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

When Kristen Walsh planned the home birth of her second son, she invited five women who live just a few minutes’ walk away to attend. It’s not unusual for a family member to support a woman through labor. But for Walsh, 44, it was important that her neighbors be involved. “They’re my community,” she explains. She printed out the lyrics of several songs for them to sing, including “Air I Am” and “Opening in Sweet Surrender,” hoping that the simple, repetitive melodies might help ease her body through the birth process. When her contractions began, the women headed over to her place, song sheets in hand, and for the next hour or so, their voices filled her bedroom.

A former radio-station program director, Walsh might have found it hard to pull off a production like this if she hadn’t been part of the Puget Ridge cohousing community in Seattle. Here, 23 families live in their own town houses while sharing a 2.4-acre plot of land, a common house, some meals and a deep sense of responsibility for one another.

LikeWalsh, I’m drawn to the idea of living within a community’s supportive embrace. My husband, Lucas, spent a considerable chunk of his childhood on a commune, the old-fashioned hippie kind, with lots of bearded guys and very little indoor plumbing. But now we live with our two young sons in a single-family home in Brooklyn, New York. Good friends reside in the vicinity, but we’re all so time strapped that it’s hard to see one another. If our homes were closer together, I’d have a cushion of companionship and cooperation—or so I imagine. We’d share shopping, kid chauffeuring, a snowblower and compost bins.

Coincidentally, in my conversations with women, those living solo as well as those with families, a similar longing keeps surfacing.

This kind of interest in group life is growing. The Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), which tracks and fosters living collectives, says traffic on its website (ic.org) has climbed 10 to 15 percent each year since 2005. FIC’s first directory, published in 1990, listed about 325 American groups. Today’s online version names more than 1,900 established “intentional communities” (to use the term preferred by collectivists to refer to cooperative living arrangements based on explicit common values). About 350 identify themselves as eco-villages and grow at least some of their own food. Old-style income-sharing communes number about 240. Cohousing developments like Puget Ridge account for at least 120. Women seem to find intentional communities appealing, particularly as they get older, says Laird Schaub, FIC’s executive secretary and a longtime communal resident in Missouri who has visited more than 100 of them.

Should I seriously consider a move to one of these outposts? I decide to find out by visiting three, starting with Puget Ridge (pugetridge.net). Trudi Fajans, a family friend, was 43 when she became a founding member of Puget Ridge, drawn by the vision of living among a tight-knit circle of friends. She invites me to dine alfresco at a patio table next to her town house. Soon what I thought would be a quiet meal morphs into a lively social hour as neighbors stop by to chat.

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.

Gauthier and her husband, Daniel, moved to Sirius in 1998 from New Hampshire. When she was a child, her parents split up—in part, she thinks, because of their lack of connection to others. “Isolation causes anxiety, depression, loneliness,” says Gauthier, who was determined not to go down the same path. Like all full members, she and Daniel put in eight hours of work a week. Within a few years, they had two children and more than enough work caring for them. Now they rent a house just outside Sirius, close enough to enjoy the fellowship but without having to shoulder the work commitments.

It’s easy to see why people would want to stay connected to Sirius. The gardens are as beautiful as they are productive. Participation in collective meals is free, as long as you also take part in the cooking rotation. The buildings are pretty. Wilson and Brice live with two of their children, plus a dog, two cats, a bunny and a bird, in one of the community’s larger homes, a four bedroom with a two-story open lounge space and giant picture windows overlooking pine trees. Because Brice’s full-time job is running the Sirius conference center, they get a reduction in their rent (they pay only $1,000 a month), but the living spaces (all rentals) are quite affordable. A 300-square-foot studio apartment with a kitchen, for instance, rents for about $500 a month.

Sirius rules stipulate that all members go through conflict-resolution training, so when interpersonal problems arise, they can sit down together and work out their differences. Having “processed” with my husband, my sisters and my closest friends, I know what these conversations are like. Could I commit to this level of honesty and intimacy with such a large group of adults? Just the thought of all that potential conflict wearies me.

