On Villaging: What Makes Work Fun?

by helenzuman in General

[This is my December column for Livelihood magazine, which recently appeared in print and may eventually show up on the Livelihood website. Enjoy!]

When I first started visiting Earthaven Ecovillage, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, nearly four years ago, I found the term “work party” mildly Orwellian. Huh? I thought. I’m not only supposed to help steward the Earthaven commons, sixteen hours per month, but I’m also supposed to pretend I’m having fun doing it? Can I at least get a funny hat, or some chocolate?

What, I wanted to know, distinguished a “work party” from plain old work, other than the name?

Since then, I’ve come to understand that the term “work party” can indeed ring hollow—but it can also resound with truth, when those orchestrating the project do so in a beautiful way.

I arrived at Earthaven for my most recent visit around midday on Wednesday, November 6 (having spent the night in coach class on Amtrak), then crawled into bed around four in the afternoon and didn’t rise till Thursday morning. Meanwhile, I was feeling the usual slight tension of trading my somewhat solitary life in Beacon, complete with daily six-mile walks along largely pedestrian-free roads, for the gentle tumult of life at Earthaven, where I tend to encounter friends often, either inside a house or common building, or on the network of narrow gravel roads (speed limit: five miles per hour). My chemistry changes, somehow, when I enter this place where I am known.

Into this mix, this time around, came a request to participate in a four-hour tortilla-making work party, on Thursday afternoon: I’d come, in particular, for the wedding of my dear friends Deborah and Lyndon, keepers of Medicine Wheel (the house and neighborhood where I stay on my visits), and, in response to Lyndon’s desire to have a taco bar at the reception, his friends Bruce and Kaitlin, from the Hut Hamlet (the next neighborhood over), had volunteered to contribute a couple hundred homemade tortillas, made from corn Bruce had planted years earlier, with his son Rowan, on Earthaven land. For this, they needed many hands.

I spent most of the afternoon rinsing corn, and hand-grinding it into a light paste called masa, then carefully cleaning the grinder I’d been using plus a second one operated by one of my housemates. (Before the work party, Kaitlin and Bruce had nixtamalized the corn—combined it three to one with ash from their wood stove, then soaked the mixture overnight and boiled it—in order to make its nutrients easier for humans to absorb.) Meanwhile, about a dozen others were forming the masa into balls, pressing the balls into rounds (with two handpresses, one metal, one wood), cooking the rounds (on both the propane stove and the wood-burning range), packing them (once cool) into Zip-Loc bags for freezing, and washing dishes. And, since we weren’t drowning our voices out with power tools, we could easily talk to each other.

When I was just listening, the steady stream of chatter registered as the best kind of entertainment (hyperlocal, offered by people I love); when I was speaking, I got to connect more directly, and perhaps amuse others. Always, I was weaving myself, through my words, my actions, and my interactions, back into the fabric of the community; by the time we wound down, I felt that I’d reintegrated into this, my second home.

And I felt that I truly had attended a party, thanks to a number of actors and factors: Bruce and Kaitlin had prepared well, gathering tools and materials in advance and mapping out a flow. A bunch of people had shown up from all over the village. The process of grinding the corn and then balling up the masa provided ample opportunity for, um, “adult” jokes. And, partway through, my husband, Gregg, broke out a bottle of wine.

In short, thoughtful preparation plus generous improvisation equaled a satisfying experience of having fun while getting the job done. Over and over, I heard this or that person point out a bottleneck in the production zigzag, and start a brainstorm about how to fix it. That’s how you know you’re hanging out with folks who’ve been practicing collaboration for a good long time.

After the wedding, Medicine Wheel ended up with a number of leftover tortillas, which I was advised to refreeze, and save. But I didn’t want to—I wanted to give them to people who would cherish them now, and eat them soon. I wanted to honor the sacredness of the corn and the spirit of the work party by sending the joy they’d generated straight into my neighbors’ bellies, still warm.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

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