Simple Living Archive

What Bullies Can Teach Our Kids—And Us

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Saoirse and Ula have a favorite story they are forever asking me to retell. It is about my first encounter with bullies in my kindergarten year. It goes like this: At the end of each day, my older brother and his best friend would pick me up from my classroom, and together we’d walk to our babysitter’s house in town. And each day, the moment we were off school property, a group of three bullies waited for us. They made threats, and we just kept walking. But the afternoon eventually came when fighting ensued. Each of the two older boys took on my brother and his friend. They instructed the youngest to “get the girl.”

I stared at him coming at me. Then I dropped my backpack off my shoulder. It held a metal lunch pail. I kept the strap in my hand. As soon as he was close enough, I closed my eyes and swung in a circle, clobbering the first thing that came into contact with the lunch pail and bag, which was the boy’s head. Golly, did he let out a wail. The cry was loud enough to break up the other two fights, and the three bullies went home to tell on me. No trouble ever came of the incident, and we were able to walk safely to the babysitter’s house after that.

The story is one of my most vivid childhood memories, as it was the end of my fear of bullies. Oh, how innocent it all was back then.

As an adult, I never saw the bullying. But one of my students wound up committing suicide over it.
Flash forward to my early twenties, when I was working as a high school English teacher in Japan, with 600 students. As an adult, I never saw the bullying. But one of my students wound up committing suicide over it. Naturally, by the time I had children of my own, the idea of childhood bullying struck me as horrific. And while bully avoidance wasn’t the reason I chose to homeschool my kids, I was perfectly happy to sidestep that part of Saoirse and Ula’s growing pains.

It turns out I didn’t sidestep it as much as I thought.

Saoirse was recently invited to an overnight sleepover party at her best friend’s house, where she and three other girls spent the night outside in a tent. I picked up a smiling, rosy-cheeked girl the next morning, full of laughter and spirit. A few days later, when we had an opportunity to have lunch alone together, I asked her to tell me all about it.

“It was really fun, Mom,” she effused.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” I sighed with relief. “Because, to be honest, I always get a little nervous when girls your age socialize in groups.”
“How come?”
“Sometimes they can fight and bicker with each other, and feelings can get hurt. I don’t know why. Once girls are grown up it isn’t usually that way, but I remember things like that from when I was your age.”
“Actually, since you brought it up, there was something that happened.”

I leaned back and listened to her story. One of the girls in the group was older than the rest. And during the afternoon, Saoirse found herself in a game with her in the tent. The older girl would zip up the windows in the tent, and Saoirse would unzip them before she could finish.

“I was having fun and we were laughing,” Saoirse told me, “I don’t know what I did, but suddenly she got right in front of me, right in my face, and said ‘MOVE OUT OF MY WAY!’”
“I don’t know why,” Saoirse went on, “but it was the way she said it. It wasn’t friendly at all. So I told her ‘no.’”

I waited for her to continue.

“And then she asked me if I wanted to die. As a joke, I pretended to give it some thought, and then I said ‘umm, not particularly.’ Then she told me to move again, and I wouldn’t do it. She pushed me up against the tent, and told me that if I didn’t do what she said, she’d pull my hair. Well, I figured that Ula had pulled my hair lots of times, so I told her to go ahead and do it. So she yanked it. Really hard.”
“What did you do?”
“Nothing. I eventually moved. It was all kind of weird. But there was no sense in making a big deal out of it.”

That’s not how I felt. I wanted to call my friend, the mother who had hosted the party, and find out about who this other child was. While technically this doesn’t fit the formal definition of bullying (as the power dynamic would repeat itself over a longer period of time), I wanted to take measures to make sure that these two never saw each other again. Then, the pugilist in me came out.

“You just moved out of her way?”


I don’t know what, exactly, I was hoping she’d say—that she’d decked this brat, maybe grabbed her by the shoulders and told her to mind her manners in a menacing tone that let her know my kid wasn’t going to take any crap. But I silenced my inner beast.

“I’m not happy that happened,” was all I could think to offer.
“Actually, Mom, this is going to sound kind of weird, but, umm, I kind of liked it.”
“You what?!” I found this comment extremely disturbing.
“Well, it’s just that–” Saoirse paused for a moment and searched for her words. “It’s just that I realized I wasn’t scared after all. I always figured that if something like that happened, I would be. And I wasn’t. Not at all. And that just feels, well, good. I realized there wasn’t anything she could really do to me. So it didn’t bother me to back down. I mean, it was a birthday party, after all.”

It is at times like this when I am thankful that my children are better at acting like grown-ups than their mother. While I wasn’t on-hand to judge who was in the wrong to begin with, in the end, Saoirse did the right thing. She backed down at her best friend’s birthday party, avoiding more conflict and embarrassment for everyone.

But what struck me most was the glow around Saoirse as she told the story. She hadn’t hurt anyone. But she had recognized that she could be strong in her own way, that she didn’t need to be fearful of another kid pushing her around. I was reminded of a story I once read about a champion fighter who climbed onto a city bus one night with his friend after an evening out. A short way into the ride, a belligerent drunk came on board. Seeking someone to harass, he began insulting and pushing the fighter, unaware of the man’s background. The fighter did nothing. He ignored the drunk, who eventually lost interest and settled down. When they got off the bus, the friend said, “You’re a champion fighter. Why did you put up with that?”

And he replied, “It’s because I’m a champion fighter that I put up with that.”

When we know our strength, it becomes less necessary to show it. Saoirse recognized that the other girl, who was acting menacing, really couldn’t do much to trouble her. She walked away from the incident more aware of her own personal strength. And as she sat with me over lunch, she radiated joy at her discovery.

This has become her story. Ula asks her to re-tell it over and over again. And each time she does, I see an important idea enter more deeply into her consciousness: I do not have to be afraid. She appears to bear absolutely no resentment toward the older girl whatsoever. She talks about the fun they had at the party, and says only kind things about all the other kids.

