Sharing & Caring | Choosing to Live in Community

Valerie Renwick

Transcribed by Anne Ennis

So, I was living in Montreal, I was an alternative urban student, activist type of person and somehow, I wish I could remember the very first moment that the words "Twin Oaks" sort of first reverberated against my ear but I can't remember. But a friend of mine who's sister had moved to another community in Ontario called Dandelion, which I knew was somehow associated with Twin Oaks in Virginia, and so I went down on this road trip in the US. And at the end of the road trip, my friends were ready to go home and I had three weeks before I was ready to go home and it turned out to be the magic three weeks of the three week visitor period and I came and did it. I wasn't thinking that I was going to move here; it was in a foreign country for one thing, a different country and I was just taking time out to travel and see what I might do next in the world. But once I got here and spent three weeks here, I sort of felt like I was swept off my feet by the community, and I realized that I could make this a choice of where I would live. And for me it was a matter of, I carried around with me in my mind, my perfect world if I could design what life would look like, and Twin Oaks was the first place I had found that most closely matched my internal values and vision, and I was free in life, and I thought that this would be a good move for me and myself in life, and that was seventeen years ago.

I would say that when I moved here in my mid-twenties, the values I was looking for, I was very oriented to the feminist perspective of the world at that time, which incorporates a lot of other things. Really, egalitarianism is a very basic part of many feminisms, and in my feminism you might say, so that was a big piece of it for me. When I moved here, there was a feminist study group and 25% of the women who lived here were lesbian, that's pretty phenomenal, so that was a piece of it for sure. Also, sustainability, doing things on a scale that made sense, you could go forward into the future on a scale that made sense, that was a piece of it for me. Non-violence, I feel like that almost goes without saying but it doesn't in this world today, so that was a piece of it for me. And really for me, I think just how it felt, it felt comfortable. I was raised in the suburbs and from a young age, not even on a conscious level, but it was clear to me that that is not the cloth from which I was cut and I knew that was not what I was going to do with my life, I didn't know what it was going to be and I think when I set foot in Twin Oaks, again my sort of half conscious mind got an idea that this might be what it is.

When I think about being a person who wants to affect change in the world, in a way I tend to see two paths that one could choose: one is that of resisting and struggling against the dominant paradigm, make changes within the system. The other is creating an alternative to that paradigm. And for me, I think both of those paths are important, they both are needed, I'm glad they're both happening in the world. And from early on, it is very clear where my heart has been drawn, much more towards creating change, making an alternative possibility a reality. And for me, it's a lot about having not the working-against energy, but the working-for energy, and that I feel Twin Oaks is a really good place where I can put that energy to work in the world. I also wanted to talk about, when I think about Twin Oaks culture as compared to mainstream culture, I think that many of us, and people who come here, new members that arrive, they've looked around at the mainstream and found something lacking. That's not what they're looking for, they're looking for something else according to their values. And I think of it in a way like, it's not like people look at the mainstream and they feel like, "I want a bigger piece of the pie". It's that we want a different pie, and I feel that's what we are doing at Twin Oaks, we're creating that other reality. For a time there was this slogan in the activist movement of: "Another world is possible", and for us, another world is happening and we're living it. That's an important thing for us. We want to let other people know about that, we want them to come join us. This is not for everyone, but many people find themselves drawn to this way of life.

And the other thing I wanted to say more generally is looking at Twin Oaks culture and living compared to mainstream culture and living, sort of as: all of us as humans goes through life, our different stages of life; in the mainstream so often, each different stage happens in a different location and very dislocated from other parts of our life. So often we're born in a hospital, or educated in a school. We work for a business, we have our home domestic life. When we die, we are buried on land that a company owns for that purpose. It's all very disjointed from each other, apart. At Twin Oaks, the way we live our lives is essentially a modern day world village with other people, and those life stages do happen here. We had a baby born here last week at Twin Oaks. So we are born here, we educate our children here, our work is integrated into our daily lives, we have collectively-owned businesses that we have here on the land; our home lives and relationship lives are here, and if we stay long enough and we die, we're buried in our graveyard here. And so it is this cradle-to-grave experience that I feel that the key difference for me of how we do it, and how the mainstream does it, is, here we are the ones making the decision about how all those different aspects are going to look. In mainstream, you're somewhat at the whim of what the hospital, what the school, what the job, you know, what those people's values are, and you try to fit yourself in and around them. At Twin Oaks, nobody's creating these values and these structures but us, so we have a very high degree of choice and we can consciously manifest our own values in the world throughout all stages of life. Great!

