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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.
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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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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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Movie of the Week

Rock the WTO

One of the best films about the WTO protests isBreaking the Spell; if for nothing else watch it for the moving scene in the middle that lingers on the saddened expression on a policewoman’s face. A full-length feature film, The Battle in Seattle,starring Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson will be released sometime next March.

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House Keeping

Jodi got a wild hair last week and rearranged the living room furniture. It looks great. “I think we’re growing up,” she said. The room definitely looks more grown up with the sofa and chairs floating companionably together in mailboxes.jpgthe middle of the floor and the clutter pared away. Some things didn’t make the cut: the zines are still there, self-published photocopied pamphlets covering everything from trainhopping to urban gardening to DIY women’s health, but the English muffin display rack decorated with a red and black star (“Anarchy! Anarchy! Read all about it!”) that held them is gone, replaced by a more conventional bookshelf. The cardboard cutout torches are gone. They were props for the “Today’s Empire, Tomorrow’s Ashes” entry in Greensboro’s 4th of July parade a couple of years ago, and unaccountably ended up in a paper bag in the corner of our living room. The “Love Earth” patch is still there, left behind by a traveler kid named Leroy who had walked from Maine to North Carolina and was headed west. He stayed with us long enough to repair his backpack and replace this patch with a new one. The Oxford English Dictionary—the two volume one with a magnifying glass–is still there as well, a remnant lvrm.jpgfrom the old days and still occasionally useful in settling after-dinner etymological discussions. The vermin panels on the doors to Jodi and Skye’s room are coming down later this week.

With the living room looking so nice, this seems like a good time to talk about some of the basics of our day-to-day living. I counted up not long ago and discovered that over the last five years sixteen different people have lived in the house—and that’s not even counting the long-term guests and sub-letters who have occasion ally spiced the mix. Each new person changes the ecology of the house a little bit, and every change helps to illuminate those deeper things that don’t change.

laundryrack.jpgThe house: The house was built in 1927 and sits on a street of houses of roughly the same age. The neighborhood was a suburb when it was established; now it’s considered a downtown neighborhood. It’s within easy biking distance of the center city and the university area and just a couple of blocks from a bus stop. When my former husband and I bought it 17 years ago it would have been considered a three-bedroom house, but in making it into a collective house we converted the dining room, downstairs study and wheelbarrow1.jpga little upstairs room—probably an old sewing room or nursery—into bedrooms as well. The backyard is large enough for a bicycle shed, a garden (though we wish we had more sun) and a pretty impressive chicken coop where the six chickens live. We have a nice screened-in side porch which is at the moment, unfortunately, used mostly as a depot for Food Not Bombs supplies. Since all the smokers in the house quit that porch hasn’t gotten much use.

The housemates: After me, Stef has lived in the house the longest. I, of course, have been in the house since 1990, but that life feels almost as though it took place in an entirely different house. In many ways it did. The collective phase of the house began in August of 2002 with Stef, Ben, Kate, Larry, Justin and me. Stef had lived in a wilder, woollier and punker version of a collective house, and was book2.jpgvery clear about what she did and didn’t want in this one. She and Ben, who had lived in the same punk house, helped to school the rest of us in the rudiments of consensus decision-making and mutual aid. Stef was also the one who insisted on a no-drunks/no-illegal-drugs policy, which has made an enormous difference in the livability of the house. Eventually Ben moved out and hopped a freight train west to return to doing environmental defense in the Pacific Northwest. Kate lived in the house for a year and then left for art school in New York. Larry was older than everyone but me, a homeless Vietnam vet who the rest of us had met through Food Not Bombs. He lived in the house for three years and then drifted back into homelessness; I ran into him in Fayetteville a couple of years ago, where I had gone to an anti-war protest. He was working in a dog food factory and had a little place of his own. He looked good. Justin was 15 when we set up the house, a foster kid under my legal care. I adopted him a couple of years later. He’s 20 now and lives in Maine with his girlfriend and has turned out to be a tremendously talented drummer and guitar player.

Mark moved into the house in June 2003, less than a year after the collective was established. We’ve benefited tremendously from his interest in gardening, his talent for inventing homemade musical instruments, and his more recent enthusiasm for water catchment.  Jodi and Skye moved in in August 2004, just in time for Skye to begin kindergarten. Jodi does a lot of work around domestic violence, and with the larger issues of power and control; in addition to de-cluttering the living room she has introduced a new standard of honest speaking into our household. You might say she has helped to de-clutter our communication. Will moved in next; he worked for a while as a profession al cook until he was able to build a career as full time musician (he plays drums and kora). We benefit from both his cooking and his music. Crystal is our most recent housemate; she’s been here for almost a year. She first lived in the house off and on one summer while she was writing her master’s thesis on Cakalak Thunder (“Cakalak Thunder: Anarchy, Value, & Community in the Music of Greensboro’s Drum Corps”). She’s been one of the movers and shakers in the chicken project.

