Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Agnes' Story: In Search of Community

We first met Agnes when we walked into the Guest House at ZEGG.   We were late and the checking in process had already started.  The group were sitting around a table and there was much chatter…all in German!  It took a few minutes for Agnes to realise we were meant to be part of her summer guest program. 

She welcomed us warmly and introduced us to the group, which consisted of mostly German speaking participants.  With the exception of Shane who was a fellow Aussie from Melbourne and Lena who was from Sweden, the rest of the group were from Germany.  It came as a bit of a shock because I had assumed that the summer guest program would be a more international gathering.  Agnes asks if she could speak in English but there is instant resistance to this.  I am already wondering how this week is going to unfold and am beginning to feel a little anxious…

Over the course of the week we get to know Agnes better.  She, together with Frank, runs the evening group meeting where we come together to talk and share the experiences of the day.  She always makes sure we understand what is going on and translates what is being said.  I sense in her a real desire to make us feel welcome and over a shared lunch I ask if I can record her story…

Agnes has come from a very religious and traditional family.  We are surprised to learn that her grandmother (on her mother’s side of the family) is Indonesian and that her grandfather was Dutch.  She spent many childhood summers with her family (including 4 siblings) at her grandmother’s house in Amsterdam, where she had moved to after the war.  She remembers fondly the smell of spices and Indonesian curries that seemed to waft in the air whenever she walked into her grandmother’s house.  She has never been to Indonesia but it remains on her bucket list and she knows she will get there one day.

While her mum’s family were more academic and international, her father was from a more working class family who came from East Germany.  Although she is an organised person, Agnes still finds herself rebelling against the German way of doing things.   There always seems to be a ‘correct’ way of doing things and there is a part of her that does not inherently identify with this…

As she continues her story this tension with the German culture becomes clearer.

When she was 12 her father was sent by the Germany cultural department to work in a German speaking colony in the north of Paraguay, supporting the people there by training primary teachersHe also worked as a pastor there and much later became a missionary.  He also worked as a pastor there and much later became a missionary.  They lived near AsunciĆ³n, in a remote German Mennonite Colony, completely cut off from the rest of the world.  The colonies in Paraguay were about 500 km away from the main city of Asuncion and you could only get there by driving on dirt roads.  This meant that when it rained you had to stay and wait till the road was dry again before you could drive on it.  It sounds amazing…

Her father had got to know the Mennonites who had told him of their need for trained teachers in South America where the Mennonites often have their own private or parochial schools.  Agnes spent her teenage years growing up in South America.  She completed high school in both German and Spanish and also kept up her English.  She found it hard to connect to Paraguay partly because it was a very male dominated culture.  Her brothers however, had a very positive experience there.  The men went hunting and fishing while the women were expected to stay home and to be content with their traditional roles.  It was not a role she enjoyed and she felt her rebellious spirit telling her this was not her place. 

While Agnes did not feel at home in Paraguay, she believes that her love for community stems from this period of her life.  She still remembers the days when her dad went hunting.  One part of his prize would go to the Indian mission station, another to their neighbours and they would eat the rest.  She remembers waking up in the morning to fresh fruit, eggs and bread that would often be left on their own doorstep.  If someone got married in the village, everyone pulled together to help in the celebration.  They came together often to worship or to sing and she had many friends around her.  While they had no cinema or other forms of entertainment, they would often go into the forest in search of the night blooming cactus, referred to as Queen of the Night.  Many of these cacti only bloomed once a year for a single night so finding such a flower was quite special.

This was how she grew up during her formative years and it taught her the beauty of community, and she remembers how much she enjoyed sharing and living together.  Around 1976, her family moved back to Germany but realised very quickly, that it was difficult to re-connect with German society.  As her father pondered what to do, he was offered a position in Vancouver as a priest and the family migrated to Canada. 

It was time for Agnes to go to college and while she considered enrolling at the University of British Columbia, she realised that she was not a big city person.   She met some friends who persuaded her to move to Kansas and complete her tertiary education there.   Agnes was always searching for a place where people would know her by name, a place where she could really feel connected to the people around her.  She hoped she could find this in Kansas. 

She was quite surprised by the America she found in this conservative mid western state in the US.  It was quite the antithesis of what she had imagined America would be.  She felt quite rootless and lost in Kansas, but she joined a Mennonite community, hoping to find a sense of belonging in the familiar.  Agnes received a BA from Kansas but she didn’t find the solutions she was looking for.   The community in Kansas was very much based around the principles of Christianity.  They pooled their resources, followed the teachings of Jesus and helped their neighbours and the poor.  Yet Agnes felt this life had too much structure and restriction, there was no discussion of sexuality and no real sense of freedom.  The church required too much submission and this did not suit her spirit. 

