Urban Seed part 2: Working on the margins in suburbia

~ DESTINATION NINE: NORLANE ~

Urban Seed seeks to connect wherever there is need, and Geelong’s Norlane is what they have found

pics-745As our exploratory trip of experiencing intentional communities nears its end, I am thankful that things worked out the way they have in terms of travel planning. Our last couple of communities are both very short stopovers, and while this leaves us with little more than a superficial glance into the lives of those who have often sweat blood and tears to be a part of their unique lifestyle, it comes at the right time for us when our information/road-weary selves are willing to forego “immersive experience” for “highlight version”. We are the first to admit that we feel that we are missing an opportunity with these last two groups, but perhaps it was the failure in our planning of doing too much for too long. Regardless, even experiencing a couple of days at a place like Urban Seed’s Norlane community in Geelong gives us 1000 times more value than simply reading about it.

pics-750If you have been reading previous blog entries of mine, you’d know about our (also) short visit to Urban Seed city outfit in Melbourne’s CBD. There, the focus was on working within a difficult urban space to support homeless folks doing it tough. In Geelong, Norlane is that type of infamous suburb that all cities have, where much of the crime takes place and the rest of the city’s inhabitants likely take efforts to avoid. Being a Christ-centred faith community, Urban Seed’s natural place to exist in this place on the margin of society, living in amongst the Norlane families who have experienced generational poverty and have given up feeling included in “normal” society.

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The young and exuberant Urban Seeders of Norlane

pics-757The Norlane crew is a young bunch who occupy an old Baptist church as well as the attached hall and house. Moreso than the Melbourne group, they make me feel rather old! With everyone floating around their 20-somethings, it still never fails to impress me how people at their age have taken on such “mature” tasks like volunteering without pay to care for others, raising families in very challenging environments (and seemingly succeeding), managing difficult situations with violent locals and crime issues, plus counselling and supporting a wide cross-section of people including those with mental and physical disabilities. Like my own life, I still see one’s 20s as a time to explore, mess around and not be too serious, getting my act together once I hit my 30s. And by 30s, I really mean 40s.

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Anyway, I digress… the space that the Norlaners occupy is an encouraging community gathering place, very loosely holding onto its “church” look and feel in favour of something that allows anyone from the community – faith-based or not – to feel comfortable and welcome. Groups stage meetings here, there’s a weekly food exchange (the “People’s Pantry” where locals pay a nominal semi-annual fee to stock up on donated food) pics-747plus lots of sharing feasting opportunities where many people from the community come for a free feed and a chat. Like in the CBD location, all “staff” are live-in volunteers who are 1,2 or 3-year internships, with the four people (I almost called them “kids”…gosh, I am getting old) currently residing in the intern house managing the programs and reaching out to the community when they can. Many of the programs revolve around food, and wherever possible, the intern group – Steve, Cherie, Sarah and David – coordinate the meals, etc. while bringing community members in as much as possible to “own” the administering of the event, again eliminating the “hand-out” mentality. Beyond the interns there is Simon and Kaylene pics-752who would be the other “official” Urban Seed staff (for lack of a better word as they are encouraging the lines being blurred between them and there rest of the community) who are the “elders” of Norlane’s outfit (in their 30’s I suspect, but the term elders is not meant to be disrespectful as they come in with considerable knowledge and wisdom of how to do and not to do community based on their own lengthy experiments).

Many other households contribute a great deal to the community hub as they gain acceptance with existing residents, plus – most encouragingly – former Urban Seed interns who finished their residency but felt compelled to continue the work they were part of despite being a fairly challenged neighbourhood in terms of crime, poverty and violence. Interns Sarah and David grimly regaled us in the various unsavoury encounters the community have been victim to such as: two of the interns’ cars being stolen, the continual (even mid-day) risk of physical attack when pics-758walking to the train station, the marking of houses with dogs in the yards so that they might steal them, shops that could no longer service the area after being repeatedly robbed, and so on. On my second afternoon there, I was walking the dog (keeping him close!) and two plain-clothed police (I presume? They had guns) came busting out of a yard straight towards me before veering a few metres to my left to leap onto a young lad in baggy trousers who was promptly handcuffed and shoved into an unmarked car. There was lots of yelling and other people beating a hasty retreat from the house I was now in front of as Kito and I continued along, agog at the front-row-seat activity before us. Not something we had come across in the comparatively closed communities we had been visiting to date! Despite all this, we were also told of encouraging changes within the community since they’ve been there, and a sense that they are helping bridge the divide between different groups of people here.

