Friday, October 23, 2009

Look, Mommy, no hands!

Today we held a farewell lunch for Suzanne, our Office Administrator of nearly six years.

She was our Rock of Gibraltar during the planning and construction phases of Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community. Now that the construction phase is drawing to a close and we're actually living in our strata (condominium) apartment building, we owners will be handling the administrative aspects of our strata corporation ourselves. I'm sure that on Monday morning we'll feel as if our training wheels have been stolen. Eek!

Originally we were going to hold Suzanne's farewell lunch at a restaurant. But then Suzanne paid us what I thought was a delightful compliment by suggesting that we might consider having a potluck lunch in our dining hall. She said that she had enjoyed the impromptu suppers to which we had invited her. They had demonstrated to her that our dining hall and our cooking were a pleasant combination.

Prior to this our potluck meals miraculously had worked out all right, notwithstanding the fact that we almost never had communicated in advance about who would bring what. Today was the hilarious exception. Three of us showed up with cakes!

I remarked to Suzanne that, as she could see, we still were tweaking our systems. She, of course, has been witness to our tweaking in other arenas for a long time. She smiled and said she imagined the tweaking would continue indefinitely.

Whether or not members of cohousing communities are familiar with the concept of wabi sabi, they live it. We all took the three cakes in stride, and focused on the intention of the occasion. As I relished the delicious meal, in the company of kindred spirits, looking through our glass doors towards the autumn colours in the woods, I felt a warm glow.

May the awareness of wabi sabi ever remain with me. May it not desert me when I walk into our office on Monday morning. :-)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Honest Conversation

I love naming elephants in living rooms. We did that at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community last night when we discussed our generational focus. By that I mean the age group(s) that we want to attract.

All along we have said that we wanted to be a multi-generational community. We wanted a mix of young, middle aged and old people, and we wanted a variety of family constellations.

So far, however, we have attracted people in their forties, fifties, sixties and seventies. Our two youngest members are 39. Our community has no young children so far. Some of us owners have grown children who are living independently and others of us are childless.

The reason we had this discussion was that one of our owners, Yonas Jongkind, pointed out the discrepancy between our marketing message and the reality he has experienced when he has visited our community.

Yonas and his young family live at WindSong, a cohousing community in one of the outer suburbs of Vancouver. His mother, Mia Jongkind, is one of our residents, and he has invested some money in her apartment. As the co-owner of one of our units, he has voting rights in our community.

For most of his tenure as a shareholder in our real estate development company, Yonas has been what we have referred to as a "distant owner," and has taken a mostly hands-off approach. Now that we are completing the final touches of construction and marketing our remaining units, he has become more actively involved with us. His MBA, his four years in a viable cohousing community, and his action-oriented personality are very useful to us.

At last night's meeting, Yonas shared with us what it was like to live at WindSong. He said there were heaps of kids under six, and it was a noisy place. Right next door to the dining hall, there was an equally large play room for children. That led to a fenced, outdoor playground. About a third of the community's annual budget for upgrades was spent on play equipment for children. Because parents placed a high priority on their young children's safety and also because they were just so busy being parents, WindSong had fewer of the adult-oriented activities that are common in some other cohousing communities.

We then went around the circle and shared our hopes and dreams about children. Most of us had assumed all along that Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community would include children. Indeed, the multi-generational focus was one of the features we liked. None of us wanted to live in a senior citizens' residence. Most of us longed for the life and energy that children bring with them.

On the other hand, when we considered the reality of our property, we realized that some elements of it were not all that user-friendly for children. The room that we had designated as a children's playroom was much smaller than the one at WindSong, and it was not adjacent to our dining hall. Our three-bedroom-and-den units have two storeys. The bedrooms are laid out in such a way that parents would have to sleep on one floor while children slept on another. Alternatively, parents could share one floor with one child, but another child would need to sleep on a different floor. One of the bedrooms on the lower level of each three-bedroom-and-den unit has french doors that open out to our parking lot. This would be great for a resident who ran a home-based business and who might have clients visiting him or her, but it would be less comforting to the parent of a young child. Our unfenced pond represents a drowning hazard for young children. We also do not have an outdoor playground.

