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.


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