A tale of two families sharing a house

ten people, one house
via CBC

Have you ever wondered what 'community living' really looks like, and why people do it?

It's not every day that you hear about large families choosing to live together in the same house. Obviously there are many families who are forced to do it out of necessity, but when 'community living' is consciously chosen as a way of life, I've always found it intriguing.

Recently, I noticed on social media that a friend of mine, Toronto-based writer Christina Crook, had been interviewed by CBC Radio for a short documentary titled "10 people, 1 house: We met on Twitter and our families moved in together." It's the story of how Crook and her husband Michael, along with their three young kids under the age of 8, opened their home in the Junction neighborhood to another large family.

Perhaps most interesting is that the two families had only met once prior to the Crooks extending the invitation. Christina first connected with Elissa Joy Watts last March, when she saw her name pop up on a list of recommended people to follow on Twitter, and an unexpected friendship flourished. Elissa lived in Vancouver, and it might have remained a long-distance friendship had Elissa's husband Steve not been given a research position at the University of Toronto. Suddenly the Watts family was moving to Toronto with three kids in tow, including a three-week-old newborn.

As Crook explains in the documentary, community living was something she and Michael had been interested in for a while: "We'd already been feeling and sensing and growing in our desire to live in community in some way... We were already warm to the idea." And so, they offered their home to the Wattses, who gratefully accepted.

That's how ten people ended up living in a three-story, six-bedroom house, with one functioning shower/bath. Whereas some community living arrangements might stagger the use of shared spaces or create apartments with separate kitchens and bathrooms, the Watts and Crook families share everything -- meals, cleanup, school runs. There's a level of intimacy and overlap of personal lives that is not typical of such arrangements.

"It worked well for three weeks. And then it didn't," the two women laugh on the radio segment. Once the honeymoon period was over, there were plenty of details needing to be hashed out, including children not getting along and the Watts family feeling they didn't have sufficient space.

But overall, it has been a wonderfully positive experience. Christina jokes that the best part is coming home from school in the morning and finding a clean kitchen: "We're a team. We work together. I really can't underplay how mindblowingly awesome that is."

Christina is the author of The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World (reviewed on TreeHugger here), and last year she was the writer-in-residence at the Henri Nouwen Society. Nouwen was an internationally renowned Catholic priest and author who wrote 39 books on spiritual life, and his teachings on the importance of hospitality have greatly influenced Christina. She told me in an email:

"Simply, we wanted to come closer -- to remove the outward obstacles to relationships, the silos that are so easy to live in and make room for others. We knew that the Watts [family] had no furniture and would be here short-term (10 months, with the possibility of extending) so the opportunity for them to move into a fully furnished home with a newborn baby eased their transition immensely."

Christina takes the highly unusual view -- particularly in Western society -- that "there is a lot of good in inconvenience." She says in the documentary:

"Relationships are painfully inconvenient. They are 100 percent inconvenient, in fact, but where do we experience the most joy in our lives? In relationship and in connection, often in really difficult and inconvenient work."

I find this story fascinating within the context of all the tiny houses, co-living spaces, and multigenerational homes that we feature on TreeHugger. While we often take a look at the physical layout of such spaces, and often hear the architects' and owners' praise for its design, rarely do we get the real, raw, inside scoop of how it actually feels to step away from societal norms of single-family dwellings and choose a different way of living.

Perhaps my fascination also stems from the fact that I feel a sense of connection to these women. I, too, have three young children and work as a writer, and yet the thought of inviting another similar-sized family into my home for an extended period of time fills me with apprehension. Their experience challenges me in ways I've never considered before.

As real estate prices climb and rental units are harder to find, as resources become scarcer and more expensive, as individuals seek more effective ways to minimize their impact on the planet and strive to build community with those around them, real-life stories like this one are increasingly relevant. For whatever reason families may choose to live in community, we all stand to learn something from the experience.

To finish with Christina's words:

"Is this way of life perfect? Far from it. Is it worth the inconvenience? No question. 'To be hospitable is to liberate fearful hearts,' writes Henri Nouwen. Even our own."

Link to documentary in tweet below:

A tale of two families sharing a house
Have you ever wondered what 'community living' really looks like, and why people do it?

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