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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We Are Everywhere

Last Saturday morning I went to an Al-Anon meeting. It was one of those moist gray mornings, chilly but not cold, and it was nice to go into the Methodist church not far from my house and sit in the quiet little anteroom the congregation makes available to us for our meetings. The Saturday meeting is a step study group, which means that we discuss whichever one of the twelve steps coincides with number of the month. On the last Saturday of every month we discuss one of the traditions by which Al-Anon is guided; since this was the last Saturday in January, we were discussing the first tradition, which says Our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity.

The conversation traveled around the circle as it always does, each person taking a turn to speak. A silent consensus developed as people added to and amplified upon each other’s remarks. Unity is not blind obedience, we agreed; real unity lies in finding common ground, in outgrowing both the need to always get one’s own way, and the willingness to be dominated by someone else’s need to get his or her own way.

The circle was nearly complete and the hour was nearly at an end when someone said “I actually never experienced unity before I came to Al-Anon.” All around the circle people nodded in recognition. “In the world I live in most of the time ‘personal progress’ depends on crushing someone else before you get crushed—I mean everywhere, at home, at work, everywhere. Then I come here and it’s different.” The speaker stopped and looked down at the floor. “I wish the real world could be like Al-Anon.”

It’s been four years now since I went to my first Al-Anon meeting, four years since my life went totally haywire. At that first meeting I sat on a wooden chair pushed up against the wall of a Sunday school room and felt out of place and resentful. I was creeped out by the way people repeated each other’s names around the circle (“I’m Liz.” “Hi Liz!”). I looked down the long list of twelve steps and found something to quibble with in each one. I felt stiff and uncomfortable with the hugs after the meeting. I ducked out to the parking lot as soon as I could.

But somehow I kept going back. This was in the frantic, exhilarating, terrifying first couple of years of my new life when, looking back on it, I was very much further out on the edge of my own endurance than I realized. I felt sometimes as though I were racing across a series of suspension bridges, pausing only long enough to kneel beside each one and set it on fire. I am not by nature a particularly adventuresome person, but the exoskeleton of comfortable middle-class American life that had held me up for so long had cracked to pieces under a variety of pressures, and in its absence I was making everything up as I went along, obeying some deep instinct because instinct seemed to be the only solid thing I had left. In those days I laughed harder than I had ever laughed before, I danced more often and in more unexpected places than I had ever danced before, I widened the margins of my personal map to include people and places I had never known before. And some mornings the tears began before I had even opened my eyes.

I don’t think I could do it again. The changes in my external life—the collective house, the dumpster diving, the kitchen dance parties–were only the visible landscape over a tectonic shift that was rearranging the deep geology of my heart and mind. All during this time I was reading constantly. I talked and listened and argued, I sat and thought and wrote in my journal, I read some more, I listened and watched more, and slowly, awkwardly, sometimes painfully, the pieces of my shattered life began to coalesce around a new set of ideas. What it came down to was this: I came to see that the world I had lived in all my life, the respectable, order-must-be-maintained, it-may-not-be-perfect-but-it’s-better-than-the-alternative hierarchical world of rigidly defined haves and have-nots—in other words, the dominant culture world—was predicated on the assumption that people are essentially greedy and antagonistic. Every storyline led back to Darwin.

But I was beginning to see the world in a different way. What, I began to ask myself, if people are essentially whole and healthy? What if people long for cooperation more than they long for competition? What if we live best in a web of relationships as complex and mutually supportive as any other ecosystem? What if the world I have lived in all my life is not the world, but just a world, an essentially flimsy and unstable world that is kept in place by violence and fear? I was introduced to the ideas of Peter Kropotkin, a nineteenth century naturalist who countered Darwin’s theories of survival of the fittest with “survival of the most cooperative,” developed through his own observations of the natural world. Peter Kropotkin was a Russian prince and an anarchist. It was Kropotkin who wrote the entry on anarchism in the famous 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica; it was Kropotkin who introduced the term “mutual aid” into the language with his book of the same name. Anarchism is probably the most reviled, misunderstood and marginalized of all the left-leaning political philosophies, and I certainly didn’t set out to live in its borderlands, but like most of the anarchists I know I didn’t so much convert to anarchism as recognize a set of beliefs that had always been there. As I moved closer to the deep well of anarchist ideas and into a culture of anarchist actions the world started to make sense again.

