Discovering a lot of common ground

~ DESTINATION FIVE: SEYMOUR ~

Serenity, companionship and social change

What an interesting trip this has been! We’re so very fortunate to have been welcomed into some beautiful communities, with memories that will stick with us for a long time. When we hit our first highlight spots early on, I though that maybe we’d be tailing off a bit from there. But then along comes Commonground, and the goal posts get moved again. CG logoWith lots of laughs, freely offered information, engaging backgrounds, varying journeys, open minds, good work ethics, shared ethos, and different reasons for ending up in this community, our week here with these great people was delightful and, frankly, difficult to leave.

Going into this experience, we already knew about how Commonground had been around since the mid-80’s and were more than just an intentional community, so we felt confident that we’d see a well-established place that couldn’t have lasted this long without having a solid foundation. Interestingly, whereas everywhere else we’d visited so far had an obvious spirituality at its core, Commonground is instead centred around social change. However, there was a palpable “spirit” to this place which transcended a prescribed doctrine.

main garden

What makes them different is that the intentional community aspect – while integral to the whole – forms one part of a system of elements that help bring about social change in our world. Briefly, their three aims as an organisation are:

  • To provide a conference and retreat venue for the social change movement at the Commonground property
  • To provide collaborative workplace education and training to help people work effectively together for social change
  • To develop a vibrant Intentional Community of people living and working together at Commonground.

On their website, they talk about the early days of why the community was started: “We often talked late into the night about everything from economics and its relationship to global

Kate and Phil, two of the original founding members

Kate and Phil, two of the original founding members

poverty and injustices, the grossly unequal sharing of the worlds resources, the nuclear family, women’s issues, indigenous issues and the state of planet Earth!”  Given their wide range of skills and backgrounds, they began to shape their focus: “At some level we did not want to just keep fighting against the structures and problems we saw.  We felt it must be possible to create other ways for us humans to live more collaboratively on the planet.”  Being that they wanted this community to be built on on ongoing movement and not just individual owner/share collective, they opted to be a non-for-profit to ensure that the community continued well past the original owners’ lifetimes there. Two of the original members we hung out with most while there were Phil and Kate; 30 years on and they both seem keen on keeping the original plan on track and intact.

Wedge backyard

Kasia in kitchenThe property at Commonground is set up with numerous buildings, the main one being “The Wedge” (pictured above) where we stayed and which also houses the conference centre and guest accommodation. There are currently about 6 people who live full/part-time at The Wedge with another 7 at other hand-built homes around the 95-acre property. On a given day, nearly everyone living on-site will pass through the Wedge to cook or share a meal, do some work, have a chat or rest. The cooking roster involves everyone and all dinners are shared so the dining room ended up being a great place to catch up on the day and keep the Commonground family close. We never felt uncomfortable being brought into this fold as everyone was quick to engage in conversation, answer our questions or help us out in some way. Heidi and I were given a room in the conference quarters (and later moved when a group rolled in); the whole Wedge building is filled with a myriad of mud-brick walled bedrooms and bathrooms, each with their own character and outlook to the uninterrupted bushland surrounding it. Wedge wallsWhile not built entirely for off-grid living (no solar due to prohibitive cost when it was built, and the need for reliable power during conferences; one outdoor composting toilet but rainwater and dam water within), the innovative acquisition of building materials and recycled pieces that make up the building coupled with a reuse & repair philosophy and zero-waste gardening makes for a very sustainable contribution to the community.

 

dinner time

Dinner is always a shared experience filled with great chats, catching up from the day and amazing (mostly vegan!) food

Carl with produce

Carl with some fresh garden produce

Even though we had eyes on Commonground for the intentional living angle, we were visiting as working holidaymakers and were given extracurricular tasks on a daily basis to help out the local residents who might not get to them as often. Our tasks tended towards food-related and preserves as a few items were ready to be harvested. Picking, cutting, juicing and bottling was the core of our labour, lettucebut being that the kitchen is a cross-roads that everyone passes though, it was a good spot for interaction and conversation. To our delight, all this food prep meant we were able to take advantage of the extensive gardens kept up largely by Brian and Carl, with a green-grocer level of variety to choose from! There’s nothing nicer than creating an entire meal out of ingredients pulled from the ground as we did for our lunches many days. Brian had also been keeping bees for the past couple of years, so delicious fresh honey was also always available.

Brian beehives1

Brian beehives2I was beginning to think that places like Commonground were an amazing secret with their balance of low-intensity work life, bountiful social interactions, beneficial child-rearing opportunity with co-parenting, constant fresh and healthy foods, low-enviro-impact lifestyle and serenity only an hour out from Melbourne. But I think the word is getting out indirectly through things like their near-weekly groups that use the facilities as a group-work facility, the representation they have in Melbourne, the connection with local town Seymour and the recently-minted boutique music festival which brings in a limited number of punters who are as interested in the workshops as in the music.

