Reflections on the last ten days
Today I used money... Today I touched money for the first time in over a week. Throughout the last ten days I stayed in a warm and cosy room in a beautiful location, had three meals provided for me everyday, went to an intimate St. Patrick’s day concert and lazed in hand-woven hammocks reading American classics. It may sound as though I have spent my time in a full board hotel, or maybe a high end country retreat... but you’d be mistaken. Since the 13th of March I’ve been living in an Intentional Community, or ‘commune’ in popular terms. Of course, I had arrived with some trepidation - despite trying to avoid any deliberate preconceptions I still had the voices of my peers ringing in my ears as I arrived, suggesting a place full of ‘pot smoking hippies’ or ‘polyamorous nudist orgies’. What I found though was quite different. At Twin Oaks I found a community full of hard-working, friendly and welcoming people: mostly Americans, but with a smattering of ex-pats, who truly believe they have found a way of living that is simply better than the typically consumerist lifestyle prolific across the western world. And after spending time there, I’m inclined to believe them.
Life at Twin Oaks is a far cry from the images that ‘commune’ may conjure in your heads. The members work hard, in excess of 42 hours per week, in order to keep their community viable. The work may be in one of the community’s many businesses, or they may be producing food, cooking it, taking care of children, or carrying out any number of regular tasks or one-off projects that keep the >100 members of the community fed, watered, clothed and housed.
I was welcomed in to this community with a labor sheet of my own, admittedly with reduced hours to take in to account the time I would spend on photography whilst there. It was through this work that I made the best connections with members of the community - nothing builds bonds like spending several hours scrubbing a tofu kettle or baking bread for the communal dinner. The work was also a way of me repaying the kindness of the community putting me up in one of its guest rooms and feeding me for the time I was there (the food, by the way, is largely excellent and mostly grown on the Twin Oaks farm). The thing is with the work, is that mostly it didnt feel much like work! In the garden I was with a group of friends who chatted and laughed the whole way through four hours of weeding, in the tofu hut the music was blaring and the various ear-defender-wearing 20-somethings were working in a strange, yet functional blend of efficient assembly line and late-night rave.
As for money, community members get a $75 allowance monthly - most barely use half. Those that do use their allowance spend it on personal items such as maintaining musical instruments, a favourite brand of confectionary or the occasional takeout treat. The tax figures for the year were released whilst I was staying at Twin Oaks, each member ‘earned‘ the equivalent of $5000 to be declared to the IRS - hardly a salary you expect of people living in beautiful wooden houses, having their own private sauna and lakehouse and never really wanting for anything. That of course is one of the main benefits of living communally. In a country where roughly eight of every ten people owns a motor car, Twin Oaks operates a small fleet of communal vehicles, making their ratio more like one in ten. Food is bought and cooked in bulk, saving vast amounts over individual purchases; and the community are able to own and operate a small dairy, producing milk, cream, cheese and butter for the table and to sell at farmers markets.
Back in mainstream America I wonder whether this idea of cooperative living could take off? Car-pooling is gaining in popularity, but the idea of co-owning a car seems a long way off. Today I bought a cappuccino in Charlottesville on my way to the airport, from here I fly to what I expect may be the polar opposite; to a state where bigger is better, pickup trucks are universal, and singularity is in its nickname. The Lone Star state of Texas looks likely to be a shock to the system.