Sunday, June 25, 2006

"Val, I'm not going to answer my phone when the caller ID says 'Strange Guest'!

(Quotation from Val's sister Sam, during phone conversation today)

Guests and Strangers Catholic Worker Farm
Maloy, Iowa

(Mark and Brian, co-founder of Guests and Strangers CW Farm)

A two-hour morning bus ride from Kansas City plopped us off in the bucolic Iowa border town of Lamoni. The bus stop was the area Livestock Auction center and two Amish buggies were just leaving after seeing off some family traveling the bus. A high of 88 degrees inspired us to ride the 35 miles to Maloy sooner rather than later. Plus, there were no towns between Lamoni and Maloy.

Mark put the bikes together while Val sucked down a cup of farmer java, and noticed all the farmers observing the spectacle of us. We filled up all our water bottles and bought a 1/2 gallon of Gatorade for giggles (and to keep from dehydrating). The roads in rural Iowa are marvelous stretches of extremely quiet paved roads, more like 30-foot wide bike paths. Plus the few random souls driving past wave to us, almost always before we think to raise our hand in gesture.

As the hours piled on, so did the sun's rays. We found a random roadside picnic area and dined on every morsel of food we could gather in our pack. Just as we were running out of water, we found another random site: a large discount grocery store, E & S & B (Esther, Sam & Barbara), in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Of course it's owned by an Amish family that lives next door. The Amish around here are recent emigres, boosting the Ringgold County's population for the first time since the 1910 census. Land is super cheap, or at least it was until the rich summer home jet set from Chicago found out about it. As well, the Amish have unwittingly created a property value spike. Pushed out by higher property costs elsewhere in the Midwest, some Amish come to rural southwest Iowa scooping up 80-acre lots for usually under $750 an acre.

The Amish family at E & S & B didn't mind our delirious dehydrated invasion, sucking down bottles of tap water and buying up a dozen premium, though dated, foofy Luna power bars for 95 cents. That’s 95 cents TOTAL, not each.

Hot, stinky and sweaty we arrived in Maloy and found the Guests and Strangers Catholic Worker Farm amongst giant swaths of feed and ethanol corn (being grown across the street, and across Maloy). Alex, we met first, is a wayfaring stranger like us, vagabonding from community to farm to community. Betsy and Brian we met next, the founders of the community. They treated us to glasses of cool water and homemade hummus and discount crackers from E & S & B. We chatted for a long hour.

(Sunday dinner with community members, "guests and strangers": Veronica, Kathy, Wendell, Squeaky, Betsy, Brian, Alex and Don)

We've been here nearly a week and have found this place both an oasis and fine example of what we're seeking to create. Getting a chance to slow down in a beautiful quiet place, as well as meet people of such genuine integrity, has been a wonderful cool drink amongst our recent busy hot and dusty travels. We often laugh while telling folks whom we meet about our travels this year that all this coming and going is motivating us to make our vision of creating an intentional community happen soon, very soon.

The layout of Guests and Strangers is simple yet diverse. It is housed in a large farmhouse of 4 bedrooms and 1 bath, built in 1911, on four acres. Most of that acreage is for grazing the three momma dairy goats (which are milked twice a day) and five kids. About 1/2 acre of varied gardens along with splotches of berry patches and a mixed orchard provide quite a bit of food for a family of two and guests. A house next door is owned by Betsy's sister (currently residing in Buffalo, planning eventually to retire here), and used primarily for guests.

The town of Maloy was created in 1880 by the train running from Des Moines to Kansas City. Mostly Irish came (names like Warin, O'Connor and Shay fill the cemetery) built up the town that had a peak population of about 1,000. That was back a hundred years ago. Today the population hovers around 30. The passenger train service stopped running in the mid-70s, and the track was yanked out of the ground in the mid-80s. The market closed, along with the bank and barber shop.

About 20 years ago, the economics of the area suffered a further predictable capitalist trauma. While the hilly area around here was used primarily for grazing cattle, today it's almost all corn and giant hog factories. Corporations moved in, enticing small farmers with sweet deals and prophecies of big profits. Many took the bait and most perished. The few survivors gobbled up tons of land, under the auspices of large agribiz, got in debt with giant machines, and planted row after monotonous row of corn, mostly for animal feed. Now the ticket is ethanol, the supposed future savior of the peaking oil industry. It's all a mirage. The hills around here won't sustain monoculture corn plantings, the topsoil eroding away with each rain and wind gust.

Still there are the odd holdouts like Guests and Strangers.

(Solstice party bonfire. God on the right)

Remember we mentioned the super cheap prices of land and property? Twenty years ago Betsy and Brian bought the 4 acres and the large farm house for $12,500. Today it's appraised at $13,000. They pay about $200 a year in property taxes. The house next door that Betsy's sister bought some years ago she got for $3,500. Property has gone up since then. Don and Veronica, two extended members of the Guests & Strangers community, live a couple of hundred yards away, and recently bought 20 acres for $750 an acre.

In the mornings we have prayer time, followed by the mutual creation of the work list. A leisurely lunch is around Noon; someone usually volunteers to make something. Digesting the food, we also digest whatever is on our minds for a while after eating. We go back to afternoon work and chores and then eat a communal dinner around 6 or 6:30pm. Meanwhile, throughout the day, interspersed with work, folks take breaks, check email, take a nap, do a bit of reading. There's always something to do, but generally no big rush to get it done.

A joke Val heard at the Solstice party Guests and Strangers hosted last night, was a scene of folks at church. The minister preaches that heaven will be everyone's reward for their life on earth. Calling for everyone to raise their hand who wants to go to heaven, the whole parish raised in unison except one man, John. The minister, perplexed, asked John why he doesn't want to go to heaven. John replied, “Iowa is good enough for me.”

