Penny Watson

This is a story about my experiences with communal living. It is certainly not unique, except in detail. You could hear a similar story from thousands of Australians about their lives over the past few years. So it is offered here as a kind of case history with a happy ending.

Australia is an ancient country. You can feel it in the bush, in the golden light before sunset, in the silence of the desert plains. The bush has always fascinated me - plants evolved to withstand extremes of heat and dryness, with leathery leaves and hidden flowers, manifesting a subtle beauty, so often missed by newcomers from countries where beauty entails cows in emerald-coloured fields. But in me this land touches off something that is basic in my own experience of being a creature on this planet. A feeling of the struggle of being alive, of the screaming, twisting journey from pure energy to material form, through evolution from atoms to million-celled organism, from entropy into the cascading profusion of shapes and colours and activities and relationships that, somehow, exists. So many different entities, each living its own self-centred existence, and yet harmonising so naturally with all the other creatures around. A multifaceted creation firmly embedded in its original unified energy source.

Man is undeniably from that same source, via that same evolutionary journey. The life-energy which sustains plants and birds and two-toed sloths is also in you and me. Which implies, therefore, that the potential for harmony is there, inside us, also. Harmony with every atom and arrangement thereof in creation, human or nonhuman, animate or inanimate.

Contact with the buzzing reality of the bush has always aroused such feelings in me; of wonder at the balance of nature, and disbelief at human blindness. And inevitably, the question: well why aren't we, human beings, into that harmony also? Why are there wars and pollution and Bankstowns full of used-car lots and Bex-taking housewives?

And what can we do, I do, to get back into that flow that carries every other species so easily? I've looked for answers to those questions in many areas concurrently. Not because I was feeling particularly virtuous or philanthropic, but because I really couldn't help it. It seemed like the only thing to do. And one area - that of finding a way to live harmoniously with molecular arrangements in the form of fellow human beings, led into the exploration of communal living. Because if groups in society are to harmonise, first of all individuals have to be able to get along with one another - obviously.

It isn't, and wasn't, so much that I have anything against the nuclear family set-up per se. Apparently some people can handle it. In my experience, however, most people can't. Margaret Mead once said that the nuclear family wasn't named after the bomb, but that it was a good analogy, because it is about as dangerous. The number of divorces, unhappy marriages and families where the children and parents just don't communicate despite years of living together testify to the truth in this statement. Two people in virtual isolation, trying to live out the Woman's Day myth that they should be all things to each other - it's bound to be hard. My parents' nuclear family had all the classic problems and tensions, and so did most of my friends' families. So in general I regarded that situation as one to be avoided, for practical rather than theoretical reasons.

I spent most of my childhood in Adelaide, leading a double life. At school I felt myself to be a semi-outcaste. It was a private girls' school, and my parents weren't rich or fashionable, I didn't enjoy hockey or competition in general, and red hair, freckles and an underdeveloped bustline meant I'd never make it on the Vogue scene. But outside of school, being alive was very far out. My family lived on the edge of the hills which overlook Adelaide, and most of my time at weekends was spent in mountain exploration.

In our street there were about ten children of mutually acceptable age, and it was in this group that I first got a taste for community. We hiked and washed dishes and built assorted fortified dwelling-places together. We taught each other chess and tennis, told stories, played music, and fought. At night we'd lie out on the back lawn watching for satellites. Someone's body would act as pillow for the others' heads, and we would discuss matters of important expectation. There was love, and growing. Sometimes we would block off the whole road so we could all walk arm in arm. But it wasn't really like we were trying to live communally. We could always go home if we wanted.

In 1966, when I was fifteen, we moved to Washington D.C., and stayed there for three years. This book is not about America, so suffice to say that by the end of those three years I had fallen victim to the prevalent attitude that however awful it might be, America was the only place that really existed in the world. I had no desire to return to Australia - I was in love, and very involved in the rapidly-growing hippy movement (although never admitting to that label) which I and my intense American friends firmly believed was on the way to the establishment of world peace through the use of marijuana and psychedelics. So many doors seemed to be opening. I really wanted to see what was inside, to be part of the coming together of people that seemed to be happening. And to have to go to Australia… But I didn't have the power or the money, or the visa to stay. So I allowed myself to be carted home, and enrolled in university and residential college in Sydney. Nothing could have been worse, to my mind. I waited to see what would happen, playing the part of a cow picked for sacrifice.

Things are rarely what they seem. My fears of psychedelic aloneness in the midst of rules and academia were not realised. Friends came. At university and even at college I began to meet people, blowing my mind's preconceptions with their gentleness and openness. We went picnicing in the bush, and I rediscovered my kindred with gum trees and sandstone creeks. Once I squashed an ant, everybody cried out 'Whyd'ya do that?' They took the pain of leaving America away, and I loved them, wanted to love them, wanted to be together with them.

