Broadcast December 7, 2020
Featuring: Steve Torma, Eric Wolf
In this episode, Earthaven member and SOIL Faculty member Steve Torma discusses his life in community, starting with growing up in a large family, creating an intentional community with friends after college, and eventually joining Earthaven.
Steve has been an Earthaven member since 1994, helped build the village and was a co-founder of two neighborhoods. Hear Steve share what he’s learned along the way in his journey through community.
The podcast host is Eric Wolf, Earthaven resident and esteemed storyteller.
And so I was just really struck by how much of my childhood I had recreated, but in this higher octave that had most of the good stuff and let go of a lot of the stuff that I didn’t like.
Hello, everyone, this is Debbie Lienhart from the School of Integrated Living at Earthaven Ecovillage. Welcome to the Integrated Living podcast, where we explore integration within ourselves with the people around us and with the planet. In this episode, host Eric Wolf talks with Earthaven member Steve Torma about his life in community, from growing up in a large family through living at Earthaven Ecovillage for the past twenty five years.
Steve, what first raised your interest in living in community?
I would say it was my family experience. I was the youngest of 11 kids on a small family farm. And I grew up with a lot of experience of the interdependence of people working with each other and praying together and eating together. There was just a lot of togetherness, as well as outside of my family with the church. We were very integrated into the church and there was a sense of extended community there. So I think from from day one I had a strong sense of being part of a larger group of people. And that really meaning a lot to me.
Hmm. As you grew older and left your family, what were some of your first experiences with experimenting with community life?
When I went to college I began to get really interested in social transformation, you know, peace and justice kind of things. And there were people in college that I became friends with that we decided that we wanted to start an intentional community after college. So we kind of had a loose-knit sense of community during college, which means we would share a lot of things. We would share cars and let people sleep in each other’s rooms and other things like that and work on projects together. And so that just kind of naturally, when we all graduated, flowed over into renting a house together.
And a very important part of that journey into community for me was my older brother, who was a Catholic social justice theologian, who explained to me that from his perspective and from the reading of the gospels, the Christian gospels, that basically Jesus’s message was gather together to help to create a more peaceful, just, loving world, be a community of people that support each other in doing that work, and celebrating the gifts and the opportunities that we have to contribute to the world and to love each other.
And he said that’s the basic message of Jesus. And so having been raised Catholic and very, very strong roots and Catholic in Christianity, but at the same time feeling some discontent about how it was being lived by a lot of people in the world, that my brother helped me to see that there was a version of Christianity that was much more in alignment with the values that were emerging in that time, in our culture and in my life around simple living, peace and justice, advocacy, and environmental care and so forth.
I have a tremendous gratitude to him for helping me. And I was a theology major as well as a psychology major, so I was interested in that kind of theological perspective on things. So community became not only something that felt very satisfying in terms of my social life, but deeply, deeply connected to my whole purpose and meaning for living my life.
What were the ways that you built community before you came to Earthaven?
Well, the first intentional community existed for about 15 years. We started around 1980 and it went on until about 96. So that was a small household community that was very much rooted in progressive Christian values and Earth sensitivity and so forth. And in there was about a 10-year period where I was co-manager of a natural foods co-op when I was living in Akron, Ohio. So that was a very deep dive into community and cooperative living as well.
And in addition to just the storefront that we were running, I felt a strong urge to create community through the co-op by doing things like seasonal rituals and pick-up sports and music jams and cooperating on various social justice groups and so forth. So those years at the co-op were really formative for me about deepening my skill and love for community, as well as being part of a number of different peace and justice groups in my 20s and 30s.
And how did you first hear about Earthaven?
I was at a bioregional Congress in 1994 in Kentucky, and a few of the founders were there and they had a table with some literature on it. And I picked up the literature and took it to my room and read it for about an hour or so and came back and signed up to be a member.
How easy was it back then to become a member?
Well, let’s see. I had to fill out a form and send in 125 dollars or something like that. That was it. I have the distinction, as far as I know, of being the only Earthaven member that has joined twice because I was living in Ohio at the time, 1994. And so I came and visited and I had already sent in my application and my check for whatever it was, 100 bucks or whatever it was.
