The Lessons of Everyone Village (Part One)

One of the great things for me about living here in E1V is how different it has been from every place I have ever lived before, and with this newness, came the slow dawning realization that many of the life strategies I had been using up to now were no longer useful. Habits that were baked into my everyday life, some I wasn’t even aware of, became clear and defined when living in a place they no longer worked.

I know that I do tend to write about pretty heavy issues which may give the impression that I am off in the corner brooding and ruminating. The truth is, all things considered, I am pretty happy with my new life. 

Another truth is, all of these heavy thoughts and suddenly remembered sadnesses only really make their way to my consciousness when I sit down to write this blog, and while the exercise of writing and being on a semi-deadline, is somewhat stressful, it is always ultimately satisfying and sometimes even cathartic.

There is so much to learn here, so many problems to solve both obvious and arising suddenly, demanding responses to things I have never dealt with in my life. The fact that you are doing something meaningful, and helping others as you help yourself has a way of making it all bearable. You aren’t just killing another day, you are building community in all its chaos and messiness.

At first this was frustrating and a little bit overwhelming as the changes I would have to make made themselves apparent. My first impulse, as a former depressed person, was to beat myself up and ask how I could have been doing things so wrong for so long. Later I figured out that it was okay to realize that what was appropriate to other places with other people was no longer valid or necessary, and instead of failing at simple things once again, I was simply learning and then putting into practice what I had learned.  

And this itself was one of the important lessons of Everyone Village. There is simply so much to learn that I no longer have the free mental time that is needed to beat myself up emotionally. Like all habits, I am going to miss it, as it felt like a kind of practical introspection at the time, and this is part of the process, having patience with yourself, as well as others, as you let the old self molt away and the new one arise.

These last few paragraphs were supposed to be a simple introduction, only it seems that I have already described a couple of important lessons I have learned at this place.

If, like me, you are a self-defeating perfectionist, always researching and analyzing, always preparing, and never quite acting on anything, suddenly having to make decisions in the here and now where an imperfect decision is much better than no decision at all is both terrifying and affirming. It is a leap of faith and usually, more or less, it works out.

  So that is the first lesson:

1. You don’t have to be perfect, just make your best guess and get on with it.

The second new lesson arises naturally from the first:

2. The best you can do is good enough, and if it isn’t you can change it to something else later.

A simpler version of lesson two is:

 Beating yourself up is a waste of time.

I am actually embodying these two lessons in the here and now, as I write this. Early on when I came to the village, I noticed how many new things I was learning, and it all came with a kind of exhilaration and intellectual excitement. So I took the time to write all the lessons down in a notebook so I would have them if I needed them later. When I sat down to write this post, I confidently went to find them with happiness bordering on smugness. because it felt like the blog was already mostly written and it would be easy. I am getting the hang of things!

You are probably seeing this one coming.  

I couldn’t find them. I went through all the places that I would logically write them down, and then after everywhere else, all the while being really mad at myself and singing a variation of the perfectionist’s lifelong chorus:  

“How in the world are you going to be able to build a life off the streets if you somehow lose or throw away something simple that you know you need?”

Right in the middle of that mental tirade, a new and somewhat alien spirit possessed my mind: 

“So, you lost them? So what?

Everyone loses things, not just homeless people. Didn’t Maxine Hong Kingston lose a whole novel in a fire in Oakland?”

Not fully onboard with the new spirit of acceptance, I searched all the folders on my computer and found one titled: “The lessons of everyone village.” (I never capitalize notes.) So I was happy again. It wasn’t that I foolishly lost them, I had actually had the presence of mind to transcribe them to a computer file.  

So I open the file. Nope. This was a different doc with only one lesson on it. That amazing list was gone. 

So I had to take a deep breath and just get on with it. I told myself, “You will remember what needs remembering as you write.” Which I didn’t believe really, I was faking it till I made it. What I really believed was that there was no hope for me in the future with such a bad memory.

So I just started typing in the faith/hope that my lesson would prove itself to be true. This isn’t so bad so far, but it will never be as good as all the wonderful stuff that I lost.

