Tag Archives: collective living

One Grain of Sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amma was the alchemist who turned the sand into food.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reincarnation

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

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

It could have been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sort of,” Mark said.

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

“Help yourself,” I said.

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

“You know…” someone finally said.

“What if…” someone else said.

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

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

It could happen.

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How to turn a bagel into a tomato

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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20 Questions

My housemates Jodi and Mark are members of Invisible. Mark is co-creator of the Selectric Piano (and the dancer in this video); Jodi is at the keyboards. This description is from Invisible’s MySpace page:

“Here’s a Video of the song 20 Questions, performed earlier this year at 1001 in Greensboro. It features Jodi on the Selectric Piano, an instrument built by Fred Snider and Mark Dixon that interfaces a typewriter with a piano. notes and letters. The video was shot by Jon McLean and edited down by Bart Trotman.”

Tech info on the Selectric Piano:

“To begin with, the IBM Selectric typewriter is a marvel of engineering! The typewriter is 100 percent mechanical and employs a 6 digit binary coding system to direct its type ball to the proper latitude and longitude for each character that the typist types. To access that six digit code we placed tiny light sensing switches at each of six bars that transfer the keystroke to the type ball. The shift command adds another switch and thus a seventh digit to the code. That code is “cleaned up” electronically by circuits we mounted on the typewriter itself. The code is then sent via a printer cable to the piano playing assembly. There we use chips called ‘demultiplexers’ to translate the seven-digit binary code into a base-ten number between 1 and 88. Amazingly, the IBM Selectric types exactly 88 characters — that’s the number of notes a piano plays! That demultiplexed signal is amplified to 33 volts on its way to to contract the appropriate solenoid. Each key has its own dedicated solenoid and ‘finger’ assembly made from our plastic cutting board, some hard maple and brass rods for pivots. The piano-playing assembly sits in front of the piano on a bench. It is not permanently attached to the piano. Jodi applies sustain via a douglas fir two by four which is attached to the piano’s sustain peddle using two bent nails.

“Incidentally, some of the first ‘letter quality’ computer printers were IBM Selectrics that were rigged to computers in the exact opposite way as described above. Solenoids operated the typewriter’s six bars, shift and return functions. This was available as a package conversion but many old school hackers like Fred, one of the makers of the Selectric Piano, made their own at home.”

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Talking Trash

OK, let’s clear up a few things at the beginning: Most of my experience has been in grocery store dumpsters; the safety of prepared food from restaurant dumpsters can be a little more difficult to assess, but I’ve never heard of anyone who got sick from eating any kind of food out of a dumpster. Still I prefer to stick with grocery stores. Most dumpster divers I know stay away from meat (many won’t even take vegetables that have been in a dumpster with meat because of the danger of contamination) and many avoid dairy products. A vegetable is either edible or visibly too far gone to be edible. It’s obvious. Our national obsession with perfect appearance extends to the produce section: most of what we find in the dumpster is not rotten, it’s just got a nick or soft spot. You would eat it without a thought if you found it in your own refrigerator. Expiration dates are just the date the store takes a product off the shelf; most expired food is fine, and if it isn’t you’ll be able to tell.

Dumpstering is not stealing; technically it’s trespassing, but it’s rare for a dumpster diver to be given more than a warning or possibly a ticket. In most cities stores pay a disposal fee based on the amount of waste in their dumpster—you’d think they’d thank us for lightening the load, but they don’t. The mildly transgressive nature of dumpster diving actually makes it more fun. It’s very freeing.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that 97 billion pounds of edible food goes to waste in the United States—that’s over a quarter of the food produced in this country. Just five percent of that wasted food could feed four million people for a day. It costs a billion dollars a year to dispose of food waste. Rotting food releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2.

I would guess that I save $80 to $100 a month by eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Money is time. I spend the time I save by dumpstering on visiting with friends and my grown daughters, volunteering at Food Not Bombs, riding my bicycle, reading, writing. It feels wealthy.

