We made it through Thanksgiving, our first gentle snowfall, many harsh freezes, and challenging interpersonal dynamics. And maybe even with some gratitude, empathy, and courage.
Hi friends! This is Prairie with another update on cozy, clustered, and cold Dancing Rabbit ecovillage.
When I was a bit younger in years, stature, and experience, I didn’t understand Thanksgiving at all. Yes, there was a huge, delicious meal. Yes, my extended family would visit if they could. But why, then, was it different than, say, Christmas, aside from the presents, of course? What was the point? I grew to dislike the holiday for its historical roots, and my lack of understanding.
Ted told me that he likes to think of Thanksgiving as a celebration of the harvest. He looked at me pointedly, and I knew that he was thinking of the hours over the last two years that I have spent in the garden. That made sense to me, but I was still skeptical. Eric offered that he enjoys Thanksgiving because it is an opportunity to celebrate gratitude. Ok, I thought. I can try this.
And I did. I found a new way to connect with Thanksgiving.
When I walked into Ironweed co-op kitchn and the scent of a local roasted duck found my eager nose, and I saw Eric’s sweet potato casserole, a big salad, and, surprisingly, a decadent chocolate cake (made by Sara for Paula’s birthday, which took place on the twenty-fourth), my reticence and resistance began to ebb. Ah, yes, the harvest! I felt suddenly open and curious. What will this be like?
As we sat down to eat, someone cracked a joke, and everyone laughed. The food was incredible. I was able to spend quality time with people that I admired and cared about. After we were finished, we each spoke to what we were grateful for in that moment. I felt a little shy and awkward, suddenly blank and confused, but it didn’t seem to matter. I resonated with others’ gratitude for music and art, health, this kitchen, good food, and wonderful people. And they were just words; I think it is the feeling that truly matters. I have learned that when I grow my capacity for gratitude and joy, I grow my resilience and courage to enter challenging situations and persevere. Thus, cultivating gratitude is necessary in order to make it through this world in one piece. Whew!
Special shout out to Matt for his fundraising work, and everyone who donated for Give STL Day, last Tuesday! We raised $1400!
Earlier that Thursday, I was able to chop (you guessed it) more firewood beneath an exquisite, luminous sun. A couple of weeks ago, I purchased two more loads of wood, and a small, steadily shrinking pile remains outside of my house now.
Despite the occasional splinters, cold ears, scraped up fingers, and rapidly dwindling sheltered yard space, I have kindled a growing fondness for splitting. The stacking is what really gets to me, especially when I am scrambling to find one more place around my house to fit another ornery stack of wood, but I am finding peace with this process as well. Everything about the smooth, graceful arc of a well-aimed swing, practiced muscle movement, and the clean, sharp sound of a crisp log splitting with resounding finality feeds a part of me that is hungry for beautiful, simple, and pragmatic actions. I get to spend time outside, and do something concrete for my future physical comfort, and exercise my body. What a blessing!
“I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness—it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude,” writes Brene Brown, a leadership researcher.
Over the last few weeks, me, Ted, and Eric harvested the rest of our precious vegetables from the garden. Now our root cellar is brimming with buckets brimming with radishes, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, and turnips, not to mention the overflowing shelves of pickled and fermented canned goods (remember the gallons and gallons of carrots this summer?).
As the wind nipped at my nose, and my fingers grew cold and clumsy, I felt immense gratitude for Eric and Ted for their willingness to venture into the chilly, exposed garden, to bring in the harvest, bit by bit. What a privilege it is to have camaraderie and food security.
I want to note here that an exorbitant amount of human beings in the world were unable to celebrate Thanksgiving, or other holidays, the way many Americans have. Many of the folks at Dancing Rabbit did not have the experience that those of us in Ironweed did, due to COVID 19. This is not to dissuade anyone from rejoicing in our lives, who we are, and what we have, only to remind us that we all operate in varying degrees of privilege: food security and shelter being two basic needs that are consistently met.
That in mind, I still find myself falling readily down the rabbit hole of comparative suffering, for example, how can I complain about my reality when other people are starving? And conversely, why should I allow myself to enjoy the fruits of my life, however simple, when others have no such pleasures?
This is when I have to call in more words of the renowned Brene Brown: “What if we all agreed not to evaluate, dissect, tally, and rank each other’s pain right now? What if we opt out of the hardship Olympics and make a pact to lead with compassion instead? I think that the more we are able to hold ourselves in our hardships with compassion, the more equipped we are with the emotional resiliency it requires to show up for others and hold them in their suffering.”
On a comparable note, I wonder how we can find ways to empathize with each other when we have differing opinions and belief systems. With the incredible swathe of political and social controversy that continues to sweep through the world, we have all been challenged to come to terms with the broad, diverse, tightly woven tapestry of human beings and cultures that we are inextricably swimming in, that do not necessarily embody the same values.
I am thinking now of the ebb and flow of conflict surrounding our vehicle policy at Dancing Rabbit, specifically the growing political edge around the topic of how to maintain the importance of our agreements. Christina spoke to this in a previous article, and I think it is worth mentioning again: we all have basic needs, including connection, emotional safety, acceptance, love, and understanding; our lives are a never-ending attempt to get those needs met. We are hard-wired for survival, meaning that we will do whatever it takes, consciously or, often, subconsciously, to meet those needs. It is not the needs that differ between people, but the varying strategies that we all employ to meet them. And if we are going to connect and problem solve to understand people with strategies that oppose our own, we are going to need empathy.
“Empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin an experience,” writes Brene. “Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘you’re not alone.’”
It still sucks. Listening can be extremely difficult and painful. Conflict is scary, and living in community is the equivalent to signing a permission slip for conflict to seep into the cracks of one’s life, and it does so, often unexpectedly, and usually at a terribly inconvenient moment. Our experience of it is universal, and so is the need for empathy. Conflict, at its core, is the sign that connection between individuals has been breached, understanding has been lost, or people sense that they are not being heard or seen. We all know how devastating it feels to lose connection with a person, or a world, that we care about. So practice empathizing with yourself, first of all, and then the people around you. You may be surprised at what you find.
My advice to myself, and to everyone: Do not compare your suffering to some imaginary or concrete “other,” and do not hold yourself back from experiencing joy and gratitude. Practice empathy and compassion. Use your privilege to make this world a more inclusive and compassionate place. “Love is the last thing we need to ration in this world,” writes Brene. Let’s take a page out of her book.
Stay strong, fellow humans, and happy December. May your attention remain centered on gratitude, your heart open, eyes wide, and feet moving one after the other.
Prairie Johnson is a resident at Dancing Rabbit ecovillage. The sound of her axe meeting wood has been the envy of all who pass by her on the road these last few months.