Friday, July 10, 2009

How to Tell if You Have a Homestead (or, Why My House Is a Mess)

In this post, Sharon Astyk makes me feel better about our constant state of disarray here. I have often dreamt of someday having at least an approximation of a home and garden that might grace the pages of a magazine (albeit, the home would be artfully furnished with treasured hand-me-downs and quirky thrift store finds and the yard densely planted with edible ornamentals). Amid my clutter of books, papers, toys, dishes, half-finished renovations and a sprawling summer garden full of weeds, I maintain (with a bit of self-righteousness, I’m afraid) that people who have clean, uncluttered, and beautiful houses and don’t actually live in them. They use their homes as one uses a motel on vacation--as a place to watch TV and sleep in between the main attractions that occupy the rest of their time. (Of course, there are those rare folks who manage both to use their homes and to keep them beautiful--but I neither pretend nor aspire to be superhuman.) Astyk makes my point in her recent post:

How can you tell if you have a homestead, rather than a showplace home?
Well, first of all, you are there a lot. Whether you own or rent, have a private
place or a collective one, a homestead is a place where you really live.

At a minimum, this means that you invest your time and energy into the
place, to adapting it to you and you to it. In aesthetic terms, that means
there’s almost always a project getting done, and the accoutrements of that
work-in-progress about. Your hoes and shovels don’t come out once in a while,
there are tools and sawdust about, furniture being moved about, and most of your
home tours include the sentences “eventually that will be…” or “that’s a work in
The other reality is that you probably use your home more than
most people. Maybe you work full time, but you spend your evenings gardening and
cooking and building things. Or maybe you have a cottage business, or work from
home. Maybe you homeschool, or your kids spend more time at home and playing in
the neighborhood than they spend at camp and more structured programs, because
they are learning home-based skills.

That also, frankly, means that your home does not look like a magazine
spread - remember, in those pictures, people are always lounging around or
having a barbecue - I’m sure you do some of that too, but the reality is that
you are going to have your office full of work, or your barn full of boards,
homework spread all over the dining room table, tomatoes on the counter - not a
bowlful, decoratively laid out, but buckets of them, waiting to be canned.

The major feature by which a homestead differs from a home is that more
and more of one’s needs are met at home, rather than elsewhere. That does not
mean we live in caves and never come out into the light - but it does mean we’re
more likely to eat with our friends at our own table than at restaurants, or
replace trips to the store with trips to the garden, the fabric stash or the
accumulation of “potentially useful salvage.” . .

All of which means there is exactly no chance that that your house will
look like a magazine - some people’s do, of course, but except for those with
that instinctive gift for beauty, most of the ones that do look like they do
because no one is home - adults work, kids go to school and to activities if
they are middle or upper class, or to jobs if they are older and not. (read

Her homestead example is pretty much us, despite the smallness of our homestead. We both have jobs, but our lives are centered in the home. We are here a lot. At any given moment, there are multiple projects in progress indoors and out. There is a garden in the front yard and a small assortment of animals in the backyard, along with a compost pile. I cook most of our meals at home and try to use many homegrown ingredients and few convenience foods. I recently used my kitchen to put up 600 ears of corn, and last night my husband mixed up our first batch of mead in it (we’ll let you know how it turns out). We don’t have a dishwasher, so dishes are usually visible, either waiting to be washed or waiting to be put away. I dry our laundry on a line and use cloth diapers--speaking of diapers, did I mention the toddler (who doesn’t attend day care)? Her toys and books are scattered everywhere, and my careful color scheme now includes the playful primaries utilized by Little Tikes and Fisher-Price. We plan to home school her later, so of course the associated paraphernalia will only increase the clutter of books, papers, and general chaos that surrounds us.

So I guess we have a homestead, and that’s my excuse for having a work-in-progress home that is far from picture-perfect (although my lack of organization and time-management skills and my tendency to be easily distracted probably has something to do with it as well). But at least it’s a home--we truly live here. It is a home-based (along with a God-centered, I might add) existence that industrial culture has made great progress in abolishing. As Wendell Berry points out,

According to the industrial formula, the ideal human residence (from the Latin
residere, "to sit back" or "remain sitting") is one on which the residers do not
work. The house is built, equipped, decorated, and provisioned by other people,
by strangers. In it, the married couple practice as few as possible of the
disciplines of household or homestead. Their domestic labor consists
principally, of buying things, putting things away, and throwing things away,
but it is understood that it is, "best" to have even those jobs done by an
"inferior" person, and the ultimate industrial ideal is a "home" in which
everything, would be done by pushing buttons. In such a "home," a married couple
are mates, sexually, legally, and socially, but they are not helpmates; they do
nothing useful either together or for each other. According to the ideal, work
should be done away from home. When such spouses say to each other, "I will love
you forever," the meaning of their words is seriously impaired by their
circumstances; they are speaking in the presence of so little that they have
done and made. Their history together is essentially placeless; it has no
visible or tangible incarnation. They have only themselves in view. (from “Men
and Women in Search of Common Ground,” 1987

Industrial society has done a lot to ensure that the family is not rooted to the “common ground” of the home. Men, and more recently women, are expected to work long hours outside the home to provide enough disposable income so that in their “free” time, all family members can escape the home to spend it (even if it’s imaginary) on the overabundance of shoddy consumer goods and low entertainment that sustains our (now failing) economy. Because everyone spends so much time working, child care is outsourced to professionals, education to the State, and domestic skills once taken for granted are lost in favor of fast food, labor-saving gadgets, and hired help. Divorced from the context of the home in its pursuit of affluence, the family disintegrates. As Astyk points out, even this vision is ultimately illusory since this type of wealth is fundamentally “unsustainable” as the recent economic malaise highlights.

What may in fact be sustainable are relationships based in shared experiences that are built together in a common place. To me, that is what marriage is about. Our home is far from ideal. Better Homes and Gardens is probably not going to call us to do a photo shoot. Moreover, we’d like way more acreage and a house that is not necessarily bigger, but more energy efficient and better suited to our activities. And, it would be nice to have more good neighbors who were neither drug dealers nor child abusers.

However, this is our home because we truly live here, and the work that takes place here --even if most of it is haphazard and unfinished--defines our relationship as a family, roots us in the common ground of place. And that is why my house is such a mess.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Thank you for making me feel better about all the "home-improvement" projects that I start but have yet to finish.