Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Refuge From The Storm — Coleen O'Connell

The snowstorm last week during the holidays, with advertised winds at 45 to 60 mph and 10-12 inches of snow, was a huge wake up call for me. Since I sold my house in November and moved to a rental in anticipation of breaking ground for cohousing, I realized I am now living in a house without a wood burning stove for the first time in 35 years. I started to stress. All alone in an abandoned summer home neighborhood on the water, what will I do if the power goes out? How will I cook, get water, keep warm? Always the wood pile and my stash of candles reassured me. I don’t even think I have a candle with me in this house. Yikes. What to do?

Tap into that future cohousing neighborhood! I called John and Denise Lightner, fellow cohousers and soon to be my house mates in a home we are buying together. I dialed their number and asked if I could take refuge as we did a trial run of living together during the storm. Packing my knitting, a few good books, a jigsaw puzzle, and my cat – I headed out before the storm started.

For two days we holed up watching the winds swirl the snow in multiple directions. The wood stove hummed as we kept feeding it while a kettle of water bubbled away on top. John placed a pile of 12 inch square soap stones on the stove; each night he would wrap them in a coverlet then tuck them into our beds at our feet. Wow! This is an old Maine remedy for staying warm at night and it was great – except the cat curled up on top of it and wouldn’t let me near. The electricity never went out so movies kept the kids entertained at night. We ate great food, laughed a lot, started on the puzzle which was way over the top in terms of size and complexity, and generally enjoyed the storm. We talked about our future life together in cohousing and the excitement we were feeling for living without using fossil fuels to heat our houses. What will our houses feel like during a snowstorm we wondered aloud? We had only to look across John and Denise’s field to the prototype house build by GO-Logic to see that it was snuggled right into the landscape and doing well. And the kids pondered whose house they would run to for hanging out during a storm.

As I returned two days later to my rental house on the ocean, I was grateful for our trial run at combining our households. Life is truly one big experiment and in cohousing we are taking the next steps in building the village that will raise our children. I look forward to more snow storms with the Lightners.

An Introvert and an Extrovert Choose Cohousing — Susie

A lot of people who know me say I'm an extrovert. My husband, on the other hand, is often perceived as an introvert. He's pretty quiet in social gatherings, prefers small groups or one-on-one interactions, and can work happily by himself for hours. Me, I need to have regular contact with people, and frequent inter-personal interaction. It's not always that clear cut, however. Dan's more willing to launch himself into new situations, but it can take me a lot of effort to overcome my reticence about meeting new people. We don't clearly draw the line between extroverted or introverted, and it can be a challenge to find a community that understands that. Cohousing is providing us the perfect solution.

When we first moved to the Belfast area from Seattle, we considered buying a piece of land a bit further north, in the Blue Hill area, and building a straw-bale or timber frame or passive solar home. The wooded coastal setting combined with energy efficient housing was really tempting, but doing it on our own seemed daunting. We looked at tons of small home, straw bale and passive solar building books, scoped out pieces of land and calculated what it would cost to clear, drill wells, and build, and debated if we really wanted to have to drive 20 minutes just to get into town and buy a second car for our work commutes. I began to realize I'd go batty in the winters, isolated and holed up so far from "civilization."

Also, the longer we lived in Belfast, the more we liked it and the less we were interested in a piece of land up the coast somewhere. Belfast is small enough to get to know people and be fantastically walkable, but vibrant enough to have some solidly great restaurants, a humming art and music scene, a co-op grocery store to rival anything we had in Seattle, and all the services we could want. As a hub for the region, it has a great YMCA with a new pool and a gym, it has a big Hannaford grocery store, and is close in to other coastal towns like Camden and Rockland without being too touristy or expensive. If we stayed in Belfast, we could avoid buying a second car since Dan could walk to work, and we'd be closer to the friends we were starting to make here. We started to look for houses in town, but were turned off by older properties that needed work or would have huge winter heating bills. None of the land parcels in the area really appealed to us, so we ended up in a holding pattern, staying in our in-town Belfast rental and dreaming of finding a more perfect solution.

