Apr 20, 2007

Our "Community" House

When our home owners Ted and Lori read my last blog: the details about cleaning, scouring, de-gunking the washing machine, digging bug carcasses out of the windows, it definitely sent them the wrong message. Did we think the house was a dump?

Not at all, we love this place, it's gorgeous! My intention in the blog was to skewer myself for my anal reaction to moving. But I failed to mention all that Ted and Lori had done to get this place ready for us. Giving us the use of their desks, file cabinets, the master bedroom complete with Tempurpedic bed. Ted spent hours installing an automatic watering system. And countless other things, which I failed to mention in the blog. Granted, I'd fired off the blog at midnight and didn't go back to edit.

But there’s a reason I avoided talking about Ted and Lori. You see, we’re sharing this house with them, and that invites all sorts of questions. They live out of state most of the time, but Ted comes to LA occasionally for work, and Lori sometimes comes with him. Ted said he might be here a few days a month, or only a single day in six months. It would be like living with absentee roommates. Were we OK with that?

Larry had been commuting from Culver City to Glendale five days a week. We’d been actively looking for a place to live for over three months, scouring Westside Rentals and craigslist. Printing out possibilities and then driving by, only to discover one real estate bait and switch after another. “Old world charm” meant pre-war plumbing and no closets. Mediterranean Oasis meant a dilapidated Spanish duplex behind a strip mall. Items from my “this I Will Never Do” list moved to the Contender list. Condos with molting stucco, prefab Orwellian beehives, a house with a chicken coop and a second floor door with no landing. After one last exhausting day coming up with nothing, we slumped off to a wedding of a couple who just closed escrow on a house. We felt like the biggest losers. “Please God,’ we prayed. "Open our eyes to see what we're failing to see so far.”

The next morning, Ted emailed me about his place. Yes, Ted and Lori still had furniture here, and occasionally lived here. Were we OK with it?

We decided that yes, we were OK with it. But lots of our friends were not. Wait, you have roommates? And they’re a couple? They still have their stuff there? They better let you move in your dishes, you’re paying them rent! Do you have any privacy? Is that healthy to share a house, in your first year of marriage?” One friend said, I could never live like that. I need clear boundaries. Apparently she needs no clear boundaries on her mouth.

I realize our friends just wanted the best for us, but their but their comments put me on the defensive.

At first I wanted to get on my high horse about how other people talk about community, but Larry and I were going to live it. Yet, Larry and I here, not because we chose it. We're here out out of necessity. We can’t afford to buy our own home. We can’t even afford to rent a house like this on our own. So while friends are closing escrow and asking how we could share space with other people, I feel embarrassed. Ashamed actually, because I'm not more successful.

And why does the idea of us living in community freak my friends out? It's not THAT weird. My friend Bonnie has lived in Berkeley for the past 15 years. Up until last fall, she lived in a four-story Victorian community house. Five years ago she became a foster parent to one of her teenage students. So her foster-daughter moved into the house with her: a house with couples, families with young kids, single guys with tattoos and Harleys. People who looked out for Bonnie and her daughter. People who wanted to live in community. Not a big deal. Not in Berkeley.

Even in LA, you’ll find packs of 20something women living together. The entire time I lived in New York, I shared a three-bedroom house with a revolving door of single women. Living with others made it easier when I got married.

Even in LA, you'll find multi-generational families and multiple families living together. That is if you're a recent immigrant, or Latino or Asian or Armenian. But if you're living the middle class yuppie dream (like Larry and I should be by now), having to share space is a come-down.

Or is it?

Larry and I prayed for a place we could create community. Little did we know that would mean, we’d now be living it out. Maybe Larry and I, by necessity, are going to get a gift we never would have sought out by choice.

Yeah, sharing space is not going to be convenient in any kind of middle class yuppie way. But is the middle class yuppie way of doing things the best thing?

As Lori herself commented: “I got so sick of hearing the phrase "doing life together" and "authentic community" in the weird L.A. Christian culture," where few seemed to really understand what that means. Community is HARD. It takes more honesty than most people are able to handle. And it takes selflessness and preferring others and putting the needs of other people higher than your own, all those things Jesus talked about.”

