intentional community

Five Addresses in Eight Months, Part One

It’s funny which days are etched forever in our minds. One year ago today, I was enduring my second ambulance ride in as many weeks. A year before that, after having one of those life-changing, put-in-it-the-memoir family crises, I was living with 26 other people in a bunkroom in a very snow-covered Western Massachusetts as part of the SCA.

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SCA Massachusetts Class of 2013

Perhaps it’s the changing weather or perhaps it’s historical precedent, but this time of year sends me into a reverie, and I decided I’d interrupt our regularly-scheduled hiking story to share some of my recollections from my time with the SCA.

In this case, the SCA is the Student Conservation Association, not the Society for Creative Anachronism. I stumbled upon the former while searching for the latter. The Student Conservation Association is an organization for which I’ve had tremendous respect for almost a decade now. Most of the members of the SCA are young adults who serve with various organizations and in various capacities across the country as they work to conserve natural areas and promote environmental awareness.

Long story short, three weeks after I got my driver’s license (as a 23-year-old), I loaded my tiny little convertible to the gills and drove it 1000 miles to Hawley, Massachusetts.

Some SCA positions are “front-country” positions. Like AmeriCorps VISTA positions, these usually see SCA members working individually with organizations, in internship-like settings. Other positions are backcountry positions, where (generally) teams of SCA members serve and camp together. Most backcountry positions focus on trail building, and the position to which I’d been accepted in Hawley was no exception.

My interview with SCA Massachusetts was memorable. They asked a question that I’d spent a great deal of time thinking about but still did not have a concise answer to: “How do you feel about cutting down trees?” I suppose my rambling answer — about the way cutting down trees for trails leads to an increased awareness and appreciation of the natural world, which leads to more conservation of trees — must have been acceptable.

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My first attempt at using snowshoes

Because of everything that had happened at home, I was a mess when I got to Hawley, but the whole crew of SCA members who were already at the base camp greeted me and helped me bring my belongings into the bunkhouse. Soon, my upper bunk in a corner of the giant room started to feel homey.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much effort put into group building and communal living as that displayed by the leaders of SCA Massachusetts. They ensured that we had plenty of formal and informal time to get to know one another, led us in many reflections and games (that we could later use when we led classes of children), and set group expectations. They encouraged us to view our base camp as home and took us on outings to familiarize ourselves with the area.

Coming from the South, I wasn’t sure whether I could ever feel at home in a place like western Massachusetts in early March. The snow was three feet high, and new snow fell every few days. Winter was my usual running season (and my key stress management strategy), and I couldn’t run at all. I’d never used snow shoes, and I had no clue how to cross country ski. I didn’t even know how to split wood to heat our bunkhouse. I was eager to learn it all.

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Our bunkroom

Serving with the SCA did have its challenges. The 29 (27 SCA members and two leaders) of us who lived at base camp during training had 76 gallons of water to share each day. We rarely flushed the bathroom toilets and signed up for a couple short but precious showers at the start of each week. Our bathroom was up a hill, the path to which I watched go from snow-tunneled to bog-bridged. Sharing one room meant that this SCA member, whose Lyme Disease was slowly rising to the surface, could never get enough sleep.

But, it also meant that there were always great people around. It meant that someone could find a book recommendation, a service project buddy, or a head massage whenever the mood struck. Our living situation made for an unforgettable game of Cards Against Humanity by the fire one night, and it gave me a snowy sunrise that brought me to tears a few mornings later. The SCA’s base camp in Hawley earned a special place in my memories.

Unfortunately, my time with the SCA was cut short. It turned out that lots of reflection exercises and no space to be alone to process things weren’t very conducive to phase of the healing process that I was in at that time. Our leaders were incredibly understanding when I explained what had been going on and why I needed to leave the program; I was astonished when they invited me to apply another year.

Another year, in another mindset, I think a program like SCA Massachusetts would be right up my alley. I love communal living, love the backcountry, and love being around like-minded, passionate people. But, that year, I just needed to be around friends.

And so, on a bright sunny day, moments after I’d given my goodbye hugs to SCA Massachusetts, I climbed into my convertible again, turned up the Indigo Girls, and headed to Burlington, Vermont, where, sleeping bag in hand, I knocked on an old friend’s door.

On Being Spontaneous, Part Two

Last week, I explained how my friend and I embraced spontaneity and found ourselves in a car to an intentional community in eastern Massachusetts.

After a 90-minute drive filled with storytelling, contemplation, and laughter, U pulled into the community’s driveway.  As Quiver and I unloaded our packs, U’s mother rushed out to meet her daughter, informing her that a distant relative whom neither woman had met just died.  Instantly, U started sobbing.  As soon as I had a chance to reflect on the occasion, I was struck by the depth to which U grieved about someone she didn’t know among people she’d only just met; that sort of emotional response is certainly uncommon.

A priestess of a neo-Mayan form of Paganism, U immediately began an elaborate ritual intended to help the spirit of her relative cross over to the next realm.  She implored Quiver and me to join in, which we did — he without reservation and me self-consciously.  (Unitarian Universalists are called “God’s Frozen People” for a reason; it’s not exactly in my nature to chant and dance and make music without practice and with abandon, but I sure tried!)

After a half-hour beside the indoor altar, U gave Quiver and me incense and herbs and led us outside to a labyrinth.  There, we walked and twirled and meditated until, in the warm sunlight and amid the blowing grasses, I began to relax and mentally join in the rite.  We sat on the throne to Isis and Osiris and invoked gods and goddesses of numerous cultures and several millennia.  Then, we gathered at the fire pit in the center of the labyrinth.

We sat around the fire as U sang and prayed, and Quiver and I followed her instructions in adding the incense and herbs to the fire.  As the smoke from the fire encircled us and U continued singing, I began to feel odd.  U invited us to stand and look heavenward, and I did and promptly fainted.

When I came to, Quiver was holding my hand and U was gently massaging my shoulders and singing.  When she saw my eyes flutter open, U, who I usually describe as the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, explained that everything was all right and that she would now “massage [me] back to the world of the flesh.”  Quiver caught my eye and smiled a bit, with a “this is the stuff dreams are made of” look.

When I was strong enough to stand, U and Quiver supported me as we walked to the herb-infused hot tub, where, as instructed, we stripped and soaked in order to cleanse ourselves and complete the ritual.

After that, our stay at U’s intentional community was less dramatic but no less interesting.  Together, we traveled to Massachusetts’ North Shore, where we performed the Five Tibetan Rites on the sand and sang to “La Luna” as she rose over the sea.  We stargazed in happy companionship before vortexing our way back to the community.  There, Quiver and I slept in a brightly painted loft, not far from the “omniamorous” (because she is “in love with all Creation”) U and her partner.

Me, hitching a ride

Me, hitching a ride

The next morning, we breakfasted on food from the community’s garden, sat outside and discussed religion, spread out maps and (drawing on our extensive collective hitchhiking experienced) planned out our trip a bit, and toured the community before packing up and hitting the road.  The 26 hours that I’d spent in U’s community had been unlike any I’d experienced before, and I wanted to ensure that I didn’t forget anything about them.  However, while the sun shines, a hitchhiker is in constant motion, so, even as I worked to process and memorize the details of the previous day, I stuck out my thumb and headed to New Hampshire.

To be continued…

On Being Spontaneous, Part One

On December 31, 2013, my sister made a New Year’s Resolution.  Because she appreciated where my embrace-the-unexpected attitude had led me, she resolved to be more spontaneous.  I teased her that she didn’t quite seem to have fully grasped the concept when, on January 2, she spontaneously decided to have all four of her wisdom teeth pulled.

Spontaneity has led to some experiences that I will forever treasure, but I have never really thought of it as “spontaneity” at the time.  Except once.

In the summer of 2013, my hiking companion of 1000 miles, Quiver, found himself back on the Appalachian Trail.  (This is a common pattern for many of us thru-hikers.)   That year, a friend of his was doing her thru-hike, and he joined her for several hundred miles in the northeast.  At the time, I happened to live in New England, as I was spending the summer in central Massachusetts in a circa-1790 farmhouse (on 160+ acres) that I was working to transform into an intentional community.  (That’s one of those stories we’ll have to save for another day.)

In any case, when Quiver arrived in Massachusetts, he called me up, and we decided that we should spend a few days together.  A few days turned into a few weeks, and soon the question of what we should do with the time we had together was raised.

Me, hitching a ride

Me, hitching a ride

In response, I started talking about all of the things I liked most about New England that I thought Quiver would also like to see and experience.  Apart from his thru-hike, during which he’d not strayed far from the New England woods, Quiver hadn’t been to New England since he was in his early 20s and hadn’t formed a favorable opinion of it.  I saw this as a problem, and we decided that the best way to rectify this problem was to tour the region.  Being us, we didn’t want to just get in my station wagon and drive around.  No, the best way to see the region would be to stand on the side of the road, wait for New Englanders to allow us to ride in their cars, and then travel with them wherever they were going.  I mean, I knew that 1) we wanted to enjoy Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire again, 2) that I wanted to introduce him to Burlington, VT, and 3) that he had a ticket to a plane leaving from Portland.  Other than that, we had lots of room to be spontaneous.

So, we walked to the other side of the town I was living in, stuck out our thumbs, and began traveling. When we got to Route 2, we’d barely begun thumbing before an old car pulled over to the side of the road. As soon as the car had stopped, the driver got out, and Quiver and I knew this was going to be a fun ride. The driver was a willowy middle-aged woman wrapped in gauzy fabric, and she’d gotten out of the car in order to move her guitar to the trunk.

We ran up to the car and jumped in, and the driver, whom I’ll identify as “U” for the first letter of her name, immediately offered us some wheatgrass to drink. U told us that she’d been “vortexing” (read: driving in circles) all day and that our energy had pulled her to us. While we’d only been looking for a short ride, in order to get to a road that headed north to New Hampshire, U soon began telling us about her intentional community in eastern Massachusetts. Hearing of Quiver and my passion for communal living, she offered to drive us to the community for a visit.

Quiver and I exchanged a quick glance and, embracing spontaneity, enthusiastically agreed to head east.

To be continued…