The Slow-Cooked Sentence

Building homes from shared values a model of philosopher Joanna Macy’s active hope

Rachael Conlin Levy
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Sharing a meal. Illustration from “The Table Where Rich People Sit” by Byrd Baylor; pictures by Peter Parnall.

When more is shared with neighbors than a fence line, a cup of sugar, and the occasional “hello,” when we live in cooperation rather than competition with each other, our homes encapsulate what ecological philosopher Joanna Macy calls active hope.

Macy’s grounded optimism helps us face the uncertainty of this profound and transformable period we’re living. In her 2012 book “Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy,” Macy explained that such hope requires a clear view of reality, an identification of the change or value that must be expressed, and the courage to move ourselves or our situation in that direction.

Curious how intentional community served as a working model of active hope, my sister Kyna and I spent the weekend learning about the challenges and rewards of cooperative living, joining more than 500 people from across the United States and a handful of other countries at the national cohousing conference in Portland, Ore.

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Sharing a weekend.

Research has found that intentional communities, similar to convents, communes, co-ops, and ecovillages where groups of people choose to live together based on shared values, can improve health, increase happiness, and reduce economic and environmental burdens.

Fueled by a determination to turn shared hope into homes, I found the optimism, mirrored by other conference attendees, at once radical and reassuring during these beleaguered years under President Donald Trump.

“When our lives become rooted in communities–whether because we’ve intentionally sought them out, bucking against the conditioning of our privileged class, or because it’s what we’ve always known out of our economic necessity–our potential expands beyond our individual limitations,” journalist Courtney Martin wrote in her 2016 book, “The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream.”

Such an alternative sounds refreshing, if idealistic, in a world where corporations are viewed as citizens, a majority of votes doesn’t ensure a win, and our children must sue the government for failure to protect future generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property.

Cohousing shares characteristics found in a monastery or gated community: It has common space, and group meals and activities. Neighbors help each other with everything from childcare to home maintenance, and regularly gather for dinner.

Cohousing looks and is often legally defined as a condominium, but it is managed by the community through consensus. Individual units can be self-contained and owned by the different residents. Many cohousing properties are multigenerational, although there has been an uptick in senior cohousing generated by aging Baby Boomers looking for an alternative to retirement homes.

Martin’s book examines our effort to hold on to idealized and increasingly outdated definitions of a successful life. She upends assumptions about employment, challenges parenting models, and redefines community and home.

Where “The New Better Off” is expansive in its approach to cultural shifts, “Together Resilient: Building Community in the Age of Climate Disruption” by cooperative culture pioneer and advocate Yana (formerly Ma’ike) Ludwig, is microscopic in its examination of this sea change.

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Sharing a philosophy.

The books were two-for-one offer at cohousing conference, a fortuitous happenstance; Martin’s book provokes and whets the appetite, while Ludwig’s delivers substantive detail on how community is a conduit for action.

“We are in a time when we are stripping away illusions of all sorts–political, relational, economic, and ecological,” Ludwig wrote. “When we discard the systems and beliefs that got us here, we are left with the fundamental buildings blocks of something new: our passion, creativity, and labor. … Stripped down by the economic and ecological realities of our time, we are left with our selves and each other. And that’s actually a pretty good place to start.”

 

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