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    watercolor painting of Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring

    Households Are Back

    Some things might be just too precious to leave to the care of impersonal institutions.

    By C. R. Wiley

    August 18, 2021
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    • Karen

      Wiley wants to create a world where wealthy white males control all the food and shelter and everyone else, including white women have to grovel to Rich Dudes in order to eat and live indoors. Notice the “households have the freedom to fail?” Wiley opposes a government safety net, so the members of those failed households would be doled out to be servants and drudges in the houses of rich men, who would constantly remind everyone how much gratitude everyone owes to Rich White Dude himself for not letting them starve in the street. Wiley is worse than a fascist. Also, I hope every conservative household fails and you get to live on the ugly, painful end of your own evil policy.

    • Edward Hamilton

      "The thing about Tom Bombadil is he’s so natural he’s preternatural." Tolkien makes it clear that this doesn't just apply to Bombadil, but is a complete description of all the things in his legendarium that could be clumsily called "good magic". Things that run counter to nature are always of the same sort (whether they might superficially seem to be "technology" or "evil magic"), and things that run in harmony with nature are also all alike -- the Great Powers for good seem magical not because they supersede nature but because they have gone so deep into the understanding of nature that they perceive the proper uses of its authority and can invoke that authority to restore what has become unnatural.

    • Sarah Hutchinson

      A little disappointed in this from Plough. It seems like the writer is implying that people just aren’t “trying” to form households and that they are now “back” because the pandemic forced some people from a certain economic class to work from home. I work at a clinic serving refugees and, throughout the pandemic, my patients were performing low-skilled, underpaid yet “essential” jobs that left no luxury for working from home and avoiding serious illness. It is disappointing that this article does not reflect the burden of being poor in America, along with the crises of lack of medical care, addiction epidemic, astronomical student loans among the younger generations, and lack of governmental or public supports that make starting households nigh impossible. These problems are large-scales and require institutional support. Households are “back”? Well, for who? Only if you come from a certain economic caste with the financial power to be independent from institutions. This is America today, not a fantasy.

    • Sarah Hutchinson

      I fear that this “households are back” may only be true (if true at all) for a certain economic class. I work at a refugee clinic where most of our patients are/were working in essential, low-skilled, underpaid jobs throughout the pandemic, which meant that they were never, at any point, privileged enough to work from home and protect themselves from illness. Many of my patients work multiple low-wage jobs outside of the home to keep themselves and their families afloat. Still, this is often not enough. Households are back? Well, for who? Those that have the financial power to not depend on public institutions? If you are living in America today, you must recognize that this idea of “households” as described in this article can’t “come back” until we address the poverty, access to medical care, addiction epidemics, the burden of student loans, and lack of public and/or governmental support that have made households nearly impossible to start for many people. It is unfortunate that the writer seems to infer that people are just not “trying” to establish independent households, when—again, outside of a certain economic class wielding some financial power—the conditions are such that prevent them from being formed in the first place. And that is a public, large-scale problem.

    New York City has always been a big, vibrant place, and many parts still are, but these days other parts resemble my hometown of Meadville, Pennsylvania, more than the Manhattan we remember from before the pandemic.

    I’m sure New York will bounce back eventually. Too many people have too much invested for it to languish indefinitely. It will take time, and as far as I can tell, new political leadership. But I think that those of us who believed that Manhattan was too big to fail have felt a considerable shock. Manhattan, in fact, is remarkably fragile. And a lot of people who’ve loved New York have divorced themselves from it.

    Partly it has to do with the things we all know about – Covid-19, social unrest, and so forth – but without the internet people would still be there, holed up in their tiny apartments. The ability to work online, remotely, offered an option that many people like better. They went home.

    Nature Comes Naturally

    What these folks have discovered is that working from home comes pretty naturally. Some complain about being around their kids all day: I can’t help but infer that they either don’t like their kids much or don’t know how to control them. But for the rest of us being around the kids all day feels pretty natural too.

