“The past must die in order for the future to have a place to live.”
The cold permeated everything. It was the winter of 2005 and the sun hardly rose above the horizon, enclosing this high plateau, on the eastern side of the Cascadian Wilderness in southern Washington State, in what felt like perpetual darkness. The sheep somehow got fed, and so did the chickens, despite the chilling cold that crept deep into the bones of the few residents who remained. It was a cold that even the warmth of a well-tended wood stove could not melt away. For the chill that permeated Windward that winter was the chill that comes when the last flames of hope begin to flicker, when the land begins to reclaim 30 years of hard-won successes, when what you once were able to convince yourself was courageous, you now simply think is crazy.
During that winter, I was 4,500 miles away in the mountains of the Darien rain forest in Panama, taking a course in sustainable community development and systems thinking. At the ripe age of 20, I thought I had most of the answers. I knew something was terribly awry in how the vast majority of us lived with each other and with the Earth. I knew I needed to create a small haven of sanity for myself so I could be free to live fully and somehow, maybe, be able to help others do the same. In short, I had no idea what my dreams were getting me into.
What the people who remained at Windward did not know that winter was how painful it would be to let something grow out of what had died. What I didn’t realize that winter was how painful it would be to breathe life into something I did not fully understand was dead.
Windward’s history, like the history of many intentional communities that have survived in some form through the last four decades, is complex and multi-sided. Windward grew out of the conviction that we needed a working model of a better way to live, freely and sustainably—a desire that sails into the prevailing winds of modern culture, and so requires a strategy akin to tacking, wherein a boat sails a zig-zag course windward, for no sailing vessel can move directly into the wind.
The piece of this long history that I will focus on here is that critical point of transition that all of life experiences, after a retreat, after a decline, when space is created for something new to incubate, to gestate and eventually come to life. In other words, the fated transition in community when the founders, or what is left of them, pass on what they have created to a new generation of practical idealists who will carry an evolved version of it into the future.
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I first came to Windward in the late summer of 2007 as an idealistic college student. What I entered when I arrived was a small group of people, in their 50s or 60s, struggling to run an internship program that was an attempt to attract young blood who could bridge the gap between generations and life experiences to carry Windward forward.
Windward had recently experienced a significant decline in active membership, and the hillside that formed the center of the village homestead was a mere shadow of what must have been, a forest filled with pieces of stories of people I would never meet, fragments of a life, the parts left behind. But quite frankly, I was excited by the void, because I knew that even though the oaks were now the rusted orange of Fall, Windward had just experienced Winter, and I could smell a hint of Spring on the wind.
I returned to Windward in 2009, after finishing my degree, with uncertain hopes of creating a full and abundant life and the immodest desire to build a better world. I had enthusiasm, I had a vision, I had the worldview afforded me by my experiences, including more than my fair share of naïvete about human nature. Though I would have been ashamed to admit it at the time, I was also undoubtedly healing my wounds from surviving in a severely fragmented world.
I found a kindred spirit in Walt, a 60-year-old man with a head full of Einsteinian white hair, the last remaining founder. Somehow I looked past the grayed hair, the tired body, the joint failure, and the bitterness, and saw someone who would fight and love beside me to re-energize Windward, this beautifully complex and revolutionarily simple place I had stumbled across. Despite Walt’s repeated expression that Windward needed a “new crew,” I continued to see him, and his eloquent expressions of a holistic life, as part of this new crew that would build upon the foundation created by the membership over the last 30 years.
It wasn’t until Walt pulled me aside after lunch late in August of 2011 to tell me he was contemplating leaving, contemplating living out his days in some other yet-to-be-determined location, that I fell back down to the hard clay ground. By that time, a handful of people in their 20s and 30s, including myself, had decided to lay down some roots and were, as best as we understood how at the time, making a commitment to stay. But staying was not enough. Walt would not and could not carry Windward forward. He could not revive the Windward of old, nor would he want to. He had done his part, his leg of the race, was weary from the effort and was trying desperately to hand off the baton. But up until that point, part of me refused to acknowledge it was a relay race. Others seemed to be resisting this truth too.
For to acknowledge that this grand adventure of life, and more specifically, creating vibrant community, is a relay race, is to face our own mortality and the cycles of transformation we are entwined in all of the time, and that none of us can escape. Not only must we confront our own decline and eventual death, but also our periods of incubation, learning, and growth that necessarily come before the height of any creative endeavor.
While it is only natural for one generation to move away from center stage as the next generation takes on the lead role, in a close-knit community context this easily translates into a power struggle where the young’ins are not quite ready or prepared to take on the responsibility and the elders are not quite ready to let go of it. But we both know we must. The tragic beauty in it all is that life doesn’t stop while we figure it out, while we come to grips with the evolving roles we must play in making our own dreams and life full and real: the animals still need to be fed, the seeds still need to be planted, the dishes still need to be washed, visitors still need to be greeted, the bills still need to be paid, life still needs to be lived.
In this transitional period, emotional tensions are high, productivity goes down, opportunities are lost, mistakes are made, people leave. But those who stick through it get to bear witness to something new coming to life, emerging out of all that which came before to create fertile ground for something new to be born—like the decaying log in the old growth forest that serves as the literal foundation, rich with nutrients, from which a germinated seed can grow into a sapling and then into a tree.
Those years of transition were very difficult, before I and the rest of the “new crew” understood fully that the responsibility of bringing to life a new version of Windward rested squarely on our shoulders. There were times when each of us contemplated leaving, when the struggle didn’t seem worth it. Some people did leave, in part because of the perceived power struggle and lack of direction as the remaining elder stepped back, but did not really step back, and the new crew stepped forward, but did not really step forward. This period of transformation was not fun, it probably could have been done better, but it was inevitable and necessary.
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Liminal space describes the stage of a transition when a person, group, or entity straddles the threshold, occupying both sides of a boundary. Liminality is commonly referenced in rituals or rites of passage, when the participant has traveled sufficiently away from a former identity, but has yet to fully cross over the threshold and embrace a new identity. Metaphorically, something has died, but has yet to be born anew. The duration of this period varies depending on the individuals and the nature of the transition. For all, it carries with it elements of disorientation and confusion as well as heightened awareness and new perspectives.
Windward, and its people, existed in an intensely liminal space for about a year, maybe two. If you count all the years that had passed since that cold, dark winter of 2005, when the metaphorical death made itself known, the liminal space lasted nearly six years.
Nothing can transform, or evolve, without passing through this threshold. Communities that want to transition past the vision of the founders, aging members who desire to have their efforts have meaning beyond just their own experience, young communitarians who want to build on successes, learn from mistakes, and not keep re-inventing the wheel all must be willing to pass through this liminal period, often wrought with role and identity confusion.
So it is ever more important during this time of vulnerability to maintain the balance between rigidity and flexibility, between community-focused efforts and individual desires. To facilitate a successful rite of passage, like a skilled ritual-maker, communities must honor established structure and customs, such as decision-making practices, while leaving room to adapt to what is at hand, and encourage cooperative and interdependent values, while also encouraging the pursuit of individual bliss.
At the most basic level, if a community is approaching such a transition, the best that can be done is to be aware of it, anticipate it, and maintain compassion and integrity, patience and perseverance when the time comes.
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At this point, I feel as though I have crossed over the threshold of this liminal space, coming to a place where my role at Windward is once again clear. I’d suggest that Windward as a whole has passed through the threshold as well, even though role confusion rears its head from time to time. While I now have more responsibilities and more to lose, it is how it should be for a 26-year-old, and I have gained back a mentor, adviser, and friend in Walt, someone who for a period of time felt more like an adversary.
Looking back, it was a commitment to a shared purpose and vision, and a willingness to step into unknown parts of myself, that helped me survive those days when I would collapse to the forest floor in tears, wondering why it had to be so hard to live so simply, wondering why I had to fight so hard to be able to love. In other words, it was desire that enabled me to survive the transition, a strong desire for the intangible yet very real promise that community holds.
I now have far greater understanding of the challenge that Walt and many other long-term communitarians face during the attempt to hand over the life’s work of many to a younger, necessarily less experienced generation. Initially comes the challenge of attracting young people with a common vision and shared values to something that is fading, if not already faded. We are more easily drawn to health, the vibrant and the lively. Those who want to take on the role of an elder must be willing to help the community hold a steady course long enough for the younger generation to go through the humbling process of learning how great the challenge is and how grand an opportunity it is, during these vulnerable years of growth, to access many years of experience and practice. In the same way, a young sapling is far more likely to succeed if it is grounded in the fertile, life-giving soil created through past cycles.
I can also assure readers that if there is little or no room for the people who will carry the community into the future to make their mark, to be involved in the creative evolution, to play a role in determining the direction the community heads, then the community will not last very long. Those who are capable of maintaining the integrity of the community through time will leave if their efforts are not valued. And those who do not care to be involved in the creative process integral for community survival, and are content to just let others make such decisions, will not be able, on their own, to maintain a dynamic community when the elders are no longer able to. This means that the elders need to step back just as much as the younger generation steps forward. Increasing or decreasing responsibility is best mirrored by similar changes in authority.
Finally, there are mistakes that we in the younger generation need to make for ourselves, and then there are mistakes that are not worth repeating. I know that I have greatly benefited from elders who have done their best to differentiate between the two, to help me avoid the pitfalls while leaving me to learn the lessons that are best learned first-hand. I imagine that others could benefit from such guidance as well. I imagine too that one of the greatest joys that can come from a hard-earned truth is the understanding that someone else, potentially someone whom you are deeply invested in seeing succeed, will benefit from your experience. My generation has, however, been sold many false promises, and we now crave a practical wisdom that is earned only through experience; we can detect from a distance a lack of authenticity. So it is not the infallible self-proclaimed gurus to whom we are attracted, but rather the people wise in their humanly years.