I thought I was emotionally prepared to publish Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture this spring. For three years, I endured more insomnia than somnolence as I fretted over my choice of language and confronted myth after myth that bound Americans tightly to an unsustainable way of life. My husband Bob would duck into my office with a cup of coffee in the morning, and I’d stare at him wide-eyed, frightened by some of the ideas that were flowing through my fingertips and onto the computer screen. It was OK to try to live by them. It was another matter altogether to collect them on paper, put them out for the world to read, and accept that perfect strangers would be able to peer in on our own home life, free to judge our choices.
By the time the book came out, I felt ready to stand behind the concepts it promoted, no matter how outlandish they seemed to the broad American public. After researching so many households, I was ready to talk about the ideas.
It turns out I was not ready for the Internet.
The vast majority of my life is lived off-line; thus, I didn’t fully understand that the Internet had become a 21st century high-speed public pillory. I have been e-decried for being naive, dangerous, anti-God, anti-public education, anti-feminist; for my reproductive choices, my food choices, my health care choices, my housing choices, furniture choices, livelihood choices. I thought the electronic world would be about debate and discussion. It is often more about judgment.
Admittedly, I’m sensitive to judgment. Like many writers, I have an ego that bruises more easily than an overripe banana. I have, however, discovered the true beauty of an electronic pillory: I can just turn it off when I’ve had enough.
Of course, then I have to face my own self-judgments. The garden has too many weeds, the blueberries seem sepulchral, my house is a mess, I’m behind on the new book, I haven’t inventoried my canning needs for the year, my fridge needs cleaning, I need more exercise, my bangs are too long, I’m not reading enough, I haven’t gone to visit my grandfather lately, I didn’t make jelly yet, I’m so disorganized I can’t find a clean pair of socks. Radical Homemaker? Ha. Try radical slob. Or radical procrastinator.
These past two weeks, I have an excuse. My daughters Saoirse and Ula are taking their annual swimming lessons at the town pool. Bob offers to take them, but each morning, I insist on doing it myself. In part, I am keeping away from the computer, offering myself a reprieve from cyber-judgment. The other reason is because I learn so much watching the girls in the pool.
This is the fourth year that Saoirse has taken these classes. In that time, we’ve graduated through only one swimming level. Swimming may not be her best subject, but she wants to learn. And that’s why I love to watch her. I don’t know if it is because she is not familiar with the protocols of formal schooling (she is homeschooled), or if it is just in her personality, but Saoirse seems completely oblivious to the idea of “keeping up with the class.”
Watching her, I can see she has a list of skills in her head that she wants to master. She stretches on her back and floats on the water until her face is completely immersed and she sinks to the bottom. Then she goes into a bob, and practices blowing bubbles from the floor of the pool. She comes up for air and talks to herself about what she needs to do differently, oblivious to the opinions of those around her, then tries again. She has not developed enough skills to go up another level. But she doesn’t care. She simply relishes the accomplishments that she is having on her own. She has mastered more swimming techniques this year than ever before, and she is truly (and justifiably) proud of herself.
I’m proud of her, too. I find myself inspired by her ability to tune out any judgment that may be swirling around her (She’s the tallest kid in the class! She’s talking to herself! Why doesn’t she stand still in line and wait like the other kids? How many more times is she going to repeat this class?). Instead, she tunes in to what her heart tells her she needs to do.
I think about all the judgment I hear in my own head about my daily failings, or the judgments that I read online about my personal life and work. I resolve to release it all from my mind, to go forward with a free heart, work toward what I feel is important, and disregard the rest.
Saoirse’s assiduousness and dedication pay off. Two days ago, her teacher noticed her off in her little world, blowing bubbles from the bottom of the pool. It was one of the skills the other kids needed to learn, so she called Saoirse in to the center of the group to demonstrate. I flushed with pride. However humble it may seem, it was still a moment of glory. I watched her smile privately when the teacher chose her, but she maintained her equanimity and concentration as she inhaled a giant gulp of air, stood up on her toes, then (without even holding her nose!), curled her long legs up under her and dropped to the floor of the pool as she blew a glorious stream of air to the surface for her classmates. Above the water, her teacher pointed to the bubbles haloing my daughter’s head and said, “See? That’s how it’s done.”
