Summer Commune is a mobile intentional community which brought 20 “new adults” from cities (including San Francisco, LA, London, and Vancouver) to Moscow, Idaho (pop. 24,000) this year. Communers hang out, work virtually, go on field trips, and produce community events. A. Nicole Kelly is one of this year’s organizers who wanted to share a bit about this last summer. We previously covered Summer Commune earlier this year, in an interview with fellow organizer Joshua Heller.
I had hoped Summer Commune would help me feel creative—energized and inspired by like-minded people. I thought Summer Commune was my DIY writer’s residency. But while I do feel creative, inspired, and energized, and while this summer has been productive for my work, it’s turned out less like an artists’ commune and more like existential summer camp.
Most everyone drawn here seems to be at a crossroads. Summer Commune is this liminal space in which we’re figuring things out, asking what we want, defining what we don’t, and then trying to imagine what that looks like. We’re trying to change the ways we think about living.
I’d already learned a lot in my 6 weeks here—that Idaho is gorgeous, that camping is awesome (I get it now!), and that a chicken won’t attack you for stealing her young. But then last weekend in the woods I woke up with all this clarity. I realized there were 3 important things I’ve learned about life from being at Summer Commune.
ONE | A real community holds you accountable.
You know how when you live in big cities like New York or LA, and you go to a bar or a party or a park or the subway, and you feel like you can do and say whatever you want because odds are you’ll never see anyone around you ever again?
When I lived in New York I thrived on anonymity, on being invisible whenever I wanted. Who cares what anyone here thinks? I was always saying. You’ll never see anyone here ever again.
I promise that for me that certainty didn’t mean I went around throwing drinks in people’s faces or yelling obscenities on the Q train, but it did mean that I was free not to care what I said or did. It meant that I could, say, be cold to my cashier at Duane Reade because I’d had a bad day; I could sit among crowds of people on the train, ignoring everyone around me; I could drunkenly argue with a stranger I met at a party and then go home and forget about it, my beliefs and opinions snugly intact.
When you live in a city that big, it’s easy not to be accountable to anyone but yourself.
In Moscow, I see someone I know every single day. Friends and acquaintances and people I recognize from some place or another. And while sometimes I do wish I could be anonymous, and sometimes I want to be totally antisocial, I also see the ways that this proximity makes me grow. Since it’s harder to escape them, I’ve been forced to confront some of my preconceptions — about the region, about class, about age, and education. I’m forced to evaluate my political contentions every time I run into that person whose politics are different from my own. And I run into that person often.
It’s hard to go home & just disregard your actions when you know you’ll be seeing your Co-Op cashier at the bar later, or your bartender at yoga on Saturday, or your yoga teacher at the outdoor movie. You have to think twice about the things you say and do. And unless you want a reputation for being a total asshole, you have to care about that person at least a little, more than you’d have to if you were sure you’d never see them again.
The culture that this kind of consciousness creates is a very good thing. These small but frequent kindnesses, little moments, have a way of adding up to something much bigger. I think it’s what makes Moscow one of the pleasantest places I’ve ever lived.
TWO | “Busy” is this bullshit that capitalism has fed us.
My first week in Moscow was self-allotted vacation time between finishing grad school and organizing the Commune. I went to Art Walk, we had friends in town, we went to some hot springs. But by the end of the next week I was totally stressed. We had events to plan! A calendar to print! A dispatch to write! Parties to attend! I had to do my job in order to make money. Meanwhile I was neglecting what I consider to be my Work—my writing—and then feeling bad about it, thus stressing me out more.
And then like 5 people sent us this article because Summer Commune addresses our cultural need to be compulsively busy — a goal of this project which I had completely lost track of.
Six weeks ago chilling out and doing nothing and being okay with it seemed really hard. It felt like if I stopped (stopped planning, stopped writing, stopped staying on top of everything, all of the time) then everything (my progress, my productivity, my career, my life) would grind to a halt. I feared I’d lose some precious momentum or energy propelling me towards success, or satisfaction, or some other kind of far off abstract reward. I was afraid that if I lessened the pressure on myself, I’d end up an average, ordinary person, with neither novel nor accolades to show for myself.
Know what makes us feel that way? Capitalism. Our cultural fixation on busyness is part of a system in which our self worth is linked to production, in which we believe we have to do something (write a book, start a commune) to be considered worthwhile, and not only that, but we have to be so good that we’re recognized for it. But “the present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.
In response to this anxiety, Summer Commune’s unofficial spiritual teacher—a Buddhist scholar and Buddhist—told us all to chill out. It’s really hard, I insisted. “It’s actually really easy,” he said, shrugging. The hard part was letting go of that fear. And when I tried it—stopped taking on a million self-imposed responsibilities, or creating arbitrary short and long term deadlines, worked on my more-fun screenplay instead of my bossy master’s thesis, basically stopped worrying about Productivity—nothing bad happened.
Actually, it turns out that doing nothing can be pretty rewarding. I hadn’t camped since Girl Scouts before last weekend, but after night fall, around the campfire, we eventually ran out of things to say to each other. Then we all sat quietly, looking into the flames. The darkness enforced a rare and valuable do-nothing time—with no journals, no music, no books to read, nothing left to say. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done that, done nothing.
As it turns out, it was time I really needed to clear my head & gather my thoughts—so that in the morning everything was clear to me.
THREE | There’s no finish line. There’s not even a race!
It’s possible I saw this on a t-shirt somewhere, or on a poster at a Kirkland’s Gifts in 9th grade, but I swear to God I woke up in my tent and this was resounding in my head: THERE IS NO RACE. THERE IS NO FINISH LINE. This is called an epiphany, guys.
I used to think that if I just worked hard enough, for long enough, then at some point in the future I could relax. I wanted that point in the future to be soon, real soon. For me, the race was to publish a book, and then another, and then another, and to begin this ritual as quickly as possible. With that first book, I imagined, things would fall into place. More writing jobs, more money, comfort, security, recognition, peace. I said I was tired of paying my dues. The New York Times guy’s normal day—writing, biking, reading, hanging out—sounded great to me. But that’s a privilege, I thought. I have to pay rent. I have to eat. And I have to travel (for material/or else I’ll die).
But Summer Commune exists because we wanted access to that privilege—a great quality of life at a price we could afford. And Summer Commune isn’t just about the summer anymore: it’s about the ways we’ll choose to live once the Commune is over.
We came to Idaho to meet new people, see new places, make time for art, make time. But in the process we’ve stumbled onto something bigger: an alternative model for adulthood. We’ve seen how we have choices. As a generation we’ve been handed a shitty inheritance; society made us promises that it can’t keep. Summer Commune is our way of acknowledging that, and of ensuring our own futures, creating a new value system, and knowing that we have choices. We can do whatever we want. For some, that may mean opting out of New York, LA, and San Francisco.
I think I’ll always be a city girl, personally. But instead of struggling furiously towards some arbitrary, imaginary end point at which I’ll be relaxed and happy, I’m choosing to slow down, right now. I’m choosing not think of my life’s purpose as linked to the things I produce. I’m choosing to remain ambitious but stay relaxed, working, but defining success on my own terms.
Summer Commune hasn’t been a break from our lives, it is our lives. And the only way to do it wrong is to not show up. There are no rules, so we can not lose. And there’s freedom in knowing that this is true.
A. Nicole Kelly is a writer who has lived in Brooklyn, Berlin, Barcelona, and LA.