Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Neighborhood Now — Denise Pendleton

I give thanks, almost daily, for the rich web of support and relationships my family enjoys, with increasing depth, through our participation in Belfast Cohousing since spring 2008. I often reflect on what drew us to our first open house, to our next steps of exploring members, and I think, “it was the energy efficient home, ” or “it was the gardening and raising animals together” or “it was the neighborhood life for my children. ” I didn’t really expect, when we wrote our equity check, that any of it would happen before ground-breaking. But I’ve been happily surprised to discover that the “neighborhood for the kids” has transformed into vibrant community as our paths crisscross with those of other members and our lives become increasingly a shared journey in the past few years.

Last Sunday, for example, our thirteen-year-old daughter participated as one of five girls in a “Coming of Age” ceremony at the Belfast UU Church. Three of the five are part of our coho community, and we joined this church a little over a year ago thanks to the urging of Joanne, another Coho mom. On our first church visit, we discovered that Audrey needed a mentor, and without hesitation, who stepped forward to nominate herself for this task but Coho friend, Coleen. This has been a memorable year for our daughter and her new friends and her growing understanding of the importance of community, as the credo she read today to the congregation expressed, “I believe in community. Communities are there to help you with hard times, to enjoy happy moments with you. I belong to the cohousing community and that community is very friendly and nice and has kind of become my other family. ”

Perhaps she was thinking back, as I often do, to our sailing adventure of last summer, with a flotilla of several member boats. It wouldn’t have happened if a few of our coho friends hadn’t initiated, instigated and put in some hours of hard work to make it happen. I still marvel at those magical days we had, setting off by moonlight for Holbrook Island and in the several anchorages that followed, sharing resources from cabin space to rowboats, passing platters of food over the bow and stern lines as we moored together, trusting in one boat’s anchor to hold us in the sparkling waters of a tree-lined island cove.

This past winter, we found ourselves in similar configuration on skis, pooling our resources to make it possible for us to enjoy a few long weekends in a slope side condo, carpooling, sharing meals and good conversation. Some of the kids are old enough to take off on their independently and I’m lucky to get one run in with Luke or Audrey. Meanwhile, among us adults, we’ve found that while some of us ski fast and some of us do not, in subzero temps or warm sunshine, we all have double delight because the kids are happy and we parents are having fun too.

I can’t count the number of sleepovers our son Luke has had with his friends Finn and Soren or how often we’ve had them at our home—enough that we now have toothbrushes with their names on them. We’ve been delightfully surprised on several occasions to find ourselves childless for an entire 24-hour spell as our children happily go to stay with another family, and we are able to celebrate anniversaries or birthdays we’d given up on. Meanwhile, lost and found clothes pass between our homes along with loaned books and, well, chicken tractors and a trailer that’s been so popular among coho-ers that we’ve thought of putting a sign-up sheet on Basecamp. We’re thrilled it’s not just sitting in our yard for our occasional use, but had it borrowed to transport lawn mowers for Coleen’s work party, hay for Sanna’s horses, and manure for the farmhouse children’s garden.

Last spring, we finally got the chickens we thought we’d get 3 years earlier when we moved to this old farmhouse. We got the chickens because Sanna, in her usual enthusiasm for shared life, offered my daughter a hen and a few baby chicks, and before he knew it, my husband John was building his first chicken coop. It wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been made so effortless, and now we’ve got so many eggs we have the joy of giving them to relatives who bring us, in exchange, cookies, freezer pie crust, mended clothes and herbal tinctures. We love looking out the window at our free range chickens bringing life to all corners of our yard, and we love that kids are learning more about raising their own food. (While not part of my initial motivation for joining Belfast Cohousing, it’s more become more important to me as I contemplate with increasing frequency what life might be like for my children in 30 years and hope they’ll know how to thrive absent a petroleum-based economy.)

Two nights ago, John and I both had to be away for work. I patched together rides to Tae Kwon Do at the local Y for our 10-year-old son Luke, while Audrey’s 14-year-old coho friend Mika offered to “babysit” until I got home at 8:30. When I walked in the door, Mika’s dad Paul was making himself at home playing a lovely tune on the piano and the kids were playing happily together thanks to Mika’s fun-loving presence. I realized I had a moment to walk through my gardens and take a breath in the late summer light. When I came back in, I told Paul that Luke wanted him to be his Coming of Age UU mentor for next year. I didn’t include Luke in the conversation because I know Paul is a single dad and might say I don’t have the extra time, but he unhesitatingly responded with a big smile and a “yes, I’d be thrilled. ” And, “Oh, ” Paul said, “I just happened to have brought a gift for Luke tonight. ” He pulled out of his pocket a battery-powered fork that twirls spaghetti for eating the Italian way, explaining that it used to be Mika’s. Somehow, I think, these two guys are meant to come together across generations into deeper relationship, as the many paths in family life overlap, as the threads of community life are interwoven.

Our connection as cohousing neighbors deepens every other community interaction, be it through the UU church or baseball or the horse barn. I know that we will more than watch each other’s kids growing up, but actually care, in every sense of the word, for each other’s kids and families. And I can head out on Monday, as a steering committee member for a week long National Cohousing conference, knowing that Coleen is going the extra mile to help out, staying at the house to help John, whose work often takes him on the road, with the kids and meals and chicken care. And she promises me I won’t regret having gone, I’ll come home to family and home not in chaos, and I believe her.

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