There are no mountain ranges here. No big rivers or lakes. For most non-Iowans we suspect Iowa is simply a place in between places. Where we are, it certainly feels rural. Birds are the biggest population we can see. There are lots of mini-forests, inter-mixed with natural prairie grasses and the factory fields of corn. The soil is some of the world's richest; coaxing vegetables to grow is not a problem. Lightening bugs greet us on our evening walks. Storm watching and rain gauging are big pastimes. The sunsets are surreally beautiful. “They’re like that all the time,” Betsy assures us.

We joked the last night, walking down to the town park while the sun was setting, as a low fog moved in, a storm hovered nearby, and the lightening bugs accompanied us as they do, “You’re trying to seduce us, Maloy.”

It’s working. Thirty people, rain, fertile land, and no Starbucks for 100 miles? There’s a reason Farmer John was satisfied.

Did Mark mention berries and cherries? Many of you know that Mark is half-bear, but never before has his inner nature of bearness surfaced so completely, requiring daily quantities of fresh berries. Guests and Strangers has not disappointed. Red and black raspberries, gooseberries, mulberries and Nanking cherries round out the current crop. We eat them raw, or in pies and tarts or the German staple called Rota Grutza, a thin pudding-like consistency made of cherries, berries and cornstarch.

(Solstice Party annual French-inspired bonfire with Alex, Squeaky and Brian playfully admiring)

Bonfire. Everybody loves a big fire, jokingly referred by Val as "White Man Fire". At the annual Solstice party last night, the afternoon of food, games, French peasant dancing, and more food, was capped off by a ritual giant bonfire, built by Brian. He explained that in France, to celebrate the Feast of John the Baptist (the Catholic church's attempt at coopting the pagan celebration of Solstice), folks gather at dark and light a giant carefully stacked pile of sticks. So many of the 75 folks who came out for the earlier festivities gathered around and quietly watched the tower ignite, shooting a massive flame a dozen feet high into the night sky. As the fire climbed lower, an accordion was played, then singing with guitars and shakers, and, alas, still more food and drink.

Politically, there is some really good, heartening, exciting work going on in Iowa. Courtesy of the big annual Solstice party, we got to meet quite the who’s who of Iowa’s activist community last night, including Ed Fallon, who campaign manager Jon Krieg (Val’s former AFSC colleague) introduced to Val as “State Blue Ribbon Accordion Player and Gubernatorial Candidate!” Despite his progressive politics (progressive enough to have a bunch of anarchists registering Democrat just so they can vote in the primaries), Ed managed to secure 26% of the vote. Jon thinks it was really his accordion-playing.

(Jon, Val and Patty at Solstice party in Maloy)

A local youth described his parents by saying “They’re world reknown, just by very few people.” Proving that the activist world really is too small (or that we really are all related), shortly after arriving here, we learned in conversation that Don (of Veronica and Don mentioned above) was Jon’s college roommate. Jon works in the Des Moines AFSC office. He and Val were long-distance colleagues during both her stints with the Denver office. During conversations with him and his partner Patty (who came down for the Solstice party, as did Ann Nafier, also of AFSC), she learned that he and Patty had lived at the Guests and Strangers farm for 3 months, and the Joyful Farm in Indiana for four months. Joyful Farm, home of Brethren activists Cliff and Arlene Kindy, is where we’re going in July!!

Jon and Ann filled our ears with the good tidings of great immigrant rights work going on in Iowa, from Alex and Squeaky (another young man who biked here to the farm) we learn of all the great Catholic Worker activism in Des Moines, and the ongoing fine work of Kathy Kelly and the Organization Formerly Known as Voices in the Wilderness in Chicago, and from Brian and Betsy we learn of the excellent anti-war organizing and civil liberties resistance among the Catholic and other peace communities here in the Midwest. The struggle is excitingly, beautifully alive, out here among the corn and fireflies and deer.

Monday, June 19, 2006

I like onions

“I like onions. Now, I'm going to go slam my head into that wall.”--Skyler Pearson, aged 7.

(Grace, Skyler and Joe, finding some solace in the backyard swimming pool)

Thus Mark and I had the privilege of being introduced properly to the Pearson children: Skyler, his four-year-old sister Grace (who does not like onions, but who--like all good Quaker-Buddhists--is teaching herself karate), and 1 year-old brother Joe.

The thing that's really cool about seven-year-old boys is that they are both literal and intentional. They don't slam their heads against walls figuratively or because they're completely lacking in courage or creativity. They really do it. Because they want to. Because it's fun. Or because they're angry and frustrated. Eventually they stop. When it starts to hurt and they've gotten their pent-up energy/frustrations out. I really, really wish they were running the peace movement....

As I was introduced to Joe, born since I last saw Dan, I did a triple take. Had I not actually seen Joe's father standing in the same room as he, at the same time, I would have sworn my dear friend and former supervisor had somehow regressed 33 years in age and was now wordlessly demanding I hand him a Cheerio (admittedly atypical for Dan).

After rising at 4:50 am (Mike's friary, New Hampshire) to the miracle of freshly-brewed coffee (Blessings be upon you, now and always, Brother John), Mark and I flew to Kansas City, then hopped on our trusty two-wheeled companions and began cycling to the home of Dan and Kristina Pearson in Independence, MO. It was an interesting 42 miles. Initially, we had enormous, unused highways largely to ourselves (“Why is this road here?” Mark kept asking), making solitary use of the infrastructure of a city much larger than KC. This was followed by serene and empty country roads of a bucolic beauty the likes of which one hears about or sees in movies.