Now it’s just Larry and me alone in the house, but I still remember that first week when we were all here. I’d never gotten to know Lori when they lived in LA. I discovered her to be an intelligent, funny creative soul. It made me sad I hadn’t known her before she moved, but grateful she would be my part-time roommate in the future. It was also nice to sit down to a table with four people instead of two. After Lori went back to Portland, there were several days when Ted was outside working in the back yard until after dark. Larry and I were putting dinner on the table and we invited him to join us. I didn’t know if he was the kind of guy who liked to be left alone, but he chimed in, “What can I add to the meal?” The three of us sat in the fading light and ate. And it was good.

Another night while I was painting the downstairs room, Ted and Larry wandered in, and we ended up talking about our experiences in church. Which churches had been the best experiences? When had we grown the most? It was never about the best teaching or music, even though most churches emphasize that. The things we remembered were the people, the tribe, the band of brothers. “This,” Ted said, pointing a triangle between us, “sometimes this is what the best church is.”

That’s community.

I’m so sick of “The Secret,” that odious best-selling book about “how to manifest more money, better health, and relationships. In short, happiness.” Or in our culture, that means things. Yet for all our acquisitions, we seem to be the loneliest people on the planet.

There’s nothing wrong with good things. Larry and I have prayed for good things. And we prayed for a cool, funky house, maybe even a fireplace. A home where we could build community. Well, I guess we manifested that, because that’s exactly what we got.

In “The Great Divorce,” CS Lewis described hell as a shadowy place where everyone kept building individual homes, further and further away from each other. I wonder what heaven is then? One big house? Better get ready.


Anonymous said...

Susan, I love this. Our worst selves will always fight the angels of our better nature. Coupling is much more difficult to do -- and more rewarding -- than singling. And community, in any of its many permutations, is harder still. (And, from my few but intense experiences with it, even more rewarding.) Of course a part of you wants the yuppie life: 3000 miles of society, coast to coast, is pushing it hard.

But in that isolation, something is lost.

Soulpadre said...

These days, there are parts of the country where living in intentional community is growing...New England, the Southwest..it's more than a 60's throwback, it's a pre-modern answer to the post-modern isolation affecting all of us. Your living arrangement is the antidote to urban sprawl, the megachurch, and the strip mall.

Stephanie said...

The essence of Christianity is community, Susan - don't you think? That's the thing at the center. It's the reason there was a group in the Upper Room (not only a best friend) and a "church" for the Apostle to write to (not just some guy with whom he had a few things in common.) The Loner and the Isolated One ... that didn't come from Heaven. Quiet time away to pray - yeah, that's what Jesus would do. But live all alone behind a neatly locked gate? Nu-uh.

And thanks for this longer story about the place and the people. It's lovely.

Lisa Wheeler Milton said...

We americans are peculiar creatures - we complain about being lonely and stressed, yet we refuse to share the load. And we feel guilty for not killing ourselves to do it BY OURSELVES. There is no shame; you are wise. I've always been a bit of hermit so I am working on this stuff myself.

The place is beautiful.

Maria said...

The world may define people by
whether or not they "own" a home. That's unfortunately the
materialistic, broken, messed up world we live in. It's gross. In this world we don't really "own"
anything. Not even kids if we have them, or a spouse. There is nothing to be ashamed of because you have no reason to please that world anyway, regarding your living situation. I like the fact that you want to use the house for a higher purpose (community) My guess is that you'd probably feel that same way whether you were renting an apt. or owning a mansion of your own, to use it
for good purposes!!!!! So as long as you are working well with the
couple that owns the house, enjoy it and let the world stew in it's own juices without stealing your fun!

Unknown said...

People have always talked about the parties that I have at my house as to how great they are, and then when they try to do one themselves they complain about all the things that are hard about managing the people and the issues that come up and on and on and on. When I was married, I saw some of the single people we knew live by themselves and get more and more set in their ways to the point that it was so difficult for them to bend to anyone else's way of doing things that it seemed to me that they could never be married. I think that this place will be great for you guys, because it's totally set up for entertaining just like my house is - who cares who owns it, that's not the point, the point is the community of people in your life. BTW, God owns ALL of our houses anyway!

LouthMouth said...

This is the actual Susan Issacs? I'm a huge fan.

God, I love the internet!

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