Category Archives: my life

Reincarnation

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.

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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.

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Straying Home

flyinghouse1.jpgI make my living writing snappy blurbs and photo captions for glossy magazines, so how hard can it be to come up with a book title?

How about The Visible Woman? That’s the title of a zine I wrote years ago and I still like it. I proposed the title to an agent I was working with at the time, one of several who got in touch with me after I published an article about our house a couple of years ago. She thought what I had written had the potential to be expanded a successful memoir published by a mainstream publisher. “You know,” she said “the biggest book-buying demographic is middle-aged women.” But no, she said, not The Visible Woman.

I pulled together the various things I’d written over the years, things I’d written mostly to try to make sense to myself of the choices and changes I’d made. The agent looked at them and suggested Standards of Living, but that didn’t feel quite right. How about Qualities of Life? I thought. Actually, no. Um, let’s see… Border Crossings. A Change of Address. Jumping the Fence. No. No. No.

The New York Times had titled my article Inviting Anarchy Into My Home. How about that? No, nobody liked that one. Then I remembered something I had read once in a history of punk rock: “Life matters, so don’t fuck it up.” How about that: Life Matters. I walked around for a couple of days sure that I’d found it. No one else could see it.

This went on for well over a year.

One late afternoon last November I asked Mark if he would help me decide among The Visible Woman, Standards of Living and Life Matters. Or maybe The Visible Woman: A Memoir of Life Matters. Or Standards: On Living. I had just come back from a week at a writer’s retreat where I had done yet another revision of the book proposal I’d been working on for a year and a half. I was ready to send the latest version off to New York, but I still needed a title.

“Just those ones?” Mark said.

“It’s the best I can come up with,” I said. I felt a little defensive. “It’s not that easy you know.”

Mark stopped whatever it was he was doing and stood up. “Look,” he said kindly. “You’re going about it all wrong. You have to have a lot of bad ideas before you can have a good one.” He went into his room and came out with a big roll of adding machine paper. He taped one end of the roll to the coffee table and put a pen down beside it. “Let’s say we won’t leave here until we’ve come up with a hundred titles. Bad ones. No, let’s say a hundred and one.” At the top of the paper he wrote 100 TITLES FOR LIZ’S BOOK.

GO!

1. Mark picked up the pen and wrote FREE FURNITURE!
2. I wrote A Dangerous Question
3. It Started With A Question
4. Renovation
5. Home Renovation
6. Home Repair

Crystal and Jodi came in. “What are you guys doing?”

“Coming up with a title for Liz’s book.”

They sat down on the sofa.

7. Less is More, Jodi said.

8. More for Less, Crystal said.

9. The Same Light, Mark wrote.

10. “I’ve always kind of liked Traveler’s Rest,” I said. Mark wrote: Traveler’s Rest.

It went on like that…Grounds for DivorceNew EyesIn Case of Police RaidComing to My Senses….

27. “How about just Home?” I said, and wrote it down.

“But that doesn’t tell anyone what it’s about,” Jodi said.

Mark made a noise that sounded like “Bzzzt.” “No editing,” he said. “Just bad ideas.”

The bad ideas flew.

58. Riot Mom

59. Freedame

60. Notes on the Sink

61. Graffiti and Kitchen Notes

62. Resisting Arrest

63. Resisting A Rest

“How far are we?” Mark asked.

“Only sixty-three,” I said. “Steve across the street suggested Off The Rails And On The Run,” I added.

“Write it down!” Mark said.

Momentum returned. 66: Diet For A New Home. 67: Chicken. 68: Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road? 69: The Other Side

“I’ve got to go,” Crystal said.

88. Picking Sides

89. “Or maybe Choosing Sides,” I said.

90. Picking A Fight

Picking My Nose,” Jodi said, and Mark grabbed the pen.

“Don’t write that down!” I said.

We hit 100 (Hunger) and kept right on going.

146. Happily Ever After

147. Ever After

148. After Ever After

149. After Disaster

…and finally we were done. Mark unstuck the paper, rolled it back up and handed it to me. I took the paper upstairs and sat down on the bed to look at it, and there between Staying Home and Biscuits and Gravy (where did that one come from?)was Straying Home. Straying Home. I liked it. I couldn’t even be sure who had said it, but it expressed better than anything I’d thought of so far the paradox I felt in having traveled so far in my own life without leaving the house.

