Friday, January 15, 2010

Living in Community: Pros and Cons

For the last five years or so, I have lived with other adults in a cooperative/intentional/community household. (We have never agreed on the language or our exact definition.) I got started when I was in a time of intense life transformation and met a friend who shared many of my ideals. We instantly clicked, found a place, and set up house. We added another housemate, that house got sold out from under us, and another friend in the community bought a house and moved in with all of us as a "package deal." Since then, the roster of housemates has changed and the number of people in the house has grown. We started with four, and we are now up to 6 residents, ages 15-62. Last night, 8 people slept under this roof.

I call what we do "living in community" or being a part of a "community household," so that is the language I will use here, though again, we never collectively agreed on language or definition. Living in community has never been easy. Just sharing one kitchen and two bathrooms can get messy because we rub elbows so often. There are plenty of opportunities to have misunderstandings and miscommunications because someone didn't clean an iron skillet a certain way or left a personal item out in a public space for too long. Our conflicts have been almost exclusively about the mundane, petty details of sharing space, but they represent larger issues like respect, personal boundaries, emotional safety, artistic expression, social justice, gender/age/race/differently-abled equality, and more.

Just because it has not been easy does not mean that it has not been worth doing. I believe firmly in sharing resources and systems of support. Living more densely in the housing already available, sharing the costs of energy and communications utilities, sharing the chores, conserving, recycling, composting, and supporting each other interpersonally has been immensely rewarding. It is worth the struggle to me because I believe so strongly in living gently on the earth, experimenting with solutions that build resilience and sustainability in my world, in being strongly connected with chosen family, and being able to keep my overhead expenses low so that I can work on projects I care about without having to stress as much about the cash flow.

I have learned a lot from living in community. I have learned that regular, unstructured communication time (i.e. hanging out in the kitchen and yammering) resolves a lot of tensions without having to enumerate and process them one by one. I have learned to always check in before drawing conclusions because what to me looks like blatant and gross negligence or provocation is often really a harmless and logical step (that has nothing to do with me) to someone else. I have learned to be more patient (never my strongest virtue), more generous with my time, resources, and food, less territorial, and more publicly expressive and artistic.

We also went through a Non-Violent Communication workshop as a household, and that has been an invaluable resource to me personally, regardless of how well we as a household have managed to employ it or teach it to new housemates.

I bring all of this up because the household is changing. That original friend that I started with is leaving, and there is more room and less art on the walls because of it. The housemate who is also the landlord has decided that he no longer wants to live as equals, but would prefer to be a "benevolent dictator" (his words, not mine). The philosophical mindset of the household is now different due to the changing cast, and we will soon be looking for another new housemate on top of that. Plus, my partner and I will be moving in 6 months or so because there is literally no space for raising children in this household.

The ideals and values that made this living situation worth the effort for me are no longer givens in this household. Many of my personal deal-breakers have been triggered. And yet, this extra space and time of transition is working to give me more perspective on what it is we were trying and what I was seeking and working towards. After working on it for so many years, I now have the chance to turn around and also see what it is not, and that is good.

I will continue to ponder this one.

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