Among the forces which sweep and play through the universe, untutored man is but a wisp in the wind. Our civilization is still in a middle stage, scarcely beast, in that it is no longer guided by reason; scarcely human, in that it is not yet guided by reason.
Theodore Dreiser ~ Sister Carrie
If there is one thing that reveals the beast in all of us, it is food. With the commune, it was the lack of it. Hunting and gathering every day for over sixty people was no small task – it was the number one priority. Although the overall mission of the commune was spiritual, there was no getting around Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food, shelter, and clothing. We had the shelter and the clothes; the food was somewhat iffy. There were three main ways to deal with it.
#1. Work for it.
As I wrote earlier, the brothers worked outside the commune on odd jobs at minimum wage, notwithstanding that brief but futile attempt to force God to supply our needs without working. However, God wasn’t having any of that, so the men went back to work. The thing is, physical labor at minimum wage doesn’t bring in a lot of money. There were other expenses besides food, such as rent and utilities, which often left little or no money for food. That led to a second way to get it.
#2. Beg for it.
When the Israelites left Egypt, they borrowed articles of silver, gold, and clothing from the Egyptians. This was called “spoiling Egypt.” (Exo. 31:36) According to the commune’s doctrine, this was acceptable. The Patriarch taught that we were like the Israelites in bondage to Egypt (in our case, the “world”), and so it was okay to appropriate their worldly goods. Thus if the Israelites could spoil Egypt, we could spoil Fresno, which through no fault of its own represented the World.
Some of the brothers would go to local food business, such as restaurants and grocery stores, and get their rejects: i.e., day-old bread, dented cans, wilted produce, etc. Thus for a while we subsisted on mangled tortillas and stroganoff sauce. It was our manna in the wilderness, and like the manna, it grew old pretty fast. One time some of the sisters got the idea to use cat food instead of tuna for sandwiches; the brothers responded with wrath and indignation as well as upset stomachs.
Some of the grocery stores and restaurants supplied our needs without their knowledge, thanks to an elite group known as “The Dumpster Divers.” These resourceful souls not only knew how to get in and out of a dumpster, they knew the best days and times to hit their targets. No one talked to them about their nocturnal activities – they were the sweethearts of Fresno that Tim O’Brien described in The Things They Carried.
One time a restaurant gave us a bunch of freezer-burned steaks, and we had a feast. It was the only time I can remember we had beef. A daily staple of our diet was something we called “middlins.” It was grain feed to cattle. The women cooked it like oatmeal. When served with milk and a little honey, it wasn’t that bad. As my dad used to say, “Poor folk have poor ways.”
There was a small garden on the grounds that produced mostly onions and tomatoes, so I learned to appreciate a tomato-onion-mustard sandwich. Besides being tasty, it had the added advantage of keeping some of the more amorous brothers at a distance. There were also a few ducks and chickens; however, watching a chicken get its head spun off and then gutting and cleaning it, put the kibosh on my desire to eat it. Sometimes the food was too unpalatable to eat; sometimes it was nonexistent, in which case one could always go the third route.
#3. Abstain from it.
I discovered that when you go without food in a Christian community, you are not starving; you are fasting, and fasting, as everyone knows, is a very Spiritual Thing to do. It is a denial of the flesh. (Isa. 58:7) It breaks the yoke of bondage, it brings healing, it causes your righteousness to shine forth like the sun, etc. And it also makes people rather grouchy, but, hey, as Anthony Trollope observed:
“A huge, daily increasing grievance that does one no palpable harm, is the happiest possession that a man can have.”
I never saw people who were so happy in their misery as those who were fasting. Fasting gave them a safe, innocuous grievance, one that was a damn sight better than some of the other grievances I have seen on my journey to Byzantium.
Back to grievances: How do people find the time and energy to get so fussed about all the things they get fussed about? And if that’s not enough, they then have to get themselves an audience to listen to all their fussing, which must be another issue to get fussed about. I mean, what if a person wants to get all fussed about something but can’t find anyone willing to listen?
Note to self: Hunger is easier to manage if you have something to take your mind off your stomach; crochet is good.