Sirius is small compared with Twin Oaks (twinoaks.org), a community in Louisa, Virginia, with 93 adult members and 15 children. “It’s like being in an arranged marriage with 93 people,” says Biddy Remick, 44, a self-described misanthrope and former financial manager for a nonprofit who came here three years ago. Founded in 1967 on 465 acres of farmland, Twin Oaks is one of the longest-surviving intentional communities in the country. Tie-dyed gauzy skirts and names like Trout and Firefly (people here often rename themselves) abound on this rural outpost, and a vaguely -patchouli-and-sweat-tinged fragrance permeates the air. Members live in eight residences, each of which has 10 to 18 bedrooms and two or three bathrooms, and each person gets a private bedroom, regardless of whether he or she is part of a couple.

Twin Oaks has explicit, often -complicated policies regulating pretty much everything. To the dismay of Remick, broadcast TV is a no-no. (She gets her fix through Netflix and a laptop in her room.) The use of cell phones and computers is restricted to certain areas. Illicit drugs are strictly prohibited, and there is a nuanced four-page, single-spaced policy on nudity. “If the UPS guy comes, you have to put your clothes on,” is how one member summed it up for me.

Most members do not hold outside jobs; instead, they work 42 hours a week for the community’s businesses. These generate about $1.6 million a year in gross sales, which is pretty good for a crew that operates without any business training or, as far as I could see, a stitch of office wear. Approximately $625,000 of that income derives from the production of tofu, which Twin Oaks sells through various retail outlets, including some Whole Foods stores. The community also earns about $700,000 from its handmade hammocks and surprisingly comfortable swinging chairs. Other jobs, such as housecleaning, eldercare, construction, tech support and book indexing, make up most of the rest of its income. The collective provides baseline health, vision and dental insurance, and members can choose their chores. At various times Remick has cooked dinner, tended chickens, boxed tofu and tutored kids in math. Child care counts as work, regardless of who does it, so parents typically share child--related tasks with other residents.

The fact that each person’s share of income is only about $5,000 presents one of the biggest challenges of living at Twin Oaks. Life here is modest. Members make do with a monthly allowance of just $75 for personal expenses, including travel, toiletries and treats. “Objects of envy,” the Twin Oaks term for cars, dining room sets and similar pricey items, must be donated to the community on joining or given away.

Most residents I speak with say they were drawn to Twin Oaks by its values and unconventional lifestyle. Many came at solitary junctures in their lives. But, according to some members, the community’s one-bedroom-per-person policy seems to encourage breakups and new romantic pairings. A resident called Tigger, whose ex-partner and child have left the farm, told me only half-jokingly that the community feeds on the drama: “Since we don’t have TV, that’s how we amuse ourselves.”
By the time I return to Brooklyn, I realize I could never make a home for my family in an intentional community. All the meetings, the coordinating, the accountability to others seem like too much work. Instead, I decide to experiment with a more informal arrangement. When I pick up my son after school, I invite his friend and her mother to come over. Her first response is an incredulous “Now?” Happily, her second response is a shrugging “Why not?” and we wind up spending the rest of the cold winter afternoon pleasantly holed up together.

Just as they’re leaving, I take an even bolder step. Kate, one of my oldest friends, who has two boys around the ages of mine, phones to hammer out a brunch for next month. “Why not just get together tonight?” I say.

“Like right now?” she asks with that same tinge of surprise. Yes.

That evening Kate and I sip wine and assemble the lasagna we’ll all eat for dinner. Our conversation meanders. Nothing we say is momentous or deep. Yet it is precisely this kind of mundane togetherness that I’ve been longing for, a small step toward a more connected existence. It’s not a commune, not even a sleepover. But I’m happy to have had these few hours of connection—and afterward, I’m happy to have my time alone.

Sharon Lerner is the author of The War on Moms. Her next book is about ideal places.

Next: Trading (Vacation) Spaces

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First Published Mon, 2012-05-07 14:02

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