Monday, April 19, 2010

A Girl's Guide to Grit

I am reminded tonight of something my grandmother, a starchy, no-nonsense country school teacher, once said to my mother, who, as a young bride, was worried about learning to cook. She said, "If you can read, you can cook."

My mother told me this story when I was very young, and it struck a deep and rich chord in me. What's more, as I've wound my way through life, I have found that the same applies to more than cooking. In fact, it pertains to nearly everything a body might want to do around the home: Don't know how to build a fence? Install a light fixture? Carve a canoe paddle? Build a patio from stone? Add a roof vent? Pickle cucumbers? Put up drywall? Use a jack plane? Knock a hole in an outside wall and install a salvaged window? There are instructions out there--find them and get to work.

Self-sufficiency, to my mind, is not about being totally independent. After all, there's a point at which total independence becomes alone, and I find too much joy in community to wish to live alone in this world. Rather, I think it is embodied in my grandmother's attitude toward cooking: do what needs to be done and don't let the fact that you weren't born doing it get in the way. It's a moxie, square your shoulders, sew-yer-own-leg-back-on-with-spit-and-barbed-wire way of thinking. It's can-do-ness. It's grit.

It's what your grandmother had.

Sue Hubbell, in her simple, elegant book, A Country Year, had much to say about self-sufficiency in her chapter on cutting firewood. Her husband of many years used to be the one who wielded the chainsaw, but he left, and the task fell to her to learn to do it for herself. She writes:

"[The chainsaw] makes a terrible racket, but I am fond of it. It is one of the first tools I learned to master on my own, and it is important to me. My woodstove, a simple black cast-iron-and-sheet-metal affair, is the only source of heat for my cabin in winter, and if I do not have firewood to burn in it, the dogs, cat, the houseplants, the water in my pipes and I will all freeze. It is wonderfully simple and direct: cut wood or die."

Cut wood or die. To read the book is to understand the full meaning of that most reductive of phrases. Life is hard--sometimes much harder than what we feel we can bear--but at the end of the day, we learn to cut wood or we die.

I was thinking about all this yesterday as I was making the lid for the new rain barrel in the photo at the top. The topic of self-sufficiency came up on a van ride home from the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival on Saturday, though, truthfully, I don't recall if those were the words we actually used. Nevertheless, that was the unspoken idea that was coloring the air of conversation. Namely, we were talking about whether one of my students possessed the capability to till her nascent veggie garden with a machine, or if she should have someone else do it for her.

"People keep telling me that I'll kill myself," she said.

Regular readers of the Bike Garden can guess my response. For those of you who are not regular readers, however, here is the edited version:

"Horse feathers."

Do we believe that our grandmothers wouldn't or couldn't use a mechanical tiller? Of course they could. In fact, they could do that and more--they were growers, and canners, and plowers, and quilters, and tractor drivers, and fence-builders, and whatever else it took on any given day to get the job done. Back in the day on the farm, everyone had to be able to pitch in and do anything at any time. Maybe the woman of the house had to do more canning than plowing, but you can bet she knew how to plow when she was needed.

My grandmother was widowed early in her marriage. Even so, she raised three boys, ran a farm, and was the county school teacher. She was also an accomplished amateur painter, a cook and bread baker, a quilter, and, later in her life, a social worker for the state of Alabama. She personified grit. Try to tell me she couldn't till her own garden.

I sometimes tell people that I am my father's daughter. In truth, I am my grandmother's granddaughter, for it was she that taught my father by example that women could do anything they set their minds to. Because of her, he showed me how to use tools and make things, never expecting that I couldn't just because I was a girl. Because of him, I could make that rain barrel lid in the photo above. I could also install a spigot in the stock tank, build the fence and gate, lay the flagstone patio, make the umbrella stand planter, and plant the tree you see there, too. I could also do this, and this, and this, and this... My father and grandmother didn't teach me how to do any one of those particular things. What they taught me was some can-do. They taught me grit.

But we've lost a little of that can-do knowledge these days. Most of us don't grow up on farms anymore, and it seems like each new generation is just that much farther removed from knowing practical, hands-on skills. I am proud of my students, many of whom recognize this and are now starting their first gardens, buying their first tools, and finding that there is a certain liberation in "cut wood or die."

But where to start? If you've not grown up on a farm, or, as I did, tinkering in your father's garage, how do you get going on the self-sufficient life? Well, while tillers and table saws may be nice to have around the house, you don't really need them to get started. All you really need are some basic tools on hand. So here is a list to make up a starter-set for a life of grit:
  • Safety glasses
  • Dust masks
  • Claw hammer
  • Dead blow hammer (this is a small, heavy rubber hammer for pounding on things without damaging the surface)
  • Phillips head screw driver
  • Flat head screw driver
  • Drill, battery powered (not a battery powered screw driver)
  • Largish set of drill bits
  • Several Phillips head bits for the drill (you will lose them, so you might as well start out with at least a packet of four)
  • Jig saw
  • Wood and metal cutting blades for the jig saw
  • Hack saw
  • Pliers: needle nose, regular, large
  • Crescent wrench
  • Wrenches (both SAE and metric sets)
  • Assorted screws and nails, lots of them
  • Retractable tape measure
  • 4 screw clamps, two with mouths that open six inches; two that open up to two feet
  • 4 spring clamps
  • Tool box or carryall (I actually prefer a fabric tote that stands up on its own, similar to this one; get a large one for storage and a small one for carrying around when you are working)
That's your basic kit. No doubt you will add to it as time goes by and your confidence and skills begin to build. As you do so, keep in mind your limitations and buy tools that fit your abilities. That is, heed Sue Hubbell's advice and don't buy the biggest, baddest chain saw around. Buy one that feels comfortable when you hold it. (If you are female, this almost always means one that is lighter and smaller than what your male counterparts would want. Be aware of this if you take them to the store to help you pick it out.) You want to be able to control the tool, not have it control you.

