We moved on to our property in mid July of 2014, very excited and with high hopes. Our plan was to share the property with two of my brothers and their wives and live communally. The benefits are obvious: shared workload, shared expenses, shared equipment, bulk food, built-in babysitters, a community of people to live life with, to help each other and encourage each other. The list goes on.
In the scope of human history, our society is the obvious exception with our single-detached dwellings, individuality, and personal space. If humanity has existed in extended family compounds for millennia, then surely it couldn’t be that hard…
“But won’t it be hard to get along?”
“Won’t you need your space?”
“I could never do that with my family…”
My answer, at least internally, to these and other cautionary comments was proud, “you don’t understand, we are the Squires, we all get along, we’re kind of different (special, ie: immune to those forms of pettiness and disagreement to which the cautioners were referring). We can do it.”
When I am excited, I can overlook the potential pitfalls. The different understandings. The different needs. The different life stages. I overestimated myself. I thought I could move my family, start a new job, relearn rural life, figure out animals and permaculture, integrate two other family units into our home/yard, and continue to function as a father and husband while living closer the my parents and inlaws and trying to make friends and starting a second job and not neglect my wife and kids and…
I couldn’t do it all. It didn’t work out. It failed. I think that when that first property didn’t work out, there were enough forces at play that it felt like the dream was taken from me. This time, I failed. I am not used to failure. Things generally work out. But this time I failed and it has been hard. It has been hard on me and my family and my bigger family.
I know that the first number of posts in this blog have been filled with disappointment and things not going well, and illness and might seem quite negative. If my life was always this way, I don’t think that I would feel compelled to write about it. Life has generally gone my way, and so this undertaking, the chasing of this dream, with its twists and turns and dead ends are different for me. And that is why I feel like they are important. Because they are exceptions in my life.
So here they are, our lessons from our attempt at communal living:
1. Communes work in one of two conditions. Either strong, dominating leadership (think cult leader or fierce Russian socialists) or a chemically altered consciousness. As an Enneagram type #9, I am as democratic/diplomatic as they come–not really the autocratic type. Also, as a detox nurse, me and my people kind of stay away from the mood/mind altering substances. So… two strikes against communes.
2. Write down all arrangements. “My word is my bond” is and “seal the deal with a handshake” worked great in societies with low literacy rates, but we rely so much on written reminders (who knows anybody’s phone number now that we have Siri) that our brains don’t remember things the way that previous cultures could (see Neil Postman’s Technopoly). So when you insist that agreements be written down, it isn’t because you don’t trust someone to keep their word, it is because you don’t trust the both of you to remember what was said or meant.
3. Clearly, precisely, and painstakingly outline everyone’s expectations, hopes, goals, and needs before moving in together. A Sheldon Cooper-style roommate agreement is not a bad idea. Do not agree to figure it out as you go. This will not work unless you have succeeded in establishing one or both of the conditions outlined in point number 1.
4. Timing is everything. Commune participants probably shouldn’t be in periods of major transition or change at the inception of the commune. Figuring out life together is change enough.
5. Finances. You’re gonna want to have this pretty well figured out before you unpack any moving vans. Finances can shipwreck anything.
6. When the commune is a family one, you will do well to remember that families have unwritten rules and dynamics that are like a powerful undertow: just below the surface, and very strong. These should be identified as clearly as possible.
7. A risk/reward analysis wouldn’t hurt before hand. IE: if this works, the benefit is…, if this fails, the fallout will be…
8. Regular, frequent communication. Communication should be regular and frequent. Also, it should happen lots, and often. And lots. And it is really hard, because there are lots of other things to do, and people that need you, especially if those are little people, whom you have put in this situation, and they are feeling unsettled because you moved them away from home and brought a bunch of other people into the new space they were trying to settle in to. So, really, I think this is where the whole thing breaks down. We have kids. And our kids needed us more than we could give to them. And that broke our hearts and put us on edge and made us resentful. And I really think that this is where it unravelled for me. It was a choice between saving enough of me for my kids and my wife, or chasing after this communal ideal. And, eventually, I chose my wife and kids. Because I wasn’t big enough for both. And I think maybe we’ll end it there for now, because that’s the bottom line.