Friday, April 29, 2011

Capitalist Commune?

Last year I rarely blogged about communal life. It wasn’t because I didn’t think about it. It was just often too personal. I am fine sharing my own personal things, but it is less appropriate to share other people’s private lives—and last year my personal stuff was inextricable from 7 other people’s.

Somehow, it seems different right now. Maybe it’s because I was not friends with my 3 new housemates before they moved in--or I feel more entitled to comment because I was here first. Or maybe it's just new, and reflection comes easily when confronted with the novel. The other night I was talking with Z&C and one of the newbies on the front veranda. We were talking about communism, and differences between Italian and American values around private property and suddenly all the macro talk crystallized my growing awareness of a micro phenomenon in our house. We have a lot of private property. We value it. We safeguard it. When orienting the new additions to the kitchen, we’re sure to distinguish the communal food shelf from the special-stuff-I-brought-from-Kampala-or-was-sent-from-home shelf. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I don’t think I like it, but I’m not sure if or how much I want to change it. More importantly, I’m not sure what inner spiritual state it reflects. I feel some sense of frustration, maybe even disappointment (in myself or in the ideal—I’m not sure) that even in this intentional experiment with communal living—it is still a place where we build fences around our property.

Previous versions of the commune ideal in my mind included us pooling all of our resources—I mean all of them. We would share debts, salaries, everything. Now, we don’t even share beer or coffee creamer. We have specific seats around the dinner table. We have personal water glasses and coffee mugs. We have separate coffee because I drink so much. We have separate toilet paper because... um, someone else uses so much. We have well-established systems to make sure that we don’t have to pay too much for other people’s consumption.

It is funny, because in previous experiences in shared houses where we weren’t doing this whole “intentional community” thing we had less structure around resource distribution. Perhaps because we were so deliberate in the patterns we set initially we tried to minimize potential risk of trespasses and thereby protect our inter-personal relationships from petty annoyances. The way things are now was no accident. The borders between things in common and private property were drawn with intent. After a couple of weeks of not paying any attention when we first started—Ben and I realized our food expenditure had doubled. It was partially because we ate better with more great cooks in the house and meals transformed into social occasions, but also we all had different resources and different priorities. So we came up with systems that are fair and that we are all comfortable with. But somehow, the full circle from my initial ideals crept up on me when a new house-mate asked which mug he should use to drink coffee--and I could tell he had intuited the relevance of his question.

Although I feel tension between my desire to control my own destiny/manage my own budget/make decisions based on my priorities and in holding more things in common, I appreciate the bright side of private property in a commune. In a strange way, it allows us to be generous. If it all belongs to all of us, it is not a kind gesture if I give it to anyone. Truth be told, we do share a great deal of “our own” things. We ask each other and we gladly give. And it is more significant when I make pesto with MY pine nuts brought from the US than when we divide the cost of groceries for a communal meal.

I feel like I’ve learned a few things in the past year. I have many more lessons that have yet to find expression. Perhaps they will get distilled at some point.

One is that I want to "do community” with the people around me. Not wait for some other time, or some specific group of people, or some specific conditions. I want to invest in the relationships that are right here. Right now.

I also feel like I have so much more to learn. I like that I live in an environment where I am confronted with unresolved tension between valuing individualism and freely sharing in group life. I don’t want it to end. What is here is important and we haven’t mined all the resources yet. I remind myself of that when there are times I’m tempted to hasten what’s next (a super hut)—usually it is in moments when my values inconvenience other people and I have to choose between imposing discomfort possibly damaging relationships with the people I love and compromising a way of life that I feel called to (or maybe that I just like more—not to over-spiritualize my preferences). In those times I feel inhibited—like we can only live the fullness of life to the least common denominator present in a group. Sometimes I am that denominator; sometimes it’s someone else. I’d like to think we raise the bar for each other. Doubtless, we do sometimes. I think we can do better. I’m learning (in this case “learning” might be a euphemism for my inaction or blunders and lack of balance) how to struggle for and inspire each other to a higher way of living and have grace and acceptance for where we all are.