Joe Namath and a Toad

[When I left Zendik in September 2004, I remained a true believer. For more than a year, I executed “Deathculture” fantasies in hopes of preparing myself to return and commit for good. One of those fantasies was running a personal ad.]

“Good-looking, fit SWF, 28, seeks fit SM under 45 for dating and other adventures. Let’s ride the cosmic Ferrari* really fast; you can shift and I’ll steer and work the brakes and gas.”

Thus runs the personal ad I have placed in the Chico News & Review. The man I’m about to meet—the first to respond to said ad—has told me on the phone he looks like Joe Namath—

And he does, if you cross Joe Namath with a toad.

Mike Brady, 37, shows up in the doorway of my trailer at six pm on Saturday, as planned. I am on my hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor—the last task in my weekly bout of housecleaning. I look up; my jaw drops to the linoleum. I have never seen an uglier man in my life.

Stall. Play for time.

“Would you mind waiting outside for a moment, so I can finish?” I croak.

He obliges, and I continue scrubbing, my internal monologue keeping furious time with my washrag:

What have I gotten myself into? This man is ugly as sin. What do I do now? Tell him, look, you’re hideous, please leave? I can’t do that. I guess I…could go into this as an…experiment…to see what kind of man… answers personal ads….

I finish scrubbing, and ask him into the kitchen. He hands me a can of Green Giant spinach. I live and work on an organic vegetable farm. I harvest my breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. I religiously refuse to eat food that’s not organic. Here I am accepting a gift of embalmed greens. Dripping with pesticides. Wonderful. Great. Thank you. I smile, take the can, invite him to sit down. New theory: opposites repel.

He slides onto the bench seat across from me, in my dining nook. He says,

“So, what did you have in mind? We could go to town and get some dinner or [here he leeringly eyes my double bed, which is just down the hall past the bathroom] we could just hang out here. I’m up for anything.”

I say, “Let’s go to town.”

So we get in his white Lexus and drive—not to beautiful downtown Chico, but to a sushi bar in a strip mall on its outskirts. As we drive, I obnoxiously and unequivocally offer every shocking opinion I can think of, on every topic he brings up. He, in turn, attempts to impress me with accounts of the many Club Med vacations he’s managed to take, on his gas-station-manager’s salary.

We arrive at the sushi bar, and take stools next to each other. The waitress drops off our menus, and as I pick mine up to look at it, he very deliberately places his hand on my back, as if to guide me through the choices. I tense, grit my teeth, and say: “Please don’t touch me.”

He, offended, acquiesces. We order, and eat. Midway through the fish, he asks, “So, is there anything else you’d like to tell me about yourself?”

“Well,” I say, “I’m a religious fanatic.” And launch into the spiel I used to give on the street, to people I was trying to sell cult literature to, during my stint (only recently ended) as brainwashed devotee of a power-hungry egomaniac who swore she was saving the world. I continue for a few minutes, checking his face every now and then to see what damage I’ve done. Unfortunately, he does not run screaming from the restaurant.

In the midst of my rant, I look up, across the bar, and spot the attractive young male tattoo artist who is responsible for the single piece of permanent artwork on my body. He is perched at the bar with a beautiful blonde. I briefly fantasize switching places with the blonde, and hope he hasn’t seen me.

Finally, we go. It is only eight, and on a midsummer night in Chico it doesn’t really get dark till ten. Tomorrow—Sunday—is my day off. There is no practical reason why I could not stay out partying alongside the frat kids till three in the morning. But I have to get away from this man. I have no choice; I lie:

“Yeah, it really sucks being a field hand. I actually have to get up at 4:30 in the morning tomorrow—the cucumbers will rot on the ground if I don’t harvest them before sun-up. Yeah, I know, it’s a real bitch but hey, nature waits for no man. So yeah, I better get home and get to bed. It’s a tough life, being a farmer.”

He drives me home, drops me off. We do not kiss good night.

Thus ends what I hope will remain the shittiest date of my life.

[*I lifted the line about the cosmic Ferrari from a t-shirt selling email composed by another Zendik, back when I lived at the Farm. I won’t name her here because I don’t think she’d want me to, but I do offer her acknowledgment and thanks.]

Miami Phish, New Year’s 2003

[In late December 2003, after breaking up with the man I saw as my last best hope for lasting love, I went selling with an all-girl crew to Miami. Surrender, exhaustion, and lack of a boyfriend opened me to a few precious nights in flow.]

