Waiting on Water, An Essay from Earth Day 2019

Jeni, Rachel, Sarah at the beach
Me, on the left, with Rachel, in the middle, and my sister, Sarah. This was our yearly trip with my grandmother and "the aunts" to the beach on Emerald Isle, North Carolina. My whole year revolved around getting back here!

Waiting on Water.

“I’ve been waiting on water for 68 years,” Narcie Smith said in a 1998 interview with the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. “My children had to carry water in buckets. And I washed on a board.” – Narcie Smith, my great-grandmother


My cousin Rachel had long straight blonde hair, a cute little nose covered lightly in freckles in the summer, and the prettiest ankles you’ve ever seen. She was two years older than me and she was my best friend when I was a girl – she still is. Every summer, when my sister and I would visit Mawmaw, I commenced our visit by asking when I was going to see Rachel. She lived two hours away in Kingsport, Tennessee, but sometimes she would come to Mawmaw’s for a few days or I would get to go to Kingsport to see her. 
One summer, her family was visiting up at Mawmaw’s house and Rachel and I got in an argument with her brother Charles. He wanted to get into the bathroom and we were curling our hair and talking and laughing the way we did in the bathroom. Charles got so mad at us that he started yelling, “Mawmaw! Aunt Ann! Rachel and Jeni are using up all of the water!”
You never saw two girls rush out of a bathroom in such a state. Rachel and I ran right into the kitchen and pleaded our innocence, showing off our neatly curled hair as proof that our time in the bathroom had nothing to do with using up the water.
You see, up on Smith Ridge, we didn’t have much in the way of running water. The water in our pipes came out of a cracked cistern which stored rainwater. The water we drank came out of a well in front of the house. In the kitchen, we had a tin bucket and a metal dipper out of which we took cool drinks. We washed dishes and laundry and ourselves very carefully using the water from the cistern. Any cistern water we used was collected in dishpans and buckets for watering plants, washing clothes, or flushing the toilet. 
In the summer, the cistern often dried out, so Mawmaw would have to pay the fire department to haul a “load” of water up the mountain and fill our cistern. This was expensive.
By the time I graduated college, Mawmaw had all of the running water we could use, coming right out of the taps in a big rush. We could take a shower in it, drink it, and wash our laundry with it. In an interview with the Appalachian Regional Commission, Mawmaw said,  “[Before we got water,] when you did a load of wash, you had to measure. Now you're living like a rich person. You're living in the same house, but you feel like a rich person. You really do.”
Mawmaw and the other residents of Smith Ridge pulled together in 1998 to lay pipe from the head of Smith Ridge, where the city water connected, to The End of the World. Those who were strong enough dug ditches and drilled through rock. Mawmaw coordinated hot meals and cold drinks for a baker’s dozen of workers five days a week for three months. The first governor to ever visit Smith Ridge came to watch my great-grandmother, Narcie Smith, open the first tap on Smith mountain connected to city water.
Even still, when I go to Mawmaw’s house now, no-one is wasting water. The plants are watered from the dishwater and most of the other water-saving measures are just as they always were. And here in London, where I now live, the Englishman and I do just the same. We carry the dishwater out to the balcony and give the rose, the basil, and the chard a drink. When I run the hot water tap for a shower, I catch the cold water in a bucket and use it to hand wash clothes or wash my paint brushes or flush the toilet or water the plants. I do this because of Mawmaw and because I will never forget when Rachel and I cried because we were called water wasters. 


When I was a kid at Mawmaw’s, we didn’t have recycling trucks that came up on the mountain to collect our plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and paper waste. The men burned paper in a big fire barrel, but mainly we used it for myriad purposes. We turned plastic bottles into plant feeders and flower pots. And we put our aluminum cans into a crushing contraption which it was our childhood joy to operate. This wall-mounted device took a Coke can and smooshed it into a flat metal pancake. We took these pancakes in a big bag down to the metal man who also bought ginsengand morel mushrooms from people clever enough to find them in the woods. 
After we went with Mawmaw to sell our metal, we would take the money to yard sales and buy clothes or Barbies. When I was in Nashville in January, I collected all of the scrap metal from my yard and around the house and I made $7 at the scrap yard. I took this down to the Goodwill Outlet and got a lamp, lampshade, colander, cutting board, and a quilt for my AirBnB (coming soon!). All for $7.
Block print of house and bridge

Block print of house and sun


Recently, I’ve been making linocuts and block prints. Some of the most useful printing tools that I have are cereal box cardboard, wood offcuts from making shelves, an odd soup spoon, bottle caps, and a piece of refrigerator safety glass. All of these are part of household detritus – the refrigerator safety glass I found in a pile of trash by the road. The Englishman and I had a big leak in the floor of our bathroom, so the vinyl floor covering had to be cut away. I’ve discovered that I can turn the old vinyl over, cut it into shapes, and make “rubber” stamps out of it. I made the little pink house above on the left with the floor vinyl stamp. Using these free, discarded, repurposed, old things reminds me of living up on the mountain with Mawmaw where nothing was discarded without first being examined for alternative uses. 


On the mountain, clothes were never thrown away, but always handed down or on to someone else in the family. Old shoes became garden shoes. Old hats became beach or garden hats. Threadbare clothes became rags, worn out rags became firelighters.
When I was ten, my Dad’s half-sister Grayson, sent me a giant box of clothes all the way from New Mexico. Grayson, who was four years older than me, had short blonde hair like Twiggy, learned French in High School, and listened to British pop bands. She might as well have been a movie star where I was concerned. So, when her box arrived, it was like Christian Dior had waltzed into our Boston apartment with a team of models in the latest fashions. I’ve never had as much enjoyment from new-bought clothes as I have from that box of hand-me-downs.


