Why one kitchen?

In a comment on the preceding blog post, Lisa asks how we came to agreement on the shared kitchen. She’s not the first. It’s a puzzlement and a stumbling block to many. I won’t “give up” my kitchen is something we’ve heard more than once.

And I was startled, in looking back through other posts, to realize that since we started this blog, it’s always been a given — we haven’t really tried to explain it. I guess it’s time to do that!

The shared kitchen goes back to our initial retreat in March of 2016. The four of us drove together to the Inn where we intended to spend the weekend making plans. Along the way, we were still discussing the only model that had occurred to us to that point: that we would all buy condo units within the same building and, when there were enough of us, jointly buy an extra condo to serve as a common facility.

This model had the benefit of simplicity and allowing for growth over time, but when we analysed the costs we felt it was likely prohibitive. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the matter of cost that changed our minds. It was the fact that, over the course of our weekend together, we realized that’s not the kind of arrangement we want. We’re looking for something that more closely resembles the idea of “intentional community,” which is best served by closer contact.

In my research on existing, traditional cohousing communties (by which I mean those that have self-contained, independent dwellings plus common facilities) I have not yet found one that manages to have a meal together even once a week. (Update: I’ve since learned of a cohousing community in upstate New York where shared meals are common. They seem to be the exception that proves the rule.A few get together every two weeks; the vast majority seem to eat together once a month or less. And we found ourselves thinking, “Why bother?” Why invest in those extra facilities if you’re only going to use them once a month?

And, conversely, if we each had our separate kitchens, we could easily imagine ourselves falling into the same pattern as all the others. Would you really be able to sustain the effort of cooking together as a group if you had the choice of just fixing something quick on your own? We imagined ourselves in our separate condos, having uprooted our lives for the sake of very little change. If all we want to do is get together once a month, we can do that now.

No, we want something more. As we see it, the dominant forms of elderly housing in North America these days tend toward a harsh choice between life in an institution, or a life of increasing social isolation.

We reject both choices, and a shared kitchen is integral to our view of a better alternative. The kitchen is often the very heart of the house. It’s where people gather — how often have you been at a party and suddenly noticed that everyone has gravitated to the kitchen?  It’s no accident that most religious  and cultural traditions have sacred rituals associated with eating together. It’s part of what binds us as human.

So for us, one kitchen symbolizes the kind of community we want. We’re not completely rigid about this: We will make additional facilities available, either in-suite or between two suites (TBD) so that, as one of us puts it, we can “make a cup of coffee and a piece of toast without going downstairs.”

But for us, the thought of sharing a kitchen, cooking together and, normally, sharing an evening meal together, is part of what we look forward to.  It’s not a sacrifice, it’s a benefit of community.

The hidden epidemic for which community is the antidote

Writing in the United Church Observer, the medical journalist André Picard describes loneliness as a hidden epidemic, afflicting up to 6 million Canadians.

The medical impact of this epidemic is startling. According to Picard’s review of the studies:

…loneliness is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day;
having no friends may increase the risk of premature death by about 30 percent;
social isolation can be twice as deadly as obesity;
it’s as big a killer as diabetes
and it hikes the risk of dementia by 64 percent.
Loneliness is a quantifiable health hazard.

The solution, he notes, is building community.

Lamb Morocco

This is one of my go-to recipes and we’ll be serving it tonight to some friends who want to learn more about our co-housing idea. It comes from a collection of slow cooker recipes we bought years ago (and may have to buy again soon since it’s been so well used).

It’s kind of a lucky accident that the book turned out to be so good because I confess I bought it mostly for the title: How to Make Love and Dinner at the Same Time. The author is Toronto journalist Rebecca Field Jager, by whose kind permission this recipe is shared.

The Lamb Morocco recipe is very easy to make: throw all the ingredients in the slow cooker and cook on low for 8 to 10 hours or high for 4 to 5 hours.

1 1/2 pounds lamb stew meat
1 onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (19-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1/3 cup chicken broth
1/3 cup raisins
2 tablespoons tomato paste*
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon pepper

*Now here’s the really important thing I’ve learned from years of making this recipe. The rest of that little can of tomato paste? Throw it away immediately. Do not put it in the fridge, hoping you’ll think of something else to do with it. Just get rid of it before it turns all black and yucky. The stew will turn out fine either way, but you’ll be happier if you throw out the tomato paste right away. Trust me on this.

UPDATE: This bit of genius just in from Rebecca:

Your idea for throwing out the rest of the can of tomato paste made me smile. I actually freeze the remaining paste in individual ice-cube containers and then bag them in a small freezer bag so I can pull out a tablespoon (cube) as needed. The trick works well but one girlfriend who happened to witness me doing it said, “OMG that’s the most domestic thing I’ve ever seen!” Indeed it is a lot of work for a cheap can of paste but one does then always have it on hand!

I’m going to seriously consider this… and then I’m prolly gonna throw out the can.

Warm Quinoa Salad

Looking forward to trying this one, a warm quinoa salad topped with a green sauce  made with basil, dill and chives.

