Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Angry, Sword-Wielding Feminist Seeks Peaceful Spot to Knit

Hi, I'm Sasha. I like swords, Star Wars, Russian literature and knitting.

I'm a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working on my Ph.D. in Slavic languages. I have very little free time and even less money. I rent a room from a wonderful family whose decor I would describe as...unapologetially 70s. Alright, it's not their decor per se, but they haven't quite gotten around to ripping out all of the blue carpet yet. My boyfriend, who shall remain nameless, is in his last year of law school in a different state. The two of us look forward to buying a house, shacking up and, with the help of a bit of disposable income, making said shack a home. With the job market the way it is, it's lookin' like I'll be staying in my rented room for a few more years.

For Christmas, my mother gave me Jane Brocket's The Gentle Art of Domesticity. I love it! I'm at the point, both in my knitting and in my cooking, where inspiration is at least as valuable to me as straight-up "how tos," and I found this book to be very inspiring. Lush, even. Perhaps a bit heavy on the pink for my taste, but it's really Brocket's appreciation of the value, both sensual and emotional, of domestic creativity that strikes a chord in me.

So my reaction to Liz Hunt's review in The Daily Telegraph was one of surprise...and then surprise at my surprise. Hunt, through exasperated sarcasm, accuses Brocket of popularizing yet another set of "impossible standards [for] the rest of womankind via beautifully illustrated books and websites." I must admit, from time to time I myself fall into the trap that seems to ensnare Hunt.

Let's face it: I'm young, I'm broke, I can't even set up a home with my boyfriend, who shall continue to remain nameless. I live in a rented room - I can't splash brightly colored paint all over my walls to brighten up my living space. I don't have an expensive digital camera with which to take gloriously luxurious pictures of my finished projects. I certainly don't have time to bake all the damned time.

But then Jesus, who does? How many of us actually are, as Hunt describes them, "women who have done the career bit and, looking around for a new diversion and cushioned by private income or a wealthy husband or generous alimony, target the home and impose impossible standards on the rest of womankind via beautifully illustrated books and websites." Who really has the kind of time to create a home as airy, as peaceful, as lush as Jane Brocket's? Who are these women? And how on God's green earth will I ever find the time or the money to make my home the bright, cheery, welcoming haven that I see in all of these beautiful pictures?

Decades ago, women in America were relegated to this domestic sphere whether they liked it or not. They had the time, and some of them had the money, but they had little choice. And they too, through the spread of television in particular, had impossible standards to live up to. Then the feminist movement blasted out a place for women in the workforce. It wasn't easy, but women could find productive, fulfilling, rewarding work outside the home, if that's where their interests lay. And for a while, the worst thing that an energetic, intelligent, educated woman could do was to chain herself to the home in defiance of her new, hard-won freedom.

The craft movement is a sign of things changing yet again. Women, by baking, quilting, gardening, knitting and most of all by being proud of their work, are reclaiming parts of our femininity that had been devalued. Men, by finding the same delight in the same pursuits, are showing that traditional concepts of femininity are not dirty or shameful. Just as I can put on a suit, grab a sword and go conquor the world, a man can knit an afghan to enrich his home. Creation and domesticity are empowering. I learned to knit at Wellesley, for Chrissakes!

But now it's in the media. Now we have books of inspiration - or standards - published by women with means far beyond those of most of us. My stockinette will never be that even. I will never get this damned bulb to sprout. I will never be able to afford a house that would ever look like that. And who the hell quilts? I have blue carpet, and it's not going anywhere. Is this liberating development yet another set of impossible standards - new shackles for my hypothetical daughters to break?

Every time we break through the walls of what defines feminity, we set up another, newer, shinier set of walls, but they're just as constricting. So fuck it. My home, my little room, is going to be every bit as gorgeous as Jane Brocket's, blue carpet and all. Because I effing said so. I can't afford much, but that's one reason I love making things: doing for myself. I will make this the home I want it to be. It's not going to look like anyone else's, and that's what will make it perfect. That's what will make it mine.

I'm done looking outside myself for standards to live up to. There's inspiration, and then there are standards. Inspiration is at its most delightfully surprising when it comes from outside of you. Standards, to have any validity, must come from within you. I will be inspired by Jane Brocket's books and blog and beautiful photographs, as she intended, but I will never expect to resemble her. I will not be knitting tea cozies, but I do think I'll make a quilt. I will stay in this rented room, but I will be home. In place of my boyfriend, who shall remain nameless, I will live with my hilariously blue carpet. I will make this room a haven. A place of warmth, of comfort, of ease, of beauty. And I will do it on my terms - less pink, more swords!

If anyone ever follows this blog, I hope it inspires you to do the same. Not to embrace my undoubtedly quirky esthetic, nor my necessarily frugal budget, nor my giddily rabid feminist ideals, nor my insistant use of the words "nor" and "whom," but to redefine, to destroy entirely the standards that my gender - that both genders - have been duped into falling short of. I like knitting, and I like fighting, and I have blue carpet, and that just freaking rules.

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  1. Here here! I'm lawyer/dominatrix/witch and dammit I still like when my house is clean, shiny, and smells of freshly baked molasses cookies.

  2. My goal has been to make my home as spa-like and relaxing as humanly possible for all members of my family. If this means that the family room is toy strewn and decorated primarily in Lego and Fischer Price but still dominated by the TV and the RockBand set, then so be it. I will paint my walls and carpet the floors in bold but soothing colors, burn scented candles and incense (to cover the smell of diapers in the house), and make sure there are cozy corners where someone can sit an read or nap (pets included). My only stumbling block seems to be in keeping everything as clean as I would like. I still wish I could afford a maid as there is just not enough time in a working mom's life to vacuum or mop as much as I should be. Ah well. No one to my knowledge has ever said on his or her death bed "I wish I had spent less time with my family and more time cleaning!"

  3. Kudos on your most excellent blog! I'm thinking of a blue carpet that a certain precocious tot grew up on for her first 2 years. Aaaaaaand, I'm looking at the blue carpet in my own recently acquired home. Um, well, blue is good.

    Ah, homemaking. It's a noble cause... one of the most noble, provided it actually does anyone any good (and it can). I have to remind myself from time to time that there's a difference between art and craft. Art is for its own sake, and craft is for a purpose. In my book, homemaking is a craft, and while some artistic elements can be brought in, the purpose is to make a good home. Period. That makes it extremely powerful--more powerful and subtle than art.

    As for standards, I couldn't agree with you more. This is how society controls us, it's how we are fooled into buying stuff we don't need, and it's how we make ourselves miserable. Internal standards, if they are pure, are the only way to go. Unfortunately, we often internalize the standards of our parents, churches, television shows, and on and on.

    The trick is to remember, dear Sasha, that you are a sovereign spiritual being, and the choices that you make can be based on clear thought and intuition. So pull out your sword and hack away at those impossible and stupid external standards. I will poke them with my knitting needles.

  4. nice blog.... since you're studying slavic languages I'll ask if you've read Enchantment.

    I'm only part way through it, but loving it.

  5. April, I'm half-way through it too, actually. :-) I'm finding it particularly interesting after slogging through a course on Old Church Slavonic last semester.