Calmful living

Calmful livingI was recently approached by Anna from an American website called Calmful Living, which focuses on “calm mind, calm body, calm living”. Anna had read about us, and felt that our lifestyle might be tranquility-inducing as people approach retirement. Following is a copy of her interview questions, and my response.

As you can see, life continues to go well for the Shedders.

When you first began contemplating retirement, what were your concerns?

My husband Rick and I had a nest-egg sufficient to support a careful retirement, but not a generous one. We knew we couldn’t afford to retire in Sydney, an expensive city – although that didn’t matter because we were keen to leave the Big Smoke anyway. A few acres in the country, not far from good services, appealed. But that raised questions of having to start all over again building community, of solitary hours after a lifetime with busy social lives – of loneliness. What about when you lose some of your health? What about when you lose a partner?

These were the issues that concerned us: enough money and a solid community.

How did the idea of co-housing with other seniors come about?

 We had friends, two other couples, that we often spent holiday time with. In our fifties, as retirement appeared on the horizon, we began discussing these issues with them. We really enjoyed – and profited from – our holiday time together and wondered about sharing our retirement. Was it conceivable that we could stretch our retirement dollars farther in a shared living situation? Could we avoid aloneness? Could we provide support for each other?

We voted “yes”. Over the next several years, we resolved the key issues, including a big one: where to live. We bought four acres in the country, four hours from Sydney, not far from the ocean, and near a medium-sized town with good facilities. Before moving onto it, we tested our resilience by finding a big house in the city and renting together for two years. That worked fine, so we set up a good exit agreement and went ahead with building on our land.

Our homeWe’ve ended up in what looks like a large modern home. It has three suites where each couple has a good-sized bedroom, sitting room/office, on-suite and deck. We share the kitchen, living room(s) and entertainment areas. We’re seven full years into the arrangement now.

How has this lifestyle reduced stress and improved quality of life for all of you? Feel free to give any examples of when living communally helped a tough situation resolve more easily. 

A few weeks ago, on December 31, the six of us sat down together in our lovely living room to review our year. We took turns talking through the highlights, low points and learnings of the year. As I listened to people speaking, I was overwhelmed with a sense of just how much our lifestyle has contributed to each of us. Someone said, “I feel that this year I’ve become who I always wanted to be, and that’s a result of this way of living.” Every single one of us expressed contentment about living in our cooperative household. It was an strong tribute to this unusual thing we’ve done.

As you can well imagine, we don’t live stress-free. There are differences of opinion to be worked through, minor grievances, differing priorities. We’ve had to learn to be good at communication and at give and take. But on the big things, the benefits really shine through. We’ve had injuries and surgeries, small and large (e.g. four hip replacements, one ankle fusion, one knee reconstruction). It’s been great to share the road to recovery with five other people rather than one overworked and frustrated partner.

SheddersI’d say our mental health has benefited as well. There is always someone to talk things through, to pull you out of a funk, to provide a different perspective. There are demands on our flexibility that might be challenging short-term, but long-term are making stronger, more resilient people of us.

We enjoy a lovely home and gardens, with six of us sharing the work. Rick and I go to Canada, where we were both born, every summer – and the house is cared for in our absence.

Best of all, we have a large and vibrant community around us. We profit from each other’s networks. We’ve all gained friends from my housemate’s yoga classes, our community choir, the book club, the garden club, the men’s group, the palliative care community. I’ve never had a richer circle of friends.

I couldn’t leave this question without mentioning how good it is to routinely share our evening meals together. Of course there’s always lively conversation, but best of all is someone else doing the cooking two-thirds of the time. A tiny sense of competitiveness means our meals are excellent and varied. As with most things, it wouldn’t be the same with just Rick and me.

How do you handle the obstacles that arise?

We have monthly meetings that are intended to anticipate issues coming up – expenditures, repairs, activities, guests. Every issue is a potential obstacle, but we find that by staying committed to talking things through, we avert most crises. It’s not always easy. We have to be willing to both say and hear uncomfortable things, and to deal objectively with differing opinions. It can be messy in the middle, but with careful communication, so far we’re come through every time with relationships even stronger.

Do you think we will begin to see more of this type of retirement? 

Indeed I do.

The way we live together in the western world has shifted dramatically over the last couple of centuries. We’ve changed from village living to extended family living to independent living. The opportunities and constraints of modern lifestyles are leading us in new directions.

