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Pandemic World: How My Communal Past Helps Me Cope

Life is surreal, it’s dizzying and heartbreaking to keep up with new information and rising numbers of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. With no national plan, it’s the perfect storm of our time, and when I focus on these tragedies, I feel overwhelmed.

Pandemic World: How My Communal Past Helps Me Cope

By Jan Mundo

In this global pandemic, my heartfelt thoughts and prayers are with you. With all who are sick, in fear, and confused. With those who have died and those who have lost anyone.

With the estimated exponential growth rate, the speed of time seems to have elongated, and the cycle of one day seems like a year or million. Worldwide, the pandemic happened so quickly, yet I feel like I’m watching events unfold in slow motion.

Life is surreal, it’s dizzying and heartbreaking to keep up with new information and rising numbers of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. With no national plan, it’s the perfect storm of our time, and when I focus on these tragedies, I feel overwhelmed. The entire world’s day-to-day way of life has changed overnight. Even more difficult to comprehend is how quickly people succumb: in one or two weeks, they can be gone. I’m having trouble thinking about anything else, especially when so much seemed preventable.

Last week I grew increasingly emotional, livid at the ever-sinking levels of discourse, compassion, and leadership. I was drowning in the grief of loss and yearning for the humanity so desperately needed right now. I try to stay calm yet I am aware of my heart beating faster, feeling on edge, even as I sit in my room, even as I write this. I would feel differently if those with an insane amount of power over our lives had our best interests at heart.

On the fringes of stocking up, some people hoard in panic, emptying grocery and drug store shelves, as if no one else needed any. I didn’t initially rush out for food, toilet paper, and sanitizers, but when I finally went, there were queues and early hours for seniors and immunocompromised.

Two months ago, I wouldn’t have blinked at certain behaviors, especially after thirteen years in Manhattan, where crowding is a way of life. But now I felt uncomfortable with how some employees apparently didn’t practice the six-foot distancing memo, as they kept moving toward me to help even as I backed up. A woman reached over me for food items; groups of walkers and runners occupied the whole sidewalk or corner waiting for the light, making it difficult to go around.

I wondered why some people seemed to get it, while others seemed oblivious to everyone but themselves or didn’t want to be bothered? Weren’t community-minded, common-sense measures obvious to everyone? It dawned on me that my world view had been shaped by a half-century of exploring nature and eastern, mystical, and spiritual traditions and healing arts — and by the years I lived on a commune.

The prevailing mood of the 1960s was characterized by societal fear, anger, unrest, and divisions following the shocking assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK, a controversial war, the drafting of my generation’s men, student protests, the civil rights movement, and women’s lib.

Although originally a loose collection of twenty-something hippies, societal dropouts, freethinking flower children and their friends, The Farm is an intentional community determined to make a difference by creating an alternate society rather than simply protesting the one we had. Our spiritual teacher, Stephen Gaskin, a former Marine and English professor, helped us cohere into a community deep in the woods of rural Tennessee, proclaiming we were “out to save the world.”

Through the challenges of collective living as “householder yogis” (picture #stayhome times fifty), we attempted to uphold the Vows of the Bodhisattva — summarized in Gaskin’s hippie parlance as “I vow to shovel shit against the tide forever” for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Incorporating spiritual practices into the reality of building a town and its systems in the middle of nowhere and with few resources, we did our best to: divide the work, get along in households of sometimes twenty-five to fifty people, not favor some kids over others — plus make everything from scratch (meals, buildings, systems), and earn money in town. We all had a stake and played a role in our community. Determined to make it in the South, we learned from our neighbors and helped them out: we were the hippies that got shit done.

Some of the teachings from The Farm are helping me cope now — maybe they’ll help you too.

1. We are all one. We are connected, whether we know it or recognize it or not. When we honor that connection, we honor the spirit in each of our beings.

We are truly having a global experience of epic proportions.  Gaskin, paraphrasing Shunryu Suzuki would say, “When it’s raining out, it’s raining everywhere.” The entire world is doing this together: Because of a microscopic virus, when shared in droplets or deposits, the very air we breathe can mean life or death. We’ve always been in this together, but now it’s really obvious.

I love how Dr. Sanjay Gupta put it:

“I think what I’m really struck by, is that never before, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, have I found a situation where how I behave so dramatically impacts your health, and how you behave so dramatically impacts my health — and all the people in this theater tonight….These concentric circles around you, that has to be important to me. I have an obligation now, not just for my health, my family’s health, but for your health and your family’s health. We are codependent on each other in a way that I’ve never seen before.”

©  2020 Clifford Chappell and The Foundation

2. Be good to each other. Take care of each other. Beginning with ourselves, our households, extending to neighborhoods and work crews, we took care of “the square-inch field” and kept broadening our circles of care to reach local, national, and international communities. It was part of our spiritual practice and the lubricant that likely helped us survive in the South. Fifty years on, we still look out for each other.

Now in the midst of pandemic, we see the heroism of medical professionals and civil servants worldwide, helping patients while putting their own lives on the line. People are going the extra mile to help others, during a time of extreme duress: picking up groceries; leaving needed items for a neighbor.

Gupta continued: “There’s an obligation now. I don’t want to get too philosophical here, but I find it really fascinating that, if not for me, if I don’t engage in these good behaviors for me, then I should do it for you, I should do it for the people around me. And hopefully, that’s motivating for people to do this.”