Unfortunately, this cycling bliss was interrupted, as we grew closer to downtown, by a short but rough stint on a hilly, busy, two-lane road which, somehow, mysteriously, attracted all the road rage in the metropolitan area. I (Val) had another of my infamous meltdowns. I began seriously questioning whether I have it in me to be a Quaker, while Mark gave me the best non-violence talk this side of Thich Nhat Hanh. It's amazing how a few white men flipping off women trying to turn right (for the crime of having slowed down to do so) or laying on their horns while passing Mark and me for the affront of not using petroleum, can lead me, in no time flat, to cursing out the entire Empire, from Vader on down, and wishing for the extinction—with a few notable exceptions—of melanin-challenged men.

In downtown KC we were treated to a warm welcome by a (notably melanin-challenged) bakery owner in the city marketplace, whose staff filled our water bottles, let us use their phone, and fed us well for two bucks. We also found a very cool Arab grocery, which sold dry molokhyia, something I've never seen in this country (“Do you make yours with lamb or chicken?” the proprietor asked me. “Uh, I don't really make it....”). The grocer was watching the World Cup and inexplicably rooting for the Americans.

Mark and I continued onward to Independence after lunch. Our route was very interesting (really, Kris, it wasn't that bad!). We traveled for a long while through a multi-ethnic section of town, on a road which resembled Colfax Avenue in Denver, maybe 10 years ago. Although there was no bike lane, cars were chill and courteous, mostly driven by Mexicanos and Central Americans. As we neared Independence, though, the road suddenly got really inappropriate for cyclists, so we made our way to Truman and got ourselves out into the lovely country areas on the eastern side of the city. Eventually, we ran into Kris and Skyler on their way home. They offered us a ride, and assured us we were quite close when we insisted on riding the last two miles. But then we got lost, and two miles turned into six, and Search Party Number Two was sent out. Oh, the shame! Fortunately, we were just about to pull into his driveway when we saw Dan!

We spent a lovely day and a half with Kris, Dan and the children, throughout which they insisted we do whatever we want and not feel obligated to do anything—such generous and caring hosts! Saturday night, Dan and Kris and I sat up late discussing spirituality and drinking wine, while Mark fell dead asleep. Kris and I then outlasted Dan and had some groovy time together going a little deeper into shared experiences of spirit. I was jazzed to learn we are sister-poets, and she and Dan turned me on to some wonderful work by Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Naomi Shihab Nye. Sunday morning I went to KC Meeting for Worship with Dan and Kris, and was lovingly introduced by Dan to the Friends of Penn Valley Meeting. Afterwards Dan had to continue a class for his Masters' Degree; the rest of us went home where the kids swam, and Mark and I computered, and later we had another yummy vegetarian feast thanks to Kris. In the evening, the Pearsons and I went for a little walk along a beautiful bike-walk-path. Actually, some of us walked. Skyler scootered, Grace bicycled (both did very well coming down a steep hill!), and Joe tolerated the paparrazzi.

It was good to see the family all doing so well. The Pearson children take the concept of adorable to pretty dangerously high levels, and they're as smart and healthy as they are cute. All seem much happier being closer to family (Dan and I became friends while he was my supervisor at AFSC; he and Kris and the children lived in Des Moines, near no one they knew, for a few hard years). Dan loves his new job, and expects to stay there a good long while. He is working for a Catholic child sponsorship organization, which allows him to do work that he really cares about and believes in, without traveling so much his children start asking “Daddy who?” I was inspired to learn that the organization is so community, rather than individual-oriented, and works to integrate community-development and strengthening in all that they do. Kris had been planning to return to school to get training in ASL interpretation when Joe blessed their household. She continues her awesome ministry as full-time mom.

The next morning Dan got up before the rooster to drive us to the bus station. We had a wonderful time, though the visit was too short. We hope we can see them all again very soon.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Watching Anchorman with Brother Mike in Manchester, and Other High Church Ministries

Hi All,

Well, our Tour de Communities has definitely taken a turn for the cerebral. As I write, I'm watching three grizzly bears beat up on Ron Burgundy's newsteam, in a friary somewhere in Manchester, NH. "Anchorman" is just as silly and brilliant the third time as it was the first. Mark and Mike and I are happily howling. Enter Baxter the dog to negotiate with the bears. Yeah, it brings to mind not only Lassie but really bad John Wayne "Injuns", and yeah, I'm tired of bears always being the bad guys, but/because of that? it's still hysterical.

We met up with Mike yesterday at the Four Corners Store (the only store, or business of any kind) in Richmond, NH, at then end of the 86th steep climb of the day. We stopped in 8 miles short of Fitzwilliam, our planned rendezvous spot, after I had a complete meltdown two miles from Richmond: "Mark, I can't do another 10 miles of this!" New Hampshire's roads--busy, full of deadly potholes, and climb after killer climb--had taken a toll on my spirits and body. Mark graciously acquiesced.

The day began auspiciously enough. We left Sidehill Farm in Ashfield, Mass, where our dear friend and former sister-Guidestone-Farm-intern, Rebecca Lay, is working, around 10am. After 9 days of rain and clouds and wind, the sun rose glorious and much-welcomed over Ashfield. Our ride began with miles of gorgeous downhill stretches through Shelburne Falls (achingly picturesque) to Greenfield (where we stopped for BBQ tempeh and some yummy spinach and feta thingie). Occasional climbs were well-balanced by the lush, somewhat surreal greenery/scenery for miles, great shoulders and excellent pavement.

After Greenfield we headed north, circumventing Gill (a great route change suggested by Rebecca's colleague Becca) to Northfield, where our food-bike-tour of New England continued. At Mim's we partook of a decent vegetarian sandwich, followed by a huge and delectable ice cream cone at the town "creamy" (that's what they call them here).

