Live Through This

The Simple Life

What it’s like to live on a commune.

Illustration by Sonja

All names, hippie and given, commune and individual, have been changed to respect those soily dreamy kids and their soily dreamy mountaintop, save for the names of Nigh and me.

I. HARRISON AND THE MILK AND HIS BONG.

And then Harrison in his one shoe that is green and his one shoe that is purple and his hippie pullover that falls to his knees and is also green and purple, and with his pale red curly hair pulled back in a purple bandana, allowing us glimpses of his pale freckly face and his stoned blue eyes, he gets all angry and he comes stomping down to the Main House yelling, “CAN I HAVE MY BONG YET? CAN I HAVE MY BONG YET?” and Leap comes running down after him saying, “No no not yet” because in some act of girlfriendishness she has hidden away the bong. Harrison stomps around in angry circles all around the hilly green and he says to us, “Sorry, guys, I just have to deal with my anger, I had to take myself out of the circle because I told the guy to go fuck himself.” More stomping. When he is done, he walks towards us and says how he’s not normally like this here, it’s just that the situation with the guy—the guy who’d shown up with four guns, five kids, and a wife who never spoke, the guy who steals food from the commune and doesn’t do any work because, he says, he has to keep checking the internet to see if World War III has broken out yet—has gone berserk, and the energy of this place is really off right now, too high.

Normally this place is calm. Then Harrison starts talking about down there—how down there life was so hectic that he couldn’t handle it, none of it made sense to him; it all felt so senseless that he had to carry his bong around everywhere just to not totally lose it. But the catch was that they wouldn’t even let him carry his bong around. If he could have just taken the bong into the supermarket, just plopped the bong down in the shopping cart, wheeled it around, taking hits as he got shit done—well, maybe it’d have been OK. But they wouldn’t even let him do that. He is talking seriously and gesticulating gently. Leap is also looking serious from her cross-legged and huddled bowl-hitting position, looking up into his face and nodding in slow agreement as she pauses respectfully between hits.

One time, Harrison says, one time he went to the supermarket to get some milk and all he wanted was some fucking regular milk, and the supermarket had everything—lactose-free and two-percent and one-percent and skim, half-and-half and vitamin D-enriched and calcium-added—but all he wanted was milk, and he couldn’t find any. And he’s standing over there by the dairy aisle with his hands pulling at his hair, and he’s starting to freak—he wants to leave this place, but he can’t find the regular milk—and then this guy comes up to him, and stands there too, staring at all the dairy. The man turns to Harrison and says, in an Indian accent, “Excuse me, sir, I am sorry for bothering you, but where do I go if I just want cow’s milk?” and Harrison, Harrison was like, “I know, man. I know.”

(And I remembered how in college I’d go to Walgreens as a study break. I’d go there if I wanted to do something fun but still be productive. So I’d go to Walgreens to pick out new conditioner. I’d make a game out of it: reading the back of every bottle; putting my favorites aside and meticulously comparing each to each; slowly narrowing down my choices until I found The One. Anyhow, I was reminded of this but I decided to leave it unmentioned.)

II. THE WHOLE EXISTENCE BEGINS TO POUR.

I grew up in an elite, small-minded bubble in Manhattan, where I went to the fanciest schools. In college, I studied philosophy because I wanted to understand, What is a good life? I got no satisfactory answers, but I did fall for a pretentious boy-man who informed me that humans are born half-animal and half-god; it’s up to us to decide which side to indulge. “Most people become animals,” he said. “Just look at them.” I felt broken down by mindsets like his, which were concerned with swallowing more and more book knowledge in the egotistical hope of becoming godlike. My happiness and self-confidence plummeted.

While I was anxious about not being godlike enough, this anxiety was chased by a deeper fear: my world felt phony. We were all good at words—we could write very tricky papers on ethics—but when it came to real things, the objects and energy that we used every day, or being happy or being kind, we didn’t know how those things worked or where they came from.

But I followed the rules. I strove to be the best, though I did not know why, and though I did not believe that this was a good life.

After graduation, I worked a retail job in Manhattan to stave off having to choose a career that would drain me of the energy I needed to focus on what I loved: creative writing. I told my father that I hated cooking and cleaning, and I hated the thought of having a family, because I feared I would have no time to write. “It’s a good thing you’re relatively attractive,” he said. “Just make sure you marry a man rich enough so you don’t have to work and can hire a nanny, a cleaning lady, and even a cook.”

His solution sucked, so I went to my doctor and groveled for Adderall so I could have the energy to work and read and write without sleep. My doctor said no. I cried, bought stilettos, and found a dealer. With my new drugs, I could zone in on heavy-handed texts that I couldn’t stomach before, I could pound out words on the keyboard without emotions or anxiety slowing my flow, I lost my appetite and lost weight, and whenever that fear came back I’d just snort more.

Consume and improve. Consume and improve. Consume and…

***

One day I got a phone call from a friend. “My buddy Nigh is in New York,” she said. “He doesn’t have a place to stay. Can he stay with you?” Nigh came from the prairie. Unlike me, he had never been told that he could be anything he wanted: he’d been told that life’s expensive and he’d better quit dreaming. Nigh had had enough. He was tired of feeling complicit in the destruction of the earth simply by being an American consumer-citizen, tired of watching time be sucked away as he sat behind screens, tired of not being able to see the value of his labor except in the form of a paycheck. So armed with a little savings (and a credit card), Nigh quit his job and began bumming around the country in an attempt to live out his favorite word: free.

Nigh was gorgeous and grimy and had a flower tucked behind his ear. I showed him around, and grew irritated by how slowly he moved. He just grinned at the life around him, not asking anything of it, soaking it in. Occasionally he’d tag a wall: “DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO.”

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33 Comments

  • Flower November 21st, 2012 3:29 PM

    I’ve always had a vague idea that I want to live in a commune one day because I hate the whole idea of 9 to 5 and schedule and stuff is scarier than not having much structure. This is brilliantly written <3

    http://www.bobblyrainbowsocks.blogspot.com

  • Hannah November 21st, 2012 3:34 PM

    The link at the bottom of page is wrong, I think it’s supposed to be wwoof.org

  • caro nation November 21st, 2012 3:35 PM

    Oh how I love this.

  • Hannah November 21st, 2012 3:38 PM

    I loved this article. It makes me want to reevaluate my whole life and what I’m working towards in my future. It’s intriguing and awesome.

  • ometembe November 21st, 2012 3:50 PM

    I enjoyed the way this piece was written and appreciate it’s point of view. I really like how it made me reflect on how the idea of “a simple life” is radically different depending on your personal history.
    For me, it has a lot to do with family. My parents grew up in a developing nation, with one-bedroom apartments for their whole family, in a country that has widespread poverty. They worked hard to be able to immigrate, work, and have a life that yes, is riddled with commodities and suburbs and cars, but is an enormous comfort for their parents and relatives in their home country, to know how well they are doing and how different of a life their children (me!) can have.

    I feel like to forsake what my parents worked so hard to give me would be insulting, or to take it for granted to an incredible degree. But I think I just don’t have the privilege of being able to do that – I kind of have this guilt as a first-generation child to get a job and be really successful so my parents know it wasn’t all in vain. I try to remember that living “simply” in much of the world is just plain living.

    • jenaimarley November 21st, 2012 4:53 PM

      This is really interesting point!
      I really get what you mean about privilege and guilt. I think for a lot of hippies, they truly want to escape our consumerist/capitalist culture and their often white and/or well-off background (for which they feel guilt and spite) but they have the privelege to fall back upon it if need be.

    • wd37 November 22nd, 2012 2:27 AM

      “I try to remember that living “simply” in much of the world is just plain living.”

      this is so true.

    • a-anti-anticapitalista November 22nd, 2012 9:47 AM

      I am also an immigrant and my parents also struggled before coming here and while being here, but the way I see it is that most immigrants (all except the wealthy ones pretty much) come to this country BECAUSE of things this country or the system it protects so strongly have done -even the ones coming because of political asylum, like my parents. We lose our lives and we struggle, and people who are born here struggle too, all because of that, and yet we are encouraged to be blind to this and to work hard to become the same as those who once oppressed us. My parents may not approve of it, but my conscience is not clean if I do not work to abolish the system that has ruined our lives and made us struggle so hard.

  • anoziram November 21st, 2012 3:52 PM

    This was really impressive. I’ve been really curious about living on communes ever since I knew what they were (and had my parents thinking I was a legit hippie for quite a while too), and the idea fascinates me.
    Thanks so much for writing this in such an interesting way, Anna.
    Rookie, thank YOU for being so splendid.

  • Mary the freak November 21st, 2012 4:05 PM

    The collage at the top. I am dying.
    Anyways, I have always planned and wanted to live in a commune. I am really exited..
    amazing and helpful article! :))

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

    Ps: so exited for this gangnam style article…!

  • ♡ reba ♡ November 21st, 2012 4:30 PM

    this was just really well written, lovely and thought provoking, i loved it :-) :-) xxxx

  • ROAD KAT November 21st, 2012 4:32 PM

    This was written in a brilliant way. I’m a drifter / wanderer / traveller of sorts and seeing this kind of stuff on Rookie makes me so incredibly happy. Thank you for being so lovely!

    http://roadkat.blogspot.com/

  • Tangerine November 21st, 2012 4:36 PM

    Love this article. It’s so beautiful. And only serves to confirm what I already know- I could never enjoy living on a commune. (Showers! Time to read books! Thai food! All better than living “simply”) Growing my own food is fun, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t have to grow ALL of it.
    The speech at the end, by the way, made me cry at my desk.

  • jenaimarley November 21st, 2012 4:47 PM

    This is really rad.
    My mom grew up in VW vans in Woodstock and Morocco and my family has been on the edge of hippie-ism and communes ever since. So I acknowledge and am very thankful for the raw and honest but respectful portrayal of these things.
    Thank you!
    Also I want to do WWOOF!!!!

