In intentional community circles we use the phrase “in community.” Like, “This is how we handle conflict in community,” “Life is so much better in community,” and “How long have you been living in community?” It’s a matter of convenience, I guess, to leave out the word “intentional” but the truth is, even those of us who don’t live in intentional communities live “in community” with other people and organisms. Our non-intentional communities are colorful and complicated and not always unintentional.
I left Dancing Rabbit (near Rutledge, Missouri) about a year ago. Since then, I’ve slowly been acclimating to life on the outside (I moved to Bakerton, West Virginia). The rules are different out here, and “community” means something different. Out here, a community is a more fluid thing. In some cases the communities I’ve found in my post-community life have been intentional, even if they’re not “intentional communities” in the vernacular of folks in community. In other cases, community pops up quite unintentionally. Here are some examples.
Communities I Took with Me
What’s the one community that communitarians and non-communitarians participate in with equal vigor? What community has become vitally important to the “communities” movement over the last couple decades, even though many people in this community have never heard of Communities? The internet, of course. There are online communities of embroiderers, gamblers, recovering gamblers, teachers, students, every sexuality you can think of, church goers, scuba divers, science fiction writers, and book makers.
Each interest, or sub-community, has its own forums, blogs, and Facebook pages. People get to know each other, share ideas and information, have relationships, and conduct business. On the internet we can find people with whom we want to share certain aspects of ourselves and share exactly what we want. It’s like intentional community with protection. You’ve heard of the power of two feet; Facebook and other online communities afford us the power of the unsubscribe button.
I make my living from home, and until recently my son was home schooled, too. In the winter we can go a week at a time without stepping foot outside the door. Our primary community is each other. We have agreements and responsibilities, and we rely on each other in the most basic ways. We’re governed by a system of informed and compassionate dictatorship. I can’t really say our relationship began intentionally, but we hold the health of our tiny community—one adult, one child, one cat, and five fish—purposefully.
The Bus Stop
Just a few days ago, the child started back in public school, in part to offer him more opportunities for relationships with peers, mentors, and those who might learn from him. I have more quiet time to work uninterrupted and I feel the ease that comes with something very important (my kid’s education) being taken up by someone besides myself. Plus he finally learned to tie his own shoes, in order to avoid embarrassment in front of the other kids at school. The unexpected benefit has been getting to know our neighbors better, and getting to be known by them.
Waiting for the bus to arrive the first day I found out that there are a lot more kids within walking distance of us than I ever knew. Kids I’d never met came out of houses I can see from my bedroom window. There’s a little girl named Sam (like me!), and a two other boys in my son’s grade. Unlike families at Dancing Rabbit, and other intentional communities, we can live out here almost on top of each other and never have a reason to interact.
The really valuable thing for me happens on the other end of the day. Around four o’clock the grown-ups start drifting toward the bus stop and hanging around. There are younger kids to entertain and be entertained by. Cigarettes are smoked. Shit is shot, judgments passed, and vetting accomplished. Now the other parents in the neighborhood know what I do for a living, my marital status, and what I smell like. And I know those things about them. We make eye contact, and share the experience of the bus being late, of missing our kids, and of being glad to see them again. We share a thunderstorm, a newspaper, and space.
There are little micro-communities that form among just a few people, or just for a few moments, all over the place, if I’m looking for them. The four people standing at the gas pumps on a cold day, for example. We’re all cold. We’re all watching the dollars roll away on the pump dial. We have four different lives, we’re going four different directions, but for now, we’re all here, doing this thing together. There’s the funny little dance two people do when they encounter a door that could be held, that one person goes through first and the other second. The laugh, the thanks, and the parting.
These were the encounters that comforted me on the long drive from DR to our new home. They showed me that people are connected, though lightly, even in the briefest encounters.
When we first arrived in our new area, we didn’t have a place to stay. The weather was warm enough, and we were prepared enough, that we could stay in a campground until we found a place to rent. That campground wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for the community that is the county deciding that money and land should be used for public parks. The same goes for the Community Center and its gymnastics and dance classes, the public library with its free internet, roads, and all the other things that taxpayers and donors pay for at least in part.
Even without the public funding, those examples of common infrastructure represent the decisions of a community about what’s important to make available to everyone, and what ways they want to share and interact with each other. We went to see the fireworks at the Community Center and it felt like the whole county was there. It’s not the kind of community that we get “in community” with consensus models and big financial or ideological buy-in, but it is an aspect of community that exists everywhere in the US, and most of the world.
One of the major differences between my life in community and my life finding community in the wider culture is that if I don’t want to be involved in decision making, I don’t have to. It’s still an element of community, but it’s not something I feel obliged to participate in directly. From what I read in the local paper, it’s just as full of listening and not listening, speaking and not speaking, good and bad choices, and vociferous Monday morning quarterbacking as governance in community, and I think I’ll steer clear. That’s just me, though, and I count myself fortunate that I live in a community (the United States, my new home state, my new home county and town) where other people are willing to step up and do the governance.