3. Keep your agreements. Our agreements were honored as a covenant within the community: we held all things in common, didn’t eat meat, wear leather, drink alcohol, or smoke tobacco. Agreements were a way of preserving trust that everyone would do their part in holding up their end of the bargain.

But before keeping them, you have to agree enough to even make the agreements. Now in the time of pandemic, taking responsibility — personal, household, community, national, and world — exponentially affects everyone’s health and safety. It’s a social contract.

4. Vibes and energy are real. People can feel each other’s vibes and energy when they pay attention. Energy extends far beyond the body, and we’re all connected beyond the physical realm. When people don’t keep their agreements (#3), it rankles the vibes because they are not in integrity with themselves or others.

5. Bugs. Who knew there were so many? Put a bunch of city kids in the middle of the woods, and you find out fast. We had ‘em all, not just spiders, chiggers, ticks, potato bugs, and cabbage worms; I’m talking internal and external bodily invaders you can and can’t see. Easily contracted via living in close quarters, outdoor “plumbing,” and hot humid southern climate, we were a lab tech’s delight. (Fortunately we believed in science and had a brilliant team of medical professionals.) To eradicate the spread of our bug-du-jour, we had to fight it together — and in the end with the right tools and medications, we won!

6. Don’t complain applied to many facets of life on The Farm (see #5, bugs), but perhaps most vividly during natural home birth assisted by midwives. By reframing and working with “contractions” as “interesting sensations” and releasing unresolved emotions, tension, and fear, we transmuted stress hormones into labor-assisting endorphins.

Don’t complain is the ultimate rising above, conquering-adversity mission we need right now, which does not preclude taking a stand for what is right.

7. Do with less and make the best of what you have (see #6, don’t complain). We referred to The Farm as a third world country, and ourselves as voluntary peasants. Considering most of us came from homes with hot running water, indoor plumbing, electricity, telephones, packaged and prepared foods, stores and shops, landing in the country with none of the above was different. Apprenticing to each other, we built those systems over time but as a community lived without certain basics for years. If we didn’t grow it, harvest it, buy it in bulk, freeze, can, cook, or bake it, we didn’t eat it.

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©  2020 Clifford Chappell and The Foundation

Thus quite motivated, we shared, sacrificed, and experimented. A few years in, we had one party-line for 250 people and made it through “wheatberry winter” followed by “popcorn winter” without oil. Our staples were hand-rolled flour tortillas, soybeans, nutritional yeast, tofu, soymilk, canned salsa, pickles, veggies, or fruit; flour, sugar, and oil were often rationed.

Corona quarantine is prompting people to use what they have, pulling forgotten items out of their closets and pantries or finding a substitute part in a box to fix a doorknob.

8. Remake. Re-use. Redesign. Retool. Out of necessity, we made stuff from other stuff. I made elephant pants from curtains and sheets and comforters from squares of worn corduroy pants and parka factory remnants. We rebuilt parts from old cars and trucks to fix others, took apart buildings and constructed new ones with the materials, retrieved old phone systems, a water tower, trucks and farm equipment that people were selling or giving away.

Soberingly, today in a nationwide call to arms home crafters and industrious kids are sewing facemasks for healthcare workers and first responders, along with their own personal masks to wear during essential store runs. To think: my fashion statement is now a face-covering instead of a scarf and jewelry!

9. Doing it yourself takes longer. Daily maintenance takes longer when you DIY (see #7, 8… and 6). Creating everything from scratch and doing everything it takes concerned with the basics of everyday life — cooking, cleaning, hand and clothes washing, home-schooling, getting essentials, and conducting a business or practice — takes time. Enjoy the ride. (see #10)

10. Be in the moment. When you sit, sit. When you clean, clean. Be present to and appreciate what you’re doing. Also the essential part of mindfulness. Taste the food as you chew it, be mindful of swallowing it. Notice how you reach for the next bite, or want to, before savoring what’s in your mouth. Be with whatever you’re doing without thinking past it to the next item on your list. See Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (Suzuki) and Be Here Now (Ram Dass).

Be with the one(s) you’re with: your partner, spouse, kids, friend(s), family, your COVID-19 household, those you work with or encounter running errands for essentials. Take a breath. Right now. Slowly. Inhale. Exhale. Sigh it out. Again. Again.

11. Attention is energy. The object of your attention becomes amplified.

Although I’m using safe practices and staying informed about the latest developments, I feel the struggle and heartbreak of the world. While rationing news and social media time, I’m attempting to replenish my energy: meditate (even 5-10 minutes), breathe, join an online dance party, practice chi gung, take a distanced walk, or step outside and enjoy.

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© Jan Mundo (with Stephen Gaskin circa 1996)

12. Make your own fun, it’s free. Back in the day, we worked and played hard, and, as a talented creative bunch way out in the country, we were the entertainment. All ages attended Farm community parties, concerts, recitals, and talent shows.

Immerse in the simple things and go deep; make music, art, love, enjoy friends and family, do puzzles, take classes, all from home. Grow a garden; put up food for the winter; try those recipes you’ve saved. The emergent giving economy is mobilizing our collective spirit and strength.

13. Question authority (a necessary balance to hippie optimism). We knew we could make it, believed in our mission, and worked hard to achieve it despite the odds and contrary opinions. As dedicated spiritual students, faced with losing our land, we changed course.

Use your voice. In addition to our vulnerability, part of the epidemic tragedy is the loss of safety and our seeming inability to affect the outcome of our lives. Questioning authority, especially today, is our protection against unchecked power.