I’ve been reading…

I've been reading through the backlog of Kate Davies's Needled blog; I started reading it when I started knitting her Owlet sweater for Kavya, and have been fascinated, both by the beauty of her work/photographs, and by her incisive reviews and critiques. I wish I'd met her when I visited Edinburgh a decade ago; I would have so enjoyed sharing a cup of tea with her and talking about academics and textile arts and a shared love of mountaintops.

But what prompted me to write this was her review of Jane Brocket's The Gentle Art of Domesticity, a book that came out some time ago, drawn from the popular blog (which I also read), Yarnstorm. Davies criticizes the class elements evident in Brocket's blog/book/life, and I can't disagree.

At least what Brocket presents (leaving aside the question of what is the reality of her life, which we cannot know) is a rather golden world with all the edges rounded off. She shows only the pretty -- and it is very pretty indeed. Everything is coordinated; everything is just so, and most of it is clearly expensive. Obviously, that is not my style of blogging, and if you go back to the start of this blog in 1995, where I was just out of college, working as a secretary, hating my job, perpetually in debt and rotating that debt between a set of predatory credit card companies, you can see quite a lot of my life's unpleasantness.

Yet at the same time, it was always unlikely that I would stay in that economic position. Given the gift of intelligence (which I can take no credit for receiving in life's genetic lottery), plus the gift of an excellent education (due primarily to my doctor father's ability to pay for it), even if I had stayed single, I would have likely eventually sorted out my finances and started doing reasonably well. My sisters are now both doctors, after all; if I hadn't made the quixotic choice to try to be a fiction writer, I could have started drawing a steady and decent salary much earlier than I ended up managing. And when you add in the factor of romantic partners with wealth...

Given my attendance at U of C, it's perhaps not surprising that of the six men I've seriously dated in my life (four of whom I met there), two of the U of C guys had a significant amount of inherited wealth, and the third U of C guy has earned more than any of them inherited (possibly more than all of them combined; I'm not sure, as he's a bit coy about how much he actually has). (The fourth started out as a physicist, but ending up switching major several times before ending up in the visual arts, which as anyone will tell you, is financial doom.) The other two men, who went to similarly prestigious colleges, had inherited wealth and solid earned wealth, respectively. Class dynamics (which include education as one of a multitude of factors) do result in like often marrying like. Four of those men ended up very financially secure, and if I'd wanted, if I'd agreed to a smaller house and a slightly longer commute, I could have escaped the day job entirely, and lived off the wealth of one of them. As did Brockett, if I'm reading her blog correctly.

And yes, I fell in love with those men not knowing or thinking about their wealth -- I'm not that mercenary. If I'd gone to my local trade school, I probably would have fallen in love with a plumber or an electrician (both of which make good money, btw). But the point is, I didn't go to a trade school, or stop school entirely after the required years, and that influenced all sorts of things, not least the tremendous luxury of my current life. I had my summer of eating ramen and dodging the landlord, but I never really feared that that would become my entire life. I expected, correctly, that my finances would improve. Having the option of not needing to work an outside job, (setting all feminist issues to the side for the moment) is a tremendous luxury. Many working-class women don't get that option.

So here I am -- owning a house under renovation in an amazing neighborhood, a short and easy commute from a major city's downtown. Spending far more than is necessary, in order to make this house exactly what we want (not need) in terms of space. And no, we can't afford all the luxury trims we would like -- we are wealthy, but not super-rich. We still have a budget, and we worry about that budget, on a daily basis. We balance the cost of hiring someone to come in and clean once a month against the cost of having a chai at Starbucks once in a while, and we pick one. But I try not to forget that those are both luxuries, and I am incredibly lucky to have the option of either.

Brocket does make a distinction between 'domestic' (what she uses to refer to the drudgery of managing a household) and 'domesticity' (the enjoyment of making your daily life beautiful). Those are my definitions, not hers, as I don't have the book in front of me, but I think that's a fair representation. And I share that interest in domesticity. I dream of a beautiful garden, a clean, well-designed and charmingly decorated home. I want to bake bread and cook most of our meals, and do so deliciously. I would like to grow vegetables and fruits, jar and can them for the winter. I would like to dress the children in delightful handmade outfits that fit them perfectly and are wonderfully styled. I hope to do all of that, in the years to come. And I will blog about those pursuits, and take beautiful photos for you.

Yet I can't help thinking about how much money and time those activities demand. I don't buy the cheapest yarn you can get at Jo-Ann -- if I did, then maybe my sweaters would be more economical in terms of materials than what I can buy at Target. Instead, I support my local yarn shop and spend a little more. Generally not super high-end yarn, but still -- nice yarn. Yarn that has a little something special to it, and has a special cost that reflects that. The $10 ball instead of the $3 ball doesn't feel like a big extravagance, but a lot of working class knitters can't afford the luxury of that choice. And that $7 difference, multiplied over many balls of yarn, ends up adding up to something significant. Multiply that by the supplies for Kevin's brewing hobby, by my stained glass classes and materials, by what we plan to put into the garden over time, by built-in bookcases rather than the concrete blocks and pine boards of our student days -- it's a lot of money, a lot of luxury.

As for time, I admit, I don't really understand how women managed to find the time to make gorgeous, intricate textiles, in days of yore. They didn't have our labor-saving devices that have done so much to make the domestic sphere manageable. A family's laundry alone used to take a full day, every week, and a day of hard labor too. Those women had to do a certain amount of textile work just to clothe their families -- but clearly, they did more than was necessary. Embroidery is art, not just necessity. And the amount of time it would have taken to embroider an entire bedspread or tablecloth -- how did working class women manage to find that time? They had no nanny to watch their children for a few hours, no cleaner to scrub their toilets for them. All that gorgeous handwork must have been done in stolen minutes, at the end of the day, when the light was failing. Their poor eyes.

