Category Archives: collective living

One Grain of Sand

We’re holding our first formal meeting next week about the next version of our collective—the first meeting, at least, that isn’t a chance conversation in the kitchen or an open-ended daydreaming session after the weekly house meeting. We’ll be sitting down with Ed, Marnie and Muktha, all of them connected through the Fund for Democratic Communities and through Cakalak Thunder, and all of whom have expressed an interest in helping whatever it is that we have started here grow and change into whatever it is that it is next meant to be.

In the middle of the back-and-forth emails scheduling that meeting, Muktha sent this lovely piece of writing to Mark, who passed it on to me. It’s a reflection on her childhood on the southeast coast of India that she wrote for Mother’s Day—“many of those memories,” she explained to Mark “were triggered by our conversations recently about conservation and community.” Many thanks to Muktha for letting me reprint it here.

I can’t think of childhood, and therefore who I am today, without Amma at every turn. She is like those gifted actors who play 15 different roles in one play, and the difficulty is in separating those identities of Amma. For this year, maybe I should focus on the ‘green’ Amma – the person who gardened with a passion, who conserved beyond measure, who was creative in every move of conservation, and played a fierce role in animal husbandry that would put any environmentalist to shame today.

The beauty of it all is that every role, every task, every initiative was so integrated into her role of mother and she carried them all out without a book, magazine, website, organization, cooperative, forum, collective, or trust. It was the way she thought and lived as she raised a family, including an extended one. And of course, she didn’t do this alone. Family, relatives, gardeners, neighbors, and children all pitched in.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was learning about reclaiming water as soon as I woke up. As I got a tumbler of water from the kitchen faucet and in the typical playfulness of a child let it flow over and all over my hands, the excess water drained through the pipe below and out into the garden. Carefully laid out pipes sucked every drop of waste water from the home that was organic and biodegradable into the garden, and the garden itself was no blank plot of cultivated land. The entire garden was made of numerous clusters of small plots that were home to a bunch of banana trees, green beans, eggplants, jasmine flowers, roses, lime trees, papaya trees, coconut trees, peppers, tomatoes, and all kinds of greens, ginger and garlic.

And here I should pause to specify the most valid argument for Amma’s green gifts. In 1970, when we moved to our new home along the beach, the brand new 3-bedroom home sat on loose beautiful sand. If we dug a foot, we saw water seep in at the bottom. In 1977, when my father died suddenly and the family was uprooted from there, we left the home surrounded by a modest lawn with lilies, zarbeerahs, and evergreens on one side, dwarf coconut trees in one corner, a rose and jasmine garden on another side, a full fledged edible green vegetable garden on another, and numerous fruit trees in the backyard.

Amma was the alchemist who turned the sand into food.

My own favorite was the banana garden. Perhaps it was that the wastewater flowed into that patch first, or perhaps it was because of the ‘holy’ aura around the banana world in Hindu homes, but that patch was the most vibrant, dynamic, colorful, and sweet patch of yard that I remember. Like Amma’s love, it was tender, 100% accepting, forgiving, and always welcoming.

The most creative role of the banana in a Hindu household is that of
incense holder. Come to think of it, I don’t remember but one stainless steel lotus-shaped incense holder at home in the Pooja(prayer) room, but incense-lighting was a common and everyday task. Since the windows and doors were wide open during the day, the smoke from the incense never really collected in the home. We kids often heard an adult yell for a banana after a bunch of sandalwood or rose incense was lit, and they were easy to find on the initialed rectangular stainless steel plate that sat on the dining table. You grabbed one and scurried to the adult, who gently stuck the bottom of the incense sticks through the yielding banana skin.

As I said, when I washed my hands in the kitchen sink, the water didn’t drain down into a black hole and disappear. Well, it did just for a second before it splashed out on the other side of the kitchen wall and into the beginning of a complicated maze of trenches that reached every fruit tree and vegetable patch in the backyard. Sometime after the home was built and the plumbing was in place, Amma decided that the plumbing must be altered in order to serve the garden in the backyard. Water is precious in tropical contexts, and it must not have made sense to her to let all that water drain into a black hole.

The first stop for any water from the kitchen was the little banana grove about 6 feet from the kitchen. You see, banana trees are like families. There are several shapes and sizes all the way from the tall and tired grandpa banana tree to the lush little baby at grandpa’s feet, and they all huddle together to claim a crowded green outline against the blue sky.

Maybe because the cycle of life was so lucidly transparent in our own backyard, or maybe because I still begin my day with a banana, I am quite fond of those memories. The banana stem is like a smooth pale green pillar, tall and upright, and can grow up to 10 or 12 feet. From the top of each of those green pillars, numerous long leaves would grow up and out and hang all around the stem. From somewhere in the middle of those leaves, a chalky fat maroon casing would grow out and hold numerous little bright yellow banana flowers within each fold. The closest it comes to is an artichoke, but in different colors. Each maroon casing would curl up to reveal a soft and deep-maroon underside that had just protected the tiny flowers. Thus would start a magical cycle of the life of the huge and hanging cluster of bananas.

