From Catastrophe To Benestrophe

A downpour of love replaces a roof in a weekend

One of the articles in Economics In An Intellegent Universe (IC#2)
Originally published in Spring 1983 on page 19
Copyright (c)1983, 1996 by Context Institute

The Spirit Of The Gift takes many forms, as in this story of the oldest type of insurance. Jonathan lives in western Massachusetts.

He thought something was wrong before he even opened the door of the big recreation hall. Through the glass the light inside looked different, as if . . .

He and his visitor, who’d come to see about renting a hall for a social event, stepped inside. Their brains resisted – rejected – what their eyes saw. The roof had caved in during the night.

The call to help rebuild was a cry of distress. Tagged a "work weekend," it brought perhaps fifteen experienced hammer-swingers (people who’d built more than a bookcase) and nearly fifty people like Helene of Larchmont, who "thought maybe I could help pick up nails – I’m good at that." She and the others were going to put the roof back on at Rowe Camp, a summertime camp for youngsters and teenagers in Rowe, Massachusetts.

The building, called the Super Blink, was also used by Rowe Conference Center, the camp’s off-season sister – a meeting place of people interested in how they might shift their weight if the world is going to right itself. The Super Blink replaced a much smaller hall, Bonnie Blink. Conference goers ate, sang, danced and met there during the best-attended weekends. Like the camp, the conference center is an ambitious place – perched proudly, almost comically, at the end of the limb of its financial resources.

The roof took most of Rowe’s margin of survival with it when it fell. "The work weekend wasn’t an inspired idea," explained a friend of Rowe – "it was an absolute necessity."

Still, there was no sign that seventy-five "Rowemantics" who’d paid twelve dollars for their food and a chance to spend three days at an unfamiliar construction site could get the roof back on. The question wasn’t willingness; the question was skill. Could the kinds of people drawn by a conference center which trades in spiritual resources translate the theory they so achingly envision into a roof that sheds water? Volkswagening and Volvoing in from New York City and Boston, as well as nearby Greenfield and Charlemont, could they make their own conference center – let alone a collapsing society – work again?

At the time the roof fell in, the work weekend had already been scheduled. It was to accomplish some of the seasonal details at Rowe – gardening and clean-up, paint-up, stack- up types of jobs. Intellectual cobwebs were to be swept away by a bonus seminar, led by Bob Swann, an architect and economist with a local bias, and Susan Witt, his partner and colleague. Despite the catastrophe, Rowe’s commitment to Swann and Witt was left unchanged, and the two of them were on hand among the others to pound and dig and share their economic vision.

The third feature of the "three ring circus," as one participant called it, was a comprehensive plan to make the fields and orchard of the funky old farm more practical and inviting. Its authors, from the Conway School of Landscape Design, were there to implement it.

There were ringleaders – including an architect and a construction foreman for the Super Blink project – but there was no Barnum and there was no Bailey. The closest Rowe could come to these geniuses of organization were two idiosyncratic facilitators, floating like patties of yellow butter on warm maple syrup in their belief in people’s goodness. Doug Wilson and Prue Berry are the administrators of Rowe, corporately speaking. They have desks and telephones and they purport to keep things running. But any visitor can see the center functions almost in spite of their conscious intentions, weekends anyway; the pitcher of Rowe syrup levitates and pours itself, and the two yellow patties of butter flow out with the syrup to melt, almost inevitably, into just the breakfast to start off your day (or month or year) right. But under this uncontrolled arrangement there is no guarantee of a work weekend’s success.

Sure enough, the weekend soon developed a vigorous life of its own. The vegetable garden got partially dug, and some giant stones were removed, but a circular herb garden that Prue and five or six conferees began digging around the well was squashed by Conway forces of perspective, which pointed out that the herb garden was to be fan- shaped and over there. People and implements moved over to the proper position and work resumed.

A bevy of teenagers, left with the job of loading brush into a borrowed pickup, soon had it loaded and were down in the kitchen enjoying milk and cookies.

The Conway students, though left without much of a crew, worked fast. They pushed back the edge of the fields and opened up the forest with power equipment to expand subjective horizons and invite exploration. But at one point Prue noticed ribbons hanging from trees near the barn. "I said, ‘Oh, no! You’re not going to cut all those trees, are you?’, and they said they were," she recalled later. "I said, ‘Well, you’re not going to cut this one.’ The ribbon was removed. I looked up and – I swear! – you know, the tree thanked me!"

