co-oper, humble thyself

12 Kalimat 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head: Ulrich Schnauss, “Passing By”

I believe that synchronicity is often no coincidence.  As such, two events that happened one after another earlier this week have given me real pause to reflect.

While on the bus on my way home from work Monday afternoon, I was talking with a dear Eritrean friend of mine on the phone.  (Eritrea is a country on the horn of Africa lying on the Red Sea next to Ethiopia.  And yes, you really *should* know where it is.)  She said that a man in the Eritrean community in her city had recently passed away, leaving behind a wife and young children. She describe how everyone in the community was coming out to the funeral, and that a fundraiser was being held to help the bereaved family.  This Eritrean friend and I have had numerous discussions about community.  One thing that really struck me was how she felt that Eritreans tend to focus more on the “we,” while most Americans tend to focus on the “I.”

After I got home from work, I had to prepare dinner for my co-op house because it was my turn to cook, and we had a house meeting scheduled that evening. I’d had a very busy weekend and didn’t really want to cook.  But I put some sweet potatoes in the oven to bake and started cooking some quinoa.  I was cutting vegetables for the stir fry when a housemate walked by and said, “I don’t think anyone is going to be at the house meeting.”

This surprised me.  This was going to be an important house meeting.  Our kitchen remodeling is almost done, and one of my housemates wanted to have a discussion item about getting the kitchen ready for use again.  I also had a discussion item about reorganizing our house workjob system, which needs to be done before we start assigning workjobs when the new house members move in next month.

When people in our house realize that they can’t make a house meeting, they are supposed to “proxy”–that is, email house members notifying them why they can’t make it, share what they’ve done for their house jobs and give input on the agenda items.  I noticed that a lot of people in the house did indeed send proxies, but I hadn’t read through every one of them due to my busy weekend.  

But after my housemate (who herself wasn’t going to be at the meeting) brought up the subject again, and reminded me of a couple of people who were out of town, I realized she was right.  Out of eight adults, I was going to be the only attendee at our dinner meeting.  So I shelved my stir fry project and had a very nice dinner of sweet potatoes and quinoa.  Then I quickly cleaned up, went upstairs, and unwound.  

I’ve lived in some kind of intentional community setting for a little bit less than one-fifth of my life.  For many more years I’ve been fascinated by the notion of community living. There is quite an impressive communities movement that has existed for quite some time.  Nearly one thousand intentional communities exist in North America alone.  

But as someone who has lived in co-op houses for the last seven and a half years, I have to say that I often find the quality of community to be quite wanting.  Or when it is good, it also tends to be short-lived.  Where I live now is probably the best community living situation I’ve had–at least since the Global Walk.  

So, as I sat at the dinner table by myself eating my dinner, I really found myself comparing the moment I was in with the efforts my friend’s Eritrean community was making on behalf of a bereaved family.  In my more cynical moments, I found myself thinking that maybe the best efforts that white Americans could muster in such a situation would be to form a committee.

Americans and Europeans have devised some rather fascinating models for the organization of intentional communities, from land ownership models to decision-making processes.  I, for one, am quite fascinated by the consensus decision-making process developed by Quakers and practiced by others.  Yet, I cannot help but think that these elaborate systems exist only to compensate for the fact that we really don’t know how to live together in groups.  I could extend that theory by saying that great management models exist only because Americans (and not just Americans) have lost the ability to listen to each other, cooperate and think of the greater good.

I remember attending some co-housing meetings when I lived in Chicago.  There were a lot of people really intrested in co-housing, but very few projects ever got off the ground. Groups would form, last a few months, and then break up again, and then new groups with different combinations of people would form again.  I went to a few of those meetings, and one thing that struck me was the lack of warmth and connection among the meeting attendees.  Discussion focused almost exclusively on physical structure of the co-housing project.

I’m not saying that Americans are stupid, nor am I saying that Eritreans have all the answers.  I’m just saying that we are a product of our culture, and the culture we Americans grew up in was and is a very individualistic one.  The nuclear family is a product of the industrial society we live in.  So those of us raised in such a culture start with what we know and then experiment. People willing to undergo such experiments deserve kudos.

Yet we also need to be humble. In a lot of texts about the cooperative movement, credit for the first innovative co-op is frequently give to the Rochdale Co-op started in Rochdale, England in 1844.  (Oddly enough, that was the same year that the Bab made his declaration.)  But as African-American and Latina members of a New York City co-op politely reminded attendees at a NASCO conference about four years ago, cooperation and community existed for thousands of years before the Rochdale Co-op.  It’s the nuclear family, not cooperation, that is a recent development.  What Rochdale really deserves credit for is creating a cooperative model responding to the economic dislocation caused by the Industrial Revolution. But they didn’t invent cooperation.

Many societies–including, it seems, the Eritreans–have not completely forgotten what it means to live in a cooperative society, and as such, we probably have a few things to learn from them.  I really look forward to learning a lot from my Eritrean friend.

have i been living in co-ops for too long or am i just weird that way?

