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    the exterior of a barn

    Stable Condition

    An unlikely house extends a welcome to singles and families during Covid and beyond.

    By Maureen Swinger

    May 31, 2022
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    My family lives in a barn. If you’re picturing an elegant renovation with skylights, open rafters, and cantilevered lofts, that’s the one we lived in before this one: woodsy, cozy, just big enough for a family and some guests, snuggled into the hills of northwest Connecticut where Jason and I and our kids spent three years. But upon moving to Fox Hill Bruderhof, eight years ago now, we joined the residents of the large and sprawling former horse barn affectionately named “The Stables.”

    Our lovely Fox Hill property was originally the West Wind Stables, a horse farm complete with two barns. One is still very much a barn, now sheltering chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, cows, and horses. The other, while looking quite the same from the outside, has undergone dramatic transformations behind its double doors. None of them can be said to have made it beautiful. Not a skylight to be seen.

    exterior of a barn at the Fox Hill community

    Our house in 1998 before its hasty renovation All photographs courtesy of Maureen Swinger

    Let me pause on that insult, and attempt to describe the way housing usually works on a rural Bruderhof. Fox Hill is home to about 250 people, who live in residential dwellings designed to accommodate four or five families, each in their own apartment. Singles have rooms between the apartments. Kitchens are often shared by two families, as many of our meals are communal and there’s less cooking at home.

    I’ve had prospective guests ask me, “What does total community mean, if you share everything? Do you have your own space?” Of course, we respect each other’s homes, especially after work hours when the kids need stories and songs, a prayer, and that last “Can I talk about the day?” conversation. We try not to barge in or even phone, so everyone has space to unwind, read, breathe in.

    Still, we are a community, and as such, our families extend beyond an immediate circle. There are some amazing singles at Fox Hill who keep the place going, and if any of them need somewhere to chill and talk, or just grill a burger, they know they can stop by our house – if they can find it.

    Back to The Stables then, because we live at the extreme end of it, and even frequently visiting friends joke that they need a GPS to figure out the building. They turn up in other people’s apartments, confidently – twice. When they try to leave, they walk around our fridge block and appear back where they started with a Hotel California look on their faces.

    a communal celebration

    Already in its early iterations, The Stables was a gathering place.

    Since Fox Hill started in 1998, this preexisting building has been adapted to the community’s evolving needs, at various times serving as dining hall and communal kitchen, carpentry shop, or elementary school with a library at the heart of it. With each new iteration – “Drawers! Floors! Doors!” – not quite as magically as Encanto’s Casita, but almost as fast, the interior reconfigured. Eventually, The Stables shape-shifted to family apartments. The old library, once such a cozy den, was demoted to furniture storage. You can’t expect folks to live in a big windowless square.

    For many of those early years of change, Jason was in the thick of things here at Fox Hill, usually helping with the renovations, and very invested in whichever walls were going up or rapidly coming down. So he wasn’t surprised by the look of the place as our family trundled luggage through the dark furniture storage room and down labyrinthine halls to our new abode. But I was a little underwhelmed. Insulated pipes under the ceiling panels? Why is this post here, doing nothing, right in front of the kitchen sink? Oh, it’s weight-bearing … that’s all right then. Let’s keep the roof up. The floor appears to be polished cement. Is that a footprint polished into the cement, here in the girls’ room? “Yes,” said Jason, “and I think it’s mine.” He proceeded to step on it, and sure enough, the shoe fit.

    It didn’t take long for this big, quirky maze to become home. But the furniture room! Every time we walked through, it made its neglect known. The walls were dinged up from clumsy closets, and the light bulbs had burned out in embarrassment. If all the old tables and bureaus went up to join their relatives in the attic, we’d have a central space to gather the thirty-four residents of the building. Suddenly everyone was motivated, patching holes and repainting, putting up pictures, assembling a motley crew of chairs.

    Families and singles contributed board games and books, and soon we were having house game evenings and singalongs.

    We had ourselves a Foyer. And once we had it, we found a flurry of ways to use it … not every night, but whenever someone or other said, “How about a get-together?” People contributed board games and books, and soon we were having house game evenings and singalongs, or read-aloud nights with coloring books and crafts in hand.

    As the Christmas season approached, we hauled in a big tree, and a general deck-the-hall afternoon ensued. Then one kid said, “Can we have a fireplace?” Considering the impracticality of punching a chimney up into the living room above, my dad built a faux fireplace, creating the illusion of flickering flames with no heat. All The Stables children hung their stockings along it, and although we don’t know how Santa got down, at least the chocolate he bestowed didn’t melt.

