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 the 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 from 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.
The 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 a 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 very 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.