Growing up in Brooklyn I knew what to expect every year, two days after Christmas: my favorite dinner of no-frills macaroni and cheese with ketchup; a homemade chocolate cake with the legend “Happy Birthday Helen” looped in purple, green and orange goop over a thick crust of chocolate icing; and a handmade card garnishing whichever cheap metal-plastic aggregate I was currently lusting after—a clock radio, a curling iron, a red-white-and-blue accordion like the one the rabbit-eared urchin in Gummo plays while perching forlorn on a toilet. I sprang awake at dawn on birthday mornings, eager to start my span of being special, and greet my personal new age.

On December 27th, 2003—the day I turn twenty-seven—I bolt out of my sleeping bag for a different reason: to grab a slot on the potty before the other six members of my seven-woman selling crew begin stirring, and needing to pee. Today I am no cosseted birthday girl, but a Zendik revolutionary, preparing for the day’s first unnerving mission: wresting cash from the gritty alterna-tourist crowd passing and patronizing Uncle Sam’s music store, on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. I must get “on,” I must spin my mirage of a beautiful world into money-making spells, in the swampy sunshine and surreal heat.

At this, as of mid-afternoon, I am failing. Few are seduced by the gothic cast of my CDs and magazines—the slogan “Stop Bitching Start a Revolution” blaring from my t-shirts and bumper stickers—my lackluster, panic-tinged pitch. “Hey, have you seen this?” I shrill, as likely targets approach—“It’s underground art.” I am dismissed with a shake of the head, a flick of the wrist—or skipped over entirely, by eyes fixed on the heavy gray-blue horizon. My partner Emily, on the other hand—a boisterous, athletic eighteen-year-old who’s been selling Zendik for one year, to my four—is kicking ass, as always. Why? I wonder. Did she get a head start on proselytizing during her teenage stint as an evangelical Christian? Did she inherit a money-making gene from her dad, who’s made a career of fundraising for the Boy Scouts? Was she learning ease with strangers from her bubbly mother, while I was learning quiet and shyness from mine? Or is she simply more committed to the cause than I am, more closely attuned to that righteous revolutionary vibration? I know I should rejoice in her success, since every sale she makes raises our trip total and helps sustain our farm—but the truth is, each twenty she pockets for a t-shirt makes me quake inside. How will I ever catch up? How will I ever explain? I can never outright blame “the scene” for a low number—since selling is “all energy” and energy is available in equal abundance in every situation—but still: The better she does, the more likely I’ll be to get slammed for poor performance.

As we walk back to the parking lot to rejoin our crew, Emily stops to badger a plump, pierced, shaven, black-clad man. I join in, keening to redeem myself by securing one massive, miraculous donation. He flirts with us for a good ten minutes, then giggles in feigned innocence and exclaims, “Oh, you’re trying to sell your stuff! I don’t carry cash!”

My anger keeps me brittle till we reach the van. Then Emily asks if I’m okay, and the flood escapes: “No I’m not okay I’ve felt horribly competitive all day I don’t know what’s wrong with me I hate the way I feel.” I retreat to the far end of the bench seat and stare down at the worn red carpet, vainly attempting to calm the tremor in my voice, and hide my tears.

Cayta—who’s been selling the longest, of all of us—leans heavily against the sliding door, already weary of this latest take on an oft-repeated scene. Having moved to Zendik fresh out of high school, she hasn’t tried—and isn’t tempted by—other ways of living. I envy her certainty.

“Maybe you should stay here and sell by yourself tonight,” she suggests, her voice raspy with exasperation. “I don’t want you dragging everybody down at the Phish show.”

It’s not a bad idea. Concerts make me nervous—sneaking in, dodging venue security—and if I sell by myself on the beach I won’t have anyone to compete with. I’ll get the chance to play out my fantasy of selling as it was a couple decades ago: each seller alone in her own spot, running her own show.

“Think about it while we’re in the store,” Cayta says.

