Tag Archives: collective living


What is it about dumpster diving that excites such extreme disgust and disapproval? Sometimes I think it’s not just a visceral, illogical reaction to the thought of eating food that was—however briefly—considered trash. I think for some people caught in the earning and spending cycle the thought of anyone getting something for nothing makes them mad.

It’s been a strange couple of weeks. On Tuesday my old friend Stephen Dubner wrote about me and my life in his blog, and my own blog went from 40 or 50 views a day to over 3000. A few weeks ago when I began this blog Ed Cone was also kind enough to post something in his blog about mine too, exciting a little flurry of discussion. The people who posted comments here have, for the most part, been approving of the choices I’ve made in my life. Not so the people who have posted elsewhere! Of all the things I do and believe, dumpster diving seems to bring up the strongest emotion. I’m going to try to answer some of the comments here. As always, everyone—dumpster diver or dumpster diver-hater—is invited to chime in.

dd: “I went dumpster diving for food with mom and daughter; hung out as they cooked up dinner for their Food Not Bombs charity;” Is anyone else bothered by the juxtaposition of those two events? Shudder.

Liz: Well dd, as anyone who has ever worked in any kind of food service will probably tell you, paying for food is no guarantee of sanitation, but that aside obviously we inspect and wash everything before we cook it. Often the food we get out of the dumpster is still cold; why is something safe while it’s in a grocery store and suddenly dangerous half an hour later when it’s in a dumpster? One correction to Stephen’s post: Food Not Bombs is not a charity. Anyone who wants to can cook, anyone who wants to can eat—it is structured to work as effectively as possible against the “us” and “them” dynamic of a typical charity.

Justin James (excerpt): I had the occasion to meet some of my local neighborhood anarchists a few years ago. I was baffled at how they could be claiming to live “off of the grid” and with “no dependency on the government” considering their lifestyle: Eating food disposed of by a for-profit food store. Sounds to me like a pretty parasitic way to live off of the institutions you claim to despise…. Everyone I have met who claims to be an “anarchist” and tries to live that lifestyle was living no differently in function (albeit a bit differently in form) than the welfare cheats I have met and the criminals I have met. None of them could exist if everyone followed that lifestyle…Any system in which the world would stink if we all followed it, and is completely unsustainable if we all followed it? No way.

Liz: You sound very angry Justin! I wonder why? It seems almost as though you feel that anarchists are forcing you to be a kind of galley slave while they lounge around on the deck living off your labor. I’d be interested to understand what you find parasitic about eating food that would otherwise go to waste. Surely it’s not as parasitic as making a profit off of minimum wage workers, using up the world’s resources and leaving it to our children to pick up the tab, and contributing an outsized amount to climate change. For the record I have never claimed to be off the grid; I’m not even quite sure what “the grid” is. I do try to live responsibly and sensibly, but I’m no backwoods survivalist. We do agree on one thing though: I also say “no way” to any system in which the world would stink if we all followed it, and is completely unsustainable if we all followed it. It actually sounds a lot like the world we live in right now, doesn’t it?

The CA: People who willingly eat out of the trash can when they don’t have to and brag about it are worthy of some ridicule because that is just plain stupid for a number of reasons, health being at the top. Ridiculous actions deserve mocking responses. I could go on- for example, how do you live in an “anarchy” within your own home? Such foolishness seem calculated to draw attention. Sorry folks, but some things when done by educated adults are just plain silly.

Liz: I certainly agree with you, CA, that some things done by educated adults are just plain silly, but I think I’ll forgo the mocking response. I would guess that my housemates and I eat much more healthily than the average American. Dumpstered fruits and vegetables vs. McDonald’s? Tough call.

overeddie: I’m glad my mom isn’t doing any dumpster diving.

Liz: That is, of course, between you and your mom, overeddie, but you might be surprised. In my experience middle-aged women are up for a lot more adventure than most people give them credit for. It’s a big exciting world out there!