As a parent and a former teacher, I am too keenly aware of the dangers of these power plays. But as a former kid, I see how overcoming them contributed positively to my own self-esteem. And I can see how surviving this bout has done the same for Saoirse. I guess I’d have to admit that a little childhood conflict here and there can be a good thing. The trouble arises when the stakes are higher, where more coercive weapons and means are involved than pulling a little hair or clobbering someone with a lunch pail.

In the end, as I consider these conflicting ideas in the balance, I know that my protective nature as a parent will ultimately win out. I will naturally seek to prevent these types of interactions from happening to my kids. But I am reminded this week of how my efforts to protect my girls will only go so far.

Sooner or later, they find themselves on their own, confronting any and all circumstances that I have tried to shelter them from. I can only hope they will prevail in their hearts and souls the way Saoirse did, that they will discover their own inner power. I feel quite proud of my little girl this week.

Read the rest at Shannon’s Yes! magazine blog…

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

Radical Homemaking … With Houseguests?

Friday, September 21st, 2012

I wouldn’t say I’m a slob. The toilets get scrubbed, I’m a champion when it comes to de-cluttering, and the sheets get changed. But I do possess a certain, ummm … blindness to grime. Since most cobwebs are above my sightline, I don’t notice them. The windows were last washed in 2008. Dusting really only occurs on those surfaces that see the most activity. I consider a healthy dirt population vital stimulation for my family’s immune system.

It’s not quite the same for Bob. Maybe it’s because he is significantly taller, so he sees more of the dust and cobwebs up there. Maybe (most likely) it has something to do with his waspy New England roots.

And while the vacuum cleaner is one of his personal power tools and he wields it with truly sexy masculine form, he generously lets the rest slide with only occasional gurgles of frustration … until company is on the horizon.

A few months ago, we learned that our good friends, the Bowies, would be visiting from England for one week this August. Bob began planning right away. Our house, the color of grayed-over untreated pine siding, was slowly stained an earthy brown with burgundy trim over the course of the summer. Our front porch was cleared of tools and lumber scraps. Deteriorating screen doors were repaired. In an effort to match his enthusiasm, I bought flowers for the front deck and attempted to keep them fertilized and watered. I stacked the firewood early.

As the days grew fewer, Bob’s efforts grew more intense. He would work at reshelving books, cleaning up his basket weaving supplies, and reorganizing the guest room. And then, he’d step out to where the girls and I were doing our best to stay out of his way … and moan at our mess. Saoirse’s yarn and felt scraps littered our floor. The contents of the costume bag were strewn across the living room. Ula is in the phase where she likes to pull all clothes out of drawers and scatter them across the bedroom floor as she puts together new outfits every 20 minutes. Clean and dirty five-year-old undies get mixed together and wind up in the most unexpected locations—under couch cushions, under desks, outside on the deck.

Saoirse and Ula can be recruited to help out to a certain degree, but their creativity and unwillingness to part with a single paper scrap makes them an obstruction to progress.
I’m not much better. No sooner are the leftovers from the last meal stored away than I have to begin cooking the next meal or testing the next recipe. The lamb harvest is coming in and there is fat to render, the bones need straining from the meat broth, and a few jars of fermented pickles sit out on the counter growing mold and bubbling over. My desk is a clutter of articles, books, receipts, bills, splattered and stained jotted-over recipes, phone messages, and disseminated important scribbles for future masterpieces jotted sideways and on the backs of envelopes and recycled paper. The contents spill over to the floor, confusing themselves with junk mail and wastepaper in such a way that no one but me is authorized to touch.

Tensions were starting to grow last week with only seven days until the Bowies’ arrival. I was working at my desk, the kids were on the carpet behind me, and Bob walked through, looked at our detritus and actually moaned with anxiety.

My temper grew short. “We can’t just stop living to keep the house nice!” I snapped at him. He growled a few choice words back.

In spite of my defensiveness, I fully understood how he felt. I wanted our house to look nice, too. It only needed to be “perfect” just for one quiet moment when we brought the Bowies home. As long as we held together long enough to make a good impression, we would both be satisfied. He wasn’t asking for too much.

Saoirse and Ula can be recruited to help out to a certain degree, but their creativity and unwillingness to part with a single paper scrap make them an obstruction to progress. Rather than cleaning their craft areas, they turn the moment into gallery time, figuring out how to tape every little art project to the walls of the house. They set about picking up their toys upstairs, but soon decide that “cleaning” means meticulously arranging them in interesting and artful scenes from their imagination. At the same time, my being on the cusp of releasing a new book as the fall meat harvest begins keeps my farm, computer, and desk demands high.

Read the rest at Shannon’s Yes! magazine blog…

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

The Downsides of Upselling: 4 Tips from the Farm

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

A few weeks ago Bob and I had the delight of sharing the day at our farmers market with a young man who is preparing to go into grassfed farming. He worked closely with my mom and dad to understand the production end of the farm, then chose to spend a day with Bob and me to learn more about how our small family farm markets our products. From what I could tell, our farm wasn’t the first one he’d visited, and he’d spent a lot of time studying marketing.

As we set up for the day, we chatted about how Bob and I arrange our display, our techniques for keeping our products cold, and the ways we felt our meats looked best. I showed him where to pile the ground beef so that customers could find it easily.

“Oh! Yes!” he said with sudden enthusiasm. “That’s for the upsell!”

I stared at him blankly. “The what?”

“The upsell!” He bubbled. Observing I was unfamiliar with the term, he added, “Your technique for getting the customer to buy more than they planned. Maybe they come to buy some lamb, but then you also get them to buy some ground beef.”

“But-” I stammered. “I-I wouldn’t do that.”

“But that’s the way you sell more meat.”