House meetings: The time and day for house meetings has moved around as people’s schedules have changed; currently we meet at 9:00 on Monday evening after Mark gets back from his yoga class. The facilitator role rotates pretty casually, based on who volunteers and who hasn’t done it in a while. After the weekly search for a usable pen, the facilitator writes the date in the house meeting book. People call out whatever is on their mind that week–“refrigerator”, “Skye’s slumber party”, “painting the hall”, “new telephone”–and the facilitator writes them all down as that week’s agenda. It’s fun to go back and read the notes in the many different handwritings, and examine the doodles left by the many different facilitators.

In some ways the check-in is the most important part of the meeting. Before we tackle the items on the agenda each of us tells as much or a little as we want to about what’s going on in our lives. It’s not only helpful to understand the frame of mind everyone’s bringing into the meeting, it’s nice to reconnect, even with the people we see every day. We don’t comment or interrupt, we don’t criticize or praise. We just listen.

House decisions are made by consensus. There are lot of formalized procedures for consensus decision-making for large groups or among people who don’t know each other well, but our consensus is pretty straightforward: no decision is final until everyone can (literally in our case) live with it. It’s fascinating to watch people start with polarized positions and begin to reevaluate as the discussion goes on. Often the most important thing to understand is not what but why—when people can be honest about why they want something, or why they are made uncomfortable by something, often an entirely new solution can be found. It sometimes makes for long meetings, and it sometimes means that we have to revisit an issue more than once, but once a consensus has been reached the problem tends not to crop up again.

Finances: Like any other household, our household runs on money. Some collectives pool their money the way a family does, but we are not an income-sharing collective. A few years ago we sat down and worked out a rent structure that takes into account the different sizes and amenities of the rooms; based on that we pay anywhere from $190 to $275 a month, which covers the mortgage, property taxes, electricity, gas, water, telephone, and wireless internet, and includes $30 apiece–$180 in all—for common household expenses like light bulbs, laundry detergent, rice, and beans. After a good many house meeting discussions we recently tacked on another $50 apiece to go to house maintenance and repair. The first project will be to replace the gutters; the second will be to paint the living room and upstairs hall.

Food: The week’s cook is responsible for shopping for the household; we keep a running shopping list on a corner of the kitchen whiteboard. We eat together every Sunday night, rotating the cooking job week by week. The rest of the time we cook for ourselves, although that often turns into cooking for whoever happens to be in the kitchen. Each of us maintains a little spot in the pantry or the refrigerator for special food we’ve bought for ourselves; if something has someone’s name on it the rest of us stay away. The common food may have been dumpstered, or may be leftover produce from a night of Food Not Bombs cooking (Food Not Bombs currently cooks at our house on Mondays, to Skye’s unending delight—she pitches right in). Increasingly the food comes from the garden and the chickens, which is nice.

Chores: Crystal brought up at house meeting this week that we’ve all gotten pretty slack on the chores. Now that Jodi has made everything look so nice, we agreed, we should rededicate ourselves to keeping in that way. Housekeeping chores are divided into five categories: trash/porches/yard; sweep and mop; bathrooms; dusting and laundry; kitchen clean-up. The fifth person each week cooks Sunday dinner. We decided that from now on the person assigned to dusting and laundry is also responsible for calling everyone together at 6:00. Once we’ve gathered we’ll decide on the music of the night and get down to it.

The point of it all:
It’s really a pretty simple, straightforward, orderly way to live. I can tell from people’s questions that it’s hard to imagine living without power struggles and hidden agendas—the “family values” that no one likes to talk about—but we do. That’s not to say that no one ever gets pissy, cranky or snappish. We all do that too. But we forgive each other, wait to understand more, and figure that if it’s really important it’ll come up in a house meeting. Our household happens to skew young—at 58 I’m almost a quarter century older than Jodi, the next oldest housemate–we all happen to be artists and activists, we all happen to identify as anarchists, but I don’t think any of those are essential ingredients to a successful collective house. The thing that makes it work is that we take the business of living together seriously. And when something stops working, we change it.

I ran across a quote from E.B. White the other day that could be framed and hung in the living room of every successful household–collective or not–that I’ve ever visited: “Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening,” he wrote. “Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening.”

I believe something good is happening here.

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The Copernican Revolution

It’s been just a little over a month since I started this blog. It’s been great so far. I’ve dedicated myself to writing something new every Wednesday, and just the exercise of stars_small.jpgsitting in an armchair at the Green Bean and writing all day has been really invigorating. I’m enjoying this conversation with myself, and I appreciate everyone who listens in.

