Social Nutrition – Time for RDAs?

Last night I went to Green Drinks, at a bar a few doors down from our house. The experience was surreal. I was longing for – I have become so used to – conversations that matter to me, that pulse from the heart. And I was in a room full of strangers (plus one acquaintance), there to network, that is, push their projects and products. I guess, at root, there was a mismatch – I sought social nourishment, that was not on offer. So, after a couple hours, I left. And felt – what? Empty, maybe. Relieved, a little. Then, reading Katherine Ozment’s new book, Grace without God, I reached the section about belonging. We’re not meant for a steady diet of interacting with strangers, she says. We’re happier and healthier when we spend lots of time with people we trust.

What if there were an RDA (recommended daily allowance) for that? Like, make sure you spend at least five hours per day in the company of people you’d turn to in crisis, without a second thought – people you know and love. Do those with jobs get this RDA at work? Maybe some do. Since I’m allergic to jobs, I don’t have that option.

Anyway – imagine if we as a culture agreed that there’s such a thing as social malnourishment, leading to social starvation. You know all those hippie-lite food makers who list “love” as an ingredient? Maybe they’re onto something; maybe that’s what most of us are desperately missing. The thing is, we can’t find it in food – especially not in food that’s mass produced; when love does come to us through food, that food is hand-delivered.

Maybe, in the same way that we need a wide variety of foods to feed our bodies, we need a wide variety of (in person) congress with our fellowbeings, to feed our souls. What forms might such congress take? Deep listening, sharing from the heart. Joking, bantering, playing. Working together, with bodies and hands. Collaborating (on art, strategy, visions, plans, designs). Sharing creations (meals, songs, plays). Touching (as friends, lovers, relatives, partners in a healing process). Moving together (dancing, doing yoga).

Looking at this list, I’m seeing that many (if not all) of these actions could be shared by people who don’t know each other well, don’t trust each other. I would say that the knowing and trusting may be intrinsic to the action’s potential to deliver social nourishment. Also, I would say that meeting new people, in a context where you can expect to discuss what matters, offers an additional form of nourishment.

Maybe meeting our RDAs of a range of social nutrients would dramatically reduce our desire to extract – cf. the idea that connection is the opposite of extraction. Also, acknowledging that these RDAs are worth meeting would destroy corporate capitalism. We can’t get the social nourishment we need while feeding the machine.

The Daily Weave of Love

At Medicine Wheel, I had many ways to give love, and receive it. In a houseful of interdependents, love finds so many channels that the flow is damn near constant.

Options, on any given day, for giving love: Empty the humanure bucket. Replenish the sawdust supply. Do a good enough job of lining a fresh set of buckets with paper bags (or clean them well enough that they won’t offend the housemate who knows how to line them beautifully). Clean the common areas. Empty the compost. Empty the dish racks. Cook dinner. Prep for dinner. Step in to help a cook struggling to get the meal done. Ring the dinner bell. Concoct and dispense chocolate. Harvest and share berries. Tend the garden. Take a tiny person for a walk; pick her up; feed her single shreds of grated beet. Answer the phone. Take a message. Listen to the voicemails; relay useful information. Sweep the root cellar. Rearrange perishable items to promote longer life. Help carry food, laundry, and the like in from a vehicle parked in the drive. Play a parlor game. Create a new game. Conserve water. Ask questions. Listen for answers. Help find a tool that’s traveled. Explain how something works. Welcome and orient recent arrivals. Clean up after dinner. Make funny labels for leftovers. Make puns. Sing.

And, of course, I received at least as much love as I gave, in the forms listed above, as well as many more I was grateful not to be responsible for: Monitor the water supply. Get sawdust from town. Mastermind the garden. Launder dish towels. Collect food and rent money. Pay bills. Troubleshoot the phone extension. Harvest lettuce. Gather eggs. Relocate copperheads. Trap mice. Declutter. Delete obsolete phone messages. Split firewood. Order and pick up food.

In a two-person household, there are still plenty of ways to give and receive love. But home-tending feels different – often seems daunting – with just one witness, closed doors, a tightly circled flow.

Ease of Meeting

I am thinking about villaging, as it relates to porosity and distance.

At Earthaven, I often found people I needed to talk to without making an effort – maybe we met in the Medicine Wheel kitchen, or the Council Hall, or passed each other on a path. This easy meeting up seems vital to the act of villaging. Why? Because gifts and needs flow on currents of communication. How can I know what you need, or offer what I have, if I rarely see you?

