Growing up with the Friends and Lovers Community

The dining hall at S&J Ranch, where we gathered twice a year

After my recent post about Tamera, I realized that it was high time for me to share more about the wonderful community I myself grew up in. This was not a community that lived all together but one made up of a group of friends mostly living near each other in the Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts, and which centered around two or three long weekend gatherings a year: Memorial day weekend, Columbus day weekend, and sometimes a third gathering on President’s day weekend. It was called Friends and Lovers (a name that still makes some members wince to this day) and I have been a member since I was three. Friends and Lovers, or F&L for short, was really foundational for me, playing a big role in laying the path I have since traversed in the world. In particular my experience with F&L inspired so much of the attention and work I have always put into manifesting community around me wherever I go. F&L provided many of the benefits of strong community with much less work than is required to live together full time at a community like Tamera. On the other hand I don’t believe it has had quite the same level of impact on it’s members, or the world, and it hasn’t quite been able to sustain itself over time (though the story is still being written.) Here’s the brief history.

Real talk between friends (and lovers)

Friends and Lovers was founded in 1983 when six couples gathered at a girls summer camp in Connecticut that was owned by one of the women’s family for a long weekend getaway. They had such a good time that they decided to make it a regular occurrence and invite more friends. And those friends’ lovers. Thus, Friends and Lovers was born. The core of the vision for the community was “re-villaging our lives within a spiritual context.” This meant a shared desire to explore deep authentic relationship in a space that also supported and encouraged spiritual investigation, with an acceptance of the diversity and plurality of belief systems. There was also a lot of exploration of what I would call the cutting edge of “new age” culture. The group did a lot of rituals around topics like masculinity and femininity, death and rebirth, etc. Some community members were in close relationship with Native American elders who taught them sweat lodge ceremonies. Other members developed techniques like reflective listening to communicate better with each other. Open relationships were explored by some. There were rituals for couples that were separating and the community worked hard to make sure everyone continued to feel welcome as relationships changed. In short, there was a lot of experimentation in social and community dynamics and a lot of exploration of the spiritual realms. After a few years of slow growth, F&L tried to bring a bit more intention and some shared agreements to their burgeoning community. Here is an early version of the vision statement:

FRIENDS AND LOVERS : A DECLARATION OF WHO WE ARE
We are a self-selected family of friends, connected to each other through the intimate sharing of our joys, our pain, our challenges, our brilliance, our contributions, and our growth.
We delight, together, in the richness and freedom we find in giving expression to our spiritual selves.
We honor each other’s spiritual paths and celebrate our differences.
We recognize the power of authentic relationship which nurtures every aspect of our lives and we treasure the opportunity to experience this with each other.
We invite only our closest friends to explore becoming a part of our Friends and Lovers family and the intimacy we share.
We grow organically over time as a community, bonding with the friends of our friends as we participate more fully in each other’s lives.
We join together as a group at least two weekends a year to nurture our friendships, to discover, to risk, to celebrate, and to give focus to the sanctity of relationship.
We co-create these weekends and empower ourselves and each other to take responsibility for our own experience.
We welcome the new family members of our Friends and Lovers community to invite their closest friends to our main events after attending at least two weekends.
We each take responsibility for eldering our friends into the community by fully participating in their integration or by facilitating the decision that their fit is not self-evident.
We are an ever-growing, ever-changing family of friends and lovers joining together to know ourselves more deeply and to feel our connection with Mother Earth, with each other, and with all things.

In 2008 this was updated to:

Friends and Lovers Community Vision Statement
We are a self-selected community of friends, expanding ourselves spiritually through relationship. Our journey together is guided by the principles of love, care, cooperation and mutual support as we share the joys, hurts, challenges and high points of our lives.
We come together at Friends and Lovers Weekends and other occasions to nurture our relationships, express our caring and celebrate the experience of community. We join together in sacred ceremony to connect with each other, with our own inner selves, with Mother Earth and with Divine Spirit.
We celebrate the power of authentic relationship that pervades all aspects of our lives and we treasure the opportunity to explore that power together. We honor each other’s spiritual paths and we acknowledge that each one of us is responsible for his or her own experience.
We value each person’s unique contribution to our intimate community. Together we create a safe and welcoming environment that empowers each one of us to express ourselves fully. We each bring to our community life a cooperative spirit and we are committed to collective work, to non-violent conflict resolution and to consensus decision making. We work together to maximize the effectiveness of this consensus approach where everyone’s views are honored. We believe that the patient search for consensus leads us to greater unity.
We are respectful of all peoples, cultures, children, and creatures. We believe that our own physical bodies and our environment are sacred and we are dedicated to the fair distribution of our planet’s resources. We also believe that these principles, guiding our community in labor and play together, have a positive effect on the rest of the world.
AGREEMENTS
1. Each person is responsible for creating his or her own fulfilling experience and is free to participate or not participate in any of the activities during the weekend as he or she determines is best.
2. It is acceptable to talk about relationships as existing within a spiritual context. “Acceptable” means that no one is obliged to participate and no one will object to others doing so in his or her presence.
3. We acknowledge the blessing of intimate witness that we offer to each other in the embrace of our community, as our lives unfold over time. We commit to showing up and being fully present for ourselves and each other during our weekends, and we hold each other in trust for the enduring vitality and fellowship of our community as we share our lives into the future.

