Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Creating Community

The driving force in nature, on this kind of planet with this sort of biosphere, is cooperation...The most inventive and novel of all schemes in nature, and perhaps the most significant in determining the great landmark events in evolution, is symbiosis, which is simply cooperative behavior carried to its extreme.

~ Lewis Thomas

Continuing cross country, I stopped in a small town near Austin to visit a dear friend who moved there a couple of years ago. The first thing I said when I saw her, is “Why Texas?” She is an alternative educator and a free thinker, not someone I would expect to move to the heartland of conservatism, where Bible verses are as common as advertisements on billboards on the backroads. She just didn’t seem to fit in.

This is how she responded:

“When I moved here, men showed up from nowhere and started unloading our moving van without any questions asked. The women brought food. They welcomed us with open arms. Moving in, which can be exhausting, was a pleasure – it became a cheerful party.

“I decided to move here after I gave a seminar on parenting, and the people were so friendly, caring, open and willing to do something about it right away, I was vastly impressed. I spontaneously told them I wanted to move here, I liked them so much. They responded by passing around a hat that collected a meaningful chunk of money to help me do so. I have never felt so welcomed and appreciated anywhere in my life.

“When a house burnt down in this neighborhood, the whole neighborhood got together and rebuilt it – better than it was before. Today, my students are all going over to the camp next door, with the rest of the neighborhood, because the counselors are exhausted after a long summer, and the camp needs cleaning. We’ll get it done all together in a couple of hours – it would take them a couple of days.

“I have always wanted to live in a real community, and I have found it.”
Well, how could I argue with that? I’ve always wanted to live in a real community too. I’m impressed with this little town outside of Austin, where people live their spiritual values and have created quite a pleasant place to live. I’ve tried to create community, for years, in Los Angeles, and have gotten somewhere with it, but it has felt not unlike swimming through sand, to do it in a big city.

Los Angeles is anti-order – a system that sucks so many resources that people, even if they are making pretty good money, often still struggle to survive. Corruption and waste are everywhere and we all pay for it. You spend hours on the freeway, and there are so many errands, so many obligations, so many distractions, that there is little time left to help your neighbor. Most of my neighbors in the two houses I lived in, didn’t even know my name after years of living there, and I didn’t know theirs.

I did a little experiment – I started a community food forest in my front yard. I invited people to come on over and help out, plant some of their own crops in our garden, which was too big for us to care for by ourselves, with our busy urban lives, and help us in exchange for fruit, camaraderie, and some instruction on food forestry and permaculture. Lots of people came, and some of them even came back. Not one person took me up on my offer to come over to their house and help them clean their garage, though. Or paint their bathroom or weed their garden with them. It was sort of strange - jeez, if someone offered to clean my garage with me, you can bet I would take them up on it and serve them a nice dinner for their troubles. Not one person took me up on planting their own crop in our garden, either. One person offered to “rent a space” to grow stuff. I told her, no, we would not take money, she could just plant some stuff there. Having her energy there, tending her part of the soil, was all the pay we needed. She never came back. Maybe it was because we also told her this was a community garden, and she could have her own plot, but should think of being a part of the community nonetheless. I’ve had quite a few strange reactions to that concept on a broader level as well, in trying to create an intentional community.

“Does that mean communism? Does that mean I have to share my crops? Does that mean someone is going to tell me what to do, how to live? Does that mean there will be rules?”

Well, no. It means you actually get a say in things, unlike what happens in a megopolis like Los Angeles where your local “representative” also represents 450,000 other people, at least, along with the deep pocket businesses that funded his campaign, some of which don’t even have an office in LA. It means you get to think about what rules are meaningful and which are not, and define your boundaries. It means that you might end up helping others, but they will also help you. It means you share what you want to share, and others share with you what they want to share.

It seems silly that I would have to spell these obvious points out to people but almost every person I’ve spoken to about community (except those already living in a real community or having experienced one) are worried about these issues.
I’m sure there are plenty of people in LA who would love to have me clean their garage, and I was just attracting those who were not comfortable with that, for whatever reason. But what I observed from that was that people were just not used to having a real community around them, and were more comfortable “doing it all themselves ” no matter how much harder it was. Creatures of habit, they couldn’t break the mold and call me when they had a chore I could help with. Enough of us have been trained to “do it ourselves” and live on our own little island, that when a different paradigm is offered, we don’t trust it, or we can’t think with it, or we just forget about it and do things the way we’re used to.

As time went on, and we kept having our gardening weekends, people started to believe. They came with cuttings and left with samples of our chocolate mint. They collected soil and pots from our generous pile for guerilla gardening exploits. They came to share their knowledge and to glean from ours. And they came just to chat and hang out. It took time, but it was happening.

And then others started having community events of their own, in their own backyards – the seed was spreading. I believe that at people’s core, we all need community on a deep level. It is a primal drive that we have had drilled out of us by sitting in straight rows in public school, not able to talk or share with anybody else, and then moving to isolated cubicles at work, and coming home to houses built in neat, straight rows, with board fences isolating them, and no central gathering places for miles around. And few genuine community activities that encourage sharing and getting to know one another. Mark Lakeman, a founder of the community project City Repair in Portland, calls it “muted society, where the guts of community have been removed.”

Our tightly controlled system looks so incredibly orderly, and yet it is wildly disordered. There is so much potential energy being wasted, if one could see a picture of it, it would look like a flooded river pouring out of our communities. The individuated lifestyles we live are perhaps the most inefficient way that anybody has lived in the history of humanity. Yet, our “standard of living” is higher. Or is it? That subject will be covered in depth in another blog article, but suffice it to say, there is an illusory element to that.

It is just so much easier to survive when you live in a real community. Raising kids, fixing up your house, growing a garden, improving the community at large, are all easier when you can tap resources in the community readily. We have allowed formal governments to take the place of what ordinary people routinely did for each other a century ago. It isn’t more efficient, it isn’t easier, and it takes far more resources out of the system (incredibly wasteful and anti-order) than if the people of the community just handled it themselves.

There are movements to change this and they are truly inspiring. City Repair in Portland is a shining example. This is a model that any community can emulate and use to improve their neighborhood. The people of Portland have taken back their neighborhoods and streets and made them into what they want them to be, not what some city planner who had barely even seen the place, less gotten to know the people there, decided was “best.” The truth is, any of us can do this, wherever we are, and eventually, even governments are happy with this. That is because they are trying to do a job that is our job, and they will never be able to do it as well as we can.

Don’t get me wrong. There are aspects of Los Angeles that I dearly love. I wouldn’t have lived there for 20 years if that wasn’t the case. There are amazing, wonderful people in Los Angeles, and amazing opportunities. Some people may say, there are tradeoffs for everything. But I’d like to think I could have my Los Angeles and my community, too.

Keep reading, for more examples of community and tips from those who have done it. How do you change the paradigm, the mind set and habits, of people who have been living in isolation, in the midst of millions of other people, for their whole life? It is possible, and it is being done in dozens of communities, all over the world.

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