crafty · el cheapo · goodbye clutter! · radical homemaking · waxing philosophical

We want for nothing

For a complicated variety of reasons, my sewing room is overflowing with fabric. It’s not exactly clutter, but there’s just too much of it. In the spirit of drastically reducing clutter, and having adopted the old rhyme “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” I decided to sew a few pairs of pants that N desperately needed. He’s a tall, skinny boy – any pants that are long enough in the leg have to be cinched in all the way in the waist, and the resulting ballooning looks kind of silly – so I figured making his pants also carried the advantage of giving him pants that fit nicely for a change.

It was while sewing his third pair of pants that I started thinking that I should have just ordered a few pairs from Old Navy online. I reminded myself that in order to avoid shipping charges I’d have to order at least $50 worth of merchandise, most of it stuff we don’t actually need. What N needed was three pairs of pants, and now he has them. The temptation to buy a little more, or to buy something cute on impulse, is completely absent when I make my children clothing. It just takes too long to make something if we don’t have a need for it.

It occurred to me the other day that I haven’t spent time in a mall in a very long time. I don’t like malls these days: I always leave with a severe case of what I callĀ the “wanties”: I want some new pretty t-shirts, I want new throw cushions for the couch, I want that awesome floor lamp, I want another travel mug, some costume jewellery, a more coordinated wardrobe. None of these things are things I need. None of these things are things I wanted before I went to the mall. It’s just impossible to spend time in a place dedicated to consumption and to novelty without succumbing to the shopping bug.

Grocery stores offer similar pitfalls, though not on such a grand scale. I was just saying yesterday at a Weight Watchers meeting that planning my meals and shopping only once a week reduces the number of times I have to be tempted by food that I want but don’t need (and, arguably, shouldn’t have.) Last time I went shopping I handed over a bag of pecans, a bag of Craisins, and a chocolate bar to the cashier. “I changed my mind,” I told her, “I don’t really need this stuff.” I saved myself thousands of calories (yes, thousands. No joke.) I saved myself about $15. I also saved myself from a bit more kitchen clutter. I don’t know if I’d have the strength of will to do it three times a week, though. Stores have a way of convincing us that we need things.

When K was younger she liked to tell me that she needed things: “Mummy, I need a balloon. Mummy, I need a twirly dress. Mummy, I need chocolate!” I made a point of telling her – each and every time – that there was a difference between “need” and “want.” She doesn’t confuse the two very much anymore, but I don’t know that we can say the same for most adults in our society.

Most of us have what we need: shelter, some functional clothing, food, heat, family, friends. I’d hazard a guess that we also have most of what we want: stylish clothing, gourmet food, tastefully appointed homes, cars, iPods. We should be able to say that we want for nothing. But don’t we keep on wanting and wanting?

Thankfully, with no TV and no trips to the mall, I manage to keep my list of wants to a bare minimum, and I have no trouble saying “no” to myself if necessary. The kids are fine too: their wants aren’t many, and so we’ve avoided accumulating a lot of stuff. I wouldn’t say that we want for nothing, but we definitely don’t want for very much. I can say that we need for nothing. And if we did need something, there’s a very good chance I’d make it myself. It’s the best way I know to make sure that we have as much as we need, but no more. And besides, I want to make room for some pretty new fabrics…

community · parenting · radical homemaking

The community we crave

Mr. December and I have been reading and discussing the book “Radical Homemakers”. If you haven’t read it, you should. One of the things I love about it is the fact that it acknowledges the sick devotion our culture has to “work”, which we all use to mean a paid career. It’s killing, isn’t it, that people work a whole month to earn enough money to pay for their second car, which they wouldn’t need if they weren’t working? But I digress.

The thing about the book and its philosophy is that, in order to be more self-sufficient and become a “net producer” rather than a “net consumer”, it really is best to be in a community of like-minded people. Community support, bartering, and skill-sharing seem to be integral to the life of a Radical Homemaker. They are also essential to the kind of community I want to live in. And yet… it just doesn’t exist.

Today a friend remarked to me that she had moved into our neighbourhood because so many young families from our synagogue live here, and she was excited at the prospect of finally living within a community. Sadly, it didn’t live up to her expectations. People just didn’t get together very often, nobody was interested in the babysitting co-op she proposed, and in the end she felt as isolated as she had when she lived elsewhere. We discussed possible reasons why that was, and I came up with a few thoughts.

First, What she considered “the neighbourhood” was actually an area that stretched about two kilometres by half a kilometre – not exactly a distance you’d want to traverse to drop the kids with a neighbour while you run to the store, or to pop over and borrow some flour. It may seem that these homes are close together, but I think it’s just the size of this city that gives us that impression. In reality, the kind of day-to-day interactions my friend was envisioning tend to happen over much shorter distances, especially in winter.

The second reason is the real community-killer, though: all of these people work outside the home. Full-time. For very legitimate reasons – lack of time, exhaustion, different priorities – it’s impossible to develop a close-knit community if nobody is home all day. Like parenting, community-building doesn’t just happen over evenings and weekends. The neighbour kid gets locked out accidentally… at 3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday. A disabled neighbour has noticed damage to a car parked on our street, but can’t walk up the block to inform the owners. A subway commuter notices the vegetable garden on her way home from the nearby station and wants to ask a question about growing potatoes. These are all opportunities for community growth, for neighbourly interaction, and they get missed if you’re not around. If I weren’t home with the kids, and bored stiff around 5 p.m. every day, I’d never drop in on our elderly neighbour, a retired nurse who’s been living on this street longer than I’ve been alive. She would be lonelier and my children would have missed the opportunity to learn about social visits and neighbourly helpfulness.

In fact, we have a lot of retired folks on our block, and it’s mostly due to them that this street still feels like a neighbourhood. Granted, these are the people who complain that my vegetable garden is in the front yard instead of behind the house. But they are also the people who pay attention, who notice that someone hasn’t left the house in a few days and come to make sure everything’s ok. These people heard something in the night and discovered a man breaking into our car, so the husband simultaneously called 911 and ran outside, half naked, to scare the guy off. My neighbours participate in a thriving “curb economy” – one woman took the storm windows we no longer needed, another family put out some beautiful wrought iron benches they didn’t have time to rehabilitate (I haven’t had time either, but I’ll hang onto them until I do), and two of my neighbours were happy to rid my backyard of unwanted hydrangeas in exchange for getting to keep all the plants they dug up. With a single exception, all of the neighbours alluded to here are people who do not have full-time jobs outside of the home.

One of my frequent stay-at-home-mom laments is that there aren’t a lot of other moms around. Most of the young families around here are double-income families, so the park and community drop-ins are populated by nannies and their young charges. Sure, there’s a thriving nanny community, but when the nannies go home at night and on weekends the community goes with them. As we get more successful, as we pay more people to do our work in and around the house, we fragment the knowledge of what’s going on in our neighbourhood. The gardener knows who likes our flowers and the nanny knows who likes our kids, but neither the flower-admirer nor the kid-friendly neighbour knows the homeowner. Our affluence causes us to lose those connections.

I don’t intend this as a diatribe against hiring people to do the jobs we dislike. If you can afford it, if it makes you happy, go for it. I also don’t want this to come off as anti-career. If you genuinely have career aspirations and love the work you do, please continue to do it. And if you have to work to support your family, then do. Somebody has to keep the city humming and the banks running and the supermarkets stocked. But when we all do, and when we neglect the very important work of being at home, we lose the community we crave.