As a regular feature in our monthly newsletter and blog posts, we are going to highlight some of the rich experience, talents and skills of our members. Cohousing tends to be a magnet for bringing together people intent on improving the world around them through a variety of ways. Be on the lookout: we’ll have plenty of community voices to share with you in the future. Sarah Conover was the interviewer.
Sarah: I happen to know that you grew up in a large family, so let’s start with that—your very first community and what you learned about community in that context.
Michaele: I grew up in southern California desert in a very rural area, a really small town called Pear Blossom. Nobody's ever heard of it, but it was on the main road at that time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. My parents ran a gas station and right next door was the old motel that had been associated with the gas station. We lived in it—the bedrooms were upstairs, four bedrooms numbered one, two, three, four. So that's where I was raised, and I had ten siblings. We were a big Catholic family.
Highlights of my childhood were a strong sense of community instilled by my father. I have few memories of my mother before my father died because he was a very dominant personality. I think we children learned a lot about caring for each other and that the group always comes first. Others come first before you. That was a big, big part of our teaching. The downside of that was that others came first, right? So, it was definitely two sides of the same coin! I remember having no sense of private property as a child—you are a kind of defacto communist. Everybody shares everything. But the other side of that is a child gained no idea of, or respect for, what it's like to have a treasure, something that can't be taken away from you. I would say that in almost everything in our little family community, the upside and the downside went together.
Sarah: What do you remember from that period that you took forward into life later?
Michaele: I would say that the other huge community influence from my childhood was that I was raised five miles from a Benedictine monastery. Unlike many Catholic families who went to parish churches, I went to this monastery for mass every Sunday. And I think that was a huge influence in terms of, again, another communal model. This monastery influenced a lot of my early formation around what community is and isn't—values and spirituality and all those other things that go along with that influence.
Sarah: Can you say a little bit more about what community is and isn't and what you saw that you took to heart?
Michaele: Well, community isn't perfect.
Sarah: Oh, that might be a good place for us all to start with in terms of expectations in cohousing.
Michaele: Community isn't perfect. It isn't always good at balancing conflicting values. So that can become quite difficult. Especially as a teen where hypocrisy is so huge and your radar for hypocrisy is on all the time—I was very aware of that piece. I remember in eighth grade, those of us who had good grades had the honor of cleaning the convent for the nuns. And I'm dusting things and vacuuming the floors. In those days, the nuns had this beautiful Hifi stereo. I did not have new clothes until I could buy them myself when I had a job. So, the hypocrisy of these people who took vows of poverty and lived in a way that certainly I didn't, and most people I knew didn't, those things got to me. You have communities that have vows or certain commitments and then you sometimes see them not live up to them. Now I have a much kinder disposition about that sort of thing because I know my own hypocrisy. I'm a grown up. So I would say mostly that community is imperfect and that's okay.
Sarah: And from your story, it sounds like what we're really saying is people aren't perfect.
Michaele: Exactly. Well, people are community, right? A collaboration of people. We can keep our expectations; we can have expectations. It's just learning to be kind with ourselves and others when we’re disappointed. I think we're going to have disappointments and we’ll work through them. And hopefully, with as much honesty and integrity as you can, honesty about your experience.
Sarah: You graduated from high school and went on to college?
Michaele: I went to school at Loyola Marymount, which was a Jesuit University.
Sarah: Then I heard that you got involved in the Catholic Worker movement.
Michaele: Yes, the Catholic Worker that was started in the 1930s by Dorothy Day. She converted to Catholicism and was most drawn in by the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. They opened up soup kitchens during the Depression and houses of hospitality. I think I got quite radicalized social-justice wise in that community. The seeds were already there, but, you know, that those were the days of protests and and the occasional arrest and those sorts of things.
Sarah: Where were you living?
Michaele: In Los Angeles. I can't remember why I went to the Worker movement, but I showed up and we got three bucks a week and a place to live and food. Room and board and three bucks a week, which we all spent on beer. It was really pretty fun. The cool thing about being in the Catholic Worker movement was that we got to visit a lot of different Catholic workers and they weren't all the same.
Sarah: What did you do specifically in your job?
Michaele: We ran a soup kitchen. You cooked and served. In the summer it might be 300 meals a day. In the winter it was over 1,000 meals a day and it was every day except for Sunday. Every day we served coffee and bread in the morning and then a meal around noon or one. You got up at six and you were working all day and then after work you were putting up the newspaper or you were organizing a demonstration.
Sarah: So, you were there for two years, and then what was the next community thing you did?
Michale: Then I moved up here. I just needed to get out of LA. And I had a sister who lived here, my sister Mary, who in my growing up family was probably the closest thing to a nurturer I had as my mother was so busy after my father died. Some friends from Catholic Workers moved up here and I wanted to start at another house of hospitality. When I grew up, my parents literally were always taking in waifs. If someone came through the gas station down on their luck, or needed a place, my father welcomed them. Now, once he died, that happened somewhat less, although if my sisters met someone at school who was bounced from foster care to foster care, they were brought into our home. In some ways, starting a hospitality house was in my blood. I did that in Spokane for some years. I got involved at St. Anne’s Church in Spokane, and met my husband, Mark Iverson. Eventually, I went back to school and got my pastoral ministry degree and I became a pastoral minister at that church, one of the roles lay people could have in the church. I worked there for six years.
Sarah: And what was your learning from that?
Michaele: That's a really good question. I love the people, you know. It was very good experience of community but maybe that's not always enough. Community's not everything. After my mother died, I had this visceral experience that nothing could catch me or hold me. I just fell into an abyss. Community wasn’t enough. I shouldn't say it's not enough. It's not everything. It's not going to be everything for you.
Sarah: How did that experience then shape your trajectory?
Michael: I left the church and I got my counseling degree. I had wanted to be a counselor in my twenties, so I became a therapist and loved it. I think I was born for it.
Sarah: Now your kids are gone, did you think you and Mark would just age here in this house?
Michaele: I don't know if we thought about it much! We had been thinking and talking about a retirement cohousing community. So that kind of preceded our encounter with Haystack Heights and then we ran into you at a retreat and had also read about Haystack Heights. It was kind of in the back of our minds. And then it was sort of realizing how nice it would be to not have to create this from ground zero! Especially after being in this project for a year and seeing how much work has been done and continues to be done. We really love the people. We really do.
Sarah: Have you had doubts?
Michaele: Yeah—doubts do come up but I have to say that for us, every time we're working with the Haystack community it feels okay and right. At the end of our last Haystack LLC meeting, Doug, the facilitator, asked, “What feeds your heart in cohousing?” and I said: involvement. Every time I'm more deeply involved it really feeds me. That's the energy that happens and I can recognize it. It can be anything—like gardening (which I don’t usually like), yet I love going there and working with people in our garden. Whatever it is, even if I don't like it, such as anything to do with marketing. But at the Women’s March I was at our booth and it was fine and fun because there are other cohousers there with you. It was really fun. So, anything I do, it's not the specific task, it's being with our community. It makes every task kind of lovely and changes everything. Involvement sustains me.