What You Learn About Community Living
This story is mostly going to be for my fellow cohort members from the CASA program of spring 2018. Not to seem like I’m picking favorites, it’s just they will know what I’m talking about much more than anyone else. This story is a comparison of my experience of living in a tiny apartment with one other person after having lived in a house of 14 people for four months. But it also relays the many things that change after leaving community living for 4 months. It’s funny, you learn a lot by living in community for long period of time, but you learn so much more once its gone. Hopefully people enjoy it.
You learned to be idle, to do nothing. Most importantly, you learned to not be impatient about doing nothing. This is something everyone else learned in the house too. Now you live with someone who always wants to do something, and you learn how to be idle while doing something, or how to do something while being idle.
What You Can Count On
You learned not to count on things in the house. For example, you want the shower hot. It’s cold, so you turn the burner to its highest setting. It’s still cold, so you just take a cold shower. Then Damian takes a shower right after you. A minute later, he’s screaming for you to turn the heater down because it is burning him alive.
But from this you learned what to count on. You learned to trust that if you leave the burner at the medium setting, it’ll be warm when it’s warm and cold when it’s cold. Now it’s easy to shower anywhere.
Laughs don’t quite do it anymore. For example, you used to say a joke, not even a good one, just because you knew if you had Courtney’s attention she would laugh. And you’d smile, because her laugh is the best part, even when it was out of pity. But now you say a crappy joke, and someone’s pity laugh makes you rethink telling jokes.
Turning to Nobody:
You are sitting in the familiar dispensario kitchen with all the doctors. You are talking, sharing jokes, the usual business, all in Spanish. You want to say “mushrooms”, but don’t know how to say it in Spanish. You turn to Caroline because she knows these things. But you don’t turn to Caroline, you turn to the seat on your right where she used to be as you ask the question. Then you’re not sure what’s worse, the embarrassment of asking the question to nobody or recognizing the emptiness of that seat.
Never Get Past “Bendice ¡O Dios!”
You learned to sing a prayer before dinner with everyone. You try to sing it alone in honor of memory. But you never get past the first line, because you have no idea what to do with your hands.
You begin to pack for the park. Your mind goes something like this, “Mate? Check. Book? Check. Journal? Check. I should ask Madelyn, she might want to come. I wonder where she is”. Then you suddenly don’t want to go to the park anymore.
Names on Food:
You learn that everyone puts their name on food when they live together. You also learn that if you eat anyone’s food that has a name on it which reads other than yours, you will feel guilty about it. You don’t really like it, and wished people would share more, but you respect it. You also recognize that people spend more money or more time on their food than you, so it’s easy for you to ask to share because your food is always the one people refuse to touch anyways.
Then you live in an apartment and take the peanut butter that says “Madelyn” or “Courtney” or “Amia” on it. And you wish that you still felt guilty about eating their peanut butter, because it reminds you of a time when they were there to claim it.
Did they understand how much I love them? Do they sometimes look up at the sky and wonder what I’m thinking too?
You love making lentils and eating them plain. Simple and filling. In the house, you’d become so used to everyone asking you why you eat them bland and not having an adequate response. Sometimes you wait until everyone goes to bed when you start, so you can avoid the questions. Then you make them alone in your new apartment. The woman you are sharing it with is out, so you know none of the questions will come. But in reality, you stare at the door as you’re eating, hoping Abbey might come in and tell you to eat some “real food”.
You learn how to give up things (or do things) because someone asked you too. Like giving up listening to music without headphones, or not using your hands to eat cereal out of the jar, or taking out the trash once its full. You learn to stop thinking just about what you want to do, and pay attention to what’s asked.
Then you learn to start predicting what others would like, and you start doing them. For example, Amia makes coffee for Carson in the morning. Sarah makes bagels for everyone to share. Cindy shares hot sauce with everyone when it gets mailed to her. Somebody dries and puts away all the dishes. You learn that while you may get tired of being told what to do, people are also tired of asking you to do things.
And so, you learn to love giving up things. And when you move in to your new apartment, you always ask what you can do differently to make your apartment-mate feel more at home, because you have learned that things are only things but relationships are precious.
