Author: Tree Bressen
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #139
As soon as i discovered my first intentional community at the age of nineteen, i knew i wanted to live that way. Sharing resources to lighten our load on the planet. Building a life together based on trust and cooperation instead of competition. Living out our ideals, right? My path was clear.
When i finished school, i set out with a sweetheart on what we called “The Quest for Community.” We spent a year touring communities around the country, getting more clear with each visit on what we were looking for. Finally we settled down at Acorn Community in Virginia, a recent spin-off from the venerable Twin Oaks commune. It was the fall of 1994.
It was an exciting time to be at Acorn. The community doubled in population that fall, as a new residence was just on the edge of completion. The newcomers were full of verve and fresh ideas; old-timers wryly dubbed the season “the October Revolution,” but supported us in trying things out. We had all the ups and downs of any group, and in the process created bonds that have kept many of us in contact with each other—even though no one who joined Acorn during that era remains there today.
I dove into community life full force, and furthermore, into the communities movement. Ira Wallace, already a long-time communitarian by then, mentored me into involvement with both the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC) and the Foundation for Intentional Community (FIC). My friends in college had kindly put up with years of me singing the praises of community life from the outside. Now I was a joyous zealot from the inside. At home i proudly ran our outreach programs, leading tours and corresponding with hundreds of potential visitors. Traveling to communities movement meetings, i used the opportunity to tell everyone i met on trains and buses about the virtues of both my community and intentional communities in general.
My identity was so tied up in being a member of Acorn that any question a stranger asked me naturally led down that road:
“Where do you live?”
“At a communal farm in Virginia.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“Oh, lots of different kinds. Mostly i run the outreach programs for the commune i live at.”
“Do you have children?”
“I really enjoy community living because it gives me the opportunity to be around kids without taking on all the responsibility of having my own.”
You get the idea.
Having my identity so wrapped up in my community home also meant that even when i wasn’t feeling satisfied there anymore, it took a long time before i’d consider living anywhere else. But in the spring of 1999, i left Acorn to move in with a polyamorous family in a small town on the Oregon coast. We were in love, something i’d been sorely missing the last few years at Acorn, and it was a chance to pursue another long-held dream.
I had come to realize that who i was was more than my Acorn membership. I promised myself that i would never again allow any one facet of my identity to keep me from fully exploring life.
From Acorn to Walnut
New relationships don’t always work out, and a few short months later i was abruptly searching for a new home. I needed somewhere to go, fast. Having just moved all my stuff to Oregon, i couldn’t see heading back east. There was an opening at an intentional community in Eugene, one that i had been impressed with back on the original “Quest for Community” road tour. A friend there helped clear the way, and i moved into Du-má, a group of people sharing a big, beautiful house, flourishing garden, common dinners, and clear values. After my bumpy try at life on the “outside,” i felt so relieved to be back in community!
After renting there for about a year, i left in the summer of 2000 to help found Walnut St. Co-op, in a lovely old home on the east side of town, with other folks who shared my passions for group process, facilitation, and social change. While dealing with significant turnover in the early years, we nevertheless managed to form a core group and, in 2003, buy our house from the resident who had bought it for us to begin with, starting our own community revolving loan fund for the purpose (see “Our Community Revolving Loan Fund” in Communities #128, Fall 2005).
In that intense year, when the fate of the home we loved rested upon the core group’s ability to fulfill major legal and financial obligations (incorporation, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and donations, and finding some insurance company that would sell property coverage to a co-op), i threw myself into the tasks of the community as much as i ever had at Acorn. I was utterly dedicated to the cause of ensuring our survival, even while working three other part-time jobs. My housemates (both then and later) would occasionally complain of my tendency to speak as if i had “the” truth, not recognizing that the same trait which understandably annoyed them—that of believing in my own truth and vision of our community so strongly— was also making it possible for me to raise thousands of dollars on our behalf, to put a vision into the world and make it real. We met our deadlines and made it through, and Walnut St. Co-op continues in Eugene today.
However . . . i’m not living there. As with leaving Acorn, it took months of consideration before i was willing to make the move, in 2007, from Walnut St. to a much more private life. Everyone who lived at Walnut in those months has their own story of what happened—but anyway, my partner Alex and i chose to leave. I was afraid i would feel lonely and isolated in mainstream life. And who could possibly accept the mind-boggling inefficiencies of cooking for just one or two people every single night? Instead, i find myself in a grey zone between intentional community and a typical American lifestyle.
As we started to think seriously about finding a new place to live, i lobbied Alex—unsuccessfully, as it turned out—to buy a parcel of land across the street from a cohousing community that was just a few months shy of move-in. “Think of it!” i said. “We’ll have all the advantages of community life: built-in friends, someone to feed the cat while we’re away, and those all-important common dinners. Unlike the standard condo uniformity at most cohousing communities, you’ll be able to do whatever you want with the property, you can build and garden to your heart’s content. And with our extra land, we’ll be able to offer the cohousing residents benefits they can’t get at home, like additional space for storage or offices, or an invitation to kick back around a campfire.”