Not everyone is rushing to be part of this intentional community despite these inroads, but they seem to get a regular stream of devoted workers/members which continue to keep things afloat. Still, Kate and Phil told us about how they are currently tweaking some of the core membership attributes to ensure that the community lives on well past their own ability to live here which might entice more folks. Kasia and HeidiCommonground takes a certain type of attitude to be part of: living with a close-knit group plus a willingness to hold lightly to money insofar that you are working to contribute to the health of the community but you can’t just walk away with a lump sum if you decide to leave. In my current state of mind, this seems ok to me: with a one-time membership cost of $100, a very modest $30 weekly contribution to the food and bill kitty and 10 hours of expected weekly work for the community in exchange for comfortable on-site accommodation, delicious freshly-grown food, the responsibility of cooking for the household only once a week and the rest of the time spent doing your own work or learning new skills with some of the many projects on the property….well, it seems to me like a great deal. To cap it off, the people you’re living and working with are exceptional, friendly and like-minded folks. To say that we aren’t tempted by what Commonground offers would be an understatement. But this lifestyle still doesn’t seem to be a likelihood for many in mainstream society and I think it all comes down to assets: we cannot acquire anything at Commonground and thus all your work there won’t help you buy anything “in the real world”. Again, I’m not bothered by this, as long as you are willing to concede to living the rest of your life in this or a similar community. Of course, there is time to bank up savings and then move on but I see this type of community as one that you don’t want to leave because it provides you with most of the things we really desire out of life…things you can’t buy.

Mike and Heidi with NgaluThere are heaps of things I could talk about from our week at Commonground like excess cantaloupe (we spent hours making cake, juice and sorbet), the creation and naming of cooch grass beer (Carl came up with “Cooch Hooch”), Kasia’s obsession with psycho-drama to help sell items around the property (none of us could really figure out what a psycho-drama was), Greg’s deftly-placed one-liners at meal times and talk about his recently purchased cigar-box guitar, Phil’s wry sense of humour and helpful direction, Ed’s direct-questioning and foul-mouthed hilarity, Izzy & Carl’s foozball fixation and much more. Overall, it was such a rich week of enjoyment, learning and experiencing community that we are forced to once again re-think what we want out of a community and what could be a good fit for us, even in a shorter term. As usual with this trip, things are getting very exciting!

sunrise clouds

As usual, Heidi’s take on Commonground is filled with some beautiful thoughts and a unique perspective from mine. Make sure you have a look.

 

Working on the margins of society

~ DESTINATION FOUR: MELBOURNE ~

Living amongst the poor with some rather nice folks

As with all of this trip so far, my expectations of the people or communities we are about to meet tends to be fairly different than the way it actually is. Never in a bad way though; I guess I am either coming into this with strangely low assumptions (possibly based on my recent negative feelings towards some of the human race) or the people we are meeting truly are exceeding the standards for even the most decent folks! Or perhaps we’ve struck it lucky…or maybe a combination of the three 🙂

The only personal and direct comparison I have to living on the margins with people on the street is the Waiters Union experience as I have mentioned in a previous post. Baptist PlaceIn that experience, members of that community rubbed up against the mentally ill, homeless and other people cast aside by society and worked in that space by sharing meals, starting complimentary businesses and projects, doing creative work and finding ways to walk alongside them and meeting them where they are at. Not surprisingly, the crew at Urban Seed in Melbourne’s CBD are doing many of the same activities. Always surprisingly though is just how much generosity, grace, humbleness and genuine hospitality is apparent through all its members, especially (with no condescension intended) given they are such a young group.

Heidi originally heard about Urban Seed about 15 years ago while my prior knowledge of them was counted in days. Despite celebrating 20 years of service this year, many people that we have spoken to within the city and even ones providing similar services have not heard of them. This low-profile is likely a deliberate approach: it’s not about being flashy (and there’s no budget for that anyway) but simply doing life at the ground level (or even the basement 😉 ) with those in need, particularly the homeless, the damaged and the unwanted members of society. They have a residential internship community consisting mostly of a small volunteer corps who are dedicated to “practising the discipline of hospitality, by inviting others into the home they had built in the church.” Urban Seed says that “everyone needs a place to belong” but with a high staff turnover rate where pretty much no one exists from most of the past 20 years, it is easy to see that offering hospitality and a sense of belonging to those on the margins is not a task for the feint of heart.

Credo cafe

Woodsy (blue shirt) offering lunch

One colourful character named Woodsy has been here for 15 years and would have been around during the “heroin years” as several people have called it, when ODing became a regular occurrence. We first came across Woodsy the moment we entered the Credo Cafe space (which is entered off of Baptist Lane at the back of Collins Street Baptist church) as he was running lunch prep for Tuesday’s weekly “free lunch”. This is how Heidi and I were introduced to the group of random plus live-in volunteers who keep Urban Seed’s numerous programs running day after day. Having been provided with a loose schedule of regular activities with which to attend and essentially shadow the live-ins here, first up for us was helping with Credo’s well-known lunch; it isn’t quite a soup kitchen but certainly provides much-needed meals to folks doing it hard on the streets of Melbourne’s CBD. It was a great introduction to Credo on a number of levels: we got to see the relaxed and friendly nature of the volunteers as they both did their usual chores but also how we were seamlessly brought into the fold; we immediately met the regular Credo diners and spent time hearing their stories; and we enjoyed a generous free meal (Indian curry, grainy bread, drinks and dessert) with leftovers being offered to any of the 30 guests who wanted to take away a container with them.

