Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Circle in the Field

After gloating about my brief moments of privilege, I came back to earth to the kind of community I admire. The reunion mentioned in Life Lived Backwards was a great pleasure on so many levels— the 200-person circle of silence in the field before each meal, the high level of conversation at the meal tables with people just met, the little kids in hog heaven playing with the water hose, running barefoot in the grass, just playing, playing, playing as children were meant to do. Then the chores and work projects, everyone chipping in to prepare the meals, wash the dishes, weed the garden, work on the building, all that caretaking work that levels the playing field and erases that inflated sense of hierarchy and privilege— no First-class at the dish-washing or compost station. That lovely sense of all being in it together, all at different stages in the journey (all ages well-represented there, from 4 months to 94 years), but side-by-side splashing in the pond, cutting vegetables, drying the pots and pans.

My urban paradise at The San Francisco School shares many elements in common with The Arthur Morgan School. But instead of the murmer of the stream nearby, there’s the dull roar of the 280 Freeway just below. Instead of the watchful eye of the mist-covered mountain, there’s the fog-enshrouded downtown buildings. The kids serve the lunches Montessori style and have a classroom job, the parents come to two Saturday Work Days each year, but the overall feeling of shared chores and work is significantly less. On the other hand, I believe the richness of our academic program (and of course, that includes music and art) is several notches higher and the longevity of staff more impressive. The latter due to the intensity of the boarding school situation, where the teacher is at once a teacher and a house parent. On the negative side, there is a quicker burn-out— 13 years seems to be the record for an AMS staff member, compared to our SFS 40 years. On the positive, there is that sense of school and community as virtually the same noun.

At the AMS Reunion, we broke up into small groups by decades and listened to people’s testimonies about what the school had meant to them. One person recalled a day when he was walking down the path and paused, struck by the thought “This is as happy as I’m ever going to be.” Not in a pessimistic sense that it was all downhill from there, but in the profound feeling that the blend of community, work, play in the loving embrace of the natural world is the discovery of the lost paradise so many of us seek. That’s indeed what I felt many times when I was there and touched it yet again walking through the rhododendron dell to lunch, that sense of arrival.

And yet. Both formally and informally there also surfaced all the stories of mean, incompetent, abusive or just plain weird teachers, troubled kids, troubled relationships. The year that I was there, every single staff member including the head was new. The next year every single staff member including the head was new. And the next year, yet again. Amidst the serenity of the intentional community in the mountains was a great deal of turmoil, the usual bloody mess wherever groups of human beings gather. I’ve seen it in Zen centers, alternative schools, musical groups. From the outside, a carefully crafted philosophy of caring and human potential, lovingly cooked food, a practice aiming toward freedom and love, all the good intentions of intentional communities. And then the nitty-gritty reality of “who the heck moved my cheese?!!” Such places can sometimes get sidetracked in a self-congratulatory posture of “Aren’t we wonderful?” while the shadow of real human conflict grows and grows.

So it turns out that Paradise is not to be found in a place, a mission statement, an intention, but in each moment we become wholly ourselves in company with others. That takes hard work, lucky chemistry and a good deal of grace. And that can—and does—happen anywhere and anytime. Places like AMS and SFS don’t guarantee the realization of individual and collective human potential, but they do make space for it and are worthy endeavors, especially when they come to grips with the reality of how supremely difficult it is for us humans to share time and space together.

On the last night of the reunion, the Jug Band performed, so happy to be together again. But the show was marred by the organizer suggesting, after we had played but two pieces, that we cut our last few numbers (below the 30 minutes she had promised) because the proceedings had started late (not our fault). I powered through the best I could, but my band members were irate and the longer I thought about it, I was too. After the ceremony, a few of us went to the bonfire and sat for some time more with others singing whatever songs occurred to us. It was a lovely time, with a varied repertoire, good guitar and ukelele playing, tuneful singing, the fire crackling and the moon rising. Amongst many was the old song May the Circle Be Unbroken, which starts with such a promising refrain and then disappoints with its promise of paradise only in the sky and verses about mourning a mother. But thinking back to the circle in the field before meals, the joining of all who had dared to edge closer to paradise in the here and now, it feels like an appropriate sentiment to close here.

May the circle be unbroken!

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