Notes from Windward: #61

Couples and Community

Part Two

There are a number of inappropriate reasons why couples seek out community, and we do our best to stay out of those situations. The most notable of these involves one member of the couple seeing community as a transition zone in which they can affect a severance of their relationship, i.e. dump their partner without having to deal with feeling guilty for having "really" abandoned them.

Another, similar scenario is the one in which one partner has given in to the desires of the other, and is merely indulging them in the presumption that they'll soon get tired of "playing community." While the disinterested partner isn't usually overtly hostile, they generally aren't supportive either, a situation which leads to breakdown in either the couple's relationship or in the couple's relationship to the community.

Assuming that both members of a couple truly want to become part of a community, there are still a series of challenges which will have to be overcome in order to make it work. If a couple is going to successfully integrate themselves as part of a functioning community, they're going to have to undertake substantial and ongoing efforts to connect and integrate themselves into the dynamic set of interpersonal relationships which lies at the heart of any community.

On an interpersonal level, they have a lot of "catching up" to do, and without showing some degree of hustle, they're not going to get up to speed before the available degree of patience runs out. There's not a lot of patience left out there in most folks, and "thinking in the long term" is just about a lost art.

Even with the best of intentions on the part of the couple, there's going to be some notable challenges which will need to be met. Most couples base their relationship on their sexual intimacy, and very few people these days have much experience at using other, alternative ways of creating strong bonds with others, bonds which are based on other dimensions of their personality. While sexual desire can create a very strong bond very quickly, even the most passionate couple is going to have to build on other factors such as shared vision, geniune friendship and alligned comfort zones if they're going to be able to bridge that initial burst of passion into a long-term relationship.

Another problem with couples has to do with capitalization. Windward's goal is simple enough to state; to create a sustainable community of self-reliant people. It's amazing how much is tied up in so few words.

In order to achieve "sustainability," there are a number of hurdles which have to be met, and if you're working towards a community of say twenty people, then each of those hurdles have to be met twenty times.

One such hurdle is the construction of sustainable housing, i.e. housing which one would be content to live in for the rest of their life. Getting started, we've used a range of temporary housing options in order to get on the land, and to be able to invest our available funds into paying off the land, and getting the necessary services such as water, power and phone up and running.

Those aren't trivial expenditures for a couple homesteading on their own. Even more so for us since we're having to size our work so that even when we're only needing to serve ten, we're laying the groundwork for twenty. With so many tasks to attend to, there's little that's more frustrating or wasteful than having to go back and redo something because it wasn't done well enough or big enough the first time.

In order for a couple to be sustainable here, each member of the couple has to find scope and occasion at Windward sufficient for their dreams and goals. While someone can put up with most any reasonable and necessary inconvenience for the time being, but in order for folks to sustain their efforts, they need to be able to see a clear and steady progression towards the goal.

The lifeblood of that progress is capital, i.e. the surplus income left over when the bills are paid. We strive to see that at least a quarter of the dues each month goes into capitalizing the program, and thereby serves to keep us on track towards our goal. Since we do the work ourselves, an extra hundred dollars in materials can make a substantial difference, and in time, really adds up.

That's one of the reasons I cringe when people ask me questions such as "when will the dining hall be finished?" Since we're not willing to go into debt in order to fund the construction, and since there's no way that I can predict how many people will be on site this summer, I don't know how much capital we'll be able to plow into the construction.

Couples always want a break on the dues because they share a billet, a request that we're usually open to, to some degree. Our dues structure is set at $400 a month, and that money goes to pay for a range of things, only part of which involves housing. If a couple paid full dues, they'd be contributing $800 a month, and the capital portion of that would allow the construction program to make substantially more progress each month than it would otherwise be able to accomplish.

A standard home-sized electric water heater costs about $200, while an on-demand propane waterheater goes for $700. The key difference is that the former sucks up lots of electricity 24x7 whether it's being used or not, whereas the on-demand heater only heats the water you use when you want to use it.

The energy savings over time are substantial, but so too is the difference in up-front capital cost. In order to keep our operating costs low, a key precondition of sustainability, we strive to do things in ways which will provide us with the best services at the lowest cost over the long-haul - since the long-haul is what sustainability is all about. But there's always a trade-off to calculate and live with.

So when a couple says that they want to become part of the community, but to do so at a lower level of capitalization than the other members, solely on the basis that they have an intimate relationship, it's pretty tough for us to buy into that concept.

On the other hand, as the old saying goes, there's many more than one path that leads to the top of the mountain, and we maintain the hope that the next path will at least take us closer than the last.

What we've done in the past is to go with a "starter rate" of $500/month for the couple. That way they can sort through their issues, both personal and community orientated, and get a chance to see what's up with them and for them. This works for Windward because their participation moves us one month closer to that point when Windward is "over the hump"" of sustainability.

The trade-off comes in credits. Every new member is on a month by month basis until they complete the membership requirement of having earned 24 credits. For a person who arrives with enough capital funding that they can cover their dues, they could build their part of Windward in as short a time as two years.

If they took three months off in there to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, they'd could still complete their membership in say 27 months from start to finish, and that would be fine with us. It isn't something which "needs" to be finished in a specific amount of time; it's more like going back to school to get a college degree. If you can work on your degree full-time, that's great. If you need to do it part-time, then that's okay too. The important thing is to make progress as best you can.

The compromise we've gone with in the past is that couples who go on "part-time dues" are credited with one-half credit per month per person. That would mean that it would take twice as long to become full members, but at least they could be on-track, learning as they go, and making a contribution along the way.

In a more perfect world, folks would arrive with enough capital to be able to focus on the building both community and their place in it, without having to worry about funding their transition, but that's just not the way it works. In the consumer world, money is the answer to every question, with the result that folks don't start looking seriously for an alternative paradigm until they've pretty much exhausted whatever financial resources they once had.

Still, it's amazing how well one can see such things in retrospect. It's a bit like the story of the fellow who'd made his fortune in the stock market by selling too soon. Most people wait to act until it's too late, and seek us out only after they've gone through their assets. When the come to finally realize that, yes, it can actually happen to them too.

I think of this change in perspective in terms of crossing "the great divide." East of the Rocky mountains, all rivers flow into the Gulf of Mexico, but once you cross the Great Divide, all rivers flow into the Pacific. Many people come to community wanting to know how community can empower them. Only a few come seeking ways that they can empower the community, acting in the knowledge that they need the support, context, and empowerment that a community can provide in order to fulfill their potential. The difference may sound subtle, but it's a very real and important difference.

Continued in Part Three