother, this past winter. He was being just awful. He said something he can't take back. So I told him; "Never say that to me again. You do it again, and I will tell you again; No more. You do it three times, and you are out." But he's my brother. If he does that three times, I will freaking take him back and keep loving him. Three Strikes rules just aren't fair. Families (in my experience) just don't do that. But communities have to draw a line somewhere.
We all want to find or have found "our people" who are just so much better than those jerks we're stuck with in our families. We all want very much to find "the ones" who will let us get away with anything we've got going on and still love and accept us, "the family," you know? But a family system will have its power structures, its omerta, its scapegoats, enablers, and bullies. We're only human. But generally, if you hear the word "family" thrown around a whole lot, run.
♥ Not everyone will like you. You don't have to make everyone like you.
♥ No one is disposable.
♥ Most people, left to their own devises, don't even bother to go beyond the grapevine. One rumored strike, you're out. Look for a community that has an understood and valued process for nonviolent communication and mediation, without the emo factor (unless you thrive on that sort of thing). Emotional safety is critical. Too much emotion is a "cry for attention." Prima donnas love this. Too little attention to emotion or an intolerance for it is just cold, sterile and deranged. There's a balance.
♥ Never admit you can type.
♥ Always let people save face.
♥ Everybody is doing their best.