Late night, alone in a barely furnished room. Sitting with my notepad, making tea on a butane stove, candle casting long shadows on the wall. And here I am again.
No, not there again, lost and lonely and dissatisfied in the suburbs, although there were plenty of late nights spent alone then. No, this is back in a squat. Cleaned out and with my stuff set up, trying to turn this abandoned, neglected building into a home, hoping that others will move in and we can create not just a home but a community. Maybe even a movement.
Our one year of intentional community living at Brother Juniper House ended in depressingly mundane circumstances – our landlord not renewing our lease, and our little community not having the energy to either find another place to keep going or to really end it. Instead, we just kind of faded out and dispersed. Across the city, across the country. Back mostly to where we had come from.
Our friendships mostly survived a year living together in at times a high pressure atmosphere, they even survived the ordeal of moving out and cleaning up the huge house cluttered with the detritus of countless tenants, hard rubbish scavenging and donations.
But as we put our head down and got to work on the cleanup, I craved a different ending. I wanted to mourn the end of the house and the death of a dream together, talk about the things we’d learned about ourselves and the world; memories, plans and dreams for the future. I wanted us to pledge like some kind of high school movie that we would always stay friends and never forget the values that led us to start the house. To be honest, I wanted to resist eviction and picket the front door when they came to kick us out. But that was the least likely of all those things to happen.
Instead, we stumbled through the last week in the house, feeling lucky to make it to the end, when on the last day three of us remained to load the last of the stuff onto the back of a ute. Then we all rushed off because we had places we had to be and we all just wanted it to be over and done with.
Moving out is always an emotionally intense time, as we have to deal with the ending of a chapter of our lives and the scary reality of all the stuff we accumulate. It’s a time when we are forced to evaluate our lives at precisely the point where we don’t have the time to. No wonder people find it one of the most stressful experiences you can have.
But added to that for us was the fading enthusiasm for what we had started out so excited about. What had happened? A couple of people had already left before we were kicked out. I remember the house meeting after we got the eviction notice, going around the circle saying our plans, and hearing people say they didn’t want to get another place and keep going. It felt like something inside of me deflated.
It’s never easy seeing something end, but it’s even harder when the thing that’s failing is a project based on the very core values you hold, the things you believe would change the world if we all lived them out.
I don’t want to blame anyone or to claim that I had no responsibility in all this. I never committed as much time to the house as I would have liked, juggling other commitments in Brisbane, taking a few interstate trips along the way. Our house wasn’t always an easy place to be. My vision for the house was never a reasonable expectation on others who didn’t share my personality or desires. There’s always that uncomfortable gap between what we believe in and what we’re actually capable of, and it’s not easy to walk that line.
And it’s not that in ending it my feelings about the house are all negative either. The time there was often wonderful, the people always amazing. We had fun, we grew together, and in opening our doors to the stranger we made new friends and provided a friendly, welcoming space to so many people. The kind of space that is too rare in our lonely society. Despite the end of the house, we leave there with great memories and I think that our time together made a positive change to our community and our world.
But anyway, here I am now, in my candle lit living room. Not a step backwards, just another step on the way – I did that for a while, now I’m doing something different. And it’s not like this is even a journey with a destination in mind – more of a haphazard dance trying to live out the things I believe in and take the opportunities that come up.
I hope I’m not finished with the people involved in Brother Juniper House, or even with the idea of a Catholic Worker house of hospitality. Certainly not the values the house was based on. In a way nothing ever finishes, the effects of every action we ever take go on much longer and further than we can ever measure. I can’t help but believe that better things are always to come, something inside me forces me to and I don’t even really get a say in it. Even this empty living room holds a world of possibilities.
Before I go I’d like to make a special mention for the landlords, both our landlord at Stephens Rd and landlords in general. We spent a year trying to build a community space and serve others (not to mention paying the rent on time each week), only to have it pulled out from under us by a landlord wanting to turn the house into student accommodation and make loads of money exploiting the alienation of international students in this country.
In the last couple of weeks, another house in West End that has been holding a weekly community event has similarly been kicked out without any reason needing to be given other than dollars and cents. A wise man once said “property is theft”. And the control landlords can wield over our lives goes unquestioned by far too many people.
So while it’s maybe not a perfect solution, squatting seems like a pretty good response to being kicked out of the place you were renting. As for hospitality, community, taking personal responsibility for a better world? Hopefully those ideas are strong enough to survive an eviction notice.