Radical Homemaking: A Revolution in Progress?

Forty-five minutes from now my cultured milk will be ready for the next stage in the cheddaring process. It’s time to write, for I’ve been stirring thoughts while stirring this foamy white elixir that my son and daughter pulled a couple of hours ago from the teats of our three cows.

I am thinking about an excellent book I just read by Shannon Hayes called Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture. At the heart of the book are a set of home visits Hayes made to twenty families and individuals whom she describes as radical homemakers. These are people who are—how can I say it—like us. It has been five years since Geoff and I packed our belongings, sold our house, and left work, friends, and family to make art on a deserted farm in upstate New York.

Indeed, Hayes’ critique of contemporary culture lands close to home. In pursuit of affluence, she writes, we Americans of the western world have created an economic system that is ravaging the health of our selves, our communities, and the planet. In this “extractive economy,” women and men leave home to work for wages they spend to fill their emptied homes with food and domestic goods they no longer know how to make. These goods are generally produced in bulk, far away, by strangers working under exploitative conditions, as part of a production and distribution process that extracts resources from the earth, and leaves polluted air, soil, and water in its wake.

Page after page Hayes shells out the statistics: despite our relative affluence, we are not happier, healthier, or richer. We are depressed, stressed, and restless. Our local communities are weak; our planet is dying. Many of the jobs available to us are not what we consider meaningful work, and yet, because of those jobs, we don’t have time in our lives to do what matters most to us. “The extractive economy,” she insists, “is terminal” (58).

There must be a better way—or many better ways—and Hayes sets out to document what some intrepid explorers are discovering. These radical homemakers, as she describes, are transforming home from a place of consumption to a place where women, men, and children work together to grow, make, and create what is vital to their living.

I get up from my computer and check on my cheese, where it waits on the stove. The milk is still warm, a balmy 90 degrees. I add a half-teaspoon of rennet and stir for a minute, slowly, as not to slosh. I set the timer again. Another forty-five minutes and I should have a nice firm curd.

None of the radical homemakers Hayes describes milk a cow, but in the end, Hayes’s concern is not with the practical activities of homemaking themselves. She maps the phenomenon in general terms, describing three overlapping, cyclical phases: radical homemakers redefine wealth in terms of family, community, good food, pleasure, and health. They reclaim skills lost in the increasing dependence on corporations for our livelihood, including nurturing relationships, setting realistic goals, redefining pleasure, and cultivating courage. They work to rebuild society, engaging in civic, artistic, and entrepreneurial activities often in their communities. In these ways, Hayes insists, radical homemakers are building a bridge from an extractive economy to one that is “life-serving,” where the goal (she cites David Korten) is “to generate a living for all, rather than a killing for a few” (13).

As I reflect on this book, I am struck by how dangerous it is. Isn’t Hayes promoting a nostalgic escape to a romanticized home life that never existed? Isn’t she advocating poverty and deprivation for all? Doesn’t she risk perpetuating gender stereotypes that have trapped women in domestic drudgery, denying them the opportunity to share their talents with a larger public?

I chew on the thought as check on my cheese. The curd should be forming now, firm to the touch, floating in a halo of whey. I am making this recipe with three gallons of milk—a bit more than half of this morning’s catch. The rest we will skim and drink, churning its cream into butter and ice cream, making cottage cheese, yogurt, and mozzarella too. Later.

I turn back to Hayes, a radical homemaker herself. She is well aware of the dangers. A Ph.D. from Cornell who graduated with fistfuls of ambition, she is wrestling with these issues herself. It is why she is writing the book. It is why she lays out the historic, economic, and cultural contexts that enable her readers to appreciate how radical the work of homemakers is. As she explains, the history of the United States is a history of a shifting balance of power from homes to corporate institutions, spurred by industrialization, the rise of advertising, and the shift to a consumer culture. By embracing home as central to their living, then, radical homemakers are saying no to corporate dominance, and yes to good old American values of democracy, self-reliance, family, local community, and quality of life. Ambitious indeed.

Nevertheless, the question lingers: is it enough for homemakers to know that what they are doing is radical in these ways? Hayes admits, the radical homemakers who are “truly fulfilled” expand their “creative energies outward,” beyond their homes, in that third phase of rebuilding society. Home becomes the philosophical and practical base for “deeper social accomplishments”; “the fertile ground” that feeds a “deeper fulfillment” (250). As important as this rebuilding phase of homemaking is to her thesis, Hayes spends five pages on it, versus sixty plus pages on the phases of redefining wealth and reclaiming skills.

What is it, then, about radical homemaking that allows us to feel this “deeper fulfillment” more than we would in any other way of living? Is it really about working in the home—or about moving beyond it?

The timer goes off. I stroll to the stove. The curd is done. I smile as it pushes back against my finger. I take out a long knife and cut the curd, back and forth. The knife clicks on the edge of the pan, tapping out a rhythm I consciously repeat. I finish the checkerboard, make some diagonal moves, turn the stove to low, give a good firm stir to the mass, and go back to my desk. It’s coming. So is my blog.

