Home But Not Alone

Imagine moving to a house, apartment or farm that comes complete with a built-in network of caring friends and neighbors. Whether you’re craving Mayberry-style kinship or just an antidote to empty-nest syndrome, one of these “intentional communities” may be right for you

by Sharon Lerner
Twin Oakers working in the field image
Twin Oakers working in the field
Photograph: Justine Kurland

Gauthier and her husband, Daniel, moved to Sirius in 1998 from New Hampshire. When she was a child, her parents split up—in part, she thinks, because of their lack of connection to others. “Isolation causes anxiety, depression, loneliness,” says Gauthier, who was determined not to go down the same path. Like all full members, she and Daniel put in eight hours of work a week. Within a few years, they had two children and more than enough work caring for them. Now they rent a house just outside Sirius, close enough to enjoy the fellowship but without having to shoulder the work commitments.

It’s easy to see why people would want to stay connected to Sirius. The gardens are as beautiful as they are productive. Participation in collective meals is free, as long as you also take part in the cooking rotation. The buildings are pretty. Wilson and Brice live with two of their children, plus a dog, two cats, a bunny and a bird, in one of the community’s larger homes, a four bedroom with a two-story open lounge space and giant picture windows overlooking pine trees. Because Brice’s full-time job is running the Sirius conference center, they get a reduction in their rent (they pay only $1,000 a month), but the living spaces (all rentals) are quite affordable. A 300-square-foot studio apartment with a kitchen, for instance, rents for about $500 a month.

Sirius rules stipulate that all members go through conflict-resolution training, so when interpersonal problems arise, they can sit down together and work out their differences. Having “processed” with my husband, my sisters and my closest friends, I know what these conversations are like. Could I commit to this level of honesty and intimacy with such a large group of adults? Just the thought of all that potential conflict wearies me.

Sirius is small compared with Twin Oaks (twinoaks.org), a community in Louisa, Virginia, with 93 adult members and 15 children. “It’s like being in an arranged marriage with 93 people,” says Biddy Remick, 44, a self-described misanthrope and former financial manager for a nonprofit who came here three years ago. Founded in 1967 on 465 acres of farmland, Twin Oaks is one of the longest-surviving intentional communities in the country. Tie-dyed gauzy skirts and names like Trout and Firefly (people here often rename themselves) abound on this rural outpost, and a vaguely -patchouli-and-sweat-tinged fragrance permeates the air. Members live in eight residences, each of which has 10 to 18 bedrooms and two or three bathrooms, and each person gets a private bedroom, regardless of whether he or she is part of a couple.

Twin Oaks has explicit, often -complicated policies regulating pretty much everything. To the dismay of Remick, broadcast TV is a no-no. (She gets her fix through Netflix and a laptop in her room.) The use of cell phones and computers is restricted to certain areas. Illicit drugs are strictly prohibited, and there is a nuanced four-page, single-spaced policy on nudity. “If the UPS guy comes, you have to put your clothes on,” is how one member summed it up for me.

Most members do not hold outside jobs; instead, they work 42 hours a week for the community’s businesses. These generate about $1.6 million a year in gross sales, which is pretty good for a crew that operates without any business training or, as far as I could see, a stitch of office wear. Approximately $625,000 of that income derives from the production of tofu, which Twin Oaks sells through various retail outlets, including some Whole Foods stores. The community also earns about $700,000 from its handmade hammocks and surprisingly comfortable swinging chairs. Other jobs, such as housecleaning, eldercare, construction, tech support and book indexing, make up most of the rest of its income. The collective provides baseline health, vision and dental insurance, and members can choose their chores. At various times Remick has cooked dinner, tended chickens, boxed tofu and tutored kids in math. Child care counts as work, regardless of who does it, so parents typically share child--related tasks with other residents.

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Comments

Paxus Calta04.12.2013

i have lived at Twin Oaks for 15 years and i have never heard anyone refer to a car as an object of envy. We have a fleet of 17 vehicles which we share and as a group tend not to care much about status symbols like cars. There is occasionally envy around things like fancy computers.
Overall Sharron has done her research well for this article and one can get something of a feel for what it is like to be at Twin Oaks.
If you are interested in a longer and somewhat more exotic view of Twin Oaks you can read this:
http://funologist.org/2011/12/10/re-post-island/

Matt 07.12.2012

I've lived in two different intentional communities over the last ten years. I've never been to any of the communities you visited, but we have folks from Twin Oaks visiting all the time. Personally, I could never live at any of the places you mention either, but your statement "By the time I return to Brooklyn, I realize I could never make a home for my family in an intentional community" puzzles me.
You know they're all different, right? For example, my 80 person community on Staten Island is *nothing* like the communities you mention. Making a statement like that is kind of like going to three restaurants you didn't love and deciding you don't like to eat out. You spent a very limited amount of time at three communities out of hundreds. Don't make such sweeping judgments. Most people I've lived with over the last ten years wouldn't want to live in the places you mentioned either--and that's not a criticism of any of the communities. It's an acknowledgement that you visited three relatively similar rural communities and applied that experience to all of us.

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