Inner city Sydney was really an eyeopener for me. Kids playing in backyards made of bricks. Air that smelled of breweries and tomato sauce. Not much of an alternative to the suburban life I hoped to avoid. Once two college friends and I sat up all night dreaming of utopias on tropical islands. By morning some practicality had entered the discussion. Perhaps, we reasoned, a farm would be a realisable island. Somewhere that the three of us and our boy-friends (by then we had formed a close-knit group) could live together with tin-polluted wild-life and a well-stocked library. We went to buy a paper and found that, if costs were split six ways, it would indeed be practical to buy fifty acres. Financially practical, at any rate; the utopian side of it remained a much-discussed theoretical possibility.

Several weekends were spent driving around looking at possible sites for the Farm. Finally, one drizzly day we found what we wanted. Fifty-two acres not eighty miles from Sydney, with a creek running through twenty acres of cleared rich-soiled flat land, a hill over-looking the creek, (ideal for house-building), and acres of bush on mountains all around. We rejoiced and scraped together the down payment. Since we were all still at university it was an investment for future happiness. But it was there now - our Farm - a basis for the ideal community.

That summer, the end of 1969, I went back to America for three months. The changes that had happened to my friends there were incredible. Marijuana and LSD were being replaced by speed and heroin. I worked as a waitress in Washington D.C. As a uninformed foreigner I found myself treated as neutral in an increasingly polarised society of straights and freaks, blacks and whites, old and young. All sorts of people told me who was responsible for the state of the nation, which was generally accepted as being, terrible. I made friends with a couple from New Orleans who actually liked Washington. I told them about the farm, they told me about the commune they were living in, in a little house wedged between two factories. A fortnight after I met them, their house burned down, killing one of the girls who lived there: the firemen refused to believe the residents' pleas that there was still someone in the house. By the end of three months I was thoroughly disillusioned and paranoid, and left for Australia with no regrets for American dreams.

During the months I had been away, some of my farm partners had rented a six bedroom terrace house near the university. A deluge of enthusiastic letters arrived in Washington, telling me how beautiful and together the household was. Six people were in residence, I would make seven.

It sounded great - I was expecting to react favourably. And in one way it was beautiful, to be living with friends, in a situation which was our own, where whether we made it work or not was up to us. But in general I didn't like it. I wanted to, but I didn't. The house was on a main road, opposite a pub and shopping centre with squealing tyres and quarrelling drunks. And inside it was just grotty, unfortunately.

Still, I told myself, it's people who make a community, not situations, and if your crazy Virgo mind wants the place tidy, tidy it yourself. Don't condenm the whole thing because of your anal retentive tendencies.

So I stayed there for a year, going up and down. Only three of us were students, the others worked at psychiatric hospitals or the railways, or didn't. Everyone else was just discovering drugs, and the household mind was oriented around acid, dope and sex. All of which did produce some very high and together times. Sometimes the love that I would feel overflowing for my brothers and sisters was incredible. Once we drove up to the farm on a cold Saturday night, slept on the hillside and woke just as the mist lifted. Everyone ran down to the creek, through the golden grass of the flat - a picture of perfection.

But in our day to day activities there could be no denying that we weren't really living the ideal communal life. Just getting everyone fed was difficult. We'd all put three dollars into a food kitty every week, and a couple of us would go shopping locally. But we had a large floafing population besides the seven permanent residents, so that economy and the lack of cooking facilities meant spaghetti bolognaise or something similar every evening. Also, in general, sex roles were preserved - not with malicious intent, but due to the supposed incapacity of the men to cook or shop, and their disinterest in cleaning up. And just about everything that needed to be done was women's work. So the one other girl in the household and I found ourselves doing the majority of the physical getting-it-together.

Another problem lay in the acquisitive nature of a houseful of newborn acid heads. The place became like a bower-bird's nest, full of every piece of creation which attracted our eyes - sticks, bits of iron, old clothes, plastic toys, stop signs. Once an emergency necessitated the rapid removal of all government property from the premises - two Volkswagens full.

The interpersonal relationship side of things wasn't all rosy, either. Although at times I really felt close to some or all of the community, there was a lot of tension. Attempts to remedy the physical inequalities produced conflict between some people. Emotions from broken, and unbroken, love affairs caused pain for others. We didn't want any hurts or quarrels, but they happened. People moved out, others moved in. Rent didn't get paid. We held abominations called housemeetings, which tried, unsuccessfully, to regulate the prevalence of dope and crashers. A couple of times supposed 'friends' disappeared with all the movable valuables in the house.

