Renegade Sister

That last post was partially just to have written a post, so that I could share with you yet another link. This one is very exciting for me. In fact, I’m a little bit pissed off that none of you ever told me about this. Is it really possible that we do not share any readers?

My new blog crush is titled Renegade Mothering. Yeah. Obviously we are sisters. I stumbled upon Janelle’s blog while doing an internet search for “Waldorf circle time” (more on that later). Which is hilarious, as you will understand after you read her work.

Renegade Mothering is not for the Waldorf set. It is not for those of you who tolerate my swearing and sarcasm for the sake of my generally wholesome content. This woman makes me look like a nun. She doesn’t write about cooking or homesteading or housewifery or fighting The Man, nor does she delve deep into the emotional pysche of motherhood. Nope, instead Renegade Mothering is a ranty bitch. If you enjoy the juxtaposition of foul mouthed mama writing, an extremely heavy dose of sarcasm and laughing like a hyena, check it out.

I simply could not choose a single post to direct you toward. You should probably start with Playdate in My Trailer and 19 Things You Must Know About Me. Are You Ready for Parenthood? A Helpful Checklist is hilarious and Parenting in the Gray Area will make you spit your coffee all over the computer.

But, if the idea of a post entitled I Wonder Which One of My Kids Will Grow up to Be a Crackhead offends you, Renegade Mothering may not be for you.

Becoming Handy

***Today’s guest post is from Kristen, who writes at Sustainable Suburbia, as well as her personal blog, Narrating Kayoz. I am so excited to still be featuring these wonderful guest posts. Thank you to everyone who has written! I just love the chance to read your perspectives.***

Hi CJ & Apron Stringz fans!

When CJ first put the guest post idea out there, I immediately thought of a post I’ve been tossing around in the back of my head for a while, partly inspired by CJ’s post on little girls, lip stick and nail polish. It’s a post about boys and girls and their books, and why & how boys can enjoy books about girls, just as much as girls can (and always have) enjoyed books about boys. It’s also about why, “If you want to fix the male literary crisis, here’s your solution: Become a feminist.

But that post will have to wait a bit longer, because I’ve been reading Shannon Hayes and thinking lots about skills loss, and I can’t get my head back to kid’s books just now.

I’m currently reading (and loving) Shannon Hayes’s book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, but the truth is I am not a radical. Whenever I compare myself to CJ (I know, a completely unhelpful thing to do), I am reminded of the line in the Dar Williams song, “The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis Of A Co-ed”,

“I’m not a leader, I’m not a left-wing rhetoric mobilizing force of one,
But there was a time way back, many years ago in college, don’t laugh,
But I thought I was a radical…”

Oh, yes, way back in college.

I turned 40 at the end of last year and sometimes I really feel middle aged and conservative and frankly, boring (not bored though – who has the time for boredom?). Settled and, yes, housewifely. (Actually I suck at being a housewife, but that’s another story).

This is where I am:

I am married to a wonderful man, who shares the work with me – paid and unpaid – pretty evenly. I have the three most delightful and dreadful children (okay, the youngest one’s not dreadful yet, but Three is just around the corner, and if you’ve ever had a three-year-old you know what that means). I have a mortgage on a smallish sized suburban block with a three bedroom house. I have visions of being off-grid, energy efficient, having composting toilets, rain water tanks and of growing as much of our own food as we can on a little over an 1/8th of an acre, including raising meat chickens.

What we do have is three chooks who give us eggs and lots of entertainment. We have only a tiny vegetable garden, since the couch grass more or less took over while we weren’t looking, when our two-year-old was a baby. We have a growing collection of herbs in pots in our sheltered front courtyard. We have a bunch of fruit trees, though three of them are yet to go into the ground, but only one mature one, an incredibly prolific lemon tree. We have half a roof full of solar panels – far more than we need for our own power needs, but being grid connected we figure the excess is going some small way towards making us carbon neutral. And we have two small rainwater tanks which generally cover the needs of our food garden.

What we lack, more than anything else, is skills.

Shannon Hayes explains how most mainstream Americans have lost the skills that would “allow them to live an ecologically sensible life with a modest or low income.” Mainstream Australians are in much the same boat. The particular skills she talks about in that paragraph – knowing how to roast a chicken, or using the leftover carcass to make a stock – I happen to have.  And most other kitchen skills I feel I’d be able to learn pretty easily, even if I don’t have the time or energy to get there just yet (homemade bread, I’m lookin’ at you).

But where I really feel lacking – and unfortunately my husband is not far ahead of me – is in ‘handy’ skills, like building and repairing things around the house and garden.

CJ had a post once in which she talked about her advantage in having grown up with hippy parents, so that she had a head start (compared to most people today) with being self-sufficient. [CJ if you know the post I’m talking about, throw in a link – I did I bit of a search, but couldn’t find it] I grew up with middle class, private school educated parents who barely knew how to hang a picture on a wall.

To be fair, my father was an only child who was sent to a boys boarding school at the age of five, spent most of his holidays at his grandma’s (probably a blessing), and pretty much survived by keeping his head firmly in books. My mother had a comparatively normal upbringing and probably could actually hang a picture – she certainly could now – but she was working part-time by the time I was six (when my parents separated), and later full-time, and so she really was part of that generation that Hayes talks about where women moved into the work force en masse and the corporate world responded by giving them more things to spend their money on, to reduce their domestic tasks, thus allowing them to work more and buy more things.*

Actually, my mother taught me to knit, though I do it badly, and to cook (more or less), and more importantly, gave me a lifelong (so far) interest in self-sufficiency and environmental stewardship. Although I don’t feel I grew up developing the skills I needed for that life, certainly we always composted, had a vegetable garden, and recycled all our cans, glass and paper, long before it was trendy.

I should also pay some tribute here to my step-father, who was of working-class farming stock and is still my go-to man when I need to figure out how to do something of a handyman nature. We didn’t get along well when I was a child, worse when I was a teenager, and I don’t know that I learned many actual skills from him. But I learned that you could do things yourself, you didn’t always need to call in a professional, and that knowledge was probably more important than any individual skills I could have gained.

When I was about eight, my parents (mother & step-father that is) decided to move to the country and become self-sufficient. They’d been reading Grass Roots magazines, and wanted to make the tree-change so popular today. That’s my memory of things anyway, I’m sure they might have a different story to tell. But – fortunately, I thought at the time – they were unable to sell our house in suburban Canberra, so the tree-change never happened.

But that yearning has always been there for them I think, and they passed it on to me. At 70-odd, and semi-retired, my mother now makes her own soap, laundry liquid, jam and bread. She’s finally convinced my step-father to get chickens, and of course their vegetable garden remains much more flourishing than ours! My sister, who lives in outer Melbourne and has a block maybe half the size of ours, also has chooks and an organic, permaculture style backyard. And my brother was the first in the family to have a worm farm. So although I feel I grew up without gaining many handy skills, I do have the philosophical support of family in my efforts to move to a more self-sufficient lifestyle, which I value highly.

So now I live on my suburban block with my own family and we slowly, slowly move towards a more sustainable, self-sufficient life. We’ll never be truly self-sufficient, nor do I even think that’s something to aim for. We live in a community, and developing community resilience and self-sufficiency is probably at least as important as what we do on our own little block.

But gaining those skills we have lost (as a generation) will, I think, be important for both those endeavours.  Hayes points out that many of the ‘male’ skills were the first lost to domestic households, when men made the move out of the home and into the industrial revolution. “[H]ow to butcher the family hog, how to sew leather, how to chop firewood” are the skills she mentions. Those were lost long ago, to most families. But how to fix your own car (or even judge what the problem is), patch up the hole in your plasterboard wall, or repair your own fence, are skills that my step-father certainly has, but that few of my own peers have.

Those are the sorts of skills I want to reclaim. Sure, I am making (some of) my own jam, using my mother’s homemade soap, and want to get more into preserving the food we grow (or even food we buy at the farmers’ markets when it’s in season). But I also want to be able to prune my own hedges, fix my own deck, build my own raised garden bed. Especially, I want to be able to use salvaged timber and corrugated iron, instead of feeling like I need to buy a kit, so as to be able to achieve a good outcome.

So that’s where it’s at for me. I am learning to crochet and preserve and cook seasonally, but I have my sights set on learning skills that use hammers and nails and saw horses.  What are your skills shortages, or what are you learning now?

By the way, where you will usually find me is at or  my personal blog, narrating kayoz. And that post on boys and books? It will probably show up eventually at my other, other blog, kayoz talks books. Now, what about those skills?


* I don’t mean to imply that my mother became a major consumer or even that she didn’t cook mostly from scratch – in fact I don’t think pre-packaged & convenience food really made it to Australian in a big way until the 80s and more so the 90s. But she was part of the generation that didn’t pass on many of the homemaking skills their mothers took for granted, like making jam or other preserves, or even mending clothes or knitting beanies, because a  simply lack of time, and probably also a perceived lack of need.


Those of you who know me, or have read here for awhile will not be surprised to hear that after taking this long computer break for the past month, my passion for it has waned to near zero. Once separated from the catalyst of my addiction, I remember how my brain can feel unplugged– slow, quiet sometimes, not always jumping around like a mouse in a cage.

It feels good.

I won’t say I have been having a blissful last few weeks, in fact I am caught up in all kinds of as yet unexplained confusion of the psyche, but the deep breath that a mostly device-less daily life affords is very, very good.

What does this mean for this blog? I am not sure yet. I love to write, and have so enjoyed this space. I want to being able to keep writing. But when you are online, a world of (pseudo) information and connections are at your fingertips, and it is impossible for me not to flit from one thing to another. It is that intrigue of infinite possibility which becomes, for me, the ever gaping maw– opening to consume more and more of my life and time– and eventually altering the very foundation of how my brain functions.

