Every day I check a certain list of craft blogs, wifey blogs, green, off-the-grid and home renovation blogs written by people with a wide variety of motives, many of them spiritually bankrupt and sociopathic.
I have strong green off-the-grid tendencies, and a political and emotional commitment to living in the democratic space of the city. I’m interested, if not physically able to manifest, old fashioned rural skills like composting, hog butchering and chicken keeping, which are the ingrained lessons of my father’s childhood as the scion of academics in Appalachia. There is a photograph, ca. 1917, of my father’s five siblings each holding a basket of apples or a chicken or a hoe, to signify their life of abundance in Blacksburg.
I have pushed off my list of daily blog visits people whose blogs I was originally attracted to on account of the self-sufficienct, the off grid, the Appalachian. The crazy peak oil religious fanatics. The autism-lurks-in-household toxins urban homesteaders for whom turning the thermostat down to 60 during the day is a competitive mean girl mommy sport. Is your child ill, or is he just freezing to death? The greenery is belied and the anorexia underscored when we find these ladies writing long essays about how hard it was to give up $50 a bottle hair conditioner. We are blonde first, and green waaaaaay down the line. That blonde in the 12-miles-per-gallon SUV giving you the finger in a thong-induced fit of road rage? Is heading home to blog about how to sew your own menstrual pads.
I deleted entirely the dipshit millenarians who stake their baby goatschickenspigletscalves out on hillsides roiling with circling coyotes and hawks. I actually called the humane society in Montana or wherever the hell one set of animal-abusing sovereignty assholes was and turned them in. There’s another poultry and goat abuser in France I’m thinking of siccing Brigitte Bardot on to.
The Brigitte Bardot Greenpeace/Sea Shepherd vessel.
Then there is the urban farmer who posed, at Christmas time, as the Madonna, with her new baby in one arm, and a squirming baby goat tightly held against its will in the other. The father of the baby is squatting beside this unholy trinity pursing his hiply scruffed lips to kiss the Madonna’s cheek. It would work, maybe, if the lady in question were more modest in her pictorial allusions, and if her chin did not resemble the Winklevoss twins’. If you’re going to do butch Madonna, dude, you gotta let the goat go.
And lest you think I am biassed against the Zoolander be-chinned, it is the holier-than-thou thing, rather than beauty itself, which seems to be the family resemblance among the foremost urban farm bloggers. The blonde hair conditioner freak, who is a babe, thinks she’s approaching beatitude for foregoing the Frederic Fekkai Kool-aid and cooking her own hair conditioner. I think she’s touting cider vinegar, used by great-grandma Flora Judd (nee 1862) on her knee-length natural blonde Belle Epoque tresses, as the latest hair rinse.
Off the grid self-reliance has many spiritual and political implications. Self-reliance is, ultimately, impossible. We live and die in community, if only with the animals and God. One of the litmus-test issues for living off the grid in blissful solitude, rather than sociopathy, is meat, how humanely to live with animals we are going to kill. It is a problem addressed at its loftiest by the Nobel Prize winner for literature, if not vegetarianism, I. B. Singer in his genocide-related 1967 short story, The Slaughterer. Two farm bloggers, who are both old school and new, whose attitudes toward their meat animals are neither sentimental nor narcissistic are Paul Camilli, over at Life at the End of the Road, and the Matron of Husbandry — a Grange reference — farming the land she was born on, at Throwback at Trapper Creek. Both Camilli and the Matron, too, have the endlessly concatenating creative energy which is the single most attractive component of the home-centered blogs I read daily. It is the element present in the artists’ and travellers’ blogs I read too.
My father had it, even if it was not precisely directed toward home, or the part of it that buying furniture entails. My mother had, famously, to finance bureaus and night stands, sofas and armchairs, curtains and carpets, out of the grocery money. I grew up sleeping on a mattress so bad I thought waking up in the morning with a backache is what all teenagers did. The generosity and elegance of real frugality, as opposed to panicky tightwad sociopathy — a tried and true method of controlling your women folk — is one of the sub-texts both Camilli and the Matron address. Like Soviet-era survivors, Third World hustlers, visionary artists, African-American yard artists, and Rumpelstiltskin, Camilli and the Matron can make anything out of anything. The key is the willingness to spend real time and money on fences, to keep the predators, the floods, the neighbors, off your animals and their pasture. If you haven’t got the money to keep animals safe, to buy real medication and veterinary care, or are too cheap to buy good wind turbines and mattresses, you need to think again about the true nature of home and solitude.