There wasn’t a part of the banana tree that went unused. The outer casing of the stem would dry out like an onion skin, but lent itself to being torn into long and slender threads that would be wetted to string beautiful jasmine garlands for the pooja room. The fruit was everyday food. The juice from the corm of the banana was used as medicine; so were the bitter flowers.

My favorite part of the plant was the leaf. It was about 5 feet long with a sturdy spine in the middle and a smooth but ribbed leaf about 10-12 inches on either side of the spine. I can’t possibly describe all the ways in which I’ve seen this leaf used. During the relentless monsoons, I saw two leaves double up as an umbrella for the poor. During unannounced visits from rather large families, they served as plates. Cut in threes, the leaf served as a beautiful plate on which the various foods were served in an elegant style. And this was no accidental plate. There were prescriptions about how the waterproof leaf was to be placed on the table, how it should be opened, which end faced which direction, and how it was to be closed as a sign that the person was indeed done with the meal.

The best part, again, came at the end. Of course, there were no dishes to wash, just leaves to be thrown away, and yes, eaten again. This time, the milk cow from the neighborhood would be led to the bin for organic waste that held the after-party plates, and would make a meal out of the banana leaves.

I can go on and on about integrated, deeply meaningful, funny, loving, even tragic experiences from my childhood, but the point is that they all taught me something about life that was sustaining, beautiful, joyful, and completely with value. Much of everything I know now, I learned from those spaces that were fashioned by Amma’s creativity, frugality, love for nature, especially water, and love for all of us around her.

I know now that I first encountered the idea of ‘craft technology,’ one of many of Gandhi-concepts, at home through Amma’s (mother) handwork. I didn’t hear the words until I became an adult or discuss the concept until I was transported to an American classroom, but I was well educated about how it worked.

According to Gandhi, technology must always serve the human, and humanity’s right to freedom and democracy. It must be engaged in the protection of livelihoods, and to conserve the environment. It is only in a decentralized democracy where life, livelihood, and environment are protected that craft technologies can thrive. Craft technologies use resources wisely and there’s a sort of multiplied and multiple use of everything.

Every time I hear about cell phones and their tie to traffic deaths, the dangers to human health as a result of sophisticated food technologies, TV watching and obesity, Net-addictions, impersonal and inaccurate medical technologies, and the numerous other signs that our technologies have failed to serve our needs, I make that mind-trip back home to Chennai in the 60s and the 70s to the home and life where Amma designed our technologies to serve us.

This kind of greenness, this wisdom, this interconnectedness, affected everything we did. A side effect of this kind of lifestyle is thecomplete lack of competition, I now realize. She raised my brother and sister and I (and even the cousins) to co-exist, to cooperate, and to live in love and laughter. She made the simple things matter to us.

Pete Seeger’s ‘One Grain of Sand’ is a favorite lullaby of mine, but I can tell it has quite a different meaning, thanks to Amma.

You can go here to listen to a snippet of Pete Seeger singing that lovely song.


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Filed under collective living


Down the road not taken there exists a weekly HBO ensemble drama called Anarchy! It’s set in some Midwestern city—Minneapolis perhaps, or maybe St. Louis. It’s about an odd household of people living together in an old house in a respectable middle-class neighborhood: a divorced woman in her 50s, a couple of punk kids, a mother and her young son, a musician/inventor, a bike fanatic. They spend their days doing things that any family does—talking, laughing, arguing, eating dinner, hanging the laundry out to dry—but they are not a family in the conventional nuclear sense. They are a collective house of avowed anarchists.

Every episode begins at the weekly meeting where the house members gather in the living room to discuss what’s going on in their lives and to make decisions about what happens next in the house. Over the course of the season viewers watch the anarchists scavenge local grocery store dumpsters for food; follow one of the members as she is arrested and tried for anti-war activities; observe a punk band unravel and finally disband; enjoy the appearance of various odd visitors—played by guest stars like Kelly Osbourne and Jake Busey–who hitchhike or hop freight trains into town. The show is a mix of comedy (the ongoing struggle between the rats and the animal rights activist) and drama (episodes deal with real-life issues such as childhood abuse and racism). The show has never been a blockbuster, but it has gained a devoted following that gives it almost cult status.

It could have been.

Two years ago I published an article about our collective house in The New York Times. In the days after the article came out we had all kinds of calls and emails from old friends, from literary agents, from random strangers and—most thrillingly—from a couple of TV producers who pressed us hard to let them option the story for a Six Feet Under-style HBO drama they called Anarchy! They promised us that it would no longer be our house by the time it made it to the screen—they would change the details of where we lived, would merge characters, would invent situations, but they would assign a couple of writers to live with us for awhile so they could get the overall flavor right. It never got that far: we only had to discuss it once at house meeting to discover that several of the housemates, most especially Stef, were so opposed to the idea that they could not imagine budging. That’s the way consensus works—unless everyone can agree to a course of action the decision is blocked. In this case, no one was deeply enough in favor of the TV show to argue the other side. After a brief discussion I was deputized to email the producers back and tell them “no”.

