In early April I was biking from Washington DC to my hometown of Greenville, SC, on an old mountain bike with all my belongings tied on to it with paracord from Walmart. At the end of the third day I was 150 miles into my journey, in the middle of nowhere Virginia. The sun was setting and I was loudly dying of exhaustion as I pedaled slowly past a pointed sign, ‘cyclists welcome.’
I looked at the place, looked at the sign, looked at the road ahead, looked at myself, looked at the sign.. I was indeed a cyclist and all signs pointed to a place that I would be welcome. I didn’t even notice the giant, suspended boat with a deck built around it, or the huge wooden tricycle immediately to my right. I didn’t notice much other than an old house and a rumbling in my tummy. I hopped off the bike, walked past another welcoming sign, and knocked on the door.
I never got back on the bike.
I had arrived just in time for dinner. Gil, who had let me in, was cooking, while another dirty man, woman, and child smiled at me from the bed in the kitchen. I was sweating so much it looked like I had pissed myself. My first impression was suspicious, but after a shower and being shown the composting toilet I felt mostly safe with my new hippie friends. We laughed a lot at dinner and I decided I would stay a day to rest and see what this place was about.
5 weeks later I was driven to the bus stop to complete my ride into South Carolina.
Cambia is a small egalitarian community comprised of nomads and a small central family. They build everything on their property themselves, live in harmony with the natural world around them, and work as hard as they play. I have never known such immediate, unpretentious warmth and love. We lived together, worked together, and played together. I’ve probably never had so much fun, like, ever. Can’t wait to see them again.
Other blog posts about Cambia Community:
Architecture shapes culture, so a guiding principle of Cambia is, if we can make it beautiful, we do. Architecture is unique as an art form because it integrates function with form. This includes landscaping and outdoor play spaces.
Stepping stones are interesting because they have multiple functions; for example. they can protect clover, especially in the winter. The form also affects our local culture: when you walk on stepping stones, you are called to a child-like stance.
You can walk with your hands hanging down by your sides, and what tends to happen is that your arms raise up to maintain your balance. The stepping stones can draw you into being playful and childlike. As your hands go up, you are more likely to skip and as you start to skip, you are more likely to smile.
Cambia also boasts a trampoline. The trampoline draws kids from the surrounding communes. We recently replaced our broken one, in an assembly effort which was guided by a gaggle of giggly kids.
The German modern architect Mies van der Rohe is famous for two sayings, both of which are applicable. “Less is more” is the argument for minimalist architecture to achieve simplicity, using white elements, cold lighting, large space with minimum objects and furniture.
The second aphorism is “God is in the details“, expressing the idea that whatever one does should be done thoroughly because details are important.
Cambia is a handcrafted commune, in sharp contrast to the grandmother commune, Twin Oaks, just down the road. Twin Oaks is a large place which includes industrial spaces, warehouses, tofu production facilities, rope machines, gang drills, and sawmills. All the spaces are closer and on a more human scale at Cambia. Some of the art is tiny and temporary.
Handcrafted means focusing on details: doorknobs from twisted branches, floors of pebbles and clay, tiny signposts, salvaged redwood around the hot tub and hyacinth pool. It is these and dozens of other tiny aspects that makes this stepping stone commune so precious.
Other Blog Posts about Cambia:
I’m lucky. My upbringing was affluent and comfortable and basically trauma free. I come from an advantaged class background. I am white and male in a world which has been designed to privilege these attributes. I have a low maintenance body and fairly good genes. I went to fancy schools and learned how to play some of the games which support the existing power structures and inequitable distribution of wealth.
So if one cares about fairness, how do you justify this unfair advantage? Some of my peers, like Sara, do anti-oppression work. Decoding their class privilege, calling out racism, classism and sexism where they see it. I’ve done a small amount of this work, but it is hardly my focus. And sadly, I am aware because of regular mistakes, I am still not getting this stuff.
Instead what I try to do is to look at this set of gifts as set of obligations. If I have been lucky, much of my work should be focused on giving back to others. Early on this drew me to activism. I selected anti-nuclear activism because it requires a certain unlikely combination of attributes. You need to be able to argue with people who come from these advantaged class backgrounds about technical and financial things. You need to be able to pour energy into long campaigns, which you are almost certain to lose and then you need to not get discouraged and keep on doing it, and even encourage others to join you.
