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What is necessary for “community”?  A dictionary definition says it is members of a social group who have something in common - a location, a culture, etc. What about communal living - a group of people living together, sharing space and time?  What works in building community through communal living?  What doesn’t? 


Over the years I have been part of several communal living situations - all successful in some ways. None lasted forever. The one that lasted longest was the family I grew up in - four siblings (eventually), two parents (mostly).   After my youngest siblings were born, we were a household of seven.  It was not an egalitarian system. Parents had their own work and assigned jobs to children to keep the household running according to abilities. It was your typical 1950’s division of labor.  Dad worked outside the home 9 to 5. Mom worked for cash as a seamstress/dressmaker/designer sewing for other people in town. The house had to be presentable for her sewing customers who came for fittings.  As kids, our jobs were to keep the “public rooms” clean and neat.  It was a good thing that sewing customers never saw our bedrooms! 


Putting things away was always expected.  Dusting and sweeping, done. As the oldest, I progressed from folding diapers, to hanging out the clothes to dry, to burning trash several times a week, to lawn mowing, especially as Dad became more and more sick with heart failure. When I informed Mom that there wouldn’t be so many dishes in the evening if someone washed them more often— during the summer and on weekends, noon-time dishes became my job as well. I did learn that when Mom called, “Sue, What are you doing?” If I could answer “Washing dishes.”, she called on someone else for the next task at hand. Playing with the soap bubbles paid off! It was also instilled in us that we shouldn’t have to be told what to do — “If you see something that needs to be done, do it!” Occasionally we’d find an envelope with some change in it on our bed — from TYF, the Thank You Fairy, who had noticed us doing something for the good of the household — without being told. The household community shifted quite a bit when Dad died, and I went off to college.


It was a bit odd then, when I got to college in 1967, to find that the dorms had maid service!  If memory serves correctly, once a week someone came in and changed the bed and swept the floors. That meant for at least that one day a week, things were put away.  As part of my financial aid package, I still washed dishes, but in the cafeteria dish-room where my job was to keep the conveyor lines of returning trays running smoothly, scraping garbage off the plates, and filling cup racks.  Others ran the racks of plates and cups through the dishwasher. There was a certain camaraderie in the dish-room. The plate scrapers kept it challenging by creating artwork with the garbage.  Jello made lovely, shimmering rainbows over a mashed potato/vegetable landscape. In my sophomore year, I graduated to working in the Chaplain’s office — much cleaner work. I took an interim class called “Philosophies of Relevant Radicalism” and along with others from that class, formed the college’s first school sanctioned co-ed living environment.  There were 9 or 10 of us at any given time, who rented a large house about a mile away from campus. The goal was to live communally, “like a family” sharing all expenses and tasks of housekeeping and cooking, and also keep up our academics.  We invited professors and other students to share meals and participate in deep discussions around the dinner table.  Enough of us had been to summer camps that we were able to create rotating chore charts — meal planning, food shopping, dishwashing, common area cleanup, etc.  Unlike a family situation where many standards are set by parents, we had to struggle some to come up with a commonly acceptable standard for “clean” and “nutritious meals”. Shopping guidelines included spending no more than 50 cents a pound on meat.  A twenty-five pound sack of brown rice cost $3.85. 


We hashed things out at weekly house meetings, and planned for out-of-the-routine eventualities. When two FBI agents knocked on our door and flashed their badges early one morning, we were expecting them and knew just what to do. I invited them in for a cup of tea. They declined, preferring to stand on the porch until their target, a totally non-violent draft resistor got dressed and came downstairs to be handcuffed, and led away to the federal building downtown. Our community was prepared to support him however we could. (After several weeks and several protests, he was released because his draft board was illegally constituted.)


Other students at the college pressed the administration to make the dorms co-ed “more like family”, similar to our house. College administrators called us in to talk about our experience at a campus wide meeting. We told the students that a good first step to make the dorms “like family” would be to do away with maid service. Students could sweep their own floors, change their own sheets, and empty their own garbage. Our presentation drew mixed reviews. The community known as “The House” dissolved after that one semester. Members scattered. However, the next year the college did make some dorms co-ed, and there was a new program in one of the official housing units that invited informal dinner dialogues between students and professors, similar to experiences at “The House”. 