What Once Was
You learn that some things are Things That Once Were. For example, you are sitting outside a coffee shop waiting for a friend. You see a dog walk up and sit nearby. You think about how Caroline would whistle to call it closer, and how Amia would have fed it whatever she had. You don’t do these things, simply because it’s not what you do. So you continue staring, acknowledging What Once Was.
What is Broken
You used a toilet for the past 4 months where when you flushed, you had to physically put the suction plunger back yourself. Now you use a toilet that flushes when you push a button. Your first reaction is that the new toilet is broken, then you remember the old toilet was broken. But that doesn’t coincide with how you feel, and you realize now you’re learning what broken means.
Priorities become very simple. If someone else is sitting across from you at the table, you talk with them until they go to their next activity. Then you do the most important thing you have to do, either until it is done or until somebody else happens to come and sit by you. If somebody sits before your task is done, you talk with them until they go to their next activity. Then you again do what is most important. In this way, you learned what things are most important to you. Now, you know that when your apartment-mate walks through the door and sits at the table across from you, you shut off your laptop no matter what.
You learn about irony. 11 of your best friends just left, so now you appreciate everything.
Why You Didn’t Go Home
You learned two things about going home; first you learned how to avoid getting home some days. You would try to sit in a park for as long as you could, even though you were already bored. Then you would walk home late that night, because a taxi would get home too fast. And once you got back to the house, you’d walk in a circle once or twice around the block.
Or maybe you’d be at a house with a friend, and you would stay there a while. Sometimes things would get quiet, and everyone would be bored, and you’d know it’s time to head out. But you’d sit quietly, hoping nobody would say anything about it. Then somebody would ask you if you were bored, or if you wanted to head back. You’d answer no to both, lying to the first one but honest to the second. Then if you got a ride home, you’d tell them to drop you off further away, or be honest and ask them to just drive around a bit more. This feeling of avoiding the house didn’t happen all the time, but it happened often.
The second thing you learned, after the first few times, was why you didn’t go home. You were tired of being noticed all the time. You wanted to come home at odd hours just so nobody would say anything to you on the way to bed. Or you wanted to sit in an empty room and eat, or play a game, or stare at a wall. You wanted people not only to not know where you were, but to not even wonder where you were. To be a temporarily deleted file on a computer.
Why You Should’ve Gone Home
Now you learn why you don’t go home again. You learn that it’s not so often your apartment-mate is in the apartment, so the chances of you being alone when you get back are high. But once again, you’d find days when you didn’t want to go home. It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened often too. Same tricks, same goal, but new reason.
And you learn that the reason is you just want to be noticed. You sit in odd places where you stand out, in the park or by the volleyball net or near the gym. You try to do something odd, not being interested in the activity but hoping that somebody may come up and ask what it is you were doing.
And now your friends are gone, and you notice what’s missing all the time. The little details, like Sarah’s little wave she’d make to say hi, or Carson’s burps. And you know that all your old house-mates are remembering these details too. And you now know you should’ve gone home all those times, because you would give anything to go back and enjoy noticing others and being noticed.
You learned how to live with less order in your life. For example, on a Monday night you go out with Damian, Sam and Cindy as they are craving dessert. You don’t want any dessert, you just come along. They can only pay with card, and the city rarely accepts card. You go through several restaurants that either don’t accept card or don’t have good desserts. 3 times you pass through Caserrato, and on the 3rd entrance at midnight you sit down. During all of this, Sam and Damian are arguing about what was said the first time they met. Oddly enough, this disorder creates your favorite memories.
Now you learn how to live with order. In the house, you would plan ahead on your showers so you could heat up the water, or plan what you would eat so you had time to heat it up in the oven. Now you heat food instantly with the microwave, or have a hot shower immediately. The future used to collapse into the present, but now you are trying to comprehend their separation again.
Everyone Looks Like Mattie
You are walking behind a black haired woman and think to yourself “is that Mattie?”. 10 minutes later you are walking behind another black haired woman and think to yourself “is that Mattie?”. Neither of them even slightly resemble Mattie, you just miss Mattie enough that your brain is hoping she’s the person walking in front of you.
Someone shouts something inaudible, but each time you swear they shouted “Jaredo” or “sicko”.
