As you know, I finished my small but satisfying zine recently. Despite it’s slender finished appearance I spent many, many hours writing and thinking about it. The subject, you may remember, is Getting Shit Done (With Kids). To clarify, the shit I’m referring to is all the same ‘sustainable home’ shit that I generally write and obsess about. Growing some of your own food, responsibly sourcing the rest, cooking everything at home, consuming a minimum of our world’s resources, finding the smaller and simpler pleasures in life– all in the context of homemaking.
After finally getting the zine all laid out, I spent a few hours at Kinkos printing it (it always takes hours, even when I think it will only take 30 minutes.) While I stood there at my personally designated copier with a 3 foot square of countertop to lay out my piles of pages, I felt myself and my work laid naked before the world. There it was for any passerby to glance at– the Apron Stringz cover page. What at home had seemed clever and spunky suddenly seemed trivial and indulgent. Embarrassing. I felt a tiny crash in my heart.
I’m so excited? I wrote a zine about being a housewife?
Here, in this corner of cyberspace, we are together. All of us strange people who value home work. We come here to remind each other that we are important, to take shelter in one another. But out in the big world, people still think housewifery is for women who can’t get a job. People don’t understand what we might be doing all day, at home, and even if we explained what we were doing they wouldn’t understand why. Why go to so much trouble to make something you can buy at the store for $1.99?
As much as I want to believe that I am this strident renegade who doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks, it’s not true. Of course I care, everyone worth anything does. It’s destructive and beautiful, but absolutely human– our pack mentality, our sensitivity to others.
So I go along, carrying my secret work in my heart, brandishing my beliefs occasionally in public too loudly and with too much passion. Confusing well meaning relatives, alienating myself and consequently those who try to be close to me. It’s a hard row to hoe, and I would be lying if I claimed to never have had a breach of faith.
Having kids is hard work. You know. Unbelievably, previously unimaginably hard work. Sometimes I find myself wondering why on earth I try to do anything else. Why do I spend so much time and energy with this whole punk housewife thing? Is it really so important? Isn’t the “revolutionary” tagline in my header just tongue-in-cheek? Who do I think I am that what I do matters so very much. What precociousness!
My lonesome Kinkos moment was just me, out in the real world. Remembering that I am a freak. Questioning my self, my motives, my outcomes. Not feeling at all sure of the answers.
It was somehow much easier to keep a grip on the import of my ‘work’ when we lived in Alaska. My daily activities just seemed more revolutionary– even after having a kid reduced my efforts to the household realm, at least I was making stock out of deer bones. We drank wild salmonberry juice and picked chantrelles out of the mossy forest. Whenever I needed a good jolt of ‘why’ I had the big wild mountain right there out the window.
Here in the city, the sustainable lifestyle looks less radical. I make my stock out of plain old chicken, even if it is from the farmer’s market. We buy organic juice concentrate from Whole Foods, and locally grown shitakes that come in a plastic box. Is this revolution? Really?
Maybe not revolution exactly, but inglorious though it may be, this work needs to be done. Figuring out how to live happily in a thriving wilderness ecosystem will not save humanity at this point (though it well might be our salvation in the future). Right now we need to figure out how to sustainably keep large populations happy and healthy in cities where their concentration is most efficient, we need to come down off of the drug of convenience slowly and explore the genuine possibility of change. There is much work to be done to turn cities and urban homes into sustainable working systems, and it is helpful to have someone actually in the home to do the work.
Wendell Berry is, arguably, the grandfather of the now very fashionable ‘local’ movement. He writes about farming primarily, about staying in place and owning up to land use, but he always honors the home itself as the nucleus of everything. His monumental book, The Unsettling of America was the first place I ever read the word housewife used without malice. It is obvious that he reveres the traditional rural housewife, but– perhaps because he himself is the farmer and not the farmer’s wife– he doesn’t focus much on the role.
Wendell and the local food movement broke ground, but Shannon Hayes was the first public voice I heard with the balls to say, without mincing any words, that choosing not to have a paying job, and instead staying home to care for yourself and your family is radical political action and will effect significant change, change that we desperately need.
