Reflections of a Cohousing Elder

Renate G. Justin

The blizzard Renate G. Justin writes about in this story brought Colorado to a screeching halt for three or four days. No doubt there were many households in which cabin fever took hold. But in the state’s diverse collection of cohousing communities, deep-walled pathways to the common house turned the blizzard into a great excuse for a party. -DLW

Snow, snow everywhere, two feet high and drifting much deeper. The sky is gray and flakes are dancing slowly and deliberately to the ground. The bottom half of my door is covered by snow, but I can still see out the top. The sharp outlines of our houses and their roofs are rounded and softened and the picnic tables are just humps under the cold blanket of snow. In this whiteness, every able adult in the community is shoveling the paths that lead from one house to the next and to our common house, the web of our connectedness. It is the second day of this great blizzard (more than three feet of wet snow), and even though our members have shoveled the same walks at least three times, they are still cheerful, calling out to each other in astonishment at the amount and weight of the snow; there is joy in working together. We are hoping that this is the end of a two-year drought, including the driest summer in 200 years.

Our children are yelling happily as the younger ones disappear in the snow and the older ones build igloos. Snowballs are flying in every direction on the green. I hear a scraping on my porch as my neighbor digs me out. Yesterday, she even swept the snow off my car. No one can go to work today—schools and shops are closed and there’s no mail service. It is a snow holiday for adults and children alike and we are celebrating! It is invigorating to be a senior citizen in the Greyrock Cohousing community—part of a vibrant, active group of people, young and old, who I have come to love and respect. My neighbors phone just to check on me, we will have a potluck supper tonight, and last night, I was invited to a birthday party next door. Once we can get around in the snow, I might organize a Scrabble game in the common house. The children can enjoy their own games in the playroom while the adults try to think of words with X, Y, and Q.

{Figure 37, 38 The Blizzard of 2003, Still Comin’ Down!}

My community of neighbors keeps me from feeling lonely. Every day children come to my door and ask if they can play with me. With my friends I can share the joy of nature’s abundance and the ubiquitous anxieties of politics in America. This blizzard, like the flood a few years ago, draws us closer together and quickly becomes a noteworthy event in our collective memory.

As I watch the snow continue to fall, my thoughts travel to my happy, secure childhood in a small village on the edge of the Harz Mountains in Germany, where I lived on skis and built snow sculptures. The shock of being expelled from that community at the age of ten because of being Jewish remains painful to this day. I was fortunate that after having to leave my school, my friends, my parents, and sisters, I was allowed to join a group of refugee children at a boarding school in Holland. This community of orphaned, displaced, and disoriented youngsters and teachers, located in an ancient castle, prepared me for cohousing and supported me during the difficult years of the war.

In the castle, the kitchen was large to accommodate the huge wood stove. It felt warm, cozy, and busy in that kitchen. You could look out a small window across the moat where sheep grazed in the field. The ample cook, Mrs. Schmitt, could throw pancakes high into the air and catch them in her skillet every time. We students in the boarding school helped in the kitchen, washing and drying dishes, setting the table, and cleaning the marble floor of the castle’s large dining room. As we peeled potatoes, shelled peas, and cut beans, we sang and talked, momentarily forgeting our longing and despair.

Today, when working with the Greyrock kitchen crew, I inevitably think about those early days in Holland. We have lots of electric gadgets to prepare our food for cooking and to help with the cleaning (including a dishwasher that finishes a load in thirty seconds), but the sense of community is cemented by preparing food and eating together, the same way it was sixty years ago in the castle.

At Eerde in Holland, we grew the food we ate, sheared sheep, cleaned dormitories and windows, and took care of the grounds—jobs we each had to learn, which stood many of us in good stead as we became older. At Greyrock, we also garden and plant together, we anticipate the flavor of our homegrown produce, we become friends as we fertilize and rake leaves.

In 1934, we students at Eerde decided we wanted to build a swimming pool. Money was found for shovels and with young and old working together, we dug the pool. Since this was a Quaker school, consensus was achieved by respectful consideration of the opinions of all, very much like our Greyrock business meetings. As Americans, we start to vote as toddlers, learning to raise our hand before we even walk. The concept of decision by consensus is foreign to many of us and requires self-discipline and willingness to learn a new skill. As we get to know each other at ever-deeper levels, we can acknowledge and accept the differences among us. Indeed the value we assign to those differences makes each person an equal member of the group. It is this acceptance that makes it safe to voice our views in a business meeting. Consensus is more time consuming than voting, but as in the case of the swimming pool, once achieved, the final product is mutual satisfaction. Its completion is a triumph both for the consensus process as well as the community.

The fellowship that grew at Eerde was tightly knit, supportive, and comforting. The student body was in flux because of the frequent arrival of new students fleeing from war and extermination, and the departure of those who were fortunate enough to emigrate. When parents were killed or incarcerated, when siblings were missing in action, the group mourned together, enabling us to survive as individuals. At Greyrock, although membership is more stable than it was in Holland, we have had one of our members die, we have had families splintered by divorce—all of us shared in the grief and difficulty of these events.

My eyes stray to the window again. It’s still snowing, and I recall another snow day.

At a Quaker boarding school I attended after coming to America, right before the World War II, we were blessed with a huge snowfall, similar to the one we are experiencing at Greyrock today. At breakfast, we were told to get into our snowsuits and assemble to help build a sledding track. The headmaster declared a snow day—no school. The teachers and students spent the morning building the long track and the afternoon sliding on it. It was only because of the combined effort of the faculty and student body that the track was created before the snow melted and we could enjoy the speed, thrill, and laughter of using it. I’m sure the Greyrock igloo builders outside my window feel a sense of accomplishment and community similar to what I felt building that sledding track.

To my surprise, at this American school, the students had no duties to help with housekeeping, apple harvesting, or kitchen chores. However, once America declared war, food became harder to purchase and most of the paid help was conscripted into military service. At that time, we started a work program, and soon everyone participated in all the tasks involved in keeping the buildings clean; raising, freezing and preparing food; as well as caring for the grounds. Once again, I experienced the healing power of community work and the sense of pride and achievement that comes with it. This particular school continues its work program to the present day because of the positive effect on the community that comes about when students and faculty work side by side.

When as an adult I became acquainted with the cohousing philosophy, it seemed logical and desirable to join a group who work, laugh, and grieve together. The commitment of time and energy required to make community living successful is considerable. The patience needed to sit through many long meetings is even more demanding. The delicate balance community members have to maintain between individual and group interests may at times lead to strong differences of opinion. To achieve a satisfactory melding of these two interests is especially difficult for Americans, who are protective of our individual privacy, rights, and privileges. In cohousing, as in my school years, consensus, respect, and a strong sense of community help resolve the inevitable conflicts. The rewards of shared meals, of landscaping achieved by hard work, of friendships, neighborliness, and trust are immeasurable.

I probably could not have survived the difficult years of my childhood—both in Holland as a refugee and in this country as a new immigrant—without the support of a community. As the snow continues to fall outside, I reflect on how fortunate I am to live the years of my old age in the embrace of another strong community: Greyrock Cohousing.