Unfortunately, the cohousing community i was so excited about co-locating with wasn’t in Eugene. Having moved here a year and a half earlier to pursue a relationship with me, Alex was finally starting to feel settled, with friends and activities in the neighborhood and his brother’s family across the street. He searched his soul, and with deep sincerity, told me he couldn’t pull up stakes to start over again someplace else, no matter how attractive the opportunity.
Unhappy with the outcome, but committed to remaining together, i put it to him to help generate more options for us closer to home. Alex looked and looked and came up with a house three blocks from the co-op, for sale at an unusually low price due to black mold infestation and other issues. With an odd layout upstairs that required walking through two bedrooms in order to get to the bathroom, it looked entirely unsuitable for community life to me, but all his instincts were telling him to go for it, and so, trusting him, i reluctantly went along.
Is This Community or Not?
As i write this article, i sit at a desk in our new home, which i am pleased to report is now moldfree. (Alex basically tore out and rebuilt every part of the house that showed signs of infestation.) In addition to Alex and me, his best friend Jen and her partner Erik live here, along with our four-legged companions. The other couple has the upstairs as bedroom and art studio, while Alex and i have a bedroom downstairs and, soon, a twenty foot yurt. We all share use of the living room, kitchen, and outdoors.
Unlike Walnut St., with its carefully constructed co-op ownership, Alex owns this house. The four of us have all been working hard fixing the place up. Lately i’ve been doing our food shopping, while another housemate tends the compost and gardens, another one has created an outdoor workshop area in the back, one person pays the bills, and so on: roles we’ve fallen into with little or no discussion. For the first time in seven years, house meetings are no longer a weekly fixture on my calendar—in fact, we haven’t had one. However, we do have common dinners cooked by rotation, four to five nights a week. Cobbling together various freelance activities, none of us have regular nine-to-five jobs, so we’re around a lot. And we had an awfully nice solstice ceremony last week, just the four of us. Huh. Am i living in community or not?
Well, yes and no. The assumptions here are different. With Walnut St., as with Acorn, it was always our intention that the community would outlast my tenure or that of any other particular resident. This place, in contrast, is completely dependent on Alex’s continued residency; it doesn’t have an identity above and beyond his current ownership of the property. Since the four of us don’t have meetings, we obviously haven’t gone through the clarifying of common purpose that is strongly recommended by consultants (including me) to forming communities.
Because my three housemates don’t have the long experience with alternative culture that i do, i can’t presume that our values are the same regarding food choices, transportation, and other lifestyle traits. However, in order to save money, one car has already been sold. Since i’m the main food shopper, i focus on getting the bulk of our food from the local co-op plus a CSA farm. People have been willing to show videos in private rooms rather than the living room, which matters a lot to me. And in some areas, like humanure, others are ahead of me in knowledge or commitment.
Each individual has a lot of freedom here, yet we also try to check in with each other before doing something we think someone might not like. It’s basically a much less formal lifestyle than i’ve been accustomed to. I love the mental space and energy that has been freed up by that, and the lower stress level. On the other hand, i sometimes feel frustrated or confused when things aren’t going the way i want and there isn’t a clear path to addressing it.
Our backgrounds are different, and we don’t all know each other well yet. We have our tensions and awkward moments, results of shifting moods or misunderstandings or simple differences. In those times, i think each of us searches for a combination of internal groundedness and external tolerance. Hmm?… Maybe living here isn’t as different as i thought?
After all, it’s not like any intentional community is filled with people who are exactly alike, or understand each other perfectly. No matter how well-crafted the vision statement, there is always the possibility for different interpretations to arise—and given enough time, they probably will. While people applying for membership always emphasize how well they’ll fit in with a community’s existing values and how the group likes to run things, from what i’ve observed most applicants have gaps in honesty or self-awareness (or both) that end up significantly impacting the group later on.
At this household, i don’t know whether to say that we have no membership process at all, or that we have a process more extensive than any of the communities i’ve lived at. What it comes down to is that we want to live with people who we already have an established friendship with, and who our instincts (along with a dose of common sense) tell us are a good match.
While right now our “membership” is limited to the four of us, we’ve also had another neighbor sharing dinners with us, and several friends who’ve slept on our floor for days or weeks at a time. Thus the isolation i feared doesn’t seem to be coming to pass. We’ve also been intentional about inviting friends to join us for dinner, recognizing that social interaction isn’t as built-in here as it is when a group is on the recognized community circuit.
For me, living in an informal group house of this sort is as much of an experiment as joining a commune might be for someone else. I don’t know if this will settle into being a longterm situation for the four of us or not. I strive to remain open-minded and exploratory in my approach. I remember the commitment i made when i left Acorn, to let go of forms, to be open to emergence and the fullness of life’s calling.