Growing Pains, Trials, and Triumphs
Katharine Gregory’s story was a welcome addition to this anthology because it highlights so many familiar cohousing practices and very effectively answers the question, “How can we make this work?” -DLW
“So, what’s this crazy living situation you’re into this time?” my longtime friend Lindsey asked me over the phone from the East Coast. That was shortly after I’d left a voice mail message for her trying to tell her about the cohousing neighborhood my husband and I planned to move into.
“Well, this time,” I told Lindsey and others (as opposed to last time), “the community I am moving into isn’t based on a spiritual practice. It is based instead on the idea of an old-fashioned neighborhood, where people know each other, help each other, and share resources. And like many cohousing communities, at Greyrock Commons (named for the view of Greyrock Mountain), the neighbors hail from varying backgrounds, ethnic groups, and religious and political beliefs.”
“But does everyone get along?” Lindsey later asked me skeptically while standing in the kitchen of my new home during a visit.
At that point, my husband, Dan, our two-year-old daughter, Kate, and I had lived at Greyrock for about six months and had spent more than a year prior to that in cohousing planning meetings getting to know our soon-to-be neighbors.
I looked my old friend in the eye. “People seem to get along most of the time,” I told her. “We definitely don’t always agree, but we try to work things out and respect different viewpoints.” I glanced out my kitchen window and spread my palms toward the houses we could see through it, across the grass. “With thirty single-family homes,” I explained, “there are enough people so you don’t necessarily have to interact with everyone. I find I’m friendly acquaintances with most and closer friends with others.”
Looking back now on the past seven years of living here, the interesting truth is that our most obvious differences—such as religion and politics—seem to pose much less of a challenge than our more subtle differences do. Whether we’re of the same religious or political bent or not, practically any combination of neighbors can have, for instance, varying ideas on how to run a meeting; radically different parenting styles; radically different standards for how to care for the landscape or the common house; and downright opposing views on how closely we have to adhere to previously agreed-upon guidelines and legalities. If the actions of certain children seem playful or healthy to some parents but destructive or rude to others, how do you resolve the conflict? What do you tell the children? If lack of adherence to the Codes, Covenants, and Restrictions (CC and R) and other written agreements seems to some households disrespectful but seems to other households natural or even necessary, how does a community deal with the intense frustration, anger, and disappointment that inevitably emerge? The best answer to all of these questions is that for the most part, we’re still finding out.
Often disagreements and problems are tackled well during our once-a-month community meetings. Occasionally, though, tears or angry words surge to the surface. We’ve struggled, for instance, over countless decisions, such as how severely to limit the number of garages and parking spaces per household and how to deal with various instances of private structures being built on commonly owned land. Many final decisions are reached as a matter of compromise. Our decision early on to limit the number of second garages to seven has worked well, giving members the opportunity to buy or sell one of the seven as needed. We’re still in the midst, however, of discussing our diverse views regarding private use of commonly owned land.
The consensus process we use during some meetings, when important decisions need to be made, presents unique challenges, sometimes drawing out the process over several months, or longer. As a community, we often look for guidance regarding consensus issues from Greyrock member Renate Justin, who, now in her seventies, has had decades of experience using the consensus process within the Quaker community. (See her story on page XX.) At a community meeting during Greyrock’s first year or so, Renate pointed out that sometimes, when we don’t know at first exactly how to resolve an issue, “we just have to muddle through, finding our way.” As a group, we laughed in agreement with this energetic, wise community elder. Years later, her comment still seems such an apt description of our experience.
Early members wrote as part of the Greyrock Commons mission statement:
We understand that building community is a fluid, evolving process to which each of us contributes. As we move along this path, we expect course corrections and value learning from our missteps.
We have indeed continued learning and making course corrections.
Quite a number of households, for instance, had outdoor cats when we first moved to Greyrock and had failed to notice the clause in the CC and R stating, “Household pets shall not be allowed to run at large within the community.” Quite a few other Greyrock members had looked forward to a neighborhood where birds wouldn’t be disturbed or threatened by cats, where gardens and sandboxes wouldn’t be used as disposals for cat waste, and where newly planted trees wouldn’t be damaged and sometimes destroyed by excessive climbing and scratching. Many of us moved in, however, never imagining that we would be expected to tackle the near-impossible task of keeping our outdoor cats inside.
