Monday, March 22, 2010

Cult Leaders of the World, Unite! (Cohousing, part II)

Wow, it’s been awhile! Sorry about my absence as of late. I have all the best intentions of keeping up with this blog and then crazy things happen. Since I’ve written last, somebody went on maternity leave at work, your dear little H got bombarded with extra tasks, and a large federal grant opportunity came up that had to be completed within 2 weeks and involved getting 8 churches/agencies together multiple times, and, oh, here’s a random one… some preachers wanted to re-baptize me. In a pond. ‘Cause, you know, the first baptism didn’t stick. Or something. I’m thinking of petitioning Jonas for hazard pay.

Needless to say, it’s been crazy lately and I’ve been spending most of my down time trying to make sure I don’t miss anything with Norah as she grows ever so quickly into a curious, high-energy little girl.

Anyway, I wanted to finish up with the cohousing piece I started… erm, two months ago. Sorry about that. So, here we go with part two of your cohousing primer!

Okay, are you still with me on this cohousing thing? Do you need a refresher?
Here’s part one of my cohousing piece. Read it over…. do you have a picture of what cohousing looks like – or what it could look like for a community you could be involved in? Good.

Now you might be wondering to yourself, “Dear Lord, why in the world would I want to get involved with something like cohousing?” Or, more likely, you might be thinking to yourself, “Wow. H really is crazy. I’ve been suspecting it all these years, but now…”

Rest assured, I am not crazy. Or, well, rest partially assured. I may be slightly crazy, but not in regards to cohousing. There are a host of benefits to be had by living in cohousing:

Relationships and Support
Anyone who knows me well knows that I believe people are not meant to live in alone. And by ‘alone’ I don’t necessarily mean hiding out in an old shack in the middle of the woods shooting squirrels and drinking your own pee when it doesn’t rain enough. That could mean ‘alone’, too, I suppose, but that’s not what I’m getting at here. What I’m getting at is that I don’t think it is good for each individual or household in a given neighborhood to feel that they’ve got just themselves to rely on. I’ve got D and Norah at my house, and while I love them dearly, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, they are not enough people. They simply aren’t. They can’t take care of everything for me. They can’t understand my momma or nursing struggles like Lisey or Mabel can. They can’t understand my need for an arts outlet – or the way I struggle with everyone expecting me to be so fucking balanced - the way Cuthbert can. They don’t bake with me: J does. They can’t photograph a wedding with me: Jack and Mateo can.

They just aren’t enough people. I believe people were made to live in community in a state of interdependence, and when that doesn’t happen things get out of whack. People get depressed. They feel lonely. They don’t feel important to other people and they don’t have the chance to make other people feel important. They often forget how to serve, and almost always forget how to let others serve them. They can’t get help with the things they aren’t good at and they have no one to offer help to with the things they are gifted at. It sucks.

Cohousing offers built-in community. You know most of your neighbors; you actually talk to most of them and have meaningful conversations on a regular basis. You find out who you can depend on for what, and you find the places where your skill set fits in. You get to talk, and you get to listen. You, in short, finally have a chance to get all those needs fulfilled that don’t get taken care of at home – not because your family isn’t good enough or doesn’t love you enough, but because they are simply not enough people. Cohousing is enough people.

Sharing of knowledge and skill base
Going along with the relationships and support idea, cohousing provides the opportunity to share knowledge and skills. Graham Meltzer, Ph D. and Cohousing Scholar, says, “In a conventional society, specialists tend to guard their expertise and protect the status and financial reward their position incurs. In cohousing, knowledge and skills are more readily shared. They become diffused throughout the community and contribute to the welfare and personal development of all.”

Don’t know how to grow a garden? The lady 3 houses down knows how and is more than happy to help you plant the community tomatoes (which she will also be more than happy to help you eat, come summer). Don’t know how to start your lawnmower? (wink, wink, you know who you are) Pop over and D will help. And at times it’s the other way around – you know something and you help others out. Either way, the sharing of knowledge and skills amongst a community is beneficial to everyone involved.

Also going along with the relationships and support idea, the very structure of cohousing provides a sort of accountability. Community, when done well, nearly always provides accountability. Accountability to what? That depends on your community. My friends and I work to keep each other accountable for living out good stories that reflect who we really are and how we want to live. This works for us, because we live closely enough in community to know what is in each others’ hearts, and therefore, whether we are living out the stories that are important to us individually.

Cohousing offers accountability like this, but also much more tangible accountability. Cohousing requires that you fulfill the commitments you make to your community and that you give of yourself in order to meet community goals. For example, if you don’t pay your dues and you never volunteer for work on site improvements, and you never help prepare common meals, and you never…. well, participate, that will get noticed. And it will prompt important conversations – conversations about why you aren’t participating, what the community can do to help you get connected, what kind of growth you might be looking for, etc.

Accountability is great for the group – it gets things done and creates a cohesiveness that is important when living so closely with other people. But accountability in itself is a benefit to each individual. Holding oneself accountable to something bigger helps develop responsibility, further personal growth, and enhance relationship skills.

Cohousing is great for kids
While I haven’t seen any studies to support this, the general consensus seems to be that children who grow up in cohousing are typically smarter, more socially adept, and better problem solvers than most other kids. Which makes sense, if you think about the amount of community support provided to them, the vast number of opportunities to practice a wide array of social skills, and exposure to consensus-based decision making they experience in cohousing. And think of all the knowledge and skill sets they have available to them! Why, little Norah can learn martial arts from J, painting from Cuthbert, videography from Jack…. etc. Regardless of whether any studies eventually validate the merit of cohousing for kids, I can’t imagine it not being good for them.

And on that note, I would suppose it’s nice for the parents, too. Built in playmates! Child care tradeoffs! Common room space on rainy days! Perhaps I should tone down the enthusiasm a bit – the slightly frazzled momma beast is showing through.

Sustainable living
Cohousing communities create opportunities for sustainable living in a variety of different ways:
• Most cohousing communities create an atmosphere of sustainable living simply in their design. Individual homes are often smaller than typical homes due to the availability of the common house – who needs a huge dining room when you can throw your dinner parties in the common house? A community kitchen, dining area, playroom, library, etc, all eliminate the need for excessive space in individual homes.
• Many cohousing communities are designed to discourage excessive use of cars.
• Many cohousing communities design their homes and buildings to use green/renewable energy sources, and to reduce energy consumption.
• Most cohousing communities use sustainable and/or recycled building materials in construction and/or renovation.

I’m sure there are roughly a bazillion more great benefits of cohousing, but I’m just going to leave you with these big ones that stuck out to me. This is not to say that cohousing doesn’t have its challenges. Virginia Lore, a resident of Duwamish Cohousing in Seattle Washington says, “The truest thing I know about living in cohousing is that it’s tough. The next truest thing is that it’s worth it. The tough-to-worth-it ratio changes daily”.

I think anything worth doing is going to have a tough-to-worth-it ratio that’s in constant flux, but I can see where cohousing might have some challenges that are, um, unique. It is hard for me to imagine coming to consensus on EVERY. SINGLE. THING. with a group of other people. And I’m sure conflicts arise when people are living such close and interconnected lives – and I’m also sure people have different ways of dealing with conflicts, which can cause more conflicts….. and so on, and so on. People have differing parenting styles, political views, and opinions about what kind of mulch the common house shrubbery is going to need. There are big differences and little differences, but I’m sure they are all significant. I’m sure there are challenges.

Despite that, I strongly suspect that the tough-to-worth-it ratio leans heavily toward worth-it a good chunk of the time. At any rate, I’d like to find out first hand.

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