And so I was a member in 1994, but I had to finish up my life in Ohio. In my community, we had a commitment to each other to be together until we finished purchasing the house that we were living in. So that was 96. And so I came to Asheville and came to Earthaven to live permanently in 96. And by that time, the community had decided to have a little bit more extensive membership process, so I had to go through a membership process again. So if you look in Earthaven records, there are two dates for me of having joined Earthaven.
And what was it like for you in 96 when you arrived? Where did you come into the community?
Well, like a lot of people who joined in the early years, we had to land some place in town in order to have a place to live so that we could come out here on weekends or however much time we could spare in our lives to work on building infrastructure because there was very little, very few places to actually live here.
If you were really hardy, you had a better chance of being able to live here, because there were people who actually lived in a tent through the winter, which I was not able or willing to do at the time. So I lived in Valerie Naiman – one of the founders of Earthaven had a property with a few houses on it and so many of us landed there as a transition to moving on to the land. And that’s where I first landed in 1996 and just came back and forth.
We started a neighborhood in the late 90s. We started a neighborhood that eventually transitioned to the neighborhood that I’m in now. So I’ve always had a place, not always, but after a few years of being here, I had a place that I could come out to as I would go back and forth between town and here.
So you’ve always lived in two places like at Earthaven and at Asheville?
Yeah, that’s correct.
And in the beginning, that was normal, like everyone.
Oh, yeah. Well, yeah, almost everyone, I guess. Some of the really hardy souls used to live here in pretty rugged conditions.
I had no idea. That’s really interesting.
So you were foundational in starting Loving Acres then.
Yeah. That was the name of our first neighborhood. There were six of us, all in our 20s and 30s at the time and we were up there for a few years. It’s the part of Earthaven that is now Dancing Shiva. But at the time it was called Loving Acres. And after I think it was like maybe four years, something like that, we decided to start over closer to the center of the community. And so that’s when we navigated down here and a couple of new people joined us and we started Village Terraces.
Who was originally Loving Acres.
Let’s see myself, Corinna Wood, John McBride, Sunny and Stephanie Keach, and Jim Biddle. And then when we moved down here, Lee Warren and Mihaly Bartalos joined us.
In terms of starting Village Terraces, what for you were some of the challenges you encountered in building this neighborhood from scratch?
Well, you know, a lot of physical work and a lot of skill needed at this very grounded physical infrastructure kind of level. And I wasn’t in great health at the time.
I had really run my body down pretty badly. And so it was a little hard on me, all the physical work that we were doing. And, collectively, we were in over our head, you know, to start a neighborhood with not really knowing how to do it. But, we kind of figured it out as we went along and there were a few people who had more skills than others in the practical realms.
So that was challenging, figuring all that out.
And also, in some ways, maybe even more challenging, was trying to figure out our relationships and how to relate in ways that were peaceful and nurturing and sustainable. And then interfacing with the community, because at that time, there was a lot more interdependence between the neighborhoods and the community as a whole. So there was a lot that had to be worked out with the community at large.
So I’d say for me, probably the most difficult part was the the interpersonal relationships.
Starting VT, if you could talk to the Steve Torma who came to this land looking at Village Terraces and you could give him three pieces of advice, what would they be?
To take the time and energy individually and as a group to do a deep study and an integration of the ideas and practices in nonviolent communication, because we spent so much time and energy in conflict and trying to work things out with a lack of skill, really how to do that in a harmonious kind of way.
So we wasted a lot of time and energy in unnecessary conflicts because we didn’t have the skills of how to live in that kind of interdependence, practical proximity, in proximity and interdependence with each other. So that would be the first thing is just really take the time and energy to do a deep dive into learning and integrating into our relationships, nonviolent communication.
And I’d say probably the second one would be to make more time in our lives for celebration and connection, what Diana Christian calls community glue.
We did do some of that. And I think it was very valuable. But in hindsight, I think it would have served us better if we had spent more time doing things that created the community, that created emotional connection between us and more of a sense of celebration. But it’s a really hard thing to do when you’re trying to figure out how to put a roof over your head and how to have gardens and animals.