On our busy first day, we went from the Cafe to an informative meeting with Stephen Said, Urban Seed’s friendly Engagement Manager who answered a lot of our general questions. It reminded us further of how tight this relational work community is as both Heidi and Stephen had a lot of overlapping work and personal contacts despite Urban Seed backyardnever meeting each other before.  An administrative meeting followed that which allowed us to glean some interesting info about the inner workings of the Credo team and the challenges they face with things like homeless folks getting territorial when overstaying their welcome in the Credo “backyard” (the lane behind the church) plus financial concerns, scheduling and other mechanics of living in community.

As with our other stops on this trip so far, there is a lot to absorb and it while we have been gobbling up all this valuable material that our hosts have graciously been providing, it makes for a tired little brain. Luckily there was some available space in one of the apartments of the church office/residence tower for us to crash as some residents were away that week. Our room on the 7th floor was decked out with a PS3 and weight-lifting equipment which initially belied my vision that it would be more monastic given the Christ-centred nature of our hosts. A bit 18th century thinking on my behalf perhaps though I was surprised to see some first-person-shooter games on hand! I guess everyone needs some way to release tensions in this challenging environment!

Last Supper

The rest of our spacious apartment housed Rachel and Scott who were oft absent due to study/work and illness, but our neighbors, Tim and Beth, on the 9th floor were quick to invite us up for dinner the first night. Throughout this trip I have been continually impressed by the hospitable nature of our hosts, and Credo’s group were no different. But it is not just hospitality at work here: it is genuine, open and non-judgemental conversation with good listeners. On top of that, Tim and Beth (plus Jono and Michael the following night) were 20 years my junior yet embodied a mature presence and impressive capability for patient, honest and welcoming companionship. It would be easy to be workmates or friends with people who are so used to thoughtfully engaging with any and everyone. I felt like I could learn a lot from folks like these.

Other highlights from our short visit were: a walk around the area streets with some year 9 students, a writing class with local folks of all backgrounds and a men’s shed morning. The first was a suggestion by Stephen; he thought we’d enjoy the awareness-raising educational walk that Evan year ninesEvan – a non-resident Urban Seeder – does with year 9’s. Apparently they have a program organised with 3/4 of all Victorian schools to do these exposure tours where the kids are invited to examine their own biases and stereotypes to do with homelessness. Learning things like that only 5% of all of the 25,000 homeless in Victoria actually live on the street but those 5% are truly lacking any support system beyond what is offered by government and groups like Urban Seed. Evan was pretty savvy to the thinking of this age group, engaged them effectively and had them all listening carefully by the end of the tour.

Next up was the writing class where we met with a eclectic mix of folks who had been involved in a series of artistic classes with Brigitte, the partner of Evan. She had guided the group through painting and now was writing with photography next month. I was floored by the talent of the 3 older folks as they reeled off fine pieces of literature in our 5-minute timed assignments which reminded me that there are a wealth of stories to be told from people on the streets and in the community-at-large that often never get heard. men shedOn the final morning, there was a Men’s Shed sort of activity where a suburban house and adjoining church hall had organised to have Urban Seeders come in to use a garage full of tools and timber to do wood-building projects. Jono (8th floor) and I took the train out to Ascot Vale and met Woodsy who was the only other person to come this week. There was a mix-up with wood supply which resulted in Jono and I wandering the streets in search of a wood pallet, but luckily my pallet-sniffing senses were still keen from my Holden Hill days and I found us a nice one. We promptly put together a wood crate to be used as part of a table, and were wrapped by lunch.

Jono & Woodsy working

Jono & Woodsy completeIn such a brief stay we managed to experience a microcosm of life in the CBD which, on one hand, seems really inconsequential, but due to the richness of the people involved was surprisingly engaging and educational. I can only imagine what living here for weeks or months would be like (scared to think that I would likely not be cut out for it), but it would have to be something that you would remember the rest of your life. I can’t say that it’s my type of community dream, but I greatly admire the commitment, patience, resilience and devotion of the crew here as they do something very special in the name of their faith and humanity.

Check out Heidi’s take on the visit to Urban Seed.

Cornerstone: Community 101

~ DESTINATION TWO: BENDIGO ~

How many times can I think: “wow”

So we’ve certainly started on the right foot with our community education! Cornerstone in Bendigo is pretty great and an awesome model of caring and committed intentional community. Now, you might say we lack context for comparison to other communities given that it is the first intentional community on this trip (possibly second ever next to Waiters Union in Brisbane), but I think with everything I’ve read about IC’s and our my own personal experience with community of different forms, I can honestly say that these guys are doing an amazing job on a number of levels.

