I’m back at my post after five days in the redwoods, where our little green house sits. This is the house we just bought, using bubble gum, baling wire, rolls of pennies and our winsome smiles. I’ve been masterminding its renovation, getting inspections and starting to paint, buying things like beams and plaster-patching mesh and oddments from the hardware department.
I had to buy a Simpson Strong Tie item with no name, just a number, to hold a large truss and joist in place. I had to buy four of them, in fact, and the one place was out of them and I had to go elsewhere and ask for it by holding out this odd-shaped piece of metal and say, “Gimme two more o’ dese tings.” Want to feel like a dummy? Walk around with unknown pieces of metal in your hand at hardware stores and ask for help from smug salesfolk. The metal-thingies have no name. But they are indispensable. And they cost about $4.50 each, by the way. (I’m not kidding about the no-name. No one knows what they are called. But they all know what to do with it. “Oh, yeah, we have those — wait here…”)
So — cha-ching! I’ve had guys digging into the septic tank and measuring our sludge. I had a creepasaurus with long fingernails inspect our house for termites. Finding none, he ardently tried to persuade me to inject poison into the soil up to 10 feet deep to keep termites out. Prevention, he says. For a problem that doesn’t exist. For only $2,000. Umm. No, thanks. A nice fellow came and changed all the locks. Another nice fellow walked on our roof and we made a deal. Two more took crowbars to our living room ceiling. The roofer came back and addressed his crew to the roof. They left behind a lightweight, yet solidly sheathed house with sparkling new rain-gutters. The little green house (which isn’t green in color, just in spirit) is so pretty now, I could bust.
We’re going to have a new ceiling, new baseboards, new floors, new paint, new light fixtures and a new garden… all underway as we speak, and much of it re-using what we have or what I found on Freecycle. I feel good about the green-ness of it all.
Which leads me to two topics. Judgement, and hot water. One might lead to the other, you’d think. Not necessarily. So there I am in the new house over the weekend, washing dishes by hand, conserving water carefully, using my soap swisher, biodegradable organic soap, second-hand dishes, handmade dish-scrubber and organic cotton knitted dishcloth. My new neighbor (the ones with the trash and hoarding problem) drives up in her minivan and proceeds to unload bushels of groceries in plastic bags: sweet cereal, lots of ramen noodles, Capri Sun drinks, tons of junk food, individually-wrapped snack items. I didn’t see a fresh vegetable in the load, except a large sack of potatoes. I didn’t see any milk.
I just washed my dishes and watched and counted the number of plastic bags and my mind sped along and I —- had to stop. Because who am I to judge her and her choices? Some kind of green goddess? Is it my job to tell a struggling single mother with myriad domestic challenges, not least of which is a husband who she’s just ditched who abused her and the kids and made all their lives hell? Without going into further details, the woman has enough on her plate. It is not my job to change her, to improve her, to show her my golden way. It is my job to love her. It is all our jobs to love her, and the other people around us who frustrate and challenge us. Isn’t it? It is. Go read your (insert holy book of choice here). Then tell me I’m wrong.
We made friends with our new neighbor and offered to help her clean up her yard when we get a Dumpster and she was so excited. We exchanged hellos a number of times over the weekend and it turns out she’s sweet as pie and really making great strides in her own journey. But even if she wasn’t a sweet Cinderella — even if she was boorish and loud and stupid and repulsive — it’s still my job to love her, not to judge her by whatever class, environmental or other status I live by/in.
And so, to hot water.
We are closer to the cycle of water in our new home than in the city, because the source of the water is the river, and the end result of where it goes it the river. Our septic tank percolates into the dirt, runs downhill to the creek that leads to the river. So what we put in, stays in it and will eventually, at the molecular level, get to the river and the ocean. This is a bit daunting. The responsibility is palpable. It would be so easy to slip and send something toxic down the drain — which is why we’ve made the house totally green. So I’m doing my dishes, per above, and I realized how often I reach for the hot water, versus just water, or cold water. Like — so much. I realized that we — I personally and we as an industrialized nation — are addicted to hot water. Must have it for baths! Must have it for cleaning! Must have it for everything! When I rinse off a dish or a vegetable or my hands, I always turn on the hot water. Why? Because it is easy and thoughtless. It’s always there. I tried to notice how much I reach for hot water over the past few days — because it maybe easy and available, but it isn’t free. And I admit, I’m a glutton for hot water.
Try thinking about hauling your water from a well in the yard. Think about walking 10 minutes to the river, then back with a full pail of water. Think about walking five or ten miles daily with one large jar on your head. Think about gathering the wood to heat the water, and when you would use the hot water in that case. And also think about the oil that is pumped x-many thousand miles from here and how far it is shipped, and what it does to the atmosphere to transport and burn fuel on a grand scale so we can use hot water whenever we want to.
When I put it into that context, I started paying more attention to when I really needed hot water. It turns out that cold water does just as much good in most cases as hot. You really only need hot water when you need to disinfect — such as washing diapers, or dishes, or washing your hands after going to the bathroom. But rinsing your hands after cutting vegetables doesn’t require hot water. Rinsing out a glass before refilling it — cold water is just fine. Rinsing dishes before the dishwasher, if you do that — cold water, because the machine will use hot to kill whatever germs are there.
Just something to think about on this (here) gloomy July day.
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, author, and blogger. She is the author of six books: three novels, one poetry collection, and two women's history. She was the Poet Laureate of Alameda, California, in 2014-17. She's also the conservatrix of The Doris Diaries, the diaries of her great-aunt Doris Bailey Murphy. She has a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University, and MA in Early 20th C. British Literature from Cal State Hayward.
Julia's articles have appeared on Salon, Thrillist, Paste, Scary Mommy, Narratively, Yahoo News, Your Tango, and Sweatpants & Coffee. Her articles have also run in Redbook, Woman's Day, Country Living, House Beautiful, Town & Country, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Magazine, Quill, and MadeLocal. She was the founding editor of weekly Alameda Sun and literary zine Red Hills Review. Her poetry has been in The East Bay Literary review, Postcard Poems, Americus Review, Cicada, Tiferet Review, and many others.
Julia has been recognized several times by the San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula Press Clubs as well as the California Newspaper Association for her blogging since 2003.
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