The Rhythms of Home: Perspectives on a Communal Lifestyle
Tom Starrs offers a glimpse into daily life at Green Pastures — an Emissary community in New Hampshire — revealing the rich tapestry of people drawn together from diverse backgrounds to build a caring, meaningful life. The only thing certain is that nothing is certain!
Every day Jack from Maine feeds and grooms the draft horses, Bob from Tennessee tackles a long list of odd jobs to keep our buildings in good repair, Alice from Massachusetts works at the reception desk in the front office, Glenn from Ohio arranges detail s for an upcoming retreat over the telephone, Diana from England does a little vacuuming, Tamara from Minnesota changes her daughter’s diaper, Gale from California plans menus and works in the kitchen, Pat from Rhode Island goes off to massage school, and Helen from New Hamp-shire balances the petty cash before making a trip to the bank. What is so special about these individuals performing daily tasks? They all live together with about three dozen others in a 30-year-old spiritual community in Epping, Ne w Hampshire called Green Pastures Estate. What sets them apart from those who see the repetitive activity of daily chores as a boring rut, is that each of these folks has his/her own vision about the value of their presence in doing the job at hand. Each brings a particular sense of personal purpose, warmth, and movement into the daily routine, lifting the activity above the level of mechanical chores, into something that exudes a sense of meaningfulness, of going someplace, of having rhythm. And where th ere is rhythm, there is life.
A Deeper Sense of Attunement
The rhythm of life at Green Pastures seems remarkable since community experience is so seldom found in society at large. Who knows the reality of a genuinely intimate community? Who has first-hand knowledge of living consistently over years in a creative, interdependent setting with neighbors beyond one’s kin? Who has a personal understanding of being at peace individually and with others? It’s a rare human grouping, beyond the nuclear family, that has more than a superficial level of relatedness among it s members, let alone a deeper sense of attunement with the larger whole. This is what is being developed at Green Pastures: friendship, ease in living, and a sense of spiritual communion within, with life, with all the forms of life. The hallmark of life at Green Pastures is change. What is done today may need to be approached differently tomorrow. Sometimes, describing the practices and policies of our community is a bit like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall. There are no hard and f ast rules to govern people’s behavior; people are responsible for what they do within the community.
Whenever my own perception of this collective dynamic gets set, inevitably people and circumstances come along with new factors to figure into the equation, requiring me to shift my understanding of what is. If I take an inflexible stance and refuse to ac knowledge or receive the elements right in front of me, I very quickly find I’m having a hell of a time managing the details of the situation. And this is the heart of the matter, with implications far beyond examining a communal lifestyle: what is the st ate of my heart? That is my supreme responsibility regardless of external circumstance. When my mind and heart are clear, then I can deal practically with the situation at hand.
Emissaries of Divine Light
These are some basic principles for The Emissaries, a spiritually based association begun in the early 1930s. The Emissaries invite people to experience the fullness of their own potential as mature men and women by “letting their light so shine” in every endeavor, by revealing their own integrity in all areas of living.
There are 12 primary Emissary communities around the world — eight in North America, two in Europe, one in South Africa, and one in Australia. The New Hampshire community is a regional center for Emissaries of Divine Light, and the oldest currently activ e “commune” in New England. Actually, we don’t use the word commune to describe ourselves since that word has lots of connotations. Instead, we use the word “unit,” which has useful associations with the basic ideas of unified agreement and moving togethe r as a whole community.
Green Pastures Estate was first formed in 1963 by six adults and five children in two homes on an old estate. Today there are approximately 40 people in ten residences on 160 acres, facilities for hosting 75 overnight guests for seminars and conferences, a chapel seating over 200, and a cemetery. Green Pastures is a working farm as well as a center for classes, workshops, and seminars of many sorts.
Draft horses are used in the certified organic garden and for gathering firewood. There are over 100 organic fruit and nut trees, and a small dairy and beef herd. We raise 200 turkeys a year, and keep a few pigs to handle dining room excesses. We are very much into recycling and composting. Farming and gardening operations provide for about two-thirds of our community food needs. Generally meals are eaten communally in the central dining room, although some unit members opt to eat in their homes. While no t all meals are vegetarian, an alternative is provided whenever meat is served.
Residents of Green Pastures keep track of their own finances and are responsible for their own belongings. Income is derived from retreats and workshops. A few residents have jobs off the property. All residents have an ever-changing variety of roles and responsibilities within the community. And with each area of responsibility comes a large part of community life: meetings! Almost everyone is in some committee or team that meets regularly: office, kitchen, barnyard, garden, homekeeping, food production, attunement, housing, travel, and service. In addition, there are men’s and women’s meetings once a week, and no-agenda “family meetings” once a month for everyone. Plus, any number of special interest groups that gather to do their thing: choir, instrume ntal music, movement and dance, chant, seniors, teens, children, watercolor artists, and writers. There is no shortage of meetings at Green Pastures.
