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10 Easy Steps for Becoming a Radical Homemaker

Go on and live dangerously -- hang out the wash.

When I first released Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, I was advised to make a list of “easy steps for becoming a radical homemaker” as part of my publicity outreach materials. My shoulders slumped at the very thought: Three years of research about the social, economic, and ecological significance of homemaking, and I had to reduce it to 10 easy tips? I didn’t see a to-do list as a viable route to a dramatic shift in thinking, beliefs, and behaviors. But since the objective of such a list was smoother discussion and communication of Radical Homemaking ideas with the public, I did it.

I came up with the simplest things I could imagine—like committing to hanging laundry out to dry, dedicating a portion of the lawn to a vegetable garden, making an effort to get to know neighbors to enable greater cooperation and reduce resource consumption. I would perfunctorily refer back to them when radio dialogues flagged, when interviews seemed to be getting off track, or to distract myself when an occasional wave of personal sarcasm (I do have them on occasion) threatened to jeopardize an otherwise polite discourse about the book. After about 40 media interviews, I was pretty good at rattling them off, and I began to see their power and significance beyond helping me to be polite.

Every time a person sticks a clothespin on a pair of undies, he or she is saying, “I want a better world. And I’m willing to do what it takes.”

Take hanging out the laundry as an example. At the outset, it is deceptively simple: It saves money and resources, and it’s easy. As I spoke about line-drying laundry more, however, the suggestion took on more meaning. Of course everyone would like to hang out the laundry. But many people don’t do it. They’re too busy. Thus, the commitment to hanging out the laundry represents a commitment to slowing down—it means starting to align one’s daily household activity with the rhythms of nature. In my mind, hanging out the laundry moved from being a simple chore to being an act of meditation and reflection on a deeper, more profound commitment that a person wanted to make. Thus, draping shirts and socks on a clothesline wasn’t just about getting a chore done; it represented the new, sane world so many of us are working to create. Every time a person sticks a clothespin on a pair of undies, he or she is saying, “I want a better world. And I’m willing to do what it takes.” Laundry may be a simple first step, but it ultimately leads to something bigger.

Laundry became the central theme of a talk I gave recently in an affluent community, where golf course-quality lawns are ready at a moment’s notice as the backdrop for the season’s latest fad: large screen outdoor television sets. I was speaking at a community eco-festival, where volunteers were teaching residents about the importance of composting, solar panels, buying locally, and changing light bulbs. In my session, I talked about the power of living by one’s values, the misery of excessive consumption, the importance of social change, the deep fulfillment and happiness that results from living with less and having more.

To help me drive my point home, my husband Bob armed me with a seemingly endless collection of images of fellow radical homemaker’s lives: pictures of happy kids showing off their homemade toys, families gathering for feasts, piles of tomatoes on a kitchen counter following an early fall harvest, a sink full of grapes ready for juicing, friends in their backyard gardens, smiling bike riders. At the end of my talk, I was presented with a single question from a man wearing an expensive watch: “Americans fall on a spectrum with money,” he explained, holding his hands about a foot apart from each other. “Most of the people you’re talking about fall on this end,” he said, waving one hand. “And what you’re talking about may work for them. But what about those of us on this end?” With that, he waved his other hand. “What are we supposed to do to be able to live like that?”

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