Every night when I've gone to sleep, I've seen brightly-lit earth crawling with insects, and felt an exhaustion and peace stemming from honest and real work. It's now the end of our first week. Time has stretched itself out to the molasses pace of shape-changing clouds where we welcome forevers in single breaths, and today marks our first rest: the first shabbat. I snoozed past my usual waking time of 5:45 AM and awakened with a slight Jameson headache just after nine. The home I cohabit a half-mile from the center is one of the communal hubs for our fourteen-person group, so people are constantly coming and going through our unlocked front door, leaving their bicycles outside in the hutch before collapsing on one of the couches, showering, checking email, or meditating. Right now, most have just returned from a morning service and are eating lunch in the kitchen. We have a great deal of food left over from the dinner I prepared with three others last night, but my late breakfast of challah, grapefruit, kale harvested from our field, and eggs from our chickens has given me a fully-satisfied stomach. I am nearly ready for a nap.
Monday began our morning routine of singing and meditation commencing at six AM, luckily held in our house! That means six of us can simply roll out of bed, brush our teeth, and sleepwalk to the meditation room with hot tea warming the sides of mason jars; for the remaining eight staying up the road in tents, it's not such an easy commute. Regardless, one by one, we found comfortable seats on pillows to the quiet plucking of a guitar. A form of Judaism called "Renewal" informs the style of chanting we do each morning. Instead of completing an entire prayer, we focus on a single line to repeat, and whoever leads the morning service (called Avodat Lev, translated from hebrew as "work of the heart") explains the significance of each.
The first is Modeh Ani Lefahecha Ruach Chai V'Kayam (I am grateful before You eternal living spirit). So, our first affirmation is gratitude for waking each morning- a pure simplicity, but only when taken for granted. Then Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenotecha Yisrael (How great are your tents Jacob, your dwelling places) in which- directly following our thanks for life- we express gratefulness for the bodies our breath animates. As the prayers continue, we shift from the physical to the ethereal, and end with the Shema (God is One)- reinforcing spiritual unity through illustrating the quite literal meaning to "loving thy neighbor as yourself."
Contingent on the whim of each morning service's facilitator, the mediations that ensue can range from basic breath observation through advanced visualizations. In one of the more powerful ones this week, we imagined a thread extending from deep in the earth's core to the base of our spines. With each breath, we brought energy along this thread until it filled our bodies, then- anchoring the thread's tip far above to the most distant point in space- we sent it upwards and outwards into the cosmos. For breakfast, we cook each other greens and eggs, or share yogurt, fruit, or cereal, then begin the meat of our day with positive intentions: Avodat Bayit ("work of the house"), rotating our responsibilities every two weeks.
Our chores include housekeeping at the center and its residences, food preparation in the cafeteria's kitchen, maintaining compost and recycling, tending to the animals (collecting eggs from the chickens, and feeding and milking the goats), landscaping the grounds and watering the gardens, and generally tidying the communal spaces within our house. Then we have lunch together, and sit outside the cafeteria on its long, wooden balcony overlooking the lake and surrounding woods. If we hadn't been farming earlier that morning, we bicycle down the hilly, bucolic roads to our nearby field for Avodat Sadeh ("work of the field"). We are in the midst of readying the beds and planting the first of the crops- adding mulch and composted manure shoveled from wheelbarrows- but enjoyed our first summer harvest of collard greens and kale last night.
The sun is at its height when we are out there, sending sweat mixing with sunblock and insect repellent down trails of our darkening skin as we dig hands in the warm soil, uncovering worms, spiders, and unidentified beetles crawling beneath. And towards the end of our time in the fields, and after returning the tools to the shed, we walk through the wall of tall grasses to cool off in the swimming holes lining the field's edge. I am still trying to find a technique of putting my boxers and pants back on without getting them full of muddy sand, but being dirty- truly dirty- is something I am quickly getting used to.
Along with the ups of the experience (including silly name games, forest trust walks, and silent hikes to overlooks- all of which have turned this into a bit of a "summer camp") there have already been some downs. A major concern for us here in New England is disease-carrying ticks. We knew the dangers before arrival, and planned on doing checks every evening to prevent those critters from accomplishing anything substantial (the common Lyme Disease takes just under 24 hours to contract, and happens after the tick becomes so engorged with your blood that it releases the virus into your veins through a backwash of sorts). I was about to take a shower the first evening when my roommate Eden found an unwelcome visitor burrowed halfway into his thigh. "Fuck," he screamed, and I looked down at the large insect subtly moving in his flesh.
We had heard about different techniques, but apparently the only way to successfully extract a tick is by firmly grabbing its head with tweezers and very carefully pulling it out. I gave him my Swiss Army knife and- for the first time in my twenty years of owning it- felt excited that it would soon be used for something other than opening a bottle of wine! Eden remained relatively calm, swearing every once in so often as he picked away at the intruder. It seemed fairly routine until the tick snapped in half and, while its head disjoined in the vise of my little tweezers, its body remained in Eden's leg: another opportunity to exclaim "fuck!" We called in Naomi from the other room and she knelt at his bedside, trying unsuccessfully to poke into his skin and remove the tick. I just stood grimacing nearby. The tweezers weren't working, so finally we used the little fish-gutter to dig; it was at that point I resigned to taking a hot shower and forgetting about it (luckily, the next morning, the director of the program was able to remove the last tiny remains of the culprit).
And this morning, waking from an amazing, drunken dinner and week-end celebration, we were saddened to find one of the baby chickens living in our basement trampled by the others, laying limply and sadly chirping in a bowl of feed. The chicks had been mailed to us yesterday, and all but one survived the postal service before being put into their new home. But now, another victim! Yes, even cute things are subject to a natural "pecking order": the runt of the group- a small, yellow bird we hadn't yet named- was slowly dying. None of us really knew what to do. Its pre-feather fur was matted, it was obviously in pain, and its miniature leg seemed to have been broken. I wasn't present for the attempt to suffocate it with a plastic bag, but knew it failed when Eva, Abby, and Naomi brought it out of the house on a small white cloth: its hearse to the deathbed of the forest floor.
The sun seems as if it will set earlier than usual tonight. Other than in the bathrooms, we've had to leave house lights off for those in our group observing "Shomer Shabbat" (a more conservative sabbath relegated to ancient Judaic law). We've reached a compromise in which laptops and electronics can be used in common areas during the day (as long as its with headphones), and we've turned the meditation room into an alternative space for Saturdays in which we can play music out loud... Honestly, everyone has been so busy singing and drumming on tables to really mind the loss of a stereo. In fact, it wasn't until last night- while everyone was off at an evening service and I stayed to finish cooking our meal, enjoying my own personal cocktail hour with some whisky- that I listened to any music other than that we created together. In doing so, I brought an inevitable flood of nostalgia for the life I've temporarily left behind in New York. Yet, it isn't truly temporary, is it? In the aftermath of any journey, we never really return to the home we remember.