The flipchart loomed at one side of the room, its ledge arrayed with colourful textas.
I was making casual conversation with Michael, trying to avoid thinking about the flipchart. All six of us were assembled at Michael and Judy’s home in Rozelle, where we’d had a fine baked dinner and were now ensconced in various pieces of furniture in the lounge room. I’d just come from work, where I’d been picked up by Rick. Eve had arrived from teaching a yoga class and was wearing tights with a little draped top; Judy had an apron thrown over her schmick work clothes. It was a chilly evening so the space heater was on, to the contentment of Jordie the cat. Michael and Judy’s fourteen year old son Jess was playing a computer game in his room – an epic space battle, judging from the sound effects emanating from that direction.
It was four months since our session on New Years Day. We were here to talk about the wild and crazy notion with which we’d welcomed the year: the six of us creating a retirement community away from the city. I’d thought about the possibility of shared accommodation a lot over the intervening months, trying to get my head around how it might work and how I felt about the whole thing, given my ambivalence about letting people get too close. I’d had a few conversations with Rick; he seemed agreeable enough about the idea but I didn’t get the feeling that it had traction with him yet.
Normally I’d have felt relaxed in the company of these five people. But tonight I was deep in a very strong feeling which may have been dread or excitement. I felt as if I were in the starting blocks at the beginning of a 42 kilometre marathon. At any moment someone would fire the gun and there I’d be – off and running on a momentous and gruelling ordeal. Was this something I wanted to do? Or was this a mad waste of time and an affront to peace of mind?
The probable sequence of events for this adventure was festering in a pessimistic corner of my mind. It went something like this: We’d use this meeting to paint wonderful pictures of what was possible, and we’d get excited with the idea and with each other. We’d work out an action plan, and we’d be off. Then soon we’d get deeply out of our depth. And eventually we’d crash and burn – losing friendships, time, money and confidence.
The rat-a-tat of Jess’ space invaders added to my feeling of trepidation.
“Well,” I heard Michael say, “what do you say we get down to business?” That was it. The starting gun went off.
Daniel said, “Sure; let’s kick off.” He looked over his glasses in my direction. “Heather, why don’t you take the controls?”
I got picked for these things because I led workshops and groups at work. But this felt very different from my normal facilitating environment, where a paycheque and a six o’clock finish time somehow softened the consequences of what I did. This was up close and personal.
Adrenalin propelled me off the sofa and up to the flipchart. I cleared my throat. “I now call this meeting to order,” I said. My palms were sticky and my mental wheels were spinning. But through this, I had my first powerful thought of the evening: I do not have to do this alone. This project is about community.
So I asked if someone would be willing to fire us up by setting the scene.
Eve rose to the challenge. “Well,” she said, “when we were together at New Year’s, we got excited about the possibility of sharing our lives more closely than we do now. We discussed buying something and living together when we are ready to retire.”
“And,” Judy added, “being there for each other. Not getting old alone.”
“Living in a beach paradise, with a good coffee shop nearby,” Rick added.
“Sharing expenses,” said Daniel, “so we can have a higher standard of living than we otherwise would.”
In that way, we began our adventure.
I felt better already, kindled by a measure of trust and community that those few phrases had brought out. “Well,” I said, “let’s freewheel for awhile.” I poised a texta over the flipchart paper. “What might this look like? What is it we want?”
We opened up slowly. At first, every word seemed as if it could become a commitment we could live to regret. But before long we relaxed and began to have fun. Ideas flew. The paper filled up with things like:
A retirement community of our own
In the country
Near the ocean
In the hills
On a river
Must be near a good cappuccino
Near the Queensland border
On the south coast near Manyana
Lots of private space
Can’t be too expensive
Near a hospital
Near a university
Near a good library
Near major services
Birds, trees, exotic plants
Gotta have a dog
A home for our cats
Lots of space for visitors
A place where our kids can feel welcome
A yurt village
A big house
A swimming pool
Cabins, like in a caravan park
Run a B&B
Run a leadership centre
Run a yoga retreat
At least 2 acres
At least 100 acres
With dozens of big jacarandas
Within 10 years
Within 3 years
After 45 minutes, we wound down. I capped the pen and sat down. We looked at the dreaming pages we had generated.
Rick voiced his view. “While there are certainly some differences, my feeling is we have a common vision for what this could look and feel like. I love the thought of it.”
