Sunday, May 22, 2016

Stories From The Homestead

Where the heart is (courtesy of Cody)
Earlier this week, we had a small potluck gathering at the homestead in order to live-stream the Oregon primary results.  Having gained a new-found appreciation for social gatherings after living in Forks for two months, it was nice to get to know some new people while talking about politics and life stories and whatever else came up.

There isn't a television in the common room.  Instead, the house has a projector - humorously enough, it's the exact same model as the one in the training room at my old job at Gentle Giant, so I'm reasonably familiar with it.  For the sake of maximizing space and ensuring that quiet hours would be respected, the decision was made to set the projector up in the backyard and take the party outside.

I came downstairs a few minutes before the planned start of the event to help set up.  I noticed that the house router had been moved via a long ethernet cable to the back of the house, and followed it to find one of my roommates having some issues getting things set up.  For whatever reason, his laptop could see the wireless network but couldn't connect to it.  I could tell that the whole situation was stressing him out a bit - this particular roommate had told me in the past that technology isn't really his thing.

Thankfully, that type of situation is something I have plenty of experience with.  I've often joked that the proper way to experience working in desktop support is to have to troubleshoot a broken conference room computer in the middle of a meeting, operating with a full room of people watching and knowing that they're all waiting for you to solve a problem.  I didn't even realize this until it was happening last night, but I kind of miss the pressure that comes with having to solve a problem quickly in front of an audience.

Obviously, I offered to help in the proper tech support way:  I told him to reboot the computer.  And that worked for a little bit, but then when we opened YouTube to stream the footage it dropped the connection again.  I could tell the wireless network was working because my phone was connected to it.  I suggested getting a longer ethernet cable which would provide a more stable connection, so we went inside to look for one only to find that we were roughly two feet short.  We started moving some equipment around to try and accommodate the short wire, and then in an almost comical fashion the surge protector blew out as people started to filter in to watch the stream.  

Not to worry - the first rule of tech support is to always have backups on hand.  I went upstairs and grabbed a surge protector and my Chromebook from my bedroom, and with the new equipment, everything worked. And on top of that, Bernie got the majority in Oregon which helped add to an overall festive gathering.  Win-win.

I am actually curious if there are any intentional housing communities out there that are pro-Trump.
I'm not bringing this anecdote up to talk up my technical skills - I didn't really do anything out of the ordinary. I'm bringing it up to give context to a conversation I had later that night between myself, another one of the roommates, and a guest who was visiting the homestead for the first time.  We were talking about how it's a really nice environment to live in, because there is a conscious effort put into making it an environment where everyone can be themselves and contribute by bringing their own individual talents into the fold.

"It's great - we never had tech support before Michelle came here!  She and I get along great - sure, we come from different backgrounds and have different interests, but that doesn't mean we can't vibe well together and flourish."

And that, to me, is the beauty of my current living situation.  When I first arrived, all of the ways that I wouldn't be a good fit were staring me in the face.  I'm a 36-year-old who has spent pretty much her adult life in a city - never mind my lack of experience with farming, I hardly have any experience doing yard work. There are a lot of animals to take care of - we have rabbits, chickens, ducks, and a turkey - and I'm generally awkward anything beyond house cats.  There is a focus in the house on living and eating healthily - we do communal dinners, and most nights the meals are vegan-friendly with a lot of the ingredients coming right out of the farm in the backyard.  I really wasn't sure that I'd be able to adjust to that, given that almost every meal I've eaten for most of my life has consisted of a meat and a starch.  A lot of my thrashing during the beginning stages came out of fear that the house would discover these things about me and judge me for them, and that I wouldn't be able to fit in.

I think that Cody was going through similar fears, but customized for him.  He isn't worried at all about working outside or being around animals - for him the fears came about being forced to interact in large groups all the time.  There's a weekly house meeting on Sunday nights in which we check in with each other, assign chores, discuss house issues, and generally make sure we're on the same page.  Although I love this sort of thing and am comfortable with it, Cody prefers 1:1 interactions to large group discussions.  After months spent in relative solitude in Forks - something that he was able to thrive in other than the fact that I was slowly going crazy - I think that the fear of being forced to always be around other people was causing him concern.

And as it turns out, none of that has really been a problem.  The thing that I'm realizing is everyone who joins the homestead starts out with similar worries of not fitting in or being forced to change their lifestyles in ways that they're not comfortable.  It's a perfectly normal thing to be afraid of.  But for those who want to be there and are willing to put in the effort to contribute to the shared vision of the house, it's a really good place to call home.  The goal of the communal living isn't to turn everyone into carbon copies of each other, but rather to create an environment where all sorts of different people can thrive.

Up with Bernie Sanders, down with Colonel Sanders.
The backyard has veggies, rabbits, and a bee colony.

This isn't my first experience living in a large house.  I spent two years living in a house in Allston, MA (lovingly referred to by its address as "Six Eleanor" or just "Eleanor") that always had between eight and twelve people living there at a time.  Even though I've had some great times in that house and met some of my closest friends in my tenure there, I have all sorts of stories from that period in my life that ended with my swearing to never live in a situation like that again:
  • living with an opiate addict who was stealing from us
  • living with a tenant who openly admitted he wouldn't pay us rent and that it would take us two months to evict him
  • constant infighting between housemates
  • going not one but two (!!) winters in Boston without heat
  • throwing 100+ people parties with lots of underage kids drinking in the house and worrying about what would happen if the cops showed up (admittedly these were kind of fun)
  • disgusting sanitary conditions, including mushrooms growing inside of the shower in the first floor bathroom (click here if you don't believe me - warning, it's gross)
  • the final straw: having a raccoon fall through the roof into my bedroom
All of those stories, to me, were symptoms of a simple problem - bad communication and a lack of shared vision.  Conflict in that house was usually resolved by rallying the people we were closest to and talking shit about the offending party.  House divides and cliques were the norm, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't contribute to it.  By the time I moved out of Six Eleanor, I mentally promised myself that I would never move into a large house with a lot of roommates ever again.