The girls disappear into Wild Oats, to get jacked on sugar and—perhaps?—buy me a birthday cake. I know chances of this have slimmed since Emily proposed it earlier in the day but still I’m hoping—not because I’m especially keen on eating a slice of white fluff slathered in fake cream, but because I yearn to be recognized; most years I get lumped into the collective December birthday celebration, or I get no celebration at all. Whereas Arol, Fawn, the kids—even Wulf, who’s dead—get their own individual cakes and parties. I tell myself that someday, when I’ve been around long enough—when I’ve proven myself true enough—I too will merit a separate fête. Also I’m prone to bitter dreams, come late December, in which I demand my own homemade carob cake with carob frosting. All I can do now is caution myself to expect nothing, and turn back to the overwhelming question: whether or not to sell solo.

In the old days, I’ve been told, this was how it used to go: In the morning you got dropped off by yourself, in front of a movie theater, a health food store, a book store. You sold alone till sundown, when the van circled back to pick you up and take you to your place to stay. There you cooked and ate dinner with your host and crew—unless you’d chosen to go home with a cute girl or guy you’d met on the street, to get a little Death Kultur loving and maybe do a little Ecolibrium recruiting. Selling had started out as a social gambit—at a time when Zendiks supported the farm largely by appropriating inheritances, drawing welfare checks, shoplifting and busking, some of the more outward-oriented members had wished for a way to interact one-on-one with “Normals,” while retaining their heretical edge. The upshot was the magazine—originally a single mimeographed sheet titled The Cosmic Revolutionist—and the solo foray into the DK to sell it.

I covet the sense of freedom and self-reliance I imagine sellers had, in the years before the industrial selling trip was born—no one watching you, no immediate pressure to make money. One hundred dollars was decent then (as compared to two hundred fifty to three hundred now); if you called home in a funk and Wulf answered he’d tell you to “shoot for forty.” The seventies and eighties seem to me like a simpler time, when money earned selling was more tightly tied to the basics of survival. Now the farm’s finances are a maze of bills and loans and mortgages and credit cards, sequestered in Arol’s and Fawn’s chambers; once we the sellers bear our offering of carefully counted and rubber-banded bills to the Addition kitchen, it disappears. If I make more money I don’t get better stuff. I don’t feel any more righteous about adding new socks, or colored markers, or eyeglasses, or a doctor’s appointment, to the shopping list. If I make less money I get slammed but I don’t starve. Occasionally even “power” sellers, like Cayta and Emily, are ripped apart—for getting “ego-jacked” on the street—when they have brought in substantial wads of cash. No matter how many times I’m reminded, This is how we eat, I do not, in my gut, believe it.

Selling by myself for one night won’t revive this basic correlation, I know, but perhaps it’ll jolt me to the raw truth of hustle-to-survive. Running my own show on Miami Beach I’ll have no one to measure myself against—and also no one to laugh with, no one to lean on.

Then the girls swarm back to the van and Cayta rescinds her offer. It would be an act of excessive cruelty, she says, to leave me to be eaten alive by the blood-red-fingernail girls and slicked-back-pompadour boys who prance the night scene in pairs and packs. “We want you to come with us,” she says, “and just relax and try to have fun.”

“Here,” says Emily, handing me a paper bag. “We got some cookies. For your birthday.”

So I sniffle a little more, but this time with hope, and settle into the back seat with two chewy peanut-butter-chocolate-chip morsels of delight. On the drive to American Airlines Arena I decide to give up on making money—to strip this next episode of pressure, and let it be a grand adventure. Instead of pushing, I’ll open to whatever plump, luscious possibilities are ripe for the plucking.

* * *

My first mark inside the arena hails from Oregon. He’s rolling or stoned or something. He extols the snow on Mount Hood, the idyll of dwelling high in the pine forest in a cozy timber cabin. I leave my magazines in my pocket, and listen. At the close of his soliloquy he hands me fifteen dollars for a sticker and a t-shirt, despite the fact that I’ve said next to nothing about Zendik. Magic! Maybe I’m on the right track….

Just before the intermission I approach a tall, chubby man parked by the hot dog stand. His cheeks and eyes shine with sweat and chemically induced bliss. “Ah, Zendik,” he says. He knows us from Savannah, where he used to work as a bouncer at a nightclub. He’s not hissing, or warding me off with crossed fingers, so I figure he must be a friend of ours, worth chatting with for a while.

Minutes later, the crowds pour out of the concert hall, and my internal alarm goes off. Prime time! It shrills. Ready-set-go-ten-minute-window to hit people up like crazy and make tons of money!

But no. Tonight I will not salivate at the usual stimuli. Tonight I will breathe deeply, and continue my conversational meander…which turns to middle names, and other simple revelations that amuse both of us immensely, in our respective altered states.

“Timothy!” he giggles.

“Madgelma!” I reply.

“Do you know what’s in my wallet?” he asks.

“Something of value?” I guess.

“Maybe….” he says.

He gives me his beer to hold, and pulls out his billfold. Shuffles through it. Extracts a crinkly wad, and starts pressing crumpled bills into my free hand. My exquisitely honed large-denomination detector kicks in instantly—these particular patterns of green mean, This is big. That one scans as a U.S. Grant…that’s an Andrew Jackson…and another Andrew and another…and two Abes plus a few Georges…. I thank my benefactor like he’s just pulled me down from the cross, and give him a magazine, a sticker, a double-X t-shirt, and one of each CD. Then I scurry off to count the money: one hundred twenty-five bucks. More than any one person has ever given me…as far as I know, more than any Zendik seller has ever received from a single individual. O wonder! O joy! O deeply personal hands of truth, dispensing my psychic reward!

And yet, I’m nervous. What if the bouncer sobers up, asks, “What have I done?!”, comes hunting for a refund? Certainly if I see him again I’ll run the other way…. But anxiety rings only a little ding in my delirium: Now I will float through the evening, assured already of doing well enough to avoid censure.

I spend the rest of the night—the rest of the trip—lilting from one leisurely colloquy to the next…steadily accruing cash as I sniff out hints of what I have in common with this collection of civilians.

“Where’d you get that necklace? You made it? You make jewelry? It’s beautiful!”

“You’re from Nashville? What kind of music do you write? I love country songs! I love the stories they tell, and how simple they are.”

“Parks Highway…isn’t that in Alaska? Where in Alaska are you from? I hitch-hiked to Alaska once….”

I follow each Phish-head down a different stream. And when one looks back and asks, “What’s that in your hand?” I say, this is our art. You can check it out if you want to. Often they do. And when they don’t I let the “no’s” flow harmlessly over me—I wasn’t expecting anything anyway.

I notice that my switch to “It’s all good” mode changes whom I choose to hit up. In more desperate times I’ve focused on misshapen middle-aged males, thinking, They have money, they’re susceptible to the charms of a young woman. Now that I’m just hanging out, surfing the social scene, I feel free to approach a heretofore intimidating, hence off-limits, demographic: attractive young men. Who are plentiful at Phish shows, since I’m partial to hippies, and those who sojourn among them. I feel as though I’ve stepped through a tie-dyed curtain into a hard-nosed chamber of heaven—who would have thought I’d be able to make money and fulfill my revolutionary duty by flirting? Maybe I, like Fawn, will learn to use my sex appeal to recruit new Zendiks. As I sell, I daydream: Maybe this one will move to the farm…or this one…. If I were still with Kro I’d be battling these thoughts, I’d be seeking confessors…but that’s over. I urge them all to come visit.

* * *

When my selling crew departed North Carolina for Florida on December 26th, we were planning on a relatively short stint in Miami. We’d sell three out of five Phish shows, and then drive home on December 30th—knowing we’d be back in time for the farm’s New Year’s Eve festivities made it easier to countenance retreating from the general celebratory bustle to do road prep and selling meetings on Christmas Day. Our fourth morning in Florida, though, I sense our contract’s been extended—that’s my interpretation of the deepening commas at the corners of Cayta’s mouth, as she mutters, “Uh huh…uh huh…uh huh…” on the phone with home. Of course she asks the rest of us before committing—but what can we say? Which of us wants to be Judas, choosing her own comfort over the cause? Which of us wants to be accused of “holding back” or being “precious”? “Only in giving is there living,” as Wulf used to say….

My gut sinks, when Cayta relays home’s request. I’ve done well three days in a row, and I’d like to get the hell out of town before I blow it. Also I know it’s useless to resist. And I’m so exhausted—so thoroughly in selling mode—so sorely bereft of a boyfriend at home—that I’m fine with another couple nights on the road. Once I’m a certain degree of fried I begin to crackle—my pupils dilate so wide the tripping hippies I’m selling to swear I’m tripping too—why not stay here? Why not ride the high? Why not live out of a van, follow the Phish-heads, subsist on tuna salad and rice and sell every moment of my life?

