When I tell people that I share a house with up to half a dozen adults, I often get one of two reactions: jealousy or incredulity. Some think community living is the promised land and they wish they had my life. Others believe living with so many others is a nightmare and they see me as a community ninja superhero or a lunatic who hasn’t learned better yet.
The truth is, I am not a community expert. I’ve read some books and I’m entering my sixth year as a community founder, but I still feel like a novice. Mostly, I make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. Over the years, I’ve run over people and I’ve let others run over me. I’ve projected my stuff unto others and I’ve had their stuff projected onto me. I’ve been triggered by words or actions that reminded me of my parents or my ex-husband. And I’ve had others see their evil ex in me, their angry dad or abusive mom.
It’s messy, and it’s hard. There’s no secret pill, no magic out, no easy solutions. The core members of my community have all spent some time studying community. We talk about power dynamics and try to be conscious of when we are using power over versus power with and power from within. But even together, we fail often. Sometimes we compromise our boundaries, other times we cast them so wide that we create rule books that others can’t possibly follow. So we fail, again, and again, and again. And each time we do, we get hurt and we hurt each other.
If there’s one golden rule I’ve learned, it is “own your shit and no one else’s”.
But that’s easier said than done, and it’s not an absolute formula. Sometimes I need help owning my shit. I’ve had times when I was too triggered to deal with my own stuff and someone else had to step in. And it’s hard to recognize where others are at. I’ve stepped in and interrupted someone else’s process when they were perfectly capable of solving their problem on their own, thereby making the situation worse. I’ve also turned away, not hearing the desperate cry for help in the words and body language of a community member.
Not only do I have to forgive others and they have to forgive me, I also have to forgive myself. For me, that’s usually the most difficult part. I try to hold myself to a higher standard than everyone else, and when I, inevitably, fall short, I can’t face my failure. So I blame others, or I beat myself up. Either way, I enlist others to do the work of forgiving myself, thus coming full circle to not owning my own shit.
It sounds like a nightmare, doesn’t it? There are moments when it is. Moments when I am so tired of processing that I fantasize about a nice little cottage in the woods all to myself. But those moments have grown fewer and further in between. I’ve learned to recover from my mistakes more quickly. I’ve learned to forgive others and myself. In the process, I’ve learned to love myself more, and have become more capable of truly loving others.
The last few weeks have reminded me, once again, why I love my community. I went through a rough time after traveling to PantheaCon and ConVocation. The Con Crud laid me up for several days, and then I suffered from a reaction to a medication. I hid under the covers overcome by anxiety and depression and a body that ached all over. And when I was at my weakest, a conflict emerged in my community. It was the worst time to face personal tension, but conflicts have a knack for bad timing,
But my community came through. No one volunteered to own my shit, but folks held space for me even as I drowned in mine. While I was moping under the covers, others picked up my household chores. One partner shoved love notes under my door. Another brought me homemade hot chocolate. My cats were fed and taken care of. I was relieved from running an event I had volunteered for. Others stepped in and skillfully handled the conflict while I felt too weak to do so.
And soon I got sick of wallowing in my own pity and emerged from my room, grateful that I was given the space and support to find my own way out.
I wasn’t expected to perform at a hundred percent immediately, either. I picked up some of my chores, tried writing but failed, and spent the other half of the day doing nothing but working on a jig saw puzzle. At night we played board games and hugged each other. My community made me laugh and listened to me until I felt like myself again. Receiving so much love and support always seems like a miracle. It makes the conflicts seem benign, the hard times like passing shadows. It makes every struggle worth it, a dozen times over.
Is living in an intentional community hard? Absolutely. It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. And if you’re not prepared to face your shadows and hold space for those of others, don’t even attempt it. But if you’re willing to go there, to grow by owning your shit and holding space while others own theirs, there’s nothing like an intentional community. I’ve never laughed so much, loved so much, and felt so supported. To me, it’s the only way I’d ever want to live.