Shortly after Northfield, as we were making good progress and feeling happily full of ice cream, we found ourselves in New Hampshire, on terrible pavement, a narrow, steep, winding climb along a beautiful creek, with lots of very fast drivers more or less missing us. One hair-raising exception to this, which had me cursing white men, capitalism, selfishness and the whole "Live Free or Die" mentality, involved a logging truck barrelling down a particularly steep bit, nearly hitting me close to the bottom when I had nowhere to go. We landed in Winchester, a town which brought to mind Pine Ridge, and Mark treated me to copious hugs, OJ, and Jojos. After that things got better...until Mark and I decided to exercise our Gottman Marriage Institute skills midway a particularly steep climb. Go Gottman! They must have taken many bike trips together.

After Mike met us, we began a lovely, tortuous car tour of the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border. Mind you, we weren't necessarily intending to take a tour of the border, but that was what we did, and I found that there are actually some really nice roads in New Hampshire, skirted with magical lakes and pretty clapboard houses straight out of a postcard. We rolled into Manchester around 8:15 and Mike took us to a hip local Mexican joint the Brothers frequent which had original and yummy vegetarian options.

We've felt well and truly welcomed here at the friary. Brother John created little signs to welcome us each to our (separate) bedrooms. Mike brings me coffee with milk, and makes me tuna sandwiches. And get this: They gave me my own BATHROOM! Complete with a bathtub AND shower! I told Mike, "You fellas really know how to treat a lady." "Yeah," he replied drily. "That's why we're all bitter and single."

This morning we lazed around a bit, reading, checking email, running errands and making phone calls. I've discovered "The Red Tent" in my room, so poor Mark and Mike are constantly having to wait for me while I catch up on decades of reading. The weather is warm and steamy, the sky beautiful blue with signs of rain clouds. We went to see the new Vince Vaughan/Jen Aniston flick, "The Break-Up", this afternoon and concluded that a) Jen and Vince needed the Gottman Institute and b) Jen really needs to eat some Krispy Kremes. Stat. For our point, we went out for delicious Vietnamese food.

Mike asked us yesterday if, after we were married, I was going to take Mark's name.

"Mark?" Mark asked.

I LOVE him.

We need to catch you all up on our trips to Agape Community (totally awesome, as opposed to "pretty awesome") and Sidehill (land of brave but muddy farmers, great beer, and a house that looks like a mushroom...even without the beer). But it's late, and we're fading. We're taking a road trip tomorrow, up to the White Mountains, for a little hiking, and lots of cable, and eating. If I'm lucky, we will not leave at 4 am. Wish me luck.

Love, Val

Greetings from Sidehill Farm!

We easily could have spent more time at Agape, though we had plans to visit our Guidestone farmer friend, Rebecca, at her new farm of employ near Ashfield, Mass. A 25-mile ride re-tracing our steps back to Amherst had us riding in hard drizzle (or light rain, the latter word we try to avoid in conversation with bicycling). Amherst is a hip college town and the home of Bart's home-made ice cream, of which we naturally availed ourselves!

Mark, Rebecca & Val (Rebecca's cute trailer behind)

Cheerful, sunny Rebecca picked us up and we were off to a supper at the People's Pint, a locals' pub in Greenfield, Mass. Then off to her farm, aptly named Sidehill (the farm is—you guessed it—on the side of a hill!). In the dark we found our new home for the next three days: an authentic Mongolian yurt, called a ger (pronounced like 'gare'). Similar in mechanics to the yurt we lived in at Guidestone Farm, this yurt had an authentic low-door and the inside walls were neatly covered with traditional Mongolian and Kazakh felt rugs of beautiful designs.

Inside authentic Mongolian Ger

We slept well and woke up to Friday harvest day. However, with the record amounts of rain the northeast has been trying to soak up, Sidehill has been late in transplanting the vast array of veggies eager to get into outside soil. So lots of greens were gathered. Val and I literally laundered some salad mix (using a real dryer to spin the water out) and weighed out half-pound bags. Then we weeded spinach, dill and cilantro for a few hours--a bit muddy and tedious, but we loved hanging out with Rebecca.

In contrast to Guidestone, Sidehill workers share lunch together (we shared breakfast at Guidestone). You're on your own for dinner and breakfast, so Mark made Rebecca some nice breakies while we were there. Sidehill was started by Paul and Amy, a late-30s? Quaker couple, about a decade ago. They were all veggies until this year, when they began a raw dairy.

Strawbale 'Mushroom' Home of Sidehill owners Paul & Amy (note living roof)

They live in a beautiful, 20-foot radius strawbale house, which looks (intentionally) like a large mushroom that just grew in the forest. The roof is alive and growing, like the sunny-johns at Guidestone. They've only gotten running water quite recently, and now have a lovely two-sided, outdoor shower, overlooking the river below. Rebecca and her two intern-mates, Becca and Keith, share morning and evening milking chores with Paul and Amy. The whole operation is a bit more rustic than our Guidestone farming experience, and quite lovely. Plus the foliage and forest is dense, and wild feeling—like it has plans of retaking the land the second you're not paying attention--making us Westerners feel totally out of our element.

Becka, Keith and Rebecca with their Sidehill album cover 2006

Rebecca loves it, and seems happier than a lark, with her long-time friends hovering in nearby burgs, a short car or bike ride away. The Ashfield area is a stunner, all breathtaking, bucolic, hilly views of small farms and old homesteads. Like the other communities down the Connecticut river (the whole area is simply called 'The Valley') Ashfield, Shelburne Falls and Greenfield generally all live within some strange liberal-progressive geographical vortex. People care about the land, about their food, about their kids. It's fairly small-scale and the land is so nurturing.