I think about my latest book, What A Body Knows: Finding Wisdom in Desire. In it I talk about the cultural epidemic of depression (that Hayes also describes) as evidence of a dissatisfied desire for spirit. Humans, I argue, have a need for a sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that allows us to affirm that our lives are worth living. In the west we undergo a mind over body sensory education that leads us to believe that we will secure the affirmation we seek when we find the right belief, the right practice, or the right community—the right something outside of ourselves to fill our inner lack. We aren’t finding it.

What we need instead, I counter, it to cultivate a sensory awareness of the movements that are making us. When we do, we learn to participate consciously in the process of naming and bringing into being a world we love that loves us. It is this participation, I argue, in our own bodily becoming, that will yield the sense of affirmation we seek.

I trot back to the stove and give the cut curd another stir. So, then, is it helpful to think about radical homemaking as a way to express a desire for spirit? How are the movements of radical homemaking making the people who make them?

From the stories Hayes tells, it is clear: the movements that these people are making in their lives, as they redefine, reclaim, and rebuild, are making them into the people they want to be. The movements they are making in every case are addressing acute sensations of discomfort that these people have had. In most of the stories, there is some catalyst—a lost job, a sick child, a divorce, an illness—that breaks them open so that they are able to feel discomfort with their lives, and feel that discomfort as an indictment of corporate dominated forms of work, health care, food production, education, or government.

Further, not only were all of these persons able to feel their discomfort as an indictment of corporate culture, they were also able to find in that discomfort impulses to move differently—they were able to discern what I would call the wisdom in that (frustrated) desire. Instead of wishing the pain away, they were able to feel and receive the impulse to re-center their lives around home-making as a way to name and make real a world in which they want to live.

In this sense, these acts of homemaking are not a nostalgic escape nor a retrenchment in gender roles; they represent creative responses to untenable situations that align with the life conditions that the failure of those situations have enabled them to appreciate as having value. Here Hayes’ analysis is brilliant, for she demonstrates time and again how the move to radical homemaking is what the overwhelming success of corporate power is itself producing in many of us—its own overcoming.

What is it then, about radical homemaking that yields the “ecstasy” that Hayes’ recounts? It is not necessarily the activities of homemaking itself—even at the level of general skills. Rather, the pleasures of gardening or canning, home schooling or baking bread, nurturing relationships or redefining pleasure emerge as a result of how well those movements address the discomfort that the people who are making them have felt: the sense of alienation and isolation; the frustration with work, health, and educational options; the plastic glaze of industrialized food; the stifled creativity.

It is true: in so far as these feelings of discomfort are characteristic of contemporary society and even epidemic in proportion, then the activities of homemaking may prove radical as well to others feeling the same frustrations. Given the kind of challenges we as a society face, the tasks of home making can indeed provide us with opportunities for discovering patterns of relating to ourselves, one another, and the planet that are life-affirming.

However, the power that home has as a site of resistance—and pleasure—is rooted elsewhere: in how the acts of home making encourage people to cultivate the kind of sensory awareness that enables them to participate more and more consciously in the process of sensing and responding to their feelings of discomfort, frustration, and despair as impulses to move differently than cultural norms prescribe. It is this kind of sensory awareness that our dependence on corporate powers discourages us from cultivating.

Here lies the ecstasy Hayes identifies. When people are present in their lives, engaged in actions that require them to cultivate a keener awareness of what their bodily selves know, they will feel that sense of vitality, direction, and belonging that makes life worth living.

I pop back in to check on the cheese. The curds are cooked, wrinkled and squeaky, adrift in a growing sea of golden whey. I pour the curds into cheesecloth, wrap the ends around a wooden spoon and let them hang from the pot. The whey will go to the chickens, or the tomatoes. Then one more hour until salting and pressing, and two months at least before eating. It’s a process, for sure. It takes time.

Is this cheesemaking a radical act? I ponder its pleasures. Sure, I love the sensory dimensions of the seemingly miraculous transformation from liquid to solid. I appreciate the variations and complexities, the possibilities for error and discovery. I also appreciate how I am securing our dairy independence from forms of industrial farming that leave cows to stand all day on concrete, in their own manure, shot through with antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. Milk is a resource we have, in abundance. It makes sense to use it. I appreciate the ability to nourish myself and my children with untreated, local milk products, that come from healthy cows. Our family of seven (mostly) vegetarians saves over a hundred dollars a week by making from milk all that we do.

Then again, I know that in making this cheese I am enabling my kids to do what they want to do–milk their cows–and thus realizing a vision of family where we all work to ensure that each one of us gets what we need to become who we are. I know too, in making these moves, I am making myself into the philosopher and dancer I want to be—ever growing in my understanding how the movements we make in every moment of our lives make us who we are. It’s why we’re here.

Besides–or because–of all these reasons, the cheese is simply, incredibly delicious. Let the revolution continue.

1 thought on “Radical Homemaking: A Revolution in Progress?

  1. Rita Elizabeth

    >Very, very interesting post. I have been feeling much of what you speak of for a long time. I think each of us needs to work out our ways to be less consumerist, more in tune with ourselves and our families. Each of us–within practical limits, of course–can define her/his own life.


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