Perhaps I will be able to write just once a week, I think my content here was better when I was just writing once a week anyway. Writing can get watered down by too many words. That’s the very thing about this internet actually, more = less.

Thankfully there are a few guest posts left to bide the time while I consider whether I am capable of being master over this virtual world, or whether it will always be the other way around. Thank you so much to everyone who wrote for me, for us, over this break. I am forever indebted.

Maine Cooking

***This week’s post is from an old friend, Jessica, who currently lives in Maine. I know fiddlehead season is long past in most of the country, but do make a note to try them next spring. They are still coming up around here in spots where the snow was banked and has just melted off. I introduced them to the kids as “curlycues” and so far they have gobbled them down. I want to point out that although Middle Eastern chermoula sounds exotic and fancy, it is super easy. We are talking weeknight dinner material if you have a food processor. Thanks for the post Jessica!***

CJ and I are high school friends from Alaska. For my guest blog, I originally planned to delve deep into my psyche and tackle an analysis of how CJ and I have grown up through the years – choosing life paths that are both dramatically different yet remarkably similar.

Then I chickened out.

It’s not really until you sit down to write a blog entry that you realize how scary it is.  CJ really puts herself out there. I have a whole new appreciation for the vulnerability involved, as I write this.  So, yeah, I’m going to take the safe route (this won’t surprise CJ, and probably would have been one of my talking points on that other blog – smile)…

Let’s talk about food! Food is safe! In particular, let’s talk about cooking with local foods in Maine. Last night, I whipped up a bunch of middle eastern food with Maine ingredients.

First off, you probably think of moose and lobsters when you think of Maine. And that’s not that far off from the truth. It is a wonderfully wild state in which to live. Last weekend, my whitewater paddling friends were driving down a logging road during our canoe shuttle, and saw a moose AND a bear crossing the road AT THE SAME TIME (although separated by a few hundred yards). If you can’t live in Alaska, then Maine is clearly next runner up.

Middle Eastern Cooking

I’m basically a novice chef and rely on cookbooks.  I enjoy following recipes, especially the first time through.  If you want to get into middle eastern cooking, I’d recommend Claudia Roden’s book, The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. My top three favorite recipes out of this book are the lentil soup (not your college student days lentil soup), chicken in plum sauce, and the sholezard (saffron rice pudding dessert).  The recipes are very straightforward, and the only hurdle to middle eastern cooking in Maine is finding the middle eastern spices for a reasonable price in such a rural area.


Side Dish – Fiddleheads

Mainers love their fiddleheads. Technically, these are ostrich ferns. They are found in the early spring (which means late April or  early May here in Maine). Fiddleheaders canvass river banks that were recently flooded and harvest the fronds. Classically, people sell fiddleheads from their vehicles along the side of the road. Picture a guy sitting in a lawnchair with a cooler and a cardboard sign.  People are very protective of their fiddleheading spots; you’d never ask someone where they fiddlehead – just like you’d never ask an angler where their special fishing hole is or a wild blueberry picker where their field is located. Collecting fiddleheads in Maine is a tradition that goes back millennia with the Wabanki Indians, including the nearby Penobscots.

Currently, fiddleheads are running $2.50-3.50/pound. I first had them while visiting Maine, and then looked for them when I returned to Minneapolis where I was living at the time. I could only find them at Whole Foods and they were $17.00/pound! Here’s what they look like:


They’re not that hard to cook, but they do need to be cooked thoroughly due to the acid in them. If you don’t cook them enough, you’ll get a wicked stomach ache.

Some of the easy preparations are to boil them and then add butter and salt. They get mushy but I was always afraid of the stomach ache. And, to be honest, I didn’t like them that much but ate them anyway because that’s what Mainers eat. Then I got brave. Now I sometimes half-cook them and put them on pizzas. I love ricotta, sausage, fiddleheads, and garlic pizza. I hear they’re amazing in omelets.

Another local delicacy is Maine shrimp. These are also sold roadside, although also in the grocery stores and fish markets. They are incredibly tiny, like popcorn shrimp. I have a recipe for a sweet and sour shimp fiddlehead soup. Basically, you use chicken broth and white vinegar to taste for the broth, then put the itty bitty Maine shrimp and whatever seasonings you want (hot pepper, garlic, black pepper, cumin, etc.) into a food processor. This makes a stinky shrimp paste. With the broth heated up, drop the shrimp paste in spoonful by spoonful. It cooks nearly on contact into little flavorful shrimp balls. Then add the fiddleheads at the end and boil them for just enough time to cook them. This probably sounds very strange, but it is super tasty, healthy, and full of flavor. If you don’t have fiddleheads, you could substitute in any sort of strong vegetable (e.g, brussel sprouts).

Last night, I just went with a simple olive oil and garlic sauté to the al dente point and then put a lid on it to finish the cooking process. They maintained great texture that way.


Main Dish – Haddock in Chermoula Sauce

One thing I really miss about Alaska is the salmon and halibut. Not only do I miss eating these fish, I miss being able to catch them with my own pole or net. Growing up we would eat salmon at least once a week. Now, my local salmon is the Atlantic salmon and the native variety is threatened on the Penobscot River. So, it is not possible to go catch them yourself. Besides, they’re also really small compared to Alaska’s five types of salmon. This creates one of those sustainability crises (first world problem, I know). If I want the local fish, I would have to get farm-raised Atlantic salmon. If I want my usual wild fish, I would have to deal with the carbon footprint of flying it from Alaska to Maine. And, I can’t find halibut at all up here. So what’s a gal to do? People recommended haddock to me, but it is often compared to cod. I’ve never been a cod fan. Cod is oily; cod is translucent. Blah. But, in a desperate moment of wanting white fish, I got some haddock. It turns out that haddock is great! A fish that can be found just offshore of both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, including offshore of Maine, it appears that populations are currently doing “okay.” Greenpeace has alert out that they could come from unsustainable sources, so it’s important to get them from U.S. regulated fisheries, if that’s of concern to you. They feed on small invertebrate critters, and only occasionally on other fish, so don’t need to fret too much about bioaccumulation or mercury issues. It’s not as thick as halibut, but it is much more like halibut than it is like cod. It’s solid white meat that holds together well. It has a very light flavor (not “fishy). And it goes great with chermoula sauce!

For the chermoula sauce, Claudia Roden recommends:

  • 2/3 cup fresh cilantro (I used the whole friggin’ bunch)
  • 4 cloves of garlic (I used 6 big ones)
  • 1 tsp cumin (I used 1.5 tsp)
  • 1 tsp paprika (I used 1.5 tsp)
  • ¼- ½ tsp ground chili power (optional) (I used ½ tsp of Penzy’s Chili 9000)
  •  6 Tbl olive oil
  • Juice from 1 lemon

Put all this in a food processor and make a paste. Then, use a casserole dish and lay the haddock or other white fish on top of a bed of FINELY sliced onions. I forgot to take a picture of the naked haddock, so my apologies. Bake at 350-400 degrees until it’s done.


At this point, you’ve made a VERY green meal, so a little contrasting color is necessary. Carrots are easy.

It was tasty!

I appreciate the opportunity to guest blog!

Family Food Revolution: Eating Vegetables at Every Meal

***Today’s guest post is from Holli, who blogs at Scratch Treehouse. I requested this subject, since she had referred to her journey a few times in comments. I think most of us could use a little encouragement in the kids-eating-veggies department…. Thanks Holli!***


I was eight months pregnant with baby number two. Baby number one wasn’t yet two years old and I decided he better start taking a multivitamin. He had become a very picky eater subsisting on grains and dairy and potatoes (if you count French fries as potatoes). He’d eat apples and fruit, but never vegetables. I rationalized that he must be getting some vitamins from all the veggies I ate while he was breastfeeding. But, as baby number two got closer to arriving, I knew I could not keep this up.

One day, I struggled to keep him contained in a big Super Vitamin store, and I felt some defeat. Here I was buying vitamins in a bottle because I couldn’t get my son to eat them from food. And I thought, thankfully, they make vitamins for kids that taste like candy.

Almost one year later, baby number two was starting to eat solids. She still breast-fed, but loved solid food too. She was not content with just soft mashed up carrots and apples. She had to try everything on my plate. Sometimes that meant steamed veggies, sometimes meat and grains. She started to show a preference for meat, dairy and grains. Without much outside influence she started to push away the veggies. And she was barely one-years-old.

During that same time frame, I started to notice her being constipated. At her 9 month check up I had noticed it and mentioned it to the doctor who assured me this was just normal for starting solid foods. By her 12-month check up, I was worried. Pooping had become a long, painful struggle. My daughter would hold it in until she couldn’t any longer and cry while pooping. I was sure something was wrong.

Then came 9 months of specialists, laxatives, natural practitioners and we only got to the point of her pooping once a week. Finally, I consulted a Chinese Herbalist who told me point blank: eat vegetables. And, there were a few extra things like herbs, but I felt like someone had shaken me up. Within 2 weeks she had improved to pooping twice a week.

That first week I struggled: How in the world could I get her or her brother to eat vegetables? I remembered one visit with a Naturopathic team where one intern suggested I increase vegetables in my daughter’s diet. I kept a food journal for her, religiously recording every single thing she ate for 9 months. Everyone praised me on how well she was eating except that one intern. Turns out she was right. So, that is what changed me from believing kids won’t eat veggies to knowing they need them like they need to be potty trained.

I cried my first day on the vegetable crusade in our house. I knew I needed help, so I checked out books from the library on how to sneak vegetables into recipes so kids will eat them. I tried a few recipes, but something was nagging at me. I wondered, if I’m hiding the vegetables, will they every really learn to eat them? It just felt wrong.

