The Week It All Fell Apart

Who wants to live in community? Not my housemates. I feel like there’s been a mutiny aboard my ship. Two months ago, I was all starry-eyed with possibility as the household swelled to seven people. The dynamic felt stable, trusting and mutually beneficial. And then it all collapsed.

I want you to see my integrity in this, dear reader, and I also want to protect the dignity of my housemates. So I won’t tell you what went down. Suffice to say that the agreements we made were not kept, trust was lost, and the five housemates will all be leaving within the month.

My perception is that it was stable while I was home, acting as the hub that everything revolved around, but when I left for two journeys within the month (to Blazing Swan in Kulin and then the 14th Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Canberra) all the systems fell apart. It may also because I didn’t clearly set out the expectations, I didn’t have a stringent screening process for housemates and I didn’t have any sort of contract or written agreement about our arrangement.

Each action I took to try to regain control of the ship seemed to make things worse. It was a pretty tense week or two, draining my energy rather than being the restful haven I want for my home. It’s been some harsh learning about where my power lies, how I can use it and still be within my integrity and where my boundaries are exactly. I don’t feel comfortable telling other adults what to do and I can’t force them to be willing, yet there are certain things that are not ok in my house.

I’m concerned about setting up power-over systems, because consent is really important to me. I want the household systems to be based on willingness. How can I integrate this into the governance and communication tools here? Sociocracy, holocracy, consensus decision making (interesting discussion here on how violent this really is), non violent communication? How can I embed consent into my household governance, and still meet my need for security and consistency? I found it interesting to hear Paul Wheaton say ‘A central leader and glue [shared enjoyable activities] makes for one of the best recipes for long-term community when the people that are there enjoy it’ ie. when the community members sign up willingly to this.

Last time I wrote about this, I described my place as the Household Landlord model in David Holgrem’s book RetroSuburbia. As I’m the sole owner and legally responsible party, I like the idea of benevolent dictatorship, like Tim and Shani Graham at Ecoburbia. I’ve gone so far down radical lifestyle paths, I forget that other people use plastic, fly spray, tvs, and fast food. If I’m going to keep those things out of my house, I need to set specific and clear expectations and viable alternatives at the outset, because otherwise they may be the default choice.

I felt kind of shattered by all everyone leaving, because I put considerable effort into clarifying intentions and setting these systems up, trying to do this in a non-violent and collaborative way. In the thick of the conflict, I didn’t manage to negotiate all of these loaded conversations with kindness. One of the things my housemates threw back at me was ‘didn’t you just got to a five day retreat on non-violent communication?’ ‘No’, I retorted. ‘It was a permaculture convergence.’ (In a smaller voice) ‘I was running the NVC session.’ Ouch. Even when my communication is violent, knowing NVC at least helps me to have compassion for myself, makes me aware of my judgement of the other person and hastens my processing of the situation.

The gift of anger and resentment is that they give you very clear messages about where your boundaries lie. Anger tells you that something is not lining up with your integrity, something is not ok for you. Resentment tells you that you aren’t willing to do something, that you’ve overstepped your capacity. How can you bring things back into line, holding both your needs and any other party as valid? What action are you willing to take?

Today’s lesson was the sopping wet bathmat. Every time I see that, I wonder if I’m willing to have a conversation with my housies about how to have a shower so the water stays inside the shower cubicle. Or am I willing to just hang it up myself, so at least my mat doesn’t rot? Or am I willing to remove the bath mat from the room, so there’s only bare concrete to stand on? The conversation was too low down the priority list for me this week, and it’s getting too cold for bare concrete. I hung the mat up again, without resentment.

As well as fine-tuning my own willingness, I’ve been practicing resentment prevention. I noticed that it was really triggering for me when I perceived things to be unfair in the household, and this often led to conflict. So I’ve been looking for ways to take action to remove the possibility of unfairness. For example, after the household decided not to share food shopping any more, I suspected that people were still eating the expensive organic butter I’d bought, when I wasn’t eating any of their food. So I hid the butter, rather than silently fume or accuse. (This is after a household conversation where we did clarify what food was shared and what was not.) I’m practicing only washing my own dishes, instead of the whole load. This might seem petty, but actually right now I just want some more choice about what I’m expected to give. I want to experience willingness from myself as well. Learning how to ask for what I need, and sharing from a place of willingness keeps me feeling connected and calm. It’s a relief.

