At home with herself and others

  • Sandra Boston has lived in communal situations for 50 years, and this year celebrates 40 years of cooperatively sharing space with unrelated adults in her Abbott Street home in Greenfield. PHOTO BY GILLIS MacDOUGALL

Published: 1/3/2022 3:01:28 PM

A beige Victorian style house with raspberry shutters in Greenfield appears as regal as the queen for whom the architectural classification is named. Built in 1905, the Abbott Street home contains six bedrooms, an expansive living room, a lovely formal dining room and an elegant staircase — the very picture of refinement and tradition.

Despite its rarified air, the edifice contains a household that’s hardly traditional in a mainstream American sense.

Four biologically unrelated adults ranging in age from their 30s to 80s co-exist peacefully, sharing chores, expenses, and mutual concern. While this flies in the face of conventional sensibilities, it’s nothing out of the ordinary for homeowner Sandra Boston, who in 2022 celebrates 40 years on Abbott Street.

Boston has been a trailblazer her whole life and, at 81, continues to challenge cultural norms.

For a half-century, Boston has lived communally and sees it as a path to social and personal freedom. “This way of living means I’ve never had to work a full-time job,” said Boston. “I do what I love while remaining solvent by bringing in four income streams.”

Boston has for years worked as a licensed therapist, a teacher of conscious communication, a leader of women’s empowerment training sessions, and a crafter producing photographs and jewelry.

“Because I live communally, I haven’t had to make a living at any one of my vocations,” said Boston. “I like being able to divide expenses four ways.”

Housemates

Boston’s housemates remain as residents for varying amounts of time. “Some people stay for a year or two, or more. It depends on their circumstances. One fellow stayed for 11 years,” she added. “He was terrific.”

Although she owns the home, Boston does not choose prospective housemates on her own. “Everyone who lives here gets a say,” she said.

She described the process: “It’s pretty involved, but seems to work. In 40 years, I’ve only had to ask four people to leave, and never for major problems. They just weren’t interacting in cooperative ways. They’d devolved into regular, disengaged boarders, which isn’t what I’m looking for.”

Boston said it’s made very clear in the initial interview that “we seek people who will share mutual concern.”

As a first step, Boston puts an ad on Craigslist. “When someone responds, I do an interview to decide whether to extend an invitation for a second interview involving all of the other housemates.”

If the applicant makes it to the third round, the group goes over agreements, which include being “friendly and responsible” and contributing $10 monthly to cover household items like toilet paper, light bulbs, trash bags, dish soap and other cleaning supplies.

The house code also spells out that each inhabitant fulfill one weekly and one monthly chore on a rotating basis. There’s wiggle room: people can trade jobs if they’re going to be away for a period of time.

Housemates agree to attend monthly meetings to “check in on issues and spend some social time together.”

The list of agreements mentions “carbon reduction consciousness,” specifying that housemates are expected to turn off lights when they leave a room, wear layers of clothing in the winter — the indoor temperature is set at 66 degrees — and use reusable bags in order to eliminate the use of plastic and paper.

‘I’ve finally found my place’

For 32-year-old Rebecca Labrie, living in the Abbott Street house is a revelation. “This is the most safe, secure and community-based place I’ve ever lived.”

Labrie, who works as a personal care attendant as well as a visual artist, appreciates “learning a lot about being eco-friendly and environmentally conscious.”

One thing Labrie loves most is that “we demonstrate concern for each other. For example, I don’t own a car, and my caring housemates are great about offering rides when I need to get groceries.”

Labrie moved into the Abbott Street home in October, and feels she’s reaped many benefits in just a few months. “I’m in recovery,” she said. “You can put that in the newspaper. I’ve experienced PTSD and many challenges, and living here enables me to get back on my feet in healthy ways.”

Always an expressive person — Labrie began creative writing at age 12 — she found the pandemic brought her into a new artistic phase when she began painting in acrylics on canvas. She currently sells between one and three paintings per week through Facebook. Her artwork is both soothing and colorfully bold, filled with images of nature and spiritual inspiration.

“In this house, I have the whole third floor,” said Labrie. “In my last place, the only way I could paint was to sit on my bed and pull a desk over to the bed. Here, I have a real art studio. It’s wonderful.”

Another huge plus for Labrie is being able to have a cat. “That’s a mental health boost for me.”

When asked about any downsides of communal living, Labrie replied, “There’s really nothing big … mostly just stuff I need to remember to do, like shutting off lights, or get used to, like using drying racks instead of the electric dryer when doing laundry.”

After some challenging years, Labrie said, “I feel like I’ve finally found my place. I’m so grateful.”

Commitment to care for each other

One of Labrie’s housemates, Wendy Iseman, 72, who’s lived in the Abbott Street house for nearly five years, is no stranger to communal living arrangements. “I lived in group settings during the ‘60s and ‘70s, so it’s nothing unusual for me.”

A longtime social worker, Iseman said her favorite job was working with an organization in Maine helping disabled people learn to ski and snowboard. “That was the best job I ever had,” she said, “and I would’ve stayed forever if it weren’t for the fact that Maine is too cold for me.”

Iseman has traveled many times throughout Europe as a volunteer, finding positions through Workaway International and WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms).

“I love animals and being outdoors, and have focussed on those passions while looking for volunteer positions,” said Iseman. “But I came back to the States a few years ago after I had a heart attack in Ireland. I came back to heal, while also caring for a good friend who had cancer. So I lived with her for a while.”

After both she and her friend regained health, Iseman started looking for a place and found Boston’s home on Craigslist.

“I like it here a lot,” she said. “It’s a lovely house, and Sandra does an incredible job with the gardens.” Iseman added, “I also feel that I’m changing as a person. I notice that I really like having the room to have my own thoughts. I can imagine getting a place of my own at some point. But for now, this is good. I do like knowing that other people are around.”

In her early life, Iseman lived in households that were less cohesive. “My childhood in Cleveland, Ohio was very lonely,” she said. “I lived in a 10-room house with a mentally ill, single mom. My older brother was never around. I played sports, and hung out with neighborhood kids — that was fine — but I hated coming home.”

Later, she lived in various group situations. “It was very exciting to have so many people around. I loved that part.” But in other ways, Iseman found circumstances less than ideal. “No one had any money, and there were lots of drugs around,” she said.

“My current situation is very different. I appreciate the commitment we all share to care for each other. And everyone who lives here is very nice and interesting.”

The pandemic brought challenges, but Iseman said, “We’ve done a really good job. We sat down together and laid out systems.” Since then, she added, “We’ve been through quite a few cycles. Easing up, then getting stricter, then enjoying the ease of warmer weather and outdoor activities.”

Summing up her experiences on Abbott Street, Iseman said, “Sandra is an extraordinary person. She’s really done what she’s wanted to do. I admire that.”

Introduction to communal life

Boston’s longtime lifestyle contrasts sharply with the earliest years of her adulthood. “I was married for 10 years, and during that time, I was in charge of maintaining the lives of five people: myself, my husband, and our three children.”

Boston learned of alternatives in 1972 after her marriage ended. Her sons were 6, 4 and 3 years old.

“I joined an intentional community in west Philadelphia,” she said. “My three sons and I became part of a household of people who wanted to share resources and work together to bring about social change.”

Her life was transformed from married full-time cook and household manager to “cooking only once a week. Living communally, I got my freedom back and found I had as much free time as my housemates without children.” Child care was shared, along with many chores and responsibilities.

Boston and her boys became part of a larger group of households in west Philadelphia launched by members of the Movement for a New Society (MNS), an organization launched in 1971 by Quakers who wanted to live communally in order to do more political action together.

MNS purchased four Philadelphia homes in 1971. By 1972, said Boston, “when my boys and I moved in, they owned 12 houses.” By 1975, MNS collectively owned 20 houses with 120 participants working on various aspects of social change.

Recently, Boston and 130 others participated in a virtual 50th-anniversary MNS reunion, which lasted for two days, running from noon to 6 p.m. each day.

Her boys were 16, 14, and 12 in 1982 when Boston decided to move to Greenfield, inspired by Philadelphia community members with whom she was friends, folks who’d already moved here.

“I knew my kids needed a better school system, and I heard great things about Greenfield — the high school, the community, the region,” she said.

At that juncture, Boston’s eldest son chose to go live with his dad in Virginia, and her other two sons settled into Greenfield High School. “They played football, did their homework, had friends … they made the switch from Philadelphia to Greenfield very well,” said their mother.

As luck would have it, Boston — trained in conflict resolution and family therapy — heard from a friend about a Recorder newspaper ad for a job opening at NELCWIT, the New England Learning Center for Women in Transition. She applied, having worked at two similar organizations in Philadelphia and was hired.

Today, Boston keeps in touch with former community members from Philadelphia as well as people with whom she’s shared living space in Greenfield.

“I like to form bonds, lasting friendships,” she said. “I still hike every week with a former housemate. With another, I have a standing movie date every Saturday night.”

‘Make Greenfield their home’

Boston said she wishes to live with others who, like her, “want to make Greenfield their home, and to invest in the place in some way. I don’t wish to live with people who are just looking for a cheap room.”

She feels “lucky that no one plays loud music or stomps around,” and for her, privacy hasn’t really been an issue. “The first floor is generally considered our common space. If we want privacy, we know to head to our individual spaces.”

Boston said it works “pretty smoothly. I’d say the biggest challenge is refrigerator space. We have two fridges, but we each have to keep an eye on our collection of foods.”

Speaking of food: the housemates “rarely eat together, except spontaneously,” said Boston. “We have very different diets, preferences, and schedules.” But it seems everyone enjoys their monthly intentional gatherings.

With two toilets and limited parking, Boston keeps the household population to four adults.

The sole outbuilding is Boston’s private space, which she uses as a studio for therapy, training sessions and meetings.

“It used to be a workshop where horse harnesses were made and repaired,” she said. “I had it renovated in 1986, four years after I purchased the property. There were no stairs, originally — just a ladder going up the wall. But when I needed space in which to conduct my Pilgrim Warrior (women’s empowerment) training sessions, I hired local builder Gary Seldon to add the staircase and sliding glass doors.”

Books

Boston may have a leg up in terms of being able to live peacefully with a group of unrelated adults, given that she’s spent decades learning about and teaching conscious communication. She’s even written books about the topic, including “Aiming Your Mind: Strategies and skills for conscious communication.”

In 2015, she also wrote and published an absorbing memoir about her remarkable life, “Out of Bounds Adventures in Transformation,” and in 2016, a book of poetry, “SoulSong.”

But Boston says it doesn’t take professional skills to be able to live communally. “We just have to make peace with the fact that, if we build a bridge, it’s going to get walked on. That’s OK. We can learn to listen, to sit in the heat of differences, and communicate with compassion.”

To sum up her life’s trajectory, Boston quoted the well-known adage: that she wants to “live simply, so that others may simply live.”

To learn more about Sandra Boston’s publications and work, readers may contact her: bostons111@gmail.com.


Jobs



Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Greenfield Recorder, keeping Franklin County informed since 1792.


Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906

 

Copyright © 2021 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy