cohousing

It has not escaped me that I’ve been writing a lot about young people in this series on hope. I don’t have kids of my own, but I do have a tender spot in my heart for young people figuring out how to navigate this weird world, for their earnest assumptions of justice and their ability to be delighted. It’s not surprising that my Hope list is filled with youth. But elders bring me hope, too!

I’ve been friends with Lauree for a decade, starting when she and Kathie invited me to be a part of their writing group. I hadn’t moved to Durham yet, but Lauree hosted one of our writing group retreats in her house here, and it became one of those places that felt like home. I’ve moved over 20 times in the last 20 years, living lightly and transiently, so my sense of stability mostly came from other people’s places, friends who settled down sooner than I did, family who’ve lived in the same house nearly as long as I’ve been alive. Lauree’s house was small, cozy, and surrounded by her gardens. When I did eventually move to Durham, we had regular Sunday dinners together, sitting at her kitchen table surrounded by the farm baskets and Native weavings she’d hung on the walls. Lauree had FIG TREES in her yard, which seemed to me a great luxury. I didn’t spend as much time in her gardens as I could have, but I helped pot her saved heirloom tomato seeds, scanned the backyard grove for ripe pawpaws, filled my autumn kitchen with her butternut squash, and, every summer, joined the wasps to savor figs fresh from the tree.

Lauree is 88, now, and a lifetime of reading and gardening is catching up to her body. After succeeding at mostly avoiding the doctor all her life, she had cataract surgery and both knees replaced over the last few years. We share an independent streak (though I have no trouble admitting that hers is fiercer than mine!), and I wondered what Lauree would choose to do when the requirements of her cozy house and booming garden outpaced her energy and desire to take care of it all. I think she wondered, too. A few years ago, she heard about a new co-housing effort gathering steam right around the corner, and she went to an information session. It was a steep buy-in: the group was buying land and building a big new structure that would house 23 apartments, and members would have to pay up front. After a few months of difficult discernment, Lauree decided to join.

Co-housing is a really interesting concept. It’s not like my experience of community living back in my Brethren Volunteer Service days. I moved into a hundred year old house whose walls were literally crumbling. Nine or ten or eleven of us – it changed depending on the season – shared one car, cooked dinner for each other, argued about cleanliness and fought for use of the washing machine. The house was old and the electric wiring was weird, so if you wanted to toast your bagel in the morning when other people were trying to make their coffee or dry their hair, you had to yell, in your froggy, barely-awake voice, “TOASTER!” It was great. And it was horrendous.

Co-housing is different. There are various models, but it is essentially a way to have a private home AND shared spaces that foster community. Bull City Commons, the group that Lauree joined, started their cohousing effort from the ground up, so they recruited people who shared similar values, were willing to participate in a (very involved and time consuming, from what I hear!) model of self-governance called Sociocracy, and had excitement about communal living (without the need to scream TOASTER! whenever you used the toaster).

All at once, Lauree had a new house, new neighbors, new community, a new leadership role, and a new schedule. The months during their building project were filled with meetings and decisions. Construction was delayed and then delayed again, but in the spring of this year, Lauree and her coho buds all got to move into their new home together. It is beautiful. I mean, the building itself is really appealing, but the lifestyle is undeniably attractive, too. Every week, there’s Taco Tuesday, when they gather in the common room to eat tacos (and, apparently, whatever else anyone wants to share). Someone leads a yoga class several mornings a week. Someone else’s hairdresser friend shows up regularly to do cheap haircuts in the common room. There are regular movie nights, pumpkin carving, wreath making, cider pressing and so many other opportunities to connect and enjoy one another’s company that they post a monthly calendar in the elevator. Everyone has chores, and everyone serves on committees, and lots of people leave their apartment doors wide open. Once, when I was visiting Lauree, the neighbor dog wandered into her living room and joined our conversation. I love it. I think Lauree does, too.

I miss Lauree’s charming old house and her gigantic gardens, but I love where she has landed. It’s such a great place for her, and it is a bright, hopeful spot for me, too. I’ve had my share of roommates over the years, all of whom I still love, but I am no longer willing to be a roommate. I’m too independent and I value my solitude too much. But living as a single person in a world that assumes otherwise, I do sometimes long for a way to share life with other people that isn’t scheduled or programmed. I miss opportunities to chat about nothing, to eat a meal together without making complicated plans, to have a go-to person who could receive a package or take the dog out or pick me up at the auto shop while my car gets repaired. I have good friends who are more than willing to do all those things if I called and asked and arranged it, but it’s not a built-in part of the way I live. Cohousing is a way to build it in, while still maintaining privacy and independence. I am a little envious of Lauree’s new home, but mostly it feels hopeful to me that people are this invested and this creative and this willing to figure out ways of creating community that honors independence while simultaneously offering companionship. Hopeful.

One comment

  1. Colleen Michael · December 10

    Sounds much like where I live. Independent living for low income seniors. Many ingroup activities. Common dining room for those on the meal plan. Garden Terrace Senior Living…a Church of the Brethren facility.

    Liked by 1 person

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