The bloggers I read seem to be connected to chi, you could call it, the spiritual energy Henry Adams addresses in 1900 in The Dynamo and the Virgin.
No more relation could he discover between the steam and the electric current than between the Cross and the cathedral. The forces were interchangeable if not reversible, but he could see only an absolute fiat in electricity as in faith.
Some of us think it’s God, and mystics can see that universal concatenating energy radiating from stones and teratomas, iguanas and angels. Somebody was telling me about hiking in the mountains and pausing just as he was about to set his giant boot down on a three-inch sand-colored iguana. It looked back at him, all-comprehending, bigger than the view of the Continental Divide from Sandia Peak.
The blogs I like and check every day are disparate. They range from a lone Scots wife making stone soup and mopping her floor “for the menfolk” with washing soda, Bible verses and a drop of geranium oil, to a variety of people, some of whom have overcome amputation and strokes with needlework, wallpapering, rock breaking, blogging. Blogging, qua creative concatenation, was identified, and correctly, I think, by Stephen Duncombe, as the 21st century equivalent of the zine movement.
Other bloggers I visit daily, like Camilli, the Matron of Husbandry, who are in their 50s, or Benita Larsson, newly divorced, in her 40s, thirty-something Lucy in Yorkshire with rainbows atAttic 24, and John and Sherry Petersik, of the millenials generation, at Young House Love, don’t habitually refer to any personal catastrophe. They just keep on trucking in a way that means not only a beautiful and peacefully ordered home, to me, but resurrection itself. That’s what recycling, upcycling, thrifting, organizing your coupons, installing your own dishwasher and darning strike me as, and I can see it more clearly in digital photographs than I can in real life.
The Petersiks, who quit their New York City jobs in advertising to move near family in Richmond, make a living from their blog. One of its subthemes is the very focussed energy and professionalism with which the young parents work at home together to produce two detailed and colorful posts a day with fresh DIY material as they renovate their second house. It’s better than HGTV because it’s their money on the line and their fingernails which get smashed by amateur tool-handling skills. One of the threads I discern in the blogs I visit daily, especially the Petersiks’, is the brio with which each writer attacks and solves a problem in each post, from how to deep straw your chicken house, to how many threads you encompass in counted cross stitch, to knitting pattern graphs, to how to fabricate fences to move so your cows are on new pasturage every month, to how to crochet a stem and a leaf with veins, to how to strip paint off hundred-year-old redwood woodwork, to how to keep a poorly runt piglet alive — and, every day, though Kate Davies, who I think of as the Intelligent Craftafarian, seldom mentions it, learning how to walk again after a stroke. Again, the life and death confrontation — not precisely with meat, but with the ordering of matter — is the struggle here. It ranges from learning a tiny filet crochet stitch from a resurrected 1893 pattern, to Greg of Mount Petchmore single-handedly mounting a stepladder to paint, in several tasteful and painfully chosen tones, the many Victorian textures, surfaces, nooks and crannies of that worthy opponent, Petch House. What is so compelling is that the struggle with the eternal cussedness of things, as Twain called materiality, takes place in real time. Which is where I live.
Resurrection and resilience is what the creative concatenating is of someone like Larssen or Yvonne Eijkenduijn at Yvestown, or Lucy, who woke in midlife to find herself in too small a house in wuthering, grey Yorkshire and covered the house in a rainbow of crochet. Eijkenduijn is a Guyanese/Dutch woman with the same northern light aesthetic that imbues many of the British knitting bloggers, as it does Larsson, a Swedish designer — a hunger for white rooms with a very few touches of color. The British mod silvery all-white rooms is a trope that is not new; but they glow in the northern light, and even ramshackle or medieval interiors look groomed when covered with a lick of white paint. The banishment of darkness is one subtheme here, and while Paul Camilli or Greg at Petch House never go on about decor, Camilli does go on about laying pipe across an inhospitable grade in the Hebrides to create a hydroturbine for — you guessed it, light. Greg of Mount Petchmore in foggy Eureka, California, kept me rivetted with his account of liberating from a demolition site and then cleaning tile, each one, individually, with a toothbrush, from a light-starved northern California saloon Jack London could have frequented.
Overcoming winter was actually the subject of a British blog circle and Flickr group; the best blogging I’ve seen on that subject is from Alicia Paulson. After the longed-for adoption of a baby fell through, Paulson made one post about it, and proceeded with her standard posts on making a grey-toned quilt, a dark counted cross-stitch sampler, nature walks, and most cathartically, the dark and silver tones of late winter in Portland, when tiny sprigs of things she collected and photographed in the northern light, against a black background inspired by the famous Mrs. Delaney’s flower collages, are just beginning, under the mulch, in the forest, to green. Her forebearance in complaint and the mountain of meticulous and beautiful work she undertook to achieve stasis gives that post about the sprigs real luminosity.