Yonas said that, if we really wanted to attract families with young children, there were some proactive steps that we could take right now. We could be assertive in finding families with young children to rent a couple of our three-bedroom-and-den units. This would serve as a draw for young parents, as they would see that there already were children living here. There were three rooms near our dining hall whose walls could be dismantled to create one large play room. Finally, we could build an outdoor playground just outside of our dining hall.

When push came to shove, we discovered that we were not so committed to young children that we were willing to go out of our way to attract them. We realized that our warm, fuzzy visions of children really centred on older children, say six and up. We liked the idea of doing crafts with children, having them cook and garden alongside us, and so on.

We decided that, at this time, we would do nothing to adapt our property to young children. We would welcome them if they came to us, but we wouldn't bend ourselves out of shape to draw them to us. There were a couple of families with children in the eight- to ten-year-old bracket who seemed very interested in our community, and we would be delighted if they bought in.

If a crop of young children arises at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community in future, it will be feasible to retrofit the building for them at that time. That will be a decision for the owners of the day.

I am very, very glad that we faced the discontinuity between our marketing message and the reality on the ground. For me one of the benefits of an intentional community is that its members are conscious and authentic. I am so grateful that Yonas named the phenomenon he had observed.

Even if you have no desire to live in a cohousing community, you might want to consider how you could raise the bar and make your family more of an intentional community. Would you benefit from opening some closet doors and acknowledging skeletons that are lurking there?

By the way, near the end of our meeting, Yonas's five-year-old son, Julian, walked into the dining hall and said, "Daddy, Ouma says it's eight thirty, and we all have to go to bed." We chuckled, because it illustrated the very point Yonas had been making about life with young kids.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Symbiosis in plant and human communities

With her permission, I am quoting a message that my friend, Sharon Fulton, posted on Facebook.

One of the most unique features of tree communities is their relationship with underground fungi called—mycorrhiza (micro-rye-zee). These fungi live on or near the roots of the plants and they extend beyond the plants roots to collect water and nutrients for the plants that live in the community. They form connections underground from tree to tree and to other plants in the community, thereby interconnection most of the plants of the plant community.

If one area of the forest has excess nutrition or moisture the fungi will balance the forest and share the nutrients. The connection of many plants underground with these fungi is called a ‘mycorrhizal grid’ and because plants can use this grid to share water and nutrients. Parent trees living in sunshine actually feed their young by means of this underground web of connection.

I learned this from Starhawk last night and I have been thinking about how some people in our communities act like mycorrhiza, being the connection by which nutrients and information are passed between individual members who can't quite touch each other.

Nature has so much to teach us. Amazing!

You may not be surprised to learn that Sharon herself is one of the "connecting" people to whom she refers. Although she had a fulltime job as a nurse, she coordinated the volunteers for the Emergency Weather Shelter at the First Unitarian Fellowship of Nanaimo during the unusually heavy snows of last winter. She herself also worked several volunteer shifts, assisting homeless people at the Emergency Weather Shelter. When I was waiting for my fridge and stove to be delivered to my apartment at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community, she spontaneously offered to share her fridge and stove with me. The list goes on.

One of the neat things about living at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community is that Sharon's generous spirit is the rule rather than the exception. I have found my fellow Pacific Gardeners to be supportive and nurturing, within both our immediate group and our wider community.

Although my fellow cohos already were great contributors before we moved into Pacific Gardens, the physical layout of our community enhances the pre-existing spirit of collaboration and cooperation. Thus Kathryn Hazel's piano has made its way to our music room, and the furniture from the large house that Mia Jongkind left behind has made its way into our communal dining hall, guest bedrooms, exercise room and balconies. A delicious communal supper has been conjured up on each owner's moving day. Helpers have appeared out of the woodwork to unload moving vans.

If I went on in this vein, I'd need to write a book. Perhaps I'll do just that. Ah, but if it's about cohousing, it would be fun to do it collaboratively, wouldn't it? Be warned, Pacific Gardeners. This is bound to involve the formation of another committee at some point. :-)

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Tomorrow -- the second Monday in October -- will be Canadian Thanksgiving.

