Friday, October 29, 2010

Real Models 4: Post-Mortems

I mentioned in my last post (Real Models 3: Other Models) that we can learn a lot from models that aren't around any longer. In this post I want to talk about four attempts at community that I have made and what I learned from each. Therefore, this post will be longer and much more personal than my usual writings.

I dreamed about community for years but my real community adventures began in 1988 when someone visiting my then housemate turned to me and said, "If you really want to build community, you should talk with R."

R was a man in the same political group that I was in and I knew him vaguely. I was not particularly impressed with him but I really wanted community and at that point would talk with anyone.

The day I got together with R, the two of us laid out the parameters (personal growth, social change, spiritual diversity) that would guide our community building together over the next twelve years.

Our first attempt at community happened the next year. There were 4 of us (myself, R, a man I'll call C, and a woman, J) rented an apartment (with space for six) and embarked on a very structured, detailed attempt at community. Community1 lasted six months--by that time J had left and another woman, V, had joined us, only to see the community fall apart just after she became part of it. Two learnings I got from this were to get the people before trying to build community, and not to try to do everything all at once, right from the beginning.

But R and C and I all wanted to try doing it again. In looking for a place to live, I ended up sharing an apartment with A, a man that I came to really like and still one of my best friends. After I moved in with A, I kept talking about the community we had built and how we wanted to do it again, and I got A intrigued. Eventually, R and C and I gathered a group of people (including A) and we began holding events and formally organized ourselves as Community2. Everyone was interested in personal growth, social change, and spirituality, and everyone was also interested in community. We got to know each other very well over the course of the next couple of years. (Unfortunately, during this time, C, who early on helped us find many of these people, became less involved with the group.) Finally, having built a network of folks and some trust among each other, R and I approached the others suggesting that we all live together.

That's when we discovered that although everyone said they wanted community, there were at least four different ideas among us about what community was. R and I saw it as us all living together rather communally. Others saw it as us living in close proximity to each other but everyone having their own space (what I will call the 'cohousing' model). At least one person thought that just doing all the events we were doing was the community--we didn't need to do anything more. (I think of this as the 'network' model--community as people involved with each other's lives through get togethers, etc.) But it seemed like the bulk of the folks responded to R and me by saying this was all new to them, they were learning so much about community from us, they weren't sure what they wanted to do, and, by the way, they thought they might be moving out to California next year.

Ironically, Community2, lasted (as a network) for over fifteen years--even though that wasn't the community R and I wanted. A real learning from this is that community evolves, often in ways that you can't predict.

Finally, as R and I were considering just having a place with the two of us, we found some folks (especially S and her family) who were really interested in what we were talking about. Five of us (myself, R, S, her then husband, G, and a woman I'll call P) spent a year planning a structured, communal community--but one that would begin simply and grow more detailed as we went along, unlike the 'do-it-all-at-once' approach of Community1.

Community3 lasted five years. Although there was a core of three of us (R, S, and I) the rest of the cast changed from year to year, eventually including A (my housemate from when Community1 collapsed). A became close with both R and S as well as me and we were hopeful he would become part of our core group. But after what I saw as a wonderful year and most of my housemates saw as a very stressful year (there was lots of conflict during the whole life of the community, but that year was particularly bad), we were left with six of us: myself, R, S, A, and S's two children. (By this time S and I were a couple.) We decided to keep it that way for a year while we regrouped and looked for some new people.

Midway through the year (after some unsuccessful attempts at finding others) R announced that he didn't want to do this any more. This was very painful (for different reasons) for S and I. We turned to A, hoping he would help us rebuild community, but he said that he had realized that he didn't want to live with that many people again. Eventually, the house (which had been a three family) reverted to three units with R having one unit, A having another, and S and I and the kids having the third. S and I had always seen our relationship as being part and parcel of community and so this wasn't what either of us wanted. (I made jokes at this time about unintentional nuclear families, but I wasn't laughing. I was as close to being depressed as I ever have been in my life.) It felt like we never had the critical mass we needed (beyond the core group of myself, S, and R) and one learning from this experience was a truism--you can't build community without people. Having looked at other communities since, I also think that while we were bothered by the ebb and flow of people during the five years of Community3, this is a normal part of most communities and while a stable core is what grounds a community, you have to expect continual change.

Eventually, S and I realized that she wanted to try living on her own with the kids and I wanted to still find community, and I moved into the first of several co-ops that I have lived in since. Co-ops are nice but they are not the communal community that I am looking for.

After life in a couple of them (and just as I was considering just moving to Twin Oaks!), I met two folks from Vermont that seemed to want community. Thus began the attempt at building Community4. These two convinced me to trust them and go with the flow and not try to plan at all--all of which ended up with me realizing (after we had bought a house together) that what they wanted wasn't what I wanted at all. Like Community1, this was a six-month disaster. I did learn that while it's not always a good idea to structure everything beforehand, it's also not a good idea not to be clear, at least about your bottom lines.

So this leaves me, once again, living in a co-op and wanting community. I am seeking others who want it as much as I do--but I am also clear about my bottomlines (unsurprising to anyone who follows this blog, I'm looking for simple, sustainable community). Recently someone who knew me through these adventures asked me if I really wanted to keep doing this and did I think I would ever find community? My answers are yes I do and, really, I don't know. I hope so, but at this point the pursuit of community needs to be worthwhile to me, because it's all I have for now.

Quote of the Day: "Community, particularly intentional community, has been a bitter experience for many people and we ignore that fact at our peril. ...
"It is painfully clear that however sincere we may be in our attempt to community ideals into practice, these efforts do not, by themselves, create that better society we are striving for. Noble intentions and community involvement do not automatically free us of the baggage that we all carry with us... This contradiction has spelled the end of countless experiments in collectivity, with some people coming to the tragic--and mistaken--conclusion that such alternatives run counter to human nature.
" order to make possible the fundamental changes in our all relations which alone can form the basis of viable communities, we need to continually develop our understanding of what must be changed and why, as well as our determination to live and interact differently in our daily lives.
"...integrating action and reflection is, I think, necessary for building sustainable and life-affirming communities." - Helen Forsey

No comments: