Someone once told me that we don’t stray far from our comfort zone, but of course I didn’t believe him. Me, I could do anything, redefine myself in any way. I was unconventional and quirky. In that game of ‘which friend from Friends are you like?’ I was always Phoebe. But I admit it. I’m happiest being mainstream. Yet I’ve tried, oh how I’ve tried to push my boundaries. Believing that alternative living was good for our society and good for my kids. It is, but it’s not so good for me…
1. Getting rid of the TV
The kids rushed in from daycare and stood slobbering over the apple keyboard, attached to the iMac in our living room.
‘We want television,’ they screamed.
‘No,’ I said. ‘No television until after tea. But I’m so happy to see you! Did you have fun at daycare?’
My words passed unheeded. One child crumpled on the floor crying in despair, as if I had taken a baseball bat to his head, Scarface style. I hadn’t (just in case you were wondering). The other child turned puce and screamed louder. ‘DORA! I want DORA.’ I held my resolve. But not less than two weeks later, that same child learned how to master the keyboard and the mouse. That evening they ended up watching an unfiltered YouTube channel chock full of advertising for the bloody play-doh mop shop. Exhausted with the struggle, and fearing the histrionics if I turned it off, I let her. Later I said to my boyfriend,
‘We have to get rid of the TV. My morals are too weak to stand up to the children’s wrath. We have the iPad if it gets too bad.’
The next morning, the television had gone to television heaven (my boyfriend’s office where we could watch it privately).
‘I’m afraid the television is gone,’ I said.
‘Why?’ they said aghast. And then the lie slipped out of my mouth. ‘It broke. That’s what happens when you watch it too much.’
Once out, I couldn’t take it back…
I lasted three whole weeks. Doing constructive games, organizing treasure hunts around the house. But I’d forgotten why they became addicted to the television in the first place. The fighting. My kids fight are close in age and they fight, usually about the same toy – one they haven’t played with for months, but becomes immediately attractive and essential when the other one picks it up. And one evening my anxiety reached fever pitch. Television was the ultimate distraction. So one night after thirty minutes of crying, I said in a feeble, beaten voice.
‘How about some television?’
My daughter said suspiciously, ‘I thought the television broke.’
‘Yes, but we have the iPad,’ I said. It was a slippery slope. Because on the next evening when they came through the door the first words I heard them scream were,
‘WE WANT THE IPAD.’
2. No poo experiment
Last autumn I grew a sort of horn. It bulged out off centre on my forehead, presumably a clogged pore from the baking soda I’d been rubbing into my scalp in an effort to go ‘no poo’.
No shampoo is a movement, where the hair and scalp re-calibrates itself to be naturally balanced. You don’t strip the oils from the hair and therefore, allegedly, the scalp stops producing them. I equipped myself with a bristle brush and armed myself emotionally for three months of greasy hair. Donut ring? Check. Alice band? Check.
‘I’m going to be one of those women with gloriously thick and healthy hair,’ I said to my friend two weeks in. ‘They’ll talk about me like that ‘You know, Louisa, the woman with the great hair’
She just smiled knowingly and tossed her own immaculate coif.
There’s a case to be made against L’Oreal. Those chemicals, that animal testing, no thanks. But with my own no poo experiment, I find there’s a case to be made for shampoo. Because four months of no shampoo never helped my scalp recalibrate even after I stopped with the baking powder. I just looked like shit. My sex life suffered because my boyfriend couldn’t stroke my hair, or even get his hands through it (you know those yummy deep kisses, where he puts his hands around the back of your neck and just digs his fingers into your hair pulling you closer? There weren’t any).
I gave in quietly, choosing an organic brown sugar shampoo ordered discreetly over the internet. I wash my hair a couple of times a week now and have really good sex.
3. Living without cars
We live on an island without cars. It’s blissful, even if I had to relearn how to ride a bike during the first few months.
‘The correct height for a saddle is where you can only touch the ground with your tiptoes,’ said my boyfriend tightening the bolt of my new bike.
But braking and then hopping off before the bike hit the ground proved too difficult for me. Instead I fell off. At the school when I came to pick up my children. In front of the shop, with a good few guffawing witnesses. At at home in our gravel path, which was not painless.