Architects are taking an interest; many councils and local governments are making it easier for people to create communal neighborhoods. There are intentional communities, cooperative houses, communes and ecovillages, all with the purpose of bringing people together in a synergistic fashion. Each has its own advantages.

Perhaps our own situation, where we have six people co-habiting the same dwelling and closely sharing many areas of the house, is unusual. It wasn’t easy to make happen, but so far the evidence is that we’re getting the results we wanted.


Dusting the cactus

Housekeeping 4Friday is housecleaning day, and this week as usual I spent a few minutes out on the front deck sweeping the ever-resilient cobwebs off the walls, railing wires and window ledges. Our front deck is also the home of a big potted cactus, which in turn is home to several spiders and their incessant webs. And, as is often the case, I found myself whisking off the cobwebs with my brush. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was looking. After all, what kind of person dusts a cactus?

Question #3 that we Shedders are asked is, “How does housekeeping work out?” Perhaps the question relates to our experience with crazed roommates in college days, because for some reason people have a deep concern about the housecleaning angle of things. (In case you’re curious, Questions #1 and #2 are, respectively, what do you do about meals, and what happens when you don’t agree about something?)

Think about it. Never in the history of the world have two or more people who shared a home had identical ways of viewing what’s important and what’s not in the cleanliness and tidiness of things. I defy you to find an exception.

There are six of us who live here, and as you might expect, standards differ. Perhaps they don’t differ all that dramatically, as we’re all housebroken: we generally pick up after ourselves, clean up the counter after making toast, wipe the spilled milk off the floor. But also as you might expect, every single one of us has pet peeves and pet customs. For example, I can’t bear cups being left in the sink, but have no qualms about leaving rinsed items in the dishrack. Any ant who challenges me to space in my kitchen is facing imminent doom; any spiders will be carefully removed to the great outdoors Cup in the sinkwhere their job is to search out mosquitoes and eliminate them. I reckon it’s time to dust the coffee table when you can write your name in it, but am compelled to remove the first flickering of cobweb from the bemused cactus.

In other words, there’s not a great deal of consistency within this one individual. What happens when the idiosyncrasies of six people hit the exponential curve? Housemates who shall remain nameless do leave their cups in the sink, get cranky about items left in the dishrack, protect ants fiercely, spray spiders on sight, and would roll their eyes clear into the back of their heads if they caught me dusting the cactus.

So given all the possible pitfalls, Question #3 is quite a sensible one. How DO we make housekeeping work?

Well, we cover it off in three different ways.

A few good structures

In the early days, we sat down and tried to establish some housekeeping accountabilities. This has evolved into a big date-driven spreadsheet that lists all the major housekeeping tasks (categorised by weekly, fortnightly, monthly, etc.) along with who has agreed to do them. This document is useful because it reminds us what we’ve agreed to, allows us to keep track of what we’ve done recently and what needs doing, and lets other people know what’s been done (in case it’s not obvious).

Another structure we use is a regular cleaning time, currently Friday mornings. You can do your cleaning any time you wish, but if you want to join in the fun and take advantage of group energy, Friday morning is the time to do it.

We also use a guideline for duration: roughly an hour and half. It’s just a guideline, and we often find ourselves happily stuck into something that eats up a few hours—but the guideline helps address the issue of fairness. Of course at our age, we’re far too mature to be concerned about such trivialities, but, well, you know, just in case.

Timely communication

There’s no getting around the miserable fact that nothing will work without communication, and its joyous corollary that anything can be worked out with communication.

When it’s just your partner, it’s easy: you can nag, whinge or shout. But with housemates, an extra bit of sophistication and skill is required. Some issues we handle (sensitively and professionally, of course) in our monthly house meetings; some are brought up over dinner; some we settle with one-on-one conversations.

Truth be told, we rarely have these conversations. Occasionally a health and safely issue will arise. Could you not leave your boots in the entrance to the door (where I trip over them)? Could you please put your crackers in an airtight container (so they don’t invite unwanted guests?)

But most issues get addressed through our final and most important way of dealing with them:

An accepting attitude

All of us Shedders have said at one time or other, in one way or other, that it’s the process of getting along, of accommodating differences, of practicing acceptance, that helps keep us flexible and strong. I know that if left entirely to my own devices, I would surely calcify. Life might be easier, but I’m not sure it would be good for me. When Fred’s cups are left in the sink (there are no Freds here; that’s how I’m protecting individual privacy), it’s a gentle reminder to me that there are more important things in life to worry about. It gives me a glimpse into Fred’s life and priorities, if I chose to take it. I can have an internal rant or I can practice some empathy. As the latter is the route to world peace, it’s not a bad thing to have the opportunity to practice it at the kitchen sink.

