Finding Utopias Where We Can: On Hopeful Living as Resistance
Zan Romanoff Reads Adrian Shirk’s Heaven is a Place on Earth
In May of 2021—in what I thought, naively, might be the waning days of the pandemic—I moved out of a three-bedroom apartment, where I’d been living with Craigslist roommates for the last six years, and into a house. My friend Sarah, also single and in her mid-thirties, was joining me there; our friend Maurene, her husband, and their baby would be our next-door neighbors. Immediately, the adults did what all modern adults do when we know we’ll need to get ahold of one another regularly: we started a group chat, which we jokingly named The Commune.
Of course, what were doing was hardly communal living in any radical or interesting sense. Almost everyone has neighbors, and if you’re lucky, you can depend on them for small things: picking up the mail when you’re out of town, the exchange of local gossip, lending the proverbial cup of sugar. We hoped to take it just a bit further than that. Sarah, Maurene, and I are all writers, which means we work in an industry with no clear career path or metrics for success. Before this, we’d been relying on each other for years for company, for gut-checks, for introductions and edits, so there was already a sense that we were in it—whatever “it” was at any given moment—together.
There are no formal agreements in place, but certain rhythms have developed between us. We give each other rides when we’re going to the same place; we lend each other eggs and milk, borrow drill bits, books, and even sometimes wifi. When Maurene has a hard day with the baby, her husband sends her over to us, and we pour her wine and let her talk about something other than being a mother for a little while. In return, I have showed up in her living room after difficult days at my desk to press the baby’s small body to mine, marveling at how much simpler things are when all I have to do is sit on the rug and focus on playing with him.
It’s the smallest thing, having one friend live one house over. But it is shocking how much that small thing helps, especially after the isolation of the last two years—most especially if you were single during that period.
I had been living in the new house for about six months when I picked up an early copy of Adrian Shirk’s latest, a difficult-to-categorize piece of nonfiction called Heaven is a Place on Earth: Searching for an American Utopia. I had interviewed Shirk when her first book, And Your Daughters Shall Prophecy, was released in 2016, so I already knew we shared something of a sensibility about history, about feminism, about what makes for an interesting kind of life. I was curious to see what she had to say about intentional communal living, a subject my friends and I gesture at often—the way I think a lot of people do, saying vaguely that we’d like to do The Commune but bigger, buy a compound or something, a place where we could ride out our golden years together, wouldn’t that be nice—but then never move to actually, practically attempt.
The book is true to its subtitle: it is about the act of seeking, not necessarily finding, of patching and piecing together history and criticism and experience and desire into something much shaggier than narrative, but also much truer to life. This makes sense, given the way Shirk thinks about kind of utopia she’s interested in pursuing. Thomas More originally coined the term in his 1516 book of the same name, and it literally translates to “no place,” which is how we often view attempts at utopia, Shirk writes: as pie-in-the-sky dreams, “too perfect to actually exist.” She argues against that reading, though, suggesting that instead, “utopia is something that, according to the laws of capital and conquest, was never supposed to be able to exist, but somehow did, for a blip in time.”
Just because none of the utopian experiments of the past created a stable, permanent heaven on earth doesn’t mean that they were failures, or should be written off as naïve hippie fantasies, she writes. Instead, we might more usefully frame them as resistance projects, a form of active wrestling with the conditions one finds oneself in, whatever they might be. Utopia is not a destination but a conversation, ongoing. It’s the work of attempting to continually reimagine what might be possible outside existing frameworks for society, community, and family. “How can I live a life… in the United States today, which is not primarily organized around private property and the acquisition of personal wealth?” Shirk asks in the book’s introduction.
This is, of course, a moment in which many of our national frameworks are already breaking or broken. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, Americans were experiencing a “loneliness epidemic” even before Covid; two years of isolation and fear have only exacerbated the issue. We’re witnessing the mass exodus of women from the workforce, spurred in large part by the lack of childcare infrastructure in this country, and a Great Resignation of workers of all genders leaving jobs for a diverse array of reasons. Wealth inequality continues to create a gap between the unimaginably rich and the rest of us. Climate change is slowly rendering even the weather’s patterns foreign and unpredictable. What better time could there be to ask ourselves what’s working and what isn’t? What better time could there be to try to build something thoughtful and new?
Heaven is a Place on Earth was originally conceived as a survey of American intentional living experiments, Shirk writes, and though it evolved away from that format, it does offer a good overview of the breadth of forms that utopian seeking has taken in this country. That overview includes utopian projects that don’t look like what we might traditionally picture when someone says commune: Shirk visits places like Mount Lebanon’s Shaker Community, but also writes about the Bronx rebuilding movement of the 80s and the Adjunct Flophouse she and some friends organized, a rented space where adjunct professors could live cheaply while visiting New York City to work. These, too, are utopias in her eyes, even though they don’t look like what most Americans imagine as communal living (mainly, pious white people eating lentils and talking about chakras, plus or minus some weird sex stuff).