I shared my struggle with a girl friend who is a Speech Pathologist (she helps kids under 3 learn to eat who have developmental difficulty speaking or eating). She suggested some things:

1) Introduce one food for a week or more

2) Let them notice it on the table or your plate before making them eat it

3) Present the food in different ways: raw, cooked, etc

4) Don’t give up: try letting the kid feel it and watch you cook it, build curiosity

5) Keep at it

And so, I kept trying. My daughter was just over 2 years old when we started. She noticed the difference with pooping and started to understand that she needed veggies for good poops. Within a month she was eating a veggie serving at every meal. My son was more steadfast in his Picky Eater mindset. I knew he’d be harder to persuade since he’d grown up to that point not having to eat much of them.

I checked out some books from the library on vegetables so the kids would start to be curious about the different types. The ones that perked their interest the most were:

Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables from A to Z by Lois Ehlert

Strega Nona’s Harvest by Tomie DePaola

The Vegetables We Eat by Gail Gibbons

I also adopted a spot on an elderly friend’s garden. I had heard that if you get kids in the garden where they can see things grow and help harvest, they’ll eat them too. Well, that certainly helped my daughter up her veggie intake, but my son was still a hard core Picky Eater.

Lucky for me I got the chance to try out the methods in a new book, “The No Cry Picky Eater Solution Book” by Elizabeth Pantly. I tried her suggestions before it was printed and slowly but surely, things began to change.

We got him to eat carrots, then broccoli. Just a few months ago, after a year and half of trying, he suddenly asked to try Peas. We all had some on our plate, and he only had his standard carrots. We have him a small portion, and he declared, “I LOVE them!” The funny thing is that I’d tried those as one of the first veggie for him to eat since they are sweet, but he forgot about his dislike. It’s been a long hard road, but I think it’s like anything else in parenting: we have to keep at it until they get it.

How to Thrift

***Today’s guest writer explains herself, but let me just say that although she lives a mere two hours away from our New Orleans home, we met here in cyberspace and have never met otherwise. The internet is a strange and glorious beast.***


Hello fabulous Apron Stringz readers, I’m Charlotte and I blog at Living Well on the Cheap, a spot dedicated to living the good life (in your home, at least) without throwing a bunch of money at retailers. My husband and I both grew up in the suburbs of New Orleans, but we met at LSU in 2006 and never had the heart to leave Baton Rouge. We live in a great little neighborhood a few miles from campus where the streets are lined with oaks and all the houses are vintage.†Decorating, blogging, and thrifting are the creative outlets that help me balance the emotional demands of my career as a social worker. I love trolling thrift stores and estate sales for vintage treasures. There’s something very therapeutic about finding something old and giving it new life!

I haven’t been doing much of it lately in my state of pregnancy-induced exhaustion, but perusing thrift stores is my absolute favorite way to snag awesome stuff for your home. Bear in mind, though, that thrifting is not for the faint of heart. You’ve gotta be patient and creative. Without further ado, here are my six best tips for a successful trip to the thrift store.

Take your time. Move slowly up and down each aisle, being sure to scan every shelf (the shelves of despair, as one of my favorite bloggers calls them). I usually walk down each aisle twice so I can concentrate on one side at a time.

Remove it from the context.†When examining an item for purchase, ignore the thrift store aura and imagine it in your home all cleaned up, hanging out with your stuff.

About half of what you see here is thrifted

Imagine it at its best.†Almost any little knick-knack looks fancy after a coat of high gloss paint. Look past the dated finish of all that 80’s furniture and imagine it painted to match your taste. Clean white? Happy yellow? Sophisticated gray? Classic black? Look for solid wood, quality construction, and a nice shape. If it’s got a cushion, could you reupholster it? (check out my technique for reupholstering a basic cushion†here)


Ask yourself what you can do with it. †Hang a silver platter as wall art. Use a coffee creamer or small bowl as a teeny tiny planter. Place a small dish as change-catcher near the front door. Repurpose an old dresser as a TV console or dining room buffet. Remove the original art from a frame and use it to display something more your style. Stack books on top of a chair for a unique bedside table. Platters are plentiful and are easily repurposed as trays for corralling everything from remotes to†the contents of your pockets.

Real Simple

Judge a book by its cover.Check out the book section for hardbacks with attractive bindings (take a peek under the dustjacket). Jacket-free hardcovers stacked here and there are oh-so-Pottery Barn.

Pottery Barn

Look at the lamps.Many thrift store lamps have classic shapes. Look for one you can update with a fresh shade or a coat of paint and you can get a Z Gallerie look for a fraction of the price. I’ve also been totally loving patinated brass lately, so all that thrift store lamp may need is an updated shade, no paint necessary.

Z Gallerie

In summary, the key to successful thrifting is to have an open mind. See not what lies before you upon the shelves of despair, but what wondrous whatnots could abound in your home. The proceeds often go to charity, so you’re saving the world by shopping (not to mention saving some of that stuff from ending up in a landfill). What could be better?

Potty Humor

***This week’s guest post is by Michelle of A Mom Next Door. Just a warning, it’s going to make you snort coffee up your nose. Put the cup down.***


Calamity, thanks for offering the chance to guest on your blog. It was very inspiring to write for an audience of people enthralled by your courage, competence, inquisitiveness and sass.

I’m writing this week from New York City, where I’ve dragged my children, Two and Five, for our first-time ever family experience of the Big Apple. May is a Terrible Travel month for our family, because my Husband has a week-long trade business trip in NYC, comes home for 3-5 days, then leaves again to Europe for another eight days. We do this every year. Some years, I try to convince him to go to Las Vegas for the intermission between trade shows instead of returning home. I think it would actually be easier to just have him gone the whole month, than for him to return—jet-lagged, exhausted, stressed about the upcoming trip, and otherwise generally unavailable but still physically present—for just a few days before leaving again, throwing his children into an absolute frenzy of separation anxiety. But the poor man does nothing but miss us and the comforts of home the entire time he’s away, so I can’t bear to bar the door, no matter how difficult it makes my life as a single mom during his absence.

So this year I cashed in on the free companion ticket and hotel points we earn during those difficult separations, and told him I’d rather try the solo mom thing in NYC than be left behind at home for another agonizing month of I-want-my-daddy! Look for a post soon on my blog A Mom Next Door about our adventures, including travel tips for taking on big cities with small kids. I may have to write a whole post about the Horrible Homework Packet of busywork thrust upon us by a teacher who ignored my offer to create an independent work contract centered around the experience of being in New York City. No, my kindergartner wouldn’t learn anything from that—better do endless pages of worksheets instead!

But this post is actually inspired by something looming large in our lives at this very moment: traveler’s constipation. I’d better fill you in on some history first. Me and my children and poop go way back. We’ve been through a lot together.

* Warning, this post contains direct and explicit discussion of all matters digestive and excremental. If merely reading the previous sentence made you uncomfortable or woozy, I suggest you stop reading and go make yourself a cup of tea. If your children are young enough that you are still familiar with the texture of poop, read on, since you’re deep in shit already anyway.

When I became a mom, I expected diapers. I’d had enough experience with babies and toddlers to know that many, many diapers were in my future. But I never supposed that parenting would involve such an intimate familiarity and involvement with my children’s process of elimination. I didn’t realize that a long-term commitment to poop was part of the parenting package. Turns out, childrearing is not just about changing diapers, and changing diapers can be a lot harder than it sounds.

Do you ever surreptitiously smell your own fingers? Once, my infant son’s poop was so tacky, so persistent, I had to scoop it from the crevice with my forefinger, carefully wrapped in a thin flannel diaper wipe that seemed an entirely insufficient barrier. I washed my hands five times that day. But over the years I have become less afraid of poop, accustomed as I am now to the necessity of squeezing a diaper full of a squashed-wide disk of poop into a more toilet-friendly log for our finicky commode. Poop is really not much different from clay. And better than a clogged toilet and sewage on the bathroom floor.

My children like to examine their own poop. I encourage this. We animals learn a lot from poop. I inspect theirs carefully—keeping tabs on their developing digestion, making sure all the food I put into them comes out in the proper way. Both children have been at times particularly obsessed with watching the poop come out of their own bodies. This has created some problems in the potty training process. Imagine a child, clutching the handles on the side of the little plastic potty to lift himself, head tucked down to knees as he tries to get a holy glimpse. Worse, when the poop actually begins to emerge, abandoning the potty altogether to spin in fruitless circles, me chasing after him with a prodigious wad of toilet paper.

My daughter never fails to pipe up with “Me see poop now?!” exactly at the moment when I’ve got her ankles suspended with one hand, swiping at her sticky butt with the other, and no hands free to keep her from reaching out to grab the loosely folded diaper that I inadvertently set just inside the radius of risk. And all this while crouched on the restroom floor, because the frozen yogurt establishment we will never frequent again couldn’t be bothered to install a changing table!

But I do wonder how I will take care of my children when they begin to hide their poop. Who will tell them they need to eat more prunes? So I have already begun teaching them poop’s lessons. I invite them to poke around up there when in the bath and teach them words I know they’re just waiting to say in preschool and kindergarten—anus, scrotum, vulva, intestine, and tampon, of course.

In spite of my open approach to poop and associated processes, constipation seems to be a trait my children share. They are great at vegetables, drink plenty of liquids, take their probiotics without complaint, but still both started suffering from constipation at about four months, before I’d even begun giving them solid food. We’ve tried everything, and yet their animal instincts still urge them to hold their poop until they can eliminate safely in a familiar place.

Which New York City does not seem to be, at least not to the large intestines of a five-year old. When Five was still just three, I finally figured out the connection between his erratic behavior and his cycle of elimination. The claw hands clued me in. My sweet, intelligent, helpful, energetic son would periodically get aggressive and completely obstinate—hitting and scratching with tightly curled fingers, especially at transition times. Then, usually within a few hours of such an incident, he would finally crouch on the toilet seat and have a stupendous, miraculous poop.

