Last week I wrote about some of the weirdness of moving back into my childhood home for a month. It’s a little different than it was when I was an isolated only child growing up here, though: my childhood home is now a commune and functioning eco-retreat type thing called Sacred Groves. At any given time, there are a mix of a half dozen to a dozen adults and children living here, walking the paths I used to haunt alone.
I have this much to say about visiting the family commune: it’s never boring. When I come to visit my mom and her partner, I never have any idea which of the dozen little structures on the land they’ll be staying in. Is mom in her school bus/shed/trailer thing? Or is she back in the Round House? Who’s sleeping in that old camper that got a deck that turned into a little room?
In addition to this, I never have any idea where I’M staying — will it be the guest room in the Round House? One of the yurts nearby? It might be the Moonlodge — but since men aren’t allowed to sleep there, that doesn’t work if Dre’s with me.
As an intentional community, Sacred Groves seem defined by almost constant shift. My mom’s partner likes to build things (I’ve joked she’s like the Sarah Winchester of Sacred Groves), and the kind of people attracted to communal hippie living can be in transitional phases — there was that weird woman who showed up with the goats for a few months. The guy who originally moved here single and eventually moved away with a wife and twin babies. Sometimes you show up and there’s a roaming pack of feral resident children beating their way through the forest or hopping endlessly on the trampoline. Sometimes (like today), Tavi and I are the only people on the land. Residents come and go.
And then of course there are the range of events that happen here — Wailing Lodges and compassionate listening and the Women’s Mystery School. On any given day, not only do you never know what residents you might see — you’ll never know who’s going to come wandering through the woods, lost between the dirt parking lot and a yurt somewhere on the south side of the property.
Since many of the events at the commune are therapeutic, you also never know what emotional state these people are going to be in. A couple weeks ago, while Tavi and I were having dinner outside the cabin, a group of women wandered by on their way to an event. My 12-pound mutt ran up to say hello, and one of the women almost started sobbing out of sheer terror.
Clearly, this woman had a dog phobia. But she was also just in a state of being highly distraught, which is TOTALLY to be expected since, I then remembered, there was an event that night — a grief workshop called a Wailing Lodge. I mean, you’re going to a wailing lodge… it’s totally to be expected that you might be in a fragile emotional state. It’s just not what I was expecting when I was hanging out in the dappled sun, having dinner at a picnic table with my toddler and worm-like dog.
That’s the thing about hanging out on a commune: you have to have a level of social flexibility about your space that is mind-boggling to me. These woods used to be my cedar-boughed isolation tank, the lonely Eden where I wrote my essays and read my magazines. And suddenly it’s half summer camp, half transitional housing, half B&B, half group-home, and half hostel. And, yes — that adds to up more than a whole, because the uses of the space at any given time are like Venn diagram of functions. This yurt is the guest yurt, but there’s a woman who does massage therapy in there one afternoon a week.
If it sounds overwhelming, that’s because it can be! I went home for Christmas last year, walking into complete chaos of six kids making gingerbread yurts… and limping out vomiting 24 hours later with a wicked case of Rotavirus that swept through the entire community, thanks in part to the open baskets of soiled toilet paper next to the toilets. (My mom thinks flushing toilet paper is hard on the septic system, so they use family cloth and ask people not to flush any used toilet paper — which is great, but you know, sometimes leads to everyone barfing.)
Just as often, however, it can be an amazing, warm, loving space — the line goes, “There are no single parents at Sacred Groves — and no only children.” It’s communal, it’s friendly, it’s tribal, it’s the opposite of what I truly do believe is the pretty broken nuclear family housing option. And it’s pretty insane some of the amazing people I’ve met when I swing by to visit my mom — who else brings the toddler home to see grandma, and gets to chat with a pair of local folk singer-songwriters drinking tea with their guitars around the kitchen table in the Round House? It’s pretty amazing to say hello to random people who’ve swung by from all over the world. It can be a scene! Seriously.
But when everyone’s on the land, it’s amazing to live the way families used to… to get from the log cabin where we’re staying to the Round House (where we can sometimes find my mother), we walk about three minutes through the ferns, cross another path, and then down a trail that winds through cedar and maple trees, past little signs noting “MEADOW –>” and random little altars built into the trees. “Feather,” Tavi always likes to note when we walk by the altar that my mom built when my grandmother passed away a few years ago. We go through a deer fence, and emerge out into the hot sun of the Round House’s permaculture garden, past the rabbit hutch, and into the house.
This is what living in community can mean… your family a walk through the woods. I’m curious about communities in America that live like this — I guess you could call them family compounds? Because while certainly I’m seeing how Pacific Northwestern hippie lesbians like my mom have created an extended family community, I’m sure there are others. Mormons, Appalachian families… maybe immigrants with extended families in rural areas? Working class families in trailer parks? I’m sure all sorts of communities live this way, but not many of the subcultures I know well. Who wants to enlighten me?