The importance of my opinions is just another thing I can work on Shedding.

I will, however, continue to dust the cactus.


Eve, Heather & Fiona

Eve, Heather & Fiona

For those of you who’ve been following the rise to fame of the Shedders:

Eve was recently contacted by Fiona Wyllie of ABC Radio in Port Macquarie, and she and I were interviewed last week on drive-time radio. Here’s a link to the session.

There’s nothing like warm breeze on skin

I can remember with great clarity an incident when I was perhaps 10 years old, staying in the city with my aunt and her family. One morning she came wandering into the living room where I had been sleeping on the couch. She was completely and astonishingly in the nude, fumbling about and saying, “Darling, I’ve lost my glasses. Can you help me find them?” She was voluptuous and I was very impressed with her unfettered nature. I quickly collected myself and found her glasses for her—but it was one of those defining events. I was destined to be more liberal from that moment on.

Other than the odd glimpse like that, it’s a bit of a mystery to me what people get up Naked 2to in the privacy of their own homes. I rarely ask anything like, “Do you sleep in the buff? Do you wander around your bedroom with no clothes on? Do you stroll about the kitchen making your morning coffee on a warm day with it all hanging out? Do you sunbake in your back garden? Do you go to nudist events?” These questions just don’t tend to rise to the top in casual conversation. You and I talk about the gardens and the kids, about pollution and war and peace and the economy—but not about nudity.

Is that because it’s such a non-event or is it because it’s an awkward subject? Perhaps the charge that hangs on around nudity relates to the WASP background that lurks in many of our pasts. Or perhaps it’s genetic memory of the glacial ice ages that kept our ancestors cuddled in their furs. Whatever the cause, culturally we’re funny about nakedness. In my experience, families can be pretty relaxed about nudity until the kids hit their teenage years, when suddenly a cloud of deep modesty descends on a household. And even if you’re comme tu veux about it all, the odds are that you rug up when you’re staying over at a friend’s or sharing vacation time with others. It’s strong programming.

At any rate, somehow it’s come to pass that I’d be surprised if you showed up on my doorstep au naturel, and you’d likely be surprised if I answered the doorbell in that state.

You can see where this is going. Knowing we Shedders are a closely knit group of old friends who now share a house together, you could be forgiven for thinking we are a liberal, free-wheeling bunch. Those of you who’ve read Shedders might remember an incident where on one of our first holidays together, we stripped down one brightly-moonlit night and dived into the surf together. But here’s a truth that surprises me when I think about it: since then we have not seen other naked in a public area of our house. I have yet to meet up with a housemate in the kitchen without at least a touch of modest coverage, nor to watch television on a hot summer’s evening in the privacy of our entertainment room without my gear on.

The six of us had an open and wide-ranging conversation on the subject earlier this week, after dinner and a glass or two of wine. The topic was initiated by Housemate X, who said something like, “If this were my house, I’d feel free to walk around on a warm day without clothing…But WAIT!—it is my house. So why aren’t I doing that?!”

Good question, I thought. Isn’t that bizarre that, ground-breaking as we are (and relaxed as we are in our personal spaces about no-clothes), in all our six or so years of living together, we haven’t developed any conventions allowing some public nakedness. Rather, we’ve fallen straight into the standard cultural tradition of clothing-on-always. When I think about it in those terms, I’m astonished. Embarrassed, even.

Anyway, the dinner table conversation got interesting from there. We took turns expressing our views and no doubt represented most of the positions you would expect of anyone in our society discoursing on the subject.

We said things like:

  • It’s a question of freedom—of doing what feels good.
  • It’s a question of intimacy—letting you see me in my outer warts-and-all builds trust that I am letting you see my inner warts-and-all.
  • It’s a question of propriety and reputation—we live in the country; we already live unconventionally and that’s distracting enough without giving local people more to worry about.
  • It’s a question of comfort—there is only a thin range of temperature when you’d even want to be without clothes; it’s either too cold or you get too sweaty for the furniture.
  • It’s a question of hygiene. (No need to explain further.)