A lot of my frustration with the situation remained subliminal, until one day when six of us hired a boat at Bobbin Head, and rowed off for an acid trip down the river. Bobbin Head is in a National Park near Sydney and to me it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. On this sunny October day the bush was in its glory - everywhere flowers, yellow, pink, white. We moored the boat, and started unpacking lunch, an operation which soon got sidetracked into a discussion of whether the black bits in the cheese really existed or not, and if they did, whether they were supposed to. Seeing as how LSD always produced in me an uncharacteristic distinterest in food, I left the black spots and wandered off to look at the scenery - to meet the most incredible experience of my life. Don't expect me to be able to put it down here in words. It came from a group of tiny flowers, growing under a bush, hidden, just growing, for no one in particular. And I could see each flower pulsing with the most intense energy force, a force more powerful and pure and attractive than anything I could remember consciously meeting up' with before. For me it was a cosmic revelation; for the flower it was just normal existence. I started to look around, and realised that it wasn't limited to those flowers. But then I didn't want to know any more, because there was one place I didn't feel that pure energy, and that was in me. Myself was just a bunch of swirling plastic hallucinations, a nonstop stream of experience-blocking thoughts, and a crying because I wasn't like those flowers.

No one else was very interested in my flower, and although they listened, no one seemed to understand my pain of separation from that energy. Which wasn't surprising, because I didn't understand it either. I only knew that we, the human beings, had to get back to the. state those flowers were in, to the glory and harmony of just being. But how to go about it? I thought of staying in the bush, but that wasn't on. Plants lived there, not people like me. People lived in communities. Back to square one.

So I got in the boat, eventually, and helped row back to the car. By the time we reached home I was starving, and thankfully ate some rice, considering how unflowerlike I would be feeling if I'd stayed in the bush without food. But there was no way to deny what I'd felt, or the contrast between that pulsing harmony and my tepid uneven existence. And there was no denying that there was not going to be any restuntil we got back to that fullness.

But I couldn't think of any immediate plan of action, so life in the commune continued much as before.

By the end of the year, there were about twenty doped-up residents, a six-inch layer of assorted junk over every surface, and a continuously playing television set. Dreams of exemplifying an alternative in living arrangements had long ago left my mind. Just the basic question of preserving my individual sanity remained. For me the experiment had definitely failed; looking back, the vibe of that year is one of pain and confusion. Three weeks before the community split up, four of us found a house in a quiet street in Annand ale, with trees even. And we set off to try again.

The situation in this new house was much improved. Fewer people meant we had more time to get to know each other. For many months the number of visitors remained at a level we could cope with. Physical things flowed more smoothly. Everyone paid their rent. We started eating vegetarian food, and shopping at the markets in family expeditions. Evening-time was beautiful, and got to be almost a ritual. A few of us would cook dinner - some variation on brown rice and vegies usually - and everyone would eat together, with chopsticks. After dinner we'd have a couple of joints to smoke around the table, and then we'd just be together, around a fire if it was cold, reading Thor, or Huxley, or Barbarella, or the I C'hing, doing university homework or playing music. Over the months, our numbers grew a little, but except at one point (where four non-contributing 'Midday Munchers' were eating us out of a week's food in three days) remained at a level where everyone could be in communication with everyone else.

However once again for me the year was unhappy. Because although the community was happening, and loving, for much of the time I was not. About two months after we moved, my boyfriend of a year's standing and I split up by mutual agreement, and a month or so later he started living with another girl in the house. Much to my horror, I became intensely jealous, a feeling that was all wrong, but which I was powerless to control. And it coloured everything around - a kind of murky brown colour, which did gradually die down, with the support of the household's love, and a good deal of hatha yoga. But it never finally went away, all that year, and I learned a lesson, all right. That no matter how together the situation around me might be, no matter how much love was there, if I was too wrapped up in my little ego to really tune into it, it might as well not be there.

So I figured I'd better get myself together, and then try to fit into a community. By that time I'd finished my university course - an unlikely cornbination of Ecology and Psychology - and was free to move from Sydney. Although I vacillated about leaving my Annandale family, the concept of escaping the big city fumes was attractive, and anyway, I was getting rather tired of the perpetual after-dinner hashish. If I was going to have to use dope all my life in order to stimulate a feeling of companionship, it was going to be a nuisance, because smoking really made me lethargic. So all my lecture notes, curtains, and collected bits of creation got stored away in cardboard boxes, and I hitched to Adelaide, with one of the farm people, called John, who was and is my good mate.

On arrival, we went to stay with a friend of John's, who lived with his wife, baby, and friend from England. I fell in love with them immediately. Everyone was gentle and friendly, and looked after us so well. Their house was tidy and uncluttered, and had a warm, multicoloured feel about it. John told me that they were the most harmless people he knew, and how they tried to live without causing any damage to the natural harmony of the earth.

