Communes: the pros & cons of intentional community

Posted by
One of the yurts at Sacred Groves, an intentional community in Washington state
My fiancé and I are curious about commune living, community co-ops, or intentional living communities for our future living arrangements — but we need advice. What should we know before we decide whether to take the dive into this world?

Oh, do I ever have the inside scoop on this one. See, my mom runs an intentional community called Sacred Groves on the property where I grew up. For those who have read my book, our wedding reception happened at Sacred Groves, so all the shenanigans that took place that night were hosted by the Groves.

That in mind, I decided to bring in my mom to answer this question. Take it away, Ma!


Intentional Communities

By Therese Charvet, of Sacred Groves
Living in community is as old as the human race. Our modern lifestyle with singles, couples and single-families living in isolated housing units is relatively modern, and uncommon in much of the world. Conventional houses and apartments offer much privacy and reduce the hassles of sharing, but they can also breed isolation, loneliness and can put a strain on marriages. Intentional Communities, Communes and Co-housing situations offer an alternative to this model, one more akin to our traditional roots.

Bro-ga
Andreas doing a community yoga class at Sacred Groves

Every community is different but the basic premise is that you live in proximity with a group of people with whom you share the use of certain common facilities, and things are set up in such a way as to promote connection and familiarity amongst the residents. Generally speaking, this is the definition of “Intentional Community.” Dozens of models of intentional communities exist, some with only a few people, some with hundreds, some with a charismatic leader, others with a commitment to consensus.

There is quite a movement afoot in the U.S. toward community living. In fact, a national organization exists and a national directory of intentional communities is available for people looking for housing. For more description and definition of Intentional Communities, see Wikipedia and/or the website for The Fellowship of Intentional Communities.

I raised my daughter Ariel in a single-family dwelling, a tiny log cabin we built ourselves. Ariel and her father David were both only-children that enjoyed their privacy, and the house was small, so I put my desire to live in community on the back burner for twenty years. However, I always yearned for community, so I tended a thriving network of friends and comrades.

In late 2005, my current partner Tere and I decided it was time to make the land where we live, Sacred Groves, an “intentional community.” We transformed the downstairs of the log cabin (with kitchen, bathroom and dining area) into “common space” and used the upstairs rooms plus three nearby cabins as private space for residents’ bedrooms. A couple women friends who happened to be looking for housing at that time decided to join our experiment and the four of us formed the first rendition of a Sacred Groves Intentional Community.

Since that time, we’ve had a dozen renditions of our community, as people have come and gone. In 2007-08 we built a beautiful new home, the “Round House” with two bedrooms, two nearby round cabins, a new cabin near the log cabin and another new cabin on its way. We currently have eight adults and five children living here, an age range of 7 months to 60 years old. We’ve evolved “Community Agreements” to guide day-to-day activities, share a “food fund,” community dinner cooking schedule, chores for keeping our common spaces orderly, a “community fund” for gardening supplies, regular “Community Councils” for talking over business and our lives. Five of us adults (plus four kids) share the kitchen and bathrooms in the Round House.

It is nearly always heart-warming and sometimes very challenging to live in this way with people. Some of the challenges include getting enough quiet/private time, figuring out chores, working out disagreements in a functional way, staying out of each other’s business. Each of us has to deal with our personal control issues regularly; community living does not make it easy to be a control freak. It flushes out what you are attached to, that’s for sure! But the rewards are worth the effort! These rewards include spiritual and personal development and participating in the evolution of human consciousness toward a more cooperative society. That’s big work, work the world really needs right now.

The children of the Groves
A few of the children who roam the Groves

The success of a community depends on a combination of personality factors and the functional infrastructure. Ideally the community has a clearly articulated mission and goals, so those coming in will know what they are getting into. Systems for paying expenses, buying food, keeping the house clean, keeping the property tended need to be equitable and clearly articulated. Written agreements and policies are helpful, especially with big groups. The personal qualities that work best in community are open-ness and curiosity toward others, willingness to share resources as well as the skill to claim personal boundaries when indicated. A good communitarian is willing to work through conflict and drop judgments, to look at one’s own foibles, control issues and blind spots, is committed to creating a better world by doing the interpersonal work of learning to live cooperatively and happily with others.

In closing let me say that I love this lifestyle and hope to live in community until old age. I don’t understand those 90 year olds who want to live alone in their own house until they die. I love living around children and young adults, it keeps me flexible and up to date, it gives me a place to share my stories, my skills, my time and my gifts. It makes me smile to hear the children laughing uproariously as they jump on the trampoline. Life is good!


