I know, I didn’t expect to be this far north at this time of year either. But sometimes you just have to go where life is telling you to go.
After Feral Farm, our basic trajectory was Sprout House → my family in Ohio → Sprout House, and one of our old Sprout friends, Erica, told us while we were at the house about a place called ARC, an hour north of the Cities.
Now, the way I thought things worked was that if there’s a community that’s doing something big or successful, it gets locally pretty famous. People in the nearest city, if they’re interested in communities, will know it on a first-name basis. Virginians in certain social circles can toss out, “Maybe I should just sell my house and move to Twin Oaks.” There’s of course the rich scattering of unknown tiny communities, ones that pop up with maybe two or three couples and quietly grow their own food, but big or interesting ones are known. Yet I’d never heard of ARC. And from what Erica told me, by rights I should have. Maybe there’s more going on out there than I ever suspected.
ARC (“Action, Reflection, Celebration”), she told us, is a retreat community, or a retreat center—she may have used various phrases to describe it. The characteristic of it that came through in all her descriptions, though, was that we had to visit this place, that we would love it, that it was right on the track of our quest. She’d convinced several other Sprouts to go and they all agreed with her assessment, and told us so. Inasmuch as it’s hard to get three Sprouts to agree on anything that enthusiastically, we figured she was probably right.
The reason Erica’s descriptions of the place left me a little puzzled for what I was getting into was that it’s a hard place to describe. It doesn’t quite fit in any established genre of thing that I ever had in my head. So I guess the best way to describe it is to tell about what we do here. Because Misty and I have come up for a month, which may grow to two, or the whole winter, or who knows.
ARC hosts retreats. Which is to say, groups of people come up—church groups, writers’ groups, yoga groups—and just check out of their wider life for a while to focus on whatever it is that they want to do as a group. They come up here because, well, it’s the perfect space. ARC’s main lodge feels like the house you always wished you grew up in. Imagine an enormous log cabin, three stories high, with a generous helping of fireplaces, and a main living room two floors high with a cathedral ceiling, a giant window looking onto a little bit of the 87 acres of peaceful woods here, and a motley assortment of rockers, couches, and armchairs deep enough that you could lose a small child in them. That’s one of three living rooms, and even when there’s a full house of eighteen guests they can all feel like they have plenty of space to relax or to get together in whatever groups they feel like. Someone who came through here last week said that coming to ARC feels more like coming home than going to either of their parents’ houses does.
So that part is fairly easy to explain. Then there’s the part where it’s run by a community. The people who load the fireplaces, make the beds, and serve the food all live together right here on the land, most of us in the lodge itself, in the rooms put aside for Community. And the “community” part isn’t just a feel-good word. Every morning at 8:30, just before we start working, we get together—anywhere from three to six of us, depending on who’s working that day—and take a full hour to dig in deep and tell each other how we’re doing. Not, “How you doing today?” “Fine.” But more like, “Let’s check in.” “Well, I’m barely holding it together right now because something yesterday dredged up some deep childhood stuff for me…” and on with complete freedom for as long as you need. I feel more heard, as a human, here than I have anywhere else I’ve lived. People aren’t just interested in whether I currently have the flu, or even just in whether I’m enjoying myself here or not. They’re interested to hear about any deep emotional or spiritual work that I’m doing. And we’re all doing something of that sort.
Because another thing about ARC is that it’s a spiritual community. It started out—back in 1977!—as an ecumenical Christian retreat center, but since the spiritual landscape of the US has now gotten so much fuller and more adventurous than “What denomination of Christian are you?”, a few years back it changed its self-description to just a spiritual retreat center. In community now we’ve got a Christian-Buddhist, a bruja,1 a witch, me who’s trying to figure out what to do with all this learning I’m doing about Anishinaabe spirituality, and a couple others I couldn’t really tell you about. The weirdos, you know—the freaks who are confusedly figuring the beginning things out in this day of the dawning of the religions of the future. And we’re all trying to understand our whole lives, through whatever we understand spirit to be, and helping each other out as much as we can while we’re forging through such uncharted numinous realms.
It’s quite the mixture of things to be doing. How it ends up looking, day by day, is that after the morning meeting, we work most of the day. Some of us work in the kitchen, some on firewood duty and groundskeeping (you know, keeping the labyrinth shoveled off), some doing laundry, some on office work. There’s a lot to do. And mostly we just collapse after that, and do it again the next day. But aside from morning meetings, we have one-to-one check-ins every so often, and we’re constantly talking with each other. And talking with the retreatants, too, eating meals with them and learning what they’re seeking. We get two days off each week. I just used mine, today and yesterday, to read a lot, walk a lot, and silently watch the sun rise while standing on a frozen lake nearby.
The place is a miracle, really. I can’t do everything here—can’t get rich, can’t get hedonistic—but I can do everything that really matters to me right now. And ARC has been a place for that to happen for forty years now. No one living in community right now has been here longer than a couple years, but it’s stable because there’s a paid office manager and, somewhere, a Board of Directors I’ve never met. The founder, Ruth Halvorson, and her family are still around and some occasionally visit, or so I hear. But it’s done that rarest of things for intentional communities—it’s survived the departure of its first charismatic leader, and turned into something that can sustain itself indefinitely. Chalk it up to spirit.
I’ve been here for eleven days and I still feel like I’m just arriving. But in these eleven days I’ve felt more than any other time on this trip that I gave it the right name when I called it the Year of Transformation. I don’t know where I’m going while I’m here. But I know I’m going.
I haven’t read this article. It’s just the first legitimate-looking link I found with the right definition of bruja. ↩