The Wall’s Stare
You learned to eat dinner with a mirror in your face. You learned how to hold your own stare when you were deep in thought, or how to make eye contact with people through the reflections. You learned how to see every corner of the house just by sitting next to this mirror.
Then you are eating in the apartment with your new apartment-mate. Things get quiet at one point, as they do in conversations at time. You’ve also learned to stare at things in this silence. But you stare at the wall, and you realize what you miss. You miss the wall noticing you too.
You find yourself at Starbucks alone. You’ve never gone to Starbucks alone, except now. When they ask your name, you tell them Damian. For one, because it’s much easier than Jared for Argentines to pronounce. But also because you played it in your head before. You thought that they’d talk about how there once used to be another yanqui who’d always come to Starbucks, who’s name was Damian too. The conversation could go anywhere from there, the important thing was getting to talk to somebody about Damian because it makes you happy to talk about him.
But instead the man writes Damian on the cup and tells you how much it costs. Then you pay, and after waiting they call “Damian”, and you grab your coffee and leave. And you can’t help but wonder what this just said about your current sense of identity.
The City Reminds
The city reminds you it hasn’t changed: on your first day alone, the busses and taxis are on strike.
What You Use
You learn about sharing things, but you learn more about how you use things you share. For example, (almost) everyone shared the same shower. You learn that when 12 people want to use 1 shower, the shower being open is a luxury. You get used to using the shower the second its open, which sometimes didn’t even happen in a day. Instead of trying to remember when you showered last, you just know you have to shower once its available.
Now you share a shower with one other person. This means the shower is available when you leave in the morning and come back at night. You use the shower in the morning. Then you come back and see the shower open, so you undress and hop in. It’s not until you’re in the middle of scrubbing shampoo off out of your hair that you realize you’ve done this already today. Now you have to train yourself to remember when you showered last.
You wish things were more consistent, even if you didn’t like them before. For example, you listened to music a lot without headphones. But Courtney or Alex would ask you to put in headphones so they could focus. You complied because that’s how community living works. Now you live with one other person, who doesn’t care if you listen to music with or without headphones. But you wish she would tell you to use headphones, not because you prefer to now, just because you have witnessed so many things change when you stopped living in the house, and find yourself begging for things to stop changing.
You learned to always wait for someone to do something. You would wait for Amia to go to Grido, or Alex to go to the park, or Damian to go on a run. And you learn that doesn’t have to change, as you wait to go to a boliche with your new apartment-mate.
What Still Is
You learn that some things don’t have to leave with your friends. For example, you learned that Mary would take care of the little kids at Hogar de Cristo. You learned that she had patience with them, because all they want is attention. Now you show up to Hogar de Cristo for a lunch, and the kids want to play with you. And you play with them, even though you don’t want to, because that’s what Mary taught you.
Places as People
You learn that places are just flashes of people. For example, you walk past the entrance to Trejo campus, and you see a flash of Caroline grabbing your backpack, trying to make you think you are being robbed. Next you walk past La Alameda, and see the cohort eating empanadas.
These flashes aren’t new. What’s new is that now you stop walking when you see these flashes, and you stop and stare at the tables of La Alameda, and you smile in the middle of the sidewalk.
You realize everyone had a job while you learn what each person’s job was. For example, a new friend at Hogar de Cristo asks you to show a dance. You ask what, they say any. So you make a dance move, and they give you a look that shows they were absolutely disappointed by the result.
So you start wishing Carson or Madelyn was here, because you realize their job was to show the dance moves. Or you wish Caroline or Damian was here, because their job was to talk their way out of the situation.
You learned a lot about silence. You walked to a lot of places with a lot of people, and very often walked in silence. You learned that there is good silence and bad silence. You also learned how to enjoy the good silence with these friends, and how to get past the bad silence with them too.
Now you mostly walk alone. Sometimes you are in good silence, sometimes in bad silence. But now you don’t get to work your way out of the silence, you just have to wait.
You are making french toast with Alex. Doing this makes you think of Sarah. Then Alex says, “This makes me think of Sarah”. You feel relieved, because you just witnessed how permanently jointed your mind has become with the rest of the community