Twenty years ago, some visitors arrived at Light Morning from a group house in a nearby city. They said they wanted to see what life was like in a small, rural community. We gladly obliged. Soon they were hard at work, helping us set the locust posts for a new woodshed.
Mostly they were our own age–in their 20s and 30s. One of them, however, Tom Hungerford, was 60. We wondered what had attracted someone our parents’ age to a communal lifestyle. During his many subsequent visits, and more fully after he moved here several years ago, we drew out portions of Tom’s remarkable story.
Finally, on the eve of his 79th birthday, Tom and I sat down with a tape recorder and he reminisced about the path that had led him to choose community as a place to both live and age.
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Tom–I was born in 1916. I grew up in northern Arizona, 60 miles east of Flagstaff, in a small town called Winslow, that was a combination of Indian trading post and a repair point on the Santa Fe railroad.
In the early part of the time when we were in Winslow, there were no telephones, no radios, no automobiles. Everything was related to a farm type life and the material that came into town from distances came in on the railroad. Otherwise, it was all horse and wagon. There were dirt roads. There weren’t any paved roads until I was 8 or 9 years old.
Periodically, a big bunch of Indians would come into Bachman’s trading post. We were very curious about them. We’d go out to the Trading Post and stand around the edge and look ‘em over, and they’d look us over. There were lots of interesting things about what they’d do with their clothing. They’d use American coins—dimes, quarters, half dollars—to serve as buttons on their shirts and jackets.
Later on, as I got up to around to 8, 9, 10 years old, we used to go out to the reservations which were near us. Navajo and Hopi. Particularly we went to the Hopi reservations, because they had dances at seasonal times of the year. They’d dance for crops and dance for rain. They were very colorful. Often they’d dance in the early evening around fires.
Tom’s mother was concerned about raising children in a rough, frontier town. So the family moved to California when he was twelve. Tom went to high school, college and graduate school there, majoring in zoology.
Tom got a teaching job in 1941, but Pearl Harbor changed his career plans and he enlisted in the Navy, eventually going ashore as part of the Normandy invasion. Toward the end of the war, he got married. Later, he took a job with a publishing company in Chicago, and had two children.
Then, in the mid 1950’s, Tom went through a painful divorce. During this traumatic period in his life, a friend introduced him to the mystical teachings of Edgar Cayce and Joel Goldsmith.
Tom–I came upon the Edgar Cayce readings when I was involved in my divorce. I was quite beside myself and didn’t really know what to do. One of the girls working with me gave me a book about Cayce by Gina Cerminara, called Many Mansions. The same girl also introduced me to Joel Goldsmith. She gave me his little book, The Infinite Way.
Robert–This kind of thinking was something new in your life?
Tom–Never heard of anything like that before. Anything in terms of spiritual development would be the normal church. And I didn’t have very much of a background in that either. At the time I pretty much was just going to church to keep peace in the family…
I really was in very bad shape when these two things showed up. I’d gotten to the point where I thought one morning [that] instead of going to work, I’m just going to jump in [Lake Michigan] and start swimming [until I sink].
Then when the Cayce material and Joel’s material showed up, it constituted a real turnaround for me. I began to see that there was something more to life—at least the possibility of it—than birth to death. And that you couldn’t really get out of your responsibility for your part in the whole process by suicide.
After his divorce, Tom moved to New York City. He found, however, that, due to his age, no companies were willing to offer him a position comparable to the one he had left in Chicago.
Tom–I was really non-plussed. This was the first time that I’d personally come in contact with what happens to you when you age. I really hadn’t seriously considered it. It didn’t seem to me that at 50 I was very old; yet [from another perspective], it was somewhat reasonable that I’d have only 15 years to contribute to a company, given the pretty much standard mandatory retirement age of 65.
Robert–So you suddenly found yourself being perceived as old?
Tom–Yeah, I’ll say! I hadn’t any notion of that. I didn’t relate to the kinds of things I was experiencing; yet there they were. This is society and this is how it works with this view of the aging process.
During part of his lengthy stay in New York, Tom followed a long-held urge and spent 2 ½ years driving a cab. I asked him what that was like.
Tom–I loved the city. I was studying with an Infinite Way teacher at the time and she told me that if you really love something (and it doesn’t have to be a person necessarily) it would open up its secrets to you. And she said, “You have a very special feeling about New York. Any time anyone talks to you about it, you can tell right away that it’s unusual. Just be conscious of the fact that you love the city, and it will show an aspect of itself to you that few see.”