One part that I can compare to is with our friends back in Adelaide. I recognise more clearly now what some of our friends are doing there to create a true atmosphere of servitude (in the “following-Jesus” sense), plus hospitality and relationships with disadvantaged and outcasts like refugees. What I have always found frustrating about doing community in Adelaide though (which has been further emphasised since visiting Cornerstone) is the direct proximity of homes to one another. In Adelaide, we just simply all live too far from each other and it makes a HUGE difference in my opinion. I can see the heart and intent in Adelaide but we need to find a way to live more in physical community as well as intent.

Andrew and Rose

Andrew and Rose, Cornerstone’s co-founders, and our hosts

What has been a joy in Cornerstone is that everyone lives within walking distance from one another and the local converted church-cum-community centre and shared garden is just up the street and is proving itself to be a true hub for bringing everyone together. Schools are close by; shops, cafes and town centre all close too. The idea of popping into a neighbor’s home to not only share a cuppa but discuss a community project or other communal activity is what is great and wouldn’t have the organic and dynamic effect that it does if distances were stretched.

Besides this, Cornerstone was a joy to be a part of immediately upon arrival due largely to our hosts Rose and Andrew who practice warm hospitality with ease. We felt instantly welcomed; and while they explained that their house has been constantly used as a place to stay over the years by families, uni students, refugees and travelers like us, we never felt like they were put out by us being there. Quite the opposite in fact: we were given a generous amount of their time to tell us their story, share meals together, tour the community and introduce us to other members. Being that their lives are driven largely by their faith as followers of Jesus played a part in this I suppose, but Rose often indicated that the community consisted of people from all walks of life and levels of belief (or not) so there was absolutely no bias about how they treated others despite sometimes very different perspectives on life.

Rose, of Mexican descent, in her beautiful Mexican-inspired kitchen

Rose, of Mexican descent, in her beautiful Mexican-inspired kitchen

The way I’d describe Cornerstone is true intentional community from the heart and soul: followers of Jesus who manage to strike a balance between discipling, community living, organic development of relationships, grace, authenticity and generosity. While my spiritual beliefs and journey are sometimes in a far different place to these folks, I never felt ostracised, belittled, scorned or unwelcome to share opinions. Andrew invited me to sit with a weekly men’s group and again I was freely encouraged to contribute and didn’t feel out of place when they discussed biblical passages or other things foreign to me. To me, there’s a true generosity of spirit in play that runs deep inside this community. You feel like they have no reason to hide feelings or fake acceptance just to be polite: it comes from the heart.

Going into this experience, my pre-visit expectations were that Cornerstone would be a close-knit set of homes on a quiet street and that the main house might be a share-house feel, with lots of people coming and going. I figured that there would be a slate of programs going on it would possibly be hectic with people of different socio-economic and physically/mentally disadvantaged hanging out in a community room, sort of like we experienced in our brief visit to Servants in Vancouver. Hosts are certainly difficult to predict but my pre-disposition is to assume some level of eccentricity (although not in a bad way, just refreshingly un-mainstream 😀 ). The reality was different, but the reason is not so much the superficial stuff but the joyful, authentic and committed devotion to community that we experienced. While everyone worked hard, life didn’t revolve around careers, money and day-in-day-out drudgery but rather a variety of new and exciting challenges revolving around people and relationships. And just enjoying life! It’s amazing how much you free yourself up from self-imposed pressure in life that revolves around acquiring and just instead living simply, relying on trust, sharing and neighbors who have the same ethos that you do.

There’s so much more I could say about the nuts and bolts of their community but it would take an essay not a simple blog entry (which is already long enough!). Of course, I think Heidi and I will take comprehensive notes for future reference as – even after only 3 days there – the immediately feeling that these guys were nailing the genuine feeling of how to do community well was abundantly clear. We both agreed that they might be tough to top on this journey! We shall see as the trip unfolds but Cornerstone illustrates exactly what we were hoping to experience on this adventure of discovery! 🙂

(Have a look at Heidi’s excellent blog on her Cornerstone experience as well)

Cornerstone's community hub

Cornerstone’s community hub

Community hub - cool knitted stuff

Community hub – cool knitted stuff

Di and Ruth: compact community

~ DESTINATION ONE: STRATHALBYN ~

Community can come in small packages.

In our planning leading up to this little adventure of ours we’ve gone and chosen some communities to visit solely based on a paragraph or two of information via the ic.org website, our WWOOFing book or a brief phone call. Reducing the decision to a small set of “highlights” based on some preconceived ideas of what community is all about will undoubtedly reveal some surprising realities once we arrive, but I’m beginning to believe that this will be the joy of the experience – if we allow it to be that way. Our first community experience has already been that way: before arriving, I had conjured an image of what sort of “true” community could possibly exist between two people, but it has already proven to be an unexpected learning experience.