Although views were strongly expressed, and at times appeared to be contradictory, when I stood back far enough, I could see that there was no significant difference of opinion on the subject. The issue of freedom was more (or less) important to some; the issue of other people’s reaction was more (or less) important. But basically we were all saying we wanted to do nothing that would discomfit visitors and nothing that would unduly constrain ourselves. I didn’t sense that anyone would be offended at the sight of another of us in the buff; none of us seems to have a high level of modesty. Interestingly, no one raised the issue of body image, which is often core to the question of nakedness. Although we’re as wrinkly, bulgy and lopsided as the rest of the world, I’m not sure this is an issue for us.

To me it boils down to the fact that we are a communal household, trying to merge our personal lives with those of other people—and that we suppress ourselves in this area.

At any rate, we bared ourselves (metaphorically) more than usual in the conversation. We didn’t make any resolutions but paved the way for a more mindful, less automatic way of being. There’s nothing to be done but try it on (or off as the case may be) and see what happens.

Perhaps there’ll be something new to get used to as I wander into the kitchen first thing in the morning!

* * *

On my computer screen beside the Word document I’m working on, photos of my Naked 4children as toddlers slide-show past—racing on the beach in the buff, free and filled with the delight of the feel of the world on skin. Not a bad way for people to live, even older, wrinklier people.

As a culture, we do tend to make a big deal about nudity. It seems like a small thing on which to pin our concerns. Off with our burkas and onto the beach! Really, who cares?

Naked 1


IMG_8513The six of us who share a household here on Mitchells Island call ourselves the Shedders. Why? The prosaic version is that we have on our property a Shed that has long been central to our existence. The more complex aspect of the story is our quest to shed all those things that get in the way of living successful lives – and living closely connected to one another.

When I consider this shedding thing, it seems to me that human beings are designed very strangely. Contrast us for example with the butterfly: it starts off as an egg, sheds that coating to become a worm and in turn sheds that coating to become the vibrant winged vision I’m watching dance on the fuchsia outside my window. Or how about the cat? – old and unwanted fur just falls to the ground and no worries about that; too much licking and up comes a fur ball – no worries about that either. Life goes on for most of earth’s species without the need to hang on to old carapaces, old memories, old things that were once important to survival.

But look at your standard human being: we are unable to resist adding and adding to our lives. Another pound, another pair of shoes, a newer toaster, a bigger motorised tool. Every day we increase the larder with a new opinion, another judgement, a few new attitudes and a handful of good reasons. Into our yearly stockpiles go thousands of photos, several birthday cards, trinkets and seashells and ocean-tumbled rocks. Our computer filing systems get bigger and more complex; remember when a kilobyte was a nice little piece of data? How did megabytes and gigabytes and terabytes happen?

There’s my internal memory bank as well. I try to remember the name of every person I meet, the author of each book I read, the plotline of every movie I see. I struggle to retain the names in the news, the places where good is being done, or evil. I polish childhood memories and plans in the making.

I can turn and glance at the shelf behind me, on which sits a phone charger for a phone I no longer use, a Japanese fan given to me by an old workmate, a points calculator from my Weight Watcher days, a box set of Desperate Housewives (hand on heart: it belongs to my daughter), some big favourite old children’s books in case of the occurrence of grandchildren, a dozen glossy 8 x 10’s from my darkroom days, course materials I’ll need if I ever want to teach a Presentations course again…that’s enough; I’m too embarrassed to continue.

Can’t you feel the weight of it as it all adds up? I can tell you with certainty: no butterfly or cat ever approached life like that.

Unlike the luckier butterfly, we humans seem genetically programmed to accumulate. Perhaps the larger the stockpile our distant ancestors had, the greater was their chance of living to pass on their genes. Nature proceeded to select the accumulators for the survival of the race. In modern times, where many of us experience day-to-day comfort and live three times as long, that means it’s easy for us to get burdened. Shedding is an uncomfortable, conscious, thought-driven process.

Housemate Judy dropped by my desk a couple of days ago to say goodbye. She’s off to Canberra for a few weeks to be with her sister who is dying of cancer. Judy leaned against the door frame for a while and talked about how this is going to be an opportunity to confront and rid herself of anything that has got in the way of experiencing her deep feelings for her sister, as well as of her fears about death. She spoke of the unexamined concerns that haunt her as she heads toward that inevitable end herself. Judy is on mission to shed a big burden.