One area of sustainability that I feel Twin Oaks is very strong in is food and food production. We have our own farm, we have our own garden here on our land, we raise cows and chickens so in our dairy and meat we're pretty much 95% self sufficient. We do occasionally buy bacon for Sunday brunch or something like that. We also have a 2.5 acre organic vegetable garden and, I believe, it's a 3000 square foot, quite large, greenhouse. And we have 25 or 30 members on our garden crew, of course working more in the summer, but all year round in fact, growing our own food. As I said, it's all organic, so again, that sidesteps the whole question of pesticides, negative impact on the Earth in that way. But I think more importantly, or perhaps more importantly is, that we don't have to truck in or ship in. Even if we were buying organic everything from Whole Foods, it's coming from New Zealand and California and we just don't have to deal with that at all. The food we eat from earth to mouth, it just gets pulled by a cart 200 yards up the hill to our dining hall from the garden, and you can't get much more locally or sustainably grown than that.

Another benefit to living so collectively as we do is in terms of transportation and sustainability. So the way Twin Oaks works, nobody here has a private vehicle because we are communal, and collectively the community owns about 18 vehicles for about the 100 people who live here. And so what that means is, 18 vehicles for 100 people is much much less than the national average of how many cars there are. So just on that level, we're having a lot less impact. We also have a system where we can organize our shopping together. So, say, this is the way it is on a given day; probably 15-20 people need something in town, and so instead of 15 or 20 people taking 15 cars, driving 15 hours individually and then coming home with what they need, we have a system in which you can just put in a request, one person takes one car, they drive their one hour to town, do everybody's shopping all together, drive home. By then you've waited half a day or the next day, and here your item is delivered to you -- you don't even have to leave the farm -- and this is just a huge impact on carbon emissions and all that kind of stuff. And why we're able to do that is because the scale on which we live, 100 people, we're big enough that we can do that; it makes that big a difference. And we're choosing to use that scale effectively. We could have 100 people and do the same thing but because we are choosing consciously a communally-driven lifestyle, we are able to reduce our impact on the Earth. Again, this is one example of how we are able to do that with vehicles.

When I think about the labour system at Twin Oaks, to me, I think it is the perfect balance between structure and flexibility, and I feel that it works really well for the community as a whole and for the individual members of the community. On one hand, we have a system in which everybody has to work 42 hours a week, that's what you have to do every week, a minimum baseline to live here. On the other hand, the only other thing any one person has to do every week is a two-hour kitchen clean up shift, which isn't even two hours anyway. And other than that, we get to choose our work scene based on what we are interested in, the times of day we like to work, all those kinds of things. So, some people do indoor work, some people prefer more active outdoor work, some people prefer half and half. Some people like to stay up to 3 am and sleep till noon, and they arrange their schedules where they never have to work before noon. So in that way it's just really very flexible. Almost no one here does the same job all day every day. You could if you wanted, but again, most people like to have some balance and some changing throughout the day.

So that's the flexibiilty, and the flip side of that is the structure. And every week, every member has a labour sheet and they fill out the jobs they're planning on doing, they hand them in, and one person is a rotating group of four people, they each do it once a month. More or less the short form version is they have a list of jobs that need to get done in the community and they have everybody's labour sheets and they sort of put them together so if there's nobody to sign up for dinner on Tuesday or something, they have a list of people that have said, "Hey, if you ever need someone to cook dinner, assign me that job". And so in that way they fill in all the empty holes that nobody signed up for in a given week, so that's the structure. So we make sure that all the work of the community continues to get done week after week. And some people feel like, Well, you know all of these communes started in the 60's and the 70's and they just dissolved in pretty quick order, why is Twin Oaks still around forty-one years later? And one answer to that question is we did the work to make sure all the work did get done day after day, month after month, week after week, year after year. So to me, that's the beauty of the system. And me, like many people here, most people here, work some indoor, some outdoor, some in different places, and what I really like about that is that I feel like if I lived in the mainstream, even if I had my dream job, I would have to do it all the time and here I can just mix and match as my body and as my mind both would like to be engaged, I can do that in my work life here.

The way that we organize our living situation here is that basically we have about eight residences, and each member has their own personal bedroom in that residence, and then we share living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms. Of course, the great benefit to this is in terms of sustainability. Compared to some communities, we actually make fairly conventional choices: we build with very conventional building materials and that kind of thing, but where we have our real sustainability benefits is in scale and the fact that we do live so close together. Each residence has 10-20 people living in it, and so what that means is instead of building for every one person or a couple, or a family, we just build one great big house and they all live in it together. Our largest residence is 7000 square feet and 22 people live in it. And so we get our private space, which is our bedroom, but as soon as you step into the hall, that's shared space. Another way in which that that benefits us by sustainability standards is, again, it's much more efficient to build one big building, you use a lot less materials than to build however many, 10 or 15 buildings for 20 or 25 people. You're not duplicating kitchen, after kitchen, after kitchen, it's just one big kitchen or two big kitchens for everybody. But then also, in the long term, heating and cooling those spaces, it takes a lot less resources to heat one big space again than to continually heat a lot of little spaces, especially with duplicated rooms in each of those spaces. So, that's sort of on a practical level, that's a strong benefit for Twin Oaks in terms of sustainability, is our shared living situations.

