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July 24, 2009

This Wonderful Life: Forget the Village; Maybe It Just Takes a Big Family

As a potluck dinner party was winding down, we were sitting in our friends’ living room last weekend watching our children wind up.

That happens when you feed them a large meal of protein, fruit and cobbler with ice cream.

The children numbered more than half a dozen. The youngest were three and the oldest were not yet out of elementary school. In other words, even one-onone, these kids would have been a force of nature.

Thrown together (and outnumbering the adults present) they had the potential to become a perfect storm. But they didn’t.

Sure, they raced around the house, giggling, creating little dramas and occasionally shrieking in ways that caused all the parents to pause and decipher whether the screams conveyed great pain or great joy.

But the adults were also able to do something that my husband and I seem to find nearly impossible when we’re evenly matched with the children: We had conversations with limited interruptions.

It was glorious.

We were even able to gather after supper in the living room. Kim, our hostess, pulled out her knitting and worked on a project as we talked. The children raced in and out. They made a circle in one corner of the living room, playing a game and making plans that we adults were not supposed to hear. They took care of each other.

Someone said, ``Isn’t this nice?’’

Not looking up from her knitting, Kim pointed out that perhaps humans were meant to live like that — in efficient groups that always have enough adults to get all the day’s work done, attend to all the children’s scrapes and dramas and still have time for knitting and talking at the end of the day.

Now, I’m not ready to move to the kibbutz quite yet, but it really does make sense.

If you visit the Fenimore Art Museum, take a stroll across the lawn toward the lake. Walk down a path that slips between tall, green bushes and vines, and down by the shore, you’ll find the museum’s reproduction of an Iroquois longhouse. To most modern sensibilities, it most resembles a military barracks, with sleeping quarters lining the walls and a long corridor running the length. That is where the similarities end. The Iroquois lived in groups of 20-plus people in these longhouses. Central fire pits kept them warm. During the days, the women worked together to farm the fields, care for the children and keep the household running. The men worked together to gather and hunt. They had no concept of land as a commodity, the way Europeans did (and we do). The Iroquois didn’t invent the longhouse, a living arrangement that archeologists and anthropologists say go back 6,000 or 7,000 years. Neolithic inhabitants of Europe built them. Vikings and Scandinavians who lived in the countryside built them. People living in various corners of Asia built them. When you look at the history we have of living that way, it seems like a brief experiment to keep one house for every nuclear family, a practice that goes back just a couple hundred years; only about 150 years the way we do it now. It almost seems downright wasteful. Think of all that human labor that goes into keeping all these individual houses running. Beyond the efficiency issue, think of how differently we might behave toward each other if our definitions of family were more expansive. Think of how much more compassionate, forgiving and generous we might be. Think of what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of that kind of compassion, forgiveness and generosity. The only problem, as I see it, is the line to get into the shower every morning. Elizabeth Trever Buchinger was conceived in August of the “Summer of Love;” can you tell? You can connect with her at www. moremindfulfamily.wordpress. com.