Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.


She who gives herself to the work of the home

April 2, 2008

There is a word in the Yiddish language given to the man or woman who excels in all things related to the home. Though largely forgotten, it was meant as a high-minded compliment, one judiciously dispensed. It suggested a knowledge base expertly expressed in both style and substance, a caring not only for the tools and trades of the home but for the soul and spirit as well.

To be deemed a balabosta (balaboster in the masculine) was no small thing. It was a status offered with respect and carried with pride. To find a relative term today is difficult. Not even my notions of urban homesteading cover it exactly. I think the phrase Earth Mama (or Papa) came close, given the anointed’s connection to all things Gaia, but even that has faded from our terminology. In fact, call someone an Earth Mama (or balabosta, for that matter) today and they might well get insulted. It’s not the high calling it once was.

Is there a new word for balabosta?

Which does not mean that there should not be a word for such a way of being in the world. In fact, my position is that there needs to be. We need to put the effort and word back in our language so that folks won’t be quite so ashamed of the calling. We need to dust off the concept of giving one’s life to the stewardship of home and land so that our sons and daughters (and their well-intentioned parents and teachers) might not dismiss it so easily out of hand.

And why? Because our planet, economy, homes, land, families, culture, and health are in such overdrive that we all, everyone and everything, are burning up. We are burning up in excess, stress, distress, and meltdown. We are running to and from jobs that do not pay, lifestyles that do not serve, soil that will not bare, and spirits and souls crushed amid the mayhem. Do I think it can be answered by a word? Not exclusively, to be sure. But on the other hand, I think it would go a long way to restoring some of the sanity.

But how big a word does it need to be? How would we define such a task, such a calling? Clearly, such a person is part artisan, part technician, and part spiritual guide.

Practitioners of this new stripe would better understand the wholeness of their food, soil, sky, and water. They would know and teach our part and parcel to the world and the creatures great and small within it.

In matters related to home, hearth, and land, such a person would be given to learning a wide range of skills heretofore reduced to a monotonous, one-size-fits-all process. They would learn of things that predated smart packaging. They would become competent in tending the things that grow on trees in backyards and not, as it is now, in some factory or land somewhere, someplace. No, this would be a calling of this place, this home.

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They would be the wizards and witches harvesting the wild thing to make our healing teas and tinctures. They would, again, look to their seasons and the incredible cacophony of wisdom to be gained there. They would understand tide as well as time, seasons as well as calendars. They would take back all that was given over to industry and do so in a scale and system that did not bring us to the brink of destruction.

Were we ever to find such a word, it would have to convey the liberating spirit of anarchy that dares to believe that one can live outside the institutions of industry better then we can within. It would have to be revolutionary, gender-bending, and restorative. It would have to suggest a reclamation project, a deconstruction, a reconstruction, and a way back into and through the woods.

Yes, I think we need to invite a new word, an exalted phrase that will return us to our homes, land, and hearth. I think we have to welcome back the stranger. We need to say hurrah for the tables that are set, the meals that are cooked (and not left in recipe files), the gardens that are planted, the neighbors that we know, and the children that leave their keys at home.

I’m sorry if I seem preposterous and decidedly unrealistic. It’s just I know there is something to be found here. Something that we need. Some word, and life, that would, in the end, make the world smell, taste, feel, look, and behave a whole lot nicer.

Any ideas?

There are 5 comments on this item
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1. by Margie on Apr 2, 2008 at 2:13 PM PDT

.if only! Now I don’t know about anarchy and all that, but I do wish we could return to the days of living off the land. I don’t think it’s possible, (as a nation), though. Sadly because of politics, ultimately. The farmer is being done away with and now recently with this stupid C02 crap, they are being punished even more. (can of worms being opened here).. But if you have a plot of land and can do it, by all means do it!

2. by Marjorie Braker on Apr 2, 2008 at 6:09 PM PDT

Harriet point of view resonates with me. In my current state of exhaustion however, I lack the energy to heed the call. I believe in small changes over time and recognize each of us requires different motivation. So this week-end I will find a way to plant some potatoes. I love potatoes. That’s all I need to know.


3. by Fasenfest on Apr 2, 2008 at 7:34 PM PDT

Thanks for the comments. I am not sure I am talking about place (country or city) or which task and how but rather whether the effort of homemaking is prime for re-evaluation. What has been lost and do we feel the need to find it again? Am I being nostalgic or is it time to invite back some of what we have discarded in the new economy? I guess I am talking about choices and feeling empowered to return home if that is what we are called to.

4. by Hella Delicious on Apr 3, 2008 at 12:54 AM PDT

This is beautiful. I love what you are saying here. As a chef who has worked in the industry and seen what food is like when empty, overworked hearts are preparing the food, I know food tastes, feels and responds so differently to the receiving bodies when it is created with respect and love. You are right, we need a term that conveys this and will bring people back to the home to create this vital energy for their family.

5. by rosewx12 on Apr 7, 2008 at 2:59 PM PDT

Beautifully put! I don’t know of a word for it but I think I feel the spirit of what you are trying to say. There needs to be honor given back to the art of home and land. I remember after I decided to stay home instead of work. Someone asked me when I was going back to my real job. Like somehow there was more value in me sitting in an office all day then raising a child, growing a garden, feeding a family. Like somehow I was doing less and contributing less. In reality this is the first time I’ve really felt connected with my life.

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