By: Nicole Bauman
Note: This is the first in what will be a series of articles from members of the Red Oak Community House. Red Oak is part of the Prairie Wolf Collective Housing Co-op and is an urban permaculture and community space in Elkhart, Indiana. Red Oak welcomes visitors to their monthly potluck and currently has a couple of rooms open for folks interested in living and actively participating in the community.
On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-winter, the sun is already going down long before friends and neighbors start to arrive for our monthly community meal potluck. As we bustle around the house, tidying, adding extra logs to the fire, stirring a giant pot of soup simmering on the wood stove, and welcoming in the early-comers, we also begin to light a few candles. Days are short in this season of winter solstice. The long, dark evenings -- and their need for candles -- start early!
More folks bundle in from out of the cold, balancing babies and crock pots and conversations as the fire draws them in close. Night has truly fallen now, and the spacious downstairs of Red Oak Community House is full of friends new and old, bathed in the soothing glow of our latest batch of beeswax candles. We gather to introduce ourselves and the steaming dishes laid before us, entering into an evening of shared food and shared community.
When we first began the visioning process around what our commitments and experiments would be at Red Oak Community House, using only candles for light was primarily an ecological decision. Doing so grew out of our desire to reduce our use of and dependency on non-renewable energy.
Although this motivation continues to be strong, after a year of candle-lit living, we are pleasantly surprised to be deepening into an abundance of reasons that keep us committed to this particular piece of our experiment. First, just like a wood fire, the warm light of a candle draws us in close – we literally spend more time in close proximity to one another. Also, since we dip most of our beeswax candles ourselves, we notice feeling more intimately connected to the investment (of time, money and other resources) involved in lighting our home. These candles feel precious, to be used with mindfulness and gratitude – emotions different than those evoked by flipping a light switch and then paying the bill at the end of the month.
What’s more, the longer we're in it, the more we realize how candlelight helps us lean into a radical practice of resistance: sabbath. Our pace of life has slowed considerably, especially in these winter months. We find we sleep longer and more deeply, getting in touch – not just with the rhythms of the cycling seasons – but also with the daily circling of night to day and back again. Put simply, when daylight wanes and many projects become more difficult – and also since we've decided not to have Internet in the house – it's harder to overwork and stay at a task too late into the evening.
Finally, as we ourselves have gotten in touch with the beauty of the dark, using candles has helped us invite others who've also grown up in this culture addicted to light – and quite literally afraid of the dark at a number of levels – to experiment likewise. In inviting our broader community into the unwinding, unplugging, and slowing down that happens here, we're hearing that there can be something intimately soothing about spending time in our home.
This winter, one of our favorite songs comes from the following Wendell Berry poem:
"To Know the Dark"
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
Co-operative Housing with Space for Experiments—the Broader Vision:
The bigger picture of our lives here includes that Red Oak Community House is but one household of a five-unit co-housing cooperative called the Prairie Wolf Collective. We are a member-owned co-op, formed in 2009 in order to work towards affordable housing for ourselves and our neighbors, shared community space, and life rooted in our neighborhood of south central Elkhart, Indiana.
Within the beautiful “container” of shared life that is the Prairie Wolf Collective, Red Oak Community House adds another layer of intentionality and experimentation. Red Oak is an experiment in urban permaculture, land-based living, and intentional community, one that grows out of the hunch that resiliency for all is more possible when we are more connected with ourselves, each other (of the human and non-human sort), and the land which we all call home.
In addition to the eight other humans of Prairie Wolf, currently, three of us live at Red Oak. In addition to heating with wood and lighting with candles, here at Red Oak we are endeavoring to grow more of our own food as we transform asphalt into bountiful gardens and orchards. We've been experimenting with inviting others into our learning, sharing skills through workshops around – for example – the building of our roundwood timber-framed outdoor kitchen and its new clay bread oven. We are also committed to deeper connection with one another, sharing regular meals, workdays and spiritual practices. We see these, too, as part of our resistance to the individualistic and isolating elements that are too often dominant in our society.
You may notice that we emphasize the experimental nature of this endeavor. We feel the weight of many complexities as we discern how we might best live in what can often feel like a crumbling, wounded world. We know that we continue to participate in this wounding in countless ways. We acknowledge that our current practices may be way off the mark.
Yet we also feel called into bold exploration, called into what Joanna Macy calls The Great Turning, trusting that we are not alone in our desire to shift the balance towards life, trusting that we will continue to learn a great deal as the spiraling path of this experiment unfurls. We trust that there are an abundance of diverse experiments, each digging in deep in their own way, and we welcome cross-pollination with that abundance.
Our deep longings for rest and balance have often come up against our capitalist training in urgency, efficiency and productivity. Where our endlessly urgent and self-important activism often left us fighting for rest, our practice of candlelight – without even really intending it – has drawn us into rest and balance better than we could have done ourselves.
When we feel tired, as though we are stumbling in the dark in the midst of our experimenting, our practice of lighting with candles is a slow, tugging reminder that this, perhaps, is exactly where we need to be: learning to trust the beauty of the dark, the wisdom of the unknown. As we seek healing for all, perhaps we can find some in the radical sabbath of slowing down.
Nicole Bauman's life is woven in and around the daily rhythms of life at Red Oak and Prairie Wolf, where she is the queen bee of renovation and maintenance. She also spends her time teaching yoga, practicing Reiki, working as a birth doula, an arborist, and a native landscaper/permaculturalist and petrol-free lawn care lady. This time of year, you'll find her cozied up to the wood stove doing a lot of spoon-carving and knitting, but in warmer months you're more likely to see her digging around in various community gardens or riding her bike. Some of her favorite hobbies of late include diving into inner work using the tools of Internal Family Systems Therapy and Nonviolent Communication, and joining in with a local Environmental Health group looking at issues of water, air, soil and creature health in our watershed. She also loves hosting – so come for a visit!
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