The one wrinkle in the new plan is that Karma—a diplomat’s daughter who sells with the grace and charm of an accomplished socialite—has lost her voice to laryngitis. She needs drugs, if she’s to make money. So she and Cayta and the others drive off in search of a pharmacy, while Emily and I repair to the patio of our place to stay, to fold paper towels from a roll into napkins. Carlos, our laid-back Brazilian host, doesn’t mind if we expand our operation to the outdoors; he’s been ceding his living room floor—and kitchen, and bathroom, and so on—to Zendik selling crews since the winter of 2000, when I recruited him at a juice bar in Coconut Grove. He tends to be especially accommodating when said crews are composed, as ours is, entirely of girls.

Folding paper towels is my idea: Keeping a stack of napkins handy on the dashboard will encourage us to clean our stainless steel eating bowls, and I despise a pile-up of dirty bowls. Also, making napkins is kind of fun. It requires soothing, repetitive motion; it doesn’t require us to talk to people, or sell anything. And it helps us feel that we’re not just sitting in limbo, like civilians, while our fellow sellers are off on a mission. We’re doing something; we must always be doing something. After all, as Wulf said, “The Warrior waits for no one.”

* * *

On New Year’s Eve—the night of the final Phish show—Karma scores a pass to the VIP lounge. Which means she’s out on the VIP balcony, tossing complimentary cans of Budweiser down to Emily and me, as the Christian epoch turns two thousand and four years old. We stand at the railing and drink, watching Roman candles explode over the water, beyond the desolate, floodlit parking lot. For the moment, life is good: I haven’t bombed since my birthday, and tomorrow we go home. I feel young, rugged, desirable, committed…blessed to be a Zendik.

The Gift Circle: A Space for Weaving Relationship

[I gave this talk on November 16, 2014, at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture. From October 2013 through June 2015, Brooklyn Ethical hosted the Brooklyn Gift Circle. Thanks to Dror Kahn for creating and posting a video of parts of this speech. You can watch the video here.]

It seems to me that we Americans are stuck in an abusive relationship with our economy. When it hits us with homelessness, hunger, poverty – when it clocks us with debt, exhaustion, wage slavery – we don’t whirl on it and yell, “Cut that out! You can’t do that!” We don’t grab our neighbor and say, “Hey – the economy just punched me in the face – did it punch you too?” Instead, cowed, we bow our heads in shame, keep our mouths shut, and vow to work harder. If only we were smarter, better educated, better networked, more driven, more skilled, more talented – the economy would love us again, and the hitting would stop.

Why do we stay in this relationship? Why do we put up with an economy that scorns our needs and spurns our gifts?

Part of the answer is that we’re trapped in a story that pretends it will end our troubles. I call it The Infinite Growth Myth. Here it is:

Economic growth creates jobs and swells wealth, along with health and happiness. It advances technology, promotes security, and drives investment in luxuries like art and culture, environmental protection, and renewable energy. When it slows or stops, we suffer. Someday we’ll figure out how to keep the economy growing steadily, forever and ever, and life for all of us, in the United States and throughout the world, will improve exponentially. In the meantime, given a choice between growth and another good, we must choose growth, since it is the spring from which all good flows.

In real life, the economy grows when we start wars, clearcut forests, and pay corporations to do and make more and more of what we once did and made for each other and ourselves. These activities shift wealth to the one percent. The economy shrinks when we make peace, save forests, and learn to rely on ourselves and each other for our wants and needs. These activities boost access to essentials – clean air and water, healthy soil, strong relationships – while giving the web of life a desperately needed rest. Finally, and most elementally, infinite growth dependent on infinitely accelerating “resource” extraction cannot persist on a finite planet.

But it can die trying, while killing its host.

How would it be to join with an economy that serves life? An economy that nourishes the ecosphere – the Earth and all its creatures – while cultivating abundance? An economy that loves each of us for who we are?

The Gift Circle offers some clues.

What is a Gift Circle? It’s a ritual for restoring and honoring our sacred web of relationships. For relearning how to need each other, and accept each other’s help. It rests on a couple premises, and follows a simple format, with room for variation.

These are the premises: First, life itself is a gift. So all of us already have much to be grateful for, much to pay forward. Second, we all have needs and gifts to share, regardless of financial standing. Much of what we need, money can’t buy. There are many forms of wealth.