Marx’s Bubble Wand
It’s the same immanence that electrifies you when Marx launches into his famous disquisition on a table, or Des Pres, the scholar of concentration camps, writes about how to concatenate safe space in extremity, or Virginia Woolf writes precisely what it is Mrs. Dalloway feels when she crosses the threshhold into her home.
While the concatenation of home in dark and hostile climes is heroic, something I miss my Daddy for, less male or female than it is generative, being at home is itself the antidote. The resting in the bloggers’ beautifully ordered spaces, as well as the ferocious energy it takes to make them, is what I’m after every day. To think about the energy emanating from the configuration of things — as when someone says, I haven’t changed her bedroom since she died — whether it is actually form-conferring, or, alternatively, unacceptably proscriptive, is something I seem to have been doing on the down-low all my life. My ears prick and my eyes brighten in the presence of the concatenation; one of the things I most regret about a lifetime of moving and purging is throwing out the stack of 1970s House and Garden magazines which had in it the one with the spread on San Francisco designer John Dickinson’s 1893 firehouse apartment, with the Victorian painted lady rowhouse facade reproduced on his closet doors.
His was the most beautiful interior ever, witty, clean, comfortable, with touches of Afro and beach chic — all demolished now. I studied those pictures, and those of New York City designer Sister Parrish, because unlike other decorators, they knew that the placement of furniture and the color of the walls was about two things — conviviality and sensuality. Was the furniture conformed to conversation? Was there a table for every seated conversationalist to set her Stinger down, or her Earl Grey, with no tongue-dulling cream, but rather a thin slice of clove-studded lemon? Was there seating for as many people as fitted around the dining room table? Would the food and the ladies’ decolletage look good against those wall colors? I love HGTV and the terrific eye for upcycling, rock and roll, and Miami styles that Henderson, Ballatori and Bromstad are channelling upwards from the grassroots, but every time one of them sticks a useless chair into a corner to “style” it the ghosts of form-conferring conviviality weep. I actually spent two days tracking down the only remnant of the John Dickinson spread — lacking, sadly, the shot of those immortal closet doors (!) — and paying a pretty penny for quite a stupid book which features that long ago Utopia.
Without any question, this concatenation of home is both Utopian and political, at the very center of the most profound political economy of the last millenium. When Marx started his famous disquisition on commodity fetishism in Capital, he did not use, as an example, anything so frivolous as a bottle of claret, of which he was very fond, or a labor intensive filet crochet lace edging hooked from Jenny Marx’s tears. They could afford little else. Marx chose a different domestic partner, a companion of interiority to evoke a world of Platonic ideals and German transcendentalism. Derrida writes:
It is a great moment at the beginning of Capital as everyone recalls: Marx is wondering in effect how to describe the sudden looming up of the mystical character of the commodity, the mystification of the thing itself — and of the money-form of which the commodity’s simple form is the “germ.” He wants to analyse the equivalent whose enigma and mystical character only strike the bourgeois economist in the finished form of money, gold or silver. It is the moment in which Marx means to demonstrate that the mystical character owes nothing to a use-value.
Is it just chance that he illustrates the principle of his explanation by causing a table to turn? Or rather by recalling the apparition of a turning table? This table is familiar, too familiar; it is found at the opening of the chapter on the fetishism of the commodity and its secret (Geheimnis). This table has been worn down, exploited, over-exploited, or else set aside, no longer in use, in antique shops or auction rooms. The thing is at once set aside and beside itself. Beside itself because, as we will soon be surprised to see, the s id table is a little mad, weird, unsettled, “out of joint.” One no longer knows, beneath the hermeneutic patina, what this piece of wood, whose example suddenly looms up, is good for and what it is worth.
The way the configuration of furniture confers form or proscribes it — the way it morphs, adds or subtracts value — is the subject not only of Marx’s transcendental table but of materiality and political economy itself. How you can go from living in Marx’s ghost house to living in Philip Larkin’s sad house — from aspiration to acedia — is one subtheme of the blogs I don’t like. The pinny porn bloggers, whose things are aspirational and whose crafts are consumerist, fill me with anger and the desire to buy:
Home is so Sad
by Philip Larkin
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
Must have that vase.