One of my gifts is optimism. It is easy to have it, given my background. And the obligation (in my thinking) around this gift is taking on nearly hopeless causes. Not because you want to waste your time, but because there is social and cultural value to fighting the good fight in a world where the bad guys often win.
Some of the Point A folks went to NYC recently. It was quite an educational trip for me. And at first on it I was quite discouraged. If seemed like the idea of starting urban income sharing communities was nearly impossible.
On one hand you had the real estate developers. Especially in New York City, real estate prices are so out of control this often unsavory profession takes on especially monstrous dimensions. They have money to invest, tremendous motivation and their eyes everywhere for a bargain or opportunity.
On the other side you have the ugly force of gentrification. This is where often well meaning folks looking for inexpensive space inside the urban environment set up their artist’s lofts in economically disadvantaged areas, only to make these areas desirable and trendy. This in turn raises property values and ultimately they get themselves and, more importantly, their poor neighbors kicked out by the real estate developers described above.
I did not see a way around these vexing forces when we started talking with folks about the Point A project. And while I am nothing like confident we can figure this out, I am now feeling more optimistic about doing something we can be excited by and proud of.
[This was written over 3 years ago, since then the Point A project has made quite some progress in finding real anti-gentrification allies. More on this in my next post.]
Milo MacTavish has gone to the other side. He was an extraordinary man.
Over the life of this blog, I have written about him several times. About his work as a wandering electrician and his taste or highland Scotch whiskey. He was part of the crew which started the Karass Inn. And there are several tales we are not allowed to tell about this old friend.
What is well known about him is that he helped out the communities movement a whole bunch in a number of places. I worked occasionally as his travel agent, getting him from worthy project to ambitious startup. He went to Missouri, Colorado, Virginia, Vermont and New York on his nomadic crafts person adventure. Never by plane, mostly by train. He preferred to do things right, but he could always work within the budgets of these sometimes struggling entities. This versatility was a big part of why he was so valuable. All he would ask for, besides our regular room and board was Scotch whiskey.
As important as his work was, Milo will be remembered for his slightly larger than life character. He was a wild card – “a disrupter” long before that term was popular. Cantankerous and boisterous, he always had a story (often of Kenya where he came of age or Her Majesties Merchant Navy) and time to listen to yours. He was also an excellent teacher and shared his skills with numerous communards, some of whom required a fair bit of patience to train. He was a hard-partying, proud pagan. Milo had loud opinions about many a thing and had no fear in telling you how uninformed you were on almost any subject where he knew more than you, which was likely most topics.
Milo was a missionary. He rescued a failing health food coop in Norfolk and managed it with his then-wife Susan. They ran it together for 5 years. He canvassed for the Rain Forest Action Network and CalPIRG. He even worked with the Dolfin Research Lab in Florida. He had been a cop and occasionally on the other side of the law. He complained loudly about what he called “the 3 monos of the world”: Monoculture, Monotheism, and Monogamy.
Milo was often the life of the party. And with his passing, some of that party is gone as well.
But Milo would not want us mourning his passing, he would want us to party harder. There will be one this weekend (12/16) in Norfolk and next weekend (12/23) at the Pizza Stone in Chester, Vermont to remember him. Contact me if you want more details on these events.
[Milo’s family of choice is trying to get in touch with Milo’s Scotish family to inform them of his passing. If you have any leads on this, please contact me by email (paxus at twin oaks dot org) or comment on this blog post.]
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?
Sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes people find us who we are so pleased are spending time with us it not only restores our faith in humanity generally but also that it makes sense specifically to invite people we barely know into our homes as extended guests.
Zoja is from Zagreb (her name rhymes with Soya). She self describes as someone into plants, herbalism, spiritual healing, holistic medicine, photography, music, yoga, art, and mindfulness. She found Cambia online, corresponded with us for some weeks and just arrived last week. We have quickly fallen in love with her.
This is not just because she is upbeat and willing to chip in on whatever is happening around Cambia. For me at the core of it is that she brings compelling ideas to this deeply philosophical community. Specifically, she qualifies as a mystic by my definition.
A mystic is someone who asks you to think of the central question in your life at this moment and then explains to you why that is the wrong question.
Zoja is a world traveler, it will be months before she returns to her home country of Croatia. A tour which will take her through several continents and advance her experience of new cultures. We are already sad she will only be at Cambia for three weeks. But the key with shooting stars is to be in the moment with them and let them go gracefully when they head off to their next adventures.
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.