A lot of that deepbreath/letgo happening with me these days. 

Another lesson: I like problem-solving. I like intellectual challenges. There was even an over-exhilaration when I first noticed this, a restless, always thinking, always jotting, always looking up stuff on my phone that left me exhausted and convinced me to ramp it back.

So lesson three was something like:

3. I like this. Life can be fun.

I had pretty much ceded the territory of satisfaction years ago, and it was hard to recognize when it returned. So many little dilemmas and disputes when 50 plus people are thrown into a community together. Sometimes it just feels crazy, all the unforeseen issues that push themselves to the fore.

I remember sitting in the office with Heather once, both of us kind of overwhelmed, and finally we just laughed, agreeing that we were having a ball and living the ultimate adventure:  

Figuring out the multitudinous little twisties of the individual and the collective human soul. People are so mysterious!

Yeah. All in all, I have everything I need. 

When I am not writing this blog, life is pretty good. I have a place to live, to store my stuff, a little income, and a bunch of new friends. I have been solitary for years, so this is overwhelming in its goodness too.  

I recently had the best birthday I have had in decades. It was low-key, and a bunch of people said Happy Birthday, and gave me little presents, and one dude made me an amazing teriyaki-beef-strips on rice with some crazy seasoning made of bits of nori and other stuff. One person burst into song. A couple others threatened to. It was great. Made me feel like I was in the right place.

(I even got to make Gina, Gabe’s wife, feel guilty for not having made Mud Pie for me. I could see in her mind she was computing how to best go about finding room for this task somewhere in the massive list of things she does here at the village and at home with her family. I had mercy and stopped her. I was just being silly and over the top. Sorry, Gina. But it WAS MY birthday.)

Another lesson is a very important one, and it is a lesson that all of us struggle with every day:

4. Let street mentality go.    

Just to make it on the streets you have to be kind of aggressive, or you will get run right over. Even people living in shelters have to be a little more dramatic than you normally would be, a little quicker to take offense. Resources are scarce, so if you are offered food or socks or anything, take as much of it as you can, because you have no idea when you will get it again. Always push the boundaries a little, always ask for a little more, and keep pushing until people literally stop talking to you.

When I was in one certain shelter, people were just continually crossing each other’s boundaries, I mean, people are continually doing passive aggressive and mildly antisocial things. It was as if the normal sense of ambition or achievement had degenerated to seeing what you could get away with. 

In general I will defend homeless people against stereotypes people have but this mentality used to really steam me. Homeless people often objectify everyone else, including each other, so a guy with a cigarette is where you get cigarettes, and someone well dressed is where you get money.

It seems like fake alpha male behavior to me, and always has. It can reach the point where the disrespect and the sense of entitlement becomes even more important than whatever it is you are trying to get from someone.

The first time I stayed in a shelter I was not prepared for this mentality, and being fairly generous, I would share what I had. And it would always lead to asking for more, and not just material goods. People would demand my attention, and tell me their problems, and tell me how to live my life, and tell me what music to listen to, to the point where I would finally rebel and they would get really angry with me. In their little world of fake dominance, I was stepping out of my role as follower.

It was nowhere in their minds that I was just being patient with them or generous. They thought they were the man! One time a shifty little guy kept asking for things from me and I gave them to him, and the whole thing culminated when we were sitting in adjacent toilet stalls and he actually wanted me to relinquish the stall I was in because it was his favorite.”

I have had people yell at me from across the street and expect me to run over to hear what they had to say, have had people throw their garbage on my seat when I got up for a moment or put their belongings right on top of my stuff, or standing in front me and my chair with their butt in my face as if I wasn’t there. 

A constant really sad struggle for dominance. 

When I finally learned to set some boundaries and ask for respect, it was amazing how people would just get mad and leave. Some guy demands a cigarette instead of asking for it, and I go, “I’d rather be asked than ordered,” and they just snarl and go away. They literally would rather not have a cigarette than be polite about it.