A half-dozen miles downhill from Rebecca's Sidehill Farm, right in Shelburne Falls is Salmon Falls. In the late 1780s the Mohawks and Penobscots signed a treaty with the nascent U.S. Colonial government. Lots of fine legalese about fishing rights will be respected, etc... Likely one of the first treaties the U.S. intentionally deceived and betrayed, near the beginning of a line of hundreds of such broken treaties. Curiously, some local students created a documentary showing in Shelburne Falls about the indigenous people of the area, their history and relevance today. We weren't able to catch it but it's at least nice to know someone is conscious. But of course they are! It's the Valley!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Our Experiences at the Agape Community

A spirited 35-mile bicycle jaunt from Northampton (after visiting Mark's friends Mike, Gerry and their two kids Devin and Ryan) brought us back into the semi-remote forests of central Massachusetts. Fifteen miles of the gorgeous Norwottuck rail trail (never more than a 2% grade) popped us out onto quiet side roads where you could still hear the birds and bees flying and buzzing along side of you as you rode (though we were just fast enough to out-cycle the mosquitoes). About a dozen miles on a generally kind state highway of meandering hills brought us to the surprisingly pretty town of Ware, Massachusetts, tucked away in a tight valley filled with church steeples and surrounded by hills of green. Another 7 or 8 miles of quiet, paved, farming and ranching roads brought us to the Agape Community.

Val, Brayton & Joe (garden behind them)

We arrived just as it began to rain for nearly two days straight, to a warm welcome from Brayton and Joe. Suzanne, Brayton, their daughter Teresa (in the summers), and their current year-long intern, Joe, make up the live-in community at Agape. Ahhh, we both felt, what a relief to have to relate to just three people --- Suzanne was out of town during our visit! We briefly helped Joe, a 20-something from Florida, with some garden work (The unusually mild winter this past year in Massachusetts was still brutal for Joe who feels that anything below 70-degrees is a challenge)! Then we retired for the day, with a few minutes rest and then a 30-minute evening prayer/meditation.

Agape is a lay Catholic community, very much like the Catholic Worker, whose lifeway I'm used to and can appreciate, located on 32-acres in a very remote section of central Massachusetts, 25 miles from Amherst. We stayed in a bedroom in one beautiful six-bedroom house was constructed 28 years ago by Suzanne, Brayton and their community. Another, much more energy conscious straw-bale / passive solar home, was built about a decade ago. The land also includes a quarter-acre garden plot, a wonderful hermitage up in the woods, and hardwood trees and wild animals roaming through.

Agape has all the elements we are looking for in community: shared spirituality, ecological sustainability and social justice activism. We were so deeply impressed as well with Brayton and Joe and Teresa as people (though we didn't get to visit with Teresa as much, her town-run-for-pie will ever be fondly remembered!). I think the thing which struck Val most was their extraordinary humility. Here we were, these two brash outsiders, coming into a life they've lived for years (or at least months), saying, “Have you tried this? What about that?” And our suggestions and ideas were listened to with such warmth and respect. The throughline of spirituality with the way in which visitors are treated, the way work is shared, the way vision is expressed and selves challenged, simply felt so right-on. Integrity is the word I keep coming back to. They struck us as people of just tremendous integrity.

Folks at Agape are involved with anti-war actions and witness. They hold regular retreats for college students to learn about the practical lessons of this matrix of community. Brayton and Suzanne teach local classes on their lifeway. And an excellent twice annual newsletter is sent out to supporters of Agape, providing thoughts on peak oil, U.S. foreign and domestic policy, other pressing matters of the day, through the lens of practical spiritual reflection.

Three times a day there is a prayer meditation service, before breakfast and lunch, and then after dinner just before bedtime. I especially loved the morning meditation to help me center my day. Doing this alone requires discipline I usually don't have and practicing prayer together is much more powerful and meaningful. Just the four of us together during prayer and meditation three times daily was simply refreshing and meaningfully rich. Short passages from the New Testament were read, time for personal reflection was given, and then there was sometimes a shared song with a guitar accompaniment.

Large 6-bedroom house built 25 years ago, garden in foreground

Our time there was very peaceful and refreshing to our spirits. We spent our second day cleaning up their basements (it was pouring rain outside) and doing some fix-it work on their bicycle fleet. [Note to bicycle owners everywhere: please store your bicycles inside a dry space to prevent rusting and corrosion.]

We prepared dinners and lunches together: very simple vegetarian fare, utilizing lots of greens from the garden and small greenhouse. We enjoyed lots of rich, deep conversation about community, politics, spirituality.

A fairly large community of people help build and sustain Agape. Prior to living on the land in community, Agape Community was an urban creation in Boston, formed of two families—Brayton and Suzanne, and another couple. When Brayton and Suzanne and others supporting their vision felt they really needed to be living in immediate relationship with the land, they amicably parted from the other couple. Since that time, they've had many temporary members of their community, but no one prepared to vow to living the life, day-in and day-out, as Brayton and Suzanne have. Still, their community is an essential part of all the outreach they do to the surrounding community, their ceremonies, celebrations, witness and mission.

In terms of sustainability and living rightly on the land, the people of Agape do try to tread lightly. They make a conscious effort to use as little as possible and live simply; the injustice inherent in the global economy is ever-present in their minds and actions. Their green efforts include, in addition to the strawbale passive-solar house, a diesel 'grease car' that is powered on vegetable oil obtained from a local eatery (Brayton actually apologized to us for driving as we hopped on our bikes to leave!). They heat their homes with wood from the land. The garden provides the bulk of their summer and fall food.