“But that’s not my job.” He stared at me, confusion in his expression. I did my best to explain. “My job isn’t to sell more meat. My job is to take care of the customers and make sure they get what they need.” I paused for a second, then added, “They trust me. That’s why they come back.”

He suddenly nodded his head in understanding. “I see,” he said, “This simply isn’t a very upscale market.” Satisfied with his conclusions, he terminated the dialogue.

My family lives an interesting conundrum: We produce things to sell. But we want to play a part in unraveling our consumer culture.
He had it all wrong, but I didn’t know where to begin in my explanation. I’m a capitalist who is anti-consumerism. I like being an independent businessperson. I love exploring new entrepreneurial ventures. I get a real charge out of crunching numbers. And yes—I like to make money, and I have no interest in being poor. At the same time, I abhor the attributes of our consumer culture, where success and happiness are assumed to be directly tied to a person’s ability to waste resources.

Thus, my family lives an interesting conundrum: We produce things to sell. But we want to play a part in unraveling our consumer culture. We haven’t got the conflict perfectly worked out by any means. But here are some of the ways we’ve learned to negotiate the tension:

Ask for a living wage.
Our products are not cheap. We gave up the price war with competing businesses long ago. If we can be assured that we are paid for the things we produce at a rate that allows us to live comfortably, then we, in return, are not compelled to “upsell” the customers. Thus, we are as interested in helping someone on a tight budget figure out how best to stretch their meat dollars as we are in the customer who is looking to enjoy a special steak dinner. Since we know we will be fairly compensated either way, we are able to help people on both ends of the spectrum.
As we sit around the back porch discussing our opportunities, someone in the family inevitably pipes up with the critical question: Do we have enough?
Expand within the resource base.
As our family has grown, so have our income needs. Our property taxes are higher. Our medical expenses are higher. Rather than expanding our herds beyond the carrying capacity of our land, we seek opportunities for growth that are synergistic with our farm. We’ve added honey bees, who help pollinate our fruit and pastures. We sell the honey, use it for curing bacon from our pigs, make products from the wax. We look for areas of waste—such as the animal fats that go unused. We render it for sale, pair it with our beeswax to make salves and ointments, process it into soap. We don’t produce a lot. We just try to make use of what already exists. Thus, our marketing is relatively limited. We sell at our farmers market, directly from the farm, and sporadically through our website. We don’t need to seek corporate contracts, brand recognition, or high sales volumes. Thus, we don’t feel compelled to push for the “upsell.” Customers learn what we have, and buy as it suits their needs.
Recycle within the production stream.
Bob and I have a cabinet filled with glass jars recycled from our paté and honey. We choose more expensive packaging for our products that enable us to reuse. We pay refunds on jars that come back. We encourage customers to bring us their plastic shopping bags for recycling, as well as their egg boxes. We try to reduce the consumption of packaging while continuing to sell our products.
Understanding enough.
Years ago, my dad told us a story about a field day he attended on an Amish farm, where a crop specialist asked the farmer for the yields he was getting on a particular field. The farmer gazed out at the field, then offered a one-word answer: “Enough.” That word has become the motto of our family business. We need enough. Enough to stay warm, to pay the bills, to live comfortably, to have a viable, manageable business for the next generation. When we push to have more than that, there is generally a trade-off: the land is over-used, our bodies are over-tired, our souls not quite as nourished. We regularly receive opportunities to do more – to take our products to new markets, to take on more exclusive clientele, to expand our herd, to take on more land. Some of the offers are pretty tempting. But as we sit around the back porch discussing our opportunities, someone in the family inevitably pipes up with the critical question: Do we have enough? In most cases, heads nod in affirmation. We shrug our shoulders, and move on to talk about something else.

No, I don’t suppose Sap Bush Hollow Farm will ever become a Fortune 500 company. Nor will we be the most competitive business. Our gross receipts remain modest, and our “brand recognition” has a pretty small geographical area. But Bob and I stand at the same farmers market booth every Saturday as the members of our family have done for the last 20 years. We see the same customers from week to week. They know us, they trust us, and we sell them what they need. No upselling. And in exchange, we always have enough.

Read the original article and comment over at Yes! magazine.

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

What We Learned From Swimming With Leeches

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

We don’t go away much in the summer. Highways and traffic grate at our nerves, we fixate too much on what could be getting done on the farm, we get grouchy filling up at the pump.

That is not to say our summers are without bliss. But once things are growing in the soil and critters are out on pasture, we tend to stay within a small radius. We don’t take “days off” in the conventional sense; rather we find our summer vacation in the interstices of our daily labor and take our seasonal bliss in place—long lunches, naps, or reading novels on the back porch; staying up a bit later in the evening to watch the girls wrestle and dance in the grass; early morning hikes before the sun rises too high in the sky; and best of all, retreating to the farm pond on the side hill across the creek. If “family vacation” exists for our clan in July and August, then it is defined by late afternoons and early evenings beside the pond, watching the sun retreat over the hilltops, zipping back and forth across the water with dogs, kids, friends and neighbors alike.

Our retreat was suddenly whisked away by freshwater vampires — evil, spineless, bloodsucking parasites.
Thus, when Saoirse, Ula, and Grammie came down from the pond one hot day this past May and reported that they’d found leeches on their legs following their first swim, three generations of our family fell into despair. Our retreat was suddenly whisked away by freshwater vampires—evil, spineless, bloodsucking parasites.

We tried to keep it a secret while we decided what to do. We didn’t want our friends and neighbors to start avoiding our summer watering hole. But news of leeches leaked through Ula and her five-year-old network, parents were made aware, and we suddenly felt as though we had a highly transmissible social disease that was isolating us from our community and friends. No one wants to swim with leeches. Or, at least, that was my initial conclusion.

