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.

Busy work

Homemaking is no small thing

By
November 26, 2008

So here is the truth: When I am working at a full clip and doing all the things I set myself up to do in the home, I can easily work six or seven hours a day. Of course there are break times and nap times and days I choose to do nothing. But what I am really noticing is that I am very busy in the home making a home, particularly in a manner I feel is responsive to the issues of the day.

It may seem bizarre to be so fascinated with my work schedule, but I am. But it is not just my work. I’m thinking about the entire system of home economics, what it takes and whether re-evaluating the means and methods of doing so can offer solace and solutions to the conditions of the world economy. In essence, I’m wondering how political and transformative the personal can be, or, to use the vernacular of another day, if being “a good little homemaker” will finally, truly, be good and not so little a thing.

Still life on Harriet’s steps.

Dismissive terminology aside, I do believe in the transformative power of a new home economy. In their limited scale, our homes enable us to enact systems and policies that offer microcosmic insights into macrocosmic problems. I believe this wholeheartedly. But I am not saying all it takes is staying home and shopping at Costco. For this to be effective, a new home economy (and the householders that usher it in) will require some very deep adjustments.

To begin with, we must take on our resistance to interpreting economic systems. They are either designed by others or by ourselves. Either way, we are impacted by them, and better the ones we enact than the ones enacted by others, particularly when recent revelations show them to be rife with mismanagement.

True, at this point we are pretty enmeshed in the mess, but we can begin to disconnect. Lately I have been calling myself an economic successionist, and I do so only half-jokingly. Fact is, I do think it is possible to remove ourselves from the logic of the mainstream. Or, at the very least, live in ways that questions their a priori premise.

So here are some of the things I consider when calculating and designing the economy of my home. How well do I manage my resources? How much fossil fuel (or embodied energy) is used for the production, distribution, and consumption of what my family uses? What are the larger environmental impacts of my practices? And since I am the labor force, how much work does it really take?

Some of this is inherent to the conversations about reducing carbon footprints, and I believe those standards to be helpful. But I have been thinking about the context of the home and not just as a pragmatic matter. Somewhere within the very serious matter of true costs and carbon footprints comes the revelation that homemaking, and the beauty and grace available in doing so, is a perfectly acceptable way to act out one’s politics. Indeed, it may well be the best way.

You see, I, like many others, am very happy that we elected a new president (YEAH OBAMA), but I do not think that turning to this new administration or industry for solutions is really all that realistic. Some stuff is going to change, but not all that much and certainly not very quickly. Sorry, I’m a little doubtful that they can break through the atrophy of politics and self-interest.

History has shown that people in power and privilege like to stay that way. Not that it can’t happen or that Obama will not try and call the rampant self-interest of government and industry to task, but there is only so much political capital he will have to spend. After that, it’s slow, slow going in the halls of American government.

So that is why I will not wait to face off with the issues as I see them. Within the context of my home, I can create policies and make the type of sweeping economic reforms I deem necessary. Sure, it will only be in my own home, but so what? The personal is the political, right? But even more importantly, I’m seeing if it can be done, if powering down to save a planet at risk can be done or, more realistically, whether we want it to be done.

In my opinion, the biggest problem we face today is humanity’s inability to challenge the legacy and promise of privilege. We just don’t want to. We want and like and think we deserve all the convenience and leisure and shiny things we were promised. And more than that, history is spotted, dotted, and mottled with the workings of greed and the desire for more. This is part of our human legacy, part of what we must confront. In many ways, it is part of our DNA, part of the evolutionary tactic to attract mates.

So when I say we don’t like to power down, I really mean that we hate it and we will resist it. This is not really a moral claim but rather, in my opinion, a realistic perspective. Unfortunately, when you listen to the folks you should be listening to, powering down and quickly is what they are advising. And not just in some “shop green” sort of way but in a “stop shop” sort of way. Stop sucking up one more single drop of the world’s resources. And that brings me back to the life I live.

I guess I live this way to see if it can be done. To see if one spoiled, indulgent, leisure-loving gal can face off with the things most of us will find difficult to face off with. I live this way to see how it feels to detox from all the shiny stuff, to imagine the world as limited by the sweat of my brow and the fruits of my labor. To think that if I don’t make it or treat it well, it will not be replaced. To plan, and live, on this little bit of land and home as if my (and the planet’s) life was at risk. I guess I try and live as if doing so could have a hand in the healing.