As a committed Shedder, I get a glimpse each day of what this means for me. Like Judy, I’ll work on relinquishing resistance to ageing and death. I could afford to leave behind fear of being left out and guilt about past sins. How about letting go of some of my bad habits: procrastination, second helpings, Spider? Perhaps I could even jettison that boxed set of Desperate Housewives that I’m pretty sure Jenn doesn’t want any more either.

So, some 10 or so years ago when the six of us sat around the coffee table and decided to call ourselves the Shedders [read the chapter here…, or get the whole book here…], we heard the undefined call of the need to get rid of excess baggage. Not only did each of us see the value of travelling through the rest of our lives as lightly as we could, but we recognised that for us to travel together we were going to need to let go of a lot of attitudes and opinions. To share space in a flexible and accepting manner we would need to travel light. No more carrying three sets of china – or grudges. No more holding on to half-loved artwork – or opinions about others’ artwork. No more harbouring resentments and grievances. Time to lighten up.

To go through life, consciously noticing and shedding all the excess baggage, in the company of committed partners – that has to be a good thing. Surely Mother Nature would approve, even though she’s stacked the deck against me. But what a job! And it’s never finished. I am driven to accumulate and I drive myself to keep shedding, in an endless cycle.

Sigh. Now, to do something about the fur balls I’ve been gathering on that shelf behind me…

“I do”

I’ve told a number of stories through Shedders and in the course of this blog about how we regulate ourselves and how decisions get made here in Shedder-land. We carved out our own path, through much discussion. So you can imagine how startled I was to stumble upon a system of self-governance that seems to have pipped us at the post by almost two hundred years.

Sociocracy, it’s called. I learned about it from Meg, a Sydney friend who is intent on establishing a co-housing community and is exceptionally well-read on anything to do with communal living. My first reaction to the word was the same scepticism I bring to any reference to “ocracies” – autocracy, democracy, meritocracy, plutocracy, not to mention rogue-ocracies like monarchies and dictatorships. But by the time I had finished reading Meg’s material about sociocracy (plus exhaustive Wikipedia coverage), I was rapt.

Although the term sociocracy has a long and respectable history, I can’t remember having encountered it (or its pioneers, including Auguste Compte in 1851, Lester Frank Ward in 1881, Kees Boeke in mid-1900s). However, its core principles are air-I-breathe familiar. I have applied them to family life and to my teams in business. And here in the Shedders community we operate by them.

For the purpose of a small group like ours, I could sum up the action as follows:

  1. Much discussion about issues
  2. Arrival at consensus.

Many years ago, as the Shedders began looking at properties, we had a long conversation about how decisions would be made. Well, we said, important decisions, like what property we buy and what kind of a house we design for ourselves, must be agreed to by everyone. Anyone could have the power of veto.

We contemplated “majority rules”. Would there ever be a situation where we would just take a vote and slam down the gavel?

Rick trained us in “straw polls”, which means that at any point during a discussion, you can take a quick vote to give an indication of whether people are anywhere near consensus. A straw poll vote can make someone’s point of view visible, or open up a new avenue of discussion.

But, we agreed, voting doesn’t work for arriving at a decision. You and I have often experienced being out-voted on something. Myself, I don’t like it, and sometimes find it hard to be generous afterward. I might find myself colluding with someone else who was voted down; the words “I told you so” are close at hand. There’s a completely different atmosphere when a group has stayed with an issue long enough to arrive at consensus.

I’m not especially patient. Once I’ve figured something out, I want it to happen right now. It’s not easy to sit on my hands while talk-talk-talk goes on and people get their heads around the issues and likely consequences. It’s also not easy to allow myself to absorb somebody else’s ideas and see that it might be smart to abandon a position I’ve held strongly.

But I know from a thousand occasions that talk-talk-talk works. Something magical happens when we take time to really see an issue through. It’s been the core of our Shedder successes (and the core of our failures when we neglect it).

There was a time when some of us wanted hundreds of acres for our communal property and others wanted a no-hassle little plot; when some of us wanted to be deep in the hills and others on the ocean; when some of us wanted custom-built and others to adapt something that already existed. Big differences. But after hours Eve Rainbow photo 18 Mar 2013and hours and hours of discussion, of being willing to listen, of being willing to talk when we felt our idea wasn’t going to be popular, we somehow arrived at this particular house in this particular location with this particular ambiance.

All the other ideas, positions, notions went away somewhere – they just dissolved as we flowed toward decisions that worked for this thing that was larger than the sum of us. Over and over I was awed to find us in agreement about something that had seemed impossible at one time. As the other’s values, reasons and longings became transparent to me, I could let go of my own small point of view.

