Learning to be us

5farmbusWe’d been in Tennessee for about four months, three of them on the Martin property. We were living primitively and tentatively – many of us in frail shelters that would not stand up to cold weather, and all of us living on land that was on loan from people we barely knew. We were living in what could easily become hostile territory, surrounded by deeply-rooted families and clans that had probably heard only the worst rumors about hippies and their ways. Our neighbors for many miles in every direction were evangelical Christians, gun users and predominantly nostalgic for the good old days of the Confederacy and all that it stood for.

If any kind of shit were to hit the fan, we barely had a leg to stand on, even with the hundreds of legs we were walking on. And yet, we had not been run out of the county and the state. We had sequestered ourselves in the woods – where, of course, we assumed our neighbors felt comfortable roaming freely – and we’d closed the gate to visitors and people wanting to join us. We had our hands full and we knew it. But it was still more like a tough and rustic summer camp than the founding of Jamestown to us. Maybe it was the fact that we still had many running buses and there was a recognized escape clause cached in the backs of our minds. Anita and I had surrendered our ace in the hole by allowing the vehicle mechanics (working in a clearing in the woods called “the motor pool” due, no doubt, to Stephen’s military experience) to scavenge essential engine and drivetrain parts from Shades of Blue to repair a similar bus that was going through a Frankenstein-like reincarnation as a giant pickup truck. The Shades, which I’m sure was one of the best-running buses on the Caravan, had been put out to pasture. We no longer lived in a bus; we lived in a trailer.

During the days we’d be off in some part of the woods or another, out of touch with the rest of what was going on. Almost all of the men and women had community-based jobs. There were about a dozen school-aged kids in the community and a growing population of babies. Ina May, who’d lost her own baby on the way to Tennessee, had emerged as a force in the community, taking charge of our overall health standards. She was serious about making midwifery and home birthing safe. She knew it was sane, and as each baby was delivered, the vibe circulating in the community was one of confidence in the whole idea of home birth. We were a pregnant couple and we embraced the knowledge that our child would be born in our home, not in a hospital. But Ina May was not content for us to learn only by trial and unthinkable error; she had made contact with a local country doctor. The kind of doctor you can only imagine these days – kind, honest, modest, experienced, competent, friendly, respected – the rock of a small town. Dr. Williams had delivered many babies at home, including some at the nearby Amish settlement. He appreciated Ina May’s sincerity and what we were all about. He became our insurance policy — a gateway into the establishment health care system.


Sunday morning services had become magical events for me, like the church services I’d always longed for but never found as I was brought up Catholic. The closest I’d come had been the rare times when I was in elementary school and my Italian grandmother would take me to a local Franciscan monastery for high mass. It was a throwback experience to the middle ages – dark, dense frankincense smoke, echoing with the voices of chanting monks, and driven by the mysterious Latin declarations of the mass. Somehow, those ceremonies had moved me, but they had no relationship to how I lived. The mass was a communal ceremony, but there was no commune to go with it. Now I had the commune, and I understood why they called them “services.”

Awakened in the dark by the whispered greetings of a Zen scout, we’d pull our clothes on, grab a blanket and a couple of pillows and walk down the muddy road in a loose procession, greeting one another quietly, as if we were already in church. Some had flashlights; some relied on starlight. We passed our gardens – the most inspiring symbol of our unity – and ascended a short grade to a cleared hillside overlooking the narrow valley where both the creek and the railroad tracks ran. At the top of that grassy hillside, we’d all spread our blankets and sit on our pillows facing the ridge line across the valley. It would be full night time – still but with a pulsating background of crickets, frogs, owls and other bird calls we didn’t yet recognize.

In Zen meditation, you don’t close your eyes. You watch, but you don’t get caught up in watching. More accurately, you observe, but not as a scientist, “looking for something.” You don’t engage in analysis of what you’re observing or thinking, but you put out as little effort as possible avoiding that analysis. I’d usually find myself getting preoccupied with my not being preoccupied. Yet none of that detracted from the uplifting experience of simply being there with all of those people, together in such a remarkable situation, observing silently as a group while shooting stars spanned our collective vision and waves of frog chirping rose to crescendos and then subsided. The Universe seemed to be putting on a presentation about scale and communication for our benefit. And in that human silence, we communed loudly. The collective realization that we were together on a wild and audacious adventure was palpable.

I’ve mentioned the train, and there was always a scheduled pre-dawn L&N freight chugging up the watershed grade headed toward Lawrenceburg and the Alabama line, dragging a long line of cars keeping a noisy rhythm as the crossed the rail seams. And each time the train made its approach from a distance, I made a little room in my consciousness for Ray Bradbury’s classic time scrambling story, “The Train” where the source of the fire, steam and rumble was assumed – by two noble knights in the early second millennium – to be a dragon. Were we from another time, a time of magic? Was this dragon challenging us and our noble intentions? Whatever it meant, the train would pass and disappear, its air horn a faint call in the distance as it approached Route 20, some miles away.

