On the 4th of July this year, this blog pronounced that there were “Vacancies in Paradise*”. This was our poetic way of saying that after seven years of having a long waiting list, there were actually some spaces at Twin Oaks community. The article went into some length about how Twin Oaks is not paradise or utopia (despite both the media and academics trying to label us that way) and that this is just an internet ploy to get you to read the article based on the catchy headline.
Paradise is in your mind. Community is a real place.
A quick 6 months later, this is no longer true and Twin Oaks has a waiting list again. It might become a long one.
The population limit of the commune is determined by the number of adult bedrooms. We have about 107 bedrooms total and around 16 of them are for our kids. This leaves 91 adult member rooms. By the time i wrote the Vacancies blog post, we had dropped to 82 members. By last August we were at 77 members and people were really starting to worry.
Kaweah is the most recent residence
The community does not function well at 15 people less than capacity. There are 88 tofu shifts, 49 dish washing shifts, 55 garden shifts and hundreds more of smaller tasks every week to keep this hyper village going. If we are down 20% of our membership, a bunch of that work moves over to those who are still here and because some have limited work capacity, other members are even more heavily impacted. And some work just does not happen at low population, which can either drop our income or our quality of life or both.
We want to be at our population limit
Fortunately, population at Twin Oaks has bounced back in a big way. We are already at 91 labor sheets this week. The second to last visitor group was quite unusual in that it had 10 visitors and every single one applied for membership (this has not happened in the last 19 years). A couple actually said they say the Vacancies in Paradise article and it spurred them to apply.
While we did not accept everyone one of them probably and some are interested in joining in the spring, just the threat of a waiting list has filled us faster than normal. Plus there were 3 really good visitors in the November group and did accept all of them.
Don’t despair. If you really want to live in community there are still many which have openings, even here in Louisa county, even ones which are income sharing. And if your heart is set on Twin Oaks, then just apply to do a visit. About 20 members a year move on, you won’t have to wait too long before there is a place for you.
Perhaps this is the right place for you?
Chaos has engulfed the commune! Well, not quite, but perhaps technically so. The by-laws and policy of Twin Oaks are tremendously elaborate. Over the near half century of history of the commune we have designed contingencies for many unexpected circumstances. What do we do if someone disappears? What do we do if someone wins the lottery? What if 24 members accept a visitor and 6 reject them? What do you do if you are topless in the garden and the UPS person shows up? What do we do if there is only one planner?
It is the last of these examples that delivered us to the current non-crisis. Twin Oaks government was inspired by the book Walden 2, a behaviorist fiction story. Described in Walden 2 book is the planner manager system of governance we use. Managers control area budgets (both labor and money) and planners operate across multiple areas or full community wide as executives.
I have long joked that the Twin Oaks plannership is a self perpetuating autocracy with a democratic cap. At any time there are supposed to be at least three planners (up to five if there are stand in planners, who are in training). When their is a vacancy the planners look at a membership list and seek out a member who they would like to work with. They approach this member and ask them if they want the job and if they do, then the community is consulted. The planners have an interview with anyone who is interested. A veto box is put up, and a minority of the membership (20%) can block a planner, but this is pretty rare. [Note: this is actually a streamlined description of the process which is actually more complex.]
The plannership is a crazy difficult job. My personal estimate is about half of the planners drop out early. There is a rule that you can not run for two consecutive planner terms, but no one has wanted to in the nearly 20 years i have been here. So what happens if there is only one planner? If there are no acceptable candidates to join or no one is willing to?
We have elections. This surprises people who know the community well. We don’t have elections for individual for any position really, it is not part of our culture. Managers serve until they tire of a position, they are mostly replaced by people who they train to replace them. Sometimes a council will choose between a couple of candidates, but this is rarely by voting, instead typically it is done in a meeting.
On October 1st of this year we had no planners. One term ended and the other resigned. If there are no planners or just one, then we go to elections. This has only happened one other time in the last 19 years.
What has the effect been on the community? Almost nothing. A decision about a feedback is pending the new planners. Some managers probably did some things without consulting the planners, but they might have done them anyway. The internals of the community are both resilient and decentralized. We don’t need an executive for much of what we do.
And tomorrow the election results will come out. And i am running. There are 8 candidates. Some of the candidates are unexcited about the job, but are open to doing it. Others, like myself, are excited about the position (which i have done twice before) but are at least somewhat controversial. Still others are well liked and respected and at least one of those will certainly get the job.
Anarchy was fun while it lasted.
[Update May 2018: Twin Oaks is again full, but there is no waiting list. People interested in the community are still encouraged to apply, but it is no longer possible to apply and move in immediately after the “30 day away” period mandated after your visitor period. Typical wait list periods are 1 to 3 months.]
For almost all of the last 7 years there has been a waiting list at Twin Oaks. It is now gone.
People seek explanations for why we dropped down into the low 80s of adults, when we had been at our population cap of 92 for so long. There is no single reason.
But because there are now spaces available to people who come to do the visitor period, it is worth reviewing why it might be a good time to ditch your mainstream life and consider living in a full service commune.