And unrelated to all the internal and external changes I was making at that time—or maybe not—I was finally able to acknowledge that someone I loved very deeply was ebbing out of my life into a sea of alcoholism. That’s how I ended up at Al-Anon, looking around at all the respectably dressed, earnest, middle-aged people so much like me and so unlike me, and feeling both alien and at home. Here I was, a newly-minted anarchist living with a group of people half my age, feeling a swing of emotions I should have left behind in adolescence, eating out of dumpsters, living a noisy, messy, seat-of-the pants existence, and I didn’t know what they would think of me.

What I didn’t know at those first meetings was that, first of all, no one cared one way or the other who I was or how I lived, but even more important—and more startling—in joining Al-Anon I had, in fact, joined the largest and most successful anarchist movement in the world. At first I was simply struck by the curious similarities between the way Al-Anon worked and the way the anarchist enterprises I was involved in operated. No leaders, no rules, no experts, no accumulation of wealth. Now I recognize that the similarity between Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A is the basis for all other Twelve Step programs, including Al-Anon) and the Circle A is neither metaphorical nor hyperbolic: “When we come into A.A. we find a greater personal freedom than any other society knows.”—this is Bill Wilson, co-founder of A.A., writing in a 1957 history of the movement—“We cannot be compelled to do anything. In that sense our society is a benign anarchy. The word ‘anarchy’ has a bad meaning to most of us. . . . But I think that the gentle Russian prince who so strongly advocated the idea felt that if men were granted absolute liberty, and were compelled to obey no one in person, they would voluntarily associate themselves in the common interest. A.A. is an association of the benign sort the prince envisioned.” So.

“I wish the real world could be like Al-Anon.”

It is. I see it every Monday night at my house when we sit down in the living room for our weekly house meeting. I see it at Food Not Bombs every time a group of people—some of them homeless, some of them not–take a couple of boxes of miscellaneous fruits and vegetables and turn them into a meal for thirty people. I see it lots of places. It’s not just the private precinct of anarchists, vowed or unavowed, it’s the way people behave when conditions are benign. It’s the real real world.

So why do those of us who have seen another, healthier way of doing things put up with the conditions of the unreal world? What would happen if we recognized our power, personal and collective, to reshape the community around us? What if we took the principles embodied in the Twelve Steps and in the writings of anarchist thinkers and used them not simply to heal ourselves and our families, but to heal our neighborhoods, our towns, our nations, our planet. We can! We don’t have to do it all at once, and no one of us has to do it alone, but I believe it’s the work that’s most worth doing. One day at a time—but starting now.

The Twelve Traditions of Al-Anon

1. Our common welfare should come first; personal progress for the greatest number depends upon unity.

2. For our group purpose there is but one authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants—they do not govern.

3. The relatives of alcoholics, when gathered together for mutual aid, may call themselves an Al-Anon Family group, provided that as a group, they have no other affiliation. The only requirement for membership is that there be a problem of alcoholism in a relative or friend.

4. Each group should be autonomous, except in matters affecting another group or Al-Anon or AA as a whole.

5. Each Al-Anon Family Group has but one purpose: to help families of alcoholics. We do this by practicing the Twelve Steps of AA ourselves, by encouraging and understanding our alcoholic relatives, and by welcoming and giving comfort to families of alcoholics.

6. Our Family Groups ought never endorse, finance or lend our name to any outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary spiritual aim. Although a separate entity, we should always co-operate with Alcoholics Anonymous.

7. Every group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.

8. Al-Anon Twelfth Step work should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.

9. Our groups, as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.

10. The Al-Anon Family Groups have no opinion on outside issues; hence our name ought never be drawn into public controversy.

11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, films, and TV. We need guard with special care the anonymity of all AA members.

12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles above personalities.

