Taking the full measure of life

Living in community

February 25th, 2011 · 6 Comments

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This is going to be one of my enormous posts. . . .

I’m in a funk the last few days, and I’m desperately trying to both listen to what it means in my life and pull myself out of it.

I recently returned from a trip to Wisconsin, where I went to teach and coach Tilth clients, but also to visit with a friend who had a baby last year.  We’ve been friends since middle school, and we both moved away from Atlanta a little over a year ago.  Another friend flew in part of the time to hang out with us, as well.  Beyond good social times, our purpose in visiting was to help care for our WI friend, who’s had a rough time lately.  While we were there, I cooked most of the meals, and the three of us ladies got rid of some serious accumulated clutter in the apartment . . . and did a bunch of reorganizing.  (When you have a baby, I guess everyone gives you toys for the child.  Savings bonds, people! Gift certificates for museums! Things that don’t accumulate in limited space are awesome.) Every night, I went to bed (often later than I meant to, after staying up talking) and slept HARD.  I was physically and emotionally tired by the end of each day.  I don’t mean to entirely idealize the trip; there were times when all of us got a bit frustrated with the others, I think, as will happen when people know each other well.  But overall, being there and doing what we did was a nourishing experience—in both the giving and receiving senses.

On the flight home, I grew distraught.  After my layover in Las Vegas, I spent the rest of the flight fighting back tears.  Five minutes after my husband picked me up (bringing along our beloved dog Lily to greet me), I burst into tears in the car—serious, sobbing crying.  I told him that I didn’t know entirely why, but I was just overcome.  And lonely in LA, and extremely tired of feeling that way.  When I left Atlanta, I had an amazing group of girlfriends who saw each other pretty regularly and had a great mix of similar and different values and beliefs. (Most of us have moved to other cities in the last year.) I also had several other close friends I saw intermittently.  Even there, though, there were times I felt lonely.  In LA, I have several people on the cusp of being friends, but I don’t have a group at all . . . even after 14 months of being here.  And I’m usually a social connector in a big way: I tend to pull people who have similar interests and beliefs together to make groups of great, real, loving friends.  Here . . . that just hasn’t happened.

But as I’ve continued to be distraught over the last few days, I’ve started wondering if maybe there’s something more that I actually crave, too.

You know how in many countries, people live with their families their whole lives? Houses aren’t just one generation but several, all piled in, all there to give each other support and drive each other crazy.  Family members take care of the various chores through some division of labor they determine.  People who live there might be stifled, and through the existential sort of angst we all feel from time to time, they may feel lonely.  But they aren’t ever really alone.

I don’t want to live with my actual family—many times, we manage to drive each other crazy well enough from many miles apart—but I do think there’s a part of me that craves that type of lifestyle in some ways.

I grew up in a household of six people.  Until I left for college, I lived in a small Southern town where part of my family has lived since the late 1700s; nearly everyone knows nearly everyone there, and while it can feel quite stifling at times, people take care of each other and, in some sense, give recognition to each other’s everyday lives. In college, I usually cooked dinner for between six and eight people each night.  They each contributed some money, and while it actually still was too expensive for me (I was seriously broke, paying my own way through school after my parents’ divorce), the psychic value of that contribution and social time was enormous for me.  I lived in an apartment with between two and five other ladies, and while six women living together was maybe too many, four (usually) worked out nicely.  After college, unlike many people I know, I never wanted to live alone. (I did live alone for a while, but I never wanted to.) When I lived alone, I got cable for the first time because I hated how lonely it made me feel to wander around an empty apartment. During and after college, I worked in community development in low-income neighborhoods where, over time, I was somewhat accepted, sometimes even embraced, and I cherished that. One of the greatest things I value about marriage is the loving physical presence of my spouse at home with me. I’ve often joked that if I lived in the 1800s, I’d be the woman who runs the boarding house for a living.

I’ve spent the last few (intermittently teary and despondent) days thinking through what all of this emotion means:

Does it mean I want us to start a family at this point? I don’t think so.  I am pretty sure I want children . . . but not now. In the midst of building my business and with Dan only a year out from his life-consuming PhD thesis, the prospect of a child’s immense needs just feels exhausting.

Does it mean LA just isn’t the right place for me? Sometimes I feel like it’s harder to find the right people to be my friends here.  But it is the second largest city in the US, so even if we only count the people I can easily reach in LA traffic, that’s still a LOT of folks I haven’t met or haven’t gotten a chance to know well. I do think that people have locations that fit or don’t fit.  In many ways, I absolutely love Santa Monica, and I love the convenience of, for example, having five Whole Foods stores within three miles of us. (LA has a crazy number of Whole Foods stores.) But I also terribly miss huge amounts of trees, many visible stars, absolute quiet, Atlanta’s affordable foodie scene (surprisingly good), and affordable housing. . . . Still, that kind of decision feels premature, especially given that my husband absolutely loves his job and is treated well there. (And for other cities, they would pay pretty well; in LA . . . as thankful as I am for his job, I hope he gets a pretty big raise this year.)