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In the aftermath of the social dissolution of the household, I sought out learning to help me process it all and found this podcast by Diana Leafe Christian. Interestingly, she describes a diagram very similar in layout to my painting of my household values, but with three sectors around the circle (Community Glue or shared enjoyable experiences; Good Process & Communication Skills, including NVC; and Effective Project Management) and one in the centre (Governance and Decision Making). You can read an older version of this here, without the central Governance.

She says ‘shared enjoyable activities is like the immune system of communities’. Hearing this made me realise that the shared enjoyable activities of my household do not include me (gaming, Pokemon go, smoking). So that made the feeling of mutiny make more sense. I’d like to draw more live music, board games, silliness, artwork, singing, celebration and shared tasks into my household.

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She also talks about how vital it is to share meals. I really noticed the change in household dynamics when our shared meals withered away during this week of conflict. I’m considering how to set that expectation for the next lot of housemates. A colleague of hers, who visited 360 communities globally, suggests at least four shared meals per week for cohesive functioning.

I felt reassured that I intuitively had done a lot of the things she suggests, like household meetings, shared work, discussion of household intentions, project management (job lists, shopping lists). I also felt reassured to hear her compare effective project management of a community to project management in business or not for profits, because my day job is a project officer at a not for profit. I wish I’d shared the NVC process more with my household, rather than just use it behind the scenes.

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I have some grief around the disbanding of the household, yet I don’t regret going down this path of communal living. I find the growth, support, company, shared responsibilities, diverse skills, meaningful contribution and lower environmental impact outweighs the challenges. I want to hold onto that. Lots of useful things have happened here. I do regret some of the things I said, and how I said them. That’s a call for me to become more aware of my intentions, and to walk away and process my stuff before I try to speak. Community supercharges growth. Growth can look like dissolution.

So I’m being challenged to trust that this transition will go smoothly, that what I’m trying to create here is indeed feasible, and that like-minded people will find me. The recent tensions and sticking points are valuable information to screen for next time. Even writing the ‘tenant wanted’ ad was useful to get clear about what I want to attract. I think it would also be helpful to go over my house rules, or Household Cultural Guidelines, as Cecilia Macaulay calls them. I wrote several versions of these previously, but I didn’t ask my potential housemates to read them before committing to the house, which made them much less useful.

How much am I willing to give of myself, and when is it too much? How do I offer refuge for those who need it, and also keep myself and my son safe and my energy at a sustainable level? I’m dancing this complex dance between keeping myself safe and keeping the world safe. And that’s interesting and valuable work.

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9 responses to “The Week It All Fell Apart

  1. I really appreciate your honesty, Rachel, and the way you have wrestled with the reactions you experienced, with the desire to create an environment that works for you all. I live with my two sons and their partners and your piece has reminded me that our shared meals and activities have recently fallen by the wayside. Time to reintroduce these important ‘dates’.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, sorry to hear that everything took such a turn for the worse. I’ve lived in community-type households before, and it can be both tremendously rewarding, and really, really difficult. Your reference to the dirty dishes in the sink gave me flashbacks to previous situations I’ve been in, and trying to figure out how to deal with people over it. Hopefully you can find people who are really excited about a shared vision for what the household can be.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ah yes, the perils of being the house owner and therefore the one who makes the rules, and also trying to follow democratic and cooperative principles. Awesome effort. Keep refining. Thanks for writing this.

    Liked by 2 people

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  6. I think, after reading this blog post, and being distant from the situation, it appears that the main problem was that your housemates didn’t have the same aspirations about life, ethics, or strength of purpose that you have and this has been a very valuable lesson to you so as stressful as this situation has been, it has certainly offered you a chance to regroup and find a new way forward. I hope you find like minded people to move in next time and who are willing to assist you in your positive journey forward.

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