So Straying Home it is.

But it turns out that Mark was right in more ways than one. I was going about things the wrong way–not just the title of the book, but the whole process of trying to get a book published. The wrong way, at least, for me. I sent off the proposal and didn’t hear anything. Not the first week, not the second week, not the third. Over the year and half or so that the agent and I had been working together the intervals between my submissions and her reactions had grown longer and longer, but this was unprecedented. I gave it a little more time; by early December I admitted to myself that chances were pretty good that I was never going to hear for her. It seemed as though the time had come to admit the truth. I quit. So as the year ended I had a title, a book proposal, some sample chapters, no agent, a good deal of confusion, and a surprising amount of relief.

Then a friend introduced me to the intriguing concept of print-on-demand–a new form of self-publishing that circumvents the whole agent/author/publisher nexus. Somehow that feels right for who I am and what I have to say. After all, my new life owes a lot to the DIY–do-it-yourself–ethic. Why not do this one myself?

So that’s what I’m going to do, but first I’m going to take it even one step further and serialize the book on line, on a separate blog. I recognize that in publishing the book myself I’m sacrificing the help of an editor, so please, if you have an interest in reading what I write, feel free to offer your editorial comments and suggestions. I’ll pay attention, I promise.

Here it is! Straying Home: A Memoir of Changing in Place

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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 hutchstar7@yahoo.com. 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 cakalakthunder@yahoo.com 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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Look Into My Eyes O’Neil

I was sitting in front of my computer in my small upstairs office one cool October morning eight years ago when I received an email from a friend in New England. He forwarded me a wire service report that had appeared in his local paper that morning about a boater missing off the coast of Massachusetts. The missing boater was my old college roommate Alice.

The story pieced together slowly over the next few days. First Alice was simply, bafflingly missing—she had taken her 25-foot catamaran out on a breezy autumn afternoon and not come back. The next day the boat with all of Alice’s belongings still on board had washed up on some mud flats in Duxbury Harbor. The Coast Guard, the state police and the Plymouth harbormaster searched by boat and by air; Alice’s other friends and I went over and over the possibilities on the phone and in back-and-forth emails, all of them unlikely, but no less unlikely than the simple fact that she had disappeared. Could she have somehow accidentally fallen overboard? Been kidnapped? Gotten off somewhere and been marooned? I sat at my desk sifting finer and finer and finer grains of information and understanding less and less.

Alice had taken her boat out on a Thursday afternoon and the boat had been found on Friday morning. It was getting to be late in the season and Alice had told the Duxbury harbormaster that she wanted to get in one last sail before she put the boat up for the winter. The search went on throughout Friday until dark when the Coast Guard called off its portion of the search, and resumed on Saturday with state police divers. By Sunday the official search party had dwindled to the Duxbury harbormaster and his assistant, sweeping the harbor with a borrowed underwater camera, but by then it was clear that Alice hadn’t intended to be found. On Sunday the newspapers gave the first delicate hints: “Plymouth County District Attorney Michael Sullivan said Robinson’s disappearance is being treated as a missing persons case,” I read in the on-line version of the Boston Herald. “Coast Guard officials have said evidence on the boat suggests Robinson, a well-respected sailor, may have been injured. According to a law enforcement source, a splatter of blood and tissue on the boat’s mast appeared to be consistent with marks left behind by a self-inflicted gunshot. Robinson’s boat was found with its outboard motor in reverse and out of gas, its dinghy still in tow.”

The day after Thanksgiving I flew up to Massachusetts for the memorial service. Mara met me at the airport and we drove together to the old house in Marshfield that belonged to the local Audubon Society. Mara had seen Alice more recently than I had. What was it? I asked her. What was it that made Alice decide that those grasses and those trees just coming into yellow and red, that sky and that choppy water, were the last things she ever wanted to see?

I don’t know, Mara said. I don’t think Alice wanted us to know. Whatever it was, whatever depression and darkness, I think she would rather die than ask for help.