And this is the process: Each member of the Circle states a few wants or needs – for things, skills, services, space, time, work, connections – and makes a few offers. Others in the Circle pipe up – during her turn or later on – to claim her gifts and fill her requests. This isn’t barter, so I can receive from you whether or not I have something you need. We trust that as we give freely, the flow of gifts swells to benefit all of us. Each member also states a few things she’s grateful for – in particular, gifts received through the Circle. Witnessing to generosity helps it grow.

I received the seed for the Gift Circle in early 2012, while reading Charles Eisenstein’s book, Sacred Economics. But it didn’t germinate till the summer of 2013, when – inspired by Eisenstein’s writing – I embarked on a quixotic crusade to elicit a gift from the Park Slope Food Coop.

That spring, Cayuga Pure Organics, a linchpin of upstate organic bean and grain production, had launched a crowdfunding campaign to restore infrastructure destroyed in a devastating fire. Around the same time, I learned that the Coop had a large budgetary surplus and was looking for projects to spend it on. Clearly, the Coop – with support for sustainable agriculture written into its mission – should help Cayuga out with a big donation. This would mean reversing the usual alchemy – life into cash – by investing in social, living, and spiritual wealth. I composed a proposal to this effect, and submitted it for a vote at a Coop General Meeting.

In the run-up to the meeting, I felt exposed as a hopeless idealist. That was when I came to the Ethical Living Committee to suggest starting a Gift Circle. Like many a gambler before me, I upped the ante to reassure myself that my initial bet wasn’t crazy.

I came up fifty-fifty: The Coop’s membership voted no on my proposal; the Ethical Living Committee endorsed the Gift Circle.

I include the Cayuga story here not to chide the Coop – Coop, trust me, I love you for who you are – but to assure other champions of gift culture that it can take time to match your enthusiasm with an appropriate form and venue – and that your first attempts may drop fruit in your lap even as they flop.

We held a trial Gift Circle here at Brooklyn Ethical in October 2013. Two weeks later, while failing at holding a one-off Gift Circle at the New York City Permaculture Festival, I met Alexis, who partnered with me, Rebecca, and the Ethical Living Committee to launch a monthly Gift Circle series, upstairs in the Library. We started off with an introductory session last January.

So far, we’ve held eight Circles, ranging in size from two to sixteen participants. A total of thirty-two people have joined at least one Circle. But, as we learn in permaculture, it’s not the number of elements in your system that matters, but the functional relationships among them.

So let’s look at what’s flowed through the Circle, and how it’s affected relationships.

Here’s a sample of gifts delivered: basil plants, use of a saw and planer, a phone cord, a Kindle, an iPod, counseling, a handpainted poster, healing bodywork, gardening and career advice, help avoiding eviction, help with moving and household chores, cat-sitting, housecleaning, a job as an arborist. One gift – a backpack originally used for a trip through Europe twenty years ago – has made two stops within the Circle. It was passed first to a couple going on an anniversary hike, then to a man traveling to South Africa. The stories it’s accrued, with each change of hands, have made it all the more precious.

Some gifts have reached beyond the Circle to friends, families, and organizations we care about. Inspired by the Circle, one member helped a friend secure an apartment; two other members not only welcomed newcomers to their block with a note of introduction and homebrew but also accomplished the astounding feat of giving a gift to – and thereby establishing a relationship with – every other tenant in their apartment building. Can you believe it? In New York! I wait till the vestibule’s clear to check my mailbox! When we come together for any given Circle, we bring not only our own needs and resources, but those of everyone we’re connected to. Access to each other’s networks is itself a gift.

The Gift Circle has also yielded a half dozen Craft Nights – gatherings to work with our hands at whittling, sewing, painting, and such. It’s much easier to tackle that forbidding pile of mending when gabbing with friends.

A Gift Circle, at its best, is friendship in reverse. Friends request and offer help within a pre-existing matrix of knowledge and regard; Gift Circlers come to know and care for each other by requesting and offering help.

Some gifts given through the Circle have been big; they’ve changed lives. Others have been small – maybe you could have gotten that phone cord with one click on Amazon. But receiving it as a gift, from someone you know, transforms a commodity object into the bearer of a sacred tie that reweaves the web of life. Using the cord, you’ll remember the person who gave it to you. You’ll feel the pulse of generosity beneath the scaly hide of commerce. You’ll add to what Eisenstein calls our “reservoir of gratitude.” A brimming reservoir is the best asset a community can have when the zombies come, or the next superstorm. Linked to your neighbors by gift ties, you’ll share your store of beans and sardines, not guard it with a gun. All gifts, no matter how small, help replenish the reservoir.