It was an instant personality makeover, and once I saw the pattern it became very difficult to keep my nose out of Five’s shit. Children everywhere insist on claiming their own bodies, at least until we teach them otherwise. For parents, charged with keeping those bodies safe and nourished, this boundary is almost impossible to respect. “Put on your jacket!” I’m not cold! “Eat your broccoli!” I’m not hungry! “Time to go potty!” I don’t have to go! Sound familiar?

I knew how fruitless and self-defeating and almost unavoidable it is for parents to get trapped in power struggles of this kind. I had managed to avoid many of them. I never asked my children to put on jackets before leaving the house (not a choice I could practically make if we lived in Minnesota, but in the mild clime of the Bay Area it works). Ten minutes out the door, however, when the kids were feeling the cold for themselves, I’d have that extra layer handy.

My Husband and I never force our children to eat anything. We try to put balanced meals on the table, do our best to eat well ourselves, and limit sugar. We keep soda, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and corn syrup out of the house. But we never tell our children that they have to try everything, or clean their plates. Since we allow our children to decide which dishes they wish to eat from the family table, and to serve themselves seconds as they desire, they may end up eating more rice and cheese at one meal than we’d like. But we notice at other times they’re just as happy to down a basket of raspberries or munch on a carrot.

Still, seeing the connection between my son’s constipation and his behavior was an intoxicating discovery. No more screaming, clawing, hitting, kicking, temper tantrums! I thought. I’ll just teach him that when he feels bad, he ought to try going to the bathroom. That was a failure. “It seems like you maybe have to go poop, son.” NO, I DON’T HAVE TO POOP! I JUST CAN’T GET THE LEGOS TO STAY TOGETHER!! For a while, I could get him to try the toilet by responding, “Then you need to make your behavior match your story. Either stop screaming, or go to the bathroom!” But Five is not one to go down easily. Nothing ever works with him for long: engaging his cooperation is a complex and evolving dance. I did finally figure out some foods that were like glue for his intestines (Pirate’s Booty is a big no-no) and cut him off. I continue to push fruits and vegetables. But for this trip, I invested in the chewable fiber pill.

So far, it’s only made him grumpier. I can hear his tummy rumbling, I can see him clenching his whole body, claws included. But he’s still holding it in. And I’m still hovering, suggesting that he try going to the bathroom more often than I should (which is to say, suggesting it at all), waiting for the sweet and inquisitive boy I know and adore to emerge from the restroom and join us on this big city adventure.

I’m sure thirty years from now he will blame me for his constipation: So that’s why I can’t take a dump! He’ll spend hundreds of dollars to complain about his controlling mother to a therapist, who will finally, exasperated after six months of watching him squirm in his chair, say to him, “Why don’t you just go take a dump! Go ahead, use my private bathroom. You’ll feel better and NO ONE IS STOPPING YOU!”

In the meantime, I’ll sit here at the foot of the toilet and offer whatever comfort is needed as he struggles to make peace with his own inner workings. And on my good days, refrain from saying, “I told you so!” when it finally works.

Horse Packing in the Idaho Wilderness

Today’s guest post is from Arrowleaf. It’s not about mothering, or cooking, or gardening or making your own. Instead, it’s a tiny vacation from all our sometimes hum-drum revolution of domestic work. A trip to the wilderness of Idaho, to live vicariously through her once-in-a-lifetime experience packing horses. Thanks Arrowleaf, this is just what I needed!


Hello Apron Stringz readers! A nod of thanks to CJ for providing the platform to share my experiences living in the backcountry, and thank you for being willing readers.

In 2006, my ex-significant other, M, and I did trail restoration work in central Idaho. One job was near an in-holding surrounded by national forest and designated wilderness. The in-holdings along the Salmon River, commonly called “ranches” although the days of cattle rustling are long over, are a mix of privately owned properties or commercial guest ranches catering to fisherman and hunters. This particular ranch was private ownership and located three miles up a drainage which dumped into the river. We cleared the trail that connected the ranch to the river and fell in love with the landscape.

Two years later we were offered the jobs of caretaker and horse packer for that ranch. Knowing the operations, it was an easy decision to make although it would be work (a word I later came to redefine). There were no neighbors less than a days’ hike away, no phone, no roads, no hot water nor electricity on demand. But what it had far outnumbered any so-called deficits….off-the-grid living, huge garden beds, fruit trees, chickens, blacksmith shop, a 90+ year old cabin, wood cook stove, horses, barn, woodshop, wild animals, bird songs, mountains to ramble in any time I wanted, a river to swim in, mushrooms to pick, solitude, each season’s joys, time to indulge my knitting obsession, and most importantly the opportunity to whole-heartedly explore our interests. Our jobs were multi-layered: maintain the buildings and grounds, garden for our personal sustenance, farm the hay fields, cut firewood, assist the owners when they visited, and pack horses.

Because it was a road less area, horses were the muscle and transportation to and from the river. All supplies came upriver on jet boats, which required serious foresight on our parts. This led to really contemplating so-called needs, evaluating whether things could be acquired in a better manner (i.e. dry beans vs. canned), and how best to use every stinkin’ component of whatever arrived at the ranch. Upon delivery to our beach, what couldn’t be shoved into a backpack was loaded onto the animals- seven horses and a solitary mule (Spider, I apologize but I am going to refer to you as a horse for ease). Everything came in this way including a love seat, 6 ft. long panels of roofing, 25 spring chicks, a case of wine, our mattress, two nervous cats, beloved house plants, and the horses’ oats (which seemed like a cruel form of torture).

Although I was raised in Idaho, I was FAR from handy with horses. My parents are both from Phoenix, and bless them for trying to adopt a rural lifestyle, but horses were not on their radar. Like many girls, my sister dreamed of having a horse but I was always content wandering trails and collecting rocks. A particularly bad horse riding experience at age 8 left me swearing off horses forever, which I attempted until it seemed like a juvenile fear and I got back on the proverbial horse.

M was experienced with stock animals and relished the opportunity to learn more; declining a wonderful opportunity out of semi-unfounded intimidation was not something I was willing to do. And thus I entered the world of horse packing. With trepidation, to be sure, but with horses you can’t waffle with dominance or you’ll get taken for a sucker pretty damn fast. I won’t discuss horse behavior and horse culture since it’s an extensive topic and some of you likely have more experience than I. Let’s say initially it was my biggest challenge at the ranch.

These horses were exceptional. The previous caretakers lived at the ranch 17 years, and bred and trained all of the horses. Until a few years ago, the hay fields were farmed with horses so these creatures were valuable machines (stay tuned, farming resources below). From the moment they were born, the foals were imprinted. They had pots and pans rattled near their heads, were herded by a hyperactive cattle dog, heard gun shots, got used to human voices at all decibels, and were generally put through the ringer. The result was divine. The horses were calm and intelligent. I watched one squish a rattlesnake without fear. I saw another cock its head at the sight of a bighorn sheep ram on the trail, as if to say “oh, you again”? One horse packed out a dead bear wrapped in plastic without a second thought. They patiently let me load and unload astronomical weight from their backs. They were free-roaming and had a permanent mental map of the trail to the river.

One evening we dropped a load of items at the beach to be picked up by jet boat the following day. We were tired, it was nearly dark, we’d enjoyed an afternoon beer, and the horses were empty. We decided to ride home, despite not having proper riding saddles. M took the lead and headed down the trail while I was lollygagging, oblivious to the fact my horse was missing her herd. Just as I swung myself up on the pack saddle (a highly delicate manoeuver) she took off, running down the trail in utter darkness to catch up. While wondering if my entire body was actually ON the horse, I experienced an evolution of emotions: terrifying images of my imminent death, a serious questioning of my decision-making skills, appreciation for the horses’ intuition and guidance, and faith.

Ah, faith. That word always comes up when discussing horses and the riding thereof. To me, faith in horses falls under the category of “do not over-analyze.” Of course you need to know about the horse to make good choices to keep yourself and the animal safe, but at some point jumping up top is the best action. I carried this approach forward to my ability to learn horse packing skills.

Each February M and I oiled and mended the saddles, saddlebags, bridles and various other parts. Laying everything over saw horses, the winter sunshine warmed the oil and allowed me to stitch busted leather. Packing season started in early March, so this was an opportunity to prepare and work out any kinks in the systems. Since the horses were free-roaming, I hiked around the hills to locate them. They seemed to anticipate the upcoming trip, and there was an air of pride in their movement.

There were two parking spots in the barn with accompanying oat bins. Packing days were the ONLY time the horses were given oats, and they could stand at the ready until eternity if you maintained the oat flow. We each took a horse and due to my short stature I had personal favorites, which was less about their disposition and more about their height. It didn’t take long to figure out each horse’s quirks. One didn’t care for the foot stool I used, so I loaded him first while I was fresh. Another didn’t mind the stool, but didn’t like the way I put the blankets on him. A third adored being brushed and therefore occasionally struggled with her work ethic. Creativity and flexibility became my new best friends.

Pack saddles are uniquely minimal in order to add weight in the form of loaded boxes or mantis (when you wrap the entire load like a Christmas present in heavy canvas). We used Decker pack saddles and each was specific to a horse. The boxes are hitched to the exterior of the saddle through D rings, one box on each side to maintain balance. One box is roughly 18” x 12” x 12” (this is from memory, don’t quote me) and can accommodate two fruit boxes on their sides or two bags of chicken feed. The boxes need to be the same weight and contents are critical. Something as simple as a rattling spice jar will drive the horse batty. A batty horse makes for a dangerous situation, so the load needs to be tight, secure, and quiet. A combination of knots and hitches (designed to unravel quickly if one end is pulled) keeps the system together. I spent my first winter practicing hitches on the legs of the kitchen chair only to realize there is a dizzying amount to learn.

