Erica Rothman, Durham Cohousing
I didn’t expect to hear so much birdsong in the morning. I didn’t expect to be able to see so much sky, sometimes the sunrise and sunset on the same day. I didn’t expect to love my apartment so much, or to feel the disappointments I feel. I didn’t expect that my marriage would break up before I moved into cohousing, and that I would be living alone for the very first time ever. I didn’t expect to feel this comfortable with a large group of people. And I definitely didn’t expect to break my arm a month after I moved in.
I was on vacation, lost my footing, and fell down a flight of stairs, dislocating my shoulder and breaking my humerus in three places. I couldn’t do anything for myself, with the pain that I was in, the painkillers, and the loss of using my left arm. When I arrived back home to our new cohousing building I was greeted by a small group of women, eager to help.
Sleeping was, of course, a major challenge, so I awoke very early. I would open my door, sit in my reading chair, and somewhere between 5:45 am and 6:15, sweet Alice would arrive with my newspaper, some cups of food that she placed in my refrigerator, and words of encouragement. We both loved this opportunity to get to know each other better and looked forward to our early morning chats.
A couple of hours later, Lu, Arlene, and/or Ann would arrive at my door. “Shower today?” “What do you need?” I didn’t expect that cohousing intimacy would involve being seen naked by so many helpers…Well, what the hell! We shared stories of surgeries, scars and self-consciousness.
This is when I really felt single and sad that I didn’t have a partner to help me. It was, at times, horrible to be so dependent on people for virtually everything. I hated it. I saved up lists for when someone would come by: taking my recycling downstairs, helping me empty the dishwasher, making my bed, opening my pill container, getting groceries for me, taking me to the doctor….You know how it is when you are sick and dependent: I felt like I had to be cheerful, a “good patient,” constantly grateful (which I was) and easy to be around. It was exhausting for someone like me who is used to spending most days alone and is basically introverted.
We say we are a “caring community” but not a “care community” and I ended up being the trailblazer for how our community handles unexpected events, like accidents. We didn’t really have a system, and a sign up sheet doesn’t really work when it’s not exactly “voluntary.” When you are injured or have had surgery you HAVE to have help on a regular basis and you have to be able to count on it. We learned that someone has to be the point person to make sure the tasks get done. It was an awful time to have to test the community’s ability to take this on. Many of us hadn’t even moved in yet! Oh god, why couldn’t this have happened 6 months later!
It wasn’t predictable to me who would be comfortable helping and who wouldn’t. These are things you learn about people as you get to know them. I get it that some people get genuine pleasure in helping and others don’t feel confident or are uncomfortable. I understand it and am not judgmental about it; but it still hurts sometimes. I hope that it’s a conversation the community can have sometime.
I am self-employed so I had to figure out how to keep working. One work trip had to be cancelled, but another one, about 6 weeks after my accident, seemed sort of possible. But I definitely wasn’t going to be able to travel alone. One day, Ann showed up at my door and said, “ I want to go to San Diego with you and help you on the trip.” You can imagine that this one of the most generous gifts I have been given. Especially since Ann is a nurse, an inveterate traveler, and has a constantly curious mind that would enjoy my work. So off we went, had a marvelous time and I couldn’t have done it without her.
So, what to expect when you least expect it? Like most experiences in cohousing, expect to be surprised. I feel like my accident (I am pretty much completely recovered), gave me a deeper understanding of why I chose to live in community. My favorite part of living this way is the reciprocity and natural rhythm of giving and taking that happens all the time. On a daily basis. Little things, like helping Martha hang her bathroom towel rack, and walking someone’s dog. Big things, like making sure people have food after surgery.
I didn’t expect that we would be faced with so many challenges in such a short period of time, but like “they” say: life happens when you are busy making other plans.