Throughout the more than twenty years that I worked as a translator, I translated and read so many books and articles and wise and insightful words about how to make a better society. Utopian aspirations and alternative communities have fascinated me since I was a child, and I still love to read speculative fiction that imagines different kinds of worlds and how they could work.
I’m good at theory.
Humans, though, living, breathing, feeling human beings are more complicated. Being human is a messy, contradictory, and confusing business. How comprehensive and complex does the best theory have to be, so that the erratic, unexpected, apparently inexplicable behavior of actual human beings doesn’t mess it up?
A year ago Patrick and I decided to trade places. Re-reading so many email exchanges that took place around this time last year, I recognize so many abstract theories that I had in my mind at that time, but my experiences in Calafou turned out to be quite different.
When I came to visit last August, the community agreed to let me stay for a kind of residency for one year. That year has passed surprisingly quickly. During the first six months of my stay in Calafou, I experienced a sense of exhilarating freedom. In many ways it felt selfish and completely self-indulgent. How do you focus on being part of a community when you are just enjoying yourself that much? Admittedly, winter in Calafou was not entirely enjoyable, but I still felt pleased with myself that I managed to cope.
At the start of the new year, a friend did an “oracle”, a rune reading with me. The results were surprising, but also intriguing and encouraging. Having “passed the test” of winter, I found myself looking forward to spring, to being involved in public events in Calafou, to traveling, to exploring and learning more and more.
And then the whole world fell apart.
Events canceled, movement restricted, borders closed, states of emergency declared: fear and uncertainty spreading as rapidly and virulently as the coronavirus itself. While Austrian politicians were smugly asserting that the situation there would not be a dire as in Spain, I could not imagine feeling safer anywhere else other than where I was, here in Calafou. So I stayed here, and we remained isolated together, twenty humans, five dogs and four cats.
In so many ways, we found ourselves in an extremely privileged position. We all have our separate living spaces where we can retreat, but the grounds are spacious enough that we could also meet outside with enough distance between us, and could still move around freely within Calafou while we were essentially cut off from the outside world.
Of course we weren’t entirely cut off. We all have phones and computers and good internet connections, so news from the outside world continued to trickle in. But mediated news is different from personal contact, as so many intelligent analyses of the psychological effects of confinement during the pandemic have so often explained.
As we all tried to find our own ways of coping with our fears about what was happening, our worries about loved ones in different places, sometimes just with the inevitable boredom of being stuck with only the same twenty people, five dogs and four cats, all the theories I know about communities often seemed less than helpful.
Being human, we all have different personalities and different histories and all the emotional baggage that comes with them, along with certain learned behaviors rooted in our respective socialization.
Some of those learned behaviors include the strategy, typically associated with male socialization, of sublimating emotions by keeping busy doing things – things like building and repair work with tools that require skill and concentration, which tend to make a lot of noise. Other learned behaviors, typically associated with female socialization, include endless introspection and self-reflection or focusing on the needs of others almost to the exclusion of anything else or to the point of exhaustion. Some personalities need protocols and instructions and proven methods for dealing with all situations. Some personalities just need to scream or sob uncontrollably sometimes, others need a target to project their intense emotions onto. Not all of these behaviors and needs are always compatible.
Twenty humans, five dogs and four cats forming a viable community capable of agency is not a simple or straightforward undertaking even in the best of circumstances. And forced confinement due to a global pandemic can hardly be considered an ideal situation. Questions about how to live together well, how to make collective decisions, how to accommodate different needs have been the subject of ongoing reflections and discussions for centuries. No one can get it right on the first or even second or third or nth try. It has to be an ongoing process. But the process has to go on.
Since Christopher just managed to get himself on probably the very last flight to Vienna from the UK, he spent the months of confinement isolated in Vienna in his tiny flat with one window that opens up almost directly into the living room of his neighbor across the street. Since he had all his musical equipment there, however, he avoided losing his mind by producing the pandemic EP “All Roads Less Travelled”, which he released on his uncelebrated 30th birthday the end of May. It includes the song “Kin”, which ends with messages of encouragement in 38 or 39 languages, including contributions from Calafou in some of the other languages spoken here. It also includes the first recording of my sons, who both inherited their father’s musical talent, together in collaboration:
Every time I listen to it, I feel it expresses exactly how I feel right now too: I don’t know what to do, but we need to do something.
While the pandemic is not over yet, it has become almost a commonplace to point out that it certainly does not affect everyone equally. All the documentation of the spread of the virus clearly maps out the effects of racism, discrimination, inequality, oppression, and exploitation – in short, the effects of capitalism. All the autocrats, wannabe-dictators and fascists are already getting their ducks in a row. More than anything else, strong communities of solidarity are needed now.
Can Calafou be that kind of community?
During these past months, I have been so deeply touched by the personal stories that people here have shared with me in different ways, and my affection for this community has grown stronger and stronger. We are all human beings (and some other beings) with all of our flaws and failures, all of our blind spots and unreasonable desires, all of our kindness, generosity and humor. I believe all of that opens up spaces of possibility.
During these eleven months in Calafou, I have learned so much, but most of all I have learned that I still have so much more to learn that I think I will have to live for a very, very long time to be able to even begin to take it all in. My feeling now is that there is still more that I need to learn here.
Writing to the community to formally request an extension of my “residency” in Calafou for another year was so much harder than deciding last year to come here. With all that has happened within the space of this past year, especially during the first half of the year 2020, I feel I am filled with so many questions, doubts, fears, uncertainties. But that is what the whole world is filled with now, here and everywhere else.
I am grateful that we cannot know what the future may bring. Whatever it is, I doubt that it will be good or enjoyable. For now, though, I just want to continue being human in Calafou.