Yes, there’s Facebook. But Facebook is not a village square. And using it – even if you discount the infrastructure it hangs on, the labor required to pay for the devices that deliver it, the shadow work required to keep your various devices synced and updated – is not effortless. Or nourishing. Or feasible when the power winks out.

What does it take for people to just run into each other, with enough regularity that phone and email can lounge on the couch? One: Physical proximity. Two: High porosity (meaning, there’s a robust commons, and a tendency to welcome others into semi-private space). Three: Abundant reasons to gather (meaning, vital needs are met in common areas, there are frequent opportunities for coordinated service). Four: A bias towards interaction in transit (meaning, I’m likely to be willing and able to interact, as I move from A to B). Or, anyway, this is what I believe I’ve observed.

I’ve found, since returning to Beacon, that communicating by cell phone and email seems more difficult than it used to. I wonder if this has to do not only with the hurdles involved in using these go-betweens, but also with their inability to provide nourishment. I tend to feel more anxiety than connection when composing an email; I receive no bodily signals, no breathing presence, no warming smile as I write. Sending email depletes, while meeting in person replenishes. No wonder I shrink from one, stretch towards the other. No wonder so many of us, as social beings, are starving.

Poop and Friendshit

Let’s talk about poop, and its potential for weaving relationship.

At Medicine Wheel (the collective house I lived in, during my two months at Earthaven), there are no flush toilets. Instead, there’s a bucket toilet inside the house, another one just outside the house, and a fifty-five-gallon drum toilet (I think the drum is that size – I never actually saw it) out in the garden. Uphill from the house, in the woods, stand a number of wire enclosures in which poop – mixed with sawdust and covered, layer by layer, in straw – becomes humanure. Eventually – after it’s completely broken down and all danger of pathogen-transmission has passed – it’s used as fertilizer.

I’d been aware of humanure for years, by the time I arrived at Medicine Wheel. Zendik Farm in Texas, I’d heard, had a humanure operation; the stewards of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, when I took my Permaculture Design Course there in 2006, were using humanure on their orchard. And, of course, it’s one of those things that comes up, in a theoretical kind of way, in many a discussion of how to reduce one’s footprint (buttprint?). So, when it came time to volunteer for house chores, back in April, I volunteered to become the Poo Czar’s apprentice.

Before taking on this role, I had not had much to do with the Poo Czar; we simply hadn’t clicked. Our first real conversation started with my asking him for a play-by-play of what to expect when I dumped my inaugural poo bucket. After that, we intermittently joked, shared tips, commiserated. One morning, when one of our housemates announced the bucket was full in the midst of my preparations for breakfast, the Poo Czar volunteered to take care of it, saying I shouldn’t have to mix poo-duty with food. For this, I was deeply grateful. Gradually, our poo-bond morphed into friendshit.

Where Will We Gather? And How?

Last night at my welcome-home party, a neighbor suggested creating a flag that could fly outside homes whose occupants embrace mutual aid. He said we each have our own set of skills; no one can do everything, no one needs to. To which I replied, maybe here’s a new movement: DIO – Do It Ourselves.

Yes, since I’ve returned to Beacon, I’ve been comparing many aspects of life here to life at Earthaven. Initially, I admit, the subtext of my comparisons was, Earthaven’s where it’s at; Beacon will never measure up; let’s move now. It’s true, Earthaven is already a village. And I do hope (plan?) to live there at some point, in some form. Maybe I’ll be one of those writers who “divides her time between x and y”; maybe a fertile edge of village-building lies between (what feel like) my two homes.

What would it take for Beacon, a five-square-mile city of sixteen thousand, to revillage? First, I think of the distances – the etheric gaps, the strict borders, between my space and yours. The paucity of spaces that are ours, and invite us to gather. Next, I think of time: If most of us spend most of our time making money to buy food, shelter, and the like, what’s left over for village life? Walking the city’s neighborhoods, I find most streets (not to mention most stoops and porches) mostly empty. Though the city is geographically small, and there’s a commuter train station at its edge, most people mostly reach and depart their homes by car. Plus, the streets, though calm compared to those of Brooklyn, are still intrinsically hostile to foot traffic, as they were paved for cars. So how am I to chance across you on the path, exchange the latest gossip, learn from you that our mutual acquaintance needs a hand spreading compost, put her in touch with a friend who needs exercise? Yes, there’s Facebook – Beacon has more than one thriving group facilitating flow of stuff, services, information – but screen-mediated interaction exacts, I believe, a greater toll than we know: to “connect” with you on Facebook, I need to be alone (in a crowd, or not) with my screen, I need to make the money to access the technology to use the screen, I need to invest in extractive processes ravaging communities all over the planet. Bottom line – “connecting” through the Internet, using the Internet as a default mode of communication with those within walking distance, makes my heart sink. (Maybe it makes your heart soar.)