That is the real opportunity behind urban homesteading, householding, homemaking, victory gardening, food preservation, or whatever else we might call it. But understand, I am not so much a survivalist as a spiritualist. What I am facing off with is the ethic of hard work and thrift. What I am trying to usher in is a culture of gratitude and awareness for the least of these.

These are not ethics easy to embrace. Sure, in our minds and hearts, but not always in our actions. Maybe I am just a particularly resistant model, but as a human, I can be a tad indulgent. So I start with myself, which seems the best place to start, or at least the most honest. If I do not face off with the challenges within myself, then who shall I blame? Them? I don’t think so.

So here is the opportunity of honesty and hard work. We can transform a system if only by our re-evaluation of what we “need” and “want” to get by. Many of us do not have such a luxury, but many of us do. We can change our lives and economies, but are not really willing. I’m sorry, but I think this is true. But why wait? Why wait for them and those people to create policies and initiatives for the rest of us? Why wait for soft landings and easier, less self-correcting policies?

These times, as I have heard many times over the last few months and days, will require a massive groundswell of bottom-up activists. All of us in our different ways serving up the change we hope to see in the world. If Americans, as a people and a civilization, are to regain any respect in the world, we must show that in the face of an impending economic and environmental holocaust, we are willing to power down.

While I do not believe it is the only way, I do believe that creating new systems in our homes can be a very important piece of the puzzle. I’m certainly taking that tack, since it works with my love of home and nesting, but also with my sense of economic equity.

So these days I’m working it, girls. I mean seven hours a day baking, cleaning, canning, saucing, fermenting, cleaning, stewing, braising, cleaning, cleaning, and cleaning. I’m making a point with the cleaning bit, but I do a hell of a lot of it, and I don’t even have kids, or not little ones at least. I accept the truth to all this work knowing that someone, somewhere would be doing it and not, always, in as safe and comfortable a world as I have.

Practically, I turn the milk I buy in recycled bottles into yogurt and cheese (ricotta at least) and, once separated, the cream into crème fraîche or butter. I turn the grown, gleaned, and gifted fruit and vegetables I harvest into things I heretofore bought from the grocery store: the condiments, sauces, and sweets of the year, all of them in jars I reuse year in and year out.

I buy my meat from farmers and processors I hope hold similar values and cook them in ways that can go the distance. I make stocks that turn humble soups into great inventions. I make stews in quantities that serve for more than a single meal. I make breads, pastas, and desserts with the pride of a steward and the hand of an artisan.

I learn, by revelation, the way yesterday’s pumpkin-ravioli filling can turn into gnocchi with the simple addition of flour and egg. And how, if I refuse the resistance to work and invention, I can make things of things I would never imagine. It is during those moments that I discover the source and genius of regional cooking. Not as it exists in cookbooks, but as it has always been in the kitchens of frugal and inventive cooks.

I realize that much of what I do these days shows up in the kitchen, but that it is more about seasons than anything else. That, too, is part of this home economy. Its logic follows an older one. That is a satisfying lesson. Evidently it is the natural world, and not I, that rules the way of the world.

Soon spring will return, and by March and April, I will be setting out the potatoes again, those same potatoes that, once grown, will become tubers for the fetching in my root cellar. Again I will follow the cycle of sow and reap, of cook and clean. And it will take a good deal of my time. This, I am learning, I must accept as a measure of this new economy. A failure to do so will suggest a hunger for the diminished value industry has allotted it.

So I am working it all day, every day, with a little time off for good behavior and friends. Certainly I look forward to the Sabbath (or whatever day I choose) for rest and relaxation. Because like the soil, there must be the fallow times, times for renewal. These reminders, too, are necessary when creating the new home economy. All work and no play . . . And as these days pass, I will continue to mark the revelations that come, through the passing of days, months, and seasons. My time, values, and economy merging with the natural world’s. It’s a good start.

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1. by greg.turner on Dec 2, 2008 at 1:50 PM PST

Thanks so much for writing this article. I agree that small steps in the home are an amazing way to shift our politics and outlook. Indeed, those choices most difficult often convince us best that we’re doing right by the world.

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