That really made me think. I had heard lots of talk about ecological baddies, at university and in general, all of which had engendered, among other things, a negative attitude toward capitalist enterprises that produced a host of unnecessary commodities, war toys, etc. (and those mostly in nofi-degradable over-packaged forms made from expendable resources.) But now I suddenly realised it was a two-way thing. Not only were the capitalists over-producing assorted junk, but the people were overconsurning it. Creating the demand that the producers needed to operate. Everyone was adding to the pollution and shortages they were complaining about - but everyone, just about. Not just the housewives being continually bombarded with advertisements, but people who should have known better, including my beer-drinking socialist friends, and the university biologists with their cars and chemical analyses. Consumption in our Sydney household had been somewhat limited by lack of funds but we'd still manage two rubbish-bins full of plastic juice bottles and milk cartons a week. And at one stage we'd had two record-players and three cars for five people…

So where was the producer-consumer cycle going to stop? Not at the capitalist end, for sure. So it had better be at the consumer end. And reforms that don't begin at home have no chance.

I started to watch our hosts closely, and was impressed. It was like they'd said 'What do we really need to live on this earth, and how can we do it simply and harmlessly?' Going from the beginning, rather than making surface compromises in a normal consumer pattern after the manner of the armchair ecologists (myself included) I'd encountered to date. For example, they needed food to live. So this family ate only unprocessed organic-grown food which they either grew themselves, or collected from the markets by pushbike (they had no car). All the scraps went for compost, and paper bags were recycled. Milk came in bottles, not cardboard. And they were brilliant cooks, too. I developed a strong attachment to homemade bread and yogurt, and a desire to make my life as harmonious and harmless as theirs seemed to be. This was getting something like the Bobbin Head flower at last.

The first step towards a life in harmony with the environment, I reasoned, was to live in a harmonious environment. So after a couple of months' search, I found a four-roomed cottage in the hills, twenty kilometres from Adelaide. It was ideal. Huge pines of different varieties surrounded the house. A couple of acres of apples and plums sloped down to bushland. The house itself had three rainwater tanks and a wood stove. I shared it with the boy-friend of John's wife (apparently they had the odd interpersonal hassle too). We painted the walls, made a compost heap, and settled down to lead an ideal life.

The winter rains arrived just after we moved, and the first few months were very cold. The fact that I didn't much care is a testimony to the depth of my absorption in this new game of natural living. I really got into cooking, and lighting fires. For the first time since starting university there was time for dressmaking and knitting and reading. So much to read about! Herbs, and crafts, and yoga. Such a change from the irrelevant stuff at university: I really felt I was learning something at last. I started inkle-loom weaving, and leatherwork. For several months I clomped around in some homemade moccasins which rapidly stretched to three sizes too big. Friends who had birthdays got given woven belts or leather bags.

Life was really full, and just so much more directional than it had been in Sydney. Seemed like, with sustained effort, we'd got it made. There were a few inconsistencies - like living in the country meant we had to add to the traffic and pollution by driving seventeen kilometres to work and back, and into the city for shopping. However in general everything was going to plan, so I figured I was really together.

Then one day, after about six months, the brother that shared the house announced that he couldn't stand to live with me any longer, and was moving out. That really blew my mm. He said I'd been hassling him because I wasn't satisfied with how my life was. And actually, once my nose was rubbed in it, it was true that he had been irritating me, and that I'd been reacting by closing off to him, and that on some non-material level I was still discontent. A need to love being thwarted by something. A need that couldn't quite be taken away by all my activity. And a voice inside said 'What's the use of being able to make your own shoes if you can't even get along with one other human being?' Square one again.

But again, I didn't really know what to do. All my knowledge of psychology didn't help, that was for sure. So I just got more into the things I'd been doing before - with the addition of gardening, music, drawing and meditation on flowers.

Various people came to stay with me, and we were all reasonably content, thank goodness. In fact, it was kind of magical. Just as one group of friends were moving on, someone else would appear who would just fit in. As had been the case in the other two households, the number of visitors increased with time. But rather than creating problems, this time we were able to welcome them, with peppermint tea and blackberry pie on the veranda. At weekends we would often entertain a yariety of city-dwellers on rest and recreation from the smog. And there were always local freaks around.

It was as if our little household was part of a larger community that was growing up in the Adelaide Hills. A whole community that was interested to find an alternative to urban box living. The companionship was really beautiful. A far cry from my community of two years ago. Instead of sitting around a table covered with cigarette butts discussing dope, we'd now sit in the sunshine and talk about herbal medicine, yoga asanas, and how to grow healthy corn plants. Some of the faces were the same: quite a few people had followed me from Sydney. Even a couple of my old Adelaide street gang were there. It was like we were all on a journey together, to some unknown but very shiny future.