I used to admire that in her, I said. Her control.

I guess it didn’t do her much good after all did it? Mara said.

I always think of Alice’s memorial service, of the kind, sad, pleasant people sitting in a circle at the Marshfield nature center, the low late autumn light over the estuaries, the wind in the tall reeds, when I think about Seattle, November 1999. It’s strange how the two of them lie one over the other in my mind like a set of transparent overlays

In November 1999 I had never heard of the World Trade Organization, had barely heard the term anti-globalization, didn’t think protests still happened, believed that chaos was more dangerous than order, thought that the police sometimes made mistakes but were basically always right, thought that this might not be a perfect world but it’s the best one we’ve got. I was beginning to have questions, but I didn’t see my way clear to any answers. “I don’t get it,” I said to Isabell after reading about the 50,000 people on the streets of Seattle, the disrupted meetings, the teargas and broken windows and burning dumpsters. “It all seems so fuzzy and pointless. Is it about the sea turtles or the steelworkers or what? What do people hope to accomplish anyway?”

It took me a couple of years to understand the full ambitious intention of Seattle 1999: nothing less than to confront, resist and banish the dominator model of power and replace it with a power that rested on cooperation and partnership. A year after Alice’s death I met someone who had actually been in Seattle. While I had been going about my autumn business that year, he had been making up his mind to travel across the country on a Greyhound bus. His report of what happened next remains one of my favorite pieces of writing. An excerpt from it is below—Tuesday, November 30, the intersection of 4th Avenue and Pike Street, standing in front of a line of police in full riot gear.

I choose one—at random, for they all look exactly the same. Every inch of his body is hidden under black cyborg armor. He is armed to the teeth. His face is hidden under a gas mask, face shield, and fullseattle6.jpg helmet. O’Neil is embroidered on his bulletproof vest. I plant myself squarely in front of his face and I stare dead into his eyes. He won’t look at me. He blinks constantly, looks down, left, up, right; anywhere but at me. It infuriates me almost beyond words that this coward has the impudence to attack me when I am unarmed but lacks the courage to even look me in the eyes. “Can you look me in the eyes? CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? LOOK ME IN THE EYES O’NEIL.” Nothing. I know why he won’t look at me. When he was halter-broken he joined his trainers in a companionship stimulated not by love, but by hatred—hatred for the “enemy” who has always been designated as a barbarian, savage, communist, jap, criminal, gook, subhuman, drug dealer, terrorist, scum: less than human and therefore legitimate prey.seattle10.jpg

I try to make it impossible for him to label me as a faceless protester, the enemy. I pull off my ski mask and continue to stare into his eyes. I tell him that I am from the South, about fixing houses and laying floors and loading tractor trailer trucks, about nearly getting killed in a car wreck in October, about carrying my dog around crying to all the bushes that she loved to root around in the day she died of cancer. I tell him that we all have our stories, that there are no faceless protesters here. Nothing. “Can you look me in the eyes, O’Neil? I am a human being, and I refuse to let you evade that. I won’t let you label me as a protester, and I don’t want to have to label you as a cop. I refuse to accept that they have broken you completely, that there is not something left in you which is still capable of empathizing seattle09.jpgwith me. I want to be able to treat you as an equal, but only if you prove to me that you are willing to do the same. And the only way you can do that is by joining us, or walking away.” I remain dead still, staring into his weak cow eyes. He is blinking excessively and is visibly uncomfortable. “Can you look me in he eyes O’Neil? The difference between me and you is that I want to be here and you don’t. I know why I am here. I am enjoying myself. I am reveling in this. I am rejoicing. I have been waiting for this to happen since I was a little kid. There is nowhere in the world, ever, that I would rather be than where I am right now. There is nothing I would rather be doing than what I am doing right now. It has never been so magnificent to feel the sublime power of life running through the marrow of my bones. I know that you don’t want to be here. I know that you don’t know why you are here. I know that you are not enjoying yourself. I know that you don’t want to be doing this. And no one is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to. Wherever you want to be, seattle21.jpggo there, now. Whatever you want to be doing, do it, now. Go home and get out of my way. Go make love with your girlfriend or boyfriend, go snuggle with your kids or dog, go watch TV if that’s what you want, but stay out of my way because this is a lot more important to me than it is to you.”