    What we’re seeing is something like remembering how to ride a bike after thirty years. You get up on the bike and you manage like you just rode yesterday. (That would be me – I bought a bike during quarantine and I’ve been riding ever since.) The difference is you didn’t work from home thirty years ago; your great-grandparents did one hundred thirty years ago. But it comes naturally to you somehow, and the reason is because it is natural. It’s how we’ve worked for the last century-plus that’s unnatural.

    Working productively from home was so common in the old days that they had a name for it – economy, from the Greek word for “household management.” If that’s news to you it is because the workplace moved out of the house during the Industrial Revolution. It moved to the factory, or the mine, and later, the office.

    The division of labor, economies of scale, and most of all the size and immobility of industrial machinery dwarfed household production. When it came to economics, Goliath beat David.

    Those old-fashioned households had a lot going for them. They were like Swiss Army knives, small but very versatile. Like Swiss Army knives, they did a few things very well, some other things passably, and some poorly – but they did them. This was their genius – their range. Households educated the young, cared for the old, grew food, made things for the market, and the list goes on and on. The monoliths that have replaced them are not so versatile. We go to the grocery store for food, to the office to make things, we use airlines to “get away from it all,” we go to schools for education, and in the end we go to nursing homes to waste away and eventually die. Each of those specialized institutions are marvels of efficiency.

    Households Are Back

    A nimble, multi-use institution makes for widely competent people. Large narrowly focused institutions rely on small, narrowly focused people. But even though we trust those institutions less than our parents did, many don’t trust themselves enough to imagine a real revival of the old household. That is, until they try. And when they try they discover that they are more capable than they knew. I see people all around me growing more competent by the day.

    Sure, some things should be outsourced to large institutions. But deciding which calls for informed judgment. Some things – educating the young, caring for the old or ill – might be just too precious to leave to the care of impersonal institutions. Other things might be just too risky to fully outsource – things like food security and sources of income are moving closer to home.

    But the final reason that households are back is because they’re free to fail. They failed often in our ancestors’ time. And they will fail again. Back in the day this was something people did everything they could to prevent. But it happened anyway. And when it did happen, if things were working properly other households took you in. That didn’t always happen, and even when it did it was painful and inconvenient. But people muddled through the best they could, making room for the inevitable: failure happens.

    watercolor painting of Tom Bombadil from The Fellowship of the Ring

    Anke Eissmann, Tom Bombadil

    The Bombadil Option

    A lot of people have been exercising their options over the last few years. I’ve opted for one of my own: the Bombadil Option. And I commend it to you.

    It involves exercising dominion, as in the dominion the first household was given, and as Tom Bombadil, in The Lord of the Rings, lives it out in Middle Earth. Now, I know what you’re thinking – domination is bad. But the word dominion shares a common root with the Latin word for home, domus, from which we get the word domesticity. Tom Bombadil’s dominion is not over other people but over his own home domain.

    I think Tolkien would agree with Aristotle that a household is a pre-political thing – in other words, it’s natural. The thing about Tom Bombadil is he’s so natural he’s preternatural. He made a home with his wife in a perilous place, situated between a forest with intruder-eating trees (little distinction is made between men and hobbits) and a haunted graveyard. And it’s just the two of them, Tom and Goldberry. But the two work in a harmonious and complementary way, enjoying light and love and the guests that find their ways into their home.

    Goldberry calls Tom “the master,” but Tom doesn’t look like a master – he looks ridiculous in his yellow boots and bright blue jacket. But you also know that he may be the most powerful creature in Middle Earth, at least among the good guys. What is the secret of his power? It is this: Tom knows the songs. He knows what things are made for; he knows the songs of creation.

    If we’re going to go home again, we’ll need to learn that music. Our ancestors knew it. We can relearn it.

    Contributed By

    C. R. Wiley is a Presbyterian pastor in the Pacific Northwest. He has written for Touchstone Magazine, Modern Reformation, Sacred Architecture, the Imaginative Conservative, Front Porch Republic, National Review Online, and First Things. His nonfiction books include Man of the House, The Household and The War for the Cosmos.

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