This is not the first time I've fielded such a request—people deeply familiar with community wanting to return after a long absence—nor do I expect it to be the last. Yet it's challenging to provide a satisfactory answer.
Back in October 2013 I posted Homes for Community Veterans where I explored why it often doesn't work for experienced community folks to return to community after many years away. In this revisiting of the topic I want to take a more optimistic slant and focus on how it's possible—though not necessarily easy—to return.
For the most part these folks are remembering the connections and stimulation of their community experience—not the chaos and stultifying group dynamics. Often people leave in frustration, to pursue a business opportunity, a personal growth path, or perhaps a romantic relationship that was judged to be non-viable in the hot house scrutiny of community. Often they crave the entrepreneurial freedom to set their own course without justifying it to a risk-averse committee that controls access to community resources.
I'm talking about competent people who look around and see that they're alone too much of the time and hanker for a life that again emphasizes companionship with like-valued friends (around whom they don't have to worry about wearing a shirt with a hole in the sleeve).
These are more or less successful people who realize, as they reflect, that they've come to miss the laughter, the dinnertime conversation, and the satisfaction of an everyday life that more closely aligns with one's values.
That said, how suitable are they for community living today? While they may have gotten wiser over the years, are they more patient; are they more accepting?
They want, naturally, a group that's socially mature (who wouldn't?). Part of that is how well people listen to each other; how readily they find an elegant balance point between values in dynamic tension (say, ecological purity versus affordability); have they learned to be less reactive (or at least less mired in it)? But it turns out to be more subtle than that; "social maturity" in others is actually a code phrase for "people seeing things my way." People may miss authenticity or even vigorous debate, but no one longs to have their viewpoints seriously challenged at home.
To be sure, people age differently. Some get more expansive, which can lead to being easier to get along with and more valued for their balanced perspectives. Some get more contractive, which can translate into increased feistiness and diminished tolerance—neither of which are traits that groups are particularly seeking. You may have gained wisdom over the years but don't count on age automatically translating into being sought out as a mentor.
If you want to be a player again—if you aspire to be recognized as a wandering sage returning from the wilderness—you'll have to earn it, just like a twentysomething does. But if your desires are more modest, and you just want a home—an island of sanity and comfort in a world that's sold its soul to Walmart, Whole Foods, and reruns of Friends—you have a better chance.
If you're pickier now than when you left community, you're likely to encounter friction wherever you go, and living alone may offer a buffer you didn't realize that you (and those dear to you) have come to rely on in order to maintain peace and sanity. If, on the other hand, you're more accepting and have an LTD (low threshold of delight) then there's hope. Three-year-olds are not quieter now than they were 30 years ago, and adults still leave tools out in the rain and blow off work days. Do you have a suspension system now that allows you to bounce graciously over those Utopian potholes, or will you be grinding your teeth at night trying to cope with the other people's thoughtlessness?
It isn't just a question of whether community is good for you. Are you—the person you are today—good for community? You need an affirmative answer to both questions to have a decent chance for a triumphant return.
My wife, Ma'ikwe, is found of saying that community would be easy… if it weren't for the damn people. It's something to think about.