I remember, back at the beginning of this crisis, sitting in my lounge pondering the global predicament of isolation and aloneness. In Australia restrictions were being discussed, and lockdown was on the horizon. It was early evening, and the sweet sound of a choir of voices singing the same hook over and over again drifted in through my window. Curious, I walked out to my balcony and looked down into the garden. Below me, a group of eight people were gathered, surrounded by an abundant vegetable garden, singing together, the sun hanging low in the sky behind them. A beacon of hope in a world swelling with fear.
I once told myself I would never live in an apartment block if I could avoid it. With the current restrictions on movement, there have been times when I’ve seriously reconsidered moving into the “cosy” suburban apartment I now share with my two housemates and daughter. But standing on my balcony listening to the choir that night, I became aware of the reason I made that decision: community.
I live in what is known as an “intentional community”. Forty-plus residents across two apartment blocks joined by a common house, common kitchen and other communal spaces. We hold regular meetings regarding the visions, functionality and daily life of our community. We operate not only as a shared residence but as a co-operative. Put simply, the community functions only because the community shows up to make it function.
Everyone’s voice is welcomed, regardless of whether they’ve only been living here for a few months (like me) or were part of the original vision-making and founding over eight years ago. Decisions are made based on consensus (rather than individual control or voting). Together we work the finances, maintenance and garden, and we craft the community elements, too. Shared meals, potlucks, dance parties and choir are all part of our weekly experience.
With the hard hit of COVID-19, many of these experiences have been greatly curtailed. Very quickly our meetings became consumed with action plans and reassessing agreements and boundaries around space use. No common house access, no shared meals or community gatherings are to be had, of course; even our meetings have become virtual. It was a scary realisation to all of us that communal living meant that a single case of coronavirus could quickly become an internal outbreak if we were not extra cautious. But what has emerged in these harsh times is a shining example of why I chose to make such a drastic lifestyle shift from my previous quiet family home.
Potlucks have been replaced with cross-balcony conversations; common meals replaced with shared moments of frustration and compassion as we see each other across the garden. Loving messages are left on the blackboards and shopping for our vulnerable members has become a shared responsibility. These are now our daily experiences of community — not to mention the larger acts of care.
Last week my housemate came down sick. Responsibly, a message was sent ‘round to the community to make everyone aware. She was tested for COVID-19 and went into isolation in her bedroom until the results came through. For the next 38 hours, every time I opened my front door there was a pot of soup, a lemon or a cookie on the doorstep — small tokens of care for our sick community member. I would deliver each one to her door, leaving it in a small tub for her to collect when I was not in the space. To our collective relief, her results came back clear. But the care did not stop. Even now, dinners and natural remedies are still being brought for her,— reminders that she is not alone.
Of course, this way of living comes with its challenges, and it may not be suitable for everyone. The teenage hippy in me really wants to believe in the utopian community-living dream where we all smile, eat lentils and play the tambourine, but the reality is that people are people and we all come loaded with baggage, trauma, opinions, needs and desires. In a community of over forty individuals, it would be impossible to avoid this fact.
From what I have witnessed in my short time here, this style of living gives so much but it also demands high levels of self-awareness, self-inquiry, and the ability to navigate social dynamics. If there is a disagreement over a potential outcome, no course of action is taken until there is a solution, and finding a solution that’s agreed upon by over twenty people isn’t always the fastest or simplest thing to achieve. This means, before I speak, I must often ask myself, “Is my grievance really about this issue? Am I projecting my own issues into the group dynamic right now? Am I trying to forge ahead with my own concepts of right and wrong, without really considering what others may feel? If so, is it worth the impact it may have on my community, both immediate and long term?” It also means I must witness others doing the same. It feels like an invitation to not only master my own communication and ego-driven responses, but to also have compassion and understanding for that in others.
The impact of this ripples out into how I speak to my daughter, how I speak to my partner, how I move through the world. It is no longer about, “Am I right?” or “Are they wrong?” but, “Is this what is best for our shared experience? Is this what will help us grow?” In this time of unrest, individualism, disconnection, and conflict, I wonder if it is time to learn from the discomfort of closeness, from the power of interpersonal conflict and resolution, from weighing up the impact of change against the inconvenience of compromise. I wonder if there is strength and power in stepping away from questioning what we will gain or lose and asking for once, “What if, this time, it’s not about me?”
What my daughter and I have lost in space by moving here, we have gained in depth. There are obvious benefits to living here — the common house, the beautiful garden, the social gatherings — but the greatest benefit to this new life is yet to be reaped. It is what happens when we meet with challenge and conflict. It is what happens to us when we switch our mind from the individual to the communal, what happens to our ego when we are constantly invited to inquire, to question, to lean into discomfort. When it is no longer about being the leader, or the follower; no longer about having power over others, but about working for the whole so something can shift. The greatest reward is not in what we shall get, but in who we shall become in the process.