Still I felt some incompleteness. Occasionally in the evening I'd leave a fireside discussion or jam session to go outside for some reason. And then the stillness of the pine trees under the stars all around would suddenly change me from a personality into a very small child of the universe. Such a secret, still, beckoning feeling, which would disappear as soon as I reentered the house, or started thinking about what I'd come outside to do. But which left me knowing there was still some place more to~go. So when the lease on the cottage ran out, I wasn't upset. It seemed to be part of the magical mystery tour that my life was becoming that I should return to New South Wales. There were a lot of vague plans in my head about going overseas again, but I knew they were a bit of a joke. One lesson I'd learned by repeated experience was that my plans rarely worked out on schedule. This time I gave most of the year's accumulation of posses-ions away, which was most enjoyable, and caught a train to Sydney.

A few weeks back in the inner city was enough to convince me that I didn't want to stay there. Numerous of my old friends seemed to have got stuck in a time warp, and were still living the dope-and-dirty-dishes life I'd rejected two years ago. I could see how easy it would be to get back into that consciousness. So as soon as possible I split for the country. This time to the ever-patient farm we'd been paying off since first-year university.

Of the original share holders, three were involved in activities which kept them in the city, and now had no great interest in farming. John and one of the other boys, Ian, had been living there on and off for a year. During that time they'd built a corrugated iron and canvas humpy, planted about twenty fruit trees and made a compost heap which was spontaneously producing pumpkins and tomatoes. In the two years prior to that, we'd succeeded only in planting a patch of strawberries, and watching the ants with chemically alerted eyes. Incredible to think how useless we'd been. With my newfound store of information, energy and ideals from Adelaide, I resolved to get down to some work. And it seemed like there was some point to working, because we owned The Farm. It wasn't like Adelaide where the lease could run out, and we'd have to start from the beginning someplace else.

The boys, who had just started building a farmhouse, welcomed me. It was autumn. The days were warm and sunny, the grass was like a lawn. I dug the garden, weeded the fruit trees, learned to saw and chisel two by threes, getting suntanned and healthy all the while. At night we sat around the fire reading the Whole Earth Catalogue, writing letters, and planning our glorious future.

The Way Out: Coummunal Life by Penny Watson It should have been all I wanted. John and Ian and I were very old friends, the farm was beautiful. But I started to get discontent again. I wanted to work on the garden and the house, so I did. But as the only woman, all the cooking, humpy cleaning and washing-up was falling to me. And a good deal more than my share of wood and water fetching, or so I figured. All stuff that had to be done before sunset, too, which was just when I wanted to do my yoga. It was like the boys had had a routine before I arrived, which suited them. And I'd had a different one in Adelaide, which suited me. And they didn't mix very well. It wasn't that we quarrelled. I just figured maybe I'd better look for a farm someplace with people who dug the same level of cleanliness and division of labour that I did. But it didn't get to that stage, because Ian, whose ute we'd been using to carry food, building materials and ourselves to the farm, decided to stay in Sydney a while. So John and I were stranded there, too.

The next couple of months were spent between Sydney and various farms. I met and re-met many people who had been into communal living, and caught up on the news of their latest successes and failures. For the week of the Aquarius Festival I camped at Nimbin with a mixture of Adelaide and Sydney friends. I thought Nimbin was a fantastic success. In Adelaide I'd been in close communication with the local coordinators (one of them from the old street gang again) and I'd been hoping it would go well. But the reality was beyond my dreams. I floated around in a state of bliss that bore little relationship to the physical plane, and which for once wasn't drug-induced. Even the weather seemed to respond to our vibes. The days were clear and warm, light rain fell at night - just enough to bring up the mushrooms. So many people getting together to seek out a working alternative, and even doing something practical - I couldn't believe it! Four years ago, when we'd hatched the idea for Our Farm, it had been, to the best of our knowledge, an original concept. Here there were five thousand people developing in cooperation the skills needed for a nation-wide society of independent, self-regulating and low-consuming communities. A society based on brotherhood rather than competition. Sure, five thousand people wasn't many out of thirteen million, but it was a start. The day after the festival ended I was driven through pouring rain and a cascade of rainbows: a miraculous lift arrived just before the deluge which must have soaked the fifty or so brothers and sisters who were also trying to hitch out of town. My heart was singing. I really expected never to come down.