They did have a tv and vcr/dvd player that we utilized to watch a wonderful new documentary called “The Power of Community” about Cuba's recent history dealing with an imposed peak-oil situation. A gifted and highly-educated population aided by a mostly benevolent government have created stunning micro-economies where most people have a direct relationship with growing their own food (80% organic). Pesticides and fertilizers have been almost eliminated. Farmers are among the most respected professions now and they also make the most money! Walking and bicycling are back in action (Cubans were addicted to cars and buses). While the initial shock of a drastic reduction in foreign imports and subsidies (along with the illegal and cruel U.S. embargo against Cuba) were difficult for most Cubans, the resulting changes have been quite the blessing in disguise. Cuba is almost no longer dependent upon foreign countries. For our friends that love the city but yearn for an alternative-city-life, check this video out or go and check Cuba out.

The video was happily received at Agape because people in Cuba were clearly getting more in touch with the land, the food they eat and creating closer more intimate relationships. We had a marvelous time with them, learned a great deal, and will carry the spirit of their place and purpose and selves with us as we continue on our journey.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Our Experiences at the Sirius Community

Sirius Community

Sirius Community has been going strong for over 25 years, a smaller model of a famous community in Scotland, called Findhorn. Basically an eco-village with limited shared spirituality, Sirius has successfully maintained a model of community, though it's not very intimate, at least from our perspective.

Size does matter. Findhorn community in Scotland, we were told, has hundreds of members and whole specialty areas, like a fishing village. The folks who started Sirius, however, wanted to create something much smaller and more intimate. They've got about 30 members and aren't looking for a whole lot more than that. Ironic for Val and I was that 30 people to us was quite large and not very intimate, as you will note below.

Like a residency cafeteria that offers almost unlimited housing options and spiritual leanings, Sirius attempts to be very diverse and tolerant of needs across the “simple-not simple” spectrum. There are a range of housing options, food/dining options, spiritual-involvement options, community-involvement options. There are “bare minimums” in terms of work and financial commitments which everyone is expected to meet, but beyond that there's a lot of “do your own thing” encouraged.

But we were saddened by how few members of the community took an interest in the various guests visiting for the weekend. Most of those we encountered were warm and kind, and the first person to greet us—Ernesto—was awesome. He went out of his way, though it wasn't his responsibility at the time, to welcome us and settle us in well. But then he went back to his life and responsibilities, and we were shuffled, more or less, from one person to another all weekend, with no real consistency and intimacy.

One unique feature to Sirius is that they offer public education and offer their community as a model for others to learn from, thus our visit. In fact, their primary shared “industry” is serving as an education and conference center. However, while our accommodations were neat and cozy (we had the privilege of having a door to our room) and included showers and access to laundry (you pay for), it is pretty costly for folks living on the margins or simply, like us. We did a work-trade, working for several hours on Saturday, in exchange for paying $25 each a night for two nights, or $100 for a two-day visit for both of us. This included meals. Without the work-trade it's $40 a night for each person. For the independent traveler, this is not a horrible deal. However, for $80, Val and I could get a private room in a basic motel, with a phone and TV with cable, and go out to eat for our three meals. We found the price exorbitant. They don't offer any sort of sliding scale.

Further, the person in charge of guest services (one of three paid jobs in the community) was either having a bad weekend or is just an angry person (he provided the only direct impoliteness we experienced). On what would have been our third night there, we asked if there was room to stay (we had been told originally that it would be no problem). A nice woman we had both enjoyed visiting with signed us up to spend another night. We would only have been there for two more meals (dinner and breakfast), and we were told there would be no dinner that night. We asked her if we could do a work trade to reduce costs for the night, and the guest services person told her no, we couldn't, because the Sirius staff were all off the next day, and that it would be $40 a night per person. When we told different people we had to leave because we couldn't afford it, they simply nodded. No sympathy, no, “Oh, well, how can we make this work?” Or even, “Gee, that's a bummer. Yeah, I wish we didn't have to charge so much, but we do, and this is why....” I found their reaction kind of appalling. The office was closed while Mark and were figuring out whether we could stay. We didn't even know where to find someone to tell them we were leaving.

One of the things that we found particularly alienating is the degree to which community relationships are mediated by money. And, the bottom line--as in, how the community works within the capitalist cash economy--is possibly the community's most disturbing feature: seemingly almost every transaction WITHIN the community that involves a practical necessity is dealt with on a NON-sliding-scale cash basis.

For instance, Sirius has several gardens that produce a fair amount of vegetables. However, every member of the community who wants to eat from the gardens, including those who work off their minimum monthly community hours (32) in the gardens, has to pay $25 a month for a vegetable share – the same amount paid by non-community members (who have no work requirement). While this may sound “fair” -- that everyone pays the same – we didn't understand why anyone in the community paid anything. If the gardens are maintained by community members then the only costs would be buying and maintaining equipment (minimal), water (unclear if it's even necessary in this part of Mass.) and seeds (unless you use seeds from last years seed offerings). With 30 community members at Sirius, each paying $25 a month for 6 months equals $4500 a year – which to us seems extremely exorbitant [ not sure that all members of Sirius are garden members].

The internal cash economy continues with rent. Everyone who lives at Sirius, regardless of whether he/she lives in an off-the-grid yurt, or a private house, pays rent (appropriate to the type of accommodation) in almost comparable amounts to what folks are paying in many cities. Each person also pays a $65 monthly membership/land use fee. Plus utilities. Plus plus plus. It seemed to us that to live at Sirius one must have access to a fair amount of income, independent of the community. We were told that about one-third of the members work outside the community, 1/3 have home-based businesses and 1/3 are stay at home parents or are independently wealthy.

What we still can't quite get our heads around is a) why is so much income required for Sirius to function and b) why can't the income generated from the education work be sufficient to provide for people's needs? It just seems that people's needs from an energy and comfort standpoint are very similar to what they would have were they not living in a rural community.

