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Utopia Has a Cost


Sarah Gray Isenberg

IF YOU ASKED people what they thought about 2683 Foothill Drive, they may know nothing about it, or more than they choose to know. About the ceaseless traffic, streaming all the way till 7 every Friday evening until the moonlight ignites a tumultuous scene at the end of a quiet street. The juxtaposition of riotous Fridays and desolate weekdays, void of guests. One Friday, some vans came bearing loads of quiet and contented people and others parties of excited guests from neighboring cities and foreign counties. Couples in new BMWs, vans carrying people, vans carrying nothing at all. Gray vans, white vans, buses. Families in compact cars, and friends in SUVs. Cars piled under the tamarisk trees, at the edge of the embankment. Late into that evening, curious men and women came and left and went between murmurs at tables and after-supper tea and clear stars at midnight.
People might have wondered why the women wore long dresses and long sleeves in the hottest months of the year and why men and women alike wore identical pairs of circular round-framed glasses. Why the men wore button-ups to both work and these “parties,” why all of them sported identical pairs of cuffed khakis pulled up high over similar sets of brown sandals. Why there are so many of “them? ”  They may wonder who this Yahshua was, the One whose name is sung in every song, the locus of every sermon. But if they listened closely, they’d hear a cacophony of reverent voices-- O ur Savior, O ur Redeemer rising from the backyard every week at this time. They’d wonder about the curious echoes of these Twelve Tribesmenand what they are about, who they are -- or wonder more if they are even echoes or rather myths and just rumors lost on the disapproving tongues of those who don’t want to understand them.
They’d arrive at a house with an unobstructed panorama of Vista, the lights of San Marcos blazing over a hill and to the east of the city border. Ripening like luminescent orbs on a backdrop of night. A house with flows of people who disappeared to the left of the three- pronged road, between the two posts of the chain link and down into the dirt path strewn with the slender foliage of tamarisk leaves that cushion the roar of tires as they leave the street. The traffic was a procession of parties of the self-invited and the cordially invited and the occasional nosy customer. The earth lurched to the left and on the right a house, or a mansion shrouded in the foliage, an ominous monument with a carbon-colored paint work and torches that fleck terraced steps.

Or that was my first impression of what would become something entirely different, something entirely unexpected.


After I parked I was taken out back. Never having felt more like an outsider, I felt two hundred reserved but forgiving eyes either looking at me, or evading my glance in the backyard by the large gazebo. They weren’t hostile glances, but curious, shy ones. Those feet that shuffled carefully around my space, circumnavigating the way to the tea tables. I could hear everyone engrossed in conversations, none with me. I stood before an impenetrable veil to their world. So transparent and permeable, but illusory. I had no access. Their eyes made me a specimen. I was the goldfish in a beryl world, murky but distinguishable with no shadow to hide in against unknowing looks and shy, forced smiles. Wholly unable to avoid the speculative eyes of strangers who carried B ibles bridled with bookmarks, dog-eared pages and worn leather covers etched with their Hebrew names.
These were the people I had always heard about in conversation at my old college down the road, the subjects of all the ludicrous myths about a 21st- century commune who gave their guests free food at their Yellow Deli restaurant when they were there studying late, the people who printed their own “cult-fiction,” guys who never shaved, women who never cut their hair. The rumors were all true, but even the people spreading them never understood them.The Twelve Tribes was the real name of these people, not the “Yellow Deli” people named after their restaurant off Broadway in Vista, not the “weirdoes.” They did worship a god like the rumors said, but not a foreign god like I expected. It was the tripartite Christian G od , except they called Jesus and his father Yahshua and Yahweh, their original Hebrew names. Most people were quick to dismiss them as opportunists, loonies, or any other sort of label to separate “us” from these… freaks. They saw them as being out of touch with mainstream reality. Little religious crusaders of antiquity out of place in today’s assemblages of corrupt dictators and corporate sin. Most people’s consciences would be strained when meeting a community that actually “practiced what they preached” while many people follow loosely the path of God and righteousness. The Twelve Tribes practiced the purest form of Christianity, not some diluted form spoken by the Sunday televangelists. They were a people who walked a solidified path with God, rather than live an amoral life 364 days of the year and then come to terms with their sins on Easter. They purified themselves from the inside out. They spoke openly about everything, they were expressive of their love, they were not afraid to cry, or to communicate anger or sadness. They farmed what they ate. They spent more time as a family than they did working, and did not have a need to fill an emotional void with material objects. They were not empty like us. They were whole, or seemed to be.