Heidi, Di and Mike

Heidi, Di and Mike

The baby steps of our 2-month trip took us to the homes of Heidi’s spiritual director Di and her friend Ruth. From the start, Di was comfortable using the term community to describe her and Ruth’s setup: conjoined properties consisting of two houses with no dividing fence and a shared backyard. Ruth and Di, who have been friends for 40 years, move between the two buildings freely but that divide is enough to provide some individual expression and some personal space to be able to retire to whenever they each want it.

So, looking at the way I perceive “community” to mean, I see it as:

  • a group of people sharing resources to reduce their collective environmental impact and save some redundant expenses;
  • living in close proximity with one another so that regular interactions are encouraged;
  • some common interests that connect everyone;
  • an overall care for one another’s well-being;
  • having shared experiences with like-minded people that enhance life’s journey

In this context, Di and Ruth are easily covering many of these points, but are simply doing it (at the moment) between the two of them. Their focus might not be so much on environmental concerns, plus having only two people to do everything can have its downsides, but their positive outlook, ease of lifestyle and welcoming hospitality definitely made it feel like they were creating a larger community than just the two of them. I definitely felt like a big warm hug was embracing us while we were there 😀

In planning this trip, we had broken it into roughly two parts: intentional communities and WWOOFing stops. However, I’m now beginning to think that the line is blurred with solid community likely existing in the WWOOFing stops as well. If Di and Ruth are an example of how it can be with just a small community then the places we are looking at who are often connecting with families, other like-minded individuals or the wider community will possibly have a similar feel. In other words, I will try to not place everyone in a tidy box before I experience what their version of community has to offer!

Go forth with an open mind.

Our preconceptions of what we expect to encounter on this trip will certainly colour how we actually experience it, as it was pointed out to us by Michael, a guest at dinner the other night at Di’s home. Michael had traveled extensively through Australia and abroad living communally and was a valuable addition to the conversation. His arrival at this meal was particularly fortuitous as our host Di had happened to bump into him the day that we were visiting and so we could pick his brain a bit regarding our own travels.

The advice Michael provided was useful but was one of the few things he actually told us (as not to contradict his own advice) was: the less we impose our own biases onto an upcoming visit to a community, the more we’ll get out of it. Upon arrival, it’s too easy to initially judge the way things are done by others if they don’t sync with our own methods, but if we wait, listen, learn and absorb, in due time we’ll get a more authentic view of how the community ticks. That’s not to say that our own perspective isn’t valid but it’s easy to arrive somewhere and think “why would they do that like this?” or “this community is broken here and here and I could do it better”.

Saying this, I think I’d like to experiment with my own bias and I plan to write a short paragraph before my forthcoming community visits in which I explain my own expectations and predictions of what the place will be like. I will be basing it solely on what I have read about the place, the vibe I get from any contact I’ve had with them, and my own biases like judgments about animal rearing/eating or lifestyle decisions. Hopefully this will help me examine my own reasons for thinking the way I do and see if I am putting too much emphasis on what’s in my head rather than what I am experiencing with an open mind! More to come…! 🙂

PS. Sorry for the analytical ramble: at this stage things are less about experiences and more about theory!

You can also view Heidi’s take on this visit to Di and Ruth in her blog at Miss Roo’s Adventures

 

Strathalbyn

The beautiful town centre of Strathalbyn

 

Preparations & expectations

I’m homeless, jobless and about to hit the road with only a Honda Civic filled with the basics needed to get by. The aim is that it’ll be a two-month escapade of trip-carcommunity living, WWOOFing*, meeting like-minded individuals,  learning new skills and awakening the creative part of my brain that feels like it has been dormant for awhile. I can’t wait.

Having become a nomadic person over time, I feel the sense that I am about to get back into my element soon. My wife, Heidi, and I along with our shiba inu, Kito, are about to embark on a (cue Troy McClure type voice) a wacky journey of discoveryness! as we explore the a range of interests close to our hearts: intentional community living**; connecting with folks who are keen on treading lightly on this planet; sustainable practices such as organic farming, off-grid*** living and reuse/recycle/repair philosophies; meeting people who strive to explore and grow in their creative interests, personal, community and spiritual well-being; and anyone who chooses to live an alternative life off the mainstream path. As far as we reckon, those original 60’s far-out-dude hippies were onto something after all! We’ll see if growing my hair out, weaving my own shapeless hemp clothing and foregoing bathing ends up being the “new Mike” upon our return 😛

Truth be told, the traveler, explorer and generally curious information-seeker in me resonates with this type of trip, however the introvert and day-to-day homebody will struggle with aspects of it. I suspect that some of the personal growth I will look to gain could be in improving patience when I feel “people-grumpy”. Also, as Heidi will likely attest in her own blog writings (which I will link from here once she has her blog live, so you can have an alternate perspective of this journey!), a large component of this trip for her is the connecting with people in community, particularly if they are living out a Christ-centred spirituality in that community. kito-ponderingShe too is interested in environmentally-focused teachings but Heidi is more of a people-person than me. And for little Kito, this will either be the doggie adventure of a lifetime (Kito is extremely gregarious and will lap up the attention) or it will be a struggle for him as – like with many dogs – they like home and some regularity –something he won’t be getting much of with all of our moving around. Still, it’ll be great to be able to share the adventure with him and it’ll give him some great stories for sharing with the other dogs around the water bowl at the park.

