I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book about the therapeutic qualities of intentional community, and want to accomplish two things – to recommend this book to you and to reflect upon my own experiences in such communities.
Tobias Jones writes with such genuine affection and insight that I kept finding myself smiling. This book made me happy. Even the most challenging behaviours of his family’s guests are approached with curiosity and compassion. Even when he admits that he is run down, resentful and irritable, the writing is leavened with humour.
I should have started with a brief explantation of characters and plot, but my brain’s still sifting. Sorry! Francesca and Tobias Jones and their two small daughters opened up their home to become A Place of Refuge (the book’s title) for those who might need one. In effect, their house and woodland property in Somerset, England, became a commune called Windsor Hill Wood.
Over the years it evolved as they learned what worked and more importantly perhaps, what didn’t. The aim was to provide a place where people could step outside situations that weren’t working for them, and figure out their next steps. Among them were unwanted offspring, the divorced, addicted, lost, and, naturally, the grifters. All were welcomed (with conditions) and included in the daily routines and projects around the place. And everyone involved was challenged in one way or another. As my own father used to say, in large families you get your edges rubbed off. As Tobias says, everyone in community is forced to confront their own demons and flaws. There’s nowhere to hide.
I borrowed this book from the library on the recommendation of an old organic gardening friend who has long worked in community groups. She’s a founding member of a community garden and speaks often of managing conflicts, successfully or otherwise. She’s a wise elder to me and many others, and her recommendations always yield fruit of some sort. So I knew I’d benefit in some way. I just wasn’t prepared to enjoy the book quite so much.
As I read I kept being reminded of communities I’d been part of, long term and short, and of the dynamics and behaviours. I winced at memories of some of my own behaviours and laughed aloud in recognition of others. Even the place where I currently reside could be described as a small community, although not entirely intentional, nor commune-like. But some social dynamics and social benefits remain recognisable. It’s probably why I’ve not moved on, along with reasons of location and affordability.
In the past I enjoyed the Camphill-inspired ‘curative homes’ for people with disabilities. I appreciated the stabilising daily and seasonal rhythms, the wholesome food, and the odd mix of conservative and bohemian staff. Then there were the hippy communes that were utterly unlike those I’d been led to expect. Clothes optional yes, slacking and drugging, no. They were disciplined, creative and ahead of the curve in terms of tiny homes and eco living; super smart people who felt confined elsewhere. Some of my highest natural highs and most cringeworthy behaviours happened there. And then there were the share houses, the urban cult, the community gardens, mental health support groups and even the youth hostel in northern NSW where everyone was welcomed, had chores, and felt appreciated for their own special brand of humanity.
All of these experiences were watered by observations made in the book. Values and ideals that I rarely hear these days were outlined and examined and held up against his own experiences. I didn’t even know that I’d needed that. And blimey, he can write!
If it had been written by Francesca or a female participant, well, it would have that added perspective. In some ways it was a very white male book. He skipped over some crucial aspects that someone else might have elaborated on. That said, there was nothing that made me think, “oh dude, no.” And yes, I do say that often, lol.
So I now recommend A Place of Refuge by Tobias Jones, (2015) to you. I would love to hear what you think.