A Well-Intentioned Lie

Gardener's Supply Company - Deal of the Week

So, hi.

I know it’s been since spring that I wrote anything here, and for that I apologize. A few of you have left emails and comments asking if I was ok – I am. Thanks. 🙂

What I have been, however, is relatively depressed and unmotivated, struggling with day-to-day tasks and not having much energy left over most of the time.

It’s now Autumn, and that’s when I start turning even more introspective than usual.

I started a new, full-time job this week. Thus, my eight months of semi-retirement are officially over. Neither Mom nor I can tolerate spending much time together anymore, so back to work I go. Still, this time off has been a period of astonishing inner personal growth. I’ve no idea if it in any way affects how I comport myself, but there is some pretty Serious Business going on internally – stuff most people probably already carry around with them, but I never truly have. We can talk about all of that later on.

Now that I no longer have vast amounts of free time, I find myself trying to make the time I have more efficient … at least in my head. Too often, I sit here at the computer, playing Minecraft or EVE Online, because I sometimes can’t force myself up and out of the damned chair.

Other people make keeping an organized household look So Stinking Easy. They make cooking seem like something I should be able to do blindfolded and in 8 minutes.

This, along with conversations I’ve had with new co-workers and assorted friends, has had me thinking long and hard about how my time is spent, and the value of various tasks upon which I spend it. I’ve been consciously altering my inner monologue away from, “I should/have to unload the dishwasher” to things like, “The dishwasher needs to be unloaded; that’s just how it works,” or, “I’ll feel better if I get the dishwasher unloaded and loaded back up again.”

It’s still not an enjoyable task, but changing my thought processes make me feel less resentful of the work.

There is always, always work to be done. In our house, and everywhere else in the world.

It’s taken me this long to get to the main point of this post: There is a very widespread, very well-intentioned lie permeating the intersection of homesteady and non-homesteady people. Indeed, even between homesteaders ourselves.

The lie is this: Homesteading is a simple way of life. It’s easy!

It’s quite simple to understand why people want others to believe making the switch to a more sustainable life path is easy – we believe it is a better way to live. Better for us, better for the environment, better, better, better. We want others to give it a try.

What better way to encourage people to try something than by saying, “heck, it’s easy! You’ve got nothing to lose.”

The problem is, a lot of this homesteading business is not easy. It is often inconvenient, time-consuming, labor-intensive and difficult – heavy on the “inconvenient” part, because the sustainable path is often the long way around.

It’s easier to throw something away than it is to recycle it. It’s easier to use disposable plastic bags than glass containers which must be washed and put away. It’s easier to grab lunch at the drive-through than it is to plan ahead, make and pack the lunch, carry it to work, and bring the sack and containers back home to be washed and put away. It’s easier to grab prepared, microwaveable dinners in a box than it is to plan, assemble, cook, serve and clean up after A Real Meal.

It’s easier to buy applesauce at the store than to pick the apples, wash, peel, core, cook, smush and can them. And then there’s that “cleaning up” thing again.

It’s easier to buy deodorant than to make it.

If you’ve also got kids in the equation? It’s complicated by orders of magnitude.

So why do it?

Because it’s important – every little bit we can do adds up globally.

Making it look effortless and breezy sets newcomers up to fail. Or, at least, it sets them up to feel like they’re not as good at it as they should be.

It would be faster & easier to use a tractor, right? PS - this is not us, and it is not my photo. Link goes to photographer's Flickr site.

If a person wants to leap feet-first into the pool, she is going to have unrealistic expectations, unless she has done a lot of careful research. Reading homesteading blogs is a wonderful source of information and ideas, but it’s also a great way to develop an altogether too-romantic notion of how things are going to work.

I have fallen into this trap many times, in many different areas – not just in a homesteading sense. I’ve fallen into the trap on both sides, too – I have written about something, making it seem easier than it was, and I have followed someone else’s written instructions or guidance and found it much harder than represented.

