……a question that I nearly forgot I had asked. I was standing in the kitchen fixing dinner with the radio on, listening to a discussion about the economy. This was fifteen years or so ago during the recession of the early 1990s. My daughters were upstairs doing their homework; my husband was napping. The commentators on the radio made the observation that the generation coming up–my daughters’ generation–was the first in American history that could not expect a higher standard of living than their parents. All the things that represented success in America–a house, two cars in the garage, a secure job–were receding out of reach. “But what if they redefine the standard of living?” I asked–I asked it out loud to the radio–“What if they measure the quality of their lives in some completely different way?”
That question lay dormant for ten years, incubating like a virus. Occasionally I took it out and thought about it. I looked around at my friends, at the people I read about in the newspaper, at the stress and anxiety and isolation, at the environmental degradation, the degree of trashiness and shoddiness and destructive impermanence that we accept as the inevitable by-product of the American Dream, and I wondered what a better dream would look like.
Now I know at least one version of the answer. Five years ago I—53 years old, Smith College-educated, mother of two grown daughters, freelance writer for high-end decorating magazines—stepped out of conventional middle class American life and into an alternate future. The kitchen where I first asked the question is now the kitchen of a six-person anarchist collective. We make our decisions by consensus. We go dumpster diving for food. We share housecleaning duties and cook for each other. And we engage the world head on, working for change in a culture that looks increasingly chaotic and headed for disaster. In the end I traded financial success for time, prestige for a rich web of relationships, and stress for a daily sense of fun. I reconnected with my two daughters. I gained a son. I came to my senses.
And I did it all without leaving the house.