Rob Sandelin, a member of Sharingwood Community for nearly 30 years, was a prolific poster to the cohousing-l email discussion group, and positively influenced the development and growth of communities throughout the U.S. with his wisdom. Although he passed away nearly 2 years ago, his words continue to guide cohousing communities. Below is a post he made to our cohousing listserv back in 2005. Thanks to Marty Maskall of Fair Oaks EcoHousing for bringing it back to our attention.
14 years of experience living in community and visiting many others is there is a tragic mistake made in too many cohousing groups in terms of group work endeavors. The mistake is this, equality vs. happiness. I think the ultimate goal of any group context should be to maximize the happiness of its members. This where rules about work time tend to crash.
I have a partner whose greatest happiness would be to spend 8 hours in the community garden, weeding, tending plants, etc. She loves gardening and would do it for hours and hours. If we were going to be equal about it, we would need to have everybody do the same amount of hours, or cut back on her hours. Neither course induces happiness.
I have another neighbor who finds great joy in the presence and mentoring of toddlers. She dotes on the them, and it is frankly wonderful for her and the kids. She does not enjoy gardening at all.
Why is it OK to force her to garden in the name of equality? This makes no sense to me. She often volunteers to be with toddlers while their parents do various communty tasks, such as making community dinner. She loves this way to contribute. Why does it matter how many hours she contributes? She does what she loves, when she can. She is very happy living here.
My first advice is to encourage people to find what makes them happy, and then give them what they need to do that thing. If that means that one person is doing 8 hours in the garden while another is doing 2 hours fixing bikes, its OK. Find your happiness, and follow it. Then, clean the toilet now and again not to fulfill some obligation, but because you want to give service to your community, and if you do it, someone else can spend their time following their bliss.
If there are important things that don't get done, bring that up to the groups attention and see if they get done. If a regular and needful chore does not get done, then hire it out. Forcing people to do things out of some obligation, in my experience, builds resentment. In my community we have random work parties, that average about once a quarter. During those days we have lots of fun and we end the event with a party. At our last work party I laughed more than I have in quite a bit, and a couple of folks, who love to cook, made the whole group a fabulous turkey dinner.
My second advice is to measure yourself, not anybody else. If you are doing more than you want to, cut back. If you are doing less than you want to, find ways to do more. If your dad died, your sister has cancer and your dog has rabies, don't guilt trip yourself. Life in community is a continuum, measured over several years. If the world is setup at this time against your participating as much as you like, it will eventually change and you can do more later.
You also can not possibly know what are all the life factors that determine your neighbors presence or absence within the context of community work. To judge them, invites others judging you should your life requirements change your time needs. Accept people for where they are, not where you think they should be and your relationships will be better. My third and final bit of advice, find a way to say I love you to your neighbors on a regular basis. This is easily done as a small act of service and caring, such as a ride to the airport, chicken soup for someone with a bad cold, making a welcome home banner when they return from vacation. It can also be present in a warm and genuine thank you. Before he died we had a neighbor who once a week brought us wonderful homemade bread, simply his way to say he loved us. The more of this that happens, the happier and stronger your community will be. My personal choice is to live in a place where people are happy and care about each other, and if the leaves don't get raked up right away, well....I can live with that... Oh wait, Bruce is raking them up right now....