from Oren Slozberg, Commonweal Executive Director
On December 15, on a gray and rainy day, 40 of our Bolinas friends and colleagues gathered at the tent outside the main building at Commonweal for our annual celebration of our community and work. I want to “bring you into the tent” to hear some of what I shared:
Let’s start with a moment of silence.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
That was verse three of Wendell Berry’s poem How to Be A Poet. We start every coming together at Commonweal with silence, and often with poetry.
Welcome to Commonweal, or more specifically, welcome to our tent in the middle of the national park. This land is compelling. The ocean, the cliffs, the vistas: they call us. They inspire us to be here. Over the last 40 years, hundreds have lodged in Pacific House, Kohler and Bothin, and have changed their lives there. Hundreds of people have sat in circles in the living rooms, facilitated conversations that changed the world in the gallery, and were restored by Claire-made dinners in the dining room.
And here we are gathered in a tent. In the great outdoors. With 40-degree weather, propane heaters and an atmospheric river. This is how we gather in these times. When you go camping, you usually sleep in the tent and do the work elsewhere. We do all our group work, planning, and talking outside, have our meals on the porch, and we just go inside to sleep. It’s reverse camping, we’ve turned the retreat model inside out.
We have held several events like this at Commonweal. Our first-ever staff-wide retreat; a board and stewardship circle meeting; and our Fall Gathering. We even held the Cancer Help Program in this reverse camping way. That was in October when the previous atmospheric river flowed through our skies. It dropped so much water in the folds of that tent that the tent collapsed. The point is that we found a way to keep going: that Cancer Help Program is one we will remember and it was one of the best retreats ever.
The tent is iconic in many different mythologies. It is a place of convening: a home to wanderers and the nomad. It is a symbol of agility, of nimbleness; you can get up and leave. The ultimate resilience. A fire is coming? There’s not enough water? Not enough food? Pack up the tent and move on. We talk about the sacredness of land, places where we live, work, engage, pray. That changes when you are in a tent. You find the sacredness in every place you plant your tent.
In verse 2 of Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet,” he writes:
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
This Commonweal tent is our way of continuing together despite the pandemic and its alphabet of variants. It symbolizes what we have become in the last year: a place where change makers from various sectors come together under one roof, even if the roof is more suggestive than structural.
At the heart of the tent is our work with people with cancer. But the tent now includes healing circles taking place around the world; a center for healing and liberation; a program to redefine democracy; Visual Thinking Strategies, an art program that stimulates critical thinking and metacognition; and Natura–a model permaculture garden that develops innovative approaches to medicine led by our village doctor, Anna O’Malley, MD. The tent includes a collaboration of more than 250 retreat centers that has just been funded to develop Racial Healing retreats all over the United States and Canada. The tent also includes a program that explores resilience on a local level here on our site and the Omega Program, a global network of funders and organizations interested in resilience and the polycrisis. And many other programs.
There are more than 30 programs at Commonweal now. Our newest programs are the Octavia Project, providing respite and rest for black women leaders; and the Innovative Learning and Living Institute, building community cohesion through immersive four-month retreats for young adults across the ideological, racial, and income spectrum at Retreat Centers across the United States.
We all know that the world is in transition. We know about the many challenges we are facing and that are coming down the pike. It is not an easy “knowing” to hold. Sometimes I get exhausted; sometimes I wake up in the morning close to despair. That said, I can not imagine a better place to be than here in this community, on this piece of land. This is the place where I learned how to hold on to hope, how to be able to look into the future, and see some light coming through the clouds. It is a feeling of home and belonging. I learned this from our Cancer Help Program team–they work with people that live with cancer. They can see the clouds on the horizon, and they have taught me how to keep living, being, and celebrating life today.
In the Arabian Desert, the Bedouin’s tent is known for its radical hospitality. Everyone is welcome: family, friends, foes, frenemies, and even the weird neighbor down the wadi. All are welcome for dinner, tea, and hookah. With Thanksgiving and Hannukah just behind us, the Solstice, Christmas and Kwanza next week, and New Years right around the corner, these are times when many tents are full, both in our physical homes and in virtual rooms. May we all be able to enjoy or practice radical hospitality, the coming together, even in the time of pandemic–and to begin the healing and gathering we need for the world ahead.
Before I end, I owe you the first verse of the Wendell Berry poem.
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
Blessings and love.