Another aspect of writing a blog has been fascinating. I’ve been a freelance writer for over twenty-five years, have written and published what must by now be millions of words, but I’ve never before been able to also listen in on other people’s hot-off-the-press and sometimes hot-under-the-collar reactions to what I have to say (granted, most of my career has been writing for decorating and travel magazines, so up until now there probably hasn’t been much to react to.) Most of the comments to what I’ve written in the last month have been reasoned and thoughtful, but, predictably, a few have been kind of mean. One has been remarkably mean. It was posted a few weeks ago on Stephen Dubner’s blog by someone who calls himself (or, I suppose, herself) “Silas”. I’ll quote it here in its entirety:

Liz Seymour/Anarchist Mom has never been middle class a day in her life. She comes from privilege and she will pass a substantial amount of monetary privilege on to her children. She opened her home to an “anarchist” community because she feared growing old alone. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s just to say that I don’t believe her attempts at a home-based community are politically motivated. If she ever finishes her book her hypothetical Oprah appearance will mimic that of James Frey.

This must have written by someone I know, although it could simply be by someone who did a little Google snooping. These days that’s not hard to do. I was surprised to discover when I read the comment that I was puzzled by the little attack but not particularly bothered by it. In a way it’s helpful to have a couple of things brought out into the open. Basically Silas is accurate about the privilege part and wildly inaccurate about the not wanting to grow old alone part. The Oprah part is, of course, just weird.

I did grow up with a tremendous amount of privilege, a lot more than I recognized at the time. “Middle class” is a pretty subjective term; I suppose I could be said to have been born into the upper class, or in the more accurate term, the “owning class.” My father was the dean of Dartmouth College; I grew up in a beautiful little Ivy League town in New Hampshire with a lot of the securities and comforts that people have come to associate with the 1950s. My father’s father was a successful lawyer who argued cases in front of the Supreme Court and spent a year as president of the American Bar Association. I will indeed inherit some money eventually, and I certainly hope to pass it along to my children. Most of the money came from that grandfather. It was his money that helped me to get a very good education at Smith College, a women’s college of sloping lawns and beautiful gardens, of long meandering discussions and rowboats and a capella singing groups, and a sense that every student has a unique and shining destiny.

I also grew up happy, which is a privilege that transcends money. If money actually did buy happiness the celebrity gossip magazines would be out of luck, but unfortunately the kind of happiness that money buys often comes gift wrapped in fear1cutie-queen.jpg and guilt. The happiness I grew up with (and I do recognize that even if it wasn’t bought with money, it was eased by money) sticks with a person for life. My fundamental privilege is that I expect to be happy. Not everyone comes into adulthood with that expectation.

But like everything else, privilege comes with some baggage. Isabell identified it in the long essay she wrote for my family after she was arrested in Philadelphia. “I think a lot about my privilege,” she wrote. “I am extremely lucky for the opportunities I have, and the love and material assistance I have been given. It is these things that have partially made it possible for me to think through the ideas I outline here, and to take the actions I take in my daily life. This privilege means that I have choices that others do not have. At the same time as I have more choices, I have less vision. I cannot see through DuBois’ ‘veil.’ I am only one person, and everything that I think and do is informed by being an educated, white, middle-class woman. So I try to listen to other people’s experiences. To realize that I see the world only from one vantage point. This means that if a person of color tells me that he or she feels uncomfortable in a situation, I listen. I think, ‘Maybe they see something that I don’t see. Maybe they experience the world in a different way than I do. Maybe I feel comfortable in certain places that others do not because of who I am. Maybe I make assumptions.’”

W.E.B. DuBois said that it is the people without privilege who can see things most clearly. Because the culture of the privileged dominates, the people under its shadow can see both that culture and see their own, but for those of us skimming along the top, the only world we see looks an awful lot like us–and we think it’s the whole world . That’s what DuBois called “the veil.”

I lived behind that veil for five decades. Occasionally the veil would tear a little and I could see something that didn’t quite fit the world as I knew it, or the veil would ripple and for a brief time I could see that the veil was there, but for the most part I lived, as Isabell said, with more choices and less vision. And then for whatever reason it wasn’t enough. As my own experiences brought me closer to people who hadn’t gone to expensive colleges, who hadn’t been cushioned in financial security, who hadn’t grown up inside a protective fence of benign adults, my vision began to clear. I fought it at first; there were things I didn’t want to see. But, bidden or not, the spectrum of visible light expanded and a new landscape, both internal and external,1beds.jpg presented itself to me. Then, even stranger, as my vision cleared some corresponding thing deep inside me began to uncramp and stretch. It was almost as though I underwent my own little private Copernican revolution: when I and the people just like me stopped being the center of the universe, the universe got bigger.

So what do you do when the universe expands? You change. I changed. I changed, and this collective house is one of the results. I didn’t want to waste any more energy trying to believe that the sun and the planets revolved around me, which is just another way of saying I no longer wanted the kind of power that comes with being at the top of the heap. Ultimately that’s a very lonely kind of power. I no longer wanted power over. I wanted power with. So I suppose in a way Silas is correct—I turned my house into a collective house because I didn’t want to grow old alone in the cushy uneasy aloneness that leads to gated communities and averted eyes and “they hate us for our freedoms.”

Sunday nights we take turns fixing dinner for each other, and often that’s the night we invite guests over, but on a particular Sunday night a couple of weeks ago it happened that it was just the house members eating. We kept sitting after we had finished eating, just sitting around the living room talking. After a while Mark picked up his homemade bass, the body constructed of two trash can lids, and started to play. Jodi went into her room and brought out her banjo and joined in. Crystal went upstairs and got her accordion, Will brought out an African drum, Skye got her violin. I was the only without an instrument. I’m not a musician, but I went into the kitchen and found a pair of tongs, and snapped a whispery accompaniment to the others.

As we played the odd assortment of instruments began to mesh, and then Crystal began to sing—she’s got a deep rich voice like an old fashioned lounge singer—no words, just tone. Then Skye and I joined in, singing long low notes that I could feel vibrating in my chest. I don’t know how long it went on, twenty minutes, forty minutes, an hour. And then it was over, and everyone put their instruments away, and I put the tongs back in the pitcher on the stove, and we all went on to whatever else we had to do.

Oh Silas, it was glorious. I wish you could have been there.

The poster above is from CrimethInc. The image is by Nikki McClure, cut from a single piece of paper with an X-acto knife!

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Dear College Republicans,

In Brief: Cakalak Thunder, Greensboro’s internationally renowned radical marching band welcomes you to the world of activism. In that spirit we officially l_55da670a75a66956e9397e27e93f840e.jpgchallenge the College Republican Booster Band (you have one, right?!) to a friendly beat battle.

Where: In front of Jackson Library.

When: Friday, March 30th, 2007 ….High Noon!

Greetings College Republicans and welcome to the edgy and exciting world of grassroots activism! We can see that you are really “getting your movement on” this week! For years we activists have enjoyed the “DIY” (do it yourself) community organizing style that you find yourselves drawn to. We commend you on your deft use of “people’s movement” mainstays like “handing out fliers”, “serving free food,” “showing informative movies” and “hosting knowledgeable speakers.” We share your belief in fighting for causes. And we see that you’ve got extra heart to come out so boldly in favor of issues that the largest and most powerful government in the world already has your back on!

With your fingers now on the pulse of the street we’re sure you haven’t overlooked the “little people’s” basic need for a band, a marching band! Marching bands have always supported messages like yours. It has been noted by historians that Mussolini loved a parade! And really, what’s better than that ole BOOM BAP to give thump, groove and general danceability to an essentially boring political message? We can tell from your solid grip on the rudiments of activism that your marching band must also be top notch. By the end of your morals week you will certainly be ready to enter the next dragon of street-level activism. Yes! You will be ready to battle Cakalak Thunder and receive a fresh sonic whipping by the east coast’s premiere radical marching band. Because we welcome you warmly as you join the activist community, but we happen to disagree with your agenda point for point.

See you Friday!

Beats and Peaces.

Cakalak Thunder
“Drumming Fear into the Hearts of Tyrants since 2001”

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Chaos Theory

A couple of years ago I taped some little notices up by our front and back doors. They are headed “IN CASE OF POLICE RAID” and they give instructions on what to do if the police show up and want to come inside. It felt a little strange at first, but in these post-Patriot Act, martial-law-on-demand times they seem more and more like simple household precautions, kind of like the fire extinguisher in the pantry or the smoke alarm in the upstairs hall. I put the notices up after a friend visiting from Indianapolis described the August night when the police, fire marshals, and ATF agents came into the radical bookstore/collective house where she was living and tore the place up. A national governors’ meeting was about to be held in Indianapolis; a spokesperson for the Indianapolis police department said after the raid—whichwill.jpg found no weapons or anything else illegal in the house–“Seattle was nearly burned to the ground and Montreal suffered millions of dollars in property damage when the WTO met there. This is the same type of anarchist group, and that simply was not going to happen here.”

Last weekend I went to a conference on the theories of Carl Jung. I didn’t know much about Jung when I began, and I’m still not anywhere close to an expert, but at least I can now say the words “animus” and “archetype” without worrying that someone will challenge me to explain what I’m talking about. The centerpiece of the conference was a paper presented by a Jungian analyst using examples drawn from the dreams of one of her clients. Her client, she explained, was about to retire after a successful professional career and had found himself confronting a long featureless emotional landscape. He experienced neither sorrow nor joy, neither terror nor ecstasy, and he wanted help.