You know, it’s very challenging to make time for that kind of thing. And we pretty much all came from a pretty work oriented. All of us who were starting the neighborhood came from pretty intense, work oriented subcultures. So working was kind of our default mode to a large degree of how we’d be in the world.
So it wasn’t a very natural thing for us to create celebrations and connection activities and so forth. But we did do some of it. It was certainly an important part of how we did get this far.
So number three, I would say, is actually a cluster of ideas that comes from an anthropologist named Angeles Arrien and she talked about the four universal addictions. In her study of human cultures, she noticed that pretty much all human beings have these tendencies. So her four universal addictions are the tendency to focus on what’s wrong. Notice what’s not working instead of what is working, the tendency to intensity, the addiction to knowing and the addiction to perfection. And boy, when I think about those universal addictions that we really got, those things got in the way of our working more harmoniously and effectively. But, you know, it’s part of being human.
So even though it kind of slowed us down, it also allowed us to have a lot of growth and insight as we noticed those things in ourselves.
As you have aged as a person and you’ve grown up, matured in this community, how have you noticed the themes of your life from your childhood to your to being here in this place? Have you noticed a pattern of things that you were inspired by in your childhood also coming into being here?
Well, I like that question. What comes to mind is a very poignant moment that I had in 2012. I went back to Ohio where I grew up, and I actually went to visit the homestead – a little three acre farm that I grew up on that is now owned by somebody else, but they let us walk the land.
And as I was standing there in what used to be our garden calling to mind some great memories, it flashed into my awareness that the life that I had created here at Earthaven and the life that I had created here at Village Terraces was very similar in its structure and components, but in kind of like a higher octave.
So whereas when I was growing up, I was the youngest of 11 kids. So there were roughly 12 of us in our family. And at that time, when I was thinking about our neighborhood here, there’s about 12 of us that live in this neighborhood. And then I realized, wow, I grew up on about three acres and the land here is a little more than three acres.
And we had a big garden growing up. We have a big garden here. We had animals growing up. We have animals here.
We had a very deep spiritual practice as a family. And there is a spiritual belief or spiritual practices that keep us together here as a neighborhood. Not that we practice so much specific things together, but there’s kind of a spirituality that undergirds all of our passion for being here at Village Terraces. It was important to us to be part of a larger community, which at that time was the Catholic community. And now we’re part of this larger ecovillage movement and part of the larger ecology movement.
And so I was just really struck by how much of my childhood I had recreated. But in this higher octave that had most of the good stuff and let go of a lot of the stuff that I didn’t like.
That was really beautiful.
So what hopes and dreams do you have for Village Terraces and yourself moving forward?
Yeah, interesting that you ask because I’ve been thinking about that lately. It feels to me like we’re on the verge of some kind of transformation of a new form or a new expression of our neighborhood.
And as Earthaven has changed a lot and we’ve changed a lot and I don’t have a clear sense of where we’re going, but I definitely see us as having an important role as a modeling for the other neighborhoods in the community, not like they should be like us, but components of things that we do that I think are important to model to the rest of the Earthaven community. And Earthaven as a community to model to the world. I think it’s becoming increasingly clear to more and more people that the paradigm that has been dominant in our culture for so many years is continuing to disintegrate and a new way of living is emerging.
And I think places like Earthaven are on the cutting edge of that. And places like VT are these little pioneer cells. And so I think we are increasingly going to have a role to play and the fact that we’re doing this interview right now to me is an example of one of the ways that we can fulfill our purpose and mission is to get out into the world these ideas of about what we did to contribute to our success and what we did that has held us back.
You could call it successes and failures. I don’t really like the word failure so much because to me, failure is just another way of saying learning something by learning what doesn’t work. And my life personally, I love being here part of VT and being part of Earthaven. And it’s my intention to be here the rest of my life. And at the same time, I know I have a larger mission of education around community and sustainable living and social transformation for the larger world as well.
So Earthaven is absolutely core to my life purpose and also interfacing more with the world. So I see myself continuing in both of those directions as time goes on.
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