Sociocracy makes this key point: there might be a decision that you like, that feels right for you, but you have to be able to step back and look at what is right for the group. The group is something else, something more than you. That takes a lot of letting go.

After all the talk comes consent.

Here’s an example of what I mean: If you’ve been reading Shedders, you’ll know that I’ve had a long struggle coming to terms with removing the hoard of pines that live on our four acres here. Hundreds of them had to come down to create a safety zone for the house, and hundreds of others to provide us with view. The problem is that I like pines; any self-respecting Canadian would like pines. But here in my adopted country, they are an invasive species. They spread like wildfire and they can de-Australianise a landscape over the course of a couple of decades. So we kept removing them.

Nonetheless, some 30 or so at the bottom of our hill survived the purges.

Until the recent one.

I was uneasy about losing these remaining pines, in particular four or five old-timers, each with a 10 metre span of sweeping branches. But because I could see it was important to the others that this lower area be restored to its natural Australian bush state, I agreed the pines could go. I consented.

Sort of.

On the day the last massive tree fell, my true colours emerged.

I looked down the hill in profound shock. My oasis of green and shade and healthy growth and forest floor was GONE – never to return. I was devastated. When I went IMG_0248down the hill I would burst into tears; I couldn’t sit even on the side of the table where I might accidently glance in that direction.

It took me a couple of weeks of suffering before I started sharing about it with my housemates, acknowledging my deep-seated emotions and ‘fessing up to bad thoughts I’d had.

Sociocracy focuses on transparency and trust. Had I been transparent and trusting a few weeks earlier, I could have saved myself considerable misery. As sociocracy advises, I am looking to give my full consent, wholeheartedly and after luxuriant consideration – to understand what is good for our community beyond what feels good for myself. To say “I do” and mean it.

The three philosophers I mentioned earlier, who propelled the notion of sociocracy into existence, had big dreams for it: the emergence of “a new spirit breaking through” among humankind. “May it be,” Kees Boekes said, “that after the many centuries of fear, suspicion and hate, more and more a spirit of reconciliation and mutual trust will spread abroad…practice and education will provide the real solution to all world problems.”

Well, that might be a while coming. But meantime, we’ll continue giving it an informal workout at Mitchells Island.

Keeping things cool

Let me tell you a story about group decision-making – essential reading for communal dwellers.

When the Shedders moved into our new shared home, we brought with us two refrigerators from our previous lives. We contributed them to the community and popped them into the kitchen. This will do for the moment, we said. We’ll try it all on for a few months and then design the right solution.

That was three and a half years ago. As I confessed a few posts back, we don’t tend to rush into decision-making here.

Here is the story, plus, with benefit of hindsight, the rules of the game:

1.     No point fussing until somebody develops serious unease.

Before any action ever gets taken, somebody’s got to be uncomfortable with the current situation. In our case, for most of our first three years together we had only two couples living in the house. Two fridge-freezers for four people worked fine. No unease.

Then a few months ago Michael and Judy arrived permanently, bringing with them their own food, food tastes, and food storage preferences. Suddenly there I was, sharing a fridge, losing track of my cheese, neglecting the celery until it turned to mush, and accidentally drinking someone else’s milk.

Combine this problem with that posed by our fertile gardens, which are churning out enough vegetables to feed a neighbourhood. Suddenly the freezer compartments were full of tomatoes and zucchini. When you start freezing produce, you soon discover a freezer compartment holds very little.

Our casual conversations about, “We really must do something about our fridge space,” turned into, “We’d better get to Bing Lee and buy something now.”

I, all of us, really, had developed serious unease. Time for action.

2.     Be prepared for the oddest opinions to emerge.

So the six of us sat down after dinner a few nights ago to work out what we wanted, while an amiable houseguest cleaned up the dishes.

You might be amazed at how complex this issue of cold storage became.

For example, there were varying views about energy efficiency. How many stars should you have? What kilowatt usage? And what difference did the ratings make anyway?

There were opinions about quality and appearance. Did we need a water cooling unit in the door? Upright freezer or chest? Frost free? Stainless steel? Did everything have to match? Should we keep one of our existing fridges?

There were issues about configuration. What we wanted wouldn’t fit/would fit just fine, depending on who you talked to. A new freezer would have to go downstairs/must not go downstairs.

