The Communitarians

What happens when 100 people move out of the mainstream and attempt to create their own private utopia?

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Published in United Church Observer in June 2014

There are two things my teenage daughters want to know when I tell them we are going to spend part of March break living on a commune in rural Virginia: Is there Wi-Fi, and how far is the nearest Starbucks?

I inform them they'll have to go a few days without their caramel macchiatos and Keeping Up with the Kardashians. And so, their easy adjustment to the bohemian lifestyle surprises me.

Like me, they are intrigued by the folks we meet, people with names like Purl, River and Puck, people who don't have their own cars, houses or bank accounts and have chosen a life that doesn't include live television, Twitter or long commutes to work.

Our first morning there, my 16-year-old daughter, Ruby, and I are hoeing in a massive garden under a hot sun, dropping tender pea seeds into tiny holes carved out with our bare hands. Ruby barely bats an eye when another gardener, a voluptuous 40ish redhead, pulls off her shirt in the heat of the midday, her breasts swaying while she tills the soil.

My 13-year-old daughter, Lucy, initially bemoans the loss of cellphone reception and then, bored with her own boredom, picks up one of the dozens of rickety bikes on the property and rides down a wooded path to the swimming hole.

On our first night, my husband, the girls and I join a group of people in the lounge to watch the winter Olympics - an entire month after they actually occurred (someone's mother mailed VHS tapes with 36 hours of coverage). Later, nestled in the visitors' cabin, the four of us giggle about the huge menstrual chart in one of the common washrooms where the women of the commune track their cycles.

We marvel over how delicious dinner was - organic greens, sweet potatoes, rice and beef, fresh bread - most of it grown on the premises. We talk about how much money one really needs to be happy.

Nodding off to sleep that night, I realize we've already been profoundly affected by this place known as Twin Oaks.

Located in Louisa County in rural central Virginia, this counterculture colony is one of the largest and oldest secular communes in North America, having been around for almost 50 years.

A quirky egalitarian enclave of conscious castaways, it's situated on a 185-hectare parcel of farmland in the middle of the red Republican heartland.

Several Canadians live here, and one of them is Valerie Resnick, 46, who came to Twin Oaks when she was 24 and now serves as a spokesperson for the community. She shows us around the property: the eight residences that house 10 to 20 people each (everyone has their own bedroom), and the large hall that serves as a kitchen, dining room and gathering area.

We also see the greenhouses, a dairy, a tofu production facility, a garage for car repairs, a hammock workshop, a free clothing exchange, a hospice and the cemetery where 10 past residents are buried.

Valerie (everyone prefers to use first names here) explains that her decision to live at Twin Oaks is informed by the values she learned growing up in the United Church: being a steward of the Earth, celebrating diversity, striving for social justice, sharing resources and eliminating inequality.

She attended City View United in Nepean, Ont., where she was a member of Christian Girls in Training and a United Church camp counsellor. At one point she considered becoming a minister.

"The church taught me to live my values, and I'm doing that at Twin Oaks," she says. "I didn't want any part of the hamster wheel - the packaged life of the mainstream wasn't appealing to me. This place fits with my own personal ideology. It's the closest physical manifestation of the lifestyle I wanted to have."

Valerie and her fellow "communitarians" reject most of what the "good life" in mainstream culture has to offer: corporate climbing, unlimited consumption, supersized homes, shiny new cars, annual vacations, 24/7 news cycles and the ceaseless striving for money.

Here, the good life has an entirely different meaning, one that encompasses self-sufficiency, sharing resources, ecological responsibility, sexual freedom, raising kids as a community, caring for the sick and elderly, working together as a collective and feeling intimately connected.

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