I went on to live in an off-campus apartment with only one roommate and married the next summer in 1970. Twenty-two years later, post-divorce, I sought out a communal living situation again. This time it was a highly organized Quaker center for study and contemplation, Pendle Hill. At the time, most of the residents were “students” who paid tuition to be there. Most of the teachers, administrators, staff, and maintenance people lived on-campus or close by. Everyone, students, teachers, administrators, and staff, contributed to keeping the institution and campus functioning. Over the years, a system of assigning chores had developed and each year, a new crop of resident students was trained in for a typical stay of three terms, October through June. Everyone in the community had a daily job and a weekly job. Everyone also participated in whole-campus weekly Wednesday work parties, usually supervised by the maintenance staff — washing windows, spreading wood chips on trails, and other seasonal projects. Working together for the good of the community involved many behind the scenes tasks as well as more visible ones.  For my entire 9 month stay as a resident student, my daily job was washing after dinner pots and pans. My co-workers in this job were a prominent Quaker theologian/teacher/writer, and another writer who was researching the life of Margaret Fell, one of Quakerism’s founders. Our discussions over the wash tubs were sometimes deeply philosophical, sometimes light-hearted reflections on the day, always fascinating.  My weekly job for part of the time was volunteering at a neighborhood food co-op.  Later I became a “relief cook” for the community, making meals for about 60 people when the regular cooks needed some respite time. Other jobs included garbage/recycling collectors, hospitality hosts for guests, setting tables, working in the library, and many more tasks necessary for the smooth functioning of the community. I believe each of us was responsible for our own laundry, including bedding. Everyone ate in the dining room, encouraging students, staff, teachers and administrators to share conversation.


In this setting, the sharing of conversations and responsibilities was similar to “The House”, but on a larger scale. The jobs to be done were clearly laid out and becoming part of the ongoing community there meant that each person agreed to participate in the whole experience. The various jobs were understood as a required part of living at Pendle Hill.  During that year, I needed the certainty of that structure and those expectations, always in the company of others who were also finding their way.


That year, there happened to be about 10 students who were in a state of total transition. We called ourselves “the Pendle Hill homeless”. Others talked about relationships with other communities or their “home Meetings”. We felt adrift — the shore we had left was out of sight — our destination not yet visible. Finally, during spring term, as Quakers say, “way opened”. A completely furnished farmhouse north of Scranton, PA needed people to live in it.  One of the staff at Pendle Hill lived on the adjoining property and had just purchased “The Farmhouse” and meadows in between. The previous owners included writer and actor Burt Supree; poet, potter. painter and teacher M.C. Richards; and dancer, potter, and teacher Paulus Berensohn.  It was a small house with an enormous spirit — 4 bedrooms, a fascinating library, and a huge bathroom that must have originally been a bedroom. In the winter at about 4pm, the sun streamed in through a small window, spotlighting the large claw-foot tub.  M.C.’s nightgown still hung behind the door in one bedroom. Hand-built and wheel-thrown plates, platters, and cups filled the shelves in the kitchen.   The tiny fridge and stove seemed straight out of the 1950’s.  Attached to the house through a basement passageway was a ceramics studio complete with kick wheel, electric kiln and bags of chemicals for mixing glazes.  Everything we needed was there.  It was as if Burt, M.C. and Paulus had gone back to New York or Camphill Village and were planning to return the next weekend.  Instead, three of the Pendle Hill homeless brought our own suitcases and moved in.  Asparagus was growing in the garden. Daffodils and jonquils lined the stepping stone path up to the front porch steps. 


We carried through many of the housekeeping regimens we had grown accustomed to at Pendle Hill. A couple of us found jobs in the community.  We offered our extra bedroom as a retreat space to friends from Pendle Hill who wanted to spend a weekend in the country. Gradually others moved in and out forming another household of Pendle Hill staff and like minded folks a short distance away.  We shared garden space and, every Sunday, Meeting for Worship. 


After much reflection and discernment, we found it difficult to be full time providers of hospitality and full time workers in outside jobs.  Gradually over several years, everyone found their next steps.  The two of us who remained at the farmhouse finally realized that what was missing was a commitment to community. This realization rang true to my other experiences in communal living. People who came for a retreat were more focused on their own well-being, and rightly so. They needed a time of respite and renewal. Providing hospitality for that to happen required the rest of us to cater to their needs.  There were guests, not really committed to the long term health of the whole community and there was staff, perhaps committed to long term community, but not necessarily to full time self-sacrificing hospitality. The farmhouse community dissolved.  M.C. came to pick up her books, dishes, pots, clothes, and memories. As she and I stood beside our cars loaded with possessions and looked back at the farmhouse, M.C. said the phrase she chose as her motto in her book, Centering (p.141), “Weep and begin again. Pleurez, et recommencez.”  And so we did.


Looking back over these experiences in my family, college, The House, Pendle Hill, and The Farmhouse, I believe the keys to a healthy communal living situation are a commitment to maintaining the larger community, and respect for each other as vital members of that community.  Respect and commitment are evident when all members are involved in decision making — answering queries including :

  • What are the things that need to happen for the community to thrive? 

    • Define those words!

  • How do we make those decisions? 

  • How are the results of our decision making communicated and understood by everyone in the community? 

  • What are the roles assumed by people in the community?

    • Are there guests and hosts?

    • Are the roles and responsibilities understood by everyone?

    • How do roles shift as abilities shift? 

  • How are conflicts addressed and resolved?

  • Is there a way for periodic review and re-commitment to the community?

  • What is necessary for a community to dissolve gracefully?


Once again, “Weep and begin again. Pleurez, et recomencez.”

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