And so that was the basis of my taxi cab driving.
I never had any difficulties. I was always willing to take people wherever they wanted to go. [Some of] the taxi cab drivers wouldn’t take people to certain parts of Brooklyn, and to Harlem, and to certain parts of the Bronx. I sort of felt that if you weren’t afraid, and if you loved the city, how could you get in trouble? It was wonderful, Robert. It was quite an experience!
After leaving New York, Tom spent a year in Missouri as part-owner of a health food store. Then, having been invited to participate in a six-month work/study program at the A.R.E. (the Edgar Cayce foundation), he moved to Virginia Beach.
Tom–The people who were in the work/study program lived and worked at the Marshall’s hotel, next to the A.R.E. We did all the work—ran the cafeteria, fixed the rooms, and so forth. In addition to that, we had a meditation together morning and evening and then twice a week we had a Search for God study group.
Robert–This was your first experience living with other people?
Robert–Were you the oldest person in the program?
Tom–I was. There was one woman who was 50 and another about 45. And I was 60. Then at the other end of it there was a girl who was 18. I was perfectly welcomed by everyone in the work/study program. None of them had any reservations about my age at all.
There was, however, initial resistance from some of the staff at the Cayce foundation. I asked Tom where this resistance came from.
Tom–Just an idea. They had an idea about an upper age limit of 30 that hadn’t been translated to Bob [who was running the program]. He wanted as wide a range in age as possible.
Robert–Why was that?
Tom–He just thought it would be a good idea for the younger people to have the experience of a close relationship with older people. And he was pleased that it came out the way it did. Almost everybody in the program had a feeling that it worked well. And I think some of the staff people even relaxed a bit as the program went on.
During a second work/study session, a woman joined us who was a real advocate for modern intentional communities. She started talking to us about the possibility of forming a community, either on the land or in a house someplace.
Nine of them moved into a group house in Virginia Beach, which they called Harmony House.
Tom–Again, you know, I was the old one. [Laughs] The next oldest in the group was 30, and below that they were all in their twenties and teens.
Robert–How did they feel about having someone your age in the house with them?
Tom–The kids didn’t mind at all. In fact, they sort of liked it. And we did try to work together and learn together. We were open to whatever somebody brought along, as a matter of discussing it and seeing if we could fit it into the framework we were working in. It was really, I thought, a very, very fine experience.
We all worked around town. We had to support ourselves and get enough money to make the place go. We ate at a communal table once a day. We hired one of the people in the group as a cook. We had only one prepared meal for the day—the evening meal.
I’d never experienced any of that kind of lifestyle. [Laughs] We’d have two meetings a week, at night. One meeting was a general house meeting; sort of a business meeting, where we’d thrash out things like whether we were being fair to the cook, giving her enough money. There were a myriad of things like that that needed to be taken care of.
The other meeting was a “share” meeting—arts and crafts, books that people found, tape recordings. That’s when we found The Comforter [later republished under the title The Kin of Ata Are Waiting For You]. That had a real impact on us.
Robert–What was that book about?
Tom–It was about dreams. The people on Ata lived their dreams. They woke up in the morning and shared their dreams. Then they worked together during the daytime, and at night they ate communally and they fed one another.
Tom–Literally. They said that it had come to them through a waking dreamer who told them that if they would do this (if they would feed one another), they ‘d never be without food; they’d never lack.
We were so impressed that a couple of times we tried Ata dinners. Boy, I’ll tell you, you learn a lot of things from them—what people like, and how you approach them when you’re trying to feed them something. It was quite an experience.
In 1976, Tom learned that his mother, age 90, had been hospitalized. So he drove to California.
Tom–When I visited her in the hospital, I couldn’t find anything wrong with her, except that she was afraid to get up and try to walk. She also seemed to be hallucinating. I began to get the impression that she was drugged. Not only her, but a lot of the other patients, as a means of being able to handle them.
Eventually, Tom persuaded the nursing home to cut down on his mother’s medications, and he helped her to walk down the halls with a walker. “And I began to get the idea that I was going to take her home.”
Robert–Where did your drive come from to take her home? A lot of people would think it’s her time to go and would wonder, why bring a 90-year-old woman back home again?
Tom–I don’t know. She wanted to go home. And I didn’t see any reason why she shouldn’t go home. Far as I was concerned, I’d rather have her at home, rather than be at a nursing home, and go back and forth all the time. Even though I knew that it would be a lot more work for me.
