The Case for Group Living

A crowded house brings joy through intimacy and solidarity.

Shawn Linehan

When I was seven years old, three Tibetan monks came to stay at our house. My parents’ close friend Rhonda had visited the Dalai Lama and come back an acolyte and Free Tibet activist. She persuaded the Portland Art Museum to invite Tibetan monks to make a sand mandala onsite, a process that would take months. We had recently moved into a spacious old home on a double lot in outer Northeast Portland. She asked my parents to host the visitors, and they excitedly obliged, offering my bedroom for the three monks—Tenzings Dudhul, Norgay, and Norbu—to share. During their stay, I slept on the couch in the living room.

Every day, just like a regular nine-to-five, the monks would go to the museum and work on the mandala in the main atrium, piping colorful sand through what looked like frosting tips into intricate polychromic patterns and geometries on a felted table. I don’t have vivid memories of their visit, but instead a sensory collage: I recall the monks’ cautious but warm smiles and the softness of the gauzy white cloths they tied to doorknobs as blessings. I can smell the butter melting into their astringent Lipton tea and feel the gritty texture of the noodles they made on my tongue. I remember how the red and gold of their robes mirrored the red and yellow tulips that bloom in April along our sidewalk, and how their robes flew akimbo as they rode bikes.

The monks were hardly our last visitors. Transient family members regularly moved in with my parents, my brother, Zak, and me, including my Filipino grandpa Goyo, a poker-faced ninety-plus-year-old, and my uncle Paul, an on-again, off-again Scientologist. As if that weren’t enough, my parents seemed to always say yes to exchange students. By their count, we hosted more than twenty while I was growing up. It was also common for their friends to appear just before dinner, uninvited but always welcome, with a partial bottle of wine. As our country shifted into an era I describe as “my own private bathroom,” my parents flung the doors of our house open and invited people in. Both parents loved to cook and, though their lives were hectic, we ate dinner together with whomever was with us each night. It may sound like chaos, but it felt like security. There was always room at our table for one more.

I still live in the house where we hosted the monks twenty-eight years ago. My parents moved away, and for the past thirteen years I have lived with Zak, our roommate Christopher, and a stream of other roommates and visitors looking for a place to feel welcome. In our house, some iteration of our family eats dinner together as many as six nights a week. The rule is that if you cook, you cook for everyone, two people or ten. If you eat, you do your best to help prep and clean up afterwards. Zak, Chris, and I love to cook, and we take turns taking the lead in an unorchestrated sequence. When I want to eat something, or express myself, I offer to cook. When I need someone to cook for me, I ask them to. We split larger costs evenly, but when one person cooks, they buy any extra ingredients they need, and if someone needs others to chip in, they ask. We are like a commune in collective spirit but without the structure, the utopian dream, or ninety-three Rolls Royces.

I feel comfortable sharing space with people. I like the way that families can form among people who are not blood relatives. Living with other people creates opportunities for intimacy across difference, whatever form those differences take, and with intimacy can come sparks of chemistry and collision. I have grown through close, personal exposure to people different from myself, especially living and cooking side-by-side.

Our communal life is not uncommon in Portland. Historically the relatively low cost of living has drawn creative people pursuing their passions. Both my parents moved here (my dad from rural Washington in the 1960s, my mom, in a very roundabout way, from Schenectady, New York in the 1970s) because Portland was a magnet for people with creative spirits and a desire for a high quality of life. For me, Portland’s social culture has had an easiness without pretension. When I returned to the city from college in 2007, all my friends lived with hordes of roommates. I watched many households like my own become family.