I came across it on the Oh She Glows website while looking for a recipe for the “soul-soothing african peanut stew” that Hillary whomped up as a first course before our last theatre outing. Peanut butter and sweet potatoes, some spinach, bit of chilli powder, bit of cayenne. Oh my.

But it turns out that recipe is only in the book, not on on the website. My advice is, either come to dinner with us or buy the book.

Living in community

I was told a story once about the Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, being asked what he had learned from all his years of living in community. He is said to have replied “how to close doors very quietly.”

It’s a witty commentary — and perhaps a caution — on the importance members of a community must give to being mindful of the ways their most ordinary actions may affect others in the community.

I can’t find the source of that Thich Nhat Hanh quote, so it may not be authentic. But in looking for it I stumbled across this lovely reflection on closing doors and mindfulness from a blog on Zen meditation.  It has some thoughts on aging and transitions that seem helpful in thinking about co-housing.

Marilyn’s slow-cooker pot roast

Serves 6 to 8

It’s the horseradish and Worcestershire sauce that give this roast its magnificant flavour.

  • boneless beef rump roast, 3-3 1/2 lb.
  • 2 tablespooons vegetable oil
  • 4 medium carrots, halved lengthwise and cut in 2-inch pieces
  • 3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks (or small bag mini potatoes)
  • 2 small onions, sliced
  • 1/2 cup water
  •  6-8 tablespoons horseradish sauce
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar (or cider vinegar)
  • 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons celery salt
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup cold water

Cut roast in half. In a large skillet, brown roast on all sides over medium high heat. Drain.
Place carrots and potatoes in a five-quart slow cooker. Top with meat and onions.
Combine the next six ingredients and pour over mat.
Cover and cook on low for 10-11 hours or until tender.
Combine cornstarch and cold water until smooth. Stir into slow cooker. Cover and cook on high for 30 minutes or until thick.

Conversation with a co-housing community

A couple months ago we had a good Skype conversation with our friend Dan, one of the founding members of a co-housing community in Kamloops, B.C.

Here are some notes from that conversation.

March 21, 2016

What have you learned about optimum size of community?

We tried to figure how to get off the ground with a group that was big enough to be sustainable and provide efficiencies of scale, but more intimate than the bigger 50-60 unit projects. More like a small village or family. So we said six units, 6-12 people. We knew we’d have 6 voices at the table in decision-making. Enough snap and crackle to have some verve. We haven’t voted in five years — if we can’t agree on a decision we don’t make it.

We’re really satisfied with six members.

How did you start and grow this as a group? How did you get into conversation, did you have a structure?

We didn’t all know each other. About five years ago, two people went to see a movie called How to Boil a Frog and it sparked us to work on this. We said we’ve been talking about this for years, let’s get it going. Put it out in our friendship network. Eleven people came to our first gathering and it evolved over five years.

It took two years to build the nucleus of the group. We met every two weeks, plus 6 or 7 weekend retreats. Our practice of being together is evolving. There is some “circle work” [referring to a particular form of group participation]. Now we have two meetings a month.

One is about wellness and communication, no business. Just what’s going on with each of us, speaking from the heart. The community is in grief right now, one member of a couple is quite ill. We’re grieving with his spouse and the wellness meetings are really important.

The other meeting is more formal; we make decisions and take minutes. It’s remarkable how faithful people have been to those meetings. We’re all busy but we carve the time. We use a lot of silence. We rotate the roles of facilitator, scribe, guardian. The scribe at one meeting facilitates the next meeting.

How do people get in and out?

Through a process of invitation. We’ve never floated a proposal or communique, though we’re doing that now because of one of our members moved out. Previously it was all word of mouth.

We looked at all the models for ownership and title, and we ended up with an equity co-op. We created the entity and by-laws first. We’re all one-sixth owners. Everyone has one share which is one-sixth the value of construction. We will assess later whether to peg the share value to the market value of the house, but we haven’t figured out the method to do that yet. We’re overbuilt for a single family home, so going by “best use,” you would probably have to evaluate us as a care home. You surrender your share back to co-op if you leave and we have 12 months to pay shareholder.

We’ve rewritten our wills to explain the structure to our heirs.

What have been the challenges?

The absence of [a member who left] coupled with [another member becoming ill] has been profound. We had a wait list and tapped into that before we advertised. A couple of them are still keen but the timing is not good for them right now.

It’s a little different now for having kids visit. It’s not just dad’s house any more. In two years we’ve never had a problem, we’re all very kid friendly, but it still feels different to them.

How big are individual units?

About 400 sq ft. Then there’s a big common space, large rec room, guest bedroom, serenity room, workshop, patios.

What have you lost, gained?

We [Dan and his spouse] have asked ourselves that quite a bit. We’ve lost some spontaneity. Here we’re more scheduled, that’s part of committing to community life. Having meetings every two weeks works out to a lot of time. And we need to process everything through the group. We can’t just make decisions on the fly as a couple.

