One of the best parts of living in community is getting to design the local culture. I am spending a lot of time at Cambia Community these days which is just 2 miles from Twin Oaks, where I hope to become a dual member (but that is a different story).
Every morning at 8:30 we are getting together and plan our day. One of the things we organize is who is going to write a love letter that day and who are they going to send it to and a bit about why. The community has committed to writing at least one every day.
We are using the broad definition of love letter, where anyone you feel strong affection or appreciation for is an acceptable recipient. Thinking about someone who we have not sufficiently expressed appreciation for is one of the tools we use to figure out which letter should get written next.
Who should you write today?
There is an ontology of magic I developed a couple of decades ago, which I never wrote about. The idea is that there are three sets of magical spectrums, representing 7 different types of magical presentation or mechanism.
High versus Low Magic: When you are designing a ritual or spiritual event you have to decide how much you are going to prepare. Is this event rehearsed? Will there be costumes? Will there be elaborate sets or complex props for your event? The more you prepare, the more pageantry, the more visual and auditory elements to your event, the higher the magic.
Dark versus Light magic: The easy way to distinguish these types of magic is by answering the question “Does this magic take power over someone else?” If the answer is “yes” then you are some type of dark magic. If you are doing something to someone without their consent, this is not cool.
Light magic works in cooperation with whoever it is operating on. A prayer to heal someone (who wanted to be healed) would qualify (assuming your religion does not freak out at the idea its sacred acts would be considered magic).
Hard versus Soft Magic: Soft magic is when you make some type of request or cast an intention, that is possible, but perhaps improbable. Here again, many prayers would qualify. Hard magic is when your actions are breaking the laws of physics. Psychic surgery would qualify as hard magic.
Telepathy might qualify as hard magic, teleportation or telekinetics definitely would.
Pop Magic: The last form of magic is not a spectrum at all. Popular magic is tricks or illusionism. This is a different type of event with gravitates towards high and hard magic characteristics.
Perhaps it is less about types of magic as it is descriptions of magic.
Apparently, I was the last activist in the US to hear about how great the Honk Festival was. As I was enthusiastically explaining the event to other people I kept hearing “Oh, I was on the Honk organizing team 10 years ago,” or “We helped start Honk in New York,” and equivalent recognition. But despite coming late to the party, it was still a transformative event for me, and the projects which surround me.
It started back in February when our Point A traveling heroes hit Boston. Maximus said, “We should come back for Honk” and like a fool, I asked, “What is Honk?” Fortunately, Maximus is patient with me.
Like many things, Honk grew out of a collection of activists trying something new. A collection of marching bands took over the streets of Somerville and started performing. They had fun, they made an impressive amount of joyful noise and they had multiple political messages. And they agreed to come back next year. This scruffy initial incarnation has become a treasured institution which brings protest marching bands from around the world.
I have to confess I had not thought much about marching bands as a protest tool. Maximus has thought about this a bunch. He pointed out the power of having noisy attractive mobile groups which do not require amplification. He waxed eloquently about what it means to take performers off the stage, put them in the street at the same level as the audience and the implicit invitation for people to join in, marching, dancing or banging on anything which one might find handy.
But this was all much later, once we were well into the Honk experience. It started, as many good things start, with dumpster diving. Maximus and Rachel had cooked a dumpster dinner for the 400 Honk musicians in 2016. His invitation to the Point A crew to come up and participate in Honk hoped to replicate their past success. Fortunately, this plays directly to some of our strengths.
Steve is a man of many talents. He was an obvious draft pick for this trip in that he can look at a full dumpster and see if there is anything good at the bottom and he can cook for huge quantities of people. Steve was just one of the ringers we brought on this trip. We had significant local talent was on hand as well. We had 4 teams which went out at midnight. Three of them were car based and one consisted of members of the local radical bicycle gang. The ten of us started at midnight.
