Author: Jules Pelican
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #134
As I looked around the room at the circle of bright faces and the sumptuous array of food, I was aware of my reluctance to fully engage in this celebration. It was a goodbye dinner for Andrea, an office intern who had been living for the past year at Occidental Arts & Ecology Center (OAEC) community in northern California. Andrea was a part of my life in the same way that Brock, Carol, Martha, or any of the other longtime community members of OAEC were. During the short time that she lived here, Andrea and I had shared meals, walks, and candid conversations. The fact that she was only living here temporarily was never a barrier to our friendship.
But on the evening of Andrea’s parting celebration, I understood, just then, that the shape of our relationship was about to change drastically, and I withdrew from the celebration in an attempt to protect myself from feeling too sad. While I felt certain we would remain friends, there’s a qualitative difference between being a friend at a distance and living in community together!
The community is comprised of 16 permanent adult residents, 5 interns, and 5 kids, aged 1 to 11, living on 80 rural acres near the town of Occidental, California. OAEC, the nonprofit educational aspect of the community, engages in environmental activist projects and offers public workshops on various aspects of sustainability. (See “Heirloom Gardens, Clean Water, and No GMOs,” Summer ’06 issue.) At the time of Andrea’s farewell party, I had recently married an OAEC resident, and had been living on the land for less than a year. Although I was now considered a permanent resident too, my sense of myself at that point was more like an intern than a long-term community member. (An “internship” is a more structured temporary residency than the “work exchange” role in many communities. Usually an internship is many months or even a year in duration, and can involve formal or informal instruction in the internship area: office management, gardening, maintenance, etc.)
Did my perception of myself as more like an intern than a long-term member shape the relationships that I formed with Andrea and other interns? Absolutely. I was grateful for the interns’ collective presence. I was comforted by the fact that I wasn’t the only one trying to find my footing on new terrain. What I hadn’t accounted for while forming these new relationships, was that while I would stay and continue to grow into my new home, Andrea and the others would leave.
By definition, internships are temporary situations. An intern arrives, settles in, achieves a certain level of comfort, and then (rather quickly, it seems), packs up and leaves, only to be replaced by another fresh face. As I gradually became aware of this pattern, my sense of curiosity grew. Could I invest myself emotionally with a short-term resident in the same way that I would with a permanent one? Would it be worth the potential heartbreak? How did the more seasoned residents deal with this phenomenon? To find out, I spoke with residents about how they were affected—emotionally, practically, in their work-lives, and in relationships— by the transitory nature of our internships.
“I see each intern who comes into my life as a profound teacher,” says Michelle Vesser, assistant garden manager, who has worked with interns in varying settings since 1988. “I never know what the lessons are going to be, although over the years they have touched my life deeply and allowed me to grow in many ways. I have developed some of the most fulfilling relationships in my life through my time with interns. They have brought me a tremendous amount of joy.”
OAEC’s garden interns generally arrive in early spring and stay through early winter. Michelle uses the quiet hours in the winter garden to go within and rejuvenate, so that she feels fresh for the new interns who will arrive in the spring. She acknowledged the difficulty of seeing the interns leave, but for her, remembering that beginnings are inherent in every ending helps her to enjoy the natural rhythm of the cycle.
But some community members expressed discomfort with this impermanence. “For the first few years I was really close to each intern,” says OAEC cofounder Dave Henson, who has been working with interns at OAEC since 1994. “But it was a repeated heartbreak to go deep with someone, only to have to say goodbye after six months or a year. Today, I am by no means closed down towards the interns, but I’ve learned to keep my emotional and intellectual boundaries.”
“I’ve grown weary of saying goodbye,” notes Doug Gosling, OAEC Garden Manager, a resident of the land since 1982. Doug tends to begin his relationships with interns slowly, holding onto the knowledge that they are short-term. But he adds that, despite this dynamic, a handful of interns have become his lifelong friends. He also notes that the interns who really “get it”—the ones “who discover the magic of the gardens”—ultimately have a more difficult time leaving at the end of their tenure. This is undoubtedly true, but based on what I’ve observed, not one of these particular garden interns would have traded the discoveries they made living here for a less painful parting.
Discovery and personal growth are not explicit goals, but rather consequences of interning at OAEC. Besides the obvious development that interns undergo during their stay, a subtler phenomenon is the personal growth opportunities for permanent residents.