The homes of the bloggers I like do have the heart. They’re not philanderers valorized by the ferocious concatenation of Dystopia, like Larkin was, and the concatenation of home they create is satiety itself. Reading Lucy’s encomia to crocheting with hot color is its own reward. Should she juxtapose a “teal/maroon/orange combo? Shall I run up through the lighter colours with the aqua/celery/mustard combo? Or shall I do something quirky and unexpected with the pale green/magenta/maroon combo?” Just thinking about those aqua/celery/mustard color vibrations takes me to the place where Utopia is built. Into the flow.
The homes of the bloggers I like are filled with their own energy, and whether or not I like the brackets the Petersiks put up in their kitchen, or Lucy’s unorganized “Shelves of Doom”, or the flotsam and jetsam Camilli has stacked in his yard for upcycling, or Greg’s staircase carpet, or the scary way the Scots housewife talks about her isolation and the endless rain, or Daniel’s strict MCM orientation at Manhattan Nest, or the Zerbeys’ fixation with mustard in Seattle at Chezerbey, or Morgan Satterfield’s brutalist thing in the meth capital of the San Jacinto Valley, Hemet, CA, at The Brick House, or Anna’s shaved head side in Newburgh, NY at Door Sixteen, I know that each one of these people is paying attention to making life go forward, what I’m calling the conviviality. Kyle Zerbey, a young architect, taught his candyass how to weld so he could fabricate the perfect ladder to the tiny loft space in their tiny working class bungalow. Yeah, baby.
It is no accident that Generation X academics, like Kate Davies, the punk generation, lead the millenial arts and crafts movement in apocalyptic Britain. She teaches and practices engagement with materiality,
- from darning, for its own working class feminist history and beauty, and for its utility in getting off the fashion grid and into the thrift shop/deconstruction/retailoring grid;
- to the important and robust critique of anti-feminist, classist, consumer fetishist pinny porn blogs,
- to the history of the working woman’s needlework,
- and the 21st century rediscovery of a 20th century regional arts and crafts movement with the robustly pink Dryad Handicrafts pamphlets and movement.
While she would certainly deny it, Dr. Davies writes, and crafts, with more than a touch of Marxist materiality and a sharp iconoclastic eye for pinny porn and commodity fetishism. I was struck recently by the sharpness of Davies’ eye and its freedom from socialist asperity when I saw Marc Jacobs’ fall 2012 collection. It seemed ganked from the unsung, narrow-shouldered-punk-Mary-Poppins-thrift-shop-inspired-coat school of dressing Davies manifests, and from her favored fashion house, Cabbages and Roses.
Flowers of Darkness
My college buddy Bob told me that Virginia Woolf had committed an “intellectual suicide”. This untruth was catnip to a sensitive coed and in the late 1960s I took Virginia Woolf up as a cause. There is a passage in To the Lighthouse which confirmed for me that the way I experienced the world was worth writing about, something the professors of world literature, my major, were not professing even at that late date. Jane Austen was a minor writer because, Dr. Baizer said, she did not write about war. May he roast eternally in the pit of Dante’s Inferno (that was taught by nice gay Dr. O, who wore a cape and a cameo ring) which rotisseries teachers who betray their pupils. That was not a million years ago, that was 1968, news of which apparently did not penetrate the backwaters of upstate New York until later.
I’ve never regretted my good acquaintance with the canon — it is important to have read the entire works of Richard Crashawe — on the guileful principle that once you know the rules and know them good — Crashawe! — you know how to break them. It did teach me how to write and gave me entree into the world of writing.
But Woolf I had to learn on my own, and a few years later as a young reporter I realized in order not to be crazy I needed to stop knowing a little bit about everything, stop being a mile wide and an inch deep. I decided I would know everything about Virginia Woolf, and 43 years later, I do.
The passage from To the Lighthouse which showed me both modernity and that a woman’s real interiority could be written about, I read in the summer of 1966 or 67:
Raising her eyebrows at the discrepancy — that was what she was thinking, this was what she was doing — ladling out soup — she felt, more and more strongly, outside that eddy; or as if a shade had fallen, and, robbed of colour, she saw things truly. The room (she looked round it) was very shabby. There was no beauty anywhere. She forebore to look at Mr Tansley. Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself a little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking — one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a news-paper.
It changed my life. Ten years later, as a young reporter, I wrote a story for the Great Metropolitan Daily about how 20 per cent of all the readers of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library — a four-century panoply of manuscripts — were reading Woolf’s papers. I was on to something; you read it here first.