Yet I do hope the Gift Circle will become a channel for bigger gifts and deeper needs. I’ve noticed that when I consider what to offer and ask for, in advance of a Circle, I screen out whatever seems too big or too personal. I don’t want to seem greedy or unrealistic, offer something I wouldn’t be willing to give just anyone, or elicit well-meaning but misdirected advice. I stick to sharing what seems safe.

I’m not saying I ought to do otherwise; I honor fear and caution for guarding my boundaries. I am saying I see a conflict between continually welcoming new faces into the Circle and building the trust needed to go deep. Keeping the Circle open invites fresh flows of energy; closing it would most likely invite greater revelation and intimacy. Is there a way to do both?

How to rework the Circle to serve us better is an ongoing question. Maybe “Gift Spiral” is a truer name.

I’ve called the Brooklyn Gift Circle “an experiment in sacred economics” both because it needs frequent re-design and because it’s a low-risk way to try out, right now, aspects of an economy that serves life and spurs regeneration.

What are some of these aspects?

In a sacred economy, as in a Gift Circle, we need and appreciate each individual’s contribution to the community. We see each person, not as a shiftless slob who must be kept busy by a job, but as the channel for a gift that needs nourishment, to flourish for the good of the whole. Freed to give our gifts within a matrix devoted to the care of humans and all beings, more energy pulses through us than we ever thought we could conduct. Even now, in a world where many bemoan resource scarcity – real or imagined – the one thing we know we have in abundance is each other. Is that a problem, or a solution? What if every being born has a unique role to play in Earth’s regeneration?

In a sacred economy, we treat each being and thing, not as a separate self or discrete object, but as a node in a web of relationships, infused – like the backpack passed around the Gift Circle – with the energies and stories of everything it’s linked to and everything it’s touched. A carrot – for example – is not just a carrot. It’s a node in a web. Maybe that web comprises tractors, gasoline, crop dusters, chemical fertilizer, water pollution, farm-worker illness, low-wage labor, asphalt, truck stops, warfrastructure, drivers confined behind the steering wheels of semis for ten-hour stretches. Or maybe the web comprises earthworms, compost, farmer tans, draft horses, spring water, centipedes, fungi, bacteria, glomalin, smallholders, apprentices, buggies, brick paths, freight trikes, farmstands, sunshine. We choose our carrots with full knowledge of the web we’re saying yes to, and what that yes means for life.

In a sacred economy, we mimic a forest, where there’s no such thing as waste. One species’ detritus becomes another species’ food. There’s also no such thing as drudgery. One purpose of the Gift Circle is to draw out dormant skills and talents that members take joy in sharing but can’t or won’t monetize. In doing precisely what suits us, we strengthen the web. Consider the earthworm: Its castings feed its plant neighbors; its tunneling aerates the soil for them. It need not exert self-discipline. Try plying it with carrot or stick and it’ll say, “Mmm…lunch.” Finally, in a forest, there’s no such thing as eternal life. Every node of the web eventually dies and decays, returning its nutrients to the soil as food for everyone else. In a sacred economy, money regains mortality. Instead of accruing interest, it decays. So those who have more money than they need treat their surplus as they would a bumper crop of tomatoes: they share it around, knowing that even money loaned at zero interest will be worth more to them, in a year’s time, than money hoarded. This money, in turn, relieved of the burden of earning interest, is freed to do more beautiful work. To restore the commons, rather than further monetize it. To grow the “ecommony.”

Does this story sound hopelessly hopeful? Do you have a hard time imagining the end of business as usual?

Let me tell you another story. It is the source of my faith that we can make our economy sacred.

Fifteen years ago, I moved to a place called Zendik Farm, in the backwoods of North Carolina, and joined what I thought was a revolutionary movement to save the planet. During the five years I lived there, I bought all the way into the Zendik myth: We were building a new culture, conceived in cooperation and honesty. The outside world – or “DeathKultur” – was destroying itself with competition and lies. Unless we took over, the world would die. Anyone who left would suffer soul-death, as payback for betraying all life.

