Living Close to the Earth: 2 — Working Close to Home

Working Close to Home


We live in a highly segregated society. Parents go to work, children go to school, and old folks end up in retirement villages and nursing homes. Food comes from the grocery store, houses from real estate agents. Healing is supposed to happen in hospitals. Likewise childbirth and death. And all the while, canned entertainment beams in through the TV.

Is it really any wonder families become dysfunctional? With the home so fragmented, how can a family be healthy? And if home and family become anemic, how can they serve as sacraments, as metaphors for That which they represent? When home, in other words, loses its meaning, how shall we find our way Home?

Living close to the Earth, and working close to home, helps one follow a path of re-integration. Physical proximity to our ancestral planetary home allows us to slowly deepen a relationship with what’s just below our feet.

Choosing to work close to home, however, means struggling against the rip-tide current of a cash-intensive economy. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have become increasingly dependent upon goods and services that can only be obtained indirectly. And now, with corporate ad agencies artificially inflating desires, and transforming luxuries into necessities, the average American’s need for income has escalated dramatically.

Over the years, Light Morning has attempted to disengage from this tractor beam by simplifying its needs, by adopting a do-it-yourself, pay-as-you-go philosophy, and by moving toward a more labor-intensive (as opposed to cash-intensive) economy. Some of what we are learning is shared below.

For starters, we still have expenses, of course, both individually and as a community. Yet the amount we contribute toward communal expenses is kept intentionally low. A much higher proportion of the energy we offer Light Morning is in the form of labor. With the community, then, receiving a strong influx of labor energy from its crew members, the responsibility arises for managing this flow wisely.

Most people face the same basic accounting questions–How shall I allocate my precious, limited resources of time and money? What is important to me? What are my priorities? When we share our lives with others, these visceral issues are raised within the context of a relationship and help to define it, whether it be a marriage, a family, or a community.

Almost inevitably there is a give-and-take, an uneasy dance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the relationship. Through trial and error, Light Morning has fashioned a creative balance between personal autonomy and group consensus. Part of each person’s financial contribution to the community, for example, goes toward agreed-upon expenses such as food and land taxes. The rest is for discretionary expenditures, where each individual, freed from the constraints of consensus, decides what he or she feels the community most needs.

Our labor system parallels the financial system. Each of us devotes at least half a week to the basic labor needs of the community, including time spent earning what we contribute financially. The rest of the work week goes to community projects that we’re drawn to discretionarily, as well as to our personal household and income needs.

Listed below is one articulation of the core labor needs of Light Morning:

  • Construction
  • Finances
  • Firewood & Forests
  • Food Preservation
  • Fruits & Nuts
  • Garden
  • Homemaking
  • Kitchen
  • Landscaping
  • Maintenance
  • Paths & Roadways
  • Visitors

Hiding behind this rather mundane list is an exceedingly odd creature–the “living close to the Earth in a new kind of family” lifestyle that is gradually emerging here. Drawing on patterns from the past and the future, it is both deeply familiar and disturbingly alien And we are so thoroughly immersed in the lifestyle that we can hardly see it.

The list, however, does not address two critical questions. First, from among these broad categories, how do we arrive at a shared understanding of what specific projects are truly essential–day by day and season by season? And then, having reached such an understanding, how do we manage our pooled labor resources wisely and effectively? Our ability to do so will help determine the success of this multi-generational experiment called Light Morning.

Different groups use different names for their managerial roles, such as honcho, straw boss, or coordinator. We settled on focalizer because the person serving in this capacity brings into focus the image of the project, as well as the community’s enthusiasm for it. Good focalizers see the forest through the trees. They develop bifocal vision–the cultivated ability to switch back and forth between the maze-like details of a project and the bigger picture. They put the particulars into perspective.

Good focalizers also learn to hold themselves and others accountable not only for a project’s completion, but for the spirit with which it is undertaken. Many of our deeply ingrained beliefs about work need healing. This becomes evident whenever we compare our culturally inherited attitudes with those that we’re stretching to embody, such as:

  • Work is love made visible.
  • Do what you love.
  • Do what is needful.
  • Leave few loose ends.
  • Set high standards.
  • Be accountable.
  • Encourage synergy.
  • See the work as service.
  • Move into the moment.
  • Be open to coaching.
  • View the work as a dream.
  • Integrate work and play.

The earlier list of core labor needs is the what of this living-close-to-home lifestyle; the “target attitudes” listed above represent the how. Needless to say, we have a ways to go yet before we fully embody them.

When focalization is weak or non-existent, a project falters. Enthusiasm wanes. People lose sight of what’s important and turn instead to what’s urgent or extraneous. Standards are compromised, accountability avoided, community resources are poorly utilized, and community morale suffers. Effective focalization is essential, then, if Light Morning’s labor-intensive lifestyle is going to thrive.

Just as a garden or wood lot, moreover, need the motivation and continuity that a good focalizer provides, so do the community’s overall labor efforts need someone to play a similar role. We call this person the bread labor coordinator, borrowing Scott and Helen Nearing’s use of bread labor to mean that portion of one’s daily life that is devoted to meeting one’s physical needs. As the focalizers’ focalizer, the bread labor coordinator has three main tasks:

1) To help the community, at the beginning of each season and each year, to clarify its priorities. Just as individuals must decide how many days a week they can contribute to community work projects, and into which specific areas they would prefer to channel their energy, so the community as a whole must look at the resulting labor pool for the coming season and determine its priorities. There’s an intricate dance here between the focalizers’ boundless enthusiasm and the compelling illusion of limited resources. The bread labor coordinator choreographs the complexity of this dance.

2) To be responsible for the community’s labor goals, and to encourage each crew member and focalizer to do the same for their individual goals. It’s one thing to establish strong goals, and another to carry them through the thirteen weeks of a season and see them realized. During this interval, the bread labor coordinator serves as coach, role model, cheering section, and alarm clock.

3) To nurture an environment in which high standards and peer coaching become the norm. This lifestyle can be challenging! The financial and labor benchmarks, as low as they are, are often a stretch. The attitude benchmark is always a stretch. As crew members, we try to be available to one another; to offer each other support, encouragement, and accountability. Cultivating and stabilizing such an awareness is one of the bread labor coordinator’s primary goals.

Developing a labor-intensive economy, therefore, in which many of our primal needs for food, shelter, and fuel can be met more directly, and within the context of a tightly-bonded family, allows us to work close to home. And close not only to the home that Light Morning has become for us. Close to our home planet as well.

Yet, as the dictionary reminds us, closeness goes beyond physical proximity. What is being called for in these deeply troubled times is not merely an approach, but an embrace.

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