Agnes always searched for female mentors, strong women who appreciated their femininity but were self-determined leaders, and able to live without being submissive to a man.  She is inspired by intelligent women, women interested in philosophy, the arts, women who are able to question the status quo and be their own person.  The Mennonites were very male dominated and Agnes felt she didn’t really fit here and they didn’t provide the answers to her search for a different life.

Still searching for her roots and a sense of belonging she went back to Germany in 1980 with her sister.  She went to Koblenz where she trained as a potter.  She got married at 24, had 2 children and settled into a traditional German marriage.  She seemed to have it all, two houses, a career where she taught English and Spanish and also worked in pottery, all the money she needed, holidays in various places and yet she felt bored.  She found that a traditional life was a little one-dimensional where your focus was mostly on just your family unit with little involvement or connection to social issues and the wider world around. 

While in the process of separation she started talking to friends about the concept of living in community.  When the wall came down and the Russians left, they left behind many houses and structures that were now vacant.  ZEGG, had purchased just such a block of buildings once used to train East German spies. 

In 2001, She moved to an area very close to ZEGG in the hope that her group of friends could buy land and start up a community.  Unfortunately, the neighbours were a little sceptical of their intentions and protested, blocking their purchase.  Impatient to get going, the group of friends split up and started 3 other communities in the outlying areas.  In November 2012, Agnes eventually moved to ZEGG. 

Is this the end of the road for her?  She doesn’t think so.  She loves living in community and the opportunities it opens up for her in terms of diversity in the work she does, the opportunities to give back to the community as well as a chance to grow and discover herself.  But she isn’t sure that ZEGG will be home forever and now that her children are grown up and living on their own, perhaps the time will come when another community or place beckons her to go back on the road again…

Agnes made a big difference to our experience of ZEGG.  We are grateful that despite a busy schedule, she shared so much of herself and went out of her way to make sure we felt welcome.  She has borrowed a car to bring us to the station so we can catch the train to Sieben Linden.  We say goodbye and thank her for her kindness and generosity and wish her all the best for her future.  We are truly grateful our paths crossed and we met a fellow traveller who was not afraid to question the status quo and continue searching for her own truth rather than just accept what she was born with…

When I am with a group of human beings committed to hanging in there through both the agony and the joy of community, I have a dim sense that I am participating in a phenomenon for which there is only one word...."glory." M. Scott Peck

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Communal Living Experience at ZEGG

A usual day for volunteers at ZEGG begins at 8 when we gather for a communal breakfast after which we convened for a volunteer’s group meeting where our tasks for the day were explained.  We worked 6 days a week from 9am – 1 pm (with a short tea break) and then had the rest of the afternoon to ourselves.  Once a week, we helped clean up in the kitchen and we also worked one afternoon in the week.  

We spent our first few days working with Almut.  She is responsible for keeping the place looking beautiful (a job she crafted herself) and we enjoyed working with her because it enabled us to be outdoors.  As we cleared the paved areas we learnt a lot about her experience of community.  Almut has been doing lots of English reading lately but has not had the chance to speak with native speakers so she is happy at the opportunity to practice another language.

Almut is on of the long-term members of this community although not a founding member.   She had come here originally as a volunteer and then decided to go through the process of becoming a full time community member.  The process includes a year of living and working in the community, enabling the community to get to know you and determine if you belong.  Of course this process works both ways!   

Almut says the winters in community are very different.  It is freezing cold and many people prefer to eat at home rather than be communal.  There are no summer guests around and the buzz you feel in the summer is gone.   If you haven’t carved a niche and made your circle of friends, the community can be a lonely place on a cold winters day.  The probationary year is meant to give you a real sense of this place and Almut was glad she was accepted at the end of her year.  But living in community can be quite an intense experience and the urge to travel and explore other communities is also strong in many of the people I
have met.  Almut is no exception.  She spent time at Tamera, the sister community of ZEGG based in Portugal.  She has also lived in Brazil, experiencing quite a different type of life and culture there.   However, living in other communities helped Almut realise that her true place was at ZEGG, and she came back to continue the work she started here.

