It’s been two years since the COVID-19 Pandemic began and my own life has been upended so many times that I can’t even remember them all. My friend and colleague Zanette Johnson reminds me that in this time most all of our practices and protocols, rituals and routines have been decimated. Those four things are the pillars of culture. It’s time to start regenerating those pillars!
One practice I want to reanimate is writing. I just have not written much in the last two years. I’ve realized that my work in this last arc of my life is to illuminate, and part of that for me comes by writing. So it starts with at least a blog a month at NewStories.org
These days three kinds of work are essential. I often turn to a framework I embraced and modified from Joanna Macy years ago. First, some of us must protest. Standing up, saying NO, making it clear that intolerable things will not proceed with business as usual. Second, some of us must do the work to help those living at the socio-economic margins have better lives, NOW. Third, some of us are called to build the new that might come if we make it so. The work of systems change, transformation and regenerating community.
These three often blur into each other; there are not rigid boundaries between them. Some of us are called at different times to do work in all three. Where my true heart has been, for many years, is in the third area: calling in the transformation. While I am glad that some people are working on transformation at a macro level, I am called to the local. My core belief is that when people in a place turn to each other, talk about what’s really important to them, build trust and relationship, and then do something — local change happens. On the ground, tangible change happens. When the people doing this local work are connected with each other, they carry the seeds which can spark transformation. The NewStories Spiral gives one view of what we have to pay attention to when we work in this way.
This kind of local work creates Islands of Wholeness — places where people are working together to create what is possible now. When we illuminate these islands, they inform, inspire and invite others to step further into their own transformative work. When we connect the islands with each other, we begin to create the conditions for the emergence of a system of influence for transformative change.
Five and a half years ago three families came together to create a new Island of Wholeness in Spokane. We were looking for a new way to live with each other in community. Our work became the Haystack Heights Cohousing Community. Just three blocks from where Susan Virnig and I have lived for 45 years. We moved into our new home in Haystack Heights this past weekend.
It has been a long slog! I won’t talk about the challenge of downsizing from a home big enough to store everything we weren’t ready to get rid of. That’s another story! But this building community? It has been a rewarding pain in the ass. We didn’t build community with those we knew we liked. We build community with whoever showed up, with whoever was called to this dream of community. It takes hard work, and in this case, years of work — finding people and inviting them to invest substantial cash in a dream. Finding land, discovering how to finance the purchase, designing both the bricks and mortar as well as the social fabric of community. Continuing to invite more people in as some people drop away. Finding construction financing, a developer and a contractor. Weaving the fabric of community every step of the way. Finally, three and a half years in, getting our building permits the week before COVID shut everything down. Miraculously getting almost everything built, on budget and on time, over the next two years.
When we first came together, we wanted an intergenerational, urban community that was affordable and ethnically diverse. Food was an important part of our vision. The urban property two miles from Spokane’s downtown core is three acres, one acre of which has been under cultivation as an organic garden for 30 years. The site rises about 40 feet over two city blocks thanks to massive amounts of Spokane’s basalt rock. It’s a lovely site and a bit of a design and construction nightmare. It’s not really affordable — new construction and affordable don’t like each other. We had to increase the number of homes in the community to 39 and make considerable changes in our design plans to allow a number of us to hang by our fingernails to get in. Our youngest member is 8 months and our oldest is 86. It is delightful to look out my office window and see our many children playing in our unfinished landscape. We have some ethnic diversity – not as much as we would like.
We have, we are told, the “most butts” kitchen of cohousing communities in North America. The number of butts that can be in the kitchen working at the same time is how cohousing kitchen size is determined. We aspire to have six common meals a week that cost about $5/stomach. We’re getting there, but it is one of the many things not easy in COVID. It’s taken many hands and lots of patience to build this Island of Wholeness. We have both strong agreements and strong disagreements about how to live together. We are, most definitely, a work in progress.
Susan and I found our home in 1977 in what was called, derisively, the international district. When our daughter Annie was in High School are friends were shocked that she lived in the “ghetto.” Strong and committed work by the neighborhood steering committee we helped to create in the mid seventies transformed the nearby business district and about 10 years ago we found
ourselves living in the fashionable Perry Street neighborhood. We’ve loved our home with its high ceilings, built in leaded glass cabinets, dark woodwork as beautiful now as when it was built more than 100 years ago. The fireplace that actually heats a room. The solarium and greatroom we added on. So we moved out of a 2300 square foot craftsman bungalow to 1300 sf townhouse. It feels like we can make it a delightful home.
Moving was a real challenge. Mostly because of all the stuff we’ve accumulated over the years. Our community uses Slack for communications and one of the channels is “offer-up.” We’ve all used it to share things to precious to simply give to Goodwill for strangers. There’s another channel on Slack now “wish-list” where we share with each other. I think we’ll soon create a “need-help” channel because those requests are cluttering the general channel — like earlier this week when I posted that I needed 2-4 strong arms that evening to help me move furniture in my office around!
But we’re here. Annie flew in from Brooklyn to help. We spent an intense week packing and disposing. The big moving van from Movehers and four strong young people showed up at 9am and left us at 5pm. There are weeks and months of work to do to settle in — and to finish cleaning out our old home to pass it along. About 1500 of my books have gone to university libraries and books stores. Five hundred or so survived the cut and I unpacked them this week. But we’re here, making community. Susan and Annie celebrated with a glass of wine on our new porch after the move. Yesterday afternoon we went over to Marks and Mic’s house to watch what was to become the final Spokane Zag’s March Madness basketball game in the Sweet 16. Later that afternoon, Nikki and Bill invited people to come on over to their porch for a beer. Community.
Coming back to the main idea of this blog, Haystack Heights is an Island of Wholeness. We are learning how to build community here. It is a hard slog. It takes a lot of work. One thing I know without a doubt for the years ahead is that we need to learn how to build true community again and we must find alternative housing possibilities. We’re working on that. Not perfectly. With confusion and anger. With joy. We are the first cohousing community in this inland region. Already others are talking about starting communities. We’ll help if asked. Returning to the NewStories Spiral, as we illuminate this work of building community, others will be informed, inspired and invited.
It’s another start….