The first dream the analyst recounted to us went like this: the dreamer approaches his home and discovers a rowdy group of strangers eddie1.jpgdancing and laughing on the sidewalk. He tells them to leave immediately but they refuse; one of them asks him for money. He gets angry and goes inside to call the police.

The analyst stepped away from the podium and looked out at all of us sitting with our notebooks on our knees. “Who are these strangers?” she asked.

“His emotions!” several people shouted at once.

She nodded and went on. In the second dream the strangers have made their way into the house and once again are dancing and laughing. The dreamer orders them out and after an argument they leave. They take their furniture and pictures with them and the dreamer cleans up the house until everything looks the way it was. “He and I joke about it now,” the analyst told us, “but when he brought me this dream early in treatment he thought I would be proud of the progress he had made.” Everyone in the room laughed.

The rowdy strangers kept returning, becoming more aggressive and more dangerous as time went on. And in waking life the man was getting worse. “He developed obsessive-compulsive behaviors,” the analyst told us. “He became anxious, he had trouble sleeping, he was afraid to get on an airplane. I began to question myself, to wonder whether I was the right therapist for him. I began to be afraid I was doing more harm than good.”

She didn’t, however, have any doubts about the outlaws who populated the dreamer’s dreams. They could be found in one of Jung’s mostdrums1.jpg powerful archetypes: the Stranger or the Trickster, the outsider who streaks like a meteor across our individual and collective unconscious defying everything from the laws of decorum to the laws of gravity. As I sat there watching the analyst switch out the transparencies on the overhead projector I had one of those insights that come with such force that they bring tears.

I thought back in my own life to a time six or seven years ago when my conventional middle-class existence was coming to an end, though I didn’t know it yet. I thoughtwalk.jpg about the unlikely friendships I developed then with punk kids less than half my age, about the travelers and train hoppers and anarchists who had begun to fill my world. It puzzled me and worried me at the time, but I couldn’t contain my fascination with their lives; it seemed that they didn’t so much rebel as ignore convention altogether. When Isabell and Margaret moved beyond the margins of the known universe themselves—when they started hopping freight trains and sleeping in abandoned houses and eating out of dumpsters–my deep concern was mixed up with something I can only call envy.

And now listening to the analyst at the conference it suddenly made sense to me. If Jung is right, I was very much like the man whose dreams we were studying. Like him my range of emotions had narrowed, but instead ofrepubs.jpg summoning the Tricksters in my dreams, I invited them into my real, actual, everyday waking life. And as I watched them walk through the invisible boundaries that I had thought were made of triple-tempered steel—walk through them as though they weren’t there—the margins of my own life stretched. I began to feel my own joys and my own sorrows, and after awhile I began to feel a part of the sorrows and the unquenchable joys of the whole world.

A couple of years ago I went to another conference, this one on anti-war activism. The speaker stood in front of an easel with one of those big flip pads. “Here’s how it works,” she said, and she wrote THE STATUS QUO in the lower corner of the paper. “The status quo is established and remains in place even if it’s not working very well; as time goes on people become invested in it and resist any attempts to change it. repub.jpgUntil…” and she wrote NEW INFORMATION at the top of the paper with an arrow swooping down. “Until new information comes in that makes the status quo impossible to maintain.” She scribbled a confusion of spirals. “Chaos ensues and stays until a new status quo is established. This is true in our lives, in our organizations, and in the world, and we’re scared of it because it’s uncomfortable and unpredictable.” She turned back to the paper and tapped on the scribbles. “But this—this—is where the action is. This is the important place. Always look for the chaos, because that means something is happening.”

I spent the whole of my Jung weekend thinking about the Trickster archetype, and I’ve been thinking about it ever. I see now that the chaos-makers appeared in my life when I needed them, sometimes in unexpected and even unappealing disguises. Sometimes they were the people I loved most in the erica.jpgworld. Sometimes they were strangers. Sometimes the chaos really hurt. Sometimes it was terrifying. Sometimes itarm.jpg introduced me to parts of myself I didn’t know, or parts that had been buried so deep I forgot they were there. And something changed.

The world is stuck right now. A lot of people are unhappy, and a lot of the unhappiest people are the very ones who look to their neighbors to be successful, prosperous and secure. New information is washing in on all of us like a monsoon; the psychic effort to maintain the status quo has become almost unbearable. At the stress points where new information and the status quo meet, chaos begins. Chaos and police raids. But despite the chaos, despite the police raids, despite the Patriot Act, the Tricksters aren’t giving up. The outsiders and the strangers, the protesters, the gadflies and the pranksters are tremendously important. That’s where the action is.

