Friday, July 4, 2008

Twin Oaks Founder Kat Kinkade: Dead at 77

There was no fireworks for me this 4th of July. I have been mourning the loss of Kat Kinkade, my long-time friend and community founder, who died July 3 of complications related to the bone cancer she'd been battling for years. Thankfully, she died among family and friends, in her bed at Twin Oaks, the egalitarian community she helped found in 1967.

I last saw Kat in August, at the cottage her daughter Josie had bought for her seven years ago in nearby Mineral VA. In recent years it had been become a ritual for me to come by for a visit during the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference, usually sneaking off for a couple hours Sunday morning. She'd receive visitors in her upholstered reclining chair, while I sat on the couch. During the course of the visit, one or more of her five cats might wander through the conversation and we'd touch on what we were reading, what we were thinking about, mutual acquaintances, community politics, and how are children were faring—roughly in that order.

Ninety minutes would pass in a blink. Instead of Tuesdays with Morie, these last handful of Augusts I had Sundays with Kat. It had become a precious ritual that has now, sadly, come to an end.

In addition to being my friend, Kat was a politician, an author, a musician, and a wit. In saying good-bye, I'd like to recount an example of how I knew her as each, offered chronologically.

• • •
Kat the Politician
This coming week I'll be traveling to East Wind (one of the three communities that Kat helped found; Acorn being the third) in southern Missouri for four days of meetings to discuss policy and the future of PEACH (Preservation of Equity, Accessible for Community Health), the self-insurance fund I created in collaboration with Kat and Don Rust (a long-time East Winder) in 1986 to meet the catastrophic health care needs of income-sharing communities. When I first cooked up the idea 22 winters ago, I knew that the participation of the big communities (Twin Oaks & East Wind) were crucial to the viability of the program.

However, when I traveled to Twin Oaks in the spring to make my PEACH pitch, I discovered, to my chagrin, that the community had grown impatient over the winter and had bought a commercial health insurance policy to met their needs. Kat was one of the three community planners at the time, and she supported my being given a chance at a Hammock Shop community forum to make my case for why the community should drop the commercial policy and cast its lot with PEACH.

Fortunately, it was not difficult to convince Twin Oakers that their interests were more likely to be aligned with an egalitarian-run self-insurance program or with a commercial carrier (kind of like asking folks to choose between Kucinich or Bush on the question of US policy in Iraq). Reading accurately the enthusiasm among her fellow community members for PEACH, Kat was wistful about having the newly settled solution to the community's health care needs unravel before her eyes. So much for the commercial policy.

In a tender moment right after the forum, I happened to be in the Ta Chai Living Room (a multi-purpose room separated by double doors from the Hammock Shop) packing up after the meeting. As it happened, Kat & I were the only two in the room. It was during her learning-to-play the-piano phase and she was using Chopin to mellow out after the meeting. She was studiously playing with her back to me when she blithely interrupted my paper shuffling with, "Well, it's a fine mess you've brought us to with all this PEACH talk," never once taking her eyes off her sheet music. Setting my papers down, I strolled over and placed my hand gently on her shoulder. When she stopped playing and met my eyes, I replied, "It's the best I could do on short notice."

Ever the realist, Kat got over her frustrations rather quickly and became Twin Oaks' first PEACH rep (or MELBA—Member Expected to Look after Basic Affairs) and helped enormously in setting up sound initial policies. Kat was an incisive thinker and it was a pleasure for me to iron out the details with her and Don those first couple years. Two decades later, more than 90% of the original policy agreements are still intact.
• • •
Kat the Wit
While no longer true today, for most of its existence, Twin Oaks' main income source had been making hand-woven hammocks for Pier One—for decades the largest single hammock account in the world. As is not uncommon when larger retailers are buying about 80% of one company's output (reference Wal-Mart), there were some wild roller coaster rides when Pier One would periodically threaten to take away its hammock business as part of the contract bargaining process. Production droughts (will Pier One ever order again?) would be followed by surges and I recall a particular visit to Twin Oaks in the late 1980s, at the height of a hammock production push, when the community was patriotically weaving away full bore.