Does it mean I need to volunteer more? Maybe. . . . Between my paid work and my pro bono work with Tilth, I’m already busy with things that don’t yet pay very well, and I do volunteer weekly as a Big with Big Brothers/Big Sisters. I have signed up for a volunteer session at the LA Community Food Bank in a couple of weeks, as a one-off thing.  We’ll see if I can add more over time.

Does it mean I need to go out of my way more to make friends? Yes, definitely.  I was already planning to cut back on the number of classes I’m teaching each month (which take a lot of prep work) to give me more time to work on my first cookbook, and doing that will also free up more weekend time to see other people when they tend to be off.  It means I need to reach out more to people I’ve already met and liked while also figuring out ways to connect with potential new friends. I’ve signed up for several more Meetup activities. I’ve also realized that being part of the simplicity circle I initiated in Atlanta was one of the best ways I found to create and further develop meaningful friendships, so I’m putting out info to try to create one on LA’s westside now. (If you might be interested, let me know!)

Does it mean I want or need a part-time job where I interact with the same people on a daily basis? That might help.  Though there are many things about office politics and environments that I don’t miss, I do miss having co-workers (I just love people); having a unified sense of purpose with others (especially where the work is something I believe in); having meaningful work that is somewhat set out for me (even though I’m huge on being a self-starter, I miss things like the natural seasons of work I had in my previous jobs); and, of course, the regular paychecks that come at regular intervals. Even though I’m a much more sensitive person than my husband, he’s much more introverted than I am.  He satisfies most of his needs for companionship by joint projects at work.  That’s no big fix for my life, but it would probably abate some of my loneliness. . . . At the same time, I need a good number of hours free for my business, so a job that offered 25-25 hours a week would probably be ideal.

Do I need to be at a church? Joining the Episcopal Church as an adult is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I love the liturgies, the thoughtfulness, the community, the reflection, the seasons. . . . However, though I liked it fine (and think church is largely what you make of it), my husband didn’t feel engaged at the closest Episcopal church to our apartment, and despite talking about it, we haven’t made our way to try out the next closest one.  That’s something we are planning to do in the next couple of weeks.

I had all these thoughts. Then I remembered that when I was reading books on simplicity, and right before we moved out here, I read a good bit about cohousing and cooperative living—not in the share-everything-at-a-commune sense of it, but in the sense of shared space with shared duties.  The benefits of living in community with maybe fewer of the drawbacks of living with family. . . .

Does it mean that I wish Dan and I had roommates of some sort? Or that we lived in some sort of cohousing situation?

I think maybe so. . . . This is an answer that kind-of surprises me.  But the only situation like that at all near us is near downtown LA in a very urban environment that’s not what I really want.

In the last couple of days, there are two competing visions that I’ve come up with that I think would help satisfy my urge to live in community.

Option 1. Create some kind of healthy co-housing environment in or near Santa Monica.

On our own, the most Dan and I can afford at this point is a 2-BR apartment.  But with the cost divided up equally, we could spend about what we do now and live in a 3-BR house with 2-3 additional roommates.  Certainly there are some drawbacks to the idea, but with the right people, I think it could be a solidly net positive thing to do. (With the cost of living, it’s much more common to have roommates in LA than in other places where my friends live.) We would need to maintain a gluten-free kitchen for my safety, but there are plenty of people who are avoiding gluten. Because I work from home and do a lot of recipe development, and because many people who live alone struggle to cook, for the cost of groceries, I could offer dinner (Paleo-focused, with pastured meat and local, organic vegetables) 4-5 nights a week for everyone who lived there.  We could jointly have a garden in the yard.  We might be able to find a house with a pool.  Dan and I don’t watch tv (didn’t even own a tv until his coworker moved and left us hers), so we could either find other people who aren’t into tv or people who were happy to limit it or keep it in their bedrooms.  We could have more space, and I could have more built-in interaction.  There are certainly caveats, but given our connections to the CrossFit community, it might not be hard to find people who want to live the kind of lifestyle we do in terms of sustainability, quality food, etc.

Option 2.  Move into a larger apartment or small house, and host visiting students from other countries.

