Notes from Windward: #57

Thoughts on a request to visit

Over the years we've gotten a steady stream of letters from all sorts of people interested in intentional community. Some are very thoughtful, and some are flat off the wall. Some letters make us want to throw open our doors, while others make us want to shutter the windows, turn out the lights and pretend nobody's home.

Each spring we get a series of letters from people who've purchased a copy of the Directory of Intentional Communities and are planning on making The Grand Tour. Their goal is to travel throughout the summer visiting different communities in the austensible hope of finding just the right one for them. On the surface this is a very reasonable plan, and it certainly sounds like a fun adventure, but from our viewpoint, there are a number of problems. Our general reaction is to decline to play along, and I thought it might be worthwhile to write a bit about why.

The first rub is that the request has within it the implication that they can easily trade a life that doesn't suit them for one that suits them better. Great work if you can find it. The problem is that no matter where you go, there you are. Whether a person lives in the big city or the deep woods, that person's biggest challenge is always the guy in the mirror. Changing location and context is rarely enough if one isn't willing to be realistic about themselves. Intentional community is good, but it isn't magic. While there is a chance that a person who didn't fit in "out there" is unconventional in just the right way so that they will fit in here, it's a slim chance. It's important that folk come here because they like what we're doing, not just because they didn't want to stay where they were.

Also, the plan is also predicated on the belief that (1) someone out there has figured out the answers, (2) that "they" have invested themselves and their resources to bring about that better way, and (3) that they will then welcome you into that paradise for free, no questions asked. As I said, great work if you can find it, but I would point out that most of the free cheese out there is found in mousetraps. Anyone who offers you more than a fair chance and a square deal, is probably offering you too much.

It is possible for a person to take meaningful steps on their private, personal path here at Windward, but nothing along those lines is either simple or certain. To quote Sheldon Knapp, "Everything good is costly, and the development of the personality is one of the most costly of all things. It will cost you your innocence, your illusion, your certainty."

The recent request which triggered these thoughts was well written, and no doubt she's a very nice person. Still, the likelihood of anything positive coming from such a visit is so remote that I'll write back and say, "Thanks, but no thanks." But instead of just writing to her personally, I thought I'd make the response more general and include it in the Notes as food for thought for those who want to know more about how we see things.

Most articles in these Notes speak to the joys and challenges of what we do and how we live. All that's worth recording, but there's not much here that talks about the people problems which form such an integral part of intentional community. One reason for that is the reality that there's always more than one side to any given story; a person can be both right, and not right for Windward. It's not fair to discuss specifics when the other person isn't in a position to tell the story from their point of view.

The seeker wrote, "I will be beginning a journey to cross the U.S. and Canada in search of an intentional community to settle with. I would like first to visit many communities for short periods of time to see how they work and what their philosophies are."

The Grand Tour does sound like a great adventure, and no doubt the seeker will learn all sorts of things (not all of which will be the nice kind.) Communitarians are dreamers who envision a better way for people to live, work and love together. Some communities have achieved a respectable portion of that goal, while others are more virtual than real. A short visit can give you an idea which are which, but it isn't isn't necessary for someone to visit Windward to figure out that we're real and viable. If that's the purpose of the trip, then she would be wasting her time by making her initial visit in person; more to the point, she'd be wasting our time.

The fact that you're reading the fifty-seventh issue of our newsletter speaks volumes on the issue of our viability as an organization. Another salient point is that we've been granted tax exempt status by both Washington state and the IRS, a status which has recently been audited and confirmed. If both the state and federal tax collectors agree that you're really what you say you are, then it's a pretty safe bet that you probably are.

Going further, our county has granted Windward its conditional use permit; that's important proof that we're real and here to stay. It's one thing for a handful of follks to go off into the woods, keep their head down and mind their own business, but it's only a matter of time before a growing intentional community of any sort is going to start to have to answer to the authorities for all kinds of things from health to land use issues. The fact that we're good-to-go on these matters bespeaks a long record of facing the political and public policy problems inherent in building a community. All too many intentional communities have tried to ignore the demands of the real world, only to have the real world shut them down.

Life anywhere is complex, and that's just as true in an intentional community. Who really knows the inner workings of the human heart? One of the great joys and challenges of intentional community is that you have the chance to really get to know a group of people. The more you get to know someone, the more you realize how deep and mysterious the human heart truly is. A short visit may tell you enough to enable you to write off a given community, but it won't provide enough information to enable you to know "This is the right place for me."