Most food and cooking blogs show spotless kitchens and perfect-looking dishes plated to dazzle. This is what my kitchen looks like right this very second:

There is stuff  EVERYWHERE. I hope this makes some of you feel a bit better about what your own kitchen might look like right now.

Blogs can make things look so amazing, make them sound so easy, when I find those tasks difficult, tedious, or downright awful, I feel like I have done something wrong, or that I am just not cut out for this lifestyle.

This is patently untrue, of course.

Certainly, there are simple, everyday things we can all do to lessen the burden on our environment, power grid and budget; however, what is “easy” for me or for someone else might be difficult for another person. For example, an “easy” thing for me to do is to use primarily cloth towels in the kitchen, and only cloth napkins in the household. It’s easy because we have a washer and dryer in the basement. For someone who has to take his laundry to the laundromat every week, it’s not so simple a solution.

Growing a small amount of our own food might seem “easy” to those of us with a bit of a yard, but what about the folks with a North-facing apartment with no balcony? A pot of herbs or lettuce might work, but then again, it might not. Saying “anyone can do it!” can be misleading.

Perhaps my “this is not simple” threshold is lower than most folks’. Perhaps I am irretrievably untalented.

Perhaps I’m pretty much like everyone else, though, and so it seems to me it serves little purpose to “trick” someone into sustainability under false pretenses. Many bloggers do a great job of outlining their difficulties and challenges; others… not so much. I have seen so many “This recipe is just a snap!!” posts, which describe a day-long, tedious, meticulously-timed cooking process that left me wanting to bash my head against the kitchen wall.

Likewise, “sewing this skirt is just a breeze for beginners!” Perhaps to the experienced seamstress, this seems like it would be true. Not so much for the actual beginner.

If we are honest and open about what to expect from a sustainable lifestyle, I think we do ourselves, the community, and prospective homesteaders a much better service. We want to let people know they’re not alone in their challenges and frustrations. Yes, that root cellar full of canned goodies looks beautiful, wholesome and fabulous (and it is!) but holy crap – many hours of time and labor went into putting it all up. The jars of food did not appear there by magic.

When we write, we should not downplay the work, the inconvenience, the sweat. We should set expectations appropriately.

That thirty pounds of tomatoes you just picked? It’s only going to fill up one giant pot for tomato sauce, and when you cook it down, it’ll give you maybe 6 quarts. Maybe.

The enormous crop of collards, kale, cabbage and broccoli could easily get wiped out by cabbage worms, Japanese beetles, cucumber beetles, deer, groundhogs and bunnies – you might not get any of it. Those tasty pickles you made last summer that everyone liked so much? Sorry, can’t make any this year.

The lovely skirt/blouse/quilt you spent so many hours on got peed on and clawed up by kitties – you surely can’t just go out and buy another one.

You get the point.

I understand wanting to encourage others to move toward sustainability, and I understand wanting to seem as if we ourselves are wildly successful in doing so and are living our lives in a blissful tableau of kerosene lanterns and windmills. Some of us probably are – but I am not among that number.

Sewing something for myself or for the house takes time, a bit of money and sometimes a large amount of frustration and tedium.

Cleaning out the chicken coop pretty much sucks. Chickens die, and that really sucks (we are now down to two, Gia and Noxie.)

Weeding 2000 square feet? Totally sucks (although some people do enjoy it.)

It’s kind of a pain in the ass to collect all of our recyclables in giant stacks for a month and then haul them to the township hall on the second Saturday each month.

Making beef jerky, instead of buying an easy-to-pick-up package? It doesn’t suck, but it surely does take more time and effort.

Buying local, organic milk through a herd share takes a heck of a lot more time and effort than simply picking up a gallon when at the store. It is slightly more expensive, too.

Making my own pumpkin puree and toasted pumpkin seeds was time-consuming both in the garden (no insecticides, remember, so I lost a ton to squash bugs,) and in the kitchen (roasting the pumpkin, cleaning the seeds from the strings, soaking them in salt water overnight, toasting for a couple of hours in a low oven.)

Using a menstrual cup is messy and a little … noisy.

