I went out to dinner with my friend Elizabeth the other night and found myself sitting next to one of her graduate student assistants. We introduced ourselves and he said “Aren’t you Elizabeth’s friend that runs that house with all the artists and activists?”
Five years ago I turned what had been my nuclear family house into a collective house. There are six of us: Will, Stef, Crystal, Mark, Jodi and me, plus Skye, who lives here with Jodi half the week and with her father the other half. We are artists and we are activists, but no one runs the house—not me, and not anyone else. Instead we sit down every Monday evening at 9:00 and hold a house meeting. We discuss how we’ll fix the leak in the upstairs bathroom, who’ll put the chickens up for the night, how we’ll handle a guest who has outstayed his welcome, whether we should buy brown rice or white rice, what we should hang on the living room walls. I counted up not long ago and was surprised to discover that over the last five years sixteen different people have lived in the house—and that doesn’t even count the sub-letters and long-term guests who have enriched the culture of the house. It’s a nice way to live.
I explained a little bit of that to David. He smiled and leaned in conspiratorially, glancing down the table. “I don’t know if I should tell you this,” he said. “But Elizabeth calls your house the anarchist house.”
I laughed. “That’s exactly what we are,” I said. “We’re anarchists and we live in an anarchist house. Elizabeth’s only telling you the truth.”
I didn’t set out to be an anarchist and I certainly didn’t set out to be Greensboro’s most famous anarchist, which is what I was called in a local newspaper last January. About a year and a half ago I wrote an article about our household for The New York Times Home & Garden section, which is where the “famous” part comes in. The anarchist part takes a little more explaining, which is what I hope to do in this blog over time.
There’s no magic to how The New York Times article came about. I make my living as a freelance writer and for some years I covered the semi-annual furniture market for the Times. I finally quit doing that when the furniture industry moved most of its production overseas, crying crocodile tears all the way. Living here in North Carolina I could see close-to what happens to people and communities when factories that had employed generations of workers close; it became too hard for me to write about the latest trends in finials and drawer pulls knowing the real suffering that was going on. I stayed in touch with one of the editors at the Times though, and told him a little bit about my new way of living. He encouraged me to write about it for the Times. I was skeptical that New York Times readers would be interested in an anarchist collective house in Greensboro, North Carolina, but after dragging my feet for awhile I went ahead and wrote it.
As it turned out the editor was right and I was wrong. The phone started ringing early on the morning the article came out and kept ringing for days. A television producer wanted to option the story for an HBO-style ensemble series called “Anarchy!” (we nixed that one at our next house meeting); old friends I hadn’t heard from in ages called; a psychologist from Westchester County called to make sure I knew the potential dangers to a child growing up in a household like ours (I was gratified that after I described to her how Skye gets off the school bus in the afternoon and comes into a household of almost-aunts and almost-uncles who help her fix a snack or teach her how to make musical instruments or kick a soccer ball around with her in the back yard, the psychologist was silent and then said “Have you ever thought about writing about the educational advantages of collective living?”)
Some wonderful things came out of the article. I had the fun of being interviewed by the incomparable Dick Gordon on his radio show The Story (I wish the picture on the website were a little better, though—next time I’ll know to put on some lipstick and brush my hair!) Five different literary agents called and I chose one of them, a wonderful woman with the William Morris Agency named Dorian Karchmar who has been patiently guiding me through the process of putting a book proposal together.
But mostly life returned to normal: the new normal that began five years ago. I ride my bike around town, I cook with Food Not Bombs a couple of times a week, I spend time with my two daughters and with my housemates, I join in on community-building and activist-minded projects (the most recent is a new community space called the HIVE). I write. I read. I think about the world and the way it’s changing, and about how we can best grow into and through those changes. And I listen to the growing discontent with the way things are and begin to think that the choices I made in 2002 are looking a lot less outlandish from the perspective of 2007’s crumbling world.
I’m excited to have this blog. It feels like having my own little magazine. I plan to use this space to post my own writings, to link to things that I think are making the world a better place, and to chronicle the doings of our small microcosm of collective living. I would love to get comments, questions and even complaints; I hope that people will start conversations with me and maybe even with each other. It’s an adventure!