At the time, I wanted nothing more than to retreat to the figurine castles and mermaids of my fish bowl, to retreat from the terrors of skeptics who both saved me and damned me in that moment. Those who accepted me for who I was, but wanted to change me, shape me, into a G od-fearing woman. Those who examined my outward flaws with the greatest skepticism, and my moral shortcomings with seemingly acute X-ray vision. They never stopped looking at me. Those who did not see me as I was, but what I could be or should be. The s ermon rang out over everyone, except for the child who looked over her mother’s shoulder with large, almond eyes that dilated as the evening darkened. She watched me forever with those almond eyes until she began crying and her mother pulled her into her breast. From under those tears, I heard, Yashua the R edeemer, a thousand years of peace will come to this earth and to those who serve him loyally followed by a series of Amens.       

A sudden burst of music filled the area, abruptly ending the sermon and launching a collaborative, choreographed folk dance. A member placed a fire in the middle. The sun sank in the sky and everyone’s facial features began to drink up the milky light burning on the posts. Hair curled like serpents from chins, silhouetted against backs, legs, arms. . . A musk of castile monopolized the air. A building, centripetal force carried the gazebo, the men’s tourist sandals pounded around the campfire for the Sabbath Day C elebration, they called it. They sang, danced, ate, dressed, existed like clones I thought, giving up their individuality for a collective identity. A small girl leaned forward, waiting for her moment. Empty chairs lined the outside of the circle. The room’s center pulsed with the Vista Tribesmen , a small western clan of the growing international commune spanning the U.S. and almost every linked territory and continent.


In 1973, Gene and Martha Spriggs planted an idea, a lifestyle, which evolved through the next four decades. But the couple may or may not recognize the people or places carrying out their nascent idea for an alternative lifestyle outside the roar of the ‘70’s drug culture. The Yellow Deli initially formed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, off of Brainerd Road. There the Spriggs attracted the vagabond, the hungry, the thirsty, the traveler, and the common folk to a place where they could engage with their customers and give them a taste of God’s love. They wanted to offer a purer, healthier experience to their customers apart from the booming processed food industry of the later half of the century. The Twelve Tribes since then has evolved into a recognized community, with 3,000 members worldwide, its reach spanning Europe, Australia, Canada, South America, and the United States -- twelve geographical regions, twelve “tribes.”
Their religion derived from the Christian fundamentalist tradition. However, in their world, it didn’t have a label, nothing seemed to be labeled. They saw their faith as the purest form of Christianity, the way Christianity was “intended” to be practiced, in its rawest and most literal form. The community interpellated everything the Bible spoke of into a modern-day lifestyle, a collective life they lived among a 21st- century, capitalistic society. They grew most of what they ate and served on their Morning Star Ranch, twelve miles away from the Deli in Valley Center, a small rural center outside San Diego. They distilled their tea, each batch hand-prepared according to an all-natural recipe. They owned carpentry shops and crafted a lot of the woodwork within the Yellow Deli. The Delis were a chain of restaurants that the Spriggs’ operation had evolved into, now managed by the T ribes. The Tribe lived communally, and “shared all things in common” as they explained in their literature. They referred to everything in Hebrew, and adopted new names. They placed no importance on, and rather discouraged, any aesthetic beauty or vanity, preferring to remain pure and natural on the inside and out. The women all have bare, baby faces, unobstructed by vanity.  They all wore their hair in long ponytails or braids down their backs, sometimes covered by headdresses if they were in worship, sometimes not. The women wore long cotton dresses with long sleeves that covered their entire body from shoulder to shoe. The only skin visible was the hands beneath sleeves and their bare faces. Each woman held a child on her hip or led one by the hand, it takes a village to raise a child. While the world flocked to stores in a plasma, flat-screen craze, they rejected any and all technology that detracted from social interaction and interpersonal relationships.

The smoke ascended the body of dancers, twisting to the ceiling in ribbons of expired wood. Their hands linked, arms stretched beneath variegated Hawaiian or plaid button-ups. Legs grape-vined to the hum of a cello. A violin wailed under the rising din of guitars. All bodies swayed in unison bound at either end only by a stationary twilight. Each folk dance was a derivation of the last, the next with the same footwork and hand-holding, only in different orders. All men sported uncut beards and diadems, placeholders for their crowns in the eternal life. All dressed uniformly-- men’s crew socks rose up ankles met by rolled khakis-- men’s pants inched up legs with feverish dancing. Leg hair poked out of the margins.

