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Archive for the ‘Home Economy’ Category

These few years in New Orleans have been really great, this place is as good as a city gets– charming old architecture steeped in history, a vitally important music and art scene, fabulous restaurants, a very un-American lack of prudishness, and whole seasons of jasmine and magnolia flowers. But, I am not a city girl. As our return to Alaska approaches I’m getting quite eager for our sleepy little hole in the wilderness where a Saturday drive ‘out the road’ yields adventures like this:

Just as much as the place, I am really yearning to be back in Our Own Home. This rental stuff is fine, but I have been realizing just how much my ‘work’ and my homeplace are intrinsically bonded. I can shop at the farmers’ market and grow a small garden anywhere, but that’s just treading water. To really move forward with the lifework I aim for, to climb the rungs of my chosen ‘career’ ladder, I need to stay in one place. One home which I can continually make more efficient, one chunk of land which I can build up towards my edible Eden, one particular ecosystem which I can come ever closer to knowing.

I have felt it here, the loss. The landscape so unfamiliar, the weather patterns confounding, the flora an almost complete blank (I am a wild plant buff in my home territory). Even eating confused me for a while– a responsible local diet here consists of things I had rarely let myself buy at home and didn’t know how to turn into mainstay meals; let alone that cooking itself is all wrong as a way to approach dinner when it’s 95 degrees in your kitchen. And unlike when I was young and resilient with energy to burn, I found it hard to rally myself for re-learning and re-building everything.

This homesteady lifestyle is all about investment and return. And I’m not talking metaphor. I have put 4 years of hard labor and hundreds of dollars worth of soil amendments into my Alaska garden. I built it up from a sorry looking lawn over a bare inch of topsoil with gravel fill substrate, to 160 square feet of luscious dirt in raised beds. In a town where you cannot, no matter how much you are willing to pay, order a truckload of dirt, those garden beds are pure gold. And they are only going to get better! After the very large up-front investment there is only so much work necessary every year to maintain the beds and build up fertility, but the return will continue to grow.

The garden is the best example, but really my entire lifework is wrapped around sticking to one place. Back in this now proverbial Home, I had also built a tight little chicken coop, put in a 20 foot long raspberry hedge to close off our yard, and spent years setting up an efficient kitchen (not to be underestimated!) Beyond the tangible accrual of humus and building projects, the knowledge of the area and the skills for using local resources grow slowly, over time. I had several years under my belt of ‘local university,’ learning which varieties of vegetables did best in our ridiculously rainy climate, how to process 35 whole sockeye salmon in two days, and creating an internal map of where all the best berries, wild mushrooms and edible plants grew in proliferation.

Very few of you have such an intensely localized tie to one place. Down here in rest of the 48 states, the most green responsible lifestyles are based of farming– whether you do it yourself or support someone else’s effort– and farming is at least recognizably similar throughout the temperate world. Even moving across country doesn’t shake everything you’ve ever known to the ground. Nevertheless, I think we all underestimate the profit to be realized from staying put.

The books always stress that “even renters can grow a garden,” and while that is true, I have built up and left behind a few times now, and I can tell you it is a certain kind of heartbreak. You don’t get to take your equity with you. No one else will recognize the value of your hard work, or care about the money you spent. When you leave, you leave it all behind.

I don’t mean to discourage those of you who do not own your own place, but rather to remind those of you who do how much it means. Don’t take your investments of time and money for granted. Just like in business, the ‘profit’ goes right back in as further investment for many years, which makes it hard to see. But so long as you manage to stay in place (a feat these days), you are building up for future dividends.

I can hardly wait to get back to my own double lot homestead and do some re-investing. My garden beds have been cover cropped for three years and I have a chicken coop full of aged manure. I’ll know what to plant, and when to do it. Times are going to be good.

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Before I move on from January’s Quiet Riot focus of electricity, water and garbage, I want to review a great energy book– The Carbon Free Home: 36 Remodeling Projects to Help Reduce the Fossil Fuel Habit by Stephen and Rebekah Hren. I had looked past this book several times, something seemed too fad-ish about the cover and I expected the projects to be along the lines of ‘replacing your incandescents with CFLs’ and ‘setting up a recycling system.’

