Ezra’s house

Guilford College students in Italy
We passed out olive branches for folks to take home with them.

We hosted a group of students from Guilford College at the farm last month. The group is studying a semester abroad in Northern Italy, in the castle Ezra Pound once lived in.  Pound was an American ex-pat poet and critic of US capitalism who supported Italy’s fascist regime during WWII. His Cantos, some written while in US captivity during the occupation of Italy at the end of the war, still inspire a new generation of neofascists today. I don’t think the students knew much about the history of their host family or even the war as it played out in Italy (neither did I before moving here), but their visit put him squarely in my mind.

We connected with the students because an old friend from when I lived in the anarchist community in Greensboro served as the faculty representative this year for the program. It was amazing to see Mark again after all these years, and as we showed the group around we talked a little about the history of our farm. After lunch we were joined by a group of our friends who live in La Casa della Pace (the House of Peace), a project of Italian former “peace corps” volunteers who live together in intentional community to continue the work they did building bridges abroad at home.  Their project is similar in many ways to what we hope the farm becomes, a inspiration toward our future.  One aspect of La Casa della Pace‘s work is hosting asylum seekers, so they brought 2 fellows from Pakistan along who stay with them these days.

An intercultural wood crewEverybody worked at hauling wood and planting starts in the afternoon to break the ice, then after dinner we had a discussion about living in community, the immigration situation in Italy, and how we make the transition from institutional structures (like college or a peace corps experience) to life after.  What does one do when one finishes a powerful experience abroad but that program comes to an end?  How do you keep “that spark” you feel while fully immersed in a program when its expiration date comes around?  What can we do when the Italian immigration system, built to accept a few thousand immigrants, receives over a hundred thousand in one year?

I think about Ezra, who left the US disillusioned by capitalism and Marxism and truly hellbent on finding a new way. It seems to me he was looking for new community of support when he left the US.  One could say he “fell in with the wrong crowd” as his intellectual pioneering was conveniently appropriated by the politics of the Axis powers. But supposedly he began writing some of his most inspired work on sheets of toilet paper  while locked in a US prison cage toward the end of the war, once again alone the isolated. This was a part of the war I didn’t know much about and it challenged my sense that Ezra was just the worst kind of “Americans abroad” stereotype.  He is said to have had a mental breakdown in the cage, for very understandable reasons, and this inhumane treatment by his own countrymen, “liberating” his adopted country, left an indelible mark.  Reinforcing his sense of the US’ moral corruption and his own extremist view that fascism would lead to new world order, he would return to Italy after being released from a mental institution in the States to live out his later life in the castle.

In these days of rising right wing rhetoric and renewed extremism, I think about what leads people to support fascism.  I think about the barber in the village here who casually mentioned while cutting my hair a few months back that “the gas chambers” were the only way to straighten out politics.  (I am currently using a boycott of his shop as an excuse for my disheveled appearance) We’ve seen fascism veiled in anti-immigrant rhetoric come close to tearing apart the European Union and the United States, and perhaps I think this is a good wake up call.  It’s clear that people are fed up with institutional structures as they exist right now, but we no longer know how to commit directly to one another and many want the iron fist of “The State” (not The Union) to step in and save us. We long for our castles.

In the course of our conversation with the students, someone suggested that if Ezra’s relatives were committed to starting a new chapter in the history of their family’s relationship to fascism, they could take in refugees at the castle.  What message might that send, versus hosting students from a country their ancestor forsake?

Sure enough, I’ve just gotten word that as the returned from our visit they introduced their hosts to  Every Campus a Refuge, a project started at Guilford that encourages academic campuses to open some part of their space to refugees transitioning into permanent housing.  It makes so much sense.  Colleges or even study abroad housing are set up with dorms, cafeterias and built-in opportunities to meet other people.  It’s a new take on an institutional structure we take for granted as static or inflexible, and it’s a beautiful alternative to building walls or turning inward when we reach unfamiliar territory.

3 Graces

We just left the Woodard Lane Cohousing Community to come to Italy. As we moved in, others who’d moved out told us their take on who’s attracted to Cohousing communities: First, there are the extroverts, the folks who would love to live communally under all kinds of circumstances. Perhaps these are the folks that thrive in communes, hostels, barracks, etc. They might happily live under a ping pong table so long as someone else was involved. Secondly, there are the introverts, the folks who love community under certain conditions. Perhaps these are the folks who enjoy their private space but also enjoy a structured environment to discuss the merits of turf (at length) with people they’re not related to. Who does that leave? Extroverted golfers?

As an unapologetic member of the first category, I particularly enjoyed the dinners our cook teams prepared each week, not just to eat but also to throw my weight around a bit. Known fact: bantering about religion, politics, or community gossip helps prep vegetables efficiently. Subjective Observation: Heated discussions about the role of colonialism and the rise of Wahhabism (Jim: look it up!) occasionally yields mixed culinary results but certainly keeps things lively!

With everything cooked and ready to eat, we gathered in a circle and shared some kind of blessing, reflection, poem or hokey pokey before digging in. Upon arriving at WLCH, my sociological analysis is that members of the second camp had unduly influenced a version of a popular grace I remember growing up. It went:

Thank you for this food,
This food, this glorious glorious food,
And the animals,
And the vegetables,
And the minerals,(!)
Who made it possible.

MINERALS! It’s PEOPLE! PEOPLE who made it possible. Suddenly grace was reduced to a guessing game! I mean, sure, some folks are pretty into crystals and the like but when did a mineral ever harvest your lettuce?! Or berate you about Wahhabism? In a rather uncouth manner I began to loudly sing my version each time we did that grace and attempt to pull more people into my camp. Most sung it way they’d always done.

thiscollectivelife5
This is a comic I made while living collectively in North Carolina. I’d say the same concept applies to lemon bars left in the common house.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from (watching other people in) community, it’s that you rarely influence people over the long term by force and your best bet is being a good example. Folks set an incredibly kind and loving example for us in cohousing, and we’ll always remember it fondly.

By request, I was asked to record some of the other graces I learned growing up in Waldorf schools and here are 3. I’m sure my versions are slightly more bombastic and overbearing than those you’ll find on Rudolf Steiner’s Greatest Hits, but take them and share them in memory of me.