Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Looking at Darkness and Light

This is the first year that I didn't write a post for Samhain (Halloween) and this post is a bit late for solstice and a bit early for Yule (Christmas).  Several years ago I wrote a post around this time of year entitled  The Darkness and the Light (12/21/10).  I nearly entitled this post that before I discovered I had already used the title.

Darkness and light are major themes for me around this time of year.  I'll admit, in spite of how horribly unsustainable they are, I'm a sucker for the holiday light displays, especially huge, multi-colored ones.  But, as I've written, the most gaudy, garish light display looks pretty pathetic in daylight, even as it looks so spectacular at night.  Candlelight is awesome in the darkness and barely noticeable in the light of the day and, of course, stars can't even be seen in daytime.  We need the darkness in order to appreciate the light.

This year, the darkness for me is confusion and uncertainty and potential.  The small, multicolored lights are the little things that I think I know, my few concrete plans for the upcoming year.  (Visiting Twin Oaks, Acorn, and my cousins in Virginia, and, at some point, getting into Ganas--and, hopefully, coming back to Boston to visit.)  Pema Chödrön writes about being Comfortable with Uncertainty.  I'm not sure that I'm actually comfortable with it, but at this point I am learning to cope with the confusion and uncertainty and potential in my life.  I feel like I've got all these things I need to do over the next week and then I get on the train south on New Year's Day--and then I just don't know.  I have nothing scheduled.

So I intend to enjoy Christmas, both the get together on Christmas eve with folks that I built community with so long ago and have been with each Christmas eve for eighteen some years, and then Christmas day with my family of origin, with loving sisters and brothers and nieces and a grand-nephew.  And then I chug off into the unknown.

I hope that whatever your holiday plans are (including fleeing the madness to a silent place or doing the traditional Chinese food and movies) you enjoy yourself, you enjoy this first taste of winter (assuming you're in the northern hemisphere), and that you enjoy the darkness and the little lights.  And may you find your way into the new year.

Quote of the Day: "I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light." ― Barbara Brown Taylor

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Community Grew on Staten Island

I'm currently on Staten Island, a borough of New York City, visiting the community of Ganas.  (I mentioned this was going to happen in my last post, Building Urban Communities.) I got here last on Tuesday and quickly settled in. I've been attending the planning meetings  that they have most mornings.  My name is on a waiting list to get into Ganas, but I have no idea how long that will be. 

Ganas has been around for 35 years.  It was formed around the idea of 'Feedback Learning', a process that they pioneered, which sometimes happens in the planning meetings.  As far as I can tell, the idea is that they don't hold back on their feedback to you with the idea that feedback can make a difference--with feedback you can change your behavior.  Ganas claims to have only four rules: 1) No violence to people or things, 2) No free rides (everyone is required to work and/or pay their way), 3) Nothing illegal (including drugs), and 4) All criticisms are supposed to be brought up in public meetings where they can be addressed.  This last rule (sometimes called 'no non-negotiable negativity') is intended to prevent people from private griping, talk that can be damaging to the community--especially if the community can't deal with it.  Anyone breaking any of these rules can be asked to leave.

There are about 75 people living here.  Similar to Twin Oaks, there are a bunch of different buildings (I think it might be seven but maybe six or eight) and most people have their own rooms (although some couples share a room).  Some people have been here since the beginning--and some people have just arrived recently.  There's a lot of diversity here.

There is also a core group of ten people who 'run' things, although they do it with a lot of input from others who come to the planning meetings and offer feedback.  Ganas describes itself as being several 'populations': the core group, an 'extended core' (the people who come to the meetings and are otherwise more involved) of perhaps 25 folks, and another maybe 35 people who live here but are not very involved with the community as such.  And that's fine with everyone as long as everybody abides by the four rules

Ganas is located in a rather urban area of Staten Island.  From the street the Ganas houses don't look that different from the other houses, but in the back the yards of a bunch of the houses that are next to each other (and one on the next street that's in back of them) are all interconnected.  The community tries to keep a low profile and not appear different from their neighbors.

The community owns three businesses in St. George/Tompkinsville, the area of Staten Island that the ferry from Manhattan lands at.  All three businesses are called Everything Goes, but one is a vintage/used clothing store, another sells furniture, and the third is a bookstore/cafe.  Unlike Twin Oaks or Acorn, there is no requirement that visitors work while here (and I suspect that most don't) but someone found out how much I like books and so I've been volunteering at the bookstore (giving me something to do while I'm here), cleaning, pricing, and shelving books.  I'm enjoying the work.