Portland is also a city with a horrific history of race-based displacement, where gentrification and rising rents have been changing the cultural landscape for decades. Cities are messes like that. Today, the housing crisis continues unabated. Many people find themselves living on the streets or in their cars. Other are still living with roommates or family members as a necessity, and what felt like a youthful phase becomes an adult reality. Everyone should have the right to a safe, clean, affordable place to live. But I reject our belief as a culture that moving into your own place, into isolation, is a rite of passage. It’s a false marker of advancement. Your parents may want you out; you may be tired of your roommate’s clutter; it may be necessary for your sanity to have a room of one’s own. But isolation exacts tolls we don’t acknowledge. The most obvious is the potential for loneliness, but there are many lurking pitfalls. It can also trap us in a distorting echo chamber of our own thoughts, and we miss out on sharing resources—from specifics like rent to intangibles like ingenuity.

In March, when the stay-at-home order came down from the Governor, our household was a group of seven: me, Zak, Chris, Corey (my partner), Erin (Chris’ partner), and our friends Tony and Stef, who had come up from Los Angeles in early March for a work contract. A friend in Massachusetts kept calling us a “pod,” as if we were the independent crew of a small ship heading into outer space. Seven people seemed like a better bet than one.

But we quickly discovered that we were only as safe as our most exposed housemate. I work in food and was continuing to leave the home and interact with other people. In turn, my exposure was everyone’s exposure, because we cook and eat together every night. Because the coronavirus can lurk in a seemingly healthy person, no amount of physical distance, hand washing, mask wearing, face avoidance, and general hygiene ensured that I was not carrying the virus into our home. I was endangering everyone, including our most vulnerable housemate, Chris.

Zak and I have lived with Chris for thirteen years. He is tall and wire-thin, so thin you have to wonder where the food he neatly but voluminously consumes goes. Chris cooks the Thai food he learned at his mother’s knee—food you’re unlikely to find on a restaurant menu. She ran an underground Thai sour sausage business in Los Angeles, and later sold Thai lunches to workers in LA’s garment district. He was her underaged sous chef. Today, he works painting and repairing puppets for stop-motion animation films, and the precision required by his job is evident in the kitchen. Having him in the house brings an added layer of care, calm, and happiness.

Chris was born with a disease that has similarities to sickle cell anemia and had his spleen removed at a young age. It’s easy for me to forget that he is vulnerable, but COVID-19 made that clear. Chris, who faced mortality as a child and has a stoic perspective, nonetheless stopped leaving the house. His partner, Erin, moved in with us and became a cyclone of worry and fear. After two weeks, they decided to quarantine in Erin’s apartment. It felt abrupt—they told us and were gone within an hour. COVID-19 tested my ideas about our social fabric: really, how good are we at open communication, group decision making, compromise, and sacrifice? Now, I see that that I wanted it both ways: Chris at home and life as close to normal as possible. Someone had to sacrifice. The privilege of my health made me unable to see that I was making a decision for the group. I still feel guilty for making our home unsafe, and also indignant that this situation only gave us bad options. I feel relieved knowing he is safer, and also disoriented and sad. His departure removed a primary color from our lives. Zak described it as feeling like your girlfriend suddenly broke up with you and moved out.

Now we are five in our spaceship, and I am grateful for every single person. Five is enough people that our patterns still have variability and surprise. When one person is busy, someone else can step up to make dinner. When someone feels low, someone else can be a comforting ear or raise the mood, and others can join. There’s a palpable feeling of solidarity as we all agree to anchor humor and generosity in our interactions. We get a lot practice at asking for what we need, in subtle and blatant ways—for space, or for comfort, or for company when we want to cut loose. As some of us find ourselves out of work, we are benefiting from sharing the burden of rent and food costs. We are both more fragile and more resilient for our numbers.

Even with a partner and roommates at my side, I find myself longing for my friends and family. I want to excessively touch their faces, hold them, tell them I love them without needing an app. I have relatively good mental health and a safety net of close relationships. I feel overwhelmed with concern for people who don’t have these reinforcements. This virus lays bare the human cost of deep-seated problems within our political, economic, and social systems. It’s psychologically exhausting to feel this much uncertainty, fear, anger, worry, and disappointment. I feel grateful to be going through it with others.

