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Turns out, I miss this place. I went on for many months quite happily without the computer. Working on my farm projects. Summer was banner this year, and my plate was manically full. But somewhere around July, I started to itch for writing. A place and a way to express my thoughts, to communicate all the stuff that crowds my head. Ears who care to listen.

Now, don’t go creaming yer panties, I’m not coming back here on a regular basis. But, maybe just a quickie now and then, in the laundry room.

Besides, I have some important addendums to the inherent subject matter of Apron Stringz. My life as a ‘mama who likes to get shit done’ continues to evolve, and it seems wrong to leave off when new discoveries are being made.

Not that I have come to any conclusions. As usual the farther I get into it, the more confusled I become. Certainly nothing has become clear to me, in my absence from blogging. I have not come back to share brilliant epiphanies. But that’s why you love me right? For laying bare the absolute bewilderment of life and loving?

I do have one particular thing to say, the thing that has made me come back, an admission.

For the record– it didn’t work.

This whole ‘yielding to motherhood and the inglorious work of housewifery’ thing, it didn’t work. I mean, I guess it worked for a while, gave me some peace when I needed it most. Allowed me to survive a period of intensity that otherwise might have destroyed me. I still recommend it, wholeheartedly. If you can manage it, submitting to the humble task of motherhood is a strangely liberating experience.

I just want to make sure you understand the further evolution of that story. Although I cultivated it successfully for a few years, as soon as the life-or-death necessity for submission had worn off, I abandoned it like a leaky rubber boot. I went straight back to my old ways– taking on way too much for someone with small children, trying to do it all, wanting it all with an almost debilitating lust, then beating myself up for failing on all accounts.

Part of that is just summer in Alaska. It all happens so fast. It’s winter and winter and winter, and then all of a sudden– BAM. It’s summer and it’s going to be over before you can finish even half the projects on your list, so hurry the fuck up!

But I can’t just blame summer. There’s more to the story.

Six years ago now, we had our first baby. I slowly and painfully began to set aside my own projects and passions for the all-encompassing work of motherhood. Two years into it, we moved to New Orleans, My Man went to law school, and we had our second baby. Enter the Submission Phase, blah, blah, blah. I gave up on accomplishing anything of consequence, outside of raising up two beautiful new souls. I didn’t submit easily, in fact it was emotionally akin to amputating both legs. But I did it– I put my own, separate, non-mama path on hold for a few years. I relegated my passions and what I consider my real work to ‘charming hobby’ status.

Then My Man finished school. Moving back to Alaska was something of an anti-climax because even though I was back in my own home turf, surrounded by my previous years’ work on our little property, My Man was studying harder than ever for the Bar. Time and energy were still too tight for me to take back up those passions in any meaningful capacity. So, I squelched them back down and screwed the lid on once again.

Our little backyard homestead lay in a state of dormancy, fertile soil covered in a dense blanket of weeds. It would have to wait.

My mind lay similarly neglected. After years of fighting for each little scrap, I had acquired a resident apathy. I could hardly remember what I might care to do with myself, should I ever have time to do anything in. As someone who had been vehemently motivated to do cool stuff, before I had kids, the apathy was perhaps the most disturbing thing of all.

But, here we were– back home in my chosen context, with all the things I claimed to care about around me. And that is when my greatest fear of all surfaced. What if I had just changed? What if I didn’t care about homesteading and wilderness and harvesting anymore? What then? What would I care about if not that?

This is the identity crisis which I alluded to in my few posts last summer, but never had the guts to write about. I was terrified. I had built my entire life around this homesteader dream, the possibility of it’s loss was haunting.

Our girl started kindergarten that fall. Suddenly I had just one kid again, for half of every day. The desperation of mothering two littles began to ease. I had finally settled back into Alaska. My Man passed the Bar, and started working. At long last, the 3YO began to sleep through the night and into the morning, allowing me a good night’s sleep and an hour or two of quiet solitude at the beginning of each day. I took a deep, wonderful breath.

My mind opened tentatively into that extra space, like a hermit crab poking out of it’s shell. Is it safe? Is there really room for me again?

It was at that moment in time, serendipitously, that I discovered permaculture. I was ripe and ready, it was exactly what I needed. Knowledge! Learning! Permaculture was the next step to everything I had done before I had kids– an advanced course in gardening and homesteading. I was consumed, like a hot, teenage crush. It was so exciting to be excited again. Even now, when I hear the intro song to Thomas the Train (which allowed me many an hour to sit around learning) I feel a wave of giddy joy.

And that is when I realized that I had not changed at all. I had not lost my love for all things which grow from the soil, and a life which relates to wild nature. Rather, my lust for learning had just been squashed by too many loads of laundry, I had had too many attempts to try something new crushed into the ground by a screaming toddler. I had given up.

I had tried for graceful submission, but in the end had settled into apathetic resignation. Not towards my life as a whole, but certainly towards my personal passions and ambitions.

I still believe that graceful submission would be a beautiful thing. I did hit it for small moments, and they were good and sweet. I don’t begrudge the resignation either, it is acceptable to me on a short term basis. It served me well when I needed it.

I was so thrilled to find my own spark still alive, so relieved that it was (conveniently) still flaring in the same general direction, that I hardly cared whether it had been submission or resignation or what. I flung my painstakingly acquired good mom habits out the window and set right into ignoring my kids in the name of backyard homesteading.

I weeded out three years’ worth of creeping buttercups and planted all my old garden beds. I started teaching classes, something I had always wanted to, in bread making, gardening and wild plants. I butchered, packaged and froze two black bears given me by a local guide. I started making herbal medicine. I picked gallons of wild blueberries. But, most significantly, before summer had even begun, I ordered fifty chicks and ducklings thereby turning my nice little gardens into a full fledged small farm.

I ordered the birds while there was still snow on the ground. I had spent the winter drawing up a totally awesome permaculture design for our property, and had convinced myself on paper that I could build an addition to my coop which would quadruple it’s size, before the chicks grew out of their brooder.

I had forgotten that I was in fact still a mama! You can throw the ole’ submission idea out the window, but the kids don’t seem to notice. Well, I’m sure they noticed something. Like the fact that I had stopped taking them to kid activities around town, stopped doing crafts with them, stopped reading stories in the middle of the day, and started a hell of a lot more yelling.

It wasn’t all bad. There were some absolutely amazing days, the kind of days I imagined motherhood would be– working outside building the coop, or digging in the garden; a little pack of kids ranging around between our yard and our neighbors, happily playing in the sunshine with sticks. Brilliant days, which I did have the good sense to stop and appreciate, recognizing these moments as the best of the best, what I had always hoped my life would be like.

I don’t regret my regression back into project-land. Mamas busy with projects are a good thing. But there’s busy and then there’s too busy. I do regret ordering fifty birds. What the fuck was I thinking? I could have simply doubled my flock, like a normal person, just dabbled in raising meat birds; but no, I needed to quintuple my flock so that I could put a year’s worth of birds in the freezer, and still have several different laying breeds left to trial.

The stress of all those animals under my care, inadequately housed (barely better off than factory farmed birds for a while there) gave me actual belly cramps during the month of June. I just couldn’t build fast enough. It seemed like I managed to nail up about two boards/day.

At any rate, here I am now, at the end of it. A nice big pack of roasters in my freezer, and a beautiful flock of laying hens and ducks. I am learning new things, evolving my homesteading skills, moving forward on my path again.

Occasionally I miss those days when I just let taking the kids on an outing, doing laundry and making dinner be enough. I am still often jealous of the mamas who can sustain that kind of devotion. But I am not that mama. For me, submission was a temporary helpmate.

And for you other mamas out there who used to like to get shit done, who now feel your own passions numbed by motherhood, understand that you can submit for a few years and still resurface intact at the end of it. It might take some time to wake your mind and passions back up, but don’t be frightened by a little apathy. When the time comes, your spark will reignite.

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Despite my absence here for the last month and a half, I have not been master goddess of my domestic realm. I am always surprised when I take a break from blogging, I mean you’d think that the extra 1-2 hours per day would get me something. And of course it does, it gets me a slower pace of life, a calm that I do appreciate when I can manage to acknowledge it. But it does not get me a cleaner house or happier children. At this very moment (and most others) the kitchen is a mess, the table is stacked with four loads of clean laundry waiting to be put away, the floors are disgusting, and I have no idea what I’m cooking for dinner. I feel that depthless falling feeling lately. The list, by which I mean The List, is miles long and filled with projects like “replace linoleum in the kitchen,” “put up the year’s worth of salmon,” “rebuild collapsed woodshed roof,” and subsequently “cut and stack five cords of firewood for the winter.”

And I can’t even get the fucking laundry put away.

The disappointment of times like this always starts me to grasping for a cure, and lately my obsession has been the Waldorf concept of Rhythm. The idea is that a flexible but regular schedule is essential for children; that knowing, generally, how their days will unfold gives them a sense of peace and stability.

Duh.

One of the things I hate about parenting dogmas is how impervious they are to differences in personality. Although I think a predictable schedule is generally agreed to be good for kids, I suspect there are kids who will never adapt to a schedule and furthermore don’t need to, as well as kids who’s lives could be turned around by a strong rhythm. Those are the kids who thrive on Waldorf, and “prove” the success of the ideology.

What I am realizing lately is that I was one of those kids, who’s need for a predictable, peaceful and quiet daily routine was never satisfied as a child. And as happens in a developing brain when a need is unmet, I am consequently malformed.

I have always had a near obsession with routine and yet an inability to actually execute it to any satisfying degree. I need it because I didn’t get it as a child, but I don’t know how to do it, because I didn’t get it as a child. My journals are always studded with multiple attempts to corral the chaos of my days. Literally,

“Summer Schedule
6:00 wake up, coffee
7:00 breakfast
7:30 walk
9:00 outside chores”
etc, etc.

I write it all out, earnestly believing every time that the mere act of writing will create the calm rhythm and self disciplined schedule I crave. Later I am convinced that it hasn’t worked because I just haven’t gotten it right, haven’t divined the Perfect Schedule. Inviting yet another attempt.

That’s me– forever believing that there is a formula for perfection. Not universal, but personal to me. If only I could figure it out.

Having kids of my own I have only stepped up this madness. Desperate for a handle on life, I feel sure that I am just missing something. If I could just get the kids to eat right, they wouldn’t have these stubborn screaming fits. If I could just get the house clean and stay on top of it, we would all feel so much more calm and relaxed. If the 2yo would just consistently sleep enough at night. If I got the kids enough exercise and peer play every day. If… If….

And then the kingpin– If only I could get us on a schedule, then I would (magically) have time to fit all this in to every single day.

Then, then! Life would be all soft watercolors and silk scarves. Hallelujah.

Looking around online for Waldorf rhythm is excessively discouraging. The blogshine that I always rail against is rampant in the Waldorf crowd. One that I read this morning went on for an entire post about their morning ritual of waking softly, lighting candles and singing morning songs and how sweet and perfect it all was. Well, perfect pink wool felting mothers of the world, damn you if you’re lying, and damn you more if you’re not.

I started this post weeks ago, in the midst of an obsession. Now as I come back to finish what seems worth finishing, I am trying to divine the lesson. Did I learn something? I do in fact feel like in the last few weeks I created some kind of order in my universe– the house is clean, the laundry is caught up, the kids are happy. But as usual, in retrospect, I find myself wondering if I created that order and peace, or if it created itself.

Do I follow a pattern of sinking to the bottom and then pulling myself up by the bootstraps? Or does life follow a pattern of chaos and hard times, which lead inevitably to a relative peace and better times? Or is it (more likely) both? Do we feed off of each other, me and life, and oh– don’t forget the kids, in their own two separate cycles.

Waldorf appeals to my depressed self because it is based on the premise that if you do everything “right” (and they’ll tell you how) your life and your children will be sweet and quiet. It taps directly into my innate compulsion to believe that there is a Perfect Way, I just have to figure out what it is. It feeds heavily on my propensity for mama-guilt, because if my life is not so perfectly sweet and quiet, it is my own fault. I have failed myself and my family.

Like any religion, it takes a human being in their weakened state of sad, disappointed confusion, and props them up on the idea that there is a prescribed way out. Just follow the master plan, and it will all be taken care of. The idea that there is in fact an underlying order, a secret to life, is so incredibly seductive to us. We want so desperately to believe, to be Believers.

For whatever cosmic reason, me and the kids were at a real low. I was desperate, I was vulnerable. I delved into the ‘rhythm as panacea’ concept, even started doing a Waldorf circle time with the kids every afternoon. I summoned my will and attempted to implement a stronger routine than what we already had. I checked out Over the Rainbow Bridge from the library. I berated myself appropriately over their movie watching, the overflow of plastic toys and my own yelling mad self. (This last one works wonders– beat yourself up about being a mean mom. Just see how sweet it makes you. Wow. It was from this place of yelling at myself for yelling at the kids that I told them I wanted to chain them up so I could just please fucking carry the fucking groceries the two blocks up the fucking hill to our house.)

The problem, for me at least, is that feeding the belief in achievable order interferes with the work I really need to be doing. Accepting the chaos.

Submitting.

Shit, there it is again. Not submitting to motherhood this time. But submitting to life. The universe. Everything. The greater-than-me. The things I can never know, and never understand. The mystery. Submitting to the fact that I am not ruler of this world, or even my world. There is no plan so perfect that it will tame my wild children. Thank god! My life is not reducible to a calm, clean, quiet procession of handcrafts. It is an uproarious mess of bewilderment and kitchen projects. My kids are LOUD because they are full of piss and vinegar, they run around the house breaking shit because they are full of nearly explosive curiosity for how the world works.

We are movers and shakers, a whole fam damily of them. Our life together is bound to be complex.

I’m not altogether done with the rhythm concept, or Waldorf in general. Of course, just because they have not created The Master Plan doesn’t mean there isn’t some valuable takeaway. Just because a solid rhythm would not singlehandedly create peace on earth, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t help create a bit more peace in our own household. Or at the very least, in my own brain.

As usual, I walk a weird line between wholesome organic crafty mama and ranting punk bitch, and it’s sometimes hard to know quite where to set my bags down. I guess my real work in this life is to just be without need to label, to search without need to find, to try without need to master, to take what comes as it comes. Chaos, order, chaos.

That’s not too much to ask, right?

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My Girl has always been fairly balanced, gender-wise. If I hadn’t had a second baby– a very boy boy whose first words were, respectively, ‘ball’ and ‘truck’– I would have smugly thought that kids just respond to the gender influences around them. My Girl liked fancy dresses and dolls, but no more than anything else. Her pretend play usually centered around some kind of animal family– walruses on an ice flow, baby birds hatching out of their egg. From the comfort of my own situation, I advised my dear friend with a princess-obsessed daughter to just roll with it, allow her daughter to experiment. So long as her real life was filled with strong female role models, she’d be fine in the end. I myself was a very girly little girl. I adored dresses with frills, lace, puffy sleeves and played with B*rbies for years, and look how I turned out. I laughed at my friend for hiding certain dolls and cutting the princess insignia off of gifted play dresses. Her daughter would be fine, she just needed to relax! I felt surprisingly at ease about the whole thing.

Until recently.

There was no pivotal moment, just a steady influx of pink, a steady movement toward all things ‘pretty.’ Now I am suffering the torture of feminists all over our angsty modern world. My daughter wants to be a princess.

There was a scene at the drugstore recently. I don’t often go there, but I needed to get cockroach poison (as the New Orleans summer has heated up, our kitchen has gotten entirely out of hand.) I decided to pre-promise the kids doughnuts, hoping it would make the experience smoother. When we walked in, and all the product hit our eyes at once, My Girl looked up at me and said, “Mama? Can I get something pretty?”

I explained that we only had so much money, but if she wanted to she could get a small something instead of a doughnut. Assuming there would be no contest, assuming doughnuts rule. “Okay!” She said brightly, and started browsing the pretty things. There followed a torturously long episode of me chasing the boy through the aisles and My Girl picking first one thing then another that were too expensive. My eyes seized on a big display of $1 finger nail polish. For some reason I have never had a problem with her using the stuff, it seems so entirely childish to me that I can’t believe grown women wear it without irony. I pointed to the display and suggested that she could get a bottle of sparkly pink fingernail polish.

I hadn’t thought to notice the other item on display.

“Mama! Can I get that stuff that makes your lips a color?” She asked breathlessly.

Oh my god. Lipstick? How did she even know what it was?

She had already had fingernail polish and a little box of eyeshadow that I got out of a give-away box which she applied like face paint. Why did I balk at lipstick? She’s just a little kid playing Fancy Lady, what’s the big deal?

I realized later that even though she probably has only ever seen her grandma apply the stuff, I associate lipstick with looking like a prostitute. I cannot separate lipstick from sex appeal in my mind, and I was suddenly downright terrified that already, at age four, my daughter felt the desire/expectation to look sexy.

So, I told her no. What else could I do? I felt like I had to fight for her life, for the preservation of her childhood.

But My Girl recognizes a fight from ten yards off, and she set in with her own army. She started to cry and wail in almost 2yo fit fashion, except much sadder. In fact, she was tragic. All attempts to distract her towards any other kind of ‘pretty’ item were useless. She said she wanted something she didn’t have already. It sounds silly now, just a little girl trying to get what she wanted. But my heart hurt for her. My head hurt too, I just wanted to get the hell out of there, but regardless any lipstick morality I don’t give in to crying fits. I was trapped.

I ended up telling her that because you put lipstick on your lips, you end up eating a little of it and that the kind at that store wasn’t safe for kids. This was in fact a small part of my hesitation. I could see no entrance point for a conversation about my real fear. As we left the store, finally, some silly unwanted barrets in hand, I had the sinking feeling that I had just made the desire for lipstick an indelible part of her emotional psyche.

Talking this through later with My Man, I came to terms with my over active fear of lipstick. Although I do believe it is undeniable that men find lipstick attractive because it makes the lips look wet and ready, the fact is that it is so normal to wear lipstick in our culture that it has become almost completely dissociated from the underlying sex appeal. In fact, when My Man and I tried to think of who even wears lipstick, the main image was of old ladies with absurdly pink lips and perpetually surprised eyebrows.

The next week, during a trip to Whole Foods, I detoured down the rarely attended cosmetics aisle and picked up a tube of all-natural mineral pigment lipstick. “Look!” I said, handing it to My Girl, “They have lipstick here that’s okay for kids!” I hoped that remembering this all on my own, to her surprise, would somehow redeem me.

Two days later, she lost that $6 tube of all natural red lipstick at a restaurant. She was only vaguely disappointed.

This lipstick event has certainly defined a shift for me, and doubtlessly for her as well. But the overall situation is much bigger. She talks about princesses more and more often, plays princess, picks out insufferable princess books at the library (Disn*y Princess Ballerina? Are you fucking kidding me? That was when I stooped to hiding things under the couch).

Although she has definitely begun to pick up on the subtle cultural determinations of what is and is not ‘pretty,’ and once told me she thought her voice wasn’t pretty enough (be strong, my heart), I have to remember that her definitions are still relatively open. As far as she understands it, ‘princess’ means dressed in a fancy dress. It is purely aesthetic, it is in not otherwise limiting in any way. There is no reason in her mind that a pretty princess cannot slay a dragon with her bare hands, and so far I can still get away with little tricks like suggesting that one princess save the other princess before both attending a celebratory party. There is no subversion like assimilation, right?

I know this issue is just opening for us, and honestly I feel completely terrified. On one hand, I believe all the standard feminist lines about girls being taught to be weak, about the devastations of impossible body image and over-sexualization. On the other hand, I feel like much too much is made of it. As my friend’s husband said once after we’d had a good long bitch session about it, “Why wouldn’t she like princesses? You talk about them all the time. They must be the most interesting things around.” I know that restricting something is the best way to increase it’s appeal. As the mama of a red-headed firecracker, I know that starting a fight, on any level, is always a bad idea. Even more importantly, I know we need to step back and let our girls discover the world, on their own terms, and respect who they choose to be in it. Kids are constantly experimenting. The world outside exerts plenty of influence on them, but I believe nothing will ever strike as deep as the home and family they come from.

Obviously I’m going to have to get over my fear that she can’t handle it. How better to communicate to My Girl that I have faith in her as a strong and powerful growing woman than to believe that she will find her way through the princess maze?

Now that I think about it, she is one hell of a force of nature. I wonder where she gets that from?

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A good friend lamented recently about her kids’ lack of contact with any kind of real wilderness. This city has some beautiful parks and gorgeous landscaping, but untouched nature? Not so much. Louisiana at large has a decent share of relatively raw wilderness, but it’s swamp, accessible only by boat or chest waders and a burly fearlessness of alligators. Not exactly the kind of place you can bring the kids to of a Saturday afternoon.

Her kids are little, as are mine, and I surprised myself by launching into a diatribe about how little kids don’t need wilderness. Me– Alaska Woods Woman– defending the lack of wilderness?

The conversation stuck in my brain for the rest of the week as I tried to tease out the details of such an unexpected opinion.

in Alaska the kids played with dirt and rocks

here they play with dirt and rocks

I believe that part of our patriarchal heritage is an over-obsession with Big Important things, and a tendency to disregard or even disgrace things which are small and humble. That’s the premise of this whole blog really– recognizing the value in the small-scale, the influence of each individual home.

Likewise, I think our Big Important Brains tend to overlook the everyday small wildernesses around us. We don’t think it qualifies unless there are black bears or ancient redwoods or unscalable mountains. But consider an ant hill at the park– what wild nature unleashed! Consider the wind shushing in the rows of planted trees, a thunderstorm heedless of a whole city’s urgent traffic needs. Consider the explosive cockroach population in my very own kitchen. No matter where you are, there is the natural world. She is so yielding, so subtle, so humble that she completely conquers everything.

And I will tell you a secret. Kids know. Especially little kids. They don’t need big tracts of protected wilderness because they are still wild themselves. Until we beat it out of them, kids still recognize wilderness on an intimate scale everywhere. Have you been for a walk with a one year old recently? If not, go now. Borrow a toddler if you have to. They are a lesson we need to take, over and over again. Kids are incredibly receptive to nature, until quite old really, but especially when they have just learned to walk and before we drill the ethics of speed and efficiency into their wild little brains. They stop to consider each new thing, experiencing the world in rich, unhurried detail. A stick is utterly captivating. An insect climbing the rough bark of a tree? Breathtaking!

The hard part for us is allowing them to interact with that intimate wilderness. How often do you let your kids set the pace on a walk? I can hardly manage to circumnavigate our block at their pace, which can take more than an hour. Have you ever tried to take your kids for a walk and had them get stuck just outside the gate? Come on already! How interesting can it be, it’s still our own goddamned yard!

Even if you recognize the essential and enduring value of their natural discoveries, it is nearly impossible for us to slow down to their sauntering wild animal speed. But that speed, or the lack of speed actually, is key to reverencing wilderness on an appropriate, sustainable level. We need to slow ourselves down, open our souls to whatever wild world happens to be in front of us, believe in the importance of the miniscule.

And I guess this is why I bristled at the idea that kids need wilderness. Not because I don’t fully understand the visceral satisfaction of watching my kids interact with an untouched natural landscape. I won’t lie– I am really looking forward to bringing them back to Alaska. But because I think the whole concept negates their particular power, which we instead need to exalt! Kids are our emissaries to the wild world. We just have to open the gate and let them out.

It is very hard when you live in a city, I can attest to that. Especially at that most receptive age of just-learned-to-walk. They seem magnetically drawn to a.) the street or b.) someone else’s porch. There is such a narrow strip of land we are allowed to frolic in, in cities. Parks are great of course, lots of open space for uninhibited exploration. But there is something I think particularly valuable about just opening your door and walking straight on into adventure, even if that adventure is only 5 feet wide.

You don’t need to read books or get professional advice on this matter (unless you have an older kid who’s been reared on chips and tv…) The expert is your own child. I would venture to guess that no matter where you live, the most remote wilderness homestead or inner city block, if you allow your kids access to the outside world they will find all on their own:

  • dirt
  • rocks
  • sticks
  • leaves
  • flowers
  • water
  • bugs
  • squirrels
  • birds

Does the backdrop matter? Do they internalize the angular structure of houses and power lines vs the organic pattern of mountains and forests? Maybe. I do think exposure to pure, untouched wilderness becomes more and more important as they get older and their vision opens out. But unless you are going to live in that untouched place (making it therefore “touched”) these experiences will always be anecdotes to their otherwise life. Short my personal fantasy of post-industrial return to aboriginal life, we are going to have to work this shit out in the cities and suburbs of our modern world. We are going to have to open our minds and hearts, and work to see nature wherever we are.

Better yet, let’s just stand back and let our kids show us the way.

Related Post: Kid-Walks

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I think often about those of you who are new to this work. I myself feel so blessed to have been raised by hippies and given a good education in DIY homemaking. The values and the habits of green, ethical, DIY living are second nature to me. I wonder what it must be like to jump, feet first, out of mainstream America and into such unknown territory. I think about those of you who read and identified with Why Are We Doing This? but who are still at the outset. Why is a good question, a vital question. But moving forward from there, how do you do it? Especially for those of you who are parents and whose time and energy are so acutely limited.

I have wanted to write directly to you for some time, to give you my two cents of advice on your monumental task. But I wasn’t sure what I could say. What kind of advice is really useful anyway in this world of vastly distinct personalities and situations?

In my experience the psychological aspects of this kind of work are the biggest hurdles. Learning to execute the tangible skills takes time and energy, no doubt. But learning to maintain a lifestyle which is considerably more difficult, more time consuming, more physically sapping and certainly more austere than the standard is very challenging. We could probably all list out the skills we need or want for our DIY homemaking, the skills we aspire to– cook from scratch, grow a garden, keep chickens, fix stuff, build stuff, make stuff. But what are the qualities that enable people to incorporate all those skills into an every day real live life? And to keep on doing it for the long haul?

These psychological qualities are much harder to lay your hands on. I have thought quite a lot about what these might be and, although I have no doubt there are many more, I offer up this small list: thrift, efficiency, organization, creativity, generousness, flexibility, courage, perseverance, wonder, and the ability to take pleasure in simple things. These basic virtues are fundamental to everything else. And although you cannot change who you are– you cannot learn to be organized like you can learn to make yogurt– you can work to become more organized. You can identify that organization is a weakness, acknowledge that yogurt making will function better if you stay organized, and consider it an opportunity for improvement. (Ahem. This is an entirely theoretical example.)

I feel that the tangible skills of DIY are quite adequately represented in books and blogs, but people rarely talk about these fundamental homesteader qualities– perhaps because they are considered inherent to our personalities, immutable. Nevertheless I think it’s important to recognize them, to give them the credit that they so absolutely deserve. Because although change on this level is hard and slow, it is also real and lasting.

Furthermore, what I want to say today is that these psychological building blocks are a perfect place to start. right. now.

Whether you live on your dream homestead or in a studio apartment, whether you grow all your own food or eat frozen pizza every night, you can work on the virtues necessary for the lifestyle you aspire to. No space is too small! No budget or investment necessary! It’s the ultimate ‘start where you are’ opportunity.

But how? How do you change such fundamental personality characteristics? This is where we circle in to the meat of this post. The only tool I have yet identified to effect change in myself. The incredible power of habit.

Although this well might not be true for others, for me habit is what brings it all together. I can sit around bullshitting all day (oh my can I!) and pine away for change all night, but the only thing that really makes it happen is the slow incorporation into my daily life of habitual thought and action.

What got me started on this post idea was eating vegetables. I was lamenting yet another bag of my good garden veggies languishing in the fridge and composing a post in my head about how the deceptively simple habit of eating more vegetables is an essential first step toward a more sustainable life. Growing a garden is great, and if you have the dirt I encourage you to give it a try. But I can tell you one of the biggest and most common gardening challenges, it’s one they basically never discuss in gardening books– Eating what you grow.

Most of us were raised on a very meat and dairy based diet. Even myself, although I adore veggies, I have never gotten my head around planning dinner (let alone any other meal) based on the veggies. They remain an afterthought and therefore if anything rots in my fridge, it’s usually green. So if I were going to recommend a first step to aspiring gardeners, it would be simply incorporating veggies into your daily belly-filling consciousness.

The more I thought about that post, the bigger the idea grew. Thinking about the habit of eating vegetables led me to the habit of wondering what’s in the fridge to eat rather than wondering what you want to eat and going to buy it; which led me to the habit of making do rather than buying something.

Doing without or creatively making what you already have work are absolutely habits. They are thought patterns that you lay down in your mind. It takes time, first you have to rip up the old one (buy whatever you want, whenever you want it), one pesky brick at a time. Then you have to lay down the new one, one pesky brick at a time. But once you are going on it, it gets easier. You gain momentum. Actually what you gain is habit. The habit of making a habit. The habit of being conscientious.

I warn you, it can get annoying. After a while it will be ingrained in you to think about everything you throw into any trash can anywhere. You will size it up and add it mentally to everything else in the trash can, and every other trash can on the block and feel a pervasive, occasionally engulfing guilt. But all those thinking moments will start to leak into other moments, and eventually you will find yourself rewired.

Eventually. It can take years. A lifetime really, a work in progress. Have you ever heard the Redbird song, Patience? “I spent all day yesterday watching the grass grow. What I learned is that grass really grows slow.”

Yes, ma’am. Slow. But darned if it doesn’t grow in the end. And grow and grow and grow.

How to Become a Punk Ass DIY Housewife

  1. Start small.
  2. Establish conscientious habits.
  3. Have patience.
  4. Take joy in small pleasures.
  5. Keep at it.

 

 

 

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I had the good fortune to meet some real punks recently. City-style art punks, living in a huge old  house that looked condemned from the outside. They had their space fixed up beautifully inside, with dozens of old bike frames hanging from the extremely high ceilings, ramshackle shelves made of reclaimed wood displaying everything from canning jars to sewing supplies to Marx– all arranged tastefully with that spare, cleaned up, dumpster art punk style. The extraordinarily tall window was half boarded up with opaque plexiglass, but the top was open to the world and the breeze was billowing out a 16 foot long white curtain. You could tell that they spent their nights drinking homebrewed moonshine and reading Chomsky aloud by candlelight.

Or, I could tell anyway, because I used to be them. The woods version– minus the bike parts and the moonshine. I was 20 in my 20s. All the way, baby. I looked the look. My chosen style was army issue wool pants with 18 pockets all crammed with gear and old Pendelton shirts which I never, ever washed. Rifle over the door, crates of dumpstered food, shelves of canned bear meat and dried wild mushrooms. Some kind of animal skin soaking in a bucket in the corner. Reading Gary Snyder by kerosene lamp light.

Now I am all grown up, with such a boringly regular looking life. And I can’t help but feel a crushing nostalgia.

But as things have evolved, as I have crept ever farther into the ‘This Isn’t How I Imagined My Life’ classic drama of modern first-world adulthood, I wonder more and more how much of what I miss, what I feel I’m missing out on, is pure aesthetics. Do I really want to change the world? Or do I want to look like I’m changing the world?

My Man always reigns me in on this subject– the tendency of people in our subculture to want to be weird for weird sake. It’s just another form of branding really. We so desperately want to believe we belong, somewhere, to something. We can’t just be us for us, we have to be One of Us. As opposed to Them.

It’s the same bullshit we rail against, but transposed onto our own supposedly alternative lives. Them being regular people, Us being ‘different,’ with an unspoken ‘better.’

The fact that I was, I think, insufferably judgmental in my 20s doesn’t help things now. As I become more and more like one of Them, and lose more and more of the badges that used to get me into the Us club, I feel a rising panic in my throat. Am I selling out? Am I failing my ideals?

Of course the answers, if there are any at all to be found, are exceedingly complicated. But lately I am plagued by wondering just how much of my discontent is due to the derailing of my chosen path, and how much is simply a lack of the appropriately alternative appearance. If I were doing all the exact same things– getting and spending the same quantity of money, using the same range of electronics to hand power, buying vs making in the exact same proportions—but in the context of a homemade ramshackle squat, would I feel more like I had succeeded?

I always thought of myself as valuing function over form. Even though I have wanted to be the artist type (you know those people who, no matter what their chosen style, make their home into a thing of composed beauty?) I was never able to make myself give up the incredible time and energy it took. In the end I always came down on the side of practical. But now I am seeing that it is a struggle within. I choose function by default, but then I pine away for form.

Certainly there is lots of overlap, and much of what I am pining for is not just the lost form of my cabin in the woods, but the function of quiet and peace that was undoubtedly in greater abundance. When we lived by kerosene lamp our lives moved slower. And I miss, I crave that mental space.

But many things have changed beyond the structure whose walls we inhabit. We had kids, for example. I never got a chance to play that out, the family woods-punk lifestyle. Would I have liked it? Would I have hated it and dreamed of moving to the city as so many mothers have before me?

I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being last year. One of the concepts that has haunted me is that we only get one chance at every decision we make in our lives. We don’t get to make the same decision twice (in the same circumstance) and then reference afterwards to see which one worked out better. With no possible actual comparison, we can never know if our decisions were for the best or not. We can only keep stumbling through, untethered by the weight of applicable experience.

As I’ve gotten older I have noticed that 1. Most people over 35 feel at least vaguely dissatisfied with their life and 2. They blame it on whatever decisions they happen to have made that led them to where they are.

Having had many friends with many distinctly different lives, I have witnessed the blame flying in all directions. People can feel disappointed because they do or don’t have kids, because they have a partner who isn’t perfection personified or because they’re single and lonely, because they have a nice house (granted not many bitches ungrateful enough for this one) or because they don’t have a nice house. I don’t actually mind a little discontent if it keeps a fire under our asses to work for what we want, something of worth. But the vague and directionless anti-climax of adulthood is less than inspiring, and if any part of this malaise is just a failure of aesthetics, I want to know goddamn it.

Because… what? What would I do then– if it turned out that some bulk of my discontent was wrapped up in pure aesthetics? Is that a base urge to overcome, or a perfectly human urge to indulge? Should I throw out the unattractively normal looking bookshelves I have found on the side of the road or bought at garage sales for next to nothing and instead spend hours of my time scrounging splintery antique boards to build a beautiful art shelf?

I can tell you one thing, and I’m not joking. I’ve been building up to this one for years. I’m going to get a tattoo for my upcoming 35th birthday of a stinging nettle, a wild edible emblemic of my woods self. That my friend is some rarified aesthetics.

 

 

 

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Speaking of removing external suggestion to allow your child’s authentic self to blossom, let’s talk toys.

I’ve been thinking about toys ever since the first ones started arriving in the mail, 3 months before the due date of my first child. When I was despairing the already accumulating stores of kid stuff, my mother-in-law said something to the effect of, “Oh, someday your whole house will be strewn with Fisher Price. And you know what? You’ll love it.”

Actually, almost five years in, I don’t love it. I love having my kids home with me, I love watching them explore the world and I adore watching the development of their independent play. Certainly, I have come to appreciate the relief and redirection of a well-timed gaudy plastic noisemaker, but overall I consider toys an entirely overdone pain in my ass.

a basket of questionably necessary toys, waiting to get dumped on the floor

Do kids need toys? I honestly don’t believe they do. Well, let me re-phase that. I don’t believe they need purchased items which were designed solely to be toys. In the dynamic environment of the DIY household, kids will make toys out of anything and everything. Often, even when there are myriad designated toys littering the floor, my kids will be running around playing with a piece of cardboard and a tin can.

That said, we have tons of toys. My Man is a sucker for making the kids squeal with glee, and that’s the bang you get for your new toy buck. Even I sometimes fall prey to thrifted plastic junk just to see those first 10 minutes of toylove. Doting grandparents have contributed a mighty pile as well. In our culture you have to be a hard-edged grinch not to accumulate toys.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone takes in more toys than their kids’ need. The question is what you do with them after that 10 minute honeymoon has worn off?

I used to keep all the toys, and right down at kid level. I hated that passive-aggressive mom trick of giving stuff to the Goodwill when no one was looking, and I figured what’s the point of having it if I keep it hidden away in a closet?

I still hate the covert Goodwill trick, but I have absolutely had to stoop to it. You can only pick up so many toys off of the floor, over and over and over and over again. I started by filling up boxes and keeping them in the closet. They weren’t permanently exiled, just saved for a rainy day. When I would take one down, the kids would have a guaranteed 15-20 minutes of blissful toy reunion. When the thrill wore off again, I would put the box back up. I highly recommend this.

Lots of good creative toys like Leggos, Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, etc drive me completely insane if left accessible to the kids, though that’s the way I did it for ages. It appears that my kids’ favorite game to play with anything in the ‘many small pieces all contained in a box’ category is dumping out the box. A top favorite with Leggos in particular (they make such a great big noise!) is to then swish your hands in the pile really fast so that the pieces fly out into a completely distributed 12 foot radius. I was beginning to really hate those cheerfully colored plastic blocks. Then I finally realized that if the pieces are scattered helter-skelter across the house, they can never play with it anyway and really what’s the point?

That’s when I started keeping the Leggos, and all those ‘many small pieces’ toys, up on a high shelf. The shelf is in our girl’s room, and open to view but too high for little people to reach. We take the box down once every few weeks and, miraculously, our relationship with Leggos has been remade. Not being a part of their daily landscape, the kids see them in a new light. They appreciate them more for what they were actually made for—building stuff. And I happily learned that cleaning up Leggos as soon as their play session had dissolved (don’t wait too long, a stitch in time saves nine!) is easily done with a dustpan.

Puzzles are my pet peeve. For some reason puzzles are considered unanimously desirable. People were giving us puzzles before our first was even born. They’re made out of wood and educational, right? Surely us greenie NPR hippies would like them. Every kid play space that’s worth anything has a whole stack of puzzles. And what do kids under the age of 3 do with a stack of puzzles? Systematically dump each one out on the floor and then immediately lose interest so that you, the adult, has to put them all back together.

I’m 34 years old, I don’t want to spend my time putting together motherfucking farm animal puzzles.

There’s nothing inherently evil about puzzles, but they need adult supervision. If given one puzzle at a time, some 2yos will maintain the focus and desire it takes to put it together. By 3 they are starting to have a real interest, but I still don’t see the point of owning puzzles because once a kid has done the same puzzle 5 or 6 times, they are done. Understandably, they have mastered it and want to move on. Many good libraries have puzzles to lend, if your kid likes them.

My other pet peeve is single use toys. Things which have only one way to play with. In a great decluttering post recently Kyce mentioned having given ‘play food’ the boot, and I’m with her all the way. My girl was always very good at disregarding whatever the intended use was and just using any toy as a prop for her self-created play, but then why bother with those specific toys in the first place? Our kid kitchen has been through several reincarnations over time, but lately it’s come down to just a small stainless steel mixing bowl, a small skillet—both thrifted—a kid sized rolling pin, a collection of animal shaped cutters, and a big tub of homemade playdough.

So, I hate puzzles and play food, and can barely tolerate Leggos. What toys do I like?

I like the toys that I see the kids actually play with (not just dump on the floor) the most often, and the ones that require no parental assistance or supervision. Here’s a list of my favorites:

Figurines— both animals and people, they use these every day. Our boy will also use trains and trucks like figurines, carrying them around and treating them like animate objects.

Building sets—as much as they can get on my nerves, I do like the way they work kids’ brains. Like a puzzle that you design yourself. My Man got a wonderful set of magnetic building pieces, flat squares and triangles with magnetic edges, that have become one of my favorite purchased toys of all time. Babies love them because of the satisfying way that they click together and will just hold two of them clicking together and apart for quite some time. As they get older they can use them in ever-more complex ways, starting with flat, floor based patterns and building up to awesome 3D structures. They are also easy to clean up because they click right together.

Collecting and carrying devices—I’ve recently realized that not all kids are like this, but our girl adores anything she can put other things into. Bags, boxes, basket, buckets. As long as it has a handle. She puts together a seemingly random assortment of items and then carries it around. This was one of the first ways that I remember her playing, and she still does it all the time. I don’t really understand what she’s doing, but I understand that she likes it.

Playdough—we make our own so we never have to get our panties in a bunch about mixing the colors or leaving the lid off. When it’s all brown or dried out we just make up a new batch.

want to kick it up a notch? i have one word for you: glitter. glitter and playdough were made for each other, i just can't believe that it took me two years of playdough making to figure that out.

Art supplies—I keep the bulk of our art supplies in a closet. We break out the paints maybe once every couple of weeks. I buy big bottles of blue, red, yellow and white and then use a Styrofoam egg carton to mix up more colors. Crayons have never taken off at our house, colored pencils are tolerated, but pens and markers are the clear favorites. Since the 4yo learned how to control a pen, she has become quite prolific and so I leave the basic drawing stuff out for constant access. The house is scattered with little notebooks and random scraps of paper. It’s really awesome to see what she draws with her budding skills. I also have to put in a little plug for scissors. We got our girl a pair before she was even two. If you get the kid-safe kind, with the chunky rounded ends, there’s not too much damage they can do, and they just love cutting things up! I think it must give them a real sense of power to make a big piece of paper into lots of little pieces.

Kids’ Table—this is perhaps a given, but not to be underestimated. We have built up over time to one in each room!

Hidey Hole—some kind of tent, playhouse or kid sized space is almost always a win. We used to have a plain sheet stapled at the top to the wall and held out at the bottom by the edge of a bookshelf. They loved it. Then last Christmas I got them an Invent a Tent and although I’m not that happy about how well it’s held up, it has gotten lots of use and love. I guess a few broken pieces are to be expected.

the invent a tent configured as a bow picker (fishing boat)

Rocking Horse—our girl adored her big plush rocking horse when she was 2, it was one of those expensive items I would never have bought, but My Man splurged on it and time proved it’s worth. I got a cheaper one down here for the boy’s second birthday, but he hasn’t given it the time of day…

Now what about toys that aren’t toys? In some ways, there’s no point listing them, if you give your kids access to the (safe parts of) the household, they will pick out their own favorites. But I do find it’s good to remind myself just how much fun kids have with these most simple household items:

  • string, buy several rolls at once so you won’t have to be stingy
  • rope
  • tape, I have a friend who bought a case of cheap tape for her daughter’s birthday
  • kitchenware (our bottom cabinets get unloaded all the time)
  • laundry baskets
  • recycling (plastic bottles, etc)
  • cardboard boxes
  • coins

she played with this cooling rack on a string for at least 20 minutes

And what about the outside world? Oh my, that is another topic altogether! But I simply cannot leave the humble ‘stick’ out of this post. I heard it was finally given a place in the Toy Hall of Fame. Not to mention leaves for stomping and piling! Trees for climbing! Rocks, sand and water! All absolutely irresistible to kids of all ages, and not to be underestimated.

So, you’re convinced. Kids don’t need toys, certainly not near so many as we give them. But what to do about it? Can you actually get rid of them? Won’t someone call child protective services?

The first time I went on a major decluttering spree, I felt guilty. I worried. I kept all the toys I gleaned in a box in the closet in case anyone asked after them. Each time I’ve grown bolder, taking more and more toys away with each sweep. I keep watching to see if I’ll hit up against a wall where the kids don’t have enough left and get restless.

Nope.

The 4yo does occasionally ask for a toy that’s been boxed, and I happily drag it out for her. Once in a while she wants something that I’ve given away. But, for the most part, out of sight = out of mind.

Even with all of my decluttering binges, I still feel like we have way too many toys. I still think kids should (and would) be happy with just a stick, a bucket and piece of rope. But we aren’t living squirreled away in a log cabin in the Alaskan bush, we are quite firmly seated in the modern world. Toys are everywhere, and I only have so much say over the running of our household (25% of the vote if we are being fair) so I try to let it go.

Let it go, clean up the mess, and hide whatever I can get away with.

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Last summer I hit the pre-school vs homeschool debate pretty hard in my head (read the original post if you have time, the following will make more sense.) The outcome of all my obsessing was joining a homeschool group and rallying a subset of families with smaller kids for a weekly playgroup. We’ve been meeting every Thursday for seven months now, a group of 14 kids if everyone comes, aged 1-6. In the beginning I was just trying to get my girl enough peer time but as the group has grown and blossomed, I have really begun to feel very strongly about it. Strongly wonderful.

It feels so right to sit and talk with other grown-ups while a pack of kids swirls around playing, discovering, fighting, getting over it, and playing some more. They have had the time and consistency now to develop a real social dynamic, and I feel an unexplainable satisfaction watching them interact on that group level.

(Before I go on and on about homeschool, I should explain that we fully intend to send our girl to public school after we move back to our quaintly tiny Alaskan town this summer. I’ve heard good things about the kindergarten teacher and I think our very gregarious girl will be ready for the class setting. I do have some latent dreams of homeschooling and keeping my kids’ innocence intact a bit longer, but I don’t have very strong feelings about it. Especially not when there is a good, age appropriate public school available two blocks away. And honestly, I do look forward to having a bit more time to be a grown up. I sought out the homeschool group because “school” these days apparently starts at 3, and I was having trouble finding my girl playmates. If you are having a similar problem, try searching Yahoo Groups or Meetup.com for groups in your area.)

The group that I found most active here in New Orleans is an ‘unschooling’ group. I didn’t know what that meant, and have since read up a bit. To summarize, unschooling is basically just following your child’s lead and having faith in their inborn desire and motivation to learn, rather than imposing a standardized curriculum. This translates to varying degrees of radicalism, but generally speaking for the younger ages: more playing, less workbooks.

I am definitely a fan of kids playing. Especially at 4! I believe “playing” offers all kinds of learning experiences, and that conversely sitting at a desk and being taught lessons can squelch a child’s natural fervor to learn. The schools here are incredibly competitive and academic, yes even at 4. They advertise on things like longer school days and less recess (!) But I don’t have it out against school on principle. I myself adored elementary school, and I do think there is something to it that homeschooled kids will never get. It’s not the academics– home is a fine place to learn the kinds of things you learn from books. It’s more about that group dynamic, the social aspect of school.

If there were a homeschool group back in Cordova, I would certainly consider unschooling. But there isn’t. Furthermore, our girl needs a social group, and loves the classroom setting. She is in both music and ballet here, and she just eats it up. Watching her little face so rapt with attention I can’t help but remember why I loved school. It’s not just about being with other kids your age, it’s about learning in fellowship, about working towards common goals as a group, functioning as a community. We are so disjointed these days, each little nuclear family sequestered into their own scene. I’m quite sure that schools overall miss this point, but the good ones, the small ones have the ability to infuse that sense of community that I have always craved on a visceral level.

None but the most devoted homeschool group could get there. And so for me, it adds up on both sides to a counterbalance. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Depending on the school available, the child, the parent, the balance is thrown one way or the other.

I was talking to some friends recently about the either/or issue, and one said, “I wish you could do both.” Well, I personally think you can do both. Hard-core unschoolers would probably disagree, there is a fair amount of anti-school in with the pro-home ideology. And like many parenting topics, this one can ignite a big blaze. I myself could argue both sides– school destroys children vs school more adequately prepares kids for life in this world. I definitely fall closer to the unschooling side of things, I can even sympathize with the borderline conspiracy theory of school as a factory to produce complacent citizens, but I don’t really feel that the issue is so black and white. Public school is far from perfect, no one would argue that. But there are lots of good schools, and some awesome teachers. I sure had more than my share of dedicated, caring, wonderful teachers and I thoroughly enjoyed elementary school (no one enjoys high school, right?)

Apart from the dichotomy, at it’s most fundamental, unschooling is just a way of respecting and enjoying your child’s authentic self, and encouraging rather than discouraging their autonomy. It might be hard for even the best teacher to really get into it in the school setting given the usual class size, but I think there is plenty of space and time for practicing unschooling at home. Even if your kid is in school for 6 hours a day, they still have another 6 hours out of school. And, at least for these younger years, we as parents make the most profound impact on our kids– if you trust your child’s self-determination on that level, then she will trust herself.

Maybe school for unschooler types can just be the beginning of learning to balance your strong self with the impositions of the world. Lord knows, that’s a useful skill. If we as parents model it and encourage our kids towards it in the home environment, I believe we can overcome the failings of (decent) public schools.

School is important, but home will aways be more important.

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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.

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I’m beginning to wonder if I’m a fraud.

Lately, for months now, I just don’t feel like being a mama. My kids, my darling beautiful firecrackers, just seem like so much trouble. I have no patience for them whatsoever, everything short of perfect angels pisses me off.

At first I thought it was just because of our big scare, then because we were emotionally recovering, then because My Man’s finals were upon us, then again because we were recovering from those finals. But now he’s been out of school for two weeks, we’ve lazed around and taken it plenty easy, and I am not bouncing back. Some days even their angelic-ness pisses me off. There was one afternoon, frosting Christmas cookies with my girl, the 2yo napping so that she and I could delve deep into our creative task. It should have been a triumphal moment. Hallmark material. But she kept making these little happy noises and I couldn’t concentrate for want of some goddamned quiet.

That’s when I knew something was deeply wrong.

When one has a regular job, there are days, sometimes weeks at a time when you hate your job, when you just don’t want to get up and go to work in the morning. So you call in “sick” or take a vacation, sometimes you go to work anyway with a bad attitude. Eventually there is the big flat wall of burnout, when you’re heart goes out of it and the job becomes a drudge. It occurred to me that I have never kept a full time job for more than 6 months consecutively. I don’t like doing the same thing every day, day after day. I never have, and pre-kids I had structured my life so that I didn’t have to.

Now here I am, 4.5 years into the same job, no vacations to date, going to work anyway with my bad attitude. And let me tell you in case you haven’t been here yourself, it feels like shit to hate your job when your job is taking care of your babies. It feels like shit.

You know I have struggled all along to embrace this mothering gig. I go in and out of good times and bad, as do we all I’m sure. But lately… lately…

It’s not that I don’t believe everything I’ve said here, I do. Mothering is heady, important, pivotal work, we should feel proud, hold our heads high, regardless the lack of any other product for our days. We are raising the next generation, giving them the values and skills that we believe matter. It’s not just okay to stay home with our kids, it’s goddamned beautiful!

As chronicled here on this blog, I submitted myself to my work, I let go all my grandiose ideas for how my life was going to be. It was hard, breaking even, but I think I actually did manage for awhile. Submission served me well during that hardest year in my life, when surrender equalled survival. I survived.

But as much as I have tried to release myself from the cultural expectation of productivity, of ‘greatness,’ I have not at all succeeded. I am beginning to admit to myself that yes in fact, selfish or not, I do want to do something big in the world. I do want to make my little mark and be recognized for my accomplishments. I am beginning to suspect that maybe, for me at least, trying to jam that desire back down and down and down again is simply not going to work. Compression can be explosive.

The explosion came last week. My Man mentioned the possibility of working for his dad in August. It sounds harmless enough, right? If I weren’t such a spoiled twat I would be thankful that we have this incredible safety net, cushioning our re-entry into a world of doubtful income. But instead, I completely lost it.

To understand you’ll need some background, and I’m sorry to say I have to go way, way back. Before Children.

Before we had kids, the idea was that we would split the parenting. As much as I champion staying home with your kids, I never in fact wanted or intended to be the full-time parent. Splitting it down the middle seems so brilliantly perfect to me, each parent getting what seems like just the right amount of time with their kids, and just the right amount of time to invest in grownup endeavors. We are both very driven people. My Man wanted to stop industrial progress via legal monkey-wrenching, and I wanted to figure out how to live as much as possible independent of that industrial system– a perfect team.

But dear god, we thought we could do all that and have kids? Of course we had no idea how much time and energy kids would take. The split parenting would work if we were both just righteously kicking ass in those kid-less hours, but then who’s gonna pay the bills? Someone has to get an at least moderately real job, and splitting the job force just doesn’t often work in the real world. Jobs are not generally constructed to be done part time. So we fell, like most couples, right along the gender lines. Man bringing home the bacon, Woman cooking it, feeding it to the little mouths and cleaning up afterwards. It was not how I’d imagined it, but life never is.

Then it became apparent that My Man needed to go to law school in order to continue fighting his Good Fight. I saw that he was restless and dissatisfied with his limitations, I knew that becoming a lawyer would allow him to kick a lot more ass, and ideally put a bit more bacon on our table than the non-profit he had been working for. I knew that as far as kids and families go, the sooner we got the job done the better, so I said yes. Let’s leave for three years.

Our first 4 or 5 months here in New Orleans were rough for me. I was hugely pregnant and toting a two year old through heat like I had never even conceived of, My Man gone all day learning exciting new things. I had not a friend to speak of, no mountains, no forests, no gill nets, rifles, berry buckets, no chest freezers or stacks of firewood. Everything I had worked toward with my life in Alaska completely irrelevant to this one.

We had been planning to go back home in the summers, so that I could work and get a break from the parenting and My Man could be with the kids more. First hitch was the oil spill here in the Gulf, providing an opportunity for My Man to put everything he had worked for, both in school and before, to good use. But, in retrospect I see that going home for the summers was an unrealistic plan in the first place. Three plane tickets per summer, averaging almost $1,000 each. The logistics of subletting our house here and finding a place to stay up there. Just a big fat money-sucking endeavor, all for the sake of some mountains?

So. We stayed. And I had my next big crisis, seeing the realities of life and money and kids collide, the slow receding of my lofty dreams.

But I met a friend, a kindred; and then over time even a small handful of them. I began to feel at home. I rerouted my towering ambitions to the smaller scape of the household, made a little garden, got cozy with the farmers market, discovered a latent passion for writing.

I faced myself, squared my shoulders, and kept at it. The kids grew up a bit and I gained a little of that blessed distance perspective, remembering that this too shall pass.

I looked forward to the time when we would return to Alaska, my familiar things all laying in wait for my return. My pressure canner, my fertile garden beds, my hunting rifles, my chest freezer and 14 dozen canning jars– all my dormant skills tingling with anticipation. We would go back in May, but My Man would need to study for the Bar, and wouldn’t really be free until late July. Then– then! He would be ready for a break, we could split the parenting for a month or two while I played with myself.

I am very good, disturbingly good, at accepting just about anything so long as I am given time to prepare my mind for it, and an end date to hold out for. Outwardly I might seem perfectly adjusted, but inside myself I hold on to that end date with a frightening tenacity. If it’s taken away, or some relief that I had counted on falls through, I go ballistic.

And so it was that when My Man mentioned casually that maybe we could all go to Spokane in August and he could work for his dad for a month, I had a breakdown of epic proportions. All four years of putting myself on the shelf for later roared to life and I became quite an unrecognizable blur of enraged weeping.

He was blindsided. We need the money and almost more importantly, he needs the health insurance. Our other option is a patchwork of self-employment and part-times, paying out seperately whatever ridiculous insurance premium they charge for a cancer survivor. His dad (also a lawyer) truly needs the help, and after a month in Spokane he could work long-distance from Cordova and continue to get the insurance coverage until he muddled out his own work situation. It made perfect sense. He suspected I might not like it, but thought he’d just test the waters and see how I felt.

I felt like the rug had been ripped out from under me and the world was coming to an end. I felt like I’d been chewed up by this growling, frothing motherhood beast which had, at long last, spit me out the other end. Stunned, confused, bloody.

Which brings me finally to my point, dear patient reader. If I am that conflicted inside, if I am holding myself so violently hostage that just the mention of an idea like that throws me into utter oblivion, isn’t something wrong?

As it always goes, this was just the pus rupture of a big fat long-infected wound. I have been feeling a growing concern that I’m actually not suited to being this awesome rock-the-home mother that I write so radiantly about. I want to be that mother, I really do, and for a long time I tried. But maybe I am just not cut out for it. Maybe I would be a better mother if I put the little guy in day care.

I hope you know that I am not opposed to day care. I have always felt that every family must work these issues out for itself. I do believe that, all else being equal, having mom or dad nearby for the majority of the early years is probably better, but I have never been so shortsighted to think that all else is ever equal. Life is nothing if not uproariously complicated. All financial factors aside, mom and dad are no good to anyone if they’re not happy and healthy, more or less. If day care and the real live grown up job it allows preserve some sanity and joy in the home, then I say hell yeah!

But here’s my particular quandry– I don’t want to leave the home to go work at a job. My thing, what I want to do with my hours, doesn’t make money. It might keep a bit of money in our pockets at the supermarket, but I’ve been doing it long enough to know that the direct savings are nothing to write home about. It increases our quality of life, which of course cannot be valued and I never cared to try before. But now that we have a family and all the bills inherent in our (modest!) lifestyle, our days have come down to a tally of hours. For every hour that I wish to be able to weed the garden or can strawberries without the constant interruption of spill wiping, leg hanging and fight breaking up that whittles 60 minutes down to six, My Man must give up an hour of work. Or, alternatively, I put my kid in day care and essentially pay $10/hour to weed my garden?!?!?! What the fuck?

I know that in two more years, the little guy will start kindergarten and I will have 2 or 3 hours a day to do my thing, even more the following year. I know that my kids are growing up, and fast, and before I know it they won’t even want to be around me. I’ll have buckets of time on my hands.

And maybe that’s what this is all about after all. Some wiser, if a bit premature, part of myself preparing for the time when my babies will need me to step back and give them space. Maybe this is some kind of protective measure– me chomping at the bit so that when they open their doors to boot me out, I’ll already know where I’m going.

Or maybe I really am just tired, still recovering from one hell of a few months. Our two week “break” so far has included Christmas, a 12 day mother visit, and now the flu. Last night before bed, as I surveyed the wreckage of our unusually filthy house with dismay, My Man said hopefully that maybe tomorrow we’d both feel better and we could really get on with our supposed break. I gave an exhausted sigh, “Yeah. Tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll take over the world.”

“No,” he said brightly. “You will take over the world. I’ll watch the kids.”

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Do you remember how I said I was building my daughter a dollhouse for Christmas? Back at the beginning of the month I carefully planned it out on graph paper, borrowed a friend’s power saw, cut the pieces and stacked them in the garage.

Then on my last Saturday afternoon off before My Man’s crazy test weeks, instead of diligently working on the dollhouse, I met a friend downtown to check out the New Orleans Fringe Fest. In between shows, we were wandering around the ridiculously charming art/punk part of town and got swallowed into the looming maw of an enormous junk shop. There were a few pieces of furniture for the 4yo’s dollhouse I wasn’t sure how I was going to make, so I asked at the front if they had any. Another wanderer overheard and practically accosted me, “Are you looking for a dollhouse? We still have my daughter’s up in the attic, it’s got a ton of furniture. I’d love to get rid of it.” He pressed his card at me.

I was still convinced I had enough time to make my own– hell, I’d already started! So I gave him an incredibly non-comittal answer and went about my day. A few days later, beginning to accept my oncoming fate of two weeks of 24/7 parenting, and listing in my mind all the things I would still need to do to make this dollhouse (let alone any other Christmas presents) I dug out the card. Maybe I’d just see how much he wanted for it.

The end of this story is evident, right? $75 dollars and a trip across town later, I had the 4yo’s present all taken care of and stashed in the back of the closet. No impending work, no need to borrow a jig saw, no tiny furniture to figure out. All done.

I was so sad I almost cried.

Perhaps you need some background for this story. You already know about my die-hard desire (unfulfilled) to make everything at home and by hand. You can probably guess at my dislike for the relatively low quality construction of the house I bought, and the two boxes of furniture and tiny accessories that came with it which will be strewn across the floor of our entire house by this time next week.

But what you are not likely to understand is that I adore dollhouses, and miniatures in general. I loved them far beyond girlhood, as evidenced by Dumpster Diver Barbie (yes, those are tiny bagels in that tiny plastic bag). In fact I have been waiting until my daughter was old enough, fantasizing about this moment when I would make her the perfect, sweet, old fashioned dollhouse. I’ve been cutting and sanding little chunks of 2×4 in my mind, and adding batting and squares of fabric to make tiny beds. No joke!

But in a heavy duty consumer world, where people buy more new crap all the time and consequently clean out their closets regularly to “pare down and simplify,” buying what you need second-hand is always easier, and usually cheaper than making it yourself.

Consider my dollhouse. I was going to use scavenged wood, beautiful 3/4 inch oak faced plywood that I found on the side of the road for free. That’s well and good, saved me at least $40, and I could borrow the tools I needed. But, I wanted to make this dollhouse a little bit fancy, since my girl is getting old enough to care now. I was going to buy scrapbook paper to “wallpaper” the walls and paint for the outside– an easy $10, probably more. And there were a few pieces of furniture I wanted to buy, mainly a toilet and bathtub– $20 right there. Then if I fell for the cast iron wood cookstove I ran across when I was looking online for the bathroom stuff, another $15. I could easily see myself spending $75 by the time it was said and done. And purchasing and consuming new materials, as far as that goes.

This lesson has been driven through my mind at least 94 times since I became an adult, and it’s still only half lodged. It’s why knitting never took for me. Spending $30 for yarn when I could buy a perfectly serviceable hat at the thrift store for $3? Why on earth would I do that? But apart from knitting, I am still hopelessly stuck in my youthful fantasies of almost anthropolgic handcrafting. Particularly once I started mothering, those fantasies blossomed with a whole new meaning. I would be that mother, the one who’s well mannered children are always wearing hand sewn clothing and playing with hand carved wooden toys.

Wow. Motherhood. If nothing else, parenting will lay bare your ardent (and often completely unrealistic) expectations for How the World Ought to Be. And then rip them to shreds.

Every project is different, don’t think I’m knocking DIY unilaterally. But of course it makes no sense whatsoever to spend 3 hours sewing my kid pants from $5 of purchased new material when I can buy good quality pants second-hand for $4. No sense at all to spend hours on handmade wooden toys that will just get shoved under the couch to make room for the plethora of brightly colored plastic toys that seem to breed on their own.

No sense at all. Unless I enjoy the making.

Because, all else being equal, it comes down to how we want to spend our time. When you are a mama, with the implicit drastic limitations on your time, it often distills quite clearly. Do I enjoy my DIY projects more than I enjoy say, an afternoon at the coffee shop to write? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

There are other important reasons that I believe we should keep doing this stuff. All kinds of handcrafting traditions are being lost, and anyone who can keep hold of one is a kind of living time capsule, an asset to humankind. And certainly all those handcrafted items offer a superior sensory experience. Even though a hat from the thrift store costs a tenth as much, it is vastly inferior to one hand knitted by someone who knows what they’re doing.

But moralizing aside, it’s still a matter of doing what makes sense for the time and place we’re really in. Letting go of my wholesome handmade mama image has been painful, but I find more and more often it just makes more sense to B.U.Y.

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Thursday’s post on Fair Trade was a soap box, no two ways around it. This whole Quiet Riot is going to involve a lot of soap boxing. Worse, because we are (most of us) inescapably consumers, a lot of living more responsibly involves spending more money. Let me assure you, as a born cheap-skate, it seriously disturbs my soul to be up here, looking down beneficently at my gathered crowd, telling you all to go out and spend more money.

A woman commented on the Bank Transfer post the other day wondering how to choose priorities from the endlessly long list of things a person really ought to do. Especially when responsible choices often cost more and, in the real world of limited incomes, conflict with her highest priority of staying home to raise her kids.

I can word out a few seemingly sensible soap box responses to this, like– ‘well, what kind of world do you want to be left for those children to live in’ and ‘don’t you want to set the example to your children that you do the right thing, no matter how hard?’ Etc, etc. But as convenient as that kind of black and white thinking is, I know full well about the incredible gulf of gray between.

I suspect everyone reading this blog cares deeply and honestly about the future of our world, and is doing what they can. But the devil is in the details, ‘doing what we can’ is a tricky statement. We could all do more, no doubt. We could probably survive with less sleep, spending those precious kid-less hours gardening by headlamp. We could certainly do with quite a lot less food and more ruthless austerity. We could… And those of us with overactive guilt complexes instilled by Catholic/Jewish/Baptist/privilegedwhitepeople backgrounds are sometimes consumed by that needling ‘could.’

But what value do we place on living a joyful life as a part of our particular community of humans? How much margin do we allow ourselves in that ongoing effort to be a part of our world, while also trying to change that world for the better?

Fair trade is a perfect set for this confusion. All jokes aside, coffee, tea and chocolate are far from necessary to our actual survival. A person could afford to buy ethical luxury items simply by treating them as luxuries, which is to say reserving them for special occasions. You can have a chocolate cake on your birthday, the other 364 days of the year you can eat a second helping of locally grown vegetables for desert. And haven’t you heard of roasting the dandelion roots you weed out of your garden for a local, sustainable coffee substitute?

I lived that way for a handful of years in my rugged youth. We ate plain oatmeal for breakfast, beans, rice and foraged greens for dinner. No sweeteners, no butter, and hell no coffee. We were austere, in the first degree. After a year or so, I started finding reason to go visit our neighbors strangely often. Who, coincidentally, would always offer me a cup of coffee. And, if I was lucky, a piece of pie. I am quite certain that better people than me are capable of maintaining a hard core rebellion against the western world’s interpretation of luxury as standard, without becoming neighbor junkies. Those years proved that I am not.

This is a theme I want to explore over the course of this Riot. How to keep doing the hard thing when everyone around you does the easy thing. How to maintain a poverty standard in a world of flagrant excess. How to feel okay about holding your children to that ethic. Not that I have any answers, understand, only a sticky ball of questions and personal failures.

After accepting that I didn’t have what it takes to live the ascetic life, it boiled down to a matter of priorities and consequently compromise. Which is the quagmire I have been slogging in ever since. To get back to that original comment– how do we choose the most important things to do with our limited energy, time and funds? How do we balance ethical (read: expensive) consumption with our decidedly low family incomes? I think the answer is intensely personal. I don’t mean personal as in emotionally yours, though that is also true, but so completely based on every particular situation and family that there’s hardly any generalized objective truth.

It seems to me that we mostly choose our battles based on what we’re good at and what we want to do anyway. And when you think about it, isn’t that the best way after all? We all have our inborn talents, our callings in life. We will work hardest, most passionately, most effectively doing what we are drawn to do. Hopefully the community at large will cover the rest, right? Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean, and so between the all of us, we’ll lick the platter clean.

As you all know, my calling in life is food. I work very hard at it, and if I may say so myself, have fair natural talent. I’m also really good with systems, which I think is an extraordinarily helpful skill to keeping a home. I do hope that this blog lends a hand with some specifics of Sustainable Housewifery on the Cheap, because if we can’t do it on the cheap then most of us simply can’t do it.

Which leads me to the elephant in the room.

Privilege.

Privilege comes in all sizes and shapes, but for now let’s talk about economic privilege. Neither My Man or I were born into money, but his folks have made a goodly stash in their mature years, and are very generous with us. Sometimes so generous that my teeth hurt. Many years ago they took out the mortgage for us on our house back in Alaska. We are slowly buying it from them as they buy it from the bank. All very convuluded, more than you can even imagine. At present, they are loaning us more than half of the money we burn through here in New Orleans, while I stay sweetly home to watch my angels grow up and nobly shop at Whole Foods (the other half is student loans, we didn’t have any savings at all). They also loaned us their car to use during our 3 year stint here, so we do not have car payments. They gift us big, nice, useful presents at Christmas and birthdays. Just about everything we own either came off the side of the road or was given us by My Man’s folks. It’s a motley collection.

Admitting this all, in print, to the wide world, is nothing short of excruciating for me. I grew up with hippie parents who scraped together $12-15,000 year, total. We lived extremely frugally and always by the skin of our teeth. I was endowed with a fierce spirit of individualist pride. Doing it yourself. Never accepting, or even deigning to need, help from anyone.

I have come around, intellectually, as an adult. Even before I married accidentally into money (hey, he was living in a moldy plywood tipi at the time, how could I have known?) I was beginning to realize the importance of interdependence, of accepting help and yes, even needing each other. I see now that family is meant to help. Our situation looks new and fancy, but the bones of it are ancient– parents establishing themselves, passing on what they can to their kids as they take out into the world.

Another important kind of privilege is less tangible– knowledge, attitude and expectations. I didn’t get any economic privilege growing up, but those anti-materialist DIY hippie parents gave me all kinds of essential mental tools to pursue this life. They also encouraged me to skip college and debt, and I spent those formative years instead learning more specific homesteading skills, living without butter, and hanging out in moldy tipis with suspect young men.

I don’t reference tv much and I’m not about to start a regular thing of it, but I did see a good Michael Moore interview on the Colbert Report a few months back. Colbert had quipped something about him “making bank” and that his sweat pants and ball cap didn’t fool us. Moore blushed deeply but countered with, “Yeah, you’re right. And that’s exactly why I think it’s our responsibility to do something with ourselves.”

I certainly wouldn’t say My Man and I have made bank– we live on about $40,000/year. We are very frugal in some ways. I rarely buy clothes at all, and always second hand. I don’t buy any kind of lady potions, handbags, or other female paraphernalia. We don’t drive much, so save quite a lot on gas. My money sink is food, both quality and ethics. On one hand you could say I make it my priority, I scrimp in other ways to pay for better groceries. I make everything I can at home, I work hard in the kitchen. I brew my fair trade coffee one cup at a time so that none is ever wasted, and I drink one or two perfect cups a day instead of a whole pot of mediocre cheap coffee.

On the other hand, I know plenty of you do the same and still can’t afford to spend $16/lb on goddamned coffee. I know I am lucky, very lucky to be able to be home with my kids and spend my few spare hours blathering on about responsible consumerism. It is a privilege to be able to ponder what is right, a privilege to be able to do it.

We all know we shouldn’t compare ourselves to one another. Do what you’re passionate about, push yourself as often as you can, ease up when you need to. Feel good. But in case that old dog comparison creeps around in the dark of night– don’t ever forget that, for the most part, those of us standing around on soap boxes had a boost up.

Related Posts: 
Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable?
Why We Do What We Do
Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts

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It’s 8 o’clock in the morning. I’m sitting here with a cup of coffee, quiet in a sleeping house, writing.

A few short month ago, I would have killed to get my little guy to sleep past 6:45 on a regular basis. Now he sleeps until 7 or 7:30 reliably, occasionally even later. Am I busy praising the stars and relishing my newfound extra sleep and more frequent mornings alone? No. This morning I didn’t get myself up till 7:30 and didn’t get myself coffeed till almost 8, so I’m busy wishing he’d sleep till goddamn 8:45.

And take a nap at 1, thank you very much.

When this mothering job gets really rough, kindly friends remind me that it gets easier as time goes on. But when things are looking up, and I gaze hopefully into the future for a time when things will be even better, those same friends soberly lead me back and say, ‘It doesn’t get easier, really. It just gets… different.’

What the hell? What does it get? Easier or not easier? Get your story straight.

I know kids (and parents) are all quite individual. Not all babies are as high maintenance as mine were. Some apparently sleep. Not all two year olds have daily 30 minute screaming sessions. Not all mothers need time and space for themselves as strangulously as I. Perhaps we, as a family, stir right up into an explosive younger-years cocktail.

Nevertheless I’m pretty sure that, apart from that long span of teenage years too far in my future to contemplate, when people say parenting doesn’t get easier, they are on crack. Parents of the 4-12 set have just plain forgotten what babies and toddlers are like. They have forgotten sleeping a total of 6 hours/night in no more than 90 minute segments and then waking up to a fussy baby and two shitty diapers before coffee. They have forgotten trying to control one child’s screaming fit in public with the other child strapped onto their body. They are under the spell of biological amnesia that allows our species to keep reproducing. I for one am writing this all down, so that I can never blithely tell a mother of a 2yo and newborn that what she is going through is not the very depths of what humans are capable of.

Fear not sweet mama, wherever you are, it does get easier. If you feel completely insane right now, at the very bottom of your barrel, it’s because you are. Things can only look up. Kids grow. It’s really true.

But.

I’m sorry to say, there is a catch. I have come just far enough now to see what it is.

Consider how you have stretched slowly over the years since your very first morning sickness. Things you never thought yourself capable of doing are now old hat. Motherhood is a million times harder than you ever could have conceived of. And yet, simultaneously, you are a million times stronger. You keep thinking ‘fuck me, it can’t get any harder’ and then it does! You keep thinking ‘I can’t hold out any longer’ and then you do! You keep thinking you are at the absolute bitter end of your frayed rope, but your rope keeps stretching.

Which is brave and wonderful and human. I remember one night, washing the dishes at 9:30 pm, after one of those insane days, thinking– I am a demigod. I will never be conquered again. I am now accustomed to working 15 hour days, on 6 hours of disjointed sleep, doing the hardest work of my life. When the impossible-ness of this job subsides, I’ll have the energy and the self-discipline to accomplish anything. The world will be at my feet.

The catch is– that stretchy rope? It shrinks too. It’s a goddamned bungee cord.

It gets easier, yes, but it doesn’t feel easier. When things ease up, I notice the change and appreciate it intellectually, but I still feel like I’m at the end of my rope, every day. I have to hang out with friends in the real crazy year (newborn + 2yo) to remind myself. Oh yeah, my life is hard right now. Plenty hard. But it’s possible. And immediately after that humbling thought, I go back to being mad that my now 2yo didn’t sleep till 8:45.

Maybe I’m just an ungrateful bitch. Maybe, as every little bit of new space opens up, I try to add in too many things. Keeping the house cleaner. Cooking extra for My Man. Writing more. Rioting in my spare time. Maybe it’s just that old ad-borne cultural expectation that we deserve to have it all.

Whatever it is, the outcome is that although it does get easier, it also doesn’t. You won’t have to wake up 6 times a night and then for good at 5:45 to a poopy diaper, you won’t have to strap on a 19 pound weight so that you can finally get the dishes done, you won’t have to listen to hours a day of full-bore screaming. You will be able to calm everyone down by reading a book sometimes, you will be able to leave the room for more than 10 minutes without catastrophe or injury ensuing, the kids will (not always, but often) begin to earnestly and happily play together.

But you will forget the harder times almost immediately, as your body prepares you to continue propogating the species. You will (if you are anything like me) suck down your newfound freedoms and instead of being sated, just want moremoremore. You will wake up one morning in your own bed at 7:30 and wonder honestly if it was all a bizarre dream. You still feel like you are operating at maximum. With a full 8 hours of sleep and 30 minutes of quiet morning, you still feel sparely armored for a day of what still feels like crazy hard work.

All you will have to remind yourself of those farther distances reached are the stretch marks.

You are a demigod.

Related post: The Glory Days

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I ran across Sharon Astyk’s Riot for Austerity the other day. For some reason, though I had come across Sharon’s name dozens of times, and looked carefully at both her books on Amaz*n, something refused to click, and I just hadn’t read any of her work yet. Dixiebelle tipped me off about the Riot and, intrigued by the name, I checked it out.

Apparently the first Riot for Austerity was in 2008. As Sharon describes it,

“We set two goals. First, we would spend a year trying to get our emissions down by 90% over the American average. Second, we’d use this as part of a larger public strategy to point out that it can be done – that we don’t have to wait for political action – indeed, that we can’t wait.”

Sharon is all about peak oil and climate change. Although I do absolutely believe both are occurring (My Man is in school to be an environmental maritime lawyer, partly so that he can work on climate change issues back in Alaska), they have both become such glamorous catch phrases that my renegade back arches when I hear them. I hate to get caught in a fad without an umbrella, if you know what I mean.

It’s a shame that I let that such an aesthetic style point get between me and some great work. Sharon’s website looks fantastic (her tongue in cheek post 12 Books is hilarious! And here I thought she took herself too seriously!) and I will be inter-library loaning her books as soon as I can get to the library.

In the meantime, I continue to be intrigued by her second Riot for Austerity, which is just now getting off the ground. My Man and I often despair that solutions to environmental problems always end up reduced to one or another ‘alternative’– paper cups instead of styrofoam, corn instead of plastic, coal instead of petroleum. No big campaigns ever promotes just using less, where the money in that? And no one likes to think that they might have to sacrifice something to make change in the world. Just like the endless parade of eat-what-you-want diets, get-rich-quick schemes and deoderant which promises to get you laid, we so desperately want to believe that there is a magic formula which will effortlessly fix everything. How did we get so damn lazy?! How did we come to loathe effort and struggle, both of which make life worthwhile?

Austerity is just the thing, really. “Morally strict, ascetic; markedly simple or unadorned.” But there is a political aspect to the word as well, “In economics, austerity is a policy of deficit-cutting, lower spending, and a reduction in the amount of benefits and public services provided.” (Wiki) Which of course makes perfect sense, when the government decides it’s time to tighten the belt, they always start with someone else’s belt. Apparently austerity measures have been the cause of protests and even riots in the past, which puts an interesting spin on Sharon’s Riot.

I love the astonishing goal of living off of 10% of the American average. I love that there are people in the world who can and do lead the way with such ballsy confidence. I love the attitude that our private lives can and should direct politics. I have always admired hard-core radicals, and even was one myself for some years. I lived on $2-3,000/year in my hey-day, using no petroleum products directly except kerosene for our lamps, and eating beans, rice and wild plants.

My own Austere Years required plenty of effort, but there was no strife, no hardship. They were a great joy, in fact, a highlight. That’s what I wanted and needed to be doing at that time. I truly feel like each stage of life is different, and each person’s life overall is different as well. Some people are born with just the right mix of character, and blessed with the tools and community necessary to keep up such impressive standards throughout their entire life. Other people, like myself, get a shining 15 minutes of fame before returning to the implicit compromise of the masses. Yet others tow the line of consistent small virtues throughout their entire lives.

I used to harshly think that only the hard-core radicals mattered (when I was one. Ha). As I’ve gotten older and come face to face with the limitations of sharing one’s life with spouse and children, family and community, and trying to lovingly balance out everyone’s needs/desires, I’ve softened quite a bit. I see the use in the middle road now. We need all those types of people, we need everyone who earnestly tries to do good in their life, each has something important to offer.

There’s no way my family could get anywhere near to the Riot for Austerity’s 10% goal right now. Living a fairly typical American life in a rented house in a big city, far from our Alaskan home environment, with a 1 and 4 year old makes in completely impossible. I have just barely begun to emerge from the tunnel of second-baby-survival-mode to where I could imagine cutting anything. But here is where the possibilities of the middle road open up.

I read that there were some thousands of people participating in the first Riot, worldwide. Which is a lot, but also, hardly any. The vast majority of people in the first world will read about the Riot as pure entertainment (if they read about it at all). The idea that their own family would participate in it would be ridiculous. Even, I suspect, most of you Apron Stringz readers will feel that the Riot is for ‘better’ people than us.

It’s impressiveness is it’s downfall, in a way. Not because of the Riot itself, or any fault of it’s creators. The extremity of the Riot is fantastic, perfect. The downfall is our own. Our black and white thinking, with which I am so intimately familiar. Either kick serious ass or step down, I say to myself. Or, used to say. Extreme radicalism makes us uncomfortable, there is an implicit mandate that we feel embarrassed to fall short of. And so the whole of responsible action can become closed to people, reg’lar folk, who feel entirely too intimidated to join in.

But what a bullshit way to proceed with life! Hallelujah for those righteous radicals who keep this big oil tanker just shy of the rocks. We don’t have to be them, or hate them, or anything. A goodly dose of mutual respect, and self respect, is in order. Rejoice in their way, and make your own way. Responsible action is accessible to anyone, to everyone! Start where you are, and do your best from there. If 10% of the American average is an impenetrable goal, don’t let that crush your desire to participate. Make your own damn goal! Don’t use this as a ticket to sloth and indolence, rather determine what you feel comfortable with, then push it one little step farther. Challenging yourself just beyond what you think you are capable of is inspiring.

And so, without further ado, let me introduce my Quiet Riot. In solidarity with the righteously awesome Riot for Austerity, I am going to do a 6 month ‘little riot.’ I won’t be publicizing this anywhere but here, I don’t want to water down the force of their statement. I don’t delude myself into thinking my Quiet Riot will be influencing carbon emissions policy. No, this is just for myself, and for any of you readers who would like join in.

If you feel even remotely inclined to join up with the real thing, oh my, please do! For your sake, for my sake, not to mention saving the world. But if you feel entirely too intimidated by the big riot, you can start here, in good company.

My Quiet Riot will begin with an audit of our home’s consumption, using the Big Riot’s seven categories (I have already taken a quick look and I can assure you, much to my dismay, we hit almost the full American average for electricity and water and probably somewhere around 50-80 percent for everything else). From those numbers I’ll set some rough goals for myself, probably different for each category. I’m thinking more along the lines of cutting 10% off of our current use, rather than cutting down to 10% of average.

After the audit month, I’ll get to work. I’m going to try to make little cuts everywhere, but with special focus on two categories per month, with a break for December. (Need I explain?)

If anyone is interested in joining in, I could run things with a bit of structure, offering audit guidelines, detailing ideas for cutting consumption, hosting discussion, etc. I imagine everyone would set their own goals based on their family’s current situation. This will be much more intention than rule based. Rules can be cheated on, but your intention is always true. Only you will know if you have ‘succeeded.’ And for this Quiet Riot, that’s what counts.

It’s a fine line between challenge and overwhelm. Between excuses and the limitations of real life. I feel that everyone needs to hear something different. The polished ladies who smuggly shop at Whole Foods after yoga class might need a good ass kicking, but I know many sensitive, earnest souls like myself who can become completely debilitated by guilt. Which is not remotely helpful, of course. Sometimes I feel like this blog and my writing style have grown up together to be almost like motivational speaking. My ‘calling’ seems to be a sort of cheerleading for those of us who’s heart and dreams sometimes outpace our ability and the confines of our very real lives.

Not that I don’t benefit from a good ass-kicking now and then. Thanks Sharon.

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Each of us enters into this world of punk DIY housewifery from different angles. It’s easy enough to look down the street (or more likely, through the screen) at Ms. Jones’ new chicken coop, the handsewn banners in her window, the pie cooling on the sill, and compare straight across to our own shamble-stead. Assuming we ought to be even.

But there’s no reason whatsoever we should be ‘even.’ Everyone started in a different place, and took a different road in. People say this all the time. Start where you are. But I feel like we don’t give this fundamental truth the credence it deserves.

Adult jobs require training. Some jobs require years of schooling. Why is it we think we should be able to just step right into the kick-ass housewife role? Why do we think we should be able to cast off 20 years of academic schooling and suddenly, without training, become a super-hero urban homesteader? It’s yet another sign of how we devalue the work.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been, perhaps uniquely, well trained for this job. I grew up with hippie parents who fixed rather than bought, valued healthy food, believed in responsible action. They started me out with the values and the basic skills of the DIY lifestyle. When I left home, instead of going to college, I spent 3 years traveling around in rural areas, doing interesting, unusual and eminently practical work, and generally learning everything I could about the possibility of a more simple life. I spent the next 4 years with my partner on a friend’s land, building a sort of practice homestead, testing out everything we had learned. In the world of DIY/homesteading I am, I think, unusually well educated for this day and age. As far as more the classically ‘domestic’ skills go, I grew up in a restaurant and as an adult have cooked in professional kitchens where speed and efficiency rule. Cleaning and kids were my big blank spots (very big, very blank), the rest I had pretty well covered.

I don’t mean to gloat about it, but rather to say, look– I’ve had all the training a person could hope for considering the times, and I still think this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, still feel like I’m falling short every day. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you mamas who are just getting into all this stuff. I know the excitement of first love is heady, and hopefully it will carry you through, but damn you must feel overwhelmed! I just want to remind you to consider your training, or lack of it, and give yourself a break.

If you went to college and then spent your twenties working an office job, and now you are home with two kids trying to change the world one household at a time, you have just weathered an abrupt career change! Think of it as if you had lost your entire field of work and had to find and train for something radically different. Maybe you knew nothing about this new job. Maybe your family growing up rarely cooked, and a housekeeper scrubbed the bathtub. Gardening meant watering the rhodedendron. Maybe you hadn’t been around kids since you were one.

This is no small matter to brush carelessly aside, this is the crux of it really, because we have lost vast stores of knowledge about how to run an efficient, thrifty, coordinated home. It used to be that girls would learn this stuff before it was their responsibility, they would leave their parents home into their own new home having ‘apprenticed’ with their mothers and grandmothers. Not that those old days were so glorious, and I surely don’t want to be mistaken for saying women shouldn’t go to college, but what would it look like if an education in homemaking were a respected choice? Or perhaps available as a double major? Anything beyond a laughable elective in high school would help.

We have run in such panic from our past that now that we consider homemaking knowledge non-less, demeaning or even hateful. The cruel irony is that many women nevertheless continue to bear children, keep a home, run a budget and even cook for their families! But instead of proceeding with the confidence and success of training, we have to plunge in clueless. Without any real idea how to go about these jobs we all have to re-invent the wheel. What a waste of our (limited) energy! It’s sad, and as anyone reading this blog can identify with, it’s damn hard!

Several months ago, Harriet Fasenfest asked what we would look for in a “nuts and bolts” book about householding. The question has revisited me many times, partly because it was the bug in my rug before I had ever even heard of Harriet. What is it that would make our training? What exactly do we need to know? Is it the practical skills of cooking, preserving, cleaning and gardening? Or the less tangible skills of budgeting, time management and community building? But recently it hit me that whatever the knowledge base, information is only a part of training. Reading books and watching experts is valuable, but at some point everyone just has to dive in and get their hands dirty.

At the Foxfire Museum, on our trip to mountains last week, we got to watch the resident fiber artist for a while. She asked my girl how old she was, and then went on to explain which part of the process would have been her job at that age. “At four girls started carding, at five they made rolags, six they learned to spin, by seven they were using the loom.”

The beauty of a traditional “education” in homemaking arts was that it took place over ten or more years, under the direct tutelage of one’s instructor, and involved every day practice of a skill set which built on itself. How frustrating not to be able to use the loom till you’d put in three full years of fiber arts, but then again, how comforting really. Imagine if all the basic housewifing/homesteading skills were so viscerally ingrained in us. Imagine what we could accomplish!

My Man and I had a good long conversation on the train back from our trip. I am so envious of his ability to be flexible. He started out chaining himself to trees, and yet feels no regret about the way his life has changed since, no regret about his new vocation of paper-wrencher. He has this fantastic way of taking a distance perspective.

“It’s not a revolution right now. I wish it were, but it’s not. All we can do in a single generation is work for some degree of change in the right direction, and then trust that our work will be carried on by the next generation. Trust that eventually it will add up to something significant… Or just see us through until real revolution comes.” He added with a grin.

So, if you started your path in a mainstream, consumer household, spent years in the career world and are just now carving yourself some kind of responsible homemade life, take heart. Start small. Remember you are training on the job, with probably no teacher. Give your kids the values of thrift, simplicity, respect, conscientious living. Do what you can, as much as you can. Then trust that the next generation will continue our work.

Or start praying for revolution.

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Ever since I first named it and begun to explore it last year, the concept of submission has haunted me. The pea under my mattress, so to speak. I was raised by a very strong, strong-willed woman, and I have grown up into my very own fiery independent female force of nature. I do not yield unless I am overpowered. Yielding is weak. Surrender = defeat.

So much of the difficulty of motherhood has been releasing the reins of control. Beginning with birth and continuing every day since. I am overpowered.

As I’m fond of saying, it’s easy to get down on your knees when you’ve been punched in the gut. I’ve learned a few things down here in the dirt, gasping for breath. It’s a hard way to go, but I like to think I’ve matured some.

One of the things I have been taught, quite entirely by force, is that surrender does not necessarily equal defeat. That yielding can be strong, the ultimate strength perhaps. At first this seemed anti-feminist to me, but I’ve since conveniently re-written feminism to fit my own needs. Honoring the female. And who can argue that yielding is female? In the strictest biological sense, we yield and are thus given the greatest power on earth– to carry and birth another human being.

In a more metaphorical sense, I have seen how surrendering my ego-grip allows everything to happen, opens up whole worlds of possibility. Yielding to life allows me to move forward with grace and poise.

But how to yield? Can I fall to my knees without the punch in the gut? Shouldn’t there be another way?

Over the last year, as the submission pea rolled around under my mattress turning me black and blue, I have started to feel a pull towards some kind of spiritual practice. Some way to connect with that surrendering soft part of myself which lays hidden under the white knuckle grip of ego.

I don’t believe in any gods or goddesses, unfortunately. I have always believed in a spirit element to the world, just as I myself inexplicably have this thing called a ‘soul.’ But I have never been able to believe in a singular cohesive spirit, so religion is pretty much out for me. I did try the local Unitarian Universalist church a few times. They welcome folks of any persuasion whatsoever, atheists included, and carefully leave the word ‘God’ out of their service. I enjoyed it, enjoyed the opportunity to focus on farther reaching concepts than my typical diapers/dishes/clutter-management shtick, but the whole church experience really is just a turn off for me. And in their attempt not to exclude anyone, it felt sort of cold and spiritually sterile.

The classic for folks of my ‘alternative’ bent is Buddhism. I have several Buddhist friends, and I’m glad it works for them, but I have just never been able to swallow what feels to me like an inherent scorn for the physical world. I’m a hedonist above all else, and I will take my spirit world with a heavy crust of black dirt under the nails please.

Not to mention that meditating for my rat-wheel brain has been a big fat not happening. I know, it takes time. Zen with it honey. But, time is in short order around here.

On the phone recently with a friend, I said something like, “Dammit. Are you telling me I have to meditate? Can’t you give me something easier?” She laughed, “What, like 10 Hail Marys?”

Yes! That is exactly what I meant, exactly what I wanted. Meditation is fine for some, but it is some damn hard shit. Hail Marys, on the other hand, along with rosaries, 5 times daily bowing to Mecca, and prayer in general are for us– the common people.

Prayer is so completely wrapped up in religion for me, but as I picked it out over the next few weeks I realized that essentially it’s just a tool for submitting your ego to something greater, a formula to occupy your brain while your heart communes with the Great Mystery.

And so, after a little groping around in the dark, and a helpful Unitarian Universalist recommendation for non-denominational prayer, I settled on my own atheist prayer practice.

I really liked the idea of beads, a physical grounding element and focal point. As I walked around the the bead store looking for just the right stones to rub, I suddenly realized that I needed pink. I have always patently hated pink, which I associate with the cute, girly weakness I have so sought to eradicate. But standing there looking over the colors I realized that pink is yielding. It is exactly the stumbling block I need to get the fuck over. And didn’t I remember some witchy friend telling me that rose quartz opens the heart chakra? (Right after she told me that every one of my chakras was blocked…) That’s just what I need. Some heart chakra.

So I picked out a big smooth hunk of pretty-in-pink heart opener. I strung it up with 18 small “breath” beads punctuated by 4 turquoise “intention” beads. I wrote out a litany of words for myself, roughly following the UU recommendations which seemed to cover the bases. I don’t feel like the words are hugely important. More the intention, which maybe is different for everyone. For myself it’s about quieting my mind and opening my heart. It’s about remembering that I am small, that the wide world is big, that I can ask for help, and be thankful for all that I have. Surrendering with grace.

This new prayer practice is far, far from perfect. I’ve been trying to kneel down twice a day, once when I wake, and once just before bed. But I often don’t get the morning time alone, or the Babe wakes up halfway through, leaving me half-prayered. After the initial fervor of the new words running through my mind, and new beads in my fingers, my mind started to wander off a lot. And there’s a certain irony in devising my own prayer ritual in order to submit my ego to the Great Mystery. Not to mention spending almost $70 on pretty beads so that I can get in touch with my heart realm. But I figure the point is to focus your spirit towards your best intentions, and then let the rest work out in the wash.

That’s why they call it ‘practice,’ right?

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I always thought I would grow up to be a kick-ass Alaskan homesteader. By age 15 I had dreamed out in incredible detail how I would build my log cabin, milk goats that survived on willow scrub, tend a garden carved out of the wild bush, hunt, fish, can berries for the long winter. I made countless graph paper sketches of cabin and garden layouts, lists of the groceries my family would need for one year in our bush homestead home.

Oh yes, my future kick-ass self was always a mama. In the fantasies, they blended so seamlessly– homesteading and mothering. Fantasies are lovely that way. In my ‘pre-enactments,’ the kids were perennially about 10 and 12. They did chores and homeschooled. They more or less took care of themselves, Swiss Family Robinson style. I don’t remember ever washing their dishes or doing their laundry (by hand in the creek?) I was busy kicking ass, right?

After the reality of kids, and just life in general, my homesteading vision was tamed down a bit to this punk housewife gig. Lately, in addition to rocking the garden and kitchen, in addition to raising up two gorgeous kiddos, I want to be able to write. A lot, apparently. A friend recently suggested that maybe I’m not meant to be a full time mama. Maybe I should just bite the bullet and sign my kids up for day care. But I don’t want to have to give up being with my kids to write. I don’t want to give up punking my household for either. I want everything I want. I want it all.

Because I’m worth it.**

I am always so profoundly disturbed when I dig deep, deeper within my psyche and unearth– the advertising industry.

Fuck me.

Under everything, all my intellectualizing, my earnest desire to affect change, my renegade claim, my hippie upbringing, my alternative education– under all that self that should know better is a solid foundation of good old American free enterprise. Which has underwritten me with the belief that I can and should have it all.

Capitalism wants you to think that you’re “worth it,” so that you will buy it. Corporations profit hugely off of an infinite desire for more, and a faith in the god of ‘having it all.’ If they can keep us believing that ‘all’ is possible, we will keep spending until we get it.

And they can keep us believing. They have the big bucks to spend on the top pyschologists in the world, to determine exactly how to shape us all into perfect consumers. I hate to venture into conspiracy theory territory here, but if there is a ‘they,’ it’s the ad industry. They have the tools, the brains, the money and the motive to control the entire modern world. Because who is safe from media these days? No one I know, and I know some contenders, believe me.

Media is everywhere. Big Brother had nothing on us. Look around you right now and count corporate logos. How many electronic devices are within reach, how many of them are on? How often do you look at something designed by corporate advertising?

If I think too hard about it, I get completely creeped out. Horror movie style. They are in me! No one is safe!

My Man always laughs at conspiracy theorists. He thinks the government’s too stupid to pull anything like that off. Bumbling idiots, he calls them. And maybe the ad industry is too. Maybe they’re not even trying to rule the world. But no one can argue that they are trying to make the maximum possible profit. And nothing ensures profit like a captive audience with an insatiable appetite.

How does this fit together? The ad industry’s evil plan to take over the world and my worn out “lost dream” story?

Well, here I stand at the ready, insatiable appetite for coffee, chocolate, heirloom seeds, and self-images. I want to be all and everything. I think I deserve to be everything. Wholesome mama, passionate wife, punk urban homesteader, and now respected writer on top of everything else. Who the hell do I think I am?

This is such a big subject, I hesitated to tackle it at all. To plumb the depths of this one would take far, far more time than I have. But let me ask you this? Why do we think we can have it all? Why do we think we are worth it when people all over the world, throughout history have had to be just plain old whatever-their-families-needed-them-to-be in order to put food on the table? Why do we all think we can accomplish so much more in our small lifetimes than anyone else?

And why, oh why, is this even more prevalent among us ‘alternative’ folk? We think we’ve circumvented The Man and his evil plans. We think we’ve banished the rampant consumer instinct, the materialistic desire for moremoremore, when in fact, we just moved it over 6 inches. We want moremoremore life, moremoremore accomplishment.

When My Man and I got together, at some point as courting couples often do, I asked him what he wanted from life. Among other things, he said he wanted to be ‘great.’ I remember scorning him a little, his egotistical desire to make history. Many years later I have finally realized that I wanted to be ‘great’ too, I wanted to accomplish what so many people before me have failed to do, to succeed exceptionally in many things at once.

Everyone I know, same story more or less. We start out thinking we can have it all. When the natural limitations of life start to sink in, typically in the 30s, and we realize we are not going to get it all, we feel disillusioned. We start throwing blame. If we have a family, we blame it on being tied down. If we’re single, we blame it on loneliness. If nothing else, we can always blame it on our parents!

If we could just wipe that slate clean. Stop blaming, stop expecting to be superheros, stop thinking we’re so extra special.

If I could do that.

Oh how my life would be easier! If I could just vanquish the ads.

Because I am worth it. I’m worth not feeling perpetually dissatisfied because I can’t accomplish every single goddamn thing I ever dreamed up. I’m worth feeling worthy without the right mascara/handbag/woodswoman image. I am worth just being me, whatever shape that may take over the course of my lifetime. Homesteader, mother, writer, wife, frumpy stinky me washing my 659th load of dishes in a plain old sink with running water and Joy soap, like every other American housewife. No accessories, no glory. Just me.

We’re all worth it.

**For any overseas readers or folks who grew up under a rock, “Because I’m Worth It” was a slogan created for L’Oreal in 1973 to sell their higher priced hair products. According to AdSlogans: “The message was all about what the woman thought. It was about her self-confidence, her decision, her style. Over time, “Because I’m Worth It” has become part of our social fabric and today an astonishing 80% of women recognize and respond to this positive phrase and powerful sentiment.”

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My first born turned two on July 9th, 2009. She turned three, not surprisingly, exactly one year later. For the duration of that year she was absolutely, without a doubt, every inch of ‘two.’

I’ve heard many different stories since. As she approached her third birthday, people started to say, “Oh, you thought two was rough, just wait till you see three!” But for our girl, it was like clockwork. From birthday to birthday, she fulfilled her 2yo duties. She raged at life. She could scream, like a banshee, like her life was ending, for forty-five motherfucking minutes, throwing her little body around with surprising strength. As with every other part of mothering, I had had no idea what a fit could be like.

They don’t call it a ‘fit’ for nothing. Like in an epileptic fit, she seemed to all but disappear. She became almost possessed, I don’t mean demonically, but in the sense that once she got going, all you could do was stand back, protect her from harm and let the thing take it’s course. They always lasted for at least 20 minutes, 30 was average. During her peak phases, of which there were a few over the course of that year, she had one to two fits per day. During the ‘lulls’ she would average probably 3/week.

I thought I would maybe die.

I want to write this post because I want to expose the possibilities of the two year old. Like everything else, I went into it completely unprepared. I suspect most of us do, removed as we are in this country from small children. I had heard about the ‘terrible twos,’ of course, but I thought screaming fits were a sign of bad parenting. A discipline problem that just required firm, consistent parenting.

I want to write this post, not to scare anyone with an approaching-2yo, every kid is different and what we went through was not necessarily normal, but to reassure anyone entering this difficult phase with a particularly stormy child that these intense fits are also not abnormal.

I don’t have any tips, don’t bother scrolling down for an acronymed ‘fit response system.’ After all that whole year I still have no idea if I could or should have done anything different. Instead of advice, as is my way, I want to offer solace, solidarity. Voicing of what typically goes unsaid.

You are not alone.

Your kid is not a demonic freak.

You are not failing as a parent.

Here’s one thing I did figure out. Parents with dramatic 2yos don’t go out in public. They are too afraid of the public shaming. The people you see, out and about, are the people with the naturally ‘well-behaved’ kids (there are a few in the world). The moms who can actually manage to pull it together to say, brush their hair. Who are relatively confident that their kid will not pitch a fit on them. And when kids do pitch a fit, they are taken kicking and screaming to the car. Out of sight, out of mind.

Because I don’t usually drive, we did have a handful of fits on street corners, and I am talking sitting on the side of the road, trying to contain a screaming, flailing kid for 20-40 minutes (don’t forget newborn in Ergo carrier!) One such occasion was extremely insightful.

We were having the classic, ‘I don’t want to walk home, carry me!’ fight, where I have 20 pounds of newborn strapped on, no stroller because it was such a short walk I wouldn’t need one, right? and I refuse to carry her two and a half blocks, on the principle of the matter. Because she’s throwing a fit about it, and I think I shouldn’t give in to her fits. So, we sit there on the side of the road for 25 minutes. She is screaming like I’m stabbing her heart out, picking up rocks from someone’s driveway and throwing them into the road. A car pulls up.

Fuck me, it’s the person who lives here. Shit. Son-of-a-bitch.

A well put together woman in her 50s gets out of the car. I am trying to physically pull my girl away from the driveway when the inevitable question comes.

“Is everything okay?”

I let out an enormous breath and force a smile. “We’re alright,” I say, “She doesn’t want to walk.” I give that knowing adult look that condescends the child.

The woman kneels down next to my wailing banshee and starts to talk to her. About the walk, the day, what it’s like to have a new baby in the house. At one point she looks up at me and says kindly, “I’m a child psychologist.”

Are you fucking kidding me? Great. Just what I need right now.

But she is just so gentle and understanding, reiterating several times about how hard it is to accept a new sibling, and how hard it is to be two. Eventually the tears dry up and we manage to walk the 2 1/2 blocks back to our own house. Me feeling humbled. My girl completely exhausted.

I want to tell you how you are not alone, but I also want to do what a good friend did for me– I want to give you license to feel empathy for your little person. I had judged so harshly before I had kids. Thinking that fits were to get something. That parents were being manipulated. I have no doubt that this happens, and no doubt it happened to us many times. But it is only one part of the story.

When her fits first started I remember thinking with surprise that they didn’t seem like an attempt to manipulate. Instead it seemed like just so much unbelievably intense emotion had built up that her little body couldn’t contain it and it exploded in one engulfing physical storm. Nevertheless, I thought I was supposed to not give an inch. That this was some kind of trial by fire, I needed to show her that those explosions didn’t get her anything. Not whatever it was she had been refused that had sparked the fit, but also not any kind of special attention that might make her think fits=attention.

Amazingly I would always become calm when these emotional storms hit. Maybe it’s the luck of personality. To me it felt like she just sucked all the air out of the room, like there wasn’t any left for me. I get plenty rageful as a mom, you know that by now, but somehow not when she was raging. One at a time I guess.

For the first few months, my tactic was to remain in the room with her, but withdraw myself emotionally. I felt that I shouldn’t ‘reward’ her ‘bad behavior’ with my attentions. This was extremely awkward, and several times felt downright wrong as she hung from my legs screaming my name in mortal agony while I did my best to ignore her. But as parents often do, I persevered because I thought it was the right thing to do. After about a month, the fits subsided a bit, and I tentatively patted myself on the back for showing her what was not an ‘appropriate’ way to behave.

Of course, that first wave was just one of many. The whole scene resurfacing several times over that year. As I watched her suffer these tremendous hurricanes of emotion, again and again, my feelings that she was trying to get something diminished. I don’t think I even once rewarded her with the original object of her fit. I can be strong that way. Whether I had in fact given her the attention I feared she might equate with acting out is harder to answer. But in the end it became a moot point for me, because I started to feel for her. I started to think how horrible if, during your moment of greatest distress, confusion, terror, your mama stopped being emotionally available to you. I had reassured myself that I had always stayed physically near to her, but have you ever had a lover who lay next to you, skin to skin, yet closed their heart? There are few things in life more isolating, few lonelinesses greater.

Then again, what can you do? Is it right to just sit there and focus on them for 40 minutes? There was nothing particularly I could do for her, she would never let me touch her once she got going. No alternatives were accepted, no derrailing or distracting ever worked. She would have turned down ice cream in the middle of a fit. Literally, all you could do was wait it out.

And what about, quite practically, siblings who need attention as well? Pots on the stove boiling over? Floors needing swept? When your kid is screaming for 20-60 minutes a day, you can’t really afford to just hang out with them throughout their many moments of need. Would it even be right for them emotionally to be the focus in that situation?

Like I said, no answers here. By the end of our year, although my routine was outwardly identical– I would stay in the same room and attempt to do something else– I had made a possibly critical change. I would try to keep my heart open to her. I would check in every few minutes with offers of a glass of water, a snack, or to snuggle on the couch and read a book. The offers were never taken until the storm was on it’s way out anyway. But I felt that offering showed I was still paying attention to the fact that she was having a hard time. I kept the line open between us.

Otherwise I would just let her rage. Which is not so easy as it sounds. She would often be hanging from my leg, screaming at the top of her lungs. I would try to pretend I was still cutting up carrots for dinner or whatever. I felt this conveyed the message that life goes on, that no matter how she felt the world was ending, I was confident that it would continue to exist. I felt like if I made too big of a deal out of her crying that it would reinforce her feeling that in fact something was horribly wrong. I wanted to keep a steady, calm anchor of regular life to her wheeling passion storm. But as I said, for me, the difference was all in my heart. I allowed myself to feel empathy. ‘I see that you are really suffering. I am confident that you will be okay. I am here for you if you need something, I’ll be be cutting these carrots up.’

I am telling you this, not because I think I have it all figured out. Maybe I ruined my kid by not sending her to her own room for these screaming sessions. Or maybe I ruined her by not sitting down to share in her rage. Hell if I know. But, in the end I did what felt right to my heart. And if I have any advice at all, it’s to do what feels right to your heart. I don’t believe as some do that our hearts always lead us the right way, sometimes hard things must be done, things that hurt. But as far as a guiding principle, I think it’s a good one.

Mostly I want you to know that things will change. Children change. Constantly. Fits at two does not mean fits forever. ‘It’s a phase’ always seemed so patronizing to me. Almost derogetory. But damn is it true! And when I take away my own baggage from that phrase, it’s so technically accurate. It’s a phase of development. Like the pupa phase. A fact of life.

I often look at my girl and find myself expecting a miniature adult. She is not an adult, she is four years old. She is a bit more than half her mature physical height and less than a quarter of what could possibly be considered a mature age. Why do I have such a hard time accepting her ‘immature’ behavior?

Your screaming banshee is going through a phase of growth. There are many things to learn, and many of them are very hard. She is becoming aware of herself as separate from you, finding out that she is master of her own self. She is struggling to learn how to wield this power. Imagine the exhilaration and absolute terror at such power!

Do not doubt that she is learning, just as fast as she possibly can. Do not doubt that she is growing and will become a 3yo, a 4yo, a 10yo, an adult. This distance perspective, so often lost to us when we are in the midst of a hurricane year, is perhaps the most important thing of all. Breathe. Open your heart. Stand up once in a while and look out over the horizon– somewhere beyond those black clouds the sky is blue.

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Some time back, after shaking the last bit out of a salt canister, I had a brainstorm. I looked at that big cardboard tube and thought, planetarium! We got right to it, poking star holes with the pointy end of a candy thermometer, removing the metal spout to make a peep hole and lastly painting the whole thing night sky blue.

I finally stood back with pride while my girl squinted up one eye and gazed into her private galaxy. And then it hit me.

Holy fuck. I am a mom.

I looked at a salt can and saw a galaxy tube. My brain thinks in scissors and paint, my house is littered with toys in every room, the walls are plastered with children’s drawings, I stroller my kids to library story-time every Tuesday morning, and I almost always remember to pack a variety of wholesome snacks.

I wasn’t exactly terrified. It just…. caught me by surprise. It always does.

Back when I was a mere three months pregnant with the first and our kind-hearted neighbors started bringing by boxes of second hand kid stuff, I freaked out. I was not going to be one of Those Parents. Whose house is overrun by kids’ toys, whose lives are overrun by kids’ activities. Babies don’t need stuff, I told myself. This pre-stockpiling is completely absurd.

There was one moment in particular– A woman I vaguely knew had called to see if I wanted a baby bassinet. “What’s a bassinet?” I asked. She explained and said she’s bring it by for me to look at. I must have missed her knock at the door, because two hours later when I opened it to go out for a walk, there was an enormous monstrosity of white lace blocking my exit. I gasped. I felt dizzy. I considered taking it straight to the trash, but I am too pragmatic for that. As quickly as I could I stripped off the white lace, hauled the bassinet upstairs and exiled it to a dark closet. Similarly the four huge boxes of cloth diapers. I think I might have even made the woman who brought them by feel bad for dumping them on me.

Lo and behold, a few months later that bassinet became critical to my every day. I would lay the babe in it in the kitchen while I did the few necessaries (a really few).  And the diapers, jesus what an ingrate. I didn’t realize I was being gifted hundreds of dollars worth of extremely nice cloth diapers.

But, they just…. caught me by surprise. I hadn’t thought about diapers and bassinets yet. I was still coming to grips with the fact that I could hardly breathe enough to walk up the mountain trail by our house.

Things have continued at such a pace. I am perpetually several steps behind in the ‘gracious acceptance’ department, always suffering from the arrogant expectation that I would be ‘different.’ Having a second helped drive the point in. I had been adamantly against strollers, but come 6 months pregnant, carrying an almost 2yo up the hill in the Ergo with 20 pounds of groceries strapped on back, my resolve began to melt.

These days I look more or less like any mom. Like a real mom. Kids in the stroller, diaper bag bulging, unwashed hair flying everywhere. Life more or less completely folded around my littles.

I do sometimes long for those footloose days when I imagined what kind of mama I would be, imagined how I would be ‘different.’ Everything is possible in one’s imagination.

But I am becoming more and more comfortable with my place down here amongst the human people. Being a mom with a diaper bag. Thinking in scissors and paint. Finding delight in an old salt can. Being overrun by kids.

In fact on the days that I manage to surrender to my role, I sometimes find myself blissfully happy about the entirety of my mom-ness. Like some earthy Madonna, I feel full with motherhood. Peace descends from above. And it’s good.

Which above all is what catches me by surprise. I am mom. I am okay.

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Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday. A whole big FOUR. And she had a perfect 4yo’s birthday, everything she might have thought to want– balloons, streamers, bear cake with chocolate coconut ‘fur,’ all her best friends, and her favorite party dress.

Oh yeah, and lots and lots of presents. And lots. On and on, all day long. More and more presents.

Are holidays just cursed for me now? I used to love Christmas and birthdays before I had kids. They meant special rituals, glittery lights, people I loved, decadent food. Now they both mean stuff, loads if it. Mostly cheap plastic stuff from China.

I have old fashioned values about stuff. Like, maybe depression-era values. I think a kid should get one or two, maybe three presents. That sounds like plenty to me. Anything else turns their eyes into jelly doughnuts. Kids need fresh air, space to play, raw materials and household objects to imagine into games. Toys get played with surprisingly little, in the full scheme of things. In the meantime, the many pieces and parts get scattered helter-skelter and quickly become just something that needs picked up.

Not to mention the global oppression necessary to supply first-world toy stores with all that bargain priced junk.

I’ve written about this before, and although ranting is good, that’s not what I had in mind today. The thing is, when there is heaps of presents, at any holiday, I get extremely uncomfortable. I have to keep swallowing and swallowing. I mean really, it just about ruins the day for me.

Which seems like a big waste of my time, at best, and the beginnings of a complex in my kids, at worst.

I have lately been pecking away at the book Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves by Naomi Aldort. I find her arrogance almost insufferable, but there is some very good stuff in amongst the bullshit, so I’m trying to keep at it. One of the things that struck me recently was a passage about community. She was refuting the apparently commonly (?) held belief that a close community, like a tribe, is better for kids. She basically said things are just different now. No point romanticizing the past. Let’s embrace the present as it is. Instead of mourning what we lost, let’s appreciate what the present has to offer, the unique benefits of a nuclear family.

This hit on something I’ve been stewing over lately, so I was intrigued. I don’t know if she’s right particularly about the community issue, but what struck me was the overall concept of embracing and appreciating what is, rather than fighting for what isn’t.

I have a renegade nature, I like to fight against what is. The world needs renegades for certain. But I’m a lazy renegade, or at the very least, extremely distracted. I’m not really going to put the effort into serious revolution. Instead I just spend a lot of time obsessively railing against the Way Things Are.

I know it’s good and important to fight for what you believe to be true, but at what point had you better knock it off and just relax into what actually is?

Am I just going to keep hating computers, and using them, and hating them, and using them and hating myself for using them forever? I mean, looks like these suckers are gonna be around for awhile. And more importantly, what about my kids? Looks like computers will be the foundation for their world. Should I raise them for that world, or the one I really, really wish would exist?

Should I just keep hating presents, alienatating myself from the people I love and slowly poisoning my holidays? Or should I accept graciously the reality of the situation and share their joy and excitement at all the fun new toys?

I want to share their joy. I want to show them how to live up to your values. I want them to be unencumbered by guilt and shame. I want it all. But it seems to come down to an either/or. Fight vs. Embrace.

I guess this brings me right back to that old dog, submission, and the perennial Alcoholics Anonymous prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

But even then, there’s only two admitted possibilities. Either you can or cannot change something. I think what plagues me most are the myriad gray tones. If my angsty holidays could change working conditions in China, I’m pretty sure I could live with the fight. Instead, for all my internal turmoil, all of my stern emails to grandparents and moralistically shaming My Man, I might save one or two toys. Keep them on the shelves for someone else to ply their child with…. Stupidly, more than actually effectively helping the world, I am just making the people I love feel bad.

I don’t have any answers. Just a big, fat, crucially important question. Which I suppose must be asked by each individual person, in each individual family and each individual situation.

How do you ask it?

 

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