I ask Almut about the provision for older people, as I had not really noticed people of my parent’s generation here.  She then shares with us a heart-warming story of how her mum has come to join her in the community although there is no formal program for older people as yet.  Almut’s mum is in her mid eighties now and has always been extremely independent.  For a long time she resisted the opportunities to move in with any of her children but by chance there was a vacant cottage at ZEGG that provided the perfect chance.  Of course such a decision had to be approved by the entire community and it is a validation of Almut’s contribution that no one opposed her proposition.  Perhaps it is the start of paving the way for parents of others to move in here.  Almut says her mum was always a pioneer of new ideas and it was the summer camps she ran for young people that originally planted the seed for communal living in Almut.

Volunteering has not only given us a chance to make close contacts within the community, it has also helped us chat to some of the other volunteers.  I get a chance to work in the gardens for two days and meet some of the younger volunteers who are completing an ecological volunteer year here.  When a
year of service in the military became optional, many young people opted to do other things and a year as an ecological volunteer seems to be a popular choice.  The young adults I meet are passionate and full of hope of creating a better world for their children, and this is wonderful to see.  I loved working in the garden.  Harvesting the fruits and vegetables is a truly rewarding job and on my last day in the garden we celebrated with a morning tea to say goodbye to a couple of the young volunteers whose year was up.  As we say on blankets and feasted on the harvest, they reflected on a year that has meant so much more than anything they could have learnt in textbooks! 

It was also during my volunteering work that I got to know Hendrik.  We were organising the clothing boutique, where donated clothes are arranged according to size and type, enabling community members to trade and exchange unwanted items.   While folding pullovers, Hendrik tells me about his work on a project that deals with a European Citizen’s Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income.  The idea is that each European Citizen will be provided with a basic income of 1,000 Euros a month, irrespective of what they earn.  The idea is gaining momentum around the Europe, and Switzerland might just be the country that triggers this into a worldwide debate.  Activists there have collected more than 100,000 signatures in favour of this idea, which means the
country will have a referendum on the debate within the next two years.  More than 19 EU countries are also working on collecting the million signatures they need, to get the EU commission to examine the feasibility of this idea at a European level.

While we learnt much and had many positive experiences at ZEGG, we found the language issue a real barrier to fully appreciating our time here.  In the evening, we meet for a time of reflection and sharing.  The process requires each participant to share inner thoughts about their experiences and lives, which never seems to quite come through in translation and left us feeling rather disconnected.  This was probably amplified because while we made positive connections with some of the people we met, there were a couple of people who were openly hostile to English speakers.  Later we learn that the German obsession with perfection means that many people will be reluctant to speak a language till they have mastered it.  A couple of people were resentful that English was considered to be the Global Language and that even
in their home country, they were still not able to come to a summer program and operate solely in German.  Most English speakers who have grown up in the US, the UK or Australia rarely speak more than one language and this reluctance to even learn a few basic words in another language can be irritating to Europeans, who often speak at least two or three languages quite fluently.

But there is something else here – a heaviness that hangs in the air around us.   I can’t quite put my finger on but I sense something different to the freedom and lightness I felt in cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.  Interestingly, in three separate discussions I had with community members at ZEGG they share with me that many Germans carry a deep sense of guilt and shame on their shoulders because of the atrocities committed during the Second World War.  I have visited Germany previously but never experienced this.  Perhaps it is because we are in the East, perhaps it is the change in the weather, but I sense this cloud that hangs over the people here and wonder if this contributed to some of the friction we experienced. 

We come away having found a well functioning community, having made meaningful connections
with many people but also realising that language is vital to communication and hence to creating community.  Shared values, a common goal, a shared cultural identity and a sense of humour also go a long way toward creating the bonds of community.  Perhaps this became clearer while living for the first time in a community that was culturally and linguistically quite different to our own identities and to where we have come from.  Though, we both grew up on continents quite apart from each other, the British culture that is fundamentally part of my make up, the Christian upbringing, the emphasis on family is quite similar to Steve’s background.  We also share a love for discovery and have questioning minds that refuse to just accept the status quo.  More importantly, though we are sharing a journey and striving towards a common goal. 

Forming community for us is not necessarily about living in the same space but about going in the same direction.  About striving to achieve a common purpose.  About co-operating so that we might find time to be creative and supportive of each other’s dreams!  

"We become human only in the company of other human beings.  And this involves both opening our hearts and giving voice to our deepest convictions. ...When we shrink from the world, our souls shrink, too".  Paul Rogat Loeb