Shannon’s book Radical Homemakers, gave us some real meat to chew, a fat gleam of pride. But like Wendell, she lives rurally. Although some of the people in her book live in the city, the overall effect is the feeling that if you’re going to quit your job, you’d better move to the country and start raising your own grass-fed beef.
Then came Harriet Fasenfest with The Householder’s Guide to the Universe. Dramatically less academic and achingly more intimate, Harriet lays out her own struggle to turn the farmer’s ethic of thrifty, hard working, conscientious living into an urban reality. She uses the genderless word ‘householder’ to describe this more tightly focused work. Harriet started right where she was, with what she had, and there is great inspiration in that. But Harriet’s kids are mostly grown and she has has been able to give incredible energy to the task.
I feel that there is a great untapped labor force– people like me, and maybe you– stuck in the city, partner working full time, little kids providing the greatest motivation for positive change that mankind has ever known and simultaneously carving our time and energy down to within an inch of it’s life. We can’t get anything very big and impressive done, but there are so many of us. Our actions might be small, but our potential is big.
This post is not meant to be a declaration, an imperative or a manifesto. Purely an explanation, to myself above all. Because, although it is absolutely true that I do what I do because I love doing it, it’s also true that I often don’t love it at all. Sometimes it’s a downright shit job, a literal shit job, and I do it anyway (mostly). DIY punk housewifery as described herein is dirty, tedious, time consuming and, after the inital high of aquiring the skills, often flat out boring. Today I need to remind myself, and any of you who haven’t had a good pep talk lately, why we do this thing.
Let’s be frank.
I believe the world is fucked up. We have ravaged the wilderness into near oblivion, sucked the life out of every arable piece of land, bombed and enslaved our fellow humans, all in order to provide for our extremely decadent first-world lifestyle. I know I can’t change things to any significant degree, but neither can I turn aside and pretend I haven’t noticed. I cannot, in good conscience and healthy mental condition, proceed at full speed. Over time I have accepted that I can’t and don’t want to withdraw from my countrymen into the wilderness. In fact, since having kids I find that I am drawn more and more back from the fray. I am guilty of participation at every level, but I cannot reconcile a life that does not at least try for something better. If I am weary with effort, I will know I am doing what I can do.
And here’s what I can do.
If I believe that massive-scale agriculture is defiling our land, and corporate food products are defiling our bodies, I can base our diet instead on whole foods from local farms.
If I believe that using fossil fuels supports global bullying and violence, not to mention environmental degradation, I can make the time to walk and bike whenever possible.
If I believe that the immense resources sucked down and shit out for every piece of plastic crap we think we deserve is inexcusable, I can mend broken things, reuse materials, buy second hand, do without.
But you know damn well those choices are not so simple, and that is where the skill and craft and countless hours of housewifery become meaningful. After the romance of changing the world has subsided, it all comes down to the number of hours in a day and the number of dollars in your bank account. In case you’ve never been to a farmer’s market let me tell you that local, sustainable food is enormously more expensive. If I want to be able to afford the luxury of responsible purchases, I need to defray costs by cooking everything from scratch. Creativity in the kitchen is worth money– stretching that costly ethical meat by picking every last shred off of last night’s roast chicken and cooking the bones into stock; planning ahead for variety and convenience so that we are less tempted by the many corporate foods surrounding us on a daily basis; and ‘adding value’ at home by making our own jams, yogurt, granola, and bread.
Although cooking tends to monopolize my own housewifery, cleaning up after everything is a law, like gravity. It has to be done, and someone has to do it. The infinitely humble task of washing dishes is radical political action, because after cooking your ethically and sustainably raised chicken into stock to make a second or third meal out of it so that you can afford to keep supporting that righteous local farmer, there is a pile of greasy dishes to be done. If a=b and b=c, than a=c. In other realms, it doesn’t take very complicated math to realize that eschewing 2-3 years’ worth of disposable diapers, per kid, has radical environmental impact.
And if you want to quit your job so that you can be home to do all this radical chicken cooking and diaper washing that means that you probably can’t afford day care for your filthy little angels, which means you will be involved in the now political act of picking up the floor on a more or less continuous basis.
Welcome to my world.