3 min

How having three roomies proved a good move

Lessons learned on the intentional community front

There’s no such thing as too much information at Queer Nation. That’s the moniker that my roommates and I have given to our eclectic household, composed of an AIDS outreach worker, a government computer analyst, a police officer and a writer. Recent dinner-table conversation topics have included the joys of prostate orgasm, the fact that kale is the new vegetable du jour, and which $10 bottle of wine should become the house red.

We also muse about when we’re finally going to get off our butts to take over the local community association and reverse its long-standing policy of targeting the sex workers who work down the street from us. Every few days, we haggle over who’s going to do the grocery shopping and clean the bathroom — you know, family stuff. Because that’s what we are to each other.

If you had told me two years ago that I would be sharing my home with three people, one bathroom and two cats, I would have laughed at you. I never thought I was one for communal living. The concept always conjured up images of white kids with dreadlocks, vegan slop, and seemingly endless consensus-building sessions. None of these things are bad per se, I’m just not the “back to the land” type. I like privacy and some degree of individual space. I spend so much of my time focussing on politics and activism, the last thing I want to do when I get home is join an impromptu committee meeting.

But at this time last year, I faced a dilemma. I had just split with my partner, and found myself in possession of a big house, an even bigger mortgage, and only the vaguest idea of how to care for it. My ex and I had already taken on two roommates in an effort to pay the bills, so when she moved out, I added one more. I decided that as a single woman, I couldn’t afford the financial or emotional burden of running a large household on my own. So I asked my housemates to pitch in. Before I knew it, I had unintentionally created an “intentional community.” And the transformation that took place in the last 12 months has left an indelible mark both on my domestic life and on my activism.

The term “intentional community” describes any group of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, like the lesbians who moved to the country in the 1970s to squat on “women’s land.”

There are lots of examples of similar communities all across North America, many of which incorporate cutting edge environmental technology and organic farming techniques to create a minimal ecological footprint, and allow residents to be relatively economically self-sufficient. In some of these communities, people live in giant dwellings, and operate much like kibbutzes in Israel. In other “co-housing” projects, people build individual residences clustered around communal dining halls and recreational spaces.

While some of these arrangements seem too labour intensive and process-laden for my taste, I now understand both the joy and utility of sharing emotional intimacies and household tasks with multiple people. It’s made my relationship with my current partner all the more joyful and spontaneous, because I haven’t relied on her to be my sole source of companionship or stability.

In 2001, Pagan Kennedy wrote an article for Ms. Magazine, explaining why she as a straight woman had chosen to build a home with her female friend. Much like I did, she swore she wouldn’t “drift into a domestic situation again.” Instead, she decided she would “find someone who shared [her] passion for turning a house into a community centre — with expansive meals, weekend guests, clean counters, flowers, art projects, activist gatherings, a backyard garden and a pile of old bikes on the porch, available to anyone needing to borrow some wheels.”

For Kennedy, living with a roommate helped address what she saw as the “scary” future of single women, writing, “we’re isolating ourselves in condos and studio apartments. And why? Sometimes because we need to bask in solitude — and that’s fine. But other times, it’s because we’re afraid to get too comfortable with our friends.”

Shayna Stock spent the summer visiting intentional communities all over Canada, and is now firmly convinced that communal living might be one of the most effective bulwarks against urban sprawl and rampant consumerism. In a recent article for Briarpatch magazine she writes, “as our society awakens to the fact that we cannot continue to live our cookie-cutter, one-car-per-person, atomized way of life, interdependence on those around us will become a critical factor in our search for solutions.”

Kennedy and Stock’s words resonated with me last week, when I read about a recently released study that traced the devastating environmental impact of divorce. When people split up, they tend to move out on their own, sending tonnes of garbage to landfills, re-purchasing furniture and household appliances, and doubling the amount of energy required to heat their living spaces.

As we face the challenges of climate change and a looming world water crisis, it seems that bunking with our friends could make a small but cumulative impact on the future of the planet. It’s sure made my dinner-table conversation a hell of a lot more interesting.