Author: Dana Snyder-Grant
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #154
Everything in my life feels spiritual these days, at least in the ways I think about spirituality. At work, I counsel women with cancer, and they and I wrestle with the intangible, those existential issues in life—letting go of control, living with loss and uncertainty. Walks in the woods offer a sense of the interconnectedness of all living creatures. A new meditation practice, a class on Everyday Enlightenment, pastoral care, singing: all bring me meaning, hope, and comfort. Then, Communities magazine sends out a call for articles with a spiritual theme—I can’t get away from it!—and I realize it’s time to consider the ways cohousing nurtures spiritual growth.
Consensus as a Spiritual Practice
At New View Cohousing in Acton, Massachusetts, where I have lived for 15 years, we have different religious affiliations. Some attend churches that are more or less doctrinal, some attend local synagogues. Others identify themselves as neo-Pagan, agnostic, or atheist. What we share together is the value of care for one another in a community which will strive to work out differences, for we are larger than the sum of our parts. Consensus, a hallmark of cohousing, asks us to consider others’ opinions and the good of the entire group. I must look outside myself, letting go of my beliefs and desires, for the community is greater than me. Consensus is a spiritual practice.
I’ve witnessed New View struggle with a diversity of opinions, whether it’s about tree removal, paint color, snow plowing, political signs, or an elevator in the common house. In that process, we are asked to consider others’ opinions and know our own. Consensus demands trust in the group and faith in a process that is often out of one’s control. Is that not spiritual? Trust demands faith that goes beyond oneself, one’s knowing.
It’s not always neat. It’s messy when feelings are hurt. Your child is shunned by peers. A neighbor hosts a party in the common house but doesn’t invite you. Neighbors want to post political signs that you don’t support. Community participation is less than you might wish. But trust asks for faith in something larger than you—a process, a spirit, an energy. It’s more than even a collection of us.
I was the youngest of three children, raised in a Reform Jewish household where exposure to ideas and opinions mattered. “You think your thinks and I’ll think my thinks,” I said at age 10, in the throes of a family argument; it’s a phrase my family still remembers. I know now that thinking my own thinks and letting others think theirs is at the heart of consensus.
In adolescence, my involvement in Jewish youth activities led me to fantasize about becoming a rabbi. By the age of 30 when I met my future husband, Jim, my adolescent wish to become a rabbi had faded. Jim’s Episcopalian roots and now Buddhist leanings did not deter, only drew me in. I was a clinical social worker who valued diversity and community. Without a common religious background to provide spiritual support, both Jim and I were primed to be drawn to cohousing in 1990 when we read an article in the Boston Food Co-op newsletter. More than half of us here at New View are in relationships with mixed religious backgrounds. Perhaps cohousing attracts those who follow non-traditional paths and live out uncommon stories. Trust and faith, those qualities of spirit that guide consensus, also support movement “outside the box.”
An Illness and a Community
I’ve needed that trust and faith as I’ve lived with multiple sclerosis for 30 years. When Jim and I joined New View in 1991, 10 years after my diagnosis, I was still unsure how the MS would progress in me or what of myself I could offer the group. MS was a big deal but it was not a big deal. I had a loving husband and worked part-time as a psychotherapist. After 10 years I had learned to live with the unpredictability of fatigue, double vision, loss of coordination in my hands and strength in my legs. It was just my life. Letting go of control and living with uncertainty were necessary, and they were spiritual. The illness was teaching me that life was precious and that people mattered; cohousing came naturally to me.
Spirit in the Woods I
The story of a struggle that happened when New View was in site development captures the intersection between MS and my life in community. It’s a story I’ve told before, but I hadn’t recognized its spiritual qualities until just recently.
Although our 24 households do not live together yet, we are already a community. We meet every 10 days to raise money, acquire land, hire building professionals, and design our homes. We learn to trust each other in order to reach consensus. We’re investing the time, money, and energy that this endeavor requires.
Many of us are committed to caring for the environment, and the land at New View holds special meaning. Our site on Half Moon Hill abuts seven acres of town conservation land with a wide western view, inviting spectacular sunsets of pink and orange. In the coming years, we will nurture it from mud to flowing grass and graceful trees. We will treasure the nearby conservation land, crisscrossed by dog walkers, meanderers, and hikers, in intimate conversation and in silence. It’s hard to overlook the interconnectedness of all living creatures here. This natural world is one of serenity, comfort, and meaning—those precious qualities of spirit.
Now, the group is struggling with the design of the woods path, which runs down a significant stretch of our land. I roam the woods with our architect and soon-to-be neighbors, Martha and Kate, trying to resolve the group’s continuing conflict over the path’s design. I’ve had MS for 14 years in 1995. This is the first time that our creation in the woods really matters to me. Maybe this little path begins to symbolize hope and my mastery of the MS. Maybe I wonder how far the community is willing to go for me and if it’s fair to ask for special attention. I ask for a winding path of reduced grade to attend to the needs of people with disabilities—this means removing trees. Kate wants to honor environmental concerns and save trees, and Martha wishes to respect the privacy of residents, including herself, shielded by the woods.
I’m not sure how we can come to a resolution, but we listen to each other as we walk. “I’d be willing to lose some trees if they are closer to your house than mine,” says Martha. “I might consider a six percent grade, rather than four percent, to save some trees,” I return. “As long as we create a resting area where the path is steepest.” Our architect tells us this is all doable. So we compromise and do just that. We are indeed larger than the sum of our parts; these woods are greater than all of us.
Jim and I have lived here for 15 years, since 1996, when the homes were first built. I am blessed that the MS has been relatively stable during that time. I’ve had a few flare-ups, where symptoms temporarily get much worse. I’ve probably entered “secondary-progressive,” the stage of MS that no one likes to mention, but which occurs for 90 percent of patients within 25 years. There’s a very slow progression in me; I’m still working part-time, and walking, although not as well as I did 20 years ago. My balance is compromised, but I walk our steep road for exercise with my cane and with my fellow cohouser and walking partner, Steve. I help motivate him out of the house on days his back hurts or work tires, while he encourages me to keep at it, even when my legs feel weak and I can’t stand up quite straight. There’s been something about having a community that knows, supports, and accepts my “gimpiness,” which lifts me up. For I imagine that I look as awkward as I feel. But it doesn’t really matter here.
Spirit in the Woods II
Some of those precious trees at New View, still heavy with leaves, crash down in the East Coast’s late October 2011 snow storm, although the trees by the woods path remain intact. Half our homes lose power. One resident, Dave, spends the afternoon with a chain saw, removing a disease-resistant, but not storm-protected, elm tree from the road. Others pick up branches, large and small, that have blown down throughout the site. Marcia emails the community, “Thank you all. I cannot do this job because of my back. However, I do have a hot tub and if anyone else needs to use it (especially after all this work) let me know. I love to share it!”
We gather at the common house for an impromptu potluck supper and start to make plans for a more complete storm cleanup. We feel lucky when power is fully restored the next day, aware that many homes in Acton and beyond are still without. It is clear that nature is way bigger than all of us. We invite other Actonians, in need of comfort and warmth, to come to our common house. One visitor, a friend of Kate, sews a stark white Halloween costume with the help of Kate’s mother, as they both take shelter in the common house. This Halloween is indeed a time when the connection between all living beings is easily felt.
We aren’t a church or a religious community, and we don’t want to be. But the commitment to each other is a continuing spiritual exercise that supports all of us in looking beyond our everyday concerns and dramas to the wider world we embody. That’s the way we are a spiritual community.