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.


Anonymous said...

Ours and mine....Dale and I were reading in Leviticus this morning and the counsel around property, the jubilee year, the concept that "you are not selling land, you are selling a # of harvests". Perhaps communal living is training ground for "getting it" that all we have is a gift from God to be shared, not hidden under a bushel. I admire you for willingly entering the training ground, Holly. Do you know the group that publishes Conspire? They write about communal life challenges--check them out! Esther H has been reading them lately. Did you get to see her during her recent visit to Uganda? And now Megan is there, and Lindsey...MCC Uganda types keep coming back! Of course you and Ben are the king and queen of return! Lots of love,

Marika C said...

i guess the question i have in my mind when thinking this over is about the balance of individuality in the midst of a commune. We are all very different- some embracing simplicity to extreme degrees, some enjoy the variety of tastes and treats that a globalised world offers us- does communal living force a sort of conformity on people by setting an "acceptable standard"? maybe the answer lies in something like "dialogue", and maybe individual choices shouldn't matter as much as they often do, but how then does that happen without feeling like chains of conformity as opposed to the life of community?

Jay said...

It is right and good to swim against this world's undertow. Swim strong. Struggle, squirm and wriggle against the selfishness, self doubt, fear and frailty.
And even in the midst of your struggle may you catch powerful waves of His grace.
Thanks for pointing the way with your lives and your words. Thanks for the nudge.
GP Randall

Esther said...

Hey guys,

Thanks so much for this. My apologies once again for getting tied up in Soroti and not experiencing your community this time around. Better luck next time!

But I did want to let you know that this reflection more than hits home, Holly. And Gann is right about reading Conspire. If you would like, I could pass on the copies when I get there next.

You've nailed many of the tensions we are having in our faculty house on the head in this. The difference (and my constant frustration) with our group is that we didn't sign up to be an intentional community; we just find ourselves sharing space in a house. Some days I ache for more understanding and more love/sharing between us. Other times, yeah, I want my own coffee mug, and don't want to come back to the house to find it in another person's hands.

Keep pushing on that tension. I am hoping that here too, in term two, perhaps we can have Faculty House version 2.0, where we are all a little more caring and less guarded with one another. I'm reaching out by sharing my precious odii.


Holly and Ben Porter said...

I haven't read Conspire, but I will definitely check it out on both of your recs! Also, I love that you were reading Leviticus, and # of harvests is a really challenging way to think of ownership. I like it--and it gives me something to hold in mind as we look at land...

Marika--yeah, what you said. Lets, let each other know if we figure it out.