I suppose it was connected to my feeling that she’d always done things for me at times, during my life, and encouraged me to go my way and make the most of everything as I saw it. And this was [something] I could do for her. To have her home and return the favor.
Perhaps some of Tom’s resistance to having his mother end her days in a nursing home came from his grandmother’s experiences in one. Tom had spent much of his growing-up time living with his grandmother. After the war, she had gone to stay with one of Tom’s uncles. The uncle, however, re-married, and the new wife didn’t get along too well with her mother-in-law. So Tom’s grandmother ended up in a nursing home.
Robert–How did she do in the nursing home?
Tom–Not well at all. She didn’t live but about a couple of months afterwards. My grandmother was used to having control of her life, and she’d lived that way life all her life. I can just imagine what it must have been like for her in a nursing home. They’d tie her down-or try to. And she’d get un-tied, and get out, and fall again. Eventually she just died.
Robert–Maybe she was trying to get out of the nursing home.
Robert–So when she was put in the nursing home, it wasn’t due to physical incapacity.
Tom–It was due to not being able to get along with her daughter-in-law.
Robert–And she had no other options or places to go at the time.
Robert–So after you got your mother out of the nursing home, how long did you stay with her?
Tom–Almost seven years. She would have been 97 years old a month after she died.
Robert–What did you learn from caring for her during the last years of her life?
Tom–The main thing I learned about my mother was what a wonderful woman she was. She lived a life of service without knowing it. Without trying to be that. She just was that. That was her. And she didn’t think that there was anything unusual about it. But even after I went to stay with her, it was obvious that people who knew her knew that if she could do anything for them, all they had to do was ask her, and she would do it.
Robert–What did you learn about other people’s attitudes toward aging during the time that you cared for her?
Tom–During the latter portion of it, she couldn’t get around as easily as before. Her sight wasn’t as good. Her hearing wasn’t as good. As it became more difficult for people to communicate with her, they just weren’t willing to come. Apparently people didn’t see the value. It would have been of great value for them just to come. Stay 5 minutes, 10 minutes. A few did; but not many.
[Then there was] the attitude of her doctor. He expressed to me that, “You know, she’s over ninety. What do you expect?” And I said, “Well, I expect her to be treated as well as whatever age she’s ever been, regardless of whether she’s ninety or a hundred or whatever.”
Robert–So he was pretty much writing her off?
Tom–Oh, yeah. In fact, his attitude was such that I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but I’m going to get her another doctor.”
After his mother’s death, Tom was 67. He considered living close to some of his family, “But it just didn’t work.”
Tom–There didn’t seem to be anything in it for me. The only thing I could go back to was the two things that I had found at the time of the divorce—that is, the Cayce material and the Infinite Way. So I really started looking in that direction.
During the time I was with my mother, I had taken a month off and visited 10 communities—a couple of communities in Arizona, a couple in Missouri. I visited The Farm in Tennessee. I wanted to visit Twin Oaks, but they had this kind of arrangement where you had to make a pre-arrangement.
But I ran into aging again, in terms of the communities. There were only two that were receptive to me, regardless of aging. Of course, The Farm people were receptive. They had some older people. Not many. But they were, “Welcome. Come and retire. Come and be with us and work with us.” And so, they were wide open.
And here [at Light Morning]. I’d always felt very welcome here. I remember one time that you and Joyce and I took a building apart. We started backwards and took off the top and took it right down to the ground. [Laughs] Straightened all the nails. Saved all the lumber. Re-used everything. And I never felt there was any reluctance on anyone’s part here related to my age.
Robert–Would the other communities tell you directly that they weren’t interested in someone your age, or was that something that came through indirectly?
Tom–Indirectly. Well, you know, I could be misinterpreting that. [Laughs] It’s possible that they just didn’t like me.
There were, however, a few experiences with age prejudice after moving here, especially with one member of the community. Tom described how he once received some unwanted assistance when several people were lifting a cap onto his pickup truck.
Tom–He was trying to help me. Actually, it was no help at all. The cap fell on my hand, merely because he wasn’t leaving me alone and letting me do my thing and not try to help me.
Robert–He was trying to protect you?
Tom–Yeah. That’s it. That’s the key.
Robert–Because of your age?
Tom–Well, must be. He doesn’t do that with [younger] people. At least I don’t think he does. Now I don’t mean this in a negative way. I’m very fond of him. But he is one of those individuals who has a tendency to help you when it would be just as well not to.
And I think that’s one of the keys to dealing with people who are dealing with aging in a different way. If you’re out in the culture, you’ve tied into and bought into the negative way of treating aging. There’s not much question about what’s supposed to happen. And in certain circumstances, particularly your family, you don’t get asked either. The family just steps right in and does what they think is best for you.
Robert–So that loss of control over your life…
Tom–When you get in the upper brackets of aging, that becomes precarious. That is, if you want to control your life—and I certainly want to control mine—you can get into stuff out in the normal way of things that you don’t want and that you can’t control. Your choice disappears. And it disappears in relation to aging. It disappears in relation to people’s ideas about aging.
Robert–What kind of ideas do you run into in the general culture that would limit your choices?
Tom–Most of them have to do either with your health or your income. If you have a substantial amount of income, it’s very easy, particularly as you age, for family and other people to wonder whether you have the facility of deciding these things for yourself. And, legally, they can interfere. The same has to do with medical decisions.
Robert–So one of the benefits of living in certain kinds of community is that it preserves more of your freedom of choice in the arena of aging.
Tom then talked about some of the more strenuous physical activities here at Light Morning.
Tom–If I’m careful about my attitude regarding it and how much energy I use, splitting wood is easy. There are a lot of what you call physical requirements in this kind of life. I know, when the situation is right, you can get assistance [from others]. But the general tack is to explore it some yourself.
Robert–So with activities like splitting wood, what you value is your making an inward decision about whether you should engage in these activities and when you should stop, rather than having someone outside making these decisions for you.
Tom–Yeah, that’s it. And that’s a part of community. A lot of it is this business of making your own inner decisions about what you’re going to think, what you’re going to believe, and all that. And folks here, they don’t interfere with that.
People will express what they feel. We do that, and it’s very helpful for all of us. But we don’t have any hard and fast ideas that just because we believe in something, somebody else needs to. We may come to feeling the same and having the same belief, but it’s not because somebody pushes you.
Robert–It’s like what we’re trying to do with Lauren [age 10 at the time of this conversation]: trying not to have the middle-aged people telling the younger people and the older people so much what to do, or how to do it, or when to do it, or when not to do it, but leaving as much leeway as possible for people to learn from their own experiences.
Tom–And that’s essentially aging, too: how Lauren is treated as she grows up. This is a part of her aging process. And how it’s treated. It’s very different here than it is generally in society. And it shows! The result of it shows. Tremendously.
Robert–In what sort of ways?
Tom–In her resourcefulness. In her interest. It sort of reminds me of my mother. Lauren always wants to help. She always wants to get in and do things with everybody else. It’s pretty amazing what she can do.
Robert–Do you think that your being a part of this community has made a difference in her life?
Tom–I hope so. I missed a lot in the early part of my experience with my own kids [because of traveling so much]. I missed being an intimate part of their growing up. So reading to Lauren, having her come up to Snowberry [Tom’s cabin] and wanting to do things with me, and all those things that happen with a younger age-it’s just been great to have that all be filled in. Where else could I have got it? I don’t know of anyplace else. There’s a really good relationship between us. And she doesn’t have much of an opportunity to be connected with her grandparents, either. That’s limited.
Tom then reminisced about visiting Fairhope, a community in Alabama with a large retirement population.
Tom–The striking thing was how many of the men died when they made the change [from career to retirement]. It seemed like there was only a certain length of time when fishing and golfing and that sort of thing really made a meaningful life for them. When that ran out, they ran out.
Fairhope is a city of widows. Now the women didn’t change their life much. They were still involved in the same sorts of things as they were before their husbands retired. They seemed to have a keener realization that something else needed to be done. So you’d find those women involved in volunteer projects, or in arts projects, or in community projects. The [few] men who were successful in going on, they either created a new little business for themselves, or they got into this community service side of things.
Robert–So the people who aged quickly and died there were those who weren’t able to re-establish a sense of meaning and community in their lives.
Robert–When you see yourself in the mirror these days, how does that reflected image correspond to your inner self-image?
Tom–Well, my inner self-image doesn’t have an age. It has a feeling rather than an age. And I’m often amazed to know how good the feeling is. A few years back, I was thinking of how some of my friends were getting into their seventies. Now I’m not only in my seventies, but I’m nearing the end of my seventies, and I still feel great most of the time.
Once in a while, like when I had the flu, it really took me down. Relatively speaking, it was possible to come out of that without it taking [me] toward the negative aspects of aging. It was possible to work through that without necessarily thinking that the trouble I’m having is because I’m 78 years old…
For myself, I’ve kind of given up on what age I’m supposed to be when I pass out of this experience. I’m a lot further on in it than I ever expected to be. And in greater control of my senses and sensibilities and even not too bad on the physical side. So I’m feeling now that it’s more important for me to learn to deal with whatever this process of passing is. To be ready for it when it occurs.
Robert–How does one become more ready for death?
Tom–I guess death is one of those things when you don’t really know. At least I haven’t reached the stage where I really know what happens after death. I’ve met a lot of people who say they’re not afraid to die; they’re not afraid of death. But even observing some of the ones who’ve said they’re not, it makes you wonder whether they are [unafraid] or whether they’re just trying to do something with themselves about the experience of it.
I suspect that, except for the body-which we make prime use of in this [earthly] experience-we just pass on to another different kind of experience. I don’t know if it’s “higher” or “lower” or just what it is. I’ve been told that there are other bodies, and that these are available and that you use them in your next experience. I don’t know that that’s true, outside of some dream work which sort of indicates that.
Robert–What sort of dreams?
Tom–I have a feeling that what are called “lucid” dreams are related to a preparation for this [death] experience.
Robert–“Lucid dreams” meaning what?
Tom–That you are in a different kind of dream state. You start the dream like any other dream. Then, very soon after it starts, you become aware that you’re dreaming, [while] in the dream itself. And then the whole aspect of the dream changes. You get a different kind of awareness. You can actually participate in the dream process.
For instance, if it’s a nightmarish type of dream and you realize that it is a dream, you can face that nightmarish aspect of it and turn it around or turn it into something that is easy to take. It turns into a very positive experience. I have an idea that these dreams are a forerunner of the type of life that takes place after what we call death.
Robert–How might living in community affect the process of passing through the death experience with awareness or lucidity?
Tom–Even though we assume that we’re pretty busy, we really have a lot of time for the kind of things that you don’t have time for when you’re out in the [outside] world. Working with dreams, working with prayer, working with meditation, working together-all of these contribute substantially to this. And to taking the fearful aspect out of it.
Robert–Earlier, when those of us my age were in our 20’s and 30’s, there was a strong emphasis on home birthing, natural birthing, conscious birthing. I wonder if now, as we near the other end of the aging spectrum, we might grow into the realization that dying isn’t something to be closeted away in hospitals and nursing homes. And that a family or a community might want to be involved in these transitions.
Tom–Well, in a community like this, we’re family in a real sense. In a greater sense, perhaps, than if you’re out in the world. It doesn’t have anything to do with you biologically, in the way you were born. It has to do with the way you live together. Consciously or unconsciously, we’re contributing to each other in the whole process by being in community and not being plagued by a hundred and one things that would be in our attention if we were living some other way.
Robert–When Lauren was born, it wasn’t in a hospital setting. The community family gathered to lend energy and awareness, to soften some of the anxiety and pain, to participate in the miracle of birth. Maybe death could be like that, too.
Tom–I think so! And that makes a whole different thing out of it. Many studies of various kinds are leading people toward that kind of a goal for dying.
Robert–You’ve sometimes talked about the psychological differences between the expressions “aging” and “growing old.”
Tom–I would rather have people refer to themselves as “aging” rather than “old.” I think it would be a tremendous psychological help. We’re aging from the time we’re born until we leave the scene. We’re aging. And that can be quite a different sort of thing than “growing old.”
Joel [Goldsmith] says that people ought to mature. They shouldn’t get old. They should be born and get into their life and work at it and gradually mature. Change and mature. All the time. And that the three greatest drawbacks to that are the clock, the calendar, and birthdays. He said he wished people didn’t have birthdays. That they would mature gracefully as long as necessary, without having birthdays.
I was laying in bed the other morning thinking about this and it seemed to me that if you were to approach aging like you approach a good wine, then that would be it. You’d have a vintage year in which you were born. [Laughs] And then it would get bottled and pass right on through the years and get better and better and better and better. And as the wine got better, the aging would get better.
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A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of Communities Magazine . The theme of that issue was “Growing Older in Community.” You can learn more about Communities Magazine here.