We’ve gained the crackle of other people,a  different energy, and variety. And we share grief and support. [The member whose husband is ill] will say “I come home from the hospital and I’m not alone, there’s a meal made, I can debrief.” And we take some turns visiting with him in the hospital.  So I look on it as building for the future, using my strength to prepare for my weakness, for a time when I will be less able that I am now.

The biggest gain is evening dinners, which are spectacular. We have great cooks and enjoy a lot of variety, experimentation. Mornings and lunch are free-for-alls, but we tend to all come together for dinner.

It’s a lot cheaper to live this way. Outside of food and consumables, we split the operating costs (like utilities and taxes) six ways — by unit, not by person. Groceries cost about $300/person.If I’m travelling, I can deduct $10/day off my grocery bill.

Everybody has a debit card. We have two accounts, for consumables and more long term expenses. We keep all our receipts.

We write our names on the labels of the wine and beer, we don’t cubbyhole the fridge.

We don’t use the word “fair.” We say fairness will kill us. We talk instead about equity. We take responsibility for our own sense of fairness, talk about it. There’s no structure around chores. We have a deep aversion to scheduling or controlling. They happen when they happen. Except for meal prep — we set a schedule for meal preparation a week ahead or less. We tried to schedule two weeks ahead but it was too long, there are too many changes.

How many members are working or retired?

Most are still working. Two are retired. The two lead candidates for new members are a young couple (28) interested in sustainable living; and an early 30s single woman.

Recommended resource

Communities magazine, “Life in Cooperative Culture,” bills itself as “the primary resource for information, stories, and ideas about intentional communities —including urban co-ops, cohousing groups, ecovillages, and rural communes.” http://www.ic.org/communities-magazine-home/

So apparently “porch wine” is a thing. Who knew?

“The idea behind porch wines (behind most wine, in fact) is to enjoy yourself, and not to impress someone,” according to Jeff Siegel, who blogs as the Wine Curmudgeon.

He describes porch wines as “lighter wines, red and white, that can be served cool, or even colder, and offer relief from the heat. The idea with a porch wine is to drink something that won’t make the sweat bead on your forehead.”

Here is a far-from-comprehensive survey of some other thoughts on porch wine.

  • B.C.’s Backyard Vineyards offers a port style fortified wine, NV Porch, “Best consumed watching the sunset from your backyard porch.”
  • Napa’s Hendry Winery offers a Screen Porch White. That sounds like it’s getting a little fancy.
  • The Fiesta Winery in Texas has its  “Back Porch Sittin’.”
  • Sutter Home offers a Back Porch Martini made with white Zinfandel and watermelon juice. (Sounds appalling to me, but then I’m more of a gin Martini man.)

Visit cloglot.com for more

And for a lovely, whimsical,
artistic treatment, check out
Front Porch with Wine
During Minor Disagreement

Is co-housing elitist?

A dark-side perspective from the environmental ezine, Grist: I’m not sure what to do with this other than to acknowledge it.

Current and aspiring cohousers wax idealistic about the day-to-day benefits of living in such a community, from the practical, like sharing cooking and childcare duties, to the more intangible, like being part of a subculture where generosity is expected and encouraged.

…But despite the progressive inclinations of its enthusiasts, cohousing traditionally attracts a mostly white, educated, upper-income crowd — those with the means to buy a new, market-rate house (generally in the $200,000 to $500,000 range, depending on local real estate prices) and the time and energy to invest in a laborious planning process (Susan Stafford, a resident of Seattle’s Jackson Place Cohousing community, describes it as “fairly horrible”), plus monthly meetings and commitments to shared responsibilities once the community is up and running.

Nothing’s perfect. On he other hand, Grist’s headline for this article paints a more optimistic picture: “Cohousing: The secret to sustainable urban living?

Co-housing and “End of Life” Issues

Email correspondence with a young woman named Rebekah Churchyard, a “gerontological social worker” by trade, raises a question about the degree of advance planning we should give at the start in preparing for the end.

Some of the challenging questions she poses include:

  • What happens if a member of the community begins to develop some form of cognitive impairment, such as dementia? How far can the community accommodate? What is the point at which the safety of both the individual and the community requires a different response?
  • If the community has had use of a member’s property, such as furnishings, what will happen to this property when a member leaves or dies?
  •  How does the community evolve to take in new members over time? This is less about the financial or contractual arrangements, and more about the deeper social impacts.

Rebekah’s point, with all of these, is to suggest that clarifying assumptions and expectations in some form of clear, written, “social contract,” should be negotiated right from the start, well ahead of the time it’s needed.

We had given some minor thought to this already. For example, we assume we may need to review our wills with co-housing in mind, and it will be important for all of us to have conversations with our families about our plans.

But a clearer and more detailed form of contracting than we had contemplated may well be advisable. After all, we’ve made the assumption that the best time to move into a co-housing arrangement is long before there is any necessity to do so. By the same token, we should also anticipate and prepare for the stages that come later.

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