Finding a Home: Urban Community
Newcomer Lisa Cigliana relates the joys and struggles of exploring community life for the first time — in her case,with Bright Morning Star in Seattle.
My leap into communal living in 1993 opened my life to new ways of being. It also created more adjustments than I could have imagined. All sorts of questions emerged about my definition of intentional community, my role in community, and how to transition into community.
As a single woman living 2,000 miles from any blood relatives, I had spent my adult years living in the city, either alone or with one or two roommates. With roommates, the un-spoken rule was that we each had our own independent life somewhere outside the living unit. While we jointly paid utilities and cleaned the house, we rarely ate together. Connections were tangential. We lived together out of convenience, not conviction.
In my outside social life, I attended meetings about community, but then went back to my own private apartment. Community was something separate, apart from my home; it was a hobby that I would set aside when it interfered with my independence. Yet, this modern living left holes in my soul. I knew that my spirit was not being fed. After finding a copy of the Directory of Intentional Communities, I began to yearn for more community connections in my home life. I imagined living at Twin Oaks or so me other rural, self-contained community, but I knew that was a very big leap. Surely there were other options! I wanted to retain my single, urban lifestyle and still live cooperatively. So when I found a notice on a cafe bulletin board about a cooperative home, I called that day and did not look back. That’s how I found Bright Morning Star, a group home in Seattle.
Moving to an intentional community was a big jump! But now, looking back after a few months, I heartily recommend the same process to all city dwellers who seek broader personal connections, more community, in their home life. I’ve been able to keep my job, my friends, and my city pleasures, such as first-run movies and live theater and music, and live in community, too. If I ever choose to live singly again, I can easily find another apartment situation. If I end up moving to a rural community, Bright Morning Star is a perfect first step for trying out cooperative living.
In my transition to residential community, I’ve learned about cooperative values. In today’s urban environment, it is more and more common for people to see the home as a place to retreat, relax, and tune out the world. Folks recover from the stresses of work and congested city life by “vegging out” and watching TV. While I have lived this way, too, I’ve been disturbed by it. Can’t home be a place of activity and nurture as well? As a child, I remember eagerly waiting for my dad to come home from work so that the whole family could be together–that was when family life happened! Living Relationships
When I first moved to Bright Morning Star, the numbers seemed overwhelming to me–three adults and two teenagers, a house full of people who wanted to get to know me! I wanted to reciprocate but was so busy adapting to the new house and the group agreements that I did not have the time, energy, or frankly the desire to share conversations that first week or month. My home, once a bastion of solitude, was suddenly overpopulated.
However, over time, the communal meals provided a semblance of family life, other daily activities, chores, and meetings created a kind of knowingness and synergy that goes beyond verbal sharing. As each week goes by, other group members and I are increasingly involved in each other’s lives. I still have my friends outside of Bright Morning Star, but now I have supportive relationships at home, too.
Privacy and Community
Privacy can be more ambiguous in community. Since all of my house members have lived together for eight years, they seem to have worked through territorial issues. My own territorial limits were tested when other house members initially felt freer than I liked about entering “my” room. The situation came to a head when I was out of town for a few days and my room was entered to check the window locks. They were indeed unlocked, but I still felt somewhat invaded.
Where was the compromise between security and individual privacy? When I lived in an apartment, people did not enter my room without permission. But other house members had a right to security despite my need for boundaries. I wanted a place in the house where I could keep materials such as journals and know that they were seen only by permission. In the end, I told my housemates that my bedroom was off-limits unless there was a legitimate need–such as checking the windows.
Simple Living Values
People have different ideas and priorities about how to live consciously and simplify their lives. For instance, I do not eat meat and I use public transportation rather than own a car, but until I moved into Bright Morning Star I enjoyed taking long showers and regularly tossed leftovers into the garbage. Now, some of my housemates own cars and some eat meat, but we also recycle water and save food for the compost pile and worm bin. How do our different values affect the community? Am I obstructionist if I don’t save water? Do I judge house members who own cars for burning fossil fuels? Do I feel guilty if I take a long shower once in a while? These questions about priorities are present in many ecologically minded communities, including mine. However, it takes very little energy to recycle bath water for toilet flushing, or to put food scraps in containers for the worm bin. If ecological systems are put in place, the work of sustainability is certainly made easier, but the value decisions about long, hot showers and fossil fuels will not be resolved easily.
At Bright Morning Star, we rotate cooking chores for a nightly communal meal. Since movies and community meetings often begin at 7 p.m., I have had to make choices between missing dinner or arriving at events late. We also have to schedule a weekly house meeting (finding a common day and time that all can attend is an interesting process). At times, it’s simply inconvenient; other times, I resent the imposition of community on my life as a single woman. Yet home-cooked meals and gatherings with housemates are nurturing and satisfying experiences. Ultimately, it’s worth the bother to have connections with domestic partners.
A final thought about starting the journey toward cooperative living: start where you are. Undoubtedly there are people in your town looking for cooperative lifestyles, seeking to share social energy as well as material expenses. I was acquainted with a member of Bright Morning Star for a year, through three different community groups. Yet, I didn’t explore common interests with him or discuss dreams of cooperative living until I saw a notice for his community on a bulletin board. Who knows how many other opportunities I missed by not talking with people about my dreams?
I look back a year ago to when I fantasized about living in some of the communities listed in the Directory. My imagination was not big enough to even guess that I would be living in a cooperative home by now. Perhaps I have more transitions ahead of me: creating urban work that is nurturing and sustainable, or maybe moving to a rural community. I am hopeful that my housemates will support my search for the ideal living arrangement wherever that takes me. But for now Bright Morning Star is for me.
About the Author
Lisa Cigliana recently transitioned out of Bright Morning Star and into an independent shared home in Seattle. With her first journey into communal living behind her, she feels the need to ask some elemental questions all over again: What do I want out of intentional community? What can I offer to others? What kind of situation meets my needs? For now, these questions seem best asked while residing more or less on her own, but before you know it she’ll probably be living communally again. Lisa believes that you are what you eat (not counting an occasional Diet Coke), and she participates in urban community by serving on the board of a local food bank and volunteering her time at a Seattle food cooperative. Lisa has a vision of someday taking a tour of selected intentional communities across the United States and the world.