After 17 years of working with these specific horses, the former caretaker taught us exactly the right hitches and knots. We didn’t mess around with that solid system, and our goal was to prepare the horses in a timely and thorough manner, and work to guarantee there was NO way the saddle would roll. A saddle rolls when the weight shifts and the boxes slide unevenly on the horse, or worse, underneath. Often this is human error, although similarly to airplanes contents may shift during the course of the flight. Which is why knowing the contents of the loads is important.

A rolled saddle was my worse fear when I packed alone. Fixing the problem requires breaking up the string and repacking the load. The horses are tied together using piggins, medium weight string or rope that will easy break under the pressure of a 1000 pound horse in an emergency, but tricks them into believing they are one unit. The order of the horses in the string largely depends on their quirks and behavioral problems. When a saddle rolls, you hear the unmistakable POP of a broken piggin (as the horse self-adjusts), say a few choice words, and then must quickly hitch up the other horses somewhere in order to repack the victim. Without fail this occurs a) mid-slope b) in the blazing sun c) in the middle of the creek d) in the one spot on the trail without trees to hitch to. It is a stressful situation and fortunately there were two of us when that occurred. And, I should note, it was a rare, rare event.

It was under the duress of our first rolled saddle that I had a breakthrough about my energy. Yes, energy in the New Age-y way, but horses pick up on vibes, man. They know when we are concerned or when their riders are tense. I’m naturally energetic, downright annoying with caffeine. I don’t really walk, I bustle around. Therefore, days I was nervous or worried (about the load or my hitches) the horses toyed with me. One would act out, Houdini out of her hitch, another would nip my butt. I began to observe my breath, my voice, my movement around them and watched their reactions. When I was calm, stopped fidgeting, used an unwavering voice, and punished offenders all was well. I’ve since read this is very common, but it took a rolled saddle to clarify this personally. In jest I called this my horse Zen methodology. It also works on people.

In general, I was successful in my solo packing endeavors. Typically both of us got the crew dressed for the day, strung them up, and then I walked lead. Packing to the river was often an empty box affair. Everyone slogged home on the return trip when they were loaded down with river gifts. I liked to walk lead on the trail in order to move fallen rocks and wayward animals. If it was a small load and we could spare riders, M and I would ride home. Those were nice days. Once at the barn it was a race to unload the boxes (perpetual Christmas), tugging and pulling on the horses while they calmly ate their oats. We always examined them for boo-boo’s or heat spots, ending with a rub down and words of praise.

The ranch stopped farming with horses a few years before we arrived. The barn loft was full of horse tack, harnesses, collars, parts instrumental to farming. I have read Small Farmer’s Journal for years and was curious about how the process would play out. I knew each horse was capable of haying those fields, and had mentally selected who I would work with. I wondered if they missed pulling the equipment, feeling the tug of a driver, or if their identity was linked to the task. We hoped to one day farm with them, if only for a singular experience, but didn’t have the opportunity.

After I left the ranch my nightly dreams were full of horses. It took a full year for those dreams to subside, and now I relish the sporadic occasions when I see running horses and hear their hard-working breath as they return from the river loaded with goods.

If you are interested in learning more about farming with horses here are some classic guides and references:

-Search your area for local farms and trainers, hands on is the best approach!

Small Farmer’s Journal (most issues have basic info, spring quarter 1980 dedicated to horse farming)

-Draft Horses and Mules: Harnessing Equine Power for Farm and Show by Gail Demerrow

-The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour (not solely dedicated to horse farming)

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

If you are interested in horse packing there are many enthusiastic websites, as well as these books:

Packin’ In on Mules and Horses by Smoke Elser and Bill Brown

Horses, Hitches, and Rocky Trails by Joe Black

Horse Packing: A Manual of Pack Transportation (1914) by Charles Johnson Post

-Hells Canyon Mule Days- annual celebration in Enterprise, Oregon

Do any of you farm with horses? Have you been on a horse packing trip or helped someone load up? Wanna share a horse tale?

Combating Conformity from Alaska to New Orleans to Bahrain

***Today’s guest post is excitingly international– Penny is a mama living in Bahrain, and writes at homeschoolingmiddleeast. Thanks for sharing a sliver of your life with us here Penny!***

I’ve been racking my brains as to what to write in my guest blog. I’m a homeschooler in the Middle East, living on the tiny and troubled island of Bahrain abutting the relatively huge, powerful country of Saudi Arabia. I really wondered about what I’ve got in common with Calamity Jane or Apron Stringz readers, what I could say that would be of interest to them. I can’t stand cooking (although I really, really wish I felt differently) and I’m not a gardener (again, I wish I were different). I would proudly dress my kids in hand-me-downs but we don’t have relatives living in the same country. There’s not much in the way of thrift shops either, just the occasional secondhand sale. So I can’t give tips on living a more frugal life, other than the obvious ideas.

I was intrigued by Calamity’s biography. She came from one kind of background in Alaska, with a certain set of expectations, and had to live a very different one for the 3 years when she moved to New Orleans and experience very different weather too! I came from a very different life to the one I live now (and weather too – from wet and windy in England to incredibly hot and humid in Bahrain).But I feel very blessed, in part because my life here is not often short of surprises, which suits me!

Both Calamity and I seem to share something else; we both aren’t looking to conform. She is trying to redefine the label ‘housewife’. She has done it through homesteading, I through homeschooling. She is trying to defy Society in her own ways, I in mine. Even though we are so far away, we share some fundamental similarities and I’m sure you, her readers, share these too. We also probably share an interest in reading about other people’s lives, especially people with similar values but practicing them, living them, in very different ways.

By glimpsing the life I lead on this unusual island of Bahrain you also get a look into lives that are very different not only from yours but from mine too – because we are surrounded by villages where people still live as if it were decades ago – where women are dressed top to toe in black which even covers their faces, carrying baskets of fruit and veggies from the market on their head and where boys drive donkeys, seemingly for fun but possibly to transport something from one place to another. Shouldn’t they be in school I always think? Homeschooling is illegal for Bahrainis so I think they probably should be there! It’s dusty and dirty. Everything looks run down and unkempt. The houses are entirely dilapidated, built without any kind of building code.

I used to drive through these villages on purpose, partly because the route afforded a short cut, but more importantly as an education for my children on how lucky they are and how other people live. I used to say, “Look at how these poor people live. This is why you have to work hard at school, so you can have choices in life and not have to live a life you don’t want to live.” Now that we’re homeschooling (for all of 2 months now!) I would say, if I still drove through the villages, “This is why it’s important to learn as much as you can, and find your passion, so that you can have choices in life and not have to live a life you don’t want to live.” Although I have always said that many of these people are probably much happier than others with a lot more money because they often have very close family relationships which are very nurturing; money can’t buy you something as important as a loving family. So, a multiple of lessons in our neighbourhood villages!

Why don’t we drive through the villages anymore? Because we’re too scared to, sad as it is to say this. Bahrain has become a very divided ‘them and us’ island. The poorer population, coming from the Shia’a Islamic sect, has taken their long-held grievances to a new level by peacefully protesting regularly but then regularly also burning tyres and throwing Molotov cocktails at the police. Expats have not been targeted yet, but we all wonder it’s a matter of time before the village people look at our houses and look at theirs and think, ‘Hold on! This is our country! They are foreigners! That should be ours!’ And an ugly situation gets even uglier. The problem is that the rights and wrongs of the situation are hard for expats (temporary workers) to navigate. Many of the grievances are wholly legitimate and if half of the stories are true, we really shouldn’t be here supporting this regime. But, we really don’t know what’s true. A lot of it may be exaggeration or even fabrication. Since the protests are regularly in the areas where expats live, the kids often have to run inside from the shared, communal garden encircled by the 9 villas on our compound, to avoid being overwhelmed by tear gas which stings horribly, making your eyes pour and your throat unbearably scratchy.  And boy are those burning tyres toxic, forcing windows and doors to be hurriedly closed! But many people love living here and we’ve got used to the problems and nobody could make the living they do here back at home, we’re all economic migrants desperately hoping everything will be sorted out peacefully one day.

But as crazy as this sounds, at least living in this part of Bahrain is a ‘real’ experience, where you see ‘real’ people, living ‘real’ lives. Living in the Arabian Gulf (comprising Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the U.A.E – United Arab Emirates which includes Dubai and Abu Dhabi) can be very artificial, very unrealistic. For some people, the Gulf is all about shiny high rises, expensive cars, houses bigger than anything they could afford at home, maids, drivers and cooks, drinking at the expat clubs.

I was thinking about how everybody does things differently. Calamity tries not to conform by homesteading, by trying to give dignity and modernity to that horribly degraded term ‘housewife’. We are trying not to conform by teaching our children about how other people live and how lucky we are. We are trying to live with our eyes wide open. We are not being lured into a life of fast cars, cheap nannies, late night drinking sessions in expat clubs, expensive restaurants and having no clue about how the other people living right beside us exist – people from cultures very different from our own – cheap labour from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.  We try and spend most of our time at home and we take the kids with us wherever we go. We like visiting friends and having friends visit us. We are very family-oriented and we never complain that our kids are driving us crazy and we can’t wait to pack them off to school/summer camp/with the nanny. We live in a rundown old villa that my husband feels embarrassed to invite people-from-work to, also because it’s permanently a mess, being a child-friendly, kid-heaven of toys, books, Lego and wooden train sets which just can’t seem to stay in one place for long! We like the kids to play outside in the fresh air instead of video games in front of the TV. We like them to play imaginary games and build forts instead of doing ‘enrichment’ activities like Taekwondo or Capoeira.