Exploring Existential Questions
The home atmosphere in this community provides an intimate, safe setting for personal growth and spiritual education, for exploring basic existential questions like Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Residents and guests examine the implicati ons of being awake and alive in the world as it is. People considering these basic questions come from all over the planet to conferences, lectures, and seminars at Green Pastures.
In addition to visitors coming for our public events, others come out of curiosity, or to see the draft horses work, or to experience community living, or because they saw a news article or TV report about Green Pastures, or because the community somehow got listed in Arthur Frommer’s Guidebook to Utopian Vacations or another directory — such as this one!
Visitors come to our intentional community in southeastern New Hamp-shire just about every day of the year. Generally, they receive a walking tour of Green Pastures’ grounds, which includes a brief overview of our communal operations as well as a thumbna il sketch of the “personal responsibility” philosophy that is foundation to the Emissary program. Those on tour see the buildings are clean and well painted inside and out, the lawns are groomed regularly and there is virtually no litter anywhere to be se en. The garden is relatively weed free, the barnyard is in good order, and community members are fairly well dressed and in good spirits.
Exploring Financial Questions
Initial visual impressions often are favorable; newcomers describe what they see with words such as “This is sorta like a spiritual country club.” Inevitably they get around to asking specific, money-related questions like “What does it cost to run this p lace? How do you finance your lifestyle? How do you pay your full-time community members? What do they get paid?” As a once-in-a-while tour guide for hundreds of visitors to Green Pastures over the last 14 years, I don’t think I have ever answered such qu estions in quite the same way twice.
Let me say that I get a little edgy — or perhaps I should say “protective” — when someone I’ve just met asks me within half an hour of being introduced what my annual salary is, or makes an inquiry about the bottom line of our balance sheet. Perhaps thi s is one of my own cultural taboos, but there are times when I feel it is perfectly appropriate to say (as politely as possible), “It’s none of your business.” Then there are also times when it seems perfectly clear to state baldly and openly, “I make $25 0 a month” or “This is a $400,000-per-year operation.”
Quite frankly, it all depends on my own quite subjective perceptions: What feels safe in the moment? And what is the invisible, energetic quality of “the flow.” Is this a two-way street of giving and receiving, or is the questioner just seeking to get ans wers out of me? Are we in a mutually vulnerable space right now? Such cautious thinking may seem a bit evasive to a hard-liner, or more related to spiritual dynamics than it is to simple facts. But to me, being aware of the flow with an individual in conv ersation indeed does relate to one’s attitude and ability to handle the flow of money.
Monitoring “The Flow”
In this community, we keep a tight watch on income and expenses via regular meetings of Budget and Finance Committees, which work together to plan for the needs of each upcoming year. They make reasonable income and expense projections. If there is a shor tfall, we operate like any other family might: we cut expenses somewhere or we sell assets or we seek alternate sources of income. If nothing works, some of us take outside jobs. What is different from a nuclear family is that our extended family has many more people with more experiences, creating a more complex and dynamic interplay.
Another element that affects this interplay is the nature of the players. Because we are a spiritually based community and one needs a healthy right brain to be spiritually active, there are proportionately fewer in our midst with a strong left-brain capa city, which is essential to function responsibly with finances. So we must be sensitive; the accurate stewardship of money and the ability to let it flow properly cannot be left to a simple acquiescence to a few spiritual principles, or to a blind trust t hat “it will all work out (somehow).”
Sensitivity and wisdom are both required in the right handling of money. If an attitude of generosity is behind both spending and earning, it is true that one can come to know and experience a seemingly magical sense of providence, of life providing for e mergencies, and even having enough at times to assist a worthy cause beyond our borders. On the other hand, frugality also has its rewards. Following the principle, “Do not spend what you do not have” (which makes “deficit spending” an oxymoron), means ne ver having to worry about an insurmountable debt load. Indeed, we own over 90 percent of our assets.
So, how do we finance our lifestyle? It depends. It depends on a patient weighing of perceptible factors. It depends on balancing the value of incoming “needs” and a clear-eyed seeing of what is on hand to spend. It depends on our collective vision and ou r unified support for that vision. It depends on the balance of logic and intuition and how we choose to translate that into action. It depends on our ability to see the small as well as the large picture. Finances, business, money — these are not dirty words; indeed they open large doors of connection and, just incidentally, provide the means for our continuing operation and ability to live together.
Note: For a schedule of our seminars, conferences, and other events, write or call Green Pastures Estate. Visitors are encouraged to call ahead, particularly if attending a meal. Donations for meals are appropriate. Overnight accommodations are not guaran teed (or free) and must be reserved, preferably at least 48 hours in advance.
About the Author
Tom Starrs is the Program Director at Green Pastures where he has lived since 1980. He is a former board member of the Foundation for Intentional Community, and was the Editor of the FIC Newsletter. In addition to being on the board of trustees for The Emissaries in New England, he is on the board of directors for the Northeast Organic Farming Association in New Hampshire.