I have not moved my feet or my eyeballs at all. I have been trying to blink as little as possible. O’Neil’sseattle06.jpg eyes are quivering and squirming to avoid me beneath the mask. “O’NEIL! CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? CAN YOU DO THAT FOR ME, O’NEIL? CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? Basically the whole ‘Battle of Seattle’ boils down to the relationship between you and me. And really, there are only two kinds of relationships that we can have anymore. If you can either join us or walk away then you will be my brother, and I will embrace you. If you cannot then you will be my enemy, and I will fight you. The relationship that we are not going to have is the one where you are dominant and I am subservient. That is no longer an option. That will never be an option again. Which kind of relationship do you want to have with me, O’Neil? Look around you. Look at all of these people singing ad dancing and making music. Don’t you see how beautiful this is? Don’t you see how much more healthy and strong and fulfilling and desirable and fun relationships that rest on mutual respect and consent and understanding and solidarity and love are than the ones that rest on force and fear and coercion and violence and hatred? Don’t you see that the life and the world that we are beginning to create out here is superior to the one that you have been trained to accept… Don’t you see that we are going to win? Don’t you want to be part of this? If you want to remain my enemy then so be it. But if you want to be my brother all you have to do is join us, or walkseattle02.jpg away.”

At this exact moment the Infernal Noise Brigade appears. For the first time since this surreal monologue began I look behind me. A small man wearing a gas mask and fatigues is prancing about in front, dancing lustily with two oversized black and green flags. Behind him two women wearing gas masks and fatigues march side by side, each bearing an oversized black and green mock wooden rifle. Two columns of about fifteen march behind the women with the guns. They are all wearing gas masks and fatigues, and they are all playing drums and horns and all sorts of other noisemakers. They are making the most glorious uproar that I have ever heard. The Infernal Noise Brigade marches all the way to the front where we are standing. When they reach the line the columns wto121.jpgtransform into a whirling circle. We form more circles around them, holding hands and leaping through the air, dancing around and around in concentric rings like a tribe of elves. We dance with absolute abandon, in possibly the most unrestrained explosion of sheer fury and joy that I have ever seen. On one side of the line across 4th Avenue there is a pulsating festival of resistance and life. On the other side there is a blank wall of obedience and death. The comparison is impossible to miss. It hits you over the head with a hammer.

When the dance is over I return to my post up in O’Neil’s face. I stare into his eyes and invoke all the love and rage I can muster to fashion an auger to bore through his mask and into his brain. And Cow Eyes cries crocodile tears. His eyes are brimming, with red veins throbbing. His cheeks are moist. Heseattle12.jpg won’t look at me. “O’Neil, I don’t care if you cry or not. I don’t care what you’re thinking right now. I only care about what you do. Before long you will get orders to attack us, or one of you will get impatient and provoke another confrontation. What are you going to do? When that happens I am going to be standing right here. If you choose to remain our enemy then you are going to have to hit me first. I dare you to look me in the eyes when you do it. You may be able to hurt me and not look at me. You may be able to look at me and not hurt me. But you won’t be able to look me in the eyes while you hurt me, because you are afraid you will lose your nerve. You are afraid of me, and you should be. O’Neil, you all have been terrorizing us all day. If seattle08.jpgthis goes on all night we will have to start fighting back. And you and I will be standing right here in the middle of it. I have no illusions about what that means. Neither should you. We may get killed. But I would rather deal with that than accept this one second longer. I would rather die that give in to you. I don’t think you cans say that, can you, O’Neil? Would you rather die that be my brother? Who are you dying for? Where are they? Whoever gives you orders is standing behind you, man. Whoever gives them orders is relaxing down at the station, and whoever gives them orders is safe in some high rise somewhere, laughing at your foolish ass! Why isn’t your boss, and their boss, out here with you, O’Neil, risking their lives and crying in the middle of 4th Avenue? Why should they? You do it all for them! What are you thinking? I just don’t get it. They don’t care about you. Hell, I care about youwto.jpg more than they do. You’re getting used, hustled, played man, and you will be discarded the minute you become expendable. Please look me in the eyes. I’m serious, O’Neil, come dance with me….”