For now, there is a bit more prep as we shift our lives of relative comfort (where we are house-sitting at the moment has a giant HDTV, all the mod-cons you get with houses these days, is close to North Adelaide’s shops and abundant restaurants, and is great for “lifestyle living”), to bringing only enough to get by, while the rest of everything we own is crammed into a storage locker. It’s a healthy thing to do…I recommend it to anyone. It certainly forces you out of your comfort zone, forces you to assess all the accumulated “stuff” in your life and purge, and gets you realising that life should be about the people (or animals) and experiences that you care about, and not really about how much you have accumulated. You’ll be remembered for what you said and did, not what you bought. In my opinion, life should definitely be about exploring, learning, creating, connecting and sharing….with a freedom from the shackles that either society, government or advertisers would like to lead you to believe you should be living.

So, starting in early April, I’ll be aiming to jot down experiences and share some photos from each of the dozen or so places we intend on visiting. Some places will be day visits and some will be week-long journeys embedding ourselves into an existing community. Follow this blog by subscribing >> or through Facebook with links to entries when I post them!

 

Glossary:
Here’s a couple of the terms I mentioned above; some of you will be well-acquainted with these already, but I have had a fair number of quizzical expressions with WWOOFing and intentional communities, so I thought I’d put my definition of them here!

* WWOOFing – technically comes from “Willing Workers on Organic Farms” which really means that this is a pure trade of skills/labour for food and accommodation. We’ll help folks out with whatever they need on their property and they’ll put us up. Good deal for everyone!

** intentional communities: a group of people or families who often have a like-minded series of beliefs or interests often to do with living simply, sharing resources, spiritual orientation or other lifestyle desires. Many times they are seeking for “true” community which is something that has often been lost in modern society. I wrote this previous full-length entry on intentional living as well.

*** off-grid refers to complete disconnect from city/council services (which are often tied to environmentally-damaging or expensive services that don’t take advantage of natural alternatives). Someone off-grid would have a total reliance on things like the sun, wind, hydro-power, etc. to provide power, composting toilets, harvested rainwater or other freshwater source and would ultimately be a very thrifty user of resources.

 

heidi-mike
Mike and Heidi, as seen before embarking on this journey ~ Mar 2015

 

Swirly lifey stuff

I’m on the eve of my tenth move in 2 years, weary at the thought in principle but on further reflection, relishing the idea that I have very little “stuff” to actually move. What a change!

As recent as 2 months ago, I had to haul things I had in storage at a friend’s place in Brisbane over to another friend’s place (bless their hearts for being so kind to make room for my crap) which took a 1 1/2 ton truck and about 10 hours of my time to load and unload. This is of course stuff that I am not using, just towing about from one location to the next with consideration of using it at some point. Meanwhile, I have been successfully living my life for the past year and a half with none of it. Sure, I miss the odd thing like when I say “oh, I have a Breville in storage; would be good to have a toastie right now” or “my golf clubs are in storage,” but these things happen so infrequently as to not recall thinking of them moments later. So when I thought “oh here we go again, another bloomin’ move (substitute “bloomin” with a more colourful term), I was pleasantly surprised to find when I really thought about it, I have about 4 or 5 boxes of stuff, clothes and 4 or 5 items of furniture and that’s it. Easy. Yay!

Interestingly, I’m possibly moving out with my girlfriend’s friend (my beautiful Heidi is old-fashioned so we cannot live together yet and thus the living with her friend 🙂 ) who is very much a simple-living-eco-friendly-sustainability-loving-community-oriented person like I have become, which is a new experience for me. Perusing potential dwellings with someone who heads out to the backyard first to see where the veggie patch might go before looking at the house itself is different but refreshing; I like her priorities! After many years of looking at things through the standard lazy commercialised-living lens as many other people do, I’m truly starting to consider things like: hoping for rainwater tanks and solar panels on the property; how passive heating/cooling will work effectively in the house; what fruit trees exist on the land and how much space is there for growing veggies; ensuring there is opportunity for community gatherings and sharing meals with people; and making sure that shops are walkable/rideable to conserve fuel. Whereby I was quite happy to live alone until recently, I’m now reveling in the opportunity to live with someone else and develop a greater sense of community; something I’ve spoken about but not really put into practice yet. It’s quite exciting!

I’ll update when I find a new place and we’ll see how many of these new thoughts have been put into practice.