It’s too bad in a way. In the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself thinking that if this were Anarchy! our ratings would be going through the roof right now.

Here’s a quick recap of what’s been going on:

To start with, Jodi’s pregnant—she and Mark are expecting a baby in November. After living as housemates for three years, and then collaborating in the band Invisible, they developed deeper feelings and began a quiet relationship. Lucky baby! They set out to have a child together, but they didn’t expect it to happen quite as fast as it did….

…especially with the finances of the house in flux. Four years ago when my former husband and I divorced and I bought out his half of the house two women put some money into the pot. At that time we were talking about selling the house and moving in a fairly short period of time, but plans changed and time passed and the money sat trapped in the equity. Understandably, the investors would like their money back, but it’s been difficult to figure out how to untangle the finances without taking on so much more debt—without myself taking on more debt, since I’m still legally the owner of the house–that rents rise beyond viable collective house rates. All of which….

…provided a moment of clarity for me. I’ve been feeling restless for a couple of months now without having any idea where the restlessness began or what its end point would be. Out of the fog of uncertainty that permeated the house I came to recognize that I am ready to step out of the small community of our house and into a larger community of Food Not Bombs, the HIVE, and my own solitary company. Mark and Jodi are having a baby, Will is leaving in August to go back to college to study music, and I’m going to find a place of my own. Before the summer is over 406 North Mendenhall Street will be on the market. This six-year experiment is coming to an end.

It was an emotional meeting the Monday morning that we sat in the living room and acknowledged that one by one we had crossed off all the other options and had reduced the list to one. That one. There were some tears, some long silences, a lot of looking at the floor.

And at that moment—here’s where I would have liked to have had the team of writers from Anarchy! taking notes on their legal pads, though I’m not sure they could have improved on the reality—Clement came in. He had dropped by to use the computer, but he stayed to tell us what was on his mind. He spends a good part of each day walking around writing poetry in his head and thinking; what he had been thinking about that day was reincarnation.

“It’s Jesus,” he said, taking long strides into the room. Clement makes big gestures when he’s excited—that morning he occupied an even wide column of air than usual. “Why did he come back if he didn’t want us to know about reincarnation? I mean come on, if death is the end of everything then of course you’re afraid. Your enemies can control you, death can control you, fear can control you. But if there’s reincarnation fear can’t control you because you know—you know—that there’s another life, and if there’s another life there’s no death. No death!”

No one said much. “Sorry,” Clement said, winding down at last “were y’all having a meeting?”

“Sort of,” Mark said.

“Sorry,” Clement said again. “Oops, I’ll come back tomorrow. Mind if I take a couple of bananas before I go?”

“Help yourself,” I said.

The back door closed. More silence, but it was a different silence.

“You know…” someone finally said.

“What if…” someone else said.

And that’s when the idea began to take shape. This time not just a collective house, but a kind of collective urban farmstead, a demonstration project of sustainability, a public/private place where people could learn and teach all the practices of sustainability from rainwater catchment and permaculture to consensus decision-making and conflict resolution. Set it up as a true non-profit from the beginning, maybe work towards creating an urban land trust, do things with kids, learn from the community. We could find land in a neighborhood—Glenwood, not too far from the HIVE, would be ideal. Fruit trees, gardens, chickens, communal kitchen, artificial wetlands. Something like the Rhizome Collective in Austin, or The Food Project in Boston.

So that’s where we are right now: all over the map. Scared, hopeful, exhausted, exhilarated, full of plans and a sense of urgency, but under it all feeling as though a lock that we didn’t know was there, on a door we never noticed before, is opening up and swinging wide.

It could happen.


Filed under collective living, my life

How to turn a bagel into a tomato

It started, fittingly enough, with a walk for hunger—one of those community walk-a-thons that raises money for local food banks and overseas charities. It was a nice autumn day, clear and bright, the red and green leaves of the dogwood tree glowing 2bagels5.jpglike stained glass and the sloping bank out front foaming with autumn clematis. Skye and I sat on the steps and waved to the hundreds of people in their matching t-shirts as they walked past the house, laughing and talking and waving back to us.

Someone must have arranged for bagels to feed the walkers as they assembled for the opening speeches in the ballpark. In any case when it was all done there were a lot of2bagels14.jpg bagels—a lot of bagels—left over, and somehow the bagels ended up in our kitchen as a donation to Food Not Bombs.

