It is no secret that I am a firm believer in the importance of efficiency. I am a great advocate of the notion that a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, and my life tends to reflect that philosophy. I try to streamline my habits, and those of the general household, for a maximum of usefulness and a minimum of waste.
In fact, in the past, I had begun to observe this passionate efficiency teetering on the brink of barbarism. (“Why bother getting out another clean bowl? Grace won’t mind eating her breakfast out of this bowl, and that will waste fewer molecules of granola.” “Oh, here’s another clean corner of the tissue. Good thing I didn’t throw it away, so I can use it for this last nose wipe!”) Sometimes, it seems logical to leave a relatively clean cup or a plate on the counter for re-use instead of putting it in the sink, but this habit can backfire when too many crumbs end up attracting ants.
In the Little House books, we read about a time when people were concerned more with survival than with frills. They raised their own food, they made their own furniture, and they invented their own fun. Yet, in the midst of all the (what we would consider) privations and hardships, they prized beauty. In the winter, Ma went to the extra trouble of grating, boiling, and squeezing out carrot pulp to color the butter, because the butter was paler then and not so pretty, and “Ma liked all the things on her table to be pretty.” In a time when Monday was wash-day and just doing the laundry took a whole day, Ma still made the time to brighten her home with an extra touch.
There was a time when living without an operable dishwasher for several weeks brought home to me the monstrous reality of what a bother an extra dish or two in the sink can be. A similar hiccup appeared in our household routines when our washing machine broke down for a week or two (or four, actually). I forced myself to reflect that these times of decreased efficiency were only an exception to the rule, and that usually, my mechanized servants are at my beck and call to smoothly whisk away the occasional extra inconvenience that civilized living imposes on us.
I recall reading a description of setting a pretty breakfast table involving glass jars, plated butter, and milk from a glass pitcher. While the pictures looked lovely and I admired the creativity it took to transform an otherwise humdrum affair into a special treat, my immediate reaction was: 1) extra dishes to wash out; 2) wasted molecules of milk from pouring into additional containers. But my initial reaction was rather short-sighted. If our ultimate goal were to muddle along through life conserving as much energy, money, and molecules as possible, we wouldn’t be nearly so happy at the end of it, even with all the extra time and money we managed to save.
It is partly a horror of falling into the dark ages (where, arguably, trenchers were a very efficient way of not having dirty dishes to wash at the end of the meal), and partly a reading of blogs and books that show a true appreciation for beauty, that has motivated me to strive for excellence in our home and place beauty and graciousness on a par with efficiency for the time being.
There has to be a balance, of course. I’m no Martha Stewart, and I simply can’t justify spending three hours on a finishing touch when there’s dinner to be gotten on the table (with or without a tablecloth). On the other hand, how much more water would it waste over the course of a year to wash out an extra dish or two a day? Could it even be measured, like the long-term effects of habitually turning off light bulbs? And even if it could, and I figured out that one extra serving dish a day ended up costing, say, $3 a year extra, wouldn’t it be worth it for the pleasure it would bring us every day?
That’s my current perspective, and also my projected goal for this fall: I’m going to explore the appropriate balance between efficiency and beauty and incorporate a hearty dose of graciousness into our lives. Maybe as soon as we get a certain barbaric ant invasion resolved…
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka; all other images by Rose Focht.