My life had come to a grinding halt. I'd spent over a year saying yes to a relationship that had completely drained me. I'd stayed in a job that I was grateful for but which had no room for advancement. I'd agreed to living arrangements that weren't stable or healthy. And I when I couldn't say no to them, they started saying no to me.
I got dumped. No warning, no fanfare. It was just over one morning. It had all the casualness of switching dinner plans.
With the relationship went my home and any feasibility of renewing my contract at work. There was nothing left to say yes to, no path forward, just a sudden and complete dead end.
So I moved home, securing that stereotypical room in the basement of my parents' house. And I started considering those ambitions I'd been putting off, the trips I had wanted to take but never had never gotten around to.
Years ago, I'd read about one of the longest-running communes in the United States and really fallen in love with their philosophy. I decided to write to them and was accepted to visit their community in rural Virginia for three weeks.
It didn't quite hit me what I'd signed on for until I pulled onto the commune's gravel road. Lush green fields with an array of plants tucked neatly into tidy garden rows lined the driveway. Cows grazed behind a black wooden fence. Houses, some old and some patchworked and all weather-worn, circled a courtyard of gnarled oaks strung up with rainbow hammocks.
To describe it as culture shock would be an understatement.
The commune was built on a foundation of total trust in its members and visitors. There was no time card or clocking in. We were given a labor sheet of assigned work and were allowed to reject work for any reason. At the end of the week, everyone turned in their labor sheet with a list of what kind of work they had done and how many hours they had spent doing it.
Members and visitors were required to work 42 hours a week, which sounded like quite a lot at first. But the definition of work was fairly broad and included just about any effort that improved or maintained the community. There was the work that made the commune money, such as making hammocks and tofu. But cooking, cleaning, making fires and childcare also counted toward those hours.
I spent most of my time in the commune's beautiful vegetable garden. We harvested and weeded, often bent over for long periods and hauling heavy equipment. I woke up sore every morning and began to dread my afternoon shifts with the plants. I resented people I saw doing less physical work. I didn't understand how people did this day in and day out.
It wasn't until one of the members took me aside to tell me that it was OK to turn down work that it clicked.
People weren't in the garden just because it needed to be done; they were there because they wanted to do it. Which meant I needed to be truthful about the fact that I didn't want to be there.
It meant saying no.
For the first time in my life, I started to realize that saying no was less a type of rejection and more a form of honesty. It was dishonest to agree to work I didn't want to do. It was dishonest not to be clear about my own boundaries.
It wasn't until I started saying no that I realized how always saying yes had made me feel less human. It externalized how I measured my own success. I worried more about whether other people — my boyfriend, my boss, and my friends — were happy and pleased with me more than whether I even wanted to do the work to please them. I hadn't been a person, I had been a means to an end.
It was like discovering myself again.
I found out I really liked doing repetitive tasks like chopping up vegetables for meals or oiling wood stretchers for hammocks. I liked work where I could talk to people, but not when it was quiet. I didn't like hanging out in the designated smoking rooms, but I did like having drinks with the people who hung out there and told the kind of stories that made it worth it. I liked tempeh but not tofu, weeding but not harvesting, cutting but not cooking.
I started to take shape.
Another visitor made me uncomfortable. I was encouraged to voice that I was uncomfortable, and when he continued to make me uncomfortable, the rest of the community gathered around me and was like, no, this isn't gonna fly. Having a community not only respect my noes but help enforce them made all the difference.
It's made me reevaluate what friends respect and enforce my noes and which do not. My friendships with them are higher-quality, I've noticed.
It made my yeses more significant, too. It made my yeses not these half-hearted begrudging agreements but enthusiastic. Ethusiasm made for better work, better friendships. And I'm sure this all seems really obvious, but we don't put this into practice.
There's a fine line, I think, between selfishness and personal boundaries. Avoiding everything you don't like no matter the circumstances doesn't make for a strong community, but knowing yourself well enough to set down the boundary where it really matters, where it adds to your life and doesn't take away from others – that's important.
It was hard to say goodbye. I've missed the commune every day since I've left. Once you tasted a community built on that kind of honesty and mutual support, it's very hard to go back to a life without it. But I'm making due.
Now that I'm more comfortable saying no and being clear about what I want, it's forced me to know myself more fully, to be more aware of my true desires rather than what I think will please the people around me. I'm more selective of the friends I spend time with, avoiding those who don't respect me or who test my boundaries.
I'm trying to cultivate my own community of people who know the power and value of no.