Bagels. I don’t know if modern childhoods are still haunted by “The Dog of Pompeii”, but my 1950s childhood certainly was. It’s the story of a blind orphan boy living with his dog Bimbo on the streets of 2bagels10.jpgPompeii. On the day Vesuvius erupts the two are separated; in the terror and confusion of the moment the boy is swept into a boat, but the dog runs back to the market to get his young master a raisin bun, is trapped in the falling ash, and loyal to the end and struggling to return, dies. Centuries later archeologists make a plaster cast of the dog, preserved forever with a plaster bun in its mouth. For a nine- or ten-year-old reader it’s a first powerful introduction to heartbreak.

The boy and the dog and the plaster bun come back to me every time I see a big of bagels. Bagels inevitably and rapidly go from less-than-fresh to stale to hard as plaster; when they’ve gotten to the plaster stage there’s nothing to be done with them but throw them away. That’s exactly what we thought we were going to have to do with the walk-a-thon bagels, until Mark came up with a different idea.

“Look, we’ve been talking about taking the half the driveway and turning it into a garden anyway,” he said. The two-car driveway was concrete on one side but just gravel and dirt on the other; the gravel side sat2bagels6.jpg next to a garden that supported nothing much more than some elderly rose bushes and a few dispirited tomato plants. “Why couldn’t we put down a layer of bagels and build up the soil from there?”

Carrot, who was living in the house at the time, made some phone calls. Yes, her gardening friends said, bagels should make fine mulch. I was surprised to hear that—in my limited composting research I had read that baked goods shouldn’t go into the compost pile. 2bagels8.jpg“That’s just because they can attract rats and mice,” Carrot said. “But if you make bread soggy and mix it with other things it’s not a problem.” Bread, it turns out, is actually good for the soil—it’s high in nitrogen (so are some other unexpectedly compostable things like tea bags, coffee grounds, egg shells, human hair, and vacuum cleaner dust). Nitrogen is one of the three essential “macronutrients” that make up commercial fertilizers (the other two are potassium and phosphorus). Plants need nitrogen to make amino acids, protein and DNA; they can’t grow without it. Cool.2bagels15.jpg

The first step was to clear the gravel out of the driveway and pick-axe out the half-dead rose bushes. The next step was to put down cardboard—cardboard not only discourages weeds, but as it breaks down it actually attracts earthworms who like its biodegradable glues and sugar. Lapped over each other, the variously sized pieces of corrugated cardboard  looked like a giant abstract painting.2bagels18.jpg

The bagel-mulching day was rainy. Every trash can and plastic bucket in the yard brimmed with bagels and water that dripped down from the gutters; the bagels looked like giant Cheerios sogging in a bowl. When they had begun to soften and fall apart Mark, Carrot and Naman sloshed them out onto the cardboard and spread them around. Next came a layer of green stuff—weeds and leaves pulled up from around the property—followed by a layer of composted soil, forked up from the old compost pile behind the garage. We had all but abandoned the compost pile a couple of years before because of a sudden invasion of rats—but that’s another story. The pile’s remnants supplied us with good rich dirt.12truck.jpg

After that came a second layer of cardboard. A friend had told us about a landscaping company that had moved, leaving behind giant piles of wood mulch. Mark filled his truck up several times with the well-composted mulch and spread it over the garden, which now rose a good foot above the original layer of bagels and cardboard. The final layer was leaves, salvaged from the bags our neighbors had left out by the curb for pick up.

fnb.jpgAll winter we continued to add leaves; every time the compost bucket in the kitchen filled up we took the scraps out, scatter them in the garden and cover them with more leaves.

And it worked. The tomatoes we planted the next summer could not have been more different from the droopy, anemic plants of my previous gardening experience. Suddenly the garden was filled with big muscular plants that looked like forerunners of a new backyard Paleozoic age. On late summer afternoons we would stand around in the garden eating beans and tomatoes straight off the vine.

We never went back to traditional composting. I don’t think we ever will. The fall after the bagel mulching experiment Mark put in two more garden beds in the back yard, piled and repiled with leaves. 2mark.jpg“Sometimes I’ll turn over a piece of soil writhing with so many worms it takes my breath away,” Mark says.

We’ve extended the technique to include the far back yard; the buckets of scraps I bring home from Food Not Bombs go under the leaves and disappear within days into the dark rich soil. Last fall I began on the front yard: cardboard and newspapers, scraps, leaves, more scraps, more leaves. I’m not even sure what’s going to get planted there. I just like mulching.

2yard.jpgMark says it’s the same for him. He and I sat at the kitchen table the other morning reminiscing about the bagel day and talking mulch in general. “It’s fairly magic,” he said “The way we roll here I can put ten or fifteen gallons of food scraps in the garden every week. I spread it, put a foot of leaves over it, and two weeks later that foot thick is six inches thick, and except for some orange peels and a sweet potato or two it’s gone.”

