Thursday, December 19, 2013

Adding More Community to our Lives

I love the book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, which I've mentioned before and will mention again many more times, I'm sure.

One of the more well-known principles of radical homemaking is to produce more than you consume. We're getting there, as a household, but still have a ways to go. We don't raise chickens and goats (although the idea intrigues us, it's not legal in our town) and our gardening skills leave a lot to be desired. But we garden a little, forage a little, cook most things from scratch and limit what we buy. We use cloth diapers, hang our laundry, homeschool, and invest a lot of time in nurturing a strong family.

But what it's really about, at a deeper level than making your own chicken stock, is living mindfully and authentically. Community is also an important aspect of radical homemaking. Strong community can keep life vibrant, interesting, and diverse. It keeps you from feeling life is monotonous. Being isolated and spending every day doing housework by yourself can cause anyone to burn out, even an introvert like me, and it's not the way humans were meant to live. Community is another opportunity to invest our time and resources mindfully. And community is one area that has never come easy to me.

At different times in our lives, we've had different communities. When we were active in church, when my kids were little, there was definitely community. But when we wrestled with our spiritual beliefs and realized we no longer believed the same as our church did, we left the church and in doing so, also left its community. We were friends with different homeschool families at different points in our lives. We have great memories of piling two families into our minivan and having adventures on road trips. We've hiked, explored creeks and playgrounds, taken tours, spent the day at the zoo, camped and played at the beach. We've spent days at each others' houses, adults chatting while kids played, or all sprawled out on the floor together playing board games. But kids grew up and went to college, some families ended up choosing public school or developed different interests and we grew apart.

And there we were, without much community happening in our lives.

There isn't much mainstream about our lives. From the way we learn to the way we approach healthcare to the way we raise our children to the way we shop and eat to our spiritual and political beliefs, we are different. People sometimes don't know what to make of us. So sometimes we're left with the conundrum of deciding whether to hide some of Who We Are so that we're accepted a little bit more. But being accepted under those conditions isn't the kind of authentic community we're longing for.

Perhaps I'm romanticizing the idea of community too much. A friend talked about someone being part of her community recently, and it struck me that she was talking about someone she only sees physically about once a month. Is that community? Maybe I have it already and don't recognize it. I have plenty of see-them-once-in-awhile friends, and plenty of people I interact with daily on Facebook. But while it's important to recognize the importance of such relationships, I do yearn for something more, and I choose to honor that yearning.

Another interesting aspect of our family's community-seeking is that the men in our family aren't looking for more community while the women and small children are. My husband works all day, comes home to help take care of the house and be an excellent father and grandfather, and has a community of gamers that he spends a lot of time with. That's enough for him. I suspect that when he retires, that may change. When he's not mentally drained from a day at work, it's possible he may enjoy immersing himself in something that more resembles my idea of community.

My teenage boys have each other and are at a stage where their interests and personalities are very compatible. They enjoy all things to do with the home and family as well as computer and video gaming. Luke used to be active in Scouts, but now says that he has *so much to do at home* that he doesn't have time for outside activities. Their lives are full and rich enough that they aren't longing for more community right now. Like my husband, that may or may not change at different stages in their lives. I honor the fact that their level of yearning is different than mine.

My daughter and I are definitely yearning for more community, though. I read an article once that suggested that maybe what you yearn for is what you're being called to create for others. I can't find that article anymore, but the thought has stuck with me.

If it's true that I'm being called to nurture more community, that's an odd idea to me because "community" hasn't ever come easily to me. Different things come more easily to different people. I sometimes hear people talk about how *hard* you have to work to have a good marriage relationship, and I don't get it. I've been blessed with a marriage relationship that is really quite easy, even after 23 years. But as I reflect on it, we probably do work on our relationship just as much as any of those other couples. It's just that the work comes naturally to us. Same thing with frugality. After Thanksgiving when we had leftover sweet potatoes and we also had some leftover butternut squash, I bought a bag of marshmallows and made a sweet potato/squash casserole. My daughter commented, "You know, not everyone knows how to do this--taking whatever leftovers you have and turning it into a new meal". I do it all the time. I don't know where I learned it--it just comes naturally.

But community--that's something that comes easily to many people but not to me. You have to get yourself moving and doing things when it's easier to stay home playing on Facebook. You have to put pants on and do something to your hair to make yourself look presentable. You have to get to bed earlier if it requires getting up at an earlier time than you're used to. You have to contact people and make plans, prepare things, load them in the car, clean your house.

