Soundtrack: Bob Marley and the Wailers “Redemption Song”
After months of talking about it, our co-op house finally did it. We ventured out to a beautiful retreat center in the hills outside of Dodgeville, WI, had our co-op house retreat and bonded as a community.
A small group of us started talking about the idea of this retreat back in January when we realized that only four out of twelve house members would be staying. We saw an opportunity to rebuild the co-op and create a stronger and more cohesive community than before. Despite the large number of people we would have to recruit, we felt that we should be selective and hold out for people who would contribute and dedicate themselves to the house. It wasn’t a question of picking only who we liked—we’d seen in our co-op and other co-ops that if the house was full of people who merely viewed the co-op as cheap rent as opposed to a community to invest oneself in, the quality of life for everyone in the house would decline. So in all of our advertisements, we put out the desire to develop a tight-knit community in the hope that we’d attract people who were looking for just that.
I feel we lucked out. It was as if the right people kept coming and contacting us. I believe that all things are arranged spiritually for us behind the scenes, though it is not our place to make quick judgments as to why things are arranged as they are. We had three people leaving in the summer, but two out of the three summer membershippers (yes we use the word “membership” as verb here in Madison) ended up signing contracts with our house for a full additional year, and the third person contributed significantly as well. This made the transition a bit easier. Of the eight new people that joined us between June and September, four of them, including two out-of-staters, had previous experience with co-ops. Three of the eight are new to Wisconsin.
With so many new people, we felt that we needed something that would establish a feeling of community rather quickly, and that’s where we came up with the idea of a retreat. It’s easy to get caught up in one’s own day-to-day life even in a co-op house, but we felt that if we could create a place where people could step away, connect, and openly put out on the table what they hope to get out of their co-op experience, we could have a much stronger community than we otherwise would.
I’d once attended a retreat in a beautiful location in the hills near Dodgeville and I knew it was inexpensive. This part of southwest Wisconsin was never touched by the glaciers that came through tens of thousands of years ago, and it is so hilly here I’d almost call it mountainous. Indeed, I once read that a mountain range existed millions of years ago starting in Sauk County, the county north of where we were, and going northward. It’s funny—I have a debit card that shows a rather pastoral scene of some of these hills and when I gave it to a cashier in Illinois, he asked where this picture was from and had a hard time believing it was Wisconsin. Some parts of this area remind me of West Virginia.
We were lucky to be able to reserve the space in early September, and so last weekend, we ventured out. I was nervous. I knew that it was one thing to plan the retreat but an entirely different thing for it to be a success.
We arrived at the site and it turned out to be even more breathtakingly beautiful than I’d remembered it to be. I think the beauty of the terrain moved other people, too and I suspect that it helped set the tone for the retreat—despite the fact that it was a cloudy and rainy weekend. In some ways, the rain helped bond us a little more in that it forced us to spend a lot of time together in the retreat house rather than going off on our own, though a few of us still managed to get outside, toss around a football, and engage in a rather competitive game of “500.” At another point, a couple of us were taught how to play a rather raucous card game called “Egyptian Rat Screw,” with the loud shouts and laughter of that game providing an amusing contrast to the quiet concentration of the Scrabble players at the next table.
We got the board president of Madison Community Co-op to come out and facilitate the “getting to know you” and visioning activities. She did an excellent job—she engaged us in a number of exercise that got us to talk about ourselves and reveal little bits of interesting trivia about ourselves. People pitched to help cook and clean up after the meals.
But the peak of the weekend had to be the fire we built in the evening. The rain had stopped for a number of hours, and it became dry enough by evening time that we were able to build a good fire, though it took a good half hour to get the fire going. But it was at the fire that MCC’s president got us talking about our passions and about what we hoped to get out of our community living experience. We found that we were all pretty much on the same page. We wanted a family atmosphere at our house, one where we could feel comfortable with our housemates, share a lot about ourselves and do various fun activities together. And then we spent the rest of the time talking and laughing before retiring for the evening. The rains resumed in the middle of the night. It was almost as if they’d paused for us.
The next morning we had breakfast and one of our bi-weekly house meetings, but with the rain and chilly weather being unrelenting, we decided to leave earlier than expected. No matter—we accomplished what we were going to accomplish. The sense of teamwork and pitching in continued even when we arrived back home. The car that I rode in had all of the leftover food and several housemates pitched in to bring it back in from the car to put it away.
I think we were already off to a good start when the new people moved into the house one by one, and the retreat solidified it. Of course, this cohesiveness isn’t going to stay together by itself. It takes effort. I think my 45 months here have been a process of unlearning some old habits, particularly the habit to cocoon and keep others out of my life.