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pics-781There is something appealing about being a part of a close-knit community who are trying to do something good and important to truly improve the lives of people who have had a pretty shit time of it and need a glimmer of hope to get them through life. On top of it for them, their unified Christian faith further binds them close as they journey together. I would struggle being part of this potentially powerful experience as the downside for me is the “social worker” aspect of people care for which I am not interested or cut out for, plus their spirituality isn’t where I am personally at, something I imagine that would be fairly integral to both this particular community and their ability to fight through the challenges they face. In that regard, I am thankful, humbled and awed by people like the Norlane Urban Seeders, who embody the servant-hearted characteristics of Jesus, plus epic fortitude, patience, grace and good-humour. I will continue to do my part in different ways to hopefully have a positive impact on this world, and I am glad there’s folks like the Urban Seeders to play their vital role!

Find out more about Urban Seed at their website.

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Respecting the earth: permaculture at Fryers Forest

~ DESTINATION EIGHT: FRYERSTOWN ~

Built on pioneer David Holmgren’s principles, Fryers Forest is an eco-haven in Central Victoria

At the outset of this trip, I thought that we might be seeing a community “blueprint” that was repeated in each place we visited, with perhaps different variations on the theme. However, as I mentioned in my previous blog entry, not only does the term “community” carry so many different possible meanings, but the look and feel of each one is so varied that the only thing they all have in common is an intent to live together in some sort of deliberate way. Beyond this, the personalities and temperaments, village characteristics, geographical features, group focus, lifestyle choices, governance, spirituality and long-term vision have come in every flavour, shape, size and colour.

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If our trip was actually about seeking a place for us to call home (which it may or may not be – we don’t know yet!), it might be a bit like deciding on what take-away food to get for the evening: for example, if I were trying to choose between Indian, Pizza, Thai, Middle Eastern and fish n’ chips (all delicious types of foods I love), other than rudimentary differences (starches, certain vegetables, etc.) all are very unique and difficult to compare directly. It’s not a bad situation to be in – picking from a great collection of options – but it begs the question of whether you just need to settle with a community that offers many things you want and others you don’t, or, cherry-picking ideas and putting the hard-yards in to build our own community. The trouble with the latter is threefold (at least):

  • most of these communities were started by people in their 20’s, bubbling with passion, energy and physically in their prime (we’re in that 40’s zone)
  • we need a significant financial base to start with (we have no Savings)
  • there is a staggering amount of research and paperwork – legal and political – to set it up and manage it, even if you want a basic and organic type of community (I’m not unwilling to do research, etc. but the legal/financial/policy stuff is a deterrent)

pics-589Beyond this, of course, is finding people who wish to share in your vision and are keen to see it through. The more communities I see, the more I have personally honed a vision compiling the best elements of all of them into my own community ideas, but have been equally tempered by my increasingly reluctance to have to go through the many years required to get the community off the ground having heard what is involved from those who have done it.

Enter Fryer’s Forest, a pleasant village consisting of 11 freehold plots on a shared 300-acre gumtree-covered property, 20 minutes drive south-east of Castlemaine, Victoria. Having completed another WWOOFing stretch of physical labour here this week, it reminds me just how much work is involved in keeping up and evolving a community. Of course, that’s just the physical maintenance; there’s also the people management which can be much trickier. Our hosts here at Fryers, Tamsin and Toby, have possibly found one of the loopholes to my DIY community conundrum though: they moved to this community shortly after its inception and have been able to ride the benefits of being an original (if not “founding”) member, helping shape the evolution of the village and feel that they have been involved since the beginning yet without having to go through the several years of starting the process, acquiring the land, council negotiations, etc. While I am personally attracted to having a say in the layout and design of the community, perhaps this can still happen on some level if I were to get in early enough but not too early.

Toby, Tamsin and their two boys

Toby, Tamsin and their two boys

My own creation desires aside, Fryers Forest is an interesting place and I’m starting to see the virtues of their way of doing community, even if I wasn’t feeling the love as much initially. The closest town is Fryerstown, a hamlet consisting of about 400 people (which likely includes the 35+ folks of Fryers Forest), but the land was formerly a part of the Victorian gold rush 160-odd years ago when around 15,000 people would have lived in the area. pics-570Surrounded by thick forest and a peace and quiet we don’t often experience in our urban world, it is difficult to imagine it with gold diggers at every turn. The town was built back in the early 1990’s on permaculture roots with pioneer David Holmgren contributing heavily to Fryers’ original design. As our host Tamsin showed us on a tour of the property, there are permaculture considerations at every turn: tree thinning, top soil catchments (swales), building placements for sun orientation, water capture and transfer, low waste yields, the encouraging of fauna diversity on the property and many more things. For those not familiar with permaculture’s principles, they are essentially: take care of the Earth; take care of the people; and set limits for population and consumption. From what we could see, Fryers’ members took these principles seriously.

Our time was largely spent labouring for our hosts with wood chopping, tidying up the remains of three huge felled 100-year old trees, cleaning gutters and helping around the property. We came at a time where they were exhaustedly managing energetic 4 year-old twins while still helping neighbours with their needs: helping shift wood from the felled trees to use as a neighbour’s new home-building material, a working bee digging rain gutters on the roads, “taking care” of a nasty rooster for a friend, looking after friends’ kids while they were busy, and so on. It became increasingly apparent that the “community” part of their intentional living arrangement was quite active and involved. Tamsin and Toby both admitted that if they were unable to continue living at Fryers, they wouldn’t know what to do as they loved living there so much.

Wood chopping, stacking and planter task complete

Wood chopping, stacking and planter task complete

    The "office", a cozy little mudbrick loft hut we stayed in while at Tamsin and Toby's place

The “office”, a cozy little mudbrick loft hut we stayed in while at Tamsin and Toby’s place

On the surface, Fryers wasn’t all that different from Moora Moora in that people could buy and sell their own land (though MM was as a cooperative arrangement and FF was completely freehold strata style), they lived in a loose village layout with a limited-use central “hub”, they both began using permaculture principles and were both off-grid on an isolated property about 20 minutes drive from a regional town. Interestingly, whereas other places we have visited have either their spirituality and/or social conscience to unify the community members, both of these communities only share their environmental interests (and separation from mainstream society) as the glue that keeps them together. A key difference separating Fryers from Moora Moora though was that the overall community was smaller and the houses were clustered much closer together. I reckon this contributes a great deal to the active interaction between groups. It is of course unfair to directly compare any of the communities as the personalities, planning specifics and overall history have simply made things the way they are, but physical proximity still feels like something that I imagine helps connect people better.

The community hall

The community hall

The first four days at Fryers Forest were all about the work around their hand-designed and built home, and even our hosts kept apologising for not taking us into the community-at-large proving that other people do actually live here. Opportunities arose when Toby’s weekly men’s night arrived and I spent a couple of hours with the boys at their community space (an old fibro school house that was transported from nearby Fryerstown) to have some drinks, chats, smokes (not I of course 😀 ) and backgammon. Granted, not everyone was from Fryers itself, but I was able to see the centralised facilities at work plus the bonding between the lads. Heidi had a similar “Happy Hour” experience the following night with the girls playing scrabble in Fryerstown, and we further got to know various people in the village through work we did and via roadside conversations. Further to the idea of member interaction, Tamsin recounted many other aspects of community life she had experienced over the years – particularly with difficult parenting times – like when she would call out on their walkie-talkie system (each house is on the same channel and all have a walkie) that she desperately needed someone to take the kids off her hands, and someone would always immediately arrive to help. Or how the group bus brings the village kids to schools, pics-609how people help one another with their home building projects, how on one year together they built a pedal-powered machine to crush tomatoes to make organic pasta sauce for the village, or how the group holds barbecue events where dancing and carrying-on ensues on the foreshore of their man-made lake/dam on warm summer evenings. The more they thought of it, the more great memories began to flow.

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Despite being more of a middle-class suburb of folks wanting to live outside the anonymity of the city with no external bond seemingly joining them, Fryers Forest seems to be doing pretty well. They just had all of their eleven property sites purchased now and on the way to be occupied for the first time in years, so there is reason to feel optimistic about their future. When I first arrived, I wasn’t feeling the community vibe: the forest was dry and the land was hard; but pushing past the superficial aesthetics and getting to know Tamsin and Toby’s family and their neighbours, I started to warm to what they had achieved here. It certainly has a lot of intriguing elements to look if we were thinking of setting up a new community, and I suspect with a longer evaluation, Fryers Forest itself could be a place that could be spent enjoying for many years.

As usual, Heidi’s own perspective and thorough write-up about our visit can be read on her blog!

Fire safe-slash-wine cellar. Complete with oven door.

Fire safe-slash-wine cellar. Complete with oven door.

Inside the groovy fire shelter

Inside the groovy fire shelter

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Intentional community beginnings: Moora Moora

~ DESTINATION SIX: HEALESVILLE ~

Terrific folks at the top of the mountain

Sometimes this trip feels like a slow-moving and expansive journey, winding its way increasingly further from our previous life.  When I think about how it’s been 2 1/2 months since we left our Adelaide house and starting living in borrowed accommodation, it seems like we’ve been on the move for quite some, and we still have over 3 roadtrip weeks to go until we settle in with another 2 1/2 months of house sitting. Other times, like now, this journey feels like a whirling dervish with the experience seemingly just flying by. With our recently completed stay at Moora Moora, this pics-442latter feeling certainly prevails as we only had a scant 4 night stay there and now a new WWOOFing assignment is hot on its heels – barely time to catch our breath!

Moora Moora is a “celebrity” intentional community amongst some of the others on our trip, having been featured in many articles, news and tv programs since it was developed back in the 1970’s following the Aquarius festival in NSW (which apparently jump-started a number of such communities). As one of the longest-standing cooperatives still in existence in Australia, it was appealing to see if this developed, larger-scale and presumably robust community was continuing to go strong and what was its secret for success.

pics-450 Apparently our diligent pre-trip planning had paid off, as all of our communities at the moment are within a few kms of each other, so we dropped Kito off at another kennel (no dogs, cats or animals for slaughter allowed at Moora Moora) and drove 15min to the top pics-451Mt. Toolebewong to their property. The first impression before even arriving to the front gate is the enchanting gum tree and fern rainforest for the first couple of kms leading to their gate. Once onto their property, it’s obvious that this isn’t a densely-packed community, but rather a private rural retreat at the top of the mountain. Despite the wilderness feel, it’s still only an hour drive to Melbourne CBD, whose city centre is clearly visible from the village. Amongst the first things we see are a giant wind turbine-slash-sculpture (we later learn that it actually was an innovative wind machine that never really worked, but when the press arrived for its launch, two people were hidden inside the base turning the sail on cue for the cameras), plus a couple of dwellings, lots of hand-carved directional signs and a heap of open space. pics-447Once you learn that the property is set on over 600 acres and the residential living area is spread amongst 6 clusters of 5 houses each over 13 acres, then it is clear why we’re not rolling up and seeing much yet. Later, when we did a tour of the residential areas, we were able to see how spread out the village is with all the houses nestled in amongst the dense forest. In fact, 2/3s of the whole property is to be left as native forest and never to be developed.

pics-479With a nice stroke of luck our hosts turn out to be Sandra and Peter Cock, not only two of the original founders but the visionaries of the whole Moora Moora idea. Having traveled around Australia and beyond looking at 50 alternative communities for Peter’s PhD thesis (creating a book on the topic in the process), plans begun for Moora Moora. A core group of energetic young professionals planned what they hoped would be a communal-living settlement where individuals owned their owns house but the Cooperative owned and governed the land. Through his research, Peter felt that this structure would be best suited for a community that hoped to endure the test of time. Forty years on, Sandra and Peter have grown into parents and then grandparents, have watched members move or pass away, have withstood a variety of personal, legal, local government and environmental challenges, and experienced the majority of their adult life from within an intentional community. From what we can see, they have come through very well, with the usual number of regrets consistent with a project of this scale and complexity, but still smiles on their face. In terms of regrets, Peter feels that the shared community elements and the true spirit of what an intentional community is all about – the relationships – are what could be improved as many people are content to withdraw into their individual lives if let be. Overall though it is clear that they have been part of an impressive community-building project.