One thing that is another positive side to it all is again, you step outside your door, and there you are, a ready made, not necessarily social scene but, people to interact with, that human connection just on a daily, casual level which I think is important to a lot of people's mental health. But of course the flip side of that is sometimes that's not what you're looking for, and on the way to the bathroom, you don't want to run into six different people, and it can be hard for some people, I think, to find the private space, the downtime, the sort of quiet psychological space. We all have different needs in that realm, and for people that have a great need, it can be more challenging living this way. But again, because we live so closely together in clustered housing, that means we have a lot of open space in our forests and our land where people go and have privacy. We have shelters in the woods where people can go and get some away time if they need it.

A story that comes to my mind about this is when, it was the night before the election, and was it going to be McCain or Obama, I just went to bed and figured I would find out, I didn't stay up to find out. And so, I wake up in the morning, first thing, I go into the bathroom and there's somebody already in the bathroom, cause we have open bathrooms here – lots of things happen at the same time -- and the person says, “Did you hear the good news?” and I immediately knew they were saying that Obama had won the election, and I just--aside from being happy about that -- I just loved that moment, that that's how I found out he had won the election, by walking into this shared bathroom and having my co-communard give me that news. I thought, I am in a very very small percentage of people who found out the news this way. And again, it was just this very illustrative moment of, to me, that the beauty, and just the joy, and the fun, in a way, of that kind of shared living.

We tend to have a lot of people living here at Twin Oaks that come from large-ish families and that's not surprising. There's a sense in which this is very much like living in a large family, especially in a sense of really being able to have a constant sense of a little bit of give and a little bit of take. You're not the only person saying how things are going to be; there's all these other peoples' visions and needs, interests, and ideas, wants to take into account. And so again, it is not surprising that people who have experienced that on a family level choose it on an adult independent living situation level. I think that person that Twin Oaks works well for is somebody who's able to be somewhat independently motivated, they can look around and see what has to be done, work-wise, social-wise; they can find a way into the group for themselves but again, like any quality we have, when you take it to the extreme, it becomes a challenge. So, people who are much more forcefully pulling, trying to pull people in one way in a work area or who are socially very domineering or something like that, our group is not going necessarily to respond positively to that, because there is this sense of constant give and take between the 80 or 90 odd members that we happen to have at any given point in time.

We are not as autonomous as people in the mainstream in many ways. We're not as financially autonomous certainly. We share vehicles, so no one has their own personal car. You can't just jump in your car any second you want, you have to take into account other people's vehicle needs. So again, a person who is able to find balance in that is going to do well here and a person who is much more used to being in control, having things go their way or being able to exert the force of their personality almost, is going to run into troubles here. And almost ironically, those are people who are showing leadership skills within the community, and maybe even helping us develop and change into new directions that do benefit the whole group. But again, there is a balance point there, and the question is, Is an individual member able to find that balance for themselves to make it work for both them and the group, or is something going to be out of whack?

It's sometimes said that the sign of a healthy group is not the presence or absence of conflict, because it is inevitable that conflict will arise, but how the group deals with the conflict when it does arise. And, we have various ways we do that, within any conflict, work or personal or interpersonal relationship, or whatever. Generally the people who are closest to the situation are obviously of course are going to first address the situation, like that would happen anywhere, and here often that takes care of it. But if it doesn't and it gets bigger, if it's unresolved or it doesn't resolve or keeps growing, even more and more people, as it gets bigger in the community, more and more people will see it and try to address it. If it gets large enough, we have a group of people here called the Process Team who will sit down, maybe do third party mediation with the people, just talk to the people who are involved and find a resolution for the situation. In a way I think of it, it starts small with the problem trying to address it, if it doesn't resolve and get bigger, we address it on a bigger level and a bigger level until it's a community wide issue which doesn't happen very often, mercifully.

In terms of relationships at Twin Oaks, we have a variety of styles: we have single, celibate people, we have monogamous partners; some of whom are married, some of whom are not legally married but they are life partners, we have people who just serially date other people, you know, one after the other, we have people in open relationships, polyamorous relationships who have more than one relationship at a time, so like many things here, it's really up to the individual, you can choose the relationship style that you are interested in in that time of your life and with the people that are around you. And for me, I really appreciate that sort of openness and almost relaxation of norms from the mainstream. Another thing that I find is that sexuality at Twin Oaks can be fairly fluid and people come here strongly identifying as maybe gay or straight or whatever, and they come here and again, things are a little looser and they realize, maybe I would like to try something else and here's the space for them to be able to do that. And it's certainly not so stigmatized like it is out there. But at the same time, you're also not, once you've tried something and it runs its natural course and it's okay to try something else, just like I'm saying, you can try this, try that, and you can see how it works for you; it's just a place of experimentation in the relationship realm and in the intimate relationship in particular.

