Early in August, Deborah Frieze and I gathered together with 20 of our friends for an experiment. We called it “Village Week,” and our idea was to bring together folks whom we dearly loved for a week of play, learning, good conversation and rest.
Because Village Week was born from a simple desire to be together and see what would happen, we didn’t devise a “learning agenda” or plan specific outcomes for the week. Instead, we put a lot of thought into who we wanted to join us and invited them to bring their partners and families to be part of our experiment.
Did I mention that the Village would be created in the middle of a major metropolitan area (Boston/Jamaica Plain)? Did I share that several villagers, about 15 of us, would be lodging at Deborah’s home? Is it obvious that to launch the week, we would invite more than 150 neighbors and community members to celebrate with us at the Old Oak Dojo and then asked them if they’d like to join the Village?
We couldn’t wait to see what would happen.
What happened was, perhaps, quite predictable. We practiced community together. It was simple, lovely and challenging.
While there are some clear skills that support being in community, there is no substitution for practice. To practice what it is to be together. To practice showing up with and for one another over a period of several days. To practice cooking, playing, sleeping, talking, gardening, crying, telling stories and waking up to do it all again the next day.
Many of us brought skills and expertise about creating or sustaining community to the Village. For several of us, this is our life’s work and our guiding belief: community. But it still requires practice—both individually and collectively, and it wasn’t always easy. In fact, some of our ideas of how a village should be were quickly subsumed in the reality of how the village actually was. We were all villagers figuring out how to practice community with these particular people, in this particular place, with our particular selves. This was no theory of community. It was the practice of it.
For me, there were three clear “discoveries” we made throughout the week as we moved into this practice of community together.
Discovering Each Other
Creating community every day among 15 to 20 people, ranging in ages from 5 to 57, was the essential work of the Village. While Deborah and I invited people that each of us knew well, the majority of people were meeting one another for the first time.
And there was a lot to discover… Who were the cooks among us? Who would look after the little people? Who were the singers who would bring color to our nighttime chats and open mic? Who were the yogis who would offer morning practice? Who loved to host process? Who would rather just thin carrots while the rest of us planned the day?
Yes, the practice of getting stuff done was important. And while there were definite bumps (we weren’t sure we were going to eat the first night as no one stepped forward!), there was another level of discovering one another that we needed to attend to: our relationships.
Over the course of the week, each of us had to live with these questions: What does it mean to practice community with people I barely know? What if I don’t naturally gravitate toward someone in the Village? What leap of faith must I make to meet that person? What if someone disappoints or hurts me? How can I recognize others’ practice of community when it looks so different than mine? What is it, in light of our obvious differences, that we have in common enough to stay present together in the Village?
Discovering one another meant that we had to figure out how to get stuff done together but also how to see each other and keep showing up with each other daily to discover who we could be together—what village would we create together—throughout the week.
Discovering the Place
In the middle of a city, we created a village. It was not an oasis, as we were not separate from the city. We were able to have our village-within-the-city in no small part because of the place we were in and the land we were on. It is no exaggeration to say that without the physical space to hold us, we may not have become a Village.
Deborah’s large, old house was thoughtfully refurbished to be a community gathering place, but we didn’t know exactly how it would work in practice. Village Week was the first true test of hosting the community in this space. To begin Village Week, we hosted more than 100 neighborhood and community members at the Old Oak Dojo for an Opening Day party with food, conversation, connection and music. We also shared our hopes for Village Week with the crowd and invited everyone—more than 100 people!—to join us for activities throughout the week.
After the excitement of the Opening Day, we settled in and soon learned the limits of the place—one refrigerator isn’t quite enough space for 10 adults and 5 kids, for example. And those same people use a tremendous amount of toilet paper! But we also learned the exquisiteness of the place we were in… a kitchen with a wall of windows makes it a joy to be up early in the morning setting out breakfast for other Villagers; building a stone wall from reclaimed stones from the property can be a meditative practice; and…
The Tree. In the middle of the yard, stands an 80-foot-high old oak. It is beautiful, gigantic, and it called to all of us. My five-year-old daughter swung on the rope affixed to its branches almost all of her waking hours. The children played around the tree and always seemed to find their way back to it throughout the day.
To our great fortune Andrew Joslin, an arborist, found his way to the Old Oak Dojo and joined us in the final days of the Village to help us climb the tree.
With helmets on and firmly harnessed in, I watched my children climb into the sky and squeal with delight—until they reached the highest branches. Then, they were quiet. They hung suspended nearly 70 feet off the ground for hours, talking occasionally but mostly swinging quietly and taking it all in. When the adults got a chance to go up, we all understood that we were experiencing something magical. Something precious and rare: complete presence and joy. Villager/arborist Andrew said that what we experienced up in those branches is called “tree time,” and I’ve never known anything like it.
The Tree and discovering the place we were in focused us. There was always more gardening to do, a terrace to be swept, children to push on the rope swing, waste to upcycle or recycle, and magic to behold. Taking care of the land, attending to the house, ascending The Tree and being held by it, all of these were integral to our experience of the Village.
In a week of discoveries, we of course and inevitably discovered ourselves. It always comes back to this, doesn’t it? As we practice collectivity, we see ourselves more clearly, understand new aspects of ourselves and remember things we may have forgotten about who we are. This week of practicing community was as much about encountering ourselves and how we show up to community as it was about anything else. I cannot speak to others’ experiences, but I know that the week was full of self-discovery for me.
As a naturally reserved person, practicing community for an entire week with new people—and alongside my children—was particularly challenging. The first day or two, I walked around in a fog of overstimulation. (I believe that I mentioned that we hosted a party for more than 100 people on our first day, yes?) And it took me several days to really settle in to the experience, feel comfortable with my children running around like wild things, and understand how I could contribute to the Village.
I noticed when and how I hung back on the edges and stayed at the margins, where I’m far more comfortable. I realized the places where I couldn’t help but step in and speak up. I noticed where I wanted something done but didn’t want to be the person to do it. I noticed how much I loved the bees.
My own self-discovery is always accelerated through movement, and a delightful part of the Village was the amount of physical practice available to us. Every morning some type of physical practice—freestyle embodiment! kung fu yoga! qigong! acro yoga!—was on the agenda. We climbed trees, hauled rocks, and when that wasn’t enough, we asked Aaron Cantor to set up an impromptu boot camp for us one morning, and we did trance dance in the evening.
I had expected a week of conversation and sparking of my intellect. Those things happened, for sure. Unexpectedly, I found that what I also needed was to move my body through space and work alongside others. The Village allowed those things to happen as well. It gave me gifts I didn’t even know I needed.
This was the gift of the Village experiment for me. In trying something out with my dear friend, Deborah, I discovered a whole new group of people. People I may not have met in any other context became my village. I came to love the Old Oak Dojo and understand how to share it with others. In being physically present in the village, I found myself in new ways.
I reclaimed myself in the practice of community.