Cohousing ó Community in Action
Recently, Iíve had the chance (at least the beginning of a chance) to look at my sensing of "community" in a different context. In most of my writing about this subject over the past decade or so Iíve thought of community as the merging of individuals into a shared experience of their common circumstance. Ultimately, itís a psychological shift from "I" and "you" to "we" in the deepest sense. Psychologist Jack Gibbís four dimensions of trusting, opening, realizing and interdepending are all involved in the process. Even as I have acknowledged the utilitarian definitions of the word community, that is, by location or by similarities of goals and/or interests, I have for the most part ignored those, in favor of the relationships that develop and are nurtured among the members of a group. The "intentional communities" that I have participated in have had no objective or reason for being other than to be together. Other groups that Iíve been a part ofóclubs and organizationsóhave had other purposes, and the relationships among the members are important simply to get the job done, whatever the job happens to be. The "job" is something outside the relationships. Even where I have developed respect and affection for certain of the others in the groups, a part of meóa large partóhas been withheld and mostly unknown to them. We remain I and they.
Itís usually only in times of stress, such as that experienced by soldiers in combat, that the walls between people dissolve. When the situation becomes extreme, the differences and the spaces between you and me become less important. If my life depends upon your behavior and yours depends upon mine, we are not so likely to be or remain competitive. The more you know about me and the more I know about you, the more we can trust each other, and the more we can be open with each other and work toward realizing both our potentialities, and the more we become interdependent. The ultimate awareness is that you and I are not really separate individuals. If that doesnít happen, say, in the crises of combat, we are more likely to die. Community means survival.
So most groups, formed to promote other objectives, never experience what I like to call "true community." Sometimes it happens, but only incidentally to what weíre there for. Another psychologist, Scott Peck, who worked to promote that experience, said that groups go through four distinct phasesópseudocommunity, chaos, emptying and true community. Not all groups manage to make it to the final phase, due to either intention or circumstance. Not all people even want to. Itís an intense experience, almost by definition.
Thatís why I was skeptical when I read in the newspaper about some people who were trying to form a community through the experience of cohousing. They must mean "community" in that other sense, I thought, of living in relatively close proximity and sharing some of the physical necessities in order to save money. Condominium living does that. (Generally, cities and towns grow for that purpose.) The thrust of modern American society has actually been in the opposite direction, that of more independence and isolation. In our history, weíve had movements and even towns formed to bring people closer together in spirit as well as physical proximity. But they have been the exception. This "cohousing" effort must, I assumed, be just another commercial enterprise.
Even as I read their advertising, I was unconvinced. "Many people yearn for deeper connections with their communities. Cohousing is, in part, a response to that desire. . . . Cohousers are simply creating consciously the community that used to occur naturally."
The words sounded familiar. Early in my experience with intentional communities, I heard those same words. I spent many weekends in retreats with people trying to overcome the walls of resistance that we in modern society have perfected to keep us separate (and, we hope, safe) from each other. Those gatherings were experiments in "letting go," relatively safe environments in which to learn how to be vulnerable to each other, learn to trust and to share openly the deeper parts of ourselves. Cohousing seemed to be an attempt to provide the physical space to allow that to happen in an ongoing situation. A special condominium development, with homes situated close together and common facilities designed to bring people together much like the traditional neighborhoods of our childhoods (or as we like to idealize about those innocent years).
Judith and I agreed that the idea was attractive. We both know that "community" is not always sweetness and light. Itís often hard work, and even painful. Itís also one thing to commit oneís self to a weekend experiment, after which one can return home again to normalcy. Itís quite another to invest the bulk of oneís financial resources in such an experiment, especially at our stage of life, when recovery from a mistake (should it be that) could be nearly impossible. But, we thought, it wouldnít hurt to look into it.
What we found surprised us. This cohousing enterprise is more than a developerís marketing strategy, and itís more than a weekend encounter group. One local community of nearly forty households has been built and seems to be thriving on just such a basis as their brochure offers. A second community is formed and ready to break ground. A third is in the process of forming, encouraged by the successes and supported by the organizational experiences of the earlier ones.
Most importantly, we recognized the process. Even this "young" group, struggling with the nuts and bolts of designing and building a cluster of homes in a rather untraditional and unfamiliar configuration, are learning what "community building" is all about. Their decisions will be made by consensus, not by majority vote. They will have to learn how to be practical at the same time they acknowledge and share with one another their values and their dreams. By the time their new homes are built and ready to occupy, they will know what "community" really means. Those who have been there from the beginning will have experienced something likely never to be known by those who come at the end to see the fully realized "community" and decide simply whether to move in or not. The process of building the physical community will have built the more important "true community."
As much as we recognize the potential for a satisfying experience of security and community, Judith and I have doubts about our ability to manage the financial requirements. This particular community is, after all, building a set of new homes and, even with the cost savings of modular condominium construction, seems out of our reach.
Thereís a wistfulness present in our discussion of it. Iíve spent years contemplating my own emotional need to "belong." Yearning for community does not reflect negatively on my primary relationship with Judithóours is an incredibly rich mixture of affection, spontaneity and trust. But thereís something else, something other than that primary bond, that needs more people than just one to satisfy. Extended family, perhaps. Isnít that what villages used to be? My own blood family, like many others I know of, is scattered across the country. Iíd love to have them all near me, close enough to touch now and then, to share a cup of coffee with on a bright morning, to help with an odd task, to get another opinion when faced with some new challenge. To watch children grow up, instead of seeing an occasional snapshot. To prepare a meal with a group, enjoy the camaraderie of mutual work, conspire to delight others. To be able to simply sit with a suffering friend if thatís all that can be done. To repair a tricycle, or rewire a lamp for someone else.
Life is not made up of things, or even of events. It is made up of relationships. Iím convinced that deep inside us all is that awareness. Whether we acknowledge them or not, we have inherited through our very genes our "Dreams of Home"óthe yearnings for connection, not only to each other but to the Universe.
Donald Skiff, January 25, 2008