As you may or may not know, I have lived “in community” (that’s what the kids are calling it nowadays) for a year and a half now, since Marc and I and several of our friends moved into a double shotgun house in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans in August of ’09. For the first year or so, we operated as an intentional Christian community house with a commonwealth financial system, meaning that we pooled our income and shared all bills and expenses corporately. Since then, the house has morphed into a much less formal version of its former function. Marc and I are now the only remaining residents from the original crew, but we try to keep the spirit of the community house alive by hosting a slew of houseguests, travelers, and renters and trying to provide them with as much hospitality and love as we can.
As 2010 drew to a close, I found myself reflecting on the roller coaster ride of the past twelve months and how much character chiseling has occurred in me in that time–some much needed chippings-away and some unexpected losses. I recalled how, when I went to Cornerstone Festival the summer before we started the house and told people I was going to live in community, they all gave me this look. It was a look that said everything and communicated nothing at the same time. I got a bunch of vague warnings–”It’s going to be hard,” “Get ready to fight over the dishes”, etc.–but no advice that I felt was very substantial or helpful.
Now that I’ve walked the walk, I do understand where they were coming from. Communal living, like so many life experiences, is something you can never really be ready for. You mostly just have to dive in and learn as you go. Still, I do think there are some thoughts worth relaying. So with that in mind, I give you, very much like Mr. Letterman, my Top Ten.
Ten Things I Learned From Communal Living
(or Lessons in Love and Passive-Aggressive Behavior)
1. Get ready to fight over dishes. Seriously, get ready. You may read that and think to yourself, “That won’t apply to me. I am completely ambivalent towards dishes.” I guarantee you will find yourself cursing the sky at the sight of the kitchen sink within a month’s time. It doesn’t matter what your dish strategy is (morning washer, after-meal washer, end of night washer) or whether you follow the “everyone clean their own” line or thinking or the “those who cook don’t clean” maxim, your approach is going to tick someone else off. That person will, after several days of inner turmoil and futile hopes that you will self-correct your ways, ask you politely to conform to their methods. You will then overreact to this request, taking it way too defensively, and become solidified in what you’re now convinced to be your righteously superior dishwashing habits. This will ignite a passive-aggressive dishware war within the house, complete with intrigue, secret plots, treason, and bloodshed. There is no advice on how to avoid this; just know that it’s going to happen and try to get to the part where everyone laughs over how ridiculous it is to fight over dishes sooner rather than later.
2. Create protocol for conflicts before they start, and WRITE THINGS DOWN. The idea of drafting up a set of house rules, a mission statement, or an action plan for conflicts might feel unnecessarily formal or even pessimistic–like you don’t trust each other or you’re looking for things to go wrong–but trust me, they are invaluable. Not only does it force everyone in the house to think about and agree on how they will handle problems before they arise (and hence, before they’re in the heat of the moment), it provides a clear record of those decisions that no one can argue with. You’ll be amazed at how people’s memories work (your own included!) when you’re emotionally distressed or biased towards a situation. If you have regular house meetings, assign someone to take down notes from those meetings to keep a written record of what’s been discussed and decided upon.
3. People are beautiful and complex. This is a pretty generic statement, but I feel like living in community helped me see the beauty and complexity of people with a new intensity. I have a huge respect for all of my old housemates for being vulnerable enough to share themselves with me at their best and their worst, and for continuing to love me after seeing me at all points along the same spectrum. You will disappoint and hurt each other, make no mistake, but there hasn’t been a single housemate who has disappointed me who hasn’t also humbled me with some act of grace or kindness that I didn’t expect or deserve. If you can learn to see the beauty in that, then you’ll be doing well for yourself.
4. You are more selfish than you think. You may have been the most amicable person in the world when you lived by yourself and made all your own money, but sharing space and finances will, like a purifying fire, expose all of the ugliest parts of your soul. For me, this meant confronting a selfishness in myself that I didn’t realize existed and realizing that my worldview looked far too much like an eye for an eye and not nearly enough like the cross of Christ. More than any other experience of my life, communal living how profound it is that God doesn’t treat us like we treat each other.
5. You can never, ever, ever have too much toilet paper. Or extra blankets. Or coffee.
6. Make time to have fun. Sometimes, especially if you’re just starting a house, it can feel like there’s always work to be done. That’s probably true, but the truth is that enjoyment and fellowship needs to be your work too. One of the most attractive features of communal living is that it should allow all of its members, through cooperation, to work less and enjoy life more. But for many of us American workaholics, this inclination doesn’t come natural, and so it takes a little bit of intentionality at first. Plan fun days. Have a weekly Sabbath. I guarantee that some of your fondest memories and best conversations will happen during the times that you rest together.
7. You can live (and live well) on less than you ever dreamed possible, and the minute you start to feel sorry for yourself you run into someone who’s living on less than half of that. ‘Nuff said.
8. Don’t get creepy. People are already going to think you’re in a cult. Don’t help the idea along by become insular and exclusive. Yes, you are a community. Yes, you will grow close and family-like. That’s the whole idea. But don’t forget about the world beyond your doors, and the larger community of your neighborhood, city, and country. If everyone in the house doesn’t have at least a couple outside friends from their job or school or yoga class, make them go get some. You’re going to need those outside friends to provide balance, sanity, and a place to escape when the house is about to drive you nuts.
9. Be open to change. Don’t be so tied up some utopian vision that you fail to recognize or feel threatened when the community goes in a direction you didn’t expect. Change isn’t automatically good, but it isn’t automatically bad either. Only prayer, wisdom, and time will tell the difference.
10. Nothing brings a house together like a good old-fashioned prank war. Getting tattoos together also works well.
with love and grace (especially about dishes),