“The interns keep us flexible,” observes Facilities Manager James Pelican, who has been supervising interns since 2001. “They bring a new energy into the place, and strengthen us socially.” He emphasized that the presence of interns helps prevent community members from getting too set in their ways. Nearly every community member that I spoke with echoed this sentiment.
“Every intern brings his/her unique gift, and every one has taught me something about some aspect of my job,” James adds. “It’s necessary to have interns, even with their inevitable departure. I always feel a certain grief when they leave, but the spice that they bring to the community, and the constant creation of new dynamics makes it worth it.”
If community members are meaningfully touched by the presence of interns on the land, then it goes without saying that interns are affected, perhaps even more so, by the time they spend here. Ironically, for every resident who expressed some reluctance to completely open themselves to deep relationships with the interns, there was an intern who firmly stated that the impermanence helped them to open themselves up—to both people and place— in new and profound ways.
Brooke Budner was a garden intern at the OAEC for nine months in 2006. “I’ve learned not to take the ripening of the quince for granted, because I won’t see it again,” she says. “I know that I won’t always walk past the abundance of the blackberry bushes on my way back to my home. This is my one chance. This is my one time to live in this meadow . . . and then it will pass. While I have it, I really want to be here to enjoy it.”
Brooke feels honored to be part of a lineage of caretakers for the two 30-year-old gardens, whose heirloom fruits and vegetables have been cultivated continuously since even before the OAEC founders bought the property. However, she also acknowledges the challenges. “There is definitely a continuity to the gardens, even though no one individual here is permanent. Not working towards an end can be hard. I’m used to doing one thing to completion. Gardening is different; you’re never really finished. When one of us walks away from the garden, we often joke, ‘When I get back, the garden will be finished, right?!’”
Like other interns, Brooke participates in the nightly community dinners. She notes that she feels closer to community members who attend these dinners, as opposed to those who often dine at home. I think her comment is important. It serves as a reminder that it is not solely the responsibility of the intern to try to mesh with the community; community members must also show up and play their part as well.
Dawn Smith, from Alberta, Canada, is OAEC’s current maintenance intern. She relishes the combination of education and everyday living that the internship provides. “Through sharing meals, chores, and a hot tub,” Dawn says, “I have discovered that the leaders of the ecological revolution are regular people—they’re not all that different from me!”
Dawn does not view her year-long internship as “short-term, “ noting that, for her at age 24, a year is a long time! “It is a relief that the duration of the internship is set—that way, the expectations are very clear. A year is a long enough time for me to invest myself fully. It is time enough to learn, and to be useful to the community.”
Jessica Soza, a garden intern for seven months in 2004, was also able to use the short duration of her internship in a positive way. “The impermanence was easier to deal with because of the well-defined time limits,” she says. “Knowing that my time at OAEC would be limited, I was able to fully appreciate it while I was there. I knew that it wasn’t going to be forever.”
Like Brooke and Dawn, Jessica found the “be here now” aspect of her internship transformative. I liken it to Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s phrase, “Present Moment, Wonderful Moment,” the idea of living fully and appreciating the beauty inherent in even the most mundane moments. In our everyday lives, when faced with the seemingly infinite number of days before us, how many of us can honestly say that we appreciate each day for the gift that it is? This, I feel, is the experiential gift that community interns have to offer us—appreciating the moment, knowing that their stay here is finite, and enjoying it anyway.
A few days after Andrea’s going-away party, while picking up my mail in our main office, I heard an unfamiliar voice. I looked up, and there at Andrea’s desk was Kate, the new office intern. Swallowing my initial reaction of “who-are you-and-what- are-you-doing-at-Andrea’s-desk?!,” I approached and introduced myself, participating in the litany of questions that always accompanies the arrival of a new intern. Where are you from? How did you hear about the OAEC? Have you lived in community before? And so on.
About a month later, I was taking a walk with Kate—talking about relationships, novels, and the pros and cons of being the oldest child in a family—when I recognized what had happened quite naturally. Kate was no longer Andrea’s replacement. She was no longer the new intern. She was Kate—fabulous foot-massager, sharer of silly stories, and a warm new friend.
While I am no longer a newcomer myself, I still tend to resonate emotionally with the interns. I have relaxed, played, and shared confidences with many of them. I am grateful for the constant reminder of impermanence that their presence brings, and I aspire to return—again and again—to this important lesson. And while I will continue to appreciate the rest of my time here with Kate, I also look towards the day when someone new is sitting in her place.