living and exploring "women's work"

spiral print

Annie Dillard wrote that "how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." In an effort to examine the normally unexamined, today I tried to notice all the quotidian work I do in order to see what kind of patterns pulse beneath.

 I got up at six, and after groaning at the thermometer, scrolling through instragram (being honest), and making the bed, I shared a cup of coffee with Jacob (well again, to be honest-- Jacob drank something wholesome like nettle or dandelion root, proving yet again his body is a temple and mine is a caffeine tank). By seven he was out the door for his long commute to his high school. I debated going out to do the chicken chores, but since the thermometer read an unbelievable -17, I decided to work instead on finishing up a quilt for a friend’s new baby. This sweet new person came into the world just a few weeks ago, and her mama labored to birth her for three whole days. We both really like this family—they are new in our lives, but have the spark of friends that could be dear and long-lasting. I wanted to make something homemade and useful, and figured something cozy, warm, and bright would be good for starting a family in the dead of winter. For an hour and a half I cut, ironed, and stitched a wild little blanket for a tiny person.

By eight thirty I wanted to make sure the chickens had water and food, so I bundled up and journeyed out to the coop. I cracked the frozen door open and was greeted by our two roosters crowing. I had been worried about them last night in the frigid dark, but we left them a light on in the coop to ease the chill. Still, my fears were confirmed when I inspected our rooster’s comb and noticed a few little black spots, signs his comb was hit with frost bite. I felt terrible, racked with guilt for not keeping them all warmer. I ran inside, read up on treating frostbite online (it’s like a WebMD overdose, but adding the search term ‘chicken’, and after learning the trick was not letting them get gangrene(!), armed myself with a little cup of antibiotic resistant ointment. Goo in one hand, rooster in the other, I tried to dress his little chicken wounds and smear a protective coating over his comb to prevent further infection. Needless to say, he didn’t love it.

I began to think that giving the chickens some hay instead of the woodchips we normally fill the coop with (chips are free; hay costs money) could help keep them a little more insulated and prevent further frostbite. I quickly threw in a load of laundry that had gotten chicken poo all over them, made a grocery list, and drove the s-curves down out of our hill town into town twenty minutes away. There I deposited farm checks at the bank (thankfully) and went to the grocery store, loading up on food for our home while in town. (We have been eating a lot of rice, beans, and sweet potatoes lately—we’re pretty wholly ready for early spring crops to return.) I swung through the farmer’s supply store, picking up more feed for the birds as well as a bale of hay. We chatted briefly about maple, and when the season would start, or if it just wouldn’t this year.

I arrived home and dumped the grain into the shed, then spread hay out for the birds. After collecting ten eggs, I thanked the birds, and checked to make sure their water hadn’t frozen. (We bought a heated waterer that had a sparky scare, was rebuilt twice, and sometimes still freezes on the top, so it’s always worth checking.) I refilled laundry.

After grabbing some quick food to put in my face, I had a phone interview with an applicant for our Spiral summer program. We talked about her passions and work teaching younger kids about farming and social justice, about living in community and how to resolve conflict. She told me she plans to start an alternative school when she gets out of college and wants to use permaculture design to get there. We talked about Mending Patriotism, the month long Permaculture Design Course, and how we are raising money to make the program truly accessible to young women from all backgrounds. Through our conversation my heart swelled with inspiration and I felt grateful for having put in (and continuing to put in) the less sexy work—accounting, marketing, outreach, fundraising—needed to make the engine of Spiral go.

After our conversation, I received several emails from a helpful friend putting me in touch with schools with students for the summer program. I wrote back and forth with some of these folks: intro emails, chatty emails, professional emails. I worked on a script I have been writing for a fundraising campaign. I told our story, again and again, each time in a new way.

While writing to people I have never met in the flesh, building on stories and shared friendships, I was suddenly struck by how every piece of my work today has felt deeply, thoroughly "women's work". So much of my day had been about keeping animals, people, and spaces warm and fed. Of doing work that will need to be done again and again—buying and making food that will get eaten, cleaning a coop that will be filthy by tomorrow, washing clothes that will again get soiled, and building relationships that take time and energy.

I began to realize so much of what I think of as traditionally “women’s work” is just this: oikos-- cyclical tending. Oikos feeds the engine of a business, or farm, or family. Jacob and I definitely share this kind of work—it certainly doesn’t fall only to me. He washes dishes, cooks meals, does laundry and shovels muck (and so much more snow) like I do. But at its core, something deeply feminine underlies my work.

At its core, all the work I do it about relationship. About tending to relationships, of friends, community (both personal and professional), animals, family, place. Whether I am working as a farmer, a teacher, a friend, or a wife, what I care about is strengthening the fibers of our web of relationships. I love Joanna Macy’s idea of ‘the work that reconnects.’ I want to claim traditionally coded ‘women’s’ work' as simply ‘work that reconnects’—ancient, necessary, powerful, cyclical, revolutionary, quotidian work, no matter who does it, of whatever gender expression-- work that keeps us warm, nourished, and connected. In building relationships and tending them well, we are strong enough together to do what we cannot alone, safe and warm enough to act with boldness.