consider the quasi-commune

When I was in 8th grade, all I wanted was a new pair of Umbro soccer shorts. This style is coming back into fashion, so it might be slightly easier to understand the desire today. But my adult self has been baffled for some time by the ardency of that 8th grade desire. It had nothing to do with utility or beauty. I didn’t play soccer, and these shorts were not beautiful. They were pure signifier: of means, of ability to use those means to knit myself solidly into the status quo.

I eventually got my pair by making a deal with my parents: I wouldn’t complain on our long family hikes in Glacier; they’d buy me some Umbros. Many thousands of miles away in Vermont, Kathryn Jezer-Morton also wanted those Umbros. Her tactics were less successful.

“Buying new things was of so little interest to my parents—my dad especially—that most consumer behaviors were foreign to them,” Jezer-Morton writes in her recent piece in The Nation. “Requiring my dad to navigate a shopping mall would have been like asking him to speak a language he didn’t know.”

“I don’t blame him,” Jezer-Morton continues. “He had other interests.”

Carpentry, self-sufficiency, the natural world….and other people. “How did my parents demonstrate what they believed in? With nothing less than the very hours of their days,” she writes. “They were constantly engaged in group endeavors, whether political activism, or putting in a garden, or cooking dinner for a handful of dirty-faced children—the majority of whom were not their own. Daily life didn’t push them to their energetic limit the way it seems to for me and my peers.”

I strongly recommend reading the piece in full — Jezer-Morton is one of my favorite writers and thinkers: I delight in her Twitter account, she wrote this wonderful piece on the tenderness of daycare; when I wrote about the suburban women of QAnon and the allure of #SavetheChildren, I could’ve talked to her about her research — on momfluencers — for hours. This most recent piece, on her upbringing on a commune in Vermont, intersects with a bunch of the big, wild, hopeful thoughts I’ve been having recently about different ways of organizing our lives.

We think commune and think weird power and sexual dynamics, our thoughts ricocheting around various media depictions of commune life. But Jezer-Morton isn’t arguing that we should all move into communes (her own parents moved away from theirs when she was in their teens) so much as have larger imaginations about what collective inter-dependence could and should look like.

Communes were and are created as an antidote, or at very least an alternative, to capitalism. And the most anti-capitalistic thing about them is their clear-eyed commitment to community interdependence, which, as Jezer-Morton writes, “requires us to give up our stubborn belief in the myth that we have complete autonomy over how we spend our time.”

For most of us, that’s what’s keeping us from actual community. We recognize that systems of care and community are broken, and want to build them otherwise. We want dependability, we want intimacy, we want to spread burdens and celebrations across a wider swath of people. We want something else. But we have also been well-trained to resist inconvenience, even of the mildest sort: I want what I want, I want it this way, and at this cost, and I want it now.

I don’t mean this in the vaguely judgmental “kids these days, they want Amazon drones delivering their every need” sort of way, although that’s certainly part of it — more in the “I’ve figured out how I’m most comfortable, and I’m unaccustomed to bending my desires towards others.” The “I want to have sole control over what I watch and eat and when I watch it and eat it” sort of way, the way that conceives of dealing with the messiness of other adults, both physically and emotionally, as something that you can opt out of.

But the framework is so clearly failing us. Existences many of us understand as the height of privilege — to live absolutely alone, and thus have utter mastery over one’s choices, or to live just with a partner who does not significantly challenge those choices — have revealed themselves as vulnerabilities. We spend so much time wishing for dominion over our own spaces and lives and forget just how lonely it can be once we arrive there.

The truth is, we can’t have it all. We can’t have total control and actual security and care. Community does demand sacrifice in some form, but “sacrifice” does not have to be conceived, as it most often is, as negative; what might be lost in autonomy is gained in so many other forms.

The single family home, and the standards of living that accompanied it, were once rare — but because they incentivized more consumption, they became aspirational. The dream was to escape reliance on or proximity to other people. Now the single family home is ubiquitous, but the dream that accompanied it has soured. We unnecessarily duplicate so much labor: every household makes dinner, does dishes, does laundry. We struggle to find affordable childcare, or find coverage for each other in the case of catastrophe or illness. Our safety nets are tattered because, at least in the United States, our government has neglected them — but we, as individuals, have as well.

Broadening your imagination when it comes to close community might mean unlearning a lot of understandings about what it means to come of age. It requires destigmatizing all manner of extended family living arrangements, and rethinking eldercare in a way that’s not just “the eldest daughter does it, largely unsupported.” And, perhaps most provocatively, it means considering what more collaborative living and care scenarios would look like. That might mean living with more than one family in one home, but it might also just look like podded life, and doing even more exchange of/collaboration on childcare, cooking, chores, and general life.

As part of the research for the burnout book, I spent a lot of time thinking about the transition, over the course of the 1980s and ‘90s, from unregimented children’s play — the classic adult directive to “go play,” and then the kids go figure it out — to scheduled, parent-supervised, activity-oriented “playdates.” Sociologist Tamara Mose situates this phenomenon as part of the “privitization of children’s play,” and it dovetails with so many other privitization projects of the last fifty years, in which the ability to make personal choices, no matter their effect on the larger whole, are privileged above all else.

And look how well that has served us! Even people who come out on theoretical top of this personal choice pile — because of income, race, inherited wealth, credentials, location, home equity — are still miserable. Everyone’s doing their own dishes and we’re all lonely. So what would other ways of living look like? We often don’t have to look too far to find them: they’re in our immediate histories, even in our immediate proximity, in everything from babysitting co-ops to barnraisings. You don’t need a lot of resources to start them. You just need an abundance of imagination, enough to overcome our current understanding of what the rhythms of daily life should look like.

Families can be toxic, so can existing communities, and I’m not suggesting people should live in situations that make them feel unloved, unvalued, or in danger. Precisely the opposite: we need to imagine new ways — and remember one ones — of existing with and for each other. It’s just so much easier to care for others when you feel authentically cared for yourself.

Childhood is at once the time when it feels most natural to live with other people — all I wanted, truly, was to live with my friends, all the time, in whatever form — and also the period when we first become vulnerable, as Kathryn and I did, to the call of consumption: to begin to base our value in what we have instead of who we are, especially who we are in relationship to others. How do we begin to unlearn that, after so many years? I want to hope, over the last year, that many of us have already started.

Things I Read and Loved This Week:

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