Someone whispers in my ear that another cop is crying down the line to my right. For a fleeting moment I can feel it coming, the fiery dragon breath of the day that will come when the servants turn their back on their masters and dance…and then it’s gone. Because O’Neil is not dancing. He is completely beaten. His lifeless eyes don’t even bother to quiver or squirm. And he won’t look back at me. I could whisper in his nightmares for a thousand years, I could bun my face onto the backs of his eyelids, I could stare at him every morning from the bathroom mirror, but he would never look me in the eyes. He is too well trained, too completely broken, too weak to feel compassion for the enemy. His eyes are dead. There is nothing left. The magic words that tank.jpgcould pierce his armor and resurrect him elude me, if they exist at all. “O’Neil, I know that you have been broken and trained. So have I. I know that you are just following orders and just dong your job. I have done the same. But we are ultimately responsible or our actions, and their consequences. There is a life and a world and a community waiting for you on this side of the line that can make you wild and whole again, if you want them. But if you prefer to lay it all to waste, if you prefer death and despair to love and life, if all of these words bounce off your armor and you still choose to hurt me then FUCK you, because the Nuremberg defense doesn’t fly.” I have nothing left to say. I sing the last verse of my beaten heroes’ song, softly, over and over and over again, staring into O’Neil’s eyes and waiting for the inevitable: “…in our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold, greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold, we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old….”

Eventually one cop down the line either gets impatient or gets orders. He grabs some guy, completelyseattle07.jpg randomly, pulls him across the line, and starts beating him. The crowd surges to rescue our friend, and O’Neil makes his choice. “LOOK ME IN THE EYES, O’NEIL!” He clubs the person standing next to me, and the cop standing next to him clubs me. “LOOK ME IN THE EYES, MOTHERFUCKER!” But he never does. I ram into him as hard as I can, praying that the sea behind me will finally break through the wall, drown the both of us, and carry my friend out to safety. But I am not strong enough, and the wall of death beats us back once more. Over my shoulder I watch one cop walk up to a very small older woman and unload a tank of pepper spray into her eyes. Her indomitable and bitter face is the last thing I see before I have to run away.

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Justin

Justin got home Monday night; he moved to New England a couple of years ago.  Margaret and TR and the dogs leave Greensboro for Austin, Texas in a couple of weeks. But for this one lovely sunny autumnal week all three children are here in town together. It feels really good.

One of the things Justin is doing in New England is playing a lot of music. He’s a really talented drummer but he also plays guitar and keyboard; he plays the tabletop, the chair back, the car dashboard if nothing else is available. justin22.jpgHe’s one of those people who thinks in music, who dreams in music. He’s never had formal lessons and didn’t even really have access to instruments until he was into his teens but he’s got the kind of music inside him that flows over and around and under all impediments. I look forward to hearing all the music he’s going to be making for the rest of his life

Margaret sometimes jokes that she groundscored herself a little brother and she’s not far from the truth. She was the first to meet Justin, down by the railroad tracks one spring night in 2001. Justin started hanging out at the apartment that Margaret was sharing with some friends, sleeping on the sofa, eating out of their refrigerator, watching their TV. He didn’t say much about himself and gave his age variously as 15, 17 and 19, though he looked about 11. It was obvious that he was a runaway and pretty clear that he was on the run from a foster home. One Friday evening Margaret called me up and asked if I would come over right away to help them figure out what to do.

There was nothing very appealing about Justin—dirty white tank top, dyed blond hair, sagging jeans, thuggish attitude, the smudgy precursor of facial hair across his upper lip. He sat way down in his chair and gave me evasive answers when we talked, but it was clear that Margaret had guessed right, that he had run away from a foster home and had been gone for several weeks now. By one of those strange chances of which life is made, I had volunteered years before for something called the Guardian ad Litem program. I had been trained as a court advocate for children in the foster care system. I asked Justin if he had a GAL. He said he did, although he couldn’t remember her name.