Prue Berry, earnest and almost disturbingly beautiful, shares with Doug the duties of administration and hosting. Music permeates her, flows from her voice and fingers. With an intellect as developed as her empathy, she gets caught up in the crackling exchange of ideas that goes on during a good weekend at Rowe. Someone as formidable as Prue gets listened to when she defends a tree.

Meanwhile, up at the Super Blink, work was slow. Three teenagers were demolishing a wall with their feet, with a little help from a crowbar and the use of a rickety old telephone booth for a scaffold. Down underneath, three men began cutting and fitting a system of braces to prop up the sagging floor until it would be caught on a new beam. Like creatures of Middle Earth, they moved about under the floor nearly horizontally on their backs, hanging onto the joists with their hands and swinging from joist to joist, their feet walking four or five feet ahead. After a couple of days down there they began to joke about lack of Vitamin D making them walk this way.

The roof carpenters were the slowest to produce visible results. First they looked about with raised brow and made quiet comments like survivors of a bombing. That took a half hour. Then three men hung a wobbly system of two-by- fours, intended to show the pitch and height of the new roof. Architect Robert Swain, an easygoing jobsite architect, considered it key, but it did take most of the morning. Simultaneously, a few two-by-fours were positioned for corners of walls, and a fancy table was outfitted with the necessary supports and stops. People searched for their lost tape measures. The sky overhead, seen past the jagged edges of the remaining roof, was an ocean of purposeful white clouds.

By evening of the first day, the most visible change had been created by the razing crew and the Doug Wilson hauling operation. An enormous heap of scrap outside had been sorted into piles and everything that wasn’t salvageable loaded into the van and driven to the dump. When the bright sun slanted in at an angle that denoted early evening, Doug was still working, his face dotted with dirt and sweat. His body seemed to be saying "I may be the right-fielder, but at least I’m on the team.’ The Wilson body language said something else: "Together if we stay calm and keep at it, we’ll get this place rebuilt. I hope."

The idea of truths speaking through us that aren’t able to be thought out or articulated is just one of the small heresies, like hope, that are practiced at Rowe. But technological command built the Super Blink, along with free enterprise, low bidder, cheap power, and single-digit interest rates. Can wholistic understanding rebuild it? The power of love? The Yellow Pages list nothing under cosmic carpentry.

Saturday morning there’s a seminar led by Bob Swann and Susan Witt. Contrasted with the loose leadership up at the Super Blink, the Swann-Witt workshops seem downright structured. The two experts in land trusts and community banking are planning a wind park on a hill in the Berkshires. The tie-in with the work weekend is implicit: small and medium-scale alternatives that work between the feet of the dinosaurs of capitalism.

The Super Blink is looking like a dinosaur skeleton without ribs. The schedule says they – the rafters – will go up today.

They don’t. By sundown, construction foreman Russell Jolly, an intense yet amiable carpentry whiz, has finally learned not to put his nail apron on, to shepherd the volunteer talent instead. Russ’s temperament and weeks of preparation have assured that the job will be done right, not necessarily fast. The list of things that haven’t gotten accomplished is long: interior or exterior walls, deck joists, the new stage, preparation of the rafters. The workers aren’t discouraged; they know they’ve put in a hard day’s work and they aren’t aware of any timetable. They file down to the farmhouse in happy weariness, glad to have built part of a wall, satisfied to have marked and cut the second set of posts and beams and to have jacked up the sagging floor. Best of all, most of the mess is finally gone.

After a feast – everybody’s just desserts – a little society gathers in the living room. Helene of Larchmont is like the others: she sits on the couch talking quietly, a contrast with her usual animation. She’s too tired to party. But three of her colleagues in the over-forty crowd stay up until 2 a.m. singing songs of the 1940’s.

On Sunday morning after breakfast, Doug is looking grave. "I don’t know what to do," he confides distractedly. "It just isn’t happening. We’ve got work to do, and there’s supposed to be another seminar this morning."

"How about asking the seminar folks if they’d be willing to limit the seminar to an hour or an hour and a half?"

This suggestion seems to relieve Doug a little. He churns away, his brake linings burning against his revved-up engine. Given the magnitude of the job set out, the seminar has become conflicting rather than symbiotic. This sunny May morning the crisis is distracting from work on permanent solutions: Western civilization in microcosm.

A little slower this morning, the Super Blink crowd drains its coffee cups and struggles out to cut rafters and frame walls, minus the seminarians. An inefficient day will mean Rowe will have to purchase what it can’t afford: a contractor’s services.

