I believe in community. Living and working and playing with people—especially those people most unlike myself—holds me accountable to practice kindness and compassion, and reminds me that my individual experience is never normative. Community insists that I can (and sometimes must) change, and delights me with companions who know me well and like me anyway.
My husband and children and I live in CoHousing, one of a hundreds of variations on the theme of intentional community that have long punctuated the American landscape. I have always been fascinated by communal living, even to the point of writing college thesis on utopian communities. Within that historical context, ours is a pretty conventional community. Our twelve households own our homes and we are respectful of household boundaries, personal politics and the myriad ways in which we live out our relationships and raise our children. But we keep the communal kitchen clean and our children are never lacking for adults to encourage, reprimand, or keep an eye on them.
A founder of the CoHousing movement, Chuck Durrett, is fond of telling aspiring CoHousers—who invariably ask him something like “what if I move in and I find out that my neighbor is a jerk?”—that “the only thing worse than moving into CoHousing and finding out that your neighbor is a jerk, is moving into CoHousing and finding out that you are the jerk.” In my community, I have both been the jerk and have had to find gracious ways of telling others that they are being the jerk. My children witness this drama of truth-telling and forgiveness every day. They take part in early morning visits to borrow milk for cereal, shared gardening projects, and long meetings where we painstakingly pursue consensus on improvements to our property. We argue and figure things out and take good care of each other, no matter who disappointed whom last week.
I am Christian, although most of my intentional community is not. That’s OK– we’re here to be good neighbors to each other, not to police each other’s values or creeds. And yet, when we gather for the common meal three times a week, I am reminded that the most sacred ritual of my faith tradition is, at heart, a shared meal where we accept forgiveness, offer hospitality, and raise a glass in acknowledgment of both the sorrow and joy of our human condition.
To be a middle-class American family living in community is so very countercultural that we are alternately accused of being utopian, crazy, or ineffectual. Sometimes I wish life in CoHousing were that dramatic. Mostly, it’s a very ordinary discipline of listening humbly, speaking honestly, and being willing to change—as Benedict of Nursia acknowledged in his sixth-century rule for monastic life, which called for both a respect for the intelligence of the individual and a deference to the greater wisdom of the community. In my own married and middle-class and secular way, I am a Benedictine. I believe in community.
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