You can read the previous entries of Sunsh Stein’s memoir in the following issues:

Memoirs: Issue 23

Memoirs: Issue 22

Memoirs: Issue 21

Memoirs: Issue 20

It was the early 1970s and magic permeated the air on the 165 lush acres of upstate New York called Chillum Farm. The world belonged to us — a scruffy, skinny bunch of passionate hippies — and unconditional love and marijuana made anything possible. We planned to change the world by example, living simply with no electricity, plumbing or telephone, working the land and growing much of our own food, and sharing everything. Our lives ran happily on circuits-overload as we worked and partied till we dropped. Celebrating the demise of the nuclear family we created a dysfunctional one of our own. And like the typical American family we lived with hopes, dreams, tractors, sex, chain saws, gardens, animals, births, food, nudity, singing, and ultimately, relationships that went awry.

In this installment, the family tries group marriage on for size…

A funny thing happened after Spindle and Patrick connected on summer solstice. A few weeks into this new magical relationship, she started spending more time with Joy and Shadow.

Patrick adored her and under his influence, her bright blue artist’s eyes widened as she once again recognized her own talent. He encouraged her and fed her artistic soul. They came back from long walks with assorted bits of nature like bleached animal bones or dried shelf mushrooms; they wove daisy chains for each other, his resting on the curly reddish blond hairs of his chest while hers topped her long brown hair like a crown. They worked side by side in the garden and their nights were filled with passion. He didn’t crowd her — he needed time to do his art — and they each spent time with the rest of us. Patrick easily merged his life with ours, going back only occasionally to his former home at Pierce’s Corners.

Spindle became the embodiment of the commune mantra “more love.” Because she was getting more, she had copious amounts to give – to everyone. The pain that had enveloped her after Shadow left her for Joy in late winter flew away. Through her love with Patrick she could even open up to Shadow. He couldn’t hurt her anymore.

One day I came in from the garden to get a kerchief to use as a halter top. I had taken my shirt off somewhere outside and couldn’t find it, and I didn’t want to be caught topless out there if some local visitor drove up the road – it embarrassed the women and the men never looked you in the face when they could look at your chest. On my way to the bedroom I shared with Spindle, Midge, and Lem, I glanced into the middle room where Joy and Shadow were hanging out on their swinging bed. Spindle was there with them. I smiled and waved, happy to see her be so comfortable with them.

Shortly after, I noticed the three of them spending more time together. “What’s with you and those two?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said. “There’s good energy between us and I like feeling comfortable with everyone in the family again.”

It made sense, but something about it felt odd. Still, as long as she was happy…

A week or so later, Spindle and I were stretched out on her bed in the afternoon smoking a joint. I stared out the window watching the afternoon sun light up the lush summer greenery that grew visibly fuller and deeper green with the passage of each day. Spindle began telling me about a vision Shadow had for Chillum Farm. It was something I hadn’t heard before.

“What do you mean we’d all be married to each other?” I asked.

“We’ll broaden the idea of family,” she answered.

“But we consider ourselves a family now, so what’s the married part?” I didn’t get it.

“Hmm . . .” She inhaled deeply and passed the joint to me. “We’d function as though we were all married to each other. More love for everyone.”

After almost two months on the commune I understand the more love theory but thought it had been overrated in practice. I knew it didn’t mean more sex, but rather had been used as a verbal replacement.

“It would strengthen the spiritual and emotional connection,” she went on. “We’d all love and relate to each other as though we were married. There wouldn’t be one most important person in anyone’s life, we’d all be equally important to each other. We’d be truly communing with each other — all of us — together.”

“All for one and one for all,” I muttered as I slid off the bed and stood at the window. In the distance I saw Lem and the tractor slowly circling a field in a heat haze of slow motion. I turned back to her with a shrug.

At my look she continued. “If Midge had a problem or she wasn’t doing so good, she’d go to anyone for comfort, not just Lem. He wouldn’t be more central to her than you or me or Shadow ‘cause we’d all be married to each other.”

“But what about these existing couples?”

“There wouldn’t really be any need for that because no one person would be any more important to someone than anyone else.”

“Coupleness is a tough pattern to break. Lem and Midge, Joy and Shadow? They’re gonna just stop being together? You and Patrick?”

“Well, no. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’ll take some work.”

“So who’d be sleeping with who?” I flopped back on the bed feeling agitated. “I don’t mean just fucking — although what about that? But what about actual sleeping?”

“I guess we’d each have our own space where we could be alone or with somebody.”