4 Kalimat 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  Seefeel, “Climactic Phase No. 3”

A couple of days ago I was at the Willy Street Co-op and I saw a sight that not many people see.  Several check-out lanes away from me I recognized a couple who used to live at International Co-op circa 2005 or 2006.  Immediately behind them was a guy I recognized as having lived at Phoenix Co-op in 2004.  The cashier at the same check out lane lived at Audre Lorde Co-op somewhere around 2007 or 2008. I might be wrong, but I don’t think the three parties knew each other and, being several check-out lanes away, I was not in a position where I could introduce them.  But this kind of thing only happens to long-time co-opers like me.

The next day I saw a neighbor from two blocks away on my bus.  She and her husband also used to live in the co-ops during most of the 90’s and early 2000’s.  She asked me about the latest new on MCC, and we exchanged a few co-op related stories. 

I walked home from the bus.  It’s been hot the last couple of days, but I’ve been resisting getting an air conditioner.  I don’t know why–every time I think about dropping a couple hundred bucks on a window AC unit, something in me keeps on saying, “Nah, I’ll just tough it out.”  To keep my room cool yesterday, I ran the fans all night the previous night until I found myself even pulling the blanket over myself.  And then when I woke up, I closed one window, stuffed a pillow between the window fan and my bed, and drew the shades down.  Sure enough, when I got home yesterday, I opened the door to my room and felt a cool breeze hit ne.  I was euphoric until I realized that all I’d done was improve the temperature from 88 to 82 degrees F. 

So I thought this would be a good time for me to work on balancing my house’s financial books, which would require met to go to the MCC office a few blocks away–an office that happened to be air conditioned…

synchronicity and the kitchen sink

17 Rahmat 167 B.E. (Baha’i Calendar)
Soundtrack in my head:  Moby, “In My Heart”

Yesterday our kitchen remodeling project got to the point where the kitchen is now functional and useful again.  And it already looks like a huge improvement.

The way it has come together is quite remarkable.  The MCC staff person found a beautiful stainless steel kitchen sink for $25 at the ReStore (which fit without there really having to be any alterations) and a set of used kitchen cabinets for $175.  We have newly levelled floor with new tile, a new stove vent hood, and new butcher-block counter tops.  A new refrigerator is located underneath one ofthe countertops.  Overall, the MCC staff person believes that the materials for the remodeling have cost less than $1,000 so far.  

Yet, despite having been constructed largely from used parts found from here and there, everything seems to fit together beautifully.  The colors go together well.  Removal of the other refrigerator and the bookshelves that were serving as temporary kitchen shelving have revealed rather nice woodwork that happens to go quite well with the new cabinets and counter tops. 

There still needs to be some work done.  There will be an island off the southeast wall under which will be the second refrigerator, and a couple of barstools will let it serve as an alternative place to sit down and eat.  Some shelving units will be installed on the northeast wall which will be out of reach of tiny childrens’ hands and will allow the woodwork to remain. 


It’s as if the various elements of this kitchen were simply waiting to be put together like puzzle pieces.  My life has been feeling like that lately. 

About three months ago I decided to tune in with God more and work towards haivng greater certitude about the Baha’i Faith one way or the other.  I read the Kitab-i-Iqan, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf and am now two-thirds of the way through the Kitab-i-Aqdas.  I’ve had a notebook with me to jot down notes–usually things that have resonated with me or things that I have questioned.  But there are very few things I have actually questioned. 

I told a couple of friends that I had a feeling this exercise would give me clarity not only on my feelings about the Baha’i Faith but also on other aspects of my life.  Yet I had no idea just how many things would occur that would force me to have realizations about various aspects of my life.

Over the last few months, remarkable things have been happening that have been giving me insight into my career, my health, relationships, and other things.  A lot of things have to do with things about me that need to change.  Some of these things have felt like gifts from heaven.  Other realizations came about through uncomfortable and less than pretty circumstances. The details of these realizations are not something I can go into right now–some of them are quite personal in nature.  Yet all of them point to the potential for remarkable changes in my life with clearer signs as to what direction I need to go.  I feel like a snake that is shedding it’s skin over and over again–revealing new patterns within myself that are more beautiful and intricate.  Like the kitchen, there is still work to be done, but the possibilities are becoming more exciting.

At this point, I can say that this three-month exercise has resulted in greater certitude in my belief in God and  the Baha’i Faith.  After I finish the Kitab-i-Aqdas, I’m going to review Ruhi Books 1 and 2.  I’d decided before that I wanted to suspend my study of the Ruhi books until I had greater certitude, but I have that now, and plan on continuing the series, as well as continuing to read more of Baha’u’llah’s writings. 

I’ve been telling friends that when one feels the for need guidance on things, tuning in with God in a way that feels the most right and natural can reveal wonders.