But when I finally bit the proverbial bullet and got it out from the library, I realized I had been duped by a good cover designer to think it was fashionable. When in fact it’s a meaty book with loads of substantive projects! The authors are approachable and honest, clear and thorough. I liked it so much, I ordered my own copy.

The book includes a full range of projects– from insulating your fridge to installing solar heating tubes. Each project has a list of stats including the approximate cost, time and potential energy savings. Some are appropriate for renters, though I think the book is much more useful for homeowners who can really re-cap their investment over time. The small to medium sized projects are the stars of the book, in my view– the low to no cost things that most folks could do if they set aside a weekend for set up. The more complex projects would require considerably more information, but this book provides an overview of what’s involved as well as just plain inspiration for things like masonry stoves (yummy).

I look forward to outfitting our own home back in Alaska when we return. I never wanted to live in town, in a real sheetrock and plumbing house (I was going to build a log cabin in the woods), but over time as I’ve come around. I’ve realized the usefulness of it, given the way things actually are. I’ve re-written my goal to owning this modern system, knowing how my plumbing works and how to fix it, and eventually how to divert it into gray water garden irrigation! This book is not just empty inspiration for beginners though, as these books can sometimes be, it’s got real meat.

If you are thinking about putting a little time into the energy efficiency of your home, this would be a great place to start.

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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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So. I know you’re all wondering. Have I been busily crossing important things off of my list? Reigning our filthy house into order and keeping my precious babes’ eyes from dvd-vegetation? Reinstating yoga and atheist prayer practice?

Nope. Yet another sick bug hit our house last week, even though the kids were still coughing like old smokers from the last doozy. What is it about this time of year? Everyone I know is either sick or recovering from being sick, literally! And it was exactly the same story last winter at this same time. I know the line about how everyone stays inside more in the winter and breathes everyone else’s stale air, but here in the tropics we do the exact same thing in the summer. And we hardly get sick at all in the summer! So? What is it?

I shouldn’t say I failed completely in crossing things off the list. I did get a little quality time in my kitchen with a shaker of baking soda and an old rag, on two separate occassions. I didn’t make it all the way around, only 2/3 before I got sick. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s to accept change in small quantities– that’s the only way it ever comes.

do i need to explain the significance of a clean cabinet?

Besides those shimmery beacons of 2/3 joy right up there, guess what else I made the time for? (Quite predictably.)

Yup, I used my Saturday afternoon off to put together my very first punk homemaker’s journal. I was going to compile my specific arrangement of papers and take it to Kink*s to have it spiral bound, but then I accidentally found a Miraclebind notebook. I’m not sure I’m prepared to rave about it yet, but if it holds up I will. It’s a spiral notebook with good stiff covers, folds nicely in half for couch cozy-ing, and each piece of paper has slits behind the holes so that you can take the paper out, move it to a different spot and put it back in. They call it a “miracle” and say it “self-heals,” but really there’s nothing miraculous going on– the paper pulls out because it’s not really in there very good to begin with. They claim you can re-position each piece of paper several times, but honestly I will be surprised if it holds up all year.

The notebook was just plain lined paper and I had to gussy it up quite a bit. I printed out calendar sheets on heavy paper (so that they would hold up better), double sided– January on one side, February on the other– then punched holes along one edge, using a piece of the notebook’s original paper as a guide. I snipped the edge of each hole so that I could stick the page into the spiral binding. Then I put one calendar sheet, one lined sheet, calendar, lined, etc so that each month faces a lined page for notes.

Then I used some cheap pocket folders to divide the remainder of the book into Kitchen, Garden and Home. The folders were hard to punch holes in, but worth it because they provide plenty of space for sticking random stuff in. A very important feature, me thinks.

The Kitchen section is just plain lined paper for keeping track of recipes and experiments. The Garden and Home sections have alternating one piece of lined with one piece of graph paper (added in), so that I can sketch out garden layouts or my latest wood butchering project and write notes opposite. I considered adding calendar pages to my garden section, but decided it’s just as easy to use a piece of lined paper– each line = one week, four lines/month means you can schedule quite a lot on a single piece of paper. Note that I don’t ever, ever follow my planting schedules, but my oh my I do enjoy making them.

As described thoroughly in the comments on the original post, this journal/planner is an extremely individual thing. Everyone has different stuff to keep track of. Some of you would want menu planning pages, knitting paper, homeschool project sheets. An infinite number of subjects. I kind of wish my journal had ended up a bit more… more, but the notebook I started with could only fit so many add-ins. There’s just barely enough room in the spine left for turning the pages. If I had it to do over, I might go with the original plan to have Kink*s bind my perfect layout. But really, this one is fine. Lots of space in there for whatever hair-brained schemes I might imagine in a year.

Such as this sneak-peak. Because did you know Mardi Gras is approaching fast? And did you remember that I am in love with it? And had you realized furthermore that this would be my last Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and if ever I was going to go all out baby, it would be now!

My sister, my ex (our costuming days go way, way back) and another very close friend are all coming to visit and we are pulling out all the stops. My original idea was a hot air balloon, but alas that one was too big even for me. We settled instead on a Chinese junk. Are you familiar with these awesome old-school sailboats still in use today? But we can’t just take a thing straight on, we like to give it flavor, perversion. Our theme is ‘post-apocalypse,’ an old favorite because you can blend primitive, vintage and post-industrial all together. So my style.

The boat is going to be 16 feet long from bowsprit to stern, made out of pvc pipe and tarpaper, mobilized by a pair of jogging strollers. This may seem completely insane to you, but people do this sort of thing here at Mardi Gras. A lot of people. It is awesome.

My brain does feel very fuzzy though. What with the boat plans, quiet riot, cloth diaper post, packing and mailing zines, house scouring, movie stopping,  mucus congestion and wow–! Thank dog I have a place to write it all down.

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Yes, I did get a good chance to climb back out of the hole I was in. I got time to be creative, finish a project, have dates with friends, and generally re-connect with myself as a grown-up. As I’d hoped, the break mellowed me back into a much better, more joyful and more appreciative mama. Thank goodness for the power of renewal!

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, but I did have a line-up of goals for ‘after the break’ when I would be a repaired and re-energized person. I have fallen into some serious sloth and indolence over the last few months, at every level, and I feel ready to do something about it. I know it’s not a good idea to take on too many goals at once, but what if they are all things that you had managed to do in the past and just need to re-instate? Doesn’t that make it a bit more realistic?

Number One on my list is screentime. I’m feeling okay about mine, but the explosive quantity of movie time for the kiddos over the last four months has been bothering me to the point of soul-destruction. I am sure that I over worry about it– plenty of kids watch 3, 4, 5 or even 6 hours of actual commercial-laden television every day and live to tell therapists about it. My kids watch 1-4 hours/day, 2-3 hours on average, of relatively good quality dvds. You have no idea how much it kills me to admit to that ‘4.’ Granted, four is a bad day, but nevertheless, jesus christ, how has this happened?!?!? We have gone in and out of better and worse phases, but I feel the kids themselves are on a better phase right now, and I need to catch onto their coat tails.

Because, don’t you know, getting them to shave down their movie watching isn’t so hard as getting me to shave down on my time to get shit done without someone hanging on my leg! I’m the one in need of weaning here. Mornings are the critical time too, the time when I most hate to see their beautiful wide eyes get sluggish with movie-hypnosis. The time when I most sharply want (need!) 40 minutes of relative peace to get my brain in order! (And then, since they’re plugged in anyway, another 20 minutes to get breakfast made and our bag packed with snacks, water and diapers for out morning outing. Oh god, it’s glorious to just be able to go about this simple task!)

But, it’s no good I say. I have called a pretty complete halt to the first-thing-upon-waking movie watching, and I am making an effort to cut out some from the rest of the day too. Although many of the mothers I most respect manage to do their job with no movies at all, I feel like if my kids averaged an hour and a half per day I would feel good.

Next on the list, and don’t ask me how I plan to accomplish both of these at the same time, is cleaning the goddamned house! This place has really fallen from grace. It’s not nearly so bad as it was this time last year, but I think I am ready to re-new a similarly intensive cleaning standard. For those of you who have asked, and I’m sorry it took me so long to respond, I did not keep up that 1 room/day schedule for more than a few months. But that doesn’t bother me. Turn’s out it’s a lot of work to keep your house that clean, and I am not a clean house person– I don’t feel the need to live in constant cleanliness. I just don’t like utter filth and oblivion. The massive overhaul of last January helped me to reign in a house that was completely out of control, and the following 1 room/day schedule re-programmed my brain to an expectation of relative cleanliness which carried me through most of the rest of the year. I was very grateful for it.

Now, it’s time to push that re-set button again.

Those are the two main things. Then of course there’s the perennial desire to get more exercize, do 10 minutes of yoga every day, resume my atheist prayer practice which fell completely off the radar a couple of months ago, and oh yeah… relax and enjoy my kids.

Wow. How to achieve so many things at once? Of course the answer is that I can’t. A thorough post on accepting limitation and setting priorities is brewing in my mind, but in the meantime there is only one thing that can possibly even nudge everything in the right direction at once, and that is being more organized and efficient.

I do love to make a plan. In some ways, sitting around planning to do is ridiculous. But for me it helps to have a spark, an inspired motivation. And if that takes a little time “wasted” with pencils and paper at the outset, that’s okay.

So when my friend explained the concept of a Homemaking Journal the other day, I was snared. Have you heard of them? I’m not sure what they really are, I did a quick g**gle search which was immediately co-opted by a religious, pink ribbons and needlepoint kind of homemaking. But my vision, formed by the description my friend gave me and built upon over the last few days, is a giant notebook where the specifics of everything I do in my day, all the kinds of things I write about here, are laid out in an organized and comprehensive manner. My friend had made one out of a 3 ring binder, which is of course what makes sense. Take papers out, add more in, move around. But, is it just me? I hate 3 ring binders. They are no pleasure at all to write in, and what good is a giant Life Planner if you can’t curl up on the couch and make lists in it?

As much as I should be using the time to actually do the stuff, I can’t resist this opportunity. I am designing my perfect Journal/Planner and it is going to be awesome. Lined paper, graph paper, calendar sheets and pocket dividers all in a spiral binding so I can get snugly with it. And I thought y’all might have some advice before I do this thing. Here’s my ideas so far:

The front section will be a weekly planner/calendar, followed by some lined pages for general notes, to-do lists, books I want to read, websites, inspiration, ideas, etc. The kinds of things I usually write on little scraps of paper and lose immediately.

Then a Kitchen section, with a pocket for snipped out recipes to try (even though I almost never actually do), lined pages for recipes I make up as I’m cooking (which I do actually do, a lot), notes on how things work, kitchen ideas, grocery lists, etc.

The Garden section will have graph paper for sketching layouts, as well as blank calendar pages for figuring out crop timing. Also lined paper for assorted notes, seed lists, etc.

Then, bane of my life, the Cleaning section. A slim little volume with lined paper to write out my various soap and laundry detergent recipes, and imagine more good cleaning schedules not to follow.

What do you think? What would you add? What are the things you like and need to keep track of in your life?

Since I am going to buy the paper and figure it out and do the binding (at Kinkos) anyway, I am incredibly tempted to make extras for y’all.  Wouldn’t that be a cool project! The annual Apron Stringz Punk Homemakers Journal. Ooo, I like it.

I’m afraid that zine-making was entirely too addictive.

 

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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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Kyce from Old Recipe for a New World (she doesn’t write often, but always wonderful) wrote a great post a few weeks back called Letting Go: The Christmas Edition. Oh honey, don’t I know it!

I (love)(hate) Christmas. I really do. I’ve written about it every year since I began blogging [here, here and here], and lord knows I don’t want to repeat myself. Suffice it to say, I seem to be finally catching on that this infernal holiday of compromised values begins in November. It’s taken me a full 34 years to get my head around that. I am determined to be prepared this year, thinking ahead for quality gifts in order to avoid getting caught by the last minute Icky Gifting.

I want to share my few ideas, and get your ideas. If we pool mental resources here, maybe we can pull this off without too much heartbreak. Well, it gives us something to hope for. I’m putting it on my list anyway,

Dear Santa,

This Christmas, please just let me relax and enjoy the generosity of loved ones without too much ethical compromise, personal angst, or familial alienation.