Grammie began doing research on leech control. She concluded that they had probably been present all along, but that our activity on the pond’s edge obliged them to burrow deep down or linger along the backsides of the pond where the cattails obstruct our swimming and play. She grew angry. Leeches didn’t bother her if they wanted to live on the far side of the pond, or if they wanted to inhabit one of the many other smaller farm ponds that we use for our gravity-fed watering system. But this was her space, where she played with her grandchildren. We were sent up with rakes, hoes, and stick-retrieving dogs to stir up the water and disturb the area where they’d settled. She began scavenging around for tin cans to build leech traps.

Keep reading over at Yes! magazine’s website, and find out why leeches might not be as creepy as you think…

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

The Audacity of Acting Out: What Our Kids Can Teach Us

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Originally published by Yes! magazine.

Saoirse and Ula are three years apart. Saoirse, 8, is unusually tall, slender, well-spoken, and comes across to grown-ups as particularly well-behaved and extraordinarily poised.

Ula isn’t any of those things. At 5, she’s about a foot shorter than her sister, demonstrates an ability to move exceptionally heavy objects for a child of her proportions, has a wandering eye, wears glasses, and acts on impulse. I have been mulling over how I am supposed to help her work with that last attribute.

A few days ago, Ula and her best friend Katharine were having a tea party in the living room. Saoirse, who can’t help but be admired, adored, and obeyed by all younger children (except her sister), interrupted the tea party with a sing-song announcement: “It’s puzzle hour, kids!  Now we’re all going to put puzzles together!” She proceeded to open up a series of jigsaw puzzles and push aside the tea party. Ula didn’t warm to the idea. She began pitching cardboard puzzle pieces at her sister. Katharine joined her.

As a homeschooling mom, I occasionally envy non-homeschooling parents who have the luxury of blaming outside influences for their children’s shortcomings … Bob and I have none of those excuses.
Saoirse stormed off in frustration, seeking adult intervention. Bob and I didn’t yell at anyone. We just helped Saoirse find a quiet space where she could have some alone time free from non-compliant five-year-olds.

Later on, after Katharine went home and we were sitting quietly together with Ula, Bob opened the conversation, suggesting that throwing puzzle pieces at her sister wasn’t an appropriate response to the situation, no matter how bossy her sister was being.

He looked to me for back-up commentary. I avoided his eyes and tried not to laugh. “That’s right, Daddy,” I tried to muster. I covered my mouth so Ula wouldn’t see it twitch. But Daddy saw it. And he couldn’t control it either. We both burst into laughter. Ula patiently waited for her scolding to resume.

We tried a second time with a few weak platitudes, like “throwing things is never appropriate.” Trouble was, Bob and I both agreed that it would be very hard for either of us to resist hurling puzzle pieces in a similar situation. And Ula knew it. “Look,” Bob finally said. “We’re not really angry with you; but you need to find different ways to express your frustration, ok?” Ula agreed.

Deep down, I feel one of the biggest problems with our culture is that we don’t act out. So yesterday, Ula and her friend Katharine were playing with a kitchen set out on the porch at the farm. They had a bowl of water for soup stock. Saoirse entered to join the fun, and proceeded to direct the girls as to what they could and could not do with the water.

Ignoring her, Ula picked up a spoon and sipped her broth, then picked up the bowl and had a more satisfying drink. Saoirse proceeded to reprimand her. Ula quietly obliged and put the spoon down. She disappeared for a few moments. Saoirse and Katharine thought nothing of it and resumed play. Without a word, Ula returned to the porch a few minutes later and joined the fun.

But three hours later, Saoirse pushed her digital camera in front of my face. “Look!”  She exclaimed.

Apparently, Ula had obeyed Bob’s suggestion that she find a different way to express her frustration. This time, she drew upon her artistic sensibilities. She’d taken her sister’s camera, deleted some of the images, then used the freed-up space to photograph her naked hiney. The image she’d captured was a close up of her personal vertical smile. Saoirse was only half-heartedly trying to rat out her sister. Mostly, all she could do was laugh and recount exactly how she’d managed to incite the crime.

As a homeschooling mom, I occasionally envy non-homeschooling parents who have the luxury of blaming outside influences for their children’s shortcomings. Bad behavior or academic failure can conveniently be the fault of the school bus, other school children, negligent teachers, misspent school resources, misguided school boards, or pinched school budgets. Bob and I have none of those excuses. If our children don’t learn successfully or behave badly, the blame falls squarely on our shoulders.

Thus, Ula’s behavior falls back on Bob and me. And I am of two minds about how to address it. I suppose I should play the part of “good mom” and have a serious talk with her about appropriate and inappropriate ways of dealing with frustration. I should explain just what I learned in school: it is not appropriate to act out.

But I can’t quite bring myself to do this. Deep down, I feel one of the biggest problems with our culture is that we don’t act out. We’ve been so conditioned to “behave appropriately” that many of us have lost the instinct to identify and point out absurdity when it transpires before our eyes.

Here’s an example: I delivered a keynote presentation at an organic farming conference this past winter. Before I took the podium, the state secretary of agriculture gave the opening address. In it, he stood before an auditorium packed with organic farmers and told them that if they wanted to have success with their conference that day, and with their businesses in the future, then the first thing they needed to learn was that they should never speak ill of or publicly criticize the conventional food system.

Here was absurdity. A perfect justification for acting out. Not one person did. Instead, when he finished, he was given a round of applause. I regret that I didn’t have the gumption to take the podium and directly call attention to the balderdash we had just been fed. I was too polite. After all, I was raised to not act out. My skills at calling attention to absurdity are above average, but nowhere near as honed as I’d like them to be.

Ula demonstrates what developmental specialists would probably identify as typical impulse control issues of a five-year-old. I can’t help but consider it a gift. Maybe throwing cardboard puzzle pieces or mooning a camera are considered inappropriate responses in an adult world. But I think they were relatively reasonable choices for a five-year-old. Ula is learning to identify absurdity. Saoirse is learning to negotiate her power as a result. As the parent, I choose to step back and let them play it out, and I accept full accountability for this choice.

