For three years, I lived in an overcrowded house with 15 to 25 other residents. It was one of those tall British houses in a London borough—near-ish Wembley Stadium if you don’t know the city, near Willesden Green station if you do. It had three floors and three bathrooms and radiators that were never turned on except on the coldest days in January.
The community in this house on Dartmouth Road was tightly-knit and missional, bound by a common purpose and love for the city. We came from a variety of backgrounds and countries, living and working together to create programs for children, youth, and homeless individuals in inner-city London.
In that environment, privacy was practically unheard of and really only achieved in the bathroom, the early morning (and even then only rarely), or in the laundry cupboard, which had just enough space for one person to comfortably sit.
Mornings were loud, with Simon beat-boxing incessantly and Jose announcing “There she is!” whenever I entered the room. Afternoons were noisier, our after-meeting cleaning sessions accentuated by the music of whoever was assigned to clean the living room. And evenings were unpredictable, with visitors spontaneously joining us for dinner and often staying late into the night. You couldn’t enter a room without either interrupting or joining a new conversation.
For three years, I was rarely alone. I was forced to live life vulnerably, constantly in the company of people whose best and worst sides I soon became acquainted with.
I had never before felt such a deep sense of belonging to a community, and have yet to since.
I left the thick and damp air of London to return home to the arid, thirsty land of Southern California one year ago. I had missed this place; the people, my friends and family, the taste of a true and proper taco, the strong coffee and the weak tea. I had my own space again, my own room and my own dog. I could cook healthy food again, without the endless subjection to potatoes and cream. My schedule was my own, and the cleanliness of my room (regardless of whether it is clean or not) was my own decision. I had independence, glorified and so often prioritized independence, but along with it, a dull and lonely ache began to grow.
I watched Friends this year, and have had this same discussion with several of my own friends: which character are you most like? Who would you be? I think we all have this secret, or not-so-secret, desire to be in that little social group. They constantly walk into one another’s apartments without knocking. They share holidays together, celebrate and mourn together. They all know each other’s crap and care for one another anyway.
Our desire to belong to a community is universal. To have someone truly see you, all of you, your tantrums and cleanliness, your heartaches and selfishness, to burst into your apartment unannounced like Joey or stumble in mid-sentence like Phoebe, knowing that they’re welcome, always welcome.
We all hope for a friend who can honestly look you in the eyes and tell you that you’re making an idiotic decision, but walk beside you regardless of your ultimate choice.
Sometimes, when I’m alone in my house, talking to my dog—because, let’s face it, he listens—I remember my afternoons in London. I remember crying in a staff meeting, unable to hide the unjustified pain of not getting things my way. I remember hiding that evening, ashamed of what my little community would think of me. I remember Jonny giving me a hug and telling me I was important, and Rosana sitting with me over a cup of hot chocolate and talking to me about why I was wrong, and why that was okay.
In these moments, I have two options. I can let the heartache of what I had grow, fester into my soul and allow the solitude and loneliness to define my present relationships when I walk out the door. I can shield my pain, hide it away where others can’t see it. I can be by myself.
Or I can call my friend, to tell her that I’m hurting and that I value her, to vulnerably reveal what’s in my heart and ask her what is in hers, so that we can choose where to walk together.
It wasn’t the fact that I got along with the people in London, or even a combination of similar interests that created the community there. The getting along took work. It’s the fact that we were choosing, consciously and willingly, to do life together. In order to do that, I had to sacrifice my shame and my pride. I had to give up my time and even my preferred diet. I had to let go of my preferences and reorganize my priorities in order just to be with others in meaningful relationships, others I might not have picked for myself. And I don’t regret it, not for a moment. The richness of community so far outweighed the sacrifice that I would not hesitate to give it all up again.
Amy currently lives in Orange, spent three years working for a charity in London, and would consider living in practically any major city in the future. She is decidedly passionate about seeing young people recognize their worth and hopes to somehow turn that into a job. She is currently studying English at University of California Irvine but would be prefer to be recognized by her competence in whistling.