  • a-anti-anticapitalista November 21st, 2012 5:54 PM

    This is great and all, and a lot of people enjoy the squatter and/or hippiecommune lifestyle, and good for them if they go into it… BUT I think that everyone already has this idea that the only alternative to capitalist/state living is having a “bathing-optional” life away from technology or with a bunch of people packed into one squat house or living in a field and sleeping in hammocks, and while that lifestyle is just as good as any other, it’s not for everyone. I don’t think it does any good for humanity to make them think that there are so few alternatives to capitalism and that it’s either this or that, that you are either a consumer or a revolutionary, when it is not true. There are ways to live the way we live right now while leading truly free lives, and there are examples to draw from like anarchist spain or the worker-owned factories in argentina. It’s okey to want to live free right here and now, but if you want everyone to be free the best way is to work to show people that another world, with a million different options as far as their imagination can take them, is possible within this one, that they can have a freer and more meaningful version of the lifestyle they lead now, that everything we have now can be kept without capitalism/the state and that there is no limit.

  • angelsandlace November 21st, 2012 6:14 PM

    Wowowowowowow. This article is so good. So many people think of communes and hippies and everything associated with those words without really knowing what it’s like, so it’s really interesting to be able to read about it from someone who’s actually lived on a commune’s point of view. Wowza. I am blown away by this writing!

  • Ben November 21st, 2012 9:02 PM

    I often think about all the things society views as normal and expects everyone to do like brushing your teeth every morning and showering daily and shaving and having jobs where we earn money we can trade for other stuff we want and how this is not how it always was and this is not the only way. I’m really inspired by this and someday would like to live in nature/a commune and enjoy nature and not having too many restrictions but i do see myself going back to living more “normal” after a while, but also keeping with me the lessons i learn and still appreciating nature more and not caring what society thinks. I think it would definatly be a cool life changing experience tho.

    • a-anti-anticapitalista November 22nd, 2012 9:42 AM

      There is a way to live a “normal” life without having a 9 to 5 job and being enslaved to money and bosses and the state. It’s just that we have to work for that to happen.

  • LB November 21st, 2012 9:47 PM

    Great, awesome article. I really am interested in intentional communities. If others are interested a great book is “Children of the Counterculture” by John Rothchild and Susan Wolf. It was published in 1974 and describes in first person trips to communes all across America.

  • TinaRibena November 21st, 2012 11:02 PM

    Thank you yet again for a moving and beautiful article! This really resonated with me, as recently I’ve been feeling a lot like I don’t belong with this modern suburban lifestyle. I’d love to go to a place like Wolf, a place where people can be at one with the earth again! So thank you, Anna, you wrote my dreams :) xx

  • wd37 November 22nd, 2012 2:26 AM

    this is the best thing ever thanks

  • LilySew November 22nd, 2012 4:29 AM

    This article is so interesting, i feel like it offers a very real insight into this lifestyle. To be honest, I probably could’ve hardly told you what a commune was before reading this article. Thankyou :D

    http://sewoverdressed.blogspot.com.au/

  • Julia November 22nd, 2012 6:09 AM

    best EVER.

  • sweetvalleyhi November 22nd, 2012 6:38 AM

    nostalgic/dreamy/honest – amazing

  • Emma November 22nd, 2012 10:34 AM

    This is beautiful ♥

  • RockHatesMiriam November 22nd, 2012 11:37 AM

    LOVE this! <3
    I've always wanted to live in a commune and this was sooo beautifully :)

    http://www.pompandceremony.blogspot.com

  • 63me63 November 22nd, 2012 1:16 PM

    this is so reminiscent of the electric kool-aid acid test. similar styles of writing. people should read that book if they found this interesting

  • Elizabete November 23rd, 2012 10:51 AM

    This article really resonated with me! Lately i have been thinking about consumerism culture, capitalism, veganism, meaning of life ( cliche i know ) and such things quite a lot and kept thinking after reading this too.

    That was interesting to see an insiders point of view. It made me wonder if i would like to live like this too and came to conclusion that it wouldn’t be exactly what i’m looking for. I kind of feel like there wouldn’t be enough personal development for me ( no offense, might be perfect for others) and wouldn’t change much in the whole consumerist society, on the other hand though, everyone can make a difference :)

    http://melodyfairitale.wordpress.com/

  • Melissa @ WildFlowerChild November 23rd, 2012 4:56 PM

    My boyfriend and I plan on moving to a commune within the next few years. It’s been a dream of mine since I was younger.

    <3 Melissa
    http://wildflwrchild.blogspot.com

  • izbee November 28th, 2012 10:22 PM

    Do you guys know about any organic farming opportunities for under-18ers? I’d love to do some work on a farm this summer but all of the WWOOF programs are for people over 18. Thanks!

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica January 24th, 2013 1:55 PM

    This is beautiful. Wow. Just… wow.

  • Lyla Maloney March 21st, 2013 11:03 AM

    This article was interesting and beautifully written, but as a Navajo, I wonder about the inclusion of the speech at the end. It’s context seems to be appropriated for the crisis of this article.