WHY DID I START INVESTIGATING COMMUNES IN THE FIRST PLACE?
It all began in an olive grove in Lebanon. I was pacing furiously, sipping pineapple juice from a carton, and trying to work out what to do with my life. My friend was pretty clear on the matter. Start a festival, she said. Start your own music festival where you get to be the person who helps everyone else have an impossibly good time. This suggestion was very un-out-of-the-blue. I’d been talking for the previous hour about how festivals brought people together. How people at festivals forget about make-up and protein shakes. How the atmosphere builds day on day until the competition and fear that grips the mainstream world melts into the mud and people are blissfully exhausted by the beauty of each other.
But I didn’t want to start a festival, I wanted to start a revolution.
In the heat between the olives I’d had a vision. A plan to create something glittering and pure. I wanted to create a two-month long living project where people live in the buzz of festival-land, but where they have to cook for themselves, build their own shelters, fetch their own water from the stream – oh, and make lots of art and lots of music.
The dream was that by working together, making together, living together and simply being out of the structures of mainstream world would help each participant build resourcefulness, self-confidence, empowering frugality and the ability to nurture more meaning from life.
Do they pay to be there? Where does the food come from? How can you apply? Whose land will it happen on? Can you leave if you don’t like it? Will there be free Wi-Fi?
These questions had no answers.
So came my realisation – I know nothing about how to live off the land. How can I plan such a wildly ambitious happening if I can’t tell a rosemary bush from a lavender plant? My answer: I’ll go visit people who are in the know.
When I began my Year of the Commune (aka 2014), I’d never heard the term intentional community. I guessed that there would still be some radical hippies living out in the woods somewhere, but I had no idea how to find them, or if they’d let me visit. But I had a desire – I wanted to know how they lived the life they lived, and what I could learn from them about how to run my dreamy festival-project.
It was only after my first visits to communities in February and March that I began to understand my deeper motivations for spending a year of my life researching alternative living.
As much as I believe in the idea that we can all live with less, and that neo-liberal capitalism manufactures desire for things we don’t need, I realised that I wasn’t that interested in learning about how to grow food, or dispose of the poo it ends up as.
What I’m really interested in is people. Who are these people who go off and live out their beliefs in straw-bale houses? Do they get on better than the rest of us, or are they weirdos who couldn’t handle the big bad world and now drive each other insane?
I am of course repeating myself, my entire blog has been dedicated to answering the above questions. But at the time, in April, this realisation left me in a pickle: If I wasn’t using intentional communities to help me garner practical skills about how to run my festival-project, what was I visiting for?
Suddenly I had no practical reason for my quest. Such a revelation would probably be music to the ears of many communards who believe that the West’s cultural obsession with progress and output is damaging the spirit of humanity – but I still needed a ‘This Is What I’m Doing With My Life’ sign to hold on to. Which is probably the deeper reason why I started this blog.
But beginning the blog threw up a new dilemma (and revealed another motivation for my project). All my life I’d learnt about the world through books. Yes, I’ve travelled and worked and felt, but my beliefs seem to rise up through the written word. One desire of visiting communities was to learn about the world in a different way. Instead of reading about people standing in a circle singing songs and holding hands, I wanted to stand in a circle and sing songs and hold hands – and feel what it feels like.
Rituals matter. But the closest I’d ever come to enacting one was going every Thursday to an indie nightclub in Leeds and dancing till I’d filled my empty beer glass with hair-sweat. If I started writing about intentional communities, instead of just ‘being’ in them, I was worried that I’d be too busy trying to remember what colour the candles were instead of losing myself saying namaste.
Then came another twist of fate. Starting the blog actually boosted my motivation for visiting communes. It became my structure and my space to air my feelings. It became my training ground, my psychotherapy couch and my mental garden. The stony ground of the white page, where all manner of ideas attempt to germinate, and the strongest wrap their shoots around my oscillating mind and bloom into fully flowered blogposts.
Once I’d admitted that writing the blog ‘was a good thing’, it became deliciously expedient. I wanted to make something, and pieces of writing are something I know how to make. They cost nothing; they can be done from anywhere. And as they’re self-published they are the perfect response to that hurtfully insipid question: so, what do you do?
Guess what? Motivations change. The only important thing is not to lose them. This year has taught me somewhat about intentional communities, but it’s taught me much more about my own fascination with psychology, anthropology and the art of learning. I may or may not start my own utopian two-month long festival-project, but I’ll always have been to the places I’ve been, and I’ll always have written this blog.