There were of course varying judgements about price. Why not spend the money and buy exactly what we wanted? Rather, why spend money we didn’t really need to? Why not get something that would still suit us ten years from now?

A surprising debate came up about freezer space. Michael said he didn’t care if we had ANY freezer space: his family had never owned a freezer and he’d only ever used the freezer compartment for ice cubes and ice-cream; you should eat your food fresh. I was aghast. My family always had a freezer the size of a Volkswagen; you can’t have a garden and you can’t buy in scales of economy without one. Ghosts from the past that we hadn’t even dreamed of were haunting the table.

Needless to say, the atmosphere got a little thick. There was no shouting, but barely-detectable threads of sulking, sarcasm, bewilderment and righteousness began to weave their way into the discussion. I was aware that I had strong views and felt that nobody was listening to me. I was perhaps less aware that exactly the same thing was happening for everyone else.

As some point we pushed our chairs back from the table. Well, we’re not going to solve this tonight, we said. That’s enough for now.


3.     You’ve got to get unattached.

I awoke in the middle of the night. Somewhat to my surprise I discovered that I wasn’t so much concerned about getting my way, as I was about the condition our little community was in. We certainly weren’t in BAD shape, but we were teetering near a couple of nasty precipices: one was that no decision would be made at all and we’d fall into another month or year of discomfort; another was that somebody would get railroaded into something they didn’t like.

So there, eyes wide open in bed, I saw that I’d formed a view and hadn’t been willing to look at other options. And I saw that that in itself was enough to kill off other people’s being able to listen and think openly. I recalled that I’m wrong a good deal of the time and when I finally get down to really listening I always discover something. I began to realise that I could actually trust any one of my housemates to make a decision that would give us more and better cold storage space.

It was liberating.

So then I thought, still lying there eyes wide open: what would have us all get unattached and aligned?

A plan formed.

I hopped out of bed and got out several sheets of paper – enough for each of the suggestions that had been floated the night before. I roughly mapped each of the ideas against our floor space, discovering to my delight that one centimetre on the paper nicely equalled one metre in our kitchen. Even better, did you know that a post-it note is about the size of a fridge on that scale?

I drew a box on each sheet for calculating the important numbers: fridge and freezer Fridge charts photocapacity, total cost of purchase. There was room left over for a big “S” and “W” where we could record our speculations about the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal.

These plans were wisely labelled Plan A, B, C, D etc. (as opposed to “Heather’s”, “Daniel’s”, “Michael’s” etc.).

It was a work of art, and best of all, I was no longer attached.

4.     Strike while the iron is hot.

The next morning, after a big sleep-in, I showed the plans around and left them on the kitchen bench. Through the day, there were spontaneous discussions about pros and cons, costs, optimal arrangements.

We set a make-up-our-minds meeting for late afternoon, and ended up taking less than half an hour to come to a unanimous decision about what we wanted. Michael confirmed our preferences with Choice magazine online and we ordered the items (one new fridge and one new freezer; keeping one older fridge) the next morning.

Yesterday, all the units slid into place.

5.     Be satisfied.

The solution isn’t perfect – given life’s constraints, it was never going to be perfect. But it’s excellent and that’s enough.

We’re set.

One decision down (and a gazillion to go).

Managing the beast within

On the subject of questions we Shedders are often asked (last week’s post was about food), here’s another one: people wonder how we are able to live amicably in close quarters, and how we resolve the issues that must come up among us.

It’s a question at the heart of everyone’s concerns about co-housing – really, about living in close relationship with anyone. Most of us enjoy people and are enlivened by having them around, but are wary of our ability to handle discord when it arises. And we all know from experience that there will be discord whenever we let peSuess conflictople get close to us. Broken friendships, acrimonious divorces, bitter family Christmases, disgruntled co-workers, long-held grudges – these are the everyday things that haunt our lives and try to teach us not to be too generous with our intimacy.

So it’s no wonder that people look at what the Shedders have done, supposedly with our eyes wide open, and wonder how on earth we make it work. How did we get to a point where we were confident enough in our ability to manage conflict that we would consider living together?

Case in point: a while ago, there was a sizeable upset in our household. Like all upsets, it was complicated and simple at the same time: simple because it wasn’t about much, complicated because so many tendrils from the neglected past came along as well. I’ll spare you the details, other than to say the context was housecleaning (wouldn’t you guess?) and the argument was about not being included in decision-making.

