Transplanting Culture

“This is not a Valentines Day party. It’s a Validation Day party. Valentines Day is about two people having a romantic time off on their own. Validation Day is about sharing our love and appreciation with each other in the context of community.”

This is more or less how I started off my shpeil to the folks who showed up at Woodfolk House on February 14th for the first ever Validation Day celebration in an urban setting. Validation Day was created at East Wind Community, and spread to Twin Oaks at least 12 years ago. Bringing it to a city, even within the walls of a community hub like Woodfolk House, would be a radical shift from the enclosed context of a rural commune. The celebration at Twin Oaks depends on everyone in the community knowing each other. The central facet is the cards, possibly the most brilliant cultural ritual I’ve seen come out of the communities movement:

The Cards are more like booklets full of art and collage representing the people they’re for. Folks sign up ahead of time to make cards for favorite fellow communards. A couple weeks before the 14th, everyone works on “signing” each others cards. Sometimes it’s a sentence, sometimes a long poem or prose about the person. It might be about something the person does or some way of being the exemplify. But each comment is full of appreciation, compliment, and validation. While you’re writing in each card you realize you are surrounded by amazing people, and get a chance to actively enhance your positive feelings for them.

The Reading of the Cards happens half way through a fancy dinner. A few people start taking each card, one by one, hiding it behind a screen, and reading out some of the comments. People shout out their guess as to who the comments are about. Once they’ve got it, the person gets their card, which is not only beautiful but holds several dozen heart-warming validations from their community. A lively dance party follows, involving varying levels of revelry and debauchery.

The familiarity, comfort, and safety of the space is key to the holiday’s success at Twin Oaks. We felt confident that we could bring together a critical mass of people who would appreciate a different kind of party. But we’d need a different set of tools to carve out the cultural space needed to bring in the key qualities of Validation Day. To do this, we:

Created a level of familiarity: We tried to discourage “friends of friends,” people who were perhaps a degree or two of separation too far away from most other people likely to come. We narrowed our invite list and encouraged people to “bring friends that you love and care about.”

Concocted a ritual of appreciation: Obviously the Validation Day cards part wouldn’t work in this context. Instead, we created a Web of Extraordinary Introductions. At about 9pm we turned down the sound system and got everyone onto the dance floor. “It can be scary to speak our appreciations to each other and to receive them, especially in front of others!” I said as I introduced the activity. I produced a ball of string and explained the exercise. “I’m going to throw this to someone, and say something like ‘the thing I most appreciate/enjoy/admire about you is…’

It went beautifully. I made sure to model the behavior such that people said something meaningful without going on for too long (there were about 30 people in the exercise!). Only near the end did we get caught by not having quite enough overlap in the social circles, but this turned out fine. When a person got the ball of string who didn’t know anyone that hadn’t yet been validated, they’d just throw it to someone and the people in the circle who knew that person would validate and appreciate them.

Hearing people say incredibly loving things to people they knew well was very heart-warming. Maybe even more powerful was when people went out on a limb and appreciated someone they didn’t know very well. A couple people acknowledged feeling a little nervous doing this in front of a group, but also voiced appreciation at the opportunity. And in the end the exercise also illustrated that everyone in the room knew everyone else through at least one other person; the web of relationships is stronger than we usually think!

Ensuring a Comfortable and Safe Space: People entered into the house and were welcomed by a greeter at the front door; everyone who came in got roughly the same shpeil. “We want to keep this a safe space, so respect your own boundaries, respect the boundaries of others.” Several people coming in the door noted that this was a very different experience from any other party they’d been to. When I was greeting I made sure to look everyone in the eye when they came in (whether they liked it or not ;0), made sure they understood the concept of the celebration, and made it clear that we were paying attention to safety.

Connected to this, we made the space look great! Thea, fellow Twin Oaks ex-patriot and decorating genius, and spent the afternoon with Kassia decking the place out. Half of the room was turned into a lounge with sofas, a mattress, and tables holding an incredible array of decadent snacks. That space was filled with people lounging, cuddling, and having close connections for most of the evening; it added to the feeling of magic and intentionality of the party, helping it feel more safe and engaging. Our house-mate Jenny tended a bonfire outside, providing another cozy place for conversing and acoustic music jamming. Post-party, our friend Wendy (dressed as a brilliant sun!) wrote to us “you created a warm, safe, interesting, community space and I appreciated being part of it.” Another friend noted that “…everyone in attendance was absolutely mindful of being a conscientious, community oriented person.”

The non-lounge half of the living room had been transformed into a dance floor. Fellow Woodfolkian Chris bumped up the dancing mojo by starting a song and then jumping out on the floor, dancing with abandon and engaging everyone before going back to start the next track. X-Acorner Flame said she hadn’t had that much fun dancing since she left Acorn (8 years ago)!

Providing Party Services: To help people to feel involved and connected, we offered the option of a party service. Upon entry in the party, folks could draw a slip of paper at random out of the party service basket. Services included things like giving 5 people a 1 minute shoulder massage or collecting a plate of treats and serving them. We also included things like sharing fears and wishes with someone at the party. This optional activity helped heighten the sense of openness and connection.

Having many options for engaging seemed to help folks feel comfortable and at home. Our friend Robert commented afterward that “there was good use of space at the party. Somehow, I was hardly ever wandering around wondering where I should be….”

All in all, the event was a remarkable success. The spirit of the holiday was clearly there; we even overheard people wishing each other a “Happy Validation Day!” or explaining the difference between Validation and Valentines Day. People went all out with their “Celestial Body” costumes. And lots of people made comments at the time and afterwards about how much they enjoyed and appreciated all the work we did. It felt so good to see that the social network and latent culture are there, and folks thriving in a culture of openness and intimacy. Being able to use Woodfolk House to make it happen was also very gratifying and inspiring.

Our new friend Noah summed up best, writing to us that “everyone who attended was there with the same thing in mind—love…and that feeling created an atmosphere in which people were very open and genuine. As if all the small-talk and intros had already been trodden through, and we were all free to really communicate with everybody we met.”

Now we know, as does everyone who came to the party; another world is not only possible, its HERE!

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~ by skybluestar on March 1, 2009.

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