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Home

Normally I ride my bike or walk down to the Green Bean on Wednesday to sit in the wide-armed easy chair by the fish tank and write out my thoughts. Today I had some errands to do, and since I’m still feeling the last barbs of a heavy chest cold, I drove. I had the radio dial turned to the local NPR station and all the way downtown weighty authoritative voices came out of my car dashboard: Are we in a recession? Is there a way to stimulate the economy? What do the indicators mean? Who’s suffering the most?

homeless-camp.jpgAs I drove along I passed the construction site where the old Wachovia building is being turned into spectacular-views-of-the-city condos. I passed nice new restaurants with handsome signs and shadowy high-ceilinged interiors; dress shops with headless mannequins looking beautiful and remote; dreamy New Age-y hair salons. At the same time I passed through another Greensboro, a Greensboro mapped out in invisible ink. It’s the city of the poor and the homeless. Just like the more visible city, it’s made up of individuals who wake up every morning, live out their day in a web of experiences and relationships, eat, sleep, talk, laugh, read, and at the end of the day fall asleep and roam through their own unique night landscape of dreams. They know the economy well. Why do I never hear their voices on the radio?

Last Thursday Tim and I went to annual Housing Summit sponsored by the Greensboro Housing Coalition. I’ve known Tim for a couple of years now; he started out coming to Food Not Bombs to eat, and began coming earlier and earlier to set up the tables and generally lend his common sense to the operation. He’s taken primary responsibility for the new kitchen project at the HIVE. The Summit was well attended in spite of icy, rainy weather—several hundred good, dedicated kind-hearted people made it there. I don’t know this for sure, but I wouldhomeless-camp2.jpg guess that Tim was the only one among them who was homeless. Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of social workers, non-profit agency executives, government officials, academic experts, policy analysts, number crunchers, client service providers. And one homeless guy.

One of the principles I learned from Isabell when she was herself learning about anarchism is that people know best what’s best for themselves, and its corollary, the people most affected by a decision should have the biggest say in the decision. It’s pretty obviously when it applies to us and people like us; more difficult to see when we’re talking about the “other”, whoever our other might be.

Homeless people are America’s ultimate other. If owning a home represents the American Dream, homelessness is the American nightmare, and like all nightmares we try to shove it as far down in the collective psyche as we can. Unfortunately, with it goes real flesh-and-blood people who get shoved in all the ways our culture knows how to shove people—jailed, warehoused, hassled, humiliated, patronized, fnbapril.jpgstigmatized. We make it difficult for people to take care of their most basic needs—we withhold food, shelter, withhold even a place to go to the bathroom–unless they have money, then we arrest them for stealing a loaf of bread, for sleeping outdoors, for urinating in public. We don’t give them a place to wash and clean their clothes, then we call them “dirty.” We shake our heads and say that if people are homeless it must be because they’re mentally ill, then we slowly drive them crazy.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the things I’ve learned from the people I’ve gotten to know at Food Not Bombs, but something hasn’t felt quite right. Finally I remembered another principle of anarchism that I learned from Isabell: we shouldn’t speak for other people, nor should we let other people speak for us unless we ask them to.

So in that spirit, last month I asked Tim if he would sit down with me and talk while the recorder ran about the experience of homelessness. Tim has been homeless for five or six years; he has helped me to understand that homelessness is as dynamic as any other condition of life—as dynamic as marriage, as parenthood, as work, as school, as aging, as illness, as love. He has helped me to understand that where you are in homelessness at any given moment is simply where you are at that moment, and that the condition of homelessness is as much internal as external. You can slip into homelessness while you are still living in a house; you can slip out of homelessness long before you move inside. I think that’s the aspect of homelessness—or of homedness for that matter—that awes me: the amazing resilience of spirit that allows people to make a full life out of the most rudimentary materials.

Tim has become a kind of one-man homeless welcoming committee. I watch him at Food Not Bombs, and I understand he does the same at lunch down at Potter’s House, going up to people who look lost and afraid, saying a kind word, telling them where they can find the food or shelter or other services they need, if those services are to be had. He helps people past those first terrifying days when all the safety nets that keep the rest of us in our homes have torn through. I wish there were more of him.

Here’s Tim:

It’s always the same story. If they didn’t have to be there they wouldn’t be. They got confused, and then they got more confused, and it’s hard on them. They feel ashamed. They’re sad, they’re depressed, they’re confused. I’ve invited several people down to my tent—you know,
tim.jpggive them a place for the night so they can figure out what to do for the next day. Food’s a top priority, then somewhere to…finding a spot.

When you sit back and hear all the stories, they’re actually all the same, they’ve just changed the names and the places. For a lot of them homelessness is probably from addiction, but I think actually something happened earlier and they never got that resolved, or didn’t even know it, and if they were prone to be addicted one thing led to another. Everyone wants to get out of homelessness, but they don’t need to get out and go right back to the same situation they were in before. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes, right? So if for some reason you find that job and you’re working every day and you get out, then all of a sudden you’re not homeless anymore, but before you know it you’re right back there at the same edge as before. You didn’t go anywhere.

Within the little community I live in, certain ones help each other and that’s just the way it works. You can’t always help everybody, but I’ve met a lot of folks, I’ve seen them come and go. Once you become homeless, you wonder “What do I do now?” A lot of them, they go, “Well, I’ll go to the day labor, get some work.” When that falls through and you don’t get sent out this day, this day, this day, and you’re having to move—once you start moving you realize you’ve got to declare yourself homeless. Reality sinks in. You end up moving from spot to spot until you find a good one, and then that one can only last a while. If you don’t go out to work it plays mental tricks on you—you get depressed. You’ve got to get over that. If you don’t, it eats you up and you slowly deteriorate, and if you have an addiction you keep going to it. You need to have something meaningful to do every day.

What’s better: to have nothing and be happy, or have everything and be miserable? Homeless people will accept the simplest things of life and be happy about it—we’re just talking about some kind of decent shelter with the minimum of requirements. We’re stuck in a culture that says, unfortunately, that you need to be indoors out of the cave, you need to have running water, you need to have a light bill, you need to have a water bill, you need to pay taxes, and then we’ll accept you. Most folks don’t realize that they got confused about all of this, about what was going on. Stress—stress is just a question you haven’t got an answer to, so they get stressful, all stressed out because they’re confused, they don’t know the answer, what to do for this or that, when instead somehow—we don’t know how—but somehow things work out, they really do, they really work out along the way.

I remember my first night out, I had no idea what to do. Right in downtown Greensboro I said “Well, this is it. It just starts right here.” I didn’t know the Weaver House existed, and here I was sleeping outside in the rain. I had no idea. So I can understand when I see somebody new, that they have no idea of where to go, of what to do, who to ask. You can tell, they won’t admit it, but they’re scared.
.
Homelessness isn’t about having a roof over your head. It’s more about a person figuring it out for themselves. Homeless people need a place to be so they can get their thoughts together, because I’m pretty sure 10 out of 10 of them grew up in a house. It’s very few that were a homeless child. Some of them, they don’t want to accept the reality of it, they just feel “This ain’t right– something’s not right.” They’ve gotten off their timeline. They were meant to be somewhere else. And yet they’re here, and a lot of them, they just want to get back on the same timeline that was supposed to be their purpose. When you become homeless, though, the bubble pops.

One thing a person needs is time to themselves—that’s a fact. It’s almost chemical. I believe a person needs some place to be, something to do, and–Michele says–somebody who cares. This is just a natural thing, but you can’t do it on a mass scale all at one time. You’ve got to just keep digging at it, keep watching people and going “they’re ready.” I don’t mean a place like Urban Ministry; I mean a place where they can have time to catch up with their thoughts. They went for day after day without their thoughts. They got confused, and then they got more confused. To be able to survive this long you’ve got to…you’ve got to go through it all. You’ve got to figure it out and be happy with it, and once you are you can tell a difference in the folks. I can tell just by looking which ones are comfortable within their own skin.

If you do it on a mass scale it will attract those who aren’t ready to be there, or shouldn’t be there, people who have lost their energy. You’re supposed to be able to produce your own energy, your own basic instinct to survive, but you don’t know, you’re confused. And tired, tired all the time. You might try to lie down and die, but it doesn’t happen. You end up having to get up anyway.

So what’s it going to take? All right, once somebody has a place to be, the next is to find something for them to do that they really want to do, that they enjoy doing, that’s worth doing. They feel as though someone’s in control other than them. That’s the deal, they’ve lost control. They’re scared. So you’ve got to…what? Re-empower them. Let them know it’s OK. If they keep working at the day labor they’re going to go on staying in this small little circle that they’re living in, and they’re not going to get anywhere. They say “But if I don’t do that I’ll be thrown out of my place!” They’re right there homeless anyhow, they just don’t want to admit it. Our culture says: “Go get a job,” but actually in a lot of cases that’s the last thing they need right now. That would actually cause more damage—it actually does cause them more damage, and they stay in this horrible circle, and they just keep doing it over and over and it’ll slowly keep eating them away until they can actually come to terms and get a grip.

If we could just set up some kind of units and say “Look, we’re not going to hassle you, you can be here and have a start.” All the land’s owned by somebody so instead of saying it’s trespassing—just give them a place where they can be, no matter where it’s at. Don’t put them all in one place. Let them be wherever they want to be, then open the doors. They’ve got to be somewhere, then give them something to do.. There’s always something someone can offer. Society—our society—has forgotten this. They came over here in their fancy ship and they forgot. One side needs the other. Until the human race figures out that it’s the human race…that’s the hardest part.

The answer is it’s cheaper to go ahead and do something now. Go ahead and set something up, and over the half the people will even help set it up. They will help for themselves. Quit hassling them.

Thanks to Michele Forrest for the photos of homeless camps and Food Not Bombs. If you want to know what’s going on with homelessness in Greensboro and the world, make a habit of reading her wonderful blog ChosenFast.com

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Permission

A couple of years ago the Food Not Bombs group in Greensboro found itself with an abundance of both food and cooks, so we decided to add another day. No one else in Greensboro was serving dinner on Monday so we chose Monday; a lot of homeless people spend the day down at the Central Library—Greensboro should have a day shelter but it doesn’t, which means that the library serves as a de facto day shelter–so fnbhaircut.jpgwe chose the library. There’s a low brick wall outside the library windows that makes a good buffet table and a couple of park benches where people can sit. It’s nice when the weather’s nice, not so nice when it’s cold or rainy or, as happens in the winter, dark. Still, no one complains.

Until, that is one day when a security guard came out and told us we had to leave. We had been serving there for well over a year but had never asked permission, partly on the Food Not Bombs principle that food is a right not a privilege, and partly on the principle that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission. Except that we didn’t want to ask forgiveness either. In many cities Food Not Bombs servings double as a form of non-violent civil disobedience, a tacit protest against the way poor and homeless people are shuffled out of sight. Food Not Bombs-related arrests are common around the country; it’s crazy, but the movement has even made the FBI terrorist watch list. All for serving food without permission.

It was a chilly night, winter, lit only by the streetlights and the glow of the library windows. “You can’t serve food here without written permission,” the security guard said. He was standing with his legs spread a little apart; he rocked a little back and forth on his toes as he talked.

“Permission!” several people said. “Permission! Permission for what? We’re eating, we’re hungry, this is a public sidewalk!”

“No it’s not,” the guard said. “This sidewalk belongs to the city. You have to have permission to be doing what you’re doing. Who’s in charge here?”

“Nobody! Nobody’s in charge!” That’s true. Food Not Bombs is a decentralized, consensus-based, leaderless organization. I’ve been volunteering with the Greensboro group longer than anyone else so a lot of people think I’m in charge, but I’m not. I was deeply gratified that the people clustered together on the sidewalk recognized that.

“Who drove the food here then?” the guard asked. Everyone was silent; no one looked at me. There was no escaping the facts, though.fnbshave.jpg

“That would be me,” I finally said. “I drove the food here, but I’m not in charge.”

“Well you need to have permission to serve food here,” he said.

“Permission!” someone said again before I could speak. “Why do we need permission?”

It went back and forth like that for a while. At one point the guard went inside and got one of the librarians. The two of them stood in the chill telling us we had to ask permission; we stood in front of them saying we didn’t.

“If you come back and serve food here next week without written permission you’ll be arrested,” the guard said.

“For what?” people shouted. “For eating? For eating?”

“For serving food without permission.”

Nobody would budge but eventually, inevitably, the confrontation ran out of steam. The security guard wrote out a name and phone number on a page of his spiral-bound notepad and handed the paper to me. “This is who you ask,” he said, and he and the librarian left.

“Permission!” The crowd had dwindled a bit but those who remained still felt strongly. I had the little lined piece of paper in my hand. If this had happened a couple of years ago I know what I would have done—I would have apologized to the security guard, taken the piece of paper, and called to ask for permission. Except that a couple of years ago I don’t think I would have found myself in this situation in the first fnbbrian_halfway.jpgplace. That was before I understood the concept of consensus, and the extraordinary power of direct action, before I had read the famous essay of the same name by Voltairine de Cleyre, one of the great anarchist thinkers of the early twentieth century. “Every person who ever thought he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist,” she wrote in 1912. ”…Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it, or who laid his plan before others, and won their co-operation to do it with him, without going to external authorities to please do the thing for them, was a direct actionist. All co-operative experiments are essentially direct action.”

