Monday, January 18, 2010

The Cultures I've Called Home

Home is one of those elephant words, whose meaning at any given time depends upon which part you’re touching. This is the third installment of a blog series where I unpack some of those meanings…

Essentially, I experience home as the familiar yet precious elements of our lives. Home is where we feel seen and connected. It is where we touch our roots and the place from where we fruit. It is at once a paradoxical touchstone that is both now and hopelessly distorted by a past that we can never really return to, nor ever truly free ourselves from.

Here's the outline of my series:
—Home as Family (Dec 24, 2009)
—Home as Place (Dec 27, 2009)
—Home as Culture
—Home as Routine
—Home as Work

In this third entry, I'll focus on Home as Culture.

Over the years, I've tasted a number of these. I grew up in the Republican Leave-It-To-Beaver suburbs of Chicago. Then there was my intoxicating (in multiple senses of the term) residential college experience, rife with hot stove political debate and social experimentation of all stripes. Beginning in my early 20s I settled into the arcane world of intentional community, with its unique mix of sustainability, authenticity, and grunge. Surrounding that, my community life is embedded in a traditional small town rural America culture that is an amalgam of God-and-apple-pie conservative, live-and-let-live libertarian, and unpretentious aw-shucks hillbilly. (Thus, driving into Memphis MO, our county seat, last week to donate blood for the Red Cross and to browse at the public library, it was like crossing an international cultural boundary—though only separated by 13 vehicle miles, Sandhill and Memphis are thousands of miles apart when measured by temperament and weltanschauung.

Let me examine each of these in turn.

1. Suburban America Culture
This was a self-absorbed culture that didn't concern itself much with what happened elsewhere (think of the movie, The Truman Show). When I grew there in the '50s and '60s the American Dream of upward mobility was not yet discredited.

While there were some things of substance discussed openly (issues around child rearing, the Vietnam War, the job market), there were many other substantive topics that were off limits (intimacy, what constitutes abuse, failures in the democratic process—when you wanted to throw up at the prospect of the Republican or the Democrat getting elected). There's only so much speculation about the weather or what fruit to suspend in your lime jello that a person can stomach, and loyalty to da Cubs, da Bears, and da Bulls palls after the umpteenth iteration.

2. College Dormitory Culture
This was not just a melting pot; it was a stirred pot. Kids who have been placed together primarily on the basis of SAT scores do not comprise a particularly homogenous cohort. By luck, I thrived in a college (Carleton, in Northfield MN) that had little off-campus housing and required everyone to be in residence (no commuters). As it developed, this was a precursor to community living and gave me my first taste of the intensity and stimulation that are characteristic of intentional communities.

I loved the late night bull sessions and trying to figure out the right balance of social and academic where there was no longer parents present to rein me in when I strayed off track. I liked taking responsibility for my own life.

The summer before my senior year the Vietnam War had come to a head. The draft was at its peak, and I got to experience, for the first time, how cultures can clash. I felt that I had more or less fit in and was acculturated pretty well living in the suburbs through high school. In college, just like everyone else, I was questioning the assumptions of the status quo, and felt like I was essentially searching my soul in the same manner as my peers. However, when I went home in the summer of 1970 (student strikes had led to suspended classes the preceding spring, after Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia), it was immediately apparent that my suburban culture was on a collision course with my college culture.

Adults in the suburbs of Chicago were pissed off that students (who were enjoying the privilege of higher education as a consequence of their parents' financially success) were using the opportunity to foment revolution. I learned that not all cultures fit together, and part of what makes a culture "home" is the feeling that you can be yourself and be accepted for who you are. When I returned to the suburbs in the summer of 1970 (it may have been the Summer of Love in San Francisco, but it was the Summer of War in La Grange IL), I found out that I had to work at fitting into a culture that I had left just three years previously as a well-integrated export.

I understood in my belly that the suburbs would probably never be my home culture again.

3. Intentional Community Culture
School ended (it always does), and I had to figure out what was next. Following the social service path that suggested itself out of the challenges I grappled with in college, I worked a two-year stint as a junior bureaucrat for the US Dept of Transportation (where I met the secretary of the administrative assistant for the Assistant Secretary for Administration—the scary part being that I knew what that meant).

While I lived in a succession of co-op houses in DC, that were mostly an extension of my college culture, I yearned to rediscover that cutting edge blend of stimulation and support that I'd found in college—I just didn't want to go back to school to get it.

I stumbled into Kat Kinkade's A Walden Two Experiment in February 1973, a first-hand account of the first five years of Twin Oaks. That inspired me to consider intentional community as the place where I was likely to find the culture I most felt drawn to. That led me to call a gathering of my closest friends from college in Sept 1973 Out of the 12 of us got together, two couples became the founding members of Sandhill Farm seven months later.

Fast forward 35 years. I still live at Sandhill and community culture has now been my identified home for a majority of my life. While it was a direct outgrowth of my college experience, it's instructive that out of that dozen friends who gathered in the fall of 1973, only my original partner (Annie) and I are living in community today. The others all drifted back toward a culture more like the one they grew up in. What seemed "normal" to me turned out to be aberrational for my peers. By affiliating with community culture, I found myself for the first time in a distinct minority.

Cooperative culture is rather rarefied air, and it's quite difficult to explain it to those who have never tasted it. Where I see sharing, auslanders see struggle; where I see support, they see irritation. Over and over I've found that I can meet complete strangers and within minutes—by virtue of our both living in community—can get into a meaningful exchange about topics I've never been able to discuss with my family of origin.

4. Midwest Small Town America Culture
I grew up in the Midwest and have always appreciated the salt-of-the-earth, what-you-see-is-what-you-get lack of pretentiousness about the regional culture. Where jaded coastal eyes tend to see Midwesterners as staid, I see solid (and the lack of cover-of-People-magazine sex appeal means the folks who live here want to live here, which is fine with me).

Yes, small town culture tends to be parochial, and nobody looks to Scotland County for trendsetting fashion statements. We eat low on the hog here. Wages are modest yet so is the cost of living. Productive agricultural land is still a relative bargain (especially when compared with bloated West Coast prices) and you don't have to irrigate to get a crop.

While it was made clear to me when I moved here as a 24-year-old that I wouldn't live long enough to be accepted as a local, my son (who was born here seven years after Sandhill was founded) was elected 4-H King of the County Fair when he was 16, and the librarians in Memphis still ask after him whenever I drop by the public library.

While we've made definite local connections over the years (after all, how bad can it be when we've been invited once again to Roger & Mary Walker's annual Super Bowl Party, where we'll get to schmooze with our ex-Postmaster and her family—who are lifelong natives of this area—while we ooh and aah over this year's offerings from Madison Avenue for the highest priced ads in television), it always feels a bit like speaking a second language, where you're always on guard against the possibility of an inadvertent social faux pas.
• • •
In sum, my home culture is intentional community, and it's common for me to immediately feel at ease in groups other than my own—even when I'm visiting a place for the first time. The familiarity is not with the people so much as with the culture. I know what their issues are; I understand their joys and sorrows; I can speak their language.

While I still retain memories and some degree of social grace relative to the other cultures I've lived in, nowhere am I as comfortable or feel as connected as when I'm in community.

1 comment:

Quentin said...

I live in Mexico but I do not have a real home culture. I am sure I would be at home in a eco-community because it's declared ideals are mine own. I am not sure how many people it takes to reach a critical mass and began to have a "culture."