Living communally is not for everyone, but why should living with your significant other be the only adult option?
In spite of living in the path of Hurricane Sandy, we fared enviably well in my Brooklyn neighborhood, being far enough inland to escape flooding, power outages and everything else devastating. There were some downed trees, a flicker in our Internet access, and now, a hearty case of unproductive survivor guilt.
I might have been more afraid if I’d been alone, but I wasn’t alone. I live with six other people and two cats in a house with five bathrooms, a garden, and a six-burner stove (one per person, obviously). Even if I’d wanted to be alone during the storm, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. Upstairs, my room shook and the windows quivered. I’d grab what I needed and ran downstairs as quickly as possible. We clumped together in the kitchen, cooking out of boredom and panic, and then in the living room, where we stared at our phones and laptops, then each other, then nervously outside at the trees.
I’ve lived communally (“communal” defined as living with more than one person) once before—in Boston, the year after college, with three housemates while doing a fellowship. It was successful, in the sense that we didn’t kill each other, but we never took the time to cultivate an intentional community. We simply ended up together.&tt;/p>
I hadn’t planned on living communally when I moved to Brooklyn, but rather, to live intentionally, at least more so than I’d been living the last few months, which I’d spent in the throes of financial and existential hysteria. I wanted to live with other people who made art and understood what it meant to do so, that it was a whole life undertaking instead of a hobby, and how being an artist of any sort is a revolutionary act about the creation of a world contrary to the one we see, and engaging with parts of yourself that a capitalist society would rather have you forget or ignore all together.
Communal living is hard. It’s mind numbing at times, trying to agree not only on results, but processes. How people are held accountable to doing chores, how you negotiate guests, new housemates, expenses; the way it’s discussed matters as much, if not more, than the outcome. It requires knowing when to step forward and back. It means having a thick skin, or at least being willing to develop one.
But for all of these reasons, it’s also important. There’s a big part of communal living that requires pushing yourself, or learning quickly what parts of yourself cannot be pushed. The idea is that everyone has something to give—facilitation experience, organizing skills, a logistical eye, patience, empathy, or excellent baking skills. Living in a community asks of everyone present that they invest—physically, emotionally, and financially. Instead of the concentrated resources of a party of two, communal living means that resources are distributed and used differently—they go further.
What’s most interesting to me about living with a community is the fact that it’s seen as an alternative. Traditional marriage narrows the world to an ideally impenetrable unit of two, which then becomes a community perpetuated by biology. Communal living is seen as a phase, something you would not choose if you could choose differently, because it’s not depicted as an “adult” decision. (It doesn’t have to be this way, of course, but this is the way we understand it.) Adults find one person and live with that one person. You take responsibility for that one person, and eventually, of course, at least one other.
It’s not for everyone. It might not always be for me. Sometimes I think it’s not for me right now. I lived alone for years, in a small apartment in the Midwest, and I loved it. I loved coming home to no one but myself, falling asleep with the TV on, not worrying about using the gluten-free sponge by accident. There is plenty to be nervous about with communal living—managing different personalities, being with people when you’d rather be alone, making financial decisions with others. It is almost inevitably a political situation, in which identity plays an enormous role at every turn. Constantly evaluating stuff (literally, stuff), which is what you have to do when a decision gets made by more than two people, is the antithesis of the way capitalism works—it’s the opposite of mindless consumption. I’m not saying that communal living necessarily negates the amassing of things, but in an intentional community, making decisions without one another is something that’s harder to do.
For me, living communally is about making the world bigger, challenging what I believe my relationships with others can be. It’s about cultivating important relationships that have equal value, understanding that in order to be in a living space where everyone has some degree of satisfaction and comfort (some is often the best you can hope for, this is about compromise, after all), you have to be willing to look in, out, and past.
Chanel Dubofsky is a writer in Brooklyn, New York, and the creator and editor of the Marriage Project, an interview series about marriage in imagination and reality. She has published essays in the Forward, Tablet, Gender Focus and The Pursuit of Harpyness, and fiction at Monkey Bicycle, Matchbook and Quick Fiction. She blogs at Diverge (www.idiverge.wordpress.com).