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Radical Homemaking ... With Houseguests?

Our home is an ecosystem: No matter how perfect we’d like to make it, as long as we live and create there it will never be sterile, still, and clean.

clean kitchen by Sarah Gilbert

Photo by Sarah Gilbert

I wouldn’t say I’m a slob. The toilets get scrubbed, I’m a champion when it comes to de-cluttering, and the sheets get changed. But I do possess a certain, ummm … blindness to grime. Since most cobwebs are above my sightline, I don’t notice them. The windows were last washed in 2008. Dusting really only occurs on those surfaces that see the most activity. I consider a healthy dirt population vital stimulation for my family’s immune system.

It’s not quite the same for Bob. Maybe it’s because he is significantly taller, so he sees more of the dust and cobwebs up there. Maybe (most likely) it has something to do with his waspy New England roots.

And while the vacuum cleaner is one of his personal power tools and he wields it with truly sexy masculine form, he generously lets the rest slide with only occasional gurgles of frustration … until company is on the horizon.

A few months ago, we learned that our good friends, the Bowies, would be visiting from England for one week this August. Bob began planning right away. Our house, the color of grayed-over untreated pine siding, was slowly stained an earthy brown with burgundy trim over the course of the summer. Our front porch was cleared of tools and lumber scraps. Deteriorating screen doors were repaired. In an effort to match his enthusiasm, I bought flowers for the front deck and attempted to keep them fertilized and watered. I stacked the firewood early.

As the days grew fewer, Bob’s efforts grew more intense. He would work at reshelving books, cleaning up his basket weaving supplies, and reorganizing the guest room. And then, he’d step out to where the girls and I were doing our best to stay out of his way … and moan at our mess. Saoirse’s yarn and felt scraps littered our floor. The contents of the costume bag were strewn across the living room. Ula is in the phase where she likes to pull all clothes out of drawers and scatter them across the bedroom floor as she puts together new outfits every 20 minutes. Clean and dirty five-year-old undies get mixed together and wind up in the most unexpected locations—under couch cushions, under desks, outside on the deck.

Saoirse and Ula can be recruited to help out to a certain degree, but their creativity and unwillingness to part with a single paper scrap makes them an obstruction to progress.

I’m not much better. No sooner are the leftovers from the last meal stored away than I have to begin cooking the next meal or testing the next recipe. The lamb harvest is coming in and there is fat to render, the bones need straining from the meat broth, and a few jars of fermented pickles sit out on the counter growing mold and bubbling over. My desk is a clutter of articles, books, receipts, bills, splattered and stained jotted-over recipes, phone messages, and disseminated important scribbles for future masterpieces jotted sideways and on the backs of envelopes and recycled paper. The contents spill over to the floor, confusing themselves with junk mail and wastepaper in such a way that no one but me is authorized to touch.

Tensions were starting to grow last week with only seven days until the Bowies’ arrival. I was working at my desk, the kids were on the carpet behind me, and Bob walked through, looked at our detritus and actually moaned with anxiety.

My temper grew short. “We can’t just stop living to keep the house nice!” I snapped at him. He growled a few choice words back.

In spite of my defensiveness, I fully understood how he felt. I wanted our house to look nice, too. It only needed to be “perfect” just for one quiet moment when we brought the Bowies home. As long as we held together long enough to make a good impression, we would both be satisfied. He wasn’t asking for too much.

Saoirse and Ula can be recruited to help out to a certain degree, but their creativity and unwillingness to part with a single paper scrap make them an obstruction to progress. Rather than cleaning their craft areas, they turn the moment into gallery time, figuring out how to tape every little art project to the walls of the house. They set about picking up their toys upstairs, but soon decide that “cleaning” means meticulously arranging them in interesting and artful scenes from their imagination. At the same time, my being on the cusp of releasing a new book as the fall meat harvest begins keeps my farm, computer, and desk demands high.

Things fall apart ...