But three hours of diving was followed by a couple of hours of cleaning and sorting and even some time spent arranging to get the above photo. We had originally scheduled two evenings to gather food, but we did so well the first night, that we canceled the second dive. We even had to re-dumpster some of our catch, because we exhausted the refrigeration space we had available to us.
Soon all this food would be cooked and prepped into a lovely dinner for 400 musicians. The other two dinners were catered, but several folks said ours was the best.
Honk has grown significantly from its early days. The city of Somerville has embraced this event, local businesses help sponsor it. But the costs are significant. They help subsidize the travel of bands from across the country and even other countries. There were many meals for the performers, most of which were much more expensive to produce than ours.
While our dumpster diving crew was dominated by out of town Point A activists, there was also important representation by locals who came from various places. Sophia used to live at Craft House, where some of us were staying, in Tracy Chapman’s old closet, which is where we met her. There are desirable attributes you hope for in a fellow dumpster diver: willingness to get dirty, good sense of humor, willingness to take chances, nimble and stealthy movement, healthy disrespect for the law, willingness to work crazy late without compensation, discernment about which food to rescue and ability to cook are some of them. Sophia had all this and more. And at almost 5 AM she climbed the labyrinth fire escape to the residence I was staying in to break me into my locked housing.
Acquiring the huge haul of food is just the first step in feeding the Honk musicians. We still had to cook it. Most of our original dumpster divers plus a handful of new locals came out for this formidable task. My terrible cooking skills are the source of legend and while others toiled in the First Church’s kitchen, I called wholesale hammocks customers. My old college partner Amanda came to help with the cooking, she had fond memories of being on the Honk organizing team years ago and was happy to return to support the effort.
Mysteriously, the grill which had been unlocked outside the church for months was moved ten feet towards the curb to aid in loading it into a vehicle to move to the VFW outpost where the meal was being served. But before we could pick it up, it vanished. Taken likely by someone who thought it was being left on the curb to be discarded. This cost us both a grill and preparation time. I drove one of the Skul radical bicycle gang who had helped with the dumpster dive back to their home to pick up a replacement grill and delivered it to Steve Compersia at the VFW where he started cooking like a fiend. The grill was not especially well designed and soon Steve was working without the propane on in a blaze of fire. This attracted the police who decided they were going to shut our meal preparation down. Fortunately, by the time we were caught, Steve had completed most of the cooking.
Part of the Point A mandate is to do skill shares when we come to town. We often do Transparency Tools workshops for the various living collective we visit and this time we did one at Craft House on the Tufts campus [Is this true?]. Before Honk, Courtney from Compersia had worked with Telos on a workshop on how to be an Ally. And when Courtney agreed to come up to Boston, this workshop became a multi skit performance.
Being an ally is hard. Many attempting to support oppressed people would get failing grades from the those they think they are helping. The metaphor which was used as a chorus in our performance was that privilege is like wearing heavy boots in a world full of people wearing sandals. You must keep being aware of when you are stepping on other people’s toes. Telos played the failed ally in a series of 20-second micro skits with Courtney using such lines as:
“You should not have put your feet there”
“I don’t see toes”
“Are you calling me a toe stepper?”
And my personal favorite line
“All toes matter”
The final toe stepping micro skit gave curious prospective allies insight into what they might do to get it right, a simple apology and a promise to pay more attention in the future.
We had communicated with the Honk organizers about our desire to do our performance and they had offered us the Elm St “stage” at 8 PM on Saturday after the last marching band. Sadly, the police were not given a schedule that had our performance on it and we were stopped again by Somerville’s finest just as we were trying to draw our crowd. Instead, we did a dress rehearsal in the Davis Square metro station to a slightly baffled collection of commuters. Maximus caught it on video.