Yours,

CJ

We are spending our Christmas at home this year, with my mom coming. That will help right off the bat. My in-laws, godbless’em, have too much money to restrain at the holidays. My mom would probably go as crazy as them if old-hippie poverty didn’t keep her in check.

For whatever reason, Christmases with my mom are always much smaller than with the in-laws. In fact, it’s one of the best times of year for our otherwise very strained relationship, at least we can bond about Christmas and how it ought to be.

Which is sparkly lights, the smell of evergreen and cinnamon, whispered secrets and The Animals’ Merry Christmas.

My list of secrets so far looks like this:

For the 4yo– a dollhouse. She wrote her first ever letter to Santa asking for one. I am making it myself of course, more on this soon as I realize how in over my head I am.

For the 2yo– a train table. He already has a nice wooden train set, just needs a table and a way to semi-permanently attach the track to it.

For My Man– Oops, tut-tut, he might be reading….

For my mom, sister, MIL and sister-in-law– freshly ground and personally mixed organic spice set. I’m pretty excited about this idea. If you’ve never smelled or used freshly ground spices, it’s an epiphanal moment. It makes you want to sweep your arm through your (inevitably stale) spice cabinet, straight into the trash. All these ladies like to cook, but don’t get to do that much complicated cooking, and I think will appreciate really kick-ass, unique spice blends. I’m going to do a Mexican mole, Moroccan ras al hanout (unbelievable! the smell makes me swoon!) and a not-your-average-Italian blend with juniper berries and fennel. All these are fantastic with meat, but can also rock a pot of beans. I even ordered a pound of fancy Hawaiian finishing salt. Part of reason I’m excited about this idea is because I’ll get a share too! I never order fresh spices for myself because replacing a whole collection is expensive, and I don’t use that much over the course of the year. Fresh spices make much more sense for a group of people than for just me in my lonesome kitchen. I spent almost $80 on organic, fair trade spices, which sounds like a lot (feels like a lot!!!) but then I have four of my important gifts covered, plus plenty leftover for my own pantry.**

The father and brother-in-law I think My Man will cover. Hopefully at the local artisan market, lots of awesome stuff there.

Grandparents get the standard (they love it) calendar of cute kid photos.

I made a batch of homemade soap (it’s gotta cure for 3 weeks, so do it now!) and some lip balm for those last minute little gift moments. It’s good to have tricks up your sleeve. The lip balm takes all of 3 minutes once you secure the beeswax.

That leaves a 4yo cousin and a 12yo half-sister. Any ideas?

I will be filling you in more about all the above gifts over the course of the month. I have lots of Riot-y ‘stuff’ subjects to cover, as well as lots of good Christmas ideas, like the adorable songbird tree ornaments me and the kids made this morning out of tag-board and poster paint! In fact I’ve been feeling inspired to do a series, “Christmas– It Doesn’t Have to Suck Ass.”

Please leave your favorite homemade gift ideas in the comments, especially for children. If you have posted anything on your own blog, leave a link. We can all use some extra inspiration this time of year!

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**If anyone else thinks this spice mix idea is brilliant and wants to tag along, I ordered from Mountain Rose Herbs. you would think organic spice would be more expensive, but the Mountain Rose prices averaged around $3.50/4oz, which is quite good. I ordered the spices whole in 4oz bags (the smallest size available), I’ll grind them in our coffee grinder and package them in 1/2 cup (the really tiny size) canning jars. This wouldn’t be worth it for less than 4 or 5 gift recipients, and I think could cover more like 6 or 7. I will give y’all the recipes when I get to that point, but if you want to follow along, here’s what you’ll need to order:

  • allspice berries 4oz
  • black peppercorns 8oz
  • whole chile peppers, or red pepper flakes 4oz
  • cinnamon sticks 8oz
  • whole cloves 4oz
  • cumin seed 8oz
  • ginger, ground 4oz
  • juniper berries 4oz
  • whole nutmeg 4oz
  • fennel seed 4oz
  • thyme 4oz
  • rosemary 4oz
  • sage 4oz

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