If you’re interested in learning more about my mom’s community, you can see photos of Sacred Groves on their website.

I’d also love to hear from Homies who may have had experience living in community. I know from my times out at Sacred Groves, that it can be a challenging and rewarding experience for folks who are suited to that kind of living. Anybody got any stories to share?

Comments on Communes: the pros & cons of intentional community

  1. I lived at Summit Avenue Cooperative (http://summitavenue.coop/) for a year a little while after college, and I really enjoyed it. I had 16 other housemates in a beautiful, big house in a nice downtown neighborhood. There was a nice mix of students, professionals and even one retired member who had lived there for decades. The “rent” was really cheap, and the shared work responsibilities weren’t too onerous.

    One of the benefits was learning about how to keep up a house before you take the leap into owning one yourself. I learned how to re-caulk a bathtub there, and we got bids on repairing the roof while I was there.

    Fortunately, that particular cooperative was pretty structured and has been running for quite a while, so there were rules and procedures to deal with issues like people not pulling their weight, or serious personality conflicts.

  2. First of all, Ariel…NO FUCKING WAY???!!!! Sacred Groves is totally on our list of communities to check out in person here because we are planning on moving into a community this year. So cool that it’s your moms.

  3. Christian communes are the way to go! Find god and you’ll find happiness and love. There isn’t a better foundation for a commune that the bible and god himself!

  4. I’m planning on doing this with 7 other friends/close family (all around the same age–we’ll be in our twenties). I don’t know how I’d feel if it were me with a bunch of strangers.

    • Some of my friends do this. They rent an awesome property made up of 5 little huts each with its own veranda and bathroom then a large open communal shed/ kitchen/ lounge. It is lovely.

  5. I’ve lived in community in the past and man, it was just awful. It was just a remarkably dumb experience. It was a small (100ish in the summer, 70ish in the winter) isolated community living very far off the grid. The setting was gorgeous, the work was pleasant and simple, and even the decision-making process was pretty simple because everything was codified in a charter. There were various boards and community councils charged with most decisions. The part that was awful was the interpersonal relations between people.
    I’m sure many communes and intentional communities are able to avoid this in one way or another, but my experience was nothing but strife and petty arguments and bizarre love triangles and shouting matches and jealousy and competitiveness and passive-agressive nonsense and sneaky, behind-the-back scheming and people ganging up on other people and total disregard for anyone’s feelings or personal space and often flagrant violation of employment law.
    Part of this was due to the fact that we were a resident workforce running a resort/retreat space, so we not only had to live with all these people but some of them were our bosses or our employees.
    A larger part of the distrust and unrest was based on how people living very far out of society have a tendency to get a little weird. And when I say a little weird, I mean that they often become extremely rude, manipulative people. They become so mistrustful of the outside world that new members are greeted with total suspicion, and, having become so used to directly confrontational communication styles, they seem to lose their ability to speak with tact, act with compassion or view anything from anyone else’s point of view.
    This was a pretty hippie-dippie place, many of the people being bodywork practitioners or into shamanism in some degree or another, and that unfortunately turned into a strange judgement on everyone outside the commune and the world-at-large’s “backwards” ways. Anything from ‘Babylon” was bad, and the only good people in the world were those people “on land” and when people left, they were seen as lost souls, set adrift through some fault of their own- obviously “the land” didn’t want them.
    It can turn into violence in a heartbeat, especially over the long, cold, dark, wet, winters. People sleep with other people’s wives. People get stabbed. Domestic abuse happens, and it’s everyone’s problem, and you’re appalled by the reactions of your coworkers/neighbors/friends/lovers, but you still have to wake up and look those people in the eye every single day. People are bad at their job but there is no set mechanism for firing them from their jobs, or, if there is, they have themselves been placed in charge of that mechanism and everyone is stuck with them for life. People form weird little alliances based on mutual goals and those alliances clash and people get browbeaten and depressed from the just constant, overwhelming burden of every aspect of every second of every day being shared with and analyzed by the same 200 eyes.
    Just like in the rest of the world, minorities are treated differently, and women can often by ignored or silenced. Just like in the rest of the world, people struggle with various addictions, and when living in such close proximity to everyone’s problems, your problem because SO PUBLIC that it just compounds your shame and hurt. Everyone knows everyone else’s secrets and dirty laundry and then the dirty laundry is totally fair game for discussion by literally every single person you know, all in a yurt, for hours and hours and hours straight.
    Young, energetic people were viewed with deep distrust and their ideas ignored and shushed by the older folks who had founded the community and are very protective of it, which is unfortunate because they never wrote a retirement plan for themselves and are wholly dependent on the younger members for the future. The children born or raised on land usually leave as soon as they can and never look back.
    In short, many people living in isolated communities go absolutely mad. I don’t want to say that this is true of all communities but it’s definitely something to watch out for- it’s a strange sort of cloistering and without a common goal or dream to bring some positivity, and regular exposure to the outside world, it just turns into anger and resentment at outsiders and then inevitably at one another.