Kat dutifully suggested that her and my social visit (already a fixture of my pilgrimages to Twin Oaks) might most appropriately occur over a hammock jig (I believe this happened only the one time in the quarter century of our friendship). Kay breezily stated, "We should weave as we talk; making hammocks is what we do here" While I'm sure I raised my eyebrows, I'm reasonably certain I refrained from rolling my eyes. In compliance, I gamely wound the shuttles as Kat selected a jig in a quiet corner. About 10 minutes into our first hammock—all the while shuttles flying along with the conversation—I achieved perhaps the ultimate compliment: the quality of our exchange was such that Kat dropped a stitch. She exclaimed, "How could that have happened! After 20 years I thought I was immune to that."

Kat had a sharp tongue and didn't suffer fools well; fortunately she was an equal opportunity lampooner and was willing to laugh at herself with the same gusto with which she skewered others. You needed to experience the needling in both directions to get the full picture of her wit, as well as her hunger for substance and appreciation for elegance.

While not mean, she could be cutting, and in later years she pulled back from much of the community activism that marked her early years because she was stung by the criticism directed her way—mainly by those who didn't know her well and mistook her high standards for high judgment.
• • •
Kat the Author
Kat was a gifted writer, able to capture the essence of complex topics using straight-forward language, and crisp images that easily placed the reader in the narrative—she had that rare capacity to reach her audience both viscerally and cerebrally.

I recall walking with her at Twin Oaks in the spring of 1990, while the FIC was assembling the first edition of our Communities Directory. I told her we wanted an article that explained to prospectives how to think intelligently about visiting an intentional community. Realizing instantly how valuable that would be, she got inspired. The next morning she handed me a polished article, so good that we kept it in print for 10 years. The trick of getting her to write about something was capturing her imagination. Fortunately, it was a big target.

She authored A Walden Two Experiment in 1972 (chronicling the first five years of Twin Oaks), and later Is It Utopia Yet?, covering the same subject in 1994, 26 years into the experiment. They remain classics today, perhaps the best examples I know of attempts to give the lay person a realistic peek behind the curtain of mystery and excitement that is life in an intentional community.

And it is all the more special to me in that reading an excerpted review of A Walden Two Experiment in the February 1973 issue of Psychology Today is what started me on my personal path to community. It was a pleasure to finally meet her in 1980 and thank her personally for her unwitting role in my enlightenment.
• • •
Kat the Musician
While everyone knows that pigs can't fly, and neither can cats. Not everyone knew that Kat didn't fly. While this was mostly a curiosity, in 1993 it turned out to be a huge inconvenience and a personal challenge to overcome.

In August of that year, the FIC hosted the Celebration of Community, a six-day event on the campus of The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA, and I was damned if we were going to host the largest event ever focused on intentional community and not have the founder of Twin Oaks in attendance. I had to arrange for a driver to get her 3000 miles cross country and back, including overnight accommodations along the way. I never cashed in so many chits in one go in my life.

But I got it done and it was all worth it seeing the sparkle in her eye as she attended the afternoon wine and cheese reception for plenary speakers (including Noel Brown, then the Secretary of the Environment for the United Nations); and to hear Craig Ragland (then just a member of Songaia in Bothell WA and now the Executive Director of the Cohousing Association of the US) burble excitedly about having sung with Kat Kinkade during a musical interlude at the conference.

Kat made the people around her feel special for having spent time with her. And that's about as good as it gets. I'm proud that on occasion I got to return the favor. I'll miss you, Kat.

1 comment:

Wendy Bredhold said...

I'm so glad the FIC e-newsletter linked to this wonderful tribute. Kat influenced so many toward community. I devoured her books after Don Pitzer introduced me to the directory and brought a TO member to USI in the early 90s. Later, Kat's books were reassuring to my mother when I did the TO visitors program.

I didn't get to spend much time with Kat while there in the summer of '97, but I did have the pleasure of singing with her and (understanding those high standards) was proud when she complimented me.

My sympathies are with her friends and family.