New Internationalist

A New Start

Issue 160

new internationalist
issue 160 - June 1986

A new start
Ten years ago Kim Reefe lived in quite a conventional
Australian nuclear family - in a household of two parents and
four children - until all of them chose to break out of the pattern
they saw as inadequate. Here he tells what happened.

Joy-riding: the popularity of alternative life-styles is shown by the fact that about 7,000 'hippies' live in communes in Nimbin, Australia.
Gianni Marzella / Camera Press

OUR family chose to change its identity when we gathered together for Christmas 1976. The time was ripe: the youngest of the four offspring - of which I was third - was 18 years old. We had been a close family, but by 1976 we had all lived away from home. By that time we could see the inadequacy of the relationships we had as adults.

Liz and Tom - my parents - were, and still are, open to and involved in current social issues. Their commitment to political action and personal change went a long way towards bridging the 'generation gap'. This meant I respected them as concerned and thinking adults independently of the admiration and love I felt for them as Mum and Dad. Without their open mindedness this story would stop here.

Not only was the time ripe but also the times. Feminist thinkers were questioning long-held assumptions about the nature of relationships within the family structure, and there was a climate of excitement because of the potential of these ideas. By chance everyone in my family was able to take part in a five-day conference on 'The Family' held soon after our Christmas meeting. Afterwards we took a decision to live together as a household and not as a family for the coming year. We defined a household as a group of six adults choosing to share a house and all the chores and decisions that go with it. We did not want to slot back into all the old patterns when we were reunited.

Sunday evenings were devoted to 'household meetings'. Attendance was treated as a serious commitment and we all made an effort to be there regularly. Our Sunday meeting also gave us a time to meet as equals and identify problems that stemmed from a range of different issues. We could then work together to find solutions. Much of the change centred around housework. For me, as a man, this involved a lot of learning and a lot of tension. Much of our time on Sunday evening was spent grappling with the feelings that arose from the vastly different levels of experience and competence we had in the various household chores. But it was a fertile period: I learnt many valuable skills.

Other families and households were working on the same issues. Within our network of friends a food co-op started and some of us were involved in a very progressive church congregation. A group met regularly on Friday evenings to explore personal and social issues, and a tithing fund was set up to increase our awareness and effectiveness in supporting aid projects or social actions.

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HOUSEHOLDS

  • Some people feel stifled by conventional households, so prefer group families or communes. Others think it's wrong to alter the nuclear-family structure and that people ought to adapt themselves to fit into it.
  • It is also possible to live as a couple but in an open, non-exclusive relationship. This option can only work if those involved know what they want, and are trusting and honest.
  • Living in the countryside can be seen as a way of attaining spirituality and harmony with nature. Some see this as an individualistic solution to problems that can only be solved by wholesale change.
  • Large households usually involve sharing childcare and housework. Some think that this is a waste of time - that learning to take turns doing the washing-up isn't going to change the world.

In experimenting and sharing with others who were also experimenting in their own ways, a sense of community began to develop. The deaths of both parents in one of the families close to us threw into stark relief the vulnerability of the nuclear family. Their deaths also highlighted the absence of the extended family - and the support it could offer - which was common only a generation ago. The closeness, the sharing and the grieving added momentum to our unconscious movement towards extending the household into a community.

And now, ten years later, the formation of the Cennedryss community is part of history. It was formed by 27 of us pooling various proportions of our savings and other assets and buying land together. But, most importantly, the Cennedryss community was created because of the deep trust we had in each other.

There was a lot of diversity in the ages of the people involved: they ranged from 8 to 55 years. However our backgrounds bore more similarity. We were mostly middle-class, white, affluent, professional, politically left-wing.

Because many of us had lived or worked in Third World countries, we were keen to bring development closer to home. It was exciting becoming a community and discovering what that meant. The immediate gains were a sense of purpose and togetherness. We had lots of fun: we spent evenings together devising our own entertainment in the form of concerts, games and songs.

However, along with the purposefulness came problems. It's hard to work together, and it is also difficult to maintain time for yourself and privacy in such an intense group. We had to learn that the group isn't a responsible entity, and that individuals must still take responsibility after something has been decided by discussion.

We became sure of the need to keep talking, and we have done so for thousands of hours. We meet fortnightly and have been very critical of the ways in which our meetings were structured. From the beginning we chose to make decisions by consensus, that is, talking until some sort of agreement is reached. We did not want to silence opposing views by voting. We also failed to live up to this ideal because of time-pressures.

We've also experimented with the ways in which the meetings are conducted. We have improved our skills in listening and found lots of ways to make sure everyone is heard in our meetings. To this end we have kept community meetings closed to anyone not a member. The drawback is that we have excluded some fresh insights, but we have increased our group's cohesion. Members of the community have felt safer, and so more able to voice their feelings or misgivings.

Choosing to keep the meetings exclusive has also meant that we have become a very close-knit group. We are able to work together creatively and act positively to change our lives. However, keeping the meetings closed has also isolated us. Our numbers have decreased, though some new people have joined. A major difficulty has been integrating the partner of a community member when their relationship was formed after the community began. In each case the scenario has been different. Some have left the community in order to pursue their couple relationship. For others their partners have become members of the community. Others have found a way to remain satisfyingly involved in Cennedryss and maintain a close relationship that is separate from it.

We tried to define membership many times. 'A feeling of belonging' seems the most apt. To maintain our assets and our lifestyle we pay a percentage of our incomes. This year it is 38 per cent. This figure is calculated annually depending on such variables as the expenditure we foresee, who is earning and how much.

From the beginning we have held a 300-year vision. This perspective takes me beyond my own lifetime and acts as a foil against the crowding concerns that confront me daily and justify short-term solutions to long-term problems. In a world so fragilely poised I hold this vision as sacred.

Kim Reefe has worked with Community Aid Abroad in Somalia, and now works for a Health Council in South Australia.

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