Here are a couple of other pieces of advice:

Don't skimp on tools and buy the cheapest one on the shelf. You will only be aggravated and end up eventually buying a better tool anyway. A good tool is a pleasure to work with. A bad tool, at best, will make you curse; at worst, it is dangerous to use.

 Always, always put them away when you are done with them. By this I mean that you should know where they are. I often leave tools lying on my bench in the shop, but I seldom leave them lying around the house, because that is a recipe for losing them. I can tell Walu, when he asks, that he can find a 1/8" drill bit "in a bright yellow box, directly under the swing-out window above the bench in the shop. The drill itself, if it is not on the bench, is in the open shelf just below the bench top." Always.

You can buy some of this stuff, like hammers and screw drivers, at garage sales or places that sell used tools. If you are going to buy drills, power saws, routers, etc, I suggest that you buy new, and buy good ones. Power tool technology gets better and safer all the time. Some of my favorite brands are DeWalt, Bosch, and Porter Cable--generally speaking, you won't go wrong with one of them.

Some machines look more dangerous than they are: tillers, lawn mowers, band saws. It isn't that you can't get hurt on one of these, but with a quick tutorial, some common sense, and careful attention when you work, you should be able to operate them without too much trouble. Other machines, however, not only look dangerous, they can get that way in a hurry if you don't know what you are doing. Table saws and chain saws fall into this category. If you don't know how to operate a machine, find someone who does know, and who will teach you how to use it safely. She or he also should be able to tell you when a particular tool is above your skill level. If it is not, then ask him or her to step aside so that you can grow your own grit.

And above all: always turn off and unplug whenever you need to tinker around a blade.

Now all you need is the cookbook. A basic manual for home repair will cost around $30, but it will be money well spent. These can be found at nearly any hardware or book store. And again, if you can find a used copy for less, all the better. If you get one published in the last ten years, it will be up-to-date enough to tell you what you need to know. Want to re-wire a light socket? It's in there. Patch a hole in the wall? In there. Install a window? In there.

That's really all you need to start on a life of grit. Get cooking.


  1. Sounds like the opening essay in a book to me! And the title is perfect: A Girl's Guide to Grit. Will it include appearances by Pearl and Henryetta? (BTW, your last book is starring on my blog at, you're the second post down as of tonight--and the Herstories blog for Story Circle, plus on Story Circle Book Review. You're everywhere!

  2. A righteous post. Grit indeed! Although my grandmother didn't farm or garden, she did sew and do mechanical things. She passed down her can-do spirit to me, and I'll always be grateful.

  3. Great post. As an office worker, the computer is my chainsaw. Learn Excel or die. I've always wondered how I would do with more basic living. I would totally read the book - like a Daring Book for Girls for grown ups!

  4. This is an inspirational post. I am so glad that I have found you. Your grandmother sounds like my grandmother. She did it all after my grandfather died; yes my uncles helped out, but she did it herself for the most part. My father, for fear that I was part of the weaker sex, and therefore a little daft possibly, did not let me help him when he was working in the barn and when I asked to help I was usually given a grumble that he needed to do it himself. I have always wondered if I could learn some of these things and I think the answer is yes. The next question is, can I learn it fast enough and well enough to teach my own children. Thanks for the motivation and I hopefully will meet you someday and give you an update. Have a great week. And BTW, I agree with Susan J., you should write a book, you write very well.

  5. Very good comments. My father taught me To do everything since he didn't have a boy. I ended up founding women's lib at the university of Missouri. I am so glad my daughter has been in your class. Wisdom has no use unless it can ce backed up by action. Freedom to accomplish something and ability to do it is my definition of rich.

  6. Susan--Kind of thinking the same thing...

    d.a.--You're pretty can-do, too, if I may say so!

    Wicked--Grit comes in many stripes. Excel is one of them. ;-)

    KarenB--Go for it.

    Eileen--Wise words, indeed.

  7. I love grit, what a great post! I too was raised with that no-nonsense attitude (maybe that's why we're living here now). My grandmothers, both of them, were doers...and never complainers. Both British, and neither would have made it through WWII without grit and cast-iron fortitude. I've watched a number of those PBS specials, where they port folks back in time to live how the pioneers lived, or to live a life of rationing during the war eras, and if my grandmothers had seen them, they would have been disgusted. The whining, the complaining, for all the things they have to do without, and all the work they had to do (like cutting wood). Life is too easy now. I think we need more grit...go back to doing more things for ourselves, and not expecting other people, or our gadgets to do it all for us.

  8. Excellent! An independent spirit seems to be sorely lacking among too many of today's propulation.

    I do like the idea of an entire book: "A Girl's Guide to Grit". :-D


  9. I think I'm sharing this post on my facebook. Because it's just that awesome :)

  10. I bought a drill this weekend along with a few other "necessities" and I actually used it. I felt very proud of myself and the accomplishment (albeit small). Thanks for the inspiration.

  11. Excellent post, stirring sentiments. I grew up as one of two daughters on a ranch; I don't know what would have happened if there'd been a son, but there wasn't so my sister and I were Dad's sidekick during all the various chores and repairs to be had. If not helping Dad, we were learning from Mom, who had a true sense of the grit you describe here. As a result, I may be a 5'4", 125lb woman, but that didn't stop me from tiling my kitchen, designing and building both a deck (with help! Not too proud for that!)and chicken coop, ripping the walls out of a building I'm converting to a garage, and rototilling part of my back yard and my entire front yard for a vegetable garden, etc. I am eternally grateful for the lessons I learned growing up; the most valuable, having the confidence to roll up my sleeves and tackle any task, 'girly' or no.


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