eden is exile
Ed Note: Why the long pause, Seam Ripped? It is job-hunting season here on my happy old Hilltop. The fact that I have yet to sob, “I don’t want my cats to be orphaannnneeeeeddd” is apparently a good sign. If any of you have ever had a job, ever looked for a job, perhaps have never had a job but feel super confident in your advice-giving skills, and would care to say things about that in the comments section, I’d be very much obliged. Also! If you’ve written a comment that has languished without response, please do look back for one. (That is, if you’d like. Free country, and so on.)
I’m a big believer in going to bed angry. Huge, actually. Well, let’s back up for a second. I’m a huge believer in being angry. I come from long lines of Punjabs and Puritans, warrior goddesses and buttoned-up New England schoolmarms. After years of competing stories about walloping off the enemies’ heads and burning their blood, and the triumph of staid reserve over emotional excess, I’ve emerged with a solid belief in feeling the fury and then. . .nothing. Well, it used to be nothing, but I eventually realized that everything seems a lot less important after a long, hot shower and a good night of sleep. That’s something, isn’t it?
As I was reading Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound, my jaw was in a perma-clench. Confusion, rage, reluctant understanding, grief: lather, rinse, repeat. I write this from vacation, and at breakfast with Mummy Seam Ripped I struggled between tossing the book into the hearth or into the lake. (Librarians of Lau: It’ll be returned on time, if a little scuffed up. You all know how to get rid of tire tracks, yes?) I had to step away. A lot. Take breaks. Walk around. Read other things. Now? Now it makes more sense.
Why was I getting so hot under the collar? Well—and I think this might be true for a large portion of the sewing blog-reading population—I recognize enough of myself in the movement Matchar is identifying to make the text seem personal, but am different enough from her sample set to cringe (cringe) when reading a lot of her examples. Big quote time:
“It would be laughably retro to explicitly say that a woman’s [roper place is in the kitchen, yet women like JJ and Robin and Addie feel keenly the sense that a “good woman” focuses her energies on feeding her family on the very best, purest food. If food is so important, why wouldn’t she? But in this brave new world of backyard chicken raising and homemade bone broth and hand-mashed baby food, the “best, purest food” is an ever-rising target.” (Matchar 119)
Hasn’t food always been about status, exclusivity, and, to a certain degree, about exoticism? Ditto clothing. I’d wager that the keepers of kitchen have always fretted about the best, though not necessarily the purest. From what I understand, pre-packaged foods were status items, as were the tools of liberation (vacuum cleaners, washing machines, dishwashers). Now, ladies, you have leisure time. Leisure time that you can use for personal maintenance. I don’t think people stopped keeping gardens or line-drying their clothes because store-bought tinned tomatoes tasted better, or even because all of the adults in the family unit got jobs (which would happen later). I think people stopped doing those things because they didn’t want their neighbors to think that they were poor. Not even because those items cost less than a homegrown tomato, but because of the leisure that’s associated with it. In that sense, you were feeding your family the best. Were there very many women who said, “You know what? I’m doing a B+ job of this homemaking thing, and that’s all right”? I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s my 21st-century perfectionism wrestling its way to the fore, but I don’t know very many people who’d be content with doing a B+ job at anything.
You know, I wrote the above few paragraphs in early August, and I mean all of it, but I’ve since walked away, returned the book to the library and bought and annotated my own copy. (See why my blog posts take so damn long?) Anyway, I couldn’t shake why I was so unsettled by this book. There are core arguments with which I agree. The economic downturn has likely contributed to the influx of artisanal this and homegrown that; young people out in the field are finding work unfulfilling; the US doesn’t yet have the social structures necessary to support upward female mobility. The issue for me is that the very premise of the book requires an embrace of the false dichotomy that led Michael Pollan to make his (outright wrong-headed) comment, “[The appreciation of cooking was] a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.” It’s not an either-or proposition. By setting the artisanal movement at odds with contemporary mainstream working culture you’re forcing a choice that needn’t be made. Why is it surprising that people with “good” jobs who went to “good” schools are opening up ice cream stores and Etsy shops? Doesn’t that inherently demean their careers of choice? There isn’t really an ice-cream-store-opening school, is there? (I suppose an MBA and culinary school. Maybe some finance experience to pay for said MBA?)