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

Just Me and My Sink

Monday, May 14th, 2012

Seven weeks of vacation was fun, but our farmers’ market starts in two weeks, and there is a backlog of work that needs tackling in order to be ready for opening day. We’ve been making soap, lip balm and candles; cleaning, repairing and updating our display spaces; weaving baskets to have in inventory;reclaiming the blueberries, grapes and asparagus from the spring weeds; organizing to get the sausage made; catching up on Saoirse’s homeschool lessons and Ula’s eye therapy; and tackling the glut of spring planting. This week, Bob also had to take our fleeces up to the mill in Prince Edward Island, where they will be made into blankets and yarn to sell. Two days before he was scheduled to leave, our sink backed up. He stayed up all hours of the night attempting every plumbing trick he knew of in an effort to clear it out.

Thankfully, the girls were both visiting friends and family for the weekend, leaving us alone to deal with the mess. In a last ditch effort prior to his departure, he went out and bought a gallon of some sort of liquid fire, dumped it down the drain, and hoped for the best.

Things only got worse. The sink backed up like never before, and filled itself with the toxic poison. Bob stared at me, wide-eyed. “I’m SO sorry! I don’t want to leave you with this!” We cooked on the grill and carried our dishes back and forth to the remaining working sinks in the house, and agreed it was time to call the plumber. The next day, Sunday, he left.

Soon after, my mom and dad dropped by, bringing Ula home from her sleepover. They took one look at the state of my kitchen, the contents of the sink cabinets spread around the floor, the dishes scattered around the house and my wild eyes, then loaded her back in the car, and informed me she was sleeping over at the farm until the problem was resolved. They arranged for Saoirse to be dropped off there as well.

And then I was alone. I felt the house sigh around me as we settled in together. Certainly there was a lot of work to be done, but suddenly the pace was my own. My labors didn’t need to be squeezed in between meal times, cuddle times, referee calls for sister battles, potty assistance, story-reading, tooth brushing. There was just me, my dog and cat, and 60 willows to plant and mulch, 32 candles to be made, a few hundred pounds of sausage to make down at the farm, one kitchen with a surfeit of dishes, and dumped-out cabinets, and a backed-up sink filled with liquid fire. Sure it was a formidable amount of work. But now I would be able to tackle it in the luxurious state of uninterrupted peace.

I didn’t get on the phone right away with a plumber who responded to emergency calls. Truth be told, I didn’t want to come up with the funds that an emergency call would require. And as I was now able to have some peace and quiet to think, I concluded that there really was no reason I couldn’t fix that sink myself. And make the 32 candles, plant the 60 willows, clean up the kitchen, then head to the farm the next morning to make the sausage.

In 48 hours of being on my own, I admittedly got a lot done. But I sat down for a total of 7 minutes. My body was in a state of exhaustion. I knew I needed to rest, but each time I found my way to my rocking chair, I would leap up, remembering a load of laundry that needed to be hung out, or noticing a light that hadn’t been switched off, or thinking of some new trick that I could try with the sink . I didn’t read, knit, or even make myself a cup of coffee or tea. I burned through two work shirts and one pair of Carhart pants with liquid fire, acquired several burns up and down my arms, and the only time I talked was to answer my mother’s phone calls with “no, it’s not fixed yet.”

I finally did surrender and call the plumber. I left in the middle of sausage making and drove home to meet him. I fixed my lunch while he was there, and as he worked, we chatted away about myriad things – the differences between his city clients and country clients; how his younger brother, who was accompanying him on the job, had just dropped out of high school to learn the family trade; how he’d always wanted to be a writer. He showed me how to fix the sink and flush the pipes with boiling water. And I wrote him a check for two hundred dollars before sending him on his way. After wincing at the price, I realized that, because he’d shown up, I had finally sat down and rested.

Our house is restored now. Bob is home, the sink works, and I am back to squeezing my work into the spaces between morning coffee with Bob, homeschool lessons and eye therapy, regularly scheduled meal times and refereeing sibling rivalries – all those pesky impediments to my productivity that let me rest, relax, and enjoy my life.

Visit Shannon’s blog and hear the latest about her farming life.

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

Radical Homemaking … In the South of France?

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

For the past several weeks, our family has been living in Europe. Our itinerary has included a week in England, a month in a rural French village, a week in the South of France, and a week in Paris. After writing a book about home-centered, frugal living, a few readers have raised their eyebrows at how this could happen (thanks for your emails, by the way). Radical Homemakers with family farms don’t belong vacationing in the South of France…. or do they?

When Bob and I chose our life paths, we had no intentions of donning monastic hair shirts. Just because we choose to be radical homemakers doesn’t mean we choose to forgo all other non-home-oriented dreams. It is true that our incomes and environmental concerns don’t allow for us to take annual international holidays. But while it may inspire finger-wagging for ecological transgression, our family chooses to travel. Here’s how we do it:

Make it special

Trips like these only happen every few years. That gives us time to plan and save up, and allows us the continuity in our own home that is so important for sustaining our livelihood. It would be hard to carry on with our domestic production-oriented lives if we were traveling for two months out of every year, but it is certainly manageable to work it into the schedule every few years.

Count on family and good relationships.

Of all the things I’m proud of in my life, I count my relationship with my family at the very top of the list. They’re wonderful people, and each of the generations works to support each other. My parents want to see us enjoy our lives. They want their grandchildren to have terrific adventures. In our case, that means the family farm and businesses continue, even when a few folks are absent for a spell. We’ve learned that when we give each other the ability to break free for a while, it keeps our agrarian life vibrant and fresh.

Homemaking skills are portable.