Most of us aren’t this bad. We just have to strut around a little to get what we want. I had to learn at the village, when a church brought some sandwiches for us, only to take one or two. No need to take five or six.

There will be more sandwiches. No need to hoard toilet paper, no need to convince yourself something lying out in the common room is in fact up for grabs and yours to take. (How flexible the concept of ‘finding something’ becomes when you are homeless.) You can just ask for things and you will probably get them.

The concept I came up with, and other villagers are probably tired of hearing is that if you move from the streets to the village, one of your best survival skills will simply be:

Turning down your swagger.

You don’t have to get rid of it completely. Just if your swagger is set to ten, turn it down to six and you should be fine. Don’t get rid of it completely. Just turn it down.

So many lessons popping into my head at the moment. More of a book than a blog post. Guess letting go of that list and trusting the writing process was the way to go. This post is definitely going to have many parts.

Let’s just end this one with a really big lesson, one that took a while to sink in, but once it did, it made things much much more fine. And this lesson had to do with community itself.

What is community?

How do you build it?

What is it reasonable to expect, and what can be expected from you.

Coming in, I had no idea, and now I have come up with a definition I can live with.

5. Community is the process of not getting exactly what you want, but getting pretty much what you want.

We have a great diversity of people here, coming from so many circumstances, and living in the fragile hope that they are coming to live at a place that is different, more of a home than bare shelter, and this looks very different to everyone.

Everyone has ideas about how things should go. We don’t have the problem of under-participation and a lack of ideas. We have way way way way too many ideas of what to do and how to do it.

Every individual has their own idea of home, how it should look and what our values should be. Even if you don’t employ the word ‘community’ in your thinking, when you move furniture, or hotplates and microwaves, you are putting out an idea of community.

When ideas of community clash, when there are differences, there is often conflict, and predictable arenas produce conflict, the kitchen area, the food storage area, the sink and shelves above it, noise levels, just normal obvious stuff.

And it all has to be worked out.

And my brainstorm was this:

Never get too angry or frustrated when your idea of how things should go conflicts with someone else’s. That is not a failing of your own, or of other people’s, or of the community.

That is community.

I have been trying to share this with as many people as I can because I think it is a good idea. (I’m just like everyone else, I have my idea of how things should go.) Except I think my definition of community won’t just be good for me, it will be good for all the Everyones at Everyone Village.

Community isn’t magic, and it doesn’t work itself out by itself.

Community is in the working out of differences.  

So I think we should all just take a collective deep breath, and come into situations with our eyes open, not expecting everyone else just to fall in line.

We should welcome the differences and even, to a degree, the conflicts. We should just say, yep, this is community.

It is community when I want to blast my music that someone else doesn’t like. How do we work it out? What do we do?

Very unlikely that you will get to do exactly what you like and everyone else will have to work around it. So how about, no amplified sound in common areas? You still get your music, only you have to wear ear buds.

And in your shelter, you can play your music louder, but not too loud and not after a certain hour.

Not getting exactly what you want, but still getting pretty much what you want.

Think I am onto something here. If only I can get all those other idiots to obey me! (Do I have to mention I am just kidding and laughing at myself here? Probably.)

Next post: More lessons.

2 thoughts on “The Lessons of Everyone Village (Part One)

  1. Sometimes I think the one advantage I have over many others is that I was raised in a family with 8 kids. Getting “pretty much what you want” was a goal to be aspired to; perfection wasn’t in the cards. It’s much easier to live in community when that’s your growing up experience. And once we all got to be grownups, we had a lot of fun together. So I think you’re on to something. Community life takes lot of adjusting, and not so much trusting others as getting to know what to expect and what you can get through negotiations. And still somehow feeling like yourself and being able to express that. Also, just FYI, most of the folks who bring sandwiches, etc, will bring more if you need more–it’s their thing. You’ll never need to take a bunch–more really are coming down the pipeline to you.

    1. Thanks Mary. The hoarding behavior is just a remnant of life on the streets. Even if you know more sandwiches are coming, it takes time to believe it.

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