When I came downstairs this morning I found a note on the whiteboard in the kitchen. It was from Will to everyone: Is it possible to “reserve” the washing machine for Wednesday morning? he wrote. I need to do house laundry. Will’s note reminded me that I hadn’t yet done my own household chore, which this week is to clean the bathrooms. I should have done it on Sunday evening during our 6:00 to 7:00 housecleaning hour, but this week everyone was busy with one thing or another and we didn’t come together as we often do with the music cranked up loud and the whole household sweeping and scrubbing like professional cleaning crew. So this morning after breakfast I spent a half an hour or so cleaning the bathrooms accompanied by nothing but the peaceful sound of the ceiling fan in the kitchen and the chickens clucking outside.
Last year Will asked us each to name a city we had visited or would like to visit. He wouldn’t say why he wanted the information; he said we’d figure it out. A few days later he tacked up a neatly redone version of our weekly chore chart with each of the six areas of responsibility assigned a city name. Cleaning the porch and yard and taking the trash cans out for pick up is now Centralia; kitchen cleaning is Tucson; the bathrooms are Barcelona;laundry and dusting—Will’s job this week—is Vilnius; sweeping and mopping is Reykjavik; and cooking Sunday dinner is Dakar. We rotate through the jobs so that no one has to do any particular job more often than once every six weeks
I thought about Barcelona—Barcelona the city, not Barcelona the bathroom–as I wiped out the bathtub. I’d like to visit Barcelona some day; I’d like to see Gaudi’s cathedral and Park Guell, and I’d like to go to the place where the most successful modern anarchist experiment flourished during the Spanish Civil War. I once found a 1936 Time Magazine report from anarchist Catalonia called “Anarchism Without Beards”. The reporter was surprised to find the streets peaceful, the shops open, and the worker-run factories operating at full capacity. “Under Anarchism,” he explained “there can be no Dictator such as Stalin, no President such as Roosevelt, in short no Bigwig.”
That’s true. There are no Stalins, no Roosevelts and no Bigwigs at our house. There are six equal and autonomous individuals (seven counting Skye, who is as autonomous as an eight-year-old can be) who share responsibilities and household expenses, who care about the ups and downs of each other’s lives, and who share a common perspective on the world. We sit down together every Monday evening at 9:00 for our weekly house meeting to discuss whatever practical things have come up, we eat together at least once a week, and we talk and laugh a lot. Because it’s a relatively inexpensive way to live, none of us works full time for money, but we all have busy lives. Although our house doesn’t have an explicit theme it is implicitly a household of artists and activists. I’m the only non-musician in the house; one of the pleasures of living the way I do now is hearing Jodi practice the banjo in her room or Will play his kora next door or Crystal try out something new on her accordion.
I set up the collective house five years ago in what had been my nuclear family home. Before I made the change I visited a couple of collective houses and read what scanty information I could find on the internet. It’s surprising how little information there is out there. The lack of information makes collective living seem exotic and somehow antithetical to human nature. It’s not. Basically collective living is the way we all live and work when things are going well—when we like each other, when we trust each other, when we work out conflicting views without having to take it to a higher authority,
I did find one account by someone who had lived in several different collective living situations. His experience included rural and urban collectives, large and small collectives, diverse and fairly homogeneous collectives but he said that the successful ones had four practices in common: the members met together regularly; they ate together regularly; they maintained an agreed-upon level of tidiness; and they were very intentional about admitting new members. All of those four things have proved to be crucial; when we’ve neglected any one of them for any length of time the whole household has gotten a little out of sorts.
All of us will live in a variety of situations over the course of one lifetime: in a nuclear family, in a dormitory, with a romantic partner, by ourselves, maybe in a nursing home, a group home, or a prison. All of those living situations, desirable or not, are in the mainstream. Why is collective living so far off the mental map for most people? It makes all kinds of economic sense, it provides companionship and practical help, and—of increasing importance in the way the world is going right now—it is an ecologically responsible way to live.
I’d love to create a place on the internet for people to come with questions and answers about collective living. Please don’t be shy about joining in the conversation!