The girl sat stagnant against the flurry of twirling skirts and dresses. Deluges of brown or blonde hair spilled down backs bound at top by their headdresses that showed their subservience to Yahshua. The women swayed with the band, light figures tossed with the tambourine. Mothers cooed to babies, the noise drew faces together into intimate whispers. The smell of charred mackerel saturated the air. More and more-- and more! people surrounding the circle were pulled into the twisted viscosity until the emptied chairs lurked like bare skeletons in the fire’s shadows.

Then the girl disappeared into it…


“It was three years ago that I found us,” says Ruth, or Caitlin before her baptism. “My friends here named me Ruth. . .It means friend,” she adds in a whisper to me at dinner.  
Round-rimmed glasses monopolized her face and an elegant neck extended below the chin before it became lost in a floor-length dress. A small, fresh cut lined the cuticle of her left index finger.
The dinner hushed the spirit of the celebration and most conversations took place in whispers or quieted voices. The silence was lightened only by the clanking of pots being washed and courses being plated. The rectangular pans were stacked high with 120 mackerel heads and dismembered tails, a few bones and their collapsed skin laid in a heap. Young boys served our dinner, each like a miniature rendition of their parents: boys all wore diadems and hair pulled back into ponytails. Each was expressionless and mute, carting plates off to people they didn’t know. Others glared, some wore inorganic smiles. They weaved in and out of chairs and tables with their small hands laden with plates, or glasses, or bread, or tea, disappearing through the propped kitchen doors only to return with bottomless sustenance.
Many of the children were born into the Twelve Tribes. Once they reach
12 or 13, they are presumed to know decision-making. At age 18 they are allowed to choose to leave the community. Many of them come back, embittered by the world or unable to understand anything outside the Twelve Tribes community.  But even the child who leaves the Twelve Tribes after growing up was indoctrinated with the “truth,” the only truth.
Knowing the right path to walk with Yahshua and choosing to leave it bore some kind of unspoken condemnation. Leaving the circle of salvation meant damnation, especially to a people who prided themselves on being Yahshua’s chosen people. Those that do not know the truth cannot be damned because they do not know it. But if you know it and choose to walk away from it --

Ruth’s small hands were the only skin showing on her body but a face and ears. She shredded the fish with her hands in a fit of distraction. A numbed demeanor filled her as if she were lost in a dreamscape.
Ruth, now 24, found the Twelve Tribes two years ago, following a bout of vagrancy, hitchhiking, and a need for escape. Embraced by a modern day commune, she disowned all worldly possessions to take up the collective spirit of universal love. Extreme literalists, the Tribe adopted the lifestyle set forth by Yahshua -- to farm, create, and share everything among everyone and to not bear a personal identity. Everyone who chose the path of assimilation into this life had an individual past but opted for a collective future. A conversation about Manassa drew Ruth’s attention to her right .
“That’s where I’m from: the Mannassa region,” she divulged. “I’m really from Texas but I found us in Missouri.”


The members s taged like porcelain figurines around a doll’s table, a candle threw shadows on their faces. Hostile shadows ate up a welcoming atmosphere since the light made every feature menacing. Each set of staring eyes has memories of their own: perpetual discouragement, trust issues, a desire to escape a system, a search for what was real.  Many people I met there said that they could not remain in the real world after being at peace in the community. Many people joined the community on a whim, eating at the Yellow Deli or coming to dinner just like I did. Others had material success and high-paying careers but said that they became nothing more than self-interested people without time for their families. There were photographers, corporate workers, students in pursuit of a degree. Some there found the community while in college and said that college just prepared them for a selfish, corrupt world they wanted no part of. Some said their dreams were unfruitful. All said that their pursuits had left them empty.
Features took on an eerie depth in that light, suggesting traumatic pasts and secret struggles. Wrinkles cut across faces like deep quarries and eyes faded into sunken recesses. All faces carried the same smile permanently carved into alabaster complexions. Everyone’s eyes probed the contours of my face and I felt a constant smile on me. 