We like to SEE our kids, spend time with our kids, even though we homeschool them! People think we’re weird. No doubt about it. We don’t conform. But we think we’re the luckiest parents in the world, living in a fascinating part of the world and if more of us could count our lucky stars, even when the tear gas rains down, or the electricity bill comes in or the baby is awake for the fourth time tonight, maybe more of us could be happier. If we could all shrug our shoulders and think ‘How lucky we are’ and ‘If only they knew’ when people look at us as if we’re crazy. If we could smile serenely when people say, “That sounds lovely but I could never do that!” (code for “You’re crazy!”) whether we’re home educating or making nettle soup from the garden or making our own shelves or avoiding doing all the things people expect us to do, we’d all be a bit happier I think!  The world exerts a lot of pressure to conform. Society is like George W. Bush where ‘You’re either for it or against it’ and there’s no in-between. As Calamity says, “Join me in The Struggle! Let’s resurrect, renew and revolutionize housewifery together!” I concur. And let’s go further, wherever we live, wherever we can, let’s resurrect, renew and revolutionize Society with our positive life affirming family-loving, child-oriented attitudes.

Thank you to Calamity for having the faith in me to guest blog and please do drop into my blog sometime. You would be very welcome! You can find me at homeschoolingmiddleeast.

On Kiddlets

***While I am packing up our house like a woman possessed, getting our family ready to move across the continent, several generous readers have volunteered to keep you musing. This first guest post is written by Jasmine Johnson-Kennedy. Jasmine in an Alaskan off-grid homesteader (ironically, I do not know her from Alaska but solely from this virtual space). She also writes at her own blog, Bunchberry Farms.***


You may think I’m crazy when I say this, but its true.  I have been actively talking myself out of having children for a decade.  How old am I, you ask?  I’m twenty six.

Why have I been dissuading myself from ushering new souls into the world for so long?  Because I want them SO DAMN BAD.

I actually give my younger self a lot of kudos for being so responsible.  As a highschooler, while I personally wasn’t sexually active until late in highschool, I had pro-condom bumperstickers on the back of my truck and in my bedroom.  I talked my friends through the process of getting on birth control.  I was decided that if I should ever need to, I would get an abortion rather than become a teenage mom.  And all the while I desperately desired kids.  I would fight the undertow of the longing.  I would find myself insanely jealous of the young single struggling under-advantaged moms that I worked with at my minimum wage part time waitressing gigs.  And periodically I would have to sit down with myself and have a good long chat about what the reality of kids would mean, about how having an underage mom wouldn’t be doing them any favors, and about how I wanted to be able to choose them at a time their nurturance would be my primary endeavor.

I played gypsy for a year, and then I went to college.  And for five years I indulged in academia and theatre.  I knew I didn’t have the time or energy for kids.  I knew that the time would come for being a mom, that that time was not the (then) present.  But I longed.  Oh, how I longed.  And I dreamed.  Oh, how I dreamed.  The dream of the homestead and the dream of the motherhood came to rival each other in depth and intensity.  They became entwined to the point of identity.  My mantra-goal became “Get the land” because once I had the land, the homestead and the kids could and would come.  I plotted and planned and despaired and hoped and leveraged will power and luck and fate and love to get the homestead.  Meanwhile I would read the parenting magazines at the Laundromat, hide “Fit Pregnancy” (the prenatal yoga issues) and “Natural Parenting” magazines in the wait-station at the restaurant, read the latest “Mothering Magazine” and “Midwifery Today” every time I visited my mom.  I would hide in the magazine section at the grocery store and read “Good Housekeeping” and “Real Simple,” skimming past article with potential relevance to where I was at, and instead focusing on the ones that talked about homework and kids organizational strategies, about family dinner plans and how to pack a school lunch.  I rarely babysat because I was always in rehearsal or on stage or waitressing.  I was engaging in the act of living the life-stage I was in while desperately and nearly obsessively longing for and planning the future.  I have always been the queen of ten year plans.  I am not entirely sure it is the healthiest way to live, expending so much energy and thought and time on a future that you are at the same time ensuring is distant from where you are.

Sometime in college I met my Darlin’ Man.  And as soon as we met, certainly as soon as we became serious, I realized that there was no way I could or would ever get the abortion I had always planned on if we accidentally conceived.  This realization scared the shit out me.  I mean, I thrive on planning the future.  The reality of children was always, always something that I knew I would invite into my life when the time was right.  I wished for them NOW, but I knew this.  When I was maybe 3, maybe 4 years old my little sister was a baby.  I have this vivid memory of sitting in my kid-sized rocking chair (the one that is in the attic space at my mother’s house waiting for the next generation along with boxes and boxes of kids books and toys that I’ve been saving all of my life), in the middle of the afternoon, and singing lullabies to my doll.  For hours.  We had this tape of lullabies, English on one side, French on the other – Lullaby Bersuese – and I distinctly remember one specific afternoon repeating and re-listening to the French side at least two if not three times.  Singing along and rocking my doll straight through from afternoon to dusk.  I wanted to memorize it so that when I was a mom I could sing it to my kids without the tape.  Ever since then, I have known, bone deep, that motherhood was something that belonged in my life, that it was something I would choose for myself.  Accordingly, it became the end-goal of every 10 year plan I ever made.  It was there and real and desperately wanted, but was always placed a decade or so away.  Placed out there in the future with a plan in place to ensure it stayed there.  So when I met my Darlin’ Man and realized that if we conceived I would keep the baby, it scared the shit out of me.  It took the concept of motherhood out this plane of planned activity at the perfect time – a place I had put it, and kept it, so that I would not be prematurely tempted – and (re)created it as a  thing that could happen by chance, something that could happen to me and I would do nothing to stop it.  I mean, no kind of birth control is fail-proof right?  And if the idea is that you manifest in your life that which you focus on, kids are an immanent accidental possibility, right?  And that’s scary stuff.  But even while recognizing the absolute havoc that untimed and unplanned kids would have on my life, on our lives, even while rebelling against the mere concept of the active choice being taken away from me – in my deepest self of selves I rejoiced.  I rejoiced because suddenly, miraculously, my most deeply held desire was a possibility.  Because even a 1 in 10,000 chance is a possibility, right?  And if I hit that one in ten thousand jackpot, well,  I could hardly blame myself for accidentally becoming pregnant with my beloved’s child, right?   It wouldn’t be an ill-considered decision, but fate.

And I rejoiced because I knew that the choice of pregnancy and motherhood was really and truly finally within my grasp.  And that scared the shit out of me.  Because if it was something that I finally could choose for myself, why was I not?   If facing the reality of eminence of the mere possibility of kids brought me such joy and relief, why was I avoiding it?  What was I doing with myself?  If I was defining fulfillment as motherhood, and I was denying myself motherhood, then what sort of messed up mind game was I playing with myself?

So I did two things, I sat down with myself and gave myself the permission to savor this pre-kid life for what it is.  There are many things I love about it that I know I will nostalgically savour when my proverbial style is cramped by the minute to minute reality of littles. This life I’m living now is a step along the way but not merely a means to an end.  (Or so I tell myself when I’m not assuring myself that AS SOON as we get enough student loans paid off, I can then get pregnant.  If that’s not a means to an end, I don’t know what is.)    And I asked myself what motherhood really meant to me.  I found that while the essence of motherhood in my soul stands alone and can be applied to or fit within any life scenario I can imagine, my VISION of my future motherhood was pretty specific.  Once, in the early and turbulent portion of our relationship, my Darlin’Man asked me if I knew what my purpose in life was.  I don’t remember the words I chose – I think nurture was one.  But I remember being very careful of what words I used because I knew the answer as clear as day, and I knew that English lacked a single word for the amalgam of creation and nurturing and tending and supporting and healing and reverence that gardening and mothering and animal husbandry and making art and feeding people and giving them medicine and tending their wounds all have in common.  There is a common element, and it is profound and resides in my soul, but I don’t know that there is a word for it.  I thought about all of this and I realized that my vision of my own experience of motherhood was all entwined in my vision of homesteading.  Raising kids and goats and gardens was all one life action for me.  Which meant I better get the set up in place if I wanted to realize that vision.

So I shifted my future focus onto the homestead (and by this I mean I took all of that near-obsessive planning and applied it to small scale agriculture).  I got married.  My mom moved up here in anticipation of being grandma in the not too distant future.  Last summer we bought the homestead.  It needs a lot of work in creating it as a productive home scale agricultural venture.  It craves digging and building and fencing and lots of compost.  But every time I think about a fence line, or the placement of a coop, I think in terms of little hands on latches, little feet in the grass, buoyant laughter echoing, trees for solace of little hearts.  As I think about where the fruit trees and the barn ought to go in relation to a future barn, and maintaining the direct sun on the solar panels, I’m also thinking of swings and climbing trees.

I’m now on the two year plan for getting pregnant and every time I sit with myself and examine my prospective reality of motherhood, it still scares the shit out of me.  In a deep and challenging way, a way that has within it the distillation of the visions of bliss and golden glowing mama-ness.  A way that encapsulates the dreams and the bone deep blood deep voice that knows about children belonging in my life.  A way that is also aware (as aware as one can be without the experience) of the work and the drudgery and the self abnegation and the frustration.  The responsibility and the giving.

And if the prospective reality scares the shit out of me and I still want it with the intensity of a decade’s longing melting into tender humbleness; that must mean I’m getting closer and closer to actually being ready, right?  Are you ever ready?  Probably not.

And the closer my own motherhood draws, the more I find myself open to following the lead of this land, our (future) kids, this life we’re choosing.  The ten year plan has opened to allow me to glimpse possible vistas of twenty and fifty years down the road – it is less rigid and encompasses much more possibility for change.  Which means I might just make it though, right?

                              –Jasmine Johnson-Kennedy, Bunchberry Farms

Join the Ranks!

Thank you to everyone who signed up on the new Readers’ Blogs page, I see many of you are still missing though. There is a lot of clicking going on, so if you want some keen Apron Stringzy new readers, do take a minute to leave your URL and a good description of your blog.

Non-bloggers, don’t leave yet!