The analyst gave us one last dream, a more recent dream than the others. A stranger rides into town on a motorcycle and all the townspeople sam.jpgare afraid. They try to chase the motorcyclist away, but then someone runs up to say that a boy is hurt and needs his help. The stranger hurries over on his motorcycle—There’s been a guts spill someone says. The stranger picks up the boy and carries him to the hospital, where he is gently put back together again. “Notice that in this dream the dreamer is an observer, not a participant,” the analyst explained. “That doesn’t mean he’s absent, though. Quite the opposite, it means that he is present. This time he’s the stranger and he’s the little boy–the little boy who spilled his guts and needs to be put back together again. Something is beginning to change.”

I put up my hand. “Can you tell us how he’s doing now?”

The analyst smiled. “He’s a courageous man,” she said. “He’s stuck with it. The phobias and the obsessions have gone away again and he’s living a richer life than he was before. It’s still not always easy, but he’s determined to see it through.”

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Becoming The Trickster

Seven years ago my older daughter Isabell was arrested, along with 420 other people, protesting at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. She didn’t even get a chance to protest: she was standing on a teaparty.jpgsidewalk with a walkie-talkie in her hand before the protests began. In the end virtually everyone arrested was acquitted, but the police’s aim to silence, or at least inhibit, dissent had been accomplished. At least in the short term.

In the longer term, however it failed. Isabell is still out there making her voice heard, as are many of the other people who were arrested in Philadelphia. And now so am I. My world view was shaken to its roots when we got the call that Isabell was in jail. The political system, the justice system, the social system that I had always thought of as flawed but essentially fair had showed another and much more troubling side. A lot of questions began for me that day.

Isabell spent the next couple of months off and on writing an explanation of her beliefs to distribute to her family and friends to help answer the questions that I and others were asking her. She has allowed me to reprint her explanation of direct action here.

I have come to believe whole-heartedly in direct action myself. And the more deeply I understand it, the more broadly I define it. Direct action is not only about participating in a protest, or even only about confrontation. It simply means acting under your own agency and by the dictates of your own conscience, and not waiting for permission or direction or for “them” to take care of things. Everyday direct actions can be as simple as picking up trash on your walk, or stopping to speak to someone who looks disoriented, or talking honestly with a friend about something that’s bothering you. We all do it all the time. And every time we do we shake things up a little, we create a little ripple of surprise in the fabric of everyday life, even if its just in our own private sense of what’s possible. We make a space for chaos. We become the Trickster.


People considered radical in their own time brought us the eight our day and the weekend, the women’s vote, the abolition of slavery, the end of segregation, the beginning of this country, the end of child labor at US companies in this country, free breakfast programs in schools, and the list goes on.

I want to do more than just talk and write about what I believe. I want to act. I believe in direct action to bring about change. Every single one of the movements that brought about the changes mentioned above used direct action. Direct action means “speaking truth to power”, as the Quakers say. It means directly confronting problems to solve them, rather than appealing to the aid of others. It is a tactic to use when moral appeals, reason, discussion, and mediation have not worked. When two groups’ interests are opposed, and one group has much less power than the other, oftentimes the only way to get the powerful group to change is by using direct action. Strikes, riots, civil disobedience, flooding an office with phone calls, property destruction and taking a protest to the street are all examples. The Boston Tea Party is a classic case. There were two groups: the colonists and the British monarchy. Their interests were opposed: the colonists wanted permanent settlements, the monarchy wanted a colony to make money. The colonists had much less power: they were taxed without representation, they could not elect their own governing bodies, they had very little control over their own affairs. The colonists wrote letters explaining what they wanted, what they felt was unfair. No moral or logical appeal changed the king’s actions. The colonists got fed up and a few radicals held the Boston Tea Party. They believed so strongly in their ideals, and saw that the king would not change through talk, so they needed action. This famous event was the spark for an already growing social movement for independence and the founding of this country.

Of course life is never simple, it was these colonists who imported slaves and murdered thousands of indigenous people. Slaves, former slaves and their ancestors as well as indigenous people have used direct action to combat their own oppression. As the IWW motto said “Direct Action Gets the Goods”.

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The Gift Economy

Our neighborhood book group met again last night. When we started in September we agreed that we would read a book (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), watch a movie (The Power of Community), and reassess where we were in six weeks. Last night was week six. We had all come to the group interested in building a little bit more community into our lives, and we’ve succeeded. We’ve decided to disband as a formal group, at least until January when some of us will come back together again to read The Great Turning, but informally we all have new friends and a list of new things we want to do: 2rrfm7jpg.jpgSteve and Cindy are planning to go out this Thursday to the film series Sarah helped to organize; Betsy’s going to bring her boys out to try the vegan chili that Jodi and Mark are making for the Westerwood Neighborhood chili cook-off on Sunday; a lot of us are planning to attend Renee’s dance performance in early November. It’s nice to be reminded that it doesn’t take much to dig your roots deeper in your own neighborhood.

