Eat, Paint, Love

Kim Laffont

© Copyright 2009 by Kim Laffont


Photo of an egg plant.

Sometimes when you go seeking answers, you just end up finding more questions.

My friend, Colleen, and I set out on a four-day road trip from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The idea was to visit “intentional communities” and to learn what brings people together into community and what makes communities work. We had selected three communities including an artist community, an ecofarm, and an interfaith spiritual community.

To have a little fun, we themed our visits in the spirit of the recent popular novel “Eat, Pray, Love” instead ours was “Eat, Paint, Love.”

In keeping with our theme the first place we visited was the Blueberry Patch in Gulfport, Florida. The Blueberry Patch is an artist community founded on the seventh day of the seventh month in 1977. It is Floridaorida's oldest surviving artist retreat, has been around for many years, and shows its age in a rather rag tag, dilapidated way.

By all outside appearances it is not an attractive site. It is in a questionable neighborhood and appears shabby at best. But I found something special here worth sharing.  It was the expression of the artists. The founder of the “Patch”, Dallas, says “The Patch was founded out of Joy.” He sees his community as a cosmic adventure in which sharing and giving is the way to survive, even going so far as to call is “Sharvival.”

As part of our visit and our “paint” theme we took the time to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida. We had long discussions about art, and what makes art, art. Is the art in the museum any more valid than the art at the Blueberry Patch? Where the Monets and the Morisots any deeper an expression of the artist than the multi-colored polka dot chairs at the Blueberry Patch?

I concluded that the art at the Blueberry Patch doesn’t belong in a museum; it is the type of art that doesn’t put on airs. Instead the artists here use art more as an expression of themselves and how they are feeling. Leaving it out in the rain shows it is something current to be shared rather than something solid that will be saved. It is more important for the artist that the art be open and free than that it be protected and saved.

I found it interesting that interwoven with the art scattered around the garden was the idea of exuberance and enthusiasm. This is not a museum, but an interactive journey in which artist and visitor share an experience—and for me it was joyful.

Our next stop was the “Eat” portion of our trip and after some wandering and meandering we found our way to the Ecofarm in Plant City, Florida. The mission of the Ecofarm is to form a sustainable, eco-friendly, people-friendly, farm-based intentional community that provides for all the needs of community members. Members are community-minded. They are focused on maintaining the well-being of the community and striving towards increasing sustainability. Meaningful work, a social environment, and community activities cultivate an atmosphere of common purpose and shared experiences.

We arrived and were greeted by Debbie, Diane and Rebecca who were more than delighted to show us around the farm. Our first stop? The composting toilet.

They welcomed us into their community as if we were old friends, and even invited us to stop and have lunch with them. During our visit the work went on. While explaining the native plant species to us, Debbie took the time to water the garden and we watched Carl working in the fields as we were picking Eggplants for lunch.

Everything that is done at the farm is done with intent. From the batch of solar panels installed just to charge the golf cart batteries, to the old tractors that have been restored to work the fields, from the plastic barrels that are used as harvesting tools to the seatbelt holding up the trees. There is an aura of resourcefulness—of finding and giving—as in finding something old and giving it new life.

And so while we watched Debbie chop the eggplant we had just picked from the field we asked our questions about community. What makes a community a community? What about inclusiveness? Exclusiveness? And how many people arrive on the farm seeking shelter from the world? How many people are running away or trying to escape the world rather than enhancing their own social experience? Does a community have to have a leader? A theme? A reason to exist? How do you integrate the whole society into community? How do you work in the real world and live in community?

And then as we walked the fields and touched the plants and smelled the earth, I was reminded of how far we had drifted from our agrarian roots. This little farm was fighting for its life against the big machine that wanted to swallow it. The myriad of rules and policies that keep things complicated and difficult for small farms and almost plow them under in a heap of bureaucracy and manure. It is not easy being a farmer it is damned hard work. In fact, we saw John briefly for lunch, but he was up and gone before the meal was over, leaving only an empty plate to show his presence, but in the fields and in the barn his presence was everywhere. In the tidy stacked palettes and the piles of palm fronds, in the rows of green growing things and the sugarcane station, his presence, his energy, vibrated in tune with the earth.

My hat was off to this committed group of hardworking people. People who had chosen, not an easier softer way, but a damn hard life of back breaking labor in the hot sun only to eek out a small place of their own. Not to grow rich, but to tread softly on the earth.

Our final stop was the Kashi Ashram, an interfaith spiritual community, in Sebastian, Florida. It was the stop I was most concerned about, the most fearful of, the most dreaded. I did not want to be group hugged, or feel like I had walked into a cult, or sing Kumbaya. So it was with trepidation that I approached this experience.  Their website said that Kashi is based on kindness, compassion, and service and their purpose is to awaken a radical awareness about one's spiritual self and the issues that face the world today.

We were greeted by Swami Dhumavati when we arrived and I was quite nervous, having never met a swami before and not really understanding what a swami was. But Dhumavati was not scary. She was kind and considerate and left us our space to settle and rest, and then came back the next morning to show us around the grounds.

Kashi was formed in 1976 by Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati. Yes I know quite a mouthful, but everyone just calls her Ma. Her interests are in bringing together people of diverse faiths with an emphasis on individual spiritual growth. There are not requirements to embrace any particular spiritual doctrines at Kashi—it is more about just being openly, wholeheartedly yourself.

In the short time I was there, I felt a shift in myself. I felt my heart open and my mind expand. It was not an epiphany that took me to my knees, but a gentle shift. Our house hosts were so open and willing to share their knowledge and speak to us of their experience without hiding anything. There was genuineness to them that you don’t always find in the outside world, and again I found the intention I have found at the Ecofarm, and the joyfulness of the Blueberry Patch. These were qualities that all three communities seemed to embody.

And along the way we had met real people--a Biologist, a Beekeeper, a Musician, an Attorney, an Architect--all functioning outside the community in the “real” world and inside the community as contributing members. Sharing this experience of life, finding and giving, growing and learning, but doing it together, doing it with intent.

Arriving home, I reviewed my impressions. What had I learned? What had I experienced?  There was so much squeezed into four short days, but I can say I had definitely experienced love; I had definitely experienced dedication; exuberance, commitment, and openness, and perhaps in essence those are the things that are community. In all my searching, it wasn’t so much that I had found community, but more that community had found me.

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