Like the blogs I visit every day, Virginia Woolf — though the daughter of the most famous atheist of the Victorian age and the wife of the toughest-minded Fabian socialist — imbues the home her characters live in with the immanence of glory. In thinking about what it is in those blogs that attracts me, passages of Marx, of Des Pres, the scholar of concentration camps, and of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway immediately spring to mind, out of all the shelter porn I’ve been reading for four decades, as explaining the real reason for home. The fourth great authority whose insight I often think of is Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporter, almost as famous as a reader of shelter magazines as he is for other accomplishments. It was either Bernstein, a red diaper baby, or an alter ego inHeartburn, the roman a clef novel written by a furious ex-wife, who pointed out that shelter magazines were about Utopia.
Virginia Woolf, her shared interest with Bernstein in socialism and atheism aside, has Mrs. Dalloway cross the threshold into her home after an epic walk through London.* The contrast, and the pause, or stasis Mrs. Dalloway achieves as she exits the public streets and flow of modernity, comes home, and stands in the hall, and sinks deep into safe space, has always struck me as both the religious and secular explication of Des Pres’ theory of civilization. Home is civilization, and Mrs. Dalloway’s pausing in the hall fills in the blanks of Des Pres’ definition. While the city, and modernity itself, may enact Marx’s explosive dialectic — thesis, antithesis, synthesis, all that is solid melts into air — while the epic flaneurism of Mrs. Dalloway (1925) preceded Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1927-1940) by years* — the verities are at home.
“What are they looking at?” said Clarissa Dalloway to the maid who opened her door.
The hall of the house was cool as a vault. Mrs. Dalloway raised her hand to her eyes, and, as the maid shut the door to, and she heard the swish of Lucy’s skirts, she felt like a nun who has left the world and feels fold round her the familiar veils and the response to old devotions. The cook whistled in the kitchen. She heard the click of the typewriter. It was her life, and, bending her head over the hall table, she bowed beneath the influence, felt blessed and purified, saying to herself, as she took the pad with the telephone message on it, how moments like this are buds on the tree of life, flowers of darkness they are, she thought (as if some lovely rose had blossomed for her eyes only); not for a moment did she believe in God; but all the more, she thought, taking up the pad, must one repay in daily life to servants, yes, to dogs and canaries, above all to Richard her husband, who was the foundation of it — of the gay sounds, of the green lights, of the cook even whistling, for Mrs. Walker was Irish and whistled all day long — one must pay back from this secret deposit of exquisite moments, she thought, lifting the pad, while Lucy stood by her, trying to explain how
“Mr. Dalloway, ma’am”—
Clarissa read on the telephone pad, “Lady Bruton wishes to know if Mr. Dalloway will lunch with her to-day.”
“Mr. Dalloway, ma’am, told me to tell you he would be lunching out.”
“Dear!” said Clarissa, and Lucy shared as she meant her to her disappointment (but not the pang); felt the concord between them; took the hint; thought how the gentry love; gilded her own future with calm; and, taking Mrs. Dalloway’s parasol, handled it like a sacred weapon which a Goddess, having acquitted herself honourably in the field of battle, sheds, and placed it in the umbrella stand.
The safe space in which even a woman’s spirit may effloresce — home, A Room of One’s Own — and the obligations within it of communitarian obligation to one another as repayment for the way one can resurrect oneself at home, are either the foundation or the apex of civilization.
That a woman who wants to work at writing or anything else requires a homemaker, is a discussion for another venue. That home requires a cook and a parlormaid is the subject of much obloquy against Woolf and her novels.
I feel bound to disagree with Mrs. Woolf’s assumption that running a household and family unaided necessarily hinders or weakens thinking …, Q. D. Leavis wrote in her famous review of Woolf’s Three Guineas (1938). And, she continued, I see no profit in letting our servants live for us. Q. D. Leavis was the most vicious of Woolf’s many baffled critics, oddly anti-feminist herself. Mrs. Leavis had been a brilliant undergraduate who married her professor, worked her tail off cooking and cleaning, wrote angrily about Woolf’s feminism. She never quite — well you know. Never wrote Mrs. Dalloway. Or even A Room of One’s Own. Never came home.
*Scholars of Woolf have only recently begun to analyze her engagement with the city. A 2009 conference at Fordham, called Woolf and the City, marks the beginning of institutional engagement with Woolf’s Marxist city walks some 80 years after the publication of Mrs. Dalloway’s odyssey (1925) and the establishment of Benjamin’s Frankfurt school of critical Marxist theory (1923). Food for serious thought, however tardy, on Mrs. Dalloway walking through the city, if not going home, can be found in the papers from that conference.
(c) Jeannette Smyth, all rights reserved.