I’ve been re-reading the excellent book Radical Homemakers by Shannon Hayes recently, I’ve read it before but that was prior to us moving here and doing some more of the activities she talks about in her book. Reading it with fresh eyes (and with the perspective of new experiences) gave the book a much sharper resonance for me and has brought up questions that I have no real answers to but still can’t shake off thinking about.
One of the things I come back to over and over is, are we really so radical? Ok, yes, I know not everyone raises their own animals for meat or has the space for a largish flock of chickens, but not all of the people that Shannon Hayes interviews and discusses in her book do either. Each person or family that she looks at has a unique approach to their lives but with one common thread that connects them all, produce rather than consume.
This core idea is one that I grew up with, so it doesn’t seem alien to me. My Mum knit and sewed for us, made stuffed animals and clothing, she learned to make jewellery, made teddy bears, iced cakes and a million other little decorative touches around the home, that just seemed a part of her. My Dad was always busy, he participated in lots of sports, gardened, took us on mammoth bike rides, grew flowers, tomatoes, whatever took his fancy. If jobs needed doing Dad generally did it, painting, hanging wallpaper, redecorating old bikes to make them new. People (or at least all the people we knew) didn’t have much money for extras so they did things themselves.
When I met Stephen he was at the end of an Mechanical Engineering degree, so it’s safe to say he’s a pretty handy chap. As well as being able to turn his hand to computer shenanigans, he could also garden, redecorate, put up shelves, cook, assemble ikea furniture and generally make himself useful around the place. When I met his parents I found that his Dad was a genius carpenter who could make furniture, do plumbing, electrics and actually built his own house; his Mum is an accomplished knitter, used to sew clothing to sell and makes a cupcake to fight over.
When I look around at the people I know they can all ‘do’ something, they all create and produce something for themselves. My sister cooks, sews, quilts and still manages to hold down a sensible job, my friends are all creative people making a vast array of wonderful things; I wonder to myself, isn’t everyone like this? How can it be called ‘radical’ when everyone is doing it already?
But then I realised that I needed to stick my head a little outside of my bubble. I know that I do live in a bit of a world of my own making. My family are all great, my friends are lovely, caring individuals, I live in a place I love and spend my time online reading the blogs of other people with similar interests; it is easy for me to think this is the whole world. But when I accidentally slip out of my bubble and onto the hard pavement of reality I see a very different world.
Recently we had the misfortune of needing to be at the children’s hospital for a good few hours, the tv’s there run ‘children’s’ tv the whole time and I became morbidly fascinated. Was this really what young people were watching? These glossy people who seem to do nothing but gossip, get into silly conundrums and unkind badinage? I restrict my kids to certain selections from netflix and prechosen documentaries and movies so we’re not used to the barrage of advertising that comes with mainstream media, after 5 minutes my brain hurt. After several hours my heart did too.
It seems there is always something to buy, something else you need, another smell, another car another…something. It’s ok to say ‘stupid’ a lot, being mean to other people is funny and casual cruelty and bullying are to be expected. No one makes anything, loves anything, which is in direct contradiction with the people, young and old, that I know. The world depicted by the media is shiny, glossy, terrifying and…empty.
I know this is nothing new, this is common knowledge, but it makes me realise why the title of Shannon Haye’s book is so appropriate. It is, in our culture at this time, a radical statement to say ‘no I won’t buy it, I’ll make it’. To take control of one’s consumption, to decide what items are not ok, to eliminate the cultural elements that we don’t like. Instead of being dictated to by the mystical forces of advertising and the media, we can instead turn inwards and find our own journey, our own voice.
I don’t think that making bread, or yoghurt, or jam is an earth shattering thing; I don’t think that staying at home to raise my children is a radical decision. From being a teenager I have considered myself to be a feminist and always believed that position simply meant, valuing the female mind as unique and worth listening to. I didn’t think it meant only one type of path, one view of what I could be, quite the opposite in fact. So when I decided to step away from a career outside the home and instead pursue a life within it, it just seemed like another decision. It was the same decision my Mum made when I was born, it seemed a pretty natural way to live to me.
Yet when I look around outside of my bubble, I don’t see stay at home Mums being represented in a positive or realistic way. Mum’s are either 1) filmy, beautiful creatures who’ve been no nearer a real child than I have to Jupiter or 2) terminally pissed off. Now I have my moments of frustration for sure but I do want to be at home with my children, a decision that seems at odds with how I’m ‘supposed’ to see myself. I’m getting pretty tired of seeing female characters in films and on tv shows making the same predictable ‘I don’t cook’ remarks when they are being depicted as strong and clever. Apparently to be strong and clever you must reject anything associated with a kitchen and in fact reject a certain amount of independence.
Because that is what happens when you learn these skills. When you cook instead of heating up something inside a plastic package, when you make some jam instead of relying upon the frankly unreliable labeling of superstore foods, when you even grow something yourself on a plot of land or in a small pot on a window ledge. Each act of do-it-yourself leads to a feeling of independence and confidence, it leads to a sense of self reliance and, perhaps, a greater willingness to perceive the flaws in the status quo. When you are less reliant on a system it becomes easier and less frightening to see it’s limitations and dangers.
Perhaps that is what makes it radical to turn one’s attention inwards, to develop skills and spend time on projects not purchases. To be sure we buy things, more than we would like at times, but most of those things are tools so that we can make something else. Fencing for animals, canning supplies, a big silver tarp. We are still ‘plugged in’ to the economy but we are taking control of our home at the most basic level. We control much of our food, we control our exposure to the culture outside our door, we set our values and try to pursue them in our everyday life.
Shannon Hayes talks in her book about the increasing feeling of distance that can occur when people step off the ‘mainstream’ and start beating a path of their own.
“Those who choose to align their lives with their values typically experience a sense of isolation from anyone else whose outlook is defined by conventional cultural codes. David Korten explains that people who transition may even occasionally feel like creatures from outer space.” p 243, Radical Homemakers
For me that isn’t about distance from my nearest and dearest (unless you count the physical distance which is profound) but just about a sense of distance from the culture around me. I see messages spinning past me, things I know I’m supposed to care about or be engaged with that I’m just not. In fact I am beginning to view the more ‘mainstream’ culture as alien, while I feel more and more rooted in my own sense of truth.
If it is radical to close my door to the eternal noise and chatter of the world then I suppose I am, if it is radical to want to cook, make and spend time with my family then I definitely am. This is not the only path I could have taken, nor is it the only ‘moral’ or ‘good’ road, I think we get into seriously tricky territory when we start making those kinds of definitions. But what I notice, and respect, in lives that I admire, is a commitment to a goal, a choice that is being made. If instead we allow ourselves to be buffeted and defined by the shifting winds of ‘society’, if we never make choices for ourselves, always assuming that because something is ubiquitous is must therefore be benign, then can we be surprised when eventually and inevitably, we end up ship wrecked?