In two months of travel, we’ll have a maximum of three nights in hotels. The rest of the time is in rented apartments and houses where we continue many of the radical homemaking practices that define our life in the United States. French restaurants and cafes are great fun, but we don’t need to be in them every day to have a wonderful trip. We eat out once per week, but take the rest of our meals around a kitchen table, or as picnics. I plan for leftovers, minimize the girls’ access to sweets (they tend to make the kids hungrier later on); and I save carrot stubs, onion skins, lettuce heels, and bones to boil into broth, which we drink for breakfast or make into soup.

Make more pleasure than you consume.

It alters our lives profoundly. We learn about different ways of living, see the world through a different set of eyes, explore how history has impacted our present world, open ourselves up to new and sometimes intimidating experiences.

Castles and museums are terrific…. to a point. They’re also pretty pricey, and don’t always offer insights into culture. We are certainly hitting some tourist attractions, but there are plenty of beautiful churches and castle ruins where walking inside is free. Much of our vacation is spent “at home” in the communities we choose to visit. We get to know local folks and learn history from the stories they share. Our play and relaxation entails taking walks; exploring foreign libraries, schools, and farmers’ markets; having play dates with new friends; reading to each other; cooking different foods; making crafts from found exotic objects; brewing a cup of tea and sitting quietly in the sunshine with some knitting or a novel set in the place we’re visiting. We’ve found this is far more pleasurable than burying our noses in travel guides or making sure the kids don’t touch some forbidden object in a museum. My daughters Saoirse and Ula flourish in the relaxed pace, and find endless fascinations exploring the new world and neighbors around them, and we aren’t confronted with daily battles trying to get them up and out the door at the first light, yelling at them for fighting in the car while we try to read a map, or herding them out of souvenir shops. (All of that does go on now and then, but not on a daily basis.) And finally….

Make it a goal.

I do not think that every family who chooses a radical homemaking path needs to figure out how to afford international travel. But it was something Bob and I wanted to be able to do. When we embarked on this path, we wrote very clear goals about what we wanted from this life. The freedom to travel with our kids, to make travel part of their homeschooling, was something we strongly desired. And since that is a goal we’ve articulated, we find we have a tendency to make it happen. We are willing to take on odd jobs here and there to get the money we need. We are willing to work extra hard before we go, so that we can have the time away. We reduce the number of trips we take, but extend the amount of time away to reduce our ecological impact. We make room for it in our lives. It is a choice we have made.

And in exchange, it alters our lives profoundly. We learn about different ways of living, see the world through a different set of eyes, explore how history has impacted our present world, open ourselves up to new and sometimes intimidating experiences. It allows us time to gather close as a family unit, to learn to count on each other. It inspires us to make changes, experiment with new ideas in our own lives, and experience personal growth. And at the end, we have the great fortune of coming back to a life we love, a life that allows us endless adventures, both home and abroad.

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of and Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

When It Comes to Kids, Is Climate a Four-Letter Word?

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

My daughters, Saoirse and Ula, are no strangers to four-letter words. They’re growing up with farmers, for crying out loud! And no self-respecting farmer around Schoharie County is going to doll up the natural functions of nature with cutesy euphemisms or scientific jargon. When Saoirse was learning to talk, we tried cleaning up our language a bit—but her grandmother swears like a trucker, and her great-grandfather was adamant that such language is best learned at home. So we gave up. We just tell the girls “those are grown-up words. When you’re old enough to know how to use them properly, you can use ‘em, too.”

Thus, it’s rather amusing when people come to the farm and say things like “I’ve got s-h-i-t on my shoes” (I do believe most 8-year-olds, and even a lot of 4-year-olds, can decipher s-h-i-t).  If they have linguistic slips around my children, most people are quickly apologetic, and often turn crimson with embarrassment.

Yet very few people think twice about walking into the kitchen, pulling up a chair, and saying things like “this world is going to h-e-double-hockey-sticks. If the earth’s temperature rises just a few more degrees, that’ll be the end of the human race!”

I want my children to connect to their natural world, to have a childhood that fills them up with earthly joys. I can think of no better way to fuel a fire in adulthood to heal our planet.
Okay, call me weird. I really don’t care if you say “hell” in front of my children. But it seriously irks me that grown-ups don’t consider the trauma they’re inflicting on worried young minds by telling them that their lives—and all the beautiful nature that feeds their souls—are in inevitable peril.

This is not to say that I am in denial about climate change. Bob and I think about this constantly.  But I do not believe it is helpful to burden children with frightening facts about the state of the planet when they are powerless, at their young age, to act upon it. I can’t think of a more effective way to make them disengage from the world around them—to cut themselves off from nature, to choose apathy as an act of self-defense—for fear of becoming too attached to something that will be ripped away.

I want my children to connect to their natural world, to have a childhood that fills them up with earthly joys. I can think of no better way to fuel a fire in adulthood to heal our planet. But I don’t think little kids should have to hear about these serious and frightening issues, especially depicted with the dramatic flair that grown-ups find necessary for climate change discussions.

We emphasize that there is a better world that can come of all this, that we can adapt. If we want to see change, then we can’t frighten and discourage the young minds who will be responsible for seeing it through.
I still believe children should be raised with an awareness of their impact on the earth. But rather than frightening them, I prefer to empower my daughters. We teach them to pick up litter, use up leftovers, to compost. We walk in our fields with our livestock and talk about the importance of the spongy soil beneath our feet and the power of the blades of grass between our toes. We limit the number of trips in our car, we sew buttons back on their dresses, we repeat the words of Thoreau (“my greatest skill is to want but little),” and we perpetually strive to cultivate that as our ultimate achievement.

On Facing Judgment
Live radically, and you’ll inevitably face the judgment of others. For Shannon Hayes, loving unconditionally is the antidote.
I cannot cover their ears whenever a well-meaning (and justifiably angry) adult rages about the consequences of our unsatisfactory response to climate crisis. I wince and endure it. When the girls ask questions later on, Bob and I don’t deny the problem. But we do try to direct their attention instead to what we are doing about it: “That’s why we grow food for our community.  That’s why we don’t buy all those plastic toys. That’s why we try not to drive so much. That’s why Mommy and Daddy are writing, speaking, and protesting.” We emphasize that there is a better world that can come of all this, that we can adapt. If we want to see change, then we can’t frighten and discourage the young minds who will be responsible for seeing it through.