These documents can help to understand the culture of Friends and Lovers, and do describe it well, but I doubt many members would be able to recall the exact agreements. I say this only to suggest that the vision was loosely held and the culture was mostly passed on person to person at the gatherings. For most members the F&L weekends were primarily about connection, relationship building, mutual support, freedom of expression, and play. For me growing up the weekends were about running around in the woods with my best friends, inventing epic fantasy adventures during the day and playing flashlight tag at night. There would be all community capture the flag, basketball, swimming in the pond, and art projects. As the community grew, eventually reaching a peak of around 85 adults and up to 40 children, my now teenage friends and I would play board games, help handle the childcare for the younger children, and continue to run around in the woods. There was always a fun and creative childcare lead who would bring in all kinds of communal games, storytelling, improv, art, and philosophy for the next generation. In the meantime the adults would co-create a schedule of workshops and other activities using a sort of open-space model. Each weekend was facilitated by a different team, including an old-timer and newer member, and there was always a unique theme.

Some ridiculousness

At the beginning of each weekend there was a circle where the whole community would have a chance to check in and share what was going on in their life. If someone was going through a particularly hard time the community might organize a support council for them, or for a couple struggling in their relationship. There would be a ritual Saturday night appropriate to the weekend’s theme, and a sweat lodge Sunday morning. Sunday night was always the variety show followed by a dance party. We dressed up in ridiculous outfits, did improv comedy sketches, and jammed together. One of the most beautiful parts of the weekend was always the appreciation circle, where 2–4 people would be surprise called up into the the center of the circle by the facilitators to be bombarded by love and appreciations from the community that knew them so well. Everyone cried. At the end of the weekend we would circle again to share what we had learned, sing together, and do a beautiful ritual called hand on heart where we connected one-on-one with the other members of the community.

There were very few roles and not a lot of time required to run the gatherings and year round community activities. Besides each weekend’s facilitation team of 3–4 people, there was a treasurer, registrar, groundskeeper, and someone to coordinate food. We would all share delicious community meals three times a day, and everyone signed up for a couple cooking and cleaning shifts, so costs were kept low. It was a simple, relatively straightforward structure that became second nature over time. And it was so much fun. Many of the community members lived near each other and would see each other regularly, but the weekend gatherings were the core of F&L, and something we all looked forward to every year.

Sitting in circle

Sadly, after about 20 years, the Friends and Lovers gatherings began to dwindle in size and fade away. This started happening right around the time I graduated from college and the first generation of children moved away to find their own path in the world. The founding generation had also gotten older, a bit more settled into careers and lasting relationships, and some of them had also moved. Perhaps some of the inevitable personality clashes between long-standing members became a bit more tiring. Or maybe older bodies just didn’t enjoy sleeping on little cots in cold cabins for a long weekend anymore. I don’t fully know why the weekends stopped, but for a few years no gatherings happened at all. There was a wonderful 25 year reunion that brought back the old energy, but again after that very few gatherings besides a couple smaller retreats here and there. The community members were of course still friends, and many continued to see each other frequently, but Friends and Lovers didn’t quite exist in the same way.

Finally four years ago my mother decided it was time for a proper reunion, and she organized a gathering on Memorial Day weekend at the old haunting grounds of S&J Ranch. Around 30 people showed up, and it was good. The next year a smaller gathering happened, then in 2014 it was back to S&J ranch again. Last year some momentum started to build with my mom again rallying the troops. This time she came to me and asked if I would help facilitate, along with my stepfather Moonlight and another childhood friend from the community. We agreed, and it turned out beautifully. It was my first F&L gathering in seven years, and this time I brought three good friends from San Francisco with me. I led a salon to discuss how to build sustainable community and we had great conversation about what had worked and not worked in F&L over the years. The Saturday night ritual led by my mom and Moonlight was a passing of the torch ceremony from the elders to the next generation. Friends and Lovers was back! This year a new facilitation crew took over, forty people came including myself and my best friend Aaron (brodeur) for the second year running. Aaron and I led a discussion, this time about some of the things we see coming in technology, economics, and culture, and the ways we hope to help shape the creation of a more beautiful world. We talked about how we want to build our own community, learning from F&L and the many other models out there. Almost everyone came to our talk and the discussion was deep and rich. Next year I fully expect fifty people to come, despite the creaky cabins.

