By Marta Keen Thompson, Southern Nevada Cohousing
While tackling the long and sometimes daunting list of tasks required to start a cohousing group, I draw daily upon every prayer, affirmation and inner trick I know to keep the faith and grow the vision. As our core group grows closer, steadily inching toward this goal, we fine-tune ways to share the vision with new people. We rarely encounter negative souls out there…usually quite the opposite! But while steadily educating the public about American versions of European pro-community lifestyles, we cohousing “pioneers” often find ourselves up against a powerful, venerable American cultural phenomenon: Rugged Individualism.
This American archetype, the Rugged Individualist, (yes, we have our own cultural archetypes, see ”The Sacred Contract of America: Fulfilling the Vision of our Mystic Founders” by Caroline Myss) built this extraordinary country in the first place. The 400-year-old pattern of leaving staid English society, striking out on one’s own, pulling up bootstraps and carving a civilization out of seemingly endless wilderness has been retold glowingly through generations of family stories, literature and of course, movies. But the glamorized movie version of the rugged individualist, the heroic loner, is the exception, not the rule. Most Americans survived and thrived by teamwork more often than not, through small cooperative groups of farm communities and extended families – the norm until only a few decades ago. American anthropologist Margaret Mead famously stated, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Self-reliance is a cornerstone of our national and cultural pride, but hasn’t always meant going solo. I’m as proud as anyone to be an American, where at least I know I’m free, as Mr. Greenwood wrote. But free to do…what? At America’s current life stage, freedom has many new meanings. I have grown up taking freedom for granted, and have reaped countless rewards from that freedom: upper middle-class education, rewarding career, a decent retirement, world travel and material comfort for myself and family. Now that my grown son is independent and successful, I’m an official empty nester. Friends who are still working understandably cannot relate to my flexible schedule and the smorgasborg of activities available out there. New friends take on a new priority.
Making new friends always came easily, surrounded by peers engaged in similar work, activities, or passionate causes. But now the situation is different. Now my passionate cause is to build community, right here, right now, which requires equally committed souls of all ages. But here in this sprawling urban desert, there are precious few kindred spirits who are ready and able to actually start building that community. Nearly every week I find myself explaining cohousing, assuring that it is nota commune, hoping for signs of understanding and connection. Usually I see the light bulb brighten, indicating new appreciation for the concept. But sometimes the door closes, with statements like, “Oh you’ll never get that many people to agree on anything,” or “I need my privacy!” When this happens, I express respect and quickly reaffirm that cohousing isn’t for everyone. But I add, it might be good for someone you know…?
Like, maybe, most of us who are aging differently than previous generations, at a time when the entire social contract is under reconstruction? Or, perhaps, America herself, at a new developmental phase, bursting at the seams (in cities, at least), where cooperative living and creative, sustainable resource management may be the golden keys to our very survival as a culture. We borrowed the best of the motherland when we created our constitution and legal system; now might be the time to borrow some key elements of European culture once more, to restore balance to our social structures and overall quality of living, including, simply, the “happiness factor.” (See Happy City by Charles Montgomery). Living alone has enormous hidden costs as one ages, eventually placing significant demands and costs upon neighbors and community. Despite all best intentions to “not be a burden to anyone,” it rarely works out that way.
The statistics are well-documented elsewhere; I emphasize the ultimate folly of stubbornly pretending we can be rugged individualists to the bitter end. There is a virtual tsunami of aging baby boomers who still have the intelligence, talents and means to reframe the aging process by combining resources, relying upon each other to navigate this final third of our lives without draining the resources and hopes of future generations. It isn’t too late to leave the world in better shape and improve the quality and happiness of our own “third acts.” We can counterbalance the negative impact of our overwhelming numbers by consolidating resources, sharing space, time, and costs in cooperative forms of living, of which cohousing is just one.
Successful cooperative communities incorporate the basic human need for privacy, balancing it with our equally fundamental need for connection and interdependence. Understanding the core needs of our neighbors, respecting that these kindred souls have as many boundaries as we do, can help us try a new approach, instead of resigning ourselves to the predictable sequence of (1) moving to a 55+ community for “active” seniors, then (2) “graduated” care community with on-site assisted living and (3) nursing care, hospice, ideally with relatives and loving family, but…usually not.
Those of us without the option of extended family assistance or cooperation must somehow find each other through online searches, community calendars, and meetups, for starters – and start talking and listening to each other. Acknowledge each others’ visions, consider creative ideas, then get down to the harder business of making it happen in the real world of this neighborhood, this town, these folks right in front of us. That’s how nearly 165 cohousing groups have done it so far in America. The gauntlet thrown down to the rest of us; there is no better time to start.