The Home Front


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There are two lives I’d like to lead. One has opera. It is an urban life, a European life, with ballet and pastry and sleeper cars on Russian trains and holding hands with the fella along the banks of the Danube. It involves needing extra pages in my passport.

  • Radical Homemaking: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes. 352 pages. Left to Write Press. $23.95.
  • The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. 330 pages. Process. $16.95.

I had forgotten about the other life, almost entirely. Then about 50 pages into Radical Homemakers it came screaming out, my crazy Kansas genes. Kansas breeds eccentrics, like the guy who asked that after his death his corpse be displayed in his backyard in a glass-fronted case (it is.) Or native son John Brown, whose wild-eyed portrait is lovingly painted in the Topeka capitol. Or the other guy who built massive tunnels from his house out to his fields so that he could check on his cows without stepping outside, where he might accidentally run into someone. The tunnels, by the way, were wide enough to run cows through. This is what runs in my blood. “It’s the wind,” my friend Ron used to say to me. “There’s nothing to stop it, and it just runs straight through your brain.” This is my destiny.

After Radical Homemakers stirred my crazy impulses, I decided I would need to move out onto a farm. I would raise goats and chickens and crops. I would have a massive garden. I would have a kid or two and homeschool those things. Make jam. After the kids are gone I’ll start in on the tunnels.

It was a fight or flight response. Shannon Hayes is not sparing in what she believes is bullshit about modern life. (Specifically: all of it.) Everything from the institutions we know to be corrupt and crumbling (from educational to financial to medical) yet still think we need, to our definition of happiness. People are killing themselves to live lives that make them miserable, thinking eventually — eventually! — this whole plan of a good college leading to a good degree leading to a good career track leading to a good marriage leading to a good family and a good house in the suburbs is totally going to come through and every day will be bliss from here on out.

It’s no wonder people are checking out of that, either because they’re tired of chasing an elusive goal or because they started to get what they wanted and realized it only brought them late-night sobbing and that dread that begins to feel as if someone filled your chest cavity with sand. Hayes and her husband faced employment difficulties and realized they were going to have to leave the cabin they owned near her family’s farm and go into the city if they were going to join the human race in their marathon. And then, they decided not to.

Let’s be clear. That moment was not one of Oprah’s “ah-ha!” moments when life suddenly gets all better because the “universe meets you halfway.” Hayes and her husband decided they would live the rural life, joining her parents’ farm, growing her own food and livestock, writing books, building strong communities, raising children, and basically being poor. It’s refreshing how up front she is about the financial side of this decision, the awareness that they won’t be able to afford health insurance for herself and her husband, not that it ever seems to do you any good if you do have it these days. They give up a lot, like new clothes, new cars, new televisions. Pretty much anything new, or shiny, or excessive is out. But they are happy, they are fulfilled, they are making a go of it. She writes:

For about five thousand years, our culture has been hostage to a form of organization by domination that fails to honor our living systems, where ‘he who holds the gold makes the rules.’ By contract, radical homemakers use life skills and relationships as a replacement for gold, on the premise that he or she who doesn’t need the gold can change the rules.

You stop needing the gold when you produce rather than consume. It involves homes where everyone is engaged, where family and not personal ambition is the top priority. It sounds like religious nutso speak, doesn’t it? Get back in the kitchen, woman! She warns it would be easy to wander back into pre-Feminine Mystique territory, but if everyone contributes, if everyone does work that might not be prosperous but is deeply satisfying, if you grow and make your own food… what would that even look like? If you could provide that much for yourself and your family, what else could you get away with not needing anymore? What else can you stop clinging to?

Sometimes what is more interesting about a book is the reaction to it, including my own. Because I know everything that is in Radical Homemakers. I know that having a white-collar job is maybe more stable financially, but also makes me want to die. It makes me cry in corporate bathroom stalls, even if that corporation is a nonprofit and is doing good in the world. I know that all of our institutions are in disrepair, and that rejecting them is the only sane option. I also know that deciding there is one thing or one way of life that is going to make you happy, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is utter bullshit. Nothing will kill you faster than disappointment, than “But why not?” It will also, and this is the bizarre part, make you cling tighter to those exact things that are not working. You will offer a billion reasons to yourself, to those around you, why you need this, why change is not possible. There is no time, look at all those things I would need to do, it wouldn’t work anyway.

The irate response that Hayes’ book provoked on blogs and in the comment sections of her interviews, is indicative of this fight/flight response we have when someone reveals a deep truth. It makes us see the giant chasm between us and a life set around a different kind of priorities; and you can’t go from one way of life to another without a massive learning curve, and that takes pushing through a lot of fear. I’ve read people calling Hayes a bad feminist, a communist, a destroyer of the fabric of America. But the most common response was a wild defense of the way the commentor is living his or her life, as if this book was written specifically against them. It’s an idiotic response, and yet I totally understand it.

Once I realized that I did want to somehow marry my two different ways of being into one life, I could barely get out of bed the next morning. That opera life, which I almost have, missing a few things here or there, is not enough for me. It is not as satisfying on the deepest level as I thought it would be. The excuses came rising to the surface: Well, I am not married to a farmer as Hayes is. I don’t have a backyard or even a balcony where I can plant a garden. I don’t have any idea what a middle ground would even look like, so I am going to go back to my life of checking my e-mail obsessively, crying in the shower, drinking lots of rhubarb soda and gin, and clinging desperately to everything as it has been, because that is obviously going to start working for me any second now.

I blame the “ah-ha!” culture. Real life is glacial. But it does actually require you to start somewhere. I took comfort in The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen because it actually tells you how to start. They should sell these books packaged together. Once Radical Homemakers makes you suicidal, The Urban Homestead will show you what to do to put down the razor blades. It knows you probably don’t have parents who own a farm you can go live on. It is more excited, less political. Like, look at all this fun stuff you can do: Build a garden, even in your window. Or go solar, or keep worms under your sink to help compost your food and make your potted herbs stop hating you so much. And it offers you this life in the city. Where they have opera. But you need both books. You need that deep unsettling, that panicked response, that moment when you say aloud to the book “Oh go fuck yourself,” because otherwise it’s not going to take.

I have my to-do list. It now involves worms. And maybe moving out of my apartment, now that I know having a place to at least grow a couple of food plants is important to me. It’s going to be a long road, but halfway between here and that Kansan place. • 1 September 2010