The businesses support the community in several ways.  One way is that most people here are required to pay a fee, which includes rent, food, utilities, toiletries, etc.  The workers at the businesses are almost all Ganas members and their 'pay' is usually a deduction from the fee (plus a small stipend, I think).  At a recent planning meeting, the group went over how well each of the businesses is doing.  I think that the community is supported by a combination of the income from the businesses, the fees from those who don't work in the businesses, the income from visitors (like me), and people in the core group who work outside the community and use their income to support the community.

Right now, Ganas is at a point where things aren't working as well as they had and the community is pondering 'restructuring' itself.  One of the goals is to have the structures of the community better match the current reality.  A number of options have been proposed and the core group is debating what to do next, sometimes in open meetings.  It's an interesting time to be here.

It's also an interesting time to be in this area of Staten Island for a completely different reason.  If you've been watching the news, you've probably heard about the death of Eric Garner and the decision not to indict the cop who choked him.  His death occurred a couple of doors down from the bookstore that I've been working at and there have been a lot of protests and rallies happening near the store.

I'm here until this Thursday.   Then I'll be back in Boston until New Years.  After that, I hope to be off to Virginia to see if I can be part of the Point A project. (Again see my last post.)  I may be there until there's an opening in Ganas.  And one of my biggest reasons for wanting to be at Ganas is that it would give me a base in New York City to use in building a community here.

Quote of the Day: "Ganas people dream of developing open minds with which to talk together and understand each other better. We want to learn how to cooperate, care, share resources, and welcome those who want to join us. ... Most of us think of ourselves as a bonded, caring, hard working, fun loving, extended family." - from the Ganas website 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Building Urban Communities

I've been talking a lot about the communities that I've visited in Louisa County and in Rutledge and northeastern Missouri.  In my last post (Four R Communities) I also mentioned other communities like East Wind and Earthaven and The Farm.  And last year (right up until this summer) I was involved in a project to create a farm-based community in upstate New York.  All this could give the impression that the most important communities, or all the egalitarian communities, or any 'four R' community, would have to be a rural community.

And it's true that, by and large, most of these communities are rural, but that doesn't mean there can't be urban egalitarian communities or even Four R communities.

I've written about this issue before in my post on Issues in Community: Urban and/or Rural (9/29/13).  I mentioned there that I helped start an egalitarian community (an urban commune, if you will) in the Boston area in the 1990s, that lasted five years.  I also mentioned that there were two urban communes in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, the Emma Goldman Finishing School and the Midden.  (It now looks like there's also a new Community in Dialogue in the FEC that's in Portland, Oregon.)  And I mentioned the Los Angeles Eco-Village as an example of an urban ecovillage.

I know that the Midden and the Los Angeles Eco-Village are trying to live in a way that's sustainable, if not restorative/regenerative/robust/and/resilient.  There's no question that this is more difficult to do in an urban setting than a rural one.  At the same time it may be more important to do, as more and more people live in the cities and less and less live out in the country.

I also want to point out two very important examples (not communities, but to show things that communities could do) of 4R living in city settings.  In Holyoke, Massachusetts, some permaculture folks (two couples) bought a house with a tenth of an acre backyard which they turned into a flourishing edible urban garden that they have named 'Paradise Lot'.  Looking at their website,  it looks like the latest thing that they're up to is building a bioshelter to grow 'subtropical plants'.  (I've written a post that talks about Bioshelters--8/15/14.) Another example of what you can do in an urban environment is Colin Beavan, who calls himself 'No Impact Man', who tried to live as 'eco-effectively' as he could in the middle of Manhattan. He wrote a book about it and then there was a movie made about the experiment.

All this is not simply theoretical for me.  I am just about to spend a little over a week at Ganas, a thirty-five year old community on Staten Island, in New York City.  Hopefully my next post will be about life there.

And starting in the new year I will be returning to Twin Oaks and Acorn to be part of the Point A project, an attempt to create urban income-sharing communities ('communes') along the East Coast of the US, starting with Washington, DC, and New York City.  Part of my reason for going to Ganas is to understand the situation in NYC.

Last year I was involved with a group trying to create a farm based community in upstate New York.  This coming year I hope to be involved with starting urban communes.  To me it's all part of the same plan.  We need to live differently--as I've been saying since my first year on this blog, Simply, Equally, Communally, and Sustainably (see my post on SECS, 9/22/08), and more importantly, as I've been saying recently, a way that is Restorative, Regenerative, Robust, and Resilient.  It doesn't matter if it's in the country or the city, creating communities that model this way of living is what's important to me.

Quote of the Day: "Our project is social transformation and that means changing people and how they relate to each other.  Currently and increasingly the people and their relations are mostly in the city.  ...  What matters is that we're being taken care of and that so is everyone else.  Liberty, equality, community.  By basing our economy on equal access to resources rather than equal distribution of resources we celebrate and support differences and eliminate a lot of paperwork on our way to our post-scarcity utopia." - from the Point A website