No Bosses: Our managers are nothing like your manager. They don’t generally fire people, they don’t determine raises or promotions. Instead they organize trainings and make sure the needed materials are available and the machines are functioning properly. Every one of our ‘managers’ also works on the production line. Because all jobs are volunteer, managers who exploit their co-workers find themselves lonely. This drives the MBAs a bit crazy.
No Money: Can you imagine going through your day and not touching cash or credit cards? The commune strives to and largely succeeds in providing all the things people need outside the conventional money system. Food, housing, clothing, medical services, education, and entertainment are distributed freely and fairly. You work your quota (currently 42 hours a week) and all your needs are met.
No advertising: Transformative festivals like Burning Man make a big deal out of being non-commercial and largely advertisement free. For many attendees the break from the constant onslaught of commercial images and invitations to buy things, most of which you don’t want, is a big relief. But you can’t live at these festivals. You can live at Twin Oaks, where if you stay off the internet and don’t read one of the many magazines we collectively subscribe to, you can avoid advertisements indefinitely.
No punch clocks: One of the other things the boss you don’t have is not doing is keeping track of your hours. In this trust-based system you record the different work you do. Our flexible work system means you can always find work in the hammock shop or in the kitchen and if you want to be scheduled you can be, but if you prefer to figure it out yourself each day, that is available also.
No fear: What do you feel if you hear someone behind you in the dark whom you don’t know? While it is not true to say we completely escape all crime, we avoid so much of it that some visitors realize the difference between where I live and where they live is that there has been a constant mostly low level threat for most of their waking hours, which vanishes in this prosaic collective rural living.
It is not just what we don’t have that defines us, the things we do choose and possess are crucial.
We strive to be self-sufficient: We build our own buildings, organically grow most of our own food, run our own businesses, teach our kids, and create our own holidays and culture. The community has spawned and nurtured painters and poets, quilters and woodcarvers. We’ve had folk singers, rock bands, chanters and primal screamers. You can find someone to teach you how to juggle, or program a computer, or deliver a newborn calf. We stage our own theater productions and provide an unusually appreciative audience for visiting performers. We have our own coffeehouses, writing groups, and social clubs.
Economic self-sufficiency means we have seven businesses:
- We make about 8,000 hammocks a year and sell them online and in stores and at the craft fairs we attend.
- We make 400,000 lbs of tofu. We are just starting a new line which will enable us to double production.
- We indexed 60 books last year, mostly with academic presses.
- We have a contract services business which does demolition, elder care, house cleaning and removes the basketball floor at midnight on Thanksgiving at UVa John Paul Jones Arena.
- We do seed growing and wholesale distribution of Acorn’s Southern Exposure organic and heritage seed business.
- We run conferences and gatherings, like the upcoming Womens Gathering (Aug 19 thru 21) and Communities Conference over labor day (Sept 2 thru 5) as well as the Herb Workshop.
- We sell beautiful organic ornamental flowers.
We live lightly on the land: We heat our buildings with sustainably harvested wood from our land. Most buildings have a solar hot water preheating system and half of the newest residential building is off the grid completely, using only electricity provided by the sun, with residents agreeing to keep consumption low and use efficient appliances. We sort our waste into over a dozen different categories and reuse and recycle fiercely. The food we don’t grow we buy in bulk, which cuts down on packaging. We have our own sewage treatment plant, which runs at well-above state required standards and are planning a constructed wetlands. We have 20% the carbon foot print of our mainstream counterparts, mostly because we share things so robustly: clothes and cars and buildings and bicycles and musical instruments.
We are self-selecting: You cannot simply move to Twin Oaks tomorrow, and strangers who just drop in are politely asked to leave. You need to write us first and link up with one of the regularly scheduled three-week visits, or just take our Saturday tour. During the three-week visit, we orient you to our culture and more importantly, it gives both you and us a chance to live and work together. Then we ask visitors to go away for a month and think about whether they really want to live in our slightly odd and extraordinary village.
[This is the big asterisk part] *But it is not paradise: There are all kind of good reasons why people leave my commune (or never come in the first place.) Some people want more independence, they don’t want to have to ask the health team for some expensive exotic medical procedure. Some people want more of their own space than their own room. Some members leave because they don’t find the romantic partner they want, or the one they had ended the relationship and it is too hard to see their former partner every day. It is hard to make enough money to take long trips or far away vacations (our members get a tiny allowance of $100 a month.)
And then there is this resume problem. If you want to be a millionaire or CEO, you should probably skip the commune step. This is not to say that some members have not used the community as an applied university. And we have had many general managers of million dollar businesses who were in their early twenties. But when they ask you how much you were paid at your last job, your next employer is likely to be unimpressed by in-kind wages.
The real question to ponder is, “Are you ready for a radical departure from what you are used to?” Community could be the answer. And now that there is not a waiting list at Twin Oaks, perhaps this is the right one for you.
If you are interested in applying for membership click here.
The post originally appeared in the CommuneLife blog.
This presentation is being given 4 times
What if you could fight climate change by changing your agreements with your friends? What if you could work less but have greater access to resources? What if you could be building more trust in your life instead of making making profits for someone else?