The moon was a fuzzy crescent behind a thin scrim of clouds as Jodi, Crystal, Mark and I walked down the street to Betsy’s house last night. We haven’t had a real rain in weeks and Greensboro, along with the rest of the Southeast, is in a serious drought, but the dry warm October night was perfect for sitting on Betsy’s front porch with the candles lit. One of our members had had to miss most of the meetings because on Tuesday nights she’s often with a family she works with through her job. Last night she was free and I got a chance to learn a little bit more about what she does. Sitting cross-legged on the porch with the autumn night behind her, she spoke with deep compassion about her work to keep families together and to help mothers and fathers become better parents.

“If you could change one thing to make it easier for them, what would it be?” I asked.

“The first things that come to mind is that there just aren’t enough resources in their community,” she said. “They need so much but there just aren’t enough places for them to go when they need help. That’s not really it though….” She paused and opened her hands wide in front of her and looked down at the floorboards. “There’s something bigger than that. 2rrfm6.jpgThe family I’m working with has two parents and they’re both working, working ten and twelve hours a day. When both of them are working there’s enough money for what the family needs and sometimes enough left over for something extra like going out to eat, or filling the car with gas and driving the kids somewhere for the day, but if anything goes wrong, if one of them gets hurt or sick, it all starts to fall apart. And when they’re working the parents are always exhausted, exhausted and stressed. It’s hard for them to be the kind of parents they’d like to be. I’ve thought for a long time that this system didn’t work, but now I see it close up and every day. ”

I grew up on the privileged upper edge of the middle class with so many layers of safety nets suspended under me that I would have to work very hard to hit rock bottom. But through the people I’ve gotten to know at Food Not Bombs and elsewhere I’ve seen the same things that Renee has seen—seen people try to negotiate capitalism’s high wire act without the safety of a net underneath. I’ve seen first hand the resilience of spirit required to keep intact one’s own dignity and self-respect intact when the money dries up. And I’ve seen what happens when the resilience finally fails and the anger and despair take over.

2rrfm4.jpgMy friend Nego is the chief songwriter for her band Boxcar Bertha. In her song “Disconnect Me” she says “Nothing is just the way it is/ Everything’s the way we make it.” It’s easy for us in the middle class—particularly those of us reclining atop a tower of safety nets—to hear about families like the one Renee works with, or the people I know from Food Not Bombs who sleep out of sight and risk arrest every time they sit on a park bench too long, and say “it’s a shame, but that’s just the way it is.” It’s not. It may be the way it is now, but it’s not the way it’s always been, and it’s not the way it has to be. We live in a very particular economy of our own making, an economy that benefits far fewer people than it harms, but that keeps us all in a kind of hypnotic trance—or so exhausted and fearful that we can’t imagine anything different.

Reading Jared Diamond helped me to see things through a longer lens. In an essay he wrote 20 years ago entitled “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” the Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist points out that as human beings we have spent most of shared history as hunter-gatherers: “If the history of the human race began at midnight,” he says “then we would now be almost at the end of our first day. We lived as hunter-gatherers for nearly the whole of that day, from midnight through dawn, noon, and sunset. Finally, at 11:54 p. m. we adopted agriculture.” He turns conventional wisdom on his head and explains what agriculture brought with it: “recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Each hunter-gatherer society has its own cultural markers of course, but what they have in common is that they are all organized around a gift economy. In hunter-gatherer societies respect is not awarded to those who own the most; 2rrfm10.jpgit’s given to those who share the most. The concept of haves and involuntary have-nots is nonsensical; self-interest includes living in a healthy, functioning community, which means that the members of the community should be as healthy and functional as their companions can guarantee. Organizational consultant Gifford Pinchot has written: “Defining success by what one gives rather than what one has is neither a new practice nor an overly idealistic view. It is rooted deep in history and human nature, and is more basic than wealth or money.”

The gift economy stands in sharp contrast to the exchange or commodity economy we live under now. Of course all of us live in multiple economies, and one of them is a gift economy. It’s the rare parent, for instance, who presents his or her children with a bill for the time and money that went into their raising. Twelve-step programs such as AA operate as gift economies. Blood banks can only exist as a gift economy. The scientific community has many of the earmarks of a gift economy: scientific knowledge has very little value until it is shared. Open source software is distributed in a gift economy, public libraries are in some ways a gift economy, the internet is one vast gift economy. Right now you are participating in a gift economy—I’m not charging you to read, and WordPress, bless their hearts, is not charging me to write what you see here.

