Home But Not Alone

Imagine moving to a house, apartment or farm that comes complete with a built-in network of caring friends and neighbors. Whether you’re craving Mayberry-style kinship or just an antidote to empty-nest syndrome, one of these “intentional communities” may be right for you

by Sharon Lerner
Twin Oakers working in the field image
Twin Oakers working in the field
Photograph: Justine Kurland

Fajans, 61, introduces me to Walsh, who, like all the other residents, puts in 40 hours a year doing work such as cleaning the common house,repairing paths and cutting back the property’s wild blackberry bushes. “Outdoor tasks are actually fun,” she says. “We have company.” Walsh and her husband, Brandon Faloona, spent $235,000 to buy their 1,100-square-foot unit and an additional $80,000 to remodel it. They also pay about $280 a month in condo fees. The theory is that private homes don’t need a lot of square footage, since members can also use the common house and yard. Puget Ridge residents—who range in age from two to eighty--something and include an architect, a bus driver, a teacher, a lawyer and an arborist—are encouraged, though not required, to attend monthly meetings to address whatever problems arise. The group uses a consensus model, in which every member must agree to proposed changes, so the process can be time consuming. But attendance is usually good: This is when members update one another about their lives. Also popular are the communal meals served at the common house at least twice a week. Participants pay $3.50 per meal and do a cooking or cleaning shift twice a month. Eating communally allows Walsh many evenings of fine dining in good company without having to lift a finger. “I can’t imagine living any other way,” she says.

Can I imagine living this way? When I head over to Fajans’s house on my last day, a neighbor pops out to tell me she isn’t home. Would I like a cold drink? Years of living among people who try not to butt into one another’s private business make me suspicious of her invitation. I decline the offer politely and slink off, feeling decidedly uncommunal.

PugetRidge could pass for any leafy middle-income suburb, but the Sirius compound (siriuscommunity.org), with 31 residents, set on 90 hilly acres in Shutesbury, western Massachusetts, feels almost like a nature preserve. Foliage curls around the wooden sign at its entrance. Deer saunter across its dirt paths. Back in 1985, the founders used sustainable materials to build the common house, an octagonal wooden wonder that resembles a giant beehive with windows. Rays of sunlight poke down through the skylights onto the circle of meditators holding hands below.

Among them, wearing a flowered blouse and a calm smile, is Deb Wilson, 50. She has a laugh that bubbles up easily and often, but as the weekday 7:30 am meditation begins, she looks solemn. The group sends a quiet “om” up toward the rafters, and as if on cue, a gust of wind blows open the wooden doors, letting in a burst of crisp air and the twitter of birds.

Wilson and her husband, Brice, came here 18 years ago as guests. Then they rented a place nearby. One snowy afternoon, “I looked out the window and knew we wouldn’t be going anywhere in a car,” she says. “So I bundled up the kids, and we walked to the common house. There was a fire in the fireplace. People were playing cards, talking. It ended up being a great time.” Wilson and her family became residents soon after.

There are plenty of places where you can find warmth and good conversation but not as many, perhaps, that offer warmth and silence. This is what Wilson and Monique Gauthier, 47, seek out one recent Wednesday at the Sirius community sauna. Gauthier and Wilson have been neighbors and close friends for 13 years and have a lot to talk about. (Wilson has a life--coaching and healing practice; Gauthier is a midwife.) Yet this day the two opt for silence. They just sit, enveloped by the steam. Indeed, Sirius’s signature may be the easy way it weaves a nature--infused spirituality into daily life. Before meals in the spacious dining room (supper is served most nights), members close their eyes, join hands and say thanks. Nonresidents flock here for workshops on topics such as composting and organic gardening and more ethereal pursuits such as “transformational breathing” and “heart forgiveness.” But Sirius has a following beyond its official property. More than a hundred neighbors are informally affiliated with the community, visiting for regular open-mic nights, bonfires and pizza baked in a wood oven.

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Comments

Paxus Calta04.12.2013

i have lived at Twin Oaks for 15 years and i have never heard anyone refer to a car as an object of envy. We have a fleet of 17 vehicles which we share and as a group tend not to care much about status symbols like cars. There is occasionally envy around things like fancy computers.
Overall Sharron has done her research well for this article and one can get something of a feel for what it is like to be at Twin Oaks.
If you are interested in a longer and somewhat more exotic view of Twin Oaks you can read this:
http://funologist.org/2011/12/10/re-post-island/

Matt 07.12.2012

I've lived in two different intentional communities over the last ten years. I've never been to any of the communities you visited, but we have folks from Twin Oaks visiting all the time. Personally, I could never live at any of the places you mention either, but your statement "By the time I return to Brooklyn, I realize I could never make a home for my family in an intentional community" puzzles me.
You know they're all different, right? For example, my 80 person community on Staten Island is *nothing* like the communities you mention. Making a statement like that is kind of like going to three restaurants you didn't love and deciding you don't like to eat out. You spent a very limited amount of time at three communities out of hundreds. Don't make such sweeping judgments. Most people I've lived with over the last ten years wouldn't want to live in the places you mentioned either--and that's not a criticism of any of the communities. It's an acknowledgement that you visited three relatively similar rural communities and applied that experience to all of us.

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