Now that the nice spring weather is bringing people out in their yards to rake and trim, Mark pulls into the driveway a couple of times a week with the bed of his little red pickup truck filled with more bags of leaves. “I can’t stop,” he said. “I see these bags of leaves and I have to pick them up. You know, it feels sometimes as though our whole world is stuck in this import/export economy: people’s trees and plants are fixing a huge amount of sunlight, but as soon as the leaves fall they’re treated at trash, then people export the leaves and import fertilizers and topsoil. It’s the same with lawns: you’re farming a crop, but you throw the harvest away—or it goes to my house.”

Who knows if we’ll ever have to depend more heavily on our yard for food; who knows where the world is headed. But whether we do or not, there’s a primitive satisfaction in knowing that little by little, bagel by bagel, we are making deposits in an account that will pay dividends for a very long time.




Filed under collective living

Validation Day

A few years ago Jane came to stay for a couple of months–she built herself a loft on the side porch, piled the bed with warm quilts and moved in. It was early February, the unloveliest month around here, when the novelty of winter has long since worn off and spring has not yet begun. Outside is alternately muddy and dusty, and inside becomes the same as people track in whatever weather has pooled beyond the window2.jpgback porch. The sky is low and gray. Or high and cold and streaked with remote, windy clouds. Or warm enough to promise endless shirtsleeves for a day before lashing everyone back into sweaters. When the sun does shine the light is hard and charmless, showing up the dirty streaks on the windows and the worn spots on the stairs. Neither the house nor the household is at its best in February.

So I’m not sure that we were entirely gracious when the eight homemade construction paper Validation Day cards showed up on the mantel. Jane had decorated each one with a different cut-out design and written ourfebruary2.jpg names on the covers. The way it works, she explained, is that over the course of a couple of days we all write something about each other in the cards, but we don’t look at our own until February 14th, a.k.a. Validation Day. Fine then. We did it, taking a secret pleasure in eavesdropping on what our housemates had to say about each other. I know that I learned some things—nice things—about the crisscrossing relationships in the house.

Then came the day. We assembled a little awkwardly in the living room; someone took down the sheaf of cards and passed them out. The silence deepened in the room as we sat and read the heartfelt, affectionate, appreciative things that we seldom remember to say to each other in person. You could almost feel the skepticism and validation-day.jpgself-consciousness dissipate as we began looking up from the folded cards and thanking each other; I felt a tenderness for my housemates a little different from anything that I had felt before. I don’t know what other people did with theirs, but I saved my Validation Day card. And I saved the next one. And the one after that. The autumn after she stayed with us Jane went off to college, but every year a big manila envelope still arrived in the mail basket with a fresh set of Validation Day cards.

Everything has been a little out of sorts around the house the last couple of weeks. Stef and Crystal are moving out—Crystal, who is now teaching music at two different schools, wants the quiet and privacy of her own apartment, and Stef, who has been in the house since its inception as a collective more than five years ago, is moving in with two friends who share her interests in vegan cooking and straight-edge hardcore punk. mantelother2.jpgIt’s going to feel strange to have them gone. Skye will be taking over Crystal’s small room; she and Jodi will have their own rooms at last. In addition we’ll be getting new housemates, which is always exciting but also a little unsettling. And everyone is working hard on projects of their own, in and out a lot, passing in the kitchen or on the stairs, but not connecting for very long. It’s just February and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Jane came to visit for a week in late January before she went overseas for seven months, first to study in South Africa and then to travel and work in Europe. I’ve known Jane now for over five years; we met when I was very new at collective living, and Jane, recently graduated from high school, had just returned from stilt-walking and breathing fire as part of a CrimethInc Circus Tour. It was good, as always, to see Jane again last month, to observe how she continues to grow in depth as well as reach. A lot of people wanted to spend time with Jane; we all got a little piece of her, and then she was off.

Given that she was preparing to go all the way to Africa and be gone for more than half a year I was very surprised when a manila envelope, addressed in Jane’s handwriting, once again arrived in our mail basket. But maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of all the qualities that delighted and moved me the most as I traveled deeper into the anarchist world—the quality that in some ways required the most adjustment on my part–was the willingness to be unironically, unashamedly and openly loving. Loving to other people, loving to the world, loving to the mystery of being alive in a way that is alternately ridiculed and commercialized in the larger culture. I read once in a history of punk music: “What it comes down to is this—life matters, so don’t fuck it up.” That’s it: life matters. Your life matters, the lives of the people around you matters, the lives of the people you pass on the street, the lives of the people sleeping or playing solitaire or shaving their legs or kissing their children in the houses you pass on the highway matter. Life itself matters; and once your mental eyes adjust to that premise it’s hard not to see validation for it everywhere.

At least that’s the way I’ve come to see it, thanks to Jane and to all the other passionate, urgent, hopeful, resolute people I live among. So happy Validation Day everyone and everywhere, and many many happy returns.


Filed under anarchism, collective living, my life

So Many Dynamos

The house is quiet on this second day of 2008. Zegota was here last week getting ready for tour: Moe; Will’s brother Jon, in from Sweden; Will; and Mark, who has replaced Ard as the bass player. It was nice having them in and out of the house, hearing them laughing and talking in the kitchen, catching up with them in the living room or passing on the stairs.

