Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Celebrating Quality (When Quantity is Wanting)

This past weekend I participated in the annual Twin Oaks Communities Conference, held Aug 14-16. Though the attendance was down markedly from past years (we didn't quite reach 100, and there have been years where we topped 250), it was nonetheless a solid event.

I've been going to this perennial wingding for more than a decade and it's a regular feature on my dance card. It's a terrific opportunity for seekers and wannabe communities to find each other and to be inspired by the stories of the 20 or so established communities who send representatives. For the newbies, it's a chance to be energized in the presence of people who are actually living the dream. For the veterans, it's a relaxed setting for renewing acquaintances, and slowing life down enough for in-depth conversations with thoughtful folks who have traveled all the way to the backwoods of rural Louisa County in an effort to make sense out of life.

[Years ago, when I was first making my appearance on the community circuit as a networker, the Twin Oaks conference stood out as a major deal. My life would accelerate into the chance to be on stage, talking about what we were learning at Sandhill about cooperative culture. It was like going to the circus, with all the attendant excitement and foment. Now, 30 years into it, I am thoroughly comfortable in my identity as a networker, and I experience the Twin Oaks conference as a time to relax and savor. What a shift! This past weekend I conducted three workshops, led singing at the Saturday morning opening circle, offered a public overview of FIC and Sandhill, helped run the benefit auction Saturday night, operated the conference bookstore (with the able help of my daughter Jo and my ex-partner Elke), and made sure I had about half a dozen conversations with fellow networkers. Today, I savor the Twin Oaks conference because of the ample opportunities around the edges—almost the exact opposite reason for which I used to protect the time. That's amusing.]

There had been some doubt about whether this year's event was going to happen, and a firm decision to continue wasn't made until two weeks before the event—which is pretty late in the day. The two people who had been coordinating the conference in recent years had both stepped back and there was a vacuum of leadership until Bucket (a Twin Oaks member) stepped forward at the last minute. As marketing was one of the casualties of the ambiguity, it's not surprising that attendance was down (even though interest in information about community living is at an all-time high). Bucket & Company did a great job however, at tailoring the event to the audience. With numbers down, they offered a stripped down menu of workshops and each one enjoyed the 10-25 participants it usually had. In whole-group circles, it took less time to do Go Rounds, where everyone added a piece about how the weekend was going for them.

The weather was gorgeous: no rain and temperatures below historic averages for August in the Virginia Piedmont (80s instead of 90s). As parking snafus tend to multiply in geometric proportion to attendance, this year was a breeze. The food lines were b
lessedly shorter. The coffee pot sustained its ability to dispense caffeine longer. Small can indeed be beautiful.

In recent years I've developed a workshop I style "Should You Join a Community or Start One?" and it was one of the three I offered last weekend. While it never attracts a large crowd, it tends to draw the people whose lives are dominated by that very question and I love doing it. One woman had knowledge of a large chunk of land available for "a song" in West Virginia, and she was anxious to seize the time. I assured her that in troubled times (while I'm not sure there is ever any other kind, there's no doubt that we're in them now) that there would be a plethora of properties available at distressed prices—that's what happens in hard times. I urged her to focus on the people, not the property. She was reassured, and it may have been the best thing I did all weekend.

• • •
At FIC we've learned not to attempt events unless we have coordinators in place in whom we have confidence. Twin Oaks is going through some soul-searching about what economic mix it wants in order to balance its budget and conferencing is one of the prospects they're considering for expansion. While I'm hoping that someone (Bucket?) steps forward to manage the conferencing business at Twin Oaks and I can continue to enjoy opportunities to pass along the tools and inspiration of community living, in the end, I respect Twin Oaks' need to wrestle with the question of whether this is who they want to be.

I don't know whether last weekend was a swan song or a point of celebration on the road to resurgence. It'll be intersting to see.

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