We formed a “cat team” and took five months to come to an acceptable agreement for the community, in which current outdoor cats would be able to remain outdoor cats as long as they wore bells to warn birds and as long as we would put protective barriers on the trees and scoop out our shared sandbox. All new cats coming into the community would need to be kept indoors. Doug Swartz and his wife, Karen Spencer, who put in years of generous hard work as two of the original founders of Greyrock, have held the vision for a neighborhood where birds and other wildlife would be less threatened than they are in typical neighborhoods. Doug recently described his memory of our approach as a community to the cat dilemma saying, “This is a good example of a decision that was by no means my first choice but that I felt I could live with in the interest of community harmony.”
Our optional program of sharing meals together stands as another example of course corrections we’ve had to muddle through. At first, those who chose to cook on a certain evening posted their menu and anyone was welcome to sign up. Sometimes so many signed up that the dining room was overcrowded. The cooks and cleaners were overwhelmed with extended hours of work. Also, some members were discouraged by the noise and high energy of so many kids at the meals; little ones have a hard time resisting running across our wood floors in stampede fashion, shouting to friends across the dining room and regularly interrupting their parents mid-sentence. So we experimented and finally settled on a meal program everyone’s been happy with. For instance, the Tuesday dinners are for adults only and usually include hors d’oeuvres, wine, and relatively uninterrupted conversation. We also struggled with how to collect payment for the dinners, at first experimenting with handmade tickets and later settling on a household billing system that works well.
Our willingness to gradually muddle through the decision-making process, and to keep making course corrections as we go, allows us to reach decisions we can live with. In spite of the inevitable challenges (and in some cases perhaps because of the close interaction required to confront those challenges), we continue to build trust and strengthen rapport.
What are some of the ways we support each other and share resources? The list seems endless. Via our shared local area network, we can e-mail all households at once whenever we need to. E-mails include announcements, invitations, and requests to borrow items or equipment, as well as details about occasional nighttime thefts on Greyrock grounds (and the consequent need to lock cars and watch for strange vehicles). We watch each other’s houses when we leave town and there’s almost always someone taking care of someone else’s children and/or pets.
All thirty homes share a fenced-in Dumpster area for collection of trash and recyclables. An organized program for recycling cardboard and paperboard, with special bins built by Greyrock members, has inspired many of us to refrain from adding these items to the trash and to take turns driving them to the recycling center. Likewise, many have been inspired to use our community compost bins instead of contributing extra bulk to the landfill.
In addition to the shared dinners and occasional breakfasts, we use the common house regularly for potlucks, parties, dances, talent shows, fundraisers, and meetings. The basement rooms include a guest suite, a study/library, an equipped exercise room, a rec room with a pool and ping-pong table, a teen room, and an office—all resources that reduce our need for huge, overequipped houses.
Many of us enjoy sharing holidays. Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners in the common house often include non-Greyrock friends of various backgrounds and nationalities who contribute unusual, delectable dishes to the feasts. During Hanukah, Greyrock Commons children—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—light the menorah and dance the Israeli horah with the adults. Kids of all ages enjoy our annual spring egg hunt, and the Fourth of July decorated-bike parade, as well as the Halloween trick-or-treating followed by the chili cook-off and costume party in the common house dining room and spooky haunted house in the common house basement.
While many conventional homes in Colorado sport large, grassy lawns and individual backyard play sets, at Greyrock Commons, our private backyards have very little grass in order to reduce the use of water in this arid region. Instead, we’ve worked together to landscape with water-wise perennials, including native grasses, blooming ground covers, hardy shrubs, and colorful wildflowers. And our thirty homes form an oval around an area that includes a large, shared play structure and one large Kentucky bluegrass lawn—both of which get a lot of use.
During our first few years, the Process team planned and facilitated our once-a-month community meetings, working together to address the needs and challenges of the community. Then, five years after move-in, a new group formed to take this on.
“We already had acronyms for other teams,” explains Marilyn Murphy, whose steady, warm personality provides a calming influence in our midst. “We kept asking ‘how’?” she says. “How can we improve our communication? How can we build greater respect and trust among ourselves? How can we keep ourselves organized? So we decided we could call ourselves the HOW team, an acronym for honoring our wisdom.”
Sometimes referred to as “Hell on Wheels,” any way you cut it, the HOW team has no easy task. Its members have been making an effort to pay attention to how we relate to one another and to reduce the challenges we face regarding disagreements and decision making.