Love is a far more powerful motivator than fear. While we cannot bleep out my friends’ and neighbors’ fear-inducing remarks about the climate, Bob and I can encourage Saoirse and Ula to love their planet, let them know that they have the power to change it, and most importantly, be part of the change ourselves….even if that means putting up with a little extra s-h-i-t.

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

E-books, Earth and Counter Cultural Revolutions

Friday, February 10th, 2012

This blog piece was written for my buddy, Dave Smalley, who acted like his brain might explode when I tried to explain to him how a counter-cultural Luddite might benefit from an e-reader. He asked me to write this up so that he could read it, instead of trying to understand my babble…Here y’are Dave!

You don’t have to spend much time with me to know my type. My camera doesn’t make phone calls or play music. Emails aren’t checked more than once or twice per day. If you want to talk in person, you’ll need to call me on a land line, which only rings in my office, and not in my house. You get the idea…I’m sort of a New Age Luddite.

I’m not against all forms of technology, however. I’m all for anything that can lighten my footprint on the earth, ease my workload, reduce my expenses, and enable me to help create more social justice and feed into a counter cultural revolution. Bob tried numerous times to convince me that an e-reader would meet these criteria.

I wouldn’t believe him. I couldn’t fathom how another electronic device created from petroleum and unknown materials that will break and wind up in a recycling heap could possibly be more eco-friendly than a trusty book. Then a couple things happened.

- Bob resigned as my library book eraser. The most sustainable way to support my reading and research habit is through our public library service. I made heavy use of interlibrary loans for the books I needed, underlined passages with pencil, and lightly jotted my notes in the margins. After reading the books, I’d type up all relevant passages and margin notes, then hand the book to Bob, along with a special eraser, to thoroughly clean before returning it. Yes, he stayed married to me. But he finally put his foot down and went back to washing my dirty dishes instead. I had Saoirse willing to do it for a while, but then she got bored. Ula was my next choice, but she kept eating erasers. That left me to deal with it, and I found myself spending entire work days erasing library books.

- Our bookshelves were filling up. The cost of an e-reader was going to be less than the cost of some lumber to build more storage room.

- I discovered there were e-readers that not only allowed me to highlight passages, but came with QWERTY keyboards that let me quickly type up my margin notes, then download everything to my computer.

- And then the NY Public library AND my local library started making ebooks available. I bought an e-reader. I traveled to NYC to get a NY Public Library card so I could access their electronic book collection in addition to the local one. Suddenly, for less than $200 (plus the cost of a train ticket to the city), I had exponentially increased my access to books. The e-reader has been in my possession for only 6 months and has paid for itself twice.

But does it meet the test for stimulating social justice and counter-cultural revolutions? Locally owned bookstores are getting cut out of the loop. As a reader, I depend on their critical eye to select and suggest titles that might suit my needs. They provide a valuable service to our communities, and we must find a way to support them.

However, what most people easily overlook is that authors have been cut out of the loop since the invention of the publishing industry. It is a standard assumption that only the best (read as “best marketed”) authors deserve sufficient compensation for their labors. Niche and obscure writers are supposed to be thankful if a publisher even recognizes our hard work with a few pennies. As an example, I was just offered a deal from a major publisher for a book that would require 1 year to produce that would pay me an advance of $4750, from which all my research expenses would need to be deducted. A typical author doesn’t even make minimum wage.

Yes, I’d like to see the independent bookstore stay in business. But authors need to earn a living, too, especially if we’re going to provoke counter-cultural revolutions. And e-books are blowing the world wide open for any author who chooses to sidestep the conventional publishing industry and strike out on their own. With e-books, an author can write and eat. Through e-book publishing, independent authors don’t need to lay out the capital to cover printing and distribution costs. Websites like are coming on line to help them market their work independently. Self-published authors can upload directly to the major bookseller sites, too. Out-of-print authors can reclaim rights and restore their titles to the cultural canon. Because of e-books, a self-published author can support him or herself. And then they can support independent local cafes, food co-ops, farmers, musicians, non-profit revolutionary causes, craftspeople, and bookstores.

Since joining the e-reader club, my eyes have been opened by the opportunity to support and enjoy the work of fellow self-published writers. I’m able to review and critique manuscripts easily, access inexpensive books that pay a fair wage to the writer, and avoid filling my house with endless volumes of bound, dust-collecting paper.

I’ve come to observe other advantages, too. When many of the homes in my county were flooded following two tropical storms this past fall, the amount of ruined books hauled away to the dump piles was distressing. An e-reader could have restored literary collections with the touch of a button. While on the road, I am able to take books out of my local library, even if I’m seven hours from home. But best of all, my dog likes it, because I can finally read and turn pages with one hand while continuously petting her with the other.

It is not yet a perfect technology. My understanding is that a person must be an avid book lover to offset the ecological impact of an e-reader (I’ve seen estimates of 20-40 books per year being the required e-consumption rate to be more sustainable than paper). The problem of saving the independent bookstore is not resolved, either. I still rely on them for art, craft and cooking books that need to be viewed in larger size, for reference books, children’s books, and out-of-print titles. And I want them to continue to offer the other titles, because I rely on their suggestions and knowledge of the industry, and want to be able to browse titles by flipping through them. I hope they will find a way to stay in business. Perhaps it will only be a matter of time before those crazy cameras that make phone calls will assist in the book buying process, allowing browsers to shoot images of UPC codes in the book store, instantly purchasing titles on display for their e-readers. By golly, there may be a use for that bizarre technology yet.