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Collective Living 101

When I came downstairs this morning I found a note on the whiteboard in the kitchen. It was from Will to everyone: Is it possible to “reserve” the washing machine for Wednesday morning? he wrote. I need to do house laundry. Will’s note reminded me that I hadn’t yet done my own household chore, which this week is to clean the bathrooms. I should have done it on Sunday evening during our 6:00 to 7:00 housecleaning hour, but this week everyone was busy with one thing or another and we didn’t come together as we often do with the music cranked up loud and the whole household sweeping and scrubbing like professional cleaning crew. So this morning after breakfast I spent a half an hour or so cleaning the bathrooms accompanied by nothing but the peaceful sound of the ceiling fan in the kitchen and the chickens clucking outside.

Last year Will asked us each to name a city we had visited or would like to visit. He wouldn’t say why he wanted the information; he said we’d figure it out. A few days later he tacked up a neatly redone version of our weekly chore chart with each of the six areas of responsibility assigned a city name. Cleaning the porch and yard and taking the trash cans out for pick up is now Centralia; kitchen cleaning is Tucson; the bathrooms are Barcelona;laundry and dusting—Will’s job this week—is Vilnius; sweeping and mopping is Reykjavik; and cooking Sunday dinner is Dakar. We rotate through the jobs so that no one has to do any particular job more often than once every six weeks

I thought about Barcelona—Barcelona the city, not Barcelona the bathroom–as I wiped out the bathtub. I’d like to visit Barcelona some day; I’d like to see Gaudi’s cathedral and Park Guell, and I’d like to go to the place where the most successful modern anarchist experiment flourished during the Spanish Civil War. I once found a 1936 Time Magazine report from anarchist Catalonia called “Anarchism Without Beards”. The reporter was surprised to find the streets peaceful, the shops open, and the worker-run factories operating at full capacity. “Under Anarchism,” he explained “there can be no Dictator such as Stalin, no President such as Roosevelt, in short no Bigwig.”

That’s true. There are no Stalins, no Roosevelts and no Bigwigs at our house. There are six equal and autonomous individuals (seven counting Skye, who is as autonomous as an eight-year-old can be) who share responsibilities and household expenses, who care about the ups and downs of each other’s lives, and who share a common perspective on the world. We sit down together every Monday evening at 9:00 for our weekly house meeting to discuss whatever practical things have come up, we eat together at least once a week, and we talk and laugh a lot. Because it’s a relatively inexpensive way to live, none of us works full time for money, but we all have busy lives. Although our house doesn’t have an explicit theme it is implicitly a household of artists and activists. I’m the only non-musician in the house; one of the pleasures of living the way I do now is hearing Jodi practice the banjo in her room or Will play his kora next door or Crystal try out something new on her accordion.

I set up the collective house five years ago in what had been my nuclear family home. Before I made the change I visited a couple of collective houses and read what scanty information I could find on the internet. It’s surprising how little information there is out there. The lack of information makes collective living seem exotic and somehow antithetical to human nature. It’s not. Basically collective living is the way we all live and work when things are going well—when we like each other, when we trust each other, when we work out conflicting views without having to take it to a higher authority,

I did find one account by someone who had lived in several different collective living situations. His experience included rural and urban collectives, large and small collectives, diverse and fairly homogeneous collectives but he said that the successful ones had four practices in common: the members met together regularly; they ate together regularly; they maintained an agreed-upon level of tidiness; and they were very intentional about admitting new members. All of those four things have proved to be crucial; when we’ve neglected any one of them for any length of time the whole household has gotten a little out of sorts.

All of us will live in a variety of situations over the course of one lifetime: in a nuclear family, in a dormitory, with a romantic partner, by ourselves, maybe in a nursing home, a group home, or a prison. All of those living situations, desirable or not, are in the mainstream. Why is collective living so far off the mental map for most people? It makes all kinds of economic sense, it provides companionship and practical help, and—of increasing importance in the way the world is going right now—it is an ecologically responsible way to live.

I’d love to create a place on the internet for people to come with questions and answers about collective living. Please don’t be shy about joining in the conversation!


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Collective Living Nuts and Bolts

I wish there was more information out there for people interested in collective living, but here are some good places to start:

consensus decision-making
intentional communities wiki

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Residency Project, Marietta College, November 2005, Part 1

Two years ago some of my housemates and I, plus some people from another collective house in Greensboro, spent a weekend demonstrating collective living at Marietta College in Marietta, Ohio. We set up in a student lounge and did the sorts of things we do all day–we talked and we worked on projects, we cooked and ate, we had a house meeting. It was fun and the students seemed to enjoy it too.