The Ruth I met was not the Caitlin that I heard of in stories. Caitlin was the brave soul, not the meek one that sat beside me at dinner in a full-length dress. Caitlin was the girl who lit out of Katy, Texas the summer of 2007 after graduating Katy High School that June. Caitlin was the girl whose white skin turned pink, then red under that July’s hot sun. Katy was connected to the heart of Texas by a 30- mile stretch of road running into metropolitan Houston. The town, an 11- square-mile box with 14,000 people outside a city with regions instead of homesteads, a nightlife as big as family life. Back in Katy, it was hard to hide, so few people to hide behind. Caitlin was the girl who kept to herself, the more comfortable choice between garrulity and silence. She was the riotous party-girl with a calm exterior. A raging soul beneath a porcelain glaze. It was Caitlin who had tattoos on her wrists and forearms, visible when her sleeves were rolled. One, a drowsy smiling face half smothered by the cuff of her undershirt. T hickly lined black eyes and mouth, hurriedly and unsteadily drawn. A face without the outline of a head, not a premeditated sketch but some eyes and a mouth scribbled on a forearm. One with droopy lids and a particularly sunny smile whose face will wrinkle like Caitlin’s over the decades. Who will smile for years out of the hem of a cotton shirt or dress.  That languorous, listless smile. Caitlin was never into self-expression or letting people know what she thought or felt. Caitlin saw no reason to be open. They don’t understand. They wouldn’t understand. It’s easier this way. Caitlin was the girl who didn’t cry when she left her life behind. The girl who had an open-minded mother who did not oppose her choice to leave. A mother she doesn’t talk to now, not much at least. An outgoing mother who talks and laughs with everybody. One she looks nothing like. A Greek. A mother she didn’t understand. One that allowed a clean break from the material wealth and security their life offered. Who threw the gate open onto a new, unobstructed life. And Caitlin was the girl who seized her chance to get out. She was the girl who did and never turned around.

I grew up in that wealthy family as Caitlin -- in Katy…M other was so rich and father died when I was 12. Graduated high school and couldn’t take it anymore.  I was gone. I didn’t want to be a part of that life, that system that I was  apart of: the money, the possessions.. .it just eats you. I left it all behind to hit the road -- never really went back.

Lit out to the Caribbean and started farming. Except there wasn’t much farming in the Caribbean, just tropical stuff and rainforests. So I worked on boats. When owners would leave, I’d stay there to watch out for the boat. It was such a common thing there. Did some minor stuff to help out on the boat. Did a little farming. The money I made during those days just bought me drugs and alcohol, but what else was I going to spend it on? It was just me, alone -- there was no purpose. I had that crowd I hung out with, drank with -- thought I had something with them. After about eight months I went back to the States. Was hitchhiking at that point, and I had my dog. Found the dog lying on the beach in the Caribbean and thought it was dead. It got up and started following me. So the time I travelled I had this dog -- wasn’t allowed to stay anywhere with that dog.

Needed to get back so I called my mom because I couldn’t afford to bring my dog over -- she was so happy to know where I was. She wired me the money. I just hitchhiked all over the States, went to West Virginia, Massachusetts -- Virginia is so pretty. My dog hunted its own squirrels, wasn’t domesticated. We never stayed anywhere longer than two weeks… Then I started farming -- farming was the only thing that ever felt really real to me. Stayed and farmed for room and board and sometimes there was no one on the land at all, they were all gone. It was only me.

All that time there was just something burning, burning! inside of me. I don’t know what it was... .like I was restless. But I don’t know if I was searching for something, I don’t think I was. It was just something always inside of me. Called the Twelve Tribes, saw that you can farm for them for room and board  -- asked if I could stay with them, said I had my dog. They said they would let me know… three days later they said I could come stay there. They invited me to stay with them for two weeks …. every other two weeks I’d tell them another two weeks, until everyone knew I was planning on staying. All the love we have for one another, the belonging…

Each time she spoke, her voice’s inflection suggested a residual wanderlust, the dampened uniqueness that hid under her new identity. Even when she didn’t speak, you imagined those excited stories in her head. There was a still- distinct cadence that didn’t belong to her, but to Caitlin. Excited pitches that rose and fell when remembering the times on the road. How silly she felt when she said she carried nothing in her backpack but materials to make purse pouches. How humble she seemed when she gave them to people she met on her adventures, rather than selling them for money when she had nothing. But the cadence of an old identity, the flame of Caitlin is still there. Her old self who travelled, lost herself on boats in tropical seas, the countrysides of Missouri, in West Virginia, Florida, on beachy expanses in the Virgin Islands, and many places she cannot tell you. Where one place ended, another began. She did not label these experiences, but she remembered them. She reflected on times with strangers. With vagabonds like herself. Vagrants and teenagers with lost souls. An intonation of experience that remains hers, even when Ruth tried to quiet it, tried to accept her new self, her future.  

Ruth sat next to me, a willing but obliged host. We watched the centrifugal, dancing circles move outward from the fire. Ruth’s hair was the shortest of the girls’, shoulder-length strawberry blonde, and pulled back, but hardly long enough to make a substantial ponytail. It’s all choppy, she says. But no one would know that. It was always bound in a rubber band or hidden beneath a paisley headdress when she was showing her subservience to Yahshua, which is the time that I always saw her. She cut off two inches every month to even it up. She used to have dreadlocks before she converted. That was Caitlin. Caitlin ratted her hair into dreadlocks when she left home. Long, knotted, dense masses of hair hanging from her blonde roots, pulling her neck and head back with their weight. Ruth tried to brush them out but it was impossible so she cut her hair off. Now she looks like everyone else around her. Except her hair is shorter.

“This step’s easy, let’s go,” Ruth prodded me. “I won’t go without you. . .”

We all stepped forward, two snaps to the shoulder and the lowering and retreat of hands, each movement quickening with the song’s progression. The crescendo smothered the familiar sounds. The skirt nearly swept the floor and hid my clumsy footwork. The night filled with laughter and music and smoke and the gazebo lights. I belonged.


The tribe of roughly 100 lived in six houses scattered over the foothills with some closer to the city. There were no television sets, no magazines, no newspapers in Ruth’s house. No board games, no posters, so bare. Like a family was still moving their things in except they weren’t. Ruth’s room slept six people, with two sets of bunk beds and two beds made of layered comforters on the floor in corners of the room. It resembled a barracks. No one seemed to have “their” bed. The only things on them were sheets until each girl began removing comforters from the cabinets. Everyone’s clothes, all hair ties, all pajamas were kept in the same dresser for anyone’s use. Nothing had an owner. Ruth invited me to a series of weddings over the course of the next month, so insistent that I promised I would come to one. They did not plan ahead for my visit, so one of the girls gave up her bottom bunk to me and disappeared into the second half of the house.

The wedding was between nowhere and everywhere -- nudged between the farthest Valley Center farms and the Interstate 15 at the Morning Star Ranch they run in the outback of San Diego. The freeway severs an almost untouched backcountry of Vista and Valley Center, where avocado groves grow on the effaced rock sides from Fallbrook into Escondido. The pavement winds for five miles through mountainsides, past family homesteads and cows and barbed wire fences lining the narrow lanes and rock slide signs posted intermittently, large black letters embossed on yellow . There was something unnatural about this being San Diego, the beachy metropolis written about in travel magazines worldwide. It was nothing like the illuminated twilights fed by the city’s fluorescent signs, but rather, a spangly haze of heat radiating off the earth in the 90- degree Saturday. Nothing like the Gaslamp Quarter, where people dance and drink the night into a coma, but rather, the sedative of a place whose soft skies calm and almost beckon you into a sleep. The anonymity of the landscape. The rise and fall on and on and on in oak groves and thorns and ankle- high yellow grass. It’s a place that loves and favors anyone who has ever wanted anything. Anyone who has ever dreamed a dream that they could have and make anything and everything out of the nothing of the grass and the sun and the earth of some place, or somewhere.
By this time, there were cars trailing the dust of my tires, and I was trailing the dust of another, all in a line trying to maneuver the uneven road. At some places it was only passable one way and you’d have to pull off to a patch of brush so a diesel or compact or hybrid could pass, ones who dropped off their someones and decided not to stay.