On the strength of that I called my husband Bill. He agreed that I should bring Justin home and call the GAL office on Monday morning—it had been ten years since I had volunteered and I didn’t know anyone in the office any longer, but at least I knew what questions to ask. The weekend was uneventful; Justin was much sweeter, justinsufferbus22.jpgmore childish than he had seemed when he was slumped down, sullen and spraddle-legged, in Margaret’s apartment. He slept a lot. He ate a lot. On Sunday night just before bedtime he lost what would turn out to be the last of his baby teeth. Right before I went to bed myself that night I opened the bedroom door—Justin was sleeping in Isabell’s old room—and slipped a quarter under Justin’s pillow.

The next morning I called the office and spoke to the woman who had Justin’s case. Everyone was tremendously relieved to hear that he was all right; I learned that he was 13, almost 14, that he had been in the system since he was nine, that he was a habitual runner, that he had been gone this time for two weeks. Justin, small for his age, wiry and energetic, quick to smile, was a favorite in the office. The Guardian ad Litem office is in the courthouse. We drove downtown and parked in the deck across the street from Government Plaza. As we lined up to go through the metal detectors Justin turned to me and said “This feels like a trap.”

It was. Justin’s GAL had told me over the phone that the judge had issued a “secure custody order” on Justin, which meant that when he was picked up he was to be taken directly to juvenile detention for three days. She had asked me not to tell Justin that when I brought him in. We rode up the elevator to the office. Women came from behind their desks into the reception area to hug Justin and ruffle his hair and tease him about the new rhinestone stud in his ear. Justin, the GAL and I went into the GAL’s small office; Justin and I sat in a pair of chairs so close to the desk that my knees nearly brushed up against the dark modesty panel. The desk was crowded with papers and pencil holders and paperweights and brightly colored erasers. The GAL told Justin about the secure custody order. The GAL excused herself and left the two of us alone. I felt like crying. “It’s just three days, Justin,” I said. “Just give them the three days and then it will be over.” Justin was talking about running away, about killing himself, about going to find his mother. “I knew this was a trap,” he said. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.”

The GAL came back. She had two security guards with her, two overweight men in dark brown uniforms, their wide shiny black belts hung with keys and flashlights and handcuffs and holsters snapped shut over black handguns. One of them took the handcuffs off his belt and opened them up. Justin bowed his head, lifted his two arms, and held his wrists out in front of him with his hands hanging down.

“ Behind you, son,” the other security guard said.

“Please,” the GAL said. The guard shrugged and fastened the cuffs in front.

I reactivated my Guardian ad Litem status. They waived the retraining for me. I left the courthouse that day with a paper signed by a judge and a six-inch stack of folders filled with Justin’s files.

It wasn’t three days. It was three weeks. The judge decided that Justin shouldn’t go back to the foster home from which he had repeatedly run and that he should stay locked up until an alternative was found. I met with his social worker, his psychologist, his probation officer, his lawyer, with people whose jobs I never could figure out, people who were making major decisions about Justin’s life without ever having met him. I felt ill-equipped and ill-informed for the responsibility I had taken on. I barely knew Justin myself, and I felt way over my head, but I still kept getting in the van, driving down to DSS or Mental Health or wherever for another meeting around another conference table in another windowless room. And Justin was still in detention. I took a copy of my court order out to the detention center as soon as I was allowed to—they told me at the office that Justin had to go through several days of processing before he could see anyone. I had never been to the detention center before. It was—it is—a large one-story concrete facility out by the airport, fairly new and well-maintained, with small neatly-trimmed boxwood bushes on either side of the heavy glass door into the lobby and a big interior window with a speaker grille and a metal drawer like the change drawer at the drive-up window at the bank. Behind the thick glass I could see a woman watching a row of monitors that showed wavering images of empty corridors and closed doors. I put my court order and my driver’s license in the drawer and waited.

