Friday, August 19, 2011

Hardcore Home Ec: Living More with Less

Did you take home economics in school? I did, in eighth grade, and it is one of the only classes I have ever completed without learning a single thing. Most of the class was devoted to "cooking," but on the day we made pasta, we made spaghetti while our teacher heated a can of sauce.  Perhaps learning to boil water was a new skill for some of my classmates, but I've always been something of an overachiever. In addition to our culinary instruction (pasta was followed by a rousing lesson on using refrigerated cookie dough), we watched a number of videos informing us that no, we should not do drugs, and yes, we should take our vitamins.
My teacher (bless her heart) meant well, but there's no denying that the class was lame. It took years for me to learn that home economics could change the world. I began to pay more attention to my amazing mother, and her stubborn, creative stewardship, built on practices which guard the poor and bear witness to the gospel. I thought about the ways my father's garden enabled freedom and generosity.  I met men and women who opened their homes to pregnant teenagers, men down on their luck, or elderly relatives. I began to hear and wonder about "intentional communities."
Although I may find big systems and complex programs intellectually satisfying, when it comes to heart and hands I am a grassroots kind of girl. I want my home to be a place where every choice, expenditure, and moment is of lasting value.  Literally,  "economy" (from the Greek οἰκονομία) means "household law," or "management of a household," and when I remember that meaning, I realize that the ways we manage our home can have ramifications in much larger markets and societies. 
For this reason, I was delighted to find a new resource this summer: Living More with Less by Doris Janzen Longacre  I was already familiar with Longacre's first book, the More with Less Cookbook. The Mennonite Central Committee commissioned the book in the 1970s, asking Mennonites from around the world to suggest practices that would reduce consumption of scarce energy and food resources. The cookbook is full of delicious, simple recipes that provide nutritious meals for very little money. Thanks to this book I have learned to cook for fifteen without worry, and I have convinced my skeptical mother that lentils can be scrumptious. (Edit: My mother just called to say I only succeeded in convincing her that lentils are "acceptable." I think she's just being contrary. They were delicious).
Living More with Less was published after the cookbook, and it extends the premise to all areas of home management -- money, transportation, clothing, recreation, celebrations, housing, homekeeping, and more. As with the cookbook, Longacre compiles ideas from Mennonites around the world, and she prefaces these ideas with her commentary on five ideas that are central to living more with less:
Do justice.
Learn from the world community.
Nurture people.
Cherish the natural order.
Nonconform freely. 
Longacre, who earned degrees in both home economics and theology, establishes each of these principles on biblical grounds, and her tone can be both rousing and stern. She speaks powerfully, for example, on the need for our home economies to receive support and discipline from the church. "Finding a nice church with warm handshakes and well--planned programs is not enough," she insists. "Friendships developed in many churches will provide tennis partners and dinner invitations [...] but are less ready to caution you about buying too big a car" (85).  Elsewhere she writes, "How-to books on pop psychology do not generally look fondly upon feelings of guilt or raising those feelings in anyone else. But what if you are guilty?" (41).  For Longacre, home economics is a matter of conviction and vision.
I was fortunate to grow up in a home where all of Longacre's principles found some expression, but now that I am an adult, I find Longacre's book to be both inspiring and humbling. I like to think of myself as a thrifty, nurturing nonconformist, but I spend more time than I care to admit thinking about the next thing I want to buy, or trying to find room in my closet for yet another cute dress. It is painful but important to realize how often my habits fall short of my ideals. I might be a quick study with pasta, but I'm not such a wunderkind when it comes to culling my possessions or making wise purchases.
 For all her sternness, however, Longacre doesn't want anyone to dwell in guilt. Rather, her books call for repentance and action; they are about living more, after all. As I continue to learn how to establish a wise home economy, I'm pondering the paradox of more-with-less. More attention to my work, fewer visits to facebook. More prayer, less online shopping. More sleep, fewer resume-boosting activities. More shared meals, fewer snacks. More savoring a cup of tea, less gulping through mug after mug. More creative visions for the future, fewer escapist daydreams.
I'm still thinking about practical ways this paradox should shape the ways I use my time, energy, and resources, especially as I share a household with Grant and Jenn. Who knew that home ec could become a spiritual discipline?

What are your thoughts on "home economics"? What do you think of Longacre's five principles for living more with less? Can you think of some examples of the more-with-less paradox?


  1. bethany -- i love your posts! makes me want to be a better steward - especially when you remind me of your mother! i am definitely wanting to live more with less - but like you, sometimes i lifestyle isn't in tune w/ my ideals. i am going to check out these 2 books b/c i don't want to be wasteful and like cooking - especially simple meals! thanks for your insight!

  2. Bethany- You hit the nail on the head with this one. I've been thinking more and more in recent days about my impact on the global economy and have found it overwhelming to consider what I can do to seek justice in my own small way, but I've found that I can find significant motivation from simply starting in my own home, doing the little things with and for my household that reflect our hope for restoration of God's vision for peace and justice.

    The More With Less cookbook is a staple of our kitchen. There's some great stuff in there. Nice to hear a shout out to the mennos :)

    Thanks so much for this post!

  3. Rachel, I'm honored that I remind you of Mama sometimes. Let me know what you think of the books. They are good companions in the kitchen.

    Nick, it was such a pleasant surprise to see your comment on my blog! You were one the first Mennonites I ever met, and I remember as a teenager being very impressed to hear someone close to my age (and someone other than my mother!) talk about not wasting food.

  4. Found your blog through Ravelry. AWEsome inspiration. :)