how can you stand to live with twelve people?

Soundtrack in my head: Zero 7, “In the Waiting Line

I get asked that question a lot. I’ve been meaning for months to post an answer about how I can live with twelve people.

I live in a co-op house in Madison, Wisconsin because years ago I got the community bug. It’s really hard to describe the community bug to someone who has never been exposed to it. Sometimes, it’s like trying to describe music to someone who has never heard music. There’s just no frame of reference for them—they just have to experience it.

So people who have not really experienced the strong feeling of community often don’t quite know what to make of my co-op house when they come to visit. One person once said, “This looks like a dormitory.” Another person saw the whiteboard that lists the house jobs and commented that it seems like a lot of extra work compared to having one’s own apartment.

I smile to myself when I hear these things, because I know that these are only surface things—there is often something significantly deeper going on.

First, let me dispel myths that I have heard expressed about co-ops. First let me say that most of the 60’s stereotypes about “communes” don’t apply here. In fact, most people living in communities avoid the word “commune” like the plague (even though Wikipedia seems to embrace it) because of the stereotypes. The overwhelming majority of my house members would NOT identify themselves as hippies. Nor is there is anyone here that I would describe as hygienically challenged. Free love? Ummm…no—if anything, people generally are quite conservative about dating or hooking up with people who live in the same house, because it can be a nasty thing if a relationship turns sour. In my four years here, the only couples that have been here are ones who paired up before moving here.

So then, what’s the appeal?

The residence halls in college probably gave me my first exposure to community living, though I didn’t think of it in those terms at the time. I probably felt the communal feel even more when I lived in a house at 709 W. California in Urbana, IL my junior and senior years of college (which we referred to as the “Hotel California.”) There were four of us that stayed there for two years, and we became a pretty close-knit group. We even had a successful food co-op effort in which we devised a standard list of groceries and took turns grocery shopping. We were able to save considerable money this way—the monthly grocery bill for each of us was somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 per month.

In 1989-90, I was involved in the Global Walk for a Livable World a cross-country walk for the environment in which 100 people walked traveled from Los Angeles to New York over a period of nine months. We were, in essence, a mobile intentional community of between 80 and 130 people. The experience drastically changed my view of the world for a number of reasons, but one reason was the sense of connectedness that we had with our fellow walkers. It’s not like I was best friends with everyone there—indeed I would say that I had a small handful of close friends on the walk. Yet, even with the people who I hardly knew or hardly ever talked to, it still felt like we were a part of each other in some special way. I suspect that this is what being part of a tribe feels like.

I was hoping to get that kind of feeling when I moved back to Chicago in 1991. City life does have its advantages in terms of being able to be around people. I lived in seven different apartment buildings there, and I was able to interact with neighbors to varying degrees. But it wasn’t even close to the feeling of community on the Global Walk, and I really began to miss it. Social interactions weren’t usually at a very deep level. My roommates were usually more co-habitants than friends. Meaningful social interactions with people who cared about me—these were things that had to be scheduled in my calendar alongside meetings and doctor’s appointments. This was even true during the three years that I lived with a girlfriend. That’s where I learned that as special and precious as your significant other may be, two can be a lonely number if you don’t have friends playing a significant role in your life.

I moved to Madison at the end of 2002 for multiple reasons, but one of them was that Madison has always had a strong sense of community. In Chicago, talk of “community” might get you blank stares, but here in Madison, everyone knows what you’re talking about when you use that phrase. As far as co-op housing is concerned, Chicago currently has about seven housing co-ops and a few more intentional communities on top of that, whereas Madison has at least twenty. This despite being less than one-tenth of Chicago’s size. My co-op ended up being a perfect transition for me because I was able to get low-cost housing at a time when I was facing unemployment and barely getting by on temp jobs.

I can’t say that I’m living in the perfect community, or one that I would want to live in when I’m fifty years old. But I think I chose well, and by the end of this year, I will have lived here longer than any other place I have lived in as an independent adult, and second only to the house I lived in for thirteen years as a child. While sometimes I still feel isolated, I think about how my housemates turned out in droves celebrating (and buying me Jagermeister shots) on my 39th birthday, and how much support I got when my mother died earlier this year. And I feel a strong connection with housemates during our bi-weekly house meetings, and also during our house dinners. We also have house “work days” roughly once a month in which we will pitch in together to work on house improvement projects.

Today, I spent three hours downstairs just hanging out with people coming in and out of the kitchen, getting caught in fascinating conversations. I hadn’t planned on this, but that’s precisely the point. It’s really lonely having to schedule one’s social interactions. I do have to find a balance between those interactions, and working on my “things to do” list, but I’ve realized that focusing exclusively on my “things to do” list can be depressing, even when it involves fun activities.

Human beings have spent most of their history living in tribal or tribal-like communities. I think it comes naturally to people on many levels. But tribal or communal living is not easy. For me, it means living with a dozen people who are mirrors to me on many different levels, people who reflect the good and not-so-good aspects of ourselves. It can be tough to see the not-so-good aspects of yourself reflected back to you. And inevitably you have to deal with difficult people and with conflict.

In our modern society, we separate ourselves from other people because we can. We have enough prosperity that we can carve out our own little worlds for ourselves. Even in my relatively short life on this planet, I can see a difference between what it was like growing up in the 70’s and now, as more home entertainment options such as cable TV, video games, VCRs, DVDs and the Internet give people more reason to stay inside. But that process of human separation started even longer before that. Some might trace it to the suburban boom right after World War II. One could argue that this desire for separation also existed among American pioneers moving westward.

But I think separation is coming at a great cost. Think about how much more consumption of material goods there is in American society because people aren’t sharing resources. The huge houses I see being built in the suburbs are about as big or bigger than the two-flats I remember seeing in the city, because people seem to need more room for their stuff. From everything I can see, it appears to be quite lonely in those castles. Sure, it’s sometimes necessary to put distance between yourself and other people who are negative influences, or who unduly restrict you in some way. But sometimes those castles can also be prisons, separating people from others who can help other people through difficult times. In those castles, it’s more likely that you’ll have to go through your own troubles alone and scared. In space, no one can hear you scream.

I can’t say that a community lifestyle is right for everyone. I think it requires a significant amount of maturity and ability to compromise. At the same time, a certain groundedness is necessary so that people don’t automatically get swept up into groupthink.

But I am convinced that some level of community living is or will become necessary. History is full of examples where people have come together cooperatively to meet needs that they could not meet on their own. There are many such examples just here in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. With a global economy that is essentially feeding upon itself, and with it becoming clear that current rates of material consumption in the U.S. are unsustainable, I think people will increasingly realize the need to turn to each other to achieve a quality standard of living. And I think life will become all the richer as a result.


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