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Our actual stay was part Intentional Community Education and part working holiday (WWOOF). Peter, a tall and slim 60-something chap with a cheeky glint in his eyes and quick wit, was not shy at getting us in the thick of the work, though he vigorously participated in it as well. IMG_5388Despite of persistent threat of rain (it was constantly wet, foggy and windy up there, plus 4 degrees colder on average than the town at the foot of the mountain), we spent as much of our 3+ days there outdoors. Whereas food preserving was the call to order at Commonground, here it was preparing firewood for the quickly advancing winter season. We sourced previously felled trees from a clearing in the woods, shifting a tonne of wood (quite literally) numerous times onto the back of the IMG_5390Moora Moora shared tractor’s trailer, and then power-split the pieces (using a diesel-powered splitter I named “The Beast” for its awe-inspiring wood-smashing abilities) and stacked it all. When the weather finally impeded our best intentions with wild wind and lashing rain, Heidi worked the apple peeler and nutcracker while I provided some video recording and computer training to our hosts. As with every day, Sandra would provide us with warm soups and tasty homebaked snacks through the day and a delicious dinner each night – mostly vegetarian or vegan to her credit!

In the end, what was different with Moora Moora than we might have expected was the more isolated experience from other members of the community. With the exception of a couple of chance encounters on the village roadsides and a movie night where we got to see some good group bonding, there wasn’t too much obvious regular interaction between members of the community. IMG_5377Of course, in 4 days (and cold, wet ones at that), we weren’t getting any kind of typical gauge to work with, but my guess is I’d still feel that we were getting a fairly accurate sense of the place. Peter himself mentioned that if he could do it again, he’d make all the house clusters closer to the central hub (where their share facilities were) to encourage more regular interaction between members. In terms of my own community village design ideas, the thing I would take away from Moora Moora is the cluster idea, even in a small community village setup. The main reason is conflict; Peter says that one of the reasons they have survived is that when a cluster has its own problems or goes bad, it doesn’t bring the whole place down.

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Peter and Sandra’s cluster shares this solar array amongst the 4 houses

We became quite fond of Sandra and Peter during our stay, as well as with Mark – a long time resident and friend of Peter’s – who was living in Peter and Sandra’s house while we visited. Mark has tremendous knowledge, ideas and insight as well having been connected with local government and councils for years, plus a member who’s been involved in the journey of Moora Moora for a long time as well. Despite the short stay, we were once again treated with warm hospitality, engaged in plenty of quality conversations about everything, gleaned amazing wisdom and advice about communities, and made a great connection for future visits or more. We’ll aim for spring or summer next time perhaps though! 😀

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Mt. Toolebewong from the valley. Still enshrouded in clouds

Mt. Toolebewong from the valley. Still enshrouded in clouds

I found this guy sitting at the back door

I found this guy sitting at the back door

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

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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.

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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!

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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

On the cusp of departure…and adventure!

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you’ve imagined.”
Henry David Thoreau

Maybe slightly less confidently than Thoreau is coaching us to believe, we’re on the cusp of leaving on our (cue mystic yogi guru voice) journey of discovery in two days’ time. Having spent the past 5 weeks in a well-appointed house in a good part of Adelaide during a festive time with good weather has meant that we have actually positioned ourselves into an easier form of living than we had even before we started house-sitting. We perhaps aren’t “living our dream” of community just yet, with the relatively cushy nature of our situation until now making us a bit lazy and reticent about our forthcoming travels.

That’s not to say we aren’t excited. We’ve worked out most of our trip plans which will include as many different types of education and adventure as we could muster: some straw bale building workshops here, a bit of permaculture appreciation there; intentional community living, big and small; urban development and 91-year old Scottish poets; off-grid, aquaponics, organic farming and yoga; social activists, tipi builders, vegans and non-violent communicators. When we start looking at the variables, it’s an intriguing mix of choices!

(Writing is a bit cathartic, as my earlier lazy apprehension is turning to adventurous hopefulness the further I get into this blog entry.)  ☺️

So we embark on the first stage of our trip on Tuesday morning, invited by our friend Di (she was one of the tandem that married Heidi and I) to experience a version of community with her and her neighbor. From there, we spend Easter with Heidi’s family before heading to Daylesford, Victoria on our first “official” stop on the adventure: a lovely-sounding dog-friendly sustainable property featuring old trees, lots of birds, tipi camping, straw bale building and a couple of friendly folk named Sue and Don.

Mr. Thoreau will then be pleased to hear that by the time we do find our way to Daylesford, I have a feeling that we will be going confidently in the direction of our dream. ☺️

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