For me, the simplest answer is the right one. Pink tomatoes don’t taste good. A fresh heirloom tomato sliced on some garlic-rubbed toasted bread tastes better than some cheese grated over a Trader Joe’s tortilla. The problem? That shit’s expensive. I could buy a black-market kidney for the price of an organic, heirloom tomato and a good, good loaf of bread costs almost ten bucks. Ten bones, y’all. These sorts of businesses don’t have the economy of scale that, say, Kraft mac and cheese does. So, yes, instead of blowing off steam at a bar after work, some people go home and bake bread. For other people, the opportunity cost baking a loaf of bread is higher than $10, so they buy the bloody loaf. Say it with me, y’all: And that’s okkkaaayyy.
There’s a part of me that thinks—fears, really—that I’ve missed the point of Matchar’s argument. Yes, there are people who have made a forceful exodus out of i-banking and into full-time crafting, but aren’t they the minority? What’s behind Matchar’s seeming discomfort with the casual crafters? She knits, too; why is this shocking? (I’m at school and don’t have the book, but there is one line that basically says, “In the 90s, you’d go out dancing with your friends; in the aughts, you stay in and make preserves.” And in both cases the next day you go to your job—you know that, right?) This brings us to the title of this post. (1000 words in, a record.) When I was on vacation, I read a book of James Wood’s essays, one of which is called “The Homecoming.” In it, Wood reviews a Marilynne Robinson book called Home, where the characters go back home and find it lacking. For them, Wood says, “Eden is exile, not heaven.” What if Matchar is right and we are having a homecoming of sorts? Only, the source of our anxiety is not the fact that home isn’t the same anymore since we’ve experienced liberation, but that we’ve narrowly defined progress in the creative destruction sort of way (nutshell: we’ve moved forward, created new opportunities, and necessarily have to destroy what was). Am I reaching, here? The problem isn’t that we got to Oz and realized it wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be, but that the very existence of the idea of an Oz makes difficult a life in Kansas. And now even I’m lost.
Time for a turn-on-a-dime segue: This is evidenced by the sewing community’s really awkward relationship with the idea of home. Hear me out. Every time I see someone hashtag an Instagram post of a garment with #handmade, I have to take a walk around the block. Now, what makes your self-made garments handmade? You used a sewing machine, a serger, maybe a coverstitch, maybe a blind-hemmer. Factories use all of those things, with loads of people. Why is your stuff handmade? If bought an industrial Juki would your garments no longer be handmade? What if you made a lot of things assembly-line style? Got your friends to help? Sold said items? When does it stop being handmade and start bearing the implied sterility and hollowness of the “other” garment? Never? By this logic, I have a closet filled with handmade clothes.
Look how many hands there are in this photo! Okay, off the soapbox and onto the point: I don’t think we use the term handmade as a rejection of the people (mostly women; mostly poor women) who make mass-manufactured garments, or an intentional dehumanization of developing-world labor, but rather the fact that homemade, in the sewing community, tends to mean shoddy, Becky Home-Ecky, happy-hands-at-home. Much as just about everyone seems to crow about the quality of contemporary ready-to-wear, it is considered complimentary to use ready-to-wear finishing techniques, or to make a garment that looks like it could have been RTW. (I have a forthcoming post about the alleged decline in RTW quality coming down the pipeline. I even have visual aids. Mark your calendars, friends.) That, and having a homemade dress might harken back to the dark days of oppression (oh, the 1950s); whereas handmade summons visions of happy hobbyists and artisans, working to bring our creativity back, well, home.
Thoughts and feelings, gang?