Rooftop view of the backyard.

So what are we doing different here?

This house - otherwise known as the Walnut City Homestead - is what's known as an "intentional community".  While I had never heard that specific term before moving in, part of what made the house appeal to me was the idea that they took conscious steps to avoid the pitfalls of Six Eleanor:
  • There's a weekly Sunday meeting in which everyone participates.  We catch people up on our week, assign chores and cooking/cleaning duties for the week, give feedback to each other, go over any issues or concerns that people might have, and handle logistical things like finances and house events like the aforementioned pot luck gathering.
  • There is an agreed upon set of ground rules and "safe space" guidelines, as well as an overall vision for what the residents want the homestead to be about, and a reasonable but non-oppressive effort is made to hold each other accountable.
  • The house has a monthly fund that goes towards house purchases such as toilet paper and basic food ingredients, which are made in bulk to save time and money.
  • Major house decisions are made on a consensus basis - when something comes up that will affect the house (like "do we want these roommates?" or "should we spend bulk money on a vacuum?"), people are polled at the meeting and can respond with a "thumbs up", "neutral", or "thumbs down".  If there is a single thumbs down, the motion is denied and conversation continues until something can be decided that everyone agrees on.
  • Every night, the house eats dinner as a group.  There are two people assigned as chefs and two people assigned on cleanup each night.  There's a cute house tradition known as the "Golden Fork" that is given to the best chef of the week.  It's all tongue-in-cheek, but I am of the strong opinion that in a house where people battle to win that particular award, everyone wins.
At first I was afraid of living in a place with too many rules, but honestly most of this is common sense.
As someone who believes firmly in the value of communication and trust, I love this stuff.

Our first night in the house was on the day of a Sunday meeting and, in all honesty, I wasn't sure if it was for me.  I was afraid that I was entering a living situation where I would no longer have privacy or autonomy, and that I would choke underneath the burden of being somewhere with too many rules.  But as time has passed a lot of those fears have never really come to fruition.  No one seems to care that I'm clearly the least comfortable person working in the garden - my approach to this so far has just been to make sure I put in 110% in cleaning the inside of the house to free up time for people who are more interested in working on the farm, and from what I can tell people are fine with that because everyone gets what they want.   The main rule of thumb that seems to apply here is that as long as residents are willing to put in the effort of making the house a great place to live, they'll reap the rewards of living with other people who are willing to do the same.

The house itself is great.  There's a giant common room that people actually hang out in - something that almost never happened at Eleanor.  The kitchen is cleaned every night and stocked to the brim with both cooking equipment and ingredients for food - there are three refrigerators total to make room for produce from the farm, leftovers from group dinners, and personal food items for when people want to eat outside of group dinners.  There are three different outside areas for people to chill and they're all put to use - a hammock on the front porch, a hangout area on the side porch, and a fire pit in the backyard that allows me to recapture the one thing I liked most about living in Forks.  And not only is our room spacious, but the window allows for access to the roof - something that Cody takes full advantage of on a nightly basis.

On another good note, none of the fears about adjusting to different food habits have come to fruition.  I think that most of the housemates would describe themselves as "reducatarians" - people who aren't quite vegetarians but make a conscious effort to eat less meat.  While I don't think I would ever have made that choice on my own, it's a lot easier to cut back on meat when people are making perfectly good dinners that are primarily vegan/vegetarian friendly.  Cody and I have made dinner twice so far - the first time was vegan pasta e fagioli soup with garlic bread, and the second time was vegan pizzas.   Anyone who knows me well knows that I have had pretty bad eating habits for most of my life, so I see living here as the best possible chance I will ever have to start eating better.  I was having some pretty bad heartburn while living in Forks (a place where Cody and I were eating burgers cooked over a campfire a majority of nights), and haven't experienced that at all since moving here. So that's good.

If anything, having lived at Eleanor has made it abundantly clear to me that having systems for things and promoting communication among housemates makes the homestead less like a roommate situation and more like a family unit.  It's been close to three weeks now since I've moved to McMinnville and it already feels a lot more like home than Forks ever did.  All of the roommates here are people that I would consider friends and it seems quite clear that the feeling is mutual.

On our way to the McMinnville UFO Festival last weekend.
One last story before I close this blog post - two of our roommates at the homestead are a couple who also relocated here form Boston.  During one of the conversations where we were talking about where we came from, I mentioned that I used to work at Gentle Giant.  One of the ex-Bostonians told me that he used to work for a banquet hall in Somerville and he was pretty sure that we had one of our old holiday parties there.  And that moment, he exclaimed "I remember you!".  Three years ago, I spent a Friday afternoon at the site of our holiday party, setting up a computer / sound system for the party the next night, and I had a conversation with one of the employees there.  I don't remember what we talked about but do remember talking with someone who worked there; he was sure it was me because of my dreadlocks.  Who would have thought that three years later we'd be living together on the other half of the country?  Small world.

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