Every night we gather in the kitchen, first the ones who have offered to cook, and then, slowly, the rest of us. Dinner is the one dependable routine of our day. At the dinner table, we talk about the anxiety this hurricane of bad news brings, but then someone will crack a joke, and we will all be laughing. It’s cathartic. I feel at home in this community of artists who value food as much as I do. These meals are the metronome of our shared life. By cooking for and eating food made by other people, we practice giving and receiving. It’s a kind of shared breath that connects us to human history. And what is human history if not one giant attempt at group living?

I am missing Chris. I am used to the rhythm of living with him. Three weeks after he left, when the first lilacs began to flower, I realized it was Thai New Year. Every year he makes a simple shrine by stabbing incense in a banana and bathing an image of the Buddha. He also makes sticky rice with the little bananas that look like a fat-fingered hand. We talk on the phone and text, and he walked Stef and me through every step of making a massaman curry, even checking to make sure the red oil seeped out of the curry paste in the right way. But I still haven’t seen him in person. This year, with nothing but time on his hands, he decided to try something more ambitious for the holiday—kanom ko rona, steamed sticky rice with a sweet mung bean filling wrapped in banana leaves. He dropped them at the house while I was away. These tiny pyramids—squishy in their banana leaf wrappers, which smell like wet straw and green tea—are new to me. They walk the line between sweet and savory in a way that at first confused my tongue and then delighted me. Even in isolation, Chris’ hunger to cook for other people hasn’t gone away. He’s not here in real time to see us react nor let us reciprocate, but that doesn’t mean we won’t leave something on Erin’s porch. The spirit of group living extends beyond the borders of our house. It has to.

Comments

6 comments have been posted.

This was such a beautifully written piece. I was pretty much choked up through the entire piece. You touched on so many poignant things in this brief article. I think this “past” way of living is the wave of the future. You’re on to something. <3

Emi Takahara | June 2020 | San Francisco

Loved this, Lola. It does seem odd to live alone in a house all by yourself. Other than having your own way all the time, why wouldn’t a shared life be a better life. A shared meal every day is right. I loved this story. Thank you.

Jackleen de La Harpe | May 2020 |

Pitch perfect, Lola. Thanks for shooting straight from the heart. Hugs, O

Oakley Brooks | May 2020 | Portland

Lola, this is a love piece to your house and the people who lives in it. Brought me to a bit of tears when I read the part of how much you miss Chris. I also miss you guys a lot and I hope soon we will cook together again. There are dishes I cook and eat and I think of you and the house. See you soon! PS: I'm growing goji berries this year, I'll sundry some for you!

Ed Juan | May 2020 | Vancouver, BC

Thank you thank you for highlighting the fact that moving away from family is a rite of passage and that if people don't take this step they are immature, weak, or coddled. Our culture has lost immense amounts of memory, love and safety by voluntarily breaking up the generations. Thank you Lola!

Jennifer de Thomas | May 2020 |

So many wonderful insights in this piece! "I feel comfortable sharing space with people. I like the way that families can form among people who are not blood relatives. Living with other people creates opportunity for intimacy across difference..." I have always lived with people in Portland and also reject the idea that the move to isolation is more adult/advanced. It is more adult to be able to live in intimate space with others and ask for what one needs as well as honor boundaries. It's hard! My Portland community is stronger because so many of us have lived together, but there are old resentments that linger for the same reason. I believe we are more resilient as a community, though, because we have been family of varying degrees for many years-- through shared food and housing. I loved going to or hosting Family Dinners at different houses. Is this a uniquely Portland phenomenon? Perhaps. But as I get older, I find that inviting people into my house for a meal is my favorite way to connect. I'm looking forward to being able to break bread with people again in the future. I hope that as the weather warms, you can have an outdoor dinner date with Chris and your pod. Thanks for sharing this intimate story.

Ana Helena | May 2020 |

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