One of the first things I sought out when we landed here was the local UNFI co-op. I found it. I can order UNFI once a month and pick up some “extras” that my regular grocery store doesn’t carry. I thought finding and joining the co-op would be a major part of building my new life here, but it hasn’t really worked out that way. I see my work shift co-workers once every few months, and we haven’t really clicked. Despite having in common that we are somewhat particular about our food and toothpaste choices, we haven’t become best friends in the eight hours we’ve spent together, bored and resentful of spending our Saturday mornings sorting other people’s food orders.
Bulk food purchases in low-overhead business models are an element of community that I appreciate, though. It’s not the most efficient food distro I’ve ever seen, but I feel grateful I found one at all.
Besides the library, the co-op, and public school, I also appreciate the run-of-the-mill suburban grocery store and our neighborhood general store. The grocery store is part of a system of sharing labor and resources that means I don’t have to grow all the food my family eats. I have to write stuff and do other services for people all over the world, in exchange for funds I can spend on some truly luxurious food stuffs. It’s all part of the global economic community.
The general store is even better. It’s a lot like a suburban American version of Dancing Rabbit’s Milkweed Mercantile and The Grocery Store combined. The entry way even acts kind of like the neighborhood “all” list. There are several bulletin boards and a business card rack where folks can post available goods and services, lost items, and other kinds of requests. I successfully scored bottles for my wine- and beer-making, and unsuccessfully tried to get people to sign up for RelayRides.com so I could sell my truck and still count on having a vehicle available when I need one.
The store owners must go out and get one of every essential—cereal, aluminum foil, butter, cake mix, even soy milk—and replace it when someone buys it. It’s super handy for those “oh crap, we’re out of x” moments and an easy walk for everyone in our little neighborhood. Those who can walk, anyway.
It was before we moved here, but the story goes that the house next door to ours used to belong to an elder who had trouble getting to the store. Neighbors would stop by to bring him necessities and visit with him. Community.
It’s the kind of community politicians want to evoke when they say things like “in our communities” and it shares a lot of the good elements with our lives at Dancing Rabbit. We’re surrounded by people who know our names, and watch out for us. It’s a slower process out here than in a group like DR that makes helping newcomers get settled and feel welcome a very intentional part of the responsibility of individuals in the group, but it is happening.
Our neighbors on the other side have helped us feel welcomed, too. They bring over flowers, and corn, and other little gifts for us. They let us pick from their cherry trees, and we brought back jam and sourdough bread for them. There are friends for my kid in the houses on our block, and they can ride bikes and skateboards back and forth. Their parents and grandparents look out for him and let me know when there’s trouble. The folks down the street watched our cat when we went back to Dancing Rabbit for a visit.
Friendly neighbors and well-established economic systems are great and all, but there are aspects of intentional community I haven’t found out here in the big wide world. I miss feeling more comfortable letting people see my pit hair, and stopping for friendly chats on my mid-afternoon walks. I miss having people to talk to when something funny happens, or something sad or frustrating.
We don’t have a car co-op out here, which is the one thing I thought was most important about what Dancing Rabbit was doing. It drives me crazy to see multiple cars in each driveway, every single day. There are houses with more cars than people, for crying out loud, but I don’t feel like I can use any of them. Even trying to get people to use RelayRides.com didn’t work. (That makes sense; their service is expensive and geared more toward urban people with newer cars.)
Speaking of driveways, trash day is a little weird, too. When I was looking for bottles for wine- and beer-making, I knew that there were plenty of bottles in the recycle bins, but I didn’t feel like I could go get them. Also, it seems like there must be a more efficient system than the garbage truck stopping twice at each single-family dwelling. Coming up with ways to bring car sharing and other efficiencies of intentional community to extant neighborhood communities has become kind of a hobby of mine.
The pond and the 100-plus acres of protected wildlife habitat were possible only because of the intentional nature of the community of Dancing Rabbit. I miss them. Also not possible without a high degree of buy-in and sameness of intention are the decision-making structure and level of involvement in decisions usually left to individuals in the wider culture. My new neighborhood definitely doesn’t get together to decide by consensus whether it’s okay for me to cut a couple of young trees that shade my solar panels, and I don’t need anyone’s permission to adopt a dog or something. Those kinds of things help move a community toward its commonly-held intentions. I don’t really miss them.
Then there’s the community I’ve always had. My parents, my siblings and their spouses and children, aunts, uncles, and other elders, coworkers from previous jobs, and of course my friends out at Dancing Rabbit form a sort of “cloud community” that’s always there, even when I don’t talk to them for long spells, even when we’re not on the best of terms. Family and old friends, I guess, are the most unintentional of communities, so they’ll always be there, even though my intentions may change.
Sam and son lived at Dancing Rabbit from November 2009 through August 2014. Now she’s a freelance writer, blogger (www.makingrabbittracks.com), and web developer. They’re living outside the communities circuit but with all the same values and quirks they had “in community.”