One damp summer morning about seven years ago, I buckled my son into his stroller and stomped off down the street, my flip-flops smacking the pavement, my outraged-mama face in full blaze. We lived in an older section of the city, an area with mixed zoning. Before I had kids, this diversity seemed attractive. Who doesn’t like a corner gelateria?
Bordering our backyard, however, was a small ironworks shop. We’d known this when we’d bought the house and thought artisans added further charm to the neighborhood. But metalwork requires paint, lots of paint. And now I had a roving toddler and twins on the way, and I did not like the smell of volatile organic compounds in the morning. I envisioned low birth weights, cognitive delays, and hundreds of aerosol cans adding to global warming. So I marched off to have a talk with the local ironworkers.
Obsessive. That’s how they reacted: Mama’s a little bit fixated. I did not agree, and still don’t. Trying to divert toxic plumes from our community airspace was, as Kenna Lee says in her debut memoir, one of the “million tiny things” I did every day to protect my children and the planet they will inherit.
Those tiny things — millions of small battles and decisions — can indeed steer a mother toward obsession, even downright neurosis. Kenna Lee won’t deny it. In fact, her book narrates her neuroses in heart-rending, hilarious detail.
A Million Tiny Things opens with crisis: Lee is pregnant. This is wonderful; she will usher a third child into her family. This is terrible; Lee and her partner had planned for only two children “to avoid the whole overpopulation, overconsumption, overheating the earth thing.” Though a “self-righteous” environmentalist, Lee wanted a third:
…my unadulterated gut-driven desire became stronger than my values. I wanted number three more than I wanted to feel good about my choices. I wanted her that much, so I had her. And now with her, I will have less time and energy for staying on the straight and narrow green path….
This biological urge, which Lee fulfills and never regrets, nonetheless brings anguish. How can she raise three kids and maintain a staunch environmentalism? With a lot of work, it turns out. First, she tries to replace the now-too-small, low-mpg family car with a converted, veggie-oil-burning Mercedes. When the engine conversion fails, she finds herself in a new-car showroom, and shortly thereafter driving a gleaming minivan. She writes:
I heard a sermon about that time, in which the preacher prayed, “May you do the thing you most judge,” and I’ll confess, it’s a real life-changer. Takes you down a few pegs, right off the top of the recycling heap into a more compassionate and forgiving arena.
With the birth of her daughter, Lee learns, slowly, to accept and forgive herself for imperfection. She does not relinquish her principles, but does let go of strident judgment that threatened to alienate Lee from her partner, children, and much of society.
A Million Tiny Things works as a memoir because Lee is so refreshingly candid about her jumbled feelings. She wants things that seem mutually exclusive. She wants so much to do the right thing, for her family, the planet, the future, but — and this is the crux of the book — the “right” path for Lee is never unambiguously mapped. She stands in the grocery store aisle, for instance, perusing cheese and crackers for her friends’ book club. She picks up a $15 local, organic variety and asks:
Or maybe I should go for the goat cheese? Are goats somehow more eco? And how much do I like these friends, anyway? Do I like them $15 worth?… I lay the perfect, doing-the-right-thing cheese tentatively in my basket, and head for the crackers, a faint pulsing pain starting to form behind my right eyeball. Here in crackers it’s all about packaging….
I’ve done this. No doubt countless environmentally conscious, socially aware, budget-constrained mamas have done this, and Lee speaks to that slightly crazed woman in all of us. That Lee can reflect on her inner turmoil with perspicacity and wit, makes her and her book all the more appealing. Here, for example, she clicks through online catalogs seeking a device to reduce minivan pollution:
I want my actions to be more in line with my beliefs, and since I don’t really want to change my behaviors all that much….I want the product. We all want the product to exist, the one that will make it all okay.
Consistently inconsistent, and mindful of her privilege as a “middle-class American,” Lee wants to buy something to reduce her consumption. Yet she realizes that the more she buys, the longer hours she will have to work, and more likely she’ll feed her kids take-out burritos instead of homegrown veggies.
