What It Was Like Growing Up on a Commune

What It Was Like Growing Up on a Commune

What It Was Like Growing Up on a Commune

My parents made less money than I do, and yet they had much more time.

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When I was in fifth grade, all I wanted in the world was a pair of shiny Umbro soccer shorts. I didn’t play soccer; I just wanted to wear the shorts so I could be like all the other kids in my class. My parents did not buy me the shorts.

It wasn’t a question of money or ideological objection. My parents didn’t buy me the shorts because they didn’t know where they were sold and weren’t interested in finding out. They were not adept consumers. Buying new things was of so little interest to my parents—my dad especially—that most consumer behaviors were foreign to them. Requiring my dad to navigate a shopping mall would have been like asking him to speak a language he didn’t know.

I don’t blame him; he had other interests. My dad had helped found the Total Loss Farm commune in Vermont in the 1960s, and that’s where I spent part of my childhood. Total Loss Farm was home to activists, artists, and writers who were involved in many of the political movements of the late ’60s and early ’70s. It produced theater, books, newspapers, gardens, and many, many parties. But unlike many doomed back-to-the-land projects, Total Loss Farm endured—it celebrated its 50th anniversary a few years ago.

Within the community he’d helped build, my dad was a person of trusted and much-sought-after expertise. Over the course of his adult life, he taught himself about the natural world, about construction (he and his friends, all self-taught carpenters, built the house we lived in), and about politics and flows of power. But to my parents and their fellow commune dwellers, being a skillful consumer was not a recognized form of competence.

Today I have a son in fifth grade. My awareness of the brands and devices coveted by him and his friends is possibly even more nuanced than their own. I know all the best places to buy everything they want, and I take a pathetic kind of pride in my expertise. I exchange this information with friends, and we praise each other for being savvy. We don’t see each other very much—we’re all very busy with work, of course—so a lot of this shared praise happens over text messages. We text often and see each other seldom, during the pandemic as it was before.

I feel ashamed at how dutiful a consumer I have become. But that shame doesn’t last long; even radical politics, in 2021, has been commodified. I try to shop locally, to the extent that most well-intentioned bourgeois urbanites do. But to be honest, this behavior barely registers as political to me anymore.

I didn’t know what was radical about my upbringing until I became an adult. When I was a kid, being raised on a commune meant getting teased for the lunches I brought to school, not knowing the words to the hit songs on the radio, not having the soccer shorts. Ideologically, though, I was so immersed in the world of the commune that I couldn’t see outside it.

One pivotal experience finally showed me what the commune meant in the world. When my father died in 2005, he was 64 —among the first of his community to go. It was a shock; his memorial service overflowed. At his burial, in the Jewish cemetery in the Vermont town where he lived, dozens of friends stood by as we lowered his casket, handmade by a friend, into the ground. An earth mover was parked discreetly at the graveyard’s edge, waiting to bury the casket once we left.

There was a shovel on hand, and just as we were about to disperse from the grave, a friend began burying the casket by hand. No one spoke, but we understood that a machine would not be used to cover my father’s body in dirt. Taking turns, we buried the casket ourselves. It took about half an hour. We tamped down the earth with our feet when we had finally finished.

I count this as one of the most important experiences of my life. I remember it often; sometimes the very thought still brings me to tears. We do it together, we do it for each other, and we don’t pay someone else to do the things that matter. That was what the commune meant, and it was the most profound lesson of my upbringing.

How did my parents demonstrate what they believed in? With nothing less than the very hours of their days. They were constantly engaged in group endeavors, whether political activism, or putting in a garden, or cooking dinner for a handful of dirty-faced children—the majority of whom were not their own. Daily life didn’t push them to their energetic limit the way it seems to for me and my peers.