Eventually the sky would begin to brighten, almost imperceptibly at first as dim shapes took stronger form, then accelerating to reveal colors and extinguish stars. The critters noticed and we were reminded of how many species lived there with us. Conversations would begin among mourning doves, crows and finally the wondrous whippoorwills with their pulsing call-and-respond. There were brilliantly clear mornings when the sun – revealing itself at first as intense spangles of light penetrating the forested ridgeline before us – emerged so brightly that I had to shut my eyes tight as we began the Om.

Stephen had cut loose of blowing the ram’s horn to lead the chant. It was all voice now, and he was good at starting with a note we all could carry. Deep breath, then exhaling through as steady a note as you could follow, getting the most volume for the longest duration, paying full attention to your larynx to slide your note smoothly from a full “Ah” sound at the beginning into a full “Oh” then a full “Oo” and ending with a resonant “Mmmmmm.” Ah-Oh-Oo-Mm. Over and over as the hillside choir transitioned organically in to a round of overlapping Ahs, Ohs, Oos and Mms – a slowly pulsating vocal wave that seemed to fill each of us with the voices of all the others. And after a timeless period of chanting, probably lasting less than 5 minutes, the wave would tail off, first to only fifty voices, then to 30, to 10, to 5 and then last wavering individual’s finish.

You’ve probably had the experience of sitting quietly with over 100 other people, rushing en masse immediately after witnessing some entertainment act or occurrence, or as the afterglow of hearing an amazing speaker. That would be there in spades, but add to it the social commitment we were making, even in our tenuous situation, to accomplishing something meaningful together.

Rising in the dark, meditating on a hillside with only the train to remind us of civilization, trying hard to put into our meditation all that Stephen was teaching us about his teacher’s practice, absorbing the presence of the life force around us – the dense biology of Tennessee in full monsoon, the elemental effects of oming in such a large bunch – that post-chant silence was so rich with the sense of community that you could hardly stand it. It was a relief when Stephen would rise and turn to us, the sun behind him, and call the couples forward who were to be married. It was a simple ceremony of the betrothed repeating vows to one another after being led by Stephen. A big hug, a big smooch, a wave of joy and unspoken “mazel tovs” and the couple (or couples – there usually being more than one) would take their seats and Stephen would scan his gaze across our crescent-shaped assemblage. He’d take his signature deep breath, exhaled through pursed lips.

At that point he would begin to voice what was in our heads. He would talk about the remarkable opportunity we were making for ourselves. He would talk about how important it was that we were there, in that place at that time, working toward doing something real that would serve the world. He would acknowledge our mistakes, the weaknesses that were being revealed, the challenges that we faced, but without sounding phoney or too gung ho, he’d provide us with the purpose we were taking this leap – and it had nothing to do with us as individuals; it was about us, “tilling the square inch field” so that the square foot would be served.

He would talk for 40 minutes or so, ending with something like, “I love you, God bless you, and have a spiritual day.” In spite of all the work there was to do, Sundays for all except those on Gate duty would be devoted to taking walks, visiting neighbors, reading spiritual books (a huge collection of which was always in circulation among us) and family activities. Anita and I were adjusting to the fact that we were no longer loosely associated; we were married for life, with children and another on the way. We would be having that child probably in Shades of Blue.

We were all “characters,” as my mother used to describe people she didn’t quite understand. How could we not be, having chosen to take such an outrageous path? We enjoyed getting to know these characters, with so many different backgrounds. Clearly, we had all arrived at this point due to different influences. My highly typical upbringing as a smart middle class kid was not common to many of the neighbors.

But we were going through experiences that would stamp us with shared history for life. We were developing a language that would bond us for the time being. We tried to help one another avoid getting “holes in our buckets.” We strove to keep our “chi” on and to act from our “higher selves.” We followed the Mahayana path of Buddhism – the “big boat” path that said that no ultimate enlightenment can come until all sentient beings are enlightened. We followed the Sermon on the Mount path of Christianity – taking the word of Jesus more to heart than the interpretations of disciples and scribes who came after. We took it seriously that “life is a free will trip,” and that only our lack of will prevents us from being the people we knew we should be. But we took it just as seriously that we could fail and fall, with the constant possibility of redemption and recovery.

During my weeks of working in the dirt, mud and dead leaves, I was constantly in school to learn about building relationships that mattered. It wasn’t always comfortable. It wasn’t always uplifting. But it felt like what I should be doing.