All of this moving comes amidst a push for funding on my human trafficking film which we’re starting to work on. My feelings about the environment and climate change became blurred when I was away looking at people dying or screwing up their lives from poverty, but I’ll save that for my next blog entry. G’night! 🙂

Intentional Community living

“Intentional” and “authentic” community living are a couple of words/phrases I had never heard before about a year or so ago. When you live in a city in our society and follow the rest of the pack, like I did (and still do, to some degree), you are led to believe that we should spread ourselves out – wayyyy out – sprawling our cities to the max, stake out our 400-600 sq metres+ of land, and live at arm’s length from our neighbours and also, effectively, from the problems of the city/world. This “buffer” gives us our private space to stretch our legs, let the kids safely run amok, put in a swimming pool and successfully segregate ourselves from everything that might impinge on our peace and quiet and security. What it is also successfully doing, however, is isolating ourselves increasingly more from other people and their needs, struggles, support, and face-to-face interaction.

I personally tend to batch together the ideas of intentional & authentic community living as I think there are elements that overlap: intentional communities can be defined as a planned residential collective of homes and people who work as a team to see through their common visions and goals together, sharing responsibilities and resources including traditions, beliefs or spirituality. A brilliant article on this idea is at the Intentional Communities website (IC.org). In her book Designing Social Systems in a Changing World, Bela Banathy describes authentic community as “a group of individuals who have developed a deep and meaningful commitment to each other and to a shared meaning or purpose.” These members of the community “feel that they belong together believe that they can make a difference in the world by pursuing their shared vision and purpose, communicate with each other openly, honestly, and creatively”, deliberately avoid a hierarchical or bureaucratic system of organisation, instead “govern[ing] themselves by shared stewardship,” and nurture and practice genuine development of the members of the community, “taking full advantage of their unique and collective potential, knowledge, skills, creativity, and intuition.” There is a tendency for spiritual groups to use authentic community often to describe this coming together, but I think it has many other exciting applications as well.

[ check out our intentional community trip in 2015 ]

What I like about this whole concept is that it starts to knit back together our social networks that have becoming pulled apart and frayed by this suburban sprawl and our thinking that we are better off barricading ourselves from the people around us in the name of security and privacy. The thing is, I reckon the world was a much safer place in general when people lived more communally, with generations of families under the same roof, with “tribes” or communities integrated together with their kids playing safely with each other and people generally having much greater support systems all around them. The only reason we build the walls is because we don’t know our neighbours so we don’t trust them; we don’t let our kids just run off and play down the street unsupervised because we don’t trust anyone; parents take their kids to daycare because they have to pay for the expense of having so much unshared space in their protected private property which they’ve walled off from the neighbours who, had they got to know them better, would be able to communally take care of the kids. And so on. That of course is a minute tip-of-the-iceberg of the snowballing problems of how far our society has strayed from a true sense of community, but you get the idea…

OK, this wasn’t supposed to be a rant! I get that way a bit, don’t I?? 🙂

Getting back to why I like this concept, I think there are so many benefits that would make my life better, not only because of the type of person I am (keep to myself and lazy at making friends but enjoy and need those closer, personal relationships; increasingly environmentally and ethically-oriented lifestyle; need a better support base for struggles and personal growth and understanding), but because there are so many interesting dynamics that come into play when you get similarly-minded people coming together to invigorate and enhance their own lives and those around them. Or as Geoph Kozeny puts it: “a feeling of belonging and mutual support that is increasingly hard to find in mainstream Western society”. A lot of people have some of these networks in place and still live in the segregated lifestyle that I mention above, but they live a distance away from friends and groups that meet occasionally and require a lot of wasteful driving time and energy, and leave big gaps in between. I am increasingly craving the ability to have all those benefits available on tap.

I will outline my “idealistic” (and hopefully not unattainable) vision of intentional/authentic living in a new blog entry which I make as my master wish list, expanding on it as time goes on. Over time, it’ll be interesting to see if this type of community living can be achieved, and if so, if it lives up to the billing that I am giving it! It would be exciting to chronicle the process and see what unexpected challenges and achievements would come of it. I’d still love to hear from anyone living this way!

Quick links:
Bindarri Cohousing and intentional living Australia
Amazing list of all the worldwide IC’s (intentional communities)
Excellent article on what IC’s are

Why Live Simply?

Reading about the climate crisis and watching docos like An Inconvenient Truth or Story of Stuff made me acutely aware of actively doing the right thing in terms of consuming less and being more diligent at turning off unused lights in the house and so forth, but the idea of “living simply” came more recently when I saw how my girlfriend and some of her friends were living. I looked at my own life and saw a great deal of wastage, spending, lazy travel, diversion and lack of community-mindedness and it all began to click what was wrong with my life. Safe to say that now I’m hooked! It was a life-changing realisation that I can’t imagine not adhering to for the rest of my life.