“But what about jealousy and hurt feelings?” I didn’t see those things disappearing.

“That’s what’s so far out about this. There’d be no reason to feel those things because we’d all be loved by everybody equally. We get hurt or jealous because we think we’re losing love, but this way we gain. There’s more love to go around.”

“What if you wanted to sleep with Nick and he was sleeping with Joy?”

“I could sleep with someone else.”

“Come on! What about when we were in Milwaukee and Donald was with another chick, you weren’t happy. And if you went home with someone else it was more for spite or just to get your rocks off.”

“That was so long ago!”

“Spindle, it’s less than three years.”

“It may as well be lifetimes ago. This is so different. We’re much more evolved, and we’re moving toward a higher plane.”

“Well, you’re not there yet.”

“We’re working on it. Just like growing the garden and working the land.”

“But what’s the point?” My resistance level was high.

“It will be the actual physical manifestation of everyone being as one, living and working and loving as one toward the common goal.”

“Which is?”

You know, Sunshine.” She almost whined. She was growing exasperated because we’d covered the common goal before in many stoned conversations, but suddenly I felt a little too free floating and I needed clarification and justification to anchor me. In these weeks away from my singular life in Milwaukee I was easily soaking up commune life, but something about this whole thing made me uncomfortable.

“Living our political and spiritual beliefs. Not just talking about it, but doing it. Namaste. Recognizing and honoring the god in each other. To achieve that fully you have to give up ownership – and that means people as well as things.”

I started feeling a little queasy. I wasn’t sure if I was getting freaked out because what Spindle said was beyond my grasp, or if I was too stoned to take it all in, even though by now I was pretty used to smoking all the time and functioning in that state. A blurred picture of simultaneous intimacy with all the Chillums crowded my mind. I needed a change of scene.

“I’m going out,” I announced and jumped up. Spindle slid off the bed behind me. We passed the middle room where Joy and Shadow were hanging out on their bed.

“Hey,” Joy called out, “where are you two going?” Spindle turned around and went into their room; I followed automatically.

“What were you doing?” Joy asked.

“Not much,” Spindle answered, climbing onto the bed. “We were just talking about life here.”

I looked at the three of them, all cozy together. “I’m going out,” I repeated, wondering why the fuck I had followed Spindle into their room. I was heavied out. I felt claustrophobic. And I wasn’t interested in pursuing this topic of group marriage with the three of them, or being part of a physical manifestation of it. I just wanted to escape.

“I love you,” Spindle said to me.

“I love you, too,” said Joy.

“Me, too,” echoed Shadow, making it unanimous.

I looked at them, their six eyes staring at me from the bed. “I love you, too,” I mumbled, and beat a hasty retreat out of their room, down the stairs, and out the front door. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

I felt threatened and needed to run for cover. I took the garden path, but saw Lem up ahead on the tractor so I turned around and doubled back behind the house, ending up in front of the barn. There was a huge old gray log lying on the ground to the right of the barn doors that functioned as a bench. It was a good spot for contemplation. I plunked my butt down on it and tried to get a grip on what I was feeling.

It was a hot day. I shivered a little. There were knots in my stomach and they were working their way up into my chest. I felt panicky. At the same time I felt a small spark of excitement.

I took in the mid-afternoon tranquility. No one else was around, just me and a few flies. My gaze focused on the house in front of me, then moved to the workshop off to my right, then the shitter beyond it, and rested on the pastures, fields, and woods that surrounded everything. All that green coupled with the bright blue sky made a bold statement in primary colors. Or was that primal, to match my feelings?

I re-ran the conversation in my head. This group marriage thing went against everything that was conventional life. I didn’t think of myself as a conventional person, why was I so freaked out? I was political; I’d left a marriage where I’d “had everything” because I didn’t like the conventional path it was on; I’d been in an interracial relationship; had slept around; I often sought out the fringe elements; and I never much cared what people thought. But this blew me away. Why?

I sat for a few minutes and then the light bulb went on and I thought, Oh my god. Even though I no longer believe in marriage and don’t think I want kids, I still believe in coupledom. Aren’t I constantly looking for a guy? Holy shit! I’ve got this deep-seated, automatic, romantic belief that the group marriage thing grinds into worthless pulp. I have to expunge a core value of my life. Am I, sophisticated and worldly as I like to think, really just a scared little small-minded provincial Midwesterner?