As you know, we will be moving in little more than a month. I will be starting the whole crazymaking business of full scale packing in two weeks, and my writing likely won’t resume until at least mid-June. That adds up to two pretty quiet months here on the ole blog, and I thought I’d offer up the otherwise empty space to guest posts!

If you are already a blogger in your own space, you could either write fresh material just for us or I could re-post one of your old favorites. If you aren’t a blogger, all the better because I know you got somethin’ to say, sister! Crack her open!

You know I cover a pretty broad range of subjects here– the usual gardening, cooking, punk housewifery and parenting as well as more esoteric pontifications on the nature of our chosen path and the commonality of our deepest psychological workings. Basically, almost anything goes. Mamas like me would be wonderful, but divergent viewpoints are particularly welcome. Papas! Grandmas! Kids (ie: people under 30)! Anyone invited and everyone welcome. You can write how-tos, recipes, personal stories, manifestos, pretty pictures, psychological delving, smart-ass sarcasm… I will publish almost any post you send me unless it’s flagrant advertisement or downright offensive.

If you would like to join the fun, leave a comment here and I will email you. If you would like to offer an already written post, you can just send it straight to me, otherwise I will schedule you in and give you a deadline, to keep things on track. It would be cool to have at least one guest post a week during my absence, which would only take 8 submissions all together.

Imagine the fame! You too could guest star at the internationally renowned (err, internationally read) Apron Stringz blog! It’s your moment!

New Readers’ Blogs Page!

That’s right, I think we finally outgrew the sidebar. Please check out the new page up top and, if you write a blog, add it to the list as a comment. If you don’t write a blog, wait a few days for the list to grow and then head over to check it out. Should be a nice collection of great reading.

I will be deleting the Readers’ Blogs list from the sidebar, and I’m not going to spend the time to hand-transfer all those links, so it’s up to you. Don’t miss out on the fun!

On Blogging, Readers and Stats

Blogs are increasingly interesting to me, from a sociological point of view. Writing has never taken such an intimate, immediate and responsive form before. Writers used to be “Writers” as in, someone far away, who could maybe write about what it was like to be you, but surely they weren’t actually like you. Surely a Writer must be a far more amazing person to be able to succinctly gather humanity’s collective thoughts and emotions and lay them out in such polished fashion. Surely they sit at their clean desk, surrounded by subtle yet challenging art, drinking straight black tea while they produce those smooth gems of verbalized consciousness.

Overall, I would say blogging is no different. In fact in some ways the medium provides an even better way to lure the reader towards fantasies of perfection. It’s what most people want after all, to soothe their own chaos with Other People’s calm (whether or not that calm has any basis in reality). But I’ve realized over time that blogging has so much potential. Not to replace literature by any means, I do adore books and the expansive feeling of high-quality that is only possible when the writer works over the same piece for months. But I believe blogs could provide a different kind of depth, a true intimacy never possible with books.

Erica at Northwest Edible talked recently about her “health keystone” being sleep, and how could she re-arrange her life to get more of it. I wrote her a teasingly admonishing email about blogging too much. I guess that hit a chord because her next post explained that she would not be blogging on Fridays anymore, in an attempt to take better care of herself. This is all great, I’m so proud of her, except that– doesn’t it seem strange that she should have to explain at all? Where does this expectation for bloggers to deliver the goods come from?

I mean, we are not (for the most part) getting paid. Erica runs a slightly more commercial blog than mine, but she also puts a shit ton more time into it, and I don’t believe she’s making anything remotely resembling a wage. We do this because we want to, because we love it, because we can’t help ourselves. But I have seen and felt this expectation before– if you want a good readership you have to blog often and consistently. If you take a break from blogging, or get patchy, your numbers will suffer. Do you as readers even know that this exists? Do you know that we otherwise self-respecting bloggers check our stats like little junkies?

I myself have been incredibly patchy. I come on strong for a few weeks and then disappear for a month. I try to post at least once/week, but sometimes even that falls away. Because I am a real person. With a real life. That is sometimes smooth and sometimes ridiculous. Not only a real person, but a real mother! My babies sleep or don’t sleep, nap or don’t nap, go through phases of fits, dvd addiction, and even occasionally happy independent play. Sometimes I get in a funk, and even though I have the time, I don’t give a shit about blogging, it seems trite and useless. Other times my absences here mean I’m busy living my life and enjoying it. And yes, my numbers have suffered.

But overall I have been impressed at how, despite the big unspoken threat of inconsistent blogging, so many people do in fact continue to read! You, dear remaining readers, you have stuck with me through these ups and downs like real life friends. I like to think that, in a way, it deepens your experience here– knowing that my occasionally eloquent words come out of a very banal tide of chaos. My readership may be very small, by big blog standards, but I dare to think that those of you who willingly suffer the inconsistency and foul language are unusually loyal.

I love NW Edible Life. I love her range of topics, I love her candor and humor, I love her absurdly type A efficiency fixation so much like my own (if better realized). I would love it if she would post every single day, alternating in depth how-to’s and enlightening social commentary. But in this life, at any given moment, you can either do or write. Or sleep. More than reading her entertaining posts every day, I want Erica to get enough sleep and still have time to actually be the person she writes about. If that means she has to blog less, so be it.

As for me, I feel a bender coming on. I have six or seven posts going in my head as we speak. If only I can carve some calm out of my chaos.

Now! and… Now! and… Now!

Yesterday a friend emailed me a link to a fantastic post titled, Don’t Carpe Diem. If you have ever felt annoyed at the “enjoy every moment” mentality, but never stopped to wonder why, go read this post. It is awesome. I’m not even going to try to paraphrase it.

The blog as a whole? Not sure. Looks shiny. But if you like the above, I suggest you look down under Categories, half click Mother, then click Me. There are several hilarious goodies lined up there; but if you want to laugh like a hyena, you’d better read Airing Our Dirty Laundry.

The Quiet Riot: Navigating Between Challenge and Overwhelm

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.

Master of Fine (Homemaking) Arts

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.

Ten Posts + Readers Faves

Dixiebelle followed suit with Hazel Dene the other day in fishing back through her blog for ‘7 Posts,’ favorites from the past. Is this a thing that’s going around? I’m always the last to know.

Anyway, I like the idea. I’ve been at this blogging business for awhile now, and it always seems a bit sad that once a post is old, it’s more or less gone. A few devoted readers, with enough time of their hands, have gone through my archives (oh, I feel giddy just writing that! Like I’m practically Madonna) but for the most part, old posts are water under the bridge.

I tried to choose 7 posts, fitting the categories listed by Dixiebelle. But I couldn’t do it. Below are my 10 favorites from the year. Oldies, goodies. But let’s up the anty. What are your favorites? If you remember the title of your favorite post, leave it in the comments. I’ll look it up and add the link. If you don’t remember the title, you could try describing it. I might be able to figure it out.

Here’s a few practical type posts:

Cast Iron Cookery— a three part series about rescuing, caring for and cooking with cast iron

Not Menu Planners— in case you thought you were the only one

Camping with Kids: Whatever it Takes including a ‘What to Pack’ list

Good News for Half Beer Lovers— possibly my favorite posted recipe, for beer gravy over noodles that I’ve made about a hundred times and love every time. Just had it last night and was thinking I should re-post it, so good.

And then the head-scratching posts, which have become kind of my thang. I didn’t add any of the ones that are in the Reader’s Favorites list in the sidebar, because I’m thinking you’ve already read them. If you are reading from a “device” (other than a computer) look at the full site sometime for that sidebar list of top posts.

Is Your Sustainable Life Sustainable? looks into how green and groovy we can really be for the long haul.

Someone Has to Wear the Apron and Master or Slave? chronicle my journey of tearing down the ‘cleaning is for pussies’ myth last winter

Caution: Martyr in the Kitchen lays bare my real reasons for cooking, and where they get me

Staking Our Claim: Learning to Ask is an instructional to myself, and anyone else who needs reminding

A Mama’s Heart takes on the rage issue, finally. This is the one that fits the original 7 post category of “didn’t get the attention it deserved.” The short, lead up post called Mama Rage got almost twice as many views.

The Way He Walks is about my boy, and also how I came to be a writer of ugly things

I like this idea of fishing out the best posts from a year. I do believe I’ll make a tradition of it.

And now you. What’s your favorite Apron Stringz post ever?

For Love Nor Money

Dear friends,

I’d much rather just move on with a post about anything else and forget about this whole money issue. But to be very frank, it is a weight on my heart, I feel like I have a few things to say, and moving on isn’t working, I tried. I feel like as a ‘writer’ I am supposed to present a cohesive, consistent, confident self to you all. But isn’t that what I so fight against? The bullshit image? I am a real, live, fallen-from-grace person over here behind this screen. With many layers of confusion.

When I say I really debated about this money thing, it’s no joke. I batted it back and forth in my head for months. In the end, I’m not at all sure I made the right decision. Your comments were mixed, and who’s to say what those who kept quiet think? Of course I’m not supposed to care what you think, I’m supposed to bravely fly my flag regardless. But we all know that’s bullshit. If I didn’t care, I’d be writing this whole blog into a journal under my bed.

To lay myself bare here I will tell you that it makes me very sad and anxious to think that people might trust my words less now, trust me less. I can see how that would happen, in fact that is the exact thing that held me back so long. I have the same distrust of commercial blogs.

Let me get a quick defense out of the way. Someone mentioned blogging for money. I put probably 15 hours a week into this blog. I’m not sure how many readers there are here, but I’m going to guess something like 150. If one out of ten tipped me $2 I’d make a big fat $30. Not per week, period. Clearly, I would not be blogging for the money. I make almost that much cleaning under the couch. That’s why I was excited about the phrase ‘tip jar,’ because I feel like it correctly represents it. As in, not a wage, but extra for extra.