Make no mistake, it's a radical step to go from the solitary, consumption-oriented lifestyle "out there" to the cooperative, sustainable lifestyle we're working to build here. The hard reality is that the vast majority of people make radical changes in their lives, not for rational reasons, but rather on the basis of their emotional needs and perceptions. For something to work over the long haul, a system has to work on both the rational and emotional levels. Most systems fail because most people, most of the time, make their most profound decisions solely on the basis of their feelings. Once the emotions are engaged, it's often too late to do the homework or conduct a rational analysis: we've become very leery of those who embark on the emotional journey first, and don't want to get caught up in their emotional meltdown.

I'm not saying that people don't become emotionally bonded to Windward. They do. The problem is that if Windward isn't right for them, or they're not right for Windward, then all the emotional intensity in the world won't help. On the contrary, it will make the resulting chaos more intense, something none of us need. When people walk in our door convinced that Windward is the best thing since sliced bread, we're flattered of course, but we're also more than a little scared. Passion that isn't well grounded in reality can quickly turn to disenchantment and anger.

No single place in the real world can be all things to all people. Life is about compromises and accommodations, something which is true of life at Windward too. What is different here is that we've worked long and hard to create a set of compromises and conditions which we believe will optimize our quality of life. We think we've done this rather well, but others are certainly entitled to reject the choices we've made and search for other circumstances which might suit them better.

The seeker goes on to say, "I am seeking out a community that is bound together in spirituality with each other, celebrating the earth's challenges and pleasures, and helping each other through heartache and tragedy."

This pushes a number of buttons. For one thing, the people who make up Windward aren't "bound together" very tightly at all. Most of us are fiercely independent, and take enduring pride in our commitment to do things our own way. Windward exists because we know that by banding together in order to meet our basic needs, we are each thereby empowered as individuals to pursue our wants more aggressively than we could if we were trying to go it on our own. I sometimes think of Windward as a bus traveling through time. Different people board the bus for a while because it's going in a direction in which they want to travel. When they reach their stop, they'll hop off and continue their personal journey in another direction, while the bus continues on it's way. It isn't necessary, or even desirable, for everyone on the bus to be committed to going to the end of the line. All we ask is that they be good traveling companions.

Visitors often seem to think that the fact that we live and work in harmony means that somehow we're less autonomous than they are. We see it as just the opposite. The demands of singleton living are such that very little is left over for the dreamer within. In community, we are able to take advantage of the economies of scale, the power of the division of labor and the laws of accumulation, etc. By working together, we can have both a secure and stable life, as well as the time and space within which to work to transform our personal dreams into reality.

As a rough rule, male seekers come looking for free sex, while female seeker come looking for unconditional love. While intimacy isn't out of the question, it also isn't on the table. After years and years in this "game," we've learned to protect ourselves from emotionally intimate involvement with strangers. Folks come and go around here all the time, and those who allow themselves to get emotionally involved with visitors almost always set themselves up to get hurt.

The question, from our perspective, involves whether a potential member has the wherewithal necessary to build a niche for themselves here. We are willing to temporarily share our pie with those who are willing to help work to build a bigger one. We are willing to do what we can to help. We aren't willing to do it for them.

Those who just want to come and see if the chemistry is right, I fear, will find Windward a cold and unresponsive place. Windward is real, and it works, because a lot of good people have worked long and hard to make it so. Our doors are open to those who respect that accomplishment and want to learn how to be a viable and productive member of our community. We believe that almost anyone with a sense of service, commitment and compassion can do that, if they take the process seriously and proceed one step at a time. There is an order, a process to making this work, and we've come to have a profound respect for the need to take things one step at a time.

At Windward, we have crafted a culture that suits us better than the one "out there." It hasn't been easy, and it hasn't happened overnight. It would be profoundly naive for anyone to think that they could, within the scope of a "short visit," truly come to understand the complexities of a viable, sustainable community. We really do get letters saying something along the line of "We're planning on starting an intentional community, and we'd like to visit for an afternoon to see how you do it."

More than one person has commented that our two year apprenticeship program had initially seemed like way too long a time; that they'd have this all down in just a couple of months. By the time the two years is up, they've generally grasped the larger reality that creating an intentional community is one of the most complex and demanding tasks that any group of people can undertake. It isn't quick or easy, but it is worth doing.

The seeker asked for our visiting requirement. I guess that our request would be that if someone is just passing through, then we'd ask that they please drive carefully and have a nice day. If they think that Windward might be a place where they could learn something, well then our dues are $380 a month and we're always looking for good people. For your dues, you get a place to stay for the month, food, basic utilities and a chance to learn all sorts of things depending on the season and what's currently underway. From then on, it's a month by month decision. If you're learning worthwhile things, and doing worthwhile things, then you should stay. If not, then you'll need to journey on to another context. Either way, it okay, since your life is, and must remain, your own.

It's a long and winding road, and there's no telling what's around the next bend.

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