The Protopian in the Pickle Jar

Mason Jars (2010) by Contemporary Jewish Museum, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr Image Source:
Mason Jars (2010) by Contemporary Jewish Museum, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr
Image Source:

So this blog has a weird name. I did that on purpose. I wanted something catchy and memorable, but ultimately descriptive of “The Project” (i.e. making sense of the past several months of changes and personal growth through earth-based transformative experiences.) I’ve written some thoughts about the pickle jar part, but I haven't really explained the "Protopian" part of the title.

I borrowed the word "protopia" from a 2011 essay by Kevin Kelly, that appeared on his blog “The Technium.” In his essay, Kelly describes “protopia” as “neither utopia nor dystopia nor status quo…a state that is better than today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better.” In a January 2015 RedditAMA, Kelly further explains, “Protopia is moving toward progress rather than perfection. Science is protopian. It means investing into process instead of products.”

This concept of “moving toward progress” really resonated with me. When I was formulating the idea for this blog, I was also somewhat down on myself for just having spent the past few years in the midst of intense personal upheaval, having accumulated various degrees (BA, JD, MAT) and interest-bearing student loan debt. I was without a clear career path or romantic partner (emerging from an amicable, albeit extremely painful divorce) and living in a bedroom at my parents’ house. This was not the life I planned on!

But I was also cognizant of having been given a great gift — the opportunity to take a break from my “normal,” “grown-up,” miserable life to reinvent myself as a farmer and environmental educator in a supportive and unconventional community at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. It was as if all the tumult that led to my journey was “Gam Zu l’Tovah” — this, too, is for good — even if it seemed anything but at the time.*

At Freedman, I was introduced to the idea of “Pronoia,” which Rob Brezsny (or as we sometimes called him at the Shabbat table, “Reb Brezsny,”) describes as the belief that “all of creation is conspiring to shower us with blessings.” Brezsny’s delightfully gonzo optimistic essays and incantations are a radical antidote to the nagging, blaming voice of personal failure that seems to have taken up permanent residence in the back of my head (right alongside the existential despair and fears over global climate change.)

I didn’t come to Freedman out of a vacuum. I had attended Jewish summer camp, lived in college dorms (including a semester as an eco-hippie at Biosphere 2 Earth Semester in Oracle, AZ), and volunteered with Mitzvah Garden KC, a Jewish community garden project. I was not a total stranger to communal living, working the soil or eating kale.** Yet my time at Freedman existed in a confluence of events and personalities and sense of place working in a kind of synergy that I had never experienced before.

For me, Freedman was truly a utopia: An island of peace and joy in the rapids of a very confusing adult world. And like all utopias, one can’t really live there forever. When I finally realized that living at Freedman in seasonal bursts was not a sustainable lifestyle, it was … heartbreaking. “I just can’t quit you, Isabella!” I would say, half-joking, half-tearful. The world moves on, I moved on. At least I tried to.

That’s where this blog comes in. I am homesick for Isabella Freedman, but I also know this idealized version only exists inside my head. (And maybe on the internet.) Turns out, there is a grand tradition of Utopias in New England (and elsewhere), which I have started researching as part of this project. Instead of Utopia, I’m striving for a more achievable Protopia. It’s the process that’s important. I hope to take the lessons I’ve learned in Adamah and Teva, the people I’ve met and the sense of belonging I felt and continue to carry it with me into my next adventure.

Tangents for this post:
* There are rules for “Gam Zu l’Tovah,” including that you can pretty much only say it for yourself and often, only after the fact. I really like Lenore Skenazy’s article on Gam Zu l’Tovah that appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward.
** On Eating Kale: When my mother would find kale or rainbow chard or any number of leafy vegetables in her crisper that I purchased and stored there, she would exclaim, “Who put Audrey II in my refrigerator?”


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