The R anch was welcoming. Dairy cows on the right and roosters and chickens on the left lined the narrow dirt path into the R anch. There were ponds interspersed in open spaces and thousands of citrus and avocado trees enveloping the property. And when the Santa Ana winds picked up the Ranch’s grapefruits orbited in their fullness, their weight bowing the limbs down to sweep the grassy weeds. The wind was almost palpable when trapped in the foliage. It snaked between the rows, and up the hill through the groves until disappearing over the peak of the Morning Star property. Branches bent so low that you couldn’t see beneath the trees.
They offered me more bottomless homemade teas. Ma t és, hibiscus, pi ña coladas that I took willingly and without a second thought about the Tribe’s disturbingly warm hospitality , now being endeared to their graces. They greeted me with warm, cognizant eyes and “Hello, Sarah, so nice to see you again” and ceaseless streams of compliments and well-wishes and more tea and cookies. Familiar faces greeted me: most of the people I had met my first night were there, and the religion entranced a couple who became prime candidates for conversion and mistakenly thought I was too. I didn’t remember anyone’s name.  E veryone had a poly syllabic Hebrew name with weird stresses and each had their first and second name.
The wedding began. The groom and bride separated for one week prior to the wedding so that her friends can make the necessary preparations and she can purify herself for her “king.” The groom was an earthly manifestation of Yahshua and the bride’s, and later wife’s duty, was to pay homage to his excellence and kindness.
We gathered at a circle, surrounding a throne, a biblical verse woven in a tapestry at the head of the chair that was hardly distinguishable, shrouded by a tamarisk tree. Karim was in a karate-like outfit, a starched, white, pressed robe and pants with a Hebrew phrase embroidered in gold hanging down from the tie around his waist. Karim began an entranced monologue about his undying love for Yahshua and the community and his bride. Nesica, his bride, was still being held elsewhere and was not present. A hundred guests, some women shouldering expensive handbags with manicured hands, others mothers with their own small children. There was an influx of German-, Italian-, and French- speaking guests, all undoubtedly confused. Karim then disappeared around the back of his throne where he ran up the stairs to a stage the community had adorned like Heaven, or some semblance of an angelic afterlife with sky- blue pillows resembling clouds. He began spewing out more thanks, this time seeming even less credible and more brainwashed since he was belting out these incoherent, repetitious thank-yous on a blue- and- white patterned stage with a backdrop of even more clouds, all while wearing his white karate robe. He started saying that he must call his bride to him like Yahshua will one day call his bride, the bride of the Twelve Tribes, to join him, remarking time and time again that “one week is too long to be separated from one’s bride.” Then he called out, “Nesica, come join me my bride-- Come to me now!
Out of a back house and down the lawn a girl in her mid-twenties came running, cloaked head- to- toe in a white, cotton dress, white headdress, white shoes, white necklace and bells on her ankles. She bolted up to the stage, where she and Karim embraced and the crowd applauded. They exited the stage and began the procession again, heading over to a small clearing where in the center stood a flag of the world, the whole earth seemingly painted on a sheet, then strung around a revolving machine. One of the community’s leaders spoke a verse about reclaiming the world from the forces of Satan, of sin, then many of the members of the community formed a large circle around the “E arth,” everyone holding red handkerchiefs in their joined hands. Karim yanked down the sheet of the world, revealing seven lengthy black flags, each featuring one of the seven sins printed vertically down in bold white letters. The band kicked in and the circle started revolving as they began the traditional loud, riotous war dance. During every verse, Karim and Nesica stepped into the circle and yanked down two of the seven deadly sins in a symbolic act of liberating and taking back the world from evil.
Once they finished, the final stage in the couple’s journey to marriage began: breaking the banner to heaven.


I thought back to three weeks earlier, and I recalled when I had first met everyone. Compared to now, where everyone seemed to have fully adapted to my prolonged presence and stood beside me watching the wedding ceremony, all smiling. By now, I knew they undoubtedly saw me as having some flirtation with conversion, like I was just too shy and meek to admit my infatuation with their lifestyle. And I felt bad, like a girl misleading a boy into thinking that there was something more. But they knew my intentions. Those polite but pressing eyes hinted at what they never wanted to ask.
Just minutes before the ceremony, a girl named Rebecca blurted, “So are you going to convert?” almost sensing the question I had been evading all that afternoon.
“I’ve only been hanging around for a few weeks so I don’t know,” I replied, turning my back, both to conceal my answer and so I didn’t feel rude. Rebecca was a twinkly eyed, outgoing eighteen- year- old from Vista. Fate pushed her, like others, to the community. She was in the Yellow Deli one day when members of the Tribe invited her to come to Sabbath. She became enamored with the friendships, the bonds people had with one another. She even dressed like them. That day, she wore a long dress with a pink long- sleeved shirt underneath, and I could imagine all of the women baking in the dry, 90- degree sun. Rebecca had never converted, but had hung around the community every week since for 15 months. In a crowd, she was hardly distinguishable, walking around in a long, navy- blue dress, taking pictures of families and friends and kids. Behind the facade of freckles, pale skin, naturally platinum hair and robust sense of purpose, I could sense her unfailing love for this lifestyle. The band began playing at the base of a tree: cellos, drums, guitars, violins, all thrumming familiar instrumentals. Rebecca recognized the melodies and filled the voids with lyrics, singing in a proud voice.
I’m still in school, high school. I’m seventeen at National University Academy, this online high school in Vista where I do all the work online and just show up a couple hours every week for computer lab. . .but that’s it. Never really at school. This is where I spend every Friday night for Sabbath-- every Friday for the past year at least. That’s when I met them at the Deli-- just decided to come and see what it was about. Talked to them for awhile then wanted to come when I was invited.