Baking soda and vinegar do not clean the tub “just as well and just as easily” as Comet does.

The rewards vary: This beef jerky is freaking delicious; we have safe, fresh eggs, produce and milk which taste better and are healthier for us and the environment than store-bought; I love my handmade Moda fabric wall hanger that corrals all of our plastic bags for re-use and recycling. I am not putting tampons into the landfill, and I am not subjecting myself to dioxins in my vagina. I am not dumping tons of chemicals into our septic system by using nasty cleaners (for the most part.) We only put our trash can out for collection every two to four weeks; the rest is recycled or composted.

The collective reward is huge, though – I feel better about how I’m living. I am far, far from completely sustainable, off the grid or chemical-free. But I’m doing what I can do right now. That’s important.

I’m going to endeavor to be as up-front about my process as possible. I’m not going to try to paint a rosier picture of “A Simpler Life” than it really is.

I suspect some of this “making it look easier than it really is” is a hold-over from earlier decades, when keeping our troubles to ourselves was strongly reinforced. Smiling and politely muddling through, feeling largely alone, seemed to be the way to go.

That’s just never made sense to me. We’re all going through this “life” business together, right? Each experience differs, perhaps wildly, but there are certain fundamental similarities.

When I was vegetarian for those eight (long) years, I never tried to make it sound easier on me than it was; I talked about missing meat, but why it was more important to me not to eat factory-farmed animals. I tried very hard not to be preachy or make it sound like not eating meat wasn’t a big deal. It was a very big deal for me, and I craved it a lot. The cravings lessened over the years, but never went away entirely.

Discussing the subject honestly with people who were not vegetarian was always interesting, and I think I got my point across far better by being honest than I would by seeming like it was effortless, and that they were weak for not making the same choices I had.

By the way, I’ll take this opportunity to once again plug our local meat providers, Creswick Farms, and to thank them for raising organic, humanely-raised-and-slaughtered animals. I am still not 100% comfortable eating meat, but I am healthier (and better sated) for doing so. Too, their meat tastes better than any I’ve ever had.

Henceforth, my posts (whenever they may happen) will have honest tips and realities from my own experiences. They may or may not apply to others.

But they will be true representations of my life, my situation.

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11 responses to A Well-Intentioned Lie

  1. Well-written and heartfelt essay, Erin, and I got such a kick out of seeing your kitchen! Mine gets that way incrementally, then I think, “Oh, I gotta spend an hour now putting stuff up and cleaning!”

    I recommended your blog to my good friend Bev Wigney, and she was impressed.

  2. Erin D.

    Thanks very much, Larry. 🙂

    Sadly, my kitchen looks like that more often than not – it’s the landing place for anything we happen to be carrying as we come into the house. Plus, I’m not terribly good at cleaning up as I go while cooking dinner. I ebb and flow.

    Right now, I’m definitely in ebb mode, cleaning-wise. 😉

  3. There’s a halfway point, too – when I bought this property I decided I was going to be all off-grid and sustainable and … well, it didn’t happen. I never asked you about chickens because I never got any.

    But you did influence me to find a better way – we get our eggs from a farm down the road just a few miles away, and now eat beef from a cow that grew up the next town over, and same with the chicken when they’re in season. We switched our massive soda habit to a Soda Stream that produces only 1 recyclable plastic bottle for every 40 liters or so of soda we drink, and get our fruits and veggies from the farmer’s market.

    Those things were somewhat easy to do, and it was a halfway point between what I was doing before, and what you’re doing.

    But I admit that when I tried some things that were supposed to be easy and they wound up taking 10X longer then someone told me, I just about chucked it all – there probably is more I could be doing, but without being told what it really entails, I can’t make an honest decision about what *I* can do within the resources (time and money) that I have.

    So, honesty, IMO, is the best policy – I admire those that are gung ho to do it all, but I likely won’t be one of those people. I would love to find more that I really can do, and the only way I’ll know that is if someone details out the challenges in an honest way.

    Anyone that tells me it’s both easy and awesome and nearly effortless I am automatically suspicious of. If it was, everyone would be doing it.

