Mark Shepard's birthday party in mid-September was announced as a howl-at-the-moon-bang-on-drums kind of affair. But Mark himself wasn't really like that, and none of that went on. In three cars, nearly everyone at Dreamtime drove out to the Shepards' land ten minutes away, with food, dishes and silverware. The sun was nearly touching the horizon as we left. I rode with Jacques, a visitor from France. He drove an old station wagon with fake wood trim and Quebec license plates. Jacques, upon learning that I had taken some French classes in high school had said, "You speak French with me then." I stuttered and stumbled around the simplest conversations with him.
At the Shepards' land, we parked, walked down one slope and half-way up another to get to the site of the Shepards' house: cinderblock walls growing out of a red-clay pit. Mark had a concrete mixer hooked up to a rototiller, but it was slow work, especially considering it was solo work, as Jen was often looking after their son Eric. The nights were already cold, and their trailer wasn't enough to keep them warm.
Janell had just returned from travels all around the country. She'd investigated other intentional communities and come back with two strong ideas. One was to set up a ten-week study program for college students. The students would do what I was doing: live and work and study at Dreamtime, only they would be paying something higher than the normal $140 a month in "rent donation." Janell's other idea was a "re-visioning" session which would be led by Jerome, a nearby farmer who hosted monthly events called spirit circles. This would be the opportunity to open dialog between Liz-and-Miekal (as their names were often run together) and other Dreamtime residents. Janell wasn't around, so we talked about our criticisms of her ideas.
I was all for the re-visioning, less for the students. Mark Ludwig, the most opinionated voice that night, agreed that the re-visioning session would be a good idea. As often happened with Mark, conversation turned into debate. And, as usual, it was about what "the problem" with Dreamtime was. His major point was that Dreamtime, a la "the Vision" was too broad in scope, too diverse. He felt that it was nearly impossible to set goals and meet them under the weight of such imprecise and over-inclusive group aims.
"Well, think about this," Mark Shepard said. "The Phoenix Center--have you guys heard of this? In two years, a couple of women in Viroqua renovated a school building like ours and made it into an alternative health center and cafe. They're doing good business and they've got a lot of respect from the local community."
I responded, "Dreamtime's broadness is its weakness and its strength. Of course it'll take longer to make it work, but once it's together, it'll be many times more amazing than the Phoenix Center or any other single project nearby."
"That's a bunch of liberal, p.c. hogwash," Mark Ludwig said. "Dreamtime is a collection of individuals, not a collective. Anarchy has always been about what we don't have to do. I don't know if most people at Dreamtime are capable--or willing--to work towards common goals."
I never knew what to say when Mark turned on the debate-team attack. I tried to make my points sharp and my voice soft. The conversation drifted, relaxed. Later on in the night, there was more silence than speech. People would introduce new topics, a few comments added from others, then silence again. In one of those silences, Jacques said, "This last weekend, I go to the Mississippi, and I think I am in the Mekong. All the men, they are wearing camouflage and they carry big guns. They shoot helpless ducks, but they think they are at war." Even though America-bashing was popular with most of us, Jacques' comments seemed more poignant than anything we could have come up with.
It was a warm, Indian Summer morning, with toasty sunlight, cool breezes and crackly leaves turning brown on the ground. I was talking on the porch with Eddie when he noticed our next-door neighbor Beulah dragging a large tarp across her front yard. "Hey--let's go help her out," he suggested, ever observant, eager and optimistic. (Eddie's reputation was for not being much of a laborer, but I think he really enjoyed the feeling of work when it was freely given help.) We jogged across the street.
Beulah took us in stride, hardly even glancing at us--she was at least seventy, and I doubt anything surprised her. She explained to us that she was winterizing her house. The north and east sides got it especially bad from the wind and snow, and it was an old house, with all the drafts and imperfections that are to be expected from old houses. Once she accepted our help, she was very clear in giving directions. Eddie had spoken to her first, and so she gave her instructions to him. There was little for me to do but watch and feel good, if a little redundant. It was a matter of nailing a long strip of tarpaulin, like a dirty skirt, around the lower three feet of the house, and to weigh it down with cinder blocks at the right angle between house and ground. It was done quickly and we said goodbye.
