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Category: Feminine Nature

On Radical Domesticity

April 29, 2023

“The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort towards wholeness.”

Madeleine L’Engle

I have been many things in my life.

I have taught orchestra to children, and it is a feat I am proud of, to take a roomful of youthful cacophony and transform it into a boisterous, out-of-tune approximation of what might be called music, to watch on young faces the dawning joy of their very first melodic sounds, hesitant pluckings and pickings, wild wobbling notes of a brand new song. 

I have been a stitcher and seamstress. I have sewn together long lengths of lovely linens, have sorted through stacks of spare scraps to create new things out of old, have shaped and seamed and drafted for my children, my neighbors, my friends, the local theater, the younger sister of my son’s best friend who needed a dress altered for a school dance, a concert, a performance, a date.

I have been a cook and a baker. I have decorated cakes for weddings and birthdays and anniversaries and funerals, and there is a balance there, I am sure, between the hope and the grief, between the joy and the sadness, in the celebration of life in all stages. 

I have measured together flour and yeast and water and salt to create the alchemy that is bread, on which I could live, I think, warm and fresh with butter melting over the top, and nothing brings my children together faster than the aroma of freshly baked bread, a siren call that carries through the air with almost visible weight. 

I have been a teacher and a writer and a reader of good books. A mentor, a nurse, a knitter, a painter, a gardener, a personal chef, and a thousand and one other things besides. 

My mother-in-law once asked me why I had so many hobbies, why I did so many things, why I was always in the middle of something I had never tried before, and although I shrugged off her question in the moment, it was something I thought about later, something I have continued to wonder about. Why have I always had the desire to experiment and practice and try to attempt, to bottle and can and knit and crochet and paint and play and make things that never existed before come to be through the wildly underestimated application of effort and time? 

I think I learned this from my mother, who taught herself to shear sheep when we lived in a little log house in the woods in Oregon, who learned to soak and wash and card the wool, to spin on a beautiful handmade spinning wheel my father crafted in our untamed backyard, who discovered the intricacies of winding the warp and the weft of a loom to weave long scarves that I wish I still had in the back of my closet but were mostly lost to the passage of time and small children who dragged them through snow and sleet and soggy springs searching marshy banks for frogs and tiny strawberries, which is where I am almost sure I left one of them, decades ago now, abandoned in the long, wet grass. 

Maybe I learned it from my grandmother, who spent long hours reading in the cabin at the lake where she went with her husband every year in the fall when the air was crisp and clear, conditions perfect for the deer hunt, because “you always go with family—take a good book, but always go, especially when they ask,” and I can still find books where her name has been carefully etched, pages yellowed and fading but handwriting clearly legible. 

I might have learned it from the stories we tell about my grandmother’s grandmother’s mother, who was a seamstress for Queen Victoria, and then sailed across an ocean and walked across a country, and was a cook in an old mining town that was not yet old, and then became a wife and a mother but also a teacher and a writer and the first female city treasurer. 

All of this is to say that I wonder, sometimes, about the ways we define ourselves. About what we see as possible. I wonder about labels. About how we quantify what is worth doing, what is valuable and valued as if we are weighing, measuring, and determining our worth by the weight of a word. 

Most of the things I have done do not fit easily into a resume or CV, do not fit into a clear definition of value, do not balance in a cost/analysis spreadsheet. Not in a corporate sense of what is profitable, at least.

It is the little things I am the most proud of. The small domesticities, the everyday interactions, the easily forgotten, ferociously fascinating moments that there are no easy words to describe. 

Years ago now, after I had gone back to graduate school as a wife and a mother of four young children, after juggling classes with teaching with PTA with homework with writing with bedtime with gathering a thesis with organizing the school play, at the very end of the last year of my degree, a member of my thesis committee asked if there was a reason I did not address the idea of domesticity in my essays, that I shied away from talking about how being a mother and a daughter and a wife and a sister and a friend shaped the events I was writing about—and the truth of the matter was that I did not realize that my essaying on the ideas of community and connection was rooted in the acts of quilting and canning and crafting, grounded in gardening and sewing and writing, in long days spent working with my hands and my heart, time dedicated to the act of creating. 

I have spent a long time thinking about his question. Pondering on those domestic moments that wind their way into our hours, that design our days and nights, that shape the patterns we find ourselves remaking, the maps we find ourselves following. I have come to a few conclusions along the way.

We are told that domestic life is something lesser, something to be avoided, to be delegated, to be passed on and passed over. A duty and responsibility instead of a joy. It has never felt that way to me. What I think is that we need to be open to non-traditional ways of expressing ourselves, of seeking success, of producing and providing.

I think we need to be more mindful of the ways we spend our time—to divorce ourselves from equating production with labor, productivity with profit, to learn to treasure the experience of creating—not working for something but working with something, to make out of our effort something not to sell but to sustain, not to market, but to mend and to minister. 

We need to resist the commodification of our work, of our time, of the effort of our hands, of the exhaustion of our bodies in favor of fulfilling the yearnings we have to make something that has never existed before. 

It feels like a radical idea. That what we need, more than anything, is the ability to contribute, to craft, to compose, to connect. To create. 

There is no better tool than our hands—through their work we begin to see the weave and web of what we can otherwise only begin to glimpse in the very corners of our imagination, the things we are told have no worth, bring no profit, cannot be scaled and produced and priced. The truth is, we are all many things, and I have found that creating helps us make room for all the beautiful and divine parts of ourselves that are not found in any instruction manual or any guidebook, any education plan or workplace evaluation, the parts that are glorious and divine and wonderful, no matter how messy they can be. 

So let’s create. Out of the dark, rich soil of gardens or colorful yarns or lengths of fine fabrics or flour and salt and time—or the stark black imprint of words on a page. Create. Craft the world we long to see, the life we long to lead. Make of our days great art. Imagine for ourselves radical new ways of being and new ways of seeing where our capacities for nurture, for knowledge, for nourishing the small and helpless things in so many ways is a strength, how it becomes an essential agent for powerful change. Create ways to make a home, nurture a community, and connect with the earth that sustains us. That values time. That profits our inner selves.

Revel in all the beautiful, radical, profoundly ordinary domesticities that make up a well lived life. 

Then bake a loaf of homemade bread. Make sure to use plenty of butter.