One of the things I love most about LA is its cultural diversity.  On a given day, I hear at least 5-6 languages being spoken as I walk the dog, shop for groceries, work at the coffee shop, etc. It is pretty common for students from other countries to visit the United States to learn English or take classes, do internships, etc. and stay in the homes of local residents.  Dan has traveled a pretty enormous amount and lived in several countries, and I’ve traveled some. Also, Dan speaks some Japanese, and I’d love to learn more Spanish than I now know. Hosting (particularly gluten-free) students who need a homestay could be an interesting way to help nurture others while encouraging ourselves to explore the city and other cultures.  I think, at least initially, we would primarily want people who are already adults to stay with us, but I could see sponsoring a homestay for a child later on, too.

So those are big changes we’re ruminating on at this time. We’ll see what conclusions we come to. . . .

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Hannah S-Q // Feb 26, 2011 at 7:33 pm


    I love how gutsy you are about honestly listing what conditions might make you feel better. I don’t think I’ve quite gotten there–I’m so single-minded in my focus of just helping Pele and getting through the day that I don’t think of these things, but I should. I think it would help get me out of this stuck mentality.

    I have to admit I don’t think I could personally do the co-housing thing for numerous reasons but I can totally see how that would be attractive considering everything you mentioned. I am fascinated by what you said and I think it’s really a unique perspective.

    I’m so sorry you’re feeling isolated and haven’t connected to a community or close friends locally. That is hard. I have to admit that even after living here for almost 8 years I only have a couple friends and I rarely see them. That’s my fault, of course, but it makes me think seriously about what you said. What relationships do I need to nurture? It’s something to think about!

    I am fortunate that I live near all of my sisters and my parents, but my brother is far away. I never would’ve thought it, but apparently this closeness with my family is incredibly important to me–more important than having local friends. But I agree with what you said–I don’t think I’d ever live with my family again unless it was a situation that was sort of dire (like taking care of a parent).

    Sorry. Rambling. I think it’s also neat that clearly you have some nurturing energy that you want to share with others, outside of just the GF classes. I think your ideas of hosting students and the like are very beneficial and ambitious! A lot of people wouldn’t even recognize that in themselves much less take action on it. So kudos to you!

    Big Hugs,

  • 2 Terri // Feb 28, 2011 at 6:40 am

    Man, I wish we’d known we should talk about this when you were here. Not surprising probably, but I feel the same as you about most of this. I’ll try to email you a longer response today, but I just wanted to let you know that you aren’t alone and I love you!

  • 3 Jenn // Mar 1, 2011 at 8:12 am

    I SO feel you! I’ve been going through a lot of the same feelings for a long time. I have to say that the best thing I’ve done since I moved here was join our church. Once we found the right one (and once we moved to the town that we live in, which has a small town feel), I feel like a part of a community for the first time in a long time. It will still be a while before my new friends feel like old ones, but I’m definitely forming relationships and starting to feel more grounded here. It’s the first time I’ve felt rooted in a place since I left for college!

    I am often envious of people who have family members closeby, especially since mine and Dan’s are scattered all over the country. I’ve realized more in recent years that having some distance between me and my parents is probably better for our relationships, though I do ache to have my sister around. I love the idea of having people nearby that you can always count on, or with whom you have the kind of relationship where you can just run errands together or randomly pop over and chat for an hour or so. That can happen with friends to some extent, but it’s almost a given with family.

    I guess we just have to find ways to create our own community and sense of family wherever we are. . . and I love your ideas for doing that!

  • 4 Sam // Mar 22, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Hi Sally,

    I know I’ve commented from time to time here. But if I haven’t suggested this before, I think you may find a kindred spirit in Aldra from consciouslyfrugal.blogspot.com. She is in Long Beach, but kinda close…

    Also I’m in San Diego, if you want to meetup. I can really relate and am in a bit of a funk because people I thought were friends are turning out not to be…so I’m taking it quite hard. Feel free to email me too.

  • 5 Michelle // Apr 20, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    If you are thinking of creating a community, you may want to check out this: http://crystalwaters.org.au/ for some inspiration. I haven’t been there but the son of someone I know lives there. they find it wonderful. People have their own space but are also part of a community of people trying to build a better world and who share similar values… Just having read about your journey, it may be the kind of thing that you may be interested in visiting or looking into for some inspiration… 🙂 It’s in Australia.

  • 6 Karen // May 12, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    What a generous and powerful share. How many of us can relate to times like these? To thoughts like these? Your transparency is a breath of fresh air.

    So happy, and GRATEFUL, to have our women’s group at Espresso Cielo and our mentoring at Big Brother/Big Sister. What a weekly gift they are!

    Here’s to LA feeling more and more like home every day, Karen

    P.S. I LOVE your exchange student idea! Genius!

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