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Residency Project, Marietta College, November 2005, Part 2

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I went out to dinner with my friend Elizabeth the other night and found myself sitting next to one of her graduate student assistants. We introduced ourselves and he said “Aren’t you Elizabeth’s friend that runs that house with all the artists and activists?”

Well, no.

Five years ago I turned what had been my nuclear family house into a collective house. There are six of us: Will, Stef, Crystal, Mark, Jodi and me, plus Skye, who lives here with Jodi half the week and with her father the other half. We are artists and we are activists, but no one runs the house—not me, and not anyone else. Instead we sit down every Monday evening at 9:00 and hold a house meeting. We discuss how we’ll fix the leak in the upstairs bathroom, who’ll put the chickens up for the night, how we’ll handle a guest who has outstayed his welcome, whether we should buy brown rice or white rice, what we should hang on the living room walls. I counted up not long ago and was surprised to discover that over the last five years sixteen different people have lived in the house—and that doesn’t even count the sub-letters and long-term guests who have enriched the culture of the house. It’s a nice way to live.

I explained a little bit of that to David. He smiled and leaned in conspiratorially, glancing down the table. “I don’t know if I should tell you this,” he said. “But Elizabeth calls your house the anarchist house.”

I laughed. “That’s exactly what we are,” I said. “We’re anarchists and we live in an anarchist house. Elizabeth’s only telling you the truth.”

I didn’t set out to be an anarchist and I certainly didn’t set out to be Greensboro’s most famous anarchist, which is what I was called in a local newspaper last January. About a year and a half ago I wrote an article about our household for The New York Times Home & Garden section, which is where the “famous” part comes in. The anarchist part takes a little more explaining, which is what I hope to do in this blog over time.

There’s no magic to how The New York Times article came about. I make my living as a freelance writer and for some years I covered the semi-annual furniture market for the Times. I finally quit doing that when the furniture industry moved most of its production overseas, crying crocodile tears all the way. Living here in North Carolina I could see close-to what happens to people and communities when factories that had employed generations of workers close; it became too hard for me to write about the latest trends in finials and drawer pulls knowing the real suffering that was going on. I stayed in touch with one of the editors at the Times though, and told him a little bit about my new way of living. He encouraged me to write about it for the Times. I was skeptical that New York Times readers would be interested in an anarchist collective house in Greensboro, North Carolina, but after dragging my feet for awhile I went ahead and wrote it.

As it turned out the editor was right and I was wrong. The phone started ringing early on the morning the article came out and kept ringing for days. A television producer wanted to option the story for an HBO-style ensemble series called “Anarchy!” (we nixed that one at our next house meeting); old friends I hadn’t heard from in ages called; a psychologist from Westchester County called to make sure I knew the potential dangers to a child growing up in a household like ours (I was gratified that after I described to her how Skye gets off the school bus in the afternoon and comes into a household of almost-aunts and almost-uncles who help her fix a snack or teach her how to make musical instruments or kick a soccer ball around with her in the back yard, the psychologist was silent and then said “Have you ever thought about writing about the educational advantages of collective living?”)

Some wonderful things came out of the article. I had the fun of being interviewed by the incomparable Dick Gordon on his radio show The Story (I wish the picture on the website were a little better, though—next time I’ll know to put on some lipstick and brush my hair!) Five different literary agents called and I chose one of them, a wonderful woman with the William Morris Agency named Dorian Karchmar who has been patiently guiding me through the process of putting a book proposal together.
But mostly life returned to normal: the new normal that began five years ago. I ride my bike around town, I cook with Food Not Bombs a couple of times a week, I spend time with my two daughters and with my housemates, I join in on community-building and activist-minded projects (the most recent is a new community space called the HIVE). I write. I read. I think about the world and the way it’s changing, and about how we can best grow into and through those changes. And I listen to the growing discontent with the way things are and begin to think that the choices I made in 2002 are looking a lot less outlandish from the perspective of 2007’s crumbling world.

I’m excited to have this blog. It feels like having my own little magazine. I plan to use this space to post my own writings, to link to things that I think are making the world a better place, and to chronicle the doings of our small microcosm of collective living. I would love to get comments, questions and even complaints; I hope that people will start conversations with me and maybe even with each other. It’s an adventure!


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