Finally I was allowed in, accompanied through a series of thick metal doors. Justin and I met in the dayroom of his little pod: a small open area with a set of polished steel benches and a steel table etched with a checkerboard, all bolted to the floor. The room was lined with cell doors; each door had a single long window about five inches wide and maybe eighteen inches long; as I came into the dayroom every window suddenly had a little boy’s face in it. The guard asked me to wait. He opened Justin’s door and brought him out. Justin was dressed in a white polo shirt and elastic-waisted khaki pants and sneakers: the uniform. He walked with his head slightly bowed and his hands clasped behind his back. Every other time I went out to visit him he walked the same way, with an almost professorial gait, as though he were lost in deep contemplation. It took me sometime to realize that he had been ordered to walk that way. The handclasp was in lieu of handcuffs.

This became the background of my life for the next year. Justin was finally released and sent to a group home out in the country south of Greensboro. It wasn’t long before he ran. He got caught and sent back to juvenile detention. He did his time, got out, went back to the group home and a month or so later he ran again. One time he left school and talked someone into driving him back to Greensboro. Once he borrowed a bike from a friend and rode it the fifteen miles back to Greensboro. Once he jumped out of a social worker’s car at a stop sign and ran. He was finally moved from that group home to a smaller home. He ran from that one. He ran out the back door. He got off the school bus and ran. One day I added it up: out of twelve months Justin had spent 82 days in juvenile detention.

Even then I didn’t know the worst of it. One day when I was visiting Justin in detention he came in buoyant. “Check it out!” he said. “They’re letting us keep our mats!” I asked him what he meant. That’s when I learned that the cells were unfurnished except for a toilet, a sink and a cinderblock platform covered with a mat and a blanket. The guards had been coming in every morning at 6:00 to take the mats and the blankets. Now they were leaving the mats. That’s also how I learned something else that I hadn’t known before, that when a boy or a girl is brought in to the detention center (there were girls there too, though I rarely saw them) he or she goes into automatic solitary confinement for five days. Twenty-three out of twenty-four hours locked in a cinderblock cell with no books, no paper, no pencil, no human interaction except a brief moment with the guard who brings the meals. An hour of television in the recreation area, then back to the cell. If a child does the time, gets out, and is brought back before the judge within two weeks, it’s double time, which means that it is possible for a child to spend fifteen days out of a month locked up alone. The thought that Justin was being hovered over by counselors and psychologists and lawyers and social workers, that he was being force fed mood stabilizers, taken to church against his will, handcuffed and humiliated, and all the time being locked up in a way that was designed to destroy any good any of that might do him made me sick at heart. And they knew. His lawyer, his social worker, his psychologist, they all knew. They weren’t bad people; they truly liked Justin and cared about him, but there were so many Justins in their files, so many children crying and pleading, so many children sullen and angry, so many children mute and hopeless, that they weren’t going to throw it all away on one child. They got angry at Justin for running, for setting things in motion again, for forcing them to choose again: him or my job. Him or me.

I was horrified and heartsick. I didn’t have a job to lose, but I was afraid of having my court appointment revoked and being taken off Justin’s case. I joined the crowd encouraging Justin to just suck it up and deal with it, but on the inside my admiration for him was growing. His habitual running seemed to me his way—clumsy, desperate, but effective–of hanging onto some sense of himself, of saying “I know that I’m worth more than this. I don’t know where I belong, but I know that I don’t belong here.”

After a year of trying to find someplace for Justin, it became clear that the first place Justin belonged was out of the foster care system entirely. So that’s how I became first his foster mother, and eventually his adoptive mother, and in a way that’s how this collective house came into being. My husband Bill didn’t want to take on the responsibility for another child—not only had he already raised two daughters, he’s a high school teacher and spends all his time with teenager. With Isabell and Margaret out of the house our relationship was showing all the cracks and fault lines that can develop over the course of a marriage. Bill and I separated, and my panicky, clumsy response to the prospect of becoming the single mother of an angry, frightened, vulnerable teenage boy was to invite other people in to try the experiment of collective living. The collective became the village that raised Justin, or perhaps more accurately accompanied him into adulthood. That’s not to say that it was always easy, that I didn’t ever wonder what I had gotten myself into (and that Justin didn’t wonder the same thing), that I didn’t ever make mistakes. I made a lot. But it was also from the very beginning full of funny, wild, exhilarating, tender moments. In the end it wasn’t simply that Justin belonged out of the foster care system. It was that he belonged with me. We belong together.

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Welcome

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?”

Well, no.

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!

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