At any rate, there I was, running the mop across our hardwood floors, when Michael and Eve fell into a rather strong shouting match in the kitchen nearby. Or more accurately, Michael was shouting and Eve was raising her voice to un-Eve-like levels while trying not to dissolve into tears.

I don’t think anybody actually said, “Your mother wears army boots”, but that was the tenor of the conversation. I won’t deprive you of all the juice: they did say nasty things like, “You’re acting like a petulant child,” and “You’re quite the princess.”

As for myself, my chest tightened as it does whenever disagreement threatens, and I and my mop backed off to safer territory. I knew I should be in there helping to resolve the issue, but I settled for feeling guilty about being helpless in the face of conflict.

It’s safe to say the Shedders were role-modelling absolutely nothing of value.

Here I want to interrupt the story and go back over a number of years.

Since Rick and I arrived in Australia thirty years ago, we’ve done a string of personal development courses, in particular programs relating to The Landmark Forum and to the Human Awareness Institute. What did I get out of all that learning? Well – more than I could document in a year of blogging, but a couple of things stand out front: I gained a tolerance for other people’s differences AND I learned a lot about communication. Tolerance and improved communication. Not a bad result.

This is where the rest of the Shedders come in. They too were doing the same kind of programs. Over the years, as we started to learn about each other, become friends, and spend time together – and especially when we took on this mad co-housing project – we discovered that we had learned a lot of useful shorthand through all that study that could bail us out when trouble arose.

Let’s go back to the dust-up in the kitchen, with all these well-trained people. For a few minutes there you wouldn’t have guessed anybody had ever done courses in anything. Eve fled to her bedroom, Michael slammed cupboard doors and I mopped back and forth in my safety zone.

However, the power of our background training kicked in a few minutes later. I cautiously approached Michael and spoke with him for awhile, hearing him out and watching the adrenalin ebb. I went down the hall and found Eve, cocooned in her bedroom with her husband Daniel; that ended with the three of us having a good laugh at ourselves. Within an hour Eve and Michael had caught a few minutes together out on the balcony. I don’t know what happened there but they emerged smiling and more deeply connected than ever.

Just as important, we all learned something about ourselves and each other.

Here’s what Eve said when I spoke with her about it several days later: “It was okay that I expressed my anger: that allowed me to get to the hurt underneath. My upset wasn’t about Michael; it was never about Michael; it was just me feeling like I wasn’t doing a good enough job and wasn’t being acknowledged. The tears washed everything away. I was ready for healing with Michael and I know he was with me. It’s just too painful to be out of relationship with people…and now paradoxically I feel closer to him than ever before.

One thing is obvious: in spite of all the courses we’ve done, we Shedders are as susceptible to being hurt, to getting irritated, to flaring anger as anyone else on the planet.

Less obvious is that, for all of the ten years we’ve been involved in this co-housing project, we’ve been able to use the principles of our training to get us out of hot water when the upsets occur, as they have many, many times.

What principles did we bring into play on this occasion?

I’ll pick three:

  1. I’ve learned to forgive myself, quick. It bothers me no end that I’m such a faint-hearted fighter. But I reminded myself that I’m only human, doing the best I can, and forgave myself. That left me free to help Michael and then Eve forgive themselves.
  2. I try to remind myself that my version of what’s happened is most definitely not The Truth. Each of us has a story about what went on that comes more from our own complex past than from what really occurred. Once we all began to realise that we’d been deeply plugged into the beat of some long-past drummer, we could forgive each other.
  3. I refocus on the Main Game. There is a profound moment during a conflict when I can breathe deeply enough to ask myself, “What is my Main Game here?” In this case, it was a question of reminding myself that I want to build a life with these housemates; I want to be sharing enthusiasm with them when I’m 80. As soon as I remembered this, my perspective shifted.

So, considering that conflict is inevitable when people live in proximity, you might have another question in mind: Is it all worth it? Why not just keep a safe distance and avoid the pain? As someone who has a deep-seated aversion to roiling the waters, I ask the question myself. Why choose to live in a situation where I will regularly have to deal with differences of opinion, confront my wimpiness and make myself heard?

Well, the truth is that this is the stuff that keeps me young: living a safe life may be more comfortable but research on ageing suggests that having to deal with change and minor conflict makes for a more active brain. Even more important: I have the benefit of these vibrant, lively, energetic people close by in my life. I get to learn from them and I get to live life more fully.

No contest. Count me in.