When I did leave the Farm, in 2004, I dragged a dead weight of doom and despair behind me. Not because I’d been happy there, but because the Zendik story had drowned out other possibilities. I could hear no other call.

For the next year or so, I muddled along, fending off the DeathKultur’s criticisms of Zendik and insisting that my gloom was punishment I deserved. And then, in late 2005, I received what felt like a miracle, through a fellow ex-Zendik: a new story. In this story, Zendik was not unique. It was one of a number of collective delusions. It fit the pattern described by the word “cult.”

You might think it would be crushing to discover you’ve spent six years caged in a myth. But for me, learning I’d joined a cult was exhilarating. It released me to love my family and friends again, to find and love the man who would become my husband. It released me to rejoin my kind.

Right now, maybe, we as a culture are muddling through the analogue of my year between leaving Zendik and being released. We cling to our abusive economy, and its promise of redemption through infinite growth, despite ample proof of its ravages. Its roar is deafening. We can hear no other call.

I imagine that stepping out of The Infinite Growth Myth will also be exhilarating. It will release us to love all our relations: human, animal, plant, fungal, bacterial, mineral, ethereal. To fall madly in love with our only world.

We’ll know our new story when we hear it. Our hearts will pound with desire to make it ours.

The Trailer

[At Zendik Farm, sick people – “sickies” – were quarantined, that is, exiled to the trailer or a date space, supposedly to prevent them from infecting others. Quarantine did not prevent illness from spreading. But it did have side effects.]

Being quarantined in the trailer is hell in some ways, heaven in others. It’s hell because, after years of being around people constantly, you’re all alone. You have no one to talk to, and you can never be sure what people are saying about you. You never know when there might be a knock on the door, heralding a “friend” bearing news of the definitive—and bad—psychic cause of your illness. It could be: “You hate your box,” or, “You’re competitive with Arol,” or, “You never learned how to be friendly.” You also don’t have much to do. You’re pretty much limited to reading (if you’ve brought books from your space, or if you can convince a healthy person to raid the library for you) and writing—mostly about the psychic cause of your sickness. You have to go outside to pee, and trek to the outhouse to poop, no matter how bad you feel. The only usable flush toilets on the farm are in the Log House and the Addition, and those are off-limits. Sure there’s the toilet house—built for the bowels of we the people—but it’s never really worked right, and you wouldn’t want someone seeing you using it, thinking you’re a wimp, blaming you for the septic smell trickling towards the creek. You can’t go in the bath house unless no one else is in there. You can’t get food for yourself. Theoretically, someone will bring you food at mealtimes, but you can’t count on it. If no one remembers it’s up to you to go stand outside the kitchen door and look pathetic, till someone notices you. Or, if you’re feeling really bold, you knock. In which case you may or may not be ignored because anyone who answers your knock knows that he or she will then be responsible for getting your food, or getting someone else to do it, and maybe he or she is busy right now. Then when you do get your food it may be too much or too little, or it may not be seasoned properly, but you can’t do a damn thing about it because you can’t go in the kitchen. If you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, he or she may or may not come to visit you, depending on whether or not it’s generally believed that the cause of your illness is your relationship.

Mostly, in the trailer, you sleep. You search your dreams for clues as to the cause of your predicament, you dredge the dark soil of your soul. You pray for an answer that will make you whole.

The paradisiacal aspect of being in the trailer is that nobody bugs you. Also, you don’t have to work. No one wants to come near you, much less work with you. You don’t have to go selling. In fact, if you’re on a selling trip and you get sick, the other sellers will get pissed at you because they’re stuck in the van with you and they don’t want to get sick too; they’ll ream you for not anticipating your illness, and staying home.

You have lots of time to yourself, in the trailer. Enough to read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, so you’ll be able to imagine Middle Earth at least once for yourself before the whole farm troops off to see The Fellowship of the Ring at a theater in Forest City, homemade popcorn in backpacks and peanut-butter rice cakes in pockets.

So there are benefits to being bed-ridden. But the overwhelming wave of it—when I’m awake anyway—is a subtle but persistent panic. I don’t trust myself alone. I’m certain I’m missing something vital to my evolution. And I’ve learned, in the past two years, that being by myself is bad, that I will inevitably screw up/become hardened if separated from the constant companionship/oversight/input of my fellow Zendiks.