When she was out of air, Saoirse unwrapped her gloriously long legs and used them to propel herself in a single magnificent shot straight out of the water…
…And straight into the wall of the pool, which she hit with her mouth, slamming her brand new two front teeth (not all the way descended) right into her upper lip. My, how she did howl.
I can be such a clueless parent at moments like this. (Oops. There I go, judging myself again.) I gave her a wave to come join me outside the water, and assessed her lip. It wasn’t too bad. The brand new teeth held up to the accident, and there was only a small amount of blood. I tried to decide what to do. Do I tell her to be strong, toughen up, and re-join the class? Do I coddle her and let her quit for the day? She sniffled and tried to regain her composure, and I encouraged her to put some ice on it, then stay by the water and re-join her class when she was ready. I backed away from her, worried about being seen as an over-bearing parent. Her shoulders shrunk together as I moved back. Her spine seemed to wither within her. I watched her for a few moments, then brought her a towel, wrapped her up, and led her to the shade of a nearby tree farther from the pool, where we could sit and watch together. Her little sobs continued, interrupted only by the occasional blurting of “Mommy! It HURTS!” I tried to explain that the wound wasn’t really bad, that it would feel better by the next day. I encouraged her to pay attention to the class so that she wouldn’t miss anything. Saoirse tried to calm herself again and focus, but the sobs sporadically flowed forth, regardless. “It HUURRRTTTSSS!” she wailed again.
To hell with swimming lessons. There was nothing more to be gained from this. I wrapped my arms around my little girl and ushered her off to the empty changing room to get her warm and dry. Sniffling, she pulled off her bathing suit and handed it to me, her skinny bare chest sunken in sadness. I toweled her off again, then folded my arms around her. “Can I ask you something?”
“Are you worried what the other kids think?”
“Oh Mommy!” She crumbled into my arms and began to bawl. “Yes!”
I enveloped around her, making myself as large as I possibly could, in an effort to shield my little girl from any and all judgment that could possibly plague her in her life. We just remained there, dripping water that pooled up around my pants, soaking me through until it looked as though I’d had an accident. I didn’t care. I waited until her breathing slowed before I spoke.
“Can I tell you something?”
“I’m always worried what people think. And they don’t always think very nice things.”
“Sure. And you know what else? They get to write whatever they want. Up on the computer. Where anyone else can read it. It’s kind of like shouting it out in public.”
“Oh Mommy! That’s HORRIBLE!” And she threw her arms around my neck and resumed her crying, now, in part, for my benefit. Then she quieted a little and pulled away. “What do you do?”
Live Dangerously: 10 Easy Steps When Shannon Hayes made a list of easy steps for becoming a radical homemaker, she didn’t realize just how revolutionary they were.
“I do just like you. I get upset. Then I tell Daddy, or Grammie, or Pop Pop. They usually help me feel better. Or I cuddle with you and Ula.”
Slowly Saoirse released herself from my arms and began to pull on her clothes.
“So it hurts you, too?”
“Yup. Not for very long, though. Then I usually learn something from it, or I make a joke about it. Or tell a story about it. You will, too, about today.”
Dressed, she curled up in my arms once more, this time smiling just a little. I kissed the top of her head. “You know, I was really proud watching you today in the water.”
“Yeah, but then I felt really, really stupid.” She said the word with such emphasis, it practically took three-dimensional form as it pushed out of her bruised lips.
“It’ll pass,” I assured her, and we hugged some more.
Even my little girl, who seemed so liberated from judgment, was inflicting it on her own self. I thought about all those spiritual teachings I’ve read about, ways to release oneself from judgment. That’s a good idea, but hard as hell to do. I can certainly try. So can Saoirse. But it’ll probably happen again and again. And for that, I am thankful that we have each other, and Daddy, Ula, Grammie, and Pop Pop, and our friends. One of us is bound to hold the key that will unlock the other from the chains. Whatever bonds judgment can put on our souls, thankfully, unconditional love can usually break them.
- : What happens when children in radical homes choose the straight and narrow?
- from Shannon's blog about the life of a radical homemaker.
- How Shannon decided whether reproduction had a place in her quest for a sustainable life.
- Shannon taught her daughter that their family doesn't buy things they can make or grow at home. She then had to wonder: Does that include higher education?