Also, when I think about relationships at Twin Oaks, I think about how that interacts with our value of egalitarianism. And basically, we treat every adult member here as an individual adult human, and not as sort of, one half or one part of a couple or a relationship, and that's important to me just on a general values level. But it also frees us up from again, historic, mainstream gender issues. For example, we each get everything we need from the community, all our basic needs are met by the community. In addition to that, we each get some spending money each month and so, a person's economic status is not linked to their relationship and who they're involved with whether that person makes a lot of money, who's doing domestic work, and who's doing income work, for us it is all mixed up and each member is an independent person in their right in that way, and that just cuts through a lot of gender problems at Twin Oaks. Equal pay for work of equal value is not even an issue here, and I really appreciate that.

Also, in terms of traditional and mainstream reinforcements for certain relationship choices, you know, out there the primo relationship choice is you're married to a person of the other opposite gender and here, it's just, you can be in any form of relationship. Out there, if you are in that more traditional relationship, you get all kinds of benefits and positive reinforcements; you get tax breaks, you get social appreciation, and approval and here again, we just side step all of that and it is just not an issue. And I appreciate it as part of the culture that we're creating at Twin Oaks.

In terms of living arrangements and couples here or people in relationship with each other, again, many things it's personal choice, it really varies. Some people have a bedroom right next to each other, and each member who lives here, each adult, has their own official bedroom, but between couples or relationship, people can do whatever they want, they could have two individual bedrooms, one room could be the bedroom, one could be the study or whatever; people can make their own arrangements. So for some people, they really do want that closeness and they'll live in the same residence, and they'll live right beside each other, it's essentially, their little two-bedroom, close knit housing situation. And other people consciously choose not to live in the same residence, even people who have been in relationship for some length of time. And I think, that makes me think of this analogy of, it's a Khalil Gibran poem, I think, about two trees standing next to each other and the branches are intertwined and the roots are intertwined but there is space between the two. And for some people that's important that they maintain sort of a sense of self and that may mean a physical sense of self away from their partner. Sometimes they need their own space to live and grow, and consider all that, and so Twin Oaks allows that to happen easily because it fits right into our system, it's just up to what your particular preference is.

In terms of children at Twin Oaks, basically we have about 100 adults living here, 90 or 100. We have some people who love kids, wished we had lots of kids like on a kibbutz. We have some people who either just aren't into kids or they've already raised their kids and are over it, or whatever. So like many things at Twin Oaks, we have this group and this group, and they come together and we choose something in the middle. So in case of children here, again, people on both ends, and we end up with the policy that we have a 1:5 ratio, one child for every five adults who lives here. What that means, we usually, more or less, have about 15 kids living here from age 0 to age 18. And child-raising is one of the things that's -- actually, it is the thing that has changed the most at Twin Oaks over its 41 year history.

I would say, in the beginning, we were founded on the principles of B.F. Skinner. His idea was the parents don't raise the child, it's the community that raises the child. So, once the child is weened from its mother, it would go and live in a kids' building. There was 24-hour-a-day childcare, community members who wanted to be involved in the kids' program would live there, and teach them, and stay with them and all that kind of thing, and that wasn't too long before the parents who lived here realized, Actually, I do want to raise my own child, thank you very much. And at that time we had shifted somewhat so that the kids spent their daytime in this collective childcare situation but then in the evenings and at night, they would have a room in the same residence as their parents and go and be with them, to be more connected on a family level. That is how it was for a long long time, decades at Twin Oaks and then maybe between 5 and 10 years ago, the parents here at the time realized that they wanted to be even more involved in the day to day of their child's lives, and so then it switched to parents just had the kid with them all the time, and they could make informal arrangements if they wanted, the kids would be working alongside the adults, or they would do home schooling activities. Sometimes the kids would be going to public school, but so again, from beginning to the current time of history at Twin Oaks, it's almost a 180.

And you asked about how it is to be a kid at Twin Oaks and raised, or how it is to raise a child here. So in terms of raising a child here at Twin Oaks, of course it is a wonderful place to raise a child: all this outdoor space, it's a safe, non-violent environment, many people interacting with your child, helping to develop all kinds of skills as each individual person applies their own interests. Our kids tend to be pretty verbal, pretty interactive-oriented, they have lots of attention. And that's what you want, to raise your child in an enriched environment. I think the difficult side for parents is sometimes you have 80 or 90 other pairs of eyes assessing your child-caring, your child-raising choices and that can feel a little like you are under the microscope, no one enjoys that feeling generally, and that's been a long-term difficulty, I think, that parents have experienced. So it's all about trade-offs.