For me, like a lot of people I suspect, I was living a lifestyle that wasn’t extravagant but beyond my means. I was swimming in debt because I had a problem saying no: to eating out, to buying new “stuff”, to traveling with no savings (on credit), owning property without earnings to support it, and more. As soon as I started “living simply”, I erased all my debt, I started becoming much more contentious about ALL purchases, and I say no to things beyond my means at that time, not relying on credit just because I want it now.

Simple living probably means slightly different things to different people, but to me it’s all about a balance of lifestyle, work/wealth, consuming and community:

  • Lifestyle: slowing dowwwwwwwn. Whenever people go on holidays to places like tropical countries or rural parts of any country, the thing that strikes them is how relaxed and chilled out the pace is, no one rushing and nothing hectic. Expectations get lowered as people don’t feel compelled to do this and that in nanoseconds like in the city, so it fits perfectly with the pace of your holiday. The thing is, the people that live in these places don’t do this for your benefit; they always live like this. My desire is to savour life more by living in the moment, day-by-day and don’t get sucked into the demand of other city people’s idea of the “normal” pace of life. There are numerous benefits to this lifestyle such as lowered stress, greater inclination to appreciate what you have and the people in your life, time to get things done, a feeling like life isn’t just passing you by as you work a 60-hour week. It takes awhile to get used to the idea, but once you start to (as I feel like is happening at last, as I unlearn old lifestyle assumptions), then you can’t imagine returning to the old, stressful lifestyle.
  • Work/Wealth: that lifestyle sounds all fine and well, you say, but what about putting food on my table? Well, this will be different for everyone cuz I live alone with no kids or mortgage, but it can be achieved by anyone with a small concession: spend less! Seems overly simple, but that’s really what it boils down to. Again, it will be different for everyone but you just need to step off the treadmill: If your mortgage is massive and a large portion of your work time is spent paying it off, then you need to sell and buy something affordable or not at all (though the problems with home-ownership are a whole different discussion!). If you racked up thousands on your credit card for stuff to fill your home, you have to decide why that is exactly; status? über-comfort? 12 kids? boredom? There are soooo many alternative that will save you money. If your grocery bill is enormous, or you eat dinner out 3 times a week, or you “need” a new outfit to wear every couple of weeks then you need to address the amount you are working in exchange for all these luxuries. In the end, if you can find ways to cut back – truly cut back – and divert your energy to less expense and possibly more engaging and fulfilling pursuits.
  • Consuming: this has played a big part in my life as I really used to never pay attention to what or how I was consuming. From the perspective of consuming too much, or irresponsible consuming, this goes back to the “do I really need it” argument (see the “Do I Need It?” poster I created). The flow-on affect from wondering if you personally need it in your world now also extends to how that acquisition will affect the broader community, from damage done during production, people/land/animals treated unfairly in the process, irresponsible corporations getting your money, waste created from ownership of that item, and damage done by its eventual disposal. Besides its global impact, there is the reason for personally wanting that item and what role it plays in a financial, psychological or social way. If you simply have too much cash at your disposal, then you might consider the extremely positive benefits to your life of just giving away what you don’t essentially need instead of purchasing your way to happiness. People of various Faiths will tell you that you should give everything away to restore balance in our poverty-riddled world, and there is a lot to be said for that sort of selfless existence!
  • Community: living simply in a community makes things that much easier, whether that’s an “authentic/intentional community”, your immediate neighbourhood or other groups that you belong to and meet with regularly. This is something I aspire to and have some rough plans of how living in an intentional community could be very exciting from the standpoint of relationship, sharing, support, altruism in a group dynamic, cost-saving, plus eco & ethical living. Even though this is extreme or idealistic community concept, there are many elements that are found in other community formats which will make simple living easier such as: sharing stuff (if everyone in a group owns one thing they use occasionally, like a lawn-mower, then why not share it around?), support and relationship-building (good connections with people can alleviate stress and the need to distract ourselves with consumer-based activities, plus make us focus on and understand what makes each other tick), cost-saving (community gardens where people can grow and share food, energy set-ups for bulk solar/electricity/water installations, sharing stuff, shared property in house-sharing or the intentional community sense) and, depending on the nature of the group/community, altruistic pursuits (helping the needy, volunteering to offer service or support to the larger community) can be better achieved if living simply so that your time is more freed up from the typical constraints of full-time work.

Despite how great all this stuff sounds, I certainly can’t claim to be doing as much as I’d like. Of course, it’s impossible for most people (myself included) to just leap fully into living simply overnight. The people I have been gaining my inspiration from also struggle to do this all the time, even after years of living it. Ideally, I’d like to live in an intentional community set-up which I will probably begin exploring in a blog post one of these days as I’d love to hear from people who are doing this already themselves.

Also, I’m big on making lists, so if this looks like a “how-to” guide, then please don’t think it is. I realise I am only scratching the surface with things I have learned and am trying to employ in my life. There will also always be critiques and things that just don’t work which I’m sure I’ll find out and discuss along the way too!

More simple living thoughts to come…