But I did. In fact Nimbin was about the only place I felt content during those two months of wandering. An island of here-and-nowness in a quicksilver sea of possibilities. A vision of what could be achieved with a lot of perseverance. I began to realise that in the same way as seeing a flash of God on an acid trip didn't mean you were in heaven for ever more, holding a one-week festival didn't mean the Aquarian Age was firmly established on earth. For that to happen, a lot of effort and perseverance was going to be needed. From me and a lot of others. Personally, I really wanted to get down to it. But where? I knew I needed to work in a community. There were so many skills involved in this non-technology dependant lifestyle we were aiming for; companionship was essential. But I didn't have it. It looked uncomfortably like square one yet again.

Something funny was going on. Surely there must be some people around who would just like to move on to a piece of land, and put their energies into making it a productive farm for an open and loving community. But on my recent trips into the country I'd become aware that the problems I'd felt with John and Ian were minor compared with those I'd face almost anywhere else. Most 'farms' seemed to involve a migration~ of the dope-and-dishes syndrome with the addition of a ten by twenty foot garden of bug-infested cabbages, numerous dogs, and a floating population problem. Not the ideal basis for the alternative society. What I had in mind only needed a few people. Even since the days of our first overcrowded commune I'd been suspicious of large numbers. There was too much room for diversity of opinion, necessitating democratic decision-making which always left someone unhappy. I wanted to be part of a group small enough that if decisions were necessary, we could discuss things and make them unanimously. I'd seen it work before, for a short time, in Annandale and Adelaide. But the group always seemed to break up after a few months, and to establish a working alternative community a longer commitment was obviously necessary.

Looking at myself and my friends, I could see that there were two obstacles holding people back from that commitment. Either we'd be too in to getting stoned, keeping ourselves amused with movies or university or travelling, to be bothered or interested to get it together. Or else we'd be too busy looking for the perfect place, or the right people, or the ideal skills, to settle down and direct our energies into what was happening here and now.

So eventually I decided to go back up to Our Farm, and fight my tendency to trip off after perfection. The transport problem was solved, because John's new girl-friend had a car. So the three of us, together with another brother from times past, moved up the country again. I figured if things got too rough I'd build a tipi on the opposite hill from the humpy, and do my yoga there. But this time the housework got shared, and we enlarged the humpy, so I had room to do yoga inside at night. In fact, everything was really mellow. We worked hard all day, and relaxed in the evening: everyone got massages in front of the fire.

The building of the farmhouse was proceeding steadily, but a time was to hand when we'd need a utility to carry more wood. I still had money left over from Adelaide, so I figured I'd buy one, which was a little dubious from the ecological point of view, but we needed it. And it would allow me to work and shop at the local town rather than in the city. So one day we drove a red volkswagen ute up from Sydney. The next weekend I stayed at the farm, while John drove it down again for his usual two days' taxi driving - I wasn't going near that conglomeration of neon signs and misery again if I could help it. He was two days late getting back, and finally arrived on foot. The engine had exploded, and was awaiting my attention, in the city, of course. John was uncharacteristically upset, but I almost laughed. Somehow I knew this was just another part of the mystery tour, that was working everything out if I just let it flow. I packed my rucksack and set off to hitch to my dead car, feeling a sense of joyful expectancy that didn't bear any obvious relationship to the circumstances.

In Sydney I floated into the house of the kind people who cared for us farm refugees on such occasions to find Ray, one of my Nimbin acquaintances, installed at the table. It was so good to see him: he's one of those really un-hung-up and loving people who aren't all that common. And although lately he'd gotten mixed up with some fifteen-year-old guru called Maharaj Ji, he still seemed to be quite happy. In fact, if anything. he was shining even more than before, so I wasn't too worried. I figured he'd grow out of it pretty soon anyway. So I just gave him a hug. And when he asked me to go along to a meeting where one of his guru's disciples, a Mahatma, was speaking, I was glad to go. No harm in checking out someone else's scene when you're secure in your own.

I'm still not sure what happened that night. I'd heard raves from Divine Light Mission people before and hadn't been very impressed. For a start, I was suspicious of organisations, and this one had a ridiculous name. And although it seemed like they were getting something from the meditation they did, I didn't see how that had anything to do with me. But this Mahatma … I didn't understand much of what he said, because he didn't speak very good English. But I gathered that he was quite confident that I hadn't experienced the 'Knowledge' his master was offering. Well, I wasn't so sure, because I'd felt and seen a lot of things not of this physical world. But I could understand the argument that I'd never know for sure what 'Knowledge' was until I'd tried it. And there was something in the air - something subtle and extremely attractive. So I decided to give it a go. It was free, anyway.

