Some of our friends and family enjoy describing our living situation at Beacon Hill Friends House as a hippie commune. Anyone who’s spent any time at BHFH knows the reality of the place falls far short of a houseful of flower children.
Except last weekend, perhaps, if you paid a visit to the public restroom by the dining room during our annual barbecue for more than 100 friends of the house. There, displayed invitingly on a low table by the door, was a basket of condoms.
In our day, Carol and I were big believers in condoms. But never so much that we offered them up to visitors like so many tissues in a box or candies in a jar.
I realize that condoms are in many ways a healthier gift than jelly beans. And that makes the community tension I’ll describe all the more interesting.
Several residents, Carol and I included, didn’t react well to condoms in a public area of the house. One of us moved them back to the resident-only bathroom from whence they came.
Their appearance there was harmless enough. A resident participating in a medical study alerted everyone in the house a couple of months ago that we could avail ourselves of the study’s excess supply.
What disturbed Carol and me about their public placement was the likelihood of guests encountering a basket of condoms with no explanation. And even with an explanation, placing them within easy reach of curious kids unfamiliar with their purpose didn’t seem like something the parents among our visitors would necessarily welcome.
It turns out that at least one parent who was at the barbecue — our daughter, Kate — said she’d have no problem with her child, at whatever age, walking out with a fistful of condoms and asking what they might be for.
Long story short, all this prompted a conversation between Carol and our housemate – the filler of the basket – about how different people at different stages of their lives might view condoms in a basket in different ways.
I’m not sure the conversation changed any minds, but it seemed to create some understanding of the heart. What we viewed as a problem for visiting parents our housemate saw as sharing something we had plenty of.
At one level, the task involved the accommodation of conflicting points of view. But I’m talking about something more demanding that the mere peaceful co-existence of détente. We need to find ways of disagreeing that make room not only for practical solutions but for respect and affection, too. That seems to have been achieved in this case.
This sort of thing is not a new challenge for residents of BHFH or others living in community. Our resident handbook includes a whole chapter on conflict resolution, and a local advocate of cooperative living has just created a new website with a url that makes the point: http://www.cooplivingishard.com/.
During last weekend’s barbecue, I did several video interviews with guests and alums for the house Facebook page and website. A couple of them offered glimpses of house tensions in an earlier era.
“I was the first person who wanted to have my computer in the library,” recalled Delia Windwalker, who lived in the house from 1994 to 1996. “And that was a problem because it went ‘click, click, click’ when I used the keyboard.”
Alice Carter, who lived in the house in 1992, described the tensions around smoking, which was limited to the mail room but “people coming in to get their mail did not like to breathe second-hand smoke.”
Things worked out. There’s plenty of key clicking in the library these days, and there’s no smoking allowed anywhere.
Sort of like finding a mutually agreeable home for a basket of condoms.
Another really interesting piece. You and Carol are accumulating an intriguing pile of reflections. On another matter, I want to be invited when someone in the house is engaged in a study of the best pizza in Boston.
I hear you Bill. I think your choice of tags on this piece might draw some interesting search results.
Great piece, Bill. Reminded me of a group of nuns who run a family shelter in Boston and always kept a basket of condoms visible in the common room. Whenever Cardinal Law came to visit (usually around Thanksgiving or Christmas with lots of fanfare), the nuns would carefully move the basket into the women’s bathroom, the one place shielded from the Cardinal and his all-male entourage. I loved the realism and the practicality of those nuns living out the gospel while deftly maneuvering around the boss.
Enjoyed this a lot, Bill, and found myself reflecting again on the seeming contradiction that the important things in life are most often the unimportant things. (Keys clicking? Condom displays?)