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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Remembering and thanking my community for the riches of life

“Don’t get high on your own supply.”

Yes, “Scarface” sums up one of my basic problems. In fact, it’s how I wound up with a bookstore. A lot of people ask if I save the “best books” for myself? Um … yeah. There are a lot of books that never make it to the sales floor—either because they get put aside for me or one of the staff buys it. But the way I define “the best books” might surprise readers.

6There are obvious pieces: “Lysistrata” with Picasso illustrations, for example. Or anything signed by one of my heroes. Or really arcane theatre books. But there are books that stop me in my tracks and can absorb entire days of productivity—and not because of any perceived monetary value.

A few years ago a large oversized paperback appeared in a box I was unpacking. I had seen another copy of it years earlier—but not another since. Yet, there it was in my hands:  “Communities Directory.” What many people would think of as a “commune” (in the ‘60s sense) is described by the 100,000-plus people who live communal lifestyles as “Intentional Community.” The scale of shared life and possessions runs the gamut, from shared housing to no ownership of possessions, with each community deciding how they can best function. Published by Fellowship for Intentional Community, the book is an international listing guide for communities around the world. Besides such basic information as location—and whether they are open to visitors or not—it also answers questions as to structure and focus: Co-housing? Sustainable? Religious?

I flipped through to the letter K. There it was: the listing for the community that took me in and changed my life over a decade earlier.

So, yes, that book went home with me. Periodically, I leaf through it when I need to take a trip down nostalgia lane or remind myself of values and priorities I have embraced and struggled to live for most of my adult life. What I didn’t understand at the time was how I really found Utopia. But it was ephemeral, a moment in time I couldn’t sustain and had not yet experienced enough of life to truly appreciate.

I lived on a beautiful organic farm on more than 300 acres of land in the Appalachian Mountains, with a greenhouse that covered a third of an acre, five smaller greenhouses, solar power, gravity-fed spring water, buildings as close to zero impact as possible—including designs based on Buckminster Fuller’s work. It was heaven on earth, people searching for something deeper, something more meaningful to belong to.

I left the farm when the land was sold and the dream had run its course. I’ve heard myself say a lot of things about the farm out loud over the years:

“It was easy to be vegan living on an organic farm, but when I went to college, it just meant eating junk food.”

“I learned permaculture by living it.”

“We were as close to off-the-grid and self-sustaining as we could get.”

“Living in that level of intimacy and honesty with a group of people is much harder than most would think.”

“I don’t think I could go back to it now.”

Kate Spring published a piece titled “To Grow Love: A Farmer’s Manifesto” in the most recent issue of Taproot magazine. Included was this gem:

“Let that love grow a community; self-sufficiency is a myth. Become community sufficient, and you will find space and peace in the strength of many hands; you will have solace and support in the ugly moments.”

It started stirring thoughts that had been slowly and quietly fermenting for the last few years—bringing them to the surface and forming into words. Jock and I try to live centered around “doing” rather than “ordering” and putting things on a credit card. If something breaks, we fix it—or learn how to. We continue to deepen our relationship with food, and we strive for more and more preparedness and sufficiency.

Years ago Jock impressed upon me that if the world fell apart for us—and there were years we played foreclosure roulette—the real capital we had in our lives was not in the bank but among friends and neighbors.

I think I am realizing (though, I left the farm geographically) what really happened is the essence of the farm—what I needed to learn from it—is being lived in a larger geographic area. The intentional community I work with, struggle with and strive with isn’t bordered by a mountain-ridge line, a driveway or any survey marker.

Do I still learn permaculture by doing it? Yes, and it will be a lifelong study. Permaculture is a fancy word for intentionally designed sustainable farming. I am slowly—very slowly—working on integrating food-producing plants into the landscape design for my house on Market Street. More days and hours than I can count have been devoted to planning, rethinking, replanning, reworking, and observing the yard, to try and develop something with thoughtful harmony as my guiding principal.

I still wrestle with food choices; the moral, ethical, political, and health impacts of those choices. Perhaps they frustrate me now more than when I was 17 and had the certainty and absolute convictions of adolescence. I used to be good at “giving things up” (dairy, sodas, coffee); all forms of denial made me feel like I was somehow achieving or contributing to the betterment of the world—or at the very least my body and life. Now, I’m not so sure, and I wrestle, painfully at times. I am so lucky and privileged; there are so many people who would love to have the luxuries I take for granted: ice cream on demand, for example. That sounds foolish. But I am fortunate enough to be able to buy ice cream if I want it at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., seven days a week. That’s not the case everywhere in the world—or even the country. A few years ago I startled Jock and a few close friends by experimenting with eating meat, something I hadn’t done in over a quarter of a century.

“Why now?” Nini asked.

“I just felt a need to revisit these choices that were made by someone who wasn’t an adult—by a child, really—and see if they were still valid; if they were still the right choices for me. The unexamined life is not worth living.”

One of the issues many communities face is the need for revenue to keep the resources flowing, taxes paid and wolves from the door. Twin Oaks, an incredibly long-lasting community founded in 1967 (inspired by the principals in the book “Walden Two” by B. F. Skinner), makes and sells hammocks, tempeh, garden plants, and seeds. Their off-shoot community, Acorn, sells seeds and was involved in a lawsuit against Monsanto.

The farm I lived on had no source of revenue that we all participated in. Everyone was responsible for their own finances. Though we contributed labor to the running of the farm (from producing food for everyone to maintaining the physical plant), we did not have a monetary fund to support our future endeavors; to invest in our future and shared growth. That, more than anything else, was what did us in.   

I have labored ‘lo these many years for the bookstore, the building and the renovation of the house on Market Street to open as a B&B, and I have felt guilt much of the time. That might be a surprising confession. But every time I say “no” to someone whose books we don’t buy; every time I have to explain if you have an event at the bookstore the sales must go through the register because we have utilities, payroll, taxes, etc.; every time someone asks for a job and I don’t have one available or the money to fund a position …  I feel guilty. Even though we make very little money in gross and rarely a little profit, I feel guilty. It is true. Just learning how to say “no” to myriad requests that would drain all the resources from the bookstore, bankrupt us and render the entire journey moot was hard—very hard. Sharing is not my problem—not giving away everything to the detriment and impovishment of my loved ones is my problem.

The only way I am able to say “no” and still get through the day is to realize it isn’t about me. I have to say “no” to protect the interests of the staff who depend upon me for payroll, and a safe working environment, and the taxes paid, and the utilities turned on. There is a web of something bigger than me I am beholden to. But I still crumble a little when I can’t say “yes.”

It is a pretty surprising and wonderful group that weaves in and out of our lives around the bookstore, the Market Street house and Full Belly. Without realizing it, Jock and I have found ourselves in the middle of something very similar to what people search for when they look through the “Communities Directory.” We live very sustainable lives with remarkably little environmental impact. We try to make choices about all the aspects of our lives: housing, food, transportation, clothing, luxuries, all based on something more than greed and gratifying an immediate want. We give back more than we receive, and in turn live lives of far greater wealth than we ever imagined.

Thank you. Thank you so much for every day.

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