    Here are some resources I recommend:
    The fantastic book Home Comfort: Stories and Scenes of Life on Total Loss Farm is a great collection of short stories, poems, drawings and general musings by various members of an old and well-respected commune, and I cannot praise its accuracy enough in describing the high points and the lows of living in community
    Living on the Earth by Alicia Bay Laurel- if you’re dead set on starting a community yourself, this book has a pretty good list of things to consider before beginning. Do we allow dogs? Who is responsible for the children’s education? What do we do when the cops come? What do we do when someone dies? Who shall pay for the repairs to the tractor? What rules shall we have concerning visiting strangers? What about underage runaways? What about kicking someone out, how do we do that? etc
    and also this fantastic , if slightly idealistic quote:

    What This Community Needs: A Self-Indulgent Essay, by Ray Mungo
    “The community needs common good and evil. These may be abstract and religious if you’re Mike Metelica or Mel Lyman or Mao Tse-Tung, but they must be real to the people involved. They may be material and practical too- good in the leaves and trees and sun, bad in the inclement weather or threat of bankruptcy or the neighbor’s absurd and wrong way of living. In the true sense we know that good and evil are but intellectual concepts, they don’t exist, “nothing is better, nothing is best,” Yet it is absolutely essential to the community to have a common enemy worthy of fear and contempt, we stand united against it; and a common joy incapable of tarnish, we stand together in loving it.
    The community needs trust beyond reason. Trust with reason is good enough for neighbors but not for lovers. One must refuse to believe the worst of his brothers in the face of conclusive damning evidence. Incidents or remarks which might be insulting or hurtful among ordinary citizens must be suffered and forgiven in the community. Every member of the community is responsible for all the others. If you go to Tibet for twenty-seven years, I must believe you are right to do so, and hold your place back home. I must trust you even when there is no reason to.
    The community needs privacy and exposure. The members of the family need inviolable privacy from each other and inevitable exposure to each other. There is no blame in the lonesome heart. The community also needs a certain impenetrable privacy from the rest of the race, a privacy which must prove itself against regular exposure to new people, groups, places. When a new person really joins the community, it is because she or he knows the secret. There is always a secret, and each keeps it in his way.
    The community needs pleasant surprises and disastrous setbacks. A warm apple pie, a sudden batch of chickens, a baby, a storm, a great loss of resources, an illness.
    The community needs freedom from tiresome ideological tracts that leave you right where you started, which is fantastic.”

    • Hello: My son had someone from an intentional community come speak at his high school. During the summer between his first and second year of college, he visited the community for several weeks. A year of so after this, he decided to drop out of college and live in this community. As parents it has been very hard to watch him make this choice. We don’t disagree with him making this choice, we are concerned that down the road this may be a very limiting option for him. If he ever decides to move off the community, he will not get a good job with only a high school education. The people who live in these communities live below the poverty line, and some do seem odd. My son even says some of them are crazy. However, there is a strong community and sense of family which he did not find in college. Any suggestions or comments?

  6. Great post and discussion. I’m starting an intentional community in Atlanta, with the help of a nonprofit I volunteer for, The Action Not Words Project. You have to do a lot of research before choosing to live in a community. I have visited two communities in my area, Lake Claire and East Lake Commons, to see how people live and function. They both seemed pretty good. Residents were friendly with each other and the set-ups looked good too. Since our community will have veterans and senior citizens, we have to have the right type of volunteer residents living there. We have a screening process and also will do background checks to make sure that we have safe people in the community. We already have by-laws written that all residents have to sign. Plus, all residents will have voting power on how the community is run.

  7. Great article!

    We have a small intentional community that we call The Compound – more of a tongue in cheek name, but all in good fun.

    Five years ago we made the decision and three years ago it came to fruition. Though there was a bit of house sharing during the wait for their own, each has separate homes, vehicles and lives. We have tiny house builders, a mechanic, farmers, health gurus, and crafters of sorts, so it is amazing to pull those abilities together. Life here doesn’t always come easy, but it is definitely worth it for us.

    Our new blog is ForgingIronHearts.com

Read more comments

Comments are closed.