A friend told me a story about when he was a boy in the northwest of England. His teacher decided the children should decorate boxes with shells to make treasure boxes. She would provide the shells, if the children would bring a shoebox to school to decorate. He went home and asked his mother for a shoebox only to find that there was no such box and no suitable alternative in the house. This seems inconceivable in a Western world where cardboard boxes surround us as we adopt more online shopping into our homes. There wasn't so much packaging in the 1950's when my friend was a boy. Now, the recycling bins in our London neighborhood heave and explode with cardboard boxes. But a lot of packaging is just thrown on the street or goes into landfills.
As the Englishman and I walk around our neighborhood, we always say that the discarded tables, beds, bed frames, mattresses, plastic bags, cardboard boxes, clothes, toys, baby carriages, bicycle wheels, lamps, etc, would never last in Morocco. We went there for Christmas two years ago and there I saw the strongest recycling culture I’ve ever witnessed outside of Smith Ridge. When we were walking around the streets of Fes, a man opened a pair of giant corrugated metal doors to reveal a recycling yard. A few dozen men were disassembling mattresses. On another tiny street, a man passed us on a motorbike which was stacked with dozens of ripstop bags waiting to be turned into spice containers, mattress stuffing, rugs, and countless other things. One of our favorite things to notice were the chairs sat on by shopkeepers. Many of them showed replacement seats, backs, and legs. This gave them a patchwork look that reminded me of Mawmaw’s quilts.
Old chair in Fesmotorbike in Fes



I just found an old copy of the Financial Times in our living room which I think I will use to make plant pots and a child’s mobile, and to clean up printmaking ink. The paper came with a style magazine where the cover reads, “how to spend it/men’s style edition.” How to spend it. But how should we “spend it?” Spend our time, our money, our shared resources. Maybe don’t spend it. Save it. Slow it down. Repair it. Trade it. Exchange it. Or if we must spend it, spend it with care. Spend it in a way that counts.


I found this sewing kit a few weeks ago. It says in four words what I’ve been saying in 1700 words.

How can we help our home, planet Earth? I think Mawmaw always knew. She waited on water for 68 years, but even when she got the water up to the mountain, she treated it like liquid diamonds. And it is. Without it, we are nothing but dust.
I’ve been thinking about all of this every day for some time now and I really appreciate you reading along with me. Below, you’ll find a list of some of the things that seem to work for me. I could go on and on and, of course, I’m not the queen of recycling or right-ness. I am mending my ways regarding the Earth every day. Let me know what works for you. My friend Fiona has some great ideas in this video.
I wish you a Happy Home Planet Earth Day and I hope to wish you many many many many many many many . . . . more.
Love, your friend,

Ideas for mending my ways.


Jeni at a boot fair

Recycle everything possible.
What can’t be recycled, donate.
What can’t be donated, give away.
What can’t be given away, dispose of responsibly.
Sell things I don’t want or can’t use.
Compost food waste or participate in a neighborhood compost collection.
Give unused food to someone else. Have you head of the food-sharing revolution called Olio? Don’t have Olio, maybe we can start something like it among friends.
Use the library, buy used books, share books, DVDs, CDs, etc.
Have a clothing exchange party or an anything exchange party.
Know someone who would look great in something you own, but don’t wear? Send it to them as a surprise. 
Store your food in glass containers that you already have in your fridge instead of buying plastic storage containers. Thanks to my friend Louise for this tip!
Use cloth napkins.
Use tea towels and dish towels rather than paper towels. They are easy to wash in your saved water.
Buy your clothes at Goodwill, charity shops, yard sales, boot fairs (UK version of a flea market), or auctions. I bought fourteen skirts for 10 pounds ($13 dollars) at the 1818 Auction House. Five I can wear, nine I can sell or give away. Wash or rinse them when you get home, before wearing.

Make art out of discarded things. 
Buy your household furnishings at auctions or charity shops or Goodwill when you can. For people who have allergies, like me, this is easy for tables and chairs, but not as easy for sofas.
Think about how you can use something that looks like trash for a useful purpose. I’ve found washing up bowls, laundry baskets, step stools, wall hooks, crystal port glasses, chairs, shoes, and teddy bears by the side of the road. Sometimes, all things need is a good cleaning.
Buying, giving, and receiving things rather than participating in traditional commerce is revolutionary because you are creating an economy of exchange that has little to do with the BIG GUYS. You cut them out of the loop and make a loop of your own which supports communities, small businesses, charities, friends, and our big green and blue home planet Earth.
I am thinking of a dozen more things . . . but I have to stop and get outside on this sunny day!
“The Mile End Waste, was a place off the Whitechapel Road where the flotsam and jetsam that no one wanted any longer was sold. You could buy almost anything there: clothing, boots, bicycles, tools, pictures and furniture of every description, all displayed on the ground or stacked on barrows. During the week, fruit and vegetable barrows lined the road but on Saturdays it was crowded with everything imaginable.”
– Grace Foakes, Between High Walls, early 1900's
On Sundays, in Nine Elms, London, you can find much the same kind of market Grace Foakes went to with her parents in the early 1900's, with sellers of flotsam and jetsam as well as fruit and vegetables, cleansers, toiletries, electronics, bread, pastries, and household linens. The Englishman and I furnished much of my space in our flat from this market. I also got my melodeon there. The language you will hear the least this market is English. It’s like Epcot center, but in real life!


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