Dumpstering is fun. It’s fun to put together a group of friends late at night and drive around to the back of the grocery store, drive slowly and quietly and douse the lights. Everyone has a slightly different technique. Stef wears latex gloves like a surgeon. Mark hoists himself up, lifts up the big black lid and jumps inside with both feet. Sometimes someone will put on a headlamp and its swaying beam illuminates the rough and rusty interior of the dumpster. I don’t feel confident of my ability to get out once I get in, so I often take a stepladder and pick out the things I can reach through the side door, or I hold a flashlight for the others. As the boxes fill up I carry them back to the car. We offer a running commentary as we work: “Wait, is that a bag of onions? There—over there under the celery? Yes!” Or “Could you check the expiration date on this one?” Or “Why did they throw these pineapples away? Look, they’re perfect! People are crazy.”

On a good night we can take home what conservatively adds up to hundreds of dollars of food. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars of food. When we get more than our household can use we stop by other collective houses and leave boxes of peppers, zucchinis, grapefruits and apples on their porches. Some mornings I’ll open the door and find a box of food on our back porch left by some other night-dumpstering crew. Sorting through boxes of dumpstered food is one of the pleasantest tasks I undertake. I love washing the produce in the big double kitchen sink and dividing it up: shining mounds of fresh tomatoes, dark luminous eggplants, zucchini and summer squash stacked like cordwood, peppers—red, green, yellow, orange—arranged in a bowl like a painting by Cezanne. Clusters of radishes, boxes of baby greens, sacks of potatoes, giant onions, bunches and bunches of bananas. Often we’ll find multiple bags of apples or oranges–one orange will go soft and the store will throw the whole bag away. Someone in the house once picked up an electric orange juicer, still in its box, that was being discarded by a neighbor. On mornings after a good dumpster run we have fresh orange juice for breakfast, made with dumpstered oranges juiced in the dumpstered juicer.

One night when we were out dumpstering we heard the rumble of a loading dock door lifting–—that night we were collecting food for Food Not Bombs as well as for our own household. A woman stood in the opening, backlit by the fluorescent lights behind her, her blonde hair standing around her head like a fiery nimbus, her hands on her hips. Mark was in the dumpster hoisting full boxes of potatoes and peppers over the rim to Will who was handing them to me.

“What. Are. You. Doing. In. My. Dumpster?” the woman said with an angry little pause between each word. Mark, Will and I sped up the assembly line.

“Put those boxes back!” she said. I began dumping the boxes into the trunk of the car and handing the empties back to Will who tossed them over the edge into the dumpster.

“You’re breaking the law!” the woman said. “That’s illegal. I’ve called the police.” We didn’t believe her, but we weren’t sure.

“We’re collecting food to feed people who don’t have anything to eat,” Mark finally said.

“I don’t care,” she said. “Get out of there right now. You’re breaking the law.”

Mark’s good humor disappears abruptly when he’s angry. He stood up inside the dumpster, riding the mountain of vegetables and cardboard cartons like a ship’s captain, and looked across the parking lot at the furious woman on the loading dock.

“What do you think is more important?” he shouted. “Feeding hungry people, or the law?”

“The LAW!”

We heard sirens in the distance. Mark got out of the dumpster. I slammed down the trunk lid and we left.

Which is more important: feeding hungry people or the law? If you ask yourself the question over and over again it becomes like that little place on the wall where the paint has buckled. Curious, you pick at the bubble one day and discover that the plaster underneath is cracked. You follow the line of the crack down to the floorboards. You wonder why the plaster cracked just there and you go down to the basement to investigate. You discover that one of the floor joists has moved. You look more closely and realize that the foundation of the house is tipped and crumbling. You call in an expert and discover that the ground beneath the house is sinking away. Deep below the house an underground cavern is widening, a great stone plate is shifting, a lava flow is making its way to the surface, a column of sand is settling. If you look too long you can no longer look away.

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