In April of 2009, we heard about Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage, and came to an open house. What we saw was exciting. We got a warm, friendly and laid back vibe from the people we met, many of whom have now become close friends. Passive-solar houses being built on a pastoral farm plot that was right on the edge of our vibrant seaside town was the solution to all of our housing questions.

It was exciting to have found the answer to our housing quest. As first-time homebuyers, we'd be getting something that not only was high-quality, energy efficient new construction, but we'd be living in a community with people who had owned homes before and could help us when we faced those daunting home-ownership issues which lurk out there with names like "house painting boogeyman"  or "ghost of refinancing" or "oh god the plumbing is broken beast". Best of all, we'd stumbled into the perfect community balance for a couple that's half introverted and half extroverted.

Despite the image many people have in their minds about cohousing, it's not a cultish, hyper-connected, in-your-face-all-the-time community structure. In fact, most people who live in cohousing tend to be introverts. It provides the right mix of privacy (we own our own home) and the availability of community (we can have dinner at the common house or garden with a neighbor, but we don't have to). It provides a comfortable, well-known community where neighbors won't be invasive but are happy to see us when we want to wander by and have a chat.

The more we've worked on this project, the more our paradigm of how we want to live has changed. It's not just the awesome houses (I can't tell you how excited we are to move in...) or the gorgeous setting or the town. It's the idea that we're not isolated and alone. We may want to have kids in a few years, and it's reassuring to know that there are many people in my community who have and have had children who can share their wisdom (and leftover baby gear) with us, and to know that as our kids grow, they'd have a safe place to romp around in the nearby wilderness, learn to garden (from someone other than me, who tends to accidentally kill plants), and be able to interact with adults of all ages.

Most importantly, in cohousing we'll have the support of our community, the comfort of regular interaction, as well as the ability to close our door and be cocooned in our own cozy little home without worrying we'll be perceived as anti-social or anti-community. Our cohousing community takes us as we are with no judgment - and that's what community should be. 

Rules? Trust The Process, Trust The People — Denise Pendleton

Recently, as I talked to an acquaintance about my adventure in cohousing, I got a response of, “Cohousing sounds great and I’d love to have such an energy efficient home, but I couldn’t stand to live with all those rules. ” Umm…I’ve been thinking a lot about this perspective and why I, someone not terribly fond of rules myself, find myself three years into developing a cohousing community. Overwhelmingly, what I realize is that it’s the people that make the difference. From the outside, not knowing anyone, it certainly could seem like just a bunch of rules to hamper my freedoms. Yet because I know, like and admire the people creating the rules, I trust that differences can be worked out with honesty, humor, compassion and a commitment to healthy community.

As I continue to reflect on that comment, I remembered when I joined Belfast Cohousing three years ago and the reasons why. I had been on the sidelines of another cohousing community in development about ten years earlier and as I heard of their meetings and the rules that were emerging, I shook my head and thought it sounded pretty crazy. So I entered this community with my ears and eyes open for what might seem similarly unappealing. Instead, I found a high level of positive energy, competence and lots of laughter among visionaries who knew when to compromise and how to keep their eyes on the goal. New members coming in over the past few years have made similar observations after attending their first General Meeting.

Of course, this isn’t to say we don’t have conflicts. They’re inevitable in a project of this scope, and some have taken significant effort to resolve. But these challenges also present opportunities for self-growth through change. When some of us feel stuck, there are others able to step in and introduce a solution, a fresh perspective and help us move forward. This is the beauty of community and group work.

Perhaps I sound like I’m patting myself on the back as I talk of this great group of community members that I’m a part of, when honestly I just feel lucky to be here. All I bring to the group is my early years as a middle child in a family of five kids! What do others bring? We have a strong core of Audubon Expeditionary Institute alumni, which has brought us the dedication and experience of those who have lived on a bus travelling cross country to study sustainable living. We have a diversity of ages and lifestyles. We have teachers, farmers, and social workers. Many of us have had lots of experience with committee work. We have members who have lived in other educational, intentional or cohousing communities. Among this range of life experience, there is a capacity for bringing significant wisdom to the process of making decisions, sharing hopes and fears and guiding healthy group dynamics.