The climax in our house-cleaning drama happened Wednesday morning, just three days prior to the Bowies’ long-anticipated arrival. Bob and I sat staring at each other over a cup of coffee, trying to arrange how much cleaning could get done that morning before the fresh chicken pick-up later that afternoon. Saoirse came in, threw a blanket and a pillow down on the floor and laid down in front of us. Ula followed with a few choice toys. They began to squabble. The puppy appeared from behind my rocking chair and coughed up a few shards of my bamboo knitting needles on the rug. The phone started to ring. Bob dropped his head in his hands. I began chewing my lip. I ordered the kids to go back upstairs and took the phone call while I silently prayed for a fairy godmother to come help us resolve our chaotic distress. Apparently she was listening. And had a cruel sense of humor.

Suddenly, Saoirse threw up. She didn’t make it to the toilet in time, and it looked like a murder scene upstairs. And there, in the midst of the worse mess imaginable at that point, lay our blessing. Saoirse stopped moving. She lay down in her bed and fell asleep. We tackled her craft table without her protests. A vomiting child is a legitimate excuse to get out of helping at the chicken pick-up, so Bob was able to stay home and continue cleaning while Ula and I went down to the farm to work.

He smiled over his coffee that morning, looking at the vacuumed, (mostly) dusted, de-cluttered, fresh-sheeted, de-cobwebbed, painted house ... It was the best we were going to do.

And while we were there, Ula threw up. And while Saoirse likes to retreat to a dark corner and have no one come near her when she is sick, Ula has different requirements. She wants Mommy by her side for the entire length of the illness. Suddenly, I couldn’t deal with customers, I couldn’t deal with emails, and Ula was too sick for me to move her back home. We retreated upstairs in the farmhouse, far away from the customers, and tended to her woes.

Bob’s day suddenly got a whole lot better. His loving mess-makers, one wife and two children, were suddenly occupied with a stomach bug. Life came to a temporary standstill. No cooking needed to be done, no toys could be taken out, no craft projects were attempted. Laundry was done, beds were made, dust bunnies and cobwebs were removed. The girls recovered quickly, but their energy levels were low enough that we were able to catch up.

The Bowies were scheduled to arrive Saturday morning. Steady progress was made each hour until then. When Saturday dawned, we decided Bob would go to our farmers market, and I would stay home with the kids and then go retrieve them from the train station. He smiled over his coffee that morning, looking at the vacuumed, (mostly) dusted, de-cluttered, fresh-sheeted, de-cobwebbed, painted house with the pretty, not-dead-yet (but well on their way) flowers out front. It was the best we were going to do. Satisfied, he kissed me, then picked up his cash box and vaulted down the steps to the car.

Summer Pond photo by Leland FranciscoWhat We Learned From Swimming With Leeches
The appearance of “bloodsucking parasites” in one farm family’s pond got them thinking: How could we be so comfortable with our natural world, yet paranoid about harmless—and helpful—creatures in it?

I waved to him as he left, then went about my checklist. There was dinner to get ready for tonight, and then the meat for Sunday’s meal needed to be seared and put in the slow cooker. It would only generate a few dishes and some minor grease splatters. Hopefully I’d be able to get them washed before it was time to leave … and then Ula came downstairs and reported a bed wetting accident. And so there was a load of laundry to do, and then that would have to be hung out before we left. And then Saoirse and Ula decided to make a few welcome cards and crafts as gifts for their arrival, which meant a few snips of paper and yarn and felt here and there … and a box of crayons left out on the couch. Nothing too major, right?

I did my best to hold the place together according to Bob’s vision while he was gone. I straightened up the screen porch, vaccumed out the loft, finished making up all the guest beds.  But the laundry wasn’t going to be dry in time to take inside. Undies, t-shirts, and bed sheets would be flapping in the breeze to greet the Bowies upon their arrival. The craft table would once again be littered with a few heartfelt scraps. I smiled as we headed out the door to retrieve them.

Our home is an ecosystem: No matter how perfect we’d like to make it, as long as we live and create there it will never be sterile, still, and clean. But our long-time friends would soon be with us, and the joy of their arrival quickly overshadowed all concerns about our messy, happy house.


Shannon HayesShannon 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.

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