Saturday, February 28, 2009

My beloved community

Last night was a peak experience for me.

It was Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community's monthly potluck. This time I had offered to share the story of my childhood in Swaziland and how that had sent me on a quest for true community in Canada.

The cohousing community said they thought that would be a great idea. They suggested that we refer to it as an African-themed evening, and tell our non-cohousing friends about it. Consequently more people than usual showed up, and we quickly doubled up the number of tables and chairs that we'd set up in the Unitarian Church, which we rent for these occasions.

Susana provided sarongs for people to drape over their Canadian clothes, so as to add to the atmosphere. During dinner we had African music playing in the background.

After supper I told the story of a Swazi hunter whom I had known during my childhood. The loss of the habitat in which he had led his traditional lifestyle, the destruction of his society and culture, and his personal disintegration when my father replaced the natural bush with a sugar cane plantation seemed to me to be representative of the damage that globalization did to Swaziland.

During my midlife crisis I had come to long for the community spirit that I'd witnessed amongst the Swazi people during my early childhood, while their world still had been intact. This had sent me on a search that ultimately had led me to Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community.

Later several people expressed appreciation, and told me that they really "got" what I'd shared.

A key element of the evening was that a local teacher of African dance, Esther, and a band of drummers, led by Voodoo Dave, attended. When my story was finished, I handed things over to Dave and his crew. They led the audience through a couple of African songs. To the band's surprise, several of us already knew the songs, and indeed introduced different harmonies, as they were part of our repertoire at Everybody Sings on Thursday mornings.

The band then transitioned us into West African dancing, led by Esther. The potluck participants were great sports. The majority of them joined in the dancing. We dancers ranged in age from a university student through to a 79-year-old woman who is an energetic as people half her age.

I remember looking at the roomful of dancers and sarongs. Owing to the drum music that was providing the rhythm, Esther's teaching, and the participants' willingness to give it a try, everyone was moving in beautiful unison. It was community in action. It was a group of Canadians who, in a few minutes, had morphed into Africans. I mean they actually replicated that ability that a group of African people has to act as one body. You know how a school of fish is swimming in one direction and suddenly the whole school of fish changes direction in unison? Like that.

I knew I had been the catalyst by suggesting the theme, giving my talk, and persuading Voodoo Dave to join us. But, from that point onwards, other people had taken over. Norah gave me a ride to the church, as the route would have been long to walk if I'd been carrying a pot of stew. She also lent us her tape recorder for the background music during supper. Dave brought Esther and the other drummers. The potluck participants brought the dishes that turned into a delicious feast. The audience listened attentively to my story and, when they were invited to dance, jumped in with both feet. For the evening to turn into the magical event that it was, it needed everyone's contribution.

At various times, different members of our community take leadership roles. We're like geese who take it in turns to fly in front and then fall back into the slipstream for a more relaxed flight. If we confine the discussion just to potlucks, last month Andy Sibbald gave a presentation about his life in Canada's Far North. (Ironically, there are many parallels between Andy's experience and mine. He too witnessed loss of meaning and purpose amongst former hunters.) For next month's potluck, we're thinking of holding a Mexican fiesta, with Roz at the helm.

Anyway, back to that moment when I looked around the room at my fellow dancers, saw them totally "into" it, knew that I was one of them, and felt one with them ....... Words do not exist that could convey the profundity of that moment for me.

We are scheduled to move into our cohousing complex this coming spring. If our cohousing calendar is punctuated by occasions like this -- and I fully expect it will be -- the joy of living there will be off the charts.


Chrystal Ocean said...

Have been reading your blog fairly regularly or at least the RSS snapshots of it and thought it about time I left a comment. Your stories of life in your community leave me aching.

I learned about the Pacific Gardens co-housing venture a few years ago when I was researching housing alternatives for a study on low-income women. A Programs Officer at Status of Women Canada had read my story and asked me if I could find more stories of women living in the margins.

Of course, co-housing isn't designed necessarily - or at all - with housing affordability issues in mind and certainly it's not an option for any of the women who participated in the study, including myself. However, it could be, which is why it intrigued me so.

The book, which was an unexpected outcome of the study, indicated the women's preference for a co-housing rather than co-op housing model. "We prefer co-housing to housing co-ops. Co-housing neighbourhoods combine the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of shared resources and community living" (p173).

Judy Roberts said...

Lovely to hear from you, Chrystal Ocean. As you so accurately point out, the financial piece of the equation can be a challenge.

I believe that, once I'm living in Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community, my cost of living will be lower. I base this on the fact that the location will allow me to walk to most of the amenities I typically access, we'll have a car sharing club and other tool libraries, we'll create free, home-made entertainment, we'll grow vegetables, I'll be living in an energy-efficient unit, and so on.

However, the extra land for gardening and the shared common amenities initially add to the cost of the development.

We had hoped that one of the owners we attracted would have deep pockets and would be able to make a donation that would have allowed us to reduce the price of one or two of our units and offer them to one or two low income families. So far, however, we have not found that person.

At the moment I'm reading a book about cohousing in the Netherlands. There the government subsidizes the construction of cohousing complexes (or the conversion of existing buildings into cohousing complexes).

The Dutch government recognizes that cohousing communities provide informal support, and assist people to age in place. In the long run, that actually saves the government money.

Cohousing communities are not nursing homes (what we used to call old age homes in South Africa). However, a cohousing community extends the period during which a person can live relatively independently.

But, with that having been said, Chrystal Ocean, a good deal of my experience of "community" in Nanaimo comes from outside of my cohousing community. The people at Everybody Sings, Green Drinks, my church, etc., have become important members of my community.

Paradoxically, I even see community in action amongst the homeless people who access the Emergency Weather Shelter at which I volunteer. I have been very humbled by their level of caring towards each other.