Honk was an inspiring experience. At the last dinner, we had together it was obvious we all wanted to come back next year. As is part of the Point A culture we did a post mortem of our take away of what we learned. We listed a number of suggestions to improve our efforts. Get a dedicated food processing crew, distinct from dumpster divers to handle the haul after we retrieved it and not force divers to stay up most of the night. Bring more people. Practice our skits longer in advance. Work more closely with the event organizers to get on the official schedule, to avoid hassles with the police. Work in advance with more locals like the fine folks from Craft House at Tufts.
The most important transformative aspect of Honk was that we realized we wanted to become a circus. The Point A trips have often been referred to as a circus, in part because of the joyful chaos they deliver. But this was something bigger, the idea that we should step out of our comfort zone of giving presentations and workshops into something more theatrical, more like the famous Bread and Puppet troop (which was one of the Honk marching bands). To get out of the classroom and more into the street.
The excited conversation about our new incarnation explored the idea of circuses as part of transformative festivals. One thing which makes these kinds of events powerful is that they have the capacity to induce quinks. [Quinks are the opposite of trauma. Where some specific acute event leaves a lasting positive effect on your life.] When we reflected on the purpose of the Point A circus what we came up with was that we would try to induce quinks in both the participants and audience.
There’s much that could be said about building community. But what motivates people towards it isn’t usually what people say, but rather the way community makes them feel. People don’t decide to radically rethink the way they are living because someone told them they could, they do it because some powerful event in the lives made them believe it was possible. This is quink, and HONK is uniquely good at producing it. All the sound and color and joyful noise conveys an experience that words never could.
Our mission as Point A is to spread community into the urban areas that need them most. There are many ways to do this, and the most effective involve quinks. It seems like a parading circus is in our future…
After the final parade on Sunday, Daniel and Raven and I hopped in the car with two Estonian hitchhikers we had picked up through Craig’s list. Maia and Helis’s housing in NYC had fallen apart before our ride, so I spent most of the drive from Boston to NYC reaching out to various Point A allies who might host them. We ultimately succeeded and deposited them with willing hosts. Then Daniel and I drove across several states and arrived back at Twin Oaks at 3:30 AM, just in time to do a late night tofu shift. This revolution does not stop.
This post first appeared on CommuneLife blog.
When you create community, part of what you do is create language. Here at Twin Oaks, we have a tremendous collection of acronyms for places and things: OTF, CMT, TCLR, TOAST, OTRA, MHT, CPs, Hx, CVP, and there are much more.
Part of the reason we need to abbreviate and contract is that we need to write down these things for other people to understand thousands of times a week, literally. One of the people who have to do this the most is the labor assigner.
Twin Oaks has an amazing labor-scheduling system. A single person, with the help of every other member, assigns the labor the community does for the coming week. This job takes about 20 to 25 hours each week. It starts on Monday; people turn in their labor sheets and the tofu assigner (which is a different person) gets the first crack filling the 88 shifts which make up a full tofu production week. Some members have regular shifts: Saturday – start up Kettle at 5 AM or Tuesday – late-night tofu pack at 9 PM, for example. Most members, however, instruct the tofu assigner as to how many shifts they are willing to do this week. Most of us, including me, take only one shift.
After tofu is complete, the regular assigning begins. Two large notebooks; 91 labor sheets for members, guests, and visitors; dozen-plus masters and 40 or so requests for labor drive this process. When it is done, 49 dish-cleaning shifts, bread-making and cow-milking shifts for every day, dozens of childcare shifts, hundreds of visitor-labor and orientation requests will have been assigned—thousands of assignments in total. The labor assigners will make the first pass and then, at dinner on Wednesday, return the sheets to members for “revisions.” Members can then revise the schedule the assigner has created, asking to be taken off of things or resequencing labor to make things flow better (Please don’t give me a garden shift and a tofu shift and a dish-washing shift all in the same day, it is too much physical labor).
On Thursday afternoon, the labor assigner gets a few hours to rebuild the careful schedule they built and the members just demolished, filling all the holes and making sure everything gets covered. I love this job. It is crazy headachy and I have made lots of mistakes at it (especially on Shal‘s sheet).