One aspect of community we are both focused on is shared spirituality. One of the things we really appreciated was that Sirius does practice daily meditations, and expects community members to resolved conflict from a spiritual basis. The community has done a great deal of work on the issues of communication and conflict resolution, and expects people to follow a stated and very mature path in resolving disputes, small and large. Sirius seems to have worked out a regular collective practice that works for members of the community, and shared meals and work days begin with a circle, hands held in silence or reflections offered, and announcements.

In meditation, however, we experienced, again, the cafeteria-style of pick-this, pick-that spirituality. During one 30-minute 'meditation for planetary healing' we were treated to an alleged Native American traditional song, a Buddhist mantra, a Sufi song, and an Islamic chant. One guest did ask afterwards what the source of the Native American song was and it turned out to be written by a white woman in Florida who apparently 'knows' about Native American people. Seemingly well-intentioned, but the cultural appropriation, no matter how supposedly respectfully done, was disappointing to say the least.

The lack of attendance at meditation was disappointing as well. The entire community is encouraged to attend (it is not compulsory). At each meditation we attended, there were no more than three members who showed up (and they led the service). We were told that most members, especially the younger set, did their own thing and only the weekly mandatory business meeting attracted the entire community.

The food was the highlight. All the food was vegetarian (though I'm not sure if that is a requirement) and each evening meal is prepared by a rotating chef who pays out of their pocket for anything they need. The food was delicious and generous. Everyone who didn't cook is required to clean up, and in anarchist fashion, people just jumped in where needed.

But again, very few community members share meals. A former member visiting for the weekend wondered aloud to a long-term member where everyone was at meal times. He was told that the younger set did their own thing (by younger we mean 20 and 30-somethings). What a bummer. Really made us sad and wondering about intergenerational politics/relationships.

Again, we both applauded Sirius for its ability to maintain itself for more than 25 years, and we were really struck by the gentleness, integrity, welcome, openness and commitment of some of the people whom we met. We certainly got a great deal out of our strawbale-claying experience. But on the whole, the operation struck us as a small, though important, step away from living in the city. It felt to us more like co-housing in the countryside than community. And the whole ala-carte menu, “protect everyone's individualism” to an extreme, made us yearn for something much more intimate.

Greetings from Northampton!

(Mark, Gerry, Mike and Devin)

Mark and Val decided to make an unscheduled stop yesterday at Mike and Gerry's place in Northampton. Mike and Gerry are dear friends of Mark's who used to live in Denver, and once shared a house with Mark and Mica. Val got to meet them, and their insanely smart and handsome sons, Ryan and Devin, yesterday afternoon. We had hoped to have time to see Mike and Gerry during our time in New England, but things were so packed in we weren't sure it could happen. Fortunately, yesterday afternoon we realized we did have time, and should make more, so we left Sirius early and will go to Agape a day late.

We biked a glorious 17 miles from Sirius down to Amherst, across the Connecticut River, and over to Northampton, arriving around 6 last night, just as it started drizzling. The ride was extremely easy and fun. We basically coasted the first 5-8 miles, hardly peddaling at all as we came out of the hills into the river valley. As we passed through Amherst, we saw a Cultural Survival bazaar happening in town, presumably to raise money for Cultural Survival Quarterly which is based somewhere around here. Amherst is a very pretty, and we are guessing, VERY WEALTHY city.

After Amherst we jumped on this sweet railtrail, riding along enveloped in forest, catching glimpses of farmland between the trees now and again. The railtrail took us all the way to Northampton where we had a tiny bit of hairy city riding, before arriving at Mike and Gerry's to a splendid pasta dinner with very yummy wine (which Val at least enjoyed). We sat up talking and being treated to a dazzling singing performance by Ryan, aged 6, (already an impressive songwriter and stageman), as well as a financial and political breakdown of reality, courtesy of Devin, aged 8, that had me asking him if we could hire him as an executive director of a non-profit. Now.

(Mark, Devin, Ryan & Val)
The whole valley area around here is influenced politically, economically, and culturally by the plethora of small liberal arts colleges in the area: Smith, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Hampshire, and UMass Amherst, yet there is still affordable housing and a working class feel to much of the towns. This may change, however, as "NOHO" gets "developed," and folks moving in from New York with lots of moolah start raising property values and taxes.

Mike and Gerry are so inspiring to be with! They are doing great things for the planet. In addition to raising thoughtful, intelligent, healthy and happy sons (Devin can articulate quite clearly why George W. Bush should be impeached, thanks), Mike is an alternative energy specialist bringing sane building options to the Valley, and Gerry was just hired by the Mayor of Springfield to head up that city's initiative to bring real affordable housing to the city and work to end homelessness.

We spent last night sleeping in a beautiful room which Mike and Gerry added on to their house which is heated by passive solar, sun streaming in French doors and windows. They're completely renovating a lovely 1913 house. Val asked Gerry last night if one could marry a shower, as she had fallen in love with theirs. Gerry informed her that, alas, their shower was already married.

We're making dinner tonight, leaving Mark and me with the only really important question at this point: What do six- and eight-year-old boys eat? Both parents told us we'll fail in any effort to please them and should just not worry, but I feel this is a challenge worth rising to. Even if we do fail.

More about the Sirius community soon...

We Got Spammed!

Hi Everyone,

We got comment-spammed so we changed the settings on here hopefully to cut down on that. For now, though, to hide the rather rude comment I had to select the option of allowing no comments on our last post (the long one about Ben, Hilary, and Sirius). If you'd like to comment about that post, please do so here.