At this point in the vicious cycle, Anna M. Campbell, author of Honeycomb Kids, leaps off the treadmill and starts family life anew. Like Lee, Campbell is aware of the many inconsistencies between lofty principles and the grind of daily parenting, between what we should do for the long-term health of the planet and what we actually do in the short term for ourselves. Unlike Lee, however, Campbell spends very few pages of her book in contemplation. While pregnant with her second child, and entrenched in a marketing campaign to sell chocolate to preteens, Campbell has an epiphany: The baby kicked, and, she writes, “it all clicked.”
Campbell, an Australian, soon left her long work days, extended commutes, and ample paychecks for beekeeping. She now lives on a farm near her native Sydney with her husband and three children as well as “three horses, eight alpacas, eight cows, 12 goats, 30 sheep, 50 chickens, 20,000 worms, and 400,000 bees.” Much of her day centers on the bees, the honey, and the products Campbell and her family make and sell from the farm. The hives have also provided a new paradigm for raising a children, hence the term and title, Honeycomb Kids.
Campbell strives for resilience. Beehives are resilient because each worker cares for the whole colony:
One cell of honeycomb won’t keep even a single bee alive, but when the cells are joined together and filled with nectar and pollen, they provide individual bees and the colony with a strong, resilient, bounteous framework in which they can thrive.
Similarly, Campbell aims to raise children who can think beyond their personal cell and their exclusive trove of honey. She wants to see, and she wants her kids to see, the “big picture” and live accordingly. In the second part of her book, Campbell offers 24 chapters of guidance on all aspects of parenting, from fostering cooperation to maintaining a kitchen garden. For each topic, she weaves memoir, practical advice, and insight from the beehive. On self-sufficiency, for example, Campbell says of the bees,
[T]hey don’t wait around for a courier delivery of honey from the drone squad; they’re out there every day….They know it’s up to them to plan and prepare, to stock up and reduce their reliance on the fickle flowers of winter.
Modeling this foresight, Campbell has determined which trees her farm will need 150 years from now. She also encourages her young children to take small risks — exploring the dark, working with real handtools — and to learn from both success and disappointment.
Campbell admits that she to came this new life, her farm and her book, out of fear. She worries for the future of the planet, particularly about peak oil and the post-carbon world. She never downplays these threats, and yet Honeycomb Kids remains an optimistic book. Campbell’s reaction to fear was radical, from white-collar job to selling beeswax candles, and while “exhilarated” by farm living, she recognizes that homesteading won’t suit everyone.
In fact, Kenna Lee considered and rejected a similar, even more radical, change: the lifeboat. She learned that friends had established isolated, off-the-grid, completely self-sustaining farms to provide for themselves should the future turn grim and competition for resources brutal. “The ‘lifeboat’ is a concept that immediately made sense to me,” Lee says, because she would secure a small portion of the planet for her children, and her children’s children. Upon further reflection, however, Lee forgoes the lifeboat in favor of community. Retreating to an isolated farm would mean leaving her eco-hip neighborhood, and possibly leaving her city-raised partner too. She realizes that the support of her current family, friends, and community already comprises a lifeboat of sorts. “It’s not isolated and defensible and organized,” she writes, “but I’ll throw my lot in with it, as it contains so many people whom I love.”
Both Honeycomb Kids and A Million Tiny Things are, in the end, love stories. Campbell and Lee start from a similar place: maternal love that extends beyond home and lifetime to encompass the planet and many unborn generations. Both mothers desperately want to do what’s right. For Campbell, the right path seems clear, and she now coaches families to adapt honeycomb parenting to their own situation, rural, urban, or suburban. For Lee, we feel the path might forever branch and sprout new shoots; she assumes no universal solution, yet, like Campbell, has much to teach.
These two articulate, fixated mother-writers show readers that now is the perfect time for all mamas to remain proudly and unapologetically obsessive — not in our answers, because those will vary, but in our questions. Anna Campbell and Kenna Lee ask us to think deeply about the world we bestow upon our children and generations to come. They ask in different voices, Lee self-deprecating, brooding and very funny; Campbell upbeat yet down to earth. Together, they suggest a way forward: awareness of the tiny decisions we make each day, with an eye on the “big picture” health of the planet. We will make mistakes and compromises. Sometimes we will throw our hands in the air and get take-out burritos. But Lee and Campbell ask, as parents ask their children each day, that we try our best. “My best is all I can do,” Lee concludes. Indeed, your best is the only right thing.