Building Community in a World Uninterested in Community

My roommate and I reached an impasse yesterday.

I could be wrong, but I think the impasse ended with him feeling sorry for a poor old thing so lonely she needed the young man she cooked for to keep her company and me feeling sorry for a young man more focused on making it big in the future than in enjoying what is good about the present.

But since I own the apartment, impasse might be the wrong word. Cuz brother’s gotta find new digs, which probably won’t be $500 including utilities and food, while I get to stay in my trendy pad with a view of the city skyline and start throwing parties again.

See, I was seeking community.

You may already know I had been patching together my finances last summer using AirBnB. (No worries; after a decade of poverty, 2015 is my year of financial stability! Oakland AMI, here I come!!!) It was really fun meeting people from all over the world, but my building’s property management company seemed a little nervous about it. I could have rented out my spare room through Craigslist, but a friend pointed me to a program much more in line with my values, a program that brings young people from all over the world to work in the US and connect with each other to build global relationships. The young people stay with host families, and while the subsidy was considerably less than the rental value of my place, I liked the idea of building community with someone with a different worldview and sharing a meal together at least once a week. I wasn’t a traditional family setting, so I lined up my “family of choice” to come over a couple of people at a time so my houseguest would meet all of the community-changing people in my life.

OK. Yeah. Now that it’s in writing and now that it’s three months later, I totally see how that could have been naive.

But I’m a COMMUNITY builder! I’ve been reflecting on how living alone might be counter to my values and that the solution probably isn’t a live-in boyfriend. (Plus, the guy I’m kinda seeing right now has three cats. So definitely not that particular live-in boyfriend.) This seemed perfect.

I won’t bore you with too many details. Long story short, after trying to raise in conversation three different ways since mid-November that this wasn’t working for me, here’s the redux of the conversation yesterday:

me: What were you expecting from this homestay part of your program?

him: What do you mean?

me: Well, it’s just weird what’s going on here, isn’t it?

him: I don’t understand what you want.

me: well…there’s something vaguely humiliating to me as an independent woman to be cooking for a man who prefers to eat the food I cook in his room rather than be in my company.

him: If you want companionship, you should have a friend live with you. I work hard. I’m tired. You could try harder also. When I have energy I want to be with my friends and my girlfriend. And I don’t have energy. And that’s not how having a roommate works unless you live with a close friend.

me: I thought this part of the program was about building relationship.

him: I’ve lived in other countries before. This isn’t so novel. I’m not going to get excited about new things. I don’t know what you want.

me: OK. So your program ends in mid-March. I can make it til then. If you want to move out sooner, that’s also totally ok.

him: My program was extended until July. I really like it here. I was going to ask to stay. It sounds like you don’t want that.

me: Yeah. I can make it til mid-March. Enjoy the homemade burritos I just put in the freezer for you.

—-

(The women reading this, when they got to that last sentence, cringed. Yeah–you can see the humiliation: I promised the program I’d provide food, and I want to honor my commitment to the program. But as I said to a friend the other day, “If I had wanted a teenager who was too cool to hang out with me, I could adopt one; and if I wanted a husband I had to cook for, he’d at least have to eat with me.”)

The thing I’m thinking a lot about today is this: I am obsessed with community. I want to build it. I want to participate in it. I think the lack of it (and the rise of the nuclear family in its place) has done immeasurable harm to America and is now also destroying the rest of the world.

My roommate does not see the world this way at all.

And here we are, in community.

As I replayed this final awkward conversation after my previous attempts to express that I didn’t want a lodger at a boarding house, I realized that even if the program believed the homestay program was about strengthening community and support systems, not every person in the program was looking for community, and definitely not community imposed on them.

I have lived with families who have taken me in numerous times over my adult life and I remain in deep relationship with all of them, several times in India and twice in California. (There was a third time I was taken in in California, but they were already friends, albeit longsuffering friends to put up with me like that.) It never felt like an affront to my independence, and I loved being with people whose world was just a little different from my own.

But (1) the world is not made up of people who believe the nuclear family living situation is a sign of the decline of civilization, and (2) community is not as easy in real life as it is in my head.

