When Shannon Hayes made a list of easy steps for becoming a radical homemaker, she didn’t realize just how revolutionary they were.
When I first released Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, I was advised to make a list of “easy steps for becoming a radical homemaker” as part of my publicity outreach materials. My shoulders slumped at the very thought: Three years of research about the social, economic, and ecological significance of homemaking, and I had to reduce it to 10 easy tips? I didn’t see a to-do list as a viable route to a dramatic shift in thinking, beliefs, and behaviors. But since the objective of such a list was smoother discussion and communication of Radical Homemaking ideas with the public, I did it.
I came up with the simplest things I could imagine—like committing to hanging laundry out to dry, dedicating a portion of the lawn to a vegetable garden, making an effort to get to know neighbors to enable greater cooperation and reduce resource consumption. I would perfunctorily refer back to them when radio dialogues flagged, when interviews seemed to be getting off track, or to distract myself when an occasional wave of personal sarcasm (I do have them on occasion) threatened to jeopardize an otherwise polite discourse about the book. After about 40 media interviews, I was pretty good at rattling them off, and I began to see their power and significance beyond helping me to be polite.
Take hanging out the laundry as an example. At the outset, it is deceptively simple: It saves money and resources, and it’s easy. As I spoke about line-drying laundry more, however, the suggestion took on more meaning. Of course everyone would like to hang out the laundry. But many people don’t do it. They’re too busy. Thus, the commitment to hanging out the laundry represents a commitment to slowing down—it means starting to align one’s daily household activity with the rhythms of nature. In my mind, hanging out the laundry moved from being a simple chore to being an act of meditation and reflection on a deeper, more profound commitment that a person wanted to make. Thus, draping shirts and socks on a clothesline wasn’t just about getting a chore done; it represented the new, sane world so many of us are working to create. Every time a person sticks a clothespin on a pair of undies, he or she is saying, “I want a better world. And I’m willing to do what it takes.” Laundry may be a simple first step, but it ultimately leads to something bigger.
Laundry became the central theme of a talk I gave recently in an affluent community, where golf course-quality lawns are ready at a moment’s notice as the backdrop for the season’s latest fad: large screen outdoor television sets. I was speaking at a community eco-festival, where volunteers were teaching residents about the importance of composting, solar panels, buying locally, and changing light bulbs. In my session, I talked about the power of living by one’s values, the misery of excessive consumption, the importance of social change, the deep fulfillment and happiness that results from living with less and having more.
To help me drive my point home, my husband Bob armed me with a seemingly endless collection of images of fellow radical homemaker’s lives: pictures of happy kids showing off their homemade toys, families gathering for feasts, piles of tomatoes on a kitchen counter following an early fall harvest, a sink full of grapes ready for juicing, friends in their backyard gardens, smiling bike riders. At the end of my talk, I was presented with a single question from a man wearing an expensive watch: “Americans fall on a spectrum with money,” he explained, holding his hands about a foot apart from each other. “Most of the people you’re talking about fall on this end,” he said, waving one hand. “And what you’re talking about may work for them. But what about those of us on this end?” With that, he waved his other hand. “What are we supposed to do to be able to live like that?”
There were a number of snarky remarks on the end of my tongue. But this man’s eyes were earnest. Perhaps he saw something in those slides that his affluence could not buy. Nevertheless, my sarcasm propensity meter was no longer registering on the dial. It was time to switch to the safety zone and draw from my 10 easy tips: “Grow some vegetables in your backyard. Try learning how to can,” I chirped at him. Once I re-gained my bearings, I talked about changing the world by moving toward what we love, not running away from what we fear. I talked about the power of small changes to result in a deep personal shift. I suggested he hang out the laundry.
There were no further questions. People politely thanked me for my time and left the room. One other man, who sat in the back corner, lingered. A longtime activist, he expressed his despair at the lifestyles of his neighbors. The social pressure to have a perfect lawn is huge, he explained. For years, he’d been doing programs to encourage residents to allow parts of their lawn to go wild for habitat—an even simpler step than gardening. The majority of his efforts were unsuccessful. There was too much shame. “It’s so much easier for you,” he lamented. “You can hang out the laundry.” I gave him a quizzical look. He went on to explain local zoning codes. By law, people in his community weren’t allowed to hang clothes outside. It was trashy. It would diminish property values.
But what about home values? I felt deeply sad for his neighbors. They’d devoted their life energy in pursuit of the material affluence required to live in this particular community. At the same time, the number of people in attendance at this eco-festival suggested they truly wanted to play a role in healing the planet. Ironically, the very laws of their community—both social and written—compelled them to turn their backs on their personal values. Henry David Thoreau’s observations about the imprisonment of wealth were spot on: “The opportunities for living are diminished in proportion as what are called the ‘means’ are increased,” he wrote. That day, I saw people who cared about the Earth, who wanted a better world. But their power to act according to these concerns was limited to their purchases alone—to buying solar panels, buy local campaigns, buying new light bulbs. They could try to buy some of their beliefs. But they couldn’t live them.
I suppose that is the deepest wealth in the radical homemaking lifestyle. By needing less, we are free to live our beliefs. To us, this seems ordinary. To someone else, a values-driven lifestyle might seem an extraordinary act of bravery.
We need that bravery. Now. Worrying about our planet while adhering to local zoning codes or social norms forbidding ecologically sensible behavior is a recipe for disaster. Such laws require citizens to commit an ecological injustice by using a disproportionate share of our Earth’s resources. They scream out for civil disobedience. As Thoreau reminds us, “break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” Go on and live dangerously. Hang out the wash.
For those who might be curious:
10 Easy Steps for Becoming a Radical Homemaker
- Commit to hanging your laundry out to dry.
- Dedicate a portion of your lawn to a vegetable garden.
- Get to know your neighbors. Cooperate to save money and resources.
- Go to your local farmers’ market each week before you head to the grocery store.
- Do some spring cleaning to identify everything in your home that you absolutely don’t need. Donate to help others save money and resources.
- Make a commitment to start carrying your own reusable bags and use them on all your shopping trips.
- Choose one local food item to learn how to preserve for yourself for the winter. Get your family to spend more evenings at home, preferably with the TV off.
- Cook for your family.
- Focus on enjoying what you have and who are with. Stop fixating on what you think you may need, or how things could be better “if only.”
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.