At which point a reasonable person might ask, ‘Why the hell bother?’ and that is a good question. I’ve been asking myself the very same. I know it was partly spurred by the fact that I’ve been writing a lot more lately, and I’ve been enjoying it. But I can’t sustain 2-3 posts/week. Our house is falling into oblivion and my daughter’s movie watching often tops the professed 1.5 hours. If I want to keep writing this much, I need to get a babysitter. Which will mean I will be paying to blog. How much should a person, already borrowing into their future (with My Man in school) pay to do the ‘hobby’ they love?

When I dig deep enough though, I think I was trying to justify to myself all that time taken away from my family. 15 hours a week when I should be doing other stuff. If I could just make a little bit of money, it would give my time validity, by my ingrained capitalist standards. Which is almost cruelly ironic, since I spent the first 12 years of my adulthood patently not giving a damn about making money. Now that we have kids, it seems like everything is sucked so tight. Everything comes down to money. If I want time to myself to indulge in something so unproductive as writing, I have to pay money for it…? How has this happened?

One commenter, a poet herself, said, ‘I do it for love. And so do you.’ Yes, we do it for love and the fact is that money and love mix about as well as oil and water.

Despite my frequent pessimism, I guess I do have some high hopes. Or at least, I want to. I want to believe we can rise above the money/love dichotomy. I want to think I can keep blogging for love, and every now and then someone will leave a few bucks on the table. I am quite confident I won’t be ruined. I am quite confident I will keep saying fuck and turning over dirty rocks, because I love to say fuck and I can’t walk 15 feet without tripping on a damned rock.

And anyway, have you ever made lotion? Oil and water baby. Just gotta do it right.

The Root of all Evil?

I started blogging more than two years ago. It started innocently enough. I would write a bit, now and then, when I had time and inclination. But as any of you with your own blogs will understand, this shit is addictive. I slowly wrote more and more until it usurped any remotely ‘hobby’ status. Now I spend far too much time writing, and furthermore thinking about writing. Any time off from my mama job, I can hardly wait to get to a computer. Disgusting. But also, wonderful, validating, rewarding and downright fun.

I write for myself, above all. Let that be known, and understood. But sometimes… I do feel swayed by the idea of getting just a tiny bit of (monetary) compensation. Who wouldn’t? And thus the ‘blog ad’ was born. I don’t know how much those little siren call’s really pay, but I suspect it’s nothing to get excited about. I haven’t looked into it, because when ever I get close to thinking about it I get the jitters. I know many of you have blogs, and many of you have ads on your blogs, and I totally understand how you got there, but I have to wonder, is there another way?

Can we circumvent The Man? Can we devise a more direct route for that hard-earned EvilRoot? Instead of giving Amaz*n $19.99 and your favorite blogger 14 cents/click, what if you just gave your blogger $2, straight up? You save $17.99, your blogger earns $1.86 extra, and we save the world from one more consumer purchase and your brain from one more corporate logo!

Doesn’t that sound divine? It’s living the dream, a gift economy. I give freely of myself here, expecting nothing. And any of you who so choose, can give something to me. A cup of coffee, lunch out, an hour of babysitting.

Am I living in a fantasy world? Why would anybody pay cold, hard cash for what they can get just as easily free of charge? I am no saleswoman, and I’m not about to start NPR-style fund drives. But I have finally decided, after much deliberation, to insert a little Paypal button over there in the side bar.

If you have appreciated my writing, if you would buy a book if I wrote it (for $19.99 from Amaz*n) consider that this blog contains 228 posts, more than 400 pages of text! I don’t kid myself, I’m well aware that most of it isn’t remotely book quality, but surely some portion of those pages are pretty darn good and I don’t have to bow to any publisher.

In the midst of my internal debate, I emailed Erica from NW Edibles and asked her advice. Turned out that she was poised on the edge of such a button as well, so we’ve decided to break our cherries on the same day in an act of virtual solidarity.

Even better than having a buddy for my entrance into the world of blog based capitalism, Erica had the fabulously brilliant idea to call our button a “tip jar.” The Paypal button (just below the jar) will take you to a secure Paypal page, where you can choose how much you’d like to give.

Let’s live the dream! Stick it to The Man! Eschew corporate marketing, and just give us your money!

Screen Time for Ludites

You may have noticed I’ve been posting quite a lot lately, especially considering my ages ago decision to write only on Saturdays. Slowly, over the almost year since that cleansing fast, I’ve crawled back off the wagon into the deliciously wicked addiction of The Blogger. Oh, but isn’t it glorious down here in the dirt!

I have lately given myself reprieve though. After many months of fighting, not just the writing addiction, but also what I can only describe as an addiction to myself, I have given in. I survived a year of incredibly intense mothering, the lips above water kind. Now, things have evened out a bit. My job is still crazy hard, don’t get me wrong. But I am not losing my mind. My Man can sometimes look me in the eye when he gets home from work and still want to ask how my day was.

And as life has become more possible, survival more definite, I have found myself sometimes becoming bored. The typical desperate housewife syndrome I guess. Where is the me outside of the mother? What do I have to show for myself? Where is the space that is mine? All the same regular bullshit.

What of my grand epiphanies? My submission to the noble cause of motherhood, my neo-feminist punk housewifery? Wendell Berry’s pride of home economics; frugality and responsible action and the independent spirit; the garden, the kitchen, the homemade laundry soap? Kids swirling in my undertow, me the brave heroine, brandishing my homegrown parsley.

Despite all that very good stuff, I’m bored.

Fuck. I hate it when I find I am suffering from the same pedestrian maladies as the general population, which I apparently thought I was better than. But there it is.

I am not in my homeplace. In case you are new here, we are in New Orleans for My Man to go to school. Next year we’ll return to Alaska, our little blip of a town in the enormous maw of coastal wilderness. There I have much more to do, much more to focus on, much more that belongs to me. It is my element, the life I spent the other 32 of my years learning how to live. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been desperately homesick, in fact I’ve just recently started to feel homesick at all. This move has been wonderful in many ways and if life were rewound, I would choose it again unhesitantly.

But considering this is a time in life when women are classically groping for what of themselves is left after the tsunami of small children, being out of my homeplace is a bit extra extra.

I realized recently that, for better or for worse, writing has stepped into that place for me. Given me a thing to do that is mine own, and it’s no wonder I find it devilishly addictive.

I am a person who needs an all encompassing project, a kernal to fold my life around. I am happiest in the midst of an Obsession. And mothering… It’s all encompassing for certain, and my life is quite origami-ed around it. But it’s not like it’s my project. The work is very challenging on all levels, but the outcome does not belong to me.

I think that’s what we need as mamas, an outcome we can own. Maybe it’s self-indulgent. Maybe we would be better spending that time meditating, releasing our grip on ego, submitting to the universe. Not to belittle spiritual practice, but friends, if I couldn’t meditate in my 20s– alone in the woods— that shit just ain’t gonna happen with two kids under 5.

So. Outcome it is.

And with that in mind, I have lately given myself permission to write more.

Accepting that my obsessive alone habit involves staring at a computer screen has been hard enough. I spent the majority of my 20s living without electricity, quite passionately in fact. I am a Ludite by nature, skeptical of anything with a cord or battery pack, but especially scorning of what I consider The Era of the iBrain.

But if that’s hard to answer to, here’s the next question. Where do you think a mama of two littles can find the many hours required to indulge in an outcome based activity such as blogging? Some mornings I get 30 minutes or more in the wee hours to glom my face onto a screen, all alone in a quiet room. But other than that, I have to steal my time from my 4yo’s brain, by plugging her into her very own screen during the Babe’s nap.

Just typing that out hurt. Because unlike the more reasonable opinion of most parents, I do think that any little bit of screen time, on a regular basis, is bad for developing brains. I never, ever thought I would have kids who watched tv. I mean, we don’t actually have tv, we have dvds, so that cuts out my biggest beef– commercials. And of course I try to cherry pick from the enormous onslaught of hideously bad children’s programing. But, that still adds up to my daughter’s face slack jawed in front of a glowing screen.

For… (deep breath)… an average of… (deep breath)… 1.5 hours per day.

Wow, is that hard to admit.

I spent a long time fighting it. Really I’ve been fighting from the beginning– when I was 6 months pregnant, packing up our entire house for a move across country, and my MIL sent some childrens’ books on dvd which I found would hold the (no longer napping) 2yo in one place long enough that I could slide my eyes closed for 15 or 20 minutes. I fought it, but then– I did it. So, not a very strong fight I guess. The fight was all in my own heart, and has continued to wage right there. Her mid-day dvd watching became a daily thing and over time an almost unshakable habit, my internal wars notwithstanding.

What is the difference between submission and giving in? How do you know when to fight and when to let go?

This parenting job is tough, and I don’t believe our world is set up to support us right now. I want to choose some moral high ground, to make The Right Decision for my kids. I want to practice no compromise ethics. But this is not a single variable equation. If my girl stares at a screen for 1.5 hours of her day and has a happier mama for it, where is the moral high ground?

I am rolling over that old submission a lot lately, like a pea under my mattress. Sometimes I feel like I tried and failed to submit to motherhood. But really what happened is that I did it, and it really helped for some time, my hardest time. Now I have moved on, we are in a new phase. My job as mother is (perhaps imperceptibly) loosening, and I am looking around, taking a breath. There is a little space for me now, not much, and I can’t help but want to run in there and muscle it open. It’s intoxicating, and confusing.

If I were a better mother, perhaps I would take this opportunity to ween my 4yo off of the afternoon movie. We could spend that time on the floor inventing elaborate pretend play, and she would lap it up like a puppy. I wish I were that mother sometimes, that I could annihilate my ego, truly and absolutely. Become Budhamama.

But here I am, so very human. So very pedestrian. Instead of seeking motherhood nirvana, I think I will leave the housework undone and get in my own 1.5 hours a day.

Here’s to us humans.