In several situations, newer Greyrock members have wanted to be helpful—to contribute their time, effort, and ideas—only to find out that to follow through with these contributions, they were expected to closely follow the process that had already been set up. In one instance, a small team wanted to find a simple, effective way to make decisions about purchasing furniture and games for the common house rec room. Other members—some who had spent years of work envisioning and creating Greyrock Commons—had strong convictions that our previously established processes needed to be followed. Intense discussions such as this one can end up causing rifts and open wounds, especially when there are differences in style and approach. The HOW team helped steer this discussion toward consensus. Although the process wasn’t simple, we did successfully end up with great furniture and games for our rec room.
One of the fruits of the HOW team was two workshops offered to Greyrock members: the first focused on group dynamics and communication and the second on effective facilitation of meetings. Both programs were led by two women, non-Greyrockers, who work with issues such as cultural diversity and team building in professional corporations.
The HOW team later organized a retreat—partly as a way of helping to orient several new households—in which many seasoned as well as new Greyrock members participated. Held for a day and a half in the common house, with small groups meeting in individual homes, the retreat’s themes centered around the many aspects of what it means to each of us as individuals to sustain our community—to let it thrive as more than just a typical neighborhood. Although certain challenges will always be part of community living, the workshops and retreat—along with games and exercises we’ve incorporated into meetings—have helped strengthen our understanding of one another, our ability to work together, and our friendships.
One of the first warm evenings this past spring, I stood in my doorway marveling at the sight of kids, kids, kids (including my now nine-year-old daughter) running around together on the common green. There are currently thirty-seven kids between the ages of two and eighteen and the summertime ritual of playing there together until after dark had begun. This time it was a beloved game of Capture the Flag and I counted twenty-five children, ages two to fifteen, playing it together, the older ones helping the youngest.
One of Dan’s and my reasons for wanting to move into a cohousing community was that we planned to have only one child and we wanted to make sure she had lots of interaction with other children. She has cousins, but they live about half a continent away. Several families began watching each other’s children long before our Greyrock Commons houses were built, so by the time we moved in, we all knew each other pretty well. One afternoon, after our neighbor Heidi von Neida and I had been watching each other’s children for a year or so, I left Kate with Heidi and her children. When I arrived at the door to pick up Kate later on, Heidi told me, “I have good news and bad news.” I looked at Heidi closely, never sure exactly what to expect from this petite, vivacious woman with an infectious sense of humor. “The good news,” she said, “is that Kate and Eli played together like siblings. The bad news is they fought like siblings!”
I laughed and told her, “That’s good news to me! Kate needs that experience!” Heidi heartily agreed that the extra challenge she’d had with the two of them that day was worth it: you can’t learn how to work things out and settle conflicts if you never have conflicts. I’m thankful that through the years, Kate has developed close relationships with several children here—for all the benefits and enrichment that provides.
Some of the children seem to be receiving a unique education in cooperation and are passing it on. A couple of them have at times been overheard making gentle comments to others who haven’t lived here as long (and who may attempt to try to take over certain parts of the play structure or to hoard common toys for themselves), such as, “You know, when you live in cohousing, everybody plays with everybody, and we share our toys.”
Despite the growing pains of building a community, we find our triumphs in so many of these little things: in the caring environment and countless opportunities for children, in the pooling of resources and ideas, in the ongoing processes of problem solving and learning to respect differences, and in the joy and fun we share together.
So, back to my friend Lindsey who was standing with me in my kitchen those six and a half years ago (not long after that sibling-rivalry incident with Kate and Eli). After Lindsey was here for about a day and had had a chance to look around and meet some of our cohousing neighbors, she said to me, “To be honest, when you told me about this cohousing thing over the phone, I really didn’t think it would work.”
I smiled at her with raised eyebrows.
“I was wrong!” she said, laughing. “I’m glad I was wrong!”
The extent to which cohousing will really “work” on all levels, or prove itself successful in the eyes of many, in the coming decades depends, I think, on the willingness of its participants to share more than physical resources; it depends also on our willingness to share genuine, deep respect for different opinions, standards, and values that make human life so interesting.
Many quotes have graced the walls and bulletin boards in our common house through the years. One quote that hung in the middle of our main outside bulletin board for awhile last spring—handwritten by a Greyrock member in black marker on plain white paper—was authored by Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk:
It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community—a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the Earth.
We don’t make any claims that Greyrock Commons strives to collectively manifest the Buddha or any other deity, but we’re grateful to be part of a community where people sincerely try to practice understanding and kindness. So in this culture we’ve created—where caring and playfulness are never more than a heartbeat away—we continue to muddle along.
Living in Cohousing