Reposted from Shannon’s blog, where you can chime in on the conversation. What do you think about e-readers?

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.

From the Farm to the Occupation

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

When an email from the group Food Democracy Now! landed in my inbox last week, asking farmers to occupy Wall Street, it seemed only right that I notify the subscribers of Grassfed Cooking—a monthly e-newsletter I run for other farmers of grassfed meats—and ask that they consider joining.

Some farmers, myself included, heeded the call and joined the march. Many who couldn’t make it to the city on short notice wrote to express their support. But a handful of caustic, angry responses showed up in my inbox as well:

“I hate to tell you, but you are part of the 1%…You may not be a millionaire banker, but you do own a business….Folks at OWS believe you should provide for their needs, and that they need to do nothing in return.”

“You just lost me as a subscriber.”

“OWS objectives are to destroy our free-choice political system and our free-market economy and replace them with anarcho-socialism. [If they succeed,] your first task of a morning will be to fire up the computer for the latest email from the Agricultural Czar, telling you what to plant in which field, and when.”

“OWS methods are as ugly as the future they envision, including defecating on the American flag and urinating on police cars.”

“What is wrong with you?….These “occupiers” are the ones that want something handed to them for doing nothing.”

“Occupy Wall Street is EVIL!”

“I wish you had stayed apolitical.”

Not all farmers think of our work as political, but I do; it’s hard not to notice the role that corporate power plays in distorting our food system, from prices to farming practices.

Maybe I should have deleted the emails and moved on. I get plenty of nasty letters from anonymous folks who don’t like the fact that I eat meat, or that I’ve advocated homemaking as an ecologically and politically powerful vocation. Those letters go into a folder called “Alternative Fan Mail,” where they pretty much get forgotten. I could just do that with these. Or I could write and tell the senders they were being misled by corporations with a vested interest in convincing them that occupiers were bad people, out to ruin their way of life. I could explain they were being manipulated to get their continued compliance with the existing power structure. Chances are, they would tell me I was the one being misled. Our exchanges would zero each other out.

My stomach churned in angst over these notes. It was like getting hate mail from family, from people I deeply respect—people who believed in me and my work long before anyone else did. I started my writing career publishing recipes for grassfed meat. As a proponent of sustainable agriculture and grass-based ranching, and as a family farmer trying to get the American public to think outside the grocery store, it was the most important place for me to begin. If I wanted Americans to change the way they eat, then they needed recipes.

But for a long time, it was hard to get my work out. Glossy magazines didn’t want to talk to me; big house publishers said my topic wasn’t important. Tips for success were dropped in my lap along the way: “Hire a publicist.” “Go make friends with Rachel Ray.” “Pray that Martha Stewart will discover you, and then you’ll have it made.” “Accentuate your cleavage.” Not very practical tips. About two years after publishing my first cookbook, a well-meaning publishing professional from New York dropped by my farmers’ market booth to pick up a pack of sausages. Seeing my first cookbook on display, he chatted to me about my writing efforts. Before he left he leaned over and whispered his final prognosis for my career: “You’ll never make it. You don’t do lunch in the city.”

No. I didn’t do lunch. We were too busy growing lunch.

I decided that, if no one wanted to pay me to do my work, then I would give it away for free to the folks who valued it: other farmers. I began, a website devoted to helping pasture-based farmers communicate with their customers. I sent out the e-newsletter, providing recipes or tips for working more effectively with grassfed meats, or else opinion pieces that covered developments that impacted small farmers. The site slowly developed a faithful following of salt-of-the-earth farmers, food activists, and meat lovers. It became a kind of community.

Then I asked them to join a protest, and stepped in a hornet’s nest.

How to respond? To dismiss the opposing views would mean dismissing our relationship. That doesn’t help the Occupy movement, and it doesn’t help the grassfed farming movement. In the end, I did my best to have a dialogue, to point out our common interests, to respectfully explain that I was moving forward with my choice to march on Sunday. Not all farmers think of our work as political, but I do; it’s hard not to notice the role that corporate power plays in distorting our food system, from prices to farming practices.

I know I lost a few readers. But I think I managed to convince a few of them that, while they may not agree with all of the folks who have chosen to occupy Wall Street, there were at least a few people down in New York on Sunday who didn’t fit the profile that the news had told them to expect.

My experience at the Sunday rally was one of the most moving four hours of my life.

In truth, nobody fit the profile. My experience at the Sunday rally was one of the most moving four hours of my life, surrounded by hundreds of people who cared about the same issues I do: food sovereignty, the need for city people to start building soil and growing their own food, the need for rural and urban folks to build better relationships with each other to sidestep the corporate food system. I met dairy farmers, meat producers, seed producers, vegetable growers….even some friendly vegetarians. I met food activists, senior citizens concerned about the quality of food for their grandchildren, community gardeners, college students who were trying to learn how to feed themselves ethically and healthfully. We saw American flags, held up high. One of them led our march. And I saw a side of New York City that I’d never seen before. New Yorkers hung out their apartment windows, came to sit on their steps, sat out at cafes and stood in front of their small grocery stores and food stands. They cheered and clapped as we marched by. They sang and chanted with us. We marched through community gardens reclaimed from abandoned lots. I stepped on ground that was as lush and beautiful as any earth I tread upon here upstate.

The most poignant moment for me, however, was when our march passed through a community garden and I heard cheers from up above me. I looked up and saw four urban teenagers standing in a tree house. They waved and smiled, then held up a giant sign for us to read: This land will live again.

This land will live again. It will live in America’s countryside, in her mountains and rivers, as well as in her cities. To me, that’s what the Occupy movement is all about—finding ways for all living things to thrive. And for those of us in the grassfed farming community, that’s what we’re all about too, even if we don’t all agree with protests.

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of and Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

rawmilkrevolution Shannon Hayes is the author of Radical Homemakers.