This blog records my 3000-kilometre bicycle trip up the east coast of Australia, researching a book about simple living.
On the way we’ll meet a variety of interesting characters — chefs and scavengers, farmers and gardeners, the young and the radical, the old and the wise — and learn something from each person’s life.
It’s a story about local food and community gardens, downshifting and DIY building, sustainability and self-sufficiency. But mostly it’s about people. I hope you enjoy meeting them as much as I have.
This feed contains my favourite posts, updated every few months. For more recent content, visit the full blog at www.simplelives.com.au
Moora Moora part 3 – what’s the goss?
“Did you hear so-and-so had a talk with you-know-who about the incident, and now they’re not speaking anymore?”
I got used to overhearing such phrases while staying at Moora Moora, a housing co-operative of about 70 people cloistered on a mountain top near Healesville, Victoria. In a close-knit community like this, gossip is rife, and because everyone knows each other, names are unnecessary. The guy next door becomes so-and-so, the woman down the street becomes you-know-who, and their argument becomes the incident, which also doesn’t need to be explicitly stated because everyone knows about that, too.
Except for me and Sophie, of course. But after only a few days of visiting the community, we were able to decipher such coded phrases. I can’t share the juicy details without identifying the people involved, but I can give you a list of the most common topics for tattling:
- childcare (i.e. whether such-and-such a person was doing a good job of parenting)
- relationships (i.e. the aftermath of a break up)
- disagreements (i.e. how two members got along)
- the membership process (i.e. the status of newcomers seeking to join, or those who’d been forced to leave)
Some of these are to be expected. My friends in inner-city Melbourne, for example, sometimes gossip about each other’s relationships. What I found interesting about Moora Moora, however, was the extent of gossip about parenting. Perhaps, because they lived in a community, the residents felt a shared responsibility for raising children?
Another interesting aspect was the amount of gossip about the membership process. Newcomers would discuss what houses were available and who was interested in buying them. They also talked about people who’d failed to gain membership. I think this was a way of sharing information about the protracted process of becoming a full member, which could take years.
Elf Walpole, 39, and Matthew Cairns, 43, were two such newcomers. They arrived in November 2011 and, at the time we visited, were classed as Non Member Residents – meaning they were living in the community for a trial period, after which they’d decide if they wanted to stay. With four children aged between six and 16, theirs was the biggest family on the mountain.
Elf said that although there was plenty of neighbourhood gossip, it served an important purpose. Gossip helped people to air concerns before confronting the person directly. “I do think there’s a lot of people talking behind each others’ backs about problems before maybe they go to deal with it. But I see it more as they want to feel supported, that their point of view is worth taking to that next level.”
Jeremy Shub, a 40-year-old secondary school teacher and sculptor, has been living at Moora Moora for 10 years. He said that residents were, by and large, honest and open with each other. During the first meeting he saw at Moora Moora, one resident said to another “you’re acting like a dickhead”. Jeremy admired that frankness. “I just thought, I want to be part of a community when one person can say that to another person.”
When I hear the word “gossip”, I imagine teenage girls bitching about each other. But at Moora Moora I discovered gossip doesn’t have to be mocking or cruel. In fact, gossiping about someone can show you care enough to want to know them more closely. And having such intimate knowledge of your neighbours – their triumps and failures, their strengths and weaknesses – makes it easier to recognise when they need support.
The day before we spoke, Jeremy received a group email about a sick Moora Moora resident, a mother with three kids. A concerned neighbour had noticed the mother was very ill and decided to ask the community to help. Jeremy went down to the house, cooked lunch, did the dishes and looked after the kids. “That was such a quintessential community support moment,” said Jeremy.
“We know each other,” he added. “There’s no secrecy. And the dark side of that is gossip. But on the other side, if someone’s not okay, it’s easy to come in and support them.”
Sometimes that support might involve giving harsh – but necessary – feedback. “I still get that from elders and people here,” said Jeremy. “ ‘Your behaviour is not okay, Jeremy.’ At the time it’s like ‘Ouch!’, but afterwards I think ‘Thanks for being honest with me so I can have the opportunity to shift my behaviour.’”
This is a theme that came up constantly at Moora Moora: personal growth.