Monday, September 6, 2010

Zen and the Art of Communal Living

Today is the birthday of Robert Pirsig, most famous for writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book which I've already written about at some length here. The story of this book's path to publication has given comfort to many a writer; it was rejected 121 times, and has gone on to sell over 5 million copies. May all our worthy yet rejected manuscripts fare as well--or even half as well!

I thought of that book briefly, as we watched Wild Hogs this week-end. I wondered if any of those characters could fix their bike, should something go wrong in the middle of nowhere. The answer would be no, which is part of the plotline of the movie: suburban men leaving their comfortable lives. I felt this urge to hop on a motorcycle and see America, even though I knew I'd be more comfortable in a camper, especially in terms of safety.

I wish I was mechanically minded. I wish I could play an instrument. You might think these two statements have nothing to do with each other, but in some ways, they do.

Yesterday, my spouse and I wrote a song. He came up with the music as he plucked at his violin, and I started to create some lyrics. We even have enough rudimentary music theory in our brains that we could write it down.

Is it a song that will change the world? No. But it was fun to create together.

Today is also the birthday of Jane Addams, creator of communal living environments extraordinaire. She created a communal house in England, before returning to the states to transform Chicago. Well, perhaps that's a stretch. But maybe not. Two thousand people each week used the social services and spaces (day care, library, meeting spaces) provided by Hull House. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

I've always been fascinated by communal living experiments, and have done some dabbling of my own; in the 90's, my spouse and I had 2 housemates, both good friends, and their pets. I continue to think about that experiment and ways it could be improved upon. At the same time, I've gone to monasteries, which have been doing communal living in successful ways for thousands of years.

I wonder if having a spiritual focus helps communal projects have longevity. If a community gathers together to pray regularly, perhaps it's harder to fight or carry a grudge.

I wonder if having an artistic focus helps communal projects have longevity. If a community supports artistic visions and enables people to live out those visions, will people be more committed?

I continue to have this dream of a huge piece of land where every resident would have his or her own cottage. There would be communal spaces, like a kitchen, a media center, a chapel, a library, a studio with art supplies of every kind. There would be hiking trails, a huge garden, and perhaps some small animals, like chickens and goats.

Could such a place be self-supporting? Perhaps by selling eggs, produce, goat cheese? Or by having visitors come for retreats? Is this just a crazy utopian dream?

My grandmother, who grew up on a farm that supported several generations, used to scoff at my ideas of returning to the land. She told me that I had no idea how hard it was. But I've always been attracted to the idea of being self-sufficient. My great-uncle (my grandmother's brother) always pointed out that the family had been well fed during the Great Depression, and able to feed others. They may have had to wear their shoes with the holes in the soles patched up, but they never went hungry.

In these days of the Great Recession, it's an appealing idea. The idea of such a place also supporting people's spiritual and creative aspirations makes it an even sweeter dream.

Now, how to go from dream to plan . . .

1 comment:

Cinn Fields said...

As far as I can tell, your grandmother is right, supporting yourself off the land is very hard work. But I think you are right to dream of communal living - I live in an intentional community and I highly recommend the idea.