The Twin Oaks Community, forty minutes from the city Charlottesville, Virginia hosts an annual conference on intentional communities. It’s not your typical conference at a hotel. It’s completely outdoors in the woods, with tenting, bonfires, privies, and camp style dishwashing. One roofed space with a stage makes the main room, the rest of the workshop areas are constructed with tarps, including a geodesic dome covered with a sail. Cooked food is brought in from a the Twin Oaks kitchen in a car.
The food is delicious. Since the conference is held Labor Day weekend, conference attendees were treated to abundant garden produce served up in various pasta and bean dishes. Large jars of food put by added to the tastes from pickled garlic scapes, cucumber pickles and kimchi.
Many of the 160 or so attendees are living in intentional communities, or have lived in them and for them this is an annual gathering. Some came to recruit people for their communities. Others came to find out about communities they could join. But there were also people who showed up looking for a different way to live than what they were doing currently.
There is Will. Freshly mourning the loss of the “love of his life” just four months ago and wanting to do something different. There is Ann, 58 and unemployed, living alone in New York City and sure that there is a better way to live. And Mary Ann, who looks like a good church person (which she is) approaching her seventies, living in central NJ, her six children scattered and hating, really hating, living alone. These are real people whom I met and now care about.
These three represent the middle of the road folk who found their way to this conference out of a sense that they there is the possibility that they might find another way to live.
We all got tours of Twin Oaks itself. At the age of 46 it is one of the oldest of the communities. It is a radically different way to live. A community of just under 100, they have two businesses, hammocks and tofu, that provide the economic engine that supports them. Everyone is required to put in 42 hours a week whether in a business or in providing for the livelihood of the community. Everyone gets a small monthly allowance for personal purchases. There are a number of residences, a main dining hall, a community clothing closet, (you can take from freely) an autoshop, a woodshop, and vast gardens. They produce between eighty to ninety percent of their food.
Acorn, a nearby community created as a spin off from Twin Oaks, hosted the conference one night for dinner and a bonfire. Smaller in numbers (8? 12?) their business, Southern Exposure, saves and sells organic seeds for the mid-Atlantic region. They are also an income sharing community.
The flavors of intentional community are myriad and multiple. Not all are income sharing, not all are rural. They also exist in cities and suburbs. Some have a political bent, some a spiritual practice. What amazed me is how many of them there are. ( Go to The Federation of Intentional Communities to learn more. )
Intentional community is a radical option. It requires selling one’s possessions and moving – leaving behind one’s current life. For Will, Ann, and Mary Ann it is too much of a commitment, too far from “mainstream” to make that switch.
I was glad that I could offer a version of shared housing that isn’t as radical. It doesn’t require selling all your possessions and leaving mainstream America. Also at the conference were Karen Bush and Louise Machinist, who with a third friend bought a house together. (Their book is My House, Our House and they blogged on the same conference on their website. ) While the three of them did give up the extra vacuum cleaners and other assorted things, they stayed in their community and at their jobs. We each gave a workshop and were able to talk to folks about finding a solution that would work for them.
I come away with this visual about the world of intentional community.
There’s something about being exposed to an extreme version that makes what once might seem extreme to be tame and doable. Go next year. It might change your life.