I loved community.
I first lived in a community house during the summer of 1991, volunteering as a day-camp counselor in north Philadelphia. I went back for more next summer. Then I started a community house with other students from my college. Five of us lived together for a year in south Minneapolis. After graduation I moved to Washington, D.C., to begin a graduate school program. For three and a half years I live at Esther House, a community house with a focus on inner-city outreach, my longest and deepest experience in community living. I left there when I got married, when I moved to my husband's community house in Buffalo, New York; one other married couple and four single people sharing several apartments in a large house. After a month, we moved out.
Now, a year after getting married, I live with my husband in an apartment. We don't know our neighbors, we don't share rent with anyone, and we do our own dishes. Marriage is a form of community, but it brought me loneliness as well as a connection. The transition from one community to another was anything but smooth, and we opted to move out and enjoy our new marriage in relative peace. I think it was a good choice, but it had costs. The conversation and connection with one person simply can't match the liveliness of five housemates, neighborhood children, and a dog. In marriage I've been blessed with depth of intimacy, which I wanted, but I lost the breadth of relationships that I had in my community house and in my neighborhood. Community was wonderful. One time the valve on Carolyn's pressure cooker broke, and we fixed it by taping a bit of rubber over the hole. Several minutes later, the kitchen was raining black beans. To this day, the white ceiling has a purplish haze from the bean juices. We laughed and laughed. One time three of us, with a few other friends, biked from Washington, D.C., to northern New Jersey as a fund-raiser to send neighborhood kids to summer camp. On a long stretch of flat road, Faith and I made up a game called "Something You Might Not Know About Me." As our legs pumped, we searched our memories for stories that we hadn't already told the other. We knew each other well.
Community was painful.
One of my communities split in half over the issue of boyfriends sleeping over and having sex in the house. Three women left with hurt feelings and anger, charging those remaining with fundamentalist legalism. Three of us remained, with our own hurt feelings and anger. Another time I had an ongoing conflict with a woman that escalated until I finally asked her (well, shouted at her) to move out. I remember biking away from the house to escape the tension, shaking with tears as I mourned the break in community and the loss of a friend.
Those experiences were hurtful and destructive, and I hope to never repeat them. Some pain, however, was redemptive. I was often critiqued for being controlling and judgmental, expecting other people to get their lives together as quickly as I would if I were in their place. That has helped my marriage. I can't easily write off my husband's criticisms because I've heard most of them before. In his "Confessions," Augustine wrote, "You [God] teach us our lessons by sorrow; you wound us to heal us; you kill us that we might not die apart from you." I've benefited from healing wounds inflicted by true friends.
I don't miss living in a community enough to do it again, but I do miss it. I miss women who understand me. I miss prayer on demand. I miss hard criticism. There's plenty I don't miss, too. I don't miss other people's messes. I don't miss scheduling dinners and meetings. I don't miss dragging my bicycle in and out of the basement around other people's boxes and laundry.
Once I moved out, I found it interesting and sometimes difficult to disentangle my identity and values from those of my Esther House sisters. Do I really value recycling, or did I do it to please Carol Anne? Do I really enjoy feta cheese and spinach, or did I just appreciate Margot cooking for me? Like a cord of five strands, we wove our lives together--doing things, and sometimes coming to value them, for the common good or for the love of one friend. A year later, I am still learning to see the spots where my sisters really rubbed off on me, and the spots where I am still, frustratingly, the same me I was before.
So now I'm looking for community in a local church.
Living in residential community, however, has raised my standards. For several months I attended my husband's church small group. I thought, "This is intimacy? This is challenge?" After years of prayer, friendship, and everyday life with five close roommates, a weekly meeting with a dozen people seemed shallow. I need to learn to develop friendships as a married person and to find meaningful connections with people I don't live with.
I no longer hold romantic notions of efficiency and ease coming from sharing. Being a good community member is an additional layer of commitments, a role that takes time and energy. It brings many blessings, but for me to receive and give those blessings, I would need to focus a good chunk of my energy there. And for now, I'm challenged and blessed as a wife, professor, colleague, and church member.