I heard Zegota play what was their last show for a very long time in Washington DC is January of 2002. Jon was moving to Sweden, where he was about to become a father, and the band didn’t know when or even if they would be able to get back together again. I remember standing in the church basement where they were playing, moved almost to tears by the undefended emotionality of their performance: me, a middle-class middle-aged mother nearly undone by a hardcore punk band. There was something tremendously generous in their openness. I found myself thinking over and over again: “If they’re willing to take those kinds of risks, what am I holding back for?” One of Zegota’s early saying was “Wreck your life.” In some ways that performance was the last nudge I needed to do just that. And to build another one.

Zegota will be back in Greensboro on January 6, playing with Des Ark, Bellafea and Stef’s band Loss Prevention. If you can’t be there in person, catch their live broadcast on the fancy new HIVE website…

I’ve spent every Wednesday for the last couple down at the Green Bean writing something new for this blog, but on this cold sunny January morning, wingchair1.jpgthe second day of the new year, it’s nice just to sit in the wing chair in my room with the dog asleep on the bed and a CD of Will’s kora music playing in the background. This seems like a good time to remind myself of the things that have been important to me over the last couple of months, and bring some of the news up to date.

*In my first post in September I gave a little background on how I came to live the way I do and why I decided to write about it. Not a lot has changed: I still live in a collective house, I’m still an anarchist (and I just had the fun of being interviewed about my life and beliefs for an interesting blog called Whiskey Before Breakfast.) What I do next has, however, changed. When I began this blog four months ago I was working with a literary agent named Dorian Karchmar who had contacted me after I wrote about our house for The New York Times. In December I faced up to the fact that for whatever reason that relationship wasn’t working, and I withdrew. I’m still interested in writing about my life’s mid-course correction—about both the what and the why of it—but I’m beginning to think that I’d like to find another way to get my thoughts out there. I’ve become fascinated by “print on demand” technology; its DIY nature seems more consistent with my DIY life than traditional publishing does. So unless I get cold feet, one of my resolutions for 2008 is to finish writing a book and to publish and promote it myself.

*In another post in September I wrote a little bit more about our household; Ed Cone mentioned the post in his blog and I was surprised by the flurry of controversy that followed. A couple of weeks later my old friend Stephen Dubner wrote about our household on his blog and the fur really began to fly. It’s strange and a little bit thrilling to eavesdrop in on the discussions—sort of like being in a stall in the girls’ bathroom when the high school gossips come in–but I’m still a little puzzled that our household evokes such strong negative feelings in some people. On the other hand, a lot of people have expressed genuine curiosity about how the house works. It makes me think that a second book, a kind of manual on collective living, might also be useful.

*All summer and into the autumn I thought about climate change—I didn’t need to go to the North Pole to see the melting ice cap, I could see manifestation of climate change in our own parched garden and empty rain barrels. In the last month we’ve had almost normal rainfall, but the Southeast is still in a drought. Near the end of movie The Power of Community someone says that there was no single solution to Cuba’s problems, but many small localized grassroots solutions. I believe that—and the longer I look the more I can see blades of grass pushing their way up through the asphalt, from the HIVE here in Greensboro to Dignity Village out in Portland, Oregon, to Food Not Bombs everywhere. By the way, for those in Greensboro, The Power of Community will be shown on the big screen at the Weatherspoon Art Gallery on February 21 as part of the Sustainability Film Series. It’s well worth watching.

*Speaking of Food Not Bombs, our fundraiser in October was a huge success—we raised over $1100 towards a kitchen at the HIVE. Students from the Interior Architecture Department at UNCG are going to help us draw up the design, and construction should begin in the next few months; if you’d like to get involved in the kitchen project email Tim at Keith McHenry, one of the cofounders of Food Not Bombs, came through Greensboro late in October and we had a potluck dinner for him at the HIVE. He talked about a tent city movement that’s gathering steam all over the country—an anti-war tent city is planned for Washington DC early in the summer and smaller tent cities are expected to put down stakes in other cities. In addition, there will be a national Food Not Bombs gathering in Nashville in March. We’re hoping to get a group together to go from Greensboro to Nashville—get in touch if you’re interested in joining us!

*In late October I posted a video, “20 Questions”, featuring the Selectric Piano, a 429.jpgcollaboration between Mark and Fred, operated by Jodi. The Selectric Piano will appear again soon, this time written into a play adapted from Europe Central, a book by William T. Vollmann. The play is being produced by the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern in Durham; it runs from January 17 through February 2.