During the next weeks I spent the days trying to get the car fit to return to duty - a long, slow process. John and his lady had split: it looked like the same old problems were plaguing us again. But I figured to keep on trucking. In the evenings, however, I often found myself drawn down to the Divine Light Mission 'satsang' meetings, to see Ray, and just because in the crazy maze of buildings and asphalt there wasn't any place else to go. The 'premies', as the people who had received this Knowledge called themselves, were friendly. (I discovered that 'premie' meant lover. 'Of what?' I asked. 'Of everything, of course.' 'Oh') And apart from their enthusiasm about meditation, which was understandable if it enabled them to tolerate city life, they didn't lay any trips on me.

In fact, I couldn't quite get a line on what their trip was. Every time I got an idea, something would happen to disprove it. Half of the boys looked like bank clerks, but some had hair down to their waists. I found out that some of them were celibate, which to my mind sounded ridiculously puritanical, moralistic and cold. But everyone seemed quite happy about the fact that there were plenty of babies around, legitimate and otherwise. And actually I'd never met a group of people who expressed love so freely and openly to each other. The concept I'd formed of Divine Light Mission as a city trip was also exploded. It seemed the majority of them had been into farming with as least as much devotion as I had, and were only living in Sydney because they figured they'd be more useful there. Which was a novel concept.

Everyone explained to me that taking Knowledge wasn't instant enlightenment. Effort was required, especially in the initial few months, and living with other people who were also into meditation was highly recommended. As an on-and-off practicer of hatha yoga for three years, I could appreciate that argument. Certainly the environment I was living in (which included some very sweet people, but also dope, dishes, and a heavy dose of Frank Zappa) wasn't likely to be conducive to meditation. I had no immediate way to get back to the farm, and anyway, it seemed John and I were all that remained of the community. And he was talking about going back to university. So I figured I'd try life with 'premies' for a while.

I had two choices: a household, which was a bunch of premies living together and meditating as they saw fit, or an ashram, which was an environment specifically structured for practising the Knowledge. Ray was living in an ashram, and said it was fantastic. And it seemed like the obvious place to go, but the idea of living according to a schedule, and handing over all my money and freedom of action sounded freaky. And the ashram premies were the chaste ones, too… It looked like a household for me. But I went over to the ashram, anyway, just to check it out.

It was in a street in Redfern - inner city like I'd never experienced even in the early days - dead cats-in-the-lane type of inner city. Actually the house was two terraces with the dividing fence knocked down, and a garden-bed of herbs and pumpkins, which was reassuring. But the moment I stepped inside, my mind was blown. The vibe of the place was incredible. Like morning sunshine in the bush, clean and pure and yet so comfortable and warm. There were white walls and seagrass matting and flowers and cushions making colours, and the smell of hunza pie cooking.' But those things weren't important. It was the feeling that counted. The place just felt like home. Next day I moved in, and two days later received Knowledge. That was nine months ago. I'm still in the ashram, and couldn't think of any place I'd rather be. Remarkable persistence, for me.

I took Knowledge as another trip to investigate. As one more road but of many the magic bus would travel along. What it has turned out to be I really wish I could tell you, but it can't be expressed in the smallness of words. The best I can do is to say that Maharaj Ji has revealed, inside my body, the same life-force that I saw outside in the flowers at Bobbin Head and felt from the night-time trees beside my cottage in the Adelaide Hills. And has shown me a way to contact that force whenever I wish. Not in the nebulous way that I experienced the love at Nimbin - because althought that was very beautiful, it was fragile too, so that once I left that situation it was quickly gone. But in a totally direct and practical manner, with the same senses that I use to contact things in the outside world.

So perhaps I should have started this story here. Because the ashram is the first place I've lived that is truly communal. By showing us our source, Maharaj ii has dissolved all the barriers that previously stood in our way. Because it is so easy to see, in retrospect, how all the self-centred trips, all the attempts to find the perfect situation and people and talents, were only misguided efforts to find the perfect peace within. Once that true perfection is experienced, it is possible to direct the effort that once went into searching into getting it on. Previously, it was like we'd start off with a bunch of separate things - a lot of egos, each with its own personality and ideas and direction - and try to impose a communal structure on top. Or else I'd try to pick out personalities which held certain ideas and opinions in common with mine, and build on those. A tactic which immediately limited who could be part of the community - often to a crippling extent, like when I found myself homeless after Nimbin because no one wanted to do exactly the same things I did. And even if common ground was found, it would provide at best a shaky foundation, because as soon as one person changed his mind on one of these crucial ideas or directions, the community was upset, which is what happened at Our Farm, when Ian decided to live in the city, and left John and I without transport. But all the time that life force is linking us together, every one on the planet, changelessly. But although I knew of it, and talked about it at length, I didn't know that energy itself, so how could I use it as the basis of community? But with that supreme energy revealed.