These urban experiments feel particularly close to my own heart. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and as much as I like the idea of communal living, I’ve always had trouble picturing myself on a rural homestead, milking dairy cows when the sun comes up. I spent some time around the sustainable agriculture community in and after college, and mostly what I learned is that I’m not cut out for farming; whatever utopia I find will likely involve some measure of asphalt and takeout and neighbors who are strangers, as well as neighbors who are friends.
And in fact, the closest I’ve come to heaven lately was engaging in my own attempts at urban renewal, volunteering as part of Mutual Aid LA for a project called Produce in the Park. Beginning in the spring of 2020, when I spent most of my time shut up in my bedroom or else walking long, lonely laps around my neighborhood, I started showing up at a warehouse in the City of Industry on Thursday mornings. There, a carefully-masked group of us would load pallets of food—slightly moldy green beans, past-expiration kale, perfectly fine raspberries and blueberries, sometimes whole pineapples—into our cars, and take it to a local park, where we would cull, sort, divide and bag it up before sending it off to various community fridges.In those moments, as we pushed together past the world as it was to the world we wanted to live in, we found ourselves in a kind of heaven.
The volunteers formed a community, of course; we got to know one another as we sat in the grass, pulling dead leaves off Brussels sprouts or deciding which onions were too slimy to be edible. But there were other people in the park too, and they became part of what we were doing as well. Some just stopped by to chat; some lent a hand; some picked up bags for themselves and their neighbors. After a few months, folks knew our schedule, and by the time we pulled up they’d be waiting in line with metal pull-carts, waiting patiently for the week’s assortment of fresh produce.
It should not have existed. It should not have had to exist. In a just world, food waste would be redistributed by something other than a network of unpaid and untrained volunteers; in a just world, there wouldn’t be so many hungry people in need in the first place. But and also, in those moments, as we pushed together past the world as it was to the world we wanted to live in, we found ourselves in a kind of heaven.
It was heaven for me to get to practice my rusty Spanish, to learn the dietary restrictions and preferences of the people who came back each week, to have grandmothers advise me on their favorite recipes, or that rich people got sick because they didn’t eat enough rice and beans, that rice and beans would save my life. It was heaven to sweat under the big blue sky and talk and dance to the music that someone started bringing to play on speakers while we worked. It was heaven to care for, and be cared for, and be in my body and nowhere else. I went home after each session tired and too hot and talked out. And it was the best memory of that time, easily: the sense that we were all blowing a soap bubble, those mornings in the park, something fragile and temporary but above all hopeful.
I’ve been seeking more of the same ever since.
I grew up with parents who had lived on communes of varying types and degrees of seriousness, so I am aware that they have their pitfalls. My mother occupied a few small-scale communal houses in her twenties, mostly populated by fellow USC grads; my father was, for a time, part of the Hog Farm, an ongoing experiment which is briefly name-checked in Heaven is a Place on Earth. They ultimately abandoned these places for more normative lives, in part over issues Shirk describes as endemic to the communal living experiment, the things that usually dismantle all manner of communes: “compromising aims, getting bogged down by maintenance labor, figuring out how to decide if so-and-so can keep their shed rotting or isn’t helping to clean up the kitchen, and how to talk to them about it…”
Which is precisely why I loved Shirk’s book so much: its expansive, sometimes rambling structure feels less like being lectured on best practices and more like having a long conversation with your most interesting, well-read friend about what to try to build next. Reading it made me move the borders of my mind, if only a little: to try to see out of the corners of my eyes, past what I expect to what might be possible if I looked at my life from another angle, tried something different for once. It gave me language for things I had thought only abstractly or opaquely. It made me feel, fundamentally, intellectually and spiritually less alone.
I do not live in a commune now, and I may never. I would like very much to keep pushing towards something like it, though: gathering friends on blocks and in neighborhoods. Doing Mutual Aid and other organizing work in the hope that someday, no one will need to wait in line for a bag of produce they couldn’t otherwise access. Contributing in whatever ways I can to a communal pool of resources, giving what I have, and learning how to accept help when I need it.
At one point in the book, Shirk writes about visiting her cousin Eleanor’s farm. Eleanor and her husband and Shirk and her husband stay up late talking by the fire. “Eleanor looking at me over the fire and laughing, asking if this is utopia, and I say, yes, why not,” Shirk writes, “I mean yes, anything that offers something other than capital and death.”
I carry that phrase around with me now, as I try to inscribe myself into a future that feels less limited than the present I occupy. Anything that offers something more than capital and death, I think, picking up the baby, pouring a glass of wine, wondering who else could make use of my privilege and my time. Life lived in a series of moments, as an experiment, an exercise, an offering: building something that can’t last, and laughing when it falls down, and then trying again.
My life braided with others’, and mattering more because of it. Making meaning outside of accomplishment or earning, so that I’m rooted in nothing more or less than the land and in my loved ones: yes, that sounds right to me. Something more than capital or death, is what I want for my life. Hear, hear, I find myself thinking. That’s what I want, and that’s where I want it: heaven on earth, here, here.