The mid-afternoon sun beat down on me as I questioned my current existence. Could I see myself becoming one in every way with the Chillums? Did I want to? For all the intimacy we’d shared since my arrival, just how well did I know these people? And what other unimaginable concept would they bring on next? I sat on the log, both bare feet planted firmly in the dirt to ground myself, and attempted to shift my feelings to thoughts — rational ones. I’d always been a practical person so I directed my stoned mind to dissect the theory and consider the ramifications. The air was unusually still and the farm was oddly quiet as I forced my stoned mind to focus.

After the first awkward week on the commune, I had easily grown into this life. I thought of it as summer camp for adults, and never having gone to summer camp I was thrilled to finally be at one. I didn’t know the drill, so I assumed that whatever happened, and however it happened, was the way things were supposed to be — these hippies all appeared to know what they were doing. I hadn’t considered that life here was a work in progress and they were finding their way, learning and growing as they went.

There was no apparent sign of group marriage, although there certainly was group therapy. I’d fallen in with a talky, analytical bunch of people. There were few secrets, and a no-holds-barred approach to emotional freak-out and revelation sucked everyone in, whether as active participant or listener. An intense closeness existed. I came to the farm looking for something new and found communal living. Why not group marriage as a logical extension? Sitting on the log thinking about it, it really did seem, as Spindle said, far out.

I began assessing each person on the commune as a potential mate. Spindle was easy, after our travels in Europe the previous summer we were linked for life. Did I want to sleep with her? I didn’t have to. I adored my Scorpio sister Midge; our bond appeared strong and lasting. Did I want to sleep with her? I wasn’t into women sexually, but I was attracted to her in an ill-defined way. I put that question on the back burner. I’d grown quite fond of Lem and his wonderful sense of humor, but he could sometimes be distant and I wasn’t clear about my attraction to him. Sex? Maybe. Joy provided serenity and wonderful hugs. Sex? Nah. And Nick, he was handsome and funny and knew a lot about outdoor stuff. He was endearing, but I wasn’t into fair-haired guys. Laurie came with an intense neediness but gave intensely, I also felt an attraction toward her. Did I want to sleep with her? On the back burner with her sister.  Patrick brought a warmth I liked but it was too soon to tell about him. Then there was Shadow. I thought he master-minded much of our lifestyle. I was still such a neophyte and was intimidated by him. I definitely did not want to sleep with him.

So much for basic animal desire. What about trust? Could I rely on each of them for all my needs? Wasn’t I doing that already? Did I need to make a distinction between physical and emotional needs? If I thought about it, except for the lack of sex, both categories were being met, in fact, more than they had been in a long time. What about my independence? Barring the black activist relationship, I’d always been very independent. Could I maintain that in a group marriage and would I need/want to? I knew I didn’t have to decide anything now, but it felt good to try it on for size.

As I looked up to see the horses grazing on the other side of the creek, the jumble of confusion in my head became clearer and excitement chased away the fear. My life in Milwaukee was nowhere — my blood family would never give me any kind of intimacy and sharing like this, and what they might think of commune life didn’t matter. Chillum Farm was a happening place with endless possibilities. In theory it reflected my LSD-induced vision of the world as one big family. The Beatles singing “And in the end, the love you make is equal to the love you take,” echoed through my brain and segued into John Lennon singing “And the world will live as one” from “Imagine.” Why not start living that vision here with the Chillums? They were ready, willing, and working to be able.

I felt like I had just worked through the intellectual aspect of this whole thing, now all I needed was to get past the emotional obstacles. I loved Spindle and I trusted her totally. I knew she felt that way about the family. So I figured if she felt that way, why couldn’t I? Hmm. I went inside to roll a joint. I’d worked hard and needed to relax.

As I let the group marriage concept sink in over the next several days, I became aware that Shadow and Joy had upped the ante on Spindle; it was like they were courting her. I thought Patrick remained her main attraction, but the other two encroached more and more on her time.

Patrick got word that friends of his from Boston were visiting at Pierce’s Corners. He decided to go back there for a couple of nights to hang out with them “Spindle, do you want to come? Jeff usually has hash,” he asked her.

She thought about it for a few minutes, then said, “No, I think I’ll stay here. But bring some hash back if you can.” She smiled and gave him a big kiss.

The second night of Patrick’s absence we were all hanging around the new room after dinner, the usual reading and talking going on under the glow of the kerosene lamps. Shadow and Joy said goodnight and went upstairs. Shortly after, so did Spindle. When I went up later and passed the middle room on my way to bed, I saw a tangle of naked bodies in motion on the swinging bed, one of them being Spindle. Oh jeez, I wondered, what the hell is this.

It appeared the group marriage project had gotten underway.