As I reflect on the meaning of the holiday, I realize that I am thankful for SOOOOOOOO much. I live in a warm and supportive community, I have wonderful friends both inside and outside of this community, I live in a vibrant little city with more cultural and intellectual offerings than I can handle, and I am surrounded by natural beauty.

This is our first major holiday celebration since we've moved into Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community. As I look around our delightful building, I have to pinch myself to check that we really are here now. When we gather for our communal Thanksgiving Dinner tomorrow night, it will be a very special moment.

But for me there are some poignant aspects of this holiday too. I am far away from my adult sons, who will celebrate with their dad in Calgary.

I also am far away from my South African family members who are rallying around my oldest sister following the death of her husband a few days ago. He was a lovely man, and everyone who was close to him will miss him terribly.

For me this underscores what I shared in yesterday's post about wabi sabi. It is a life skill to be able to trust the beauty in imperfection. My brother-in-law's death also reminds me to appreciate every moment while I still have moments to appreciate. I am glad for him that he did that.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Wabi Sabi

Recently I derived deep satisfaction from Wabi Sabi Simple, a gem of a book that my friend, Richard Powell, wrote. Wabi sabi is an ancient Japanese concept that has some features in common with the Voluntary Simplicity and Slow Food movements in the West. In the Introduction, Richard states, "[Wabi sabi] nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."

Back in August I had what I now recognize as a wabi sabi day. My friend, Eileen, introduced me to Newcastle Island, a five- or ten-minute ferry ride from Nanaimo.

When we disembarked from the ferry, I initially felt slightly disappointed. I had hoped to get some good photos looking back towards Nanaimo. However, it was an overcast day, and the couple of pictures I took looked nothing like as pretty as they would have done if the sun had been shining.

Still, although I had not yet read Wabi Sabi Simple, I intuitively knew that the sky was doing me a favour. I returned my camera to my backpack and decided to focus my attention on Eileen's and my conversation and on the things we saw as we walked the perimeter of the island. What an enchanting day that turned out to be.

I have realized that a cohousing community is a wabi sabi creation too. To use the analogy of food, creating a cohousing community is like baking bread according to the super slow recipe in Richard's book. The experience is rich and textured and nurturing in a way that the drive through window of a fast food outlet can never match.

One of life's traps is that I can become overcomitted to worthy activities. My trip to Africa in June and July gave me distance from Nanaimo and therefore increased objectivity. I realized that, in my enthusiasm to embrace the smorgasbord of experiences available in Nanaimo, I had taken on too much. The causes, organizations, courses and cultural opportunities all were great. It's just that there were too many of them. I resolved to divest myself of some of them when I returned. The Excellence series of seminars has been helping me to discern which elements of my life resonate most deeply with who I am and that I therefore want to continue. At this point, cohousing is a high priority for me.

Richard's book itself is a keeper. When I donate several of my favourite books to Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community's library, Wabi Sabi Simple will be one of the special treasures that will stay behind on my own bookshelf.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

ET, call home

Just checking in briefly to say I'm still alive and well and living in Nanaimo.

We at Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community had our official opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 22nd. It was a joyful celebration that many friends and supporters shared with us. I took photos, and have been looking forward to posting them here.

However, the day after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, I temporarily moved to the home of a friend who had just been released from hospital following surgery. Except for a break last weekend, when another friend of hers took over from me, I have been caring for my "patient." At first her need for my assistance was fairly intense, but as she has been healing her independence has been increasing, bit by bit. I will be returning to my own home tomorrow evening, October 2nd.

My "patient" is a beautiful person, and I have delighted in this opportunity to get to know her more deeply. I also have enjoyed observing the community of friends who coalesced around her following her surgery. There has been a steady stream of people, besides me, who have arrived, bearing gifts of comfort and joy.

I imagine it's evident from this blog that I love Pacific Gardens Cohousing Community to bits. But community exists in many guises, and it's a treat to experience the broad spectrum in which it shows up.