There is an inside joke which comes from when I used to labor assign more often. My friend Coyote was on our labor system at the time, and when I was assigning I would put on his labor sheet that he had a dump run at midnight with someone whom he could not stand. Dump run is one of the many jobs we do here that are assigned. The first time I did it, Coyote got agitated, not wanting to work with this member. Then he realized, for a number of reasons (not the least of which is that the dump is never open at midnight), that it was a joke. But the term lived on, and “Midnight Dump Run” became the name both for labor assigners’ mistakes and for the unusual power this position has in the community.
My recent labor-assigning effort was rescued by Dev, who caught a bunch of mistakes I would have made, though perhaps not enough to permit me to keep the job. I put “Midnight Dump Run” on about 30 people’s sheets and this time it was code for a party happening at our dining hall, ZK. It was a perfect, small event, with Acorn participating in just the right way.
Update: I got fired.
Spoiler: This post has no descriptions of graphic sex.
“Can I kiss you?” it seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. It was asked across a cuddle pile in the midst of a party up at the conference site where several people were making new romantic connections.
“I don’t really know you very well.” Was the reply I was slightly surprised to hear. But then something really powerful and slightly profound happened. Nothing.
The mood did not change. No one got embarrassed and felt like they needed to leave. No one laughed at the rejection or felt sorry for someone. The party just moved on.
We think and talk a lot about consent culture in the communes. We do orientations for visitors and guests so they don’t make cultural mistakes around initiating intimacy, which is easy to do if you are just mimicking what you see others doing. We explore new types of agreements around boundaries. And the reward for our efforts is we get to take some types of risks, like my friend who got rejected from the make out session.
What this does is create comfort and safety. It makes people feel like their boundaries are going to be respected. This in turn often helps them to push limits out. This reveals new possibilities and new connections.
And thus the party drifted right up to the edge of becoming an orgy. As a funologist, this is something I want to understand. For when you push aside all the sophomoric jokes and embarrassment about what orgies are, assuming they are done in a healthy consent environment, they are daring and liminal events. They change peoples lives.
And in this case, the “almost” does not really matter. Everyone could feel the possibility, we had created the space that was that safe and daring.
If you live in community for a while, traditions form around you. And so it is with Hawina’s birthday. Part of the evenings festivities will be us singing the English translation of the Dutch birthday song. This is a song that is only sung this way here, Hawina imported it herself by accident many years ago when someone asked for her tradition to be adapted to local culture.
Werewolves is another birthday favorite game. Some people call this game Mafia. It is a good birthday game because it requires at least 8 people to play. In our first pass, we had 15 people and Sky played god. I was the first person killed. I did not even get a chance to accuse anyone else before i was silenced. I did not take it personally. Hawina won (except the last towns person (new member Emily) was “the Hunter” role, who gets to kill one person as they die, and thus killed Hawina who was the last surviving werewolf – so no one won).
In the second round of werewolves, i got killed in the first “evening” again! Now i had to take it personally. Hawina won again with Emily as her “lover” and they survived all the werewolves. [If you are unfamiliar with this game there is an interesting and exhaustive article on wikipedia on it.]
Part of the power of collective living is that we get to create our own holidays and rituals. After nearly two decades of doing birthdays, Hawina has this one just where she wants it.
Some of us who live in established successful communities regularly get questions about how to start new communities. There is pretty standard advice which is worth sharing in this format.
Before you start a new community you should:
- See if there is an existing community which meets your needs
- Live in an existing community before you start one
Starting a new community is crazy hard work. Even if you have a clear vision, excellent people to start it with, a place to move into and ample resources to start it, your chances of success are low. And the chances that you are starting with all these advantages is pretty low.