It's not uncommon for me to question whether it's worth it while I'm doing the preparing but then be so glad I made the effort. On Sunday, I drug myself outside on a cold morning to shovel my car out so I could get to the grocery store to buy ingredients for a potluck at the Unitarian Universalist church we're about to become members of. I bought the groceries, went to a short 15 minute meeting at 1:00, then got back home and prepared the food. We made eggnog and vegan egg nog and pizza hummus. The punch bowl had been in storage for awhile, so it needed to be run through the dishwasher. I ran the dishwasher and hung laundry. Alisha caught up on some dishes that had to be washed by hand. Dishes had been backed up since our sink had been out of commission for awhile waiting for the plumber. Alisha made the vegan egg nog and the hummus, taking breaks to change diapers, entertain the toddler, and nurse the baby. I made the regular egg nog. When my husband got home from work, he had mercy on me and cut the peppers we would take for dipping in hummus.

While we were working, the toddler dumped an entire container of nutmeg onto the dining room floor and opened a box of instant pudding and threw it all over the living room carpet. His diaper change required a bath.

While I was shoveling snow, I was thinking about everything I had to do that day and had that slight bit of temptation to just stay home. It's a lot of work to get up and shovel and shop and prepare food and figure out what the rest of the family will eat while you're gone. I think a lot of people for whom community comes easily just consider it normal...they don't think of it as work. Or if they consider it work, they don't consider the work to be a big deal.

We went to the potluck and had a fabulous time. We left saying, "We're so glad we did that!"

The same thing happens when we do things with our homeschool group. We spent the greater part of two days preparing for a Scarecrow making/jack-o-lantern carving day. Going to the farmer's market to buy the hay bales, going through clothes from Alisha's online thrift store to find jeans and flannel shirts, going to thrift stores to find straw hats, buying new staples for the staple gun, digging the jack-o-lantern carving tools out of the attic, bringing paper products and cookies for the potluck.

"I don't know about this," I said to Alisha the day before. "It's a lot of work for just one afternoon."

But in the car on the way home, we chattered away about how much fun we had and how glad we were that we did it.

Over and over again, the scenario plays itself out. The peanut butter and jelly making day we hosted for our homeschool group--making sure we had all the ingredients we needed, cleaning the house. And when it was over, "Wow, we should do stuff like this more often!"

We're being very careful and deliberate about where we spend our time. We've learned that when we do things just because we think we "should" or we could, we're consistently disappointed. When we do things because something about it feels right to us, we're consistently happy. We're committed to community building and aren't afraid of the work involved. It is a little more work for us than it is for some, whose community is built by default into their school and work and sports teams. We have to go into the world and thoughtfully consider what to invest our time in, who to interact with, how involved to get.

In other words, it requires mindfulness just like every other goal we have for our lives.


  1. "Maybe I already have it and don't recognize it." I have recently contemplated that same thing. I know that some efforts are paying off and that is a good thing, but it certainly does feel like a lot of work. I appreciate your comparison to marriage. Our also has come naturally, we do "work" at it, but we enjoy the work. I think I will enjoy practicing that perspective on other relationships. And I'm gonna add Radical Homemakers to my "to read" list. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yikes. Community. As you know we've been investigating this concept as well. But you bring up an interesting point, how does one actually define community and what are it's responsibilities to it? Is it enough just to get together once a month? Does it actually require putting on pants and makeup? What does one want to get out of community and what exactly can one expect to put in? I have no clue at this point, but I do know the social support, the authentic connection and the incredible possibilities to learn form one another keeps me seeking this evasive thing called "community". If you manage to figure it out, please, please, please, let me know! Great article, thank you for writing this.

  3. Every minute and ounce of effort you put into creating community is worth it! On a karmic level you may not be able to count a minute for minute benefit, but let me assure you, that ultimately your investment will pay off. Thank you for posting your thoughts, and yours Laine, for I realize that this is an area that is so much a part of me that it might be helpful to others to try to find a way to share what worked for us to help others.It is worth it as an unschooler and just as any human being. It makes the world a better place.

  4. Hello hello and how universal this thought is lately...we are exploring community this year and our connections within communities here in Oman. They are so enriching but so often are taken for granted--especially the family community. One of the big benefits of living overseas is the richness of expat communities and the closeness with otherwise complete strangers that develops until the people around you are no longer strangers. I love forming families like that with people from around the world and I always wish when we are in the US that things could be the same there with the tight bonds that we make with our friends overseas.