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Lessons from living in a commune

Posted on Sunday, July 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

The other day I made an of-hand remark about learning to ask for help while living at a commune. This friend suggested that I probably had great stories from that time. It made me wonder. Then it made me feel conflicted for days. Living with 10 or 11 roommates was certainly an experience, but not one I’ve really thought through. I spent a year there, I made lots of changes in my life, and then I moved on. In some ways I’m thankful for the experience and yet looking back makes me a little queasy. What did I learn? Or what lessons were presented to me during that experience?

1. Communal living can be supportive for an introvert.
I came to the house after leaving a 17-year relationship. I was able to spend time along, grieving or ruminating or venting the anger that surprised and frightened me. My room was large enough for that. I was also able to step outside my door to see others and be reminded that I was an OK person. I didn’t have to plan for social interaction so I didn’t have that additional stress. I could drop in and out of social events. I hadn’t been asked over to watch a movie so I could leave in the middle of it or drop in after it started, for example.

2. Physical possessions are only temporarily owned and valued. I probably achieve only a C+ for this lesson. I can still tell you a few of the items I lost or that were destroyed during my year in the house. Every insulated mug I put on a shelf was taken by someone and lost in their car or workplace. I only remember one of those mugs with any clarity or sense of loss. It was a John Beargrease Sled dog Marathon mug. I’m pretty sure I lost other kitchen items. I know that no one who joined the house and then left, left with the same items they brought. Oddly, I remember those mugs with more animosity than I remember anything left at the household I shared with my former partner. Perhaps I expected those losses or I’ve dealt with that relationship more thoroughly.

3. You can ask for help for much longer than I expected before people start getting annoyed. I remember a Thanksgiving at the house when I spent the meal asking people for stuff or for help. Just with little things. Little things I could have done myself, like refilling a glass. Unlike family members who would have given me dirty looks and not even responded to a second request, my roommates seemed oblivious to their service to me. Both before moving in and before moving out I assumed that I would hire movers, but friends and co-workers all volunteered–unasked–to help me move. People can be so supportive.

4. Some people will not pull their own weight. Perhaps the truth is that not everyone measures weight in the same way. But I learned that a few people at the house would take care of much more than their fair share. They were much more invested in the group. While I was at the house  because it was convenient, not because I believed in communal living, I think I contributed to the group. Others seemed devoted to the concept, but not to the reality, and were absent whenever snow fell or other large tasks needed to be taken care of. It never seemed worth confronting them. I coped by simply feeling superior to them. It’s not a rational or classy way of coping, but it worked for me.

5. You don’t have to like everyone you live with. I got along with everyone I lived with but I didn’t want to be friends with all of them. I think it’s good to be around people you jell with. You can care about people you don’t like, wish them well, and be a bit curious about their lives. You can also put away groceries with them.

6. You do need to respect everyone you live with. Sometimes it takes some work to achieve this. Fortunately I was preparing to leave when this was no longer the case for me.

7. Group-think happens and I’m as susceptible as anyone else. Group meals are a good indoctrination time. Most of us will avoid fights when we have food in our mouths. This is a danger, I think, of living in a communal setting centered around any belief structure. It becomes hard to question those beliefs.

8. There are the individuals and there is the group. Each has their own personality. As people come and go, the group culture will change a bit. But those who have left, if they had strong personalities, can leave ghosts behind. One person can have a much larger influence on the group than another person. I know what my relationships were with the individuals, but am very much perplexed by what is was with the group. I think I liked the individuals more than I liked the group.

9. Sharing breakfast daily is almost like being naked in front of someone. I think people are their most honest at breakfast, before their coffee or tea. I developed three important friendships over breakfast that probably would not have been achieved otherwise. We each put on a public face when we dress for the day. I first met the two adults when our countenances were constructed for viewing. But in our pjs we real and I trusted those faces. (If you look for pictures of communes you’ll see photos of groups of naked people. We were never naked together as a group although some people did get naked with each other at one time or another.)

10. A charismatic leader better be on his/her best behavior. In other words he should keep private the activities of his privates.

11. Dogs can have more of an impact than people. Being greeted at the door by the loud complaints of a small dog is an unusual greeting. I miss that little grump more than I miss most of my former housemates.

12. It’s not easy having your parenting and relationship problems in front of everyone. I did not experience this. My mother stayed for a few days and that was the only relationship anyone else saw me have, I think. And maybe only those up early for breakfast even got to meet her. Imagine having to learn to parent in front of several childless people or break up and change rooms.  There’s support but there’s also judgement.

13. I like being around multiple generations. I’m glad one family took up the public parenting challenge. I don’t have children and don’t want them, but I love being around them. And I have always had friends much older than me. Different perspectives, different paces, different histories make me feel like I have more choices.

One year of living this way was enough. The next time I do it will be when I move into an assisted living community.

  1. Kristeen, this is great. You have condensed the experience very well, and in a way I have yet to do. You have inspired me. And you made me miss little Bart. Thank you. Seth

  2. You have summarized the complex wonders and pitfalls in communal life so well, Kristeen. And you’re right: people are never as honest as before breakfast. And I miss that grump too.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences in such a gentle, thoughtful and incisive manner. You’ve inspired me to consider writing about those years. Much love, much love, with hope and love always.

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