I stared at my partner. Rick, the Man of Habits and Familiar Paths, was in! I felt a welling of excitement. This is good, I thought.
There was a moment of quiet.
From the bedroom behind us, we could hear the strumming of an electric bass guitar, where Jess (oblivious to how his future was being redirected) had switched from his computer to his other favourite machine.
Daniel cleared his throat. “This isn’t going to be easy. It’ll be a real test of our friendship. We’ll either come out of this with a fantastic retirement community or we’ll come out of it never speaking to one another again.” I noticed he was speaking in the present tense, not the future conditional. Daniel the Sceptic was in!
“Well,” said Michael, “nothing worth doing is ever easy. This will be a challenge of everything we know about working as a team and about communication.” Michael the Loner was in!
Judy beamed broadly. “I’m up for a challenge. Let’s do it!”
“Of course,“ Eve said. “What else are we here for?“ She looked at me. “What about you, H?” she said. “You in?” All eyes swung to me in the ensuing pause.
In that moment, I suspended my leadership busy-ness and really looked at my friends. There, surrounded by people I loved and admired, people who motivated me to be the best I could be, I articulated for myself a massive personal truth: I believe in the power of people pulling together towards something.
I don’t mean that this belief was a surprise to me: I had built a career and a successful business around the principles of the importance of social interaction. I knew how strong teams could leap-frog over clusters of talented individuals; I knew that members of powerful teams challenge each other, give each other courage, pass out fiery feedback as well as rousing acknowledgement – and produce results. I was in a couple of strong teams at work, and I constantly found myself exhilarated by the challenges we set, the struggles, the accomplishments and most all by the camaraderie.
And I didn’t ever want to lose that. I didn’t want to retire and fly solo. I wanted, right now, to design a setting where for the rest of my life I would be with people I loved in that kind of intimate and animated way.
These faces, closely watching me in this moment, represented a team I could work with. No matter what my nagging little private fears dredged up, what we were starting was something good and real. My conviction that the power of relationships was a force I could count on was at the very core of who I am.
I looked at everyone and smiled. “Of course I’m in.”
This time the pause was very long. We had all committed. I could see on the faces around me the struggle to grasp the implications of what we were stepping into.
Finally Michael voiced the words that every facilitator knows will propel a charming idea into the wild world of action. “Okay, then: what’s next?”
“There must a template for this kind of thing,” Judy said. “Surely someone has done something like this before. Can we find a way to piggyback off existing thinking?”
“I know people who own a holiday house together,” Michael said. “I’ll get hold of their agreement and see how they’ve handled it.”
“Why don’t we start researching property?” Judy added. “Let’s begin driving around and seeing what’s out there. That will get us focused on what we like and don’t like.”
Daniel leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his fingers steepled to his chin. “I think that’s a good idea,” he said. “If we’re serious about this thing, we’ve got to get our hands dirty. Let’s research with something specific in mind. I suggest we commit to buying a piece of property within a year, or better yet a year and a half. It doesn’t have to be the perfect thing, the final thing. Maybe just something cheap. But it will let us see if we can align on a major purchase. We can just sell it again if it’s not what we ultimately want. Taking on a project like that will let us see if we can manage the money together, which is where I reckon most community action comes unravelled. In the meantime we learn a lot about each other.”
Eve looked over her glasses. “You mean, beyond who’s the best Scrabble player?”
We laughed, then glanced around the room at one another. It was a rubber-hit-the-road suggestion, a mettle-tester. And a year and a half from now we’d know whether we had the boldness to pull this thing off.
There were mumbles of approval all around.
Mouth dry, I said, “Are we agreed then?” More mumbles. “Well then, meeting adjourned.”
We were out of the starting blocks and pounding down the track. The marathon had begun.
No, I reminded myself as I was trying to drift off to sleep that night, still charged with adrenalin: “marathon” was the wrong metaphor, from an old way of being. You run a marathon alone, in competition with those around you. I was about to tackle something that felt much scarier – creating something with a team of strong-minded people whose friendships I didn’t want to risk. This way of viewing what we’d taken on felt more alarming, but also very compelling. Maybe in some sense I’d been on a marathon all my life, and had just jumped the fence into some major-league team sport where the only opposition was my own and my teammates’ personal weaknesses.
It was a thought that kept me awake for quite some time longer.