So. I am interested in this question, this edge. I do not wish to form some heroic plan for village-building; I do wish to listen. What’s the current here? What’s it flowing in favor of? What’s it flowing against?

Paths vs. Roads

About four miles from where I live, there’s a community farm where I sometimes volunteer. It’s a lovely place, run by beautiful people. When I leave the road and enter the preserve surrounding the farm, I feel the air change – it cools, gentles, swells with moisture and birdsong. If the farm were next door, I might visit every day. If I could reach it by walking path, I might go a couple times a week.

As it is, I appear intermittently; having to share a busy road with motor vehicles turns the trip from lark to hurdle. Not only must I travel alongside giant hunks of metal that could kill me in an instant, I must also feel each force field as it hurtles by (when I’m walking, I often let particularly strong force fields push me a few feet off the road; when I’m biking, and leaving the pavement is more difficult, I usually don’t). Also, since the road is wide, and meant for people toting their own weather shields, there’s little shade. I absorb heat rising from asphalt, heat pulsing from sun. Yes, I enjoy the push of my legs, the rhythm of my steps. Yes, I’ve walked and biked thousands of miles on roads such as these. Yes, I’m terrifically stubborn about filling my daily quota of self-propulsion. Also I’m tired of fighting for space, on roads that disregard me.

So. Does our web of highways bring us together, or tear us apart?

At Earthaven I could travel from house to field to farm to orchard without encountering speeding hunks of metal. Though the roads allow for motor vehicles, they’re narrow enough to welcome humans on two feet; the recommended driving speed is a crawl. Sure, I’d love it if the gas guzzlers gave way to trikes and cargo bikes – but even in their current form, the web of roads through the village invites me out for a stroll.

Imagine there’s no signal…

…it’s easy if you try/no cell phones ringing/only the land line. Imagine all the people/ talking face to face….

Do Wi-Fi routers bring on headaches and insomnia? Do cell phones cause ear cancer? Maybe. You can find studies proving these technologies harmless, and studies proving they’re killing you while you sleep. But it seems to me that the physical-danger controversy (like the presidential election, like public fights over any issue touching sex) is a distraction. As usual, there’s a far more audacious heist in progress, right beneath our noses.

What we’re losing is the pleasure of each other’s company.

I sort of knew this before spending two months in a village with no cell signal, and no wireless Internet in the areas I frequented. Now I know it in my cells.

Before leaving for Earthaven, I thought I had a problem: I checked my email umpteen times a day, in the vague hope that something exciting had happened. I thrilled to the trill of an incoming text message (even as I suffered mild heart palpitations in the rare event of an incoming phone call). Like the babes in The Matrix, I was hooked to a network sucking my life force – my consciousness, my attention – out of the here-now. Why was I so neurotic? Who couldn’t I just stop?

Johann Hari, author of a glorious book on the drug war called Chasing the Scream, has said that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection. This sounds true to me. The trouble is that you can’t connect by yourself. You need people to connect with. I might choose to chuck my phone in a lake – but so long as my fellowbeings are glued to their screens, I’ll remain starved for connection.

At Earthaven, I received a reprieve from the tyranny of the screen. So much flourished in its (relative) absence: campfires with singing, drumming, strumming; parlor games like Adverb and Poop Smoothie; rounds of Never Have I Ever; evening-long conversational odysseys; a fledgling game called Gift Economy; story after story after story.

We are told that to save the Earth (i.e., our asses), we must conserve. Cut back on this, sacrifice that. Make ourselves small. (Ever tried to get healthy by dieting? Yeah, how’d that go?) But what if the opposite of extraction is not conservation, but connection? What if we exploit, maim, kill, because we’re desperately malnourished? Starved for touch? Wild with thwarted desire to interweave? What if regenerating our life-web is beautifully consonant with, one and the same as, building a scrumptiously pleasurable, deeply connective everyday?

We ravage not because we’re evil, or sinful, or lacking in discipline. We ravage because we’re starving. Socially, most of all.