*That’s Cakalak Thunder in the pictures that accompany my thoughts on “Chaos Theory”. Early in October Cakalak Thunder traveled up to Boston to take part in HONK! Fest, a gathering of radical street performers—Will, Jodi and Mark came home exhausted but happy. Most recently Cakalak Thunder rocked the downtown library at a Food Not Bombs New Year’s Eve dinner. I sometimes think about how close-knit this little anarchist activist community, this group of people who are living as though the revolution had already occurred, can be and how intimidating that can be for people standing just outside the circle. Once you’re part of the community you have a network of friends to call on for just about anything you might need, but it’s not always easy to know how to get in. That’s what makes the portals so important, and so worth nurturing and maintaining. Food Not Bombs is one; the HIVE is well on its way to becoming another. And Cakalak Thunder is certainly an important one. They invite everyone to join: “No experience is required to play music with us, only interest and dedication. We hold open practices every Sunday from 1-3pm. And the first Sunday of every month is dedicated to newcomers so make sure you get yer booty over to one of those. Email for directions.”

*It’s gotten a little too chilly for me to ride my bike, but Stef still goes out all bundled up in black with nothing showing but her eyes, looking like a two-wheeled Ninja. I wrote in November about the newfound pleasure I take in riding my bike, and I accompanied the posting with Mark’s video about the Safety Bike. Over the next couple of weeks the video took on a life of its own as it got linked to more and more websites; one day more than 9,000 people came to my blog looking for the Safetybike. And now the Safetybike has become a YouTube phenomenon: as of the second day in January the video has been watched over 750,000 times—about 700,000 of those views coming in the last five days. I fully expect that by the time Mark gets back in town for the Zegota show it will be up to a million views. A million! It’s another strange and wonderful manifestation of grassroots in action.

*On December 19 a group of people came together on Lee Street in Greensboro to protest the plans to tear down public housing in New Orleans and the similarly cavalier attitude towards homeless and poor people in Greensboro. It was a great afternoon: Cakalak Thunder, a speak-out, and a tableau of a big steamroller about to crush affordable housing to may way for high-rise condos. As the afternoon went on people began gathering for the weekly meal at Grace Community Church; the “War on the Poor” banner drew the most attention. “They got that right,” people said over and over again. The next day in New Orleans protestors were pepper sprayed and tasered outside City Hall while inside the city council voted unanimously to allow the demolition to move forward. By the end of the week police had finished clearing the last of an encampment of homeless people in Duncan Plaza across from City Hall. An estimated 12,000 people in New Orleans are homeless, double the pre-Katrina number. It’s like climate: we can see the polar ice cap melting and feel as though it’s still far away from our own homes, but it’s everywhere. The war on the poor may be most visible and dramatic in New Orleans but the exact same attitudes hold power here in Greensboro. At least for now.

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Meet The Chickens

Our flock began last spring as six little chicks in a cardboard box in the living room. They graduated to larger chix.jpgand larger boxes and finally, when the weather was warm enough, to the handsome coop and pen that Mark, Jodi, Crystal and Will built under the crape myrtle tree in the back yard. Then came a dark, suspenseful week as the chicks made their way into puberty and suddenly a few rusty tentative cock-a-doodle-doos broke out. In the end Moussa, Pecky and Hobart proved to be roosters. 406-farm1.jpgFortunately Jodi was able to find homes for all three of them plus Hildebart—Hildebart was not a rooster, but she and Hobart, both puffy, poodle-looking Silkies, had grown so close Jodi didn’t want to separate them. That left just Mayflower and Rad until the second generation, all old enough to be for-sure hens, arrived.

The hens have been laying for a couple of months now. There aren’t quite enough eggs to feed the whole household (Stef, the last die-hard vegan in the house, wouldn’t eat them even if egg-box1.jpgthere were) but there are usually at least a few eggs available every day in the carton in the pantry. The coop design includes a little flap-down door that opens directly into the nesting boxes, so it’s easy to collect whatever might be there; sometimes when I go out in the early morning to let the chickens out of their coop I find a still-warm egg in the box. Even better, Skye happened to open the door this weekend just as Jean was extruding out one of her large pale brown eggs. Big excitement!


mayflower1.jpgMayflower: Skye gave Mayflower her name when she was a fluffy chick under a heat lamp in the living room, but now Skye thinks that feisty little Mayflower—she’s one of our three bantams—should be renamed “Cocky” because she’s always itching for a fight. It’s typical of Mayflower that when a hawk swooped down in the yard a few months ago all the other chickens ran through holes in the fence, but Mayflower tried to hold her ground. (She couldn’t: the hawk beat her up pretty seriously around the face, but fortunately Crystal heard the commotion and intervened before permanent damage was done). Mayflower was one of the six original chicks; the bushy little tufts of feathers where her cheeks would be if she had cheeks, and her small blue-green eggs indicate that she is an Ameraucana, or at least has a lot of Ameraucana in her.

rad1.jpgRad: Rad is our other bantam Ameraucana; Crystal chose the name because she had always wanted an animal named Rad. Like Mayflower, she lays small blue-green eggs, but unlike Mayflower she’s gentle, sociable and even—I have this on Skye’s authority—cuddly. will-and-rad1.jpgShe’s silvery gray with cheek tufts that are even more pronounced than Mayflower’s.