Later that day, I sat reading on the front porch, shaded by a withering hops vine. As I glanced up from my book, Beulah appeared in front of me, climbing up the steps with a box in her hands. She was wearing the gargantuan black plastic sunglasses that are popular among the elderly. I noticed then, as I had before, that despite her advanced age and bent frame, Beulah somehow gave the impression of youth and flexibility.
"Well, there you are," she said. "I thought I'd just bring this over for you and that other boy--what's his name again?"
"Eddie," I replied, accepting a box of Little Debbie snacks, rolls of spongy white foam and strawberry goo. "And I'm John. I don't think we've really been introduced the whole time I've been here."
"Now, when did you move in?"
"Early June, and I'm about to leave in a couple of weeks."
We continued with our smalltalk for a few minutes. Beulah mentioned everybody at Dreamtime who she knew, mostly people who had helped her out with this and that. She paused at Stephen Freer.
"He's a strange young man," she commented.
"Yep, he's quite a character. He can be pretty frustrating at times."
Beulah, even through the impenetrable blackness of her sunglasses, got the pensive, knitted-brow look of someone who was in the process of remembering. "There was one Christmas--it was Stephen's first winter here, and he was all alone on Christmas eve. So I invited him to come and have dinner with me and my family, and--" with this, she turned to show me a "now get this" expression--"he said he'd rather stay by himself and meditate!"
"Phew!" I replied with sympathetic incredulity. "I can't imagine turning down a good meal and good company like that."
"Yep. Well... I think he just might smoke a little too much dope."
This was that last exchange I had with Beulah, but it should have been the first. While she knew little about the affairs of Dreamtime, her observations were wise and refreshing. A lot of people at Dreamtime talked about "establishing community," but in a sense it was already there, waiting for them. Beulah had been a teacher at the school building that was now the "centerpiece" of Dreamtime.
That evening, Eddie asked if I wanted to accompany him and Doctor Dave down to the Beaver House to watch video footage that Eddie had shot at Dreamtime. The three of us rode in Doctor Dave's car, a kind of shrine on wheels. Bones, birdfeathers and driftwood were arranged on the car's dashboard, and philosophy was scrawled in chalk on its grey interior.
Doctor Dave had been coming and going for most of the summer, helping out with different projects. Now, as the leaves began to turn, he had moved in part-time. He was older than most of the rest of us, maybe even old enough to be my father. In his case, this translated into a certain sense of drive and commitment that others lacked. He talked excitedly as he drove.
Past the graveyard, we snaked down the dusty gravel road, past some hills and wetlands to the Beaver House. A half-dozen kittens lounged on the porch, licking their front paws, or eying us languidly. The house itself felt not quite decayed, but over-ripe. Before becoming part of Dreamtime, it had been moved to the site from the place where it had been built, some miles away.
Eddie's room was large; there had been some talk of reserving it for a couple, or charging Eddie double for it, but talk like that never went anywhere. The room was most impressive for its stuffed bookshelves. Eddie had books on any kind of arcana, esoterica or radicalism you would want to know about. I would ask him about one of the books now and then--often, he hadn't read it yet, or he'd only read the first few pages.
Eddie was well-suited for the task of documentary film-maker at Dreamtime. He never seemed to be around for much more than a week, so he had a newcomer's eye; but he had a long-standing relationship with the community, so he knew all of the ins and outs: the subtleties of the place and the personalities of the people seemed to be drawn effortlessly into the eye of his videocamera.
The room was dark except for the flickering of the candles and the cathode ray tube. The voices on the video were accompanied by wailing, eerie Moroccan music on Eddie's boombox. We watched familiar faces and scenes, now strangely removed from us, edited tightly and packaged on this small screen.
We watched Ken at a spinning lathe, his jeans, plaid shirt and baseball cap worn and softened from living and working. Eddie's voice: "What do you make here?" "Oh, mostly sawdust," Ken says, grinning.
The camera roams and pans through the garden, the point-of-view of a mute wanderer. Liz, in the garden, just smiles, displaying her slightly irregular teeth. The camera sweeps across a few garden beds and we see Eric, shirtless in cutoff jeans. He gathers a fistful of Swiss chard and takes a prodigious bite out of it, flexing his biceps. "Greens-Man," he growls. Organic gardener and proletariat superhero.
Watching this video footage, these people I had lived with for five months effortlessly being themselves, I felt an unexpected warmth. An ironic smile came to my lips. In a few days, I would be boarding a Greyhound that would take me 2000 miles away, and I had just come to realize that this was my home.