We liked to get weird

So, what are the biggest lessons I take from my experience with Friends and Lovers?

  1. Community is wonderful! Regular contact with a consistent group of people over years, especially people committed to going deep with each other, has so many benefits. Including: The safety and security of having many friends to turn to for support, more opportunities to truly let go and play and be your authentic self with people you trust, and ritual and tradition to help you feel grounded in a crazy world.
  2. Community is especially important for children. Growing up I was able to see so many different models of how to be an adult, instead of the myopic view most kids have of of how you are supposed to act when grown and in relationship, based solely on their parents and maybe the parents of a few friends. I also had, and continue to have, many elders I can turn to for help or advice.
  3. There is a definite advantage to growing a community slowly over time, with only people that you know will fit into the culture. This ensures that the culture is maintained, and limits the potential for significant conflict. It also allows everyone to know everyone else which helps maintain the feeling of a trusted, shared container where you can be authentic and vulnerable. On the other hand we did end up with a bit of a mono-culture. In particular racial diversity is almost non-existent. This limits some of what a community can learn and do.
  4. Community building can be relatively easy. Living together is a large, challenging project, but creating close-knit community over time can be done in different ways. The Friends and Lovers model would be fairly easy to replicate and I see many similar tribes forming or already formed around the Bay Area, often starting as Burning Man camps and then developing into long lasting, family like communities. For example look at False Profit and their Priceless festival which feels like an expanded family reunion every July 4th weekend, or the Rhythm Society, which works very similarly to F&L.
  5. However, living together in community is even more powerful. I do believe that the F&L model cannot reach the same level of depth and impact that an intentional living community can. For example, living together makes co-parenting and elder care much more feasible which I think is hugely valuable. Also it can be much more sustainable, as many resources can be shared. Furthermore, a community that spends most of it’s time together can do larger scale research and development projects on things like permaculture, green building, decision making structures and conflict resolution techniques.
  6. Place is important. Even though F&L didn’t all live together on one piece of land we certainly couldn’t have maintained the community year after year without all being in close proximity. Almost all members lived in Western Massachusetts and many of us lived in a kind of neighborhood on a dirt road in Shutesbury, MA which we called Hearthstone Village. I could walk up the road and see all my best friends who were also part of F&L. The community would not have formed and continued without this closeness. Equally important was that every Spring and Fall gathering always happened at S&J Ranch, and this place became a home away from home. We had such a connection to the land and every area of the camp evoked wonderful memories. We also knew the people and the layout there so well that it became supremely easy to run the weekends. F&L would not have succeeded nearly as well without the deep connection to this place.
  7. Ritual is important. Having the gatherings on the same weekends every year meant it was something we could depend on and plan around years in advance. Similarly, keeping a similar schedule and “program” at every gathering meant we didn’t need to worry too much about practical details and could just be there fully present with each other. Also, the attention paid to creating meaningful rituals at each of the gatherings and the development of long running traditions over the years contributed to a much deeper experience, on both spiritual and community building levels.
  8. Sustaining community in the long term is hard. It takes constant maintenance, adaptability, commitment, patience… You can never take it for granted. F&L has done better than most, and is making a comeback, but even with such a close knit extended family it became too hard for a while.
  9. It is particularly hard to sustain community across generations. Most young people need to leave the nest for at least a few years, and they may not come back. Communities often need to work to bring in new young people, and not depend on the next generation to stick around. I do think that one sign of a really strong community is when the young people do eventually come back, however if they just stuck around the whole time I’d worry that the community was too insular and raising overly protected children without a connection to the rest of the world.

These are some general lessons, but there is also something very special about Friends and Lovers. Almost everyone who comes to the gatherings feels like they have stepped into an alternate world, one where they are unusually accepted, loved and appreciated. They leave feeling happier, healthier and more grounded. It really is like an extended family that over the years has gone through so much together. A lot is certainly owed to the founding members who at a young age were doing deep and meaningful work on themselves and in the world and were passionate about building on that. One founder was a pioneer in the field of socially responsible investing, another a powerful facilitator of ritual and a leader in the women’s empowerment movement, another started an early natural foods company that focused on sustainability, others were lawyers, musicians, educators, or artists… but all cared deeply about living in harmony with each other and the planet, and helping create a more environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable culture. Many of the men are to this day involved in transformational men’s work through the Mankind project. It’s a special group of people.


So where does this leave me now in my relationship to Friends and Lovers? Of course I am thrilled about the rejuvenated energy in the community, and yet I am now established far away on the west coast. I have strong friendships and ties to the Bay Area that I am not prepared to leave, and I have been laying the foundation here for my own strong community. Perhaps I will just have to spend a month of every year on the east coast. And maybe someday I’ll convince my parents to head west and become the elders for my new intentional community.

Aaron and myself in another episode of Branch Talk at this year’s F&L variety show