All this might sound too good to be true, but a collection of resource and income sharing communities in central Virginia have been doing this for years. These communities create libraries of tools, cars, clothes and media while learning to live together. One upside of this lifestyle choice is an 80% reduction in each member’s carbon footprint.
The catch is you have to trust people. This requires deep and occasionally difficult conversations and a willingness to look at yourself and cooperate in ways we are not used to.
This presentation explores the tools and traps connected with embracing an income sharing lifestyle. The talk will be followed by a question and answer session.
We are also doing a Communities in Crisis: How to manage and mend workshop in Binghamton NY on May 6th.
Paxus Calta is the co-founder of the Point A project which is an audacious project to form urban income sharing egalitarian democratic ambitious engaged communes in the cities of the American East Coast. He has lived at Twin Oaks Community for 18 years. Twin Oaks is a secular 100 person income sharing community which grows most of its own food, builds its own buildings, runs its own businesses and educates its own kids. The community has been doing this successfully for 49 years.
“Will you write about this party in your blog?” an excited visitor asked me at the recent Mardi Gras party in Aurora, the building that 3 week Twin Oaks visitors stay in.
“If you tell me how Twin Oaks changed your life I might,” I replied in a cagey way, always looking for content to feed my hungry blog and my pet theory that this type of lifestyle can improve people’s situation.
Visitor Clive was clear that it had. He talked about coming to Twin Oaks with low expectations and an open mind. He did not want to assume much about this place at all. But he was pretty clear that membership was not what he wanted. His visitor period changed that. He was leaving excited about this lifestyle as an alternative to his straight job. He had things to wrap up before he returned to the commune, but his three weeks had altered the trajectory of his future, he would return again, perhaps in a year, he would apply and if accepted he thought it was quite likely he would live with us.
I was pleased and flattered and I encouraged him to look at other communities as well. The visitor period at Twin Oaks, especially if you have an engaged and thoughtful visitor group, can be quite enchanting. Clive wanted a large community and a secular one, and sadly there are few choices of this type in the US. Smart money is on Clive coming back.
Lisa told her circuitous story of being a refugee from the entertainment industry. When she came to the eventual conclusion that Hollywood was not her cup of tea, she started looking for a simpler and more wholesome way of living. She began by Googling ”Atheist Nunnery,” knowing that one probably didn’t exist, but still feeling that the phrase described the spirit of the kind of place she wanted to find. Initial searches pulled up suggestions for her to try a Buddhist nunnery, which seemed too austere to match her nature, but got her inspired to continue researching other real life communal environments. Her search lead her to communities and her intense curiosity about Twin Oaks connected her to this blog, something which always makes me smile.
Lisa will not apply for membership now. Just before her visit to Twin Oaks, she fell in love with a socialist plumber in Austin, TX and began working on a new business venture in the field of neurological rehabilitation therapy. But there is no doubt in her mind, even having research the place thoroughly before she arrived, the experience of being in community has changed her life and she will return.
I don’t know it the party deserved an A grade, but certainly the visitor period which happened in the same building gets the top grade.
It all started with Yahoo Parenting. A reporter came out with a photographer and talked with a handful of Twin Oaks parents.
Then ABC Nightline called up and asked if they could come and film. ABC and Yahoo News have a partnership agreement. Perhaps we should have said “no.”
There were a number of problems with the final ABC piece, including mistakes which started from the second word of the article. “Inside Off-the-Grid Virginia Commune Where Everything From Housing to Child Care Is Shared.” In fact, we are not off the grid. We have some solar panels, and we are getting some more, but we have a long way to go before we are off the grid.
The video which I reported on earlier depicted us as negligent for letting kids wander around the property unescorted and not doing background checks on members offering child care. There are lots of reasonable things to criticize the communes about, but there are not on the list. Background checks don’t actually catch much AND we live with these people for three weeks and interview them for hours. Much more rigorous than anyone hiring a babysitter from Craigslist. They bungled the description of our complex pension system (saying adults over 50 drop to a single hour of work per year.)
A number of members were angry at me for not restricting the motion of the press more and not being more sensitive to people the media should stay away from.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to internet. Lots of other media entities mimicked the story in some ways. Specifically:
- CNN did photo montage of Aaron Cohen’s pictures on Aug 17
- The UK Daily Mail blew up over the permission to have a baby on Aug 22
- The Inquisitor rebrands us as ‘Commune In Virginia Blends Off Grid Harmony And Business Savvy’ on Aug 21st
- Right wing blog NewsBusters slammed Nightline’s coverage and the socialist commune while offering a full transcript of the broadcast.
So what we see is news driven by trends. If a topic appears to be trending, one cheap way your news entity can get a piece of the action is by finding a hot story, searching the internet for other free content on the topic, piece them together with a thin narrative and bang! you have intern-generated popular “news” stories.
Now we have had a handful of additional offers from news entities who want to come film. For a while, i think we will say no.
For more insightful and important analysis of the community, please read:
- How Sustainable is Twin Oaks
- I live on a peculiar Island (academic review)
- The Most Controversial Approval: Pregnancy
[Proofread by Gryphon]