Then word arrives that the job site is short sixteen rafters. Lumber yards are closed on Sunday. With volunteer labor it has been difficult; without rafters it will be impossible. But Doug and Russ get on the phone and track down the managers of nearby lumber companies at home ("Rise and shine and give us rafters"). The third one reached agrees to meet a Rowe representative at the yard and sell the needed two-by-twelves.

After lunch in the waning hours of the work weekend the roof is still only a figment of imagination. But reinforcements arrive from the seminar and most of the available rafters drop into place, the walls are finally framed and part of the old roof is patched and squared up. But it isn’t until 3 p.m., as some of the carpenters are gathering up to head home, that Doug arrives with the missing lumber riding in a rack fashioned by a helper atop the straining van. Like automatons, or squirrels preparing for a heavy winter, the work crew cuts the rafters and fills the gap left for them. Two square off the ragged roof and a woman from Boston installs the drip edge.

There’s an increase in work tempo as heavy dark clouds move overhead. Splats appear on the floor through the latticework of the newly framed roof. They are wet and large. People climb down from the cathedral ceiling and take cover.

It’s five-thirty on Sunday evening, the rafters are installed, and it’s starting to rain. Why are these people lingering? Maybe they can’t find their car keys. Or it’s a religious service and nobody’s said the benediction yet. There’s the same kind of lull there was Friday morning while people scuffed the floor and glanced about and talked quietly to each other.

"Well," somebody said, "what’s next?" The rainshower was moving off to the east. Bob Swain mentioned two or three other projects. "Let’s go up on top again," suggested one of the volunteers.

With three days’ experience behind them, people were beginning to feel comfortable crawling around twenty feet off the floor, familiar with the tools and the requirements and their own and each other’s capabilities. From these commonly held reserves, beyond adrenaline, the crew now managed to find a last burst of energy to utilize the assembled know-how.

So purlins – crosswise strips onto which the roofing would be laid – were cut and nailed down by weary stalwarts Dave and Susan and Jim and Stuart and Laura. Cloud and Virginia teamed up to finally finish the old roof. In a bit of dogged magic, the bottom outside wall was closed in by John and Andy and was prepared to receive the new deck.

On the hillside behind the Super Blink, the architect, the construction foreman, and the head of the hauling operation gathered into a little knot, and the work crew sensed a tide of appreciation coming from that quarter. Doug stood in the fading light as the outlines of the stronger, more useful rec hall got fixed into place by neighbors and visitors from across state lines, experienced carpenters and perfect neophytes, friends and strangers. His dirt-stained face quivered and he Super Blinked.

People started gathering tools. With the purlins nailed into place, it was hard to find a way to squeeze down through the roof onto a ladder. "I think I’m going to call it a day," someone joked. Others were aware of being on the edge of a hysteria born of enormous satisfaction and equally great fatigue.

From the first day, the Super Blink project had been characterized by almost total lack of conversation. Folks from the garden crew remarked on the difference: the earthworkers laughed and chattered without cease; the woodworkers socialized at a completely occupational level: "Would you hand me up that level? Thanks, Chris, is it?"

Now that the job and the weekend were finished the tongues of the Blink folk began to loosen. Down at the farmhouse the vestiges of the carpentry crew mingled with the vestiges of the grounds crew over several bottles of champagne, one served in the bathroom during a mass shower.

And the cloudburst that didn’t happen over the Super Blink happened now inside the farmhouse. Like moisture- laden air meeting a welcome cold front, the mixture of hopeful, nervous, frustrated, determined energy of the weekend precipitated into an event that was more happening than party, an epiphany of forgotten inner stores of joy. From an eloquent impromptu "speech" by Bob Swain in the kitchen to group dancing in the living room to a long- delayed dinner and jokes and a mock thunderstorm, with opera conversations between sopranos Helene and Prue, the weekend culminated in a never-to-be-forgotten sigh of satisfaction and love.

They’d repaired the wrecked ant-hill of the Super Blink to better-than-original condition. They’d laid in energy for the future at Rowe. In carpentry terms, they’d driven home solidly as a sixteen-penny nail the fact that tragedy, even apparent death can turn 180 degrees into a benestrophe (herewith-coined opposite of catastrophe).

They’d learned, too, a point even Bob Swann and Susan Witt couldn’t adequately cover in the seminar on alternative economics: how well-paid their "free labor" had been. To the dogged workers at Rowe payment came as a downpour of love against which there is no roof, to which the best reaction is just to melt and float.

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