I saw a wonderful gift economy at work on Sunday when a Really Really Free Market was set up in the parking lot at the HIVE. It was the first one held there, but the concept is always the same: people who have something to share, whether it’s goods, services, performances, knowledge, or whatever bring it and anyone can take away whatever he or she wants. 2rrfm8.jpgThe HIVE is in a neighborhood where many people are living the same kind of economically distressed life that I was hearing about last night. I saw a lot of families there on Sunday picking out clothing and toys with their kids; I had some extra cans of soup and some bread that had been donated to Food Not Bombs so I put them out on a table and they went pretty fast too. I looked around myself to see if there was anything I wanted to take home. It feels strange at first to look at goods laid out on a table and discover that the only question you have is ”Do I want it?” Not “Can I afford it?” or “Does the price seem fair?” or “Do I want it enough to pay what they’re asking for it?”, or “If I buy this now will I wish I hadn’t when I see something I like better?” Just the simple question ringing in a strange inner silence: “Do I want it?” And if the answer is yes, you take it.

Really Really Free Markets have become pretty common (Carrboro has a very successful one every month) but the concept is only a couple of years old. The first one was held in Miami in November of 2003 as part of a massive protest against a meeting to implement the FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Miami was a bloodbath—the federal government gave the city $8.5 million for security and they used it for tear gas, rubber bullets, armed personnel carriers, and helicopters. My older daughter Isabell was there and described, among other things, seeing a riot cop in full gear pepper spray an elderly auto worker in the face; Nego was there also—her song “Miami” is well worth listening to. On the fifth day of the protest organizers set up a festival they called a Really Really Free Market, both to give protesters a little relief and to demonstrate the gift alternative to the decidedly un-free “free market” economy represented by the FTAA. That first Really Really Free Market included massages, food, music performances, medical aid, puppets, paper hats, dancing—all of it, of course, really really free.

I didn’t go to Miami, but I was at the second Really Really Free Market, held the next summer in Raleigh, the North Carolina state capital. I was one of the organizers. The day, June 12, was chosen to follow on the heels of another gathering of high muckity-mucks, 2rrfm2.jpgthis time the G8, which was meeting on a well-guarded island off the coast of Georgia. We got a permit to hold the festival in a little park in downtown Raleigh where schoolchildren eat their bag lunches when they are on school field trips. It’s a nice little park with picnic tables, benches and trash cans, convenient to the visitor’s center across the street and the state archives building next door.

My daughter Margaret and I drove over early on Saturday morning to set up. Things had changed a lot since we had checked out the park a few days before. The picnic tables were gone, the benches and trash cans were gone, all the parking meters had little hoods over them, and the 2nyc05.jpgvisitor’s center and the archive building—all the downtown museums—were closed. Bike cops circled through the park as Margaret and I unloaded the buckets of wildflowers I had clipped the night before. A woman drove up and handed us a basket of tomatoes and green peppers from her garden; the whole transaction was recorded on videotape by a policeman who was visibly filming us from six floors up. Mounted police rode by in pairs on big brown horses. When Margaret and I drove off to pick up some old rugs and books that had been stored in someone’s basement we passed a buff-colored school bus retrofitted with grillwork over the windows, and a mobile command unit set up in a park two blocks away. It was weird.

The market itself was wonderful. Someone gave free haircuts; someone else brought a massage chair. There was homemade banana bread and sandwich makings and lemonade. An old time string band set up under a tree, and people danced. All the time a helicopter circled low over the empty and locked downtown, the sunlight glittering off its canopy as it banked. We found out at the end of the afternoon after the last box of old books and bags of tomatoes and bunched of flowers had been taken away, and the last remnants of mess had been carried across the street and put in the dumpster, that forty fully geared-out riot cops had spent the day in the archives building waiting for the call to deploy.

I don’t believe in an armed revolution. I wouldn’t want one. By my reading of history, in an armed uprising the most vulnerable people always the worst of it and in the end a powerful bully is simply replaced by another powerful bully. I do believe, though, that it’s possible to simply ignore a bad idea out of existence. I’m not saying that dismantling capitalism is easy, but I think the more we exist beyond it, above it, around it, outside it, the more unsteady it will become. Maybe some day it will just fall over from its own weight. After all, we carry with us the deep memory of thousands and thousands of years of a gift economy. And no one has ever needed armed riot police and teargas to keep a gift economy in place.

I’d like Nego to have the last word. 2rrfm1.jpgShe wrote a song called “WEF” about her experience protesting yet another economic body, the World Economic Forum. Nego wears a patch pinned to her hat that reads Ni Fronteras, Ni Banderas—no borders, no flags. In the song she recounts getting into a conversation with a bus driver who says he wished that were possible, and asks how she would go about it.

“One person at a time,” she says.

We’d move closer and talk like family,
It would be the way that this life could be.
Loving imaginations,
Facing the music that we are making.

I ain’t waiting on no revolution,
No, I’m living one every day.
It’s in the food I eat and who I eat it with
And where the food comes from…

I’m with Nego. I’m not waiting on a revolution, I’m living one every day as best I can, and trying to use the time and energy I save to open up that revolution to anyone else who cares to participate. Nego’s song is posted in its entirety on Boxcar Bertha’s MySpace page.

Go ahead and give it a listen. It’s free.

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