Love, Val (and Mark)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Late Night Food with Friends, Cycling in the Mist, Strawbaling at Sirius

Hey you,

Do people in Boston normally eat late? Is it an East Coast thing? And I don't mean a little snack, I mean a full barn-burner of a meal: delicious pasta, a salad, a glass of wine, and dessert, of course. Now Val and I love to eat and we love our friends (but we don't eat our friends--anymore). Nearly every night during our lovely week-long visit of our Bostonian friends, Hilary Rantisi and Ben Scribner and Corinna Giorgi, we ate mouth-watering meals -- at 9pm, 10pm and even 11pm!

The funny for us is that on the plane ride out to Boston we both had just finished reading the primer for starting the South Beach diet (first two weeks is no pasta, flour, fruit, sugars and bad fats). We shook hands on starting the diet and then quickly had second-thoughts as we began our late-night delicious dining.

Hilary, Corinna and Ben are amazing cooks and we'll miss them for more than their culinary skills.

Hilary is an old friend Val met in Palestine, back in 1987, upon Val's first visit to Palestine. She and Val adopted each other then, and have been sisters ever since. Except for a short, amazing, 2002 visit at a random restaurant in a random town of Wisconsin which was precisely half-way between the Teaching Drum Outdoor School (where Val was working), and a town in southern Wisconsin where Hilary and her husband Paul were visiting Paul's sister (made possible by Lauranna's amazing half-state driving), the two had not seen each other in six years! Hilary had not met Mark before, but heartily approved of her soon to be bro-in-law-outlaw (I may be going out on a limb here, but I think the "my roots lie in the soil of Palestine" shirt may have had something to do with it--Val). Hilary now heads up the Middle East Initiative at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Paul works as an educator and consultant for Bentley and College and Northeastern University. Both do a variety of great political activism and speaking on the Middle East in and around Boston in their non-existent spare time.

We met Ben about six or seven years ago, when he was an organizer with SEIU Local 105 and more than dabbled in radical activist circles. In the Fall of 2001, Ben joined us and Beth Daoud and Nadya Waziri for an activist tour of Palestine. Moving to Boston four years ago, Ben immediately fell in love with the city and a young woman from Italy, Corinna. They're both mainstays of a group that helps send people to Palestine and Israel to learn and help out the cause. Corinna is finishing her post-doc in microbiology at Brandeis University; Ben teaches at Emerson and Harvard and volunteers his time to Raven Books, a local alternative bookstore worth looking up.

Our visits with both (individually and together) were really rejuvenating. It was so great to see our dear friends' lives and meet some of the inspiring and fascinating members of their communities. Ben gave us a walking tour of Cambridge and bike tour of Boston which deserve an entry all of their own. To discuss politics deeply and with heart, to listen to all their great stories and revisit oldies but goodies of our own, and to connect with such good people we see far too rarely was a real joy and privilege.

Yesterday, June 2nd, we had a wondrous day taking a morning communter train from Boston to Fitchburg, Mass. Next we hopped on our new folding bicycles with luggage in tow and rode 50 miles to the Sirius Community. The forecast was for heavy downpours and flash flooding -- perfect for a long ride, yes! Well, it turned out to be near perfect in many ways. From Fitchburg we rode along Rt. 2A, which is the main street through the towns of Winchester, Templeton, Gardner, Athol and Orange. Generous shouder, good pavement and rivers and hills and lush foliage to keep your eyes occupied. The last stretch of 15 miles was a real hoot: up into the hills, very lush canopy, bubbling brooks, birds and a very quiet road that felt more like a 25 foot bike path. Wispy spray of a rain (called "soft weather" in Ireland) kept us moist and the mosquitos quiet.

Sirius Community is near Shutesbury, Massachusettes (about 10 miles East of Amherst). Compared to the bio-region of Denver and the Plains, this area feels like a dense jungle of moss, rocks and endless trees. Sirius is 90-acres of fairly level land, about 25 full-time member residents and several more members that live nearby. The lot of them are mostly White with a small dose of People of Color. It's a fairly technologically savvy community with computers (I'm typing on the internet via their wi-fi hook-up), electrical grid, plumbing, etc.. They do have solar panels, a large garden and orchard, composting toilets, passive solar and alternative/local design of their buildings. They're all vegetarian or vegan and eat only organic. They share spiritual time each day, meals, and work to maintain the community. They jointly operate a conference facility and many of the members have their own business or part-time job outside of Sirius.

While it rained incessantly all day, we spent several hours joining about a dozen other members and visitors learning about strawbale building design and applying endless handfuls of a clay/straw plaster mix to the strawbale walls (see Val below). Prior to this, Val and I used our Guidestone-acquired cob-mixing skills, dancing barefoot in a pile of clay and straw and water ("You call that dancing? Dance!!" Argentinian Ernesto called out to us when we weren't mixing vigorously enough. Yes, he really is named Ernesto, and he really is from Argentina, and yeah, if you squint, he kind of does vaguely resemble Che--very sweet man--welcomed us here warmly, though he wasn't on duty when we arrived--and reminds us both a bit of our dear friend Remy). Plus we had in-house DJ-Will spinning reggae tracks as we plastered (photo below), keeping it all mellow and fun.

Great vegetarian lunches and dinners we enjoyed, along with the 45 minute morning yoga (my back thanks me profusely) and 30 minute planetary healing meditation before lunch.

More about Sirius soon. For now, enjoy the pictures.

Love to you all, Mark and Val.

Mark, Hilary & Val--Memorial Day in Medford, MA

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Ben, Corinna, Val & Mark in Cambridge, MA, May 28, 2006

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Ben, Corinna, Val & Mark After Dinner at Hilary & Paul's on May 31

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Sirius' DJ-Will spinning Reggae at Strawbale Plastering Par Excellence

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Val plastering strawbale at Sirius

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Val and Mark at Multnomah Falls near Portland, Oregon

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