Raising Revolutionaries


It is a blue-sky, midsummer day and I am sitting below an old metal windmill creaking in the breeze. My hands shimmer in the sun, sticky with lanolin from the wool I’m cleaning. The kids disappear somewhere nearby, their giggles and calls drift over to where I work with a friend, preparing several fleeces for washing and carding. Every now and then one or the other check in, and maybe pull a bit of straw or two from the piles of wool, but mostly they are in the periphery, being kids.

As I pick at the bits of grass and leaves that have worked their way deep into the fibers, I think about why I am spending my day this way. I could easily drive a few miles down the road to the local yarn shop and buy a ball of silky-soft, neatly wound roving to spin on my wheel. And usually I do. Heck, I could skip that step altogether and go home with some skeins of a yarn of my choice, packaged, labeled and ready to knit. Or why stop there? A few more miles down the road, or a click of a mouse and I could have a new hat: clip the tags, and off I go.

It would sure be a lot less messy, take a fraction of the time, and be mighty convenient.

But here I am, and as tired as I am of picking through this dirty, grass-ridden fleece, I’m also feeling a sense of gratitude, contentment and interest as I work. I have the sights and sounds of my friend’s farm and the ebb and flow of our conversation to enjoy as we process the wool. My boys are enjoying time roaming free with friends, and I’m embracing the chance to learn a new skill.

Later, maybe this winter, when the fleece has been washed and carded, and I sit down with it at my spinning wheel, I will remember moments from this day and there will be a depth to the experience of spinning this wool that I would not have with the store-bought ball. And when I place the hat on my son’s head, I can say to him, “remember that day we spent at Stone Garden, preparing the wool? Well here it is.”

In her book, The Good Life Lab, Wendy Jehanara Tremayne writes that, “it is a revolutionary act to become a maker of things.” I recognize myself in that statement and it is my hope that as parents, through our example and by the experiences we open to them, that my husband and I will raise our two sons to be revolutionaries in their own right. My hope is that we will raise them to be makers of things: producers, not consumers, active participants, not passive receivers. And when I say this, I am not talking mainly about making crafts together (though there are those), or even necessarily about purposeful items in and of themselves (the products of our making), but about the attitude with which we go through our days and make decisions about our future and how we live.

It seems strange to consider the act of making things to be revolutionary. It wasn’t so long ago that it was part of the normal course of life, and most things could be traced back to one’s own hands or the hands of a family member or acquaintance. Not only this, but these items were used, repaired and repaired again until finally they were disassembled and the usable parts incorporated into some new tool or necessity.* In today’s reality, however, to look at the world in terms of what you can make or do rather than what can be made or done for you is the antithesis of the majority culture. It is a “fundamental change or reversal of conditions,” as my dictionary puts it. Instead we have grown to believe in a mysterious “they,” seeing knowledge and ability as coming from others and corporations rather than ourselves. We are bombarded with ads and even political messages exhorting us to do our civic and patriotic duty and buy more things.

This message is all around us and seeps into the way we think about things so that we begin to unconsciously accept the myth that in order to be happy we must keep buying more and new things, and the myth of unbounded economic growth. But as Ben Hewitt writes in his book Saved, “I was again reminded that the unconscious economy’s power to define my life was in part dependent on my granting it this power. In other words, the power was mine.” By becoming a maker of things, I recognize and take back that power and can use it, instead, to create a home in the image of the world in which I want us to live. By doing so, I teach my sons that they, too, have this power to make choices and to create not just “things,” but a different way of life.

In fact, as kids, they are quite good at this business of making. For them, everything is fair game for becoming something else, for good or just in the moment. A stick becomes a bat or a golf club; add a salvaged sheet of foam board and it becomes a flag, a raft, a sailboat. An old wagon frame gets new life with a plywood board attached to make a cart. Taking what is on hand and transforming it into what is needed or wanted at that moment is completely within their nature. It is their instinct to hold on to their treasured belongings until they have been repaired many times, with patches upon patches. It is my job as a parent to notice this, protect it and give it space to grow. It is my job to do what I can to give them a deep, rich and strong foundation on which to base their vision of the world and the choices they make; now, but especially as they grow.

This means that my boys have a different sort of life, in many ways, than their peers. We have made a conscious effort to keep our home “media” free: free of movies and video games and all the merchandise they spawn. Instead the boys have ample free, unstructured time to play, imagine and explore. We talk openly about the ads we see and the ways companies try to influence us into buying their products. We choose to homeschool so that we can “make” our own learning and better focus our time and resources on this path we’re walking.

As for our home itself, we live in an old farmhouse built by hand almost two centuries ago. It has been a long time since its first incarnation as a homestead and farm, but when we moved here five years ago, it was with the intention of re-creating our own version of its beginnings. Ever since we got married, my husband and I have been heading in this direction; slowly and haltingly sometimes, but steadily. And each act of making we undertake leads us farther down the path of creating a life that is grounded in place, in the gifts of the earth and the rhythm of the seasons, and in awareness and connection. These are what both drive us and reward our efforts.

What this looks like in our days is a thousand small acts of tending and creating that are most often simple and mundane, but with a beauty and rhythm of their own. It’s not that this way of living makes things more simple, like the “simple living” tag would suggest. It requires time to make things, and this can be a big shift in perspective and expectations, given the sense of immediacy and urgency that reigns these days. Being a maker of things slows us down. Instead of throwing the heavy, wet clothes from the washer to the dryer, I drop them into a basket and lug them outside to the clothesline that my husband put together with some odds and ends. Doing it this way takes probably ten times as long. But as I settle into the rhythm of hanging each piece, I have the chance to become aware, and grounded. I watch the birds coming and going from the feeders in the garden and pay attention to what the sky is up to. It’s like that wool. When I start to wonder why I am doing it, I find myself settling into its rhythm and purposefulness and feeling a quiet gratitude for the ability of my hands to provide in small and big ways.

Sometimes, and increasingly, our sons help us with these acts of tending and creating. And that’s great. But at seven years old, more important to me than how much they actively participate (for now) in the work of making and providing, is the example that we give to them and the open conversations we have with them about why we make the choices we do as a family. Through our example and conversations, they are learning the lessons that will create that strong and rich foundation they will need to grow as revolutionaries. First, that the decisions we make have an impact not just on us but on other people and on the earth, and that we have a responsibility to make them consciously and with intention. Second, that by being makers of things we begin to acquire an intimate awareness of where things come from, how they were made, and to value the work of our own and others’ hands. Third, they are gaining confidence and competence in their own abilities and learning how to connect with other makers who have different skills in our community. And fourth, they are diving in to their days and this place in which we live with an open interest and presence: fully engaged in all they do, rich in imagination and curiosity.

As I read through my dictionary’s rendering of the word “revolution,” I am struck by its other meaning: to come full circle. It occurs to me that really, in raising my boys to be revolutionaries I am expressing this hope: that through our small, intentional and grounded acts of making, we will come full circle back to the wisdom, awareness and intention of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ days; that with this wisdom, combined with our creativity and skills, we might, household by revolutionary household, begin to enact real and positive change now, in our days and in our children’s’ days ahead.

*There is a sweet children’s story along these lines titled ‘Something from Nothing’ by Phoebe Gilman, about a boy and the many incarnations his baby blanket takes, thanks to his Grandfather’s ingenuity.

Image credit: alexerde on Flickr