I mean I love all the people here-- took a good six months to learn everyone’s name, still not sure about some. Birthday’s in June, some days after one of the wedding s. Rumors -- jokes been saying everyone’s throwin’ me a celebration for my birthday! say they’re going to baptize me after. Yeah, maybe they will. They’ll baptize me here in one of the ponds or out at the ocean -- I hope it’s the ocean...

But baptizing is like Nesica getting married, it’s giving yourself up to the community, all of your self. I’d have to be sure of it, it’s my life that it’d decide. It’s a big decision, not sure. . .
For me, there was no longer that swelling tension from a community unable to ask me what they wanted to know. Are you going to be one of us, Sarah? Now the pressure was on Rebecca. Perhaps it was everyone’s acts of discretion and respect, trying not to force us to answer the question, hoping that awkward silence would make us answer on our own.
I couldn’t argue against Rebecca wanting to convert, nor could I fully condemn t he desire to convert that Rebecca was wrestling with. Being a part of a different world than my world for those weeks, I was able to see how it was molding my mind, transforming me into a relentless little soldier, ready to sabotage people in the business world after grad school, UCSD, that was ironically just down the freeway from the farm. San Diego was so far removed from this place, with buildings that rose and fell like bar graphs, with neon signs that burned ceaselessly against the night, fabricating a false twilight for a world that never slept. A city that sheltered self-interested people like bachelors and corporate employees who drink themselves into an alcohol-induced sleep and return to empty homes or sleeping families they never see. Where the blare of the televisions often drowns out the laughter of children, and itineraries, schedule books, and agendas tell people where to go, who to see, and at what time. Where social media has become a suitable proxy for interactions, relationships, love. A world that I was attached to because it was one I had grown up in. One at least I knew.


A Tuesday evening in June, I was off East Broadway in Vista, and decided that I would eat dinner there with a San Diego friend. Just as the sun was setting, the Yellow Deli outdid its neighboring businesses, illuminated like a beacon of the sun. Murals stretched up sides of the outer walls , verses, quotations , all hand-painted and colorful. A woman’s face shone with a peace sign, The vision quickly dimmed as the cost became self-evident. A barrier we were unable to rise up against existed deep in our soul -- the self. “ Utopia” had a cost.

The line to be seated had six groups in it, all cordially greeted by a community member with platinum blonde hair and the meekest smile and eyes. He remembered me after a couple seconds, as did other members who were taking orders, cleaning up, or making food. They all remembered my name, I remembered none of theirs. We had been seated and brought tea from a woman I had sat with at dinner a couple weeks prior. I introduced my friend and said she had also been to dinner on Sabbath, and the woman’s eyes lit up. She had electric green eyes and an impressionable face, but I remembered her from her rambunctious, garrulous daughter who was nothing like the other children. She said she was happy to see me. The woman began to talk about her experience with the unfettered love of the community and her adjustment from her previous city life to that of the Valley Center farm where she worked.
Another young woman returned with our food and I asked why I had never seen her before. She replied that her name was Ana, and that she works out on the farm and must have missed me at the gatherings. She hugged me. Ana wore the largest dark-rimmed, circular glasses and the plainest brown smock. She, like the woman minutes before, began speaking in a hypnotized frenzy about the authenticity of the friendships within the community. That there were no relationships are real as theirs in the “ real world.” Ana invited us to her wedding, a late afternoon in June. She was marrying the doorman and host . Ana said that her three-month engagement was longer than anyone else’s, so her betrothal was likely double that time.      
While walking downstairs, we were invited a number of more times to the wedding, greeted by members who remembered us. Everyone in the kitchen knew me, talked to me, hugged me, and I knew all of them… by face.
I saw Ruth in the kitchen, her small figure shrouded by the metal cabinets she worked behind. She made salads, passing them over the shelves to the servers.
She saw me and her eyes grew wide. But she couldn’t leave.k letter