  4. Mjit RaindancerStahl


    I knew how much work canning can be before I came over, but I was more than happy to trade my help for food because I knew the hardest part was over: your garden survived the summer. I have one internet friend who blows wads of money on produce (not sure if it’s MegaMart or WholeWallet) so she that has foodstuffs to can.

    Some people are better suited to puttering about the house all day, cooking this and cleaning that. They feel more productive when they spend a couple hours chopping the living bejeezus out of a couple pounds of tomatoes to make a jar of salsa. Those people think that cooking from scratch or making their own clothes is easy. And it *is* easy, if you can figure out how to keep yourself from going mad while you slice, cut, chop and stir for over an hour just to watch the family greet your hard labor with the usual apathy.

  5. Aaron

    chores are my antidepressant and a form of meditation if I am allowed by the children to set my mind on nothing else. “chop wood, carry water” http://www.interluderetreat.com/meditate/chop.htm

  6. Erin D.

    Hiya Jen – I’m very humbled to have had a modest impact on your sustainability, thanks for sharing that with me. 🙂 Going the full nine yards, especially all at once, immediately, while you’re working and have a child (with everything going on with him, too!) it’s *not* easy. Baby steps are great. I also picked up a SodaStream for us a month or so ago, and while it’s not perfect (drinking water would be way better, but I’m still working on that part,) I agree it’s a heck of a lot better than drinking standard soda (a bit healthier too, for most flavors.) I think we’re very much on the same page in terms of what we want to see when we research how to do even better.

    M’jit – I sooo very much appreciate your help this summer! Not only your actual physical help, but the company as well. And indeed, you’re right – some folks really do enjoy the process… I’m not among that number, at least not yet. I’d like to be. Which brings us to aconran’s comment…

    Aconran, yes – this. It is something I aspire to, and is going to be the topic of my next post, in fact. 🙂 Today’s “stop waiting” post flies directly in the face of it, but one could apply the same process to waiting, too. Hm. Maybe I’ll make an amendment, now that I really think about it. Thanks!

  7. Hooray, You’re back! Thank you for this and for the kitchen photo. Yes living “simply” isn’t always that simple. I thought about this as I was combing through wool to spin my own yarn. I have yet to go out the small patio garden an clean up my failure of attention (a.k.a. the year of no tomatoes).

  8. SLneir

    I agree with Mandy. Your back. Yipee!!! I used to can every fall(tomatoes mostly). But I wasn’t working at the time(well I did have two kids home). It’s very hard to do everything that your mind wants to do. You just have to block out alot of the things on your list.:) Glad your back. I missed your writings.

  9. <3<3<3<3

    All of this, and more. My mom is crazy when it comes to recycling (even with a baby and my sister, and no where to compost anything[which means all the food waste goes in the garbage], she's a two-bags a week woman), and as a kid I always gave her a hard time about it. As I get older, I want to make more of an effort, and follow her, and your lead.

    This year's lesson for me seems to be: Doing the right thing isn't always easy (and is more often significantly more effort), but it's worth it.

  10. Loved this post. I grew up on a homestead, and there really isn’t much easy about it. It is certainly a whole lot easier to just have a job and buy everything you need. Right now my life is trying to find that balance between having a job and growing a lot of our own food and caring for our thirteen acres. I just like growing things and felt very out of place living on a small lot in town–don’t really have a desire to go back to homesteading, but do want to take care of the land and raise as much food as we can because it is healthier and tastes way better. 🙂

  11. I’m so with you! Yes there needs to be honesty in homesteading. Simple doesn’t mean easy at all. Sometimes its hard to even catch a breath sometimes, but I know that its all worth it. We aren’t anywhere near being self sufficient, and this is our first year homesteading. We are doing ‘okay’ but I know we could do better. I often feel after reading some homesteading blogs that I’m not as far ahead as I should be. It can be discouraging. I just need to sit back and breathe and just take baby steps. We’ve gotten a lot accomplished, but we have so FAR to go!

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