I suppose I am trying to remind myself to be grateful, with this post, for everything I have been gifted. Money and space and time. Yes, Anand interrupted me four times in the writing of this post, but now he is finally asleep again; I have perhaps fifteen minutes before Kavya wakes up. I will pick up my armwarmer -- an object I emphatically do not need, but plan to enjoy immensely -- and knit a few rows in those stolen minutes. And think about all the women who went before, who made so much beauty, with so little.


(note: I must dedicate this post to Roshani, who told me Tuesday that she likes my blogging better than my fiction, and wants me to do more nonfiction writing, in more depth; if she hadn't said that, I probably wouldn't have taken the time to write this out.)

7 thoughts on “I’ve been reading…”

  1. I should probably write a blog post of my own, rather than adding what threatens to be an incredibly lengthy comment. I appreciate your comments, as my life ends up being similar in some ways, in terms of the wealth factor. I’ve got a nice home, in a decent neighborhood (in an odd town!). But there is a real difference between men with inherited wealth and women with inherited wealth. I’ve met men who are intimidated by my having money, (I’m suspecting that this may be the case with the most recent guy) and then there are guys who are obviously just interested in me because they think I can buy anything I want. I do have a budget, I do live reasonably. I try to support local artists and artisans and farmers (which ends up being a big chunk of change). But I do make the ‘one or the other’ choice….
    In terms of the textiles, it would have been different in olden times (somewhat similar to some of the situations in 3rd world countries, to tell the truth) where, in England, at any rate, a lot of the fancy needlework was done by nobly born ladies…remember, they didn’t have tv, internet, radio, or even that many books! The lower classes had smaller houses, and there wasn’t so much emphasis on cleanliness either!
    (I need to find somewhere to meet a man of wealth as an adult! I didn’t know college was going to be my last hope!)

  2. I realise my last comment sounded a little predatory…its just that I think men who have some money are not going to be interested in me because of my $$. Because from the outside, all anyone sees is a single woman with a part-time job, living in a 3 bedroom house…. *rattle, rattle*.

    I do want to say that I love your blogging, Mary Ann. I loved reading the nonfiction memoir you emailed me too.

  3. I like both your nonfiction and your fiction, and I’m glad you do both. But fwiw, I’d rather see you do more fiction writing than more nonfiction writing. (Take that, Roshani! 🙂 )

    Anyway, good entry; I like the tying together of (as it were) disparate threads into a coherent whole. A fabric, even. The intersections of domesticity, crafts, wealth, and class are (switch metaphors!) fertile ground, and I’m glad to see you ploughing it.

    And I didn’t know/hadn’t thought about some of the stuff you said about the men in your life and money; that’s fascinating. And now I’m thinking about the ways that I do and don’t fit into that, especially given that when I met you I had only fairly recently begun to have money for the first time in my life.

    Nitpicky side note: I was a little confused by the phrase “the fourth” in that paragraph (because you said “five” earlier in the sentence); eventually I figured out you were talking about the fourth of the four U of C guys, but I think the phrasing might be a little confusing for people who are reading that sentence while thinking about the list of guys you’ve dated. 🙂

    …And now I’m also wondering how women you’ve dated do or don’t fit into that framework.

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Jed, I’ve edited that paragraph to clarify — I actually hadn’t included you originally, only because I was thinking primarily about men who I might have ended up living with / on. 🙂 But there’s really no need to make that distinction, so have added you in and clarified all the way through the paragraph. Hopefully.

    As for women, the only woman I’ve seriously dated to that extent (living with, etc.) was a starving grad student in philosophy. Make of that what you will.

  5. I never said I didn’t like your fiction- I’m not that much of a ninny! (Fie on you Jed!) I do however enjoy your essays- and this last one was a fine job! I can hear your real voice in this piece, and it addresses very sticky subjects head on like a blog but with the elegant formality of language required of an essay. ( I do wish I were acquainted with the Brockett work to fully reflect on your subject. Hmm, I might look it up….)

  6. Mary Anne,
    A really interesting entry. I learned a good bit about your history and approach to life. Back in the early sixties, the attitude about women attending college was that they were there to get a Mrs. degree or a teachers certificate. Entry into any type of professional occupation, business, scientific, engineering or such was just beginning to occur. The first female to enter our architecture school was viewed with suspicion and even resentment.
    While my mother worked (a Rosie the Riveter in WWII) ultimately becoming a chief cake decorator, there was the onus that my father wasn’t a good provider.
    Today so much has changed for the better. Women today have the opportunity to enter almost any discipline they wish and to openly state that they can be self sufficient if they want to.
    So to read your thoughts on domesticity and doing knitting, canning, gardening, sewing, etc. is almost a retro shock. I guess there still is that genetic(?)embedment that generates those interests and is not diminished by the enablement of the workplace and promise of self-reliance.
    It’s refreshing to know that these interests are still alive and provide motivation.
    Good entry.

  7. Dennis, this is actually an issue some feminists have with the environmental movement, they feel that it is a way to try to drag women back to the kitchen. I think of it as knowledge in action, so to speak, but I think it is a mixed bag. Because there is that element of women still needing to be ‘Superwoman’ to some extent, and other aspects of Mary Anne’s blog do reflect that struggle. I think it is better, but there is still a large iceberg in our society with equality…

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