Eventually my balance got better, especially when I lowered the seat. But even if cars are banned, cargo mopeds are not. Traditionally they are used to carry cargo. But on this island, ‘cargo’ is a loose term. My children for example who are at that stage of development where they proclaim themselves ‘too weak to walk mummy, CARRY ME’ …but are too heavy to be carried, too heavy even to drag behind in a bike trailer. That’s excusable I suppose, but what’s not excusable is when I see the ferry come over the horizon and with one minute to spare scream,
‘Oh God I’m going to miss the ferry. Can you give me a lift?’
I’d forgotten you see, my human nature and that avoidance of hard work was what inspired those chalcolithic dudes to create the wheel in the first place. It creeps up on you, the convenience of getting somewhere painlessly in 2 minutes as opposed to panting up hills and learning to balance nimbly as you brake to a halt (or fall off). Cargo mopeds also come in handy when you’re 9 months pregnant and you have to crawl painfully with a loose pelvis from the bed to the sofa. Because those cravings for donuts can only be satisfied with a visit to our grocery store and me riding a bike was really bad for the baby. Honest.
4. A Chemical Free House
For around 6 months after my daughter was born I used soap nuts. They’re not soap. Or strictly speaking, nuts. They’re berries (but like, the worst tasting ones).
Soap nuts contain saponin, a natural detergent. The soap nut shell absorbs water and releases the saponins which circulate as a natural surfactant in the wash water, freeing dirt, grime, and oils from clothing.
They smelt like nothing, which didn’t smell clean. No lavender scent, no apple blossom. No scent. Believe me nothing smells odd when you aren’t used to it. I also used a steam cleaner, all her toys, her bedding, the sofa – any place she might be laid down was steam cleaned. The house smelt like how houses smell with new born babies sometimes sweet, sometimes – well you know. The steam cleaner takes time to fill, take apart, refill and clean after use. It was time I didn’t have when my second child arrived. It’s there in our hall cupboard languishing with many small pairs of outgrown shoes and some broken wooden coat hangers.
And when your small child reaches in his nappy to explore his own excrement and wipe it on the sofa, well bleach is really only thing for it.
When I lived in France, it was meat all the way. Normally steak ‘bleu‘ 20 seconds sizzled on each side, practically walking. I ate fois gras, which was in no way ethical, but really delicious. In my twenties, I had no concept of ethics, or if I did it was the type that tasted good. And yet even back then, I couldn’t eat food with the face on it, it reminded me too much that I was a murderer.
But with education comes a conscience apparently. Living on an island with only one grocers is tricky if you intend on going the whole hog. You have to shop at specialist food stores on the mainland (that mythical place over the waters). The price of eco-living is high in time and money, but it’s not just the price tag that matters. It’s also whether your kids will eat chopped, marinated mushrooms and eggplant, fused with soy sauce and tomatoes when you trill ‘This is just a better version of bolognese. I call it yummy bolognese!’ After some months of trying and failing to convert my family to even one vegan dish a week of say, soy sausage drenched in tomato ketchup, I decided not to inflict my newfound conscience on them, but instead cook for myself separately in time I didn’t have.
I’m just going to come out and say it. I dislike vegetables. Those watery little fuckers look so tempting in their rainbow of colours, before they land in your stomach like a feather settling on ash and I hear them evilly scream, ‘You’ll never be full again! MWA HA HA.’
I have a boyfriend who, due to health reasons, can’t eat them at all. His diet is meat, meat and some carbs. So we sat there miserably looking at each others plates.
‘If only I could eat that bok choy,’ he said wistfully looking at the sad, wilting mess in front of me and forking up pork medallions infused with ginger and chili into his mouth. My stomach growled.
‘I just need some salt, I said, getting up.
It had been a month of attempted veganism (which I had compromised by adding extremely expensive wild forest meat to the mix, because y’know… it’s lived a full and happy life and really wants to be eaten by me). I walked into the kitchen and stealthily opened the fridge. And before I knew it, the open packet of salami had mysteriously disappeared.