You might argue that it was a boomer’s privilege to be a relaxed, self-actualized parent, and there’s truth to that: Life was cheaper in the ’80s and early ’90s. My parents made less money than I do, and yet they had more time—it’s heartbreaking math. But when we lean too heavily on “OK, Boomer,” we sell ourselves short. Don’t we deserve to live our lives and be parents too? Can’t we imagine this being fun?

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the nuclear family to the breaking point, as many social critics have pointed out. But none of my friends—all of whom live in nuclear families—would likely choose to live cooperatively. Neither, for that matter, do I. I believe this is due mostly to a failure of imagination, an inability to envision an appealing life beyond the limits of privacy, partner, and kids. Contrary to every joke I’ve ever heard about growing up on a commune, polyamory is not mandatory. Nor are chore charts and endless house meetings.

I’ve always wanted my own space more than I’ve wanted to share. I’m a fair-weather friend to commune living—I want the good parts (community interdependence) without the bad parts (the community never goes home). My parents ultimately made the same choice; they both left the commune before I became a teenager. If you’re ready to commit to the life, I commend you, and I counsel you to invest in the biggest dishwasher your money can buy. (I’ll help you research it online!) But whether or not you’re living on a commune, community interdependence requires us to give up our stubborn belief in the myth that we have complete autonomy over how we spend our time.

Neoliberal family life has turned the very idea of accountability to others into a dreadful burden. We associate having to check in or do favors for others as a kind of systems failure. If you’re looking to optimize your schedule for maximum efficiency, having to pause and account for someone else’s pace and needs—someone who isn’t even related to you!—throws a spanner in the works. At a certain point, though, we owe it to ourselves to ask what rewards we’re reaping from having optimized our nuclear families. For what?

Everyone’s life is everyone else’s business on a commune, and while that can be a huge pain in the ass, it also means that there is usually someone close by to help out with cooking, or cleaning, or child care, or with a ride in to work or a hug. The casual ongoing negotiation of interdependence that happens on a commune normalized sharing my time and attention while I was a kid. It meant I was comfortable being cared for by people who were not my parents, and I didn’t expect to do exactly what I wanted exactly when I wanted to do it. These are qualities that I desperately try to cultivate in my own children, but it’s very hard to do that when no one else ever cares for them, and we rarely commit to do anything that isn’t in the entire family’s immediate best interest.

Still, I push back against it. It’s not second nature to give of my time and energy, as it was for my parents in the golden age of the commune, but I am determined to get better at it. My parents taught me that doing stuff together—building things, throwing parties, mobilizing for change—is the way to care for each other. Today, our work lives have spread, moldlike, throughout our days, and we guard a few precious hours for our social lives and so-called self-care. “Work-life balance” always presumes that work is pushing life into the margins and we must fight to reclaim it.

Inviting our friends into a larger part of our lives means reclaiming more of our time from the isolation of work and daily survival. Our social lives and our survival become the same thing. Entertaining each other at dinner parties will always be fun, but what about sharing child care or joining community organizations together? When it comes to working for my employer, a strict boundary is essential. But when it comes to hanging out with my friends, why should I be so rigid? Why not allow my social life to overtake my errand running and my chores? Why must we try to “entertain” each other when our relationships would become much deeper and more interesting if we did things together other than nibble hors d’oeuvres and drink wine?

A few years ago, when my local government decided to ban face coverings like the niqab on public transportation, a group of my mom friends hastily put together a rush-hour protest. Nothing solidifies friendship like trying to get something done together. (The ban stayed in place, but I doubt it will last in the wake of a pandemic during which we’ve all been mandated to cover our faces.)

My parents made a life like this seem normal. The world has since changed, and it takes so much more effort for me to model interdependence on my community to my children. I want them to think of their time as something that must be shared—a gift to give away continuously, forever.

If I die tomorrow, will my friends feel compelled to bury me by hand? I’ll wonder this pointlessly until, well, I get my answer. I will try to give them reason to take up a shovel instead of letting the bulldozer do it. It’s not the least I can do, and it’s not the most, but it’s a start.

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