The ashram I live in has twelve people in it; at times there have been up to eighteen. Selection is only on the basis of wanting to live there to get on with practising this Knowledge. We've all got different personalities, with different opinions and quite often I can see people who, on a personality level, would clash. But arguments are avoided by everyone constantly referring to the level of meditation, where there are no conflicts, only love and harmony, so that gradually the basis for relationships and action becomes that love. Love so positive and complete that by comparison, concepts, imaginings, and expectations just become worthless. The tendency of the mind to judge people, and to desire the greener-looking grass on the next hill are still there. But with the compassion and contentment of the meditation as a standard, these tendencies are recognised for what they are: products of twenty-odd years conditioning by a competitive and acquisitive society, and it becomes increasingly easy to ignore them. In nine months I've seen dne quarrel between ashram premies - over whether the housemother's entering the meditation room with the clumsiness of a bear was a cause for protest or not. Needless to say, we weren't in meditation at the time of the argument.

One very noticeable difference between the ashram community and the others I've had to do with is that hurts due to jealousy or possessive attachment don't happen. Which is really a change, and helps keep a steady level of sanity and happiness. It's as if the meditation gives such a secure base to life, that changes in the external world are okay. I'm learning to really live in the here and now, enjoying people and things while they're around, and not missing them when they move on. So changes in the individuals in the group happen much more smoothly. Newcomers assimilate easily, because basically we already know each other; it's just a matter of recognising yes, this energy that is in me is indeed in him or her, too. When someone leaves, their essence remains; the way that it was expressed through personality I rarely miss for long.

The physical situation of the community is not so important, either. That was brilliantly demonstrated to me during our four months in Redfern. During my days as an advocate of country living, I couldn't have stood even one week in such a place. But by the time we had to move - to Coogee - I would have been very happy to stay there and continue the process of getting to know the neighbourhood kids and veranda-sitters. It just didn't matter.

Bower-bird tendencies are much reduced, too. Except for our clothes, meditation blankets and sleeping bags, everything we need is owned communally. And since we don't need much more than kitchen gear, linen and a few pictures, books and 'cupboards, the house stays uncluttered and easy to keep clean. Even the few things we do own individually tend to get around: at the moment my second winter skirt and sweater are soaking wet, because my roommate decided to go swimming while she had them on. The problems of sea-side ashrams…

Practising Knowledge is a full-time occupation. There are three aspects - meditation, satsang (where everyone comes together to share experiences) and service. Service is any action performed for someone other than the ego self, and for me it is almost as great a gift as meditation. Because really, I've spent twenty-two years looking after no interests but my own, running away from everything I didn't like: from the city, from people, rather than staying to try to change anything. I thought Nimbin was fantastic, but in contrast to the premies there, who did service continually, in a 'w~ek I did about two hours' work for anyone other than those in my own little camp - behaviour which just about typifies the way I've spent my time. It's true that one of the reasons for my flight-rather-than-fight attitude was that the problems in the city seemed too enormous to tackle in any but a superficial and therefore useless way. So that finding and exemplifying an alternative seemed the most productive thing to do, as well as the best thing for me. But I wasn't making much progress even there, and the need to find someplace to direct my energy was getting acute.

At Coogee, six of us work to get enough money for rent, food, clothes, and transport. This goes into an ashram fund, which supports both Sydney ashrams. In England, all the ashrams throughout

the country are financially one unit, but distances make that difficult here. If there's any left over (which doesn't happen very often - in fact we're perpetually broke, and rely a good deal on cosmic good fortune) it goes to the Mission. Two girls are housemothers (Adelaide ashram has a housefather) who look after the cooking and clothes-washing, try to keep us all healthy, and run the house in an ecologically desirable manner. Three brothers look after Divine Sales, which is a kind of opportunity shop for recycling unwanted possessions of premies and anyone else interested to those who need them for a price they can afford. These three also use the jumble truck for taxi jobs, and to do the food coop, which buys bulk food and vegies from the markets for the premie community and anyone else who wants to join. The jumble truck is also the ashram's, and the Missions, chief vehicle for transport. We've got an FJ Holden, too, but it doesn't always work. One person does full-time service for the Mission. And that makes twelve. Those of us with outside jobs do various things on the weekends, like gardening and sewing and various forms of social work, as well as visiting friends and relatives, and sleeping in…

I don't know whether I'll always live here - why speculate on the future? But I do know that wherever I am, the Knowledge will always be there, allowing me to live in harmony and love. The really beautiful thing about the ashram is that it runs on something that can also work for families, and households, and country communes, and societies. Because the energy which can be experienced in meditation is the creator, preserver and destroyer of the whole universe. It keeps the trees and mosses and birds in balance; if man returns to it, it will automatically do the same for him.