For all manner of reasons, many people feel that community life would be good for them. Perhaps they have fond memories of living collectively in college. Or maybe they miss a close knit family and wish to reproduce this environment with friends and intimates of their own choice. It is easy to imagine an isolated life in the mainstream which makes people long for something richer and more interconnected.
Beyond this, people like to create. They want to build something new, craft something with their preferences and identity built into it. This is fantastic. But because community creating is so difficult, your first step in this adventure should be a serious review of the communities which already exist. It is far easier to join an existing community than it is to start a new one. (This does not mean that it is easy to join a community; this can be an ordeal in itself.)
And even if the community you find is not perfect for you to live in long term, there is a strong case to be made for trying to live in an existing community before you build your own. My own failed thinking might be instructive in demonstrating this point. Before I came to Twin Oaks, I really wanted to start my own activist-oriented community in eastern Europe. I had been fighting Russian-designed nuclear reactors which were being completed by Western companies after the Berlin Wall came down and I was convinced that a community of organizers would be a powerful tool in preventing dirty energy solutions from spreading.
I also thought I knew what was critical in making this proposed community succeed. Specifically, one needed to have a good decision-making model and a carefully selected income engine. I guessed at the time that consensus would be the governance solution. I also thought the business should be something that it was easy to train people in, which was not a classical assembly line situation. I visited Twin Oaks nearly 20 years ago now, with a focus on these specific aspects.
What I found was that I was wrong. Twin Oaks did not use consensus and while I often complain about our decision-making model, it functions reasonably well and there are lots of different models which serve different communities (sociocracy, voting models, charismatic leaders, councils of elders, boards of directors, etc). What I see now is that members being cooperative and flexible, is more critical than what specific decision format you select.
Consensus does have advantages
It also turns out that there are lots of different ways to pay the bills. And while I thought what I was looking for was a well-structured community owned cooperative business, in most cases, new communities don’t have this and the individual members pool income from straight jobs. Businesses which support income sharing communities (the income engines) come in all manner of different shapes and as long as you have some people who are willing to do sales work (often a problem in communities) you have a chance at building a culture around your business and being viable. It also helps tremendously that income sharing communities are very cheap to run because of the high degree of sharing which is happening.
What I did not realize was how central a role internal communication culture and especially managing gossip would play in the survival of communities. This does not come up in most guides on how to start communities. But if you get it wrong, it will be more important than if you selected voting over consensus. Because of the intensity of community living, you need to be able to recover from events where trust gets damaged, or the fabric of your community will likely unravel. This is why some of us spend so much time working on things like Transparency Tools.
I would not have known this if I had not lived in a community. I would have prioritized solving the wrong problems. The lived experience of being in a community will also help you find out what about community living does not work for you. Like it or not, community life will almost certainly push your buttons. Learning this about yourself before you take on the giant task of starting your own community is basically a necessary prerequisite for success.
Having kids in your community is also clever.
This article first appeared in the Commune Life Blog
The fine folks in the intelligence services who keep track of terrorist sympathizers no doubt have me on their list. At various points, I have written about the hypocritical and revisionist response to the Paris bombings, criticized US drone use policy under Obama, promoted anarchist who use violence, and criticized police tactics used to apprehend the Boston Marathon bombers.
But despite this, i am no fan of terrorism, either freelance or state sponsored. Terrorism is sometimes politically effective because it tears at the fabric of everyday life and makes the issues it is highlighting impossible to ignore. But this in itself does not make it fair or just, it just makes it effective.
On May 22 a suicide bomber killed 22 concertgoers and injured dozens more in Manchester. The performer at that show was Ariana Grande, who has tried to do right by Manchester, despite not being responsible for the attack.
She has visited victims of the attack in a children’s hospital. She has pushed her record company to give half a million dollars to the families of victims. She has delayed her planned tour and instead has organized a giant benefit event in Manchester this weekend with many big name pop bands, with free tickets to those who were in the May 22 concert.
But perhaps most important is Grande’s message to her fans and the world.