At a recent meeting, we reviewed Land Use Guidelines and I thought to myself, “Is this just another bunch of rules? ” Then a member noted how lucky we are to have this opportunity to set out intentional guidelines, instead of just living with the often misinterpreted or misunderstood implied rules that exist among neighbors and within neighborhoods. Here, we have an explicit process for sharing our hopes, dreams and fears in ways that honor and enlighten us all. As we shared our ideas about how the land could be a part of our lives, I grew excited in anticipation of the chance I will have to learn more about permaculture, farming, landscaping, and gardening best practices.

Once we enter into any relationship — be it marriage, friendship, or society — there are rules spoken and unspoken. What we get in return meets many of our deepest needs as social beings. I’ve just been reading about the En’owkin decision-making practice of the Okanagen Indian people, based on a belief that their entire community must be engaged to achieve sustainability. This practice follows a process, i.e. has its “rules” as it recognizes our interconnectedness and includes the perspective of the land and human relations. When decisions are made following this practice, “Material things and all the worrying about matters such as money start to lose their power. When people realize that the community is there to sustain them, they have the most secure feeling in the world. The fear starts to leave, and they are imbued with hope. ” (From an essay written by Okanagen Jeannette Armstrong, “En’owkin: Decision-Making as if Sustainability Mattered”) What I have been learning in my several years of forming Belfast Cohousing is that community steps in to transform fear into unexpected pleasures and gifts.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Surviving Winter — Elizabeth Garber

This poem helps answer that perennial fear
people worry about when they move to Maine.
How will we make it through the winter?

What It Takes to Get Through the Winter in Maine

We probably wouldn't choose it, staying here all winter,
if we weren't so rooted in like the indigo mussel shells
grasping onto the ledges as the daily tides of winter
wrap and batter and wear us smooth.

The winter is a series of heartaches and reprieves.

It begins with the first cold days that crash in so fast
the last week of August, like a slap to the side of the face,
leaving us bereft, grieving the softly warm luminous days.
Suddenly sobered, we are left facing
what it will take
to get through the winter.

That summer, so sweet, so short, the blue washed light
over the shimmering sea, the blissful handful of days
the waves were warm enough to enter.
Skin alive and radiant, sun filled, granite sparkles illuminating eyes
shining over campfires on evenings that stretch out so long.
Those days when some tender place in us relaxes and trusts
that we are held and supported in this warmth,
as the sea holds us so buoyantly.

Then the spell is broken.
The first cold warning softens soon enough,
but nothing is the same again.
We feel older, wearied, humbled.
This is what winter brings us,
again and again,
tide after tide,
wearing away at us,
teaching us to surrender
to the darkness, the cold, the fear.

Now is the time to gather up what we need
for getting through the winter, and
I don't mean getting the wood in and the house banked,
the windows sealed, the doors muffled.

The winter is a series of heartaches and reprieves,
and each one hits harder than the last,
shearing us as bare as the trees.

We need to stock the root cellar
with enough Ball jars of canned ripe peaches
to open the remembrance of sunlight into dark winter nights.
We need to stock up enough captivating books to draw us
expectantly under our deep covers for the long cold night.
We need to know enough warm kitchens we can step into
where arms will embrace us
and warm voices will rise to surround us.
We need to engage in enough good work that will grasp us strongly
and work us hard and well on days we can't bear another storm.
We need enough music so songs will rise up out of our bellies
and take us singing out into the long icy drive home.
We need enough points of contact that our hold
in the storm will be enough to make it through.

Winter's work is to take us to our greatest fears,
to break us down, and work us hard.
We have to strengthen that muscle
that anchors us to the rock of the winter sea,
holding us steady.

We don’t know if we will be enough to make it through the winter.

This may seem like a warning,
but really, it's winter’s challenge,
an invitation.

Years after writing this poem, it seems the list of what we need
— captivating friends around the kitchen table, playing and singing music,
good food canned for the winter — all of this is what we are gathering
together for our life in Belfast Cohousing.