I never lived in a college dorm, so I never knew the joys of an 11 p.m. fire drill until my conversation with Helen Spencer and her mates in Reed College’s cooperative housing was terminated by an ear-splitting alarm. We exited to the assigned meeting place, dogs and pet rats in tow, until campus security gave us an all clear and we returned. Now that I’ve had that experience, I don’t need to do it again. But our conversation before the drill is worth savoring.
Reed is a small liberal arts college in southeast Portland with a reputation for academic rigor and independent thinking; a liberal arts college in the purest sense. Reed’s mission statement stresses academic inquiry; academics are valued for their own sake rather than practical application. The college has two cooperative houses as alternatives to dorm living. Students vie to get in, but coops aren’t for everyone, since they take more time and energy than dorm life.
The night I stayed at Reed, we had a long and delicious dinner, with far-reaching conversation that touched upon tomorrow. We discussed strategies for building consensus. We wondered what boredom felt like. Is it understimulation or a lack of caring; withdrawing from our surroundings or a childhood response to being overwhelmed? We talked about Reed’s Honor Principle and how it’s distillation of the Golden Rule permeates the culture. “The Honor Principle is prescriptive. At Reed, our objective is always to have as little policy as possible to achieve accord.”
Helen and housemate Justin are both in their senior thesis year. Helen is retracing an oral history project from Southern Appalachia, originally recorded in the 1970’s and relating it to today. Justin, a philosophy major, is weighing two different thesis options: Should he explore how one differentiates between not understanding something because you haven’t explored it enough versus not understanding something because it doesn’t make logical sense, or; if philosophy is a premise for an argument, what is intuition’s role in philosophy? Either way, I felt far from my own problem-set based college education.
For Helen, “living in a coop is the best way to lead the life I want to lead. I came from a very unhappy family. Coop living is a way to reinvent the heterosexual monogamous narrative. I want that alternative. It’s a basic form of rebellion. It also makes economic sense. I am prone to depression. When I am living with others I respect, they light the fire under me. I want to spend time with people who support my instincts. I want to be surrounded by those people all the time. I want to be there for them and have them there for me.”
Housemate Lyle added, “We are social engineering all the time. The phrase ‘intentional living’ is often used. We are trying to make a family that is not a family. We have allowances for personalities but we agree that we will get along.”
Helen continued, “We have to balance taking care of ourselves and taking care of other people.”
That afternoon, Helen had attended a memorial service for a Reed classmate and close friend who died over the summer. At one point in the evening, she was overcome with emotion by the loss. She picked up her guitar and sang a beautiful, plaintiff song she’d written. The entire group listened with quiet respect. I recalled the depth of grief I felt when a high school classmate of mine died, and later one of my close college friends. I appreciated the support Helen found in this household. Singing in front of people who cared about her and her grief was so very different than singing alone in her room.
How will we live tomorrow?
“There are two ways I can think of going. What is the ideal? What is the actual? When I envision the ideal I envision coops across the world. The coops are ecologically informed. I envision an equitable system of governance that is beyond nations. When I dwell upon the ideal, I don’t want to consider the actual.”