cutiequeen1.jpgCutie Queen: Our third bantam, Cutie Queen is the mystery bird of the flock, a loner who often seems to have a lot on her mind. She’s the hardest to catch, also the last to be herded into the pen, and the chicken who seems most fond of heights. Skye originally named her Cutie Pie, but then considered that the word “pie” might have uncomfortable associations for a chicken. Cutie Queen is one of the later arrivals—she came nearly full grown, or at least full grown enough for us to be sure she was a hen. She tends more towards the Auracana, with a stumpy tail and almost nonexistent tufts; her eggs are pale pink.

coco1.jpgThe Coucou: The Coucou Maran is the only chicken who doesn’t have a name—she’s Jodi’s to name, but Jodi says that after having to give up Hobart and Hildebart, she’s superstitious about naming another chicken. Somehow it suits the magisterial and exotic Coucou to have no name. Handsomely feathered in black and gold, she’s quite clearly the dominant chicken—she chases ‘gota the cat, and sometimes she even chases us. If she were a true Maran she would lay deep chocolate brown eggs, but she must have some Auracauna in her because her eggs come out a muted green color that Mark calls “mint chocolate.”

harriet1.jpgHarriet: Harriet and Jean, both Barred Rocks, look very similar but you can recognize Harriet by her pale white legs. She may or may not be the biggest chicken in the flock—some people say that the Coucou is bigger, but Skye says that Harriet is wider than Mark’s head and therefore larger than all the other chickens. Harriet is certainly the most enthusiastic eater, the first to investigate when someone scatters some wheatberries or a handful of kale on the ground. Will named Harriet for his grandmother; it happens that Harriet is Skye’s grandmother’s name too. (“Actually,” Skye says “Harriet’s a very common name for grandmas,”) One of the most vocal chickens, Harriet is a runner and a squawker with a grating voice that sounds like a perpetual sore throat. She and Jean lay brown eggs that look the most like what you’d find at the grocery store.

jean1.jpgJean: We all learned something the other night at house dinner when I was interviewing the housemates about the chickens. “Jean can swim,” Skye said. “How do you know?” we all asked. “Well,” Skye said, “I was giving the chickens a flying test to make sure they could fly in case a hawk came, and Jean kind of slipped and went into the pond.” Consternation! The pond is hardly even that—a small former fishpond that we use mostly to grow duckweed, a good source of protein for the chickens—but still…. “She swam!” Skye said defensively. “A quarter of the way across the pond! She even did it twice.” Twice! More consternation. Skye explained. “I was telling Lily about it”—Lily is Skye’s six-year-old friend–“and she wanted to see it too, so she threw Jean into the pond and Jean swam. She likes it.” I think after the discussion that followed Skye is pretty clear now that Jean’s aquatic career is over. “Her legs sort of look like a duck’s,” Skye said as a parting shot, but I think even she recognized the weakness of the argument. It is true that Jean’s legs are yellow, but that’s about it as far as her duckiness goes. I named Jean for my dear former mother-in-law who died this past August. I think she would have enjoyed the honor.

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My Bike Takes Me Places That School Never Could

A couple of weeks ago I attended a panel on immigration: descriptions of undocumented workers, mothers and fathers, taken away in the middle of the night and their children turned over to the foster care system. I turned on the radio in the car the other day and heard a discussion of whether waterboarding is torture, followed by a image_503.gifdetailed description of what it feels like to be brought to the point of near drowning. I was talking to someone on Sunday who said he was trying to decide whether to hold an event before or after the US bombs Iran. “Wait a minute,” I said, “what do you mean, ‘bombs Iran’? You don’t think it’s really going to happen do you?” He just gave me a look. After he left I went online and found a description of the 30,000 pound bunker-buster recently tested in the Nevada desert. Oh great.

All I can say is, thank God for my bike.

I’m not a prodigious biker like most of my housemates, but over the last couple of years I’ve come to think of my bike as my main form of transportation. It’s nothing special, but the more I ride it, the stronger my body and the more extensive my range. I ride my bike downtown now, to the bank, to the library, to the coffee shop, to friends’ houses, to Food Not Bombs, even to the dentist. Next on my list: learn the bus system and start using the bike racks in front of the buses. When I ride my bike regularly I can feelbike-shed2.jpg a difference in my legs every day. I see things, I meet people, I get my blood pumping in a way that doesn’t happen boxed up in a car. Most important, even a short bike ride helps to restore my equilibrium.

There’s not much else to say. Sometimes the world gets hard. There are days when the best possible thing you can do for yourself, your friends, and for the whole universe is just to get on your bike and ride.

The green patch above and lots of other great bike-related and just general good stuff-related stuff is available from Microcosm Publishing.


Filed under collective living, the big picture