    Gatherings aren’t exclusive to Stables residents. The Foyer works for a kindergarten girl’s fancy-dress birthday party, a singles’ night in, a winter hootenanny, or an annual Oxford Book of Carols singalong complete with hot buttered rum and a selection of cherry and mincemeat tarts (the latter an acquired taste, but a critical minority would raise their voices – and not in song – should we forget them).

    We learned to grieve together too; when one couple who lived upstairs got the news of their grandson’s death in Australia (one of twin boys, his short, brave life had been mostly spent in the NICU), all the residents of the house and several other members of the community gathered at 2:00 a.m. to listen in to the funeral service in solidarity with a family halfway around the world.

    When Covid locked the world down, the Bruderhof quarantined in small pods of immediate family and singles, whoever was living in direct proximity and sharing a kitchen. It was the best way in an emergency to protect each other. But going from all-in community to a minimalist, dial-in variety in the space of a day gave all of us whiplash to some degree, especially the kids and the elderly.

    Over half The Stables’s residents joke about living in “stable condition” because they are elderly or health-challenged in some way. And thanks to the Foyer, The Stables could not be divided into small and seemly pods. At once hallway and “great hall,” with various kitchens, storage rooms, and exits branching off in hobbit-fashion, it refused to be sealed off tidily, and we were left with two choices. We could become one large first-floor pod of twenty. Or the elderly and immunocompromised could opt to move to smaller, newer buildings, and pod up with close relatives or a caregiver.

    It’s understood that in a communal life like ours, no one stays in one place forever. You live in the house that works best for you; as a family grows, you might exchange spaces with another who no longer needs as many rooms. If someone has had surgery or is aging and needs more assistance, he or she can move into an apartment with care facilities and attached rooms for nursing staff. But this particular mix in The Stables had stayed together for about five years. Selfishly, I wasn’t prepared to see everyone blast apart with no warning.

    a family of musicians serenades elderly people during the 2020 Covid Lockdown

    A family of musicians serenades The Stables’s occupants during the 2020 Covid lockdown.

    As it turned out, not a soul wanted to leave. They made up their minds independently (and they wouldn’t mind my telling you that they are all recognized for their independent minds), but they let it be known that they considered their mental health on a par with their physical health, and for that, they wanted company. We respected their decisions. In the end, we were fortunate that everyone in Fox Hill kept safe and healthy. But how could anyone have known that at the outset?

    Walking home one night with a friend, I looked down toward the long, low-slung silhouette of The Stables, its even line of windows reflecting like small gold portholes in the pond. “Look at it,” I exclaimed to my companion, “Doesn’t it remind you of the Ark?” just as she helpfully suggested, “the Titanic?”

    This was now our community in miniature. While meals were mostly family affairs, literally every other chance to gather was capitalized upon as the pandemic dragged on: old-fashioned entertainments like charades and shadow plays, silly skits, potluck dessert evenings, or themed movie nights. Everyone remembers The Adventures of Robin Hood, when the password into Sherwood Foyer was “A Locksley.” Come in costume and sneak your ticket past the Sheriff of Nottingham.

    It never stopped feeling strange to have worship meetings by pod, each small circle connected yet weirdly remote from fellow members listening in and contributing to the gathering by phone. But we weren’t going to give ground to any more distance, any less community.

    After the dial tone, folks usually ended up staying on and continuing the meeting more informally, singing (next to impossible while digitally connected), or talking over the day’s reading. Other times, we shared stories of pain and sorrow around the circle, perhaps hard news from distant family or friends, or simply an old memory that needed talking through, a grief acknowledged. We made the most of good news, too, and got extra mileage out of birthdays or anniversaries.

    The pods were long ago retired, and since those memorable shared months, some families have drifted out and others flowed in. Right now, an entire extended family has found enough apartments and rooms about the place to gather round their dad and grandfather as he faces advanced cancer, which he does with his signature humor, requests for singalongs, and the occasional ice cream party. The Foyer has become home to civilizations of block towers built by his small grandsons.

    Occasionally, folks from elsewhere come whooshing through when the Foyer is not looking its finest, and an offhand comment will drop: “What a waste of space! Posts right in the middle of it.” Or: “No windows. What do you even use it for?” Instantly, I feel an inarticulate defense of all good yet homely things rising within me, as the memories of merry gatherings flash by in kaleidoscopic detail. But probably a fierce and furious justification would just make them wonder about my sanity. I usually end up saying, “Come by at Christmastime.” And making a mental note to talk with Bruderhof architects about planning Foyers into future buildings. For sanity.

    Contributed By MaureenSwinger Maureen Swinger

    Maureen Swinger is a senior editor at Plough and lives at the Fox Hill Bruderhof in Walden, New York.

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