To point (1), a friend of mine recently posted a facebook meme about how we should stop talking about the “sharing economy” and start calling it what it really is: the “squeezing middle class people so they are forced to sell the few small pieces of privacy they have left to themselves economy.” One person responded, “Yeah; pretty soon we’ll be living four families to a home like in some third world countries.” I responded that my multi-generational family lives in a shared compound in India and in many ways that seems like a healthier way of being community than the isolation of individuals in much of America. But I did concede the point that that choice shouldn’t be forced on us out of economic necessity. (Why yes my comment was a little passive aggressive, but saying, “dude, that’s racist,” doesn’t usually win me many points.) We are conditioned to believe that living on our own means we have won. Community is not a widely held goal in our society. My young friend aspires to the American millionaire life. It is the opposite of my values, but it is totally the values that modern society trains people from infancy to want. Even within the justice movement, living in community is a very slow-growing value in comparison to all people having enough to live independent of one another, which remains the American dream.

To point (2), I know people who live in intentional community and it can be painful and complicated and exposed, and working out chore sharing is rotten and everyone feels like they’re doing more than their fair share. I work with a program for young adults where they live in intentional community, and it is HARD for them. And the funny thing is, I actually AM living in community with my roommate; it’s just not the community I wanted. Wah.

And while the friends I complain to see me as really having gotten the short end of the stick, I realize today that because I have the economic power in the relationship, I could actually have ended it at any point when it felt like it wasn’t the right fit to me. And because I have the economic power in the relationship, I am pulling the plug on it when I want to rather than when he wants to. In the intentional community I chose to participate in, I am an unequal stakeholder because I have the power even if I haven’t so far chosen to use it in any extreme way. I have recreated an unjust economic system in my tiny little attempt at community (a different equation than with AirBnB when I was charging much more money for my guest room and where I probably tried harder and was definitely less resentful if they did choose not to interact with me a whole lot).

And when my roommate moves out, I’ll probably celebrate at my home with the many beloved people who actually do want to spend time with me…but they’ll go home, and we won’t have to deal with the fact that if we did live together, I would be a lousy member of community with my mail and recycling always stacking up and my letting the dishes sit in the sink if my back hurts too much to empty the dishwasher and the fact that I sometimes use gallows humor when people actually want comfort and my only child narcissism and all of the other real things that make community hard.

When I was going through my intentional season of singleness, I began to realize that alone wasn’t probably the right life for me, and perhaps I should consider living in community. Participating in this program was my first toe-dipping into the waters of community, and it ended up with me feeling more lonely than when I was living alone and also feeling a little bit used. AND, that is not at all how my roommate saw it. I think he saw it as both of us having our own space and our own lives and he didn’t know why I would agree to let him use my guest bedroom and bath and provide his food for him at a subsidized rate, but it wasn’t his job to question that. And when I questioned it, he was genuinely taken aback by my complaints. Because he doesn’t want community. He wants peace and quiet.

So for two more months he’ll put up with a dissatisfied woman who wanted an unreasonable amount from him and I’ll seek community outside of my apartment.

It doesn’t mean I’ve given up on community. It just means I need to ask different questions before I try it again, and I need to remember that my vision of community is much less the default than I would like to believe.

Comments (4)

  1. Annell George-McLawhorn

    Excellent and thought provoking!! Thanks.

  2. Timothy

    I find there are many younger people who desire intentional communities of some form or another. Me: if I could find one where everyone had their own bedroom and bathroom, but we shared meals 3 times a week and prayed together regularly, that would be perfect. Perhaps in an apartment complex with a common area. But that requires capital to buy one or a really understanding building manager. I think a lot of us feel stuck looking but having a hard time with the actual shift. I’ve been thinking and talking about it for 12 years now and haven’t found the right option. Do we just have to go ahead a create it?

  3. Sandhya (Post author)

    Thank you, Annell!

  4. Sandhya (Post author)

    Timothy, I think we do have to go ahead and create it. And for me, that’s complicated a little by the fact that when I was in Chicago, the intentional communities I knew were mostly mono-cultural and I didn’t want to be the diversity. But I see a couple of folks doing it differently in the Bay, and that appeals a lot.

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