“So what do we do?” I asked. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable to arrest and get treated very badly when they are arrested. I didn’t want to do something that would put them in a dangerous position. “Should we come back next week?”

Yes, everyone said immediately. We should come back next week and we shouldn’t ask permission. “I’m tired of asking permission for everything,” one man said. “I can’t even sit in the park without a cop coming up and asking me what I’m doing. We don’t need permission.”

I love libraries; I love librarians; Greensboro has a terrific library. I was so proud of the direct action that the people at Food Not Bombs were taking, in awe of their courage at standing their ground, but as the week went on I began to feel worse and worse about the library. I finally emailed a librarian friend and explained what had happened—explained that this was not about the library, but that we would be back on Monday. We wouldn’t be bringing signs or drums or chants, we wouldn’t be making declarations or demands. We were just coming with soup and bread and salad. But we weren’t going to ask permission.

The next day my phone rang. It was Sandy Neerman, director of the entire library system. “I heard about what happened on Monday,” she said. This whole thing was taking on a life of its own; if this is such a leaderless organization, I thought, how come I’m the one in the hot seat? I stood in my room with the telephone to my ear and looked out the window at the big pine trees at the end of the yard. “I heard about what happened on Monday,” Sandy went on “and I want to apologize. Of course you don’t have to ask permission and of course we’re delighted that you’re doing what you’re doing. Please go on doing it.”

So that’s how it came about that last Monday 40 or so people sat down to eat together in the Nussbaum Room of the Central Library. This is the second winter now that the library has invited Food Not Bombs inside—inside!—to serve. Last winter we simply served food for the most part, but this year Jen Worrells, our wonderful library liaison and a direct actionist if there ever was one, suggested a full winter of programming. We’ve shown movies, done blood pressure tests, held discussions. Cakalak Thunder played after dinner on New Year’s Eve, filling the library with radical drumming (that was Jen’s idea!) This past Monday volunteers gave shaves and haircuts. One of the as hoc barbers was a man who was at Food Not Bombs for the first time—he had come for a free meal, but when he saw what was going on he said “I can cut hair” and picked up a pair of clippers. (Every person who ever had a plan to do anything, and went and did it….) We’ll be inside for another couple of months. We have some meetings with government officials planned, we’ll be showing more movies, having more parties, maybe having a massage night, a dental care night, a poetry night, who knows?

Anything can happen.

UPCOMING WINTER SERIES EVENTS:

Mondays, 6:00 pm, Greensboro Central Library, Nussbaum Room

If you’re interested in being part of the process, join the Winter Series wiki

January 14 – Government Official
January 28 – Movie Night: War of the Worlds (2005)
February 4 – Culture / Celebration
Febraury 11 – Health and Beauty
February 18 – Government Official
February 25 – Movie Night
March 3 – Culture / Celebration
March 10 – Health and Beauty
March 17 – Government Official
March 24 – Movie Night
March 31 – Culture / Celebration

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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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UPDATE: Demolition of public housing complex halted in New Orleans; City Council hearing next week

From the Associated Press, December 14
NEW ORLEANS: Demolition of three New Orleans public housing complexes, slated to start this weekend, was halted Friday amid complaints about the scarcity of housing for the poor after Hurricane Katrina.

The Housing Authority of New Orleans, which is run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, agreed to postpone the start of demolition pending a hearing Thursday before City Council. Opponents of the tear-down plan had filed a lawsuit contending that the council’s consent was required by the city charter….

Read the full article here

Another interesting article from the day before about the protests in New Orleans.bullhorn.jpg

An excellent update on the fight in the courts. It’s well worth reading all the way to the bottom to see the individuals–including John Edwards and the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana–and more than 100 organizations (the AARP, Volunteers for America, Oxfam America, Amnesty International USA, Catholic Charities USA, and the Unitarian Universalists among them) who have come out against demolition until HUD comes up with a plan to replace all the housing units.

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